Disney girls

For the author — and crowds like this — every trip to Disneyland is magical.
For the author — and crowds like this — every trip to Disneyland is magical. | MediaNews Group for the Deseret News/Source: Orange County register via Getty Images

When I was six years old, my parents took me and my brother to Disneyland. My memories of that trip to Southern California have the warm, gauzy quality of the best childhood flashbacks. Watching a travel agent help my mom to make plans. Smelling baked goods from the pastel storefronts on Main Street in Magic Kingdom. Getting an autograph from Winnie the Pooh and watching my white tennis shoes glow in the black light of Space Mountain. We rode rides that scared us, ate nothing but junk food and cried when it was time to leave.

Like a typical Utah mom, I’ve been back many times over the last three decades. Disney is a logical destination for large families who live within a day’s drive. I make it a game to count how many hats and T-shirts I see there repping my alma mater, Brigham Young University. I usually hit double digits. And I often befriend fellow Utah moms standing in line, because we can just tell we come from the same place. I guess we’re all addicted to the wholesome joy we see on our kids’ faces in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Before my latest visit, I was nervous to be the only adult with my two daughters, ages nine and 12, while my son and husband stayed home. But once we walked through the turnstile and I looked up at Cinderella’s castle, I realized I had never been more prepared for anything. I am raising my children to share my convictions that Disneyland is a competition to be won and that the only way to achieve success — and to justify the obscene price of entry — is to arrive when the park opens, stay until it closes and ride as many rides as possible in between.

All around us, people were immersed in the experience. Some wore Mickey ears. Some were eating ice cream at 9 a.m. Some were bumping into each other while looking at their phones, just as I nearly had. “Stay close,” I told my daughters once all shoelaces were properly tied, and we began weaving through the crowd, accidentally photobombing a number of family portraits. For the next 12 hours, we ran back and forth across the park, weaving around slow pokes, stopping only for the occasional churro or bathroom break and hopping on every ride we saw as allowed by our digital scheduling.

Truth is, we know the park like the backs of our collective hands. I know the cleanest bathrooms — with motion-activated ocean breeze-scented air fresheners — are around the corner from the Jungle Cruise. I can find Corn Dog Castle with my eyes closed. In the old days, we had to pore over a folded paper map and save the best rides for early morning or late at night when the lines were shorter. Now I had the whole day planned on my smartphone, to optimize efficiency and feed my type A tendencies.

Disneyland can still be done without relying on technology, but I prefer to use Genie+. For an additional $30 per ticket, this fast-pass reservation system lets you order food without waiting and book “Lightning Lane” spots on busy rides, hours ahead of time. It’s one more way The Walt Disney Co. ensures that I hemorrhage my savings while on the property, and it felt like I needed a computer science degree to master it. I used it to navigate a perfect day.

My oldest daughter doesn’t love roller coasters, but I talked her into riding Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for the first time. She only mildly hated the first and liked the second enough to run it back. “If you sit next to me,” she said. At one point, as we were sprinting from Magic Kingdom to California Adventure Park to catch our reservation on a ride called Soarin’ Around the World, I looked back to check on my daughters. I saw them laughing together, thrilled to be keeping pace, fully on board with my unhealthy desire to turn vacations into goals to be crushed. I’m not sure I like the maniac I become at Disneyland, but these moments made it all feel worth it.

By the time the park closed, we had walked over 13 miles. We had eaten two corn dogs, two buckets of popcorn, two Mickey ice cream sticks, three churros and three tacos. We had spent no longer than 20 minutes in any line, including Rise of the Resistance, the elaborate Star Wars ride known for its two-hour wait times. And we left with armfuls of Mickey Mouse sweatshirts, novelty popcorn containers from Cars Land and Star Wars souvenirs for the boys who didn’t come.

Later, I called my mom. How complicated was that original trip to plan, I asked her, and how expensive did it feel? Very, she said, in response to both. She had to save up for years, but she was proud to pull it off. A lot has changed since then, and prices have certainly gone up. But like that first trip, we got to try new, scary things together and bond with our loved ones. I think that’s something we will all remember.

This story appears in the May 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.