Not always the happiest place on Earth
The question came at the end of our second day at Disneyland. "Are we the only parents on earth whose child hates Disneyland?" It was what I'd been wondering but it was my husband who asked it.
Walt Disney's "happiest place on earth" was proving less joyful than we'd expected. Here we were in mid-school holidays, wondering if the wonderful world of Disney was really that. There were five of us in total - four fairly enamoured people (two adults and two children) who were all enjoying it. But Miss Seven's love affair with Disneyland was rapidly turning into a one-night stand.
I blame Indiana Jones. At the end of our first day we made the mistake of taking Miss Seven on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride. Packed into an old jeep, complete with seatbelts to keep us intact as we raced around dark corners and avoided electronic snakes and a giant ball crashing towards us, all we could hear was Miss Seven's blood-curdling screams: "I want to get oooooofffffff." But of course we couldn't do anything except say it'll be finished soon.
And it was, but not soon enough for Miss Seven whose experience had terrified her and had an impact on the rest of our stay in Disneyland and Southern California.
Of course it wasn't meant to be like this. Even before I had children, I knew I would want to take them to Disneyland. Then we had three - boy-girl twins, then another little girl. And the first few years were a haze of nappies and high chairs and sleep deprivation until, after they started school, we began to debate when would be the best time to take them, could we afford it and where should we stay, how long should we go for? At the very heart of our plans was the knowledge that all three kids would adore it.
How wrong we were.
We'd planned to spend a total of four days at Walt's wonderland, one at Knott's Berry Farm, one at Seaworld in San Diego and one at the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
But two days in we were starting to rethink things. Having three children on holiday can be a challenge. Hotels and travel agents seldom take into account families of five - discount deals are usually for those with two adults and two kids, and those kids-eat-free deals when adults dine in the restaurant rarely allow for three kids eating with two adults.
After exhaustive searches on the internet we came across the Anaheim hotel we thought would best suit us - the Hyatt Orange County. Its VIP family suite had two bedrooms and a sitting room. The kids' bedroom had a bunk with a double bed on the bottom and a single on the top, and its own bathroom. The sitting room was located in the middle with our bedroom further away - allowing us to watch TV without waking the children after they were exhausted from their time at the theme parks.
It was perfect for our family of five and directly across the road was the Target department store which sold 15 bottles of water for $3; a smidgen of the cost of water at the theme parks. We loaded up our backpacks with water to keep costs down. Target also sells discount T-shirts, makeup and all manner of cheap and cheerful items for the tourist and the local.
As we all know, the Americans are the masters of merchandising. A friend had kindly bought our children official Disneyland autograph books and pens, and no sooner were we through the gate we were getting Chip and Dale to scribble their names on aforementioned books. Miss Seven loved the merchandise - the Minnie Mouse ears (try US$21.95 plus tax), the soft toys, the clothing.
But the challenge was to get her to like more than the retail therapy. And thankfully she eventually did. But it took some patience and good planning before we could all relax and enjoy the trip.
The twins were much more into the scary rides - my son still talks about the California Screamin' ride at California Adventure Park, a twirly rollercoaster that offers great views of the Anaheim landscape, if you have your eyes open. His twin sister loved the Indiana Jones ride the most.
Miss Seven now says she can't choose because there were so many good ones. She loved It's A Small World, with its music and twinkling lights, and foray into characters from all the continents, but she also liked The Cars ride even though it was fast and a little scary.
How did we manage to transform her experience? We split the kids up, with one of us off to do the tamer rides with Miss Seven and the other taking the older kids. Then we'd set a time to meet up and do some rides as a family and others in two groups again.
But mostly we did what we should have done all along - took a close look at what sort of kids we had and what we knew they would like. Miss Seven has an extremely vivid imagination and doesn't like the dark so even a theatre experience in A Bug's Life, which is set underground in the dark and has little bugs all around with sensory pokes in the backside when the bugs scuttle away, wouldn't have worked.
We also took more notice of the signs outside each ride - if it said it was a dark ride and might scare children, we knew the big kids would love it but our little person wouldn't.
Mostly it was also about altering our expectations - especially my lifelong expectation that it would all be perfect and the kids would adore every second. Disneyland can be magical but it is really busy; we went in January and our first few days were quieter than over Martin Luther King Weekend, when the prams were packed in small-bumper to bumper and the queues got longer and longer.
However Disneyland is a sensory overload and I think this is why Miss Seven was overcome - the lights and noise and crowds were overwhelming for us, let alone someone who sees it all from the not-so-lofty heights of three-foot tall.
The other theme parks were much quieter in January and the kids really adored Seaworld, the San Diego Zoo and Knott's Berry Farm.
The latter is actually much better than expected - the rides were scary enough for the big kids but Snoopy's rides were fun for Miss Seven. It does feel a little bit like a ghost town which is sad because the rides are good.
Seaworld and San Diego Zoo were simply fantastic. I'd highly recommend taking the bus around the zoo early in the day to get your bearings as the zoo is simply massive and the bus tour gives you a glimpse of things you might want to come back to. And Seaworld was awe-inspiring - the size of the Orca is mind-blowing and they really are absolutely spectacular creatures.
The kids also loved the bat-rays and the flamingos and the seals and the dolphins - it was a good day out.
It's been a couple of months since our trip. And while the photos and the soft toys and baseball caps are great physical reminders of the trip, it is the memories which remain - hopefully even those of wicked Indiana Jones and his blood-curdling ride.
And we already know that we'll remember the challenges of the trip more than the kids. After all, Miss Seven says she started feeling grumpy at LA Airport when she knew she was coming back to New Zealand. She's decided she wants to live in America now - and she's already started saving.
The writer travelled at her own expense, with some support from the Anaheim Visitors and Convention Bureau.
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