Storm the castle(© Bettmann, Corbis)

Storming the castle: thrilling as an adult?

Disneyland is a magical place to a child. How could it not be? A liquor store is magical to kids: all those candy bars and comic books, the light playing off the colorful liquids in the bottles. Disneyland can't help but trump that, with its castles, rockets, pirates and life-sized cartoon characters, all custom-made to tickle a child's wonder.

And parents? The park works its magic on them as well, because they see it reflected in their children. It reminds them of when they too could look upon a plaster castle with awe.

But what about those of us who are old and miserable -- i.e. adults -- who go to Disneyland on our own, without the benefit of tykes through which to filter our experience? Is the Magic Kingdom still magic for us?

Flying nuns(© Bettmann, Corbis)

Flying nuns having fun in Fantasyland.

My wife and I went looking for the magic on a recent summer Wednesday at Disneyland and the Disney California Adventure park. That sounds a trifle pompous. It isn't like we hadn't also gone "looking for the magic" there last November, and at least every few years previous, back to when we had toddled ourselves. Growing up in Southern California, Disneyland has always been part of our neighborhood. I paraded down its Main Street in my high school marching band. Lots of friends worked in the park, so we knew all the backstage stories and make-out spots, for all the good that did.

We've both loved and loathed the place. I adored it without reservation as a kid, despite having to be taken off the Rocket to the Moon, sobbing at the prospect of the vastness of space separating me from my mom. My next time in the park, I discovered that parents can lie to you: I noticed the motorboat ride's underwater track, and realized it wasn't little Jimmy's heroic steering that saved us from being dashed on the rocks.

Of course, before you hit your teens, you think you're too cool for the park, though you never skip a chance to go. You get more cynical as you age, until Disneyland feels like a huge threshing machine, designed to separate you from your money. Eventually, you pass through all the Kubler-Ross stages of coping with Disneyland, and arrive at "acceptance."

What my wife and I chiefly notice when we go now is that a lot of creative people have put a tremendous effort into creating a special time for their guests. We hit the park intent on enjoying everything as much as we can, and sometimes do.

Do you believe in magic?(© SuperStock)

Fairy tales can come true, choosing rides is up to you.

What's the plan?
It helps to have a plan -- nothing like the invasion timetable you need if you're bringing kids with divergent speeds and agendas, but some strategizing is necessary to eke the most from your Disney day.

If you haven't been to Disneyland for a decade, for example, you need to know that the Disney California Adventure is plopped right where a perfectly good parking lot used to be. It had once been easy to park and walk to Disneyland's entrance, or catch a frisky little tram in the lot. Now you pay $14 for the thrill of being one of 10,000 cars routed into the bowels of the world's largest parking structure, which offers you this chilling challenge: to find your way out!

Of course, there's always our way: We took the tram. These newer, cumbersome trams cart you some distance to Downtown Disney, from whence you hoof it to a broad, cheerless plaza that is the DMZ between the entrances of the two parks.

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Your car might as well be parked in Geppetto's whale, so you either carry a pack with sunscreen, hats, sweaters, weather slicks, etc., to see you through a day and night, or you rent a locker near the entrances, which runs $7 to $15 for the day, depending on whether you're stowing a waterbed or not.

The plaza is a splendid location to get your obligatory grousing out of the way, having just paid $21 before even setting foot in the Magic Kingdom. In 1965 that amount would have paid admission for five people, plus 10 rides apiece, with $1 left over for parking. Even 25 years ago, a single admission and unlimited attractions only ran $16.50. Today, either park gets $72 for those of us aged 10 and up, $62 for the 3-to-9 set. The single-day Park Hopper ticket, which enables you to wait in lines at both parks, runs $97 and $87 respectively. Once inside, expect to be charged movie theater prices for everything, such as $3.75 for a small bag of popcorn. Disney does not sell its dreams cheap.

Done? Now go enjoy the place.

Soarin' Over California(© Disney)

Experience the entire state from high above on Soarin' over California.

First stop ...
Which park should you head to? We say go for both, with the intent of powering through California Adventure in a couple of hours. It's a pleasant enough place, but it pales beside Disneyland. It's designed to give Disney Resort visitors a taste of California, so they won't be lured away by the real Hollywood or wine country, or by the unadorned thrill rides of a Knott's or Magic Mountain.

All very nice, but most of the attractions only have a light dusting of Disney magic. A Bug's Land is a section of the park that can be squished entirely off your list, while the much-ballyhooed Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is scarcely more frightening than your average Italian elevator.

The Monsters, Inc. ride is far more satisfying, offering a technological update of the sort of whimsy that graces Fantasyland's better attractions. Muppet Vision 3-D is a well-executed hoot, though, post-"Avatar," it's not entirely a marvel. The park is slated to add a "Little Mermaid" adventure in 2011.

The chief reason to visit California Adventure, and one that alone is worth the $25 extra to get a two-park pass, is the Soarin' Over California attraction. It's a remarkable five-minute simulation of flying in a hang glider over several of the state's scenic delights.

There aren't many swoops or thrills, but it's wonderfully immersive, experiential fun. A sharp, glider's-eye-view image fills your entire field of vision, while hydraulics, wind machines and even Smell-o-Vision hints of oranges, sea spray and pine forests abet the illusion that you're flying over some prime real estate. Soarin' Over California is a grand example of what Disney does best, and you may find yourself getting right back in line to do it again.

Typically, it should be the first thing you head for in California Adventure. This summer, though, people are rushing to get in line for a ticket that lets them get in another line that night, to see the World of Color, Disney's latest foray into mixing water and light. If you've seen Fantasmic on Frontierland's Rivers of America, you know the drill: Jets, spritzes and sheets of water are sent skyward, where dazzling plays of colored light and cinematic images are reflected off them. You may have seen something similar in Vegas, but the Disney team takes it to a higher octave, with an extravagant presentation showing that hokum and poetic beauty need not be mutually exclusive.

World of Color(Xinhua, Landov)

Fantasy and waterworks collide at California Adventure's World of Color.

In the morning, near the Grizzly River Rafting Co, one of the two longest lines we saw all day was filled with people hoping to get a Fast Pass to see the 9 or 10:15 p.m. World of Color. Typically, Fast Passes are issued for the busiest rides, so pass holders can show up at an appointed time and avoid the long lines. This pass was just to get in the other longest line of the day: the one that queues up an hour early to get into the staging area for the shows.

A park employee told us that you could get a Fast Pass by buying a picnic meal at the park's Sonoma Terrace for $14.95, so we got in a far shorter line for that. (Show up about 20 minutes after the Terrace's 11 a.m. opening time and there'll probably be no line. Better yet, you can reserve the picnic packs online at the Disney Web site.)

However you wind up at World of Color, it's worth the hassle. It's like seeing "Fantasia" in 3-D, in the shower (not quite, but if you're anywhere within 30 yards of the water's edge, you will get either misted or doused).

Matterhorn Mountain(© Disney)

Oldies but goodies like Matterhorn Mountain still stand tall.

The Magic Kingdom
Heading into Disneyland proper, we were pleased to find that Abraham Lincoln is back after a four-year hiatus. I guess Branson didn't work out. Maybe it's Disneyland's mix of nostalgia and novelty that gets to us older folks so. All I know is that I was tearing up a bit while Lincoln gestured and spoke. He looked good; maybe he's had work done.

I always like to pop into the Main Street Cinema, where classic Disney cartoons screen. The magic shop, where young Steve Martin once worked, is still fun. Other than that, the best thing to know about Main Street's many shops is that they interconnect, so when the street is jammed for a parade, you can oftimes navigate around it by going indoors.

We usually have a route of essential rides planned. This time out, we assumed the park would be so crowded we'd just wander, getting on any ride where the lines weren't long. That's not always easy to gauge. I suspect that Disneyland lines were designed by the same guys who figured how to wrap 26 feet of intestines into the human body.

Alice in Fantasyland(© Disney)

Follow the rabbit through the hole to Fantasyland.

Choosing the short lines had us seeing such otherwise neglected attractions as the honey-hued Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Snow White's Scary Adventures. The latter is in Fantasyland, my favorite part of Disneyland. It's the least-changed section of the park, and what seemed charming and magical there when I was a kid still does. The storybook characters, the black-light paintjobs, even the unique Fantasyland smell of the rides (Paint? Gear oil? I've never been able to determine the source of the scent.) never fails to evoke the same feeling in me that it did when I was 5. You can spend hundreds of millions on special effects, and it still isn't as wonder-inducing as floating over London on the Peter Pan ride.

There was a hellishly long line for Pan, so we got our quota of Fantasyland scent on the always-fun Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, then on Pinocchio's Daring Journey. As the park was turning dark later, we took in the Storybook Land Canal Boats, a pleasantly uneventful bunch of fluff. The nice thing at night is that some of the park's ducks bed down there, so you'll see a scale-model storybook castle with a proportionately gargantuan duck nesting beside it.

The Matterhorn had a surprisingly short line, so it was our one allotted thrill ride. We've been sufficiently jostled and thumped by real life that we don't need much more. We usually opt for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which offers some lovely scenery along with the whiplash. So no Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, California Screamin' or Maliboomer (which, from its description sounds like a human slingshot).

The Autopia, we found, loses its charm after you've spent decades in real traffic. Remarkably, Disney's seven-horsepower autos in the land of tomorrow still run on gasoline, and they are also like real cars in that you spend your time in traffic crawling along stuck behind another car. Like commuters everywhere, when I finally parked, my first thought was, "I need a drink."

Disney & Dolls(© Disney)

Disney with the It's a Small World dolls.

A Drink at Disneyland
There are a couple of spots in California Adventure where you can buy beer and wine. In Disneyland proper, the private Club 33 is the only place with booze. (A friend got us in last year: it's a topnotch restaurant, though after hearing for years how secret and off-limits it is, you half-expect to find they're wrestling ocelots in the nude in there. They're not, at least not on Wednesdays.)

Remember this: The Monorail is your friend. The boarding station is adjacent to Autopia, and within minutes it will whisk you to Downtown Disney. We repaired to Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen. There, where for the price of two corndogs in the park, I had a lovely Mojito and a thoroughly acceptable seafood gumbo. Then back onto the Monorail, and in under an hour, mood adjusted, we were in the park, headed for New Orleans Square.

We detoured when we saw a short line, though. After a few hours at Disneyland, you'd get in line to have your head trepanned, if it was short enough. Maybe drinking and Disneying is not a good combo: We'd gotten in line for It's a Small World.

It is an odd quirk of psychoacoustics that you can listen to singers going, "yo ho, yo ho," or "heigh-ho" for hours on end with no great harm done, while a mere 27 seconds of animatronic children intoning "It's a small world after all" can make a person wish they allowed flamethrowers on the ride. Gad, it was dreadful, and a little disquieting, too, to see doll-like children dressed as harem girls and can-can dancers.

Back to the Future
Another candidate for the "What were they thinking?" award has to go to Captain EO, which reopened this February, with "The Tribute" added to its name, to commemorate the late Michael Jackson. For some reason,'50s and '60s nostalgia is charming, while things from the '80s seem crudely dated, reminding us of the hideous sartorial and tonsorial choices we once made.

In the George Lucas-directed EO, Jackson and his spaceship crew are captured by malevolent cyborgs, who, through the power of song, he transforms into disco-ready humans, sporting impossible hair and what my musician friends back then called "the used whore look." It is not pretty.

Your time would be better spent shooting things on the interactive Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, or checking out the just-slightly-ahead-of-the-times home technology in the Innoventions Dream Home.

Pirates of Caribbean(© Disney)

It's a pirate's life for you in New Orleans Square.

Old New Favorites
We blew off Mickey's Toontown, largely because it's slightly skewed architectural style has been mimicked by half the shopping malls in Southern California. Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin is the only attraction there that's of interest to the slightly adult mind.

New Orleans Square's Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are still a pleasure, and they remain relatively unchanged, except for a Davy Jones and a couple of Jack Sparrow figures being added to the latter.

Thar be big changes afoot on Tom Sawyer's Island, though, which, after closing last year for refurbishment, has been rebranded as The Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. Some of the island's old features, such as the pontoon bridge, and Injun Joe's Cave -- now called Dead Man's Grotto -- lend themselves to the new theme, while other piratical features have been added, including a treasure pile and a cage made of bones and skulls. (Most Disney adventures seem to revolve around transportation or death. There are no fewer than eight separate graveyards represented in Disneyland, along with skulls and skeletons aplenty.)

Other fun outings on MSN and Bing Travel:
Confessions of a Disney Cast Member
The Latest and Greatest U.S. Theme Parks
10 Things I Miss About Disneyland
Great Outdoor Cities
Surprising City Adventures

The island's Fort Wilderness doesn't fit the new Caribbean scheme, and it looks like it's being dismantled. Some things need to change to keep from growing stale, and maybe Mark Twain doesn't mean much in a post-literate society, but it makes Disneyland seem less special when it changes with the prevailing winds. What will we get next: Vampire Island? Twitter Island?

Maybe, we're just old. I don't know. Things that used to bore me silly, such as the Disneyland Railway's 20-minute lap around the park, are among my favorite attractions now. In this era of computer-generated entertainments now making the impossible commonplace, when most summer movies are one long explosion, I'm more than willing to make the time for the railway and its crawl through the world's longest diorama, where dinosaurs have been munching complacently on the same roughage since 1955, the year I was born. That's just about my speed.

> How things have changed: 10 Things I Miss About Disneyland

Jim Washburn is a Southern California-based writer who has written for MSN, the Los Angeles Times, the OC Register, and the OC Weekly, along with having curated several museum exhibits on popular culture.