Disneyland for Second Grade Princesses

We surprised Sophie with a trip to Disneyland last summer. At nearly seven years old, we weren’t sure how well she’d balance the childlike magic of so special a place with the adult demands: walking, scary rides, heat, and crowds. The Internet is filled with plenty of suggestions about Disneyland, including many for lowering costs and beating crowds. I have nothing to add to those lists. What I didn’t see anywhere were tips for making the experience magical. Here are the ones we learned this summer:

Watch the Parade

And watch it on the first day. The parade features a stream of recognizable Disney characters backed by powerful music, and fills the parade route with some intense Disney magic. The characters don’t just wave vaguely at the crowd; they make eye contact and acknowledge individual spectators. When Rapunzel looked down from her tower, smiled delightedly at seeing Sophie’s Rapunzel costume, and blew her a kiss, I melted. I can’t even recall the moment without tearing up a little.

There’s a great little viewing area between the Matterhorn and the Castle. It’s the only patch of ground not actually part of the parade route there, so once there you’re trapped for the duration of the parade, but that made the crowd wonderfully thin. And since nobody else can stand nearby, we got a lot of character attention.

Go in Costume

Sophie spent some time in princess costumes and some time in her regular clothes. The difference in the Disneyland experience was like night and day. Children and adults alike showered Princess Sophie with attention. Children tugged on their parents’ sleeves to point out the princess walking among them. Younger children seemed truly convinced they had just met Rapunzel herself. Adults curtsied and addressed her as “Princess” throughout the park.

If there happens to be a new character, that’s best of all. Merida costumes had just come out when we visited. Even cast members accustomed to seeing princesses come through their lines all day marveled at the new dress. Merida got easily twice as much attention as Rapunzel.

For what it’s worth, Tiana seems to have introduced a racial barrier to being a princess. We saw Belles, Auroras, and Cinderellas of all colors and nationalities, but we never saw a single white Tiana anywhere.

Visit Bippity, Boppity, Botique

This beauty salon exclusively for princesses and princes was the icing on top of our first magical day. I hadn’t realized this staple of the Magic Kingdom was also available in Disneyland, so we arrived without reservations but easily made an appointment for the same afternoon. (I don’t know if that would have been possible on a busier day.)

The Fairy Godmother engaged Sophie in conversation the entire time, not only treating her to the most elaborate hair and makeup application she’d ever experienced, but furthering the fantasy of Disneyland. She told of how Rapunzel, upon leaving her tower, had to learn about makeup from the other princesses. How if Sophie had taken a poison apple from the Evil Queen she might have to find and kiss Naveen (Princess Tiana’s frog) in the moat outside the castle. How Ariel often had her father transform her back into a mermaid to go swimming outside her Grotto (in California Adventure).

We paid about $50 for the hair and makeup and then tipped about another $50 to the fairy godmother, who well and truly delivered some Disney magic. More expensive packages include new dresses, professional photos in a carriage, and other accoutrements, but the basic hair and makeup was more than enough. You also get a bag with all the makeup and accessories needed to redo the style the next day.

Skip the Princess Breakfast

Ariel hosts a brunch at her “Grotto” in California Adventure. It’s the only character meal featuring all the princesses together, but it was profoundly bad.

Meeting princesses throughout the park was lovely. The Fairy Godmother conspiratorially warned Sophie against taking any apples from the nearby Evil Queen. Ariel invited Sophie to go swimming with her, if King Triton would agree to give Sophie a mermaid tail — purple, of course. And the Mad Hatter grumpily insulted the uneven lengths of her pigtails, refusing to take a picture with her until he had evened them out.

But in Ariel’s Grotto, the interactions were too hurried, and the characters seemed unhappy to even be there. Four princesses tour the room (Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White, and Belle were there for us), and since everyone’s seated at the same time they make staggered grand entrances. We seated Sophie with the best view of the restaurant, but she still turned constantly in all directions in case anyone was approaching from behind her. She didn’t eat a single bite of breakfast until they all left the room. (We were among the last people in the restaurant — I suspect because many other families just left with hungry children and uneaten food.)

Disney regulars suggest greeting princesses with subtle prompts like, “It’s so lovely to see you again, Princess Cinderella!” or “Jessica has been nervous about meeting you today, your highness, but I’m so honored to make your acquaintance.” This helps the characters interact with your child, but it also enhances the fantasy — you’re happy to meet them too. At Ariel’s Grotto, this was impossible. Cinderella hurried to our table and scooped up Sophie’s autograph book before anyone could even get out a “hello” and very nearly signed it for the second time.

Look for princesses throughout the park. Maybe give a different character breakfast a try. But the Grotto is just a place to get exceptionally expensive scrambled eggs, and leave with children hungry of both belly and spirit.

Buy an Autograph Book

Our first stop upon entering the park was the souvenir shop. Even if you don’t think you’ll need one and your child swears disinterest, buy the book. We chose one with a pouch for a photograph on each page, so we were able to couple each signature with a picture of Sophie meeting that character — and that’s a priceless souvenir. But mostly, having an autograph book takes the awkwardness out of meeting the characters. Even if you have nothing to say, you can ask for an autograph.

Throw Away the Itinerary… At First

The guide books will tell you to tour in a logical sequence. Hit the big attractions first, or focus on one land at a time. That’s great advice, but not appropriate for your first day. The park can be absolutely overwhelming. Sophie couldn’t remotely begin to wrap her mind around the place, so she focused intensely on the most tangible attractions. Can we ride that big riverboat? Absolutely! Tom Sawyer’s island? Let’s go! King Arthur’s Carousel? Done!

After that we insisted on touring more practically (“Of course we can do Star Tours again, but what else would you like to do in Fantasyland first?”), but allowing complete flexibility on that first day gave Sophie the control she needed for the park to be mentally manageable.

Use FASTPASS… Properly

FASTPASS lets you skip the long lines at the most popular attractions. Novices may think you can have only one FASTPASS at a time. That’s not strictly true. You can get another pass as soon as it’s time to use your first one (whether you’ve used it or not) — with a maximum of two hours. So if you pickup a pass at 8:00 that lets you ride at 4:00 pm, you can still get your next pass at 10:00.

You can also hold passes for both parks separately, and World of Color doesn’t count at all. We picked up passes to Star Tours one morning on our way into the park. Then, when Sam took Sophie back to the hotel for a nap after lunch (another tip: everyone will need a nap — especially the adults), I quickly toured both parks, picking up passes to Splash Mountain, World of Color, and Tower of Terror all at once. On our way back into the park we got another Star Tours pass (so we now held five sets), and then rode attractions like crazy for the rest of the day.

Go All Out

Everyone has a budget, but remember that every corner you cut takes a little magic out of the trip. The on-site hotels are more expensive, but they make it easier to go back for a nap during the day. Food in the park is more expensive (though not exorbitant), but it’s easier to grab a quick lunch in between attractions. Snacks and souvenirs can make a dent in your budget too, but nothing says “vacation” as much as the phrase, “Of course you can have an ice cream cone!”

For us, bottled water was an unexpected cost. We planned to refill bottles from water fountains throughout the day like normal people, but we just couldn’t handle the taste. Buying bottles was absolutely worth it. Plus, we could just recycle them when we’d finished, and have fewer things to carry.

Cut whatever corners you have to cut to make the trip work. Just remember that part of what you’re buying is magic, and that may be worth a little extra money. We could probably go back to Disneyland this year on a lower budget, but I’d rather save up and have more flexibility next year.

The View From Above

The downside of flying through Atlanta is that I had to fly through Atlanta. This is an experience that everyone who’s ever flown will find familiar. I remember doing it at least as young as 13 or 14 on the now defunct Trans World Airlines. I was flying from Denver to Boston then too, but living in the other city. (Life is oddly circular that way.)

Sorkin’s West Wing even wove it in:

Josh: Did you get me a flight?
Donna: Yes.
Josh: One that gets me there in time for dinner?
Donna: Yes.
Josh: And I don’t have to change planes in Atlanta?

Donna: No. Even better: you do have to change plans in Atlanta.
: I told you…
Donna: You have to change planes in Atlanta. Deal with it.


Donna: You don’t know any special, secret flights to Palm Beach today, do you?
Sam: Yeah, but you gotta change planes in Atlanta.

The upside is that the flight from Atlanta to Boston offers a gorgeous view of New York City. At night in particular, it’s clear that Brooklyn has some very orderly-looking streets. Oh, and Manhattan looks pretty good too.

“Airport Emergency” Has an Awful Ring to It

Denver International Airport has a distinctive way of paging passengers on its concourses:

Mr. Smith, Mr. Charles Smith; Mr. Atkins, Mr. Derek Atkins; Mr. Sorkin, Mr. Aaron Sorkin – please dial zero on an airport courtesy telephone.

The familiar rhythm is oddly comforting.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also demonstrated a distinctive way of paging passengers during my layover there:

Charles Smith, please go to the nearest phone and dial 911 for a very important message.

I’m not sure how Charles Smith reacted, but I sure didn’t find it comforting.

Mile High Club Subscriber?

Which of the following seems stranger?

  1. A person sits on an airplane and reads Playboy magazine.
  2. A person leaves behind their copy of Playboy magazine in the seat-back pocket for the next traveler to enjoy.

(Yes, there was really a copy on board.  No, the airline had not just generously provided it.)

Metrorail, Heal Thyself

I’ve upheld the Washington Metrorail system as something of a paragon of a good subway system since I first visited the city in 1999.  Washington needs to fix some basic faults, though.

Let’s start with an easy one.  Directional signs are prone to showing an arrow beside words like, “For (dot) service,” where the “dot” is actually a colored circle – to those who aren’t color blind, at least.  To those who are, it’s as descriptive as me writing “dot.”  Signs on, say, the Green Line in Boston are all colored a bright green, but then in black-on-white lettering underneath we see the words, “Green Line.”

I applaud wholeheartedly the words printed at the bottom of the Metrorail system map “Metro is Accessible.”  In Boston the system map carries footnotes like (I swear I’m not making this up), “State: Blue Line wheelchair access outbound side only.”  We absolutely should do everything we can to allow wheelchair users full access to our transit systems (and other places), but why do all the hard work to support wheelchairs and then blow it on color blindness by not adding some simple words to the signs?

What’s worse, station signs seem to be deliberately hidden.  They’re poorly lit, and almost impossible to see from inside the trains.  I ride the T every day and I’ve never had trouble navigating the New York City subway.  When I find myself sitting in a train thinking, “I wish I knew which stop this is,” something has gone wrong.

Compounding this problem, station announcements are still made manually, even on a system whose trains themselves can be operated by computers.  Even Boston’s Green Line, built (in part) in 1867, now features clear, enunciated, automated station announcements.  What keeps Washington from adding this technology?

Washington, you’ve lost my vote in the transit wars.  Sure, Boston could benefit from signs counting down the minutes until the next train’s arrival, but at least we know where our stations are.

Hearing the Sights

A collection of events from Washington DC:

First, a scene at the Lincoln Memorial: A girl sits on the massive steps holding a camera in either hand, with her friend holding a third in front of her face.  “What are you talking about?  I’m smiling in all of these!” she insists in a thick Brooklyn accent.

Second, a moment at the Air and Space Museum: a man asks someone else in his party, “What’s that?”  His companion answers, “I don’t know but it has something to do with Saturn.”  This occurs beneath the full-size engine bells from the Saturn S-1C – the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo the moon.

Third, a moment at the Air and Space Museum: a man says, “Hehehehehehehehe!” repeatedly the entire time he explores the Apollo to the Moon exhibit.  Wait, that wasn’t overheard; that was me (and I kept it mostly in my head).  Besides seeing Columbia itself in the main hall, they have the actual flight checklists from several flights, and all manner of other genuine artificats from the Apollo age.

Plus, in the International Spy Museum I got to crawl through an actual air duct and look down at unsuspecting museum visitors.  At the time I was focused on keeping quiet in my role as Peter Wozniak the spy, but in retrospect I should have said, “Come out to the coast!  We’ll get together, have a few laughs…”

Next Idea: Self-Service X-Ray Machines

The TSA has been experimenting with a setup that lets passengers self-sort into separate “expert traveler” screening lanes for travelers who are fluent in TSA procedures. If you don’t want to be rushed or need more time you can choose the slower “family” lane instead. Some airports also have an intermediate “frequent traveler” category.

The screening procedures are identical for all lanes; the theory is just that expert travelers will follow those procedures more efficiently. I’ve been caught behind idiots who don’t understand that keys are made of metal or that the rest of us took off our shoes for a reason, so I appreciate the potential value of this segregation. Moreover, I applaud the broader effort to try new ideas to smooth out the complex screening process.

In practice, however, this idea fails completely. I just saw it in action at DIA – one of a few airports in the pilot program – and it just didn’t work.

I saw only two lanes designated for the “family” category when I went through, yet both were completely empty – not a single person was in either line. All the remaining lines were designated “expert traveler” and were clogged seven or eight people deep. I forfeited my (deserved) “expert” title and breezed through the family lane without missing a step.

In one sense this was a fluke. Surely at other times the family lane has at least a few people in it, and one uncoordinated parent with a disobedient young child could shift the entire balance. However, it highlights fundamental underlying problems.

First, lots of people want to believe they’re experts when they’re really not. And even genuine experts can make mistakes. Normally I fly through security in a smooth anti-terrorism ballet. Then came the mishap a couple months ago when I waltzed right through still wearing my cell phone and keys. Sorry, folks. I just held up the line. I know keys are metal, I swear!

More importantly, the total wait time in the entire system is exactly the same; it’s just being redistributed. The slowpoke who takes five minutes to sort luggage and remove liquids will still take five minutes, he’ll just be holding up a different line. The assumption is that slow people will be more tolerant of other slow people.

The same theory went into the Box Office Babies program at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Parents can bring their babies to the movies and let them cry as much as they want. Crying babies in these screenings are no less disruptive than in any other screenings; they’re just disrupting other people who happen to have babies themselves.  Some parents would still prefer to watch the movie uninterrupted, so they opt not to go to Box Office Babies (and presumably wait for the movie to be out on DVD).

At airports we don’t have the option of just bypassing the security line (perhaps a door marked “No Criminals Allowed” would work?), but some inexperienced travelers will still want to stand on the shoulders of experts before them and breeze through what was (until then) the fast lane.

Finally, this idea solves a problem many airports have already solved by just ushering those who fail the screening for any reason into a separate line to try again. A know-nothing novice with bottled water in his backpack and a knife in his pocket gets brushed aside, as does a seasoned guru who just forgot to empty his pockets this trip.

This system has TSA officials doing the sorting, so there’s no chance of someone being in the “wrong” line. And this way travelers don’t have to learn yet another policy on their way through the security maze. For me, choosing which type of line to join added a second or two of decision-making time, when I’d normally just glance around and hop into the shortest one.  (It doesn’t help that the “black diamond / blue square / green circle” designations, so obvious to those who ski, meant absolutely nothing to me until I read more about it.)

We should welcome new ideas from the TSA even when they don’t work out, but let’s scrap this one before it’s too late and we have to listen to a New Yorker with no luggage mouthing off to the foreigner in front of him who won’t take off his chain mail in the black diamond lane.