Disneyland, the original Disney theme park in Anaheim, CA, has often found itself overshadowed by its enormous Florida cousin. But there's an appealing new reason to make the trek to Walt's first creation: California Adventure, a history-oriented theme park, opened last spring just across the plaza from Disneyland. It's a low-key, very pretty park with its own arts-and-crafts-style hotel, the Grand Californian, adjoining the 55-acre property (formerly a parking lot).
School-age children will get the most out of a visit to California Adventure, which includes the glitzy Hollywood Pictures Backlot, the woodsy Golden State section, and the boardwalk-style Paradise Pier. (The Beach Boys medley programmed into the carousel's calliope guarantees that you'll be humming "California Girls" for weeks.)
At Paradise Pier, my middle-school-aged son rode the California Screamin' roller coaster, which jumps from 0 to 55 miles per hour in five seconds, five times in one day thanks to Disney's FastPass system. (Mom managed to ride it twice, eyes shut both times.) Younger kids will enjoy the Sun Wheel ferris wheel over Paradise Bay and the Orange Stinger swing ride.
The Hollywood Pictures Backlot includes some of the same offerings as Disney-MGM in Florida, including the adorable MuppetVision 3D film and a demonstration of Disney animation. You can eat lunch on replicas of ABC soap opera sets or enjoy fresh produce al fresco. In fact, all the food offerings at California Adventure tend to be healthier than normal theme-park fare: the local Boudin Bakery offers soup in sourdough bread bowls at Golden State's Pacific Wharf Cafe.
The Golden State section includes the park's most thrilling attraction, Soarin' Over California. This pseudo hang-gliding ride allows visitors to "fly" over California's mountains, deserts, and beaches, which appear on a giant movie screen. You'll smell oranges as you cross the citrus groves and pine trees as you soar through the forests. It's a geography lesson brought to delightful life. (Tip: Try to get into Row 1 in the entrance portal to avoid seeing other people's dangling feet.) The nearby Grizzly River Run water-rafting ride operates out of the park's central landmark, a bear-shaped mountain.
California Adventure seems designed to attract overnight visitors to Disney's Anaheim properties, including the bustling Downtown Disney area of shops and restaurants. It's definitely worth a visit with kids.