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Southern California Theme Parks: Review of Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland, Sea World, and Universal Studios.
Disneyland Resort, Anaheim. The Good: There are county fairs, theme parks, …and then there is Disney. Build it and they will come, and they have. Disneyland is in a league of its own and sets the very standards the other theme parks across the country and world strive to emulate. In a word it is unique despite its skittish and impatient mascots that seem reluctant to loiter for pictures. The attention to detail of every kind has made Disneyland and the Disney theme what it is today. The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim is complete with a Downtown (shopping), which requires no entrance fee, Disneyland, California Adventure, three hotels, all connected by a monorail and shuttles to and from the expansive parking lots on the east side of Harbor Boulevard. Disneyland is the original Disney theme park and opened in 1955. It has since expanded adding California Adventure and is currently referred to as Disneyland Resort. Call it Disney magic or whatever you will Disneyland has the extra TLC that puts it above the others. The staff is friendly and helpful everywhere with very few exceptions.
The Bad:The crowds that have followed are the exception to this magic, so plan your trip in September, October, November (not Thanksgiving), and January, to avoid the tired, and hungry just yearning to have fun. Even on less visited days, it WILL be crowded, so don't come with expectations to the contrary. Even February can be mobbed from this writer’s experience. Arguably the rides and attractions in California Adventure are better than Disneyland and not to miss are Soarin’ Over California, It’s Tough to be a Bug, and Toy Story Mania, a fun interactive real-time, 3D shooting gallery. California Screamin’ is a great roller coaster but after the initial blast of G-force the rest is anti-climactic. On the other side of the walk, in Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean has unbelievable detail which has you looking twice at Johnny Depp as you travel along a swash-buckling boat ride through canon blast and drunken pirate fun. The Indiana Jones Adventure is no less exciting especially the inescapable giant boulder that makes a beeline for your vehicle at the end. What the author did not like ride-wise was Space Mountain, a jerky ride in the dark with flashing lights with near nauseating results. Autopia was a mouth-full-of gasoline along a noisy track which felt like the car was going to jump track if you lost grip. Food wise: a rip-off was the creamy drinks at the Tiki Juice Bar in front of the Enchanted Tiki Room. Acidic and watered down with canned Dole pineapple juice just wasn’t worth the four dollars. Also, avoid the cafeteria at Tomorrowland’s Pizza Port. Pizza by the slice was exorbitantly priced, lukewarm, and tasteless. The Cafe Orleans in New Orleans Square was underperforming both in price and service. The author found it a somewhat disorganized cafeteria where eye contact with the food workers was met with a blank stare in terms of who's supposed to be doing what. This resulted in unnecessarily long lines because patrons didn't know where to get the food they wanted or ordered. The Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street serves up a good portion for the money and the lines are there to prove it. The churros at California Adventure were dry and overpriced – a piece of bread with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on it. Try a fresh loaf of sourdough bread from the Boudin Bakery in California Adventure Park if you are hungry but don’t want to splurge. Disneyland has three pricey but pampered hotels at the resort or you can take your pick among the countless hotels along Harbor Boulevard all within walking distance of the resort or a quick shuttle ride with varying prices and levels of luxury/creature comforts. For the bladder-challenged who are driving long distances and planning to park in the Disney lot - there are no porta-potties to relief yourself in the lots and if you take the Disney shuttle to the park, there are none either until you get through security, which is easily another half hour wait once you get off the shuttle. Plan ahead on this one! Restrooms within the Magic Kingdom are not easily found either and sometimes require excessively long and complicated walks. Same goes for water fountains.
The Ugly: Of all the themes in the Magic Kingdom I consistently find Tomorrowland the dullest and, ironically, most hopelessly dated of all the themed areas. The Space Mountain ride, the lobby part in particular, reminds of some throwback to the 1970s or of what an airport upgrade might have looked like in that decade at the very least. Disneyland is currently constructing a Star Wars Lands and it's a good thing because, at the moment, the Star Wars feature seems to be appended awkwardly in Tomorrowland and adds no real value.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park. Billed as family-friendly Knott’s Berry Farm is more about seat-of-your-pants, hair-raising roller coasters than kiddy rides. The park is frontier/western themed but comes off as slightly seedy compared to Disneyland. The kids section is in bad need of upgrades as the rides are old, dilapidated looking, and little better than you’ll find at a county fair in Iowa. That said, its concessions are reasonably priced compared to the other four parks and it does have some rides that are exciting for children and parents alike – the authentic steam engine, Calico Railroad, and the Calico Mine Ride. Of course, don’t ignore the roller coasters if you are an adrenaline junky – you will be looped, spun, blasted and swung at high speeds among the assortment of coasters the park offers. The park is themed as a western/frontier village, so the Peanuts characters don’t mesh that well with the overall theme of the park. Neither does the attempt to replicate the retro California (1950’s) section. It just seems half-baked and appended to the rest of the park. The park really is America’s oldest theme park, true to its motto, established in the 1930s out of the original Knott’s family berry roadside fruit stand which has been supplanted by store fronts. Knott’s has a hotel on site, but it looks like a holdout from the 1980s that’s been given a paint job to cover up its age. Try staying somewhere closer to Disneyland and plan a day at Knott’s.
Legoland California, Carlsbad. Definitely for kids with the exception of the Lego Technic Coaster which has a pretty intimidating drop, Legoland has expanded since its opening in 1999 and will continue to do so as it adds the Lego-Hilton Hotel scheduled for completion in 2013. It still seems impossible for an adult to justify the 69 dollar entrance fee (summer 2011) to get himself into the park along with the separate 59 dollar fee for his kid under twelve. Legoland now comes with a Water Park (opened 2010) and an Aquarium. The Aquarium has a good collection of marine creatures both fresh water and salt, but the Lego theme seems to fall flat and doesn’t fit the marine exhibits. It just becomes a useless gimmick because people are focused on viewing the fish and sharks, not the ornamental Lego models that they swim by. The Legoland Water Park is not bad but time it right because of the long wait times. Extra costs are required to enter – the same goes for the Aquarium. Food is pricey. The best value is the probably the burger/fries combo at the Burger Stop or Castle Burger take-outs. Hotels are within walking distance, notably the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort, across the street (Armada Drive) and the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort and Spa, which has a private entrance to the park. In the writer’s opinion the best rides were the simple, yet wacky, stomach-dropping Beetle Bounce, and the relaxing six minute Fairy Tale Brook. The scaled down models of various U.S. cities in the center of the park are interesting. A good place to relax in the shade is the Enchanted Walk.
Sea World, San Diego. Crowded and expensive are two words to describe Sea World San Diego – the city’s most popular tourist attraction. Flowery walks and well-manicured plants surround broad walk-ways between attractions. The park clearly has patriotic undertones in both its subtle and overt appreciation of the uniformed services. Active duty military and their families can get into the park one day out of the year for free. Plan your trip in the off season to avoid the crowds. The rides are minimal, Journey to Atlantis the only one worth going on if you seek thrills. Manta (opened May 26, 2012) will offer the thrill-seeker more and will include another roller coaster to entertain Sea World's adult crowd. Manta is hair-raising from the get go with a G-force blast right out of the starting chute. Sharp twists and turns make it an unpredictable, exhilarating (and jerky) ride. The kid’s section, complete with a Sesame Street Theme, is well equipped with three rides that rock or spin to the tune of Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and Abbey and chances are you will walk away without throwing-up. The general play area is also good with crawl ropes and giant bouncing tents. Concessions are expensive, if not exorbitant, and expect your food to be lukewarm when served. Expect ten dollars per entrée, if not more, and consider the all-day dining option. For $35.63 (tax included, Feb. 2013) an adult can eat (with some restrictions) as much as he or she can in a day. Shipwreck Reef Rapids serves some good eats in cafeteria style and in a nice outdoor dining area but the seagulls are obnoxious and feast on the scraps left behind. The ride of the same name takes visitors on a flume-like splash course - you will get wet. Don’t miss the exhibit Wild Arctic that houses the Walrus, Polar Bears, and Beluga whales – it’s worth it. There is a 4-D ride in Wild Arctic but you need to be 42 inches plus. The Penguin Experience Tour is cute but smelly. Shark Encounter has a neat walk-through, see-through tunnel. Avoid the concessions restaurant or cafeteria areas between 11 am – and 1 pm – mobbed! Where to stay: there are a lot of hotels nearby in San Diego but they will require drives – Sea World is some distance along busy highways and byways. In a nutshell Sea World is better known for its animal and creature exhibits than its rides – it really is a phenomenal marine zoo in this respect but the rides are catching up and new ones are being built. The Shamu Show no longer includes trainers because of the incident which occurred in 2010 in the Orlando park resulting in the death of a trainer. Opened in Spring 2011 is Turtle Reef. Finally, and surprisingly, bring a sweater or wind-breaker even in the summer, as Sea world is coastal and marine layers, breezes, and coastal layers can make it cooler in the evening and morning, even when inland temperatures bake.
Universal Studios, Hollywood. This theme park grew out of a back-lot trolley tour of a movie studio to a full-blown theme park and has never looked back. It has since expanded in the Orlando, Florida area. Universal Studios is typically overcrowded and is best avoided in the summer months and major holidays. It is a major tourist attraction for Los Angeles so be forewarned. The theme park still functions as a working studio and its most iconic set is the facade of the town complete with its square. It was here that Back to the Future was filmed as well as many other films. The fake jaws that lunges at the trolley on the Studio Tour is another must-see and sentimental favorite for this park and of course that was used in the production of the original Jaws film. For the record Jurassic Park was another hit filmed within this studio as well as the classic and perhaps original psycho-thriller, Psycho. Thrill rides include Jurassic Park, Revenge of the Mummy, Back to the Future, Terminator 2:3D, Spider-Man Rocks, and Water World. There are also live actions shows that thrill the crowds.The park wouldn't be complete without a mall-like promenade and that comes to fruition in the Universal City Walk. Similar to Downtown Disney, it has all of the shops, restaurants, and commercialism that you might miss if it weren't present. The film-based theme shows and rides are not to miss, but be prepared for elbow rubbing crowds unless you visit in the off season. Summers here are hot too as you are a bit inland and 100 degrees plus is not uncommon. Combine that with long wait times and a summer visit can be turn-off.