Total immersion is the order of the week as a family dives into the alternative reality of Disney and friends, writes Liam Dann.

Anaheim means Disneyland for many visitors who stop in for a night or two on the way to further American adventures, or onward around the world.

But for the first half of our family trip to the US we made it home and used it as base camp for a slightly manic marathon of fun, visiting five theme parks (including both Disney parks) in just a week.

The bottom line is that if you are travelling with children - we have three (6, 7 and 11) - the logistics of a place like Anaheim are ideal. It's walking distance to Disney but also an easy day trip to Knott's Berry Farm in neighbouring Buena Park, Universal Studios in central LA as well as Legoland and/or Seaworld - both about an hour or so south towards San Diego.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

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Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry towers over Universal Studios like an authentic European castle. In the streets below, crowds of muggles (that's us non-magical folk) wander the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade past talking hats and books, shopping for wands and knocking back pints of butter-beer.

It all feels very much like the real thing - or the real movie set, at very least. It's an impressive sight even for a jaded traveller with only a passing interest in Harry Potter. But for an 11 year old mega-fan, it's truly spectacular, a dream come true, and a holiday highlight.

Unfortunately for her parents it's all spinning - somewhat unmagically.

The Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.
The Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride - a mix of virtual reality and moving seats - has taken us for a high-speed broomstick ride from which we are struggling to recover.

So while my wife stares into a rubbish bin trying to hold down her lunch, I lie on my back staring up at Hogwarts tower waiting for it to stand still.

The 11-year-old loved it of course. And she's lining up at the Flight of the Hippogriff rollercoaster next door. As it turns out, it is mercifully mellow by comparison and offers fine views out across the Studio as the sun sets on what has been a scorching Los Angeles day.

In fact, with the temperatures soaring past 30C early in the morning, the whole day was looking daunting as we queued with what looked like huge crowds to get into the historic film studio lot.

A full hour's drive from our hotel, we didn't have the luxury of a poolside lunch break. But once inside it was amazing how well the venue handles the crowds and the heat. There are impressive escalators to ferry you up the hillside of the split-level site and every hundred metres or so there are giant fans blasting cooling water vapour across the crowds.

There is also an excellent splash park playground, Super Silly Fun Land, to drench the kids in the mid-day heat.

With attractions covering some of the biggest hit movies and TV shows, there was something to capture the imagination of everyone in our family. For the dinosaur-obsessed 8-year-old it was hard to beat the animatronic thrills of the Jurassic Park water ride. For my youngest it was probably the Transformers 3D ride. While the movies didn't really resonate, the ride was a mind-blowing virtual-reality adventure.

For me, the highlight was the re-creation of The Simpsons hometown of Springfield. Not so much the ride, which was fun, but getting a Duff beer at Moe's, having a Krusty Burger and hanging out at the comic shop.

For my wife, The Walking Dead fanatic, it was the scare of a life. The new attraction, based on the hit zombie apocalypse TV series, takes you through a special-effects-soaked labyrinth of a burnt-out hospital.

It's not for the claustrophobic but won't trouble those prone to motion sickness. The real trick is the unnerving mix of animatronic zombies and real-life actors. You can't tell which is which until they've lurched right into your face causing terrifying jump scares for even a seasoned horror buff.

We left Universal exhausted, sunbaked and satisfied that we'd ticked the "must dos" on everyone's list while still having time to enjoy the atmosphere.

KNOTT'S BERRY FARM

Home to some of the biggest and scariest roller coasters in the world and an easy 15-minute Uber ride from our Disney base, Knott's Berry Farm opened in 1920 as a berry farm and just kept adding attractions over the years.

 Knott's Berry Farm.
Knott's Berry Farm.

Mid-week in September it was almost crowd free.

It has a Western ghost town theme which was spooked up further for the Halloween season which, in the US, runs pretty much from the start of September through until the big day itself on October 31.

All the theme parks we visited fully embraced the season, adding extra scares and sights.

As we left Knott's Berry Farm in the evening we noticed bigger crowds arriving for a more hard-core late-night horror session. But during the day at least there were almost no queues, so the only limits were our capacity for terror or threshold for motion sickness.

As noted earlier, that isn't particularly high, with the exception of my eldest daughter.

So we avoided, for example, the Xcelerator, which catapults riders to 132 km/h in just 2.3 seconds taking them to a near vertical peak 62m high before plunging them straight down again.
But I did my best to keep up with my daughter and we managed to brave all but the most terrifying.

The younger boys challenged themselves early on, proudly riding the high-speed Pony Express rollercoaster several times before indulging themselves in the Peanuts zone where numerous Charlie Brown and Snoopy rides for smaller kids are nestled in among cool shady trees.

LEGOLAND

For younger kids and all fans of those little plastic building blocks, Legoland is also well within striking distance from Anaheim.

It's just over an hour down the road, heading south towards San Diego. The drive is good fun through sun-baked Southern Californian hills and along the coast.

Legoland has a range of midsized and junior rollercoasters as well amazing displays of building blocks representing all the big Lego styles.

Legoland.
Legoland.

Parents will know them well: Ninjago, Friends, Star Wars. The Star Wars section recreates many of the big scenes from the original movies, such as the battle on the ice planet Hoth.

There are impressive Lego recreations of the major US cities and landmarks. So if you're not taking the kids to Washington and New York this time, give them the Lego tour.

There's an aquarium but, given the stunning weather and 30C heat, a highlight was the Legoland Waterpark, an add-on to the ticket price but well worth it.

As a final bonus, we broke up the ride home with dinner in the neighbouring seaside town of Carlsbad - which has easy to access In-N-Out Burger for junk food fans who have that on their Californian must-eat list.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Los Angeles. Book before March 6 and receive $500 off return Economy Class, and $1000 off Premium Economy and Business Class fares.

Anaheim is an 80-minute drive from LAX.

Online
Visitanaheim.org