A week of theme parks is fun for the whole family, writes Liam Dann

"I need to see your security pass," says the Stormtrooper to my son. "Do you have clearance to be here."

The 8-year-old is momentarily stunned, perplexed at having been singled out in the busy queue for Star Tours, Disney's Star Wars-themed 3D ride.

What's worse is that I'm also so taken aback that I completely miss my chance to reply with: "These are not the kids you are looking for", in my best Alec Guinness voice, a move that would surely have impressed all the other Star Wars nerd dads in the crowd.


Along the rest of the winding queue we're kept entertained by animatronic robots and aliens. The ride itself is action-packed and fun but for magic memories it can't compete with that kind of real world interaction that makes Disney such a special environment.

We based ourselves in Anaheim for a week and although we've plugged in a beach day and museum trip and other theme parks, Disney is the main attraction.

Liam Dann's sons are questioned by a Storm Trooper at Star Tours, Disneyland. Photo / Liam Dann
Liam Dann's sons are questioned by a Storm Trooper at Star Tours, Disneyland. Photo / Liam Dann

We were there in September away from the worst of the summer heat and the big holiday crowds.

But even so, on the first day we hit Disneyland the temperatures are above 30C and the crowds are still challenging.

All travel is an adventure, some people climb mountains, some people swim with sharks, some people take their kids to theme parks.

And Disneyland Resort is the Everest of theme parks — at times challenging but ultimately offering great rewards.

In a lot of ways it's like attending a big rock festival — only with the needs of three kids to juggle. You need to strike a balance between the big events and giving yourself time to relax and soak up the atmosphere.

And it pays to be organised — do some research on the rides you most want to target. And definitely make sure you take advantage of Disney's Fastpass system that gives all ticket holders the opportunity to pre-book a time to visit a number of the key rides.

Our hotel — The Residence Inn — is walking distance from Disneyland but we soon discovered that it can pay to bus or Uber even a short distance to save energy for inside the gates.

We had passes for two days at Disney and the parks are open from 9am to midnight so we were able to do a morning session and an afternoon or evening session each day with plenty of time to refresh and grab a quick swim back at the hotel for lunch.

But even so there are times when you have to take a deep breath and realise that it's you who is desperate to squeeze in that last ride before lunch, not the kids.

For our children, Mickey, Donald and the gang don't hold the thrall they did for older generations and my daughter is too old to be bothered with the numerous Princess characters that obsessed her thoughts just a few years earlier.

That's a relief because there is still a lot to pack in to two days.

Disney's full-scale Star Wars adventure park doesn't open for another year but there is already a huge highlight for Star Wars fans in the Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple experience — make sure you get in early and book a spot for your children later in the day.

It's not a ride, it's more of a theatrical show with children getting to play key roles.

Arriving at our scheduled time, there is no queuing. We leave the kids in the hands of Jedi masters who hand them a cloak and light sabre. Then they head behind closed doors, with a group of about 20 others, to learn the ways of the force.

The parents are ushered to an outdoor amphitheatre where, about 15 minutes later, a procession of newly minted young Jedis arrive to star in a live action show.

Their trainers take them through a high energy routine of lightsaber drills which culminates with each child taking a starring turn battling an impressive full-sized Darth Vader and his evil Sith colleague.

Liam Dann's daughter Eleanor at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo / Liam Dann
Liam Dann's daughter Eleanor at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Hollywood. Photo / Liam Dann

It's a brilliant show, although with an audience of proud parents watching their children fulfill their sci-fi dreams, it really can't lose.

Outside of Tomorrowland, with its increasingly Star Wars-infused flavour, it is the other side of the park — Adventureland and New Orleans Square — that delivered the old-school Disney thrills for our family. Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, The Haunted House and Jungle Cruise are all hits.

Two days seems like plenty of time but with full admission to Disney California Adventure Park included on the tickets it really is hard to pack it all in.

California Adventure Park isn't another section of Disneyland, it's a completely self-contained park situated right next door.

It has a more laidback vibe — adults can get a beer and wander around with it — and celebrates California's great outdoors and 20th-century history with a replica Hollywood.

It's leafier and the well-forested areas provide a respite from the Southern Californian sun.

It's Hollywood Land that recreates the splendour of the tinsel town's golden age in the 1920s and 30s, and is also considerably more splendid that the real thing in central LA.

California Adventure Land is also home to Radiator Springs — a must for fans of the Disney Pixar movie Cars, as well as showcasing other Pixar hits like Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo.

There are also plenty of Marvel Avengers roaming around interacting with the crowds.
Disney purchased the superhero franchise in 2009 and, given its huge success as a film franchise since then, one imagines a full-scale Avengers ride can't be far away.

It is another reminder however that, although Mickey and the gang no longer loom large as the cultural figures of my childhood, the formula for creating magic moments that Walt Disney pioneered in the 1950s lives on, evolving to embrace different characters for the 21st century.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Los Angeles. Anaheim is an 80-minute drive from LAX.

Further information: See visitanaheim.org and disneyland.disney.go.com.