Why Disneyland California is still ideal for magical family holidays in 2023

It's 3pm on a clear sunny California day. A small child is crying in the middle of a sea of people on a crowded Main street in Anaheim's Disneyland park, just metres from the entrance where families are pouring in like a horde of ants.

In her ruffled purple princess dress, tears stream down her face. But this is not a tantrum, no; this is nothing short of pure unbridled joy as she turns to her parents and says: "Mom, Dad look it's Tinkerbell's castle!"

As her beaming parents lift her up and wipe away her tears before heading off toward the castle made famous by Disney movie intros, I stand there, reminded of the kind of effect Disney can have on families and children of all ages - and how this magic can even rub off on everyone around them.

One thing strikes me the moment I'm set loose in the parks in Anaheim is that you simply can't hold back and be a passive observer. It's impossible not to partake at a Disney park and ingest some of the bubble of happiness you find yourself in.

Throngs of people wander by me as I take it all in. No group is the same, from the merchandise they're draped in, or the personalised T-shirts indicating a family trip or occasion, there's no feeling of repetition. Even the Mickey Mouse ear headbands that everyone wears are different - signs that a group assimilation has taken place, but no one got the memo they had to dress the same.

Everyone is chasing an adrenaline high in whatever form. If you're a kid, it's the chance to see the characters like Mickey, Minnie, or your favourite princesses walking by and stop them for a hug and photo; if you're an adult, it's the chance to relive those Disney obsessions you had before without any trace of guilt and know you're sharing in a collective mania. 

A Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney statue
Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney statue stands near the entrance to Tinkerbell's castle. Photo credit: Newshub

The Walt Disney Studios marked the start of its 100th anniversary at the end of January, and the Disneyland Parks were the centre of the celebrations, launching one new ride and two new evening-time shows that I was fortunate to experience - and would possibly kill to go back to again.

It's new nighttime show Wondrous Journey that finally brings a smile to my face and almost a euphoric tear of joy as I watch it on its first outing. 

fireworks exploding over a castle
A truly spectacular nighttime show, Wondrous Journey is not to be missed. Photo credit: Walt Disney World

Being older and somewhat more cynical, the Disney magic had to work a little harder on me to win me over - especially as some 25 years ago, I worked at Walt Disney World in Florida for a year and saw both the good and the bad of the company. 

But as this extravaganza plays out, I feel the joy welling up from the tips of my toes and nudging my usually impassable mouth into something resembling a wide beaming smile.

Set in Disneyland Park's Main Street with Cinderella's Castle as the backdrop, a symphony of colours, animation and fireworks harmonise perfectly into one 20 minute spectacular that is one of Disney's best ever evening shows.

Showing off some of Walt Disney World's greatest hits, Wondrous Journey promised to celebrate a lot of what the studio has done - but nothing could have prepared me for the scale and ambition of this show.

As the night sky darkens and the crisp Californian winter air gives way to a wind-free night, the Castle becomes a flipbook of animation as lasers and projections blast out images. Fireworks dart across the sky, at once illuminating the dark streets and providing the audience with the requisite need to "ooh" and "aah".

Twilight at Disneyland
Twilight is the best time to get some of the best shots of various Disneyland attractions. Photo credit: Newshub

Yet it's the appearance of a flying Tinkerbell and a rocket-blasting Baymax in the sky that provoke the most wonder and prove the show worthy of its moniker. I don't remember being left this much in awe of a light and fireworks display before, and it's one that I'd happily watch again just to see everything I missed the first time around.

The other new nighttime show launched for the 100 years celebration is World of Color - One. 

Set in the very northern extremes of the Disneyland Park and nestled within the waters off Pixar Pier, One is an ambitious mix of dancing water fountains and lights, all labouring under the theme that it takes only a single ripple to make a huge impact.

Disney's light, water and music show is a great mix of elements - as long as the wind is not blowing.
Disney's light, water and music show is a great mix of elements - as long as the wind is not blowing. Photo credit: Walt Disney World

Coloured lasers dart across the streams, pulling in imagery of various Disney properties and bringing to life moments from favourite films including The Lion King, Moana, Ratatouille, Soul, Star Wars, The Avengers. The biggest cheer went up for John Williams' still electrifying Star Wars score, complete with red and green bursts of water doubling as lightsabres. Be warned though - one blast of wind means the laser-projected imagery is somewhat lost from the show.

Disneyland at night
Disneyland at night is awash with colour and vivid lights. Photo credit: Newshub

My advice is that if you're keen on this, you'd be wise to stake out good viewing spots if that's what you want to experience most at the Disney parks - but be warned, you'll have to be early as the masses are happy to endure both the cold and tedium ahead of the show commencing. Such is the Disney effect that even waiting with families for darkness to come is more preferable to turning up late.

After 68 years, Mickey Mouse finally has a standalone attraction of his own at Disneyland California, which opened on July 17, 1955. Since then, Mickey has been mainly relegated to live appearances on the streets or in merchandise.

The gorgeously coloured and styled art-deco cinema, the El Capitoon.
The gorgeously coloured and styled art-deco cinema, the El Capitoon. Photo credit: Walt Disney World

It's unfathomable that the House of Mouse hasn't given him the spotlight in all those years, but new ride Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway in the Disneyland Park is now the centrepiece of the soon-to-be revamped Mickey's ToonTown, due to reopen in March.

A trackless ride, the amount of effort gone into creating both a timeless and modern experience is just awe-inspiring.

It's an interesting paradigm that Disney rides run the gamut from being charmingly naive to the utterly thrill-inducing pulse pounders. Somewhere in between this is Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, a ride that pays tribute to Mickey and Minnie Mouse's past and cements its place in the company's future.

A brilliant mix of psychedelic and neon colours, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway bursts vividly to life.
A brilliant mix of psychedelic and neon colours, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway bursts vividly to life. Photo credit: Walt Disney World

Set in a truly gorgeous art deco cinema, the El Capitoon Theatre, the premise of the ride is that Goofy derails Mickey Mouse's new short movie 'Perfect Picnic' and then inadvertently sends you spiralling through a tornado and chaos as Mickey and Minnie race to stop your train car crashing and disaster ensuing. Psychedelic colours, real-life models and vibrant animations collide in a thrill rush that's brilliant innovative family fun from beginning to end.

The ride has already been launched in Florida's DisneyWorld, but is central to the 100th celebrations at California's Disneyland. 

For me, the best part was queueing to get in. As you snake through various lines, a series of posters showing fake movies line the walls, from Mickey Mouse as a riff on the Rocketeer, or a Donald Duck-inspired Parent Trap ripoff - there's humour falling from every wall and it's contagious.

As a fan of a good pun, these posters are just brilliant fun while you queue.
As a fan of a good pun, these posters are just brilliant fun while you queue. Photo credit: Newshub

For families heading to Disneyland in California on a break, there's more than just these three new attractions to tempt them into Walt's World. However, be warned - a lot of the family holiday will be swallowed by time spent queueing, unless you're particularly savvy and targeted.

Disney has realised this and has made its Disneyland app and Disney Genie service something essential to your visit.

These simple-to-use easy-to-negotiate apps mean you can effectively plan your route around the parks and also gauge time in queues. The service displays a time you can expect to queue for the more popular rides, but Disney Genie also gives you the chance to book a Lightning Lane entrance to the busier rides.

This kind of premium pass from the queues isn't free - Disney Genie costs an extra US$25 per person on top of the cost of the park tickets, which some may feel is a little bit like double-dipping. In truth, it became a necessary service for me as I tried to work out how to do everything I wanted in between the media events that were laid on for the Disney 100 Years launch.

A silver statue of Mickey Mouse
Somebody's celebrating 100 Years with new colours and statues around the park. Photo credit: Newshub

Some of the newer rides such as the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Cars-themed ride Radiator Springs Racers actually charge you extra to book to use the Lightning Lanes, which in some ways feel like double dipping, given you don't fully waltz past the queues. However, those were the busiest rides at the Park when I was there, with wait times of upwards of 90 minutes likely to take a large chunk of your day.

But on a day when there was an 85 minute wait to get to the Cars-themed ride, I managed to queue all of 5 minutes, thanks to a crafty tip I'm willing to share - even if it's one that could rip families apart.

Some rides offer a Single Rider service which means you can ditch the other members of your family and essentially ride the attractions as a kind of seat-filler. While it may cause issues if you're wanting to try and leave the whānau behind or you've just got a ride-itch that needs to be scratched, it's a highly effective way to get where you want quickly.

I'm pretty sure in the rides I queued for, I never spent as much time waiting as the app said was going to be needed. And many of the attractions have made their queues part of the experience, whether it's in storytelling moments or offering props to view. The wait lines are less about a soulless experience of watching people slowly edge forward and more about keeping you engaged and immersed in the Disney world.

One of the rides with a particularly long queue is the phenomenally popular Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance experience.

Stormtroopers amassed
I've not seen this many Stormtroopers since George Lucas went crazy with the CGI in the remaster of Star Wars. Photo credit: Newshub

In it you become a member of a crew of potential Rebel recruits who are taken in by Daisy Ridley's Rey and whose journey to a new world is abruptly hijacked by the First Order. The first part of the ride is a simulator, but once you're hijacked, it opens into a jaw-dropping live experience that sees you ordered about by the bad guys and thrown into an interrogation cell.

Moments later, the Resistance breaks you out and you're hustled into a rollercoaster-like ride that aims to help you escape. But Kylo Ren is right behind you...

It's a truly immersive experience and one that shows Disney's not just taken the simple cash-in route. As I queued waiting for interrogation, one other member of another party was sniggering away. That prompted one of the park's employees, dressed in First Order garb, to come up to them and ask in no uncertain terms what was so funny and that Kylo Ren would soon "wipe the smile of your miserable face".

A Star Wars animatronic character
A mix of animatronics, CGI and Live action make Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance a great overall experience. Photo credit: Newshub

While some may feel this would be enough to go and visit Disney HR and report the employee, it does actually make you feel part of the experience, rather than just part of a herd being pushed through a ride and a quota. Again, it made me realise just how far Disney has gone to pursue the dreams of fans who save for a long time to attend a park.

There's so much to do at each of the two parks (Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park) that I'd recommend you spend at least a minimum of three days on site - not just to see what you want, but also to ensure you don't miss out because of queue times and a general initial feeling of being overwhelmed.

Don't worry about spending up large and inhaling calories from the junkfood treats at the various eateries conveniently located every few kilometres, because as I discovered afterwards, walking some 10kms a day traipsing between rides and experiences may give you tired limbs - but the Disney magic and experience 100 years on are still more than worth it.

Newshub travelled to the US and enjoyed the resorts as a guest of Disney's Parks & Destinations.