In case you're one of the few who either didn't a) see Wreck-It Ralph or b) see the news of this a few days ago, Disney uploaded the full animated version of its Oscar-nominated short film Paperman on YouTube. That means you're lucky enough to see the gorgeously-animated dialogue-free 6-minute short that originally aired prior to Wreck-It Ralph last fall for the first time. I suppose there are things one could quibble about (must those characters' eyes still be so darn huge?), but as an example of storytelling (and melding of CGI and hand-drawn animation techniques), it's beautiful.
There are many people for whom going to Disneyland is a lifelong dream, for whom mingling with 50,000 of their closest friends provides a huge thrill.
My wife is not part of that group. She hates crowds.
So when we figured out how to swing a trip to Los Angeles and include a day at Disneyland, I knew that it would be me and the kids and nobody else.
On the one hand, this was exciting: I'd get 72+ hours of one-on-one (or one-on-two) time with my kids away from all the distractions of day-to-day life at home. One the other hand: me, two kids, and a big public place. I'm confident in my parenting and child management skills (not to mention my directional skills), but traveling solo with kids provides a whole different set of challenges.
I should also note that this wasn't my first trip to Disneyland as a single parent -- four years ago I traveled with Miss Mary Mack and spent a couple days at the park. We had fun, but I also look back at that trip and see how it could have been improved upon. In many ways, I think this makes the advice I'm about to dole out useful, because I've done the relatively-uninformed traveler thing and while this trip wasn't absolutely perfect, it went better enough that I know this advice is actually worth considering. So, without any further ado:
Picking a Date
This is step #1, of course, and one that you may have the least flexibility on. For us (like many), we were constrained by the school year and while we weren't totally opposed to pulling the kids out of school for a day or two for a decent vacation-related reason, that was not in the cards for this trip.
I heartily recommend Touring Plans' Disneyland Crowd Calendar, which predicts crowd levels for every day of the year. You can get predicted crowds for the a month out for the next month without subscribing, to get predicted crowds. Subscribing unlocks the entire crowd calendar, and is well worth the price (which is $0.99 per week, $1.99 per month, and $6.99 per year when done through its Lines app).
Even if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, it's not as simple as picking out the day that has the lowest crowd levels, of course. Outside of the summer months, park hours are shorter (which may or may not affect your time in the park depending on your kids' stamina) and rides are more likely to be out of commission, either for holiday-related overlays (particularly after Labor Day as they prep for Halloween and Christmas) or major refurbishment. So if there's a particular ride you remember going on when you were a child that you want to revisit or there's some movie or character whose ride you want to make sure your child gets to experience, you can check the Mouseplanet weekly Disneyland update for and other items of note. But as any parent who has been in a crowded place with their kids knows, it can be a lot easier to keep track if it's not packed like a mosh pit.
Where To Stay
For those of you traveling to Disneyland and without the advantage of a local friend with a spare bed or three, you'll need to find a hotel. Actually, even if you have a local friend with a spare bed or three, depending on your budget, you may find it worthwhile to stay in a hotel, at least for each night before your excursions into the park. That's because there are so many advantages to staying as close as you can that investing the extra $100 (or more or less) per night could add much more value than that to the hundreds of dollars you're spending on park tickets.
I would suggest that choosing a hotel at Disneyland is like finding a house - pick the best one you can afford in the neighborhood you want. In this case, the neighborhood is called "Within (15-Minute) Walking Distance of the Front Gate." (I know, not very catchy.) I cannot stress enough the importance of being close enough to walk out of the park and being in your hotel room, collapsed on the bed, in maybe 10 minutes. Much longer, and the walk will seem too daunting at 2 pm or 8 pm. And, yes, you can take the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttles, but there is inevitably waiting time at either or both ends of the return/departure swing, not to mention the farther away you are, the less likely you are to return quickly. It's like the Disneyland gravitational field.
For what it's worth, we stayed at the Anaheim Plaza Resort, whose rooms were basic but fine, and which has a large pool (which they define as Olympic-sized). More importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, it was about a 10-minute walk from our room to the Mickey "compass" smack dab in the middle of the entry plaza. Most of those close hotels are on Harbor Boulevard, the north-south street that is the resort's eastern boundary. Some of the hotels on Harbor are actually closer to the Mickey "compass" than the 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, the swanky Grand Californian Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel) for a fraction of the cost. What you miss by staying in a non-Disney hotel, besides the immersive Disney theming, is the right to go into the park an hour earlier than everyone else. The Extra Magic Hours, however, only apply (at this point) to the summer. It's unclear whether those Hours will continue. Whether it's worth the $200 or more per night that will cost you, only you can decide.
But the being close to the resort, that's non-negotiable. And I know that there are plenty of hotels that are connected to the resort via a shuttle, either their own or the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttle. All I'm saying is that we stayed at one of those hotels way south on Harbor (easily 1 1/2 miles from the resort) 4 years ago, and waiting for the shuttle to arrive, negotiate Harbor Boulevard traffic, and deposit us about a 3-minute walk from the "compass," took us a lot more time and wasn't that much cheaper (especially when you thrown in the cost of the shuttle) than the Anaheim Plaza Resort. And it took a lot more effort to get ourselves back to the park after a mid-afternoon break.
Your Day(s) at the Park(s)
Here's where I go all drill-sargeant on you and give you the number piece of advice for your trip to Disneyland:
Set the alarm.
I know, you're on vacation, your kids are on vacation, you want to enjoy the time together, the last thing you want to do sometimes is set an alarm for a time that might even be earlier than a school morning.
Do it anyway.
I'm telling you, you can get so much done before 11 AM that the rest of the day is almost like a bonus because a lot of people aren't setting that alarm. Again, one of the advantages of staying close by is that you can set that alarm 15-30 minutes later. We were probably up and moving by 6:30 AM. After getting ready and having breakfast, we left about 7:35 AM and were at the Disneyland front gates before 7:50 AM to find... they were open. That's right, they'll often open up early (remember there are already some early guests in the park) so that you're almost at Sleeping Beauty's castle at the center of the park. This means you can spend some time strolling down the Main Street USA section of the park admiring the theming, and makes getting to the rides that much easier.
I am telling you, if you do one thing, it's get to the park before it opens. I assure you, I've done the not-early thing, and it makes a huge difference. Look at those pictures of Main Street and the Castle above -- those were taken at 7:50 AM and about 10:15 AM, respectively. On a busy summer Friday. Get there early enough, and the park is yours.
Here's where I take a detour and tell you that Touring Plans also offers free touring plans available to everyone, paid subscriber or not. It's well worth your time to plug in the rides and attractions your family is considering to be must-dos and have the computer spit out a suggested itinerary. For the most part, what it'll probably do is tell you to get "Fastpasses" for popular rides as soon as you are able (those are basically reservations to do the ride at a later time) and to ride the slow-loading rides quickly. [Also note: the plan assumes that you can bring back your Fastpass at any point once the reservation window opens, including 12 hours after that point, and well after the reservation window closes. There's always the possibility that that flexibility will go away (it's my understand that Walt Disney World, for example, enforces Fastpass windows more strictly), but for now, it's nice to be able to go back at 4 PM or 6 PM for a Fastpass picked up at 10 AM.]
We didn't follow the Touring Plan I created to the letter -- especially if you and/or your kids are new to the park, you and they will be distracted by certain attractions and telling your kids, "no, we can't ride Astro Blasters now, the Plan says to ride it at 8:15 PM!" is inflexible to the extreme. But because we were there so early, we rode more than half of the Fantasyland rides and navigated the temporary shutdown of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with nary a problem. While there were rides that I (or Miss Mary Mack or Little Boy Blue) would have wanted to ride (or ride again), we probably more rides in one day than in my comparatively uninformed two-day trip with Miss Mary Mack years ago.
By about noon or so, the park really does start getting crowded, and it is harder to find top-level rides and attractions without significant lines. That's the point at which finding meals and other ways to help give your overstimulated and underhydrated kids a break. We had our fancy meal at Cafe Orleans for lunch (those are the Pommes Frites above), but Disneyland's meal prices, while expensive, aren't dizzyingly so. They're reasonable for a captive market. And while you're not supposed to bring in food, the bag searches at the entry to the parks will permit things like waters and snacks, so it is possible to keep your kids hydrated and nourished (sort of) without having to spend money on every last snack. Which isn't to say you might not want a Dole Whip (soft serve ice cream blended with pineapple juice - delish!), just that you can use those opportunities as diversions and treats rather than essential nourishment.
You can, if you wish, leave the park, and on a hot, summer day -- or even other days -- this is a pretty good idea. We retreated to the hotel for a dip in the pool and Olympics on the TV. (We don't have cable, so I remember one of Miss Mary Mack's treats on our last trip being able to watch the Disney Channel in the hotel). Hopefully they're relaxing, taking in some fluids, resting their feet, and just generally "resetting" from a long day (which at that point already included about 6 1/2 hours in the park). Preschool-aged kids and toddlers may even take a nap -- so much the better. Obviously, if the park is only open from 10 AM 'til 6 PM, then you might not want to take a break in the middle if your kids' sleep patterns can avoid it. But if you're there in the summer months, I recommend the mid-afternoon break highly.
Saving Money in (and out of) the Parks
Disneyland is not cheap. Kids ages 10 and up pay "full fare," and those between the ages of 3 and 9 aren't much cheaper. Our one-day tickets limiting us to the use of just one park (we chose Disneyland rather than California Adventure, which is being overrun this summer by folks wanting to experience the just-opened Cars Land) cost $249 for the 3 of us. Multi-day tickets and "park hoppers" (which permit switching between parks during the day) would obviously drive that price up considerably.
That's one reason why I recommend staying in a close hotel -- we spent probably a total of more than 11 hours in the park, and that's something we could only have done if we had stayed in a hotel that close the night before and the night after. We invested in the hotel (a bit) so as to maximize the value of those tickets.
Beyond the tickets and lodging, your other major cost component is food. Most hotels along Harbor Boulevard have refrigerators and if you're driving in, you should definitely pack breakfasts and other foods in a cooler and use the fridge. Some hotels have free continental, some don't (ours didn't), but my sense is that even those who do have a fairly minimal breakfast, low on the protein, and so it's probably worth your time bringing some. (If you're flying in, I have read that Vons offers free delivery, one-time, if you sign up with them.)
As for saving money on food in the park, good luck with that. Like I said, I didn't think the food prices were terribly outrageous, but they're not cheap. At "counter-service" restaurants, you are more likely to be able to mix and match meals and may find that a single adult meal may be sufficient to feed you and a kid.
As always, bringing waters and snacks will help reduce the mid-morning, mid-afternoon, late night munchies. Not totally eliminate them, of course, and part of the fun of an immersive environment like that of Disneyland is to try the food.
One way I tried to extend the Disneyland Resort experience without spending money on tickets was to experience more of the resort. So after we got settled into our room on Thursday afternoon, we wandered around Downtown Disney (the shopping/dining/entertainment district just west of the parks) and the Disneyland Hotel. We ate at Tangaroa Terrace (a "counter service" restaurant overlooking the Hotel's large pool area), then soaked in the atmosphere at Downtown Disney. ("Soaking in atmosphere" means enjoying the crowds, something my wife definitely would not do.) I am very much against window-shopping as entertainment, but the LEGO store has some amazing Disney-themed structures and lots of LEGOs for freeplay, and wandering through the World of Disney store is a good way to let off some of that "gimme gimme" steam your kids are likely to have. (I didn't want to spend our time in the park itself being in shops.)
On that note, I'm sure you all have your own rules for spending money our trips, but for what it's worth I let each kid spend no more than $15 of their own money, and they were perfectly happy with that. Letting them know that the trip itself was their gift drew no whining on their part.
Another way to extend the experience is through a character meal. There are character meals in the parks themselves, but you can also have character meals in which a variety of Disney characters stop by, interact, and pose for pictures. The meals are, again, on the expensive side (especially for what tends to be a buffet), but if your kids are particularly into a character, the opportunity to have a relaxed (and air-conditioned) interaction may be worth the cost compared to waiting in line 30 minutes in the park. We had a Sunday morning buffet at the Storytellers Cafe at the Grand Californian Hotel. The buffet was pretty good, Little Boy Blue (and Miss Mary Mack, a little) enjoyed the characters, and it gave us an excuse to go through the hotel, which is a themed wonder. Again, you don't need to have a meal here to wander through, but it was a nice way to extend the Disneyland experience before heading home.
Other Tips (and Things I Would Do Differently)
Bring water. It seems like you shouldn't have to remind people, but I'm doing so just in case. I brought water (those foldable plastic bottles that are now all the rage), but wish I could have brought more.
Bring a small backpack. What I really wanted to bring was a fannypack, but I couldn't find mine -- maybe I'd tossed it out. I didn't want to haul around a backpack, which meant my pockets were stuffed full of stuff. Next time, I'll find a fannypack (or a small backpack) so I could store more stuff, like my sunglasses.
When they say you can lose your sunglasses on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, they're not kidding.
Assess your kids' maturity level before you go. Miss Mary Mack is mature for her age; Little Boy Blue not so much for his age. Just because he was tall enough to ride Indiana Jones doesn't mean (in retrospect) he should have. That sort of assessment is especially hard to engage in you yourself have never ridden the ride (which I hadn't), though I suspected it would be somewhat dicey. In some respects, I spent a good part of the day bouncing between ride types -- a slow ride that would be Little Boy Blue's speed and a fast ride for his older sister -- and telling each of them that they would get to do something they wanted to do next. If your child is mature enough (and certainly in double-digit ages), you may choose to let them ride via a single-rider line, which some popular rides have and which may let the person ride with less than a 5-minute wait. That's a good way to let the older child have some freedom ("yay! I get to ride by myself and without my younger brother") without too much of a wait as you park yourself outside the ride exit.
Finally, remember to have fun. That goes for you, the parent, too. As parents, we can get so wrapped up in trying to make sure our kids have a memorable experience that we forget to have a memorable experience (and ruin theirs, too). Have a plan, permit yourself to deviate from it, watch your kids laugh, snap a few pictures, and laugh yourself. I'd like to think that I did fairly well in that regard. And considering the kids want to go back, I guess I did.
There may be better kids music albums released since the turn of the (twenty-first) century, there have been better-selling ones as well, but a pretty strong case can be made for saying that No! by They Might Be Giants is the single most important and most influential kids music album of the past decade or so.
Yes, today's kindie superstars like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts, Ralph's World, and more had all released an album (or more) for families before TMBG's first album foray out of the world of pints of beer and into the world of half-pints of milk. And other artists like Trout Fishing in America, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer (and many others preceding them) had been releasing albums for years. But I think in terms of cultural impact (and, as a result, the impact on the genre itself), nothing matched that of the yellow-covered collection from Brooklyn's rockers.
The band is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album's summer 2002 release with a deluxe edition of the album, adding on 7 bonus tracks, including one newly-recorded expanded version of a TMBG classic. (More on that in a moment.) It's easy to look back and say that the move into kids music was an obvious one for the band -- their songs often had a playful melodic sense and even though many of their songs had a darker undertone, some of their biggest hits ("Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)") were completely kid-friendly. But at the time, lots of people wondered exactly what the band was thinking, reaching for a kids' audience.
It was only after the album outsold their previous release (Mink Car, for adults, and released on September 11, 2001) that the band -- and the rest of the musical world -- realized that this was a genre that held much more financial and creative potential. As the band's fans (like me) had grown up and become parents, the selections of kids music available to us were limited, and even more limited in terms of their sound. With No!, the band thrust into some small part of the mainstream the idea that musical sounds for kids could be every bit as broad (and loud) as that for adults.
No! begat the band's deal with Disney, which yielded three excellent albums and lots of visibility for the band. It also launched dozens of albums by musicians with names small and large. No matter how long their creators had been working on them, I don't think TV shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! or Jack's Big Music Show or Imagination Movers get greenlit without the Brooklyn duo showing there was a market for this music and parental attitude. I don't know if it is "cool" to make music for kids (and I don't really care personally), but it is no longer uncool and for an industry that is still often image-based, that is a not insignificant victory.
As for the album itself, it's so embedded in my brain (and the brains of my family), that trying to listen to the album again and listen critically after literally hundreds of spins is difficult. My original review of the album, originally written nearly a decade ago, and one of the first posted to the website nearly seven years ago, while clunky in its narrative, still hits the key points: somewhat restricted instrumentation, skewed world viewpoint, and some excellent songs. In retrospect (and after listening to maybe a couple thousand kids albums since then), one of its strongest aspects is the lack of any overt lesson songs. It's not quite "no hugging, no learning," but the album's chief virtue is its own inquisitiveness and adventurousness, rather than any message within any specific song.
As for the bonus tracks, none are essential save one, a newly recorded version of "Alphabet of Nations." This is a track, sharp listeners will note, that didn't make an appearance for another 3 years, on the album's follow-up, Here Come the ABCs. No matter -- the Johns have taken their song, barely a minute long in its original form, and recorded the 2:30-version they play live. More countries, even more fun. The other six tracks are live versions of songs, some from No!, a couple from other albums. They're good tracks, but none are essential -- feel free to download "Alphabet" and any of the other tracks whose samples move you.
That assumes, of course, that you already have the original. If you don't, I'm not entirely sure how you've found your way to this site (or why you've read all this way). If you don't, finish reading this paragraph and go get the thing. Because in addition to being a culturally significant album, it's also a damn good one, too. Inventive and witty, with no small amount of danceability. Most days I'd argue it's not TMBG's best kids' album, but there are also days when I think that it is. That's no small bar to leap. I'm reading too much into this, but the fact that the next to last track on the original album is essentially kids' music's "A Day in the Life" makes No! the Sgt. Pepper's of kids' music. Highly recommended.
Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review, as well as offered the opportunity to premiere tracks from the album.
You may think of Disney's TV channels as filled with brightly-colored sets and sounds, and of course there are plenty of shows that feature those, but there are some quieter moments on the channel.
Some of the loveliest quieter moments come courtesy of the new Disney Junior interstitial series "Quiet Is...", a ten-episode series created by illustrator Sara Pinto and photographer/filmmaker Luciana Frigerio and produced by Scotland-based animation studio Ko Lik Films. It's a series of two-minute shorts designed more for quiet time, for getting kids in the getting-ready-for-bed mood.
While the visuals themselves are striking, they're accompanied by tender, often (but not solely) mellow songs that don't so much explain the visuals as much as give the visuals an extra dimension. The series' songs were composed by Rick Garcia and William V. Malpede. The songwriting team have worked together on a number of other projects, including the movie Rango, but this project was considerably different. They chatted with me by phone yesterday in advance of Sunday's Father's Day premiere of the tenth episode in the "Quiet Is..." series, an episode titled "Dad Reading." You can see the nine previous episodes at Disney Junior's videos page, and even though the rest of the world won't see the latest video 'til Sunday, you can watch it here today. Read on to find out about the series' origins, the challenges of writing for this particular project, and whose voice they're blown away by.
Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?
Rick Garcia (RG): My first memory is from age 4 -- my mother was a singer and a big fan of Nat King Cole. She put on a record of his, and I was blown away by his voice.
William V. Malpede (WVM): Yeah, he had a fantastic voice... I have two memories. First, touching piano keys -- I was in 1st grade, maybe, and there was this magical connection between the body and the music. I also remember hearing opera, my mother playing opera, and my sister playing classic rock albums from the late '60s and early '70s.
How did you get involved in the project?
WVM: I had worked with Rick for about five years or so, working on films. We were both friends with Lori Mozilo [Development Executive, Disney Junior], and she approached us about working on this. I was thrilled. I'm a big fan of music in animated films, and this was tied to that. She brought mostly-completed videos to us, and they were lovely.
I was going to ask you next how the songs were created -- whether they came first, or simultaneously -- but it sounds like they came last?
RG: Yes, we met first with Lori and Nancy Kanter [Senior Vice President, Original Programming and General Manager, Disney Junior Worldwide]. They brought us a video and asked us to write a song for it. They loved the song we wrote and asked us to work on the project.
You know, the videos are beautiful in their own form. We were after an emotion, not as much the lyrics. The songs are truly unique unto themselves; even if you heard the song separately, you'd still be hit the same way.
WVM: The songs are supposed to be timeless. One of the directives we received was the songs weren't supposed to narrate the visuals, but instead tell a companion story -- they didn't want it to be spot-on.
You also wrote songs for Rango -- how was the experience of writing these songs different from writing songs designed to move the plot along in the movie?
RG: The Rango songs were written very differently -- they were the first pieces of music written for the film. We had a lot of free rein. The lyrical content in the songs was musical narration, so there were a lot of rewrites lyrically (and musically) for that. Here, we knew we were able to write different styles of musical. In Rango, there was a specific musical style (mariachi owls).
WVM: For "Quiet Is...", we'd often talk about instrumentation -- the choice of instruments sets the emotional landscape. It gives us musical colors or a palette to help out... One piece we did have to treat a little differently, there's a piece with some sheep getting a bit rambunctious ["Counting Sheep"] -- in that case we needed to be a little more literal.
What have you enjoyed most about the project, or what were you surprised by at the end?
WVM: There are many ways to go about scoring to pictures -- there needs to be a balance between the song form (a verse, chorus, so on) and the pictures. In theory, those two approaches conflict. But there were times when we'd write a song on piano or guitar and sometimes those things would go great with the pictures.
At times, some songs had too many lyrics and we had to get rid of some, but I expected that. Overall, it was really good.
RG: It was effortless working Lori and Nancy -- they have a lot of expertise, and their feedback was helpful throughout. In terms of concerns, you're always nervous when you have timelines to meet but people to be 1,000% satisfied. There was a certain amount of rewriting necessary, but it was a great experience, a great creative time.
It sounds like you had a lot of creative freedom, but I also know from talking with musicians that getting used to writing songs that are 2 minutes long -- not 2 minutes and 10 seconds, not 1 minute 50 seconds, but exactly 2 minutes long -- can take a little getting used to.
RG: We are used to writing to a certain time length and those constraints. But those deadlines, you start sweating bullets.
WM: When you write for media [pictures], it's just part of the experience. Not really a concern.
What's next for you, either with "Quiet Is..." or other projects?
RG: I don't know what's next with "Quiet Is...". There's a possibility of another project with Disney, but that's still in the works. Beyond that, want to dive back into the film world. I'm always writing, always singing. And it's such a joy to work with William -- it was mostly effortless.
WVM: Echoing Rick... I would love to see "Quiet Is..." get some buzz, but it's fairly early in the process. I'd like to write more with Rick, not just kids music but also other music. I also write choral music, so I'm always looking to do more with that.
Photos courtesy Disney Junior