I remember being flustered when I discovered that our son’s new preschool/daycare closed during the week before Labor Day. And so that week became “Family Week”–the week to which our annual vacation was inevitably pinned. For the last ten years, Family Week has been the same week every year, closing out the summer, even after both kids were out of preschool.

But this year was our last, as next year our son begins high school and we’ll have to be at home that week because of jazz ensemble auditions. I know it’s just a week and any other week will suffice, but I have to confess I’m a little teary over the demise of Family Week because it means my son is growing up and his high school experience outweighs tradition.

Last year we went to southern California. We took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA for an entirely new experience. We stayed in and explored downtown LA before renting a car and driving down to San Diego and staying there for a while. We drove right past Disneyland and didn’t blink an eye. However, we booked reservations for Disneyland the week after we got home.

Why Disneyland? For me especially, it’s a family tradition. As a child, my mother lived in a household of modest means in northern California. She was able to watch the media excitement on television, but actually going was far, far out of her reach. Until my Dad swept her off her feet and took her.

As a family of four, we went when I was three–a visit I dreamed about for the next several years. Then, as a young family, it was out of our reach until I was nine and my Mom was pregnant with my younger sister. Then again it was out of reach until my sister was three or four and my mother started working part-time, which gave us enough spare cash to go for epic vacations, so we went for a few years in a row as a family of five: my brother, the eldest by four years, me, and my sister, the youngest by ten years. We had great fun and it was a great equalizer between us siblings.

And so now I inflict the blazing heat, aggressive strollers, and long lines on my family at regular intervals. This time we made an effort to do things a little differently than usual: to take a more mellow pace and to deliberately do things we typically don’t see.

Things We Splurged On:

  • A “Club Level” room at the Disneyland Hotel.
    • You don’t stand in the regular line to check in. You go to the Guest Services desk and a host/hostess will whisk you up to the “E-Ticket Lounge” where the cast member behind the desk will check you in quickly while you have the luxury of sitting in a chair.
    • You get access to the “E-Ticket Lounge”
      •  There is a continental breakfast every morning starting at 6:30 am. Don’t get too excited: there’s no eggs or breakfast meat or waffler. It’s a minimalistic repast. But it’s enough to get you started in the morning so you don’t enter the park with a growling stomach. The coffee is decent, there’s a fridge full of soda, and free water bottles on request.
      • There is a lovely view of the fireworks. They dim the lights and pipe the music in (this can be a plus or minus, depending).
      • In the evening, they’ll serve you a glass of wine, if you’re into that.
    • You get the possibility of a room with 2 queen beds and a sofa that folds into a daybed.
      • With a 13-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, I’m not going to make them sleep in the same bed. That’s kind of weird. This means that one of the kids usually ends up sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. Pure luxury this trip: my 7-year-old enjoyed curling up on the daybed in her sleeping bag.
  • Preferred viewing for both Fantasmic and World of Color
    • Okay, you still have to arrive an hour early, but you get a lot more for that hour.
    • We splurged not only on the preferred viewing, but the *best* preferred viewing. Spending on the most expensive package really did result in the best front-line viewing.
  • Buffet meals
    • The Disney buffets are also (without exception, I believe) “Character Dining,” where costumed characters will interrupt you for small talk and photo ops roughly every ten to fifteen minutes. This may be a plus or minus. I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t a real plus for me.
    • The food is actually good not just for a buffet, but constantly refreshed and better than any of the middling options in the parks, not just the fast-food.
    • Great for picky eaters.
    • Can be quite fast if you’re a quick eater and you make reservations.
  • A half-day cabana rental at the pool
    • The kids swam over the course of four hours while my husband and I had front row seating, so we could keep an eye on them. (Which was only marginally necessarily, given the hotel’s generous life guard staffing).
    • We had reserved poolside seating in a place where it was extremely hard to come by any seating at all. On other days, we were relegated to piling our gear on the ground at the edge of the landscaping.
    • We had a nice, deep dark tent so our pale, Pacific Northwest skin could be protected from the sun at intervals.
    • We took a half-day off, had drinks delivered poolside, and had a late lunch/early dinner as we relaxed. We did this refresher at the exact mid-point of our trip, giving us a boost for the last half.
  • We boarded the cats as well as the dog. Last year, we left the cats at home with extra food and water, but I still couldn’t stop worrying about them.
  • Booking a car to drive us to and from the airport. It’s so nice not to have to drive that it outweighs the inconvenience of toting our daughter’s booster seat around. (The booster can be checked for free.)

Things I Regret

Not much, actually. But there are a few things that could have been better.

  • This was out of our control, but my son’s braces developed some kind of loose bracket or poking wire (he was not articulate about the problem) and he spent most of the time looking morose because smiling hurt. I could never tell if he was having a good time or not.
  • The kids were acting extremely camera shy at a time when I was trying to gather photos of them for their grandparents.
  • Not switching from sandals to running shoes earlier in the trip.
  • Booking Goofy’s Kitchen once for dinner at the beginning of the trip and again for breakfast on the last day. They serve almost the same food at each meal and the characters and character entertainment are exactly the same. I should have booked Storyteller’s for our last breakfast. Their buffet is perfectly good and we would have had different characters and different character entertainment. Plus, Storyteller’s is a little easier on the eyes, which I needed after a week.
  • Not having earplugs for shows and parades. Seriously, I think my hearing will never be the same. Along with good seats comes LOUD NOISE.
  • I missed going on Small World, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and only did Splash Mountain once and didn’t get wet at all. :( My seven-year-old was mostly interested in the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain for the most part and my thirteen-year-old, while generally easy going and willing to humor me, would not humor me that far.

Hyper-Optimizations I Enjoy

I confess, I like planning. Considering we booked a year in advance, I had a lot of time to “hyper-optimize.” Here are a few of my favorite things:

  • My spreadsheet. I have a spreadsheet that I duplicate from the last trip to the next. I then run through it and tweak it for the next trip. It has tabs for a wide variety of things, from the toiletries checklist to the list of tasks to do the weekend before we leave.
  • Making reservations as soon as possible. At the time we made this trip, one could make dining reservations sixty days in advance and cabana rentals ten days in advance. I didn’t call on the very first day possible and paid the price: I had a very limited selection of times, especially for the Fantasmic and World of Color packages.
  • Duplicating and packing toiletries roughly a month ahead of time. Duplicating toiletries allows you to pack them early and not at the last minute. No forgotten deodorant at 4 o’clock in the morning. When we come back, the toiletries just become the next in line to be used when the originals run out.
  • Disposable toothbrushes. I buy the cheapest pack of toothbrushes I can find and then, the morning we leave, have everyone brush their teeth and then dump them in the garbage. I don’t take them home. I started this habit after finding out that after you put wet toothbrushes together in a ziploc bag, you don’t really want to use them again.

Unlike last year, we’re now adrift, uncertain of what we will do for next year or even when we’ll do it. The kids are at such different stages that it’s hard to come up with something everyone will get something out of. We’d thought about doing the Smithsonian museums, but our daughter would never stand still long enough for us to enjoy anything. Our sister-in-law assures us New York is fabulous, but it intimidates me. I want to do a “small cruise,” but again that seems like an “empty nester” sort of thing, as does anything out-of-country. And so we meet soon to discuss what everyone wants and to balance everyone’s needs–because I’ve totally got to make reservations soon.