Congratulations! You have made it to sunny Southern California and very soon you will be arriving in Anaheim, to make a final stop at your hotel for your final destination. You feel wonderful because all of your kids haven’t quite killed each other, although John opening the car rental door while you were in the middle of the freeway was a close call. It was bad enough that you had to be driving on the 5 freeway in California during rush hour traffic, which would be enough to make Santa Claus take Xanax, but to worry about your kids playing live Frogger on the freeway was not your idea of a good time. Nevertheless you made it.
You arrive in the grand entrance to the Grand Californian, the Disneyland, or whatever local hotel room fit your price point and location, and you were hoping that you didn’t have to count every kid that came through the door to the hotel room. You knew you would count your children anyway because you are that kind of a parent. No, your partner does not count as a child despite the goofy look on their face the minute they walked into the hotel room. Bags get unpacked, water bottles stored away in the mini freezer, outfits chosen with the proper ear attire, and you are hoping that the hotel staff doesn’t come in within the next twenty minutes because this is supposed to be a vacation and you don’t want to announce to the world what your house looks like every Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock, once the “holy terror” and the “tornado” have passed through your living room. You are not going to be guilted into feeling badly, not on this trip. It’s the Happiest Place on Earth after all.
After having to convince your kids that you did not want to go into the park on a Friday evening to compete with all of the locals who lived in Southern California coming into the park because their passes were good on Fridays (For purposes of disclosure, I have to admit that I am one of those locals.), you convince your kids to get ready for a nice evening on the town, with a nice meal, albeit on a budget. From then on, until you can exit the hotel, you know you have to play, twenty, fifty, or a billion questions. You begin to wonder who is going to tire first, the kids, or you. “No, Timmy, you may not have the 27 dollar lobster at the restaurant if you want to stay here beyond tomorrow.” “Yes Jane, there is a magical hat outside the Disneyland Hotel.” “Yes Matt, there is a Lego store in the area, but you are next to freaking Disneyland!?!? Why would you want to go there???”
So you are in Anaheim, whether at a Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian, or “Shady Shack Hotel” (where police go to get trained on the use of the UV Light), and you are trying to figure out what you are going to do next. You need to get dinner. You need your kids to blow off some steam. You need your partner to step up and actually be a co-parent for the evening. But most of all, you need to make sure that you can keep your sanity for an evening, before the craziness that is Disneyland on a Saturday begins to convince you that going on a vacation to your Grandmother Iris’ house in Phoenix was a better use of your summer. With all that weighing on your mind, what are you going to do?
Go to Downtown Disney of course! Wait! Didn’t I just spend the last four paragraphs talking about how insane Disneyland will be on a Friday night (It will be.); followed by a long treatise on you actually trying to stick to some kind of a budget(Yes I did.); concluding with me talking about going out somewhere that I don’t have to have a heart attack before the great kid chase of 2017 in the Disneyland park starting tomorrow. (Why yes. I did do that too.) So why in the world would you be crazy enough to make your way into Downtown Disney on a Friday night to go to the nightly “Running of the Tourists” down the thoroughfare? You know you won’t be gored by a bull but you don’t see how you could possibly stay on your feet through all of that madness. I know you are still staring at your computer, looking at it like some virus is coming through your computer screen and you aren’t sure whether or not it is transmittable through idiotic ideas being propagated. Fake news is one thing. You could actually weed that information out. But craziness is catching.
Well, this list here is to break through all of that noise. It is to convince you that there are some amazing things to do, even on the cheap, at Downtown Disney on a Friday night. And you won’t even have to worry about taping your ankles the next morning after the multiple sprains you could get. How could I possibly do that you ask? You do that by participating in all of the amazing hidden (or not so hidden) gems there are in Downtown Disney. Yes, it is a bunch of shops, restaurants and amusements down a long walkway. Yes, it can seem daunting to come out of there without spending any money. But if you did spend money at the shops, maybe you get your family to avoid all of the shops they have once your kids enter the park. Doubtful. But hope does spring eternal. I will get back to this later on in the list.
All kidding aside, there are some amazing things to do in Downtown Disney. It has a magic all of its own that makes it great to do on any night of the week, aside from the cost of parking in the Downtown Disney Parking lot. Besides, you will not pay for parking anyway because you are at a hotel that has bus or tram service over to the park. Right? Right??? So, sit back, relax, and enjoy my top ten list of hidden (or not so hidden) gems to be found within the Downtown Disney area. (Or just stare at the round spiraling pinwheel in the middle of the screen. Your eyes are getting heavy. You are getting sleepy. You cannot reach out to touch the nose on your face….)
10) The World of Disney Store – OK. I can hear the eyes rolling to the back of your head right this very moment. Why would you visit a “Disney Store” when you are going to be going into Disneyland the next day? I will tell you this right now. The World of Disney Store is the best, most comprehensive Disney Store that there is, bar none. I realize that you may not be able to get all of the light saber making material here, and there may be the odds and ends store that they have in the park that has something unique. But there is no place else exactly like this store. First of all, from sheer volume, you are likely to find anything that you are going to want to purchase while you are in the park, at this store, and so much more. I know they don’t tell you this when you get into the park, but there are a lot of things that you might think they sell inside the park you cannot find. Where can you find them? At the World of Disney Store. There are tons of plush animals, costumes, videos, games, music, art, cooking supplies, toys, pins, etc. And on top of that, you get to see some pretty amazing art pieces of the classic cartoons once you enter. I realize that this can seem a bit much given all you will be doing in the next couple of days. But it also comes with a lot less of the chaos you find when you go into the park. It’s shopping at your leisure and not while you feel the hot breath of little Lisa coming at you with nostrils flared because you didn’t move fast enough to get to Pixie Hollow before it was too late, and Tinker Bell is no longer there. Don’t be that parent who forever failed. Go to the World of Disney Store.
9) The ESPN Zone – If sports is your thing, there is no place quite like the ESPN Zone in the Anaheim area (aside from going to the Pond or Angel’s Stadium.) It’s like Dave and Busters on steroids, plus a climbing wall. From all of the different games that they have in the top story, to bowling, the climbing wall, sports viewed on every possible TV screen, and some fairly decent food at a fairly decent price, the ESPN Zone is the food Mecca for the sports lover at heart. On the outside of the building there are some moving statues that rotate to stare at you, or stare at Chris if he is being bad again. There is also a ticker that wraps around, giving you up to date scores and highlights, plus a few giant TV screens out front playing whatever sporting event is going on. Once you go in, it’s something like controlled chaos. Just tell your guy that if he wants to be able to have fun keeping up with his sports, that he has to keep up with his kids for the evening. Or if the woman in your life is the one who is the sports fanatic, give her a night’s reprieve and allow her to enjoy a bevy of sports options to choose from. She will be very grateful for your support, enough so that you can sneak in that selfie with Chewbacca you always wanted when you are in Disneyland the next day.
8) The Fountains – It’s not exactly the first thing on the agenda, but they have some amazing fountains all throughout the Downtown Disney and Disneyland Hotel areas. From fountains that shoot high into the sky, to a series of waterfalls, to water running down a series of steps, Disney has created a pretty amazing bevy of waterworks for your walk through all of the shops. I realize that Johnny and Timmy are going to be bugging you the whole time for pennies to be able to throw in all of the fountains. But where else are you going to be able to spend 10 cents on your child, and see them get some amazing satisfaction as a result? My daughter is 10 now, and she will heartily admit that this is probably just another Disney money making scheme. But so what? She doesn’t care. She still wants to throw pennies into the fountain. All I can say is, money well spent.
7) Sprinkles Cupcakes – Relatively new to the Downtown Disney district, but definitely famous, Sprinkles cupcakes offers a plethora of yummy sweets to tempt the tummy and lighten the mood. I don’t think I ever go there without a long line coming out the door to pick up just one cupcake. I know they don’t exactly look like some amazing pastry from the outside, but sink your teeth into one of those cupcakes and your mouth begins to sing. (Mine sings Where the Streets Have No Name by U2. What amazing song will yours sing?) And the great thing about Sprinkles, is the tremendous selection of cupcakes that they have. From various tempting flavors to vegan, gluten free and sugar free varieties, anyone can go in there and find some sweets to tickle the taste buds. Even my daughter, who is by no means a cupcake fan, found an amazing cupcake to enjoy there. And if you do choose to go with the completely unhealthy variety, it’s a relatively cheap dessert, and the calorie damage is limited. One of my friends called it the crack cocaine of cupcakes. (How comparing food to a highly addictive drug is a good thing, I’ll never know.)
6) Trader Sams – I know what you are thinking now. Isn’t that the head shrinking salesman at the end of the Jungle Boat Cruise? I thought his business was shrinking and everything was very cut throat. But he would do whatever it takes to get ahead, so I guess he opened up an Enchanted Tiki Bar inside the Disneyland Hotel Courtyard. I know that unless you are staying in the hotel that this is slightly off the beaten path in Downtown Disney, and it may not be the best of places to go with kids. But once you go in, you will have an amazing selection of appetizers and drinks to choose from, aside from the incredible ambiance. And then they can put on quite a show for you while serving you all of your beverages. If it has been a really rough trip and your partner is getting on your last nerve, make sure they get a seat at the end of the bar. They might think that they have gone low enough, but you make sure that they know they can always go a little lower. Seriously worth a look, even if alcohol isn’t your beverage of choice.
5) The Lego Store – OK! First I insist that you go to a Disney store outside of Disneyland, and now I think that you should go to a Lego store inside Downtown Disney?!?! I must have really lost my mind. I suppose that it is always possible, but you will regret not at least taking a look at the Lego store when you are in Downtown Disney. It may be across from the Monorail entrance to Disneyland, but it’s also Lego building magic. Aside from the opportunity that kids have to build Lego cars and race them, and aside from the large Lego tables waiting inside the building, it’s Lego art heaven. What do I mean? You just need to take a look at the Beauty and the Beast outside to get a tale as old as time. Or, if you are a guy and Belle isn’t your thing, take a look at Prince Phillip fighting off the incredible Maleficent dragon on the top of the building. But mom! Sleeping Beauty is a “girls” movie!!! If your kids aren’t into that, have them take pictures with the life sized Lego Incredible Hulk just inside the building. I have to say that this store is the only place outside of Legoland itself that has so many amazing Lego works of art. It’s definitely a must see.
4) The Lobby and courtyard of the Grand Californian Hotel – Just past where the old Disney 365 and where the current Anna and Elsa Botique resides is a gateway to a little extra Disney magic. Walk down the path and find yourself in a whole other world. Yes there may be monorails overhead but with all of the pine trees and other shrubs , plus however they limit the sound in there, you can find yourself surrounded by a little touch of silent beauty. I suppose that if you are dragging your children into this spot they might not find it the most exciting thing. But at least you can appreciate the beauty for a few minutes before entering into the hotel itself and out to the main lobby. Once inside the main lobby, your jaws with drop with the view inside. From all the the wood craftsmanship to the incredible stone fireplace, Disney once again takes us into a whole new world of wonder. If you get the chance to just stop in and can appreciate a little bit of beauty before having your kids dragging you off to the next main attraction, make sure to take this little excursion away from the hustle and bustle of Disneyland itself.
3) Disney Character Buffets – Disney’s PCH Grill is an eating spot that does brunch outside the main park. While not quite as amazing as Goofy’s Kitchen when it comes to Buffet food, for adults who want to be able to sit down and let their kids burn off some steam, this is the place to be. I will say that the food is not quite on par with Goofy’s Kitchen in this area, but just the sheer amount of activities they had to keep the kids busy definitely made up for it. From dances with the characters to trying to do the hoola hoop to doing the limbo, Disney’s PCH Grill is fun food with a beach vibe. And there are more than the regular cast of characters than they have at Goofy’s Kitchen. Stitch is a regular mainstay there, which I suppose is obvious given the whole theme. I just think that if you are going to do character Buffet outside the park, and you really need your kids to blow off some steam in the process, this is the absolute best place to be. If you are a food person like me, Goofy’s Kitchen is a better option. Their food selection just seems to be that much better. And when your kids are a little bit older, you might not have to worry about them and banging off the walls so much. They still have all of the main characters there and you get to take pictures with Chef Goofy out front before you enter into the dining area. You may be worried about their energy; but, given all of the delicious food that they serve, there will be a good amount of food coma going on afterwards. You may not even have to deal with the “big tornado” after they have eaten there. Just force them to walk a little bit afterwards and then back to the hotel. After being fully satiated, they may even sleep in to 7:00 AM.
2) Rainforest Cafe – I know that they have closed many of these places locally due to the economy, but there are still plenty of them out in the world. Why should going to the one in Downtown Disney be any different? I suppose in some ways, it is not. The inside of Rainforest Cafe may be much the same as any other of their restaurants out there. My daughter still loves it. They have all the same rain storms, the same shop, and the same huge fish tank on the inside of the building. All of those are amazing, and if you don’t have a Rainforest Cafe near you, then the inside of the building and the amazing food is worth it by itself. But here in Downtown Disney, it is always one thing better. The building itself is like a Tribute to a Mayan Temple. Plus they have a live bird show out in front of the Cafe to learn about the Rainforest and many of the birds that inhabit the area. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor dining opportunities. If its not too hot outside or rainy, I recommend at least going out and eating on the terrace just once. The view is incredible as is the food. Plus there is live music out there. If you are a Disney Passholder, just make sure that you go there before 4:00 PM, as they cut off your ability to get the discount after that. And during busy times, don’t forget to make a reservation. One time it took the party I was with 3 hours to be seated.
1) Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen – If I were to tell you that you were to go into a restaurant with amazing Cajun style food, great jazz, incredible atmosphere, and even the restrooms themselves would be magical, you would think that I would have drunk the Disney Kool Aid one too many times. But when you enter a restroom and it reminds you of the Peter Pan ride in Disneyland when you are out among the night sky of London, you have to give them credit. Aside from these restrooms, the food is without peer in the whole of the Downtown Disney District. If I told you that my ex hated all things seafood and even found the food here to be amazing, that you should be enough. Another time I went in there and I ordered this amazing filet, while a friend of mine got some giant Cajun shrimp. While my fish was amazing, his was even better. He took one bite and he said I HAD to try his food. Here was my quiet, reserved friend demanding that I take a taste. I was a little taken aback but I tried it anyway. I cannot even describe to this day how amazing it tasted. I have had great seafood, but this was the best, by far. In addition to the great food, they have incredible ambiance and great music. It has umbrellas with lights hanging from the ceiling, a musical instrument fountain in the courtyard, and the most incredible jeweled piano in the main room. And they always have great jazz musicians in the evenings. If you can go somewhere, give your kids a taste of culture, and have the most incredible Cajun food in Southern California, you have to try it.
Honorable Mentions : Live music, magicians, clowns, Wonderground Gallery, Marceline’s Confectionary, Uva Bar and Cafe, Steakhouse 55, Earl of Sandwich, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Ridemakerz
I know that there are so many incredible little delights to see throughout the park. There is just no place like Downtown Disney in the area to be able to experience so much. LA Live and Universal City Walk are great places as well, but if you are coming to Disneyland and are staying in the area, this is by far the best place in Orange County that combines magic with a touch of beauty. I would love to hear about all of your little hidden gems that you have found, or other one’s that you love when you come out to Downtown Disney in Southern California. I would also love to hear about hidden jewels where you are.
This is me, signing off again.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life