Is there anywhere that quite captures the innocence, childhood, and magic quite like Disneyland? At any age, it is a wonderful place to experience, whether you are a child who is completely enraptured by your favourite characters brought to life, or an adult seeking to revisit simpler, nostalgic times. Disney was such a huge part of my childhood, and they remain some of my favourite films, even now as a adult (well, sort of an adult). Disney is not without its flaws of course, but I’m willing to look past them some of the time, and simply enjoy the magic.
Hong Kong’s Disneyland park is one of the smaller compared to others in the world, and certainly much smaller than the Orlando park I’ve previously visited. It still manages to be pretty amazing nonetheless, and since I visited it during my mum and sister’s visit, being with family made it even easier to allow myself to be transported back to childhood. It’s lovely to watch the young children in the park, who wholly believe everything they are seeing, but even my sister and I (at ages 17 and 22) were acting like children for the day too.
Many of the areas and rides in the park were similar, or even direct copies of the Orlando park (most things drawn from the Magic Kingdom, but a few from the Animal Kingdom too), and nothing puts you quite in the mood for a day of Disney than strolling up Main Street USA. This immediately reminded me of how much care and precision goes into crafting these parks, as every detail is perfect, something I continued to notice all day – as you might be able to tell from all the photos I took! These are just some of them as well, there’s over 200 in total… But that’s part of the beauty of Disneyland, that there is something to see around every corner, and everything is finished to perfection. Even the bins are designed to match the theme of each are – my favourite being the one in Tomorrowland that moves around and makes noises at guests!
Tomorrowland was our first stop actually, tackling the park in a counter-clockwise direction, but many of the rides were closed as they’re being revamped into Star Wars attractions (makes since for an area that is already space themed). I was a little disappointed that we were missing out on it, and that I likely won’t be back to see the Star Wars additions, but although I love Star Wars, it’s not something I typically associate with Disney from my childhood, and therefore not at the top of my list for things to see in the park. My sister and I went on a couple of rides, our favourite being the Orbitron, and even though they were small and not huge thrills, there was something so childishly simple and fun about them, we couldn’t help but giggle our heads off the whole time.
From there, we moved on to Fantasyland, which is the pinnacle of everything you expect Disney to be. A lot of the rides are those interactive small cart rides through your favourite stories, and many seemed to be replicas of the same rides we experienced in Florida, so given that we had limited time, we skipped a few of those. My sister and I did insist on the Mad Hatter Teacups though, and spun our cup so fast that all we could see was each other’s faces against a blurred background, and we could barely walk in a straight line afterwards. But anyway, walking past Sleeping Beauty Castle, the Snow White Grotto, and the Cinderella Carousel, is like being transported to a medieval dream land, a welcome escape from reality.
One of my favourite parts of Disney parks are the live shows, so we made sure to catch Mickey and the Wondrous Book, which was just superb. It was a little odd to hear Mickey and Goofy talking in Cantonese, but there were subtitles, and other characters spoke English. It was a 30 minute highlights tour of half a dozen Disney movies and songs, including The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and a superbly executed mash-up from Ariel, Rapunzel and Merida. And while Frozen is not one of my personal favourite films, when Elsa appears near the end to sing ‘Let It Go’, I think every little girl in that room wet herself in excitement. It was such a great way to have a selection of movie moments gathered together, as some characters are less represented than others in a park this small, and just filled me with joy and wonder, like being a child again.
On our last visit to Disney in Florida, we met a few characters, but didn’t want to spend most of the day queueing to meet them, when there is so much more to see and do, and we took a similar approach on this visit. However, we got lucky and entered the Fantasy Gardens just moments before Minnie Mouse showed up, and since there were only a dozen or so people ahead of us in the queue (unlike Mickey’s line, which had started earlier and was more than twice as long), we waited. It’s so funny to see how well they stay in character, especially when likes of Minnie doesn’t talk, and I bet it can’t be cool in that costume! Even when she and Mickey took a break, she skipped off down the path to him, and they walked off arm in arm. We also went through the neighbouring Fairy Tale Forest, which hosts a collection of beautiful miniature castles and scenes from films, which pop into life at the crank of a handle – I particularly enjoyed Rapunzel hoisting Flynn up her tower with her braid. Again, the attention to detail is stunning!
From there, we returned to the front of the Castle for some posing in front of it – while trying to avoid getting in other people’s photos, or having them in ours. And by chance, our timing put us there just as the afternoon parade, Flights of Fantasy, was passing by. Mickey and his gang’s float actually stopped right in front of us during the parade’s climax, as the all the characters danced aboard their floats. We missed the first few that had passed, but saw several princesses on a swan, followed by a Jungle Book meets Lion King float, completed with trampolining monkeys, a Lilo & Stitch float that was my favourite because I adore Stitch and that is one of the few films that makes me cry, and finally a Toy Story float, which seems to be a particularly popular film here, given that it has a whole area of the park dedicated to it. And actually, one of my students told me what “Toy Story” is in Cantonese today, though I’ve forgotten already. The night parade was more my priority for watching, but it was nice to catch some of this one. There were a couple of floats that looked like they could do with a lick of paint – we also thought some of the employees uniforms were looking a bit dull and worn out – something we didn’t notice in Orlando, but it’s hardly something that takes away from the magic.
Next we toured through a couple more areas, again being selective over what rides we queued for – I knew Disneyland here was small, but I still probably overestimated how much we could get around in a day! Adventureland is the land of the jungle, and you feel like you’ve walked into Africa, especially after the areas we had just been around. It is home to the other stage show, one which we saw in Orlando, but I was most definitely not missing – The Festival of the Lion King. I saw the Lion King musical live in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, and it was just wonderful in every possible way. The film has one of the best soundtracks, and to see those characters brought to life in these amazingly crafted costumes is just another level of magical. The show condenses Simba’s story, but still keeps the important parts, and all the songs, making for some clever storytelling. And with Timon and Pumbaa there in costume too, and the addition of fire breathers and an aerial dancer, it’s certainly not a show to miss.
We headed to some more rides after that, taking in the Jungle Cruise first, which tours past Tarzan’s Treehouse. The ride isn’t all that thrilling or high-octane, which is true for many of the rides here, but instead is all about the experience, in this case a literal cruise through the jungle, with more wonderfully constructed details to take in around you, and at least a few moments to make you jump. Then it was on to Grizzly Gulch, the Western frontier land themed areas, where the one of the rollercoasters can be found (the other main one being Hyperspace Mountain, which was closed for the Star Wars revamp – though I refuse to do upside-down anyway), the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. This is my kind of rollercoaster though, fast and exciting, but without any big drops or upside down moments – I’m not good with heights at all! The track was pretty complicated to look at from outside, as it twists through mountain passes and into tunnels, so you aren’t quite sure where you’re going. There are some thrills in particular when it runs backwards, or when it suddenly picks up speed. Oh, and watch out for the bears! There isn’t much more in Grizzly Gulch, but again, you feel like you’ve wandered out of Africa and into the Wild West – I love how they have all these themed areas, so even as you walk from ride to ride, there’s something to see. Then there was Mystic Point, where we took a slow car ride through Mystic Manor – slow, but you get swung around in every direction as the objects of the house are magically brought to life around you. Again, not high-octane, but still a lot of fun and very well put together – and anything with a cheeky monkey sidekick has got to be good!
As we started to run out of time, we walked through Toy Story Land to take in the scenery again. This is a particularly well crafted area, as all the characters from the films are represented and it’s just like a huge playground version of Andy’s bedroom. A couple of the rides here are slightly scarier and more thrilling than many of the others, and I probably would have skipped them even if we had time for them! Then we had dinner in the Royal Banquet Hall, back in Fantasyland, where once more I was captivated by the details. There’s a variety of foods in this very simple restaurant, but there are statues of dancing princes and princesses, and paintings of a ball with all your favourite characters, and all the decor has fallen straight out of the Sleeping Beauty film – there are even birds flitting about to make it feel even more like a Disney film! The food isn’t anything remarkable, but the surroundings make it up for it for me.
We left mum guarding our spots on Main Street USA while my sister and I dashed off for souvenirs – I now have a fluffy little Stitch with his magnetic paws gripped around my wardrobe door – before we returned to her to watch the evening parade, Paint the Night. The Castle is where the action begins, lighting up in a rainbow of colours, as the floats and performers slowly make their way through the park to Main Street. As magical as Disneyland is, there’s something about the music and lights and colours on display that just make it even more so than you thought possible. The floats are stunning, of course, with films from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, to Cars and Monsters Inc represented (I always preferred classic Disney to the Pixar films, so I was slightly biased, but they were marvellous nevertheless). And between the floats were dancers and performers themed around each film, with so many unique, crazy, colourful costumes lighting up the night and dancing their way through the darkness. And of course, Sorcerer Mickey finished off the party as only Mickey Mouse can. While I usually list other characters as my favourites ahead of Mickey, he is simply Disney incarnate and no one else will ever come close to his iconic status, and for everything he represents, I adore him.
And it’s not a visit to Disneyland without fireworks. I love fireworks for their colours and patterns lighting up the sky, but sometimes displays can all start to look alike. Yet somehow Disneyland is able to make something truly memorable, with their Disney in the Stars display. I think the key is the incorporation of the Castle, on to which scenes from various films are projected, while the fireworks are designed to match the scene. The Castle takes you to the depths of the sea, to a Chinese palace, to a magic carpet ride, and down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. It’s a truly stunning addition to an already breathtaking display. And of course, the music sets the whole thing off. There are so many Disney songs I love, but the fireworks display culminates with ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, and there is perhaps no better song to represent why Disney is so magical.
Because it is just that. Magical. There is no better word I can think of to describe the entire experience. Yes the park is small, yes it’s a little faded round some edges, yes the rides aren’t as thrilling as ones elsewhere. But for that day, you are a child again. You get to escape whatever reality has thrown at you, and see the world with innocence and naïvety once more. In Disneyland, dreams really do come true. Magic really does exist. It may only be a temporary span of time, but what a glorious pocket of time it is. Disneyland is a place of fantasy, of dreams, of wonder, and of childhood. And don’t we all need a little of that sometimes?
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them”