It’s still the happiest place on Earth
I AM kicking myself I didn't line up a second time for the Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure Park. I've never been one for motorsports, but that was before I zipped around the track like Lightning McQueen, feeling the wind in my hair as I shot through the desert landscape, weaving through rock formations.
I may even have yodelled a "yee-haa!" asI passed the winner's post. What fun.
It's nice to know age does not diminish our capacity for childlike joy, something that Walt Disney, the maestro of fun, inherently knew, and a discovery I made on a recent family trip to his masterpiece, Disneyland Park, and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park.
Radiator Springs Racers is the premier attraction at Cars Land, a Route 66-style street modelled on the charming little townfrom the Cars films.
Its series of buildings, mid-century modern in style, includes restaurants (Flo's V8 Cafe does a mean fried chicken and mashedpotatoes), automotive-themed rides and more Cars merchandise than you can poke a dipstick at. It was our favourite "land" out of both parks - which is a big call - and my children are still talking about Cars Land. So am I, if I'm honest.
Radiator Springs Racers puts you in a six-person car and you race another car through turns and hills in Ornament Valley, the Grand Canyon-like landscape from the movies. The winning car is randomly selected, so you have nothing to do with the outcome, nor are there any steering wheels in the cars, but it's a thrilling ride nevertheless.
As a result, waiting times for the ride can stretch to 90 minutes or more in peak season. Our March-April visit coincides with America's spring break, and it doesn't get more peak than that.
The weather is glorious - crisp by day, chilly by night - but crowds are thick and queues long, even for a takeaway grande at Starbucks Coffee (which is not a patch on Brisbane's Fonzie Abbott).
Fortunately, we are staying at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, an on-site Disney Resort hotel that allows guests access to both parks for a "magic hour" before the official opening each morning.
If you are organised, you can easily fit in two rides in that hour, before the hordes descend, and it's wise to target the most popular ones that might prove a pipe dream later in the day - such as Radiator Springs Racers.
Being organised at Disney is rule No.1. By night, we map out our plan for the next day and each morning (noon and night) we stop by The Veranda - a concierge lounge for guests staying in the Grand Californian's Club Level rooms, which offers complimentary coffee, croissants, fruit, the works really.
The buffet is constantly replenished, with lunch and dinner options too, and guests are encouraged to pack drinks and snacks to take into the parks, which saves time and money.
During our three-day stay, we spend the first two days at Disneyland, and the final day at California Adventure Park. You could probably stay a month and not see everything, so it's a matter of zeroing in on your must-do attractions.
At Disneyland, we get delightfully soaked on Splash Mountain; see the sights on the Disneyland Railroad; jump in fright at piranhas on the Jungle Cruise; hit our fair share of bullseyes on the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride; get airborne with Dumbo the Flying Elephant; and spin around in the iconic tea cups at the Mad Tea Party.
At Tomorrowland, we squeal for the duration of the Space Mountain indoor rollercoaster, and score a photo opp with Chewbacca, a bittersweet experience for my Star Wars-mad son, given our visit is shy of the May 31 opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. This all-new "land" has opened with Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run, in which guests fly the famous ship on a mission, with more rides to follow.
At California Adventure, we alight for The Little Mermaid - Ariel's Undersea Adventure, a super-cute ride with all the music and characters from the movie; and take our seats at Frozen - Live at the Hyperion, a 30-minute musical based on the film. Top tip: the shows at Disneyland are top-notch entertainment, but also get you offyour feet for a spell. Amen to that.
The FastPass+ system - a free service that operates in both Disney parks and allows you to check-in for rides and return atan allocated time to avoid queues - is a big time saver, as is hitting your favourite rides during the lunch or dinner hours when queues are shorter.
We walk and we walk - a record of 19,000 steps on day two - but any fat-burning is reversed by croissants from The Veranda, plus hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy and ice cream.
We never do get around to sampling the giant smoked turkey legs (that look like ham hocks) we see visitors alternately carving up for their offspring or gnawing off the bone.
Next time, maybe.
By late afternoon each day we are ready for a lie down, made easier by virtue of the Grand Californian's proximity to the park. Crackling logs in the huge stone fireplace are a welcome sight in the hotel foyer, and we sit in rocking chairs, letting the warmth seep into our bones.
Cosy and welcoming, the hotel is designed in the Arts and Crafts style - lots of elegant, heavy wood and stonework - and features several restaurants, including the Hearthstone Lounge, where we devour fish tacos and shrimp cocktails, and Storytellers Cafe - a must if you want to meet Mickey, Minnie and all the gang.
Queues for photo opportunities with characters in the park thoroughfares can be long.
So, booking in for the characters breakfastbuffet at Storytellers (or restaurants in Disneyland itself) ensures your children get their cherished photos and all-important hug from cartoon heroes who do the rounds, visiting each table in turn. Just make sure you book well in advance of your visit as seats fill quickly.
By day the parks are a vision splendid - gleaming paintwork, pristine walkways and trees laden with blooms so divine I figure they must be fake. I check; they are not. By night, the scene is equally enchanting when the structures come alive against a backdrop of light effects, fireworks and show tunes for the Fantasmic! show at Disneyland, and World of Color at California Adventure.
The latter is staged near the lake at Pixar Pier and sets huge jets of water and perfectly timed pyrotechnics to vignettes from classic Disney and Pixar movies.
My children's eyes light up at the awesome spectacle and I can't help thinking it's a fitting finale to our magical stay at Disneyland.
Well that, or another spin around Ornament Valley.
IF YOU GO
Three-day Park Hopper Ticket for Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, from $US335 (ages 3-9), $US355 (age10+). Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, Anaheim, California, from $US586 a night. disneyland.disney.go.com