I’m in Disneyland and my three-year-old daughter is screaming like a banshee. Neon mermaids, dancing fairies and princesses in glowing towers parade past to stadium-decibel dance music. Every cartoon character she’s ever loved is waving at her – illuminated with enough sparkle and glitz to knock out a city. They call it the Parade of Lights but it’s more like a pre-schoolers’ rave. “Isn’t this wonderful?” my wife turns to me with unabashed “I love you” eyes. “Yes” I manage to wince, but she senses the deceit and the look is immediately extinguished.
You see, I’m a Disney cynic. There’s something about the combination of a cappella singing and fake mouse ears that brings out the Scrooge in me. Where’s the magic in a kingdom filled with fast food and expensive merchandise?
But however cynical I am, my children – Cameron, six, and Elise, three – passionately agree with their mother. Which is exactly how I arrived here in the first place. At least it is a good time to visit. This month marks the 60th anniversary of Disneyland California – and a blitzkrieg of over-the-top new firework shows, parades and celebrations is in store all summer. This is the original Disney theme park, the only one designed by Walt himself. Located south-east of Los Angeles in Anaheim and filling a modest quarter of a square mile, it’s an entirely different beast from the sprawling 43 square mile behemoth in Orlando. Disneyland’s younger sibling is a full two theme parks, two water parks, 22 hotels, a campsite and four golf courses bigger.
Disneyland’s layout is indistinguishable from Orlando’s Magic Kingdom and it features many of the same rides, areas and attractions – and all the usual characters, of course – but there are differences: Cars Land is unique to California, for example (and a big hit with our kids), as is the old-school California Screamin’ rollercoaster, the classic Matterhorn Bobsleds, and a handful of other thrill rides. But the main separator is the vibe: Disneyland is the sentimental favourite of fans – an orange grove transformed miraculously by a dream. It’s smaller, more manageable and somehow feels less consumer-driven: the ideal Disney hater’s Disney, then.
Just his cup of tea: the rides at Disneyland (Reuters)The real difference, however, is its location – minutes from some of the best beaches and surf on the west coast. Which gave me an idea: we’d go to the park, but only if we could have a real Californian adventure too. I wanted to show my family that you don’t need to stand in line for thrills and you don’t need a mouse for magic.
Nonetheless, we start in Disneyland. There are, admittedly, lovely moments: the shows are superb, the parades genuinely spectacular and walking through Disney with a little girl dressed like a princess is like being part of Beyoncé’s entourage – I’ve never high-fived so many people before.
And then there are the inevitable fiascos. Taking my six-year-old on an ill-advised foray on the Hollywood Tower of Terror – a stupidly scary broken lift ride that he still wakes up screaming about now. Forcing him to go on another rollercoaster afterwards “to get straight back on the horse”, which he still hasn’t forgiven me for. And then, 13 hours into the day and nearly dead on our feet, being told no alcohol is served on site – “well, that’s killed the magic”, my wife, Gillian, says in a moment of rare concession.
I’ll admit that we have fun and the children love it. But next it is my turn – we are off to the beach. Huntington Beach is a small surf community, 15 miles south of LA, that epitomises what California has come to mean to tourists: cool vibes, laid-back beaches and just the right amount of wackiness. Within minutes of arriving, we’re cheering a troop of tattooed break-dancers and riding Easy Rider-style beach cruiser bicycles down the 10-mile seaside promenade. This is the best of America, I think: upbeat and up for a good time.
We stay in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a Spanish Revival-style complex facing the beach, which I select as an antidote to Disney: a kids’ club so good they actually want to go, water slides for when they don’t. Around town there are plenty of surf shops and bars, beach volleyball everywhere (the US Olympic team trains here) and – especially at Duke’s restaurant, named after the granddaddy of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku – incomparable fresh fish.
But surfing’s why you come to the self-styled Surf City USA. Huntington Beach has one of the most reliable year-round breaks in California, making it an ideal place for beginners and experienced riders. This is the spot for father and son to catch their first wave. But we need help – and it arrives in the form of chiselled, long-haired local surf hero Johnny Brewer. “I don’t mind taking photos,” Gillian says. Johnny teaches us the pop-up, how to read the waves and, against the odds, gets us both standing before the end of the lesson. “You’re like the best dad I’ve ever taught,” Johnny says afterwards, crushing my youthful, still-got-it self-image.
Santa Catalina (Danny Lehman)The following night we build a bonfire on the beach – one of the only places in the state where it’s allowed – and toast “s’mores”, the American campfire classic (roasted marshmallows and half a bar of melted Hershey’s sandwiched between sweet crackers). It’s a perfect family moment: sunset, sea breeze and chocolate-faced kids on our laps. Then everyone starts running. Unbelievably, less than 50ft from the shore, two humpback whales are frolicking in the waves. They may not have the pyrotechnics of Disney but it is just as spectacular, and twice as amazing, because it’s real.
Next up is Santa Catalina, an island protected as a conservancy, 22 miles southwest of LA, that was once the playground of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe, Now, inexplicably, not many people know about it. It’s a good thing too; there are no sprawling villas and towering hotels here – strict planning and conservation laws have halted all obtrusive development. Only 4,000 people live on the island and most families have been here for generations. It’s an idyllic set-up of colourful clapboard houses, trinkety family-run shops, children running barefoot on sandy streets and golf carts rather than cars, all surrounded by turquoise sea. It is a real contrast to the mainland.
“It’s a hard place to leave,” our guide, J-P, says as we set out on kayaks to explore the coast. I can understand why: sea lions swim beside us, dolphins leap further out in the ocean and bald eagles soar from rocky crags above. If Disney were to make a film about the island, this is surely how it would look.
As thrilling as our adventure has been, the lure of the mouse proves too much and so it is that we find ourselves back at Disneyland on our last night. Fireworks explode in the sky as classic films are projected on to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and songs fill the air. Maybe it is the balance of resort and real-world, maybe the laid-back Californian pace has finally set in, but somehow my cynicism has dissolved: I belt out ballads from Frozen, boogie to the Jungle Book and feel genuine shivers as Simba from The Lion King takes his throne.
“Thanks for getting us here, Daddy,” Elise leans down from my shoulders to tell me. At three years old, it is the first time she’s properly thanked me for anything. “Of course,” I say, overcome with emotion. “We’ll come back!” Maybe there is magic here after all.
Aaron Millar travelled as a guest of Visit California (020 7257 6180; visitcalifornia.co.uk).
Los Angeles is served from Heathrow by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and United Airlines.
Rhino Car Hire (0845 508 9845; rhinocarhire.com) offers rental cars.
Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (001 800 546 7866;huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com) has doubles from $260 (£173), room only.
Shorebreak Hotel Huntington Beach (001 800 546 7866;shorebreakhotel.com) has doubles from $169 (£113), room only.
Catalina Island Vacation Rentals (001 855 631 5280;catalinavacations.com) offers apartments and houses.
Disneyland Park, Anaheim (001 714 781 4565;disneyland.disney.go.com) has one-day tickets from $99 (£66) per adult and $93 (£62) per child under 10. Discounts are available for multi-day tickets. Park Hopper upgrade allows access to both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks and costs $40 (£27) per person.
Toes on the Nose (001 714 845 4638; toesonthenose.com) offers surf lessons, s’mores packages and more.
Catalina Island Descano Beach Ocean Sports (001 310 510 1226;kayakcatalinaisland.com) offers kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkelling and more.
Eating and drinking there
Duke’s Huntington Beach (001 714 374 6446;dukeshuntington.com).
Sandy’s Beach Grill (001 714 374 7273; sandysbeachgrill.com).
Watertable (001 714 845 4776; watertablehb.com).
Visit Huntington Beach: surfcityusa.com
Catalina Island: catalinachamber.com