Santa may be the first name of our hometown, but with its balmy weather, Santa Monica is not exactly the winter wonderland of childhood memory. Coming from the East Coast, I’ve always had a hard time getting into the holiday spirit here. It’s tough to sip hot cocoa and have dreams of sugar plum fairies when there is no snowfall to watch and no scent of pine in the air.

But then I remembered a man named Walt Disney and I realized the best place to go to embrace the holidays in SoCal might just be the place where dreams always come true, the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland.

So off we went to check out the special holiday features at the park. And much to our surprise so did a whole lot of others. On a Wednesday before Thanksgiving the place was packed at 10:15 in the morning. 

Our first stop was the “It’s a Small World” ride, which was lit up like an enormous gingerbread house. After some line-waiting angst, the ride was a huge hit with Zora and Dash. And yes, after hearing “Jingle Bells” over and over on a rolling track, it will get stuck in your head just as much as the original tune. The dolls dressed up and danced about for Christmas, permanently stuck in charming 1950s stereotypes of flying carpets and poinsettia leis. The Egyptian, Thai and Zimbabwean dolls really seem to relish those Christmas carols.  For days afterwards, Zora repeatedly demanded, “Go to Disneyland. See dolls.” 

Unfortunately, the ride was a bit much for the littlest in our group. Addison was more than a bit put off by the dark tunnel and loud noises. And it just got worse from there. Zora also started to get creeped out by the supposedly kid-friendly Fantasyland and Toontown rides. Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and even Pinocchio’s Daring Journey elicited cries of dismay, namely a hopeful then increasingly demanding “Bye bye.” Zora pronounced, “I scared.  Addison scared.”

We found that the best places for the toddlers avoided excessive lines and dark, noisy rides. Addison could have spent the entire day at Goofy’s Playhouse, which is basically a park on Disney steroids.  Zora and Addison loved touring Mickey’s and Minnie’s houses (though getting up close for a photo with a giant sized mouse wasn’t exactly their thing). Cute features like a cake baking in Minnie’s oven and Steamboat Willie playing on Mickey’s television delighted both kids and adults. The houses epitomized the appeal of Disney. They create a world you can almost believe exists, where Mickey just stepped out for a minute and will be right back to turn off the TV — and then market the heck out of it. 

The kids’ favorite attraction was definitely the Tiki Room.  Addison actually turned to Dash and me for a fist pump; this is my daughter showing approval (thanks Uncle P). The singing birds and flowers delighted Addison. When Dash’s beloved tikis took the stage, and the totem pole next to her suddenly started chanting, well that broke the spell. I think she also would have enjoyed the carousel if all her pointing was any indication, but it was time to continue on our quest for Christmas.

Next, we visited Santa’s Reindeer Roundup at Big Thunder Ranch.  Squished in a corner we found Santa’s house and a mediocre craft project, but the majority of space was taken up with a giant barbeque restaurant. A few lazy reindeer slept in a pen, which was a bit underwhelming. It is a testament to Disney Magic, however, that their stable was completely smell-free.

We passed on the Holiday Haunted Mansion, which was too scary for the kids. Jack and his Halloween pals from the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas” decorate the mansion starting in October. I have to say that it’s not my favorite movie, but based on the amount of merchandising and the length of the line at the ride, that’s not an opinion held by all.

Several activities happened after dark and long after we usually throw in the towel. The Christmas Fantasy Parade started at 5:30 p.m. People began lining up along the parade route an hour ahead of time so we ended up having to hold the kids on our shoulders to see over the crowd. The parade was a spectacle of Disney proportion, which Dash thoroughly enjoyed. He was so excited each time one of his favorite characters made an appearance. We were especially gratified when he piped up about his adventures in gingerbread house design when the gingerbread cookies danced by. “We made that!” he yelled as Goofy’s gingerbread house floated by (see last week’s article). Most of the parade was lost on A-Z, who ran around, under ropes, up and down stairs and along railings throughout the entire pageant.

Sleeping Beauty’s winter castle was beautifully illuminated and covered in snow and icicles, but the kids couldn’t appreciate it due to the fact they were beyond their melting point. 

There was no way we were going to make it until 8 p.m. for the “Believe in Magic” fireworks show. The adults were disappointed because real snow magically falls during the presentation. We really wanted to see snow.

As we headed to the exit, Main Street felt particularly festive with mouse ear wreaths and barbershop quartet carolers. The stores offered tons of adorable theme merchandise I felt oddly compelled to purchase, although I would never actually make mouse ear ice cubes or put out the Goofy salt shakers at dinner. Fortunately, we were too tired for holiday shopping, and I was able to ignore the siren song of Mad Hatter tea and $20 ornaments.

At the end of the day we opted out of turning our day pass into a yearly one, but when we got our e-mail from Buzz Lightyear the next day with funny photos from aboard the Astro Blasters ride, I wondered if we’d made the right choice. As exhausting as the day was, the reason you keep going back is that everything pales in comparison to the magic and pageantry of Disney.

Find a local calendar of children’s events and helpful links at, or leave a suggestion for places to visit.

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