One of the best parts of my life sabbatical is embracing spontaneity. When you’re working, vacations become something you consider into chunks of approved and allotted time. You plan in days before destinations.
As Christmas approached, my husband and I started thinking about doing something different. We knew we wanted to include our dog, Lucy, as she has spent a lot of time with sitters during our other wanderings.
We decided to road trip from Seattle to Anaheim and spend Christmas in Disneyland. What sealed our decision was when we discovered the on-site Disneyland Kennel Club that costs $20 per day. It is first-come, first-served and you agree to come visit your dog every few hours for food and walk breaks.
When I was growing up, I went to Disneyland once. My two boys, ages 10 and 12, are Disney connoisseurs with the personalized mouse ears to prove it. We loaded up the minivan, armed ourselves with apps, and set off for nine days through Washington, Oregon, and California in search of sunshine and hot pretzels shaped into mouse ears.
We knew a general range of where we wanted to drive each day and then booked hotels online once we got closer and could assess our fatigue and food needs. I loved the Hotels.com app where I could filter by pet-friendly and use their loyalty program (stay 10 nights get one free). We quickly learned to ask for rooms away from the elevator or parking lot to avoid the “woof” alert every time someone walked passed.
Once I narrowed down a couple hotel options, I used TripAdvisor to get more of a sense of the on-site experience, which had great reviews with tips like which place had a fenced in dog area, where there was a nearby park, and a San Francisco high rise that offers doggy treats in the lobby.
We got to Anaheim on December 23 and stayed in Hotel Menage, an offsite hotel that was walkable to the park. We bought a two-day park pass so we could visit Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Disney likes to sell Park Hopper passes that let you jump between the Magic Kingdom and California Adventure but we saved money by focusing on only one park a day.
Disneyland is celebrating its 60th anniversary so the park had that décor on top of the lush Christmas scene. The crowds were definitely less than normal, especially on Christmas Eve. I noticed the lines to enter the parks climb back up after midday on Christmas but the lines for the rides were easy to manage, especially with the Fast Passes.
The most challenging part was getting reservations at any of the sit-down locations in the park. They were booked up weeks in advance, so we snatched up 2 p.m. lunch slots each day. We knew going in that we were trading the full Christmas dinner experience for roller coasters and Star Wars madness so we greeted Christmas morning snuggled into a Starbucks booth nibbling on gingerbread cookies.
The decorations were grand in pure Disney style. Highlights for us were the Haunted Mansion, which turned into the Nightmare Before Christmas inside and out. And It’s a Small World had Christmas-themed celebrations from around the world. My Jewish husband lamented that there wasn’t a nod to Hanukkah since the ride was a global Christmas collection. It was the outside of the ride, however, that was most breathtaking. At night, the Small World was lit with thousands of colored lights everywhere and made for a stunning sight.
We also collected a wristband one morning to pick up one of their traditional handmade candy canes. This extra-large treat cost $13 but, I have to say, it was the most delicious one I’ve ever had. And the kids happily munched on it all the way back home.
While on the road, our goal was to try to eat locally wherever possible. To explain this rationale to our McDonald’s-begging 10-year-old, we had him count every golden arches he saw on the trip. He started south of San Francisco and we reached 50 by the time we rolled back into our Seattle suburb.
More than 2,400 miles, three states, two kids, and a dog made for a lots of stops at windy rest areas, creative shortcuts around Los Angeles traffic, and good karma as we barely made it over a snowy pass in southern Oregon without needing tire chains.
The best Christmas present for me, as a recovering workaholic, is that I was so much more present to enjoy the days as they unfolded around loose plans. I didn’t have to be back on a certain day and I wasn’t needed anywhere other than exactly where I was. Five souls in a minivan became my happiest place on Earth.