Like a little bit of middle America grafted onto the southern edge of Los Angeles, inland Orange County used to feel like a totally different world. Though the area’s demographics have changed considerably in the past decade or two, becoming more a part of LA’s fast-paced, edgily creative multiethnic stew, Orange County in the 1950s and 1960s was suburban America writ large—mostly white, mostly well-off, and absolutely, totally bland. In short, a perfect place to build the ultimate escapist fantasy, the self-proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disneyland (714/781-4565).

The phenomenon of Disneyland has been done to death by all sorts of social critics, but the truth is, it can be great fun—provided you visit out of season, get there early to avoid the crowds, and immerse yourself in the extroverted mindless joy of it all. (Being here in the company of appreciative 8- to 12-year-olds is probably the best way to maximize your enjoyment.)

If you haven’t been before, or not for a while at any rate, here are some useful tidbits of information: Disneyland is 30 miles south of downtown LA, right off I-5 in the city of Anaheim—you can see the Matterhorn from the freeway. The park is open daily; in summer, it remains open until midnight. Admission to the park, which includes all rides, costs $97-124 per person per day.

Disneyland opened in 1955, when there was nothing surrounding it; in intervening years, an entire metropolis has grown up around it. In 2001 the park was joined by the much smaller, more grown-up-oriented Disney California Adventure theme park. This billion-dollar park has thrill rides like California Screamin’, a 55-mph roller coaster, and the excellent Soarin’ Around the World motion simulator, offering an airborne tour of the Golden State from Yosemite Falls to the Malibu beaches. The pièce de résistance is Cars Land, based on the animated Pixar film and featuring the 40-mph Radiator Springs Racers, which simulates a race down Route 66. Disney California Adventure is separate from Disneyland, but a Park Hopper pass allows entry into both.

The whole Disney ensemble includes an upscale resort-hotel complex, surrounded by motels and yet more motels, and it is well worth staying overnight so you can get an early start, go “home” for a while, then come back for the nightly fireworks show. A highly recommended place to stay is the Sheraton Park Hotel (1855 S. Harbor Blvd., 714/750-1811, $161 and up), a block from Disneyland, offering spacious modern rooms and a nice pool, with Anaheim Resort Transit running every 20 minutes to and from Disneyland ($5 over age 9, $2 ages 3-9).

Map of Pacific Coast through Southern California.
Map of Pacific Coast through Southern California.