I love Disney. That is actually an understatement. Among the many hallmarks of a Disney-obsessed person, I have an Annual Pass that allows me entry to the Anaheim theme parks 50 weeks out of the year. Yet there have been many times when I haven’t been able to visit the resort but still wanted to experience a bit of Disney magic. Here are some reasons you might want a Disney day WITHOUT visiting Disneyland:
- Your child is very young or has never been before so you’re not sure they’d enjoy it
- It’s crazy hot outside and you want to be inside with air conditioning
- Only have a spare couple hours
- Hate lines and waiting
- Just can’t afford the ticket price
So what’s a Disney-loving mom to do on these occasions? Go to South Coast Plaza. Yes seriously! I am not a “mall person” and generally avoid big box stores. I prefer supporting local, eco-conscious, small businesses, and favor spending money on experiences rather than material goods. However, if you’re looking for a Disney day without visiting Disneyland, this is a fun alternative. Why?
It’s plentiful. There are several parking structures to choose from (I suggest the South one which has easy access to the Carousel Court area). And it’s free.
The focal point of South Coast Plaza’s Carousel Court is the eponymous merry-go-round. It’s only $1/ride (or if you buy multi-ticket books they work out to be less than $1/ride), there is never a long line, and it feels longer than a regular fairground ride. If your child can’t ride alone, you can accompany them for free. Typically, the music the carousel plays while it spins is Disney-themed (last time, it was a jaunty version of “Cruella de Vil”). Also, each time you ride you get a coupon for discounts within the mall like 10% off at the Puzzle Zoo or Hello Kitty store. Several restaurants within short walking distance of the carousel offer “one free kid’s meal with purchase of adult entree” coupons.
The Disney Store
Located right outside the carousel, you can’t miss it. Obviously there is no ticket cost to enter the Disney Store. And yet to a young child, it feels like the magic kingdom, albeit a bit smaller. There’s a princess castle with a fun house mirror that my toddler loves to play in. In the back is small theater with a giant screen showing short Disney videos which kids can select themselves using a smart pad. There’s a child-size table with crayons and coloring pages featuring, who else, Disney characters. Plus once a week throughout the year (every day during the summer) the store hosts free events for children like storytime and a sing-a-long. These tend to include little giveaways like a foam pirate sword and Mickey Mouse flashlight keychain. Of course it may be difficult to leave the store without buying something, but that happens in the Parks as well.
INSIDER TIP: Be the first one at the store in the morning, and you could be asked to participate in the opening ceremony which involves turning a giant golden key in a magical lock. You even receive a special keepsake as a thank you!
The Family Restroom
Any parent knows that the most important feature of any destination is the bathroom! Is it nearby? Is it clean? Is there a changing station in the Mens room? Check, check, and check. In fact, the Family Restroom at South Coast Plaza is even nicer than the Baby Center at Disneyland (Gasp! Yes I said it). Just off Carousel Court, this unisex facility has private nursing rooms, child-size toilets, impeccably maintained changing tables, even bottle warmers. Plus there’s a comfy living room area where others in your party can lounge while you take care of business. Nearly every time I’ve been there the greeter at the door has been Rita, a cheerful lady who enjoys giving tips about other family-friendly events the mall. She is at least 50% of the reason I enjoy going there, and has all the charm of a Disney cast member.
As mentioned above, you may receive a discount coupon from riding the carousel for a restaurant inside the mall (there are several close options). Our favorite is Boudin Bakery, but there are plentiful child-friendly quick service options nearby that rarely have a long wait. If you want to get your child a special sweet treat, pop into See’s Candies for a free chocolate sample!
Other Disney Touches
You may have noticed the giant bunch of balloons in the photo at the top of this post. Those are typically Disney-themed and the designs rotate throughout the year depending on the season. On a recent visit we bought my toddler an iconic Mickey ears balloon. It wasn’t cheap, just like at the parks, but lasted for almost a month. You read that right: almost a month! Well worth the investment.
For a small child who tires easily (or makes you tired easily), a couple rides on the carousel, a lap through the Disney Store, and a quick meal can be done in just a couple hours. And when you’ve got visitors in town who don’t have the time, stamina, or budget to devote to a full day at the resort but would still appreciate a little pixie dust, this is a great way to show them a Disney day without visiting Disneyland. Plus, if you feel inspired to visit a Disney park later, the South Coast Plaza Concierge desk sells Disney park tickets!