It was a warm December day in 1955 when my family and I drove south on the Coast Highway from my grandmother's house in Long Beach, Calif., to a place I had been dreaming about. I stared to my left, eagerly waiting for the first sight of the spires of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
At age 9, I found many new experiences exciting. But this one, my first visit to Disneyland, I knew deep down was going to give me hope and comfort for the rest of my life.
We passed a long grove of tall trees. "There it is!" I announced.
My life as a kid was not bad. I had musical talent as a singer and did well in school. But I was also saddled with a half-dozen or so small birth defects -- twisted limbs and spine, partial spinal blockage affecting bladder control and a poor sense of balance. So from an early age, I found Disney films to be a wonderful release. When I heard Jiminy Cricket's hopeful plea to the heavens, "When You Wish Upon a Star," I knew I had my theme song, and Disneyland became a place to escape to, where no one laughed, at least not at me, and everything turned out all right.
A half-century later, retired as a community college media services technician and in my second career running an elementary school computer room, I'll be at Disneyland for the big 50-year anniversary celebration today. This will be at least my 40th visit to the park. And I have a number of tips for less experienced visitors on how to make their time in the new and expanded post-Walt/post-Eisner park as much fun as it has always been for me.
* Best First Ride of the Day: Space Mountain in Tomorrowland. This is something of a cliche, but the traditional start is best. You avoid the long lines that soon form. Since it involves a roller-coaster ride in pitch-dark, it is very disorienting, and getting it in early reduces the chance of losing the fine afternoon meal I suggest below.
* Best Shortcut: Northwest Fantasyland route. It's difficult to move from one part of the park to another when the crowds have grown thick. Many of us veterans have our favorite back-alley escapes. My brother likes the side exit from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland that takes you through the Sleeping Beauty Castle past the Snow White fountain. But my pick is the back road from the far northwest corner of Fantasyland to Frontierland, with a convenient set of restrooms along the way.
* Best Snack: The Mickey Mouse Ice Cream bars. They're tasty and available at snack carts throughout the park. Full of sugar and butterfat, they keep your energy up. They may require you to check your face for chocolate smears, but the messier I am, the younger I feel.
* Best Midday Ride: Tom Sawyer Island. When the park is particularly crowded, you don't want to pick a ride that requires you to stand in a long line. There is usually little waiting for the rafts that take you to the island in Frontierland. You can spend a couple of hours exploring the island's caves and other attractions, getting a snack or just sitting and watching the boats go by.
* Best Midday Dining: New Orleans Square's Blue Bayou restaurant. It's next to the boarding area for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, with a cool, dark atmosphere that takes you away from the noon heat. I recommend the prime rib ($18 at lunch), jambalaya ($15) or chicken Florentine ($15). Telephone reservations are available 60 days in advance.
* Best California Adventure Surprises: "Disney Animation" or Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. California Adventure, the park adjacent to Disneyland, has taken some abuse for not meeting inflated expectations, but these are two very pleasant diversions. "Disney Animation" is an absorbing 40,000-square-foot exhibition area detailing how animators create their work, while the trail -- which has lots of things for little ones to climb or crawl through -- is a great place for children to burn off some energy.
* Best People-Watching: Rear of Critter Country. When afternoon fatigue sets in, there is nothing more relaxing than leaning back with a cool drink and watching families flow by. At the far west end of Critter Country, under the train overpass as far as you can go, there are a few tables next to a rushing stream and a restaurant store. There is also a good spot at the Hungry Bear Restaurant at Critter Country's northeast corner, a two-level outdoor area that hugs the river. These are also good places to take a nap.
* Best Place to Watch "Fantasmic!": The veranda in front of the second-floor Disney Gallery near the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Through Disney's priority seating office, you can reserve up to 30 days in advance for a seat on the veranda, which includes a dessert buffet.
* Best Evening Dining: The Hook's Pointe restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel. It has a nice view of the Never Land Pool and great seafood. Try the grilled salmon ($19.99) or the sea bass ($21.99).
* Best Last Ride: The Disneyland Railroad. You will have already ridden it earlier in the day, if for no other reason than to remember how much the attraction's dinosaurs thrilled you as a child. But just before you leave the park, it is the perfect farewell, taking in every land with all the lights glowing, and maybe reminding you of a ride you forgot, that you must do before you finally say goodbye.
For more information on Disneyland and its 50th anniversary celebration, call 714-781-4565 (park information), 714-520-5060 (vacation packages) or 714-781-3463 (dining reservations), or go to www.disneyland.com.
Jim Mathews is a writer in San Mateo, Calif.