August 23, 2013

Birthday surprise makes Disneyland visit special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Entertainment, Travel at 12:30 am by dinaheng

You can celebrate all kinds of special occasions at Disneyland. People go to commemorate wedding anniversaries, first job, first baby, you name it, and the folks at the park will do their best to help you celebrate.

When my dear friends Lesley and Shane decided to come to Los Angeles for a visit, the dates turned out to be the week of Lesley’s birthday, so Shane and I conspired to create a Disney experience fit for… well, a grown-up princess. Dinah Eng

This is a couple, after all, who spent their honeymoon at Disneyland, and over the years, have tried to bring their two children, Mikhaila, 12, and Ben, 8, to the park as often as possible. We told Lesley that we’d be going to Disneyland for the day and staying overnight in the area, but didn’t tell her that the folks at Disneyland had arranged for that stay to be at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

When we drove up to the entrance of the elegant hotel, designed as an homage to the Arts and Crafts era, Lesley was shocked. As Shane parked the car, we checked into the stunning hotel that has its own entrance to Disney California Adventure Park, the sister park to Disneyland, and Downtown Disney. Walking into the lobby, which features a massive fireplace, natural cherry wood floors with ebony and mahogany accents, and wood columns and walls of African mahogany veneer, is like walking into a grand lodge from another age.

As soon as we told the clerk we were celebrating Lesley’s birthday, he made her a personalized birthday button to wear, “so that everyone here will know to wish you a happy birthday.” Talk about being made to feel special…

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby.  Photo courtesy of Disney.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The kids, of course, couldn’t wait to get into Disneyland. A few hours later, after going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Lesley and I sat in New Orleans Square as Shane took the kids to climb Tarzan’s Treehouse.

“We got married in October 1993, and we were working two jobs,” Lesley recalled. “Shane was working at a process engineering company, and I was at a newspaper in Arizona. On the weekends, we’d clean the offices he worked at. It was a year after the wedding, when we’d saved enough to go on vacation, that we decided to take a delayed honeymoon. We both wanted to go to Disneyland. You come here, and everybody’s smiling. All you have to do is have fun, and eat good things.”

As the years went by, Disneyland became a vacation destination with the children whenever possible. The two use Disney-branded credit cards to take advantage of the loyalty rewards, even when, as Shane jokingly told a customer service rep on the phone, “It’s humiliating to have Tinkerbell on my card.” The rep immediately asked, “So do you want Woody and Buzz?”

That evening, we had dinner at Cafe Orléans, which offers everything from a Monte Cristo Sandwich to a Seafood Herb Crepe in a casual setting.  Dinner entreés range from $15.49 to $19.49 for adults, with a kids’ menu under $9. After a satisfying meal, Lesley was surprised with a birthday cake, topped with a piece of white chocolate, embossed with Mickey Mouse (prices start at $52), and the kids each received a mini-birthday cake ($15), which came in a Disney Princess Jewelry Box and a Disney Pirate Treasure Chest.

“When you make a reservation at any of our table service restaurants, you can order a cake, as well as through hotel room service,” explained Karlos Siqueiros, food and beverage concept development manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. “If you celebrate at Ariel’s Grotto, you may be surrounded by princesses, and there’s a mix of characters who’ll celebrate with you at Goofy’s Kitchen.”

Siqueiros, whose department is responsible for designing all the food novelty items in the park (think Dumbo or R2D2 as a popcorn bucket), says Disneyland has fulfilled many different birthday requests over the years.

There was the 84-year-old woman who got a meet-and-greet with Cinderella, her favorite princess, or the little boys who want to meet Buzz Lightyear. One year, a child got to ride in a fire truck down Main Street with Mickey, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Birthdays here are about being a kid, no matter your age,” says Siqueiros, who celebrates with his wife and kids at the park every year. “When I turned 50, the goal was to do 50 things in one day, and we did it. Birthdays are a way to celebrate people, to say to them, ‘The best thing that happened today was that you were born.’ ”

Lesley's birthday dinner at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans.

Lesley’s birthday dinner at Disneyland’s Cafe Orleans.

While a day at the park may mean tired, achy feet from standing in lines and running from one ride or live show to the next attraction, Shane says it’s all worth it to share moments of joy and wonder with the family.

“It’s a part of our family history to come to Disneyland,” he says. “It’s having a whole day of adventure with the kids. When they’re really young, it’s about chasing down the autographs with all the characters. Then it was how many times we could go on a ride. There was a Pixar Parade where the floats would shoot Nerf balls, and we collected them. Our rule was that we’d have to give away half of what we picked up to other kids who didn’t get one.”

And then, there’s the Matterhorn, a roller coaster ride not for the faint of heart.

The day after Thanksgiving 2008, an errant golf ball hit Mikhaila on the side of her head above the temple. A doctor in an urgent care center said the little girl’s eyes were dilating, so nothing was wrong. But Lesley’s intuition said otherwise, so they took her to a hospital emergency room.

“The doctor there said Mikhaila was fine, and he would not recommend that insurance cover a brain scan,” Lesley says. “I said I don’t care, we’ll pay for it. So they took a scan, and the doctor came to us to apologize, and said at that point, her condition was probably fatal. Her head was full of blood. By then, we’d whittled away three hours, and she was dying the whole time.”

An emergency helicopter took the little girl away to a trauma center, with the parents racing by car to follow. Mikhaila was diagnosed with an epidural hematoma (the same condition that killed actress Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident in 2009).

“Fortunately, one of the best neurosurgeons in the West was on call, and that probably saved her life,” Lesley says. “They cut the top of her skull off, got the blood out, and secured her head with metal. A year later, they took most of the metal out. Everything was too much for her at first — having a shaved head, sensitivity to noise, dizziness and nausea from fast motions — but she was determined to lick it. Now, the headaches have ebbed, and we just watch her carefully.”

As Mikhaila recovered, her parents decided a trip to Disneyland would lift her spirits.

“After her injury, she asked to get back on the Matterhorn, which was a big healing moment,” Shane says. “We wanted her to know she’s still the same little girl, and would  go on to have adventures in her life. It was a big confidence thing for her to ride the Matterhorn again, and we did it six times in a row.”

After dinner, we headed back to the Grand Californian Hotel to freshen up before catching the “World of Color” nighttime water and light show in California Adventure Park. Walking into the room, the kids were delighted to find chocolates on the bed, and a “Giant Sequoia” seed germination kit. Not only that, there was a huge Disney birthday gift basket for Lesley.

The kids, who wanted to stay up, talked Shane into doing another hour of rides before the park closed. So the three of them took off, while Lesley and I relaxed at the hotel. Before long, Lesley’s phone rang. Shane told her to go out on their room balcony, and watch the track below. It was pitch dark, and as the monorail rushed by below, we could see hands waving out of an open window and heard yells of “Hi, Mom!” below.

When everyone re-grouped, it was nearly midnight. One of the nice things about being a Disney hotel guest is you can get into the parks for select attractions an hour earlier than the general public. So Lesley and Shane agreed to get up early, if the kids would go to bed — immediately.

At 7 a.m., Mikhaila dragged Lesley off to Disneyland. Shane resisted Ben’s tugs to leave until about 8:15 a.m.  Me, I just slept in and met them later. The rest of the day zoomed by as we took in Disneyland’s newest show, “Mickey and the Magical Map,” rode “Star Tours” in Tomorrowland, and headed back to California Adventure Park for “Soaring Over California.”

Before leaving the Happiest Place on Earth, we had to do one last thing. We stopped at the pavement between the entrances to Disneyland and California Adventure Park to search for a brick paver that Lesley had bought as a Christmas gift for Shane in 2006, engraved with their family name.

Family's paver found at Disneyland.

Family’s paver found at Disneyland.

I volunteered to take a photo of the family with their brick, and they promptly laid down on the ground, with their heads surrounding their little piece of Disneyland. Now that’s a birthday picture they’ll never forget.

For information on how to celebrate birthdays at Disneyland, check out


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