Disneyland 101: A family guide to enjoying the magic kingdom

When Walt Disney created Disneyland, he wanted a theme park that would transport people to a place he referred to as "the happiest place on earth."

His wish came true. It stands true today, as it did in July 1955 when it opened in Southern California.

When we got an invite to go to Hong Kong Disneyland, Disney's fifth theme park and second in Asia, I jumped at the opportunity to be whisked away from reality, even if only for a few days.

Apart from the craziness of late-night bazaars, numerous parties and lots of traffic were beginning to get the better of me.

So off we went to visit Disneyland on Lantau Island and, surprise, no shopping expeditions to Tsim Tsa Tsui on the itinerary.

The challenge to visiting a place like Hong Kong Disneyland is how to maximise your time and enjoyment. Despite its small area compared to the other Disney parks around the world, you will be hard-pressed to see everything.

I've been to four of the five theme parks abroad, including Hong Kong; so you would think I would be a veteran in all things Disney. Before I left, I jotted down everything I could remember, Googled a map and plotted a course through the park.

But in the end, as always, the time we had was just not long enough to let us fully appreciate everything in the park. There is just too much to see and do.

Visit during special holidays

While many avoid Disneyland during holidays, I suggest the opposite. Yes, there will be a lot of people (when is there never a lot of people), but Disney is known for its extravagant themes to bring out the kid in all of us. Chinese New Year, Halloween and Christmas are some of the best times to see these.

Last holiday season, as part of its Yuletide promotion, "A Sparkling Christmas," the central areas of the park from the Main Street USA to the Cinderella Castle were transformed from a typical 20th-century Midwest town into a Christmas village complete with festive lights and ornaments. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the Chipmunks walked the street all dressed for the holiday.

In our house, the lighting of the Christmas tree is an annual event my kids gear up for. Disneyland took it to a grander scale with its "Christmas Illumination," a nightly lighting of its grand Christmas tree, which had 90,000 programmable LED lights, at the Town Square. There were Christmas carolers, fireworks and, naturally, an appearance of Disney's most loveable characters on a giant sleigh.

And as if that was not enough, the entire Main Street leading to the Christmas tree was covered with snow.

Get ahead of the pack

To maximise your experience, it is best to arrive early to beat the crowds. It will also allow you to see the official unlocking of the gates, which is something not too many people really know about.

Every day, a lucky family is chosen to be the official gatekeepers who will open the gates for the hoards of visitors waiting to get in.

Once inside, head on over to what you really want to see first; then work your way back to Main Street as the day progresses.

Maps are readily available, so take a quick look at what interests you. And by all means avoid shopping, unless that is on top of your list.

See the latest attractions

While Disney has iconic attractions, it's the new ones that keep me going back.

Last Christmas, it opened three areas that will definitely up the fun factor.

Mystic Point recreates the residence of an eccentric explorer named Lord Henry. There are two main attractions in this area, starting with the Garden of Wonders, which displays ancient sculptures and mosaics in 3D that have to be viewed from specific angles.

Then there is the Mystic Manor, home of Lord Henry and his monkey companion Albert. It is an electromagnetic carriage ride, which takes guests through a 4D experience of Lord Henry's trophy rooms brought to life when his monkey Albert releases enchanted magical dust.

For those who like the Wild West, Grizzly Gulch is a welcome addition, bringing guests to a sleepy mining town on the foothills of Grizzly Mountain.

Those who have been to Disneyland California will quickly see that it is a combination of Frontierland and Critter Country.

The main attraction here is a roller-coaster ride called the "Runaway Mine Cars." It's fast and wild and not for the faint-hearted.

Then go to the Geyser Gulch to cool down among a slew of water attractions. Be warned, expect to get wet.

While not really new, it was not there the last time I visited in 2008. Toy Story Land takes us to the world of Woody and Buzz Lightyear from the famous Disney movie of the same title. Bigger kids will identify more with this place.

My favourite is the RC Racer, an extreme 27-meter roller coaster that runs back and forth on a U-shaped track. Right next to it is the Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop, a mild simulation of a parachute drop that takes you high above Toy Story Land. Despite the height, it's not an extreme ride; many kids, assuming they pass the height restriction, will love it.

Throughout the area, statues of Toy Story's most loveable characters can be found, as well as walking versions of them ready for picture-taking.

Then there is the Golden Mickeys, a musical stage show presented in the style of an awards ceremony. Various Disney characters from several films are nominated for awards, so it's exciting to see if any of your favourite characters make the cut.

The show originated in the Disney Cruise Lines and made its first land show in Hong Kong Disneyland. There is a showing right after the grand parade, so if you are visiting for two days or more, this would be a good time to line up and watch.

Don't miss the classics

While Disneyland theme parks differ from place to place, there are a few iconic attractions with universal appeal. For me, these five attractions are something every Disney visitor must not miss, even if you are a Disney "veteran":

1. "It's a Small Small World"

2. The Grand Fireworks at Cinderella's Castle

3. The Grand Parade

4. Space Mountain

5. The Jungle Cruise

What's great about Disneyland is that for the shows, the times are posted in key areas so there is really no excuse to miss any of them. And as for the rides, they run throughout the day and are the main attractions in each of the original "themed" lands.

Stay in a Disney hotel

I recommend staying in a Disney hotel, especially if you are visiting with your kids. Disneyland Hong Kong has two hotels 10 minutes away from the park that will give you a unique Disney experience.

Staying there will allow you to get to the park early and to stay out late without the fear of getting back too late.

At the mid-20th-century Art Deco-inspired Disney's Hollywood Hotel, the bigger of the two, deluxe rooms are actually big enough to accommodate a family of four (two adults and two kids) with either two queen-sized beds or one oversized king-sized bed.

The hotel has three dining areas, with Chef Mickey as the main restaurant offering guests a buffet of Chinese and international cuisine. It's called as such because in the morning, Disney's most recognizable icon comes down in his chef outfit to visit the kids and pose for photographs.

In contrast, the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel takes guests away from reality, just as Disney intended in a grand Victorian fashion. It's like being inside a Disney movie.

From the numerous Disney characters walking around to the numerous hidden 'Mickeys' in the architecture and even the food, you will not forget where you are. Naturally, this Disney pampering comes at a price; but if you really want to treat you and your family to an unforgettable experience, it is well worth it.

Shopping

Finally, I exaggerated when I said there was no shopping in the itinerary. How can you go to Hong Kong and not shop?

Throughout the park, starting on Main Street USA, stores welcome you to bring back memories of your visit. I usually like to buy something to wear to help me get into the spirit of things. Don't worry about looking like a kid as everybody gets into it.

As for the kids, there is an opportunity to dress up as their favourite Disney characters. At the Disneyland Hotel is a princess boutique that allows your favourite little girl to be a princess throughout your stay.

If you have forgotten to get that hat or shirt or toy for that special someone, don't worry as the stores in the two Disney hotels are fully stocked with what you might be looking for.

On the off chance that you still forgot something, the Chep Lap Kok has a Disney Store in both terminals.

Give in to your inner child

As you enter the park through a tunnel bridge, take note of a sign above your head that pretty much tries to set the tone for your visit. It reads: "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

The minute I walked through that tunnel I found myself back to 1979, reliving my youth when I first visited Disneyland in California. And while so much has changed over the years, much has also stayed the same.

It was like coming home again and finding everything just as I had left them. Main Street USA was still there lined with stores leading us to Cinderella's Castle with the Grand Carousel just behind it.

Space Mountain still made me scream like a girl, and the jungle boat ride was just as hot as I remember it.

And it just wasn't the rides. Every time I saw Mickey, Goofy, Buzz or Cinderella, I would rush to line up to get my picture taken with them.

There is something about the place that makes you want to be a part of it, and leave all your troubles and worries on the other side of that tunnel.

I guess that is the reason they call it the Magic Kingdom.

As we headed for the airport on our last day, I listed down things to consider on my next visit to Hong Kong Disneyland.

For those planning a weekend getaway with their family, here are tips on how to maximise your visit to the Magic Kingdom.