Disneyland: A Grandpa’s Perspective

Disneyland…our family happy place.

Grandpa Tom

A Grandpa’s Perspective

By Thomas Gardner (aka: Stress Free Mickey’s Dad)

I know of no other place that facilitates magical memories like Disneyland. No other place I know provides something for all ages. My wife and I started taking our kids to Disneyland beginning in the summer of 1988 when Erica was six, Heidi was four, and Elisia was six weeks old. My wife saw into the future and said “We will be schlepping (German for taking) our kids and grandkids to Disney for the next 30 years.” She was right!

We added our parents to the parade. Lottie’s parents, John and Kay were the first grandparents that shared the Disneyland experience with all their family in 1992. My brother in law and I surprised the family by buying a second day to enjoy the Park: before multiple days were a thing.

The ages of our collective group ranged from the youngest, Danielle who was 1 to my Mother in law who was…well older. Disneyland had something for everyone and our now grown up daughters of “Stress Free Mickey” watched the VHS movies capturing the moments of that trip over and over again to the place they can’t distinguish between what they actually remember from what they watched. Who cares? It helped us make family memories.

We extended the tradition of taking Grandparents along by inviting my parents to accompany us on two separate occasions. Once in 1996 and because we had so much fun, again in 1999. On one of those trips the phrase “Disneyland Grandpa” and “Disneyland Dad” was born. Both my dad and I transformed into another carefree, happy go lucky, skipping person once we entered the gates and embraced the phrase, “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

It truly is just that, “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

An enduring memory for me was of my Mom being 3 year old Danielle’s “Disneyland buddy”
walking hand in hand to Fantasyland while the rest of us headed to the bigger rides. My Mom loved it and that was what she went to Disneyland for: to be with her family. As a Dad, I cherish memories of our children wide eyed as they experienced for the first time “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “It’s a Small World” for the first time and countless times thereafter.

Disneyland never gets old. Each trip created its own special moments and treasured memories.
As a Grandpa, the enjoyment only got better. Kids and Disney go together like Peanut Butter and Jam. My wife and I would take an extra day to visit and enjoy the Park as adults which we enjoyed. But nothing compares with seeing Disneyland through the eyes of children.

My wife, Lottie, made everything fun. She could make a dollar go farther than anyone I know. (She recently passed away this past April which makes Disneyland and the family experience even more precious). With six of us, her cost cutting skills made it possible for our family to enjoy the experience.

Lottie and dad

Disneyland is more than a vacation: It’s an experience

That’s what Disneyland is for us: an experience. When people ask “How can you keep going back time after time?” Our answer? It is not the place, The place provides the backdrop. Disneyland represents walking into the Park that first day, strolling down Main Street, USA, high fiving the employees (before COVID 19 and hopefully again), and just being as a family. Waiting in line became an adventure as we talked, laughed, and just enjoyed being together. Lottie even carried dice so we could play a game known as “Chicken” to pass the time.

We packed lunches to help with the budget and used the lockers near the Picnic Area between
Disneyland and DCA. (Yes, one exists!). We would eat lunch in the Park to conserve time and then come out for dinner. This provided a refreshing break and energized us to return to the Park and enjoy the experience until closing. Even the littlest child lasted until the end, even if sprawled out in a stroller fast asleep as the rest of us rode our brains out.

Anyone who believes you have to have a lot of money to enjoy the Disney experience can read “Stress Free Mickey” and glean budget helpers and budget stretchers.

packed lunches

Enter Disneyland Grandpa Tom and Disneyland Grandma Lottie

From 1988 until the present, Disneyland and family are inseparable. I have been known to skip entering the gates. Truthfully, I am not ashamed to say or admit this! “I love this place” is an often repeated phrase. Nothing beats entering the Park more than holding the hands of one or two grandkids. As Grandparents, our focus shifted from our enjoying the rides to enjoying seeing our daughters with their children and our privilege to join in the fun.

One of the most meaningful attractions for me is “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Why? Because it was meaningful to my own grandfather. I have dragged my kids into that theater and it warmed my heart with my granddaughter Addie communicated to her Mom that she looked forward to enjoying this because it means something to me. The tradition continues.

Disneyland Grandma Lottie cooked up a wonderful idea that is now a family tradition: the 10 year old Grandchildren and Grandma and Grandpa Disneyland adventure. She shared with me the dream of “kidnapping” two grandkids at a time and whisk them off to Disneyland. We have eight grandkids who just happen to be neatly grouped in pairs that have birthdays that make this possible.

We executed the first such trip in August of 2017. With the help of their mothers, we surprised the oldest two by presenting them with gift bags that had California T-shirts. They had no idea until we said “Surprise, we are leaving right now and driving to Disneyland with you!” One said, “You mean without our siblings or parents?” “Yes,” was our reply. What a wonderful way to get to know them better and provide focused time with just two at a time.

The next two were scheduled to make the 10 year old trip in the summer of 2020. Of course, COVID 19 made it impossible. Lottie had reservations and plans that had to be postponed in hope that we could do the trip in the summer of 2021. Little did we know that Lottie was not be making that trip as she died from a very aggressive brain cancer that took her within 9 ½ weeks from diagnosis to death. Before she died and before she lost the ability to speak or communicate, she wanted to make sure that if at all possible, the trip would happen.

It looked very different but we pulled off another surprise for the next two. We could not drive and we had to test negative to COVID to gain entry into the US. We all looked at each other and said, “What would Mom do?” The easy answer was “She would move heaven and earth to make this possible.” So we did. This was Disneyland Grandpa’s trip and so I paid for the four of us to fly down and for the test both ways. You can’t put a price of a dream and on family.

How would we address the huge hole in this plan with Lottie’s passing? The answer was enter the designated Auntie…Elisia…who had been trained by her Mom and knew what to do. And by having an Auntie, the two kids had a break from parents and allowed me to fulfill the purpose of this trip: to build relationship with my grandkids by spending quality time and experiencing Disneyland with them.

The Nitty Gritty

We took the rapid test at the Vancouver Airport and tested negative so we could be issued a boarding past (more details about all of the testing etc in Elisia’s travel and covid report here). My cousin’s daughter and her husband picked us up and dropped us off at the hotel. We went with the Kings Inn…it was not fancy but clean, neat, affordable and served us well. Because of COVID, there was no breakfast, but we made do. The kids enjoyed a long swim before dinner and then bedtime.

We did two days in a row with a break on Thursday so we could take the PCR COVID 19 test required to get us back into Canada. A negative test was required to be able to board our flight out of LAX and the results were good for 72 hours. We enjoyed our last day in the Parks on Friday and breathed a sigh of relief when all of us received confirmation of a negative test on Elisia’s phone. We were set!

In and Out

Adjusting to changes

We experienced new things together which helped make up for the absence of Fantasmic, the extensive Parades, and characters walking around to interact and provide pictures with the kids. We experienced Star Wars land and were blown away at how real the land felt! And the “Rise of the Resistance” that was truly “out of this world.” All of us enjoyed seeing the brand new Avengers’ Campus and the Spiderman Ride. Elisia (with Erica’s help from Vancouver) negotiated us getting to enjoy the Star Wars ride and the new Spiderman ride by getting us in a virtual queue. The trouble was well worth it.

So on Saturday, we flew back home and closed another chapter of Disneyland adventures and fulfilled Lottie’s wish for the 10 year old trip to happen. I am so grateful. You can’t put a price tag on memories and building relationships.

Disneyland Grandpa Tom will show up again…soon. Our whole family has planned a “Lottie Memorial Disneyland trip” this coming March 2022 all things considered it being possible in this pandemic environment. She will not be physically present, but we will carry her in our hearts and she lives on through our children and grandchildren. I am sure there will be some tears of sadness and of joy and we will be filled with wonderful memories and thoughts of how much Grandma would have loved being all together.

snack time


I encourage all you grandparents to consider seriously creating wonderful memories of times with your family and grandkids. Everyone should experience “the Happiest Place on Earth” for themselves!

Please say “Hi” to Mickey for me and tell him Disneyland Grandpa Tom will be back!
Grandpa Tom

3 thoughts on “Disneyland: A Grandpa’s Perspective

Add yours

  1. Tom,
    Thank you for sharing this story. I am very sorry for your loss. I am glad to hear that you are focusing on family and good memories. Disneyland has always been a special place for us too and now it’s a very nostalgic place. My wife and I will be there in March too, for the first time as grandparents. I’m really looking forward to making new memories with my son in law and daughter in law and my new grandsons. If I see you there I’ll buy you a Dole whip!

    1. Thanks for this comment David, it means so much.
      There is so much emotion around all of it. We hope you have the best time in March making those core memories with your new grandsons!

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