Southern California's cool, morning marine layer has vanished and the gigantic sun has decamped from outer space to hover inches above me. It's 11:30 a.m. and there's no time to flop in the shade; instead, my husband, son and I pull on visors, spray sunscreen and guzzle water.
We are content (okay, delighted) to be at Disney California Adventure (DCA) in Anaheim for a preview of Cars Land, a new 4.8 hectare attraction based on Pixar's 2006 animated film Cars. Cars Land is the highlight of a $1.1-billion, five-year-long transformation of DCA, which includes a glam new entrance stylized to look like 1920s Los Angeles. I moved here from Toronto eight years ago and live 20 minutes from Disneyland (it opened in 1955 and is opposite DCA). We spend 90 per cent of our theme-park time there. Not any more.
For the uninitiated, Cars chronicled rookie race car Lightning McQueen's journey to win the Piston Cup. My son, who turned five two weeks ago, is a gear-head and a Cars junkie. His shower curtain shows McQueen next to Francesco Bernoulli, the Italian Formula 1 car from Cars 2. He has McQueen cars and Mater tow trucks (they're best friends), themed pens, notebooks, beach towels, bubbles, plates and cups. You get the idea.
He really wants to meet McQueen and Finn McMissile, a Cars 2 protagonist. So my husband and I have made it our mission to ensure that happens today. We haven't told him that Cars Land is limited to Radiator Springs, the town where McQueen was stranded in the film. How do you explain practicalities to a preschooler who believes Spiderman really climbs skyscrapers?
You don't. You let him take in the scenery and you enjoy the wonder in his eyes as he walks down Route 66 into Radiator Springs, which Disney Imagineers have brought to colourful concrete-and-steel life.
In the distance is the 38-metre man-made Ornament Valley. The craggy mountain range resembles Sedona's sculpted sandstone with its horizontal layers of orange and red. It's gorgeous. We're tempted to head straight there to jump on the Radiator Springs Racers. It's a twisty-turny four-minute ride with six passengers in a convertible zooming up to 72 km/h through buttes, past a 30-metre high waterfall, and full throttle to the finish…but it must wait.
We've been in Cars Land for 45 minutes and there's no sign of McQueen, but we've heard the characters get their kicks on Route 66. Somehow we've missed that. And now we're hot and I'm hungry. Ahead of us is Sally's Cozy Cone Motel with a row of huge tangerine-coloured traffic cones that operate as snack bars. I try the dill-flavoured popcorn and want the Chili Cone Queso (chili, cheese and Frito chips in an edible bread bowl shaped like a cone) but decide to save the calories for dinner. As we pass Flo's V8 Café, my husband points out its unique shape to our son – the building is modelled after a car's round air filter. There's a lot on the menu – brioche French toast with salted caramel and bananas, and citrus turkey salad – but the mud pies scream to my soul while my son tugs on my blouse. "Stop eating. I wanna see Lightning McQueeen!" The pie – rich and smooth but not cloying – is worth ignoring my child for. My husband has a Coke Zero. Spoil sport.
Our next stop is Luigi's Flying Tires. At lunch we hear visitors complain the ride is slow and now, waiting in line, we see many people glumly hunched in their seats, inert, like sacks of potatoes. The three of us climb in and my husband points out that the more we move, the more we "fly." We lean and our tire soars to the left like a huge air hockey puck. When the ride finishes, I feel like I've done 100 sit-ups.
As we exit Luigi's my son starts levitating. McQueen and Mater are in front of the tire shop. He runs to McQueen's taillights and gently touches the gleaming red bumper before running his hands all over the car. There's no Disney employee storming toward us, so I don't stop him, but remove the smudges his little fingers made.
With our mission accomplished, we head to the Racers ride. I tell our son I'm sorry he didn't talk to McQueen. He shakes his head: "He's not real. He only talks on TV." What?! I look at my husband and I know we're both thinking, "Wasn't this mission about magic?"
"He can't walk or swim or brush his teeth," our preschooler continues. Thwarted by logic. I see I'm a dummy mummy but feel less guilty for chowing during our important mission. Before I can ask him if he had fun, he says, "Radiator Springs is super cool."
Yeah. Except for that blasted sun.
Once the Cars go to bed, it's time for parents to head out.
Mad T Party: Passing beneath neon arches and through swirling mists I enter the Rabbit Hole to check out Disney California Adventure's trippy night entertainment, the Mad T Party. It's 9 p.m. and the Mad Hatter (who resembles David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust) is singing and dancing on-stage in front of an elephant-size teapot. When the band takes five, then it's DJ White Rabbit's turn to shine. He plays a series of techno tracks with Blondie and No Doubt thrown in, which gets the crowd hopping. At the Drink Me bar there's a 20-minute wait for drinks like Croquet Tini, Mad-Hat Ito and Mad Long Island Iced-T Party (the $11.50 U.S. price-tag will shrink your wallet not your height). The audience goes bonkers when slim-and-trim Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum jump on a second stage dancing to LMFAO's Sexy and I Know It.
Pinocchio's Workshop: After our son met Lightning McQueen I sensed he was spiritually, physically and mentally exhausted. Plus my husband and I wanted to go on the big rides. We left him at Disney's state-licensed childcare facility on two evenings at the Grand Californian Hotel. The centre looks after kids ages 5 to 12 from 5 p.m. to midnight. He painted, played XBox (parental permission required), watched Disney movies and crashed on a beanbag. At 9:30 p.m. the caregivers take the children to a hotel balcony to watch the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty's Castle. For more information, call 714-300-7339 ($13/hour, plus $6 for dinner for guests booked at any Disney hotel).