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Special to The Seattle Times
By a quirk of fate, or bad karma, the past year found me and various members of my family visiting "The Big Three of Theme Parks": Silverwood in Idaho, Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida.
"The Big Three" were so-named by yours truly because of their appeal to Puget Sound visitors. Silverwood in Northern Idaho is the biggest Northwest theme park and the closest to Seattle; Disneyland is the oldest and most-visited on the West Coast, and Disney World (WDW) is the largest in the world.
So if you're up for taking the children and/or yourself to one or more of them, how do you decide which one to venture to? Here are details to consider.
If you want to just show up and enjoy the day, Silverwood fits the bill. Plus, it's a day's drive, at 350 miles east of Seattle. Disneyland in Anaheim involves more preplanning and preparation, but Walt Disney World takes the prize. You could spend your entire vacation reading blogs, Internet bulletin boards, Web sites, travel reviews and guidebooks about WDW and never step foot in Orlando.
A telling tale: My most-used guidebook was "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," which clocks in at a whopping 818 pages. "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland" is 280 pages. There is no "Unofficial Guide" to Silverwood, just a Web site and small folded flier.
Silverwood attracts about 500,000 visitors during its daily summer season, plus weekends in spring and early fall. Disneyland, open year around: 14.5 million (California Adventure, 5.8 million). Disney World: 16.2 million.
Disney figures are from 2005, at an interesting Web site that gives best times to visit, which park is best on which day of the week, queue lengths during each day, etc.: www.scottware.com.au/theme/feature/crowds.htm.
Main Web site: www.silverwoodthemepark.com
Main Web site: disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/index
My favorite for planning: mousesavers.com.
Other good ones: wdwinfo.com, with extensive discussion forums at disboards.com; askdaisy.net/orlando, a "Brit's guide to Orlando" offering an outsider's look at Disney World; magicaltravel.com, offering quick hits of information;
www.allearsnet.com, billing itself as "as one of the Internet's most accurate and reliable unofficial Disney Web sites"; intercot.com, claiming "more information per square megabyte" than any other Disney Web site on the Internet; themeparks.com, with general information, lots of forum postings; mouseplanet.com, with lots of trip reports, discussion boards; www.touringplans.com, offering detailed descriptions of various ways to tour the parks, is helpful for first-timers or those with limited touring time.
Main Web site: disneyland.disney.go.com, and many of Disney World's Web sites listed above also have postings about Disneyland.
There are no "official" resorts for Silverwood, with the closest motel a few miles south on Highway 95. Most of the chain-motel and other lodging are in Post Falls or Coeur d'Alene, about 15 minutes away, and some visitors stay over the state line in Spokane.
At Disneyland, there are three on-site resort properties, or it's a short walk to South Harbor Boulevard and surrounding streets for hundreds of non-Disney (aka cheaper) accommodations. Guests staying at Disney properties usually get extra hours at the park and other perks.
At Disney World there are two classes of visitors: off-site guests and resort guests staying at any of 23 properties (plus wilderness cabins and campground) spread through the four theme parks. Resort guests receive early and late admittance (ranging from 7 a.m. openings to 3 a.m. closings when we were there) to different parks each day, special transportation and assorted discounts at shops and restaurants.
I posted questions on the "Orlando forum" on tripadvisor.com — my forum name was "disneydazed," which got me several compliments! — and received some helpful hints. In true desperation, and running out of time, I went with a recommended (by mousesavers.com) travel agency specializing in Disney vacations, Small World Vacations (wdwvacations.com). My family gave me kudos for selecting Contemporary Resort, with the monorail running through the lobby. Our travel agent got us upgraded to an eighth-floor room overlooking Bay Lake and nightly Epcot fireworks. The best part was the convenience: a 10-minute walk to the Magic Kingdom.
At Silverwood, there are one- or two-day admission fees, plus an annual pass. Disneyland has six options for admission listed on its Web site.
For Disney World, select a "Magic Your Way base ticket," and then "customize your ticket." Options include number of days you want tickets, Park Hopper option for visiting more than one park each day, admission to two water parks, and a no-expiration option for tickets after 14-day window from first usage. The combinations present a mathematical puzzle.
For WDW, I bought from a discount ticket broker: www.undercovertourist.com. We saved about $20 per pass, there was good phone support, free shipping, and the tickets were exchanged without charge or complaint when we changed our minds about length of stay.
As the only true comparison, a one-day ticket to each park (discounts are widely available online or through retail outlets and in package deals):
Disneyland: $63. Can be used at California Adventure, too, but not both in same day. If you want "park hopper" option to visit both parks, add another $20. Ages 10 and up pay full fare at Disney parks.
Silverwood: $37.79, includes Boulder Beach water park. Ages 7 and up pay full price.
Disney World: $71.36 base admission (one park), add $47.93 if you want hopper option to go to any or all of four major parks that day. Visiting two water parks is extra.
Disney World had the most expensive prices for on-site food, Disneyland second. Silverwood was a true bargain. As for alcohol, Walt Disney had it banned from Disneyland (though you can imbibe at Downtown Disney), but it's readily available at Disney World.
For another comparison, here's what parking costs for a day:
Silverwood: $4 (short stroll to entrance)
Disneyland: $11 (either walk or take shuttle trams)
Disney World: $10, can use parking pass at all parks. Parking lots are remote and require shuttle buses, monorail and/or boats to entrances.
Time needed to see parks
Silverwood: One full day seemed adequate. More than 60 rides, shows, attractions, including ice and magic shows. Biggest rides are Tremors (or Thermos as my 10-year-old daughter called it), a 60 mph wooden roller coaster; Panic Plunge, a 140-foot drop tower; and high-speed water body slides. The 12-acre water park, Boulder Beach, is a cool treat on hot days, with a lazy river ride that's very popular (rent inner tubes early, as they often sell out).
The lines to rides can be long as there usually was only one employee loading and unloading riders. No "fast passes" to cut in line or early admission here.
Walt Disney World: Your length of stay depends on your tolerance for squealing kids and adults; lines; enormous crowds; heat and humidity; and depth of pocketbook/credit limit. You really need a minimum of one day for each of the four theme parks, and that's doing early and/or late admission and timing fast passes to bypass lines.
This is a huge place, 47 square miles, twice the size of Manhattan, complete with its own fire department. In addition to the theme parks, WDW includes two water parks, six golf courses, an auto racetrack and lots of shopping, dining, and entertainment options.
Disneyland: The public areas occupy approximately 85 acres out of the 160 acres (vs. Disney World's 20,000-plus acres) Walt Disney acquired before Disneyland opened in 1955.
For those of us native West Coasters who spent childhood vacations there, Disneyland holds a special place in our memories.
It'd be near impossible to do both Disneyland and California Adventure in one day unless you had a very narrow list of attractions. Two or three days are more tolerable, unless it's a big schools-out period like Christmas vacation or summertime when the crowds are oppressive and lines are impossible.
Elouise Schumacher is a desk editor at The Seattle Times.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company