People are spending hundreds of dollars to return to Disneyland, but for months you could walk right into one of its theme parks for $10. It was a unique experience I'll never forget.
  • For months, people could walk right into Disney California Adventure, paying $10 for parking.
  • Though rides were closed, guests could walk the grounds of the Disneyland Resort park.
  • Some visitors largely had the park to themselves, an experience we’ll likely never have again.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

This story is part of our inside look at how Disney has dealt with COVID-19. Read the other stories in the series here.

Disneyland has officially reopened – to California residents only.

If you were among the lucky few to nab tickets for opening day before they sold out within hours, unless you had previously unused tickets, you paid at least $104 for a one-day adult ticket to be surrounded by a number of other excited Disney fans.

But for a little over three months up until last March, visitors were able to walk right into Downtown Disney, the area’s adjacent shopping and retail district, and a sizable portion of one of Disneyland Resort’s two theme parks, Disney California Adventure (DCA), without a ticket and, often, without a crowd. On weekdays, it looked largely uninhabited.

You merely had to pay $10 to park, and, once through security, you could wander through a side gate to walk the grounds.

If you lived in the area, took local transportation, or were dropped off, you could walk into DCA free.

If you’re a Disney parks veteran, this is a sight you never see.

During a time when I was largely alone on the West Coast due to the coronavirus pandemic and a strict state shutdown, I originally visited Disneyland to make sure it felt safe – once last November and again at the end of February of this year.

While no attractions were open at the time due to California guidelines, for those who missed the thrill of waking up early to beat the rush to Disneyland, which was closed from March 14, 2020, DCA’s partial reopening meant fans like me could freely roam around part of the park for the first time in over eight months. Stores and restaurants had also reopened that had been closed since March.

I didn’t expect to feel so at home.

As families and fans now begin to descend upon Anaheim, California, for Disneyland’s reopening, the short-lived $10 Disney days are over. It was a unique Disney experience quite unlike any other that will likely never be replicated.

On a weekday morning, you could have Disney California Adventure largely to yourself

The last time I set foot in DCA was on March 6, 2020. I was part of a small group of press invited to the park to preview its newest themed land, Avengers Campus, originally set to open last July.

It would be eight months before I stepped back inside the park.

A bunch of fans turned out November 19, 2020, and waited in both physical and virtual queues to enter. I thought it may be a madhouse and I was prepared to leave if it ever felt that way.

On that day, as I got closer to the main gate, I was filled with a nervous excitement, the way you feel when you’re about to ride a new attraction for the very first time.

After about two hours, it was my turn to enter.

Though there were others walking around, I was surprised to find that it never felt too crowded.

I went inside DCA’s main store, Elias & Company, to see if it was packed and was shocked to find that it felt like I had my own VIP shopping experience. (You can read more about that here.)

That’s a bizarre feeling if you’re a frequent Disney parks goer.

Before the pandemic and before Disney limited how many guests could enter a store at once, it was tough to walk through without bumping into someone.

The strangest sight was that the attraction queue for Soarin’ was transformed into an outside dining area for a restaurant next door. I had to sit down and eat. When are you ever going to be able to eat inside a ride queue ever again?

Extra seating and standing tables were abundant throughout DCA, but remaining sanitary seemed to be a priority. I noticed employees were always monitoring and ready to clean the tables when guests walked away.

When I returned for a second time – on a February weekday at 10 a.m. – the park was even emptier. I could walk right in and do whatever I wanted without a wait.

It was surreal.

And, at times, a little strange.

This “WandaVision” photo opp only existed for a short time. It’s no longer in the park.

Having the park largely to oneself? It’s the sort of experience every major Disney fan would love at any other time.

The ‘happiest place on earth’ was a small comfort to me while navigating the pandemic solo

It was bittersweet to have this VIP experience without my family. We grew up going to Disney World and Six Flags often. Theme parks are still one of the few places – outside of a movie theater – that feel like home to me.

If you’re wondering why I’d go to a theme park during the pandemic alone, that’s a fair question.

Although I’m really close with my family, who’s on the East Coast, when a statewide “stay at home” order was announced in California in March 2020, I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable driving back across the country any time soon, and certainly not by myself. I decided to stay 3,000 miles away.

As strange as it may sound, walking through the park by myself still made me feel close to my family.

And even though attractions were closed, there was something oddly calming and comforting about being in a familiar setting that holds so many treasured memories.

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