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Since its opening in 1955, Disneyland® Resort has been a vacation rite of passage for American families. But to Anaheim native Nikki Valdivieso, the Southern California theme park is more than a fun getaway or cultural icon—it’s a lifestyle. She’s visited the park hundreds of times in the last two decades.

“Generally, I go once a week or once every two weeks,” she says. “I think the most I've gone was four times in a month.”

When she’s not riding roller coasters or singing “yo-ho” with Caribbean pirates, Valdivieso is the food and beverage coordinator at Hilton Anaheim, located a mile south of the park. At this Disney Good Neighbor hotel, guests can catch a shuttle ride to the park and purchase discounted Disneyland® Resort tickets.

The 14-story Hilton has a 25,000-square-foot fitness center, an outdoor swimming pool with kid-friendly waterslides, a full-service restaurant and a Starbucks, but its most coveted spots are certain high-floor guestrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows.

“If you get one of the rooms on the top three floors that face Katella Avenue, you’ll have a view of Disneyland® Resort, and you can watch the fireworks from your room,” Valdivieso says.

Valdivieso, 30, says her job allows her enough days off to make the most of a Disneyland® Resort annual pass. For less-frequent visitors, she recommends the time-saving Genie Pass. “It allows you to pick rides and make a reservation on your phone to ride them during a certain time slot during the day. That can save you a lot of waiting in line.”

Valdivieso also has well-researched opinions about The Happiest Place on Earth’s rides, retail shops and food carts:

Her favorite ride? Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. “I love everything about it,” she says. “You always want to sit in the back seats because then the ride feels like it goes twice as fast. If you don’t hold on, it’s a completely different experience than if you do.” 

Her favorite snack? “I love the cream cheese–filled soft pretzels. I get them at Refreshment Corner on Main Street—the last store on the left before Jolly Holiday—or at the cart just past the entrance to Star Tours.”

Her favorite show? “Fantasmic! is so nostalgic and so magical. It’s something I watch every time I’m at the park. It features Mickey, Maleficent, Simba from The Lion King, all the original Disney princesses and almost every hero and villain you can think of. They have two shows every day, and all the characters come out at the very end.”

Her favorite cocktail spot? “Oga’s Cantina is so good. They have a two-hour limit, but the drinks are so strong, all you need is two hours. I love sweeter drinks, so I usually get the Jedi Mind Trick (grapefruit vodka, blue curaçao, grape juice, bitters).”

Valdivieso’s hometown of Anaheim offers attractions outside the Disneyland® Resort gates, she says. “Anaheim has a lot of really good restaurants and breweries, and the Anaheim Convention Center is right here by our hotel. Everything in this part of Anaheim is walkable, which is so convenient.”

The city’s lively nightlife scene includes the Honda Center, an 18,000-seat entertainment venue and sports arena. For live music, there’s House of Blues at the Anaheim Garden Walk, where shows happen four nights a week. And for a rooftop bar with an amazing view, she recommends The Fifth.

“You need to make a reservation because it’s really popular, but from the rooftop, you can watch the nighttime Disneyland® Resort fireworks show without going to the park.”

Beer lovers can brew-hop at Anaheim’s 19 breweries and tap rooms. “I like the outdoor vibes, the food trucks, and the hard seltzers at Brewery X,” Valdivieso says, “but my favorite beer is the Mango Cart wheat ale at Golden Road. The brewery has a big outdoor beer garden right across from Angel Stadium, the baseball stadium. Not far from there is Karl Strauss Brewing, which has more of an indoor-dining vibe.”

Families should plan to visit Discovery Cube, a learning museum in nearby Santa Ana, that caters to curious kids. “I've gone with my nephew a few times, and we both had a lot of fun. The exhibits change all the time, and everything is interactive. One time they had this amazing bubble exhibit, and we got to go inside these big bubble balls and walk on water.”

For dessert, Valdivieso’s go-to is Joe’s Italian Ice, where her regular order is strawberry ice combined with chocolate soft-serve. “If you want something that’s cold and full of flavor and sugar, this is it. It tastes just like a strawberry dipped in chocolate,” she says. “Joe’s is definitely a staple here in Anaheim. On a hot day, sometimes the line goes all the way around the block.”

FIVE MORE FAVORITES

Valdivieso offers these tips for Anaheim and Disneyland® Resort visitors:

Breakfast/brunch: Basilur Tea and Coffee is a little cafe inside The Source OC. They have a very small menu, but I love their fluffy, Japanese-style pancakes. They make them in several different flavors—strawberry, blueberry, plain, and tiramisu. They also serve a couple versions of eggs Benedict, and they make all kinds of specialty teas and espresso.  

Outdoor shopping: Center Street Promenade is a collection of small boutiques and outdoor cafes in downtown Anaheim. It’s right by the Muzeo Museum and the ice arena, Anaheim Ice. I love going to the shops, especially the little pop-up boutiques that show up at the Thursday farmers’ market. If you’re into thrift shopping, this is the place to go. The farmers’ market always has live music and people selling handmade jewelry and crafts.

Thai food: Fa-Sai Thai is on Harbor Boulevard just 2 miles south of the Anaheim Convention Center. It's a little family-owned restaurant, and everything tastes homemade. I like almost everything on the menu: the pad thai, the pad see-ew, the short ribs. The owners are so nice, and their young kids help out in the restaurant.

Disneyland® Resort shopping: If you’re looking for Disneyland® Resort stuff, a lot of what they sell in the park you can also buy at the World of Disney store outside the park. They have all kinds of Disney clothing, Mickey and Minnie ears, pins, toys, mugs, and baseball caps. They change the merchandise all the time. I love buying their cozy sweaters and hoodies—right now they have this cream-colored Mickey Mouse crewneck that’s super warm. If you want to take home a set of Mickey Mouse ears, Disney has all different styles of ears for different ages and different types of people. That’s probably the most iconic thing to take home from Disneyland® Resort.

Disneyland® Resort food: My favorite meal at the park, especially in the summer, is chicken fusilli pasta over at Plaza Inn. It’s creamy and delicious. They have really good fried chicken, too. I also love Disneyland® Resort corn dogs. They’re gigantic, super filling and super good. I especially love the pickle corn dog at Blue Ribbon Corn Dogs in Downtown Disney. It’s not for every palate, though. It’s a hot dog on a stick inside a hollowed-out pickle, dipped in cornbread and fried. And it’s served with peanut butter on the side, which sounds weird, but I love it. 

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