Disneyland is a terrible first date — but a magical fifth

When Ethan Wong took his Tinder match to Disneyland, it didn’t end happily ever after.

Instead, there were some awkward silences, pricey snacks and a tense fireworks show where a romantic moment felt mandatory. “I didn’t even put my arm around her — I didn’t do anything,” said Wong, who can laugh about it now. “Then, instead of going [for] boba or anything afterward, she was like, ‘Yeah, you can just take me back to my car now.’”

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Wong and his date, both annual pass holders at the time, are among the SoCal locals who’ve headed to Disneyland for a first meet-up in hopes of a magical time. In Disney films, first dates consist of magic carpet rides and sweeping ballrooms. But the romantic sparkle doesn’t always translate to the theme park on a first date.

Although Disneyland can test two people’s compatibility (and endurance), it can also be overwhelming for two strangers. The theme park makes for a great fifth date, but it can be a challenging first.

First dates are stressful enough. Then add crowds, high prices and a minimum four-hour time commitment. Space Mountain’s long line gives two well-acquainted people time to chat, but it can be an awkward hour of silence for strangers who aren’t hitting it off. If you’ve decided you’re not into it by the third ride, too bad — there are eight more to go.

“You’re stuck with them for hours. It’s so much pressure and investment for a first date,” said Amie Leadingham, an L.A.-based dating coach who grew up going to Disneyland.

Kayla Anderson, who worked at Disneyland for five years, learned this the hard way multiple times while she worked there. She ended up at Disneyland on a first date with a man who tampered with ride signs, defied employees and took a sword from a child. Another time, her date was banned for explicit clothing.

“You’re trapped with someone that you don’t know very well,” Anderson said, “and then you have to be alive and be cranky in front of someone for the first time. They get hangry, they have to wait in the long line for food, then the food is $40. I’m getting stressed out just thinking about it.”

Those cons can be pros for those who’ve already established a connection, said Leadingham. Compatibility can become obvious when faced with what feels like a pixie-dusted gantlet. “It shows you planning skills, compromise, conflict management between two people,” Leadingham said. “Maybe somebody is spontaneous, and they just go on any ride at any time, and then the other person’s planning out the entire trip. You can really start laying out personalities when it comes to Disneyland.”

A one-day adult ticket to Disneyland ranges from $104 to $179, not including additional admission to Disney California Adventure Park. But often the ticket is just a down payment — add $30 for parking, more for a two-person meal, throw in a Mickey bar or an on-ride photo and the receipts pile up. That means you want to bring someone you know will make the price worth it.

San Diego resident Aileen Garcia had the best date of her life when her boyfriend of six months took her to Disneyland as a Christmas gift. In long lines, they got to know each other more and played phone games (Garcia recommends the app Heads Up). Then there was the bevy of snacks (The pickles were a highlight). Not only did they have fun but they also learned how to communicate and handle tough situations, such as when her boyfriend threw up in a swinging gondola. Unlike Wong’s experience with the fireworks, Garcia pinpointed it as her favorite moment to share with her boyfriend.

“I remember the snow started falling and music was playing, and he was just telling me how much he loves me and how much fun he had,” Garcia recalled. “It sounds so cheesy, but it was such a magical moment for me.”

Disneyland is such a romantic hot spot that it has its own dating sites. Networks like Meet Upon Main and MouseMingle cater to Disney fans looking for romantic connections, while Facebook groups put pass holders in touch. Meet Upon Main also has platonic options similar to Bumble BFF.

Robby Scharfeld, who grew up going to Disneyland, officially launched his pandemic project, Meet Upon Main, last year. It connects Disney fans nationwide, from parkgoers to Marvel obsessives to cruise-line devotees. For those living near a Disney resort, it’s an optimal way to find a theme park partner.

Before meeting up at Disneyland, Scharfeld recommends video-chatting to get a sense of each other. “That’s another level of comfort that the technology of this day and age can provide. These generations are more comfortable seeing each other on screens, and then when they meet each other in person, it’s not so awkward,” he said. “There’s no real lull in the conversation because they know each other so well from the dating sites.”

Although a Disneyland date is more expensive than, say, dinner and a movie, it’s a price folks are willing to pay. Leadingham suspects it’s the escapism of it all.

“It is a magical place, so it does bring romance,” she said. “And I think it’s a really fun place to connect.”

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