Disney's Cars Land is a stunning addition

Radiator Springs Racers at Cars Land, a new Radiator Springs Racers at Cars Land, a new attraction based on the Disney-Pixar animated series "Cars," at Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim, Calif. Photo Credit: AP

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We got to Disneyland not all that early on a Monday morning and were pleasantly surprised to find only a 15-minute line for the Matterhorn ride.

As the morning progressed, we found we could hop right on the popular spinning teacups and the flying elephants of Dumbo -- no waits. It was almost serene. On Tuesday morning, we found out why.

Everyone was over at California Adventure, queuing up in a long, long line to score Fast Passes for the park's hot new attraction -- Radiator Springs Racers, the signature ride at the new Cars Land attraction that opened in June.

WELCOME TO RADIATOR SPRINGS

Cars Land, part of a $1.1-billion renovation, is a stunning addition to California Adventure -- a separate park (much like Epcot at Disney World) that celebrates the Golden State with rides such as Soarin' Over California, Paradise Pier (which makes Santa Monica pale by comparison) and a back lot section honoring the movie biz.

But this year it's all about Cars Land, 12 or so acres that put you right in the middle of Radiator Springs, the fictional city of the 2006 Pixar movie. You wander in along "Route 66," where you'll find the requisite Disney shops (Ramone's House of Body Art, Radiator Springs Curio Shop) and snack bars (the Cozy Cone Motel, where individual, cone-shaped buildings serve up churros, ice cream, etc.). For a real meal, there's Flo's V8 Cafe, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are dished out diner-style -- with an emphasis on the pies.

But we didn't bring two kids all the way across the country to eat diner food.

They wanted to ride. But first, they waited.

We arrived at the park promptly at 8 a.m. but apparently didn't run quite fast enough to the Fast Pass line (which gives you a designated time to show up at your ride). We waited till almost 9 to get our tickets. And when could we ride? Between 4:35 and 5:35.

I suggested we check out the general admission line. Hah! That was showing a wait of 150 minutes (and I've read that it sometimes stretches four hours). By a little before 1 p.m., the Fast Pass tickets were gone for the day. Could any ride be that good?

RIDES FOR THE YOUNGER SET

With plenty of time before Racers, we checked out other Cars Land rides. Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, a whipping ride behind tiny tractors, had a 45-minute wait (not bad by Disney standards), but our 7-year-old was done with lines after a day at Legoland. Instead, we wandered to nearby A Bug's Land, where rides clearly for the younger set had no wait and the spinning Lady Bug Boogie was almost as much fun as Mater looked (extra points if you'd prefer jive to country music).

We had time to thoroughly explore Paradise Pier, with an enchanting Little Mermaid ride that our 6-year-old rode twice; eat a better-than-average theme park lunch at a Mediterranean grill, and make the 1:20 performance of "Aladdin" over in Hollywood Land -- a 45-minute cruise-ship-style show with enough to entertain kids and adults.

After a blessed hour in the air-conditioning, we faced Cars Land again. No luck at the attraction's third ride, Luigi's Flying Tires, where 90 minutes seemed too long to wait for a couple of minutes on the airborne bumper cars.

Instead, we checked out an impromptu show over at Flo's, where waitresses and mechanics put on a fun dance party with kids getting to help with the car wash.

THE RACE IS ON

And finally, it was time to make our way to the Racers. It was only five minutes between hitting the line and making our way into one of the six-seat cars that race you through the impressive mountain range that serves as the backdrop to Cars Land.

The ride started slowly, with an almost leisurely drive through the mountains -- the car even slowed down a touch to give us a look at a stunning waterfall. But then night descended and characters from the movie started dashing out of the dark to narrowly miss head-on collisions. Eventually, we ended up in Ramone's, where the car seemed to get a glowing new paint job (other riders take a different turn and go to Luigi's for new tires).

Back into the daylight, another car shows up at our side, and when we get the flag, the race is on. Suddenly, you're speeding through the course, around some slightly terrifying embankments that have you riding on your side, not to mention some serious bumps in the road.

It was over too fast and, honestly, I don't know whether we beat the other car or not. "That was AWESOME," screamed my little guy.

As for me, I wanted to immediately go again. And if the wait hadn't been 90 minutes, I probably would have.

Disney's Cars Land isn't the only news in California theme parks this year. Here are a couple more hot tickets.

Transformers

Universal Studios Hollywood

100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City

800-864-8377, universalstudioshollywood.com

We felt our kids were too little to appreciate Universal, although our 7-year-old loves the "Transformers" movies as much as he did "Cars" when he was 2. But numerous reviews put the ride at the top of their lists. The dark, indoor motion simulator is surrounded by massive 3-D screens, so expect a Decepticon to land on your vehicle or to be ground up by Devastator as the ride pitches, spins and vibrates.

Manta

Sea World

500 Sea World Dr., San Diego

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800-257-4268, seaworldsandiego.com

A massive roller coaster with a couple of big splashes, the ride is designed to take you into the world of gliding, dipping rays. Anything that goes upside down is an automatic no for our family, but it's a hit with the rest of the world (hourlong lines both times we visited the park). Our little ones were much happier petting and feeding the actual rays in a nearby tank.

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