A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Disneyland is not The Happiest Place on Earth

Disneyland is not The Happiest Place on Earth

The title of this blog may surprise those of you who know me. I love theme parks. Like, really love them. Like, "write handwritten letters to them when I was eight just so I could get brochures from the parks and ogle at their rides" love them. I visited Disneyland for the first time when I was nine years old. It was a pretty magical day. The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean were my favorite rides. It turns out 20 years later, they're still at the top of my list, although they seem a little smaller to me now. 

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I visited the park on Saturday with my friend Alex. She drove up from San Diego at the crack of dawn so we could enjoy a full day at the park. And I mean full: 14 hours from the time we were greeted by the Disneyland Railroad to the time we took one final stroll down Main Street, USA. We walked more than 10 miles through Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Fantasyland. We conquered Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean (twice!) and nearly a dozen other rides, including Autopia, which has been around since my dad was a little kid exploring the park for the first time in the '50s. 

We also ate some fantastic (and of course, overpriced) food. Our big meal for the day took place at Cafe Orleans in Adventureland. I had read some rave online reviews about their Monte Cristo sandwich and Mickey beignets before visiting the park. The $21 sandwich included plenty of ham, Swiss and carbs for the two of us to share. The entire monstrosity was dipped in a funnel cake-like batter and dusted with powdered sugar.

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To follow such a rich entree with more fried dough felt a bit sinfully unnecessary, but this is freaking Disneyland, so why not?

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All of this added up to what Mary Poppins would consider a practically perfect day in every way. Alex and I had a marvelous time. And I'd even go so far as to say that Disneyland was more fun as an adult than as a wide-eyed 4th grader.

But I know a place that's even happier, and it's located just 7 miles south of Disney. 

There's no admission fee.

You're welcomed by the warmth of strangers instead of the whistle of a train.

The food is prepared in small batches and from the heart. 

The hugs from the kids are even more special than hugs from Chewbacca (which I've gotta admit are pretty darn special). 

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There's a wide variety of musical entertainment, from the youngest kiddos...

To Servando and Daniel, the beloved elders of the congregation.

And every Sunday at Príncipe de Paz, whether I'm belting Spanish praise songs, catching occasional phrases during one of Richard and Becky's sermons, teaching a lesson during Sunday School, or forming a new choir with a group of 11 children (which I just started yesterday), I feel emotions that venture far beyond happiness and into the realm of joy.

Where's your happy place? I'd love for you to share in the comments section below.

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