It's become something of a tradition on this blog to wrap up the year around the holidays with what I call the Year End Report, an annual accounting and grading of the resort overall which gives me an opportunity to assess recent additions and do some old-fashioned proactive journalism. Longtime readers of my blog may have noticed that I missed my 2012 round up, and I'm probably going to miss the 2013 one too, which this entry will seek to account for. It may seem strange that, right on the doorstep of the opening of the first phase of Magic Kingdom's snazzy Fantasyland area, this blog should go silent. It wasn't really planned that way, you see, I haven't been in Florida.
I've now returned from a year in California and, yes, Disneyland. Over the years I've worn a number of hats as a Disney specialist: I began as a Walt Disney World tourist, became a Vacation Club member, followed by a Cast Member, and then an Annual Passholder. I've also been at Disneyland as a tourist, a day tripper, and now for the past year an Annual Passholder too. As a result I think I'm in a unique position to speak about Disneyland, as a transplanted East Coast kid and then transplanted back. This article will seek to discuss some of my experiences and thoughts about Disneyland from the other side of the coin. Theme parks change when you get to know them well. Magic Kingdom changed for me as a Cast Member and local, and Disneyland has changed too. No longer the exotic other, I've spent enough time in that park for the last year to think of it as a pleasant hangout and good friend and less as a destination or ideal.
(locals) extolling? I'd like to take a few minutes to cover the things that stood out most vividly to me, and also some things I'd love to see Walt Disney World start emulating.
Perhaps the thing that struck me most impressively as a local was that I finally understood the one component of Disneyland's appeal to Southern California residents that cannot be appreciated as a tourist: the sense of difference. Los Angeles has been a big city for a long time. You can pull up photos of almost any neighborhood from 1940 on and see a lot of the things you see in LA today: tall buildings, wide streets, pollution. Inside Disneyland, you see almost entirely things you don't see elsewhere in the area: cute, tiny buildings. Structures made of wood, even logs. Spreading trees. Rivers with boats on them. Castles. This is the secret extra ingredient that Disneyland has that Walt Disney World does not. By the time you get into any theme park in Florida, you've already been brought so far down the rabbit hole of the fantasy world that it's not really a huge shock to step onto Main Street. But when you have to drive down I-5 in bottleneck traffic, park in a concrete bunker, then schlep across a mall from 1998, stepping onto that tiny, cute, intimate Main Street is like a shot in the arm. I'm at Disneyland. It makes it that much harder to leave at the end of the night, knowing that you'll be driving back through an urban hell scape to get to wherever home is. It makes the return that much more satisfying.
|Los Angeles in Walt's own time|
Southern California tends to start her days cool, heat up quite a lot during the day, then cool off again at night. The effect of this on your day at Disneyland is seismic. Magic Kingdom's crowds tend to peak in the afternoon, then taper off to be fewer and fewer as the night wears on. At Disneyland, after a period of a few hours in the late afternoon, the heat subsides, the sun sets, the lights come on, and the entire park seems to regenerate into a new form. By 7 pm most of Magic Kingdom is seeing her last busy crowds for the day, but Disneyland is just getting started. Disneyland's Main Street, with its real gas lanterns, tiny size and intimate scale, or Fantasyland, with her cute architecture and close quarters, become at night maybe my favorite places on earth.
And once you've spent an entire day at Disneyland repeatedly, one thing that really makes a difference becomes the food. Although Epcot provides a rough equivalent in terms of quality, selection and availability, Disneyland simply kicks the rest of Walt Disney World around the block in this regard. As a Central Florida local, I've become accustomed to eating in a chain cafe like Panera before venturing into any of the WDW theme parks or, if I must eat at Walt Disney World, absconding to a resort. While the Florida property offers a great array of expensive sit-down meals, Disneyland is so full of good food that it's easier to list the places not to eat than the places to eat.
This is a source of some controversy, but I think there is just no reason for Walt Disney World to operate their food service the way they do except for laziness and cheapness. Even Columbia Harbor House has fallen into the doldrums and the rather decent Pecos Bill specialty burger from 2009 is hardly worth the price anymore, having shrunk to 60% of its size. WDW has effectively instituted a two-tier dining system, where the options inside a theme park involve generic American fare being readily available for a fairly predictable price, or, for a higher price point, going right up to table service. There is no middle ground. Disneyland has burger joints - The Hungry Bear, the Village Haus, and the Tomorrowland Terrace - but practically everywhere else offers above average food for good prices. Defenders have long claimed that WDW patrons won't buy anything else, but the ludicrous lines outside the new restaurant in Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland where not a burger may be found put the lie to all of that.
I find it impossible to believe that a place like, say, the Plaza Pavilion / Noodle Station boondoggle between Tomorrowland and Main Street couldn't attract a good crowd each day with a tasteful refurbishment, a new order station, and a menu of good sandwiches, salads, and soups. Or that the lovely Tortuga Tavern in Caribbean Plaza is incapable of drawing a crowd which is why it's closed. That's reductionist thinking, where the effect becomes the cause. Making better food at Walt Disney World takes being willing to open a place, think outside the box, and keep it open until it catches on.
Disneyland also uses real plates and silverware in many counter service locations. No, you're not eating off Spode - they're decent high-impact colorful plates and the silverware is that awkwardly heavy kind you're used to experiencing at a place like Golden Corral. Still, once you've gotten used to getting a nice fresh salad on a good solid plate with a real fork, paying the same price for Walt Disney World's version in a disposable bowl just feels like a cheap-out. Most Walt Disney World restaurants still have washing machines to service those plates and cups they no longer use, and again, this is the way it is supposed to be. One wonders how much waste Disney is creating by skimping on the reusable plates at take-out locations. Disneyland also still buses their tables - when you finish your meal, you just walk away, and Disney's attentive staff cleans them for you. It sounds small on paper, but isn't Disney supposed to be about the details?
|Lens Art by Tom Bricker: Food Stylist|
What did Walt Disney World do? They removed the Beef and Broccoli from the menu. That was their solution. And so people stopped going to the Noodle Station and eventually it closed. That's the sort of thinking that leads to the poor food situation we have now. It's a true story.
The other thing that Disneyland has that Magic Kingdom is much, much poorer without is live music.
Yes, Magic Kingdom has a big stage show and some strolling entertainment groups - acts like the Banjo Brothers in Frontierland or the Dapper Dans are great - but Disneyland really uses live music like a battery to energize entire portions of their theme park. The jazz bands in New Orleans Square and the rock music in Tomorrowland really affect the entire area they're in and keep these areas of the theme park feeling lively late into the night. The secret here is - big surprise - live music attracts people, and people do things like go on rides and buy food. I bet Magic Kingdom might be surprised what, say, a Dixeland Bandstand in Frontierland or a drumming group in Adventureland may do to keep those areas of the park that seem to empty out after nightfall feeling active.
Some wags, especially those based at the Disney HQ in Burbank, regularly opine through online "sources" (mouthpieces) that the problem here is that good entertainment simply isn't available in poor out of the way Central Florida, but this is pure west coast elitism. Yes, it is true, Disneyland benefits from being located just south of the entertainment mecca of the country, but Florida isn't so bad off. Back in 1971, Disney imported talent en mass because there really was nothing in Central Florida, but how many generations ago was that? Tampa offers a lively rock and Latin music community, Orlando has some great clubs, and a full range of specialty groups. How much willful ignorance does it take to believe that the talent simply isn't out there?
The rest of the Disneyland experience is really the icing. Yes, there are lots of locals, and yes, they are often annoying. Disneyland has a cult-like devotion of people who began going when they were still in the cradle, and these groups descend at night to engage in Rocky Horror-like rituals. Tomorrowland, for example, has a rotating stock of bands who alternate on weekends, and each band has its own non-overlapping fan base who will arrive to see their group perform. Then there are those who arrive just to see Fantasmic!, or World of Color. Recently, roving bands of "Social Clubs" - whose members dress like Orange County bikers with Disney patches - have been causing a stir amongst Disneyland employees and visitors alike.
The final thing that bears some repeating, although it's been very well covered online elsewhere, is the park across the street - Disney('s?) California Adventure. I am not one of those who ever felt that DCA was a bad park, although it was and remains very insubstantial compared to Disneyland - but then, of course, most things do. But Imagineering really did a number on the park, and the importance of the proximity of the Disney castle park and a really, really good second gate park is hard to overstate.
I'm not happy with everything in California Adventure, but the stuff that's good is really good. The Buena Vista Street entrance is the first time in a generation that Disney has totally nailed a park's "introductory statement" and it frankly makes the charming Hollywood and Sunset section of the Hollywood Studios in Florida look like amateur night. The Cathay Circle Restaurant at the end of the street is the best meal I've ever had inside a theme park, for what the opinion of someone who takes photos of theme park street lamps is worth. And DCA's marvelous "Golden State" section - the nice wooded part to the right - has really benefited from a conversion to a "vintage" theme.
Even with an inadequately themed boardwalk section, a Hollywood area that needs a lot of work and the much-touted new Cars area which, impressive as it is, does nothing for me, California Adventure is simply the best "Disney second gate" currently operating in the United States. Animal Kingdom is still unique and beautiful, but Epcot is starting to become a lost cause and the sum total of DCA tramples the Hollywood Studios theme park into dust. Ride for ride, meal for meal, and park for park, Disneyland's two parks offer as much to as Walt Disney World's four, and in many cases Disneyland simply does it better. And it's been a treat to be near that, if nothing else.
Part Two: Investigations in the Field ~ Anecdotes and Observations
That Darn Song
Now, I'm one of the very few who prefers to Florida Small World to the California original. Some of that may be simply nostalgia, but I do think the Florida show is tighter, more thoughtfully arranged, and reaches its main point very gracefully, whereas Disneyland's is just all over the place. However, it wasn't until I had been on Disneyland's version dozens of times that I realized how crucial one single, easy to overlook element of the Florida version is, and it has to do with that song.
I've never understood the cult of Small World hate generated by that song. Small World is one of my very favorite attractions of all, in either version, and I highly suspect anyone objecting to an attraction advocating for World Peace on the basis of being slightly sentimental. Still, I think I finally understand that the disgust seems to stem from the California version and has spread East via the internet and other media from there.
The California version of the ride is closely related to the 1964 World's Fair version, which was designed, constructed and installed in under a year - a remarkable feat in any era. The main difference between the two is the addition of Mary Blair's simply stupendous facade, clock tower, and topiary garden. The ride enters and exits under the clock tower, so two tunnels have been added to the start and end of the ride. These additions bring a thirteen minute boat ride nearer to the seventeen minute mark - about as long as Pirates of the Caribbean, and longer if there is a backup at the exit, which there nearly always is.
The 1964 model of the ride was also constructed shortly before the time MAPO began to standardize the construction of animated parts and figures. As a result many of the scenery details and animals in the ride are clearly made of papier-mache and glitter, which makes the later 1990s additions to the ride easier to spot as they obviously don't fit in. Of course, this points towards the accelerated timetable of the construction of the Disneyland version, but this also is indicative of a somewhat seat-of-your-pants approach which spills over into all areas - including the music.
My appreciation of the fact that the 1971 version of Small World only uses the English version of the song in its final room was sharpened by months of riding the Disneyland version, where it is used literally everywhere. You hear it in the entrance tunnel - a shortened version, which uses only the refrain. You hear it again in the somewhat extended England section. It's heard yet again in the African section, a full version is heard in the long tunnel between the South America and Pacific Islands room, then a mermaid gets a solo version immediately afterwards. Since 2009 there has then been an America room after that and that's all before the very extended finale room, then an exit tunnel where the shortened, refrain-only version is again used. By the time you're sitting in a backup in the exit tunnel you've been listening to the English version of the minute-long song for over half of your very long ride.
In the 1966 Disneyland version, the Cowboy and Indian were restaged to appear midway through the Finale room, potentially weakening the ride's original message as a prayer of goodwill, which was possibly further weakened by the insertion of the America room in 2009. But the original point is still there in Florida, for those who want to see it, and now that we know that this staging was present in 1964 but altered in 1966, the 1971 version of this cowboy and Indian figure looks more like a restoration. I think it's significant that so much was changed between 1965 and 1971, and no matter which you prefer, it's worth looking at both as something that real thought was put into.
Oh yeah, and that song. Somebody clearly thought it was a little overdone long before the rise of the internet.
The Eye of Mara
Indiana Jones Adventure is one of those rides I could ride three times a day at Disneyland and not get sick of - the other two were Matterhorn and Pirates of the Caribbean, by the way. It's undoubtedly a bit oversold, especially to East Coast kids travelling West, but it's still terrific fun and, I think, very funny. I think of Indy as Tony Baxter's secret remake of Snow White's Scary Adventures - complete with an unstoppable adversary, a bunch of skeletons, a big rock that almost crushes you at the end, and a structure that's more frenzied and impressionistic than strictly literal.
A couple weeks ago there was a flap amongst the vocal AP culture about Indiana Jones Adventure. It related to changes introduced in the first scenes of the ride, where some snazzy new projection mapping was applied to the "Mara" idol at the start. This was greeted well; what caused the flap is that in their tinkering, WDI changed the "voice of Mara" sound effect.
Let me explain. The gag of the ride is that you, the rider, aren't supposed to look into the eyes of this big idol placed at the end of a hall, for reasons known only to designers of thrill rides and confusing South Asian deities. Originally, the fact that you had indeed broken this rule was signaled by a strobe light effect inside the eyes, followed by a stream of smoke emerging from them. This was never a terrific effect, but at least it was a visual indication of a key story point. As the years went on the effect became less and less reliable, and as a result the whole reason to send you bouncing around a dark ride became very difficult to comprehend.
In the 2013 version, the idol actually opens its eyes, changes its expression, then does some crazy projection stuff. In order to allow you to see this, the timing of the vehicles and the voice needed to be redone completely, to slow down and allow you to see the crazy projection stuff. As a result, the voice needed to be re-recorded anyway, which WDI did, while simultaneously trying to make better sense of the scene. The original Mara voice was the same low tone throughout, but the new version sounded welcoming at first, then angry when offended.
|"Please place a delicious cake in my hands"|
Was all of this a tempest in a teapot? Absolutely. Did I agree with all of the complaints? Obviously not. Do I think Disneyland did the right thing? Absolutely. While the changes did not impact my enjoyment of the ride, for many they did, and they made their opinions known, at Disneyland actually responded.
This is the sort of thing Walt Disney World can learn from - the dissatisfied customer of today is not the customer of tomorrow, no matter how small the slight, and maybe it's time for the Florida management team to start sweating some small stuff, too. Now let's be clear here - small stuff is not a two billion dollar tech roll out, an abbreviated show, or a new special effect, but it can be an audio track, a sign, a prop, or a meaningful detail. Perhaps the removal of an inappropriate piece of music from Liberty Square or the restoration of some audio to the Tiki Room. Perhaps more. I know that as much as I lament the loss of Horizons from EPCOT, it's really the accumulation of small stuff that bothers me most of all in the end, inside the theme park - a courtyard that was walled off, a bad music choice in a certain area, or the poor replacement of a classic sign. This is the sort of easy, cheap stuff that Walt Disney World should be more attentive to - and especially those guardians of traditions, the Imagineers. More than anything, Walt Disney World can take some time to let us longtime fans know that they watch our opinions as closely as they do our wallets, and the "Mara voice" flap is one example of Disneyland's ability to excel in this arena.
|"Hello? A little assistance here??"|
Which is not to imply that Disneyland unilaterally does everything better than the kids back in Orlando. For example, not every attraction is in fantastic shape.
The Haunted Mansion is the poster child for this, looking increasingly grubby and worn out with each passing year. This is probably due to the popular Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay, which foists suspect decor on the venerable attraction for a quarter of a year. With two refurbishments a year scheduled, the Holiday overlay probably eats up a substantial portion of this facility's yearly budget, leaving the classic attraction with badly aligned projections, broken effects, and graveyard ghosts who are impossible to see through the gloom.
The Jungle Cruise was also subject to "improvements" in 2005 which were more in-name-only. The Disneyland version has always been a patched-together thing, and the 2005 effects were meant to bring a more obvious climax to the show in the form of a piranha attack. I've never been a big fan of the piranhas, but even worse was some meddling which changed the layout and staging of several scenes, especially the Sunken City, which came in the name of "naturalism". Marc Davis designed these scenes to make more visual sense than actual sense, but the new versions lack any sense of guiding the spectator's eyes and the river simply looks empty and poorly staged. Many of the animals along the Jungle river have painted and peeling paint, and a crocodile figure intended to be swatted at by a gorilla has now been placed to pop out of the water directly at the boats - leaving the gorilla to swat at a floating box with some plastic bananas on it. At least they have a nice queue?
And, yes, then there's the parking. If you are a tourist, Disneyland is supremely friendly to your needs - everything is right there within walking distance. If you are a local, you're going to be parking in either a big parking garage or lot and being bussed in. If you don't want to ride a bus or a tram, then it's a very long walk to or from the park - longer than one any tourist staying in any of the nearby hotels will ever make.
This is extended fallout from the late 90s, when Disneyland had a gang problem - no, a for real, actual gangs would protect their "territory" on either side of Tomorrowland or make out with their girlfriends behind Big Thunder Mountain problem. In those days the park sat just on the other side of a parking lot alongside Katella and an annual pass cost under $90. One of the big reasons why Disney arranged the "Disneyland Resort" expansion in the way that they did was to enclose Disneyland, California Adventure, and their three hotels in as much of a "box" as they could. If you arrive at Disneyland via I-5 north - ie from Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley, LAX or Bob Hope Airport - you're routed directly into a parking garage without ever seeing Anaheim. It's not quite Walt Disney World but it is pretty hermetic.
|Proof that somebody had to design it!|
And, yes, in the past few years Disneyland has begun to suffer from the very same malady that sucked so much of the character out of Walt Disney World in the late 90s. Main Street USA's west block was reconfigured, and the resulting shops are more "Cheesecake Factory" than "Disneyland". The historic Carnation Plaza Gardens were converted to sell Princess merchandise, albeit very beautifully. As part of California Adventure's simply superb Buena Vista Street area, WDI put together very evocative prop windows filled with vintage and historically significant items, which lasted mere weeks until somebody in management realized that this space can be used to sell yet more Disney stuff. Currently filled with circa-2010 potholders and glowering children mannequins, most of the Buena Vista Street windows are now indistinguishable from those found alongside World of Disney a few hundred feet away.
impending loss of the Court des Anges at the heart of New Orleans Square, to be made over into an off-limits lobby for an expanded Club 33, the $7,000-a-year "Gentleman's Club" above the streets of New Orleans Square. This is especially bad news because the Court des Anges is literally the defining example of Disney's attention to detail, so well known and beloved that it has been the site of proposals, family photos, and rituals for decades. Disney themselves promoted it as an example of what sets them apart in the 1981 annual report (left). While I understand that Disneyland stands to make a great deal of money by expanding the Club, turning the entire upper section of New Orleans Square - the most defining feature of the defining section of the defining theme park of the world - into a warren of rooms for Millionaires-Only just reeks of bad faith.
Actually a Museum
Despite being located out there for over a year, I actually did very little writing about Disneyland in my year - just this one photo essay from last November. I took some videos and photos, but mostly I spent a long time getting on Disneyland's wavelength, absorbing it as totally as possible. Similar to my "Shrines of the Magic Kingdom" piece, I got very much in tune with certain areas that simply pop with everything great about theme parks.
There's the New Orleans Square Railroad Station and French Market, where one is directly between two of the greatest attractions ever built, and good food and live music is readily available. Simply sitting and watching the Mark Twain take her last trips of the night while the sun slips down behind the Haunted Mansion is my idea of paradise.
In California Adventure there's the Redwood Creek area, wedged between a raft ride and a hotel but which is replete with bubbling brooks, rushing waterfalls, lush pine and even a nature trail up through the mountain, where rafts crash into mine shafts where bats-eyes pierce the darkness and hot springs gently mist the water's surface. It's the one area of DCA that was perfect when the park was new, and although the park has a lot more great places today, it's still the one nearest to my heart.
Then there's the spot in Fantasyland where tea cups spin underneath Chinese lanterns, the Monorail glides by overhead, Matterhorn bobsleds splash into Alpine lakes and boats depart into Monstro's mouth all in the same little spot. John Hench spoke a lot about making theme parks look welcoming, active. Although elbow room is tight, sitting in this area for a minute or an hour is rewarding.
After years of not "getting it" the past year has made me a devoted Disneyland Hotel fan, and as sad as it was to lose Jack Wrather's remarkable Horseshoe Falls, the fact is that it's the only place in the world right now to find Trader Sam's, the best little thing Disney's done in forever. A potent combination of mixed drinks and themed design nirvana, especially for a former Jungle Cruise skipper like me, Sam's is an escape inside the escape - after an hour in its perpetual twilight where the sounds of vintage Jack Wagner music selections play, it's shocking to stumble outside and find oneself in 2013.
Then there's Snow White Grotto, especially at night, which is one of those places that's so perfect that I'm disappointed that Disney cloned it for Tokyo. And given my list above and article above that, I probably don't have to state my love of the Court des Anges, the Blue Bayou right along the water, or the top room inside the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough.
Even if a year was not long enough to extinguish my love of those places, I don't regret having returned because I do feel like I now know that little extra indescribable thing that Disneyland has and Walt Disney World lost: Disneyland is a museum.
Moreso than nearly any other theme park, Disneyland is replete with weird little details that simply are not repeatable. There's the petrified tree in Frontierland, which not even Walt knew what to make of. There's Lafitte's Anchor in New Orleans Square, which was there by the Golden Horseshoe in 1955 and still warns us not to believe everything we read. There's the replica of the Capitol building made by some guy in the 30s and the displays about vintage fire fighting below the apartment where Walt Disney slept. There's Snow White Grotto, an accident of history, and a bronzed Midget Autopia car below the first Disney monorail track. Everywhere you look there's eccentric touches, weird displays, educational plaques and reminders of the past. Everywhere you look, the attitudes of previous generations have left marks for us to gaze and ponder. Although Disney goes to great length to deny it, this is what museums are.
It's that chill of recognition that I've gotten standing at the foot of the Washington Monument or inside the Smithsonian, that electric spark between you and relevant history. It's very much alive at Disneyland. This is where Steve Martin watched Wally Boag and learned comic timing, right there is where Walt Disney cracked wise with the mayor of New Orleans, over there is where Marc Davis rode a mine train and changed theme design history by not liking it. Magic Kingdom is a darn good theme park, but Disneyland is a national treasure, and every student of themed design, or history, or urban planing, or entertainment art needs to see it, and absorb it, and experience it fully.
See more videos like the one above at my YouTube page.