January 28, 2009

Two Spoonfuls of Sugar (Day Two at the Disneyland Resort)

After a pretty terrific but exhausting day at California Adventure, I came home to tell the rest of my family what my daughter and I had discovered- huge crowds all day long. Giving everyone the option of an early arrival and therefore shorter lines for major attractions or sleeping in and staying late with long lines all day, they wisely chose the former.

Due to the numbers in our group, we split into two cars and headed to the resort. Our car had arrived at 7:10 for the 8:00am opening, sleepy headed young adults in tow. Of course, due to traffic lights and patterns, our caravan unintentionally split up. Without our cel phones on, we quickly discovered our car was at the parking lot, while my wife’s car headed to the Harbor Blvd. entrance. This was a direct reflection of her not going to Disneyland since 1997- and me not remembering to tell her about the parking garage. Hopefully, the rest of our day would not continue in the same vein!

Our passengers jumped on the tram, figuring the best place to see everyone else would be by the security gates. The backsides of the backstage did not provide magical views of the resort! Indy’s building badly needs more trees, a new photo wrap or a paint job or something. Looking into employee areas is a poor show- especially to what we had witnessed in Orlando or Paris. Maybe the proposed expansion of Downtown Disney will provide a better view in the future!

We reunited -and it feels so good ;) - around 7:35am, quickly going through the security gates and getting into line with our previously purchased tickets in hand. The lines at the ticket booths were already very, very long. Magic Morning Hour was in effect, so the entry gates were closed tight to us common folk not staying on the property. At 8:00am sharp, folks started in.

Main Street was stunningly beautiful dressed in its Christmas garb, tree sitting majestically in the square. I savored the view, and that of Sleeping Beauty Castle, but turned directly left into Adventureland and right toward Indy- along with just about everyone else. Sending one of us with our passports, we gained Fastpass tickets for another ride, meeting up in line not too far away from where we began.

Snaking through the exterior queue (pun intended), we enjoyed the experience. The sound effects were on, Jungle Cruise boats chugging by, the vegetation lushly providing the right vibe: our first time explorers and old timers alike were wide-eyed. Inside the temple, I was gifted by rattling the infamous bamboo pole at just the right time, sending the ceiling dropping down on us. Never happened to me before although I’d seen it occur. Great way to start our adventure.

Once on our “troop transport”, our journey was exciting but I realized several effects needed to be brought back into the mix. Why does Disney spend all this money to build a world class attraction then neglect it instead of maintaining it in the highest operating mode? Frustrating. Our adventure was terrific to all- and only the most discriminating Disney fan was left realizing the shortcomings. (We gladly experienced the attraction later- to the seemingly same journey…)

Our plan was firmly in my mind, and we ventured on to Pirates of the Caribbean, my personal favorite Disney attraction ever. Almost a walk on, we set sail, and visions of a non-existent $250 lunch swam through my head as we glided past the Blue Bayou restaurant.

As has been written much before, Pirates at Disneyland is a much richer version than its Florida counterpart. The attraction looked terrific- and sounded terrific as well. However, the recent addition of characters from the popular movie seemed to widen the gap between versions. The California build-up to seeing Davy Jones is much needed, and the more intimate last view of Captain Jack is up close and personal. Additionally, the audio in Florida is noticeably inconsistent and weaker in result. For all the accolades I could heap upon California’s pirate adventure, I will proudly admit Disneyland Paris has the ultimate representation of this classic. (Look for my trip report earlier in this blog.) It is a version that is currently without Jack Sparrow…

Exiting the attraction, New Orleans Square delighted me with its holiday garishness! We wandered through its back streets taking in the d├ęcor and enjoyed Christmas classics with a jazz twist. Even a much needed bathroom break yielded a bit of treasure- a nice view of this mural (above) and a chance to grab some additional photos. I planned to return later in the evening to enjoy a nighttime visit to a now lost New Orleans of long ago.

We wandered past the train station to the Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion. It too, was almost a walk on. I was the only one of our group to experience this version in the past and quickly explained the story behind the transformation before we entered.

Creepy and delightful! My wife said it best upon our exit- “That was like a whole different attraction! I can’t believe Disney would take the time and expense to redo this for just a few months of the year!” I’ll say she hit the nail on the head. When Disney does it well, it stands high above its competitors in providing breathtaking experiences- and the management in California really knows how to please its audience and keep them returning all year round. (We’ll be seeing the new and improved Huanted Mansion in its original version in Florida in a month. Can’t wait. Watch for a future trip report.)

The compactness of Disneyland is a mixed blessing. Just around the (river)bend was Splash Mountain, our next destination. Yet because of it, the transition between the mansion and Critter Country is jarring, despite all attempts to ease us from one place to another. (In this man’s opinion, it is another area where Disneyland Paris excels. Each land feels so separate and distant from the others, a unique combination of enough land and excellent planning on the Imagineers part. Every Disney geek needs to see this park once to believe its beauty!) On the positive side, the smaller space demands creativity in planning expansion and gives “Walt’s park” an intimacy lacking in the other Kingdoms. Aspects such as landscaping take on a new importance, as tree and building placement becomes necessary tools to define and inhibit sightlines. (Something not well used or maybe even considered when designing California Adventure! There is hope this will change.)

Rounding the path into Critter Country was as if we journeyed outside the city to enter a whole new place. Even when it was Bear Country back in 1972, this area of the park has always enjoyed a unique feel. It is a beautiful segment of the park, providing a respite from wide open spaces and large crowds. There is nothing like it in Florida’s Magic Kingdom- and they are left worse off because of it. The restaurant on the river provides an additional retreat from the energy and pretty good food to boot. That said, let’s be honest here- Disney management made a huge mistake by ripping out all of the classic Country Bear Jamboree to put in a silly old bear. Don’t misunderstand. Pooh needs a place, and this area of the park needs a dark ride to delight the younger visitors. I just think one theater should have been spared, forcing a more creative use of the space to add a journey in honey pots- and satisfying the need for a little more history to exist in the park.

This small land was wonderfully and tastefully decked out in its Christmas best. We ventured under the Christmas tree hanging at the entrance to walk through Splash’s queue. Combining the funny little story, thrills, and fun, Splash Mountain reinforces why Tony Baxter is one of my most appreciated Imagineers. Our group left the attraction in various degrees of wet to drenched, both enjoying and thankful for the warm bright California sun. As we cruised back to Indy for a second ride, we took in the views. For the most part, Disneyland has aged well, (Tomorrowland being the sorry exception).

The Tomorrowland entrance was a mess. Between Buzz, Star Tours and the Astro Orbiter, it was just a sea of bodies with little rhyme, reason, or room to move. A design disaster anyway you view it. Time for Space Mountain- we thought! Standby lines were posted at one and a half hours. This was now the top attraction choice for most everyone on our list, yet no one wanted to endure the line, so we opted for a Fastpass for 5:30pm. Wow! The crowds here heavy, so we knew we’d have to suffer through some long times. My wife and I attempted Nemo while the rest of our crew opted for Buzz Lightyear. Upon seeing the line and noticing the time for the renewed sub voyage, we decided to join everyone else in line to battle Zurg with my favorite animated Disney character. (Sorry, Mickey!)

Took about a half an hour to get on to save the galaxy. While we were waiting, I noticed the new Fairies meet and greet. It was mobbed with people, the two queue lines meeting at the back of the old “America the Beautiful” building. From this point forward, all you could see were people, making maneuvering the park difficult.

Next up, a trip to Endor. At this point, our group split up, half going to grab a snack and half trusting an inexperienced robot with our lives. In the midst of waiting, we had the shock of our lives. Some friends from back home were standing ahead of us in line! What a great surprise- and we didn’t even know they were visiting California when we were. It is a small world after all. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Star Tours was quite a bit of fun- and the queue and props in tip top shape. I had expected Disney would let it fall into some measure of disrepair with version 2.0 apparently around the corner, but I was glad to be wrong.

Meeting up again, we tracked back to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a longtime family favorite. The icy slopes beckoned. We opted for the Tomorrowland side and enjoyed watching the submarines once again travel through the lagoon. What a treat to see this unique attraction back in operation once more- and I couldn't wait for our voyage. (Wish I could say the same thing for the Peoplemover!) Our wait to encounter the Swiss mountain was surprisingly shorter than I thought it would be. After all these years, this 50 year old attraction still thrills- and provides some of the best views of the park.

Watching the monorail trains glide above us, it struck me that Disneyland has some very unique attractions compared to its sister parks; and although the layouts of the lands are similar, each has its own distinct feel and flavor. The Submarine Voyage, Monorail, Matterhorn and Autopia intertwine in a way that produces an energy not found in the other Tomorrowlands. Distinctively Disneyland. Too bad the Skyway and Peoplemover (or even the short lived and awfully fun Rocket Rods) were no longer part of that “World on the Move”.

Almost time for our 1:30pm lunch at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. We dropped into Frontierland and gained Fastpass tickets for Big Thunder, then took off down Main Street to exit, get our hands stamped, and enjoy the short walk to our restaurant at Downtown Disney. Departure to arrival at the Jazz Kitchen: ten minutes- but a world apart.

In hindsight, having reservations at the Jazz Kitchen instead of the Blue Bayou was a blessing from God. Downtown Disney was comparatively empty, and the change to a quieter atmosphere was refreshing.

Quickly seated, we enjoyed an absolutely terrific meal- and beignets for dessert- at almost 1/2 the price of what it would have cost us at the Bayou. The hour and a half out of the park gave us time to share stories, rest, laugh, and enjoy each others’ company without the stresses of trying to get to the next attraction. This has forever changed the way we will “do the parks” during the busy season, and this is my new favorite idea after using Fastpass and arriving early to beat the crowds. If you are the Disney Dining Cast Member who suggested this for us, thank you!

A short walk to the Monorail station led to a 3 minute wait for the next train. We were quickly back in the park and ready to go at it again.

Our time for the “Wildest Ride in the Wilderness” was near, so Frontierland was next. Aside from Main Street, this area of the park feels the most like “Walt Disney” to me. I can sense his pride in our American heritage here, his love of the Old West, and his appreciation for the pioneers who ventured westward. The newer Rancho del Zocalo restaurant fits in beautifully, nestled against Big Thunder Mountain. With the fort and the Golden Horseshoe nearby, the Mark Twain and Columbia sailing, the canoes running with the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, Frontierland has plenty of atmosphere. In fact, all the land around the Rivers of America skillfully blends together, yet leaves each area feeling as a world unto itself. Can you tell I love it?

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad remains my favorite west coast thrill ride. It’s fun without being terrorizing, the views are great, and the theming is some of the best on the Disneyland Resort property. The additional bonus: it is an entirely different experience to ride at night. Everyone walked off with smiles on their faces. I do miss the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland at times, and wish, as with Pooh and Country Bear Jamboree, that Disney would have found a method to integrate them both.

Christmas at Big Thunder Ranch is really something. Reindeer, decorations, Santa, and lots of activity make this a pretty sweet seasonal treat. Like the backwoods of Critter Country, this area feels far off the beaten path. This section and the trail past it make for a nice walk even during a busy season. I know one day this section of the park will be transformed, but I hope the rustic ambience will remain without the addition of animated characters as basis for new attractions.

At late afternoon, the paths were filled with people like us trying to cram in as much as they could. I knew it was time to hit our “B” list of attractions for the time being. Amazingly, the Jungle Cruise had a ten minute wait. Our skipper was not the funniest I have had guide us, but he was pretty good. Seemed as if the cruise flew by, and before I realized it, Trader Sam had sent us on our way. (Thought the piranha effect was well done- and I so appreciate the little upgrades done to the old school Disneyland attractions over the years.)

Maintaining our sanity as we struggled through Adventureland, (Fastpasses for Indy were out with the standby line going upstairs into the Jungle Cruise queue), we eventually made it past New Orleans Square into Critter Country for a trip through the Hundred Acre Wood. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has taken a lot of flack from the on-line Disney community- and it deserves most of it. But the little ride does have its charms- sweet music and a consistently short queue. Our children groaned, and we smiled a bit. I find I like the gentle bouncing effect better each time I ride, and I love to watch the faces of the little children as they anxiously await their trip. There is an old fashioned innocence to this attraction that is growing on me. Be forewarned, next trip I may return liking the attraction.

Groaning turned to delight when we stopped inside the candy shop to indulge our collective sweet tooth. What a great and different selection of treats to be found here! The Tigger’s Paw was as tasty as it was cute. Kind of an orange creamsicle flavor and texture with a orange colored white chocolate coating. Yum!

Just as we were contemplating our next move, we realized our Fastpasses for Space Mountain were almost due. Off we went, braving the masses once more. We found just enough time for a quick visit to the home of the future in Innoventions. For an overall waste of space, I found this exhibit really interesting for a change. The technologies presented didn’t scream cutting edge but more just-out-of-reach. Yet it was such a likeable presentation overall. A good time filler. The sunset was coming over the park, and the lights were beginning to sparkle. I love dusk at the park. And it is a great photo opportunity, but it was Space Mountain time, and that took priority.

Using Fastpass on Space Mountain is great- there is no bypassing the detailed queue, yet you reach the front of the line in fairly short order. My first trip through the reImagineered Mountain was shortly after opening. I walked off queasy and of unsure footing. Not this time. Sailing through the universe was a pleasure- and most of our party exited ready to go again but fully aware the line was a killer wait.

At this point, half our party decided to head home. Of course, we joked they were the ligtweights in our not-so-humble-opinion, so we ventured on with our shortlist for the evening: Nemo, It's A Small World Holiday, the fireworks, and an evening stroll through a nighttime New Orleans Square and down Main Street.

Folks had lined up for quite awhile for the parade, and the whole of Small World plaza was a mess. It was made bearable by the gorgeous lighting found on the attraction facade. In fact, it was not uncommon to see people stop in their tracks and just stare as the building sparkled in front of them! We were just slightly better as we dove head first into the queue.

After a 45 minute wait, we set sail. This was my wife's first Christmas voyage, and she was delighted by what she found. If there ever was a Disney attraction that oozed charm and tenderness, this is it. Overly sentimental and optimistic in this harsh world, It's a Small World invites us to view our world with a little bit of hope and leaves me with an uplifted spirit, certainly an experience not a common occurance.

I found the relocated Rain Forest scene to blend in perfectly with its new South Pacific surroundings. I am ambivilent about the upcoming character additions, but absolutely thrilled that the United States will be more obviously honored come February! We have much reason to be proud of this country and what it was founded upon, our heritage and culture are just as spectacular and rich as those of our global neighbors. Bravo Disney, for making this small tribute happen!

Upon our exit, we fell into the crowd. The parade was just about to start, and honestly, this was the first time in decades I ever felt somewhat unsafe in a Disney park. This was a disaster waiting to happen! The crowds were so thick that should a fire have started, hundreds of people would have been trapped. In spite of all the wonderful things local management has done to enhance the park, they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such an unsafe mass of people to be allowed into the park. Utter lack of responsibility or that of greed. There is no excuse. OK, now that I have said my piece, I will get off my soapbox...

Lines for attractions were unavoidable at this point in the evening, so we hunkered down into the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage line. Another 45 minute wait. I love the first ride on a new Disney attraction, yet my growing anticipation was leveled by the newfound journey. Yes, it was great fun to sit in the subs again, but in my opinion, the experience at the Living Seas pavillion at Epcot is a much better one. Frankly, I find the sets in Florida richer and more effective in telling the story. The shorter voyage in the revitalized seacabs builds to a solid ending, but in California, the trip 's end is a solid let down. How I wish the Imagineers had been given the go-ahead for an Atlantis inspired journey instead! Chalk it up to popularity and commerce- but at least the Subs cruise again.

Departing disappointed, a stop in front of the castle was just the thing we needed to remember why we loved the park at the holidays. How beautiful our small little palace was! Shimmering in the nighttime air, I couldn't help but stare at it, even though I remembered I had not made it inside to see the newly opened Sleeping Beauty walk through. No matter. This was enough for me now, and there was always the next trip!

New Orleans Square was next on our to do list and negotiating a swarm of people to get there seemed alot less manageable than it had just two and a half hours ago. However, we pressed on, and the end result was well worth the effort.

Disneyland at night is a feast for the senses. Others can enjoy the Fantasyland charm and the energy of Tomorrowland, but for me, nothing compares to what it feels like on the other side of the park. The buildings dazzle in their nighttime garb with everything from tiki torches to reflections on the water lighting the way. Mark Twain rounding the bend in its nighttime elegant glory while its passengers wave to those on shore. The smell of popcorn fading through the air along with the sounds of musicians plying their trade, the whistle of the trains rounding Big Thunder Mountain and the occasional gunshot coming from the Jungle Cruise.

In the cool of the evening, New Orleans Square is my favorite place to stop and rest, even moreso if it includes a mint julep and a journey on the Mark Twain. In years gone by, when the crowds were not so heavy, summer evenings enchanted as I wandered through the park, stopping to catch the detail aound me. For a split second this night, I felt that again. (It had been years since I'd felt like that, but a more recent late night visit to Epcot yielded that same sense as I strolled its World Showcase gardens toward the end of the day.) We savored the moment, then decided it was time to head down Main Street

As we headed down the Street, we turned and took one last glimpse of the park and its iconic castle. A friendly employee engaged us in some warm conversation. We strolled into the Opera House for a bit, and then we slowly exited the gates to tram back to the car. Another day, another wonderful visit- and back to reality we went.

(Photos copyright Lauren Taft)

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