November 9, 2009

The Disneyland Historical Preservation Society

Disneyland, unlike other parks that have come after it, is an American treasure. While the Walt Disney World resort in Florida may pull in bigger crowds and more money, it is Walt's park in Anaheim that resonates with guests old enough to remember what it was like to have only one place on earth this magical.

This last visit to the California kingdom reminded me of both years past and those we live in- but not much for tomorrow. You see, everywhere I looked I seemed to find bits of Disney trivia and lore, references to our current entertainment world, and absolutely nothing to think of about the future.

Click on all the photos for a larger image.

After the very grand vista that greets each guest via boat or monorail as they travel to Florida's Magic Kingdom, to step off the tram and walk right up to the much smaller Main Street railroad station is quite a contrast. Yes, turning around and viewing California Adventure is a reminder times have changed, but the scale of Disneyland itself creates a warm, comforting charm. Very reminiscent of days gone by when life was easier and the world was larger.

Passing through the small tunnels into Main Street made me pause. I was home here. This was my park, the one I grew up with and the one I watched the Walt Disney Company add to over time.

There was no dropping of the line rush today as Magic Morning hours were in effect, and I had all day to myself as this was my first visit alone in a decade. I quietly walked the park, riding the attractions I had missed from last trip. It wasn't Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy that kept my attention. It was the commitment to preserve the legacy of Walt's park that was constantly before me.

Finding the Main Street Cinema open and showing real films versus just being a facade for yet another generic shop in Florida was delightful. There was only one or two others there with me that early in the morning, but we all stood there enjoying a bit of history and old fashioned fun as Mickey Mouse starred in Steamboat Willie.

Of course, with the Disney Gallery now on Main Street, the atmosphere took on a more reverent tone than I expected. I thoroughly love the fact that Steve Martin's classy 50th anniversary tribute still plays next door. Between the two, and spying Walt's apartment over the firehouse, the sense of the significance of Disneyland was strong. I was delighted by the refurbished Plaza Inn. The surroundings were elegantly unexpected as it had been years since I'd eaten there. The food was simple and satisfying, yet looking at all the stained glass and beautiful artisan touches, I realized Walt and team put their heart and soul into this park.

This was the longest amount of time I had spent on Main Street in years, and I loved doing so. The sounds of the horse drawn streetcar mingled with the happy noises from delighted children. Some things are timeless- only the whistle of the train was missing as the railroad was closed for upkeep. Speaking of upkeep, the park was wonderfully clean and maintained. It seemed the standards of old were back in order.

My usual procedure is to opt for a sharp left turn into Adventureland, but instead I headed for Tomorrowland as I wanted to catch the new Halloween version of Space Mountain early in the day. Once I had done that, it was off to the jungle I went.

There still seemed to be few folks in the park, and this made possible some photos that would never have happened later in the day. In some ways, this outreach from civilization seemed stuck in time aside from the horribly out of place set piece from Aladdin. (Would somebody bring back the Tahitian Terrace and remove this blemish?) A journey with Indiana Jones seemed great as always, although a second trip rendered nothing noticeably different than the first one- an unfortunate fact for the last decade or so. Yet the lush jungle and intricate temple and queue was perfectly in tune with what had been built years before. Nice, really nice.

For an animated film, I found Tarzan an inspired choice. I even love this version of the updated Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. However, I wish Tarzan and Jane were not home- and I certainly miss the lively polka that used to be found playing high above the crowds. The new extension bridge between new and old did provide some wonderful views. (Just click on the above photo, and you'll see what I mean.)

It was descending the tree that the reality hit me: The Disneyland Historical Preservation Society was in full swing, and it's president Tony Baxter had taken the reins. That's not a bad thing.

To have a leader champion this park and do it with an obvious love for it is a great gift. Making the treehouse relevant for a new generation is a smart way to also ensure a piece of history is preserved. Disneyland may not have the big budget attached as the funds must go to redeeming the disaster called California Adventure 1.0, but the end result of a smaller budget has forced the Anaheim Imagineering team to look at the park from a fresh perspective.

The wonderful and loving transformation of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk Thru brought about the salvation of an attraction close to being left in mothballs forever. It is gorgeous on the inside. The Imagineers used great restraint in allowing new technologies to be used only when they enhance the story, instead of overshadowing it by making the special effects the star. Story comes first- a lesson some of the management should remember before they give us another series of attraction missteps and disappointments.

The Historical Society was also at work over at It's A Small World, reminding guests of its ties to the World's Fair of 1964. The infusion of well themed Disney characters does not destroy the flavor or intent of the attraction but only adds to its delight for small children who play a new game of hide and go seek here.

Due to its sheer beauty and the landscape altering disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Disneyland's New Orleans Square remains the Historical Society's most understated and successful effort. No one in their right mind would close the park's premier attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the beautiful plaque at the entrance attests to its enduring and well deserved popularity. Although Jack Sparrow and friends (foes?) now make a tasteful appearance and update the show for today's audiences, the fact a mini monument celebrates the attraction shows Disneyland has started to view itself as a museum as well as a theme park. Blasphemy for some, truth telling for others. The ride still rocks- and it remains among the Imagineers best efforts ever- yet it is also a tribute to the Imagineers of old from the hands of newer artists also part of the Society.

High on my to-do list was a visit to Tom Sawyer Island, I mean Pirates Lair at Tom Sawyer Island. I guess the photo above means its now just Pirates Lair. Issues of how well it fits notwithstanding, and whether it still sits in Frontierland or not, the transformation is fairly well done. How a photo opportunity with pirate treasure can sit next to Fort Wilderness is beyond my understanding.

In general what once was Injun Joe's Cave is still as creepy as ever, much to the delight of young boys all over the island. And the place still seems miles away from the city as the Mark Twain sails by. The Society knows which battles to fight, and saving the island by making some concessions is a much wiser choice than letting it deteriorate into a backstage only area for Fantasmic! (Imagineer Eddie Sotto's unrealized plans for the territory were much more in theme, however. Just ask him about it on the WDWMagic boards.)

We were in New Orleans pre-Katrina, and the experience would be hard to duplicate anywhere. With apologies to Dole Whip lovers, the ability to sit in an elegant setting enjoying a mint julep and fritter while listening to live jazz is the premier snacking experience in the park. Thankfully, it does not seem that Disney will lose the atmosphere as they introduce the characters from The Princess and The Frog. I must say that I enjoy the Tim Burton makeover of the Haunted Mansion, but I find the non-holiday version much more in-line with the theme of the land.

Moving on, I found the Land of the Future is not immune to the oversight and effects of the Society.

A revamped TWA Rocket to the Moon now serves as a beacon for soft drinks, and what once was Mission to the Moon/Mars has become the home of another kind of Disney Gallery, albeit limited to posters from extinct Tomorrowland attractions.

Once again, the president has stepped in and negotiated for preservation of a classic. Tony's involvement in the new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage means one stateside park's guests can once again cruise undersea- but at the expense of the growing character infusion. Here is one truth still leftover from the days under Walt's direct leadership: Negotiation is still the name of the game.

The only difference in this season is that last century's CEOs saw the park as a labor of love versus a means to an end. I am not yet convinced Robert Iger values the parks for anything more than a way to introduce potential buyers to the characters, thereby reaching into their wallets. In contrast and to his defense, for his first decade at the helm, Michael Eisner held to Walt's standard for the parks. Mr. Iger hasn't proven himself yet. Even his annoucement about the billion dollar investment into California Adventure was focused on guest reaction versus park quality. Think about it.

Surprisingly, one of the Historical Society's strongholds is here in Tomorrowland. It's not just the gallery or the iconic buildings, it is in the attitude, and this is where the society unknowingly holds the deepest impact. Here, as hard as he tries, the President's hands are tied.

There are probably very few Imagineers in the Historical fellowship but many in the corporate offices- at least when it concerns executing visions of the future. In fact, there is no vision for this area of the park. Tomorrowland is home to a new kind of alien invasion: those with their eyes firmly focused on immediate profits and what is happening in our world now, those with a link to the animated films of the day instead of the dreams of the future. It is not even those aliens once found in Walt Disney World's first and most excellent Tomorrowland revamping from the 90s. Here's hoping President Tony gets a shot at improving the future before he departs the company. If rumors of his pending 2010 exit hold true, all hope may be lost here.

It is not just the attractions and restaurants that are impacted by the past. Fans eat up the memorabilia offered by the Society as well. Retro merchandise is big business and the company markets to it. No one is immune, although this trip I did bypass the offerings.

As I departed the park for the evening, a warm and calm feeling seemed to come over me. I was happily satisfied. For this one day, all seemed right in the world. Even though I had a one day parkhopper and used it, this was Disneyland as I remembered it, and mostly as I wanted it to be.

Days later, another realization hit me. It is not just Disneyland where the Historical Society is making its impact. California Adventure will soon join as the Society's new playground. The changes coming may be well done, and thereby do much for the popularity of the younger park, but they will keep this neighbor strongly in the era of the past. Whether it is a good move or not is to be seen, but so far, the results are mixed. But more on that another day.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Amazing write-up, you approached the park much as I do. Isn't Main Street great when its not crowded? I've spent hours just strolling up and down the sidewalks, meandering in and out of the shops...

"as a museum as well as a theme park. Blasphemy for some, truth telling for others." so true... I love your Historic Society concept, can I be a member?

"If rumors of his pending 2010 exit hold true" say it aint so???

Brilliant post my friend, I have tons of comments, but you stated everything so well I'll just say I agree with you 100%.

Mark Taft said...

I just loved Main Street as well! Of course, you can be a member of the Historical Preservation Society, your blog proves you know what you are talking about! ;)