September 20, 2010

Disney Park Countdown #1 - Disneyland

The Original. Walt's Kingdom. The One That Started It All.

For many reasons, it became evident to me while I was compiling the list and writing the posts that my Number One Disney Park on the Countdown just had to be Disneyland. (The whole countdown starts here.) I'll save the personal stories until later on, but Walt's original park topped the list for far more than personal reasons. For now, let's compare Disneyland to the other parks on the list and in the same categories: Attractions, Dining, Shopping, Maintenance being the main items.

Regardless of how you arrive at Disneyland's front gates, there is something moving and timeless about finally being here. Viewing the train station and iconic Mickey Mouse floral from the other side of the turnstiles, you realize there is an old fashioned intimacy and charm about the place. Unlike much of the grand scale presentation of Walt Disney World, the smaller Disneyland doesn't scream "I'm a commercial for The Walt Disney Company". Instead it seems to be the intoxicating and subtle whisper of "I'm a part of history; come explore".

The attractions found here are Disney's greatest hits- with variations on their themes forming the foundation of many of the subsequent Disney theme parks. The Jungle Cruise. Peter Pan's Flight. Mark Twain Riverboat. Autopia. The Disneyland Railroad and it's Primeval World. Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Matterhorn Bobsleds. Submarine Voyage. Monorail. (Swiss Family/)Tarzan's Treehouse. Enchanted Tiki Room. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. It's A Small World. Pirates of the Caribbean. The Haunted Mansion. Star Tours. Splash Mountain. Indiana Jones Adventure... the list seems endless. In addition to the greatest number of "dark rides" in any park, Disneyland has more real attractions than the three "secondary" Disney parks in Florida combined. Unlike some of the versions of these attractions found elsewhere, these are the full length originals. Many others are unique to Disneyland, only adding to the richness of the roster.

Not only is the attraction line-up stellar, the upkeep is as well. Disneyland is top notch in maintenance, upgrades, and enhancements. From seasonal overlays to continual tinkering by bringing new technology to perennial favorites and overlooked gems, the park is constantly changing. The love and care for the place manifests itself in gorgeous gardens and small corners where detail could be overlooked but isn't. Even upper levels of the structures reveals care is taken in areas not easily seen, something not uniformly found elsewhere- especially at the beautiful but neglected Disneyland Paris.

Mature trees add something special as well. This natural berm around the park, and plenty of shade in it, bring a sense of natural beauty that quite enhances the man made pleasures. Newer Disney parks aside from Disney's Animal Kingdom cannot compete with this organic handiwork. The Walt Disney Company would do well to learn this is one of the major shortcomings in the Studios themed parks and in California Adventure. As with the use of trees and shrubs and flowers, the Imagineers made excellent use of water at Disneyland. With its rivers and streams, ponds and lagoons, this helps sustain a refreshing environment even on the hottest of Southern California's summer days.

The opportunities for fine dining do not rival Epcot, but the variety of options more than holds its own with the other magic kingdoms. And there is more to be found than the expected hamburgers and hot dogs. Fans old and new rave about the atmosphere of the expensive Blue Bayou, but the delicate interior of the Plaza Inn Restaurant is every bit as inviting. For a rustic, get-away-from-it-all feeling, the patio of the Hungry Bear Restaurant in Critter Country hits the spot. If you're looking for something that feels like World Showcase at Epcot, the lovely Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante in Frontierland will give you pretty decent food in a serene setting. The beautiful patio with its tile work and abundance of bougainvillea seem a thousand miles away from Anaheim.

Snacking is a favorite past time here, too. What would a day of walking the park be without fresh popcorn, a Dole Whip, or a bag of chocolate licorice? In the evening, I've just got to have a mint julep and a fritter as I watch the Mark Twain round the bend from a seat in New Orleans Square!

Retail options, which are part of each park experience, are mixed. Yes, the Disney Channel stars are in full bloom here, and you couldn't expect the park executives to miss a chance to sell character dolls, plush animals, or Star Wars, Jack Sparrow, or Indiana Jones related items. Beyond the expected, take some time to browse some hidden nooks in each land. There are still some themed appropriate surprises waiting to be sold that don't add double duty to the Disney Company's bottom line.

Best of all, Disneyland remains the park to be emulated when it comes to park and attraction specific merchandise. The Disney Gallery is full of gems both old and new. Nostalgia reigns king, and stylized designs celebrating the richness of Disneyland history are found on items for every budget.

There is one area in which Disneyland is on par with Epcot. That is in the realm of live entertainment. The evening fireworks and Fantasmic performances are only the icing on a beautiful cake. The Golden Horseshoe continues to hold live shows and serves real food. The Jedi Academy, although not a personal favorite, is a hit with younger kids and those of the Star Wars generation. From the barber shop quartet to the jazz musicians and other talented folk, the sounds of live music fill the air. It is not common these days for Disneyland to feature top selling recording artists, but in decades past, they have hosted artists from Louis Armstrong and Buddy Rich to the Osmonds and Richard and Karen Carpenter.

It would be easy to think that 55 years of operation and expansion would be the primary advantage for Disneyland placing first among all other parks in the Disney kingdom. In many ways, this is true. However, the years have not always been so kind. And the historical charm and significance of Disneyland also creates some unique disadvantages. There are those who would like to keep Disneyland rooted in its past. (This article about the Disneyland Historical Preservation Society explains much about this philosophy.)

Perhaps in response to this tendency or just a desire to push more merchandise, there has been a marked increase in the characterization of attractions. Although I love the look of the treehouse, fiberglass figures from the Tarzan movie cheapen the experience. The same can be said for Nemo invading the submarines. Am I thrilled they are once again in operation? Sure- where else can you ride in one? Yet there has to be story lines for a great attraction that do not rely on excuses to cram more characters into the park. There are already places for the animated stars- see Mickey's Toon Town and Fantasyland, should the urge strike to bring them in. If they do not fit the theme of the land, they don't belong to be added there. Bringing them in only exhibits a lack of true imagination.

As much as Disneyland is always improving, it is very stagnant- embarrassingly so- when it comes to new attractions. There are vast areas of land that could be used for new attractions, new lands to explore. In fact, renovations aside, there hasn't been a truly new "E" ticket attraction since the premier of the Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995!

Perhaps the disaster of Tomorrowland 1998 made the company suits and money men gun shy. Disneyland's Tomorrowland is the poorest excuse for the land found in any Magic Kingdom styled park. Even Hong Kong Disneyland's look to the "future" makes no excuse for its intent, and from its character-infused design standpoint, it seemingly succeeds. The 2010 version of the future in California is a far cry from the incarnation of 1967. (See Vintage Disneyland Tickets' great post about Tomorrowland '67 here- and just for the record, I loved the Peoplemover and the Rocket Rods!)

Either way, the Disney Company management is resting on its laurels and playing to Disneyland's nostalgic appeal. This is a short-sighted perspective and a real shame. Blame can be placed clearly on CEO Robert Iger for this faulty and unfortunate focus of direction. Even the second decade mistakes of previous leader Michael Eisner did not detract him from believing Disneyland could continue without being forward thinking, nor did any of the leaders before Eisner.

There are other issues keeping Walt's original kingdom from being all it could be. During even slightly busy seasons, walking through the park is now difficult. Pick a land, any one, and you'll find the walkways are crowded. The journey from Main Street U.S.A. through Adventureland into New Orleans Square is a constant mess, and navigating through Fantasyland via the castle is almost as bad. Note to the suits here: the coming rebirth of California Adventure will only bring more folks, not less, to Disneyland. Better plan for this now and think it through! The ease of mobility enhances the experience, so remove inconvenience. It is just not safe to be in a crushing crowd during Christmas trying to walk through the It's A Small World area back to the front of the park. Think of the publicity nightmare should a fire ever break out in the area at that time.

Capacity, stagnancy, and character invasions aside, there is so much to love about the place! In my decades of visiting the park, I have never regretted spending the cash to do so. Be it a solo trip (where I "geek out" looking for details and ride attractions others wouldn't wait for) to a full family excursion (which is pricey but priceless in memories), a day at Disneyland remains a tradition when visiting the Golden State.

I've seen so many changes over the years- many more than I would admit to, but it is part of what builds my attachment to the park as I anticipate its future. From a young boy to a grown man, I have watched the transformation of those acres and been fascinated by the results. Not always happy about them but fascinated none the less.

Beyond nostalgia, there are other pieces of the overall feel of the park that draw me in. As the United States moves away from the concepts and ideologies that have made us a strong, God-fearing nation, there is something reassuring about the inherent and sometimes obvious patriotism that Walt built into the park. The Flag Retreat Ceremony and the Christmas Candlelight Processional are just two reasons the park stirs emotions beyond adrenaline rushes from thrill rides and character meets. Things have changed over the years- and how could they not during 55 years of growth and transformation- but American ideals have remained a constant. Even if it is now the highly held value of consumerism!;)

Change is and should always be the order of the day. Balancing the honoring of the park's roots with the future will be tricky! But I remember so much! The days of the Welch's Grape Juice Bar and Skull Rock are as vivid in my mind as my latest trip through Haunted Mansion Holiday. The Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland and Adventures Thru Inner Space are as fresh a memory as my recent spin through Winnie the Pooh's forest. I can vividly recall my opening day journey with Indiana Jones as well as I can remember my oldest son's first ride through America Sings. Somehow, the artistic talent of the Imagineers of all ages has helped ingrain these experiences into my collective memory- and this blog alone testifies to the impact that Disneyland has had on me. (Plus there seems to be tons of trip reports here on it as proof!)
Ultimately, Disneyland succeeds because the memories created there are so very personal for the millions of new guests and those returning year after year. Your actual mileage may vary, but here in brief form are a list of my must-do Disneyland experiences:
  • A trip through the Blue Bayou with the Pirates of the Caribbean always tells me I've "come home". What is it about the moonlight, the smell, the caverns, that draw me into a world that says "Disneyland" so clearly?

  • "It's a Small World"- OK, I love the song and love the environment. Makes me feel like a kid as much as a journey over Neverland or a wild ride with Mr. Toad.

  • Exploring the icy slopes of the Matterhorn. Either course works, and the rough old-school feel of the track reminds me Walt was so right to put this in his park. Perfect when the Christmas parade is passing by!

  • I always sense a bit of America's innocence lost and the life of my grandparents as I slowly walk Main Street U.S.A. The shops, the sound of horse's hooves on the pavement, the old time party line telephone in the Market House remind me of gentler years and a slower pace of life. A leisurely trip on the Disneyland Railroad is always a pleasure.

  • Cruising the Rivers of America on the Mark Twain at night. From hearing a bit of jazz from the shore to hearing next to nothing as it rounds the bend into the back waters, it is a simple and magical experience.

  • Sitting on a bench anywhere in the park watching people. Really!

  • Walking through the castle and hearing the kids laugh while riding the carousel. Or going to the castle candy shop. Simples pleasures.

  • A late evening trip on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's a fun ride during the day, but at night- especially from the back car- I just get a rush from the ride. Looking over the rest of the park from the top of the last hill is just so cool.

  • Just one more- an almost closing time trip through the Haunted Mansion. New Orleans Square is one of the best Disney lands ever, and it is my favorite place to hang out. It's elegant, winding streets make a perfect backdrop for the small shops and restaurants that line them. You can hear music in the air even when there is no one around! The food here is good wherever you choose to eat, the whole thing rich in detail. Lastly, this land shows Disney Imagineering at its best, and it showcases the two finest attractions ever created by the company. Period.
A bit of self indulgent storytelling here: In the days when the park was open until 1:00am and the crowds thinned out long before, I just had to walk to the back end of the park to go in the mansion by the river. In my middle teens, my family and I planned a visit to the park. At the end of the night, we temporarily split up so we could each do one last thing. I chose the Mansion.

Walking up to the doors, I was the last one let in- and I soon discovered, the only one inside. To experience the attraction totally alone, well, there was nothing like it. Needless to say, this fact did not go unnoticed by the attraction hosts, and more then once the ride stopped mid way through and the sound turned off. I sat in the darkened silence, listening and waiting. Pretty soon, my imagination took me places I never intended to go.

Eventually, I got to the end of the line and departed my silent Doombuggy. Unexpectedly, a quite "in character" host jumped out from behind me- and without hesitation, I quickly ran up the ramp and back outside into the night. It was a ride I will never forget- and one last reason why Disneyland is at the top of my countdown: Those who work in the park understand they are helping guests make priceless memories, and like Walt Disney himself, they delight in exceeding their customer's expectations. For those of you behind the scenes and those in the center of them, thank you for the memories and those to come.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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