November 1, 2010

Disneyland's Dirty Little Secret

Hope you enjoyed the trip report on California Adventure! Here now, is my take on the status of Disneyland... and please, don't forget to answer the poll to the left!

As you might remember, I had one full day to cover both parks in California. Normally, it might be somewhat of a lost cause, but with a cooler and overcast day and a bit of preparation, I was able to have a very casually paced day and see 23 attractions including World of Color.

Walked into the park just minutes before the rope drop. Main Street U.S.A. looked terrific in its Halloween garb. Ever since Matt Ouimet spruced up the place for the 50th anniversary, the old gal looks pretty good overall. (The same attention to detail in preparation for the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom seems to be happening as I write.) I had several minutes to look up at the buildings and view them in close detail. No peeling paint or rotting wood here. So different than what I saw at Disneyland Paris three years ago.

Normally this time of year, I would be in a rush to head towards the Indiana Jones Adventure, continue on to Haunted Mansion Holiday and then finally Splash Mountain before slowing down the pace. Since I had been to the parks almost exactly one year ago, I took a different approach. What would happen to the flow of my day- and the number of attractions I would experience- if I went "old school" and started with Fantasyland's dark rides?

Heading straight towards the castle, I was struck by how charming the courtyard was as I passed over the moat. Very charming without the crowds. Peter Pan's Flight was an early morning favorite for many visitors, but I was able to be the 5th person in line. It had been years since I had been over Neverland in the States, and since this attraction is the first one I will cover in my soon to come Disney Dark Ride Series, it seemed like a fitting beginning to the day. Ready for this? It was a let down.

Peter's invitation at Wendy's window didn't play, the music over London was off, and there were noticeable areas where Neverland needed some tender loving care by the Imagineers. Never even saw Tink! The whole flight was much less magical than I wanted, and I was so glad I did this first thing in the morning instead of queuing up hours later and experiencing a lengthy wait. This just hinted at a bit at Disneyland's dirty little secret, but more on that later.

Redeeming the first ride of the day, I journeyed off with Mr. Toad for a wild ride to nowhere in particular. The building looked beautifully elegant. The interior had oodles of detail, and my car seemed blessed with a brand new paint job. Yes, the attraction is an original, so it is old. And yes, it is simple. But it is still a pretty fun little jaunt. How did I manage to exit the ride with a smile on my face right after entering Hell? It is Fantasyland, after all!

Checking out the new effects in Snow White's Scary Adventures, I thought about how a combination mine train roller coaster and dark ride themed to this film could actually work in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The story's a great one. If the attraction entrance looks like a combination of Disneyland's Snow White Castle sitting on top of a mountain that's to the right scale, it could fit into the atmosphere well. I cannot wait to see the new concept art for Fantasyland Forest 2.0. Taking the simple figures and lighting effects with a kid friendly coaster could be a big family hit. And definitely "boy friendly"!

From that point, I walked through a very quiet and lovely Fantasyland, passing the Mad Tea Party and Dumbo as well as Storybookland Canal Boats, Alice in Wonderland and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Where was I headed? Right to Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

Two years ago, I experienced my first undersea travels in decades. I was not too impressed after a lengthy wait, so I wanted to give the attraction another chance. Again, it was a walk-on, something that would not be true later in the day when I queued for the Matterhorn. This time, with lowered expectations and riding in a submarine full of families with small children, I tried to experience the attraction through their eyes. Overall, a solid attraction. The thrill of being in a sub is not something I can experience every day. Does Nemo belong in Tomorrowland? Absolutely not. Was it the right choice to save the subs? Probably.

From one toon to another, Buzz was next on my to do list. Granted, I'm the low score king, but this is also the reason I didn't go on Toy Story Midway Mania at California Adventure later in the day. I will say this: the outside of the attraction looks very dated and the building needs some refurbishment. Disneyland's Tomorrowland is the worst of all the Magic Kingdom styled parks. A mish mash of designs and themes. It is so sad that this one time "World on the Move" has become the weakest land in the park.

After a quick jaunt back to California Adventure, I reentered Disneyland and began again with what would be my normal touring plan. This meant an awesome ride on Indy, (great new Harrison Ford Animatronic, by the way) followed by my favorite Disneyland attraction ever: Pirates of the Caribbean.

Although I was a young child at the time, I was among those who rode Pirates upon its opening in the Spring of 1967, and I have been held captive by their escapades ever since. No other Disney attraction save Epcot's original Journey Into Imagination has ever been as instantly loved.

Forty plus years later, this classic still has it all. In fact, I have never seen this attraction look or sound better, with one exception. The bayou night was as mysteriously dark as could be, the talking skull perfectly presented, and the caves and caverns spectacularly lit. Sure, the ride down the waterfalls will never equal those of Splash Mountain, but what follows the drops makes up for that in thrill and anticipation.

Three disclaimers here: 1- Disneyland Paris' version is still my favorite of all; 2- The attraction didn't need Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow and crew- but I like both pre- and post- Sparrow versions equally.; 3- Thank God the politically incorrect pirate activities are back! Pirates chasing women for their trays of food? Really!

As I mentioned, the attraction looked and sounded great. Yet, entering the main ship and coastline battle scene, the music was missing. It adds so much to the great visuals. Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa does a wonderful job blending old dialogue and new, and the first appearance of the beloved Captain Sparrow is inspired. All said, the new characters add to the attraction instead of detracting from it. Still a magnificent accomplishment in theme park presentations that is the industry standard to this day.

This trip through, I realized just how much available space there is in the show building to add new scenarios and characters. Maybe we'll see something new, perhaps Paris' sword fighting pirates will beach on American soil one day. Or even Will Turner (the true hero of the films) and Elizabeth Swann. The possibilities are endless or at least only limited by Disney's budget.

Returning back to the Lafitte's Landing, I should have opted for a second cruise, but instead I moved on to Haunted Mansion Holiday. The short walk through the streets of New Orleans Square are always enjoyable. It's easily my favorite land at Disneyland, and the whole of atmosphere enthralls me. The music, the props, the architecture, the food options, the attractions, the greenery. When you add the elegant Mark Twain rounding the bend, it's a complete package of perfection. Then, there is that beautiful abandoned mansion on the far end of town...

There's much to like about this Tim Burton inspired character makeover- great detail that's true to the Nightmare Before Christmas film- but I truly prefer the Haunted Mansion's original tour. It is one less cartoon inspired in a park that is adding characters all too often. The one big downside with being at the Disneyland Resort during October or Christmas- the two times I am most likely to visit due to my vacation schedule- is that I only get to see the original Marc Davis version when I go to Florida. Guess that makes the original concepts a treat for me.

It was still pretty cool, so I skipped Splash Mountain altogether. In hindsight, I probably should have gone on it as I did venture onto Grizzly River Run several hours later. How often do you get a 5 minute posted wait time? The weather did not stop me from walking through Critter Country however. Pausing to purchase a very pricey but delicious caramel pecan roll ($4.95 for a small piece!), I then walked through the land exploring the nooks and crannies of the Hungry Bear Restaurant.

This area of the park is gorgeous and feels so remote from the rest of it all. In this aspect perhaps among few others, Disneyland's 55 years of growth yields benefits California Adventure has yet to see. The "natural" landscaping and years of growth give Disneyland a lushness that has only been duplicated in Florida's Animal Kingdom. Hopefully, the current Imagineering team brought in to fix the second park should be thinking about this aspect, the one that was ignored in favor of endless streams of concrete. Nothing man made can compete with the natural beauty God builds into shrubs, trees, and flowers.

Moving into Frontierland, Big Thunder was next, then a cruise about the Mark Twain. At the top of the mountain for the climax to the "Wildest Ride in the Wilderness", the avalanche effects at the end were not working. Here it was again. Disneyland's dirty little secret: Many of the effects in some beloved attractions were missing in action, and upkeep on others was lacking compared to normal standards. I saw this later in other areas as well. Too many not to notice.

Perhaps the expense of updating its younger sister park was putting financial pressure on the care of Walt's Kingdom. Maybe Disneyland is being viewed as the cash cow, resting on its laurels, happy to be pleasing the large and loyal local crowd with retro merchandise, guest Imagineers and great holiday celebrations. Maybe a few other reasons as well, but there it was right before my eyes. Too many broken effects.

Back to the trip report. My cruise aboard the Mark Twain gave me a front and center view of everything new on the river. Love him or loathe him, Tony Baxter and his team did a fantastic job adding to the story. Even the old school minimal movement figures were a great touch. It's part of Disneyland's charm to leave some things this way, untouched by high tech/high touch enhancements. Unfortunately, from the ship, I could see how badly the second story building in New Orleans Square needed paint and care. More bad show.

I had one last Fantasyland attraction on my list- It's a Small World. Again, things looked and sounded great, but parts of the attraction's canal needed resculpting and repainting. The tribute to the U.S.A. is missing something, but I cannot put my finger on it exactly. Lastly, why or why not in Disney's thrust for retro merchandise, has there not been a series of limited addition Small World dolls for sale? They would sell like hotcakes. Think American Girl dolls, and you get a clear picture. Duffy is a go, but they are missing the mark on this one.

Returning to Tomorrowland and on to the next toon: Captain Eo Tribute. How dated this thing is! The visuals scream 1980's and the man cannot act, but boy, can Michael Jackson sing and dance! Regardless of what anyone thinks of him and how he lived his private life, Michael was gifted. The show is not timeless, but the music is. There's a rumor that Wall-E may one day make an appearance in 3D. (Look here for details on the Adventures with Disney blog. Given the blog master's fairly good accuracy rate, I have no reason to think it won't.) Makes sense- a futuristic character in a land that keeps adding characters- while losing its substance.

With lines still short, I took time for two back to back journeys I usually have to skip: one on the Disneyland Railroad and the other on the Monorail. On both, the backstage areas were in clear view- and were a mess. The view from the Monorail in particular was awful. Much like the tram from the parking garage, a visitor could see far more than they should. It detracts from the magic. And truthfully, the view of California Adventure from the monorail would not entice anyone to pony up the cash and walk through the gates. Maybe Buena Vista Street will hold true to its name.

One last attraction, then it was time for the Disney Gallery and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln before returning to California Adventure. A ride on the icy slopes of the mighty Matterhorn on its bobsleds. One of the best additions to the attraction was not the Abominable Snowman, it was the snow storm effects while you went up the lift hill. With the wind effects, it made for a terrific environment. Guess these were lost due to budget cuts as well? Who knew snow was too expensive?

President Lincoln. Wow! Sitting three rows from the front, I couldn't believe this was not an actor on the stage. His facial movements were as complex as could be. And his speech especially significant now as the idea of what constitutes America is being reevaluated. I loved the fact that old school, God mentioning history remained part of the show. Walt Disney was not afraid of acknowledging things of faith- and I applaud the managers of Disneyland for not going the politically correct route by removing the mention of His Holy Name. It was a terrific way to end my time at Disneyland.

Perhaps it is this presence of Walt and his influence that adds the intangible flavor which makes Disneyland my perennial favorite Disney theme park. In spite of its flaws, its lack of new cutting edge attractions, its limited space, or its ups and downs in management, this park showcases an America that makes me proud to be among its citizens. A visit here should be mandatory for any Disney fan.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)


steve2wdw said...

I was at Disneyland Sept 11-15 of this year and I too, noticed all of the missing effects you mentioned as well as many others. Since WDW is my "home" and I'm used to the WDW bashing by the DL fans, I was quite surprised by all the broken effects. From all the talk from the DL fans, I was truly expecting there to be a huge difference in attraction maintenance between the east and west coasts, but I saw the same types of problems at DL as MK has.

Mark Taft said...

It's funny- I love WDW MK and Disneyland for different reasons. But I agree, there is much bashing toward the MK from us DL diehards. Sometimes for good reasons. MK's Fantasyland so badly needs the revamp that is coming- as much as DL's Tomorrowland needs one.