January 14, 2009

Two Spoonfuls of Sugar (Day One at the Disneyland Resort 2008)

There it was late September, and I realized that due to the timing, my only chance to go to the Disneyland Resort during a family visit would be sometime after Christmas and before New Year’s. What luck! Probably the busiest time of year. But it would be our only chance to do this as a family now that some of us had moved out of state.

Thinking through my plan of attack, a few things were obvious: One, I’d have to purchase our tickets ahead of time; two, we would have get there at the gate before the opening time; lastly, we’d have to be wise about using Fastpass, deciding what we really wanted to see.

There were also the non-practical but equally important emotional aspects of our visit. I wanted to see the attractions and attraction enhancements I had not seen. This included Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, the new Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through, the piranha attack on the Jungle Cruise, and lastly, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
I was not the only traveler, however, and we each had our own ideas. My wife hadn’t been to Walt’s original park since Spring of 1997. Yes, 1997. We had been to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney World, but she had skipped out going to Disneyland the last several visits. (She has not even seen California Adventure since it opened. But that is another story.) Therefore, the Christmas makeovers of Mansion and Small World ranked high. Our son had never been to Disneyland with his wife; neither had he been to the park for almost 15 years. Our youngest son and daughter had to "do the mountains". (Our oldest daughter was actually left at home last minute due to job requirements.) Satisfying everyone and seeing the best of the park would be a challenge. One aspect we all agreed upon: we hated crowds and wanted to make this as low-key a visit as possible.

We settled on visiting the park on December 30, thinking most locals would be back to work and many visitors gone. Not perfect but our best shot at the lightest crowds. Calling Disney Dining thirty days out to reserve a lunch reservation for Blue Bayou, I was surprised that the cast member answered my ringing call by saying "Hello, You probably want the Blue Bayou- and it is fully sold out!" My shocked response was "Yes- can you offer anything else?" After verifying my request, date and time, his reply informed me that in his estimation, that restaurant was full but over-rated, and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen was much better both in quality and in price. I booked it, feeling a bit disappointed until I found Bayou's on line menu and saw their outrageous prices!

Due to a change of family plans once we arrived, I had a free day to myself on the 29th. I decided to go to California Adventure with my youngest daughter- the only person who wanted to join me; the others stating DCA wasn’t yet worth the price of admission.

We had our own list of must dos for the park: Blue Sky Cellar, Aladdin, Toy Story Midway Mania, Turtle Talk, Bug’s Land, and the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail- all items one or both of us had not experienced.

After a quick run to the resort the night before to purchase tickets, the morning of our DCA jaunt, we proceeded to stop and have beignets and coffee for a quick breakfast prior to the younger park’s 10:00am opening. Unlike Magic Mornings at Disneyland, we were let into the park and chose to head towards Soarin’ Over California to start our day.

This attraction never ceases to thrill and impress us- and make us proud we spent so many years living in the Golden State. What an error on Disney’s part to allow this headlining attraction- a California Adventure original- to make its way unchanged to Epcot! This should have remained in California as the park centerpiece, but, I digress.

An exhilarating flight and Fastpasses in hand for later, we were off to Toy Story Midway Mania. Passing the fully drained bay, we were amazed at how ordinary and ugly the entire area was without water. This was the price to play for poorly conceiving and building a park without a nighttime water show already in place. Arriving at the entry to this new-fangled shooting gallery, the line was now a posted 45 minute wait. We settled in, taking in the wealth of detail around us.

The beginning stages of transformation of the Pier were startling! This was what this area of the park should have been like at opening. At once elegant, fun, and totally in theme, Paradise Pier 2.0 will eventually live up to its expectation and name. The detail reminded me of what the Imagineers could do when given the proper time and budget. The colors were warm and inviting, the attention to craftsmanship evident. Can’t wait for more!

Our local sideshow barker, a Mr. Potato Head, was witty and fully functional. Very impressive. Reading each poster for Midway Mania, I gleaned as many facts and hints as possible. Boarding the attraction vehicle in anticipation of the first ride of a new Disney attraction is always an exciting event for me. What would this be like? Would I enjoy it? Could Disney dazzle me after all these years?

How can I describe Toy Story Midway Mania? In one word: disappointing.

After all the hype, the on-line photos and trip reports, I found myself having an enjoyable time but not being astonished by the end result. Traveling in front of a bunch of screens with a minimum amount of props and set pieces is not my idea of a world class attraction.

Midway Mania is a nice "C" ticket attraction, housed in a "D" ticket building, found in an "E" ticket location. Admittedly, this new attraction was what needed to be present in the Pier moving forward. Midway Mania is a step in the right direction but not worthy of the attention it has received.
Time for some good old-fashioned fun. That meant California Screamin, one of the best coasters on the Disney property if not on the West Coast. The crowds had built by this time, and we encountered another lengthy wait. Once we boarded, the music kicked in, building the anticipation for another terrific ride. Certainly not the tallest or fastest or the most technologically impressive, California Screamin succeeds because it puts fun before fear. The launch gets the heart racing, and the drops keep it going without creating paranoia about what will happen next. A themeless queue is its only shortcoming, and that may get fixed one day, but for now, this attractions rocks with the best of them even without it. We left with huge smiles on our faces. What more can you ask for? As we realized Aladdin was to start in 12 minutes, we rushed to the theater and got in the top balcony moments before the show began. I had seen the production a few years prior, my daughter had not. As usual, the Genie took center stage and never gave up his hold on the audience. Jasmine was quite good, with a fluid movement and a wonderful voice. The same could not be said for the show’s namesake. He was stiff and soulless in his presentation, his voice mediocre at best. The rest of the cast was nondescript. However, for a theme park show, it was still better than anything found at Disneyland. A slight walk to Tower of Terror left us with new passes.

Hunger hit us, and a stop at Taste Pilots fit the bill. What is it with this place? Every visit, busy season or not, means huge crowds and poor service. Thankfully, excellent burgers almost made up for the forty minutes it took from stepping in to receiving our food. The self-service kiosks were gone, but the process was still not acceptable. Dining at California Adventure has become a problem when at opening, it was full of choices and high quality. The paying customer now suffers. This matter must be fixed before the crowds grow due to Disney’s numerous expansion plans.
In Florida, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is my main reason for visiting the underwhelming Disney Studios. At California Adventure, this attraction is a main draw but a second class version of the original. The set-up lacks the mystery of its older sibling. The inside of the hotel is too bright and cheery, and the lack of forward movement makes for an extremely short ride without the necessary emotional build up for the drops. Still fun and still first class for California Adventure, but still just good enough.

In some ways, "good enough" seems to be the mantra for this park- at least in its current incarnation. There are very appealing aspects, but they seem to be individual parts instead of a complete and compelling whole. The park lacks soul and heart, something the Imagineers hope to bring after an almost billion dollar laundry list of improvements. I hope they accomplish their mission.
Following our brief haunted hotel tour, we dropped into an undiscovered gem in this small park: Turtle Talk with Crush. The Animation Building was an early DCA hit for good reason. The variety of attractions inside are only strengthened by the presence of this presentation. Crush delighted us, adults and children alike. The concept is simple but the technology amazing. Loved it at Epcot. Just as much fun at California Adventure. This attraction is truly under advertised and overlooked by a majority of the crowd. Crush is a clear home run- and we left with another smile left on our faces.
Crossing back to another side of the park, we took in the Blue Sky Cellar, while the crowds were thick and people getting impatient around us. It was a 5-star presentation, leaving me filled with hope that the park will eventually end up one California fans can be proud of. Phase One does seem heavy on adding characters, but this is just the start of a fresh beginning.

The afternoon was slowly changing into evening, and we had forgotten about Grizzly Rapids. It would certainly be less advantageous to an all day excursion at the park to be left wet for the rest of the day. We chose to ride anyway, and the queue was surprisingly full.

This choice yielded some unexpected benefits- time to take in the detailed queue, great photo opportunities, being immersed in the beautiful forest atmosphere- and getting partnered with a fun-loving family from the United Kingdom once it was our time to board.

While I firmly believe Disney settled for the expected and fairly cheap circular rafts instead of letting research and development come up with a true rafting experience, the ride is undeniably enjoyable. Would I like animatronics? You bet I would (and I hope they are added one day)! But overall, this is still a winner. (Animal Kingdom’s Kali River Rapids only dreams of being this good!) The views of the surrounding area are great, and the environment is rich. The spinning drop was not in operation, but that may have saved us. Our friendly Brits were absolutely soaked while we had a few splashes, nothing more.

We were left in good and dry shape to continue to the Challenge Trail. This was a new experience for both of us. The lower levels seemed fairly ordinary, and in the past, this had kept us from continuing on. This time, we did- much to our delight. The sun was now going down, providing a beautiful backdrop to our evening photos. The park ranger stations and theme transported us to another place. This was surprising as California Adventure has been rightly criticized for not doing this well. Feeling far away from the crowds of Southern California, it was awhile before I realized the best views of the area and the majestic mountain came from the rooms of the resort behind me. Conclude what you will about the designer’s motives in this being so.

By this point, the park’s crowds were thinning, making for a fairly short wait on another underrated attraction: Monsters Inc. This great ride with the strange facade holds up well visit after visit, earning the place of my favorite dark ride after Peter Pan Flight. Even though remnants of the odd Superstar Limo can be found, this ride has it all: detailed sets, a clear story (even if our on vehicle television screens didn’t work- poor show!) and endearing characters. How can you not love Sulley and Boo?

Surprisingly, I enjoyed our next stop more than I thought- Muppetvision 3D. The visuals were crisp, the theater looked brand new, and Kermit was as engaging as ever. Too bad the Muppets are past their prime. I’d bet that it is soon to go, however, as the show was a walk-on and our theater was almost empty.

Last of our pre-Screamin’ trio was the park’s other 3D experience. It’s Tough to Be a Bug was enjoyable as well, with another near empty theater. Let’s get real here: 3D attractions age quickly, and it is a poor choice of Michael Eisner’s to have this attraction housed in the centerpiece of the amazing Animal Kingdom theme park. Yet another example of a "C" ticket attraction found at an "E"ticket location.

It was now time for a newer tradition. Screamin’ left us breathless with laughter! Having been blessed with the front row, my daughter and I were delighted by the dark skyline and lit up park as we zoomed by. With the ugly Anaheim Convention Center and backstage areas more difficult to see, this attraction takes on a whole new feeling during the evening. Paradise Pier finally sparkles, taking on new life and energy. Buildings in the Golden State transform with an elegance unseen during the day. Disney’s lighting experts have reason to be proud of there work here.

After a disappointing ride on Mulholland Madness, (can we please just get rid of this embarrassment?), there were a few attractions left for us to experience. We wandered through Condor Flats, again stunning at night, and journeyed into A Bug’s Land to complete our rides for the day. Heimlich’s train was short but sweet, and Flik’s Flyers a little more thrilling than expected. The area was deserted except for a few other families, making for some great photos and walk on attractions. Heading toward the entrance area to view the Electrical Parade, we’d had a full but overall satisfying day.

Disney’s California Adventure is evolving, and mostly toward a better park than at opening. (Like the photo below says, Start Over!) There was Disney magic to be found. Recent changes have brought a mixed bag of unexpected successes and minor failures. Mistakes like removing the Eureka parade are balanced by some wonderful additions. There is still not much variety between thrills and films, with a low amount of attractions the whole family can enjoy together. Daytime clearly reveals the park's weaknesses and much of that involves outside diversions and the framework of Paradise Pier. Yet, the plans look promising to change some of California Adventure's harsher realities, even if it does involve many character additions. Our thoughts? We will be returning in 2012 when the amazing proposed changes are now realities in concrete.

Walt's original park was our destination for tomorrow- and we had to get some sleep.

(Photos copyright my wonderful daughter. Watch for Disneyland trip report soon.)

1 comment:

Spokker said...

Agreed 100% with you on Toy Story Mania.

The Potato Head AA is more exciting than the attraction itself!