November 2, 2011

First Time Magic at the Disneyland Resort

Disneyland and California Adventure in one day. Something I would not normally try to accomplish- especially when taking a first timer to Disneyland as well as taking my wife for her first ever visit to California Adventure. That said, it was the second week of October after all, the crowds were supposed to be light, and everyone wanted to see World of Color. So, we took our chances... and it paid off handsomely.

Our plan was to start early in the day and arrive at the park gates right before opening. Unfortunately, a dead battery delayed the plan, so we showed up almost one hour after Disneyland opened it gates. No matter, this was where purchasing our tickets the night before helped out. We were still able to park in the outdoor and lowest lot, right next to Downtown Disney. Just in time for the less than spectacular scenery during the short tram ride.

Off to a good start as Indiana Jones Adventure was a walk-on. But without many effects working. Then in fast order, it was on to the Haunted Mansion Holiday and Splash Mountain. Again, no line to speak of. Nice. Seeing the park this empty gave everyone a chance to take in the beauty of the landscapes around us. The Mark Twain Steamboat slowly made its first journey, the rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island did the same, but the Columbia Sailing Ship stayed in the dock.

In spite of the benefits, I am ready to visit the Disneyland Resort at another time of the year. The last three visits have been in October, and although the crowds really are lighter, I would like to see the original version Haunted Mansion as well as the park without its Halloween decorations. Jack Skellington is fun, but the creepier standard version is still the better of the two.

Wandering through New Orleans Square was the moment our newbie began to discover the art of Disney theme parks. He loved the detail and the fact you could walk into the lands and not just observe them as merely set dressings to the attractions. It was his favorite area. He does have good taste! Having Pirates closed only whetted his appetite for another visit at another time.

A quick snack in Critter Country yielded a giant cookie to beat all cookies- white chocolate chunks, butterscotch chips and more- all in one huge, hand sized shape. A perfect energy booster while we cruised over to Star Tours, our first real sized line of the day.

Even though I'm not a big Star Wars fan, my son in law is, so it was fun to watch him relish all the queue details and the journey itself. I expected the 3D to feel clunky, but it didn't, and I was very happy to enter the Pod Racer competition. Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy was next, and again, I'm ready for the original. Traditional spook houses are not my thing, so I much prefer the timeless storyline of the attraction the way it debuted. Tomorrowland has not aged well. Enough said.

We strolled into Fantasyland before heading into California Adventure. For an newbie, we expected our first timer to really be wowed by all the technology and special effects of the big rides. But, in a show of strength and charm for the original seventeen attractions to be found at Disneyland's opening, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was a huge hit. The detailed landscaping in Fantasyland was stunning, only adding to the charm of the courtyard by all the dark rides. We couldn't get into the others without a long wait, but he found Toad's to be worth the ten minute wait. I'm always charmed by Small World, but my son in law was unimpressed by our happiest cruise, as his grandmother made him sleep in a room filled with porcelain dolls whenever he visited her. To him, the attraction was more horror filled than the Mansion. 

A quick stroll through Toon Town, and we were on our way to the construction zone named California Adventure.

It was almost time for our Soarin' Over California Fastpass, so we walked next door, deciding to stop at Taste Pilots for some lunch. The maze of walls is quite the sight. It ends in a lackluster area for now, but once all the work is complete, I think Buena Vista Street will be beautiful and make a great first impression. What was the original area called? Sun something or other? ;)

Aside from a few places in Disneyland, the food at California Adventure is just so much better!The Wild Bleu Burger continues to be a favorite. Perfection on a plate! Everyone enjoyed their lunch and the sun, which was now in full bloom. We then jumped into our line for my favorite attraction here. I never tire of the technology that makes Soarin' the smash it is, but the film does look pretty dated. Time for digital. But you just gotta love the soundtrack!

The next ride of the day was something I just couldn't wait for. It's not very often you get to ride a new Disney attraction for the very first time. That said, The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure was a serious disappointment. This was the ride I had to see, and it is a movie I absolutely love. (Who cannot love a movie about a father who lays down his life for his child?) The attraction, however, was a solid "D" Ticket and certainly not the "E" smash I had hoped it would be. (Nor is it fair to call it a "C" dark ride, either!) The Imagineers seemed either strapped for cash and space or were short on inspiration. The end result was a short little dark ride somewhere between Peter Pan's Flight and the Haunted Mansion.The building itself is pretty, but it has too much stucco and not enough detail either inside or out. I did like the seashell floor of the queue and the sea urchin finials. Once on the ride vehicle, the beginning of the attraction was pretty encouraging. Scuttle makes an appropriate storyteller, and the going underwater effects were quite effective. Seeing Ariel and her treasures delighted me, but the "Under the Sea" showstopping scene just stopped significantly short of greatness- like most of California Adventure 1.0.

What was missing? More of everything- more sea life, more lighting detail, more marine vegetation, more underwater effects, more wow factor. Just more of everything to make it spectacular. The ride was fun, but it was just slightly more than passable. This central scene should have been filled to the max with creatures singing along and detail piled upon detail, making the ride a definitive must do again to see it all. (It's part of makes me return to It's a Small World over and over after all these years.)

Ursula's lair was extremely well done, and she moved and spoke just like the wickedness that she is. My favorite Disney villain absolutely stole the show!Overall, though, something was amiss throughout the journey. As we traveled into "Kiss the Girl", I knew what it was that kept me underwhelmed- we were just too close to the scenes, they were much too small, and they went by much too fast. There was no grandeur of sets as found in Pirates of the Caribbean or the graveyard in the Haunted Mansion. No sense of endlessness that the ocean has. Even Madame Leota had a larger, more expansive, room in which to enact her evil compared to Ursula. And the Little Mermaid ride was all the worse for it. Making use of multiple levels would have given more space to tell a complete story instead of an abridged version. The closing farewell was nice, but again, cramped, and it was made all the more obvious when the clam shells stopped more than once down the very short corridor that revealed the outside world long before it should have.

Mermaid isn't a must see for return rides on the same day- except for us hardcore Disney Geeks. It is not the centerpiece attraction of the revitalized Paradise Pier that it should have been. The ride is certainly not a failure; it just feels incomplete. Kudos, however, to the Disney Imagineers for Sebastian and Scuttle. They move so well!(But why didn't Flounder have some speaking role? He's my favorite of the three supporting characters.)

Exiting Mermaid, we moved through Paradise Pier and the renovated area surrounding Goofy's Sky School. It's a vast improvement over the horrible design of its predecessor, but let me say it straight up: Looking across the bay from Mermaid, I just hate Paradise Pier. Hate it. Hate it. The "wooden" supports and height of California Screamin' are just a gaudy, tangled mess, making the area seem extremely cheap, colorless, and heartless. Have a lot of love for the ride experience, but not the look of it. There is a reason Disney coasters are designed not to look like one. I know we're stuck with the Pier, but refreshed area or not, it ranks as one of the largest aesthetic failures in Disney park history. And if I can be very snarky here, the "lush park"replacing the Maliboomer isn't.

Back to basics. Grizzly Rapids was another hit. My wife had not been to California Adventure ever prior to this first visit, but having seen all the Florida parks and the gorgeous Disneyland Paris, her standards are high. She loved the wilderness representation, but found the park "just ok". It was better than she thought it would be, she but couldn't imagine it without the additions since it first opened. My son-in-law summed it up best by saying, "It's fun, but you can tell they just didn't try as hard here as they did with Disneyland". I found this to be quite an astute observation from a Disney virgin! We headed to the Blue Sky Cellar before going back across the way. The plans for Cars Land and Buena Vista Street convinced everyone they would return one day. We all agreed Radiator Springs Racers will be a well deserved smash.

The construction zones made exiting the park a challenge. The new entrance is quite attractive, but then, I have always liked the Pan Pacific gates of the Disney-MGM/ Hollywood Studios. With Carsland and Radiator Springs Racers on its way along with Buena Vista Street, the original pieces of the park are even more exposed for the lusterless spaces they are. Grizzly Peak Recreation Area aside. Even Condor Flats seemed, well, flat. (And let's just get rid of ElecTRONica at the Backlot. It ruins what little style there is to the area.)

Heading back to over Disneyland, we mixed up the attraction roster and visited the Jungle Cruise, Tarzan's Treehouse, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the winner of the day for our first timer: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Yes, Tony Baxter's masterpiece of an attraction was his favorite of all he experienced. It is a fun ride for all ages. It's just right in so many ways: great detail, thrilling but not terrifying, and most of all, laugh inducing- just what Disneyland is all about! It's our family's favorite thrill for good reasons. Sure, Pirates is awesome (although closed for this visit), but Thunder Mountain is deserving of the title of best coaster in either park. Multiple rides were in order, and it was the only attraction we rode more than once. The last seats make for a terrific ride.

Before heading back to the newer park for dinner and World of Color, we stopped to see Mr. Lincoln. Another wonderful old school attraction we love, as we are a very patriotic family, proud of America and the old fashioned values that made us great. After a quick stop at the Disney Gallery to buy a Kevin Kidney/Jody Daily designed Mad Tea Party tea cup, the sun was beginning its descent, making Main Street and the stroll to it from the rest of the park, especially lovely. Disneyland's charm takes on a whole new feel at dusk, and in this sense, there is no other park that exudes the spirit of the man himself. Always leaves me with a small lump in my throat.

Crossing back over, the Wharf was our destination as some wanted Chinese and some Mexican for a quick bite. Again, the food is great at this park. My Orange Chicken bowl was tasty, and I have to say, my wife's Carne Asada was just as good as that from my favorite Mexican restaurant back home. We had more time than we thought, so we walked through Bugs Land and Hollywood, stopping to ride Monsters Inc. An absolute walk on all the way to the cab. Both impressed our first timers for their kid friendliness and charm. And let's be honest: Bugsland looks great at night. (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was not a draw, nor was Screamin', as my daughter is pregnant and the other two don't like dropping rides. I love them both, but I wanted to be a good guide to everyone else, so I was ok skipping them this visit.)

Time for World of Color. We got to the Red zone, taking our place among the crowd. I watched Paradise Pier lit up at night and realized this is when it is the most attractive. Too bad most of the rides close for the water show! I think a cruise on the Fun Wheel would take on a special thrill if the water mist hit you at different times as you went around. Steve Davison's craft is at its peak with this show, and everyone agreed it is not to be missed. The three of us that have seen Epcot's Illuminations found World of Color almost as good. That's saying a lot! Main difference being the scale and scope of the area and the impressiveness of the countries of World Showcase being part of the show make Florida's attraction take the lead spot. Mickey's head cannot duplicate that blessing of size and what you can accomplish with it there! While the pavilions are elegant and add to the show, Mickey's Fun Wheel is also effective, but much like Paradise Pier, it screams for attention with its in your face design.

The water show ended our evening. We walked out through the wilderness of the forest and into Disney's Grand Californian. The moonlight made the area particularly beautiful. It would have been terrific to be staying in that resort overlooking that part of the park. The prices, however, are beyond this average man's salary, and if I had it, I'd rather use it to stay at the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World.

Speaking of Walt Disney World, our first timer ended the day by stating he now had to go to Florida. Seems for all the missteps of the California property, there's still plenty of magic there. At least in his eyes- and I so agree!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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