December 11, 2014

A California Adventure Christmas and More Dirty Secrets of Disneyland

Overcast but otherwise perfect.

A few posts back, I mentioned that I would be spending one day at the Disneyland Resort. Surprisingly, I received very positive feedback when I mentioned I was choosing California Adventure over Disneyland.

Last week, I was able to take my trip to beautiful Orange County, California, home of Walt Disney's original kingdom and the most maligned second property theme park in the States. I was not at all disappointed, but I was surprised by some of the things I discovered there.  But let me start at the beginning...

I knew to arrive early, and so, I took off, arriving at the gates of California Adventure at 7:30am for an 8:00am opening. A friend of mine had given me a pass, otherwise it would not be the time of year I could afford to go. As it turned out, at the turnstile I was thrilled to discover it was a park hopper. A nice surprise that would help me out sooner than I thought. At $150 for a one day park hopper, it was quite a generous gift!

Shades of Disney's Hollywood Studios- but it looks terrific!

Naturally, they were letting in Magic Morning guests, so all the rest of us queued up at the rope to wait for it to drop. Buena Vista Street was beautiful in its Christmas attire. I just stood there and looked around. Very charming and quite a difference from the shopping mall entrance that greeted me during my first visit to the park in 2001. 

Hello and goodbye!

The first order of the day was to obtain Fast Passes for Radiator Springs Racers. It is the hottest attraction on the property these days and for good reason. This combination slow moving tour, dark ride, and car race is a hit with everyone it seems, fans of the Cars franchise or not. Alas, Racers was down for the morning, so I took a quick turn into the nonexistent line for Luigi's Flying Tires. Let me say, it was an awful waste of space. It looks fun, and the concept sounds great, but the end result is a very boring- very bland- experience. The carnival quality bumper cars in Bug's Land are more thrilling. But I rode it. Now the Imagineers can replace it. 

I kind of like the view of Tower from here.

Racers was still down (and the Fast Pass line was not to open until the ride was back up and running), so I headed into Hollywoodland to the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Even this very truncated version of the Florida classic is a favorite of mine. I hadn't ridden for a couple of visits, as my guests were not fans of the attraction. This time, I was a solo traveler, so in I went.

It was so bright inside the lobby, too bright, I reached for my camera to take some photos. To my frustration, the camera would turn on but the problems began. I could review photos, but I could not take any. I cleared the memory card, shut off the camera and tried again. No luck. I decided after the ride to go get help at Kingswell's Camera at the end of Buena Vista Street.

The television presentation in the library/study began things off quite well. The journey through the boiler room was dark, creepy, and perfect in setting up the story. The ride in the elevator was all too short. I had forgotten just how short. I had fun, but I felt a bit cheated. DCA 1.0 all over again.

A nice solo ride back to where I started.

A nice trip on the Red Car, and I was back at the entrance to the park. The very helpful folks at the camera shop couldn't fix the problem. They thought it was a dead battery and didn't have the chargers to take care of it, but they directed me to the camera shop on Main Street at Disneyland. So, I crossed the esplanade and found myself at the train station all decked out for the holidays.

A sense of warmth, familiarity, and deep sentiment washed over me as I exited the tunnels and entered Main Street U.S.A. It may be old. It may need updates, but it's Disneyland! I walked to the camera shop. After looking at it, they told me it probably was the battery, so they'd charge it for free. Would I come back in two hours? Of course.

Running through my mind was that mental list of attractions that had been upgraded: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Indiana Jones Adventure, Alice in Wonderland. Of course, I had to ride Pirates of the Caribbean. I wanted to see what replaced the lovely Carnation Gardens. The new Starbucks at the Market House. The Jolly Holiday Bakery. The much dreaded off center window in New Orleans Square and the closed courtyard now an entrance to an enhanced Club 33.

It was a short walk through the Castle to round the bend for Alice. I could have taken a 5 minute wait for Mr. Toad or a walk on for Snow White or about twenty minutes for a flight with Peter Pan. They all temped me, but I was here to do the "short list" in two hours and go back to Disney California Adventure.

Much has been written about the extensive upgrades planned for Fantasyland's dark rides to celebrate Disneyland's 60th birthday. I found Alice to be well done but not earth shattering. We hard core fans can make a big deal about the strangest things at times. There were still static figures. The new vine rail was nicely done, even if it was a nod to tighter safety standards. The new castle roofline was barely noticeable and not worth the uproar.

Go ask Alice.

Here was the first of Disneyland's latest round of dirty secrets: The special effects at the end of a newly renovated Alice did not work. Frozen characters, and I do not mean Olaf was to be found here. Weak sound. An anti-climatic ending. And sadly, this wasn't the only place in Disneyland where maintenance was shoddy and broken effects overlooked. Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris are constantly berated for the same levels (and worse) of lack of care. Deservedly so. Yet, here in the original kingdom, the park Walt created, things were not perfect. More on this subject as I continue later. Did it ruin my day at the park? Absolutely not. Was I disappointed? Yes. But as I would soon discover, California Adventure, for all its new charmshas dirty secrets of its own.

Frozen still packs them in!
Longest line I have ever seen for a meet and greet. Just incredible.

Let me say that the real Frozen avalanche continues. The Disney characters were out in abundance, and lines were long. But it was nothing compared to the queue to see Anna and Elsa. I walked all the way into the Big Thunder Trail to see the end of the line. It was barely 9:30am. Unbelievable.

Probably the best of the lot. Not bad for a cel phone photo.

Quickly grabbed a Fast Pass for Big Thunder (return time in an hour) and headed for my all time favorite attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. Almost 50 years later, it's still a terrific attraction and well worth the wait, even though I practically walked on. Here, the Davy Jones and Blackbeard mist projection was broken, but every other effect seemed to be in working order. Johnny Depp, I mean Captain Jack Sparrow, was in great shape, sneakily hiding behind a dress and inside a barrel. What the big deal was about adding him, I'll never know.

I strolled New Orleans Square to look at the changes in the buildings due to the Club 33 expansion. The loss of the courtyard is unfortunate. Something didn't feel right with one less nook to explore. Nearby, the "window of shame" is off-center, no doubt. Shoddy planning and execution. Certainly not worthy of the old school Imagineers. Yet, it is barely noticeable. In fact, I find the large pirates themed stage on Tom Sawyer's Island a much bigger eyesore. (Is it me or is there less and less greenery on that island these days?)

Leaving New Orleans Square, I used the single rider pass to journey with Indiana Jones, strolling past the ill-conceived Jingle Cruise. Again, Indy was recently refurbished, but it is in need of a lot of work. The outside looks terrific as much of Disneyland does, minus Tomorrowland. The digital mapping on Mara was broken, with only one choice offered. The ride itself was appropriately rough, but there were poor lighting and sound choices, effects like darts and bugs were in poor condition; flames in the chamber room were barely there, and even the boulder room seemed all out of synch. Here was the park's premier attraction- and it felt like a cheap dark ride filled with cardboard cutouts and skeletons, a phony looking plastic cobra, albeit with a cutting edge vehicle to ride through it all. 

Big Thunder and Pirates- my two "must-dos" on every visit.

It was a very pleasant contrast to find everything functioning when I rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The mountain itself looked great, and the explosive finale lived up to the press hype. Keep in mind, however, that this was the first attraction that I rode while in Disneyland to have all of its effects working. The two other E Ticket attractions did not, nor did a recently refurbished dark ride. Was this the new pattern of maintenance at Disneyland? Keep the outsides pristine, but its ok to let some things go inside as not everyone will ride all the attractions? I hope not. I was glad to go back to California Adventure

Tangled is one of my latter day Disney favorites.

My time was almost up as I had to pick up my camera. I wandered through the Fantasy Faire. It seemed to fit in alright, not great, but it was certainly a much better use of space for a character crazy crowd than the limited use Carnation Plaza Gardens. Great care was taken in its design; a bit of Fantasyland spilling over onto Main Street. Much like the Jolly Holiday Bakery.

Unfortunately, my camera could not be fixed. The battery was fine but the internal workings of the camera weren't doing their job. Thank God, I had my cel phone to take photos, but even that caused a problem later in the day. As I was heading out of the park around 11am, large crowds of people were entering. When guides read to go early and be there at opening, there's a reason.

My visit was on December 5th. A sign? No, a statue!

Naturally, crowds were big at California Adventure by now. Racers was up, but all the Fast Passes were gone, even with the park closing at 11pm. Gotta love the single rider line! Posted wait time for standby was two hours. The cast member said single rider was an hour. It was actually one half hour. I saw many families in the single rider line willing to be broken up to get to their ride quicker.

Based on the crowds, I would say I am not alone when I make the following assessment: Radiator Springs Racers is the new must-do top ranked attraction at the Disneyland Resort. Nothing old or new comes close. In my opinion, it (and Cars Land) is the attraction for which the new generation of Imagineers will be remembered, much as the old school artists will have Pirates of the Caribbean as their grandest accomplishment.

Bear with me for a moment while I break down what makes Racers the current cream of the crop:

A beautiful sight!

1- The setting. The town of Radiator Springs is an attraction unto itself, and the Cadillac Range is just magnificent. Visitors stand in front of it and marvel. It's not uncommon to hear oohs and aahs at first glance, particularly if first entered through the Pacific Wharf area. The result of the skill of these artists must be seen to be believed. Photos do not do it justice. Folks stop and watch as cars race round the buttes, hearing whoops and hollers of the riders. It's almost as much fun to watch as to ride. Almost. And Racers is happily surrounded by the fully fleshed out town of Radiator Springs in all its glory. Even more stunning at night.

Who knew waiting in line could be so pleasant even without the NextGen queue?

2- The queue. Wisely, the suits and Imagineers knew there would be long lines, so the paths wind through some interesting scenes, intertwining with the race track itself. There's always something to look at... and the music is great.

My new favorite ride at the Disneyland Resort.

3- The attraction itself. Love them or not, the Cars characters are heartwarming. The combo of a slow scenic tour, dark ride, and finally, thrill ride, makes for an irresistible accomplishment. The resulting execution of the concept is top-notch. It works together seamlessly. The final effect: folks walk, no they bounce, off the ride talking, smiling, and immediately return to the very lengthy queue. I saw it long ago with Indiana Jones at opening. It's the first time I've seen this happen since then.

The whole experience is worth the wait. In fact, Cars Land alone makes a trip to California Adventure a strong contender over a day at Disneyland. Really. 

Cars Land is for the young at heart too!

Word is getting out. I was sitting in a cafe in Denver a few months ago and overheard a discussion that went something like this: "I just came back from Disneyland." "Really? Did you do Cars Land?" "It's amazing!" The kicker? These were two adults in their mid-forties talking. Of course, kids and teens are talking about it as well. It's a family friendly winner with something for everyone... and riding twice that day just wasn't enough! It is a game changer which has leveled out the crowds between both parks as well as dispersed crowds within California Adventure

A huge financial investment- and you can almost see every penny!

This is exactly what the designers of Cars Land and especially Radiator Springs Racers had hoped to accomplish. This attraction is the new drawing card at the Disneyland Resort. It was confirmed to me by cast members that folks go into California Adventure, get a FastPass for the attraction and then move on the other areas. Even go to Disneyland and return to Disney California Adventure when their time is ready. The catch? Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses for the day are gone within the hour. Then its the standby or single rider line- which holds tons of people IN queue, not out of it. (Remember those days before FastPass? The pedestrian paths were easy to navigate.) Just imagine a park with a series of must-see one of a kind attractions done this excellently. (Looking at you, Tokyo Disney Sea!) Disney and its fans can have its cake and eat it to if the suits will invest in the highest caliber of attractions. A win/win for everyone, investors and fans.

It IS better down where its wetter!

Next up was a ride under the sea with Ariel. I had been on the attraction my last trip before the recent renovation which made the big Under the Sea scene much darker; when additional fish were added and better visuals were provided in place of less effective video. I'm happy to say that it was a vast improvement. The show stopping musical number warranted another ride through to see it all. The downside? Now that so much was improved, these changes revealed the shortcomings of the attraction: cramped space, rushed story and lackluster ending. Will the ending be revamped? Will Tokyo do it better? I hope so. Is it still worth the brief wait in line? Yes, this park needs every dark ride it can get, and let's be honest, Mermaid is a much beloved classic film. It just deserves so much better.

I took a quick walk around Paradise Pier to see the updates. Something seemed off. The colors had already muted quite a bit, making the whole seaside feel fall flat. Aside from Mermaid, I did not stop to ride anything else. I had planned to return to California Screamin' later in the day. (By the way, this great coaster needs some paint!)

The mechanisms for World of Color were up and exposed, making a view across Paradise Bay less than attractive. With an over abundance of iron rides, it was perfectly clear Disney needs to bring something new to the Pier offerings if they truly want to make it worthy of its name. More California Adventure 1.0 hidden behind more pleasing facades. Attractive exteriors, fading paint aside, but the area scores little on substance.

A much nicer centerpiece than the Sun icon.

By this point in the afternoon, I was quite hungry. My first hunch and preference was to dine on the lovely and lively Buena Vista Street, but aside from the Carthay Circle Restaurant, Starbucks, or a fruit stand, the options were off. I settled for an old favorite: a rice bowl at the Lucky Fortune Cookery. It was a very good choice! I opted for something new- the Korean sauce- and it was spicy hot, full of black pepper and a dark sauce that reminded me of teriyaki. The meat was plentiful, the rice steaming hot, and the overall dish well worth its price. Essentially, the Pacific Wharf is a large food court without any real attractions. It felt like it as there were few seats available. The beautiful and talented Mariachi Divas were not around. That was an unfortunate disappointment.

I'd been using my cel phone as a camera, and the battery was low. As I had much of the day ahead of me, I went down to the lockers, found one with chargers, plugged in, and headed off to Starbucks for a coffee and a street side table. What a great place to people watch! More characters were out, families were queued up, but with much entertainment in the form of the bell ringers and Five and Dime, people remained in a great mood. It seemed so many people of all different backgrounds and lifestyles were wearing Mickey and friends shirts, ears, pin lanyards etc. Everyone was a fan it seemed- even the gruffest looking folks.

I sat back and got lost in the moment for awhile. Seriously, I was tempted by this easy going California, Disney loving lifestyle to give up everything I have been doing and move back home. It would require giving up everything I felt called by God and blessed by Him to do. New opportunities for eternal purposes. Things I was so honored to be a part of. It took me awhile to come back to my senses and realize how brief life on earth is compared to eternity, but I did. I was, like everyone else it seemed, happy to be here. 

In fact, I found all the cast members at California Adventure to be happy, helpful, and in a change compared to 2001, quite proud of the park they chose to work. Once the coffee was finished, I slowly strolled Buena Vista Street, taking in all the details. As I walked past the entrance to Hollywoodland, I opted not to walk down the street. The view down to the faux skied theater screamed DCA 1.0 once more. I was spoiled by what Buena Vista Street was, and I chose to head to Condor Flats to take in my now second favorite attraction in the park: Soarin' Over California.

The area needs- and if rumor is true, will soon get- an overhaul. The weathered and aged desert airstrip theme now seems out of place, as the segments of the park re-Imagined look so good, so fresh, so inviting. Actually, it's also now redundant with the premier of Cars Land. I do hope the area is redressed into a mountain themed airstrip. A lush grouping of pine trees and new building facades may help the are feel much more inviting if its melted into the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area

Still a powerful attraction.

Soarin's film was a bit grainy, but overall, I was amazed at how well the park's emotional centerpiece held up years later. I was thrilled to fly over my homeland, savoring every vista. I love California! Have I said that before? As with every journey, guests clapped at the conclusion of our flight. Soaring Over the World may well be on it's way from Shanghai Disneyland, but I certainly hope its just an option along with the original film over the Golden State. Score One for DCA 1.0!

At this point in time, looking around and thinking about what to do next, I realized that California Adventure had its own list of dirty secrets: 

1- A "Phase Two" was certainly needed to match up old and tired areas with those that were created for the relaunch. The beauty of the new areas only highlighted the shoddy style and execution of what was there before. Hip and Edgy be gone!

2- Dining options need improvement. Anyway you slice it, the food over in Paradise Pier is generally unappealing at best, leaving a large chunk of park visitors to go to the very crowded Wharf.

3- "Good enough" had to be the mantra for the attractions created between the launch of the park at opening and the relaunch of it in the summer of 2012. It shows.

4- The new-found popularity of the park exposes how incapable it is in handling the crowds it has now drawn. As with Disneyland, the largest and most appealing attractions are generally found at its perimeter. Unlike Disneyland, however, there are not many attractions of substance in between the few E Tickets and the carnival rides of the Pier and Bug's Land. The park lacks dark rides and could benefit from a couple more. Monsters Inc. and Mermaid are not enough. It appears that folks wander between the crowd pleasers and generally ignore the smaller attractions.

5- No transportation options other than the beautiful Red Cars. Disneyland is a "world on the move", with everything from the train to the Main Street Vehicles to the boats that cruise the Rivers of America. At California Adventure, a guest can see the monorail but cannot board it while in the park. This leaves one option aside from the Red Cars, and that is walking from one place to another. 

Nice trolley stop.

Picking up my recharged phone, I decided not to get a soaking on Grizzly River Rapids. I'd seen Aladdin many, many times. I wasn't in the mood to hit the trail next to the rapids either. There was time to take in the two last attractions I wanted to ride before I departed: It's Tough to Be a Bug and one last ride on Radiator Springs Racers.

The 3D film experience was really in good shape! The Hopper Audio-Animatronic worked impressively, and the film seemed crystal clear. It was a crowd pleaser, and I remembered why I enjoyed it so. (I must admit, the extra long but empty queue reminded me of the arrogance of the designers of the park at opening. Guessing they would fill the line when the park was first stuffed with films and cheap carnival rides, the suits fell flat on their face when the public wisely rejected the cheap and edgy park of 2001.)

Crowded park but happy people- including me.

Ending the day with Radiator Springs Racers was bittersweet. It was a great ride as usual, but it also meant I was at the end of my visit. The park wasn't dark enough to show off its Christmas charms in the evening darkness. I'd have to save that for another visit during another Christmas season.

I walked out slowly, savoring my last views of a place I'd grown to love. Understanding how younger visitors would be building their memories around this park was something I now really understood. I was happy to go to Walt's park... but I was thrilled to be at California Adventure. What a change from 2001, and what a blessing from God to make it possible for me to step into both the past of my Disney life and its future.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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