The original Disney in California can still turn mere pixie dust into park magic
The underground temple was vast and dark, its walls covered with mystic symbols and sculpted faces of idols. Centipedes scuttled over pillars and serpents slithered through heaps of coins as our 12-person jeep shuddered down a steep track into a corridor guarded by statues of cobras. “It’s the Gates of Doom!” screamed a young archaeology student as we accelerated across a bridge over a pit of bubbling magma.
The jeep skidded abruptly into a pitch-black passageway. Looking up, I saw a colossal boulder rolling towards us. Closer and closer it rumbled; then, just as it was about to crush us, the floor collapsed and our jeep plunged downward. The smaller explorers among us shrieked exuberantly.
Moments later, I was back in the California sunshine, relieved at my escape from the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, an Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, 42 kilometres south of Los Angeles. “Want to go again?” a young girl piped up behind me.
It’s amazing to think that Disney’s pantheon of talking animals and fairytale figures -- now updated with the likes of Indiana, Iron Man and characters from Star Wars -- has been a part of childhood ever since Snow White came out in 1937 (an event my mother recalled for the rest of her life). When the theme park opened in 1955, the Disney giddy sensibility immediately caught on – even the Shah of Iran and the Soviet Premier Khrushchev wanted to say hi to the oversized mouse (Khrushchev was denied the privilege; Mickey and his friends didn’t like playing Cold War politics). Day tickets were US$3.50, compared to US$92 now, and lineups became an occupational hazard from the moment the park first opened. From California, the Disney brand expanded to parks in Florida, Tokyo, France and Hong Kong, with Shanghai slated to open in 2015. But Anaheim remains the original; the first and only one designed by Uncle Walt himself.
When I visited in May I found that, despite 60 years of expanding and revamping, the park is still infused with Walt’s charm. The imagination and engineering that goes into shows like Fantasmic! (animation projected in the sky on clouds of mist), the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the new Mickey and the Magical Map (a stage show with seamless interactive effects) are staggering. There’s a reason why Kevin Elder, Disney’s Head of Imagineering (the people who think up and build this stuff), has this to say about his crew: “We are obsessed storytellers and we are obsessed about detail. We want people to get lost.”
While I never literally lost my way, I often found myself wheeling in circles, unabashedly gawking at the park’s 65-hectare assortment of attractions, many of which cost US$50 million apiece and look as if they were built with the help of alien technology. The most recent transformation occurred in 2012 to the adjacent California Adventure park, whose attractions are loosely based on themes like Hollywood, surfing and dragsters. Besides a new 1920’s-styled entrance, Disney’s added Cars Land, a massive five-hectare expansion dedicated to Pixar’s Cars.
Wonderful world of Disney
As one of the world’s few fully functional paradises for children, Disneyland is a very ecumenical place. While I never saw a cynical eight-year old, I did see a veiled woman in a chador wearing mouse ears. Waiting in line for one ride, I began talking to the Keo family from Laos, who’d taken the trip of a lifetime to see relatives in San Diego before making a beeline for Disneyland. “No brainer,” smiled teenage son Phaivanh, using an expression he learned from satellite TV. The Keos’ favourite experience so far? The Tower of Terror, which drops you multiple stories in a haunted elevator.
Wandering through attractions, I also noticed quite a few maple leafs on backpacks and t-shirts. More and more Canadians are visiting, lured by coastal California’s year-round mild, dry climate and Disneyland’s manageable size — at least compared to the overwhelming Disney World in Florida, which is as big as Ottawa and boasts 27 resorts.
Facing the frontier
Manageable Disneyland may be, but at 206 hectares, the place is hardly small. When I first visited as child, it seemed planet-sized, and has continued growing since, though the resort is still circled by the elevated monorail installed in 1959 by Walt Disney. As futuristic today as it was back then, the monorail provides quick, sleek transport to stops all over Disneyland, even running right through the lavish Grand Californian, the hotel I stayed at this time around.
Officially called the Disneyland Resort these days, the theme park has three distinct sections. Downtown Disney is a large shopping, dining and entertainment district that runs down a multi-block pedestrian mall to the park entrance. Here I passed many stores devoted to princesses and pirates as well as the best Lego store I’ve ever seen (there’s a huge Lego dragon hanging over it). Along with 16 different eateries, the nightclubs, bars and cafes stay open late to assuage deprived grownups. The Grand Californian hotel faced the pedestrian mall on one side (where a harpist annoyingly? played “Hotel California” under my balcony), and the theme park on the other; the mid-century Mad Men-flavoured Disneyland Hotel was just down the street. In May, purple-flowered jacaranda trees were blooming and the sidewalks were lined with Bird of Paradise flowers.
The two parks, the original Disneyland and California Adventure, make up the other two sections. A naturally indecisive person, I found choosing between the parks a little dizzying, a feeling that intensified when I realized they together contain 92 “attractions,” the catchall term for rides, shows and exhibits.
Then there’s the not-so-small issue of crowds. In 2012, over 20 million people visited -- a number which works out to around 55,000 people every day -- with unbearably more on holidays and weekends.
This is where a little advance planning comes in. You can try something I neglected to, which is to check out the Internet before leaving home; as one can imagine, there are websites and online guides galore with tips on making the most of the House of Mickey. Once onsite, there are the handy Fast Passes (entry at a specific time, tickets are distributed via terminals near the entrance to each attraction that uses them), as well as single-rider entries (I got to skip line-ups because of my fifth-wheel status). The relatively new Disability Access Services (DAS) card has replaced the Guest Assistance card to weed out the disturbing all-too-common scams – like large families renting wheelchairs to jump the lines.
If you don’t mind spending more, there are also reservation services for stage shows and events, along with fancy VIP services providing extras for additional cost. Over the three days I spent in the two theme parks, I learned to arrive within an hour of opening (usually 8AM) and make the most of the late afternoon, when strollers carrying sleeping toddlers mass for the exits.
Almost all the kids I saw wore expressions that ranged from ecstasy to glee, but if you’re taking a smaller child, it’s worth considering their reactions to the unexpected. While scarier, more intense attractions have height restrictions that put them off limits, a lanky five-year old can still clamber onto a surprising number of thrill-seeking rides. Even many of the more sedate attractions feature intervals of speed, darkness, or unexpected noise, never mind the frights or sights that may be part of the attraction’s storyline. Disney posts advisories (they helped me avoid vertigo after lunch), and there are always gentler activities to choose from. I lounged on the Mississippi Queen (a paddleboat treading the Disneyland lagoon), hung out with Goofy in nearby Toontown (the home of many familiar Disney characters), and even revisited American literature at California Adventure park's Pacific Wharf, a seafood-filled homage to Cannery Row, writer John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel on the sardine fishery.
Walt Disney once said that he wanted to create a place of “unconditional fun,” an escape where “age relives fond memories of the past, and youth has the chance to savour the future.” I doubt he would have any trouble recognizing his creation today, as Disneyland in 2014 still adheres to his vision, mixing kid culture and folksy nostalgia with science and state-of-the-art futurism, while making it look like child’s play — all of it conjured with the make-believe and magic only the mouse provides.
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