Written by Robert Niles
Published: March 27, 2005 at 10:22 PM
Throw some dirt on the unmarked grave of former Disneyland chief Paul Pressler's penurious regime next time your Doom Buggy passes – because the neglectful, soul-sapping attitude with which he and his successor ran the park is finally dead.
Disneyland, the once and now again Happiest Place on Earth, is back.
Crews have trimmed the creaky tree limbs which once mercifully obscured the fading paint and tattered awnings of the buildings beneath. Newly repainted facades shine in even smoggy Southern California light. Disneyland's castle again lures visitors down Main Street USA with gaudy pink, purple and golden hues, instead of withdrawing meekly underneath a pallor that could have best been described as something between dust and mold.
Beauty has returned to Walt Disney's original theme park. As have new and newly refurbished attractions.
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters debuted this month as Disneyland's first successful new ride since the Indiana Jones Adventure 10 years ago. Visitors ride two-by-two in a chain of Star Command-themed buggies, firing infrared blasters at hundreds of targets throughout the attraction. The bad guy is Buzz's nemesis, the evil Emperor Zurg, but beyond that there's not much story to tell: just the challenge of racking up more points than your companion. Got the lead? Then grab the buggy's joystick and spin your vehicle to foil your friend's attempts to aim.
Astro Blasters improves upon the original version of this shoot-'em-up at Orlando's Walt Disney World. The tight fit of the old Tomorrowland CircleVision theater forced Disney's Imagineers to create a more intimate ride, making the targets more accessible than in the Florida original. Video game connoisseurs will also appreciate that the Disneyland version offers handheld blasters, instead of the awkward buggy-mounted ones found at Disney World.
Though Astro Blasters requires no minimum height, parents of toddlers might choose to skip this ride. Most youngsters under four lack the coordination to handle the blasters, and there's not much to do on this ride if you're not shooting. Plus, many parents might not want to expose their youngsters to a ride based on gunplay.
It's ironic, given that toddlers are perhaps Buzz Lightyear's biggest fans. But this ride's Buzz isn't the sensitive and self-aware action figure of the "Toy Story" films. Astro Blasters' Buzz is, instead, the blowhard cartoon character that inspired Andy's toy in the film.
So let the older kids, of Andy's age -- and their parents -- laugh at the fun. Astro Blasters melds the classic dark ride with a video game, creating an addictive experience that will see thousands of fans this summer queuing up for multiple rides in a quest for the highest possible score. (My best? A 266,300 in two attempts. And no, I didn't find any of the elusive 100,000-point targets.)
Disneyland still offers plenty of better alternative for toddlers who'll skip Astro Blasters. This month also brought the debut a delightfully refurbished Enchanted Tiki Room. Walt's original Audio-Animatronic musical show had faded from years of use and neglect. But a lovingly restored version should remind longtime fans why this attraction helped make Disneyland the world's model for theme parks.
This is also a perfect attraction for toddlers. Contained inside a small theater, kids won't be overwhelmed by the show's size. There are no frenetic cartoon characters here, just an immersive collection of animatronic birds, flowers and tikis above and around the room. Most folks under 40 will miss the hoary references to once-contemporary celebrities like Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Maurice Chevalier. But everyone can sing or hum along to the tuneful music, grinning as little kids get up to wiggle and dance in the aisles.
A simple show like this needs every detail in place to work. And with an old, hissing soundtrack, mottled birds and decaying theater, the Tiki room offered little more than a dark, air-conditioned place to kill 15 minutes on a hot summer day. Not an insignificant benefit, sure, but so little compared to what this spectacularly restored version offers now.
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Improvements are beginning to emerge in Disneyland's restaurants, as well. Last month, I slammed the park's famous Blue Bayou restaurant over its steam table-grade food. Well, diners have a far better alternative for a sit-down meal on the west side of the park: the revamped Rancho Del Zocalo in Frontierland. Disney's ditched the barbecue selections at this restaurant, in favor of a relatively ambitious selection of Costena Grill dinners. I tried the broiled chicken and shrimp in garlic sauce and found the combination among the better buffeteria-style meals I've had in a theme park, comparing favorably to some of the better fare at SeaWorld. The corn and black bean side salad could stand on any three-star restaurant's plate. Too bad most visitors opted for the grocery freezer-grade "del norte" tacos and enchiladas instead. You don't know know what you're missing, folks.