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Robert's Tour, Part Four -- Disneyland

Is the magic back at Disney's flagship theme park?

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Published: July 15, 2004 at 8:01 PM

Anaheim, California -- In August 1990, I finished 15 months working full time as an attractions host and lead at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I had two weeks to kill before starting graduate school in journalism at Indiana University and an itching desire to spend that time on some grand road trip. So I did what any stir-crazy Disney World employee would do.


I drove to Disneyland.

In two and a half days I raced across the 2,500 miles between Orlando and Anaheim, only to find myself in what looked like the same Town Square I'd left three evenings earlier. But as I walked up this Bizarro Main Street U.S.A. (Look! No doors on the Emporium! What do they do when in rains? And where's the castle?) and into my beloved Frontierland, I noticed a startling difference between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom.

Wow, this place was clean! And everything seemed so... fixed. No chipped paint. No busted planters. Inside the attractions, the audio sounded crisp, the lights shone brightly and every animatronic moved with a urgency that had lone been lost in Orlando. Two days in Anaheim showed me how a theme park I thought I knew and loved could be delivered on an even higher level of excellence.

Alas, the past decade has seen Disneyland slip below the high standards of 1990, and in recent years, chipped paint, garbled audio and busted animatronics have been too easy to find throughout the park. But walking into Disneyland this morning, a single sniff took me back to my 1990 visit.

What *is* that smell? Oh Lord, it's fresh paint!

Town Square sparkled in even the early morning gloom, as different from Paul Pressler's neglected Disneyland as Jack Lindquist's was from the Walt Disney World of 1990. At the hub, no fewer than half a dozen workers scrubbed and primed handrails in front of the Plaza Pavilion. Okay, in Lindquist's era that work would have been finished on third shift, before we guests arrived, but after eight years of neglect, I was thrilled just to see the work done at any time.

Could Disneyland be back?

Well, let's take this one attraction at a time. The parked opened at 8 a.m. this morning, which typically allows early risers to bag several top attractions before the crowds build. My first stop? Splash Mountain.

Savvy visitors grab an Indiana Jones Fastpass on their way to Splash Mountain. But that's the only Fastpass anyone will be gathering on that route. Disney's eliminated the Fastpass ride reservation system for Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Not that many of the attractions that retain Fastpass need it. Standby riders could walk on Winnie the Pooh and Roger Rabbit throughout the morning without a Fastpass. And the queues for Pirates and Mansion remained less than 20 minutes' wait in early afternoon, demonstrating the pointlessness of ever having Fastpass on those attractions.

Unfortunately, the Fastpass stations remain, hogging space in the Pirates and Mansion queues, forcing the relatively short lines at Pirates out into exterior queue on the New Orleans Square street. Fastpass is a marketing gimmick that does nothing to increase an attraction's hourly capacity. If anything, the hassle of maintaining separate standby and Fastpass return queues slows load times for some attractions. But Fastpass did put thousands of extra Disneyland visitors out of queue areas and into streets and pathways every hour, making even a lightly attended day seem suffocating with crowds.

Ironically, the one attraction that really could use a reservation alternative to its slow, cramped and badly placed queue never had Fastpass: Dumbo. But the removal of Fastpass elsewhere throughout the park would help clear Disneyland's cramped pathways, save the company money (since no one would need man those distribution kiosks) and simplify visits for Disneyland's guests. Here's hoping the removal at Pirates and Mansion is just a first step.

If you read my report yesterday, I wrote of how Disney's Imagineers took the idea – and much of the layout – for Splash Mountain from Knott's Log Ride. But don't get me wrong. Riding the Log Ride cannot approach the delightful experience at Splash Mountain. Why? The music. Great theme park attractions use music since that's the most effective way performers can set a mood and quickly tell a story to a general audience. With Splash Mountain, Disney took a serviceable flume ride and made it great by grafting the lively score from Song of the South.

No, the ride's not perfect. The need to face the final drop toward the Rivers of America forced a lengthy delay between the splashdown and the logs' return to the show building for the musical finale. And maintaining clear audio of Brer Rabbit's demand “Please, don't throw me into the Briar Patch” (his home!) over the rattle of the final lift has always vexed the company. But the rich scenery, vibrant staging and transcendent score elevate Splash Mountain as the finest flume ride anywhere.

Indeed, the west side of Disneyland is a Murderer's Row of great theme park attractions. Start with Splash Mountain, and work your way up the Bayou to the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and into Adventureland for the Indiana Jones Adventure. Not even Islands of Adventure can match that stretch.

And none of them disappointed this morning. Pirates even sported a new paint job on its boats, a faux wood trim that enhanced the already compelling theme throughout the ride.

Ah, Pirates. Yes, my mind tells me that The Adventures of Spider-Man is the most ambitious, impressive and successful ride I've ever experienced. And I've never had more fun on a ride than blasting up my score on Men in Black: Alien Attack. But Disneyland's Pirates is the attraction I most dearly love. Maybe it's because I worked the abridged Florida version for so many summers. Or because, without a height restriction, I can share this ride with anyone, including my kids. Mostly though, it's because Pirates illustrates the perfect blend of music, narrative, staging and atmosphere, with just a touch of unintimidating thrill added in.

With “Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me” still echoing in my memory (a good thing, for me at least), I noted that I'd finished off the west side's top attractions before 9:30 a.m. A good day. In fact, had Thunder Mountain not been closed after the week's most recent accident, I could have finished Disneyland's top five attractions before California Adventure even opened. Yes, if you get here early and plan well, you can do all the best attractions at both parks in one day. Even in the busy summer.

As for Thunder, as I walked past the beleaguered coaster on my way to Fantasyland, I noticed two attractions personnel on the loading platform. That's funny, I though, since attractions personnel normally would not be in the ride during a maintenance rehab. As I walked around the mountain, I noticed work lights on throughout the ride, no surprise there, then heard the sound of the lift chain running. And then, a train cresting. I ran back a few steps and saw a train emerge on to the river trestle.

I hung around a few more moments, and heard the tower operator spieling the steps to power up and add trains to the ride. (FYI, I worked the Florida version of Thunder during my stint at Disney World and powered up that ride countless times.) My eavesdropping confirmed to me that the current “rehab” on the Thunder is focusing on operation procedures, and not a physical problem with this ride's mechanics.

So I took my chances with Disney's oldest coaster, the Matterhorn. The queue on the Tomorrowland side of the mountain almost always offers the shorter queue, but with the hour still early, I chose the Fantasyland side for a change. Ten minutes later, I was aboard for a fun, if somewhat rough and not terribly thrilling, slide down the mountain.

Since several readers have asked, I lingered by the Mad Tea Party for a few minutes to see if Disney had made the cups easier to spin again. Nope. Only cups with large guys on board managed to get any speed going. It's possible to get these babies moving, but a trip to BALCO before visiting the park might be your best bet.

Without the shuttered Thunder or Space Mountain to ride, I grabbed a couple rides on Roger Rabbit and Star Tours to finish up my kid-free morning at Disneyland.

For lunch, Disney's reopened the Big Thunder Ranch, but as with a picnic menu rather than the old barbecue selections. After stuffing myself with Mrs. Knott's fried chicken yesterday, a plate of cold fried chicken didn't appeal. Nor did I want to bother with the Blue Bayou since I was flying solo for the day. (Dining solo in a full-service restaurant has always made me feel rather pathetic.) So I opted for the French Market, and a plate of fettuccine in a roasted red pepper sauce with ham and crawfish. Not quite the Bayou, but good enough.

So is Disneyland back? Not quite. The loss of Thunder and Space Mountain robs the park of two needed showstoppers. The painters and decorators have not made their way into every neglected corner of the park. The castle remains faded, and, more important, closed. And the park needs at least one more full-service restaurant, along with some bold new flavors on the park's menus. (And, no, deep-fried cheesecake does *not* count!)

But new Disneyland President Matt Ouimet's brought some of the magic back to Disneyland that Paul Pressler's legion of MBAs tried so fervently to snuff out.

Tomorrow, I'll return across the esplanade to see if Ouimet's team has managed to do anything to breathe more life into Disney's California Adventure.

  • Read the rest of the articles from Robert Niles' Summer 2004 Theme Park Tour

  • Readers' Opinions

    From Josh Counsil on July 15, 2004 at 9:11 PM
    Your best review yet, Robert. I guess I'm the only theme park nerd up this late with nothing to do because I'm the first to respond...

    This was a refreshing break from the other somewhat depressing reviews. It breaks my heart to see once-great *theme/amusement* parks like Six Flags go to waste. However, it's also great to see honest reviews so we know what to expect.

    Try to have fun or your trip could go down the crapper along with Six Flags.

    From Joe Lane on July 15, 2004 at 10:05 PM
    It certainly is good news to be coming out of Disneyland. Any time I hear anything about DL, it either has to do with attractions shutting their doors or bad show quality. More recently was the uproar over Eisner's Tomorrowland as compared to TL in its original state when the park first opened.

    But as we all know, things change, and it may be the case now--we may see change yet again... for the better.

    From Kevin Baxter on July 16, 2004 at 1:11 AM
    I'll have my own little Disneyland commentary coming up soon. Unsurprisingly, it won't be like this one.

    But I will agree wholeheartedly with the need for a new sit-down restaurant. I'd say two! TDA whines and whines about all the APs not spending money in the parks, but they do NOTHING to encourage them to do so. It's like pin trading or nothing. Why can't they look to WDW, which has many APs also, and see that many of the locals buy those expensive APs mainly for dining at Epcot or Disney/MGM? They've bandied about the idea of adding the Country Bears to the Hungry Bear Restaurant a la Chuck E Cheese. Do it! Give them a reason to do something besides sit around waiting for the fireworks! Morons.

    From Joe Vancura on July 16, 2004 at 7:15 AM
    I love your articles Robert, but I had to disagree with you about your take on DL Splash Mountain. Having ridden the WDW version many times, I was pleased to finally sample the original back in December.

    My opinion is that the DL version is shorter in overall length, and runs too fast to truly enjoy the experience. It also seemed a bit rougher. The WDW version is hands-down the best water ride out there today (followed closely behind by Popeye and Bluto) - it combines the best elements of a wet flume ride with the perfect dark ride ingredients, namely visual, story, and sound. I always have a huge smile on my face at the end of the WDW version, humming and singing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah from the time we enter the showboat scene until we pass the photo pickup on the way out.

    Anyway, just my thoughts in comparison. Anyone wish to agree (or disagree)?

    From Juan Pitones on July 16, 2004 at 1:37 PM
    I went to Orlando last May and after visiting the MK, I still believe that the magic of Disneyland is on a league of its own. While riding, I could not help to compare every similar attraction between DL & MK and, with the exception of BTMRR, I thought that still all the SoCal versions were better as far as I can remember. I know that the MK was better planned, with larger building and spaces, but I felt that most of the attractions missed a certain degree of drama at their story-telling.

    Two quick examples:

    1) Splash Mountain in DL is a more intimate ride (with "classic" logs), where the creativeness of the Imagineers was evident by re-casting animatronics from "America Sings" and the final scene is more detailed than the Florida version. The drop is great in both rides, but I think the smaller log in DL enhances the thrill. It may be a little rough now, but it is still the one that redefined the flume ride. To me, the DL Splash Mtn. remains as the best water ride, followed by IoA's Ripsaw Falls, USH's Jurassic Park and MK's Splash.

    2) Space Mountain at MK is a great rollercoaster, with larger drops and perhaps faster than the one at Anaheim (you never know with the Imagineers!), but still, it could not surpass the memory of my last ride in the DL version 7 years ago: the mystery and detail of the queue line, the three different themed lifts, the smaller space to house the track, the nearly complete darkness, the perfect timing for the final helix and braking, plus the intense soundtrack that truly make you believe that you are riding a rocket ship. I hope that, whatever they do for the 2005 re-launch, they still keep that dramatic structure in the ride's storytelling (including the soundtrack), because if the concept's good the ride should be great again!

    Please, don't get me wrong, the MK is a great theme park, but after visiting Disneyland, any oher park cannot match the quality of the original. Next year they are going to celebrate 50 years and I am worried that there are no big E-Tickets coming soon. If I could decide, I would like to see a Tomorrowland version of Test Track or Mission Space. If WDW is getting Soaring over California, why DL can't take a blockbuster back to the west too? Instead they are only getting the Buzz Lightyear ride, when this would have been the opportunity of a lifetime to announce BIG attractions in a celebration as big as a 50th Anniversary. I'm sorry for going off-topic, and finally I just want to thank Mr. Niles for a great review, despite the current problems that DL faces with all the refurbishing and management issues, it makes the readers hope that the best theme park ever can be back on track in the upcoming years.

    From alex morehouse on July 16, 2004 at 2:47 PM
    Now I honestly LOVE Disneyland, but I think the magic is not back. I mean, look at Star Tours! Boy, does that need updating! And Honey, I Shrunk The Audience? That's gotta go! Plus, on my last visit, someone was stuck on the Matterhorn for a few minutes, and that's telling me it is starting to show it's age! Secondly, if the magic is back, why are they thinking about getting rid of Fastpass? NOOOOOO!!!!!!!! Plus, I think they need to do some more refurbishments and updates before they declare the "magic" is back!
    From Robert Niles on July 16, 2004 at 4:37 PM
    I always preferred the logs on the DL Spalsh Mountain, for their traditional shape and for the fact that a flume ride ought to be a little rough. You can get any side-to-side action on WDW's Splash.

    Of course, WDW's Splash also does a much, much higher hourly capacity than DL's. And, the seating change on the DL's logs made them a bit uncomfortable 'cause you can no longer stretch your legs on them. (And I have no idea how larger passengers can even ride now.)

    But I'm going to Orlando next week on the tour, and will try to get to WDW's Splash for a more detailed comparison.

    From Mister Wonder on July 16, 2004 at 8:17 PM
    I was just at Disneyland last monday and tuesday, and i thought it odd that the painting crew was out during the day but hey, what ever it takes to get the park looking right again. (On one of the towers of the castle, you can see the 50th paint scheme being tested)

    Main Street
    I wasn't greatly unimpressed. It seems to me that this area and the castle are places that the company should really keep to a high standard. These two area are the key areas that EVERY GUEST see's during there stay, No way around it. Curently on of the shops has a covering over the front of it saying something about the 50th, exactly what we all wanted - more opportunity to shop.

    Adventureland
    Possibly some of the best attractions in the park are on this side of the park which make it very difficult to navigate. There was one thing I did not understand about the Adventure Bazaar shop, and that's why there are selling Billabong clothing here. can anyone explain this? Has Disney discovered that not everyone wants to buy thier clothing so now they are going to turn the park into a giant outdoor mall? If im not wrong, there is a quicksilver store in Downtown Disney so why is this in Adventureland? I dont have much to say about the attractions, Jungle Cruise, a classic, although it seemed to me that the ride was very quick, and our guide as good looking has she was, said her jokes a little too fast and me and my friend were the only ones to pick up on a few of them. Indiana Jones, cool ride but why must it be so ruff, throwing you from side to side,didn't like that that much.

    New Orleans Square
    I dont understand why when an area has 4 attractions listed on the map, you close one of them. The Disney Gallery was closed both days I was there, I dont know if this is perminiment or if it was just because it wasn't a busy weekend. Either way I was Disappointed that it was closed. The wait for Pirates was FOREVER, I believe at one point it was at 20 minutes. There really isn't a need for Fastpass here. Haunted Mansion, same story.

    Critter Country
    Splash Mountain here is in my oppinion, not as good as the Florida version. It certainly is still one of the best in the park, but the drop should be higher. The lines here were ridiculous though, the highest I saw it at was 135 minutes and whoever waited that long is a little nuts for doing so. This was my first time on the Winnie the Pooh ride, and it was enjoyable. those are the type of rides Disney needs to be building, quality attractions. I remember watching the video of the "episode" that the ride is based on so that was fun to ride through it.

    Frontierland
    When I had heard that Thunder Mountain had crashed again a loss of words is the only was to describe it. what on earth is Disney doing with this attraction that it has problems like this? I believe someone on here said they need to take this opportunity to replace it with something new (fire mountain?). The ride at DL isn't that great anyway, by the time you start building up speed you end up at another lift hill.

    Fantasyland
    The only ride I rode in the area was of course the famous Matterhorn Bobsleds. Not one thing impressed me about this ride, other then it's quick line. It has no drop, it was the roughest steel coasted I have ever been on, and I really can't say I enjoyed the seating arrangement. Forget gutting Space Mountain, this is the ride that should have been torn out. there is enough room in there for one great coaster. I know, "you can't tear that apart, that was the first coaster at Disneyland!." Oh Yea? So what, Walt Disney would not want his guests trown around everytime it came to a turn when there are much smoother alternatives today. He never really wanted the damn thing in the first place.

    Tommorrowland
    The land of tommorrow, today! Yea, try the land of came and went. With Space Mountain gone right now, there isn't anyreason to visit this area enless to want to catch the Monorail so you dont have to walk through Downtown Disney.

    Disneyland is certainly in a state of change. It is also a Change for the better, but once your as low as Disneyland was, it will take a lot of time, energy, and money to get it out from it's hole. Disneyland is trying to bring the magic back, but it sure isn't back yet.

    I'll Talk about California Adventure once Robert post's his report about it.

    From Edward Bass on July 16, 2004 at 9:15 PM
    Robert, great report! I visited DL in early June with my family and was totally blown away - the "magic" got me. Because I was a newbie, I didn't notice much neglect, so I can only imagine how spectacular DL must have been in it's heyday! What does everyone think of Peter Pan's Flight?? That's one ride that really struck me as very cool! Indy and Pirates are my favorites, though. And waiting in line for Dumbo with my boys was excruciating.
    From Kevin Baxter on July 17, 2004 at 2:03 AM
    Joe V, I have to agree that I find Orlando's version much better, which is shocking since most of MK's attractions suck compared to DL's. But I think it is the third best themed water attraction, after both Popeye and Dudley at IOA. Both tell better stories (Splash Mountain has scenes from a story but doesn't actually connect them so they make any sense - you seriously have to know the source material to understand it) and are both way more exciting. Not that Splash isn't fun - it very well may now be my favorite ride in DL - but it ain't the best.
    From Brandy Frank on August 21, 2004 at 5:59 PM
    I'm going to CA in September, and noticed on the Disney website that the following rides will be closed:

    Space Mtn, Thunder Mtn, Matterhorn, Haunted Mansion, Tiki Birds, and Tea Cups! I just can't believe that THREE mountains won't be running. Will I get half price? HA HA HA. What a downer.

    From Robert Niles on August 21, 2004 at 7:12 PM
    And the castle will be under scaffolding and tarps, too.

    Disneyland's current management, to its credit, is attempting to repair and rehab the park after the previous team's neglect over the past eight years. But since Disneyland's trying to get all the needed repairs done before the park's 50th anniversary next year, that means this year's visitors will see a park under massive construction. Sure, it's still a nice park, and the parts that have been fixed look better than ever. But with so much being taken down now that summer's ending, I'd recommend folks considering a trip to hold off until next fall, when all of the park should be open and looking much, much better.

    From Barry Lycka on August 28, 2004 at 7:37 AM
    I jst got back from Disneyland and was thoroughly impressed. Every ride is phenomenal and eacxh is a classic. although some are closed - no big deal.
    From Lisa Jones on July 17, 2005 at 10:09 PM
    I think we need to update the insider tips now that Space Mountain has reopened. Maybe go to Space Mountain first for a fastpass and then head over to Adventure Land for Indy and Splash Mountain?

    A friend is at the park today and that is how I advised him. Seemed to work well for him. Of course he took advantage of everyone lining up for the rededication stuff to go on all the rides. Apparently the lines were ok for a while during the celebratory activities. He said the park was amazingly crowded early.

    As an aside, he is now the "proud" owner of eight gold mouse ears from his multiple entries into Disneyland today (and cupcakes from DCA) -- all from Disney as a "welcome home" gift for the actual 50th. (Had he known in advance it was Disney's actual "birthday", he said he would not have gone into the park today.)