Robert's Tour, Part Four -- Disneyland
Is the magic back at Disney's flagship theme park?
Written by Robert Niles
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.Tweet
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.
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