My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Two
Published: November 3, 2013 at 4:36 PM
For those who have only experienced the Orlando version of Pirates of the Caribbean, you really are doing yourself a disservice. The Disneyland version is longer, a bit more thrilling, and bigger (in both physical sets and story) than the hacked version at the Magic Kingdom. The difference is like night and day. A ride on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, for those who have not had the pleasure, is quite simply worth the price of admission to the park. It is a masterpiece of animatronics, story, and song, an attraction that transcends age, gender, nationality, theme park bias, and time. It is one of the few attractions that I believe will still be standing in 2067 (its 100th anniversary). It is the definition of a classic. All my great memories and braggadocios comments about the greatness of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean were justified in one ride on that one glorious day in September.
As much as I was looking forward to re-experiencing Pirates, the next attraction on our list, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, might have been even more highly anticipated. And, wow, what an amazing, wonderful, thrilling, outstanding attraction it turned out to be. Yes, it is the same track and ride system as Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom, but from its immersive queue to its intro movie to its action packed race through the darkness, Indy and the Forbidden Eye simply cannot be beat. It is as close to a perfect attraction as I can imagine – no matter what a recent panel of jaded TPI experts might have said on the Theme Park Insider podcast. I could not disagree with them more. Yes, the technology has been around awhile, and yes, the special effects aren't always perfect, but there is probably no better modern day example (except maybe Radiator Springs Racers) of Disney Imagineering just getting everything right. I love Dinosaur, I really do, but Indiana Jones just blows it away. The difference is quite simply astonishing. Wow. As excited as I was to experience Indy, and as much as I expected from it, I was still blown away by the actual experience, it is just an amazing attraction. FWIW, I offer a standing ovation to Tony Baxter and WDI for a job well, well done.
While we knew Pirates and Indy would be frequent stops during this vacation, my primary goal for this first night was to knock out all the attractions in Adventureland, in order to keep the touring plans on the following days a bit more streamlined. So, next up we headed to the Jungle Cruise. While I am not a huge fan of TH Creative's favorite boat adventure, I figured a night time excursion would be worth a shot. Sadly, it was not. First off, the ride went 101 just as we stepped into the line (for all the talk of Disneyland's superior maintenance record, we experienced far more ride closures during this trip than I have ever experienced in one visit to WDW). Secondly, when the ride came back online an hour or so later and we rode it, the sound system on the boat was so bad it was nearly impossible to hear the Skipper's spiel. Jungle Cruise is a pretty lame attraction anyway, but when you can't hear the spiel, it is even worse. Ugh. As I have stated many times in the past, for all its history and nostalgia, Jungle Cruise needs a significant overhaul. It, like Burgess Meredith in that classic Twilight Zone episode, is obsolete. Sorry, TH. I really wanted to enjoy the original version of the ride, but it was not meant to be.
While Jungle Cruise was 101, we visited the Enchanted Tiki Room. This attraction is a pleasant diversion, but even in its original incarnation, it is not a must do. However, because the Disneyland version sports an in-queue Dole Pineapple Float stand, I highly recommend a stop. And here's a tip: if the line for Dole Pineapple Floats outside the attraction is intimidating (as it usually is), go ahead and enter the queue and try that side of the counter instead. Usually the line is much shorter, and sometimes it is completely open. Even if you don't want to visit the Tiki room you can use this tactic and simply exit the queue when you have your wonderful treat in hand.
After the Tiki Room and Jungle Snooze, we visited Indy one more time before touring through Tarzan's Treehouse. Meh. I would love to have this massive tree house in my backyard, but at Disneyland it is simply something to do when all the other lines are too long. However, the views from the top are pretty neat, if the people slogging behind you are patient enough for you to wait and enjoy them. Following Tarzan's Treehouse, we rode Pirates again (Yo Ho Yo Ho the Pirates life for me!), then prepped for Fantasmic.
There were two showings of Fantasmic that night, with a fireworks show in between. So, we took the advice of theme park insiders everywhere (as well as the extremely helpful concierge at the Paradise Pier Hotel) and planned to see the second show. Our strategy was very simple: while the first showing of Fantasmic was underway, we busied ourselves by taking pictures of the current entrance to Club 33, visiting the Court of Angels (the secluded rest area that will soon be the new entrance to Club 33), and getting Mint Juleps at the nearby counter service area. Once the first showing of Fantasmic completed, people exited the viewing area in droves providing ample room for newcomers. We moved in, picked a good spot and waited for the evening fireworks to begin. While the Fantasmic viewing area is not the best place to watch the evening fireworks, it is serviceable enough. And, once the fireworks were complete the area emptied out even more so we had our choice of spots from which to watch the show. Please note: I do not recommend the very front of the viewing area because the safety rail between you and the Rivers of America makes it difficult to see the action on Tom Sawyer's Island. A better option is to stand at the back of that same section where you will have a great view of the proceedings.
Disneyland's version of Fantasmic is better in every way (except seating) than the version in Orlando. I was especially impressed at how the Sailing Ship Columbia was used during the Peter Pan sequence, and with Murphy the Dragon, whose fire breathing antics were amazing. My whole family agreed the show was terrific. Well worth the discomfort of sitting on the damp, hard, ground.
Fantasmic was the exclamation point to an amazing first night. I could not have hoped for a better beginning to our Disney adventures. We walked cheerfully out of the park and back to our hotel where we crashed for the night, unable to sleep due to a steady flow of adrenalin and joy.
Over the course of the next week, we toured Disneyland two more times from park open to park close. In order to save some time, and keep the few folks still reading this narrative from passing out with boredom, I will summarize my observations from those two days.
As any Disney fan worth his salt knows, Walt's original park is small, cramped, and simply cannot handle crowds as well as the Magic Kingdom. Don't get me wrong, Disneyland's attractions are expansive and wonderful, but the walkways and queues, not so much. Touring the park, at times, can be less than relaxing even though the crowds when we visited were what Disney considers small (headliner attraction wait times never went beyond 30 minute). The combination of small walkways, tight, unthemed switchback queues and the masses of after work, local, season pass holders arriving on the scene made for some very congested touring. Don't get me wrong, the park is still quite amazing, but there is a reason Walt and Company made much bigger parks when they set up shop in Orlando. Other theme park companies with lower attendance numbers can get away with being small, but Disney cannot. I would not want to visit Disneyland when it is truly crowded as I cannot imagine the claustrophobic conditions that would ensue.
I mentioned earlier that Disneyland's maintenance record is often touted over that of its sister parks in Orlando. However, during our visit no less than a half dozen attractions went 101 (Jungle Cruise, Splash Mt, Mr. Toad, Roger Rabbit, the Tangled stage show, Mickey and the Magical Map, Winnie the Pooh, and a couple more). I was shocked. Granted, the downed attractions were usually back up and running quickly, but for a park that is lauded as a maintenance mecca, my experience was quite the opposite (note, DCA did not have nearly as many attraction 101s, but it did have a few, Soarin' and California Screamin' most notably). I have visited WDW many times since 2003 and have never seen so many rides go down in one visit. Maybe my timing was bad, but methinks Burbank has a ways to go to live up to the wonderful reputation fans of the park give it.
The Halloween Ghost Galaxy overlay for Space Mountain is excellent. Essentially, there is a space ghost (not the one from the old Saturday morning cartoons) who chases you throughout the course of the ride. It is a very cool effect. My whole family loved Ghost Galaxy and we rode it several times. I also loved the way the onride music ebbed and flowed with the track layout, and how it swelled whenever the ghost appeared. Many people say the Disneyland version of Space Mountain is better than the Florida version, but both versions are a whole lot of fun, and are different enough that they can mutually coexist. If I was forced to pick one or the other I guess I would give a slight nod to Disneyland's version, but my wife says the opposite. Either way, Space Mountain continues to be a fun and invigorating coaster.
Another holiday overlay that was in place when we visited was the Nightmare Before Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion. It too was very cool. We enjoyed the overlay quite a bit, but overall I think WDW's version of the Haunted Mansion, overlay or not, is the better attraction.
Speaking of the Haunted Mansion, I am reminded that for the most part, the queues at Disneyland are awful. Only the Indy ride, Roger Rabbit, Star Tours, and part of Space Mountain use their queues to fully immerse you in the attraction the way WDW does with their queues. Furthermore, most of the Disneyland queues are simple chain link switchbacks like you would find at any iron ride park. And they are mostly cramped and, generally, uncovered. Standing in the midday sun waiting for the Storybook Land Canal Boats was quite a un-Disney-like experience. I was very disappointed in most every queue at Disneyland.
While I am picking at this wonderful theme park, a few other disappointments included the Matterhorn (working Yeti or not, this coaster is a real dog), Splash Mountain (a lesser version than the one at WDW, and just as broken during my visit), Winnie the Pooh (my ride vehicle was broken and did not hop when Tigger hopped), Alice in Wonderland (I like that it spans two levels, but the outdoor portion is just lame – and dirty), Captain EO (quite possibly the worst attraction currently in existence at any Disney park), and the Nemo Subs (I'm sorry, Mr. Baxter, but this mediocre attempt just never serves to capture the imagination the way I had hoped). I don't want to pick at Disney, by any means, but for those WDW fans traveling to SoCal for the first time, any and all of the listed disappointments can be skipped during your visit if you need to save time.
On the other hand, some really nice surprises included Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (a fast and furious dark ride), Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin (very imaginative and wild, with some great set pieces), the aforementioned Storybook Land Canal Boats (a unique diversion), the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough attraction (another pleasant diversion), Pirates Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island (a tragically overlooked and excellent playground), and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (a combination history lesson / animatronic stage show). Great Moments was especially good, and, IMHO, should be required viewing for all Americans. Sadly, when we attended the show, the theater was largely empty. Why people continue to squander the opportunity to see pure Disney Magic at work in such an edutaining way is beyond me. It is a real shame that these types of patriotic attractions are tragically rare and pretty much exclusive to Disney theme parks. I regard Great Moments as an E-ticket caliber treat, and find it to be far superior to (and less polarizing than) Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents, and at least on par with Epcot's The American Adventure, if not better. When you visit Disneyland, do NOT miss any of the attractions I just mentioned, especially the one of a kind experience that is Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
As far as shows go, we saw two and a half of them. Both the Tangled and Beauty and the Beast shows in the Royal Hall area were great. The performers were outstanding, the songs were fun, and the humor was top notch. Sadly, the Tangled show was canceled mid performance due to sound issues, but even as technical issues occurred, the performers were outstanding in every respect. I was very impressed. The other show we watched was Mickey and the Magical Map. It too was very good, but much larger in scope and size than the small shows at the Royal Hall. The show itself was an amalgamation of classic Disney songs, combined with a very cool magical map - a series of video screens that uses various images to enhance and advance the story. We liked Mickey and the Magical Map quite a bit, especially for the part when Pocahontas, Mulan, and Rapunzel were on stage at the same time – that scene was simply breathtaking. One note about the show: the sound was rock-concert loud, which I enjoyed, but be aware if you have sensitive ears.
Our dining experiences at Disneyland were all very, very good. I was extremely impressed with the quality and flavor of the in park counter service food across the board at the resort. One day we ate lunch at Pinocchio's Village Haus where the stand out item was the BLT Flatbread pizza. Later that same day we had dinner at Redd Rockett's Pizza Port. Based on the recommendation of one Mr. Robert Niles we ate Count Down Chicken Fusilli, which is an amazingly addictive mac n' cheese with something akin to Alfredo sauce instead of cheddar cheese sauce. YUM. And the portion size is immense, so feel free to share.
On a subsequent day we visited the Jolly Holiday Bakery and had a variety of sandwiches, all good, and topped them off with some Matterhorn Macaroons, which came close to being our favorite Disneyland dessert, running second behind the Boysen Apple Freeze found at Maurice's Snacks in the new Fantasy Faire area of Fantasyland. This delectable dessert beverage was an instant hit with my family, something we purchased each time we visited the park. It is similar to Red's Apple Freeze/LeFou's Brew at DCA/MK, but in addition to the frozen apple juice and passion fruit foam topping, this signature beverage has several shots of highly addictive boysenberry flavoring. The combination of sweet and sour flavors made for an amazingly refreshing and sweet-tooth satisfying dessert. We give the Boysen Apple Freeze the Rao Family Seal of Approval and offer two thumbs way up for this winning combination of flavors. Outstanding.
Overall, Disneyland is an amazing, transcendental park. It has its flaws, mainly being that it simply was not designed to handle the 15 million people that storm through its gates every year, but those flaws, as the cliché goes, are what make the diamond so precious. We thoroughly enjoyed our adventures at Disneyland, and would not hesitate to return someday should the opportunity present itself.
Coming Monday: Part Three, with more on the Paradise Pier Hotel, plus California Adventure!