Disneyland is Back

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a restored Tiki Room and an amibitious clean-up program are helping the self-proclaimed 'Happiest Place on Earth' challenge to regain its throne atop the theme park industry.

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Published: March 27, 2005 at 10:22 PM

Sometime during the past few months Disneyland's Haunted Mansion welcomed a new ghost.

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.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle and the Matterhorn

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.

Inside Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters at Disneyland

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.

* * *

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Ben Mills on March 28, 2005 at 4:50 AM
I can see that big grin on your face from all the way over here, Robert ;-)
From Joe Lane on March 28, 2005 at 10:19 AM
It's good to hear that DL is improving after so long a period of belt-tightening.

Is it also true that the Jungle Cruise skippers have had their pistols returned and that the Mad Tea Party no longer has a limit on how fast you can spin? I heard a lot of it had to do with decisions made by new DL President Matt Ouimet, is that right? Do you think there might also be hope for the Sleeping Beauty display in the castle?

From Robert Niles on March 28, 2005 at 10:54 AM
The guns are back on the Jungle Cruise, though the ride's in sore need of its rehab. It's getting it, though.

The Tea Cups remain a problem. The seem loosen up a bit, but I still can't get 'em going as fast as the Bionicle Blasters at Legoland.

The Sleeping Beauty's Castle walk-through, I'm told, is DOA pending some technological brainstorm that would allow Disney to make the building ADA-compliant without having to rebuild the whole thing. The building needs enough work that a rehab would trigger ADA requirements, cast members have told me, and Disney can't cram the required lifts and elevators in the building's small space.

From Erik Yates on March 28, 2005 at 2:47 PM
The Tiki Room at Disneyland has got to be better than the rufurbishments at orlando. They should have let Iago get buried with Jafar.
From Robert Niles on March 28, 2005 at 3:20 PM
The dig at "frenetic cartoon characters" was *not* accidental. ;-)
From Chuck Campbell on March 28, 2005 at 5:08 PM
Two words regarding Disneyland's renaissance: Woo hoo!

The Tiki Room was never one of my favorites, but it does have a retro charm--glad to hear that it finally received the care it deserved. Now if you're sick of having "It's a Small World After All" running through your head, you can drive it out with "In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room."

From Anthony Murphy on March 29, 2005 at 10:05 AM
Just got back from Disneyland! It was very good! This was my first time there in 17 years (I am 19, so that would make me 2). I thought that it was great and still has that old charm that Disney World is getting, but still behind Disneyland. I was mad though, that they had the Jungle Cruise closed, but the Tiki Room was really good (much better than the doomed one in Disney World). Buzz Lightyear was ok. I like the one in Disney World better because of the size. I see that Disneyland will come back into mainstream. Also, they are very retro so that is a theme they are going with!
From Jason Lester on March 29, 2005 at 10:58 AM
Tiki Room, while not on the top of my list, holds a place in my heart. And Robert, how is the new Space Mountain coming along?

Buzz Lightyear looks fun. I'll have to try it next time I visit. I think Disney should give Alien Encounter a swing at their park and see how it works there. Maybe when Eisner leaves and Iger steps in we'll get some more improvements.

Disneyland sounds great, but it still has a long way to go.

From Robert Niles on March 29, 2005 at 2:27 PM
I haven't been inside to see the track construction, so it's impossible to tell, given that the whole ride's indoors. I did love the previous version of Disneyland Space Mountain, at least when the audio worked, as the music elevated the rather simple ride into something special and exciting.
From Kevin Baxter on March 30, 2005 at 8:20 AM
Word, Jason!

Yeah, DL's purtied up, but there's still MAJOR problems. There still aren't nearly enough attractions for the number of guests they will get this summer. And that includes if they actually open Space Mountain early.

It's nice to hear that Rasulo and Ouimet don't consider the two new Tomorrowland attractions as total solutions, as Pressler and his regime of halfwits would have. It's heartening to hear about Nemo and the Woody additions, especially considering how the latter addition is wanted so badly by WDI to fix the other bad area in the park: that loooong walk between Fantasyland and Frontierland.

Yet, even with those additions, I can't help but think that, once again, every other park is being ignored.

DCA is getting a retrofitted Monsters Inc dark ride? Wowee. And MAYBE an Incredibles ride that uses the same machinery Universal dumped because of outrageous cost? The place will still be an eyesore.

Epcot MAY get a rapids ride. But all that is semi-certain is a new film for Soarin', which they should've done in the first place. (DCA should get a new Soarin' too, every few years!) AK will finally open a new ride, which will still leave them about a dozen attractions shy of a full park. Disney/MGM gets a show, and then what? A bunch of blue sky.

It's nice to see DL finally get some love after so many years of neglect, but the other parks have all been neglected too, so when will they get some love?

From Erik Yates on March 30, 2005 at 2:48 PM
Dont forget that MGM is going to start the transplant of the Indiana Jones ride from DL, and that is shceduled to open in 2007. And if there is ever a park that needs some love its Epcot,.
From Chuck Campbell on March 30, 2005 at 3:42 PM
Well, there is still such a thing as financial reality. Back when Disneyland was Disney's only park, it was a bit easier to plan and finance E ticket attractions every year or two. But a plan to add new attractions regularly, as opposed to at the jerk of a knee, is essential. I like what I'm hearing about Ouimet and Rasulo.

And what about IOA? The last new ride they added was "Storm's Teacups," unless you count their overhaul of Poseidon's Fury.

From Justin Smith on March 30, 2005 at 4:04 PM
The only problom now is the Submarines, People Mover and Star Tous. Aside from that I'm glad Disneyland is getting more love!
From Kevin Baxter on March 30, 2005 at 6:05 PM
Yes, IOA sucks in the updating department also. But this isn't about them, is it?

The fact of the matter is, AK and DCA should never have been built if they weren't going to be built properly. Although I like AK, it simply was not needed in WDW. They would have been better off spending that money on another water park, updates for their other parks AND allocating a lot of the wasted AK money on building DCA properly. Another $500M and DCA could have OPENED with ToT and a half-dozen other much-needed rides. As well as spectacular theming. If DCA had been done right, attendance wouldn't have needed massaging by discounts. APs could have sold for four times what they are selling now. And they would have actually sold souvenirs. Instead of a money pit, DCA could have made so much money that building AK wouldn't have been such a budgetary mess, and maybe THAT park would be making gobs of money too.

This is the kind of crap you get when your ideas are reactionary instead of revolutionary.

From Justin Smith on March 31, 2005 at 9:01 AM
For once I actually agree with Kevin. Though both DCA and AK have a couple of good attractions, neither park has enough to please crowds the whole day. And aside from a few rides, you only need to do each park about once. While you can go to Disney land 1000 times and it'll never get old!
From Jason Lester on April 1, 2005 at 11:08 PM
Nicely put. DCA has no novelty value whatsoever, while Disney is a place parents take their kids, and those kids take their kids, etc. DCA is good maybe once every few years.

It's silly to think that Monsters will do anything to help DCA.

From Reed Eriksson on April 29, 2005 at 9:04 AM
Can I just say how excited I am to go to Disneyland this August. I go almost every year, but this year I will be going with my 10 neices and nephews as well as my bride-to-be and the rest of my family. Being there with kids is going to bring back some great memories, which is one reason that I disagree with people who say that certain attractions need to go. For example, Thunder might not be the most exciting ride on the planet, but it holds a place in my heart and millions of other people's hearts because it takes us back to our growing up years. It brings a happy excitement to me that other rides just can't seem to do no matter how "thrilling they are."
From Vince R on June 19, 2005 at 5:52 AM
Regarding DCA, the blessing here is that Eisner and his Corporate Puppets occupy the same arrogant ego. The longer DCA sticks out like a sore thumb, the faster the new wave of suits will do something. While I hate that TOT DCA is nowhere as thrilling as TOT DS, because not many guests will travel to LBV; but I am pleased about it too. Another item that can be used to keep the new momentum moving.

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