Disneyland report ’08

My apologies to my readers who wait with bated breath for my analysis of The Color Purple.  My son Sam (6) had a day off from school, and my daughter Kit (5) has a school that consists primarily of her being out of the house for four hours, so my wife and I decided to take them to Disneyland.

Sam actually didn’t know that he did not have school and Kit isn’t old enough to notice that big a difference between Sunday and Monday, so we decided to spring it on them as a surprise.  We went about the morning as though it was a normal school day, packed the two of them into the car and then didn’t take them to school.  It took Sam until we got to Interstate 10 to notice something strange was going on.  We tried to stall as long as possible, but it didn’t take him long to put together that we were going to Disneyland, at which point the metaphorical cat was out of its metaphorical bag.

We got to the gate at 10:00 on the dot, ie at the exact same time as everyone else.  It was surprisingly crowded, I thought, for a Monday morning in April.  I have memories of going on a Tuesday afternoon in February of 1996 and the place was almost deserted — there were no lines for anything and I was able to see absolutely everything I wanted to, including the robot Abraham Lincoln, by late afternoon.  At which point I shrugged and said “Well, I guess I’m kind of done with this place until I have a couple of kids.”  Hence yesterday.

Sam was keen on seeing only two things — the Indiana Jones Adventure ride and Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator ride.  He was a little anxious about the rides themselves — he dislikes roller coasters — but he wanted very badly to visit the gift shops associated with the rides to gather props and costume pieces.  Kit, on the other hand, likes the Teacups, and generally would be happy to spend the whole day in the pink section of the map.

(Sam had just attended a Star Wars themed birthday party over the weekend where Obi-Wan, Anakin, Boba Fett, Darth Vader and Darth Sidious had all shown up and done bits with the kids.  Sam had worn his elaborate Darth Vader costume and is very much into dressing up, or “cosplay” as the older set refers to it.)

The Indiana Jones Adventure was the longest wait of the day — 50 minutes before we got on the ride — and Sam loved, loved, loved absolutely everything about it, right up until the point where he actually had to get into the oversize Jeep that takes you through the experience.  I see his point — the wait for the ride is, by a long measure, the most elaborate, detailed and atmospheric I’ve ever experienced, and in the middle of Disneyland that’s saying a lot.  There are caves, booby-traps, an ancient temple, a newsreel, period music and all sorts of mood-enhancing foofaraw to get visitors hyped on the experience.  The ride itself is rattlingly, shudderingly violent in the way it whips you around in your seat and parades you past a host of scares, thrills and spectacles — far too much to absorb in one go-around — and Sam spent the three-minute experience clutching my arm, with his face buried in my elbow.  He was very precise in his assessment of the experience; he didn’t mind the scares — he likes being scared — but he cannot abide the “jerking around.”  Indeed, I would agree with him.  The Indiana Jones Adventure is an incredible ride, but the violence inflicted on my physical body is considerable.

(I now wonder if Sam’s love of being scared and his disdain for being “jerked around” explains his love of Jurassic Park and his indifference toward E.T.)

While Sam was being terrified on the dark, violent, genuinely frightening Indiana Jones Adventure, Kit was being terrified on the sunny, cheesy, outdated Jungle Cruise, the benign, walk-through Tarzan Treehouse and the utterly laid-back Storybook Land Cruise.  Kit, it should be noted, does not like getting scared.

After Indiana Jones, Sam wanted to proceed directly to Star Tours, but my wife and I had made the decision to not split up the day in boy/boy-girl/girl adventures, and we met up on Tom Sawyer Island, or, as it’s now known, “Pirate’s Lair.”  The whole way, Sam was insistent almost to the point of complaining (Why can’t we do Star Tours and then meet Mom and Kit?  Why do we have to go to the island?  Why can’t Mom and Kit come to us? etc.), then, the second we got to the island, he saw there was a treehouse and a complex network of caves, bridges and shipwrecks and we didn’t see either kid for about two hours as they went exploring. 

I was a little dismayed at the half-hearted conversion of Tom Sawyer Island into Pirate’s Lair.  A lot of the structures are the same, with only tiny emendations to change the island from the Mississippi to the Caribbean.  The treetrunk of the treehouse still has “Tom + Becky” carved in it and the island is littered with an utterly anachronistic Indian Village, a river raft, a moose and a derailed coal train.  It’s almost as though the Disney folk were hedging their bets, worried that this whole “Pirate” fad will blow over at any time and they’ll have to change the island back to Twainland.

(On the way back from Pirate’s Lair we ran into Jack Sparrow, who, when addressed by that name by a park visitor, resentfully murmured “Captain Jack Sparrow,” in a completely convincing Depp-like drawl, his delivery pitched at a volume no one but me could actually hear.  This forced me to realize, yet again, that for all its faults, Disneyland is a demon for details.)

(Oddly, this visit was, for me, one of discovery — almost every attraction we hit was brand-new to me, even though it had been sitting there in plain sight for 54 years.)

Once off Pirate’s Lair (highlight for adults — real baby ducks) Sam and I split off again to see Star Tours while Kit and Mom headed for the Teacups and the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire.  The wait at Star Tours wasn’t very long, and as usual there’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up, but as the ride itself approached I began to get apprehensive on Sam’s behalf.  Sam understands what a simulator is, but the signs warned that Star Tours is a “turbulent” ride — meaning, you get jerked around a lot.  I tried to explain this to Sam, who was confident he’d be okay.  In the case of Star Tours, he was willing to get jerked around since there was no actual forward motion involved.  Somehow the combination of the two is the thing that sets him on edge.

In the end, Sam made it through a good portion of Star Tours with his eyes open, then enthusiastically made a beeline for the gift shop.  He had been given a special Disney Allowance of $20 and spent it on a special Star Tours blaster rifle.  When he found out there was a separate entrance to the shop, he said, rather in the manner of a man who has just realized he has been duped, “Wait a minute — you mean I could have made it to the gift shop without having to go on the ride?”

(A note on Star Tours: the signs out front mention that it’s a collaboration between Disney and Lucas, and the experience confirms that — and points out how uneasy a fit those two sensibilities are.  Cool Lucas-type design sits right next to cloying, Disney-type design, with big-eyed wisecracking droids and production values that only help remind the guest that Star Wars is a very cool movie indeed, while The Black Hole is deeply uncool.)

Hard upon Star Tours was the Jedi Training Academy, held at the Tomorrowland Terrace, an interactive stage show where kids can train with lightsabers — provided they are picked from the crowd by the Jedi teaching the class.  We got there early to get a good seat, and once the show started things got overwhelming very quickly.  The actor playing the Jedi Master was convincing, dynamic and in complete control of his difficult situation — organizing, inspiring and directing a group of small children in a rather complicated game, with a dramatic arc, that had to be wrapped up in 30 minutes. 

The process of selecting which children go up on stage was, we were told, up to the actor playing the Jedi Master, and Sam, for reasons still a little mysterious to me, didn’t want to press his case too emphatically.  As the Jedi Master selected kids from the crowd, everyone else jumped up and down and screamed while Sam subtly raised his hand.  I don’t know if it was his sense of manners, a fear of being chosen, or a belief in the justness of his cause that kept him from speaking up, but in the end he was chosen and took his place on stage.  Each youngling was given a training robe and a “training lightsaber” (ie, a plastic toy just like the ones they have at home) and the class was then led through a series of sword-fighting moves.  No sooner had they learned a simple five-step fight routine than Darth Vader showed up with Darth Maul to challenge the students to a fight.

The actors playing Vader and Maul were both very convincing, to the point where some of the kids started freaking out.  There was no attempt to softpedal the villains’ scariness, and the actor playing Maul was particularly aggressive in his attack.  When it came time to fight, some of the kids were overenthusiastic, others were terrified to the point of tears.  Sam tried to take the whole thing seriously but found that it all went too fast.  I also have the feeling that Sam’s emotions were clouded by the fact that he greatly prefers the dark side characters — if he could have, he would have joined Vader and taken over the galaxy.

In any case, Vader and Maul were defeated, the Stormtroopers were sent packing, and all the kids were pronounced Padawans, complete with diploma (but without the robes and lightsabers).  The diploma, interestingly, includes a political message, reminding the child that the Force must only be used in defense, never to attack.

Sam and I headed toward Fantasyland to hook up with Mom and Kit, who were investigating the Alice in Wonderland ride, King Arthur’s Carrousel and the Princess Faire show.  We stopped at Autopia, another ride I’d never been on, where Sam got to drive his own car.  He was a little too short to reach the pedal, but once he got the hang of it he delighted in swerving back and forth, trying to crash into stuff.  I said “So, wait — I thought you said you don’t like being jerked around,” to which Sam replied, giggling, “Yeah, but not when I’m the one doing the jerking.”  So the issue, finally, is not the jerking but the lack of control.

We found Mom and Kit at the Once Upon A Time shop in Fantasyland, where Kit was purchasing a Minnie Mouse As Princess doll.  I don’t know where Kit’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from.  I don’t know where any child’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from.  Or Mickey Mouse, for that matter.  They are barely represented in Disney fare except on the most superficial level, faces on corporate product.  As characters they barely register to me; they stand for nothing, personify no particular point of view.  Who looks at them and feels a deep sense of identification?

The kids were still going strong at this point, but Mom and Dad were about to drop, so we headed to the Rancho del Zocalo, the Mexican place in Frontierland.  The food was great, the line was short and there were plenty of places to sit, which is all one can ask of a Disney restaurant.  It was a big improvement over the last Disneyland dining experience my family had, where it was so crowded in New Orleans Square that we had to eat our clam chowder while perched on a wall on a major thoroughfare.

At one point, Kit was handed a sheet of temporary tattoos by a cast member who happened by, and at another point was handed a pair of Tinkerbell pins by another (“one to keep, and one to give”).  These encounters were random and unsolicited.  And again, one can find plenty of things to complain about in Disneyland, but the way they’ve got the guest’s experience figured out sets them far apart from any other theme park I’ve ever experienced.  I’ve been to great roller coaster parks like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, a park with no particular point of view, where guests are forced to wait for hours in the hot sun with nothing to do but stare at the people ahead of them in line.  There’s always something to look at while in line at Disneyland and the longest lines are always engineered in interesting ways that help build anticipation for the experience instead of emphasizing the length of the wait.  The time generally flies at Disneyland, and while the prices are steep, I can’t remember a time when I left feeling cheated.  Add to that random encounters with movie characters who hand out free stuff to your kids and I’m sorry, for a parent it’s all pretty awesome.  Yes I know, it’s a gesture designed by a behemoth corporation, intended solely to extract more money from the child’s parents, but I feel like that’s the society we live in, and if a corporation takes your money while teaching your children generosity and non-aggression, well, at least it’s something.

After dinner we happened upon the nearly deserted Sailing Ship Columbia, which was about six times more interesting than I expected it to be.  It’s outfitted like a genuine eighteenth-century merchant vessel and it, improbably, actually succeeded in giving one a vague impression of what lifeat sea on a ship like this, for years at a time, might have been like.

Then we headed over to New Orleans Square, where there was no line for the Haunted Mansion.  Kit had never been to the Haunted Mansion, and Sam has only been to it while it was re-dressed in Nightmare Before Christmas holiday mode, so we decided to go in.  Sam was underwhelmed, I was delighted (it was better than I remember it and has been subtly improved over the years), Mom was slightly disappointed (she remembered it being not so dark).  Kit, sadly, went in frightened and was reduced to whimpering apoplexy by the end.

To help Kit over her trauma, I took her for three or four (I lost count) rides on the no-line Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride.  The Winnie-the-Pooh ride, like many of the younger-skewing experiences, is weirder, more disturbing and more psychedelic than one would imagine.  But it did the trick and got Kit ready for the final events of the day, the Dumbo ride in Fantasyland and the Astro Orbiters in Tommorowland.  The difference between the two rides, as far as I can tell, is that they revolve in opposite directions, and Dumbo is three minutes long, while the Astro Orbiters are only a minute and a half.  Neither had lines worth worrying about, typical for the younger rides after sundown.

All in all, I think I saw more of the park than I have in any other single-day visit and didn’t even lay eyes on huge swaths of it.

Kit was asleep before we left the parking structure, Sam examined his Star Wars toys for a few minutes but was out before we got to the highway.



26 Responses to “Disneyland report ’08”
  1. curt_holman says:

    ‘Autopia’ looks like MinorityReportLand.

  2. medox says:

    I always thought that Mickey and Minnie are quite like Hello Kitty, characters with no real point of view that can be put in any situation, dressed in any costume, put on any merchandise (most importantly) — and not seem incongruous. Maybe it is their lack of context that makes them so flexible… and such perfect corporate icons.

    But all this really makes me think of is what a sucker for Disney World I am, and how someday I want to go to Disneyland and compare. I bet Sam would totally dig Epcot (especially the Future World part.)

    • Todd says:

      You’re probably right about Hello Kitty, and all the San Rio characters for that matter. They’re nothing but pure character design, no narrative necessary for the child to become involved.

      Myself, I prefer Chococat.

      It occurred to me yesterday as well that Sam would greatly enjoy EPCOT, but I would rather take him to Disneyland Paris (or Tokyo) before Orlando. I remember visiting EPCOT in the late 70s as a teenager, and being confounded by a wild, far-out exhibit that insisted that, in the future, everyone would have a computer in their homes, and they would use this computer to keep their records, communicate, work and even shop. Real sci-fi stuff.

      • planettom says:

        My favorite thing at Epcot is that crazy Norwegian boatride that starts out with Vikings and trolls, and ends up under an oil rig in the North Sea at night, then dumps you into a little Norway village to get out of the boat and watch a short movie about…Norway!

        • Todd says:

          Well that settles it, I’m pulling the kids out of school and taking them to Florida. Where else could they learn so much about Norway?

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        I don’t think there’s anything additional for a child at Disneyland Paris. For an adult there’s the French and Euro vibe you get from the other guests, and a few things like “Walt’s”, a true high-end French restaurant located on the second floor of two buildings on Main Street. But all the rides seem to be carbon copies of the ones in California and/or Florida.

        • Todd says:

          Well, there’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril, which, by the time we’ll be able to afford it, Sam will probably want to ride.

          And then there’s Paris, which is my favorite city in the world.

          • faroffstar says:

            for the record. disneyland in california is WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better and LARGER than disneyworld in orlando (which is ironic). they corporate wizzes at disney took all the cool rides and broke them up into four or five various parks, all of which costs like 60 bucks a peice to get in. AND they don’t even have the indiana jones ride.

  3. It didn’t bother Sam that Maul and Vader both showed up despite the former dying 10+ years before the latter was, uh, sithified?

    And did it ever seem unsettling to you that the majority (maybe all) of the attractions have absolutely nothing to do with Disney’s original characters? (Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Mr. Toad, Little Mermaid, etc. being created by someone else)

    • Todd says:

      Don’t forget Snow White, Pinocchio, Tarzan, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Tiki birds. Plus the now-gone Jules Verne ride, shoved aside for Nemo.

      For me, it’s not that Disney pillaged world literature to build his empire. The park is about presenting a vision of the world to the visitor, and that includes “the Disney version” of all those great stories.

      I could go on and on about the damage done by Disney to the Grimms alone, but the folklorist in me knows that the Grimms (and Perrault) were putting their mark on stories that were already ancient when they recorded them. And Andersen, and Milne, and Burroughs, etc.

      (The irony being that Disney, after building an empire off of copyright-free work, now is insistent upon extending their copyright indefinitely.)

      This is a subject for a whole other blog post, but for now let it suffice to say that Snow White and The Little Mermaid and Tarzan, et al, will somehow endure despite Disney’s now-popular interpretations.

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to sound disapproving, it was just sort of eerie to me that there were no rides centered around Mickey, Goofy, or (and especially surprising) Donald. Aren’t these the Disney icons? Are they just not popular enough to warrant their own rides? If they did would kids wise up and start asking how, if they just saw Mickey on the ride 30 seconds ago, he was able to free himself from the Phantom Blot’s death trap, rescue Minnie from Peg-Leg Pete, and dash halfway across the park for a smoke behind Club 33 so quickly?

        I’m not sure what you mean by “damage” — Disney may have bastardized the Grimm Bros.’ stories, but the originals remain in tact.

        Maybe you’re being too hard on the studio; you have to give them props for repackaging Hamlet as an animated feature for the kiddies. If only they could do Richard III

        • Todd says:

          I’m not sure why there are no Mickey, Goofy, Donald or even Pluto rides. Toontown, which was once based on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is now Mickey’s Toontown, although I’m not sure what Mickey-themed events take place within it — I’ve never made it over there.

          I completely understand why it’s no longer Roger Rabbit-inspired — that movie is off-the-hook in terms of presenting adult ideas to children, including alcoholism, suicide, sex addiction and urban planning.

          • And bestiality. Though that’s a common theme in a lot of cartoons, I guess. Especially the early ones. Bestiality and rape. You see a spider in a 30s cartoon, safest bet in the world he’s a would-be rapist.

          • It’s actually still quite based on Roger Rabbit – well, the main ride there is, anyway. Sam might have enjoyed it – it’s like a Teacup ride on rails.

            There’s a lot of cartoonish stuff – manholes that speak when you step on them, jail bars made of rubber.

  4. We got free tickets to Disney World in Florida last December and I had a lot of fun. We mostly just wandered and went on the things with the shortest lines.

    I might have to look into this “having children” business.

    • Todd says:

      The only advice I have for you, parentally speaking, is wait until the check from the movie studio clears. It softens the “life-changing-forever” aspect of the “having children” decision.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Like you, I was immensely enthralled with the attention to detail that Disney puts into their parks. I went to Disney World twice with my family and loved both times and can’t wait to go back when I have a family of my own.

    I was particularly wowed by the set design and dressing of the Tower of Terror wait in line. I really felt like I was in an abandoned 40’s hotel from LA.

    And to put a cap on this attention to details, in the “Hollywood” section of MGM Studios, they installed trolley tracks and then paved over them and then carefully wore them down to show the tracks shining through. That’s near insanity level attention.

  6. marcochacon says:

    I live-blogged my Disney World experience using my iPhone. You’ve done a better job here. Bravo!


  7. dougo says:

    Do you read Re-Imagineering? You should.

  8. how BIZARRE is the Winnie the Pooh ride? I went on it at Tokyo Disneyland, and was utterly disturbed. It had more in common with Trainspotting than with Pooh. Pooh is jonesing for his hunny, hallucinates, CRAWLS ACROSS THE CEILING. Whoever designed it must have been an Irvine Welsh fan.

  9. Next time, will you take them to Disney’s California Adventure?

    • Todd says:

      We kind of have to — Disney won’t have it any other way. California Adventure is doing so poorly, Disney gives every customer a free pass to it when you show up at Disneyland.

  10. Todd says:

    It’s got a knob that raises and lowers the elephant.