Once upon a time there was a very secret society within the earthen berm that surrounds Disneyland. Very few knew the actual number of members and the cost to join was quoted in terms similar to ‘an arm and a leg’. Prospect members waited in long lines, lasting years, to join. Even the location of the meeting hall was hidden from view. Some say that they even served these folks alcohol in a theme park that does not serve alcohol. Could this be true?
Of course it’s true, I read it on the Internet.
Welcome to Club 33.
Club 33 is not much of a secret anymore. With the recent announcements of an expanded membership list and the amazing prices that the Park will command, it seems that this is one Disney secret which is out of the bag. Some members also get a new perk, exclusive entry to Club 1901 in the Carthay Circle building in Disney California Adventure.
Club 1901 plaque at Carthay Circle Theater
With that said, I am always a sucker for an opportunity to dine there and this honored was bestowed upon me by a club member named Michael. Thanks. Who could argue with a good food, a room with a view, good wine, and a cabinet full of really exclusive swag?
As I sat waiting for my glass of Coppola Director’s Cut Zinfandel (like drinking a berry pie), I could not help but reflect upon the history of my surroundings. Like so many things at Disney during the 1960s, it all started at a World’s Fair. The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair to be exact.
Walt Disney’s touch was felt all over the Fair. His design company, WED Enterprises, was hired by major corporations to develop wonderful attractions including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Magic Skyway, Carousel of Progress, and it’s a small world. To dress up the bland facade of it’s a small world, he had Rolly Crump create one of the iconic meeting places for the Fair, a kinetic sculpture called the Tower of the Four Winds.
Inside of General Electric’s Progressland pavilion, Walt filled the Welton Beckett designed circular structure with wonders including the famous Carousel of Progress Audio-Animatronics show, a light show spectacular projected upon a vast dome, a mechanical musical show, and other interior design services. The pavilion also had a very private VIP lounge with a fully stocked bar for the exclusive use of General Electric executives and their guests. This type of corporate amenity was customary at such events. Walt learned a valuable lesson on the value of having a quiet, luxurious, very private spot to wine, dine, and entertain guests.
As the World’s Fair was winding down, Disney and GE began negotiations to move the pavilion from the Fair and install it permanently in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. The show would be the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar complete makeover of that land. Walt wanted to transform the already outdated world of 1986 into a futuristic, optimistic vision known as “The World on the Move.”
The Disney team really wanted GE’s participation and money. GE had one requirement. They wanted a VIP lounge with a fully stocked bar just like the one they had in New York. Walt preferred to not have alcohol in his park and he refused to build a bar. However, after much give and take, he agreed to build a restaurant that would only serve alcohol with food. He also wanted to put it someplace other than Tomorrowland.
New Orleans Square, Disneyland
Walt already knew where that perfect location would be. He had his team working on the New Orleans Square expansion project back in 1962. Unlike the rest of Disneyland, New Orleans Square would be something entirely new and different. Instead of a romantic vision of a bygone era, such as Main Street USA and Fantasyland, or the feel of entering a movie like Frontierland and Adventureland, New Orleans Square would be a reflection of a real place at a real time in history. Next time you walk through, notice it is not squeaky clean. There are faux-stains on the walls from the water flowing down from the gutters.
New Orleans Square would be different in other ways and would point toward the future of Disney theme park design. The land would be a denser destination with functions below ground (the pirates walk through wax museum), at grade (the wonderful little shops), and upstairs (Walt and Roy’s new greatly expanded private apartment). Thinking about himself, Walt figured that by placing the private club adjacent to his apartment he could work his magic and then make a quick escape. The New Orleans Square location allowed for the perfect blend of style, ambiance, and cuisine. Club 33 would truly succeed in its quest to impress.
Although there are many rumors as to the true meaning of the club’s name, Club 33 is derived from the street address along Royal Street. According to Jack Lindquist, Disneyland’s first president, Walt had a thing for the number three. Remember, Walt and Lillian got married on the 13th and the Park’s address is 1313 Harbor Boulevard. Club 33 opened on June 15, 1967. Sadly, Walt Disney had passed away six months earlier.
Access to the club is through an unmarked door sandwiched between the Blue Bayou and a store. Most guests would not even know it was there, if it were not for small groups of well dressed people waiting outside for their turn to enter. Ring the bell and a host will open the door and ask for your name. If you pass the test you are led into a small entry lobby. The lobby features concept artwork for New Orleans Square and immediately sets the mood of gentle elegance. To get to the upstairs dining room, guests can walk up a staircase or take the antique looking French lift.
Club 33 lobby
The upstairs landing spot is known as the Gallery. There is an oak telephone booth that has “beveled leaded glass panels adapted from the one used in the Disney motion picture The Happiest Millionaire” according to the information contained in each menu. In fact, during Walt and Lillian’s trips to New Orleans they frequently went antique shopping and many of those treasures can be found throughout the club. It was on one such trip that Walt found a mechanical bird that would become the inspiration for the creation of Audio-Animatronics. But that is a different story for a different time.
What has become legendary are the restrooms. Truly a throne room with lots of gold and deep reds. The toilet is the old-fashioned kind with the bowl high above your head and a chain to pull. I am sure I am not the only one who has taken a paper hand-towel emblazoned with the Club 33 logo with them.
At one end of the Gallery is Lounge Alley that leads to the main dining room. At the other end is the Trophy Room. Lounge Alley is decorated with antiques and reproductions. It also serves as the location for the bar and the buffet serving area. Just looking at the dessert counter was enough to get my heart pumping.
Throughout the Club are original art pieces and design studies for New Orleans Square and Pirates of the Caribbean. One of my favorite pieces is a large map of Pirates of the Caribbean drawn by Sam McKim. This room also sports a custom-designed harpsichord “decorated with a hand-painted scene depicting New Orleans harbor in the nineteenth century.”
The interior design was the work of two great talents. Set designer Dorothea Redmond did the initial sketches. Redmond had worked at Disney frequently and was responsible for the fifteen-foot by ten-foot mosaic murals that line the passageway in Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland.
Decorator Emil Kuri also had a hand in the design. Kuri frequently worked with Mrs. Disney and designed many of the interiors along Main Street along with Walt’s apartment above the fire station. He also worked at the Disney studio as a painter and illustrator.
The main dining room is decorated in the First Empire style. Redmond chose this neoclassic style because it fit in perfectly with the early nineteenth century setting of New Orleans Square. The style is supposed to emulate the era of Napoleon and reinforces the French influence on New Orleans. The main dining room is defined by the parquet floors, beautiful polished stone accents, and three huge chandeliers.The room is overflowing with fresh cut flowers. Although the space should feel stuffy but it does not. It is warm and inviting. I was fortunate to sit in a corner where I could peer out the windows on both sides at the crowds shuffling below. After your meal, you are invited to open the French doors and stand outside on the veranda looking down upon the unsuspecting crowds.
The Trophy Room
There is a second, less-formal dining room called the Trophy Room. It is located above the waiting area for the Blue Bayou Restaurant. This room is frequently used for larger groups. Always playing with expectations, Walt had a clever plan for this room. He had an Audio-Animatronics vulture built that would ‘listen’ in on conversations via microphones installed in the lighting fixtures. You can still see the head of the microphone sticking out of the bottom of the fixtures. The bird would then talk back to the diners much the same way that Turtle Talk with Crush does today. However, it was felt that this might be an invasion of privacy and the plan was put aside. Another reason to spend time in this room is the pictorial history of Disneyland along one side of the room.
Oh yeah. The place is a restaurant. I am not a food critic so I will leave that to others. I did notice that the menu is limited, but the buffet was filled with tasty fresh items and a good variety. For those who like shrimp and crab legs prepare to come hungry. The wine list is good but also limited. I had a perfectly prepared Chateaubriand. As I mentioned earlier, the desserts were a big hit. That German chocolate mini cupcake was so good I was trying to figure out how to fit more of them in my overstuffed stomach.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Not trying to beg dear readers, but let’s just say I am dropping a big hint. Have you been? What has been your experience?