BACKGROUND: For someone who doesn’t work in the field, I have a great interest in the design of theme parks. I grew up visiting WDW annually and developed a deep and lasting appreciation for this art form (theme park design). When I go to theme parks, which is not often, I am actively looking at the park with a designer’s eye: examining the physical environment, architectural details, landscaping, rockwork, the lighting, even the pavement, and making mental notes: what is done well, what could be improved, what surprises me, etc..
Having spent a lot of time creating my own armchair parks (see blog), I was very familiar with Disneyland’s layout and attractions, and yet had never set foot there. So when a good friend’s wedding brought me to L.A. earlier this month, I scheduled my return flight for late Sunday evening to allow a day to explore Walt’s original park. 90% of the time I prefer to visit theme parks with friends/family/significant others, as it is a social experience that is best shared. But as someone interested in park design, I was very happy to make this inaugural trip solo. I wasn’t there to passively relax and enjoy the park, as most people do (and should). I wanted to take my time and study it, as a serious art enthusiast might do at the Louvre, and such an exploration would undoubtedly annoy - or be hindered by – company.
ARRIVAL: Sunday, 8AM. Exhausted from three days & nights of wedding partying and very little sleep, I drop my buddies off at LAX and begin to debate whether to try for an earlier flight, sleep in a rest stop and generally blow off my plan to visit the Park. I sucked it up and decide to follow through, driving the 38 minutes to Anaheim.
I gave almost no thought to where I parked my generic white rental car, ignoring advice I had read about taking a photo of your car location. This came back to bite me later that evening. With my flight departure time fast approaching, I got back to the Mickey&Friends lot and I couldn’t remember where I had parked. Slight panic sets in. By some miracle, I guessed the right level and jogged up and down lanes for about 30 minutes before I stumbled upon the car (it didn’t have a remote key to set off the horn, as I noted other forgetful patrons were doing)
OPENING WALKABOUT: Two things immediately struck me about Disneyland. The first – and most lasting – were the trees… those wonderful, old, thick-limbed, stately trees that adorn much of the park. I am a tree-lover, but I did not expect to be as impacted as I was by Disneyland’s trees, particularly those in front of the Main Street Station, Town Square, the outer Hub, New Orleans Square, Adventureland. The big trees added immeasurably to the distinguished, aged-in-oak beauty of the place. I now feel like Disneyland is half-arboretum/half-themepark – something that wasn’t very discernable in photos and videos – and is the cornerstone of my newly-budding love for the place. May it always remain this way. On the downside, the big trees at DL made me even more incensed that the majority of the big trees have been intentionally removed from the Magic Kingdom’s central plaza & square… but that’s for another thread. Pic below shows one of these big beauties in the background:
The second overall and lasting impression I had was that park was significantly smaller & more intimate than I had expected. The castle was small, but its small size worked in its context. The quaint size of the park ended up being a good thing (aside from the fact it was jam packed with Spring Break crowds) as I was easily able to traverse the park multiple times, whereas to do the same at an EPCOT-size park could get a little tiring.
MAIN STREET, USA: Like every land at DL (save one), Main Street oozed with charm and beautiful detail. Facades, landscaping and paving all looked to be in tip-top shape – even small flaws generally catch my eye quickly. The only ‘attraction’ on Main Street I visited was the Disney Gallery. It was the last thing I did before leaving the park at 6:45pm. As I’ve mentioned, Imagineering and park design is a great hobby of mine. I only had ten minutes to check out the Gallery, but I could have spent an hour there, admiring the WDI paintings and models I had only seen prior in photos.
ADVENTURELAND: A recurring theme in this TR will be “photos don’t do the park justice.” Adventureland was another intimate, yet brilliantly-designed, area. In the morning, I noticed a couple of the torches outside the Tiki Room weren’t working (I was actively looking for maintenance issues such as this), but they were alight by the time I left the park – all’s well that ends well. I thought the Aladdin building didn’t mesh as well as it could have, but, overall, the land was a beautiful amalgam of exotic influences with fantastic detail on top of detail.
Indiana Jones was the one attraction I was anticipating more than anything else at DL – and a big part of the reason I decided to come to the park despite my exhaustion from the weekend. I am a fan of the film series and knew all about the attraction from reading, photos and videos. Do you ever go into an anticipated film knowing too much (via trailers, reviews, spoilers)? You still enjoy it, but you spoiled it for yourself by knowing what was there, what was cut, what was going to happen. That was my experience with IJA. The highlight was the extraordinary queue, which I already knew I was going to love. Unfortunately, the two key physical FX (the ropeàspike ceiling and diamondsàdescending blocks) were not functioning at all and the archaeologist in the well sounded tinny and too muffled. And as has been brought up many times, FastPass sort of forces you to rush past it (even though I let a lot of people pass by, I still felt a little rushed). The ride itself was a whirlwind and discombobulating – in a good way I suppose, although I thought the projecting effect was too blurry to discern (were they rats or bugs?) and there were too many sections that were pitch black with nothing to see. I hope the ride gets a lengthy and well-deserved rehab/plussing before my next visit, bringing back or improving some of the non-working effects.
I did a quick walkthrough of the Treehouse – solid, but I wish they would remove all the fiberglass cartoon figurines and electronic screens – they damage the attraction’s ability to transport and spark the imagination.
NEW ORLEANS SQUARE: Again, atmosphere grades an A+. NOSQ looked to have some unique shopping although I didn’t spend much time in any of the park’s shops. One of my overall criticisms of the Park was/is the uniformity of merchandise and ubiquity of the same colorful Disney Parks items overflowing in shops in every land. I am one of those who still laments this Pressler-era mandate. I was also sad to see the bright orange plastic guns, as the realistic wooden/metal cap guns were some of my favorite WDW souvenirs growing up – I guess that is a reflection of our society more than Disney, as there may be some law against selling somewhat realistic-looking toy guns in CA. Thumbs up for both PotC (although I thought the cartoony paintings of the Pirates on the queue walls looked out-of-place) and HM, similar versions of which I had experienced many times before, but the most lasting impression would be from the big, shady trees and seductive, old-world outdoor environment.
CRITTER COUNTRY: Since Splash Mountain was closed, this area gave a nice respite from the heavy crowds. Hungry Bear was a good out-of-way place to get some shade, where I found the facilities. Again, I loved the big pine trees, although from a designer’s standpoint I don’t care to see Pooh, which takes place in an English wood, getting shoe-horned into an American West setting.
FRONTIERLAND: The one line-free ride at DL was the Mark Twain, a fact I took advantage of by riding twice without disembarking. I really enjoyed this leisurely trip, the sights along the way and the rest and chair it afforded me. I have an mp3 of the old Mark Twain narration, which I really like, but thought the new one was fine. However, I was a little disappointed by the completely static figures, such as the elk and deer. It doesn’t have to be much: the twitch of the Chief’s horse’s tail, the masticating moose - but one small movement (flick of an ear, nod of a head) isn’t that complex or expensive and would go a long, long way to selling the illusion of wildlife. Static animal statues are better suited to a Cabella’s superstore or museum diorama – Disneyland ought to give us animals with some movement or leave them out entirely.
I thought Frontierland was beautifully rendered. So far, Disneyland is five for five in land execution. I spent some time in Frontierland, soaking up the atmosphere in places like the Rancho or the path that led to Fantasyland with its pond of turtles, mine train whistling by, and rockwork. There was quite a bit of wildlife in the park, which was great to see, but I wonder how ducklings, turtles, etc. survive in what are likely heavily-chemically-treated waters.
FANTASYLAND: I apologize for sounding like a broken record, but this was another intimate yet beautifully-executed land in terms of architecture, landscape, sounds & smells. From photos I thought the Tangled overlay looked a little plastic and out of place, but in its actual context I didn’t think it was bad at all. I had a small lunch at Village Haus.
This is a good place to address two key overall aspects of Disneyland: one good, one bad. The good: The cast. Every single staff member I interacted with (totaling about 20 over the course of the day) was outgoing, knowledgeable, friendly, and eager to help. They lived up to their excellent reputation. The bad: also living up to its reputation was the mediocrity of the food. This may not be fair as I am a somewhat discerning eater and only had two small meals (a clam chowder bread bowl in NOSQ and fries & mac&cheese (very sophisticated) from Village Haus) and probably not the best choices, but I would grade the food I ate as flat-out bad.
TOONTOWN: Did a walkthough of Toontown, and once again, from a design standpoint, I thought it was marvelously executed. Advntrlnd/Frntrlnd are more my thing in terms of theme, but one can’t fault the land for what it is designed to be (a cartoon city). All the interactive features that I saw appeared to be functioning.
TOMORROWLAND: Which brings me to Tomorrowland, source of endless “how-to-fix” discussions here on MiceChat. Having finally been to the park, I can see why. Disneyland has eight children, seven of whom are A+ students and one that gets Cs and Ds. When every other land works so well in its own world (even Critter Country manages to give Pooh the American West makeover) and has layers of intricate detail (God is in the details), Tomorrowland is, by comparison, relatively sparse in this respect, with a number of unadorned concrete walls. Compounding this problem, the details it does have are chaotic (e.g., the Autopia building or that “thing” on top of the central pediment) & confused (the steampunk of the Orbitron vs. the streamline of Space Mountain) elements and conflicting color schemes. Whereas Adventureland is a jumble of styles brought into a harmony through superior design, Tomorrowland is a jumble of styles with no harmony, only cacophony. This is a failure of design, plain and simple. Not even addressing the fairly irreconcilable attraction subject matters here such as Star Wars vs. Nemo, the land needs some great designers (and budget) to give it that coherency which exists in every other land despite the disparate architectural styles found within (e.g. Edwardian, Tudor, Italianate, etc., all meshing nicely in Fantasyland). But thumbs up for Space Mountain, the ride… lots of fun.
GRAND CALIFORNIAN: I like to explore the deluxe, unique Disney hotels, so around 4pm I made my way over to Grand Californian. Again, it exceeded my expectations. It is a truly grand hotel designed by the late, great Peter Dominick (who designed Wilderness Lodge & Animal Kingdom Lodge), and felt much bigger in person than it appeared in photos, particularly the lobby. The materials and landscaping were all of the highest quality. The view from the inner courtyard to Grizzly Peak in DCA was simply awesome.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF DISNEYLAND: I can better understand now why so many people are passionate about this park. There is something there that can’t easily be described… “patina” is a word I once read in describing DL and it really does apply. Theme parks are places where everything is often passed off as “fake”, but fake is about the last word I would use to describe the park. Somehow at DL everything feels genuine: the big shady trees, the soft California light and air, the wildlife, the staff that generally seemed happy to be there. Despite flaws and changes (some for the worse and some for the better) it’s an extraordinary place and I can’t wait to return.