The Grand Canyon; Niagara Falls; The Space Needle; The Statue of Liberty – iconic symbols of what makes America a vast land of breathtaking wonder, and yet many Americans only dream about visiting these sites. I have had the privilege and pleasure to have experienced most of this country’s defining landmarks, an adventure that few can boast – so how is it that virtually every man, woman and child in these United States have been to the place commercially referred to as “The Happiest Place on Earth” while my closest encounter was driving past the kingdom of Der Maus on Interstate 5? Well, my friends, all that changed recently as old Walt popped this middle-aged man’s Disneyland cherry, offering me the unique opportunity to partake in this animatronic slice of Americana with a view from the eyes of an outsider.
I had always considered the prospect of relinquishing my cash to an empire built on a harem of animated teenage girls in need of rescue in a gross abuse of revisionist history just plain Goofy. I found the crass commercialism offensive and couldn’t see how adults could walk away from there laden with arms full of Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and the infamous and ridiculous skull cap with plastic mouse ears. On the other side of the coin, I’d visited Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch and the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas and I couldn’t fairly, and with any semblance of objectivity, call myself a road tripper without biting the corn dog bullet and taking in the Magic Kingdom. My first foray into mousedom was back in the mid-1990s when I visited Epcot Center in Florida. The giant clothed and upright animals were at a minimum and I found it to be a somewhat cultural experience at the international pavilions (save for the overpriced and substandard quality food), but I knew the day would come when I’d have to put my prejudices aside and visit Disneyland. I never would have dreamed that the journey would last half a century.
I wisely visited on a weekday during the spring when school was in session and instead of letting Jiminy Cricket be my guide, I let my child-at-heart wife Claudia lead the tour. After entering by foot from Disneyland Drive, I remarked how many megastores brimming with merchandise peppered the park before I realized we hadn’t yet entered the Magic Kingdom. Once past the low-tech sign harkening back to the late 50s and under the bridge at Main Street Station, we had entered the realm of the whitewashed mouse. Main Street has been engineered as a smaller-scale row of Hollywood façades made to look like someone’s idea of a Victorian small town U.S.A; if you managed to get past the megastores without purchasing souvenirs, Main Street has you covered. The teeming masses yearning to breathe milled up the pavement dodging mini-fire trucks gaily festooned in their finest Disney casualwear, stopping for the occasional ice cream cone or cotton candy.
The first thing that caught my eye was a tiny theater with the words “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” on the marquee. Having the rest of the day to kill, we opted to sit in the plush theater seats for the presentation. When a narrated, hand-painted slide presentation began depicting Abraham Lincoln’s life, I recall thinking that surely the success of The Lion King put enough coin in Walt’s pocket to afford moving animation; after the “film” the curtains opened to reveal a seated wax figure of Honest Abe, equally as unimpressive – that is, until that robo-Republican bastard rose to his feet. The autonomatronic Lincoln was astounding; no jerky motions, and a smoother movement of the mouth to match the voice-over than Madonna’s Super Bowl performance. After the witnessing the brilliant display of technology used to bring Lincoln to life, I would have been content to go home at that point, especially after spotting the six-foot rodent of honor in tails emerging from City Hall. Unbelievably and thankfully, the only other time I saw Der Maus in the park was during the light and water show at the end of the night.
The iconic and familiar Sleeping Beauty Castle resides smack dab in the hub of the park, with Main Street as its largest spoke radiating outward. Here the old adage rings true – it looks bigger on television; it seems to be the go-to attraction where pre-adolescent girls can meet their princess role models and learn that if you’re pretty enough, a man will come along and take care of you for the rest of your life. To the right is the realization of the 1950s version of futuristic – Tomorrowland. Looking like a cross between the set of The Jetsons and a Jules Verne illustration, Tomorrowland was steampunk before there was a name for it. Rising up like a great flying saucer is the attraction that for decades has been the one to go on if you only go on one – Space Mountain. The exterior is simple, almost art deco, but as you queue up for the ride you realize that the graphics haven’t changed much since it opened in 1977 (the same year Star Wars hit the theaters). The interior looks like Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I have to hand it to the ride’s designers, there’s a myriad of flashing, blinking and whirring objects to keep your mind off the fact that you’re in an hour long line. It was hard to be optimistic about the ride; after all I’d heard ad infinitum how Space Mountain is a roller coaster that runs in the dark – ooooh, so scary, a little pee just came out. That was before the ride started. The cars rocketed through the darkness at a breakneck pace and even though in the near non-existent light you could make out black beams and panels (some with astronomical projections) outfitted with millions of tiny lights, there was still the effect of warping through a worm hole or pushing the hammer down in the Millennium Falcon. In a nutshell, Space Mountain was one bad-ass mofo ride.
Since I have the great fortune of not suffering from motion sickness or vertigo, Space Mountain was an exhilarating ride, but I have to admit that I almost blew my groceries at the next attraction: Captain EO. I have to wonder what Francis Ford Coppola was thinking, making what looks like a bad mash up of Far Out Space Nuts and Flashdance, but understand Disney’s choice of bringing back the 3-D film post Michael Jackson’s demise. If you haven’t experienced this horrific testament to bad 80s hair and space Muppets it might be worth a peek for its nostalgic value, but personally it made me pray to God to protect Dennis De Young lest we be treated to “Kilroy Was Here” in 3-D. The Innoventions hall was a disappointment; I’m sure in the 1960s the technology on display was cutting edge but I was getting the feeling that I had put the Delorean in reverse. While a tricked out tree house is probably someone’s idea of a kickin’ man cave of the future, I’m guessing putting houses in old dead trees will be the only real estate left undeveloped in the next hundred years.
I suppose if I had small children I would have suited up and dove onto the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage; as a bystander, it looks something that could be a lot of fun to enjoy with the wee tykes. I have to admit, I cracked a smile while passing the gulls on the buoy that would frequently break into their chorus of, “Mine! Mine!” Around the bend, the Matterhorn rises is all its fiberglass glory above the park, churning out waterfalls and looking like a mini-National Park. The hollow mountain is one of the few landmarks in the park visible from the Interstate, but it ironically invokes the image of the Paramount Pictures logo rather than Walt Disney or Buena Vista. The Matterhorn is Disneyland’s other self-contained roller coaster, offering more scenery than any other similar ride (save for Six Flags Fiesta Texas’ Rattler, a wooden roller coaster that runs through a quarry cave). The faux alpine scenery enhances the experience, making the rider feel like they’re anywhere but Anaheim, California (although I could have done without the fiberglass ice caves inhabited by Yeti mannequins).
I was able to withstand the temptation of visiting Toontown by telling myself that this is the lair of The Mouse, The Duck and The Dog, and I was doing myself a favor and maximizing my adult enjoyment of the park; however, all that went to hell in a hand basket as I fell victim to the most insidious form of torture known to modern civilization – It’s a Small World. Dick Cheney in the deepest, darkest recesses of his black decrepit heart couldn’t come up with a more inhumane method of reducing a human brain to a quivering mass of jelly – it makes waterboarding seem like a dip in the hot tub after a massage. If any of you have not yet experienced this House of Pain, imagine a granny-slow cruise in a rowboat with no oarsman that traverses the river Styx, replete with saccharine-sweet dolls that make single, jerking motions while dressed (or painted) in ethnic attire. During the entire cruise (which by my estimate took about seven or eight hours) that song, that mind-numbing anthem, repeated endlessly in a barrage of cherubic children’s voices over and over again, only changing in language as the boat wound its way through the international version of Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell. I am perplexed as to how any human adults can come off that ride and say they loved it – and yet they do. I imagine they love It’s a Small World the way Winston Smith loved Big Brother after emerging from Room 101.
By the time we were released from Disney’s version of Abu Ghraib, I had worked up an appetite and Claudia suggested we mosey on down to Frontierland and rustle us up some grub. This involved cutting across Fantasyland, which had the highest population of human Disney characters in the park, as well as what seasoned theme park adventurers call “the kiddie rides”: flying Dumbos, Mad Hatter tea cups – you get the picture. This is probably the least frenetic part of the park for the kids, and although Disney’s legendary corn dog can be found here, I found it best not to linger since I didn’t have grandchildren in tow. Frontierland boasts more artificial landscaping, this time with a rugged western California theme with the primary attraction being the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a rickety jaunt on a mining rail car. Big Thunder Ranch features a dining area with all-you-can eat BBQ at plastic tableclothed picnic tables; I wouldn’t put their ribs up against any from Kansas City or Texas, but since the bucket (literally) was bottomless it served our needs. A trio sang western songs like “Home on the Range” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas” while keeping light banter in going in a drawl; I imagine this is someone’s vision of what life with the tumbling tumbleweeds might be like if that person has never been east of San Bernardino.
Big Thunder Trail empties out into a waterfront area where passengers can embark on a voyage aboard the Sailing Ship Columbia or the Mark Twain Riverboat, both impressive rides with the extra benefit of not having the cartoon factor. Unlike Epcot Center, the main goal at the Magic Kingdom is to entertain rather than educate, and both of these vessels achieve that admirably. Equally as admirable is the attention paid to New Orleans Square, which overlooks the water; this series of French Quarter façades almost captures the look and feel of old-time New Orleans. In addition to shops and cafes, New Orleans Square is home to one of the most popular rides at Disneyland, thanks in part to the successful movie franchise of Pirates of the Caribbean. The ride is similar to It’s a Small World in that a self-propelled rowboat takes you on your journey, but in this case you are transported through bayou country and into the world of fun-loving, murderous pirates. Naturally, Captain Jack Sparrow makes random appearances, popping his head up from inside wine barrels and peeking out from behind walls in a buccaneer version of “Where’s Waldo”. The repetitive motions of the animatronic figures get tedious but there’s enough dialog and gunfire to hold your interest. Once off the ride we chose to get coffee and dessert; unfortunately there was not a cup of Cafe du Monde to be found and the beignets I ordered arrived at the table in a confectioner’s sugar rendition of Mickey Nutria. I suppose they tasted fine, and it was just my psyche trying to choke down the powdery chunks of mouse shaped fried dough.
The two other attractions worth mentioning at the Magic Kingdom are around the corner from New Orleans Square, the first of which is the old school Haunted Mansion. The house portion is unremarkable and looks like any southern mansion with pictures of ghouls and goblins on the wall; it isn’t until the cramped hallway descends into a cavernous lower level that the fun begins. Tilt-a-Whirl cars spin around a flat track past graveyards and dark, damp alleys where projected ghosts fly about in bigger numbers than migrating geese; at one point the car spins around to face a mirror, showing you a ghost sitting alongside you to enjoy the ride. One of the more recent attractions is the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye; as with Space Mountain, the wait in the long line is alleviated with screens broadcasting fake newsreels about the site (with narration by John Rhys-Davies who portrayed Salah in the Indiana Jones films); there are also actual props used in the films strewn about to keep your mind off standing in queue. Guests ride in massive, driverless jeeps (unmanned vehicles are apparently a recurring theme throughout the park – they don’t even have someone pretending to drive) and they seem to careen out of control, narrowly missing collisions and being crushed by the now infamous rolling papier-mâché boulder. I’ve intentionally omitted the highly-hyped River Cruise, which features Disney animatronics at their worst. I took advantage of the ride to rest my feet for a bit and relax before heading back down to the water for the nightly fireworks and light show, since most of the animals’ single repeated motions easily gave them away as fakes.
The firework show over Sleeping Beauty Castle is a nightly feature, and Disneyland seemed to spare no expense in executing the spectacular. In the midst of all the incendiaries, an acrobat in a harness dressed as Tinkerbelle is flown on a wire around the area between the Matterhorn and the castle and if she isn’t the highest paid performer in the park she should be. At the waterfront, a water and light extravaganza employs neon-lit barges as well as both ships; live action takes place on a stage at Tom Sawyer Island including an epic battle between Mickey Mouse (as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and a 30-foot tall fire breathing dragon – unfortunately, the mouse wins. In the water, jets spray up to form walls that film segments and lights are projected on; the whole spectacular makes the water show at the Bellagio look like two kids fooling around with Super Soakers.
While our passes would have given us access to California Adventure as well as The Magic Kingdom, I wasn’t compelled to check out the other park. I set out to finally visit what has come to be known as the quintessential theme park, a historic fixture of American culture that had been off my radar for most of my life. I can now cross Disneyland off my travel bucket list, and although I have to admit enjoying my visit I don’t see myself as one of those people that have to maintain a yearly season pass, or even anticipate a second visit. There’s so much left to see and do, but keep in mind that it’s a small world, after all.