December 30, 2013–
Maybe it’s because we only make our way west every five years or so and absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
Maybe it’s because the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland is the only one of the 11 Disney theme parks worldwide where Walt Disney actually set foot in and the place is absolutely dripping with Disney history.
Maybe it’s because the park — more than 58 years old and still going strong — remains a place where cleanliness prevails and the castmembers continue to go out of their way to make you feel welcome in — as Walt famously put it on opening day in 1955 — “this happy place.”
A very, very special place
Whatever the reason, Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., is very, very special.
We were reminded of this fact in November as we passed through the turnstiles, walked under the train station and made our way into the pristine Town Square.
A brightly decorated Christmas tree first caught our eye, as did the tall flag pole with the Stars and Stripes gently flapping in the breeze.
To our left was City Hall, where windows dedicated to Disney Legends Marty Sklar, Jack Lindquist and Harrison (Buzz) Price stand out. Next to City Hall is the firehouse, with Walt Disney’s apartment on the second floor. The eternal candle which burns in Walt’s honor year-round was moved during the holiday season to a side window, replaced by a small Christmas decoration.
Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle as sunset approaches.
On the opposite side of Town Square is the Opera House, home to the Disney Gallery and the iconic Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show.
The Gallery features a jaw-dropping collection of Disneyland memorabilia that’s worth more than just a cursory look. There’s giant map of Disneyland as it looked in 1955, the park bench where he is said to have first dreamed of a park where children and their parents could have fun together, as well as an enlarged copy of the first edition of the Marty Sklar-created Disneyland News.
The Lincoln show is an updated version of what guests first were in awe of in the Illinois pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. The latest incarnation features several elements from the American Adventure attraction in Epcot, including the always emotional “Two Brothers” song and film clip and “Golden Dreams” at the end of the presentation.
Just beyond Town Square, of course, is Main Street USA, the quintessential Midwestern town modeled after Walt Disney’s boyhood home in Marceline, Mo.
Although most of the shops along the street have changed hands and theming several times since 1955 — yes, there’s a Starbucks, now located in the Market House — its charm and endearing quality remain unchanged.
Here I am chatting with Oscar, Disneyland’s longest-tenured castmember, in front of the Carnation Cafe.
At the Carnation Cafe halfway up the street, we were lucky enough to meet Oscar, a chef at the restaurant and the longest-tenured castmember in Disneyland.
“I started working here in 1956,” he told me as we posed for a photograph. “I was living in Arkansas at the time when my girlfriend — now my wife — came out here looking for work. I decided to tag along. My first job was busing tables.”
After nearly 58 years on the job, is he considering retirement? “Never,” he said with conviction. “This is too much fun.”
As we ate our lunch in the cafe’s outdoor seating area, I couldn’t help notice the name Christopher D. Miller inscribed on one of the windows above.
Christopher was Walt Disney’s first grandchild, the first-born child of Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. That window sighting became all the more poignant when we learned the next morning that Diane — one of the inspirations behind the creation of Disneyland — had passed away.
Since our visits to Disneyland are infrequent, we made it a point to ride as many of the attractions that are Disneyland-exclusive as we could, even though most of the similarly named Disneyland-Walt Disney World attractions are, in most cases, very different.
[For example, Space Mountain in Disneyland sits two riders across, features pulsating music and is completely in the dark; Pirates of the Caribbean is much longer and decidedly more elaborate; the Haunted Mansion is occupied by Jack Skellington and friends during the Halloween-Christmas seasons, and It’s a Small World begins its international aquatic journey outdoors.]
Made a bee-line to the Matterhorn Bobsleds
On the morning of our second day at Disneyland, we made a bee-line to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which is located in Fantasyland and is perhaps the most popular attraction in the park, judging by the long lines each day.
The Matterhorn was the world’s first tubular steel roller coaster. It was designed by Disney Legend Bob Gurr inside an exact replica of Matterhorn Mountain, which sits on the border of Switzerland and Italy [Expedition Everest in Disney’s Animal Kingdom followed a similar game plan — a coaster inside a famed mountain — although, unlike Gurr, today’s creative staff had the luxury of computer technology].
Three of Disneyland’s iconic attractions: The Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and the monorail.
The Matterhorn, which opened in 1959, remains a thrilling trip, although it’s a “harder” ride when compared to today’s smoother coasters.
In the shadow of the Matterhorn in Tomorrowland is the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, which also opened in 1959 under a different name, having been inspired by the first nuclear-powered submarine voyage under the North Pole. At one time, Walt Disney proudly proclaimed his submersibles to be “the eighth-largest submarine fleet in the world.”
Despite protests from Disney Legends Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter, the submarines were dry-docked in 1998. The attraction was reopened in 2007 with a “Finding Nemo” theme and was quite an enjoyable experience, particularly since we hadn’t ridden a Disney submarine for more than two decades.
[Just last week, though, it was announced that the Finding Nemo submarine attraction will close on Jan. 6 for refurbishment and won’t reopen until late 2014. ]
Indiana Jones stands tall in Adventureland
The Indiana Jones Adventure is the most popular attraction in Adventureland. It uses a ride system similar to the Dinosaur attraction in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but the vehicles encounter Indy’s main nemesis — snakes — as well as a giant ball and a rickety bridge instead of all those nasty prehistoric creatures.
Fantasyland is home to a slew of Disneyland’s most beloved attractions; the majority of them are fabled “dark rides.” Many have been in operation since opening day, while others were “re-themed” in Walt Disney World years ago, which makes them particularly intriguing.
Disneyland-exclusive attractions include Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, the Casey Jr. Circus Train, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Pixie Hollow, Alice in Wonderland [a particular favorite, with its indoor-outdoor track] and the Storybook Land Canal Boats.
Fantasyland attractions that are featured in both Disneyland and WDW include the carrousel, Dumbo, Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World.
New to Fantasyland is Fantasy Faire, an area near Sleeping Beauty Castle devoted to young princes and princesses with the look and feel of new Fantasyland in WDW.
It’s good vs. evil and Fantasmic! plays out along the Rivers of America in Disneyland.
Also featured in Fantasyland is the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, which opened in 1959, was closed in 2001 and reopened in 2008. The walkthrough tells the story of “Sleeping Beauty” through a series of dioramas. The originals were designed in the style of Eyvind Earle, production designer “Sleeping Beauty.”
After the walkthrough closed in 2001, Imagineer Tony Baxter was one of the driving forces behind bringing it back, but with an upgraded show.
The castle itself is noticeably shorter in stature than Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World, but remains an endearing park icon. And as the story goes, the front of the castle actually faces Fantasyland; the back is what you see from Main Street.
The Disneyland Monorail winds its way through Tomorrowland, although there’s only one stop in the Magic Kingdom — near the entrance to the Nemo submarine. Still, the monorail offers an excellent overview of many of the attractions in the area.
In addition to Space Mountain and the Nemo subs, Tomorrowland also is home to Disney staples Captain EO, Star Tours, the Astro Orbitor, Innoventions (which first housed the Carousel of Progress), Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and Autopia, still an enjoyable motor tour through the countryside.
Inexplicably, the long, winding track for the failed Rocket Rods attraction remains intact and is a bit of an eyesore in Tomorrowland.
Disneyland Railroad’s “grand circle tour”
For a more complete overview of the park, the Disneyland Railroad makes its fabled “grand circle tour” around the perimeter. The train stops in New Orleans Square, Mickey’s Toontown, Tomorrowland and Main Street.
We found the food in Disneyland to be both reasonably priced and quite tasty. On our first night in the park, we ate dinner with our friends Nancy and Phil in the Plaza Inn, which proved to be an enjoyable experience.
At night, Disneyland features both a Wishes fireworks display (Believe … In Holiday Magic during Christmas) and Fantasmic!, which is staged on the Rivers of America, allowing for a much more up-close and personal experience (we were joined by our friends Mike and Dorene for this show).
Both the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Sailing Ship Columbia are used during the performance, as is Tom Sawyer Island, where Mickey and Maleficent duke it out. The intimacy of the Disneyland version is far more appealing to me than the Hollywood Studios production, held as it is in that massive arena.
As Walt Disney famously said after Disneyland opened in 1955, the park “will never be finished as long as there’s imagination left in the world.”
Which is a good thing, because the next time we visit, there’s sure to be new adventures to see and experience.
I can’t wait to return.
By Deborah Fitts