This weekend, Debbi, Lisa, Michel and I went down to Disneyland in Anaheim, down by Los Angeles.
Debbi and Lisa are total Disneyland nuts. To them, it really is "The happiest place on Earth". Debbi has a thing for Tigger (from Winnie the Pooh) and Lisa goes for Minnie Mouse, and Debbi was all excited for weeks before about going. I think she was often frustrated that I didn't share her enthusiasm.
Well, to tell the truth, I've never been much of a Disney fan. I can barely remember seeing any of the cartoons with their central characters (Mickey & Minnie, Donald & Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, and the like), though I read a few of the comic books as a kid. I was always more of a fan of the smart-assed Warner Brothers characters (Bugs and Daffy and the Road Runner). I've seen some of the films, but only remember Snow White and Fantasia, and I'm not sure I've ever seen Peter Pan or Dumbo. For whatever reason, it just isn't a big part of my background. Maybe my parents know.
So I didn't have the Disney connection to be enthusiastic about the trip, and I've been to amusement parks before and although I enjoy them I don't generally get all pumped up to go to them.
I will say this up front: I did have a good time. I don't think I had a great time, but I feel kinda self-conscious because it would be hard for me to get as excited about Disneyland as Debbi does. Now she was having a great time. There were also a few things about the park which bothered me, even though I know that people who really like the park just ignore them as much as they can (or, maybe, don't consider them important enough to affect their enjoyment of the park, is a better way to put it). So I'll talk about those.
Since she was bidding adieu to her parents on Wednesday, Debbi drove down on Thursday morning to meet me, and she got there about half an hour before my alarm was set so she could pounce on me in bed! Her idea of starting the weekend on the right foot, I guess! Well, later on, she fell asleep on my bed while I was getting ready (she says she wasn't really asleep!) and I jumped on her. She mewed, "You pounced on me! You weren't supposed to do that!" It was so cute. Turnabout really is fair play!
We had rented a minivan to go down, and Lisa and Michel picked us up later in the morning. It took about 7 hours to get down there, and I have to say that Interstate 5 is one dull stretch of road. But it's fast and direct, so it's the choice.
Friday night we checked into our hotel (the "Paradise Pier" hotel, which is right near Disney's California Adventure, which in turn is right near Disneyland itself), and went to Downtown Disney, which is a fairly recent addition to the area. It's based around modern downtowns, and has lots of little shops and restaurants along a main thoroughfare. It's not part of the park and is open to everyone - no tickets necessary. There's a big Lego store, the ESPN Zone, an Illuminations candle store, and of course a big Disney outlet. The restaurants are all fairly high-priced, of course. We had dinner at the House of Blues restaurant. We also poked our heads into a bunch of the stores, some of which had some truly neat stuff - if you were willing to pay quite a bit of money for them.
Saturday it was off to Disneyland. Well, with a little difficulty: It started raining while we were at breakfast, and was cold and rainy off-and-on throughout the morning, only warming up in the afternoon. So that was something of a bummer.
My first encounters with Disneyland encompass both something I think is neat about the park and two things I hate about it.
The neat thing is this: Disneyland is old. It was built in the 1950s, back when Walt Disney was alive. (People of my generation I think can't appreciate that Walt was the face of the company for decades. To us, Disney is a corporation. From everything I've heard, Disney was the driving force behind much of what the company did for many years.) Apparently the park started falling into disrepair in the 70s and 80s, as some rides hadn't been properly maintained, and other seemed badly dated - especially in the "Tomorrowland" section, and especially in contrast with Disney World in Florida. Sometime in the last 20 years the park has undergone numerous makeovers, and it's now a fascinating mix of the classic and the new.
To some degree, Disney's image is timeless. Some of this is because Disney's stories are classics, and some of it is because our culture has been noticibly shaped by Disney. But the design of Disneyland feels very much like it was designed in the 1950s: A large promenade leading up to the main gates, with art deco trees and fencing placed at strange intervals along the way. "Main Street, U.S.A" is a replica of facades of an old-time downtown village, very much like those that are portrayed in old TV shows of the era (I'm not sure whether walking down it is more like stepping into Leave It to Beaver or The Twilight Zone). This isn't a knock: It's actually quite impressive to step into a place which was designed so deliberately, and which has been revised so much over the year, yet which retains such clear marks of its original design. It's not hard to imagine people in the 1950s walking into the park and seeing things not so different from what we see today, in many ways.
The two things I hate are this:
First, to some extent Disneyland is a big commercial for Disney's merchandise. Shops selling Disney stuff are everywhere in the park. Main Street is virtually one big store for Disney dolls, monogrammed clothing, mugs, and so forth. I understand that a huge amount of Disney's revenue comes from sales of these items. In a sense, what the parks are selling are not the rides, but the Disney image and the Disney merchandise.
It's probably not reasonable for me to "hate" this aspect of the park, but it made me uncomfortable. I have zero interest in Disney merchandise, so I felt like I wasn't doing my part to appreciate the park by ignoring the shops. I certainly did plenty of browsing, but I didn't buy a thing.
The second thing is the food. The food is dramatically overpriced. Junk food which would cost a few bucks anywhere else is $10.00 here. Here's an example:
In the California Adventure park is a burger stand which is serving McDonald's. They have value meals, which are all priced maybe 2 or 3 bucks more than comparable value meals outside the park. But here's the kicker:
The meals don't come with drinks.
Yes, if you want to buy a McDonald's meal, you have to pay $6 or more for the sandwich and fries, and then another $2 for a drink. Plus tax.
This runs into a lot of money over the course of the weekend. And, of course, it's a noticible hike to leave the park to go anywhere else to eat.
I know I'm getting fleeced at baseball games when I buy expensive food there. But it's generally just one meal, if that, that I buy. Options are more limited when you're spending two days at Disneyland. They have a captive audience, and they know it. I often chafe when I spend much more than ten bucks on a decent meal anyway, and spending that sort of money on fast food was just annoying.
The rides, on the other hand, are pretty neat.
To some extent, Disneyland is all about illusion. The sets are elaborate, and modern rides are designed so that the spaces where you wait in line to get on the ride all have their own interesting decor to check out. Heck, Lisa even commented that I didn't quite get the full Indiana Jones ride experience since we didn't wait in line and get to see the black-and-white movies which set the stage for the ride, since the lines weren't that long.
Indiana Jones is a safari-style expedition through a temple in a jeep, with lots of bumps and turns, noise and illusions. It's very stylish and clever, and provides roller coaster-like thrills without some of the stomach-churning lurches that leave some people cold.
Another excellent ride - which is very dissimilar from Indiana Jones - is the Pirates of the Caribbean. You get in a road and ride along a stream which takes you past many elaborate dioramas of pirates engaged in various activities, as well as skeletons of pirates who didn't quite make the grade, or who went down with their booty. The ride is almost sedate, but the sets are stunning in their detail and complexity. Although it didn't quite make me buy into the sense that I was actually there, it did successfully make me forget about any questions as to whether the sets were historically accurate. Who cares? They were cool.
(I think the Pirates ride has been substantially upgraded in the last couple of decades. I think I remember reading that the ride had fallen into very bad repair in the 80s, and seemed horribly dated as well. If so, they've done a great job of modernizing it. It's well worth doing.)
On the other hand, Disney's California Adventure is more of what I think of as an amusement park: Lots of rides based around a theme (in this case, various parts of California), but no real effort to make you think you're someplace you're not. The California Screamin' roller coaster (apparently based on a smaller, wooden coaster at the Santa Cruz boardwalk) is pretty nifty, with a loop-de-loop and a couple of impressive drops. (I find drops to be harder on my stomach than tight turns or loops, though I'm not really squeamish about coasters in general.)
There was also a ride where seats positioned on a big tire float down a lively rush of water, so that at any moment some people on the ride are going backwards. The ride is sure to get everyone somewhat wet, making it great for a hot summer day (fortunately it was sunny on Sunday when we went on this ride). There's also Soarin' over California, which is a nifty virtual trip over California in a simulator much like a big IMAX screen. A light breeze and even discernable scents add to the illusion, which is extremely well done.
I also got to indulge in a corn dog at the California Adventure, which is something I'd been hoping for and looking forward to on this trip. Amusement parks really need to have corn dogs to be done right.
Back in Disneyland, some of the old rides are also fun, although not as extreme as the newer rides. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride must have been hot stuff back in the fifties, but it seems tame next to Indiana Jones. (Who the heck was Mr. Toad, anyway? I've never heard of him!) The Peter Pan ride is quite cleverly structured, but hasn't been as updated as Pirates of the Caribbean. The Haunted Mansion is an interesting mix of old-style technology and more modern trickery. The theme runs somewhat to the cheesy side, but it has lots of bad puns (not that there's any such thing as a "bad" pun!) which compensates.
Unfortunately, much of Disneyland was closed for renovation of enhancement, including several of what Debbi said were the best rides in the park, so that was disappointing (more so for Debbi than for me, I think; she wanted to show the park off to me, and I obviously didn't know what I was missing, having never seen it before).
We also took a ride on the monorail, which dates back to the 50s as well, although the cars have been replaced and updated many times. It's a smooth and pleasant ride, connecting Downtown Disney with Tomorrowland, providing a scenic view of much of Disneyland from above, including some remnants of some rides which no longer exist - another bonus for those of us interested in the park's history. (The PeopleMover tracks were later converted to Rocket Rods, and are now not used. And the submarine ride is defunct as well, though its tracks still wind through some water in Tomorrowland.) It's a must-do if you go.
One last thing: Friday night we met up with my old grad school and Epic buddy David, who now lives in LA (he's an aspiring screenwriter) to go see an Anaheim Angels baseball game. The game itself featured Angels pitcher Kevin Appier shutting down the Toronto Blue Jays line-up, while the Angels hitters roughed up a rookie Jays pitcher in the first, and were then shut down themselves for eight innings, resulting in a final score of 4-0.
The park, though. Edison Field (also called "The Big A") is a lovely big park to sit in, with good views of the action from everywhere, as far as I can see. The front of the stadium has two giant red baseball caps on either side of the gates, and a stone mock-up of a baseball diamond whose pitcher's mound had a brick with the name of every opening day Angels starter back to the team's first year in 1961.
The inside of the park has a nice stone waterfall in dead center field, and plenty of seating. And whoever is managing the screen on the scoreboard does a fantastic job: The animations for various events occurring in the game were surprisingly funny (and are in color!), and there were some hilarious interviews with the players. For instance, asking each Angels player who the worst tipper on the team is. Everyone answered "Orlando Palmeiro", and then they get to Palmeiro who responded, "Probably me." Plus, rather than "dot racing" or "wiener racing" they had "bobblehead doll racing", which had goofy-looking bobblehead dolls jumping around a diamond. An appropriate mockery of a ridiculous ballpark tradition, I was busting a gut watching it.
All-in-all, if you're ever in Anaheim, go see a game at Edison Field. You'll have a great time.
Our trip back on Sunday was uneventful, save for an accidental detour to Bakersfield (we missed a turn at one point), and the fact that I had a sore throat, which is usually a sign that I'm coming down with a cold. Ah, well; better now than Thursday, I think!
I really did have a good time, though, even though the ways in which I enjoyed myself were perhaps very different from how other people would enjoy Disneyland. I liked the rides, and I liked the decor. I just didn't like the prices and the commercialism. And I just couldn't entirely get past that fact.
Would I go back? Probably. But not until I shake this damn cold.