Oh, the House of Mouse, / She ain’t what she used to be, / Many long years ago

Yesterday, we went to the Disneyland Resort (and, yes, I am specifically using that term now). Now, my last time to Disneyland Park was around 1999, when nsshere was around 3, so it has been a while. Of course, I must share with you my observations and what we did.

The park has changed a lot since I was last there. In 1999, there was still a gigantic surface street parking lot that you entered off of Harbor (or was it Ball) road, with the long-standing Disneyland sign (which was actually auctioned on eBay). That’s all gone now. The parking lot has been replaced by California Adventure, the Grand Californian Hotel, and Downtown Disney… and the lot is now a gigantic parking structure. I don’t think this is bad per se — Walt never intended the parks to be static — but it does bring in more people and more crowds. I do believe the crowds are a problem, and I think that Disney is losing its magic at crowd control.

When we entered the park, the first thing I noticed was how small everything was now. As a kid, and in my memory, things seemed so big. The castle was gigantic. The Matterhorn was (deep reverberating voice) a mountain. The storefronts on Main Street were large. Now, through my almost-47 year old eyes, these things seem small. Perhaps it is my height, perhaps it is my knowledge of the history behind the magic, perhaps it is the difference between being a kid and being an adult. Whatever it is, things seemed smaller.

Our first stop was the Haunted Mansion, which was decked out for Christmas. Note that I don’t say “the holidays”, for as inclusive as Disney is in their ads, the only “holiday” you saw at the entire resort was Christmas. Not being familiar with “Nightmare Before Christmas“, I wasn’t too impressed with it (although I was impressed on how they changed things around). I missed the “Grinning Ghosts“. But the rest of our group enjoyed, and the attention to detail was there. After the Mansion, we went over to Plaza Inn for a character breakfast.

It was at the Plaza Inn I noticed that the old Disney was gone. There were lightbulbs out. There were cobwebs and broken crystal strands in the chandeliers. This is something that, in Walt’s day, would not be. The park was spotless — that’s one of the things that differentiated it from the Molehill or Knotts. The illusion was perfect — you couldn’t see the wear and the grime. Not so anymore: you could see that the “wood” poles were really metal due to worn paint on Tom Sawyer Island; there was trash in the bushes. Lines for attractions were backing up into thoroughfares and making walking difficult. I think this is evidence that the park is not keeping up well with the crowds.

As the crowd at Disnelyland Park was growing, we went over to California Adventure (where the lines are shorter). This was quite nice, although I’m not sure it is 100% what Walt would have wanted. After we picked up our Fastpass for S0arin’ Over California, we walked around CA. Much of it was quite well done: I like Grizzly Mountain, and how they captured the different areas. The amusement pier bothered me. Those familiar with DL history know that one reason the park was created was to create an atmosphere different from the amusement parks of the day, where the parents would sit back and let the kids play, where things weren’t always clean. Seeing the recreation of the Pike, with its carnival barkers, ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl made me question whether that was what should be at a Disney park. It doesn’t have the magic; it didn’t seem right.

While in CA, we did get a chance to see both the Bugs Life show and MuppetVision 3D, both of which were quite good. We then went on Soarin’, which was a very impressive ride. One day in the future, I’d like to try more of the rides in CA.

We then wandered back to DL to see if we could get a Fastpass to Indiana Jones. But the time for the pass was already at 9pm in the evening, so we got Big Thunder Mountain instead. We then tried to find lunch, but the lines everywhere were too long… so we hopped the Monorail to Downtown Disney. As we walked through Tomorrowland, I kept seeing in my mind’s eye the park that was: the gondola cars, the people mover, Monsanto, the Circarama theatre, Carousel of Progress, Rocket to Mars. I think Tomorrowland is one of the sadest lands, for it has always been the forgotten stepchild of the park: updated periodically, but never done right or with the right sense of imagination. It is still a mix of “1950 bug-eyed monster”, “1950’s looking ahead”, and “2000-Sci-Fi”. How old is Star Tours now? How long has “Honey” been running (replacing “Captain Eo“)?

It took awhile to find lunch: crowds everywhere, combined with a tired and cranky party. But we did find something, and then walked back to the park. At this point, we split up: gf_guruilla and our friends went off shopping, and I took nsshere to Tom Sawyer Island. That hasn’t changed much, although the Fort was closed. We both agreed that a pirate retheming of the island wouldn’t be that sacreligious: it might draw more folks to the island and permit it to be rediscovered. After the island, we met back up with folks and rode Big Thunder Mountain.

After Big Thunder, it was back to New Orleans Square to queue up and ride the revamped Pirates. Here, more comments are in order. The retheming of Pirates to include Johnny Depp didn’t bother me, but didn’t add much to the ride either. It was just another example of merchandising, which has become more blatent in the park. The problem with the merchandising is the unevenness of it all: some are heavily promoted (“Tink“, the princesses, the cute animals), and some conspicuously are not (Mulan, Pocahontas (although once upon a time they did have a stage show), Uncle Remus [and to my recollection, that’s about the only black character Disney has to promote], Esmerelda… and you never see Treasure Planet mentioned, probably for good reason :-)). The image of 1910 White Bread America nostalgized by Main Street is carried throughout the park, and I’m not sure this is good. Disney needs to present positive role models (“Tink” or “Grumpy” certainly aren’t) of all colors and creeds.

One other thing on Pirates bothered me: The stupid guests. We had folks shining flashlights around the ride. Continually using flash photography. I saw this on the train as well: flash photography of the dioramas behind glass. They do say “don’t use flash”, but folks don’t listen. There really needs to be some education of this at the resort: it does destroy the magic. At least cell phones and crackberries weren’t going off — but I’m sure that’s next.

After Pirates, my wife’s knee gave out (the soaking from being in the front of the boat didn’t help). We called First Aid, and she went to go rest a bit. We walked to Toontown, found long waits, took the train back to Main Street, did some shopping, picked up my wife, and left the park. We had dinner in Downtown Disney (Tortilla Jo’s, quite good), and came home.

It was a long day. My blisters have blisters, and my legs are sore. Everyone else is still sleeping in (as I write this), exhausted. It was a fun day.

I think there is a big difference between those who go to the DL-Resort on a regular basis, and those of us who visit it only periodically. The regular visitors are like the frog in the pot of hot water: the change is so gradual, you don’t necessarily see the contrast. Those of us who visit less often see the contrast. Maintenance at the park needs to be improved. There needs to be a little less merchandising (what happened to the purely fun shops on Main Street?). There needs to be better crowd management (which was the real point of the ticket books, but we’ve forgotten that). There needs to be the ability to do Fastpasses on more rides, and for people to be able to get more than one Fastpass at a time. The visitor experience needs to be enhanced, and this is often bricks and mortar logistical issues and staff training (I had one shopkeeper who didn’t know how to call First Aid) than more rides and more goodies. But just as with security software, what brings folks in and makes the money isn’t better quality, it is feeping creaturism. But we need the quality back in the park; it has begun to slip.

But did I have fun… yes. It was fun spending the day with the family. Do I want to go again in the next month? Nah. But they’re going again a week from today.