Monday, July 18, 2005

I walked a marathon at Disneyland's 50th Birthday

I have distinct memories of trips to Disneyland with my parents, and later my friends, starting in 1956. If you asked me how many times I have been to Disneyland, I couldn't tell you. I'm sure there was a visit to represent each decade. Even as I served in the Navy, transferred jobs, etc., there was always a visit to Disneyland that fit in between life events.

One of the most frightening memories I have of time spent at Disneyland was riding the donkeys through the Painted Desert when I was seven years old. Yes, that ride and that desert are gone now, and there's a good reason for the former. Those donkeys knew where the edge of the trail was, and where the cliff was, but as I leaned over in the saddle toward the edge of the narrow road, I was sure that I was going to plummet off the side of the burro into that chasm at any moment. My understanding is that the Disneyland donkeys were always sure on their feet but not as sure in controlling their impulse to bite the customers.

I also have uncomfortable memories of my brother twisting the center knob on the Alice in Wonderland Teacups in order to make it spin violently. I was terribly ill after that, and he looked quite pleased with himself.

But the Spaceship to Mars ride was the real reason I wanted to go to Disneyland. I saw it on the Sunday Disney T.V. show, and had to go there. I had to have my trip into space. I remember quite a few details about that first ride, as my father took me up the long staircase into the pod. I remember quite distinctly being aware that there weren't enough g's on the ride -- and this was at age 7 -- but not being terribly distraught about that fact.

Our visit to Disneyland in 2005 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the park, and planning began about a year and a half ago. Plans have changed many times since then, and even a day before we left, but on Thursday evening, Brandon, Ricky and I drove from San Diego, where they lived, to Anaheim, and spent a night at the Worldmark resort in preparation for the trip.

Ricky, Brandon and I were joined by Joel, Rick's best friend, and Donald, Joel's friend, the next morning in the Disneyland parking building, and we transferred luggage to Joel's car, as we knew he'd be driving to the Desert Inn & Suites at 3 pm that day when we checked in the four guys. The Desert Inn was right across the street from Disneyland, right off Disneyland Way.

Friday, July 15th, we saw some unusually large crowds, many of whom were there for the Neil Armstrong Space Mountain dedication ceremony to be held at 10:00 am that day in Tomorrowland. Rick, Donald and I headed over to Tomorrowland, as we were very interested in seeing the former astronaut who made history with his one small step. Space Mountain was to be opened after being closed for over a year; it was to be transformed into a darker and smoother ride, a roller coaster in the dark.

However, we quickly discovered that they had moved the ceremony from the ground level to the rooftop of Space Mountain (and closed Space Mountain for the first few hours of the day). We couldn’t see anything from the ground level. And we couldn’t get up to the rooftop. Ricky and I suggested that Neil Armstrong's wish for privacy and security was at the root of this.

So, we went into the Innoventions exhibit, climbed the stairs to the 2nd level, and went outside from there. From there we could get a clean look at the festivities across the way. There were other fans there, gathering, but there were also huge camera set-ups, and within minutes, cast members were there to tell us we couldn’t stay there. They would not even allow us to stop on the ramp going down from that level. Since we couldn’t see anything clearly from any angle, we left Tomorrowland, which was growing denser by the minute. We grabbed a Fastpass for the new Buzz Lightyear game on the way out.

I rode Buzz Lightyear about six more times after that. While I really like the “ride,” where you shoot Zurg aliens (aiming for boxes with “Z”), I didn’t do well at all. The Disneyland ride seems to be a great improvement over the Disney World ride, as some of the targets are easier to see and you can raise your handheld blaster and point it wherever you want. It was proving to be a popular ride in Tomorrowland, but Fastpass (and the popularity of the newly opened Space Mountain ride) cut that wait quite a bit. I missed a few phone calls over the next few days on my cell phone, and found it hard to explain that I was shooting Emperor Zurg's robots in an important mission. "To infinity...and beyond!"

We spent the first day or so looking at what was different about Disneyland in an effort to commemorate the 50th Anniversary, including 50’s all around, lightposts with the gold 50, shopping bags and souvenirs with the 50th anniversary logo. Also, a very special treat: every original ride has a gold ride among them. For instance, the Autopia has a gold car, the railroad has a gold train, etc. So far we’ve accounted for 9 of the original 10, but haven’t spotted that gold train yet.

I made reservations for lunch and dinner for Friday and Saturday, believing that getting decent food in the parks would be difficult. Disneyland hamburgers are famous for their cardboard taste, and I have more expensive tastes these days. So, on Friday we ate lunch at the Blue Bayou, the best restaurant on the Disney grounds, located in New Orleans square overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (from the inside). All of us -- except for Joel, who, as usual, went for the kids' menu -- had the world-famous Monte Cristo sandwich. As Donald pointed out, when we asked him if he liked it, "I certainly should like something that's totally encased in fat." Oh, yeah.

Friday night we crossed over to the Dark Side and entered Disney's California Adventure. DCA has a terrible reputation with Disneyland fans, and for the most part, it's well earned. Never has so much real estate been devoted to so little. But I was willing to try its restaurants since I hadn't spent much time there. We had reservations at 6:30 pm at the Wine Country Trattoria, and after waiting some time in the heat, we were finally seated outside in pleasant surroundings. At the end of our meal, however, we all agred that the Trattoria has a limited menu with odd choices (lots of lasagna, for instance, but no spaghetti or other pasta), and terrible service.

Crowds were growing in the parks. Friday was manageable, Saturday approached about 100,000, and Sunday was expected to draw a capacity 112,000. Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly hot -- only in the low 80’s for the three days -- and thank extra goodness for DCA. The added park stretched the crowd out, especially during the Electrical Light Parade at night, held at 8:45 pm each night at DCA.

On Saturday morning we ran over to Space Mountain so that Donald and Joel could get a Fastpass. Unfortunately, on the second day of its opening, thousands of other people did the same thing. Whomever planned the exhibit, though, goofed and put the Fastpass booth in the same area as the initial boarding area, and the masses crowded in there, trying to find Fastpass. While Donald and Joel managed to score their Fastpass, it was a confusing mess. It turns out that most visitors really wanted to ride the re-opened Space Mountain, and within an hour, the Fastpass return time was pushed back to the evening.

On Saturday, the crowds were heavier but we could still cope with them if we pushed for our rides in the morning. By 11:00 am, the kids were beginning to arrive, though, and rides in the afternoon were difficult. Space Mountain was impossible. We had a pleasant lunch at the La Brea restaurant, right outside the gates in the beginning of Downtown Disney -- it was the first $11 BLT I’ve ever had, but it was delicious. And lots of peach tea. Dinner was at the Rainforest Cafe at the very end of DD. A long walk, but good food (also expensive). We shared a hot fudge Volcano at the end of our huge meal - whew!

On Sunday, July 17th and the actual birthday for Disneyland, everything changed. We had heard from various websites that they would be taking early arrivals between 2 am and 6 am and lining them up in Disneyland’s California Adventure. So Ricky, Donald and I agreed to meet at 5 am at the “O” in “California” at DCA. There was no way for me to get there by car or shuttle from my WM Resort, so I left my room at 4:30 am and walked 25 minutes down well-lit Harbor Blvd to Disneyland Drive. When I arrived, I couldn’t get to DCA at all, but I saw in the darkness that cast members were directing people to line up in the bus and shuttle parking lot. I got in line and then called Donald. They sent Brandon out to get me, and I happily discovered that they were about 200 people ahead of me, having arrived 20 minutes ahead of me.

We slowly went through security and they let us file into DCA, where they handed us our prized golden ears (with the date embroidered on the back) and a colored wristband, we walked and walked, trying to find the end of the long line. Finally we lined up and sat a little before Grizzly Rapids in DCA. We sat or stood there until about 7:20, when the line finally began to move in to Disneyland. We figured that about 10,000 of us early birds walked single file through a roped-off lane on the right into Disneyland, past the crowd who arrived after they capped the line. All the Disneyland cast members lined Main Street on each side as we entered the park, clapped for us, and shouted out, “Welcome home!” It was an unbelievable and moving experience.

Donald held out his hand and slapped the hands of cast members as he walked along Main Street towards the central hub. I merely looked at the cast members, thanked them, and took photos as I blinked back tears.

Ricky immediately went to the stage at the hub where the statues of Walt and Mickey are to see if there was any way we could stand to watch the ceremony live. The large speaker and screen blocked the view of the castle from almost any vantage point. It took a few minutes for him to determine that there was no chance to see the ceremony live, as about 4,000 people had gotten into Disneyland ahead of us, and many of them had the same thing in mind.

While he was doing that, I ran off to try to make lunch reservations. I got to the Carnation Cafe, and they said they were not taking reservations but that we could come back and stand in line. I ran over amidst thousands of early arrivals to the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square, only to find that all the priority seating was gone until 4 pm -- since they weren’t taking any P.S.’s over the phone in advance, that meant that early arrivals booked all the P.S.’s in the hour before I arrived. I noticed a big, long line snaking around the river and asked a cast member what that was all about. “This is the line for exclusive merchandise, offered only today.” Oooh, I thought, but took one look at the growing line and decided it would be much like Celebration 3. I went back and rejoined Ricky and Donald at the hub/stage area.

Ricky went to the nearby Carnation bakery and got us the free cupcakes Disneyland promised. The cupcakes, of course, were the "birthday cake," a gift from Disneyland to all us, and available that day only in places that sold food in the park.

While we waited, we enjoyed the "Ken" show while I avoided people stepping on me in the roped off area (roped off soon after we planted ourselves there). Ken was a cast member who had the unfortunate duty of telling people they couldn't sit on the benches at the hub or even walk through there, as it was a VIP and Media gathering area. He used all of his skills as hundreds of people tried to sneak in, or yell at him to get in, or do anything they could, all to no avail. One of the people in our roped-off section said, "Hey, I know you! You're from the Tower of Terror!" Ken grinned, and responded that they all were, and pointed out the other Tower of Terror cast members who had been drawn over to work at this big event. "Who's over at Tower today? Nobody," he shrugged.

The show was brief and very nice. Art Linkletter, who hosted the original opening of Disneyland, appeared and kicked things off. Today was also HIS birthday!!! At 93, he was as quick-thinking and witty as ever, and had a ton of stories to tell. But he only told a few and introduced the two Disney CEO's, Iger and Eisner. Then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of the castle with Mickey, and said a few words about Disneyland helping the economy and creating jobs. Then, the piece de resistance appeared in the form of Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who told us how Disneyland was created ("Dad reserved Saturday mornings, just for us kids, and would go to parks with us, sit on the bench and eat peanuts"). We really enjoyed hearing her talk.

After the ceremony, the crowd moved, slowly, towards the rides. I and my crew, however, went towards the Carnation Cafe. They were starving, as they were looking forward to their first meal of the day. We dutifully stood in line at Carnation, and I was pleased to see that it only took 50 minutes to get in. In the meantime, Joel had caught up with us and Ricky found Brandon over by the Star Tours meeting place.

Donald, Ricky, Joel and Brandon agreed to meet at their motel at 2:30 so they could drive home to San Diego. In the meantime, however, Ricky, Donald and I went over to the old Mr. Lincoln spot, and watched the Steve Martin/Donald Duck movie of how Disneyland was created. We also looked at the actual props and drawings for the park in the waiting area.

On the way out of the park, I grabbed several of the Disneyland programs, as this version was only printed on the Disneyland birthday, July 17th. I hugged everybody and waved goodbye, and headed over to DCA for one last look. I watched the Aladdin play live, a 45-minute show, and marvelled at it, but found myself falling asleep. But one last look at Crush, the talking sea turtle -- amazing interaction with the audience!! -- and I knew I had had enough. I went back to the WM resort on the van, and fell asleep at 6:30 pm, and wouldn't wake up until Monday morning.

Thank goodness for cell phones, or we would never have found each other over the three days. However, it was difficult keeping track of Brandon, our teenager who turned 16 in Disneyland on Saturday. I found myself wishing for an arm implant with a tracking device for him. He disappeared at least twice a day, and I wondered if we would ever see him again. We would quiz him on where to meet, where the hotel was, just so he would have a reference point if he found himself alone.

And I needn't have worried about keeping up with my exercise during this vacation. My pedometer showed me I walked, we walked, 4 to 9 miles a day. The most was on Saturday, which was an exhausting day of running from place to place. Sunday was exhausting just because of the hour at which we had to be there. This was not the time to see Disneyland to see rides. This was the time to visit Disneyland to celebrate its birthday. It's amazing to think I was there, 49 years ago, with my mother and father. I rode the Spaceship to Mars rocket, my dream come true, along with other rides that are no longer there. So many years later, I realized another dream as I visited with the next generation of my family. As the cast member told me on my entrance on Sunday, I had come home.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

What a beautiful way of explaining what the place means to you! Thank you for posting this.