One of the dangers of the Pop Culture Blind Spots is that over time, things have a tendency to get built up in your mind. Think about it in terms of summer blockbusters: Your friends see a movie without you and every time you see them they tell you how great the movie is. By the time you finally see it, you’ve sat through all the reminiscing and high fiving that you can stand and you’re almost sick of the movie before the credits begin. In essence, by waiting to experience something the experience has been ruined. Can anything really survive the hype to live up to it’s potential after all this time? That was one of my main concerns about my recent trip to Disneyland. How could anything live up to the billing of “The Happiest Place on Earth”? The same way Motown lived up to calling itself “Hitsville U.S.A.” It just is. But before I go into the details of how they manage to pull off that elaborate magic trick, let me say that the whole Disney experience wasn’t exactly a complete blind spot for me. As a kid I went to Walt Disney World (once with my family and three times with friends in high school…trusting parents, don’t ask) so it’s not like I never experienced Mickey Mouse and Monorails. But Disneyland is a whole other animal that deserves to be considered as something totally different than the behemoth that’s rising outside Orlando, Florida. Hopefully, I’ll do a decent job of explaining why.
A Brief Synopsis of Disneyland: It’s a massive theme park in Anaheim, CA based on the characters and properties of the Walt Disney Corporation. For the purposes of this PCBS, I’ll be considering both Disneyland and California adventure as two pieces of the same puzzle. Do I know that they’re different parks? Yes. Is that going to stop me from lumping them together? Of course not. Should you use the comments section below to tell me why I’m wrong? Go ahead. Anyways, Disneyland breaks itself down into different sections (Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, etc.) each with themed rides and attractions that fit into those loose constructs. It’s escapism at it’s absolute biggest with almost every experience you have guided by the invisible hand of the folks behind the park. Think you want to be a pirate? There’s a ride for that. Always dreamed of fighting for the fate of the galaxy against an evil emperor? Yep, there’s a place for that. What about an old-timey trip on a riverboat? Sure, why not. It’s as if they peer into the heart of every kid, figure out what will make them squeal at the top of their lungs and then design an experience around that reaction. While Disneyland is broken up into different lands, I like to think of the attractions there in as falling into three different categories all together:
- Nostalgialand: Think of this as all the things that are designed to wow you once as a child and then tug at your heart strings for the next 40 years. For example, when I was a kid we had cassette tapes that included music from all the old Disney movies as well as the classic Disneyland attractions. So before I ever went into the Enchanted Tiki Room, I knew that it was a tropical hideaway where all the birds sang words and the flowers crooned. By the time I actually got to see the Enchanted Tiki Room, I’m sure that my little 5th grade self almost peed my pants. Since then, whenever I heard that song, I get all wistful and nostalgic. It’s basically marketing genius. And while a lot of folks would see them as separate, I think all of the original rides likes “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” and “It’s a Small World” fall into this category. You ride them as a child and feel like you’re in a dream. You ride them as an adult and it makes you feel like a kid again. (See also: Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Haunted Mansion, etc.)
- Innovationville: These are the parts of Disneyland that take a concept and blow it out to it’s sometimes ridiculous results. It’s almost as if Disney has a room full of R & D guys just sitting around thinking up crazy shit to try. Take for example “Soaring Over California” (celebrating the stuff from the state you live in!) which probably was developed by a guy who said “What if we made a ride where it looked like you were flying over stuff in an IMAX experience?” Stop right there and you’ve got a great ride that you’d find at someplace like Six Flags. But that’s not good enough for Disney. He had to push it “Then we pump in the smells of the things it looks like you’re flying over so your brain is completely f’ing confused!” It’s the fine line between madness and genius and smell-o-vision + flight is really close to it. But he had to push it “And then we get Puddy from Seinfeld to do the intro movie. It’ll be completely random!” And it was. I just imagine that there are dorms full of nerds in white coats just sitting around thinking of the next bat-shit insane thing that Disney could build. (See also: A Bugs Life 3D (“Let’s freak people out with bugs in 4D and call it 3D!”), Indiana Jones and the temple of WHAT THE HELL IS THAT IN MY EAR! and the classic Space Mountain (Nerd 1: “Let’s build a roller coaster indoors!” Nerd 2: “Ok, but only if we can run it in the dark. Otherwise, no dice.”))
- The Unincorporated Village of Thrillers and Spillers: Because Disneyland is being run by a giant, multi-national corporation that’s seen great success over the last 50 years, they’ve had some capital to burn on making the absolute best versions of all the rides you normally find at amusement parks. Personally, I think it’s because they understand a couple of things: branding and limits. First, the branding. When you’re riding a ride at Disneyland, no matter what it is, they’ve taken the time to create a complete experience based on the theme of that ride. For example, when you’re waiting for the Matterhorn (a bobsledy coaster that runs in the big mountain you can see from all over the park) you’re treated to a line experience that gives the illusion of a mountain in Old Bavaria. There’s Oompa music playing, the safety announcements are done by a voice with a bit of an accent and even the stand that they controls for the ride are on is branded to look like it’s come right out of a ski chalet. Once you’re in your sled, the ride up to the top of the mountain is dark with a few flashes of things you might see in a mountain setting like the eyes of bats or stalagmite crystals. Even the folks running the Matterhorn are dressed to match the surroundings of that specific ride instead of a generic polo shirt like you’d find at other amusement parks. It’s a complete experience even as you ride down from the top of the mountain past yetis and melting snow caps. They’re doing everything they can to sell you on the idea that this is a sled run down a mountain instead of just a ride. It’s branding at it’s finest. The other thing that Disney does so well is knowing people’s limits. Sure, sometimes it’s fun to ride a coaster that’s going to flip you upside down 6 times in a row, go under water and go higher and faster than any coaster has gone before…but you can’t make a day or two out of those types of experiences. They’re draining and after the third or fourth one, they stop being fun and start being a chore. At Disneyland, it feels like they know how to push it right up to the edge of uncomfortable while still making it fun. Yes, Space Mountain left us feeling a bit Swoozie Kurtz (a phrase that I wish I could say I coined, but was in fact uttered by my very Swoozied at the time friend, Nicole) but it didn’t stop us from riding other rides and even coming back for more Space Mountain later that same day. They’re thrill rides that have been finely tuned to live on that edge between screaming with joy and just plain screaming. This kind of care and thought is why I can say that the best tube based water ride and log flume ride I’ve ever been on were both at Disneyland. (See also: Screamin’ California, The Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain)
Add on top of that all the crazy things that you only see at Disneyland (a castle, characters, big ass parades, etc.) and you can really get a sense of why Disneyland is so iconic.
Why is it a PCBS? For me, Disneyland is the first great amusement undertaking that connected with Americans on a national scale. It’s influence (and the influence of it’s original creator) have permeated pop culture over the last 55 years in ways that I’m sure Walt Disney never imagined. From “The Simpsons” parody of everything Disneyland with their trip to “Itchy & Scratchy Land” to the Stark Expo from the “Ironman” series, Disneyland’s become a part of our the zeitgeist. One of my favorite references to the park (and it’s less than stellar opening) comes from “Jurassic Park”. When things start to go wrong, Hammond’s defense is that “When Disneyland opened in 1956, nothing worked!” To which chaos theory expert Dr. Ian Malcolm quips “But John, when Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists!” To call it a national treasure isn’t even really a stretch. It’s iconic in nature and so much a part of so many people’s childhood’s that it can easily be considered something that everyone should do at least once in their lifetime.
How does it look in the rear view mirror? While Disney isn’t exactly in the rear view mirror, I did learn a few valuable lessons from my recent trip to the house of mouse.
- Everyone’s Right: While I can’t sit here and say that there’s absolutely nothing bad about Disneyland (since I know there is thanks to a few books that I’ve read on the subject), I can say that every good thing you’ve ever heard about the experience is true. It’s fabulously clean, extremely well organized and almost everyone you meet that works there is nice without being up in your grill about it. For example, I was wearing a baseball cap with the Green Lantern symbol on it while there (because the sun and I are totally broken up) and was complimented not once, but twice by employees during our two days there. I even had the obligatory Marvel vs. DC conversation with a nice young lady behind the counter at a store as I was making my purchase. Everyone I talked to just seemed to really be enjoying their job and was genuinely good at it. Also, my friend Matt claims that he met the “nicest churro lady ever” while purchasing a delicious churro one afternoon. (If you know of a nicer churro lady, please use the comment section below to let me know about it). One final example is the photographer who was obviously a bit loopy by the time she snapped our picture in front of the train station as we were leaving the Disneyland side of the park to go to California Adventure. She made sure that we all looked good for the photo and even managed to show us the way to blow up a fist bump into a jellyfish. It was odd but endearing. On sheer force of attitude and will, it’s the happiest place on earth.
- Lines aren’t necessarily a bad thing: Lines are a fact of life inside amusement parks. No matter where you go, you’re going to be forced to stand in line at some point for some amount of time. At Disneyland, it seemed like even when we were in line, we were being entertained by either each other or by our surroundings. (Side note: even though we went over a holiday weekend we never stood in what I would consider a “soul crushing” line. Longest wait was about 25 minutes and that’s more than reasonable). It was during one of these line standing around events that it really became clear why I was having so much fun. For me at least, rides are more about the 5 minutes right before you reach the top of the hill or the scary entrance and the 20 minutes after when you’re sharing your different experiences on the way to your next destination. Travel time and lines and the build up to rides facilitated some of the most fun I had during the trip. Lots of laughing, lots of re-telling of events (like when a ride had a sudden stop that caused a friend who was yelling “Wheee!!!” to accidentally spit on the seat in front of them) and lots of talk time made me realize that lines are an important part of the Disneyland experience.
- Absolutely no partying whilst on a ride: As you can see in the image that I chose for the top of the post, there is absolutely no partying while on a ride at Disneyland. Yes, I know that ride safety is important and I’m all for keeping everybody safe during their experience but once we figured out that the “Don’t do this!” picture on every ride basically showed an adult and what I can only assume is a little person hanging out the sides of the ride in full “Party Car” positions, it became vital to point out before each take off. “No Party <insert vehicle type>” became a constant source of amusement at the beginning of each ride.
- Lots of the rides are based on the idea that the ride is in some way damaged: I had this epiphany after riding Big Thunder Mountain for the third or fourth time. Most of the coaster rides at Disneyland are based on the idea that whatever it is that you’re in isn’t functioning properly and thus goes astray. Think about it. Big Thunder Mountain? Runaway train. Tower of Terror? Busted elevator. Splash Mountain? You got tricked into going over the falls by a rabbit. It’s a Small World? You’ve died and accidentally ended up in Purgatory. Seriously, it’s a coaster cliche…but one that I’m completely willing to live with.
Final Thoughts: Disneyland was a great experience that I’m glad I saved for a time when I could really appreciate it. If Walt Disney World is the fine wine that you sip and savor over a week long visit, then Disneyland is the shot of adrenaline straight to your heart. It’s the concentrated essence of fun that all other amusement parks strive to be. The funny thing is that I feel like I was reminded of a few things about myself as well during my time in Anaheim. If you’ve read any of the other Pop Culture Blind Spots, you know that I tend to be a tad snarky and condescending when it comes to most things. Disneyland was a great reminder that there’s still a whole lot of really big good in the world and sometimes it’s ok not to be cynical about it. Sometimes good really is just good. While others were lining up to watch the parade and fireworks in the evening, we were running from ride to ride trying to take advantage of the short lines. It was our last night there and we’d still not crossed “It’s a Small World” off our list so we ran over and managed to walk right on to the ride. Our boat entered just as the first firework went off so by the time we were through with the robotic kids, the big finale was gearing up. I have to say that standing there on the bridge of “It’s a Small World” watching the final fireworks go off, I got a bit of a lump in my throat. Disneyland is as close to truly “playing” as I think we can get as adults. It’s completely unafraid of being judged and seems to be full of chances for you to let go and just be a kid again. It’s a reminder that sometimes a dream really is a wish that your heart makes and that if you really try hard enough, it really can come true. In a world like ours, I think that’s a great lesson to be reminded of.