In rapid succession, I tour the attractions of Disneyland with a bright, naïve eye. Fantasyland enraptures me and I spend the most time there, enthralled at both Alice In Wonderland and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, dark rides both, neither of which exist in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The controversy surrounding Mr. Toad is the stuff of legend. It used to exist in Walt Disney World, but a few years back, they tore it down to make way for a new Winnie-the-Pooh attraction. The general consensus seems to be How Dare You and Why Are You Ruining My Childhood, but the fact is that Walt Disney never meant his parks to be museums, intending them to be ever evolving. (The deeper, less knee-jerk reaction is that people wouldn’t have bitched so hard if the Winnie-the-Pooh ride had been as involving or as revolutionary as the one in Tokyo. But I digress; there’s a lot of ground to cover.)
As dusk creeps in, I exit. The lights on Main Street are just coming on, and it is my greatest regret that I did not spend more time here at night. For my money, the Magic Kingdom’s most magical land is Adventureland, but in Disneyland, I think it’s Main Street USA. Next time, when I’m not as go-go-go, new-new-new, I hope to take more time there, and simply explore.
Wait. Scratch that. My greatest regret has to do with the fireworks. But we’ll get there.
At once I head across the way to California Adventure, heretofore known as DCA. I’m wildly unprepared for what I find there, even though I’ve spent more time researching this park than Disneyland in the last few weeks. I’m fascinated by DCA mainly because I’ve never been to a DCA before. It’s an all-new park, and I am nervous to meet it.
Now, a very, very brief backstory about DCA: it’s a park with problems. It’s the most recent Disney park venture, and when it was built, a lot of corners were cut. At some point in the semi-distant future, I’m going to write a post about Michael Eisner and discuss the very, very good things he did along with the very, very bad, but suffice it to say that DCA was built cheaply, and without a proper vision. It is meant to celebrate the California spirit in all its forms, but mainly what it inspired was indifference. It was sloppy, it was gaudy, and most of all, it wasn’t really Disney.
Happily, when the new Disney regime came in, one of the main thrusts of interest was bringing DCA in line with all the other stateside parks, giving a feeling of depth and history, expanding it to include new attractions and lands, and giving it a unique nighttime spectacular show – all designed to make California Adventure a must-see park, rather than as the bastard stepbrother of Disneyland across the way. In addition, they are using the pre-existing structure of the park to tell a more expanded story of Walt Disney’s first visits to California, where he made his company and vision come to life. There was some talk about renaming the park Walt Disney’s California Adventure, which is a ton of geekery you don’t need to know, but which I love. The Walt in there underscores its burgeoning new identity, and I’m looking forward to returning in two years, when it’s ready, to get lost in it.
Now, though: now I sort of wander through, a little confused, a little awed. There are construction walls and cranes all over. The Food and Wine Festival is going on, but unlike the expansive, cuisine-focused festival at Epcot, here it’s more about demonstrations and a wine-tasting area. It’s interesting, but not what I’d come to expect from the Food and Wine Festival. You know, in all my experience from one trip.
I don’t explore DCA much – a trend that will continue – but when I come to Paradise Pier, my heart stops a moment. When this part of the park first opened, it was criticized for not being nearly “Disney” enough. Part of it makes sense: this was all about thrill rides and cheesy midway games, the type of park Walt reportedly hated; these parks were the reason he created Disneyland in the first place. But the renovation has been underway for awhile, and now this place has a distinct Victorian feel to it. There’s new area music that sounds like the Beach Boys as interpreted by a carnival organ. A giant Ferris wheel, called Mickey’s Fun Wheel, rises high above Paradise Bay, and the California Screamin’ roller coaster dominates the skyline, looking for all the world like a classic wooden coaster, even though it isn’t. To me, Paradise Pier looks like Paragon Park, a small amusement park that used to exist in my hometown when I was small. I never rode the roller coaster there. I was just too little.
I’m not that little anymore.
After my turns on California Screamin’ – two of them, howling into the setting sun – I return to my hotel room for some light exercise and sleep. I acquire water and granola bars for my early morning tomorrow, and though I try for TV, I’m just too sleepy. It’s a good thing: I’m meeting Dave Cobb in the morning, and a theme park day with Dave Cobb requires a lot of rest. I know from experience.
* * *
I wake up earlier than necessary. In part this is because I’m on vacation and excited and there’s Disney on the near horizon; most of it, though, is because I’m on the West Coast for the first time since 2005 and I haven’t adjusted nearly enough yet.
A scant continental breakfast in my belly, I hurry downstairs just as Dave Cobb is pulling up to my hotel. A brief tutorial on Dave Cobb: 1. when I talk to him, I rarely call him simply Dave. 2. He’s as full of energy as I am, if not more so. 3. He actually works on designing theme parks, which means Dave Cobb is part of the magic. This is also the first time I’ve hung out with him one on one and I’m a little nervous and a little in awe.
“You look nervous,” he says as we head toward Disneyland.
“I am, a little.”
“Is it Disneyland?”
“It’s more you.”
“I’m not scary.”
“You are if you’re me.”
By the way, this conversation either happened or is wholly made up. If you’re new to this journal, this is not unusual. If you’re not, isn’t dialogue fun?
Here’s one thing about my entire trip to Disneyland: I never once saw the opening ceremony. To the point where I’m not sure if there is an opening ceremony. Guys, I was there for six days and I missed so much. Ah, but this is why Return Trips were invented. Dave Cobb led me through the gates and off we went!
Now, I’m going to say here and now: I have too little space to go on and on about every ride I did every day. It’s at this point I must make a choice about what to skim over and what to include, because as I stated, I was there six days, we’re already three entries in, and I’m on Day 2. So I don’t mean to skimp on the details; I simply don’t want to lose momentum. (Also, note: there are two MAJOR things that happened with Dave Cobb this first full day which I will have to cover later. This is way too long already.)
We ride Space Mountain first, and on the way in we met two fellows widely known in Disney circles. You know you’re a nerd when you randomly meet the guy who writes the Vintage Disneyland Tickets blog and go into full-on geeksquee. “You’re on my Google Reader!” I exclaim, trying not to sound too lunatic. “I just read that thing you wrote on Knott’s Berry Farm! It was very cool!”
People say that to me a lot.
From there, Dave Cobb and I plunge underwater in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, repurposed from the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. A precursor to the remainder of the day, Dave Cobb unobtrusively fills in the history, the details, the background of every part of where we are. Somehow, he manages to do it without disrupting the magic of the place for me. Knowing how things work often enhances my enjoyment of rides and attractions, but knowing negative background stuff weirds me out. Dave intuits and edits and informs and is the best guide I could have ever asked for. Besides, my gasps of awe seem to tickle him; I have an almost complete childlike wonder at the things around me when I’m doing Disney. I have to think that that would annoy some people, but I chose wisely on this trip. I truck with no cynics here; today, we cast forth with glee.
Two major standouts define my day with Dave Cobb, even though we rode most of everything and saw most of everything. The moment we step into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Dave excitedly turns to me. “You know there’s a whole Facebook group for the Smell of the Water Inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride, right?”
“I did not know that!”
“It’s true! I’m a member!”
“I also would like to be a member! OMG! I love this smell!” Lest you think I’m a hopeless dork, I will have you know that the Smell of the Water Inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride also placed high on the WDW Radio Show podcast when they did a show about the Best Smells in Walt Disney World. So, see? Not a dork.
The Disneyland version of Pirates has long fascinated me, because anyone who has been to both coasts insists the California version is better. According to accounts, the Florida version had been cut nearly in half, missing a number of sequences I’d only heard tales of. So it is with some elation that I approach the boat with Dave by my side, sliding in and hoping that the rumors are true. I don’t care about some perceived rivalry between the two parks; I’m here now, and all I want is the best possible ride I can get.
Oh kids: this is it.
Even before the first plunge, we whisper alongside the Blue Bayou restaurant, and even in the stark light of day it’s nighttime out. Atmospheric architecture is maybe my favorite slice of theme-park trickery – literally twenty paces from where we are is the hot California sun; in here, it’s a lazy New Orleans evening, and there’s a mysteriously absent banjo playing. Then that plunge, and you’d best believe I threw my arms in the air.
Near the end of the ride, Dave Cobb points at a wharf we’re about to sail under. “You hear that creaking?” he asks. “That’s there to mask the sound of the Disneyland railroad, which goes right overhead.”
I can’t help myself: “I love reasons!” And Dave collapses into a howl of laughter.
Outside, we meander over to the Haunted Mansion, which, unlike Florida’s rambling, foreboding Gothic is a pristine antebellum mansion that almost invites instead of unnerves. Almost. There’s something creepy about it, even though its creepiness is not as overt as the one in Florida. I’ve known it only for two days and already I think I might like the exterior more.
Inside, proceedings are much the same, though the California version is missing the Escher room and Leota’s head doesn’t float. The attraction itself, while one of my absolute favorites, is not why this stands out.
Outside, Dave Cobb looks back once and says, “This is the reason why I’m designing theme parks.” And he launches into a little pocket history of Dave Cobb: how he fell in love with the Haunted Mansion when he was small, how he grew up obsessing over it. When he was a teenager, he made a replica of the Mansion in his garage for Halloween and pushed his friends through it in a shopping cart. After a time, Disneyland itself fell away from me and the only thing interesting was Dave Cobb and his story: the way his eyes sparkled, the way the memories seemed to wrap around him like a fuzzy blanket on a cold morning. And I had time to wonder: how often is a person able to go back to locus of the thing that shaped so much of their current life? How often can a person literally return to the place and the thing that inspired them as a child, and how often does that thing continue to inspire? Some of us can go back to a classroom where we learned how to conjugate verbs, or maybe to a old parlor where we practiced an instrument or a bedroom in which we did chemistry experiments or made models. We can go back to those places but time changes them, divorces the immediacy of those early moments from the place that once housed them. Last year, I went back to my high school classroom in which I studied English with Miss Kreinsen; I gave her my first book of short stories and she gave me an award. But the classroom was empty and I didn’t fit into any of the desks. We grow up, us kids, and we leave these things behind.
The ghosts that Dave Cobb sees when he comes back here are the same ghosts that were there when he was a child. Though Disneyland was never meant to be a museum, there’s a comfort that some things last forever … or at least a lifetime.
* * *
Oh, there was so much more to see!
We meet up with the Disney guys again and ride the Monorail, sleeker and slicker than the Florida models. We take a jaunt through the Indiana Jones ride and I want to ride again at once. And then again. And again. We have a light brunch at Banyan Barbecue – more on that in a later entry – and a heavy dinner at the Blue Bayou. We see almost all of it and then more, and Dave Cobb is well nigh inexhaustible. It’s thrilling to watch.
Then dusk is swiftly becoming night and my phone wakes up in my pocket. I glance down.
“Have arrived. Call when you can.”
Leaving Dave Cobb at the park – there’s always something for him to do – I hustle my way off property, back to the real world of Denny’s and interstates and vaguely-themed hotels. But once again unreality washes over me as a friend I always, always want to see (and never get to) steps out of his car. I don’t even give him a second. With all the might I can muster after a commando day with Dave Cobb, I run forward and grab Josh as tightly as I can and hold on for dear life.
“It’s nice to see you, too, Kevin,” he laughs, and hugs me back.
I step back and take him in. God, he’s a wonderful sight to take in.
“Josh,” I tell him, new excitement bouncing through me like a tightly packed ball of Silly Putty, “welcome to Disneyland.”