Having first visited Disneyland as a 2-year-old, Fairfax journalist James Croot reflects after his recent sixth visit.
‘To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savour the challenge and promise of the future.”
Walter E Disney's words when he opened his theme park in July 1955 have never felt truer than after my latest encounter with California's magical kingdom in June.
During the last 36 years, I've had the privilege to visit Disneyland on six occasions, each time experiencing it with a fresh set of eyes and with a different purpose. It's the place where I had my first lollipop (and a giant one at that), drove my first car (on the famous Autopia attraction) and even made my first investment (well, I persuaded my mother she HAD to get shares - which she still has), and I've been lucky enough to be able to share it with my mother, my oldest brother, my father, my school friends and my wife, each of them bringing their own priorities and enthusiasm to our day or days there.
But as I queued up to revisit old favourites like Splash Mountain, The Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World (and make my regular pilgrimage to The Hungry Bear Restaurant) I reflected on the changes I've seen since 1976, when looking like a white member of the Jackson 5, I first stepped through the gates as a 2-year-old.
Some are wry or ironic: Captain Nemo's submarine is now a Finding Nemo ride; Captain EO was once touted as a futuristic, groundbreaking 3-D adventure - now it's been restored as a relic of the 1980s and a tribute to the late Michael Jackson. It's also interesting to see how the Pirates of the Caribbean ride became a movie and now has been retooled to better reflect that film franchise, while the Swiss Family Robinson fell out of favour and had their treehouse appropriated for Tarzan's after his animated movie became a hit in the late 1990s.
Some things have sadly fallen by the wayside. I think I'm glad I never got to see the Aluminium Hall of Fame or the Hall of Chemistry, but I miss Adventures Through Inner Space (taken over by a Star Wars attraction), the Country Bear Jamboree (replaced by a Winnie the Pooh ride) and Mission to Mars (transformed into a pizza restaurant).
On the plus side, those dark days when the price of the attractions was in addition to the price of admission (you had to buy a book of coupons with rides classified into different categories depending on popularity and other criteria) are long gone, and the introduction of the FastPass system (where you can book a time to ride an attraction a few hours ahead) has reduced queuing times considerably.
Thankfully, the food has become healthier (although no visit is complete without a hot dog and/or churro) with apple bags and water options plentiful, even if the merchandising shows no signs of letting up.
But the thing that struck me the most this time around were the visitors' outfits. Every third little girl seemed to be dressed up in full princess regalia. Perhaps I thought that because I was on a scouting mission ahead of a proposed trip for our own "princess" and her brother in a few years time.
I'm sure she'll love it and have her favourite rides, but I just hope she doesn't share her mother's habit of trying to get every Chip, Dale or Goofy to hug me.
JAMES CROOT'S ADVICE TO KIWI VISITORS
Much has changed since my previous visit to Disneyland's sister theme park a decade ago.
The company has spent US$1.1 billion (NZ$1.38b) overhauling California Adventure in a bid to boost flagging attendances. Their tinkering has culminated in the opening in mid-June of Cars Land, based on the popular Pixar films. Judging by my experiences over two days recently, the crowds are back in force, which makes planning your day(s) vital. Here are my tips for the top 10 attractions:
Radiator Springs Racers
The park's newest ride and by far the most popular. Punters are placed in six-seater cars which initially meander through talking tableaux inspired by the Cars films.
Then the ride shifts gears as you meet up with another carload and head outdoors for a high-speed race, involving fast jumps and turns. A perfectly pitched light thrill ride that makes the currently lengthy wait worth it.
Toy Story Midway Mania
A ride so good it inspired a (Nintendo) Wii game. Takes the traditional slow-moving revolving car ride and turns into interactive shooters which will have you coming back again and again. Placed in two-seaters, riders don 3-D glasses and are confronted by a series of shooting galleries where they try to get the highest score possible. Great competition for couples and families.
Entertainment for all ages, especially if you need a break from the sun or a change of pace. Think Science Alive for Disney addicts.
Two of the highlights include a recreation of the Beast's library (from Beauty and the Beast) where you can find out which Disney character your personality matches and a booth where you can try your own voiceover on some classic animation moments.
Muppet Vision - 3D
An attraction which really showcases Disney's attention to detail. A stunning recreation of the Muppet Theatre plays hosts to this short 3-D cinematic and live-puppet spectacle. Viewers sport 3-D glasses as Muppet Labs test out their latest experiments - expect bubbles, wind and plenty of laughs .
It's Tough To Be a Bug
Like the Muppets, this is another theatre-based four-dimensional viewer experience. Based on Pixar's film A Bug's Life, this offers a guide to some of the weird and wonderful creatures on Planet Earth. Of course, our presentation gets hijacked, which means the audience gets sprayed and monstered by some very large spiders. Surprisingly scary, even for big kids.
Soarin' Over California
Part of the park since its inception, this ride is particularly popular among dads. Riders are placed in one of three long rows which are then elevated and pushed out towards a massive IMax-esque projection of aerial views of the Bear State. Feels like a chair-lift ride that seems hundreds of metres off the ground and moves up and down.
Grizzly River Run
Every good theme park needs a water ride and this one is a doozy. Riders sit in an eight-seater circular, tyre-like vessel and are initially hauled to the top of the mountain before slowly wending their way back down and eventually being confronted by a couple of serious whitewater rapids. Warning - you will get wet, and have lots of fun.
Situated in the same area as the Sorcerer's Workshop, this is basically a fun art class which runs every half-hour throughout the day. After supplying each audience member with a pencil and sheet of paper, a Disney animator teaches everyone how to draw a particular character step-by-step. I'm a terrible scribbler and even I managed a passable version of Daisy Duck, much to my wife's astonishment.
Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular
Can't afford tickets to the stage versions of The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast? Then check out this all-singing, all-dancing version of the popular 1992 animated adventure. Plenty of humour, puppets and wirework ensure this take on Disney's "diamond in the rough" never drags and the vast auditorium usually means seats for all who want to attend. Performed around five times a day.
World of Colour
Forget the nightly fireworks over the road in Disneyland, this is the hot evening ticket. Audiences huddle around the Park's Paradise Bay while a spectacular 40-minute sound and light show plays out. For older viewers, it will bring back memories of the Dunedin and Christchurch fountain shows, while younger ones will be in awe of the animated scenes projected onto the towering jets of water. Make sure you come early to get a good spot for either of the two nightly performances.
★ Make sure you use the FastPass system. This allows you to reduce your queuing time by pre-booking a timeslot later in the day. Vital for rides like Radiator Springs Racers and the rollercoasters. There's also one for the night events like World of Colour if you want to pre-book a good spot.
★ If you can bear splitting up, being a solo rider has its advantages. There are always single spots available on some of the bigger rides. For example, I had a 45-minute wait instead of 150-minutes for Radiator Springs Racers.
★ Don't attempt to take any food into the park. They'll take it off you.
★ Make sure you drink plenty of water and take breaks between thrill-rides.
Disney packages from $2719 per adult, twin share, with children's discounts, are available from House of Travel. Return Christchurch-Los Angeles flights are with Air New Zealand, and included are five nights at the Best Western Plus Pavilions, three-day Park Hopper ticket and return airport transfers. Up to two children, under 10 years, can travel from $1945 per child sharing existing bedding in an adult's room. Bonus: One night free, and children 10 years and under eat free at Denny's with each paying adult. Sales till September 30 for travel October 1-26 and October 28-December 13.
Phone 0800 838 747.
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