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Disneyland Ex Machina

Category: Disney California Adventure

What I Talk About When We Talk About Disneyland

This is easily the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. It has thousands of likes on Flickr; it’s made the Reddit rounds; It Could Haz Cheezburger. I snapped this at Off The Page in Disney California Adventure in October 2009, and yes, I moved the figurines together; they weren’t positioned like this when I discovered them.

I have two reasons for posting this image here today. First and foremost is that this shot has found its way into the Tumblr/Pinterest realm of hazy authorship, and I need to assert my claim to this thing before it ends up being credited to some other horny idiot. (At this time I’d like to express my gratitude to Heather at I Can Haz Cheezburger?, who responded to my pissy email with more politesse than it deserved.)

The other reason I’m posting here today is because I think the October 2009 visit that produced this irresistible image was my most recent visit to the parks. Three years ago. I can’t believe it, either. I’ve been to Walt Disney World twice in the last three years, and have enjoyed my visits there–but I haven’t been back to the theme park(s) that inspired the creation of this bl-g for three years, due to financial hardship and simple bad luck.

Obviously I miss it. I miss the ways it feeds, and feeds on, my imagination. Some criticize Disney’s theme parks for being tightly-controlled experiences; they compare it to stuff like Burning Man, where you can pretty much write your own dusty-dicked adventure from start to finish. I’m not criticizing that–in fact, I’ve just agreed to attend my first Burn next year, in spite of my intense dislike of portable toilets. But it’s unfair to criticize Disneyland or Disney California Adventure for telling stories in their own way. No two people hear stories the same way. And where someone else sees a shelf of expensive figurines from Disney’s animated movies, I see the inset photo.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at Romanoff's, 1957. Photo by Joe Shere.

Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at Romanoff’s, 1957. Photo by Joe Shere.

In a way, that’s what Disneyland has always been about, to my thinking: It’s whatever you bring to it. If you’re a collector, you see the shopping. If you’re a parent, you see the Park through your children. And if you’re like me, you see the artistry, the detail, and the coincidences. You look for these coincidences, these strange connections, and if you’re lucky, every so often you get a photo of one of them.

I’m happy to say that I’m a full-time working journalist once again. (You can read my stuff at Vegas Seven, a Las Vegas alternative weekly magazine, if you’re into that sort of thing.) And I’m closer to Disneyland, financially and spatially, than I’ve been in years. If I wanted to, I could drive there right now; it’s only three to four hours’ drive from Las Vegas to Anaheim, and a 40-minute walk to the three-hour line for Radiator Springs Racers.

But today, I find it’s enough to want it. In a way, missing Disneyland fills the heart as much as actually being there does. The imagination stretches beyond the berm; you wonder what it would be like to go there with a friend who hasn’t been there yet (I yearn to be the Ray Bradbury-like guide to someone’s Charles Laughton), or you wonder if there’s something there you haven’t yet seen–some strange and wondrous coincidence, waiting to jump in front of you and challenge you to take its picture.

Orange Clockwork: Soarin’ Over California, in review

In February 2001, I was invited to attend the press opening of Disney California Adventure. Disney paid my way, but the offer was only good for a single journalist acting alone. If I was to bond with anyone on this working trip, it would be with the media representative Disney had assigned to guide me through the brand-new Anaheim theme park.

It was not a good week for me to visit what had been freshly re-named “The Disneyland Resort.” I’d just broken up with a girl two weeks before, and I truly wasn’t feeling up to the single-rider experience. (Solo Disneyland can be fun, but Doombuggies and Mad Teacups are meant to be shared.) But work is work, and if Las Vegas Life magazine was to get the travel and lifetstyle piece it wso richly deserved, I had to mouse up, paste a convincing fake smile on my face and try to have real fun. There was no other way to approach it.

Days one and four were “travel days,” during which I enjoyed half-days in Disneyland proper, forlornly riding the train around the Park over and over again. On day two—February 7, 2001—the gathered press was invited to preview the bars, shops and restaurants of Downtown Disney, as well as some of the DCA attractions. That night was a party for B-list celebrities and other dignitaries, a sneak preview before the new park opened to the public on February 8.

I was not amused. I liked Downtown Disney’s bars and restaurants—finally I could get a Cuba Libre withing staggering distance of Pirates of the Caribbean!—but the breakup painted everything dark, and Disney’s nice gestures (including a comped room at the Disneyland Hotel, complete with swag bag and the latest issue of Brill’s Content) only served to make me feel worse than I already did. If a swag bag lands on a hotel bed and there’s no Facebook to share it with, did it really happen?

And there was something else, a truth I was loath to admit even to myself: Disney California Adventure paled terribly in contrast with its neighbor. I didn’t dislike the new park then, and I never have — but even then I could see that a tremendous opportunity had gone only partially recognized. There were too many shops and restaurants and not enough attractions. Dark rides, the bedrock of any Disney park, were in critically short supply; DCA only opened with one, the justly maligned Superstar Limo (now replaced by a Monsters Inc. dark ride). The bulk of the new park’s attractions were either films, which you could watch once and be satisfied, or carnival-style attractions that were best enjoyed in summertime. (Disney California Adventure opened in the midst of a cold winter downpour.) Such were DCA’s failings that, a scant five years on, Disney would commit upwards of a billion dollars towards “fixing” the park — a process that will be completed this June, with a “grand re-opening” that I hope I’m invited to.

Anyway, on that preview night, I was mostly unhinged. Disney was serving up free vodka martinis and I slammed seven of them in quick order. I was wounded, spoiling for a fight. (Finally, I heckled the Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys, which got much of the bile out of my system.) I was in a perfect place to receive one of Disney’s patented magical surprises, and to my delight, I received one in Soarin’ Over California.

If you haven’t experienced this flight simulator attraction, either at DCA or at EPCOT, I advise you to skip the rest of this paragraph; it’s really something you have to enjoy firsthand. Its component parts are simply understood: a large, curved IMAX screen, an innovative gondola system that hangs you above that screen, and a magnificent score by the late Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith — to my mind, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written for a Disney theme park. Taken individually, these things give you a notion of how Soarin’ Over California works, but they can’t tell you how Soarin’ feels. For that, you need to wait in a 70-minute line, chuckle through the Patrick Warburton safety video, and take a seat in one of those suspended gondolas.

Soarin’ Over California is a dream. Pure and simple. In one guileless, inspired stroke of genius, Walt Disney Imagineering has managed to capture the sensation of flying in your dreams. The California scenes, sun-dappled and perfect, are projected at a sharp 48 frames per second, and the suspended gondola places you inside of them; your vision is deliberately fixed on the screen. almost without distraction. (You can see the dangling feet of riders above you, but that only enhances the experience; it’s fun to watch other riders “running” over the Pacific coastline, and lifting their feet to clear the harmless, projected obstacles.) Evocative scents are sprayed into the gondola at key moments: pine, ocean, orange groves. And as cheesy as it all must look from the ground (or on YouTube), there’s something that happens to you in those five minutes that can’t be explained by simple mechanics. You come to believe.

Goldsmith reportedly came down from his first ride on Soarin’ in tears, and truth be told, so did I. I couldn’t believe that Disney had found the place inside of me that wanted to fly and played directly to it. When the ride ended I burst into spontaneous applause, and I wasn’t the only one. All the assembled guests cheered wildly, and guests continue to applaud the conclusion to Soarin’ to this day. While Disney California Adventure was not a perfect theme park when it opened its gates, it did boast one perfect attraction—one that reminded me there’s always a blue sky above low-hanging clouds.

Writer Dave Hickey once complimented Disney’s ability to “invest anything with the pulse of human aspiration,” from mice to rocks to hanging gondolas. The machinery that runs Soarin’ thrums with that lifeblood. For all of Disney’s talk of “dreams” and “magic,” it has been a rare occasion these past 20 years that Disney has built an attraction that is truly dreamlike, magical. Soarin’ Over California, pardon the pun, rises to the occasion.

Yooouuu asked for it.

DCA Logo
Via the Disney Parks Blog:

"Did you notice the fun, new logo for Disney California Adventure park in the spot? It’s so new that if you touch the screen, you just might get paint on your fingers. What do you think of the TV spot and new logo?"

It's um, wow. It's not, er, good. It sure as hell doesn't look like the insignia for a billion-dollar theme park. I appreciate that we're going through a transitional phase right now and that we're not entirely sure what this park is going to be once it emerges from (de)construction walls, but I do know this: The name of the park looks downright weird without that possessive apostrophe-S, to say nothing of the grammatical foul being committed in broad daylight. (Turning into Jim Hill, are we?) And the word you want to emphasize in that phrase probably isn't "California."

That aside, I love everything else Disney is doing with the park. World of Color looks to be suitably epic, the official blog coverage of the park remodel has been exemplary, and the new stuff going up in Paradise Pier is sexy like whoa. I look forward to seeing it all this autumn, maybe, after the passholes have cleared off.

In personal news: The reason I haven't posted here is because Monkey Goggles and other sites have consumed every last morsel of my time, and because you've got Disney's blog and the likes of the fabulous Progress City U.S.A. blog to keep you in powdered sugar and wonderment. That said, I may make some more posts here in the coming weeks. I'm gettin' back to that place where I feel it.

Irons & Wine: Seasons of the Vine, in review

Wine Fugue

Jeremy Irons, we knew you when. We knew you when you worked on indie films with Cronenberg and Soderbergh. We knew you when you gave the needle to Sonny von Bulow. We knew when your name wasn’t synonymous with crap like “Die Hard 3” and “Dungeons and Dragons.” We knew when you gnashed your teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast. How can we forget?

And we knew you when you went to Disneyland. Irons has done three voice acting jobs for Disney of which I’m aware — the voice of the Von Bulow-like Scar in “The Lion King,” the narration of Spaceship Earth (now replaced by Dame Judi Dench), and the narration of “Seasons of the Vine,” a now-defunct short film at Disney’s California Adventure. (He also appeared as H.G. Wells in “From Time to Time,” a Circlevision 360 film that ran at the Magic Kingdom parks in Florida, Paris and Tokyo. Sadly, I never had the chance to see it firsthand.)

The first two voice jobs are listed in Irons’ CV on the IMDb. The third is not, even though it is an actual, live-action short film. Let’s clear about this: Irons’ IMDb listing includes instructional videos, video-game work and even his “Comic Relief” appearances, but not a film that ran at a Disney theme park for seven years.

The reason for this apparent oversight is simple, and embarrassing: No one knew it was there.

“Seasons of the Vine” had the dumb luck of being in the most anonymous part of Disney’s least-attended and most-maligned American park. It had little in the way of visible signage, was barely mentioned in park maps and promotional materials … and no thanks to some truly baffling operational choices, it was almost never open. (“Seasons” wasn’t run by the attractions division, but by foods — which meant that in order to get into the attraction, most days you had to find someone from the nearby wine bar and cajole him or her into letting you in.)

“Seasons” is gone now. Its former space is soon to be occupied by a “coming attractions” showcase like that which used to sit on Main Street (next door to the Hills Bros. Coffee House/Town Square Cafe, which really needs to come back). While I readily understand why a short film about wineries didn’t appeal to a crowd that was largely too young to drink it (and the prospect of a new Disneyland Showcase is exciting indeed), I do miss the film terribly. It offered a respite from the day, it put me in the mood to hit up the nearby wine bar, and by golly, it was a good Jeremy Irons movie. Much better than “Kafka.”

Gorgeously photographed in the heart of California wine country on Robert Mondavi’s nickel (the winery dropped its sponsorship of the attraction soon after DCA opened), “Seasons of the Vine” is a perfect example of Disney’s gift for the candy-coated sell. It reminds me of the films that debuted with EPCOT Center — the lyrical “Impressions de France,” the fanciful “Magic Journeys,” the epic “Symbiosis.” Every one of those films sells something — paycheck environmentalism, Parisian vacations, Kodachrome — but they do so in such an artful way that the golden glow of the medium lingers after the message had faded. As “Impressions de France” does for Le Tour Eiffel, “Seasons” makes you feel simply great about living in a world with winemakers in it.

See the film here. Obviously the effect is somewhat diminished when viewing it at home without the promise of a glass of wine in your future, but at least one of those problems is easily rectified. Enjoy Irons’ relaxed, avuncular narration; it’s the warmest reading I’ve ever heard from him. “A celahbraaation of liiiife.” To achieve it, he surely must have had a few.

Also, give a receptive ear to Bruce Broughton’s score. The Emmy-winning composer has penned his share of memorable themes fro the American West (most notably for Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado”). “Seasons of the Vine” is very much part of that tradition — after all, the vintners who took California’s wineries to victory in the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” were also cowboys after a fashion. And though the film never mentions that fateful wine tasting, the Spanish and French elements of the score tip their hat to it as they weave in and out of one of the Copland-like Yankee Doodle compositions at which Broughton excels.

The music, available on the official Disneyland/DCA soundtrack album, is all that’s left of “Seasons of the Vine.” Most people don’t miss it; even the rose-colored lens of Yesterland dismisses it as “just a film.”

Maybe so. But I’ll tell you this: I now hear Broughton’s lively score in my head every time I walk into a wine shop or cellar. And when I savor a glass of wine on my palate, I now think of the journey it took to get there. I almost never think of “Dungeons and Dragons,” no matter how drunk I get.

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