“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.”
— Thomas Jefferson
Like many others, my job has become 24-hour-a-day presence in my life. Even in a full-immersion place like Disneyland I am often on my phone, checking work email or voice messages, and answering text messages. It’s not that I am irreplaceable to the company; if anything, the opposite is true. I keep in touch with the office so I can maintain whatever shred of standing I have achieved. Amy understands my dallying with work during our time together, but wants me to keep it brief, where possible.
An extended break from the daily grind was once considered essential to a healthy constitution, but that line of thought has disappeared like poodle skirts and leaded gasoline. The structure of a vacation had become a fluid concept. Grand tours and summers abroad sound self-indulgent, and things our parents did to unwind are out of vogue. The road trip, once a quintessential American experience, is as dated as the Griswold’s pilgrimage to Wally World.
I have a theory that vacations can be restorative even if they are not relaxing. More important than lounging in a chair or lolling in a swimming pool is separating from the daily routine, which is the real key to getting away. The most remarkable vacations have included more than just a change of scenery. They may not be the easiest, but they are the ones where I returned the most fulfilled. I think of it as becoming a short-term “citizen” of the vacation.
How does one accomplish that? I have no idea. (The theory is a little rough at this point.) We have been on long vacations that, while fun, drained us rather than recharged us. We have been on short vacations that put years back on our bodies. I have no clue how to force it, which is a little unfortunate. I could make a tidy fortune peddling “restorative retreats” to the executive crowd, if they actually worked.
What I do know, though, is one way to tell when it has happened: one morning you wake up without that heartbeat of displacement until you remember where you are. You start your morning like you had always lived in that tent/RV/hotel room, like granola bars and tap water instant oatmeal is your normal breakfast, and like your plans for the day are just what you do with your life. Once that prosaic morning happens, there is a good chance you have managed to escape.
It is a subtle shift, the actual vacation escape, and easy to miss if you are not watching for it. Lucky for me, I was. So, when I woke up on the morning of Tuesday, October 16th and shuffled to the hotel shower like it was everyday business, I knew that, for better or worse, I had become a citizen of the Disneyland Resort.
We were very conscious about not smothering the Duffins – Amy’s sister and her family – with our enthusiasm. They were first-time guests at the Happiest Place on Earth.
Mickey’s Halloween Party the previous night had been full of the focused energy we expected from Disneyland at its most manic, but it was also an unorthodox introduction for newcomers. Today, we were all visiting Disney California Adventure and anticipating something closer to normal, at least by Disney resort standards.
We had earmarked that morning for Radiator Springs Racers, the new E-Ticket ride in Cars Land. The wait times had been in the 150 to 180 minute range all week (we were using the excellent Lines smartphone app from Touring Plans). Amy had left before me and run over with a couple of Duffins to get in line for FastPasses. I found her under a portico attached to the Carthay Circle Theater.
The FastPass line for Radiator Springs Racers stretched from the Hyperion Theater in Hollywood Land all the way to “a bug’s land” (which is just how it is spelled – quotation marks and all – on park maps) where the underused machines for It’s Tough to be a Bug! were temporarily appropriated. It was intimidating in length, but the whole operation moved at a brisk pace.
After a bit of shuffling along we spotted a line jumper practicing his craft. Disney parks are labs for line jumping. Ignorant, wretched people the world over come there to learn tricks they can take home to the subway stations and coffee houses they haunt in their empty lives. I am not a line jumper, myself, but I have observed some of the techniques. There is the “what is THAT over there?” misdirection swindle, although that is for amateurs. The “act like you see someone you know” is popular and simple to pull off. The “angry that a line exists to inconvenience you” (also called the “do you know who I am?”) is strictly a power move, but I have seen it work. Some guests squirm at the first sniff of conflict, and are happy to jump in with a little pro bono customer service, and make room.
Our guy was attempting the “I don’t know anything about a line, I am just standing here with this body of humanity.” This is the shoplifting of line jumping: passive and sneaky, and you can always plead ignorance if someone calls you out. A cast member marshaling the crowd shot our line jumper a hard stare, and he walked off, pretending to answer his phone. Not long after, we had FastPasses in hand for two hours in the future.
The entrance to Radiator Springs Racers can be found at the terminus of Route 66 through Cars Land. The footprint of the ride, including the structure, the entry, and the exit area, is massive – larger than all of Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland. The visual centerpiece is the “Cadillac Range” (unofficial name/copyright issues) which is flawless in execution at any distance. The whole of it could be plucked directly from the Colorado Plateau, scaled to size, and dropped into Southern California. It was so organic and native that I had to remind myself that each part of it was designed, crafted, and painted, right down to the crevasses between ridges and the rock fall at the bottom of the walls.
We walked under the entry sign (stand-by time: 160 minutes) into the left-hand FastPass return, and advanced toward the red rock until we came to a halt under the “1947 Rusty Ridge Bridge.” My Mom and Dad had braved the stand-by line during a quick trip earlier in the year and reported that it was detailed and interesting, as expected. We told ourselves that we “should really go through it” sometime. Insolent ravens dotted the tops of the mountains, marring the illusions of height and distance.
Under the bridge and around the corner we found Stanley’s Oasis, named for the husband of Lizzie, the Ford Model T from the Cars movies. As the story goes, the oasis is built around the original Radiator Spring, for which the town was named. All-but invisible from outside the queues, the oasis was a pleasant surprise, being both a clever addition and shady in the persistent, unseasonable heat. Guests had already thrown thousands of coins into the fountain, trying to land on the striations of the automotive-themed “spring.” The money, we heard from a Cast member, is cleaned out any time the ride is closed for refurbishment. It was tempting to imagine that management donates it to a children’s hospital or employee benefit – something other than their operating account – but we are too old to believe in fairy tales, obviously.
We were in line with the Duffins and could see Josh, Stacie, their kids, and my parents just ahead of us. Before long – thanks to the FastPasses – we ascended stairs into the Comfy Caverns Motor Court. We boarded our convertible vehicles and cruised deeper into the mountains.
I loved it. From the unhurried drive through Ornament Valley and past the waterfall, to the dip into Radiator Springs to meet Mater and the gang, to the concluding race, the experience was stunning in attention to detail. The soundtrack and sound design were both bright and natural, and immersed you in the story from the moment you sat down. The vehicle travels at the perfect speed: slow enough to let you get a good look around, but fast enough that you could not possibly catch everything in one trip. We passed through Ramone’s shop on the way to the final race. There was even a moment of childish glee as we raced to the finish line. The Duffins – in the other vehicle – howled in victory.
There are still concerns and problems, though. The Imagineers designed their giant, expensive E-ticket experience around the ride system of a notoriously touchy attraction in Orlando (Test Track), which raises the eyebrows. Case in point: the attraction was not running several times when we walked past.
I was also slightly disappointed with the dark/Radiator Springs section of the ride, as the design paled in comparison to the big, stunning Radiator Springs reproduction that was right outside the queue. Part of the magic of dark rides is in temporarily inhabiting the world of the animated movies. Nowhere but in Snow White’s Scary Adventures can a guest pass through the dwarfs’ cottage or the Queen’s dungeon, which makes it special and unusual. The level of detail in Cars Land devalued Radiator Springs in the ride, the animatronic cars notwithstanding.
Critical dialogue from fans is inevitable with any major undertaking in a Disney park, and I have read some thoughtful, well-made points. Even so, Radiator Springs Racers is the best ride in DCA, by far. The only other challenger to that title, Soarin’ over California, does not have the same caliber of theming and suffers from deteriorating film quality. Rumors on the insider blogs indicate the Soarin’ movie will be refreshed, which might then make the “best ride” title a two-horse race. Until that time, Radiator Springs Racers is the clear winner.
Even the exit queue of Radiator Springs Racers was beautiful, and we were still talking through stunned superlatives as we walked around Paradise Pier. Near Goofy’s Sky School, though, I happened to notice a family that included a very large man wearing a logo t-shirt that tickled synapses in the back of my head. After a moment, it dawned on me: the big guy was Christopher “Big Black” Boykin from several MTV programs, including “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” and “Ridiculousness.” The logo on the shirt is his personal marque, which I have observed during some guilty-pleasure dips outside of my television demographic. It was a legitimate celebrity sighting, even if it would stretch the term for some.
Celebrities have been Disneyland regulars ever since July 17, 1955, when Walt Disney (an industry titan on his own) threw a “star-studded gala” for the opening of Disneyland, hosted by Hollywood pals Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. Since then, famous people of every stripe (everyone but Nikita Khrushchev, that is) have been welcome to take part in the fun. The official Disney Parks Blog even has a “Celebrity Visits” category that posts a picture any time someone stops by for a VIP visit and is willing to have their picture taken (some of them even manage to be surprising).
I have participated in many conversations with fellow Disney obsessives that start with: “Do you know who is a big Disney fan?” It activates the same tribal loyalties as learning that a particular singer/actor/politician/writer supports the same sports team as you, or went to the same school. It can even give us, the nobodies, a positive feeling about a somebody, where we may not otherwise have an opinion (I’m looking at you, John Stamos). In other words, it is a connection with no real substance, but plenty of perceived value. You might as well be best friends with them.
I have two good celebrity sighting stories:
In the summer of 1984, Michael Jackson decided to unwind at The Happiest Place on Earth. He was having a decent year, fresh off winning a record eight Grammy Awards for an album that would go on to become the greatest selling of all time. Also in attendance that day, just weeks removed from a birthday party where all of the attendees were instructed to dress up like Michael Jackson, having convinced his mom to take him for a professional perm so his cowlick-ridden, straw-blond hair could be curly like his musical idol, with a sparkly, rhinestone-studded single glove of his own tucked into his back pocket, was an astonished, eight-year-old Nate.
These were the early ruling days of the King of Pop, and although he would become more cultish in his fame, he would arguably never be quite so well respected. Even then, there were some cracks in the armor. He was wearing a surgical mask, for one thing, and riding on Matterhorn Bobsleds with a small, white boy (my thought at the time: “That kid is so lucky!” – those were innocent days). My mom has a single image, taken from the queue, as our only evidence.
Next, in the summer of 2002, Amy and I were in Disneyland together for the first time. It was around closing, and we were walking down Main Street, USA toward the exit. We could see a cluster of commotion close to the front of the Penny Arcade, with people swerving around a point of interest and then turning to watch. My first guess was a costumed character, as it reminded me of when one walks through the park, even though they rarely do after dark.
This is where the story diverges, depending on who is telling it.
In my version, we both stop and Amy screams, in a loud voice: “LOOK LOOK LOOK NICOLAS CAGE IS STANDING RIGHT THERE WOWWWW!”
In her version, we stride along and Amy breezes, in her customary dulcet tone: “Oh, I say. I believe we just passed that Nicolas Cage fellow. You know, the one from that dreadful prison film?”
The facts are this: we were definitely standing about ten feet away from Nicolas Cage, Amy definitely said “THAT is NICOLAS CAGE” louder than she would probably like to have, and I was definitely looking right at him when she said it and he made a Nicolas-Cage-smirking face. He was also with a woman who was taller than him, who may have been a celebrity in her own right, but I did not look at her. I only had eyes for Nicolas. Which is unfortunate, because it wasn’t long after that he married Lisa Marie Presley, and perhaps it was she, a few years after her divorce from… Michael Jackson. Which would have been a tidy conclusion to one circle of celebrity experiences at Disneyland.
Later in the afternoon we met family friends Rich and Hydee in front of the Carthay Circle Theater for what we hoped would be a memorable lunch experience at DCA’s new premier restaurant. They had originally invited the entire traveling group, and everyone expressed interest at first, but the list of attendees shrunk as the trip grew closer, until it was just the four of us. We would have preferred the experience with the entire group, of course, but we all expressed – in couched, gentle terms at first, and then in growing confidence – that it might be nice to enjoy this very adult restaurant without the kids. We loved the kids in our group, of course, but Amy and I did not have kids, and Rich and Hydee, brother and sister, especially did not have kids.
The lounge of the Carthay Circle Theater felt like an ill-lit and underused hotel lobby; dark and not particularly relaxing. The most welcoming element was the instant blast of refrigerated air that greeted us upon opening the door. Guests could come into the lounge and enjoy a drink and an appetizer prior to their meal, and although we did not order anything, we plopped into some comfortable armchairs while we waited for our table to be prepared.
The second level was heavy on wood and glittering Hollywood memorabilia. The main room ceiling was painted with scenes from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an acknowledgement to the heritage of the original Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, where Walt Disney premiered his first full-length animated film. We walked with heads tipped back and mouths agape, pointing out details as we found them. I suppose we looked like idiots to the person seating us, but they must have been used to it by that point. We were seated off the main room, under a large black and white photograph of Julie Andrews staring contemplatively at her Best Actress Academy Award for “Mary Poppins.”
If I had to pick just one word to describe the food at Carthay Circle Theater, I would go with: “fancy.” We were taking advantage of a prix fixe offer that included FastPasses for a premium World of Color viewing area. We each ordered an appetizer, entree, and dessert, sharing our plates with each other like a bunch of decadent Europeans. I enjoyed almost all of it, even if I ate like a picky child and hesitated with every initial bite. The cheese biscuits had been an early talking point for fans, and I thought they were good, although not transcendent. The duck wings were my personal favorite starter, with a great spice-and-citrus flavor. In a fit of experimentation I went with beef cheek sliders for my entree, which are no longer listed on the menu as of this posting. [EDIT: I first posted this as “beef tongue” sliders, but time and memory and good sense reminded me that it was beef cheek, instead. Either way, the sliders were made out of a cow’s face.] Amy went with the Angus bacon cheeseburger, and I teased her for a boring choice, but it was superior by a large margin. I had creme brulee for dessert, did not sample anyone else’s choice, and did not share a single bite.
The cast member who attended our table was efficient, friendly, and excellent. After the meal, a different cast member took a few minutes to show us around and point out some brilliant details in different rooms, including an amazing room under the cupola, which was both unnecessary and exceptional. He also escorted us outside to a patio where we could look down at the Pixar Play Parade that happened to be tootling past. It was an absurdly perfect conclusion to the experience.
With our bellies stretched, we stumbled out of Carthay Circle Theater and into Hollywood Land with Rich and Hydee. We poked around a bit, looking into the Art of Animation store, and then riding the awkwardly named Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! This is a middling attraction, although it is enhanced by sight gags and clever details that add to the experience for sharp-eyed guests. Posters and art work for Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” littered the entire area, including the Muppet*Vision 3D theater and (to Amy’s supreme irritation), the displays in the Disney Animation building.
Walking around the corner, Rich, Hydee, and I decided to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror while Amy waited, choosing to avoid an almost-certain bout of motion sickness. The crowds were light that day, and the standby line was short enough that we did not stop walking until we were in the spooky library, watching the orientation video. The Tower of Terror was thrilling, as expected. It was dusk when we emerged, with the uncomfortable heat of the day at last starting to dissipate.
Our path continued through “a bug’s land” and down the back way into Cars Land. I suggested we stop at Flo’s V8 Café for a mini-pie (listed on the menu as: Flo’s Signature Pie-O-Rama – seriously, what is with some of the names in this park?) – even though by this point it had only been a few hours since our fancy lunch – because those are the sorts of horrifying decisions I make on vacation. Everyone was amenable, though.
We took our pies and sodas out to the south patio at Flo’s where we could watch the ride cars from Radiator Springs Racers zip by as the dusk deepened to dark. We had less than an hour until World of Color started, and we had a plan: Amy and Hydee left to save a good viewing spot at the World of Color FastPass area, while Rich and I tried our luck with the Single Rider line at Radiator Springs Racers.
We ran into my brother, Jake, and his wife, Valerie, near the entrance to Radiator Springs Racers, and they were both whistling teakettles of anger. They were in possession of a Rider Swap pass for Radiator Springs Racers from earlier in the day, but also had their daughter, Jorja, in her stroller. They had been trying to sort out another swap for an additional pass so they could both ride it again, but the cast member was not compliant.
Rich and I expressed our desire to help, but we were pushing our luck with time, anyway, so we were unable to mind the stroller. Out of options, Jake and Valerie handed us the pass and went off to sort things out with someone at park headquarters. The best word to describe our reaction to Jake and Valerie’s benevolence was “giddy.” We stared at the pass like it was a winning lottery ticket. We had expected to wait about 40 minutes in the Single Rider line, sit in separate vehicles, and then dash over to catch World of Color. Now, instead, Rich and I were skipping through the FastPass line and boarding a vehicle together within 15 minutes. Like many attractions at the Disneyland Resort, it was spectacular at night.
Let me preface this last part by acknowledging there are lots of people who do not care for Disney theme parks. They have no interest in surrendering themselves to the atmosphere. They may, on occasion, tolerate it in small doses, but for their kids’ sakes. I do not have a problem with this, I get it – Disneyland is not for everyone, no matter what the marketing says.
However, for anyone that has even a hint of the madness that blights devoted Disney fans of any stripe, there will be something they love about World of Color. And this is from a guy who claims to not like the shows.
World of Color is dazzling. Like the space shuttle or a swimsuit model, it is designed and engineered to amaze. There are many facets to the experience, and a devotee of Disney films might enjoy the show portions a bit more, but the technical achievements of World of Color are stunning. Our special, costly FastPasses gave us a central, square-on angle, but the spectacle can be appreciated from almost anywhere on the waterfront.
If there is a downside to becoming fully immersed in a vacation – to becoming a “citizen” of the destination – it is when the details and experiences start to become commonplace. Mickey Mouse strolling down Main Street USA? Nothing unusual about that; it just happens in your life, now.
So it says something to me that even though I now “lived” in a place where I got on boats and sailed through pirate raids on a regular basis, and even though I had seen it before, World of Color still raised the hair on my arms. The water. The fire. The color. The music. It is an engaging, encircling experience that can be comprehended by watching a video, but really needs to be appreciated in person.
World of Color started as the park gates closed, so there was nothing for us to do after but wander out of the park and back to the hotel. We had gone about a dozen steps in a crowd of thousands when we happened upon the Duffins, who had also stayed for the show. They were similarly awestruck, and we shared excited notes as we exited together.
It felt later than it was, and in spite of the expensive lunch and the apple pie, we were hungry. Across Harbor Boulevard from the resort entrance is what must be one of the busiest McDonalds in the world. It is easy walking distance by any map, but standing on tired feet makes it look like miles. Still, Amy and I, with Rich and Hydee, shuffled down and shuffled back to our room, moaning the entire way. We laughed at ourselves, sitting in a hotel room eating McDonalds for dinner after a day at a world-famous theme park. But it felt like business-as-usual for a citizen of the Disneyland resort.