“Have you thought of an ending?”
“Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
After a week of clear skies and unseasonable heat, we woke up to rain on the morning of Saturday, October 20 – our last day in the park. We did a quick mental inventory of our previous trips and arrived at the conclusion that neither of us had ever been rained on before at the Disneyland Resort. We were breaking new ground, even at the end of eight straight days at the parks.
The crowd was light at the familiar intersection on Harbor, with locals and tourists holding off, we guessed due to the precipitation. The rain itself was light enough that we were not bothered, and it had broken the heat, which was welcome. It may have taken a week of unseasonable heat, but the cool weather we hoped for had arrived.
We had late morning reservations for Storytellers Café in the Grand Californian Hotel, a character meal that had turned into a tradition for our little two-person family. With over an hour before our assigned time, we thought it might be fun to go by way of Disney California Adventure and use the connected hotel entrance from the park.
We ambled down Buena Vista Street, chattering about the novelty of the sprinkling rain and the scant guest population. Our walking loop took us around Paradise Bay, and past non-existent lines for California Screamin’, King Triton’s Carousel, and Toy Story Midway Mania. Further around, we passed Goofy’s Sky School, a side-salad of an attraction tucked into the space between the Corn Dog Castle and the restrooms.
Goofy’s Sky School is a generic wild mouse tubular steel roller coaster, painted blue and accented with some Goofy graphics printed on MDF. I happen to like wild mouse roller coasters, though, and so I told Amy I wanted to zip into the single rider line (she has to be selective with rides, due to motion sickness). There was a brief flash of pursed lips, as we had skipped Toy Story Midway Mania so as to not be late for our reservation, but I promised to be quick.
As luck would have it, there were no other single-riders, and a family of three was loading into one of the four-person vehicles as I reached the front of the line. The Cast Member waved me in, and I wedged myself into the back seat without so much as a pause to wait.
The family consisted of a mother and father in the front and their young son in the back. The son was now pressed next to me at a distance that no two strangers would ever choose if they inhabited the same park bench. My seatmate said something in Spanish to his parents, and me not knowing the language, assumed it was something along the lines of: “Why did this fat guy have to sit next to me, again?”
The ride is quick and hilly, with the jerking, unnerving corners at the top of the structure that are the hallmark of the wild mouse rides. After the concluding drop, the family began conversing in quick, excited tones, laughing and gesturing. The mom then said something profound that I did understand. She pointed above our heads to the large drop and happily exclaimed: “Hahahaaaaaa! Adios, pancakes!”
I loved the phrase the instant it escaped her mouth. “Adios, pancakes.” I smiled and may have even laughed along with them, because the family all turned and looked at me like I was a crazy person. I strutted off the ride less than five minutes after I had left, triumphant in my prediction, to find Amy indulging me with a wry smile. All in all, it was a fruitful experience on Goofy’s Sky School.
Around the west side of Grizzly River Run, and just off the pathway designed to look like a highway through the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains, is an alternate entrance to Disney California Adventure. Guests with hotel room keys are the only ones allowed to enter the park through this special feature, but anyone can exit the park to the hotel grounds, which we did at this time.
The design of Storytellers Café features wood on top of wood, including the waiting area, which has wood inlays, wood benches, wood reliefs, and quotes carved into wooden panels. These quotes are scattered around the restaurant, and I have always interpreted them as literary, but they could mean anything. One near the front desk reads: “By Hammer and Hand Do All Things Stand,” which is the motto of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, a trade association in the City of London that has been around since the 13th century. My personal favorite reads: “The Life So Short, the Craft So Long To Learn,” which is a line Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed from Hippocrates, so the quote is literary, but references either medicine or a Black Death fever dream, depending on the source.
Breakfast at the Storytellers Café is a “character meal,” and the collection of costumed cast members is the oddest of any of Disney’s American parks or hotels.* The overarching theme of the characters seems to be “forest creatures,” and the only legitimate stars of the lineup are Chip and Dale. The rest of the fuzzy hosts are all c- and d-level characters: Koda and Kenai from Brother Bear, Rafiki from The Lion King, Miko from Pocahontas, and Turk from Tarzan.
(*It may well be the strangest in any of Disney’s parks or hotels around the world, as well, but I have not checked the roster of character meals for the international resorts.)
The unorthodox theming and kooky characters make for a singular and entertaining atmosphere. The breakfast buffet food is rather straightforward, but top-quality and delicious. These elements all combine to make Storytellers Café one of the most enjoyable dining experiences at the Disneyland Resort.
As for specifics on the food, there are the trays of eggs, breakfast meats, and pancakes; baskets of pastries and untouched fruit; a large plug-in cauldron of oatmeal; and a cook-to-order omelet station. My first plate featured a bit of scrambled eggs, some ham, a sausage link, a serving of eggs benedict (the wild card addition), and, of course, a messy pile of bacon. My luck with bacon had not been good during the trip, but this establishment offered unfettered access – a warming pan and tongs – which was an awesome and terrible thing.
Visits from the strange characters took place throughout the meal, and we made a point of greeting them by name and interacting with them in a friendly fashion. Not only are they inhabited by hard-working cast members who are crammed into smelly full-body suits, but we find it enjoyable to give our disbelief a quick break and play along. This became awkward when we could not remember the name of the character, and ended up greeting them with: “Oh, hi… uh… raccoon… guy. Girl…? Uh… thanks for stopping by!”
With our cholesterol counts fortified, we walked through the lobby and gift shop of the stunning, American Craftsman-style Grand Californian Hotel on the way back to the park. The Grand Californian exudes a sense of calm and quiet that belies its location wedged into one of the most visited resort areas in the world. Our trip included a short pause in the towering lobby to sit in some of the squishy, comfortable chairs and watch rich people walk around with their indulged families. Neither of us fell asleep in the chairs, but if we had, it would not have been the first time. We have also been those indulgent people before, having stayed in the Grand Californian on two occasions, paying around three times the nightly rate for a hotel room just half a mile or so to the east.
I learned something disconcerting about myself during those earlier stays: I found the experience to be worth the cost. I enjoyed it so much that I became a bit of a hotel snob, and it is the practical, calming influence of my wife (along with the cold slap of reality that is our bank statement) that prevents me from booking us there every time we visit the Disneyland Resort. It is a luxury hotel, in the most complete sense of that term, and I have a taste for it.
We spent the rest of our morning in Downtown Disney. I was still in full Scrooge Quest mode, although realization had dawned that it was about to end in failure for the first time. Meanwhile, Amy was making a few souvenir purchases for people back home, and adding to the mountain of Disney bric-a-brac that is threatening to overtake the decoration of our house.
Amy and I both trend toward the packrat/hoarding end of the spectrum, so it was pretty predictable what would happen when we became interested in pin trading during our first trip to Disneyland together in 2002. Even from the beginning we were not collectors in the sense that we pursued the rare and valuable, but rather our first, glittering lanyards were heavy on favorite subjects: characters, parks, rides, and movies.
Our pin collecting arguably peaked in a 2009 trip to Walt Disney World, when we brought home around five-dozen pins between us. I liked that they did not take up much space in the luggage, but at a cost of $7 to $12 per pin, it was not a sustainable hobby. At that point we each had a large, Disney-produced pin binder with several hundred pins.
The benefit-cost analysis gave us pause, and so we cut way back in subsequent trips to Disneyland. We still picked up a few pins here and there, but shifted our interest from straight purchasing to trading with cast members. That is the point we are now as pin collectors: we bring a bunch of “traders” with us when we go, and keep eyes peeled for cast member lanyards. The whole operation becomes a treasure hunt, and has produced memorable moments for me in previous trips.
Now, though, another collecting sickness has smitten us, and it makes me despair for the future of our cluttered house and diminishing bank account: Vinylmation*. I did not like it or understand it at first, but it offers the same “treasure hunt” appeal, as well as the equally powerful “buy things for yourself” appeal.
(*A Vinylmation is a small Mickey-shaped plastic figurine, painted to look like other things: Donald Duck, for example, or a Monorail train, or a stylized robot. They are designed in sets and released in mystery boxes, and several locations in the parks and Downtown Disney have trading stations.)
There are serious Disney fans that dislike Vinylmation, and regard it as weak merchandising and deviating design, contradictory to previous company standards. I am also a serious Disney fan and although I often agree with the critics, I happen to like Vinylmation. Some of the series and designs are better than others, but I believe the merchandising brass have started to dial in the collections to things fans seem to want: characters and Disneyana.
The inevitable future has us owning a lot of both pins and Vinylmations, and the only rational explanation I can come up is because we don’t seem to have much impulse control. On our trip through Downtown Disney, while browsing D-Street, Amy added a significant number of Vinylmations to our collection. In a more positive note, she also finally acknowledged that she has an addiction, although is not yet ready to seek help.
My brother, Josh, and his family were departing that day, and driving back with my parents. Amy and I had the rest of the day and another night, and then it was “adios, pancakes” for us, as well. We had offered to shuttle a few items home for those who were more limited on space, and as we were browsing in Downtown Disney, Stacie, my sister-in-law, called to ask if we could rendezvous to gather a stroller we were transporting home for them.
Amy was still deciding on some of the afore-mentioned Vinylmation purchases, but I had already burned through the store looking for Scrooge McDuck. There was nothing at all; not in any of the retail locations we had visited in Downtown Disney, not in any of the shops in either of the parks, and not on any of the dozens of lanyards or pin boards I had checked. So, although I was disheartened to see the Scrooge Quest end in failure for the first time, it meant I was also in a position to run meet Stacie.
I crossed the esplanade between the parks, heading for the familiar intersection on Harbor, where Stacie was going to meet me. As I passed the outgoing security station on the hotel side, I noticed a security cast member standing off to the side in her distinctive white-on-black uniform. I was trying to hurry, as the waiting group was eager to start driving. But, the cast member happened to have a pin patch, a black square of material that hung at her belt and held trading pins. I angled my path sharply toward the cast member, reasoning that it would just take a few seconds to look.
What happened next could be dismissed as coincidence or chalked up to persistence. But as a true believer, I will remember it as a moment of Disney Magic©.
Skeptics can judge for themselves, but let it be known that on the last day of more than a week at the Disneyland Resort, after many hours of diligent searching, a cast member lingering in an unexpected and unlikely location preserved my Scrooge Quest streak.
It happened like this: I walked up to the cast member, we smiled at each other, and I asked if I could see her pins. “Yes, of course,” she replied, and held the pin patch horizontal where it was clipped to her belt so I could look. Standard operating procedure so far. One pin caught my eye, and after the split second it took to recognize it, caused my heart to skip a beat.
I tried to keep my cool as I asked her to trade, but I may have sounded a bit overexcited. I expect it came out something like: “PLEASECANITRADEYOUFORTHATPINPLEASE?” The cast member complied with a grin and I continued down toward the intersection at Harbor, stunned to the soles of my shoes by the instant turn of fortune.
I was tempted to tell the whole story of triumph to Stacie (for that matter, I was tempted to tell the story to anyone standing still, including the guy begging for change on the corner), but I kept it to the highlights. At least, I think I did. There is an outside chance I owe Stacie, Josh, and my parents an apology. Amy was not so lucky. By the time we met I had scripted the whole thing out, and she had to endure every miserable detail. The narrative started when I was four years old and ended with the big reveal.
I am pretty sure I apologized to her, but I couldn’t stop myself from talking about it. I was now 12-0 with the Scrooge Quest. Undefeated. It felt good.
We went into Disneyland for our final few hours at the resort, because we wanted to finish with Walt’s Original. The rain had stopped and morning clouds had burned off, releasing the crowds back into the parks from the dry havens of their hotel rooms. Disneyland’s massive army of local passholders was starting to stream in. It was scarcely after noon, and already shoulder-to-shoulder in parts of the park.
Our meandering path took us into Fantasyland and the crowd that condenses between King Arthur Carrousel and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Although scrums like these are inevitable in the major crossroads of the park, they can be trying for even the most congenial guests. About the best a person can hope for is to bobble along, pointing in a hopeful direction and alternately making way and giving way. A little bit of patience with fellow guests lubricates the machinery and makes sure everything at least keeps moving.
The overloaded semi-trucks of these traffic jams are large luxury strollers pushed by loud, aggressive moms. We would be inching along with the crowd, as we were in the Fantasyland cluster, when I would feel the quick jolt of a plastic wheel rocketing into my ankle. Most of the time, there was a quick word of apology from the driver and a returned smile from us – no problem, these things happen in heavy crowds. But, it happened on several occasions that the stroller pusher would glare at me/Amy for a second and then bark: “would you move?”, as if we were on a broad walkway, and had chosen that moment to step in front of them. Every time this happened – every time – the driver was a wiry woman wearing jogging shoes, athletic clothes, wraparound sunglasses, and a fluorescent baseball cap. Amy’s response, if she was struck, was to gesture at the crowd and say: “where do you want me to go?” Mine was to glare at the mom for three-quarters of a second (really let her feel the weight of my wrath), and then turn and ignore her, doing my best to avoid all eye contact. It goes without saying that I am not quite as bold in my stranger conflict as my wife.
I do understand the frustration that bubbles up and occasionally overflows in these circumstances, though. Crowds and lines in a Disney theme park are inescapable, and they can be oppressive. The two most common complaints I hear about Disney parks from friends and acquaintances are both related to lines: “I hate the crowds,” and “I hate waiting in lines.” Every Disney parks fan has heard both of these wielded like an accusatory sword, as if we will quail in the face of such razor-sharp observation and foreswear our devotion.
There is no answer to the problem, other than everyone excuses lines and crowds for something they love. Depending on the person, it might be a sporting event, a nightclub, a political rally, or a national park. Everyone who praises the “energy and passion” of these clusters of humanity but criticizes a place like Disneyland for its crowds is missing a bigger point. Walking around a completely empty park might be interesting for an hour or so, but would become tiresome and creepy after a bit. It is the presence of others – friends, family, even the aggressive stroller moms – that makes a trip to Disneyland memorable.
We made it through the logjam in Fantasyland to move to another logjam in Frontierland, and on to still more logjams in Adventureland and Critter Country. Our agenda was dictated by the high crowd levels, which meant a lot of wandering and absorbing the scenery. These were our final hours, and after the months of planning and the long days of vacationing, we had arrived at the inevitable end.
My focus ratchets up in these waning moments, as I try to cement every detail in my mind for future daydreaming. We walk around with me pointing out mundane architectural items or theming elements as if discovering the meaning of life (“How many times have we walked past this building and I never noticed the hammer marks on those nail heads?”). One of my favorite effects of this sense of heightened awareness is a greater appreciation for the ambient music, which is very rewarding in a Disney park. It is also something my wife has taught me through our park excursions over the years.
Amy has many talents and skills, but one that not many people know is her phenomenal ear for music – especially movie music. It’s not just that she can hear a song and identify the artist and film, although she is pretty good at that. Nor is she the oddball savant who can describe the structure of the music (key, time signature, composition of the orchestra, etc.) by just listening. What I mean is: she hears music when other people don’t. It permeates her consciousness when it might slip past that of any other doofus (i.e. me).
One example: Amy and I were at home, recently, watching the James Bond movie Skyfall. We had both seen this show several times before, but it had been a year or so since the previous viewing. Early in the film, in a scene right after the explosion in MI6 headquarters, Judi Dench’s M is standing near some coffins, acting contemplative. Out of the blue, Amy says: “That’s the same music that plays when she dies at the end. It must be M’s theme, or something.”
To put that in perspective: Amy pulled a snippet of soundtrack from one scene and correctly identified it as the same piece used in a different scene, and the last time she watched any part of that movie was around 12 months ago. This musical phrase was also not a recognizable song, like the dum-da-da-dum-dum James Bond guitar riff, or the Adele song that was on the popular charts for a bit; this was pure background. I looked at her, flabbergasted. I hadn’t even been aware that music was playing in that scene.
This is not an isolated incident, either, but something Amy does all the time. We will watch a movie preview and she will say: “Huh, they used the music from Dances with Wolves; the score must not be ready yet.” Or a song will come on the radio, like “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and she will merrily quiz me on which movie included it as a part of the soundtrack. (The answer: I have no idea. Amy will tell you it is Silence of the Lambs, but I didn’t know that.)
I don’t mention this just to compliment my wife (or embarrass her), but to say that walking around Disneyland with my ears open, so to speak, is a horizon-broadening experience. From the moment one steps onto the Disneyland Resort property, they are in the range of mood-enhancing ambient music and sound effects, which are deployed with great artistry and science. The music changes, seamlessly, from Main Street USA to Adventureland to New Orleans Square without you noticing, and without an obvious speaker to be found. It is an unsung (ha!) highlight of Disney’s parks and resorts. It also makes me appreciate what the world is like to my wife: engaged in music, everywhere she goes.
As the afternoon stretched into evening, we were taken by a whim to try for one last experience, and making it happen was impressively simple. One moment, we were riding a circuit on the Disneyland Railroad and talking about dinner; the next, Amy had looked up the contact number for Disneyland dining reservations on the Internet and found an opening for the two of us at Café Orleans. We arrived for our assigned time of 7:50, and were seated at the edge of the fenced patio, right next to the bustle of New Orleans Square. It was an ideal location.
If a person were to describe Café Orleans as a less expensive overflow for Blue Bayou Restaurant, they would be mostly correct. The powers that be have made an effort to differentiate the menus between the two places in recent years, but I still suspect that Café Orleans gets a significant percentage of their dining traffic from people who are turned away from the flagship Blue Bayou.
Deciding on which of the two is the superior restaurant is not as simple as it might seem. Although Blue Bayou has a clear advantage in atmosphere, being stationed along the waterway inside Pirates of the Caribbean, the patio of Café Orleans overlooks the Rivers of America and New Orleans Square. Not bad for second place, in other words. Blue Bayou has a more upscale menu, but with corresponding upscale prices, and both are filled with appealing dishes prepared in the exact same kitchen. Besides, since my favorite thing at either place is the oft-lauded Monte Cristo sandwich, the overall quality of the menu is, for me, immaterial. We have eaten several times at both, and even celebrated our tenth anniversary on the waterfront of Blue Bayou, but in recent years we have leaned toward Café Orleans. It is a balanced enough argument between the two that any one thing, even something small, could tilt the scales in that restaurant’s favor.
That one thing happens to be the pommes frites at Café Orleans.
Although we both like other starters on the menu (I am partial to French onion soup and Amy loves New Orleans gumbo), we always order these astounding parmesan/garlic French fries, even in addition to the other items. We are not the only people who feel strongly about the pommes frites, either. The smell, alone, sells the fries, and I have watched the gravitational pull of the delicious aroma bend the guest traffic toward the dining patio to get a closer sniff.
We took our time with dinner, not having anywhere in particular to go, and were about to leave when the nearby loudspeaker let us know that the evening’s first performance of Fantasmic! was just fifteen minutes away. Our server let us know that they had stopped seating people for the evening, and we were welcome to just wait right there and watch it. We grinned at each other and settled in for the show.
The crowds and trees lining the river blocked a part of our view, and we were still between the show and the walkway that cast members kept open, but neither of those things mattered. We could hear the music just fine. We even stayed through the fireworks show that followed, for which we had an open sky above us. It was the perfect coda to our meal, our day, and our amazing vacation.
On the tenth day, October 21, we drove home.
Our plan was to get up in the morning, pack the car, and drive all day until we got there. We knew the parks opened at 8:00, and as crazy as it sounds, we considered spending an hour or two in Disneyland in a vain attempt at freezing time (or just extending it a little). But we both realized, walking out of the parks the night before, that it had to be over. The trip was finished; adios, pancakes. Rather than get up at 8:00 and head into the parks, the smart move was to get up at 8:00 and hit the road.
However, we slept through the alarms on our phones at 7:30, and then snoozed the alarms at 8:00, until at last, about 9:30, we got out of bed. By the time we cleaned up, dressed, and finished our packing, it was close to 10:30. We hit he road for Salt Lake City, about 700 miles away, at 11:00.
The last day was a blur of asphalt, accented by occasional stops for gasoline or food. We stopped for lunch in Baker and went to Del Taco, a national chain and familiar favorite, having learned a harsh lesson just days ago at the hands of the Mad Greek.
After that we drove and drove, becoming increasingly exhausted with each passing mile. I was not tired, in that sense, but it was as if we had unplugged at Disneyland and our batteries of enthusiasm were slowly running out. Well after dark, we stopped for dinner in Fillmore, a small town in the heart of Utah, and ate at Burger King. I looked down at my fast food hamburger and thought of the pommes frites and Monte Cristo from the night before. The phrase that came to mind was, absurdly: “how the mighty have fallen.” I started laughing, and when Amy asked me what was funny, I didn’t know what to tell her.
The trusty Subaru carried us the rest of the way home, and we rolled into our driveway just short of midnight, with work the next morning. The cat seemed astonished to see us. We were both miserable to be home.