We took a quick vacation to Disneyland this summer. It was “quick” in two ways: first, we conceived, planned, and executed the trip in just three weeks, which is fast for a couple of plodders like us. Second, we only spent three and a half days on the property*, which felt way too brief.
[*If you just spit out your beverage at the mere concept of spending three and a half days in Disneyland, then, my friend, there is a chance this post may not be for you. Feel free to click somewhere else (maybe try Yellowstone!).]
Although the attractions were part of our trip, we were really there to relax. Most of our time was spent soaking in the atmosphere, poking around the shops, and eating good food. It was everything we had hoped. It was fantastic.
In the midst of all that relaxing, soaking, poking, and eating, we made seven observations from our time at the resort. Please enjoy, and add your own comments and observations below.
1. Summer crowds are not as bad as you think.
Attendance in Disneyland is reported down in 2016, and one result is the easing of typically bonkers summer crowds. This is not to say that the Disneyland Resort was free of people during our trip, just that it was not quite the same exercise in patience.
One plausible explanation is that Disney’s aggressive ticket price raises in recent years have begun pricing out lower-income guests, or those on the fence about visiting. Prices will not abate any time soon, either — the resort is still turning record profits, even with the drop in attendance.
The ongoing construction of Star Wars Land* could be another incentive for potential visitors to put their vacations on hold. Regulars and locals won’t be deterred by closures, but for those at the saving and planning stage, why not wait a couple of years and see all the new stuff?
[*Unofficial name. One rumor going around is that it will be “The Star Wars Experience.” Eye rolling sold separately.]
Of course, now that the summer season is over, guest levels should fluctuate until the Holiday season kicks into high gear. So, file this as “Advice for June-August 2017.”
2. But, there are places to escape crowds.
Going to the Disneyland Resort is often subjecting yourself to maddening, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. “But wait,” you ask, “didn’t you just write that summer crowds aren’t as bad as I think?” Yes, I did. I am also telling you that summer guests will still encounter heavy crowds on occasion. Hellllllllooooooo, it’s called a paradox*, ever hear of it? Maybe you should crack a book once in awhile.
[*I’m pretty sure this isn’t actually a paradox.]
Even when the park population is low, guests will still share it with tens of thousands of sweating, stinking, belligerent, repulsive humans. A smart strategy is to have a few shaded or air-conditioned places to drift between during peak heat and crowd times (roughly 3 PM to 6 PM).
Some of our favorites:
- The Attraction: Conventional wisdom suggests Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is the spot of choice for escaping heat and crowds, but I prefer the Disneyland Railroad. The open, moving tour of the park is refreshing and relaxing in a way that a forced-air theater could never be. When the heat and crowds become taxing we head to a station, wait for our train, and ride a few circuits.
- The Secret Spot: Just north of Edelweiss Snacks in Fantasyland is a covered seating area that used to be a loading platform for the Motor Boat Cruise back when Walt wandered the park. It is as close to “off the beaten path” as is likely possible in Disneyland. I didn’t even realize it was there until some of our Disney friends pointed it out a couple of years ago. The Monorail runs overhead and there is often wildlife (ducks, anyway) to watch.
- The Gem:
Big Thunder Ranch and walkway to FantasylandRIP forever. :(:(:(
- The Store: Even browsing enthusiasts like us would struggle to spend an entire afternoon in a single store, but it is a great way to pass half an hour. Rushin’ Rapids in Disney California Adventure is surprisingly quiet, and they often have merchandise that we don’t see in other park stores. Pioneer Mercantile in Frontierland and Pooh Corner in Critter Country are the closest comparables in Disneyland.
- The Dining Area: The large court attached to Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta in Disney California Adventure is both lovely and empty. Park management is always fiddling with menus to attract guests to that remote corner of the park, but until they hit on something big, it’s a great place to sit and relax.
- The Most Relaxing: If it doesn’t break your heart to leave the park, then the best possible place is your own hotel room. Where in the parks could you strip down to your underpants and stand directly in front of a roaring air conditioning vent? (Legally, I mean.) There are plenty of walking-distance properties that will not break the bank, provided you reserve far enough in advance to secure a room for the summer season.
3. Soarin’ Around the World is fine.
I love Soarin’ Around the World, full stop. The new film is a great addition. Soarin’ will keep it’s coveted spot at the top of the “Deep Forest Outpost Rankings of Attractions in Disney California Adventure.”
It was a necessary change, too: the film for the original had developed more bumps and scratches than the gag orientation video in Indiana Jones Adventures. The images are now crisp and beautiful, and the scenery is stunning. The itinerary is a much better fit for Disney Parks’ global audience.
Soarin’ Around the World just does not reach the same level of excellence as the original. It’s a worthy effort, but falls short. Three reasons why:
First, the computer graphics are obvious in a few scenes. This might not be so irksome in other attractions, but it runs contrary to what made the original breathtaking: this state is so beautiful that all we need is a camera. CGI is advanced enough now that Walt Disney Imagineering could create “Soarin’ Over Tattooine” or “Soarin’ Over Wakanda” to promote upcoming films, and it would be beautiful. But it will always have a hint of fiction when the “wow” moments are computer generated.
Second, the signature “scents” of the ride were not nearly as as impactful as the original. In fact, they were disappointing enough that I have wondered if the system was not functioning properly when we rode. One vignette was pretty good, but nothing on the memorability-scale of the orange groves or Monterey Bay (or Lake Tahoe, or Redwood Creek) in the original.
Third, the great Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing music is gone. The new conductor (Bruce Boughton, who is not too shabby himself) created a theme on the original, but now it is an unhappy hybrid. I would rather he have been allowed to do something wholly original, and frankly, he might have preferred that, too.
TL/DR: good, just not as good.
4. The parks were in pretty good shape, but…
Since the nadir of the mid-1990s Cynthia Harriss and Paul Pressler days, most serious park watchers have kept an eye on the physical state of Disneyland Resort facilities. The maintenance department is now considered a bellwether of the overall state of the parks, even if that is an oversimplification. The good news for those of us in the “fresh paint patrol” is that the parks were in pretty good shape.
It was a happy surprise. I had read earlier in the year that major cuts were coming to Disneyland staffing, thanks to funds being routed to alleviate the disastrous delays in opening Shanghai Disneyland.
That’s not to say that we couldn’t find spots on the veneer. Most of the trees looked pretty shaggy, for example. But the local management seemed to have made smart cuts that had a minimal impact on the guest experience. I found it most noticeable during parades and show events, actually. There were far fewer Cast Members out directing traffic than in years past.
Now that Shanghai is up and wobbling along, Bob Chapek (Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman) can return budgets to their pre-crunch levels, and the Disneyland Resort should slowly return to normal. However, if financial stakeholders realize the parks kept guests happy while still funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to other projects, then a whole farm of problems will suddenly sprout and bloom.
4. The security was obvious.
We checked into our hotel just after the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, and were all still absorbing the unthinkable tragedy that was unfolding on the news. Park security was dialed up to a degree I had never seen before.
That horrifying event had direct and indirect impact all around the globe. Among other things, it highlighted the potential vulnerability of such a public and known area. I realized I was grateful for the security Cast Members who shepherded us through bag check and metal detectors. On previous trips I had just found it tedious.
Plus, I identified a plainclothes security CM for the first time, which was exciting. I have read about this invisible army before, and have even suspected a few “guests,” but this was the first where I was certain. No credit to my intuition, by the way: I saw him nod and signal to uniformed security.
5. The new Star Wars area will change Disneyland significantly, and not all for the better.
I am a big fan of Star Wars. I own Star Wars movies, books, merchandise, and video games. I have user accounts on both StarWars.com and Wookieepedia. I mention this to both establish my nerd bonafides and indicate how excited I am to walk into an immersive Star Wars experience.
The Star Wars project seems predestined to be a huge revenue driver and — possible fan expectations aside — an unqualified success for the Disneyland Resort. But its sheer scope also worries me for the future.
Disneyland was meant to change. Walt Disney made that clear. It is great news that the venerable old horse cart is not just switching a few things around, but expanding significantly — adding nearly 20% more themed space. But I am still concerned about what the park will be losing to accommodate it.
Sacrificing the Big Thunder Ranch, the best parts of the Mark Twain circuit, and the peaceful walkway between Frontierland and Fantasyland is significant. The word “charm” pops up frequently when fans discuss what makes Disneyland special. A fair portion of that legendary charm can be found in the park’s quiet, quirky, and unusual spaces.
Plus, what happened to the oft-rumored “Third Gate?” Were fans responsible for all the scuttlebutt, or was there substance behind it? A Star Wars/Marvel third park would have been a cash cow. I guess it’s too late now.
OR IS IT?!
6. Disney fan rankings of Fantasyland rides are off.
Everyone loves Peter Pan’s Flight, right? That is the attraction everyone runs to at rope drop. The one where the queue wait time* is rarely less than an hour.
[*That’s actual wait time, rather than posted wait time. The posted wait time is perpetually 40 minutes, no matter how far the line stretches into the courtyard.]
Well, listen up, because I am about to either enrage you or free your mind by sharing a truth you know in your heart but are afraid to say: Peter Pan’s Flight is overrated.
I know, I know! How can I say that with the pirate ships, and the bedroom window, and flying over London, and the stars, and Neverland, and it’s all wonderful and adorable? Simple: Peter Pan’s Flight is overrated because the ride has no coherent story, and even with all the appealing elements, is so short that it disappoints.
Of course, this is Disneyland, and all of the attractions in Fantasyland are great, even Peter Pan’s Flight. I am only addressing the share of fan devotion/attention any particular attraction receives. The following list should help clarify:
- Casey Jr. Circus Train
- Storybook Land Canal Boats
- Snow White’s Scary Adventures
- Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (the best attraction in Fantasyland?)
- Alice in Wonderland
- King Arthur Carrousel
- Pinocchio’s Daring Journey
- It’s A Small World (underrated during the Christmas season)
- Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- Matterhorn Bobsleds (blame the new ride vehicles)
- Mad Tea Party
- Dumbo the Flying Elephant
7. Entertainment can be found in unexpected ways.
One does not automatically associate Disneyland with watching wildlife, but it is there to be found. The Happiest Place on Earth is not an animal hotspot on the same scale as our other favorite destination, but more like you might find closer to home. As an added bonus, you are walking around Disneyland to find them, instead of stumbling into daylight drug deals at your local park.
Here is a partial list of birds and animals we have seen in recent trips:
- California seagull
- Rock dove (pigeon)
- House sparrow
- European starling
- American robin
- Common raven
- American coot
- Double-crested cormorant
- Northern pintail
- Canada goose
- Wood duck
- Red-eared slider turtle (probably — not really into herps)
- California Whiptail lizard (complete guess — see above comment)
- California ground squirrel
- Eastern gray squirrel
- The famous Cats of Disneyland
Not a bad lineup, right? Some of those are kind of exciting to see, including the striking wood duck and any of the celebrity cats. It adds an unexpected layer of enjoyment to a place we love.
If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. How about a bonus point?
(BONUS POINT) 8. … or else NOT found in expected ways.
On the other end of that spectrum are the parades, shows, and fireworks, which are (almost) universally loved, but are just the worst. I know I am the outlier on this subject, though, because I seem to be the only person who sees them as the wastes of time and space they are.
Actually, let me walk that statement back a bit. I have, in fact, been entertained in the past by some of these spectacles. Fantasmic! is good, as is the original World of Color. Anything that combines Disney’s unparalleled library of music, movies, and characters is going to have a happy impact on me.
But the 60th anniversary program made for miserable afternoons and evenings in Disneyland. Mickey’s Soundsational Parade, followed by Paint the Night/Fantasmic!, followed by fireworks, followed by Paint the Night/Fantasmic! part two, guaranteed that Main Street, USA, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland were either shut down or completely gridlocked from 4:00 in the afternoon until closing.
It was an utter mess, and it needs to come to a swift end. It’s time to stop the madness, Disney!