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The Perfect Day

A Report as a Sleepover Guest on California Adventure's opening day
by Karl Buiter with Steven Ng and Matt Mendenhall

I don’t mean to brag – I truly wish each and everyone of our readers had been in the new Disney’s California Adventure Park on opening day. With all the concern over massive crowds, I fully expected to stampede to Soarin’ Over California for a Fast Pass, then get one coaster ride, return for Soarin’ and call it a day. It wasn’t like that at all.

My official day began Wednesday at 10 AM. Fast forward 12 hours and you would find me getting a light green wristband securing my place in Zone 1 for the Great Disneyland Sleepover.

Campers in garage.
Late Wednesday Evening in Chip-N-Dale Parking Garage Level

When I arrived in the parking structure, there was a modest crowd gathered in the Chip-N-Dale (ground level) section. Out front, Cast Members directed arrivals to tables where your ticket or annual pass would be checked and a color-coded wristband issued. Checked-in guests would then join their group in one of several zones in the structure. Light green was the first zone, so I knew I would be in the first group going into the new park. But I wasn’t ready to join the group yet.

It wasn’t until 1:45 am in the morning that I wandered back to the Mickey and Friends parking structure. Expecting the crowd to be in the thousands, I took a quick look back at Chip-n-Dale lot to see how many zones were packing up. Empty! Two friendly cast members holding "Grand Opening" signs directed me straight to the awaiting tram.

Off to the tram. No lines, barely another passenger on board, and off we went toward the main entrance area. Spoke to the Cast Member manning the rear of the tram. By the count, nearly 1000 people were in Disneyland. But no more. Was it the cold?

At the Downtown Disney stop I got off the tram and walked toward Disneyland. There were plenty of Cast Members along the route. As I passed each group, I made sure to wish a friendly hello. Their job was simply to direct guests around the dedication stage. From what I could see, a heavy blue mat was carpeting the front area as a stage. Off to the sides were the round "wave" stage props. Bleachers held the space where the old ticket booths once stood.

Paused a moment – then into the Disneyland gate by 2:00 AM. More Cast Members ushered me underneath the famous sign "Here you leave today…" . Although I am a regular of the park, this truly was a new momentary fantasy. Here I was, walking down the near center of Main Street, alone as a guest, ushered every several yards by a Cast Member. The only item missing was the red carpet. How odd.

Now mind you, I have been at Disneyland when nearly empty. Certainly being in the park to 4:00 am on the night of the infamous Pirates event comes to mind. During that evening we saw a completely empty Main Street, occasionally interrupted by an out-of-scale truck handling deliveries to the park’s many facilities. Many Disneyland regulars will tell stories of how they were the last out of the park. This was different. I was not leaving – I was entering to stay!

Walt Disney walks through Sleeping Beauty Castle - Publicity photo © Disney
Walt Disney walks through Sleeping Beauty Castle - Publicity photo © Disney

I walked around the Hub, over the drawbridge and into Sleeping Beauty Castle. A friend who arrived later mentioned all that was missing was a slight morning fog and early dawn light to mimic Walt in the famous photograph.

Exiting the castle portal, I entered Fantasyland and was greeted by more Cast Members directing me past the King Arthur Carrousel. A group of maintenance workers walked past. Other workers were servicing the Matterhorn. Around Storybook, and a directed right turn past Alice - there was the end of the camper group. By now I had made contact by radio with Steven Ng, one of MousePlanet’s technical people and occasional photographic contributor.

Now I had heard several things – no sleeping bags, everyone would be munching on sugar offerings, and a loud obnoxious pep rally would keep everyone at near zombie level.

Uh, no.

Campers on Matterhorn Way.

No, instead before me lay what appeared to be a refugee camp from a Matterhorn avalanche. Folks inside sleeping bags, sometimes even bags on air mattresses. Folks playing video games or watching movies on portable DVD players. And for those who were awake - many cups of coffee and hot chocolate.

Yes folks, in one of many classy moves, the park was offering free coffee and hot chocolate just for the asking. A circle of Outdoor Vending carts, tables, and supplies was set up by Ariel’s Grotto. In addition were hot dogs for $3.50, chips, and assorted items. The Dapper Dans, a roving close-up magician, Lagnappe the New Orleans Street mime, a jazz band and others made occasional, quiet appearances. They were careful to entertain those determined to stay awake and not disturb the sleeping masses.

Want to walk around? No problem. Paths to both sides as well as crossovers allowed folks to mingle with others. We found some other good friends and walked all the way down Main Street to near the Emporium. We then walked back up north to Storybook. Folks were on the benches. I was told Central First Aid handed out blankets.

2:00 AM turned into 4:30 AM, then another friend, Matt Mendenhall of the Sea World Information Guide, arrived. More greetings.

Fast Passes? Cast Members worked the line handing out Fast Passes to Soarin’ Over California and other premium attractions. This friendly gesture was a brilliant move by the park. Not only did it provide additional good will to the campers – it also eliminated any potential stampede to the most favorite attractions in the new park. Instead of pushing and shoving our way in later, we would all walk in casually, knowing we already had the access to ride the best attractions in the park.

Nearly 5 am and the first of many helicopters arrived. Circling twice, the helicopter finally set up a hover over it’s a small world. No doubt the scene of all of us crazies delighted the television viewers on the east coast. Campers started waking up.

Sometime near 6 am the group compressed. Some folks were caught off guard with items still on the ground. But compress we did. In stages the groups moved forward. 

Crowd in Main Street.
Campers packed into Main Street - Heading out!

First to the end of Main Street, then to Center Street, then to Town Square. Bands entertained the guests. Pockets of guests sung Happy Birthday. As the clock approached 8:00 AM, we saw the dedication ceremony pyrotechnics explode above the Main Street Train Station. Disney’s California Adventure was open!

After a few more minutes, we moved up to the gates, then into the entrance plaza. Way off to our right we see crowds held back at Downtown Disney and the tram area. Being already checked in with wristbands, within minutes we casually walked to California Adventure’s entry area and into the park and awaiting media photographers.

First stop for Matt, Steven, and I was California Screamin’. It was cycling, but not open. We grabbed our fast passes for Screamin' and headed off to enjoy other attractions on Paradise Pier - Sun Wheel, Maliboomer, Mulholland Madness. 

Maliboomer Camera
Mounted video camera takes ride with reporters on Maliboomer.

One of the sides of Maliboomer was configured for point-of-view media videotaping. A full-size digital broadcast camera was mounted on two of the seats and pointed at two of the remaining seats. We watched as a reporter locks in, begins talking, and is then launched skyward.  Other attractions such as California Screamin' and Mulholland Madness also had mounted broadcast-level video cameras for reporters.

Maynard reveals a collectors item found at Treasures in Paradise shop.

One hour later it was 9:00 am. We walked back around Avalon Cove and we met up with the one and only Maynard. Maynard requested to be in the park this day. The smart folks at scheduling placed him in the perfect spot for this entertaining cast member - guest control for the collectors line to Treasures in Paradise.

Soon it was 9:40 and we headed to California Screamin’. It was a nearly empty queue. Did we need a Fast Pass? Ha!

We asked for row one. Across the way a video crew operated and maintained the point-of-view video cameras for media ride-throughs mounted on the coaster trains. An entourage appeared on that side of the load area. In the entourage was an older, distinguished gentleman who looked familiar. He then boarded row one from the other side. A paparazzi appeared from behind us and shouted "Mr. Disney!" Right away we knew it was Roy. Matt and I rode the next train out and Steven, who was next to board the train Roy was on, awaited with video camera in hand. Thumbs-up to the camera from Roy. Nice!

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It was now 10:00 am and we needed to get back to the hotel to handle check-out. We got back in the park around 11:30 am or so.

After dealing with lockers, we decided to have lunch at Taste Pilot’s Grill. Decent burgers – look for the fixin’s bar! The milkshake was basic soft-serve. I wish there were real ice cream shakes in the park. Given some of the music loop selections, I also wish there was 40s Big Band swing dancing in Hollywood, Condor Flats, or Paradise Pier. We looked around the interior and discussed theming.

The restaurants and shops of Disney’s California Adventure are really fun to be in. And they were very clever with how they did this without spending a fortune. No doubt lots of surplus items in Taste Pilot came from nearby rocket and aircraft plants. The pictures – not hard to get with some asking. The tables and chairs inside culled directly from laboratory rooms, cleaned up with new top surfaces. Look at Hollywood & Dine with all the prop stage lighting units – no doubt surplus from an old backlot stage. Some clean-up, spray paint and ready to go.

Continuing the day, it was 12:25 pm and we decided to make a run for the new version of Steps in Time. This show combines reworked versions of the original preview show elements with a framework story line about two brothers and a Fairy Godmother. I felt it was an improvement over the original – more dynamic, better overall energy – but still a bit jarring to the casual vacationer thinking they are going to watch a traditional Disney character show.  It also was a bit loud.

Soarin' Over California Building

1:00 pm and we are off to soar over California. The standby line? 10 minutes. We have Fast Passes – that’s too long.

I have rode Soarin’ Over California a good five times during previews, and even after six more flights this perfect day, I’ll say this a wonderful attraction. Watch it again and again to look for special details and unique views. Motion on the seats seemed to vary from seat area to seat area – there could be visual perception influencing my positional awareness. Dust didn’t seem to be a big factor.

Get off, go around the building, ride the simulator again. Only 30 minutes elapsed.

Grizzly River Raft

Asked Matt if had been on Grizzly River Raft yet? Nope. Got to go. So it is cold, but Disney seems sensitive to this issue – a good thing. Today they provided free lockers for your water-damageable items. I truly love this attraction. The sense of adventure, the rafting motion, the roar of the bear in the caves – it’s better than most attractions in Disneyland. Did I mention the theming here? Its gorgeous!

Got a good splashing, but the sun dried us out fast. We go to the Souvenir 66 in Paradise Pier and find the commemorative T-shirts. Then we head over to California Screamin’ for an additional four rides in a row. We accomplished this in an elapsed 45 minutes, with 15 of those waiting to be in the front. The routine is this fast - get on, ride, get off, exit, re-enter, back on the next train out. Amazing!

We wander around Paradise Pier, roaming some of the restaurants and comparing Pizza Oom Mow Mow portions to those we remember at Pizza Port. About the same, but higher prices.

Off to Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Muppets 3D, Superstar Limo, Animation. Maybe the longest attraction line was at Animation’s Sorcerer’s Workshop – total of 15 minutes.

Wolfgang Vista
The vista from the outdoor dining area of Wolfgang's Avalon Cove.

We’ll fast forward to dinner at Wolfgang’s Avalon Cove. If you want to find the Disney magic at California Adventure - here is where to go. We had dinner right outside, alongside the water overlooking the Boardwalk area. I think both of us stared out for twenty minutes straight, mesmerized by the colors reflected off the artificially waved water. The Sun Wheel ran through its patterns, the coaster launched train after train, folks spun around the Orange Stinger, the Zephyr rotated and in the distance sounds of a band playing.

We were somewhere else. Certainly not Anaheim. This is the escapism that brings me back to the park week after week.

We had a great dinner. Matt had the 2 ½ pound Maine Lobster. I had the Pork Chops. Did I mention the garlic mash potatoes? Raspberry Lemonade from the Grand Californian Hotel's Storytellers Cafe would have been a great addition.

But time for more rides. Can we make it to midnight? Tried for Screamin’ again but it broke down for the night at about 8:30. We head for King Triton’s Carousel, Tough to Be a Bug, Muppets 3D. We find the camera in Superstar Limo. Back to Soarin’, then Zephyr, then back to Soarin’.

We didn’t quite get to do Soarin’ Over California a seventh time.

But on the way out – California Adventure wall maps. Free to everyone who was at the park. Matt noted that this entire day had a totally laid-back pace, just like what is pictured on the concept art.

Clearly the park was well prepared for massive crowds. Free coffee, Complimentary Fastpasses, well coordinated crowd moves. There was no stampede. Applause to the event planners for thinking this event all the way through. 

Perhaps the media reports cut into the crowd projections. Was it intended? I don’t know.

What I can say is that everyone there experienced a perfect California Adventure day. The word of mouth will spread. Yes it will be crowded. But here, after experiencing so many other not-the-best events, Disney did this one perfect.

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