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JJ Julian -- March 2001 -- Disneyland


3/9/01

INTRO: After much debate, a recent lay-off left me with enough time on my hands to warrant an excursion to the oh-so-controversial DCA. My wife is boycotting anything to do with the new park, so I went alone. This is my story, with some tips and some revelations about just what is and isn't wrong with the park.

I was recently laid off, but for long-winded reasons, I have two months to kill before I can start a new job and am still getting paid. Disposable income, time to kill, attendance at DCA is in the dumpster...I gave in.

Friday was the day, as it was supposed to be only rainy in spots. I got a late start, due to the 57 freeway being closed in both directions, arriving at the park at 12:30. I was walking under the Golden Gates before 1pm. It was decently sunny, with clouds just threatening. Still, crowds were tiny. No lines at ticket booths, no lines in the park.

I already had a game plan in mind, but I started by checking the map anyway. I was headed for Hollywood, or the Hollywood Pictures backlot.

Quick issue with this: no production goes on here, so why bother with the façade of a studio? I heard people wondering 'where the filming happens' so there's confusion here.

I made a beeline for Superstar Limo. After everything I've read about this now-infamous ride, I had to do it first.

Oh my Lord.

10 minutes later, I emerged into the daylight, experiencing a strange balance of amusement and horror. Amused that something that bad made it into a Disney park. Horrified that the good Lord allows it to exist.

I should have run when I saw the Joan Rivers puppet that looks like Martha Stewart on crack. Who thought having the world's most annoying woman shouting at you would be a good pre-show? Then, the poor CM's. Having to call everyone 'superstars'. 'How many superstars in your party?' 'Climb on board, superstars!' 'Welcome back, superstars, step to your right.' I don't know how they do it, I'd throw myself off the top of the Sun Wheel.

Everything you've read is true; the ride is a complete loss. They should rename it 'It's a Small Television & Movie Studio After All'. Nothing but a string of cardboard cut-outs promoting Disney-owned stars, with bad puns. 'Look!', says the on-board announcer, 'It's Regis Philbin, and that's my final answer!' Please, make it stop.

One important note: THIS ISN'T A DARK RIDE. The rooms are almost fully lit, which kills what little chance of illusion they had. Why in the world do they do this? Pinocchio in Disneyland is a similar ride with the hand painted cut-outs, but at least it's dark.

TIP about this ride: it had passengers when I was there for one reason: people streamed from the Muppet 3D movie straight into Superstar Limo. That's right; people were riding this ride by accident. The mom ahead of me didn't know where she was. Her kids asked if this was a ride, and she said 'I don't know, I'm just following the leader!' The bad thing is this guarantees that the attendance for this stinker will actually be pretty good. Ugh. So, do NOT walk straight into this ride while following the crowd out of Muppet 3D. You have been warned.

Next, Muppet 3D! Now, I for one haven't been to WDW since 87, so I haven't' been to the Studios there or Animal Kingdom. The Muppet 3D movie was new to me, and I really enjoyed it. Not enough for a second visit this trip, but I did enjoy it. The in-studio effects were great, and I have been a longtime fan of Statler and Waldorf, the two curmudgeons who reside in the balcony.

TIP: One complaint: I'm a big guy, and these seats are TINY. None of the other theaters suffered from this, especially not the bench seating in the Bug's Life Theater. Still, if you're a human-sized person, beware. These suckers are a tight fit.

Having no interest in shows like 'Lights, Camera, Chaos!' I went straight to the Animation exhibit.

WOW.

Once again, everything I'd heard was true. This is a gem, a real sparkler. The 'courtyard' (foyer) is breathtaking. Back to Neverland, the Robin Williams/Walter Cronkite movie was delightful, but looks awful. I'm assuming it was blown up from a TV-sized format, hence the extremely grainy appearance. The Drawn to Animation show was a hoot, and very informative. MuShu is a great choice for a character to perform this show. The gallery (I forget the name, sorry!) had some very informative displays about character design. I had no idea Buzz Lightyear was once 'Lunar Larry', for instance.

The Sorceror's Workshop is the masterpiece, however. The theming is beyond belief. They have brought the environs of the wicked Queen's dungeon, Beast's library, and Ursula's Grotto to life. The Queen's animation area was too busy for me to do, despite very low attendance elsewhere in the park. The other two sections only had minor waits, although I only watched as others made fools of themselves in the Grotto's 'sing along'.

TIP: Crowds for this attraction actually became easier to manage once they got bigger. Why? Because they put a CM out front to meter out how many people were going in. About 10 people every 5 minutes got let in, which produced smaller crowds in the attraction overall. Without that CM, large crowds would flood in at one after being let out of the Drawn to Animation show and would create a bottleneck at the Queen's area.

After reluctantly departing the wonders of the Animation building, I set out for the other 'must-see' on my list, Soarin' Over California. After hoofing it across the 'hub' (and noting that no ride had over 10 minute waits posted on the info board) I arrived, and found that indeed Soarin' was a walk-on. It looked like they even had Fastpass closed which is something I'd read they weren't going to do. Later in the day, it did appear to be open as crowds grew (but the ride never grew over walk-on status anyway).

Soarin' is as advertised, a magnificent ride. Yes, dust was an issue in each of my three rides, but wasn't a huge distraction. Kind of a UFO, so to speak. :)

My one complaint was with the scents blown at you in the ride. The first is the strong pine scent of a forest. To me it seemed that each subsequent smell was more or less pine as well. The orange fields just smelled like a citrusy pine, and the ocean smelled like a salty pine. Maybe they need to work on flushing the system better between scents?

TIP: My opinion is that row B1 is the best for view and flight simulation. Row 3 is the worst, as you can clearly see the bottom of the dome and the feet above you. I don't know if there is any difference in motion, but it seemed that the rig on the far left was moving more than the rest.

The discussion of this section of the park brings me into an overall opinion on things I've read on the net. A continual gripe seems to be theming, or lack thereof. I think these people are nuts, not to put too fine a point on it. While I only rode the coaster in Paradise Pier, and therefore didn't examine the other ride queues, I can't say I have a complaint about any of the others in the park. Soarin' especially has an amazingly detailed queue that really makes you feel as if you're going flying in some experimental rig.

Also, I look at the ground a lot. Disney has always been good about theming environments, and DCA is honestly a stellar example of this. The slick, clean, Epcot-esque walkways of the hub blend into the 'old runway' look of Condor Flats perfectly. The illusion here is wonderful, all the way down to the messy tar joints between sections of pavement. They look like they've been used and exposed to the elements for decades, and they're really only months old! The 'country highway' look to the Grizzly River area is also stellar, right down to the hairline cracks in the pavement and the faded dashed strip in the middle. Theming is really the one thing they got consistently right in the park.

Next, sanity left me and I decided to get wet (it was chilly all day). If I hadn't known about the free lockers ahead of time, I never would have found them because I had to ask. Their location is pretty well hidden, and not listed on the map! Because of this, people had haphazardly stacked items at the loading area, so it's only a matter of time before that becomes a mess. The CM at the gate knew right where to direct me, though, so don't hesitate to ask for help.

Grizzly River Rapids is, without a doubt, the best rapids raft ride I've ever been on. They're a staple of the midwestern theme parks where I spent my youth. Silver Dollar City's 'Lost River of the Ozarks' in Branson, Missouri has a superior story (in that it HAS a story) but the ride and overall theming is far better here. A great, thrilling ride.

After retrieving my lockered camera, I hiked all the way around Paradise Pier, skipping the Golden Dreams movie for the time because I'd just missed a viewing. This is definitely a case of a missed opportunity for queue theming, I will admit. Just a plain outdoors set of pipe railings. No pre-show, nothing to do or look at. Many people walked up to ask how long till the next show, then looked at the queue and walked away when they saw there was nothing to do but stand and wait.

So, I hoofed it around Paradise Pier. In doing so, I realized one big thing missing that exists in every other Disney park, I think. Transportation. DCA is deceptively BIG. Getting from the Golden Dreams area at the entrance to Paradise Pier all the way back to the Maliboomer is quite a haul! Why not have some convertible 'woodys' that seat 6 or 8 people making this trek, save people some walking? They could even charge a buck or two to do so and it would be a very popular means of moving around the park. The walkways are certainly wide enough in the area.

The Zephyr ride was down, so I didn't get to ride it. Too heavy for the swings (200lb limit, I'm pushing 300). Mullholland Madness is down. Not interested in Maliboomer or Sun Wheel, as I don't do heights. So much for Paradise Pier.

I did want to ride California Screamin', but not right then. After that walk I was huffing and puffing, ready for a break, not a roller coaster.

I headed to the right after crossing the pier and passing Avalon Cove (too pricey for me, thanks). I found myself at the winery. I don't like wine, so that ruled out a good 95% of this locale. I didn't know they had a movie here, so I went ahead and cooled my heels, then went in when invited to see the film.

Honestly, this is a charming little film, presented in a nice, highly themed way. The effect of the barn doors sliding open to reveal a working vineyard was very nice, and the film wasn't boring at all. I actually learned a lot about wine, too. Definitely worth the 10 minutes.

I left the winery behind and walked over towards the Pacific Wharf area, as I was feeling a bit hungry at this point. I admit I'd done zero research on potential eateries before making my visit to the park, so I was working off instinct. Well, instinct and the cool 'Lucky Fortune Cookery' sign I'd spied on the lift hill for Grizzly River Rapids.

I ran smack into the Boudin Bakery tour. I hopped in just as they closed the doors. While I agree that this is NOT an attraction, I was looking forward to it as I've always loved sourdough bread.

I have a confession. I enjoyed the bakery tour. I'll turn in my keyboard and DIG button. ;)

I thought the videos were cute and funny (when Rosie wasn't speaking, anyway) and did a very good job explaining what seems to be a very arduous process just to bake some bread. The sample was good as well.

When I left, I was in the mood for some bread. :) So, I turned the corner and voila, the Boudin Bakery Restaurant. I hopped in, and had what turned out to be my only bad experience of the day.

The service was good; everything was fine except for one thing. It was cold outside, and I'd had Mexican for lunch and my stomach was a little rumbly from it, so I wanted something smooth, hot, and creamy. I was going for the clam chowder, but then I saw the description for Santa Rosa Corn Chowder.

Let me preface this by saying I spent most of my life in the Midwest, and corn chowder there is typically like clam chowder but without the clams. This may not be the case out here, so I may sound like a boob right now, but I was expecting something very different from what I got.

The Corn Chowder was described as this: 'tender morsels of corn and roasted red peppers with russet potatoes in a creamy broth, topped with diced ham and chives'.

What I got had more in common with chili than chowder. It was spicy, red, and not even slightly creamy. No cream or dairy involved at all, in fact. Now, I'm a big wuss when it comes to complaining at restaurants, so I ate it in peace, but they really should alter that description. Makes you wonder what other dish descriptions in the park are radically inaccurate.

After eating (the bread was absolutely fantastic, even if the chowder wasn't what I wanted) I went over to the fortune cookie shop. Great little place, great fresh fortune cookies. I wanted to take a big box home to the wife, and I asked when they closed. The gal at the counter said she really wasn't sure, but she worked till 9pm so she assumed it'd be around 8pm. I said cool, and went back to exploring.

Since it was on the way, I hit the Bountiful Farm next. This section just screams 'what the hell were they thinking'. Um, it's a garden. That's about it. My parents weren't really gardeners, and they had about the same amount of produce in our back yard when I grew up. No clue why this section exists, except for the CAT souvenir stand next to the tractors that everyone was ignoring. Oh, and the 'cool off' sprinklers, but they could go anywhere in the park. Let's hope they ream this section out and drop in a cool attraction.

After viewing the leeks and cabbages, I went to the Bug's Life Theater. What an absolute gem. Again, I've never been to Animal Kingdom, so this was new on me. Great show, great theming, great queue, great great great! Those who say that they wouldn't view it again are goofy. It was worth two views for me, and I'll view it again the next time I go. Is it comparable to, say, a good dark ride? No. But for what it is, it's fantastic. It isn't just a movie, as most of the good parts of the show involve animatronics.

After exiting the Tough to be a Bug show, I was feeling pretty good. I'd done everything I wanted to do with the exception of California Screamin' and the Golden Dreams movie, and I'd had a lot of fun.

Then I looked at a clock.

It was 4:30. I'd been there for 4 hours, and I was DONE. Now, true, it was a very light attendance day, the weather had been fine, I was a single, able bodied male, and I hadn't done many bathroom breaks or shopping stops. Still, the concept that one can blow through every attraction in any theme park worth seeing once in less than four hours and eat lunch is a real problem. In. Even at dinky Worlds of Fun in good old Kansas City, it took all day to hit every single ride or attraction.

My mood a bit darkened by that news (it was clouded by that number, $43) I went ahead and got into a showing of the Golden Dreams movie. I'd heard several negative things about this movie, and I have to say, they were overblown. Yes, two characters on screen are killed, but I feel it was necessary to that part of the film. Yes, the Rodney King beating is seen briefly, but it is very briefly, about 1.5 seconds, and with 5 or 6 other images on the screen at the same time. I almost missed it, and I was watching for it.

I enjoyed the film, even though it was a bit sappy and manipulative. Not a big Whoopi fan, but even I didn't mind her in this.

Until the sunset, I wandered and drifted, did a little shopping, rode Soarin' again. I wanted to ride California Screamin' after dark, you see.

I went ahead and got a Fastpass for Screamin', as the wait was posted at 10 minutes and I wanted time to explore Paradise Pier a little more and call my wife. I ended up killing the 45 minutes till my ride time, as I didn't find anything of interest on the pier. When I went up for my time, all they did for my fast pass was let me cut into the line a little short of halfway there. Basically, Fastpass is worthless on this ride unless the park is very busy. It saved me, maybe, 3-5 minutes. I had to wait 45 for it to become active, so that's hardly 'virtual queuing'.

The coaster was fun, however. Far milder than it appears, I was watching very young children getting off and jumping right back on. Scaredy-cats shouldn't worry; this is a very good coaster for beginners with butterflies who can't muster the courage to hit Magic Mountain's range of monster rides. I hopped off, circled around, and hopped right back on.

After disembarking the second time, the weather finally broke and the rain came. I hoofed it back to the Wharf to pick up my fortune cookies, but at 7:30 they were already long closed. I don't blame the girl I'd spoken with for not knowing this, because obviously they decide these things on the fly.

TIP: On light days, pick up things you want at eateries when you see them open, don't wait! The Boudin Bread cart was closed up early as well, and I was going to buy bread.

Already drenched, I went through the farm to the Bug's Life theater for one more viewing, then braved near-torrential rain to get over to Soarin' one more time. I hadn't ridden in row 1 yet and I really wanted to but they looked full. Again, I'm a big wuss so I took my assigned row 2 seat. I was the only one on the row (what crowd there was bailed when the rains came) so the CM's took pity on me, and found a first row seat on rig B. Right where I wanted, I was thrilled.

This segues me into another overall point: the DCA CM's were universally wonderful. I mean, really fantastic. Friendly, helpful, taking advantage of the slow crowds to have long chats with customers when time allowed. They really made the show (DCA) what it was, and I know that I for one didn't experience any of the negativity I've read about here on the net. Just plain stellar, friendly CM's everywhere I went.

One of these CM's talked me into an umbrella at my next stop, the animation shop 'Off The Page'. I had to buy my wife (a budding animator) one of their Disney Animation Art Kits. Very nice wooden box with the Disney Animation logo, 36 oil pastels, 36 colored pencils, 2 paint brushes, and 12 watercolor cakes. A great package, and the price ($50) really isn't bad. My wife hasn't tried them but she says they look like good quality stuff.

Back to the CM. She didn't 'sell' me the umbrella, she just offered one because I was absolutely soaked, and I had commented that my day had been fine until it got wet. At her suggestion, I caved in and bought one for $10. Walked outside, popped it open, and it immediately stopped raining.

I think I heard God giggling softly in the distance.

I spent the rest of the evening in a few shops, all of which packed to the gills with DCA park-specific merchandise. I wish Disneyland had this kind of selection. They had a toy for just about every single ride, including a motorized replica of the Screamin' coaster, with the loop!

At 9:30, I finally left the park. Overall, it was a good day. However, if I hadn't been intimately aware of the amount of attractions vs. the amount of shops and restaurants, I would have been very upset. I knew I wasn't going to get my $43 worth, so when I didn't I wasn't unhappy because I got what I'd come for.

As I left, two things struck me about the park in general that I'd like to share.

One: What they do, they do right, they just don't do enough of the right things. Only small parts, the queues to California Screamin' and Golden Dreams for instance, suffer from theming problems. Only one attraction is a real stinker (SuperSmell Limo). Just take out 1/3 of the shops and give us two or three more attractions, even if they're small Fantasyland-esque dark rides or interactive areas like the Sorcerer's Workshop.

Two: it's too damn NICE. Every single theme park and even carnival has a spook house. Every Disney park (Animal Kingdom excluded) has their 'thrill' ride. Even Epcot has the Norway river ride, which is dark, hairy beasts threaten you, and you go backwards down a waterfall. Nothing here is threatening. Even the coaster doesn't take the 'thrilling' theme as many do. (Mamba, Viper, Timberwolf, or other threatening 'wild beast' name.) The focus there is on goofy California fun with the surf soundtrack. Now I hear Armageddon is gone, so we'll be spookless for a while. Even just a Disney version of the old-fashioned spook house dark rides common in carnivals and sideshows would be something. What we have is the VH1 of theme parks: everyone's nice, everything is PC, and nothing is threatening. We need Armageddon, Tower of Terror, ANYTHING.

Final Thought: I don't recommend anyone spend $43 to get into this park without thoroughly researching it and making sure there is $43 worth of stuff you're interested in. However, I think I can say that many net reviewers are stuck in 'what might have been' mode and are opinionating based on what could/should be done in the park and not what we have. What we have is a park with good things, just way too few good things and not enough variety. Oh, and Superstar Limo, which is of the devil and must be stopped.

JJ Julian

kcmosher@eonclash.com


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