Sliver of a Rivers of Americaby David Koenig, contributing writer
Walt Disney was a "whole ticket book" kind of guy. He didn't think everything should be an E-ticket. Walt believed Disneyland should offer a wide range of "flavors"—some attractions would be big, others small; some loud and action-packed, others quiet and beautiful. For him, the park bench was as important as the bobsled.
So in Walt's Disneyland, for every big showpiece, there was a tranquil corner, something to happen upon or someplace to catch your breath at.
Today's Disneyland doesn't have that luxury. It's become so popular, you even see crowds around wishing wells. More guests means fewer corners get lightly traveled. It also creates pressure on management to convert resting spaces into active areas (both to get more bodies moving through every square inch of the place and to create something splashier and more marketable that will lure in even more guests they don't have room for).
Most of the quiet spots are gone. The Court of Angels (in New Orleans Square) is now a restaurant lobby. Quirky little shops on Main Street are now T-shirt halls in the Emporium. CircleVision and the Pack Mules have noisier replacements. After 28 years, the PeopleMover gave way to the flashier Rocket Rods (which "ran" for 23 months before being replaced by an empty track). The Skyway and the Motor Boat Cruise just disappeared altogether.
By my count, we're down to the Main Street attractions (vehicles, cinema, steam trains) and the Frontierland river attractions (Mark Twain, Columbia, canoes, Tom Sawyer Island).
In six short weeks, that all could change.
On January 10, the Disneyland Railroad, the Rivers of America, all Frontierland watercraft, and Tom Sawyer Island will be shut down until 2017, to facilitate construction of Star Wars land behind them. The designers, naturally, want their new land to be as large as possible. Besides consuming the entire Big Thunder Ranch, the backstage Circle D Corral, and other service areas, they also want to push into the acreage currently occupied by the Disneyland Railroad tracks and the back shores of the Rivers of America. They also want there to be multiple access points to the new land—from Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Critter Country.
A guest path would be added along the Rivers of America linking Critter County with Star Wars land; the path would be open only during the day and close at dusk. The train tracks would then be rerouted through the current site of the riverbed and the Fantasyland Theater, before rejoining the old route near the Toontown Station. A longer tunnel would be built leading to the station, hiding the train from the main entrance to Star Wars land—a low-grade underpass, similiar to Toontown's. The north end of Tom Sawyer Island—all the uninhabited area past the Burning Cabin—would then need to be excavated to reroute the river.
"We could lose nearly a third of the river," one insider bemoaned. "The boats will travel past the Hungry Bear, take a right, then another hard right, and that's it—they'll start heading back straight to the dock."
Those involved with the project promise the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer Island won't be reduced by any more than 25 percent. Mathematics aside, riding the river will become a significantly shorter, very different feeling experience. Currently, you begin your relaxing 15-minute trip with people-watching in New Orleans Square, before slipping behind the back of the island and into unexplored remoteness, enjoying a series of quiet show vignettes before there's any sign of civilization.
That leisurely pace is doomed. The shorter trips will also make it more difficult to run both the Mark and the Columbia at the same time. Whatever Disney might remove—whether the rapids, the animatronic animals, or Indians—they'll undoubtedly replace with something higher tech. But what will be more difficult to upgrade (or even preserve) is that feeling of tranquility and escape.
Certainly, there has been some pushback by in-park management. The Circle D folks are not happy with having to relocate all stable operations off-site and having to truck in the trolley horses every morning. As well, the plans for Star Wars land cover the current site of Environmental Affairs—the park's garbage/hazardous waste dumping point. "The fear is that when the land is cleared, we might find that some of the toxic stuff might have leaked into the ground, which would delay construction for the cleanup," said another insider.
Operations folks are dreading 15-plus months of shuttered Frontierland attractions (not to mention extended rehabs next year for Autopia, the Jungle Cruise, and the Matterhorn, among others). The closures will also mean that, for the first time since their founding 53 years ago, there will be no annual cast member canoe races.
Moreso, many are concerned about upsetting the balance of the park that Walt tried so hard to perfect.
"A lot of cast members are asking themselves, 'Is all of this worth it?' Many oldtimers—and a lot of newcomers—are unhappy with all the disruption of the park for this Star Wars land. Getting rid of Circle D, altering the Rivers of America, steam trains, and Tom Sawyer Island—all part of Walt's Disneyland—has to make you wonder. There is a firm belief that TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) and Corporate are hell bent on eliminating what is left of the original Disney in Disneyland."