Disneyland marks a half century
By Eric Noland
Los Angeles Daily News
ANAHEIM — Disneyland is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a bang. A lot of them, actually.
The actual 50th anniversary of Disneyland in California was celebrated on Sunday, July 17, 2005, featuring company officials, politicians and, of course, Mickey Mouse.
A pyrotechnic extravaganza is being unleashed nightly as the latest manifestation of the park's fireworks show, and it's an impressive one.
As Disneyland pays homage to some of its most popular attractions down through the years, fireworks are not aimed straight into the sky but at angles, so as to resemble shooting stars, a pirate cannon battle and space cruisers streaking off into the heavens. Lasers cut down enemy craft. Tongues of flame spew forth from the battlements of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.
And Tinker Bell, rather than simply taking that zip line ride from the Matterhorn to Fantasyland, now breaks these static bonds by dipping low over the castle, turning in midair, hovering and, at one point, even flitting back up toward the mountain peak.
Good thing, because the argument could otherwise be made that Disneyland's anniversary party is somewhat understated.
There is a new Tomorrowland ride, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (which actually debuted well before the anniversary kickoff). The daily parade has been beefed up with the float designs of Rose Parade wizard Paul Rodriguez. Each of the park's original rides now has a gold vehicle. Collages can be found here and there of Disney characters, made entirely from tourist photos sent in by guests over the past year. Some museum exhibits and a film chronicle the conception and inception of the park.
All well and good. But visitors expecting a bit more on the occasion of Disneyland's half-century birthday will have to wait until dark. The fireworks show, titled "Remember . . . Dreams Come True," nicely closes any zap gap.
Julie Andrews, star of one of Disney's most popular movies, "Mary Poppins," narrates the 20-minute spectacular, which dips into Disneyland history to recount some of the more popular attractions — right after a luminescent Tinker Bell makes her dramatic introductory flight.
Guests line up to ride Disneyland's "Space Mountain." The ride recently reopened after a two-year renovation.
A good place to see this show is from anywhere in the vicinity of Disneyland's Central Plaza, at the top of Main Street, because the castle facade is an integral part of the production.
The castle becomes bathed in neon lights in homage to that guiltiest of past Disneyland pleasures, the Main Street Electrical Parade (and good luck getting the song out of your head). Then, to commemorate the Indy Jones Adventure, towers of flame leap high into the air.
The next transformation, to honor the Haunted Mansion, is astonishing: Through light effects, the castle suddenly looks Gothic and decrepit, laced with spooky shadows, with ghosts soaring skyward up its face.
The cannon crossfire of Pirates of the Caribbean follows, after which sparks fly from pinwheels to celebrate Alice in Wonderland.
Then the action really dials up, as the castle transforms into a Star Tours battle station. Ominous green lasers rake the skies, and one space intruder is cut down in a shower of sparks right above Main Street's Plaza Inn. Combat in deep space is also the theme of Disneyland's newest ride, which may not have the instant cachet that accompanied the opening of the Pirates, Space Mountain or Indiana Jones, but has generated some intrigue — while demonstrating what kind of leaps Disneyland has made over its 50 years.
When Walt Disney opened his visionary new theme park on a sweltering Orange County day in July 1955, amid the state-fair-like exhibits ("The Story of Oil"?) were such tame offerings as mule rides, motorboats running on a track and three attractions that would come to be known as the pioneers of Disneyland's "dark rides": Peter Pan, Snow White and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Guests ride Disneyland's "Space Mountain," a favorite of young and old alike.
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters is another such slow-moving ride in the dark, but with technological wrinkles that figure to give it broad appeal.
Based on the movie "Toy Story," it takes riders through the nefarious domain of Emperor Zurg, with Buzz soliciting everyone's help in fighting the evil ones. Each car is equipped with a couple of pistol-shaped electronic blasters, and targets on the bad guys light up left and right along the ride.
As you blaze away, your score is updated continuously on a digital readout on the dash, which introduces a competitive component to a friendly family outing. "Mom wins! Mom wins!" came a cry from the group behind me as they exited the ride. "We find that people are riding over and over again," said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock, "because you're trying to beat your own score or your friend's score."
It's a clever concept, in that the ride is little more than Alice in Wonderland with gunplay, yet the interactive element takes kids' (notably teens') minds off the fact that they're just creeping along past brightly painted sets with creative lighting. At the end of the ride, you might be hard-pressed to remember anything of what you passed, so focused are you on zeroing in on targets. As with many Disneyland rides, a candid photo of you can be perused at the conclusion, but in a refreshing twist, you're not asked to buy a glossy print—but rather e-mail your picture to someone at no cost. (This undoubtedly is intended to create buzz about Buzz.)
And there's an online tie-in. "You'll see targets similar to those inside the ride," said McClintock, "and when you hit those targets, it will increase the value of certain targets inside the ride itself. You will be affecting the score of someone in the ride." Fantasy come to life, children and adults delighted equally: Walt would surely be proud.
The man's vision for the park broke all the bounds of 1950s convention, and it is fascinating to plumb it. This is readily done at museum exhibits and through a film presented just inside the main gates at the Main Street Opera House. If you have kids in tow, it might not be wise to hit this first, because they'll inevitably be squirming to get on a ride, hug a character or secure a princess' autograph.
But later in the day, when the sun is high and you need a breather, duck in here to see "Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years" is an examination of how all of this got started.
An exhibit hall has a mock-up of Disneyland on opening day, along with such artifacts as the A-B-C-D-E ticket books (oh, how those E-tickets were prized!) and some conceptual artwork by Disney designers.
A drawing of Walt's original plan sketches out a small park adjacent to his Burbank studios, wedged between Riverside Drive and the Los Angeles River channel. Subsequent designs, leading up to the construction of the park in Anaheim, show various features that never made it off the drawing board (maybe mercifully): Lilliputian Land, Holiday Park, Mickey Mouse Club Island, Granny's Farm.
The film is narrated by Steve Martin, with some peevish assistance from Donald Duck. As a teenager growing up in Garden Grove, Martin rode his bike over to Disneyland in its infancy and applied for a job. He landed a gig in the magic shop on Main Street, so he's uniquely qualified to talk about the early look of the place — and the fact that Tomorrowland, for example, was conceived to capture what life might be like in that far-off, exotic year of 1986.
But the real treasure is contained in the film footage itself. One of the hosts at this attraction noted that Disney employees picking through the company vault recently found some neglected cans of film. When this was run through a projector, it was found to be priceless footage, much of it in color, of opening day and the first few years at Disneyland.
Today, the park continues to adapt to market forces and consumer trends. Long gone is Martin's magic shop, along with the working pharmacy and corset shop originally on Main Street. In their place, you'll now find establishments catering to such current rages as pin trading, commemorative merchandise — the gold Mickey Mouse ears ($11.50) are wildly popular — and anything to do with the Disney princesses.
The latter has taken on a life of its own, such that you can barely traverse the park without tripping over some real-life stand-in for a cartoon heroine. The little girls patiently queue up for autographs — and these lines move even slower than the one for the Dumbo ride. A shop just inside the castle gates is devoted entirely to the appropriate princess garb.
Somebody was obviously paying attention, because in the new "Parade of Dreams" a 10-minute procession that features eight floats, little feminine eyes are sure to widen at the sight of no fewer than six fairies (including Tinker Bell, of course), plus Belle, Ariel, Alice and — on a single climactic float — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, all dancing with their princes charming. Rodriguez's design innovations are expressed through acrobats frolicking on bungee lines on the Pinocchio float and spinning chandeliers on the Beauty and the Beast float.
On the day of my visit, the parade proved to be a bit balky, halting at least three times — and forcing the performers to remain enthusiastically animated through the delays. But come to think of it, the Rose Parade routinely experiences that, too.
But all is forgotten once the sun goes down. Then it's time to cue the pyrotechnics and light effects, and Disneyland obligingly delivers a show worthy of a half-century of kingdom magic.