I went to Disneyland over the weekend, and it was fun. There’s not a ton of new stuff going on at the park, and we’ve gotten pretty ritualistic with our trips — get up ass-early, drive down, eat at the Apricot Tree, check in at the hotel, sleep, get up and drink, get up ass-early, go to Disneyland, ride everything, take pictures, eat a big-ass steak, get up slightly later, ride everything else, go home, write about it on the internets. So you might think that it’s just a chance to have fun and relax with friends, and there’s no way to get any self-obsessed blog material out of it.
Not so! I’ve got not one, but two observations:
1. I think I might be insane. Since I live alone and work from home, this weekend was the first time in a long while I’ve been expected to actually make conversation for an extended period of time. And I was forced for the first time to actually listen to myself. From my experience with mentally unstable people — in the city and on the buses, and that documentary I saw that one time about the schizophrenic — they have a particular speech pattern. It’s a lot of mumbling, with obsession on decades-old grievances or a single memorable experience, along with plenty of totally non-sequitur pop culture references.
In a news report I saw one time about a panhandling ban somewhere in the south bay, they interviewed a homeless guy on camera. In about 30 seconds of talking, he mentioned his time in Vietnam twice, and started a statement about how the ban was unfair that ended with: “I’m just a good old boy, never meanin’ no harm. Beats all you ever saw, been in trouble with the law since the day I was born.” In two days, I mentioned my trip to Japan at least 20 times, and ended about every other sentence with a random quote from Achewood or a sitcom. Not even voluntarily, half the time; it’s like post-modern pop-culture Turette’s.
On the bright side, though, I’m pretty sure I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. So if they are signs of insanity, I’ve been insane for a very long time.
2. Riding Big Thunder Mountain during the fireworks is one of the most awesome things a human can do. I’m a sucker for fireworks shows, and Disney does the best. I can go to the appointed optimal viewing area at the designated 15 minutes before the show starts, stand with thousands of strangers, and watch the show with its accompanying soundtrack, and enjoy it perfectly. But one trip, we skipped the fireworks and rode the roller coaster instead, and by accident happened to be on it just as the show’s finale was happening. It was cool enough to do it on purpose.
And riding what’s already a brilliantly-designed coaster, and coming out of a dark tunnel just as a huge bloom of fireworks is going off overhead, is such a cool combination that it couldn’t possibly be topped by any pre-orchestrated Disney presentation.
I was wondering about this on the long drive home — would it be practical or even possible to design a roller coaster so that you see fireworks blasts every time? It’d be expensive, sure, but barring the cost, how would it work? At this point, Disney’s got pyrotechnics down to the point where they can shoot off an explosive finale at will and have it work perfectly every time, night after night. At one of the dance clubs at Pleasure Island, they fire a blast at the stroke of midnight, every night, right in sync with whatever song is being played by the DJ. (At least, they did several years ago, back when I was young enough to be at Downtown Disney around midnight).
I’m convinced they could do it, and I think they could even work out a way to make it feasible for something as high-volume as a coaster. But it just wouldn’t be cool. A lot of the awesomeness of it is knowing that it just happened, and there wasn’t a team of people working behind the scenes to get it to happen perfectly, exactly on cue.
Most Disney critics — the normal people looking in from the outside, not the jaded and embittered people so mired under theme park obsession that their only link with the real world is criticizing every move that corporate management makes — fault the company for being too orchestrated, saccharine, and fake. The company has to innovate within the bounds of catering to an inconceivably large and wide audience (and that’s not a crack about obesity of Orlando park-goers), and as a result, they have to design experiences that injure no one, offend no one, and play exactly the same way for every person, every minute of every day.
Therefore, in the real woods of Tom Sawyer Island, for example, you get plastic tree stumps designed to look like real tree stumps, housing speakers playing bird calls and other nature sounds. It’s an experience so far removed from nature that it feels even less real than Tomorrowland.
That’s the core of why Disneyland is more appealing than the parks in Florida, Tokyo, and Paris, even though the others are more impressive in size, engineering, and overall spectacle. Even today, Disneyland still feels less orchestrated and more spontaneous and random. The live entertainment is more accessible and feels less scripted (even though it’s definitely not). There are just too many people now not to have designated character greeting times, with an orderly line for each, but you can still manage to see characters wandering around the park, having random interactions with guests. Somehow the park still manages to feel more casual, more like a bunch of people getting together to have a good time, instead of being admitted to an enormous, orderly, well-maintained and meticulously organized, but ultimately a little cold and sterile, machine.
And that’s why I think their new “year of a million dreams” promotion — where prizes are given out not for going through a turnstile or having a raffle ticket or entering a drawing; but randomly and spontaneously, no matter where you are at the time — is such a great idea. No long lists of rules presented by armies of lawyers, or angry, tired guests jockeying for position to be the big winner. It’s an ingenious way to tell guests that they are special, just like the millions of people in the parks with them at the same time, and make it actually work.