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From a distance, it looked like Black Sunday all over again. Disneyland suffered much of the 1990s under a motley crew of cost-cutters with no appreciation for theme parks. Their names are etched on the gallbladders of every Disney aficionado: Paul Pressler, a merchandising man who saw everything in terms of product sold per square foot; Cynthia Harris, his right-hand woman, who never saw an opportunity that couldn't be met with a new collectible pin release; "T." Irby, architect of the run-it-till-it-breaks maintenance approach which ultimately led to a death on Thunder Mountain. Pressler departed for The Gap in late 2004 and the new management did its darndest to reverse the neglect, but it was too late to put together something the fiftieth anniversary really deserved, like a new headliner ride.
Once the park had a fresh coat of paint and plans were on the drawing board for new rides, the new management turned its attention to chronic absenteeism in the Disneyland workforce. The lowest tier Disneyland's union employees, or rather Cast Members as the company likes to call them, are paid $3 an hour less than even the apprentice burger-flippers at the local fast food outlets, but there had always been a reasonable supply of people willing to take that in exchange for a very lax approach to actually showing up. Once the whip started getting cracked, Disneyland started hemorrhaging employees. Reports on reasonably reliable fan sites had anywhere from 300 to close to a thousand CMs lost in the first half of the summer.
Meanwhile, many Pressler-era middle managers remained in Team Disney Anaheim, as the back office is called. It was from somewhere in this department that the idea originated of actually kicking off the 50th birthday celebration on May 5th (5/5/05, get it?), after which TDA sat back smugly and considered the anniversary done with. It was not until very late in the game that it began to sink in that there were a lot of Disney fans out there to whom the actual birthday mattered, and who might be expecting something, you know, special on the day. TDA scrambled and came up with: free mouse ears, free cupcakes, a rededication ceremony, and a collectible pin release.
And so the scene was set with a capacity crowd heading for an understaffed park with a less-than-inspiring party planned. A horror story seemed likely. But...
Chris and I arrived to find the expected line of legendary length just to get into the park. With every turnstile open, it still took until about half an hour after opening time for us to get in, and I think there were as many people in line behind us as ahead when the park opened. We walked in prepared to spend our day fighting interminable congestion, standing in line for hour after hour in the baking sun, getting to ride maybe a half-dozen rides. The sea of glittering golden mouse ears that filled Main Street confirmed every suspicion we'd had.
And then it turned out we were able to walk right on to any ride we chose.
Here's what the crowd actually did: Half of it went straight to the hub at the center of the park, to get the best seat they could to sing "Happy Birthday" along with Michael Eisner at 10am. The other half wanted the extra-special limited-edition collectible pin, which was being handed out at the Big Thunder Ranch. The line stretched around the Rivers of America, into Critter Country, all the way back to Pooh Corner, and doubled back most of the way around Splash Mountain at one point.
Which left maybe a thousand or so people walking around the park and actually riding rides. In the first couple hours, we rode the new Buzz Lightyear ride, Star Tours, Winnie the Pooh, the Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones Adventure, and one or two others I forget now. It wasn't until the morning party was over, around the time we left Indiana Jones for the Jungle Cruise, that the walkways started to fill up.
For fear of discovering the park had reached capacity and not being able to get back in, we stayed long past when we would be taking an afternoon break on subsequent days, to hit the MousePlanet party at 3pm and the rededication at 4:30. It turned out to be MousePlanet's 5th birthday; I was surprised, considering how well-developed it was when I found it in mid-2001, to find out how young it was.
The rededication was nicely handled on the whole. We managed to be standing right by the statue of Walt and Mickey. Huge screens had been set up in the hub and around the park to play the opening day speech. Then there was a music video of footage from all ages of the park spliced together. The only problem with the video was one of modern- day singing contracts; every time one started to sink into a nice haze of Disneyland memories, LeAnn Rimes would pop up in front of the video for some contractually obligated screen time. Oh well.
After that, we staggered back to our hotel (the Anaheim Plaza Inn, which incidentally had a terrific online rate for clean and quiet basic accomodations), but I did make it back to the resort for the last thing on my absolute must-do list for the day, the Main Street Electrical Parade. Okay, they call it "Disney's Electrical Parade" these days because they've moved it across the plaza to Disney's California Adventure, but dammit it's still the Main Street Electrical Parade. There was some kind of technical problem which held the parade in place for several minutes and gave us all about double the exposure we would have normally had to the music loop. The crowd, being the kind of crowd it was that evening, loved it.
It was a terrific birthday.
We stayed another two days, and I feel compelled to add some notes for Disneyland fanatics who may not have had a chance to visit recently:
Everything you've heard about the repainting, the fixing of animatronics, the re-engineering, it's true. Small World, the Tiki Room, and the Haunted Mansion all look (and work) better than ever. The background in Toontown is not fading for the first time I've ever seen.
Yes! The Jungle Cruise skippers have their guns back!
The ride on Thunder Mountain is so much smoother than before, it scares you. It was deferred maintenance that led to the crash that killed one person and seriously injured another in 2003. It's a sobering thought that the last time I rode it, all the bumping and clunking was in fact the ride threatening to come apart under me.
The revamped Space Mountain is advertised as now being so dark that you can't see where you're going. This isn't quite true, but I will grant you it's noticeably darker. (So is the queue, so watch your step.) The ride's also been smoothed, and there's now a disorienting "re-entry" effect at the end. The cumulative effect was that, after riding, I had to sit down for a minute to regain a proper sense of gravity and equilibrium. Then again, I don't ride roller coasters much.