Disneyland is weird.
It’s quite different from other theme parks I’ve been to* in that not only are there areas within the park which are thematically linked, but the rides themselves are freighted with story: when you ride the Peter Pan ride you fly over London and through Neverland; when you go on the Indian Jones ride you are immersed in an expedition borrowing elements from the films. They really are little narrative bundles intended to represent and re-present the films they are drawn from.
This idea of the visitor entering the narrative world of Disney permeates the park: the staff are termed “cast members”, whether that is a ride operator or a costumed performer (“people puppets”, as my oldest termed them when he was three). It’s all about engaging the visitor, making interacting with the story the normal thing to do.
The neighbouring California Adventure is more mixed: there are some rides which are just the ride, a pure thrill (the California Screamin’ rollercoaster, for example), but there are some sections which immerse you in the film world and bring the characters to life in their own environment. This is especially true of Radiator Springs, the desert community from Cars**, where you can walk down the high street, eat at the cafe, visit the tyre vendor, and race through the sculpted desert.
It is, for the most part, delightful. We spent three days trundling around the two parks, and it was constantly engaging and enthralling.
Not inspiring, though, at least not for me: I enjoy a lot of Disney product, but I don’t draw inspiration from it. It’s too complete in and of itself: it doesn’t leave the kind of ragged edge needed to inspire stories in the same or related settings***.
Quite apart from the slickness of the presentation, there are so many things that Disney does well in their parks. They manage crowds and queues better than anyone else I’ve seen, for example. When you join the line to ride, the queue path is convoluted and takes you close to the ride before taking you away, hiding the loops and twists of another 25 minutes of waiting inside a house – always hidden from anyone approaching the outside of the ride, though… they are honest in their posting of the times to wait (a little pessimistic if anything), but it’s a lot different seeing a couple of ranks of waiting riders than the entire queuing mass. And there are so many things to look at while waiting – the Radiator Springs fountain, or the excavation equipment.
When you get to the ride itself, there is deep efficiency in the way they load and, crucially, unload the cars. Most of the rides we went on had the riders who were done climb out one side while the new riders climbed in the other. Many of the attractions have more than one loading track which are then switched in to the attraction’s main track in turn. Similar technology is used to accommodate disabled patrons: we saw this in action at Space Mountain, and it is impressive.
Disney parks are an experience worth having. I don’t see us becoing regulars there, but I am glad we went while the boys were still young enough to feel wonder and joy there.
Q: what’s the difference between Bing Crosby and Walt Disney?
A: Bing sings, …
[*] which, admittedly, mostly consists of Alton Towers.
[**] I think it says something that the least substantial of Pixar’s films gets the most elaborate thematic treatment while The Incredibles gets nothing, but I am sure this is based on crowd-attractiveness.
[***] indeed, it seems strangely fitting that Disney should have purchased the rights to Star Wars. There was an excellent roleplaying game published in the 1987 set in that galaxy far, far away but much as I enjoy the films I never found there was much inspiration to be had for writing roleplaying stories there.