Growing up in Central Florida, you really take Disney World for granted. It’s always there, it’s not more than a thirty-minute drive away, and we have the luxury of being able to go when it’s not a)hellishly busy and b) hellishly hot, so we tend to look on it a little more kindly than the harried parents having to drag the kids through four parks over a long holiday weekend. We all know it wasn’t the first Disney park, but it’s our Disney park, as demonstrated by our tendency to repeat that factoid that you could fit Disneyland in Disney World’s parking lot. Oh, sure, Disneyland is cute and all, but that was the rough draft. We got it right.
Still, there’s a ton of nostalgia at work when it comes to Disneyland. You’ll hear California Disneyphiles say, “Walt actually walked here,” with awe-struck reverence. It’s still an American icon. And despite decades of cross-pollination, there are still some rides there that have never made the trek eastward, like Matterhorn and the Indiana Jones Adventure. Oh the Indiana Jones Adventure. Let me tell you how much that irked me. We get a crappy stunt show, Disneyland gets this awesome ride of which we have a watered-down version nobody likes (Dinosaur). So when Jillian and I decided to attend the Star Wars Half-Marathon Weekend at Disneyland, there was no way we weren’t going to check out the parks.
The first thing I noticed was how much like Universal Orlando the place is, given that it’s smack dab in the middle of town with regular city streets around it. It’s a far cry from the carefully controlled environs of Disney World. One minute you’re on the monorail in Tomorrowland, the next it’s following the path of a tourist strip with hotels and restaurants and bus stops. It’s also similar in that you’ve got an entertainment district you go through in order to get to the gates of the two parks. Because heaven forbid you’re deprived of any chance to separate you from your money.
As for the parks themselves, Disneyland … well, yes, the feeling of history and nostalgia is thick. And so are the crowds. Due to its relatively confined location, the place is really cramped, with attractions practically on top of one another. There isn’t nearly the sense of flow the Magic Kingdom has. Plus, being so used to the Magic Kingdom, the place was downright disorienting. The castle felt too small. Buildings felt like they were in the wrong places. The Matterhorn made an impressive — and nearly constant — backdrop, although the ride being down for maintenance meant that’s all it was for us. We paid our respects to the dearly-departed-from-Orlando Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and went totally nuts for Indiana Jones, which totally lived up to the expectations I’d built up over twenty years. But for the most part, it felt exactly like what I called it earlier: a rough draft.
California Adventure was a bit more of an eye-opener. After initially being ready to dismiss it due to its front gate’s resemblance to our Hollywood Studios, I ended up very impressed with the layout and theming of the place. The Paradise Pier area had a real old-timey boardwalk feel, and the Hollywood streets felt much more glamorous than their Orlando counterparts. But the standout was Cars Land, a vivid recreation of Radiator Springs feature some stunning landscaping mirroring the stone spires from the film. This land was a home run, capped off by probably our favorite ride, Radiator Springs Racers. Here was a case where Orlando provided the rough draft, in this instance Test Track, and Disneyland ramped it up about a million times. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s colorful, and we both got off of it absolutely giddy. They need to just transplant this down over the Cars stunt show at the Hollywood Studios and be done with it.
It wasn’t that Disneyland was bad, it was just a matter of familiarity. I imagine if I’d grown up in California, I’d feel the same way about Disney World, shrugging at the old, geeking out over the new. And despite the nagging sense of “been-there done-that,” there was still an undeniable feeling of history, and more than a little magic. Disney is going to be Disney no matter which coast it’s on, and you have to be a little dead inside not to feel it.