At 8:06 a.m. Friday a cheer erupted at the Harbor Boulevard entrance to the Disneyland Resort. The gates of the theme park were not yet in sight for anyone in this line, where tall hedges brush up against Anaheim sidewalks, but a team of park staffers, armed with digital thermometers, had begun the temperature-taking process.
While no one was, of course, applauding the concept of a fever check, the claps and jubilant shouts made it clear that everyone knew what it represented. Amid our new reality in which the somewhat unpredictable threat of a virus may wane or rage with the seasons, at least one aspect of pre-pandemic Southern California was about to return: our desire to go to a place that encourages us to dream.
On April 30, after just over 13 months of closure, Disneyland celebrated its second proper grand opening since July of 1955, having closed only rarely and sporadically — and never for any extended period — in the prior 65-plus years. If there was one consistency Southern Californians could count on, it was that Disneyland’s Anaheim gates would open every morning. While the park shifts with the decades, it has also doubled down on its desire for cross-generational appeal, making it a place that for so many is one of habit and tradition.
At just after 8:30 a.m. I walked under the archway that hoists up the Disneyland Railroad and, like pretty much everyone who surrounded me as Main Street came into view, I began to cry. The next 11 hours would make clear that any pandemic regulations — masking, social distancing, a bounty of hand sanitizers — would do nothing to diminish the spell of an architectural design steeped in magical realism. Outside Disneyland‘s gates lie chaos, obligations and anxiety, and anyone rushing back to Disneyland in its opening week can overlook potential annoyances — the price, the strollers, the lines — to find a place that doesn’t reject our reality so much as seek to make it more harmonious, more pleasingly surreal.
Disneyland was Walt Disney’s most ambitious project, a physical bookend to 1940’s animated work “Fantasia” in that it sought to juxtapose the worlds of high and low art, the wild and the tamed. Disneyland took amusement park pleasantries and turned them into sculptures, and while the park worships nature, it focuses on humanity’s ability — or stubbornness — to think we can beautify it. Disneyland, it should be noted, is full of nods to our lives and the harsh realities of them — the work-obsession, for instance, in a ride inspired by “Snow White,” or the death that permeates Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Disneyland is never an escape from reality; it is simply a belief that there is a better, more triumphant version of it.
Of course, being vaccinated helps sell this illusion. For now, Disneyland cannot operate at greater than a 25% capacity, but that could soon change as California’s high vaccination rates are believed to have played a vital role in our state having one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the U.S. For now, the restrictions also mean some key pieces of Disneyland entertainment such as parades and evening shows are on hiatus, but overall, from an operational perspective, Disneyland even at less than full strength was a mightily comfortable experience.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t compromises.
Dining reservations are in short supply. And with ride queues required to be outside, the twisty walkways of New Orleans Square — where lines for Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion take up much of the sidewalk space — could become a traffic jam should attendance increase. For now, however, guests were regularly prompted to stand more than six feet apart on many of the queues, and Disney staff was thankfully diligent on correcting any guest who let their face mask slip.
For a pure storytelling perspective, some pivotal pre-show scenes for attractions have temporarily halted due to a 15-minute limit imposed on theme parks for indoor rides. This is most noticeable in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where the nearly 20-minute Rise of the Resistance has been forced to skip a vital scene in which a holographic Rey (Daisy Ridley) recruits guests into the Resistance with BB-8 at her side.
Unfortunately, this time-saving maneuver also strips the attraction of its only moment in which we encounter the heroine of the most recent trilogy of “Star Wars” films. Without it, a later scene with Kylo Ren in a holding cell makes less narrative sense — the Kylo moment repeats story beats while the Rey set piece defines them.
Over on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run we skip pre-boarding scenes with audio-animatronics and are no longer allowed to wander the belly of the famous starship. On the flip side, as a solo guest due to the socially distant measures, I was able to comfortably pilot the ship and have my most successful turn yet on the attraction, an experience that was improved without other guests missing button prompts that can take the ship off course in the video game-like ride. Interactive, game-inspired rides are increasingly becoming a norm — a Spider-Man attraction in Disney California Adventure’s soon-to-open Avengers Campus is also essentially a video game — but how to encourage strangers to play together in a theme park remains something of an experiment.
The pandemic appears to have allowed Disney to give its attractions some love and attention.
The Haunted Mansion has received a smattering of updates and accouterments throughout, and is in tip-top show shape, with its Pepper’s ghost illusions looking more crisp than they have in recent memory. Likewise Pirates of the Caribbean, where all effects appear to be working with sharper clarity. Disney history buffs will want to stroll over to Tomorrowland and catch a glimpse of a Mary Blair-designed mural that has suddenly materialized near Space Mountain, a welcome rescue from the archives that views the atoms and molecules that make up the human body with otherworldliness.
The longest wait I experienced was about 45 minutes for a rehabbed version of Disneyland’s “Snow White” ride, which now focuses a little more on the romance of the film. Here, though, Disney resisted the urge to completely overhaul the ride, and instead crafted new figurines that look born of the 1950s, all of them with a soft, round and toy-like quality. No other line took me more than 25 or 30 minutes, but I found I was spending the bulk of my time in Fantasyland, anyway, so I didn’t mind the extended wait for Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.
And this makes perfect sense after our pandemic year. Fairy tales, even when represented as just a couple minutes in a darkened showroom in which we are in a vehicle on a track, serve up twisted tales related to own moralities, fears and hopes.
Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland takes the unpredictability of life and gives it a technicolor whirl, assuring us our nightmares are really just dreams, while Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride throws us deep into our vices in a statement of our own agency. Snow White’s Enchanted Wish shows us that true love comes after we’ve put in the effort and the work, and sometimes even endured some pain.
Good always wins, and it’s Disneyland’s “overarching theme of optimism” that so many critics find “hard to forgive,” writes Yi-Fu Tuan, who has long explored our relationship to geography, in an essay with academic peer Steven D. Hoelscher in the book “Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance.”
Yet without such optimism, write Tuan and Hoelscher, “human beings may have to make do with a gray and constantly wary world unrelieved by jollity and hope — a world that slips easily into fatalism, or cynicism and despair.”
A world that sounds very much like our recent history. So, in other words, welcome back, Disneyland.