Saturday, 10 October 2015

Disneyland Needs Quiet Spaces

Back on September 24th, Disney announced that the construction of the new Star Wars themed section of Disneyland would necessitate the temporary closure of the Disneyland Railroad, Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, and Fantasmic for over a year, and the permanent closure of Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo and Barbeque. The Disneysphere lit up with questions about what, if anything would happen to the established attractions while the towering peaks of some planet from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away rise up. Disney's social media accounts confirmed that the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad would have a new route, and websites have fermented rumours that this rerouting will involve a reduction of the Rivers of America by 25% and a shaving down of the publicly-inaccessible north part of Tom Sawyer Island.

The reduction of the Rivers of America doesn't actually bother me as much as one might think, though in a perfect world where Disneyland should be a museum, it would be left inviolate. It may mean the loss of both the Native village and Mike Fink's Cabin, yet one hopes that those can be replaced on another spot along the truncated river. Perhaps I'm finally hitting "peak indifference" when I hear of Disneyland botching up something else, like they did with the renovations of Club 33 and New Orleans Square, or perhaps it really doesn't matter that much. At least the Rivers of America are staying, even if the Mark Twain Riverboat becomes a mere 10-minute ride.

There are two things, though, that legitimately concern me with these plans. The first are the sightlines across Frontierland into Star Wars Land. Little projects like allowing Rapunzel's tower in the Magic Kingdom to be visible from Liberty Square, or dotting the faux-Mississippi with pirate shipwrecks, don't fill me with a whole lot of hope that Imagineers care much about sightlines anymore. However, if they successfully disguise the backside of Star Wars Land and block out views of it by resurrecting Cascade Peak, I would consider that a net benefit. We'll have to see what happens there, and only time will tell.

The second and more pressing concern is the loss of the Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. What I mean is what the loss of Big Thunder Ranch does and represents about Imagineering's ambivalence to having quiet, secluded spaces.

As I observed in our review of our honeymoon in Walt Disney World, what makes a Disney park appealing and superior to the "competition" is the variegated list of attractions and spaces that provide a layered, well-paced experience. E-tickets are great, but you also need to have A, B, C, and D-ticket attractions, good restaurants, well-themed and visually interesting spaces, and places to sit down that aren't charging you for it. These together make for a nicely rounded and pleasant day.

Couple this with the #1 thing that causes a good day to be ruined: crowds. There is a very deliberate reason why Ashley and I always endeavour to travel anywhere (let alone a Disney park) during the off-season. It is because lines are interminable, and no matter how beautiful and interesting and fun and inspiring a place may be, that experience will always be diminished by a crowd. There was no place on Earth I wanted out of more than the Palace of Versailles.

"Hell is other people." - Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course there is nothing that a tourist hates more than other tourists. Typically I am critical of the snobbery that says that I am the only person who should want to visit somewhere and everybody else should stay home. Anybody who can pay has the right to visit Disneyland whenever they want. It is not my private playground. But as Disneyland's attendance continues to skyrocket, there is an increased need to manage those crowds effectively so that the experience does not become a victim of its popularity.

Constantly raising prices, while sound from a supply and demand model, is the laziest answer and apparently no solution. The crowds keep coming with every increase in ticket prices. The unending cry of "more rides" isn't the answer either. The "competition" needs more rides to drum up attendance; Disneyland needs to manage record crowds that are already attending. E-tickets that can keep hundreds of guests locked in lines for hours is fine and I am not one to turn down new rides, but that is not the only thing that a crowded park like Disneyland needs. It also needs places to get away from the crowds. This is where Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo comes in.

Ashley is a Highly Sensitive Person, which is not some cheesy, self-diagnosed Internet mental illness, but simply an acknowledgement that she gets easily overstimulated by noise, dynamic visuals, and crowds. I'm not exactly a big fan of crowds either, as I already explained. During our last trip to Disneyland in May of 2012, crowds were already at such a high during what was traditionally part of the off-season that there were several instances where we had to "time out." In Disneyland there were already a limited number of places to do that, the main two being the Court of Angels and Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. We got to know the animals in Ranch quite well. It really is a hidden gem in a park that has been combed from top to bottom.

Even the goats find Big Thunder Ranch relaxing.
The Court of Angels has already been taken away from use by the average guest. Apparently having quiet spots is a luxury to be reserved for the super-rich and well-connected, not for the plebeian rabble. Carnation Plaza became the Fantasy Faire. The Disney Gallery with its lovely courtyard was punted to the Bank of Main Street to make away for an exclusive apartment, and then punted again to make way for a shop. Now Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo is being taken away as well, with the entire Big Thunder Trail area soon to become a major thoroughfare for access to Star Wars Land.

Disneyland is a small park with an understandable need to economize space as much as possible, but those quiet spaces to get away from crowds and to relax are every bit as important to the theme park experience as are those big ticket rides and money-guzzling stores and restaurants. They help to thin out the crowds and provide a break from them, with all the physical and psychological benefits that come with it. They offer the opportunity to recharge in a way that being bombarded with merchandise or animatronics don't. One of the most common words of advice for guests to a Disney park is to leave in the middle of the day and have a nap back at the motel... Quiet spaces in the park let guests have that sense of rest without having to leave, which is more efficient for guests and profitable for the company. These spaces allow for moments of personal reflection and more intimacy with friends, family, and loved ones. It is amazing what even a few minutes on a bench in the shade with proportionally few people around can do to pick your mood back up and energize you for another few hours.

The "courtyard" model of each land makes crafting these spaces difficult - if Adventureland is already a courtyard flanked by the Enchanted Tiki Room to the east, Adventureland Bazaar to the north, Jungle Cruise to the south, and Tarzan's Treehouse to the west, where could you even put a smaller courtyard? Aladdin's Oasis maybe? It would befit the name - but a few still remain. Snow White Grotto is one. Some of the back spaces along the boulevard to It's a Small World and the lagoon can help a bit, though it has Monorails gliding overhead. Even the Rivers of America qualify as a quiet spot, if you can find a nice place on Tom Sawyer Island or the Mark Twain Riverboat to sit still and enjoy it. The island still exists for the time being, as laborious a process as that is to get to and from, but those spaces are dropping and dwindling fast. This is also why I hold out hope for a new Cascade Peak: to maintain the peace and solitude of the River.

In some ways, the dollhouse-like quality of Disneyland in which everything is small and close and crammed together lends a certain charm. That charm is diminished as increasing numbers of people are also crammed in there without relief from one another. I suppose the simplest solution would be the old refrain "if you don't like it don't go," which can be arranged but isn't the ideal situation when we still love Disneyland. We just need places to relax for a little bit throughout the day that aren't a line or a restaurant or in the middle of a thoroughfare. I can't imagine that we're the only ones. The loss of Big Thunder Ranch is a done deal, but for future reference, providing those small, secluded spaces should be as high on Imagineering's list of priorities as the next shop or ride.


  1. Thank you. I would add the Big Thunder Jamboree to your list of going-to-be-missed quiet spaces. I enjoyed a spot of peace in a hectic visit, and loved to watch the only spot in the park where little ones could color with Chip and Dale and where Mickey could sneak up on a little one for peek-a-boo.

    What concerns me more THIS year, (and, like you, I know it is just one - or in this case, two - people's experience) is that there is now virtually NOTHING for my mother. She is 83, disabled and in heart failure. She and my dad brought us to Disneyland in the first year and did their best to get us there every year after. Mom never was much of a ride person, but now her ride experiences are limited to those she can comfortably do in a wheelchair: The DLRR, Mark Twain and Jungle Boat. She doesn't like the Jungle Boat experience because the chair sits above the seats and she is self-conscious. Which means her only two ride experiences will be closed to her. Our day used to consist of the two rides, every Disneyland Band Set, Billy Hill and the Hillbilies and Ragtime Michael for the evening piano set. None of that exists after January 10, and as you astutely note, there are precious few locations left where an old woman in a wheelchair can sit comfortably and enjoy the only other entertainment she enjoys - people watching.

    1. That's a real shame. So much for fun for the whole family? I guess by "whole family" Disney means couple aged 25-34 with 2.5 kids.

  2. I share your lament in every respect. Any major theme park can have thrill rides and sought-after film IPs. Disneyland is supposed to be fun for the *whole* family, including those members of the family who can't handle thrill rides or just need some downtime during the day. I don't understand this mentality that any space or attraction that isn't bustling from open to close should be carved out and replaced with an E-ticket.

    1. Well, the website I linked to has a consistent myopia about rides. They think that E-tickets are the answer to everything. Anything less than an E-ticket is Disney ABUSING their customers. Anything other than a ride doesn't even count. They also think that the "competition" is beating Disney because they build a themed mall with one E-ticket ride at the end of it, even though Magic Kingdom sees 10 million more visitors a year than the "competition."

      It was finally being able to directly compare Universal to WDW that I was able to better understand how weak that argument is. Yes, the E-tickets headline, but all the A-, B-, C-, and D-ticket attractions, themed landscapes, shows and other attractions, etc. actually give you things to do and fill out your day.

    2. Which website? Micechat? I'm a member there, but I rarely post anymore, in large part due to the myopia you describe. I often find myself lost in the middle between those slavering with delight at the impending arrival of Star Wars Land, and those who are less eager, but only because of nostalgia and not because of what we must lose to have it and how it violates the geographic logic of the park.

    3. Yep, MiceChat... LoL, I did not last long trying to do a column for them... What I was most impressed by in that article I linked to was how they simultaneously complained that Disneyland never has enough E-tickets AND that they were destroying Walt's legacy, because that's what you get when you activate their automatic column generator.

    4. "E-ticket" is a meaningless term anymore. The park has been without individual ride coupons longer than it ever had them at this point. And given how often rides were shifted up and down the scale in accordance with demand and compared to what else was open...who can say whether everything that required an E coupon in 1982 still would today? Maybe they'd have gone to F and G coupons by now.

    5. Very true... Looking at an old ticket book, the Jungle Cruise, Enchanted Tiki Room, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, It's a Small World, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Country Bear Jamboree, Big Thunder Mountain, Monorail, Submarine Voyage, America Sings, DLRR, Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, Columbia, and the Mark Twain Riverboat were all E-tickets at one time or another. I think right now, "E-ticket" is code for themed thrill ride, and if at Universal, with lots of projection screens.

    6. Yeah...about projection screens...

      While they can obviously offer a degree of animation not possible with audio-animatronic figures, at the end of the day they're just movies. I'm worried about the future of theme parks if rides keep getting more like movies while meanwhile home theaters keep getting more high-tech and elaborate. When the two trends meet in the middle, what will be the point of going to an expensive theme park anymore?

    7. A projection screen rips me right out of the experience. Something like Star Tours manages to disguise it well enough that I can almost convince myself I'm not looking at one, but the Harry Potter rides were awful in that respect. You go gyrating around real sets until you're at the next screen... My brain kept having to switch between two media, and it wasn't working.

      The POINT of a theme park is to make these landscapes of film and imagination into real places, or as real as it gets. Putting up screens, while economical, defeats the whole point.

    8. I like projection technology when it's used to create surface-level effects like the Mara statue suddenly opening its eyes, or paint splotches in the Queen of Hearts's rose garden. I am much less pleased when it takes the place of what would otherwise be solid, sculpted figures.