The classic, the original... Disneyland USA takes my top spot for favourite Disney theme park. It's not the biggest (Magic Kingdom), and not necessarily the most advanced (Tokyo Disneysea) or the best laid out or most attractive (Disneyland Paris), but it is the Disneyland. This is the park that Walt built, that he walked in, that is rooted in legend and engrained in that period in the mid-Fifties when the Disney company rose to its post-war heights. This is the park that all other Disneylands and Magic Kingdoms are a version of.
I've made the case before that Disneyland should be a museum, which was to say that you cannot separate what makes Disneyland great from what makes it historically important. It is the first custom-built theme park as well as Disney's first theme park. It made innovations like tubular steel roller coasters and audio-animatronics and a daily operating monorail. It is a place of artistic and engineering excellence merged together and dedicated to the noble goal of being "a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." Disneyland is an integral part of America's mid-20th century milieu, a product of that same glorious era for the company that produced some of Disney's greatest animated films like Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady and the Tramp, and Disney's first live-action films like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and when the company almost single-handedly sold televisions to every family in America with the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro, and when they invented the modern documentary with the True-Life Adventures and People and Places series. Disneyland even played its part to convince Americans to go to the moon!
Disneyland is entitled to some sentimentality and nostalgia. Would that it were as good as preserving its history as it is at milking that sentiment! Nevertheless, while I may have a list of grievances at things demolished and replaced with substandard attractions, or simply not replaced at all, or growing encrustations of things that are not Disney in Disneyland, there is still an indelible charm to the original Disneyland. Its modest scale compared to other similar parks almost gives it the feel of a delightful, whimsical dollhouse. It is every childhood daydream come to life, from cowboys and jungles to princesses and space ships.
#1: Haunted Mansion
Nearly everything I said about the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom is true of the original at Disneyland. It is a delightful dark ride with just the right amount of charming kookiness to make it both fun and spooky. As the first run at it, Disneyland's Haunted Mansion has its flaws... I much prefer the Phantom Manor's Doombuggy loading area, and the extra scenes in the Magic Kingdom's... but it is still the Haunted Mansion, which makes it a sentimental favourite. Much like Disneyland itself, it's not the "best" Haunted Mansion or even the most elaborate and technically sophisticated ride at Disneyland, but it is still the Haunted Mansion, a true Disney classic.
#2: Peter Pan's Flight
Disneyland is itself a sort of Neverland. What is Neverland, after all, but the interior world of a child's imagination? Pirates, cannibals, cowboys and Native Americans, mermaids... And what is Disneyland but a physical manifestation of this same imagination? It too has pirates, cannibals, cowboys and Native Americans, and mermaids (as well as princesses and space ships). Thematically, Peter Pan's Flight would already be the perfect Disney ride. It is also a perfect example of what Disney rides do when they are at their best, which is to draw us into the story (not merely watching it from a cart) and conveying experiences that cannot be had in the real world. Nowhere else is it possible to sit in a pirate ship and take flight through the sea of stars surrounding Neverland. Allow me to echo the words of the great Ray Bradbury in his rousing defense of Disneyland: "I shall be indebted to him for a lifetime for his ability to let me fly over midnight London looking down on that fabulous city, in his Peter Pan ride."
#3: Enchanted Tiki Room
Prior to my first time at Disneyland, I had no particular attachment to Tiki culture or interest in the South Pacific, but something about the Enchanted Tiki Room captured my imagination. It was colourful, fun, musical, charming, whimsical... dare I say it... enchanted? There was also the ritual about it: getting the mandatory Dole Whip and deliberately staying for the video (I prefer the original one, with the guy who really likes his pineapple), and the speeches of the Tiki gods, and singing like the birdies sing, and doing the motions to the Hawaiian War Chant. Given my tendency to melt to a fine black ooze in temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius, I'm not sure if I ever intend to visit Hawaii or Tahiti or Samoa. I have, however, gotten caught up in Disney's repackaging of Tiki culture, from Trader Sam's to Citrus Swirls to SHAG's artwork to the Spirit of Aloha. Even our kitchen is Tiki-themed!
#4: Disneyland Railroad, Grand Canyon Diorama, Primeval World and the Lilly Belle
To many people, the Disneyland Railroad may be nothing more than a transportation system: a means to get around that is no more romantic than the plane that brought them to Anaheim or the Monorail used to ferry them over to the Disneyland Hotel. I am not one of those people. I love the romance of the railway, from the days that steam first ploughed its way across the expanses of North America to the Golden Age of Travel with streamline steam engines and grand railway hotels to the post-war era of those famous diesel named trains like California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Super Chief, and The Canadian. When travelling by train, the journey is the destination, and the DLRR echoes that romance. It also has two attractions that set it apart from a mere transportation system, being the Grand Canyon Diorama and Primeval World. The Grand Canyon Diorama imprinted itself on my mind so well that when I discovered that there was an actual train that took you to the actual Grand Canyon, I booked a trip. In a sense, that was the nascent beginning of this blog: exploring the original inspirations behind Disney films and attractions. My other great love are dinosaurs and prehistoric life, so when I first saw Primeval World, my jaw dropped to the floor. The only thing that could possibly make travelling by the vista of prehistory via steam train even better were the times I got to ride it surrounded by the plush Victorian interiors of the Lilly Belle salon car. My third great love are the Victorian and Edwardian Eras.
#5: Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, and the Rivers of America
Perhaps this is another strange choice in a fandom permeated with demands for bigger, faster, more technologically advanced thrill rides... A slow trip around a lazy river aboard an authentically built paddlewheel steamboat, circumnavigating a wooded island criss-crossed by dirt paths. Possibly it is a function of my preference for attractions that are slow and genteel, which give you time to savour them, or my love of antiquated forms of transportation, or the fact that this area is about the closest thing Disneyland has to genuine natural, park-like landscape. It's probably a little of each, topped off with the sentimental fact that the Mark Twain Riverboat and Tom Sawyer Island first introduced me to the author who I now consider one of my favourites. I first experienced Tom Sawyer Island before it had been taken over by pirates, and on account of that I prefer the Magic Kingdom's version now. Thankfully the pirates didn't completely wreck the place and it still retains a fair bit of its original atmosphere. I don't think I can quite forgive them taking away the serenity of the cove on an early morning, watching the riverboat go by, or demolishing Fort Wilderness. But it did leave behind a few nice things, like turning the former Burning Settler's Cabin into Mike Fink's Cabin, with traces of audio from Davy Crockett and the River Pirates echoing out. One of my great pleasures in Disneyland is to sip on a Mint Julep from the deck of the Mark Twain, taking in the sights and enjoying the snippets of Jazz music and folksy dialogue. The narration circa 2005, with the line "On many a night of storm and fog, we would be straining our ears to hear that call. That's the welcomest sound of all to a river man. These two sweet words, Mark Twain. Safe water." still sends chills up my spine. I defend myself, if I need to, by arguing that these experiences are what Disneyland is really about. Sentiment, nostalgia, memories, and these sorts of things are a feature of Disneyland, not an obfuscation that distracts us from how E-tickety the latest new ride is or isn't. Being able to imagine and in some way experience what it would have been like to travel the Mississippi in Twain's day is Disneyland at its best.
Honourable Mention: All the Attractions that Disneyland Wouldn't be Disneyland Without
As I've said several times throughout this post, the distinction of "favourite attractions" at Disneyland always seem to go to the newest, biggest, highest, fastest rides with the most recent whizzbangs and geegaws. But when I think of my favourite experiences at Disneyland, the rides do play a part, but my list includes a lot of things like the Disneyland Railroad, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Mark Twain Riverboat; things like Main Street Cinema, Penny Arcade, Main Street Vehicles, Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, Disney Gallery, Shrunken Ned and Esmeralda, and the Court of Angels (oh...). Few people would think of those as the must-do, top-tier favourite Disneyland attractions. But for me, they are the kinds of attractions that Disneyland just wouldn't be Disneyland without. I might even put the Jungle Cruise on that list. I don't think of it as being a favourite attraction as such, but if it were closed down for refurbishment, I would reschedule my trip just as surely as I would reschedule around Peter Pan's Flight or the Haunted Mansion. I couldn't imagine going to Disneyland and not taking a journey down the rivers of adventure. It's as classically Disney as any of those attractions. For that matter, the closure of the Mark Twain Riverboat, DLRR, Fantasmic and rerouting the Rivers of America is singlehandedly responsible for our decision to rush a visit to Disneyland two weeks ago instead of waiting to maybe go later in 2016. Walt Disney World showed me what was missing by not having the Peoplemover or the Country Bear Jamboree (or an inviolate Tom Sawyer Island with a functional fort). These are attractions that give Disneyland its sense of place, that set its mood, and put it apart from the world outside the berm and from other theme parks. An attraction like Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye may come away with the technical awards for being "the best ride in Disneyland" (which it is from that perspective), but these other attractions transform a mere amusement park into Disneyland. They are what make it a classic. They aren't E-tickets in the modern sense of the term, but they are totally indispensable.