Hong Kong Disneyland!

Hong Kong, SAR China – 9 & 10 October 2017

Ak and I had a quick breakfast in town before jumping on the train to Sunny Bay station where we’d connect to the Disneyland shuttle train. And then, there were were – Hong Kong Disneyland!

Walking into the park felt much the same to me as visiting Disneyland in CA or Magic Kingdom in FL – though without the teeming throngs of people. I mean, yes, obviously there were people there, but not huge crowds (though there was a bit of a slowdown getting through the turnstiles at the park entrance. Why is this process so difficult for so many? But I digress…)

First stop, City Hall! I had to get Ak his “It’s My First Time!” pin for newbs. Then we wandered through the blessedly-frigid shops and gawked at all the adorable merchandise. Main St. opens 30 minutes before the park – it’s a nice way to ease into the day.

Once Tomorrowland opened, we made a beeline to Iron Man ride to get Fast Pass, then we hotfooted it over to Hyperspace Mountain – our first ride of the day and Ak’s first ride – and first roller coaster! – ever. There wasn’t much of a line and soon enough we were rocketing through space. It’s a great ride, especially with the new Star Wars theming. We both loved it!

Iron Man was pretty fun too. It’s a Star Tours re-tread, using the same type of simulator, but with the action taking place in Hong Kong – it’s cool that they did a local take on the adventure.

As we made our way around the park, it became clear pretty quickly that we could really relax. Crowds remained non-existent and we never waited in line more than a few minutes. And we did EVERYTHING! From Small World to the crazy fun RC Racer in Toy Story Land to the hokey Jungle Cruise.

One of the best rides was the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. It gave every impression of being the same as the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad I’ve ridden many times in CA and FL parks – but it had several fantastic upgrades. I’m not gonna tell though! But I think I rode it ten times over the two days we visited, so that should tell you something about how much fun it was.

I think the tradeoff for the sparse crowds was that a lot the restaurants were closed. Not the end of the world, but there were a lot of shuttered counter service places that sounded tasty but were closed during the week or undergoing renovations. The food at the park was just OK. There was a nice cross-section of different types of regional cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, SE Asian. Our meal at the Explorer’s Club was pretty good by theme park standards. Ak liked his nasi goreng and my lentil curry plate was satisfying.

Ak and I both enjoyed Mickey and the Wondrous Book, a live-action stage show – though we both would’ve been happier with more classic songs (“‘Brave’? ‘Tangled’? Nope, I don’t know her.”) . But then I think we’re both a bit long in the tooth to be their primary audience. One of the most fascinating parts of the show is how seamlessly they mixed characters speaking and singing in both Cantonese and English, with super-titled translations.

The parades – which honestly are one of my favorite things at any Disney park – were solid. Though let’s be honest – that villains-themed night parade can’t compete with Main St. Electrical Parade or Spectromagic. I’ll admit to just a bit of disappointment that the current Paint the Night parade doesn’t run during Halloween due to the villains parade. The Flights of Fancy day parade was super fun – and nearly every performer in the parade noticed that Ak was wearing his Disney-supplied “It’s My Birthday!” pin (OK, we were a week late, but we were still celebrating!). Disney performers are always pretty amazing – dancing down Main St. in full makeup and elaborate costumes which must be sweltering in the 80 degree heat – but still taking time throughout the parade to say hello or wish a happy birthday to folks watching the parade.

This was probably the lowest-key Disney park visit I’ve ever had – and I liked it! The park is small enough that a one-day visit could be enough – but I was really glad that we spent two days there. It added to the relaxed feel of the visit and we didn’t worry that we’d miss anything. Plus our second day was more focused on seeing shows and parades. It was a great couple of days. Of course, now we’re thinking of trying to get to Disneyland Tokyo next year… We’ll see!

The Magic Kingdom

Let me preface this by saying, yes, I totally get that Disney Corp is problematic on many levels – they are the world’s largest media conglomerate, thus giving them inordinate sway over what people see and hear in terms of both entertainment and news. They were a key backer of the recently passed law in Florida the makes it illegal for localities to enact mandatory paid sick leave. Disney films and the Disney Princesses – a nearly unavoidable juggernaut for children – teach some distressing gender and other stereotypes. I could go on. And like I said, I get this.

BUT. I have a love of Disney theme parks that is uncharacteristic of my typical left-coast, bleeding-heart-but-also-leaning-towards-classist, pretentious and judgey self – and that this affection is pretty much unwavering. I’d always been a fan of Disneyland – and all the more so after a very brief stint as a toy soldier in the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland (and I do mean brief – my fellow soldiers and I were cut from the parade after the final dress rehearsal. It remains one of the most crushing blows of my life, lo these three decades later…). Despite being cut, I remained a cast member for that summer – meaning I could visit the park whenever I liked. And I learned some of the back story of the park and the way Disney works.

And work it does. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Disney never does anything half-assed. Everything in the park, from the biggest and most elaborately themed rides to the paint scheme on the trash cans is exactly right, never just good enough. Anyone who’s been to one of the parks knows this. But it’s the cast members – be they performing as characters or sweeping up Main Street – who make the Disney experience so great. This is true in all the parks in my experience – though I still  have a hypothesis that it’s especially true in OG Disneyland in Anaheim. Those who work there do so largely because they’re into it. In Orlando, it’s a bit more of a company town and I suspect some locals wind up working there simply because it’s the biggest employer around. Thus, Anaheim, for me, always has an extra-special vibe.

Anyway, the whole reason this even crossed my mind was due to a recent Buzzfeed post 14 Reasons The Peter Pans At Disneyland Are The Most Adorable Thing Ever – which borrowed heavily from a charming Tumblr called Pan Fans. Seriously, check them out. Even put a smile on my grouchy ol’ mug.

It’s great seeing how Disney, which has a pretty rigid set of “guidelines” for their cast members in terms of behavior, appearance and how they interact with guests, also allows their cast members to be genuine in those interactions. That is, the guidelines may be strict, but cast members have a certain amount of freedom in their performances as long as they’re enhancing guests’ visit. It’s sort of like the difference between talking to a customer service rep on the phone who is required to read from a script versus one who is allowed to interact with you in a normal way and empowered to make decisions to bring about a satisfactory resolution. Basically, the impression I’ve always gotten is that Disney trusts their cast to act appropriately based on the situation.

Of course, Peter Pan is kind of a troublemaker (I mean that in the best way possible), so I’m sure he gets a bit of extra leeway…

petersnow

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As long as I’m waxing rhapsodic about Disney, probably one of my favorite memories from Disneyland was one evening after the Main Street Electrical Parade. There was a charming little boy, probably around 5, along with his sister and parents, sitting next to me. He was a chatty little fellow and told me all about his adventures that day while we waited for the parade to begin.  We “oohed” and “ahhed” over the parade (it’s still my favorite, though SpectroMagic is a pretty close second). Then, as the parade ended and we waited for the fireworks, I asked if he knew who Tinkerbell was. Answer in the affirmative. “Well,” I said to him, “sometimes she actually flies over Disneyland right before the fireworks. I’ve seen her once or twice myself. Of course, she’ll only appear if everybody watching believes in fairies. And you have to really believe.” (For those of you unfamiliar with S.O.P. after the parade, Tinkerbell pops out of the side of the Matterhorn, spotlit, her wings aglow, and “flies” down a cable across the park.)

He took his belief duties very seriously, ensuring that his sis and parents were onboard. “OK, I think this might be the time she gets here. Are you sure you believe?” I asked. “Yes, I believe!” he assured me solmenly. And, lo and behold, from the top of the Matterhorn, Tinkerbell made her appearance and flew across the park. This little kid was saucer-eyed with both astonishment and glee – and I felt like a pretty cool storyteller.

And, on a semi-but-really-not-related note, I always thought this gal from The 49ers was singing, “Peter Pan, P-p-peter Pan…” – when in fact she’s singing “People can’t understand it.” But it’ll always be Peter Pan to me.

Tigger Please!

Proving once again that it really is the happiest place on earth… For realz, though – this is just delightful. Tigger totally pwns that dude. And who knew Eeyore could shuffle?

Last time I was at Disneyland (the original one – God, it’s been years… maybe even a decade?), a cast member came up and asked me if I’d like to be one of the special guests in the parade. Would I, would I? Yes, of course! The fact that I was wearing sorcerer’s apprentice mouse ears was probably a clue that I’d be interested… At any rate, I got paired up to dance with Tigger – TIGGER! Who doesn’t love Tigger? NOBODY! Oh, and it was such great fun. They taught us a simple little dance which we did together all the way down Main St., stopping occasionally to shake hands, give hugs, etc. Seriously, it was my best brush with fame ever, since Tigger’s lovableness rubbed off on me for those few wonderful minutes…

And let me just add – the men and women who perform as characters at Disney parks are really amazing. It’s a difficult job that they make look easy – and, corny  as it sounds, they really do bring smiles and happiness to one and all. God, I need to get down to Anaheim stat…

May the force be with you, Star Tours

It was December, 1986.  I was working as a shopgirl at Bullock’s in Westwood.  I believe it was a Monday, three weeks before Christmas, and I headed to Disneyland with three of my colleagues, who were also good friends.  Now, as many of you know, I am something of an aficionado of Disney theme parks – a mild obsession which had started after my sadly short-lived role as a toy soldier in the Main Street Electrical Parade the previous summer (the entire platoon of toy soldiers was cut from the parade the night before the first performance of the season – apparently, we sucked at being toy soldiers…) But I had a couple of good friends who worked at the park and I was well-versed in Disney lore, past, present and future…

So, as we ambled through the park, I entertained my friends with tales of Disney little known to the uninitiated (e.g. the half-basketball court located in the Matterhorn; the location of Walt’s apartment in the park; the affection with which cast members referred to the park as the “Crappiest Place on Earth). And, then, as we passed from the park’s hub at the end of Main St. USA into Tomorrowland, I started to tell them about a rumored-to-be amazing new attraction, a Star-Wars-themed simulation of a trip through outer space…  But just as I began to describe what I’d heard, I stopped short – for there in front of me was the new Star Tours ride (taking over the space previously home to Adventure Through Inner Space presented by Monsanto, a.k.a. the Shrinking Machine).  But it was no longer boarded up; there were no signs announcing “Coming soon!”  The ride was, in fact, open for business – apparently they were testing it out on the guests, since the official opening date wasn’t for another month. And since there’d been no major publicity about Star Tours yet, most other guests had no clue what it was and simply walked past, eager to board the Rocket Jets or Space Mountain.

I believe it was at this point, I screamed like a girl, then followed with a shouted “Oh my god!  It’s open! Everybody run! Don’t ask questions, just run! Run like the wind! Hurry! HURRY!”  We zipped through the elaborately-themed pre-boarding area, as there was no line whatsoever – I didn’t even have time to appreciate the appearance of C-3PO and R2D2 bickering with one another; the giant timetable announcing flight times for various departures to destinations such as Tatooine and Hoth; the busy star speeder repair shop (all marvelously executed, of course – and they would make waiting in line once the ride was officially open an enjoyable part of the experience).

We reached the boarding area, watched the “pre-flight” instructional video and boarded our craft.  Now for those of you who don’t know, Star Tours is a simulator – passengers are seated in a craft that moves on hydraulics in concert with a film of a flight through space, including a battle with TIE fighters and completing a mission to destroy the Death Star.  And in 1986, it was the complete shit.  I still remember walking off of that ride, literally slack-jawed and speechless at how fantastically excellent the ride had been.  Of course, this only lasted a minute or two – at which point I then started screaming, “Oh my god! Run! RUN! We have to go on again before anyone else finds out about this. RUN! RUUUUNNNNN!!!”

I have many, many happy memories of Disneyland, but this one is indelible – not only a really amazing experience, but getting to do it before anyone else had even heard of it, let alone ridden it.  So, it was with some sadness that I greeted the news that Star Tours is being shut down for a year – it’ll be back, with new and improved technology, a new space adventure and 3-D.  And I’m sure it’ll be excellent – I’ve been on the ride in the not too recent past and it absolutely feels dated compared to some of the other attractions that have come along since then…  But my fondness for the ride has never ebbed.  In some ways, it is emblematic of everything I love about the Disney parks – every single component of the attraction, from the ride itself to the most seemingly insignificant details of the “spaceport” theme (gate change announcements, revised ETAs, instructions on where to stow one’s luggage once aboard) all come together to create a truly immersive adventure through space.  As I say anytime I visit a Disney park, they never do anything half-way – it’s either perfect or it’s not done at all.

Gosh, I suppose this means I may have to make a pilgrimage to Anaheim, just for one last ride on Star Tours…  Though I certainly never need much convincing to take a trip to Disneyland…