A long overdue exhale before Disneyland’s reopening

For much of the past year, the phrase “return to normalcy” has been ingrained into our heads. What will it look like, feel like and — a pressing concern amid the ability of COVID-19 to strip us of our core senses — taste like?

In Southern California, one of the clearest symbols of just how much time has been lost to the pandemic — at least one that doesn’t immediately evoke the more personal and horrific life and death effects of the virus— has been the fact that Disneyland Resort‘s two theme parks have been closed for more than 370 days.

While some may roll their eyes or rightly shirk at the price tag that comes with much of what Disneyland as to offer, the fact remains that since 1955 Disneyland has reflected, disseminated and remade America’s pop art, placing our country’s myths alongside the company’s take on classic fairy tales.

Before 2020, an unplanned, non-weather-related closure of Disneyland had been such an abnormality that it had happened just three times in the park’s 65-year history. Due to some combination of American capitalism and humanity’s desire to be enveloped in fantastical stories, Disneyland has managed to survive multiple wars, civil rights movements, economic downturns and nearly every societal trend, change or tragedy.

Mickey Mouse as a mock conductor at the "Touch of Disney" event.

Mickey Mouse as a mock conductor at the “Touch of Disney” event.

(Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

Disneyland’s two Anaheim parks are now scheduled to reopen April 30, allowing the original, which stands as an export of Southern California leisure that has spawned parks in Florida, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong, to admit a fraction of its full guest capacity through its gates. Although the past 12 months have taught us to prepare for the worst and expect sudden changes, the increased rate of COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as a decline in local case numbers, has at long last provided a sense of optimism.

Normalcy? Not yet, but when Disney California Adventure opened its gates on Thursday to a fraction of the park’s die-hard fans for a food-and-shopping event, what had before felt tentative now felt somewhat relaxed. How much of that sensation comes from steady improvements in the pandemic or the hug-like feel of well designed artistic space is a complex equation. But Disney’s parks, whether you go often or get dragged along as part of a forced outing, are the stuff of ritual, places of now long-standing traditions that even without their rides turned on are invitations to play at a more idealized version of ourselves.

The “A Touch of Disney” event, which runs through April 19 and sold out online in just a few hours even though tickets were $75 apiece, is the first time since the parks’ closure just over a year ago that guests have had the full run of Disney California Adventure grounds, save for the completed but not-yet-open Avengers Campus. While parts of California Adventure had been operating as a shopping and dining space, the broader playing field of the food happening and more controlled attendance does away with the potentially uncomfortable crowding that occurred when the park’s entrance area was operating as a mini mall.

It also offers a few answers to the question of why guests would pay $75 for a theme park that can’t yet operate rides. It’s true, a sense of energy is lessened without the cars speeding through Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land or the Incredicoaster launching every few seconds in Pixar Pier, but as Knott’s Berry Farm has proved since last summer, theme parks, when filled with detailed design work, feel akin to cultural institutions. It’s not just the thrill; it’s the place.

The 20-year-old California Adventure lacks the breadth and intricacy of its neighbor but after a dud of a launch in 2001 has emerged as a rather reputable park. With fewer attractions than Disneyland, its food and drink options, combined with large set pieces such as the hand-carved mountains of Cars Land — don’t think of it as a fake take on nature so much as a grand sculpture — combine to make California Adventure a comfortable place to hang out in.

The "Touch of Disney" allowed guests to stroll Cars Land the first time in more than a year.

The “Touch of Disney” allowed guests to stroll Cars Land the first time in more than a year.

(Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

At A Touch of Disney, the seating options were plush, at least if one was willing to walk the grounds to a quieter area during peak times. Tables were distanced and even put in random nooks (I found a couple cozy reading spots in Cars Land that were hard to leave). But there was reason to explore. The national park-themed Grizzly Peak has the appeal of a public garden, albeit one where chipmunks Chip and Dale frolic with acorns in the greenery and Donald Duck shows off his balcony at the bordering Grand Californian Hotel.

These distanced sorts of character moments — Goofy and son Max also had some failed fishing expeditions with a rubber chicken — have been a pandemic Disney parks staple and significantly improve upon the character meet-ups of yore, which crowded paths for photo ops and also failed to heighten the idea that a theme park is actual a stage for theatricality. But now, with the Silly Symphony Swings temporarily grounded, the ride platform became a grandstand for Mickey Mouse to pantomime his role from the 1930s short “The Band Concert.”

The interactions are randomized. But similar to how Knott’s Berry Farm has hit its stride with actors who populate Ghost Town, the exaggerated, vintage cartoon-inspired reactions of Disney’s characters suit DCA well and will hopefully become a post-pandemic fixture.

Theme parks, after all, are better when the facades can let our mind wander into imagining them as lived-in spaces. Think of the mid-century automobiles or horse trolleys of Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland, which serve less as nostalgia set pieces than they do familiar sights that ground us in a recognizable setting to prime us for the unexpected sight of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

I haven’t, of course, mentioned the food, and although I had a lovely meal at the upscale Carthay Circle, which in its current al fresco form has a smaller menu and smaller portions but no change in prices, the food is in many ways simply an excuse to be back in a familiar setting. That’s not to say some don’t miss a Disneyland monte cristo or the decadent lobster nachos of Lamplight Lounge, but in these latter pandemic days our options for outdoor and carry-out dining in Southern California are plentiful. Like a family recipe that is only meaningful to a single household, it’s the time and place that elevates Disneyland’s food.

And that explains, no doubt, why Disney is able to get away with a higher price than its competing theme park peers. As I sat in Cars Land as the sun set, the piped-in playlist cycled through for what must have been the 30th time that day. But each time the modernized take on “A Spoonful of Sugar” came on, I couldn’t help but smile and wonder if Disney’s audio programmers choose the song for its relevancy during a time when there’s anxiety to get as many people vaccinated as quickly possible.

Surely it crossed someone’s mind, but after a year of so much loss, change and closure, does a beautifully designed theme park without operational rides make sense? Yeah, I’ll take that sugar hit, however fleeting it may be.

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