Put this paper aside and come back to read it in three hours, because this week's column comes from the Pacific Time Zone. I'm currently concluding a weeklong vacation – um, I mean research trip – in Southern California, which is 2015's epicenter of big theme park anniversaries. By now, longtime readers are probably bored by my semi-annual West Coast missives, in which I explain why everything is greater in the Golden State. Well, please keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle and hold off on booking those plane tickets to LAX, because for once everything isn't awesome-er in Anaheim.
Let's begin where it all began, at the Happiest Place on Earth, which marks its 60th birthday on July 17. Disneyland's Diamond Anniversary celebration is already in full swing, after kicking off with a 24-hour party on May 22 that was by most accounts an unmitigated operational disaster, with tens of thousands of guests unable to get into the park until nearly 3 a.m. The crowds weren't quite that bad during my Disneyland visit, but they nearly felt it, thanks to a flood of rambunctious Grad Night revelers flooding in on most evenings. (In Orlando, Walt Disney World has abandoned their long tradition of graduation parties, leaving that loco market to Universal.)
Aside from the faux-diamond bling applied to the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle and the general sprucing-up of the entire resort, the big 60th anniversary additions at Disneyland are a trio of highly anticipated evening entertainment spectaculars, all of which draw ridonkulously huge audiences on a nightly basis. Sadly, these three shows are a case of "the good, the bad, and the ugly."
On the positive side, the new Paint the Night parade (actually a close copy of the one that's been running in Hong Kong Disneyland since 2014) is the best mobile show Disney has debuted since 1991's SpectroMagic. The soundtrack is a high-energy remix of Owl City's "When Can I See You Again?" from Wreck-It Ralph, blended with musical nods to the retro Main Street Electrical Parade, while the floats feature the brightest, densest, most colorful collection of LED lights I've ever seen. I'm congenitally allergic to camping out on a curb for hours just to watch a parade, but this one is so good I'd almost consider it – pray to the theme park gods that it comes to Orlando when our aging Electrical Parade is put out to pasture.
Sadly, Disney California Adventure's World of Color – Celebrate! The Wonderful World of Walt Disney (was the person who named it paid by the letter?) is a big bust. While the updated water fountain pageant's focus on Disney history is admirable, and its initial sequences featuring early Mickey Mouse and Snow White imagery are lots of fun, the show soon derails into an embarrassing advertisement filled with overexposed songs (let it go already, for Elsa's sake) and staged footage of frolicking park guests. And even as someone who happily flew to New York to see Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig, I found his appearances as World of Color's onscreen narrator awkward and intrusive. You know there's something off when the biggest crowd cheer in a show about the career of Walt Disney is for Han Solo saying, "Chewie, we're home." If we're lucky, Animal Kingdom's upcoming Rivers of Light show will steal the fountain technology from this, and nothing else.
Finally, the new Disneyland Forever fireworks represent the "ugly" for the maddening gridlock they generate nightly on Main Street USA (the only place to get an ideal view of the production) and their propensity for being canceled by a brisk breeze. It took me three viewings – including one where I paid $50 for a cafeteria-quality dinner just to get a reserved seating spot – before I finally warmed to the show. The flying puppets, projection mapping and flamethrower effects are pretty fab, but do we really need to hear "Under the Sea," "Circle of Life" or (dear Lord) "Let It Go" yet again? Disneyland's 50th anniversary fireworks had much more emotional resonance with me; I hope designer Steve Davison does a better job with the Magic Kingdom's Wishes replacement before WDW's 50th birthday rolls around in 2021.
Ironically, Disneyland's best anniversary additions are the least advertised, and also the least likely to come to Orlando. After a half-century as a Los Angeles urban legend, the Hatbox Ghost has rematerialized in the Haunted Mansion as an awesome animatronic that should remain exclusive to Disneyland. And the Matterhorn's new Yeti actually moves (unlike his Expedition Everest cousin), though its bumpy bobsleds will bruise your coccyx.
Next week, I'll share how I celebrated Universal Orlando's 25th birthday at Universal Studios Hollywood, and take a sneak peek at the newest Wizarding World of Harry Potter.