Ears to You

Pam Wells has been to Disneyland, she estimates, 50 times in her 43 years. In fact, she’s going again this weekend, for her 44th birthday. She can still remember being too excited to sleep the night before a Disneyland outing. And she can list all the places you used to be able to make out and/or smoke pot (Monsanto, the Sky Buckets) back in her teenage days. She talks of the days of E Tickets. She can also tell you where to get the best dill pickle in the world (the huge barrel behind the cash register in the candy shop). And so, on Wednesday, with the park closed to the public to make room for an army of reporters, celebrities and a fleet of TV crews covering the kickoff of Disneyland’s big 50th-anniversary celebration, I bring Pam along for the sneak preview. What new, fabulous improvements will ordinary visitors experience when the gates open to the public tomorrow? “Oh, look, they painted the lampposts gold,” Pam points out as we walk up Main Street. Not only that, but the ears on the Mickey Mouse hats have turned gold too. Pam says nothing about the ears at first, but by the look on her face, I can tell she isn’t pleased with this change from basic black. “Remember the walk-in phone booths with speakers?” she asks when we spot a kid on his cell phone. “You’d call someone and say, ‘Guess where I am!’ ” Pam makes no bones of her fondness for things no longer a part of the Happiest Place on Earth. “The banners look spruced up,” Pam comments hopefully. And she points out numerous signs emblazoned with the number “50.” Of course, everything that you could buy before now has a “50” on it. I start to get the picture that all the brouhaha about Disneyland’s anniversary is more about the “idea” of turning 50, rather than many actual updates to the place. But then we encounter the park’s new self-tribute, the Parade of Dreams. Goofy’s never looked better, Snow White never whiter, and Geppetto cleans up beautifully. It’s all the characters you know and more, singing and dancing and smiling like their jobs depended on it. Kelsey Grammer and his family snake behind us as we wind our way around to get a better view, so we start to look for other celebrities we’d heard would be on hand, including Steve Martin, who used to work at Disneyland, Tim Allen and Robin Williams. But even with this diversion, I can tell Pam is antsy to explore the “lands.” At Tarzan’s Treehouse (in our day known as the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse), Pam grumbles, “That’s not a ride. That’s work; I don’t want to work that hard.” On the Mark Twain riverboat, she complains, “[It’s] too slow. I just keep thinking, When are we going to get off?” The low point comes when Pam spots a family of four in their new golden Mickey hats. “Very few people look good in gold ears,” she says. “Everyone looks good in black ears.” After, we cheer ourselves up with a ride on good old Splash Mountain. It’s still a total splashy acid trip: the painted mushrooms, the singing bears — and what’s “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” code for, anyway? At Peter Pan’s flying ship, we see there’s a new photo-op station (also at the teacups and a few other iconic rides), so we hand my digital camera over to a peppy employee, who expertly takes several angles of us doing our best Captain Hook impressions. Besides the parade, this is the only noticeable improvement we spot. Then we remember there’s a new ride, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. We bolt for Tomorrowland. “Is this the first day of this ride?” I ask one of Buzz’s helpers. “Nope, ma’am. It opened March 17.” But the attraction still has that new-ride smell, and it also shows that Disneyland is trying to keep up with tech-savvy kids. It’s basically a video game that you ride while aiming a laser gun at targets. And at the end of the ride, you can e-mail a photo of yourself from a bank of video screens. Imagine trying to explain that to Walt in 1955. By the time we get off the Indiana Jones Adventure, we’re feeling benevolent enough to decide the ride deserves an Oscar for set design. For us, though, the highlight of the day takes place across the entrance, at California Adventure. Poor, needy, underloved California Adventure. You can’t even buy a ticket to Disneyland these days without getting a pass for California Adventure thrown in. Inside, the walkways are quiet. You can get a private audience with Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, who look lonely, and walk right up to the Tower of Terror, a truly thrilling, scary, retro-futuristic Old Hollywood–themed ride that leaves us giggling like kids. In the end, we realize that for 50, Disneyland doesn’t need a makeover, or even a face-lift. But as with everyone else who’s getting older, a few more bathrooms would be nice.