Go tell it on Space Mountain

Scott Gardner



I’ve never been to Tokyo Disneyland. Or Disney Sea, Air, Watershed, Continental Shelf, or any other Disney-appropriated Geographic Category existing on the archipelago of Japan. Oh, wait—I’ve been to Disney Store. Once I bought my wife some earphones with tiny mouse ears on them. Earphones with ears.

When I was a kid, though, I often went to Disneyland in California. Every five years or so Mom and Dad would load up the camper, hook it to our Volkswagen bus, and spend 15 hours driving us to a concrete “campground” just a few Tigger bounces away from that 70-city-block monarchy known as the Magic Kingdom.

Given the amount of time between trips, it should be no surprise that on each visit I preferred a different amusement. An early favorite was the Wind in the Willows ride, based on a children’s book about subterranean creatures inexplicably called “voles.” Later I favored the bobsleds, and still later the “mature” rides like the Jungle Cruise, with their comical tour guides. For a while I actually believed that educating and entertaining captive crowds of young people in exotic locales seemed like a fulfilling career. (Of course as a foreign language teacher in the Japanese education system I’ve come a long way, baby.)

Some rides never deserved serious attention. One that was mercifully dismantled years ago was called Mission to Mars. (I think it’s a pizza restaurant now.) The ride consisted of a round room with perhaps 100 seats, all facing the center. On the floor and ceiling were two “windows” offering NASA-sponsored views of our imaginary space trip. The effect was enhanced as best it could be by vibrating chairs and air pressure control in the room.

This ride of course never fooled me. It was a prototype of what is becoming the norm at these theme parks: the simulator ride (or as I call it, the still-in-its-packing-box ride). Rather than build huge, high-maintenance contraptions like tower drops and log flumes, developers have learned it’s cheaper to herd people into tarted-up warehouses with big screens and speakers, and then shake them around in sync with action films until one or two of them throw up. These rides are nothing more than glorified movie theaters, but I can appreciate developers’ interest in wedging people into tight, stimulus-heavy spaces. Disneyland is a small world, after all.

I’m sure the management there are always looking for new ride ideas that will delight the public and justify yearly fee increases, so here are a few of mine:

Princess Diaries ride: 3D first-person video whisks us through dreary high school halls as jocks and cheerleaders frown and hiss at us. A regal old woman guides us to a mansion, where we experience fast-paced training montages of lessons in manners (holding a fork, walking with a book on the head, etc.), until finally we are on the stairway above a grand ballroom, bowing as the old woman places a crown on our heads and European royalty stand and applaud. Benefit: not necessary to see the film to understand exactly what’s going on. Drawback: leaving the coronation to reemerge among the sweaty amusement park crowd can be depressing; that “crown” on your head is just the Goofy hat you’ve been wearing since you entered the park this morning.

Fantasia ride: We are ushered to seats in a large amphitheater and treated to 90 minutes of live classical music by talented local musicians. Drawback: extremely uninteresting for most visitors. Benefit: shortest line in the park.

Pulp Fiction ride: Small Chevrolet convertible replicas hold two riders. Molded into each “back seat” is one of three significant items from the movie: a brown briefcase, a dance contest trophy, or a dead body. A relatively tame roller coaster takes us through animatronic scenes of seedy southern California while occasional surprises fly at us from all angles (boxing gloves, adrenaline syringes, Tarantino cameo appearances, etc.). Esoteric 60s surf music plays throughout. Benefit: no one under 17 allowed. Drawback: they don’t let you leave the ride until you’ve cleaned the car’s interior.