Will anyone pay $75 to visit Disney California Adventure with no rides open? You bet

Visitors in masks walk the streets of Disney California Adventure.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Here is one thing the pandemic has not changed: No one ever lost a buck overestimating the devotion of Disney Park fans.

If you think Disney’s recent announcement that it will soon be charging $75 a head for the thrill of wandering around California Adventure to buy and eat things while admiring the entrances to still-closed rides is nuts, I am here to tell you that it is not.

At least not if my recent visit to Downtown Disney and Buena Vista Street is any indication.

In recent years, I have grappled with Disney’s many attempts to overturn my family’s deep-seated love of the parks with rampant consumerism, and this seemed like just one more. When Downtown Disney reopened in July, there was no way we were setting foot anywhere near it. Even amid coronavirus surges, the mask wars were raging in Orange County and my husband was too high-risk for any of us to go out much, even fully masked and socially distant.

But now he has been vaccinated, the winter surge appears to be falling and I just couldn’t believe that anyone would pay good money to walk around the park when its biggest attractions were closed. So, double-masked and ready to ditch the minute it seemed unsafe, my daughters and I decided to see what had led Disney to believe that people would pay to visit a theme park with no rides.

It was absolutely clear right away. Desperate for even the faintest tang of the Disney experience, thousands of us apparently are quite willing to settle for the elements of the Disney experience we normally complain about the most: waiting in line, overpriced food and the siren call of way too much Disney merch.


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Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, it was a 45-minute wait simply to enter the Downtown Disney area, 50 if you count the five-minute walk from the car, which cost 10 bucks to park.

To be fair, the line that snaked through an entire parking lot could be construed, at least in these coronavirus-plagued times, as a Disney experience in and of itself. The now-ubiquitous six-feet-apart marks created a socially distant conga line that involved far more walking than standing: “Well, we’re getting our steps in,” one of my daughters remarked.

Besides, Disney fans always create their own festive ambience. After a year of hunkering down, there was indeed much joy to be had in the sight of tiny children in princess and space voyager costumes, in couples and groups sporting sometimes-but-not-always-matching mouse ears and in people looking excited about something other than getting a vaccination. Certainly the small themed backpacks that Disney has made popular in recent years were on full “ooh, look at that one” display.

As the sun set over the Simba parking lot and our group advanced through the temperature-taking station and the bag-check station, then past a police presence prominent enough to make any mask-shirker think twice, one could at least imagine a world returning to something approaching normal.

Listen to the piped-in music! Yes, once upon a time it did indeed drive some of us insane. But now, after a yearlong lifetime of home-office work — concentration broken on an hourly basis by the maddening syncopated roar of leaf blowers and brain-drilling hum of the neighbors’ home improvement project — all those Disney tunes fell around us like the singing of a heavenly host.

The bright and colorful bevy of stores and eateries that once we passed with haste on our way to the greater pleasures of the theme parks now beckoned enticingly — why have we never tasted the delights of the Earl of Sandwich, Tortilla Jo’s or the Uva Bar & Cafe? None of which, it turns out, we would be visiting on this sojourn either — because look at those lines! Am I going to wait another 45 minutes outside Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen Express? Nope, not even for beignets.

But many heartier and more dedicated people certainly would.

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Watching people pass by laden with enormous bags full of goodies from the Star Wars Trading Post and the World of Disney, it occurred to me that even though Disney recently canceled all annual park passes, former holders still are entitled to discounts at the shops.

But again, the lines for the big emporiums were snaking into the shadows of the thoroughfare’s various nooks and crannies, often bumping into lines for the smaller shops, so let’s just enjoy the magic of the place, shall we?

Which is, for an hour or two, not inconsiderable. After months of limited vistas, the mere sight of the fountains, kiosks and trees twinkling with lights offered a serotonin-boosting balm, sparking comforting conversations that inevitably began with “Remember that time when … ?”

The restorative sight of children chasing bubbles created by flashing Disney-branded machines, of Disney balloons lit up and bobbing along in the dusk, of mothers chasing dropped sippy cups and couples walking hand in hand was made even more reassuring by the sight of everyone wearing their mask properly. If you’ve ever wondered what it will take to get certain people to pull their freaking mask all the way up, I now have an answer for you: Take them to Disneyland.

The empty plaza between the two resorts provided a jarring reminder that nothing, really, is normal yet, and it was hard even to look to Disneyland, lit up but still vacant (the famous feral cats are no doubt having the time of their lives). But entering California Adventure, a park so long dismissed as second-best, felt hopeful and even briefly amazing. How pretty it all was: the trolley cars, the faux gas station, the elegance of Carthay Circle.

Never mind the lines, churros all around, if only for the look of wonderment on my children’s faces — in normal times, churros were allowed only occasionally, and then at the end of a long FastPass-chasing day.

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Did I feel stupid taking such pleasure in a Disney experience stripped down to its nakedly commercial roots? A bit. We finally ate dinner at the Smokejumpers Grill, where there was no line. The food was fine, if pricy; with plenty of space and empty tables in the dining area, it felt safer than many outdoor cafes in Downtown Disney.

Watching the girls eat, I was struck by a deluge of emotions more often associated with the Proustian madeleine than with chicken strips and waffle fries. Nostalgia for happier times, some Disney-specific and some not; fear that we are not really close to normal-normal fighting with hope that at least some version is close enough; sorrow for all that was lost during this year, including far too many lives; and hope that maybe we can learn to appreciate life more keenly as the places and people we love and enjoy are slowly made accessible to us once more.

Frankly, our evening, weird as it was, was probably closer to what Walt Disney had in mind when he built the park than our previous ride-focused, “what next” marches through the resort. When my husband’s family moved to Los Angeles from Indiana, his parents would take them to Disneyland not for the rides, which cost money, but to visit Main Street, which did not.

Disneyland was built to evoke — childhood, fantasy, a vision of Americana that for many existed only in imagination. Homesick for their small town, Richard’s parents would stroll the sidewalks, peer into the stores, buy the kids ice cream and dance to the swing bands at the park’s Plaza Gardens. Then they would go home.

Many of us are homesick right now. Sick of our literal homes and longing for the more general definition, which includes crowds, movement and excursions, even limited socially distanced ones to familiar places outside of our shutdown bubbles. So will people pay 75 bucks — which includes parking and a $25 food coupon — to stroll around California Adventure even though none of the rides or shows are open? Looking at the crowds swarming Downtown Disney, the answer is clear: You bet they will.

As long as it’s safe, we’ll take what we can get. If we cannot have rides, then let us eat churros.