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A long overdue exhale: Disney California Adventure previews Disneyland’s reopening

A woman in Mickey Mouse T-shirt and carrying a Disneyland tote enters, arms raised in excitement.
A Disney fan, raising her arms in excitement, passes through the entrance gate Thursday to attend the A Touch of Disney food event at Disney California Adventure Park.
(Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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For much of the last year, the phrase “return to normalcy” has been drummed 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.

Although some may roll their eyes or grimace at the price tag that comes with much of what Disneyland has 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.

Disney characters Goofy and Max on a balcony with, in the foreground, a man carrying a child on his shoulders.
Asher Carroll, 3, rides on dad Austin Carroll’s shoulders as Goofy and Max entertain guests from a social distance Thursday at Disney California Adventure.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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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.

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.

 Disney fans stroll through Hollywood Land the debut of A Touch of Disney at California Adventure.
Disney fans stroll through Hollywood Land during the debut of A Touch of Disney at California Adventure.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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 are 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. Although 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 area just inside the park’s entrance area recently served as an extension of the mall-like Downtown Disney.

A woman takes a selfie while holding a dessert.
Monica Link of Sacramento takes a photo with a Dole Whip during the debut of the A Touch of Disney food event.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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.

A boy in a Buzz Lightyear costume stands in a miniature car in Cars Land.
Trey Sherrod, 3, of Chico dances in his Buzz Lightyear costume while playing at Cars Land on Thursday.
(Allen J. Schaben / 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 of 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 was actually 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.”

Two women in Sulley costumes stand at an entrance to Pixar Pier.
Sepideh Hami, left, and Ashley Sanchez pose in their Sulley character costumes on Pixar Pier during the debut of the A Touch of Disney food event.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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 California Adventure well and, with hope, will become a post-pandemic fixture.

Theme parks, after all, are better when the facades allow us to imagine them as lived-in spaces. Think of the midcentury automobiles or horse trolleys of Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland, which serve less as nostalgia set pieces than as familiar sights that ground us in a recognizable setting to prime us for the unexpected sight of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

The coronavirus era offers opportunities to reimagine experiences. It’s time to start thinking of the entire park as an attraction.

I haven’t, of course, mentioned the food, and although I had a lovely meal at the upscale Carthay Circle, which in its current alfresco 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 elevate 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 chose the song for its relevancy during a time when there was anxiety to get as many people vaccinated as quickly possible.

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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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