Critic’s Notebook: Disneyland’s 24-hour marathon presents a challenge she can’t resist

In celebration of Disneyland's 60th anniversary, the theme park debuts its "Disneyland Forever" fireworks show on May 21, 2015. The new show features 3-D projections and a new song.
In celebration of Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, the theme park debuts its “Disneyland Forever” fireworks show on May 21, 2015. The new show features 3-D projections and a new song.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Senior Culture Editor

Survivors will remember it as the night they shut ol’ Disney down.

A 24-hour day at the Disneyland Resort always gets a little crazy. But this year was record-breaking crazy. The eyes of even the most seasoned pass holders and employees will widen in memory of Memorial Day weekend 2015.

Disneyland turns 60 this summer, you see, and like any self-respecting diva of a certain age, she’s had a little work done. But where others might take things slowly, make changes gradually, Disneyland characteristically decided to go in another direction.


FULL COVERAGE: Disneyland at 60 | Photos

To celebrate the diamond jubilee, the park has a new parade, a new fireworks display and a new “World of Color” show. Sleeping Beauty Castle has been bedazzled and many old rides thematically tweaked, and of course there’s a whole line of anniversary merchandise including special-edition everything.

All of which was revealed on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, with a 24-hour two-park event that put the “crowd” in “crowd control.”

By early Friday afternoon, Disneyland was at full capacity (80,000 by some estimates) and officials closed the gates. For 12 hours (Disneyland reopened at 2:30 a.m.), only those with the correct papers — a bells ‘n’ whistles annual pass or press credentials — could enter. Many within were afraid to leave, even to visit Disney’s California Adventure, knowing they probably wouldn’t get back into Disneyland in time to see the new shows.

Inside, Disneyland crawled with Soviet-era lines. For rides, for food, for first-edition pins, for the chance to get your picture taken with clocks and signs registering how crazy you were for being there. The park looked fabulous, the parade and fireworks display were amazing, the retro Disney gear will soon be gracing hipster homes from Silver Lake to Williamsburg, and the Hatbox Ghost was back in the Haunted Mansion.

More important, with the possible and regrettable exception of the nice family from Denver that hadn’t realized the first day of an anniversary celebration in Disneyland would be That Big of a Deal, everyone involved knew the risks. Myself included.

Just last year, I had stumbled out of the gates a craven creature, held together by stray threads of cotton candy and churro dust, vowing to never try the 24-hour event again.

But I’m a sucker for Disney and any birthday party celebrating something older than myself. So there we were, my 8-year-old and I, shuffling through security at 5 a.m. The esplanade between the parks was oddly empty; the gates to Disneyland had opened at 4 a.m. with visitors stopped halfway down Main Street. At 5, the sky was still dark and Main Street was chockablock with people, many of whom had spent the night in the plaza outside the park. At 6 a.m., the rest of the park opened, with the pomp and adrenaline of Pamplona during the running of the bulls — if bulls pushed strollers, took selfies and wore silver mouse ears.

Staff members lined the street, waving with the new diamond jubilee mouse hands, perfect for those formal occasions that call for mouse hands. Everyone sighed over the newly jewel-encrusted Sleeping Beauty Castle before racing to the big ride of their choice.

By 6:15, the wait for Space Mountain was 35 minutes and the Matterhorn was ringed by people eager for a glimpse of the new snow monsters. (They are impressively scary.) The nearby Alice in Wonderland took up the spillover, creating a near-instant 20-minute wait. By 7 a.m., there was a three-hour line for limited-edition Tomorrowland pins, and the situation at Starbucks on Main Street throughout the day is still too painful to discuss.

Memo to Disney: You need latte kiosks.

With so many folks having camped out all night, food quickly became an issue. Many of the restaurants do not open till 11, so lines quickly grew around those that did. “Where are we supposed to eat?” one woman lamented at 8 a.m., having stood for 10 minutes in a line for a cafe that turned out to have been booked for months. “Where are we supposed to EAT??”

As Walt would say, use your imagination. Rice Krispies treats are, after all, mostly made of breakfast cereal, and if you can eat turkey bacon for breakfast, you can certainly eat turkey legs. Because we could, Darby and I climbed to safety in Tarzan’s Treehouse, where, as I surveyed the undulating ocean of people spreading out before me, I began to doubt the wisdom of this quest.

The trick, of course, is not to panic, to Keep Calm and Get a FastPass. (How they have missed that particular Disney T-shirt, I will never know.) Mercifully, I had learned from experience, so I had two portable phone chargers, a sack full of chocolate-covered espresso beans, lots of Advil and an eye for opportunities to sit down. On Pirate’s Lair, for example, kids can safely run around while you relax and tweet about how crowded it is. Or watch the ducks. Many of which trailed adorable ducklings. (How this works with all those Disneyland cats, I’m not sure.)

Not all of the ducks get along, of course. When a mallard attempted to have his way with one mama duck near the barrel bridge on Tom Sawyer Island, teenage girls chased him away with a light saber, yelling “Girl Power.”

“Men,” sniffed one, snapping a selfie

Darby’s favorite memory of the day was the ducks; mine was those girls.

It was a good day for Disneyphile watching, obviously. Rank upon rank arrived, in their identical T-shirts, lanyards layered with Disney pins and, as the day wore on, pajamas. The lines increased, stores ran out of certain things, and even park officials were heard to mutter, “This is unbelievable,” but miraculously, everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time.

Disneyland is the butt of many jokes and a few genuine concerns (When does mass merchandising truly kill the magic? How will Anaheim’s resort cope with the madding crowds long term? And what is with all those freaking pins?), but no matter the state of tension in America, everyone always deports themselves beautifully. Sure, you hear “Stop yanking on me” and “You better change your attitude” in seven or eight languages, but there’s rarely the “I just have one question” line-cutting or “Can you contain your child?” stare of airport crowds or Macy’s on Black Friday.

Still, we bailed around 3:30. We didn’t know the park had reached official capacity, but we had; the one-hour wait for a salad that turned out to be topped with fried chicken (ah, so the “crispy” does not refer to the lettuce) did me in. We had seen the new parade and fireworks display at a press preview the night before, so we used up our final FastPass and fled.

California Adventure was much more manageable. The new “World of Color” extravaganza included clips of Walt Disney and the park in the early years and, of course, a rousing rendition of “Let It Go.” The big rides were hitting two-hour wait times, but the smaller rides had reasonable lines, and as midnight approached, we sought refuge in Disney Animation, where you can learn to draw, talk to Crush and, more important, lie the heck down.

Between 11 and 12, the crowds in the Animation building swelled, as people napped and checked their phones to see what was happening in the outside world. Information trickled in via Twitter. Disneyland was still on lockdown, there was no parking left at the resort, the 5 Freeway and exit streets were jammed, hundreds were stranded in the security lines. Clad in fleece onesies or covered in blankets, many parkgoers simply hunkered down to wait for Disneyland to reopen; they certainly weren’t going to leave California Adventure only to have its gates shut, leaving them trapped in the no man’s land of the esplanade.

I had hoped to return to Disneyland for a bit, but it was past midnight and Darby had entered the phase of exhaustion marked by hysterical insistence that she was not tired At All and could she just have a churro? One more ride, I said, but then staggering onto the street, I was almost hit by a trolley, and when we found the churro stand, it was 30 people deep.

Time of departure: 12:38.

And when they make the “I Survived #24HourDisney2015” T-shirt, I want one.