Another Year of Living Disney

How you feel about Disney — the corporation, their movies, their parks — is a litmus test for something, but damned if I know what. One thing it’s surely a litmus test for is how close you’re paying attention. The parks and the feature-length animations have gone through dramatic ups and downs over the years, under Walt Disney himself, during the Jeffrey Katzenberg renaissance, under later budget-cutting management and now under the creative auspices of Pixar founder John Lassetter, who has at least for the present stabilized the company’s heart and soul and put them in a very good place.

In the Lassetter era, Amy and I have come to love most things Disney. Three years ago, we had SoCal annual passes to Disneyland, which is about 40 minutes away from us in Anaheim. I wrote a blog about it when it was over and promised to write more, but I never got around to it. I want to keep that promise now and write about some of our most interesting experiences at the park as they happen, before they fade into the vasty nothingness of my memory and become all bibbledy. (That was a paraphrase from Kaylee in Serenity, in case you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard it before.) We activated the passes on December 5, 2014, which means they’ll be active through December 5, 2015 (they throw in the 366th day as a bonus), and will get to see two Christmas seasons at Disneyland. And if you can’t get into the Christmas spirit at Disneyland, you’re due to be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Prepare accordingly.

Christmas in Disneyland

The most wonderful time of the year at the happiest place on earth

(My apologies to those who don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m an atheist and I’m already planning how to decorate the tree. I consider it an open season for happiness, love and lots of pretty lights. Then again, I don’t even mind when they start playing Christmas songs before Halloween.)

Our friends George and Greg were visiting from out of town, so we had a busy day planned. I expected to conk out somewhere during what became nearly a 12-hour visit, but at some point the Christmas spirit, the Disney spirit and sheer adrenaline kicked in. I haven’t had a better time in years.

To get an annual pass, you first have to register for one, then get it validated at the park. I’ve had the registration on my bulletin board for months:

Pass Voucher with Mr. Incredible

Mr. Incredible says: Give these guys their annual pass or…or I’ll do something incredible.

Disneyland is nothing if not efficient. After a short bus ride from the Toy Story parking lot (the easiest-to-use parking lot on Earth), you go to a booth and swap the voucher for a card:

Disneyland Annual Passcard

Donald, Mickey and Goofy in handy wallet size

What I’m calling Disneyland is technically Disneyland Resort, which consists of two parks (Disneyland and California Adventure), plus the Downtown Disney restaurant and shopping district, as well as several hotels. We headed for Disneyland first:

Train around Disneyland

The circumferential railroad over the entrance to Disneyland

where they waste no time in letting you know that this entrance is to Disneyland what the wardrobe was to Narnia:

Sign on Disneyland entrance

Abandon hope all ye…wait, that’s a different sign.

It being our first time back at Disneyland in a while, we took it easy on hitting the rides, just walking around looking at the sights. (It was also a Friday, when we usually don’t tend to go because of the line lengths.) We did, however, go on a few, the first of which was the Jingle Cruise, which is normally the Jungle Cruise but decorated with what the park calls a holiday overlay. It’s a far less elaborate holiday overlay than the ones for It’s a Small World and The Haunted Mansion:

Elephant decorated for Christmas

“Jingle tusks, jingle tusks!”

The overlay also meant that we got some new holiday jokes from the aspiring stand-up comics that Disney hires to serve as tour guides on the jungle, er, jingle boats. (To see what the Jungle Cruise looks like during the non-holiday season, check out my YouTube video from 2012. You’re welcome.)

I had plenty of time to make myself sick on the irresistible pastries sold in store after store on Main Street USA:

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&M: Motion sickness waiting to happen

Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies and M&Ms: Motion sickness waiting to happen

We also checked out several gift shops for potential Christmas presents. The gift shops, actually, are a wonder in themselves. There are dozens of them and every one seems to have a completely different line of t-shirts, plush animals and trinkets, obviously providing enough work for half the population of China, where most of them seem to be made. This includes the department-store-sized gift shop in Downtown Disney:

The World of Disney Gift Shop

The World of Disney gift shop in Downtown Disney

The World of Disney gift shop is vast and practically a park in itself:

Gift shop interior

Inside the gift shop park

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We met George and Greg at the Carthay Circle Restaurant in the relatively new Carthay Circle theater in California Adventure, a replica of the theater where Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, opened in 1937, thus launching an era of movie animation that continues till this day. The restaurant itself is an elegant and old-fashioned luxury establishment where we had our own private dining nook:

Carthay Circle Restaurant

Our friends George and Greg dining with us in the Carthay Circle restaurant

Afterwards we went back to Disneyland and took the Disneyland Railroad around to It’s a Small World, a much-derided attraction that becomes spectacular at Christmas:

It's a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights this time of year

It’s a Small World becomes a dazzling array of Christmas lights for the holidays.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

They occasionally turn off the lights to project images on the exterior.

It's pretty spectacular on the inside too.

It’s pretty spectacular on the inside too.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas overlay for It’s a Small World:

From It’s a Small World it was just a few feet to the viewing area for the Disneyland Christmas Fantasy Parade.

The Frozen float at the parade.

Frozen, Disney’s biggest cash reindeer in years, was well represented at the parade.

Woody in the Christmas Parade

Woody dashing through the snow

Santa in the Christmas Parade

Santa Claus is coming to town — and bringing the North Pole with him.

Here’s my video of the 2011 Christmas Fantasy Parade:

It’s had 145,000 hits so far, making it far and away my best-viewed video. Apologies for the blurriness at the beginning, but it goes away quickly.) Here are some shots of this year’s parade:

We had a break before our next big event — more about that in a minute — so we caught the Disneyland Railroad into the prehistoric past, where the dinosaurs from the 1964 New York World’s Fair still roam:

At the end of the line (and back in the 21st Century), we cut through Downtown Disney to the Grand Californian hotel, where George and Greg were staying. We collapsed for a while in the lobby and looked at the Christmas decor:

Christmas tree in the Grand Californian lobby

The Grand Californian lobby, complete with humongous Christmas tree

which included a giant gingerbread house, recipe included:

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

Giant gingerbread house, also in the Grand Californian lobby

We weren’t the only ones who needed a break. Santa headed for the Grand Californian lobby too, but those darned kids kept bothering him:

Santa at the Grand Californian

Santa trying to take a break at the Grand Californian

Finally, we added the pièce de résistance (yes, that was a direct cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) to the evening by watching what I consider Disneyland’s single greatest attraction: the World of Color. Named for the Disney television show from the early 1960s, the World of Color is to other water shows what the Starship Enterprise is to a frisbee. Somehow the Disney imagineers make colored fountains of water dance in choreographed patterns as they project animated images onto them. Combined with sounds, projections on the roller coaster in the background and occasional gouts of fire, this results in one of those experiences that can only be fully appreciated in person, but I’ll do my best to convey it to you in words and images.

Since this was the holiday version of World of Color and Frozen has been such a monster hit for Disney, it was hosted by Olaf the Snowman, who I fully expect to replace Mickey Mouse as the iconic symbol for the entire corporation. (Maybe then they’ll stop fighting to get copyright extensions on old cartoons.) The character images have a kind of three-dimensional appearance when projected on water and they photograph rather blurrily, but here’s Olaf in all his fuzzy wet glory:

Olaf in World of Color

Olaf the snowman in World of Color

And here are his friends Anna and Elsa plotting to build him:

Anna and Elsa build Olaf

Do you wanna build a snowman?

One of the reasons it’s difficult to represent World of Color in pictures is that it’s hard to convey the sheer, soaring magnitude of it, but look at this photo:

The World of Color fountains

The World of Color fountains erupt over the crowd.

See that image of Mickey Mouse in the background? That’s on a ferris wheel — and it’s HUGE. Yet the World of Color fountains dwarf it. And this isn’t even as high as they go.

By the way, the World of Color holiday show doesn’t just honor Christians (and Christmas-loving atheists like me):

World of Color honors dreidels

“I have a little dreidel…” (They play Feliz Navidad too.)

All amazing things must end. World of Color plays the crowd out with bowing fountains and a holiday farewell:

Happy Holidays from World of Color

Happy Holidays from World of Color!

Here’s my video of the 2011 version:

The images were quite different then, though it’s not hard to find a video of the current World of Color on YouTube:

And that’s it. It was nearly 11 p.m. and the first day of our new annual pass had come to an end. We said goodbye to George and Greg, drove home listening to Christmas playlists on Spotify, greeted our two cats and collapsed.

But our second Year of Living Disney is just beginning. More to come.


Okay, NOW It’s Time to Start Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Joss Whedon was the last person in the world who should have directed The Avengers. But somehow he got picked for the job and accepted it, probably out of his love for comic books (which he sometimes writes), and turned it into the single most successful movie of 2012. The Avengers was a high-budget action movie of the superhero variety and, as such, emphasized spectacle, explosions and stunning CGI special effects. The irony is that this really isn’t the kind of thing that Whedon is best at, though obviously he can do it when he tries. I’m beginning to suspect that any hack director in Hollywood can do a successful CGI blockbuster because most of the REAL work is done during post-production by people other than the director.

agents-of-shield-pilot-pic-01 (1)

Fitz and Simmons: Not all heroes are super.

What Whedon does well is writing TV shows about quirky, witty, interesting groups of characters with unexpected and gradually revealed backstories, people united by chance and held together by comically dysfunctional yet simultaneously affectionate relationships. If you go back and watch your CD (or Blu-Ray) copy of The Avengers, you’ll notice that it has witty characters with comically dysfunctional relationships, but this fact might have slipped past you on first viewing because these things were being drowned out by explosions and noisy alien invaders. The Avengers was a Michael Bay epic as viewed through the Joss Whedon lens and as such seems to have appealed to the mass audience, a very massive mass audience, the same way that, say, the Transformers films do. I loved it less than many people did not because I don’t enjoy a good action spectacle — I do, actually, though I draw the line at the Transformers films — but because I know that Joss Whedon can do so much more than that. And what he does doesn’t require spectacle, expensively produced action and CGI effects, which is why it’s so perfect for the relatively low-budget medium of television, the medium in which he first became a success.

The success of The Avengers got Whedon, or more properly a team of people supervised remotely by Whedon, the job of creating the TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I suspect because the people who run Disney (which owns both ABC, the network the show runs on, and Marvel Studios, which owns the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept) figured that his name along with the S.H.I.E.L.D. name would draw in that massive audience that had flocked to The Avengers. And I suspect it did — at first. But I hear that the ratings numbers are dropping and I’m not surprised, because the show is becoming less and less like the movie and more and more like a Joss Whedon show. And that’s what I’m starting to like about it.

At first the TV show looked like it was trying to be the movie, at least a cut-rate version of the movie, even going so far as to have a superhero character of ambiguous intentions in the first episode. (What happened to that character, anyway? Did he just vanish? Will he be back?) But the connection between show and movie has been shrinking and the show is becoming better because of it. In the most recent episode, “The Hub,” it finally became quite good, because it ceased to have much connection with The Avengers and became a true Whedon show, which is to say that it truly became what I referred to in my last blog as a jigsaw puzzle show.

Ostensibly, “The Hub” was about a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to go to a fictitious Eastern European country and disable something called the Overkill Device, the kind of ridiculous spy-fi name associated with bad James Bond films. (To their credit, the characters even commented on how ridiculous the name was.) But the Overkill Device was really just a MacGuffin, Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an otherwise meaningless object that serves only to bring characters together and let them interact. And that’s exactly what it did, quite well. “The Hub” wasn’t really about television spy action, though there was some of that in it, but about giving the show’s viewers a better sense of who the characters are, what the relationships between them are like, and what kind of mysterious backstories lurk in their secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossiers.

Jigsaw puzzle shows, as I defined them last time around, are neither serial shows nor standalone shows, but shows that, in each episode, introduce pieces of a puzzle that at first seem almost random and then gradually fit together to form a picture that’s larger than anything in any single episode. In “The Hub,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used the Overkill Device as an excuse for giving its viewers several major pieces of the show’s underlying jigsaw puzzle and the picture that’s starting to form from those pieces suggests that this show is going to have one of the best backstories of any Whedon show yet — and, given that Whedon is a master of backstory, that’s saying quite a lot.

Viewers have already had hints that Agent Coulson didn’t really spend the eight months after his reportedly brief death (depicted in The Avengers) recovering in Tahiti, as he supposedly believes, but now it’s clear that Coulson himself realizes that this is a lie and wants to learn the truth. It’s also clear that the possible solution to this puzzle scares the hell out of Coulson, which makes it that much more tantalizing to viewers, the way that the riddle of Simon and River Tam was so tantalizing to viewers on Whedon’s Firefly. However, “The Hub” also revealed that Skye, the gorgeous terrorist who has been subsumed for no apparent reason into the S.H.I.E.L.D. unit run by Coulson, has a backstory that’s far more interesting than has been hinted at up until now and that she has a preexisting history with S.H.I.E.L.D.: She was left at an orphanage as an infant by a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Why? Nobody’s telling us yet. But it’s another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, one that’s almost as fascinating as the Coulson part of the puzzle.

As I said earlier, Whedon’s major strength besides designing jigsaw puzzles is creating groups of characters who have interesting relationships and the show started doing that in earnest with this episode. We finally got a glimpse of the relationship between Fitz and Simmons, the show’s male-female geek team, and it’s fraught with both sexual and affectionate tension, with a special emphasis on the affectionate part. Unlike, say, Skye and Ward, these aren’t characters you’re dying to see jump into bed together, but the affection between the two of them is so palpable and charming that you just want to give them a great big hug. The objective correlative for that affection in this episode was a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich with just a hint of aioli and it was used to clever effect. The show also gave us some bonding scenes between the unlikely pair of tough guy Ward and uber-geek Fitz that started out with exactly the sort of friction and incompatibility that you’d expect in such a relationship, but then took a surprising turn toward mutual respect. And while Ward and Fitz were putting themselves in harm’s way, the show did something even more unexpected: it featured a bonding sequence between two of the show’s major female characters, terrorist Skye and Fitz’s female counterpart Simmons, that was deftly comedic and bodes well for the way that all of the character relationships are going to build on this show.

Mostly, though, “The Hub” was the episode that turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into what I’ve wanted it to be all along: a true Joss Whedon show. It’s finally clear that the spy show we thought we were watching up until now was just an excuse for a show about relationships and secret histories, which are the things I’ve loved about Whedon’s shows since Buffy. It’s at last become a show that’s genuinely worth watching and I’m starting to feel the love for it that I’ve wanted to feel since it started. In fact, the only reason I’ve stuck with it this long is that I knew that this was the type of show it would eventually become.

Because Whedon’s shows always do.

Fringe, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Perils of Jigsaw Puzzle Television

Back in 2008, I stopped watching Fringe after the second episode. That wasn’t because it was bad and I had a feeling that I might start watching it again later, but in the early episodes it wasn’t delivering what I wanted it to, which was something like the amazing shockwave that J.J. Abrams and his staff delivered with the first episode of Lost. In retrospect that may have been a blessing, since the first episode and entire first season of Lost turned out to be a high point that even the show itself was unable to equal in later seasons. Fringe, by contrast, came across as a tepid imitation of The X-Files, a show that I remembered fondly but didn’t want to have to sit through again. It had, after all, been done before.

Fringe characters

The jigsaw puzzle comes together.

Turns out I had it all wrong. Lost was a bomb, a muddled mess of a show that got only one thing (aside from a great cast) right: hooking the viewer so perfectly with its first episode and first season that for a lot of us it was hard to get unhooked. Fringe, on the other hand, is genuinely great television, even though it didn’t look that way at first. I’m now halfway through watching its third season on Netflix Streaming and can already see that it’s a much better show than Lost ever managed to become again after its first season and really isn’t all that much like The X-Files, a show that made only one major mistake: staying on the air too long. However, both shows fall into a category that I’ve only recently begun to realize exists: jigsaw puzzle television. Think of jigsaw puzzle TV as the point where standalone television meets serial TV and produces something that can go back and forth between the two or even gradually morph from one into the other.

The X-Files started at a time (1993) when only a few prime-time shows, like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, had played around with the idea of serial television, introducing plots that weren’t neatly tied up in a single episode but that continued over an entire “arc” of episodes. This was a concept that made television executives so nervous that early on, when Hill Street Blues was getting ratings so low that it probably would have been cancelled if NBC’s overall ratings hadn’t been so bad that the whole network was in danger of getting cancelled, an edict went down from the network heads to the show’s producers demanding that at least one plot (out of many simultaneous ones) be both introduced and resolved in every episode.

The X-Files couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be standalone or serial, so by the second season it was doing both, alternating between standalone “monster of the week” episodes and serial “mythology” episodes, which usually consisted of two or three parts each, which gradually filled in pieces of the backstory. The standalone X-Files and the serial X-Files were almost two different shows, with events in a standalone episode having very little effect on character relationships and plot events in the serial episodes. Both the mytharc and standalone episodes were done very well. But every now and then something would happen in a seemingly standalone episode that would turn out to be a part of the show’s continuing mythology. And that, I would argue, was when jigsaw puzzle television was born.

The two current masters of jigsaw puzzle TV shows are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, though those are as much brand names now as they are human beings. Both Abrams and Whedon have gotten too good at making monstrously successful films like the Star Trek reboots and The Avengers to spend the kind of time with television that they used to, but they’ve managed to put together teams of producers and showrunners who can mimic their styles amazingly well and I’m convinced that both men are heavily involved in the creation of their shows and draw up detailed blueprints that their writing staffs can then follow in putting their shows together while the big guys themselves are off making billions of dollars in the more lucrative parts of their empires. In effect, they’re the guys who put together the big pictures that their writing staffs then cut up into the jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Fringe appeared initially to be an X-Files clone simply because the first episode featured a male-female pair of FBI agents who found themselves involved with supernatural and high-tech phenomena. Fortunately, the male half was immediately killed off and Anna Torv’s agent Olivia Dunham never became a clone of The X-Files Dana Scully, which may have come across as bait and switch to X-Files fans who tuned in hoping to see a reboot of their favorite show but was actually a clever move on the part of the showrunners. It allowed the introduction of one of television’s quirkiest teams of leading characters, Dunham and her new partners, the father and son team of Walter and Peter Bishop (John Noble and Joshua Jackson). All three leads are great, but it’s brilliantly crazy scientist Walter, one of the most cleverly conceived and bizarrely gonzo characters on TV, who really makes the show work. The fact that he seems to be part of the show’s mysterious backstory but is simultaneously so batshit crazy that he can’t remember exactly what part of it he is is what keeps the show from being like anything else anywhere on TV, the X-Files included.

The reason Fringe is a jigsaw puzzle show is that the early episodes bear a strong resemblance to standalone episodes of The X-Files, revolving around similar mysterious phenomena like people abruptly melting into warm jello or suddenly finding themselves cut in half, but every episode also adds a surprise piece of the show’s serial continuity, usually at the very end. As it becomes clear that elements like the apparently malevolent corporation Massive Dynamics and its elusive founder William Bell (whose very casting is a delightful surprise in itself) are going to figure into the show in a big way, it also becomes apparent that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are going to fit together into some kind of stunning and unexpected picture, as indeed they do.

In some ways, Fringe is the polar opposite of Lost. Abrams tried to make Lost a continuous serial. Unfortunately, the show was put together quickly, had a great beginning and great first season, then just became muddled. Completely serial shows like this are almost impossible to do and the only truly great example I can think of is Breaking BadFringe, on the other hand, never really tried to be completely serial, and it was much better for using the jigsaw technique. You could view at least half the episodes as standalone stories, but somebody put a lot of work into creating a terrific picture that would come together out of that jigsaw puzzle. Even if the quality of the show takes a nose dive after the middle of Season Three (which is where I am now), it will still have been a terrific jigsaw puzzle for one and a half seasons longer than Lost was. And I’m told it remains good for much longer than that.

Joss Whedon has elements of the jigsaw puzzle show in his early programs, like Buffy and Angel, but his first true jigsaw puzzle show was Firefly, which unfortunately was only given 14 episodes to put itself together. The jigsaw puzzle pieces in those 14 episodes, though, were interesting enough that Whedon was then given an entire movie, the terrific Serenity, to give us an idea of how wonderful the full puzzle would have turned out to be. The major pieces that we got were Simon and River Tam, a wealthy doctor and his sister on the run from the show’s evil government, the Alliance; Shepherd Book, a mysterious preacher with a very unpreacherlike past combined with a genuinely warm and comforting personality; and the Reavers, savage cannibals of unknown origin who appear unexpectedly in burned-out spaceships to eat the unfortunate populations of entire cities or perhaps even entire planets. Whedon got the chance to complete the parst of the puzzle having to do with the Tams and the Reavers in Serenity and he supposedly explains Shepherd Book’s backstory in a comic book, which I have yet to read. I wish we had gotten to see the completed puzzle lament the way it was meant to be seen, on television, and suspect it was altered considerably to fit a two hour film, but what we got was still great. We can blame the Fox network for not allowing us to see it the way it should have been seen. (Why Whedon did another jigsaw puzzle show, Dollhouse, for Fox is beyond me, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it somewhere. At least Fox allowed him to wrap Dollhouse up in a second season, but the pieces were put together in such a rush that the completed puzzle was partly brilliant, partly a complete mess, and wasn’t wrapped up nearly as well as Firefly was.)

Whedon’s latest jigsaw puzzle show is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a sequel of sorts to The Avengers but on a much lower budget. Though I doubt that Joss Whedon has much to do with the show on a day-to-day basis, I’m sure he had a lot to do with putting together the initial jigsaw puzzle before turning it over to his brother Jed Whedon, his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen and former Angel writer Jeffrey Bell. So far the standalone episodes have only been fair-to-middling, but the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — what happened to Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after he “died” in The Avengers; what horrible event occurred to Melinda May (Ming Na Wen) that gave her the hated nickname “the Cavalry;” why strange artifacts keep turning up; and why they’re allowing a known terrorist like Skye (Chloe Bennet), who seems to be a quadruple agent — at least — for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its enemies, fly on their tricked-out jet — look like they could form a pretty interesting picture whenever they start falling together.

The problem with jigsaw puzzle shows is that they start out slow and usually don’t look more than mildly interesting in early episodes, sometimes in early seasons. That’s certainly the case with S.H.I.E.L.D., which could be mistaken for any run of the mill spy-fi show if you aren’t watching closely. I’m watching it because I’m convinced that it’s going to become great when the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall together. (I might note that, with the possible exception of Firefly, none of Joss Whedon’s shows has ever been more than mildly interesting before its second season, just as J.J. Abram’s Fringe didn’t really become great until its third season.) The question now becomes whether S.H.I.E.L.D. will remain on the air long enough for the pieces of the puzzle to come together and the show to realize its full potential. Ordinarily I’d doubt that it would make it that far, but it’s on ABC, which is owned by Disney, the company that also owns Marvel Studios, so maybe it will be given the chance to develop.

When it does realize its full potential, I truly hope that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be as great a jigsaw puzzle show as Fringe.

The Year of Living Disney

Chris and Minnie and Amy

Chris & Minnie & Amy

When I first came to Los Angeles three years ago and moved in with Amy, we briefly discussed going to Disneyland. We didn’t do anything about it because Disneyland is a pricey venture, even then edging up to $100 a person for a day of trying to cram in as many rides as you could tolerate without damage to your musculoskeletal structure. I had been once before, when I was 16, and had found it slightly disappointing, in part because (I’m really giving away my age here) I had been to the New York World’s Fair the previous two years running and, as man-made high-tech spectacles went, it had blown away any amusement park on earth. (I had also seen several Disneyland attractions there, like the talking Abe Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, before they even made it to Anaheim.) And long before I arrived at Amy’s house, Disneyland had been eclipsed by Disney World, the sprawling amusement park mega-complex in Orlando that Anaheim lacked the space to support.

But for all that, my dream of going to Disneyland and genuinely exploring it, as if it were a different continent and I was a tourist with a Eurorail pass, had been with me since childhood. One of my earliest memories is of watching the then-black-and-white television show Disneyland on ABC devote an entire episode to a virtual tour of (or half hour advertisement for) the newly opened park and I knew then, before I was old enough to read or write, that it was the main place on earth I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even on the same coast of North America at the time. More than being a different continent, it might as well have been on a different planet.

Last year, for her birthday, I gave Amy (and myself) annual passes to Disneyland Resort, the current name for the entertainment and hotel complex that includes Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure and Downtown Disney. The annual passes, only available to Southern Californians, cost about as much as two visits to the resort without a pass. We activated the passes on August 25, 2011, and during the following year visited the park approximately 16 times, consciously trying to see every one of the attractions, scrambling madly to be present at special events like fireworks, parades and the uber-spectacles like Fantasmic and my favorite of all, The World of Color.

This is really part one of this post because I can’t describe our entire year in a single blog entry. Disneyland is compact compared to Disney World, but it still contains multitudes. It’s been packed so cleverly into its limited space that at first it seemed like we were exploring a fourth dimensional pretzel, which looped back on itself in a way that at first seems baffling but then becomes almost intuitively navigable. Over our Year of Living Disney we grew to know it so intimately that we could probably walk through it blindfolded. I’ll be back to write more about it later. Here are some of the things that I could devote entire posts to.

The Animation Academy, a tiny building where you can talk to Crush the surfer-dude Turtle (from Finding Nemo), watch a spinning Zoetrope machine that animates statues of the characters from Toy Story using a strobe light (I may link to video of this later), and learn to draw pictures of Disney characters like Pluto the dog:

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Pluto as drawn by Amy

Or you can simply sit in the Academy’s lobby and watch scenes and storyboards from Disney animated features projected on a 360-degree circuit of screens:

Scenes from Pinocchio in the Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Dumbo in Animation Academy lobby.

Scenes from Up in Animation Academy lobby

Disneyland at Christmas. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I’m a Christmas freak. Visiting Disneyland during the Christmas season is, for me, like having ice cream on top of cake on top of ice cream with fudge and peanut butter on top. It makes the child inside me (and the larger one on the outside) do virtual somersaults of happiness (and by “virtual” I really do mean virtual, since I’m not up to real ones any more). Here’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle during the transformation they do several times a night during December:

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Christmas

It’s a Small World. Possibly the most ridiculed ride at Disneyland, largely because of that simple and incessant theme song, It’s a Small World is an epic showcase for the 1960s designs of Disney artist Mary Blair and its facade is an intricate exercise in neo-Rococo excess, especially at Christmas:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

In fact, It’s a Small World goes through more Christmas transformations than any other part of Disneyland:

It's a Small World facade at Christmas

It's a Small Clock as Santa Claus

It's a Small World Christmas interior

Club 33. Club 33 is a private dining establishment commissioned by Walt Disney shortly before he died, intended as a place where he could entertain important guests, and was to be the only place in Disneyland that would serve alcohol. (Walt was a teetotaler.) Now you can get alcoholic beverages in both California Adventure and Downtown Disney, but never mind. What’s important about Club 33 is that it’s hidden away behind an unmarked door in New Orleans Square and you and I can’t get in. It’s for people who are very important to Disneyland or people who know somebody who’s very important to Disneyland. We knew somebody who knew somebody who was very important to Disneyland and made it in by the skin of our Mickey Mouse ears. Here’s the main dining room, with the top of our friend’s head (Hi, George!) visible in the foreground:

Club 33 Main Dining Room

Club 33 is expensive, elegant and historic. I blew nearly a month’s grocery budget on one meal. I don’t regret it. I don’t think I’ll ever go there again, but I’m ecstatic that I had the chance to go there once.

World of Color. I’ve saved the best for last. The World of Color, in the Paradise Pier section of Disney’s California Adventure, is presented at least once a night, usually twice. It’s the most spectacular manmade thing I’ve ever seen that existed in the same portion of physical reality as I did rather than just being a picture. It’s a water show, which is like saying that Moby Dick is a fish story. It involves colored, dancing fountains choreographed to music from Disney films and used as projection screens for scenes from those same films. (There are also occasional towers of fire.) It is, in other words, indescribable and what I just said only vaguely approximated it. I could spend the rest of my evenings there watching the World of Color and count it a life well spent. It evokes our common cultural memories of Disney cartoons while transmuting them into a brand new art form, one that could only exist in a place where people with excessive talent are given excessive amounts of money to design things that are excessively entertaining. I deeply love it. Here’s a glimpse of it:

The World of Color

There’s more, like the cleverly revamped 3D Star Wars-based attraction Star Tours and Minnie Mouse’s dishwasher, where you can see real-life cartoon dishes soaking in bubbling real-life water. I’ll probably talk about those eventually too. I remember a time when it was hip to deride Disney and use the term “Mickey Mouse” as an all-purpose word to suggest cheap gimcrackery. Disneyland fell on hard times for a few years when the management tried to run on it on a budget, but now that the brilliant John Lasseter of Pixar has become the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering and revived — nay, improved — the parks, those days are pretty much past. Our annual passes have expired now so we’re going to take some time off from Disneyland, but I don’t think we can stay away forever. Now that we’ve seen everything at least once, I think we’d like to concentrate on revisiting the things we loved, like Pirates of the Caribbean and Toy Story Midway Mania.

In the meantime, I’ll talk about the year that just ended. You’re welcome to stick around and listen.

Chris and Mickey and Amy

Chris & Mickey & Amy

Three Spheres for the Mouse!

Years ago, the late paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould cited Mickey Mouse as an example of neoteny, the evolutionary tendency for adult members of a species to acquire over time the features of their own infant counterparts. For instance, while we humans may bear only a passing resemblance to our hominid ancestors, who would seem brutish to us (not to mention unusually hairy) if we met them at a party, we bear a much greater resemblance, with our dainty features and unsloping foreheads, to our ancestors’ babies. Mickey Mouse, according to Gould, demonstrated a kind of cartoon neoteny, having gone from the relatively rodentine mouse of Steamboat Willie:

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

to the cuter, more infantilized mouse of later decades:

Mickey as infant mouse

Notice the shorter snout and larger eyes, which Gould claimed were features of infant or fetal mice. At a stroke, Disney had removed what was repellent to most people about mice — the beady eyes and questing nose — and made Mickey as cuddly as, well, a baby.

While Mickey’s initial function was to star in cartoons, he gradually took on a secondary function, one that now seems to be his primary role, that of corporate symbol. Mickey’s face has become better known (and perhaps always was better known) than that of his creator, Walt Disney, and certainly better known than the faces of any of the CEOs who have run the Disney corporation since its founder’s death. Amy and I have an annual pass to Disneyland this year, so we’ve seen a lot of the Mickster lately. It hasn’t escaped our notice that Mickey’s progression from rodent to infantile mouse has proceeded to places that Stephen Jay Gould never envisioned. Mickey has, in fact, become a complete abstraction. As a logo for Disney, Mickey has gone from a smiling cartoon face:

Mickey's face

to an abstract sequence of ovals:

Mickey Mouse as three ovals

In this respect Mickey has followed the path of recognizable simplicity pioneered by the logos for such companies as Apple:

and Nike:

Nike Swoosh

The three-oval Mickey logo has considerable utility — for instance, as the instantly recognizable identifier for a television channel:

Disney Channel identification

You can see examples of the abstract Mickey Mouse throughout Disneyland, perhaps most strikingly in the park benches, where Mickey seems to have fallen over on one ear:

Mickey Mouse park bench

But what’s most interesting to me about the three-oval Mickey is that, perhaps to a greater extent than any other corporate logo, it lends itself to extension into the third dimension. Simply replace the ovals with spheres and you have a version of Mickey that an experienced 3D artist can create in about five seconds:

This three-sphere mouse can then be rotated into perspective view:

Mickey wireframe model in perspective

and painted with color to give it a realistic solidity:

Mickey color 3D model

Does that three-sphere form in any way resemble a mouse? Not really. Yet it’s instantly recognizable as both Mickey and as the public face of the Disney Corporation. (This says a great deal about the human ability to recognize faces and forms given only the sparest of visual cues.)

This three-sphere Mickey has even more utility than the three-oval Mickey. At Disneyland and Disney World you can see it in the form of balloons:

Mickey Mouse balloons

which sometimes glow in the dark:

Glowing Mickey Mouse balloons

Or as tasty beignets in a New Orleans Square restaurant:

Mickey Mouse Beignets

But my favorite application of the three-sphere Mickey can be found hanging on our tree this Christmas:

This ornament can be purchased at the Disneyland gift shops in several different designs and color schemes. You can even get it with a more realistic Mickey — to the extent that a cartoon mouse can ever be described with the adjective “realistic” — climbing on top of it:

Mickey Mouse realistic ornament

So the modern Mickey isn’t entirely about abstraction and simplification. However, it’s possible for Mickey to be abstracted without being especially simplified. At first glance this t-shirt (found under the same tree where those ornaments are hanging) seems to depict a random collection of planets and moons:

Mickey planet t-shirt

until you view it in the correct orientation:

Another Mickey planetary t-shirt

It’s Planetary Mickey!  An artist, or maybe a Photoshop expert, has taken a set of what are probably NASA photos of our solar system (there’s also a spiral galaxy posing as Mickey’s right ankle) and assembled a surprisingly complex Mickey image from them. No three-sphere Mickey here! Indeed, Planetary Mickey even has that little bump on the tip of his snout (I suspect it’s Venus or maybe — no joke intended — Pluto) that represents what remains of his rodent nose.

Mickey’s in his 80s now, which may explain why you rarely see him in cartoons any more, and you have to wonder what he thinks about his increasing abstractification. (Is that even a word?) I suppose I could ask him, because this also showed up under the Christmas tree:

Mickey Mouse in person