We now come to the part of our tour where each coast diverges into its own unique little niche.
Florida, by virtue of its large collection of Confederate flags, inability to efficiently count election results, and its heritage as the birthplace of “Making Fun of Natives By Uppity European Explorers Searching for Magic Life Potion,” naturally focuses on Liberty.
California, because of its close approximation to Louisiana (relative to Moscow) and its proud tradition of doughy sugar buns, pays tribute to the great city of New Orleans.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem worth comparing these two lands. But let us not forget that New Orleans is home to the most libertine interpretation of a Catholic holy week in this country, and also boasts a liberating NFL passing offense. Furthermore, Liberty and New Orleans can both be represented by the exact same shape: Square.
Squares have four sides, 90 degree corners, and in the 50s, they wore glasses and couldn’t dance. It is worth noting that New Orleans Square and Liberty Square apparently flunked geometry, because there is nothing square about either of them, since they occupy little rounded areas of the Rivers of America. And New Orleans Square is doubly stupid for flunking geography as well, since it sits to the West of the great American Frontier.
Clearly the architecture is different. Liberty Square favors a red-brick colonial style with an open town common. New Orleans is ornate, Southern, and full of back alleys. Liberty Square does have a back alley, but it’s usually home to a Princess and the Frog meet-and-great and a Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom on-boarding station that dispenses magical voodoo tarot cards. So maybe deep down, the two Squares are exactly the same.
But for dual-park visitors the most obvious differences are in the rides. We did not cover Pirates of the Caribbean with our Adventureland summary, for very good reason. At Disneyland, the Pirates live in New Orleans Square. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. New Orleans has a rich pirate tradition. Famed privateer Jean Lafitte (literally, Jean of Feet) was a New Orleans resident. On the other hand, the Caribbean Sea is almost a thousand miles away, which makes one wonder: Just what the heck was New Orleans Square doing during geography class? But maybe Pirates of the Gulf of Mexico didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The differences are noticeable right from the start. While Florida kicks things off with a Spanish Castillo (shameless plug: this was the inspiration for my novel The Raiders of Castillo del Mar, available on Amazon!), the Disneyland version enters under a pleasant French Quarter balcony. Florida’s interior queue winds through dungeons and dark passages full of powder kegs and cannonballs. Disneyland’s queue is a fairly pedestrian hallway, though it does hug the boat flume itself, with a nice tableau of parrots and pirate maps. If you make snap judgements on first impressions, you may already be thinking that Florida’s ride is vastly superior.
But once you’re on the ride itself, Disneyland grabs hold of the reins and never lets up. The result is perhaps the single best themed attraction in the world. Florida’s 2-sided loading area is well done, with shadowy pirate caves on one side, and fortress docks on the other. Disneyland loads from one side only. The other side is eaten up by a sit-down restaurant, The Blue Bayou. In Paris, this restaurant is the Blue Lagoon, and since that title conjures images of naked teenagers in skimpy leaf outfits, this amuses me.
A quick note about the Blue Bayou. I am certainly not the world’s greatest food connoisuer, but I found the food over-priced, and the service slow. Also, unlike the Mexico restaurant at Epcot, surprisingly few tables are along the water’s edge. So it’s not really all that great a restaurant, but it does lend amazing atmosphere to the ride itself.
Florida exits straight into the Dead Men Tell No Tales caves, but California takes its time. Drifting through bayou swamps, past silent gators and creaking old men in creaking rocking chairs, while frogs creak in the creek. A banjo strums lightly in the marsh. Fireflies light up the trees like embers. The effect is wholly magical and engrossing. Before long you are drifting under old brick archways and bridges, into the shadowy depths of a forgotten city.
By the time a talking skull appears on the overhang, warning you of squalls ahead, you realize you’re in the presence of greatness.
Down the waterfall into the caves. It’s common Disney lore that at Disneyland, there’s a real purpose to the waterfall. They needed a way to get you under the railroad tracks and into the show building beyond. Disney World does duplicate the waterfall, but here’s something I always forget: Disneyland actually has two waterfalls. The second one never fails to catch me by surprise.
The caverns are more open in Disneyland, full of more running water and not nearly as cramped and ominous. Both coasts have the Hurricane Harbor scene, the skeletons on the beach, the movie-tie-in fog projection. Florida recently added a decent Mermaid illusion that Disneyland does not have. Disneyland counters by adding a series of amazing underground pirate skeleton scenes that are incredible in scope and execution.
Here is an underground tavern, where long-dead buccaneers still pour a never-ending fountain of port wine down their bony throats. There’s an underground bed-chamber, where a pirate Captain slumbers in a nightcap, his empty eye socket distorted behind a large magnifying glass. His skeletal parrot (in matching cap) sits on a perch nearby. There’s even a scene of two pirates locked in a battle to the death, literally. In chess, of all things. This is Marc Davis’s famous stalemate chessboard, a gag which is duplicated in Florida as part of the queue.
And finally there is a great hoard of treasure, a mountain of gold doubloons, riches enough to last twelve lifetimes. Or a couple of nights in New Orleans. Perched on the pile, with gold sifting through his skeletal fingers, is a dead buccaneer, a final warning that you can gain the riches of the world, but you can’t take it with you.
The cavern scenes in Disneyland seem to take almost as long as the entire running time of the Florida attraction. Once you leave the caves behind, the rides more or less mimic each other. The Wicked Wench still assaults the Castillo while Spanish forces fire back. Disneyland adds a nice projection of shadowy hand-to-hand combat on the walls, which Florida either needs to add or needs to repair. The mayor is still dunked, the red head is still auctioned, and Jack Sparrow still intrudes needlessly on all the original proceedings.
There are no major differences until after you leave the burning town. Then Disneyland once again schools its Florida cousin with a scene of crackling, burning rafters and a deft montage of pirates shooting it out across our boats. Disneyland also does the courtesy of taking your boat back up the waterfall, which is where the final Jack Sparrow treasure room is (he’s much closer to the boat than he is at Magic Kingdom). Florida makes you get out and walk up a speed ramp.
The final ascent is also interesting for two other reasons. You used to be able to spot a few pirates tugging a chest of gold up the hill, which are actually refugees from Epcot’s World of Motion. And the final effect in the ride is a dark corner of deliciously cheesy glowing rat eyes. I love them, but they are so primitive compared to the rest of the ride, they almost seem out of place.
Even when you’re back up at street level, the ride still isn’t over. You round a bend and you’re back in the queue area, passing by that treasure map, complete with pirate flag and squawking animatronic parrot. At Disneyland, you unload from the same area where you loaded. At Florida, they dump you out, then crank the boats up to the load area through a mysterious tunnel.
Having left Pirates, let’s head over to the one attraction that is truly common between the two Squares: The Haunted Mansion. Unlike Pirates, the Mansion experience is much more similar on the two coasts. The most obvious difference is the outdoor facade. Disneyland has a ghostly Southern plantation house, befitting its New Orleans roots, while Magic Kingdom goes in for a gothic New England manse. Both parks use the ghost-horse-and-hearse set piece, as well as the pet cemetery and jokey human cemetery. Walt Disney World of course recently expanded their queue with a few interactive elements, and the jury is split on whether those add or detract to the experience.
It seems to be a matter of opinion as to which house is spookier on the outside. Personally, I find the Florida house more creepy. The imagery is more traditionally gothic. Coffin shapes, bat motifs, darker tones. It also sits on a hill, towering over you while ghostly lights drift through the windows. Disneyland’s house always felt sort of boxy and not distinctively spooky to me, but there are others who feel different.
There is also something a little “off” about Disneyland’s mansion, and its close proximity to Splash Mountain. They are literally right next to each other, and the scale just doesn’t feel quite right. Part of the difficulty with being land locked, I suppose. At spots, it looks like you could lean out of the Mansion’s balcony and place your hand on Chickapin Hill.
Inside, you go straight into the Stretch Room. Magic Kingdom has the Dorian Gray aging portrait gag in the foyer. Does this effect exist in Disneyland? To be honest, I can’t recall. On my last trip, the Mansion was done up for Haunted Mansion Holiday, which they do not do at Walt Disney World, but more on that in a moment.
The stretch rooms are essentially the exact same show, except that in Disneyland, the floor goes down (again, as in Pirates, they need to get you under the train tracks), where at Disney World it goes up. Disney World exits you straight into the loading area. Disneyland gives you a brief walk-through hallway with a few illusions, such as the lightning that reveals hidden images in the paintings, and the busts that seem to follow your every move — not to fear, Floridians. Those gags are part of the early scenes in the ride, rather than being walk-throughs.
The ride itself is much more similar than with Pirates. Florida starts you off with a floating candellabra on a staircase, seagues into the flashing painting hallway, and then into a Library with the watching busts. Florida also has a ghostly piano player in a music room, and a relatively new MC Escher stairway room with ghostly footprints. It is these early scenes that actually tip the scales slightly in favor of the Florida version in my mind. Not drastically, the way Disneyland’s Pirates pads the running time, but just enough to give Florida an edge.
The rest of the ride is pretty much a clone. Endless hallway, knocking doors, Madame Leota, the Ballroom, the Attic, the Graveyard. Florida’s hitch-hiking ghosts have been improved with projection technology over Disneyland’s traditional one-way-mirror effect. The staging of Little Leota is also a little different. In Florida, you ride under Leota just before you exit the ride vehicle. In Disneyland, Leota is on the speedramp after you have disembarked.
Unless you are new to Disney parks, you know that every year between Halloween and Christmas, Disneyland gives its Mansion a Nightmare Before Christmas overlay. Overall, I get a kick out of the ingenious transformation, which involves some pretty elaborate switches, including a Jack Skellington animatronic replacing the old caretaker, Zero floating in the endless hallway, Oogie Boogie animatronic replacing the Hitchhikers, and a massive snow hill in the graveyard scene. There is much to love about this seasonal change, and the soundtrack is catchy and wonderful. If I had any complaints, it is that sometimes it veers off into clutter. The outside of the Mansion in particular is a bit of a mess. It looks like a college frat house after a night of hard partying, right down to reams of toilet paper draped over everything (oh, sorry, that’s Jack’s Naughty List).
While Disneyland has no problem offering up seasonal overlays (It’s a Small World also does this), the East coast has effectively shut them down. Country Bears used to be decked out with a brand new show for Christmas, but no more. I’m not sure if they think those things are better suited for parks with a strong local audience, but I would love to have the variety here in Florida.
Florida of course has the Hall of Presidents, which we’ve already touched on when compared to Main Street‘s Mr. Lincoln and Friends show at Disneyland. Florida also puts the Liberty Belle Riverboat in Liberty Square, while at Disneyland, the Mark Twain Riverboat is part of Frontierland. It doesn’t matter. There is very little difference in the boats themselves, and the trip around the Rivers of America has only minor differences.
At Disneyland, New Orleans Square offers some of the prime viewing for Fantasmic. And when I say “prime,” I mean that are about 10 good spots for Fantasmic, and somebody with too much time on their hands has already spent 8 hours camping out in those spots, so you are screwed. The Fantasmic show at Disneyland is far better, no question. Magic Kingdom doesn’t even have it; they kicked it over to Hollywood Studios. But the way Disneyland makes use out of existing park icons like the Columbia, the Mark Twain, and Tom Sawyer Island gives it an organic charm that the large Studios arena simply can’t replicate. However…
Fantasmic at Disneyland can sometimes be a miserable experience. Either you’re miserable for camping out for hours to save your spot, or your miserable for not getting one of those spots and being stuck behind a tree and a zillion other people. Even if you’re not watching the show, you’re miserable for trying to fight your way through a sea of humanity in order to make your Splash Mountain FastPass time. Any way you slice it, you’re miserable.
I can’t claim to have visited Disneyland during every possible scenario, but I have gone on-season, off-season, and in between, and Fantasmic is just brutal. Say what you want about Hollywood Studios’s charmless amphitheater and overblown stage. I won’t argue. But they do at least give you a clear, orderly view of the proceedings, whatever the drawbacks.
That should do it for the Squares. Next up, a trip to Frontierland.