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Self-Styled Keepers of the Magic Kingdom

COLUMN ONE

Disneyland's hard-core fans say their mission includes spotting lapses--from crass commercialism to litter--they claim tarnish Walt Disney's vision.

September 12, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — For Rick West, finding stuffed animals for sale in Disneyland's Main Street Penny Arcade was the final indignity.

The longtime Disney enthusiast and self-described theme park historian had chafed at the proliferation of churro carts, glow necklaces, light swords and other "cheap, carny" elements he considered an anathema to the vision of the Anaheim park's founder.

But when a rack of grinning $10.95 Mickey and Minnie mouses turned up this summer where the quirky Cail-o-Scopes and the other antique amusement machines had been, he rode into cyberspace sounding the charge to "take back Walt Disney's Disneyland."

"If you want to fight for Disneyland, I beg you to do so with all your might," West, 26, wrote in a recent posting to a popular online Disneyland bulletin board.

Casual observers may be confounded at such passion over a few stuffed animals and penny movie machines. But that is to underestimate the park's emotional sway over some of its visitors, particularly Southern Californians reared in the shadow of Walt Disney's original Magic Kingdom.

"That's because Disneyland isn't just a theme park," says Philadelphia-based cultural historian Jamie O'Boyle. "It's a cultural touchstone."

Disney fan clubs and collectors' societies operate worldwide. But the Anaheim park has spawned a unique subculture of hard-core enthusiasts who visit dozens of times a year and have become almost an extension of the show.

Disneyphiles such as West know cast members on a first-name basis, can trace the genealogy of practically every shop and attraction and wax enthusiastically about the vaunted Disney "magic."

They also notice things the average visitor wouldn't: a Coke bottle floating in the River of the Americas, a gradual reduction in full-service restaurants throughout the park--small flaws and changes they perceive as a threat to Walt Disney's lofty standards of excellence.

In the past, such concerns would have taken the form of phone calls and notes to the park's guest relations office. But through the help of Internet bulletin boards and Web sites, Disneyland enthusiasts have linked up to create a freewheeling public forum for their views.

Park patriots have responded to West's electronic call to arms with a volley of complaints about crass merchandising, lax maintenance, rumored changes to long-standing attractions and the encroachment of corporate greed on Walt Disney's legacy.

Passionate, open letters have surfaced asking Disneyland Resort President Paul Pressler to resign. Pressler's smiling face and resume now adorn a cheeky, satirical Web site devoted to getting the youthful executive "promoted" right out of the park. One cyberrebel has suggested storming Tom Sawyer Island much like dope-smoking counterculturists did in 1970 to challenge park authority.

All the online complaints have irritated Disneyland officials, who declined to comment on the "Promote Paul Pressler" Web site, although they did remove the stuffed animals from the arcade.

The campaign isn't likely to derail the fast-moving Pressler, the personable, 40-year-old merchandising whiz who has presided over two of the most successful seasons in Disneyland history since moving over from the Disney Stores in late 1994.

In a year when the Walt Disney Co. has been accused of everything from promoting a "homosexual agenda," dumbing down the classics, exploiting Third World laborers and demonizing Arabs in its films, complaints about cheesy Hunchback souvenirs and gum on the Tomorrowland handrails probably won't rattle the officials in Burbank.

And Disneyland remains one of the world's top tourist attractions, setting an attendance record last year that made it the nation's most-visited theme park.

Still, the flap is a reminder that ardent Disney supporters can be a pretty tough crowd when managers start messing with the house that Walt built.

"We probably sound like lunatics complaining about all these little things," said Karen Kammann, a Disneyland lover from Northern California who saw the same piece of trash on Pirates of the Caribbean for four consecutive days when she visited Anaheim in June. "But it's all those little things that add up to the magic. That's what makes Disneyland different from other parks, and that's what we don't want to lose."

*

At 9 on a bright Sunday morning, Disneyland's Main Street couldn't look more inviting. A marching band's crisp melodies accompany visitors as they enter the park. The White Rabbit, Captain Hook, Chip (or maybe it's Dale) pat children's heads and sign their autograph books. Windows gleam in the faux small-town storefronts.

Scott Garner is starting his Sunday like he starts better than half of them each year, with breakfast at the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant.

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