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Grand Finale

For those who gathered to watch the Anaheim hotel's demise, it was 'even better than TV.'


ANAHEIM — In this city where the biggest tourist draw is a theme park built on the premise that simulation is better than reality, not even the destruction of a building happens without a plan, a press release and an audience.

Which is why when the 10-story Grand Hotel imploded at 6:45 a.m. Sunday, courtesy of the Walt Disney Co., it came down before the eyes of hundreds of spectators standing on rooftops, car hoods, and in a vacant lot. About a dozen people watched the collapse from the very top of the Matterhorn.

"That was an E Ticket, definitely," said Martha Hodge, referring to the designation Disneyland used to give its most eye-popping rides, as the vacant hotel went down before her like the proverbial house of cards.

"It's better even than TV."

Better than television seemed to be the prevailing opinion among the spectators, who came to see something bigger than IMAX, more powerful than Arnold Schwarzenegger and more immediate than, well, the same thing on TV.

"These days everything is on TV," said Johanna Lemos, who shook her 8-year-old grandson out of bed at 5 a.m. so they could catch sight of the building, laced with 500 pounds of explosives, fall in on itself.

"I don't want him always to see everything on the screen at home. It's not the same. I want him to have real experiences. I would really have liked to get him close enough to feel the air currents, to have some dust settle on his head."

Disney officials did not stage the implosion of the hotel for entertainment. Officials want to use the 11-acre site for parking, which has been at a premium since the theme park took away parking spaces to begin construction on a new theme park, Disney's California Adventure.

Some visitors to Disneyland have been forced recently to wind their way through street closures and park many blocks away from the attractions, then board shuttles to the park.

The construction is part of $4.2 billion in improvements to Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center, the newly renamed Edison Field and surrounding freeways and streets.

On Sunday morning, however, destruction, not construction, was on the agenda. Controlled Demolition, a Maryland company had been hired to bring down the Grand. And to the staccato of six blasts, that's what it did.

To the many gathered to watch, some clutching coffee mugs, others wrapped in blankets against the morning chill, most carrying still or video cameras, the drama put the thrills and chills of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland to shame.

With a shudder, the 242-room hotel fell to the ground in 18 seconds, its rooms, stripped of everything including the sinks, pancaking in on themselves obligingly. As the sound of the last blast faded, the entire building heaved, then disappeared behind the dust.

A minute later, there was the Grand Hotel, now a pile of rubble, the sky above it looking larger than where the hotel had blocked it a moment before.

"It's like watching history, watching it go down," said Dwight Yaden, 48, a delivery truck driver for a nearby dry-cleaning business who for years picked up and delivered uniforms and linens at the hotel every day.

"It's going to be sad. There were a lot of people who worked at that hotel for a lot of years. Now the whole landscape here is changing."

The hotel built in the 1960s had become something of a landmark in Anaheim. Just beyond the borders of Disneyland, it was once among the premier hotels in the area. Built in the space-age style of the era, inside it had a marble bar, a gilded ballroom and a theater.

But the hotel's grandness had long since faded when the Walt Disney Co. bought it in 1996. What was left of its glories were gutted by Disney, which hired a liquidator to sell furniture, televisions, bathroom fixtures, chandeliers and two baby grand pianos, among other items, four months after it bought the hotel.

Since then Disney officials have been preparing for Sunday's demolition. They hired a company to remove tons of asbestos and other hazardous materials last year. And in recent months they had staged a smaller series of explosions inside the hotel.

By Sunday, it was, as they say, curtains.

"It's a high-energy thing. It just gets your heartbeat going," said Terry Frease, 42, who drove to Anaheim from Lakewood on Saturday night and got a room with a friend in a nearby motel so they could watch the Grand's finale.

"It's down!" Frease said after she stopped whooping and applauding at the sight of the implosion. "What a trip. And we didn't even pay to get into Disneyland."

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