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Not Your Father's Dizzyland

February 29, 2004|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Oh, for the days of those dizzying, stomach-turning whirls in Disneyland's cherished teacups.

The Mad Tea Party, Fantasyland's iconic attraction, has lost some of its spin in the name of safety, and longtime fans aren't happy.

They've marched to City Hall on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. in protest. They have posted hundreds of messages on Internet discussion boards under urgent headings like "Save the Teacups." There's even talk of holding a spin-in -- if, that is, they can get the darn cups moving.

Though they acknowledge that Disneyland faces a bit of a Catch-22 -- other critics have complained that the Anaheim theme park doesn't pay enough attention to safety -- purists see it as part of an ominous pattern: Fear of lawsuits is driving some of the fun out of the Magic Kingdom, they say.

"It's like all the good times are over," said annual pass-holder Isaac Martin, 24. "It feels so depressing."

The ride that depicts a scene from Alice in Wonderland's "unbirthday party" was built in 1955 when the park opened.

Mounted on rotating platforms are 18 giant teacups, each equipped with a wheel that allows riders to spin the cup on its axis, varying both speed and direction. Fans have even devoted Web pages to discussion of which cups spin best.

The teacups still rotate, but fans said the park has tightened the mechanism so it's impossible to produce the old stomach-churning spin. It takes near-herculean strength to make them rotate even slowly.

"It was like your car steering wheel before you put your key in the ignition -- you can't turn it," Martin said. "My arms were a little sore just from tugging and tugging. I finally gave up and said, 'Oh, forget it.' "

Disneyland officials said they made the change after a disabled patron lost his balance and slipped from a teacup last month. He did not require medical treatment.

Officials from the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency that regulates amusement parks, investigated, but didn't ask Disneyland to modify the ride.

Disneyland officials, in a written statement, insist "the ride remains entertaining and exciting for guests of all ages," and say few have complained.

But the decision has fans accusing the park of becoming too conservative in its approach to fun, especially since the attraction has operated for nearly 50 years without any serious accidents. Not to mention the fact that they're tinkering with one of the park's original attractions.

"I support certain amounts of controls and legislation to keep theme parks safe," said Disneyland fan Jennie Sloan, 26, of Newport Beach, who called the state to complain, only to be informed that the slowdown wasn't its doing.

"But I think Disney is being a little too careful. They have made many minor changes in the park recently to accommodate all kinds of concerns or liability issues. This is definitely much more a product of people being sue-happy."

It may be a slightly different argument, but it's the same kind of complaint Disneyland heard after making changes for the sake of political correctness.

In a 1997 rehab of Pirates of the Caribbean, swashbucklers were made to chase plates of food instead of frightened maidens.

After the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, the park removed violent video games.

And in 2001, the park disarmed skippers on the Jungle Cruise who once fired blanks at charging hippos during the African-themed cruise.

After a number of high-profile accidents and legislation that empowered the state to inspect rides and investigate serious incidents, the park went "safety prevention crazy," said Mouse Tales author Dave Koenig, who has written three Disney-related books.

"This is laughable," Koenig said. "They've taken the madness out of the Mad Tea Party. The Disney fan who plays by the rules -- who keeps his hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times -- has seen his experienced degraded, his thrills cut back little by little each year as Disney tries to foresee potential problems."

Disneyland's official website still describes the classic attraction as an interactive "colorful, music party ride" that can spin wildly or remain gentle.

The website also warns patrons that it is "best to eat after you spin."

But annual pass-holder Christian Meinke, 42, of Long Beach said that despite his best efforts, he experienced none of the usual dizziness and stumbling around after hopping off the ride.

That's saying a lot coming from Meinke, heralded by his friends as a "master spinner" for his skill at getting the teacups whizzing.

One friend jokingly told him going on the teacups with Meinke at the wheel is better than Botox because centrifugal force pulled her skin so tight.

So after rumors started circulating that the Mad Tea Party wasn't what it used to be, Meinke gathered a dozen of his friends and headed to Disneyland to investigate.

He watched the ride for several cycles, evaluating which teacup seemed to spin the best. Blue, he decided.

"It took all the energy I had to get it somewhat spinning and partway through I was spent for the ride," Meinke said.

He and his friends complained at Disneyland's City Hall, where employees said it had recently been refurbished and would "loosen up" over time.

But in the weeks that followed, nobody Meinke talked to noticed the tension easing.

Fans said they don't want to create an uprising. They just want their ride back -- the same whimsical attraction they remember riding with their parents.

On a recent Disneyland outing, Meinke said he stopped at the Mad Tea Party, and continued on without getting on.

"I walked by and looked at the teacups and just saw people going around and not spinning," Meinke said. "It's really just a sadness. You can't be a master spinner."

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