Amid near-deafening hype, Disney's California Adventure opened on Feb. 8, and it's now clear that early knocks against the 55-acre park were prescient. It's dinky, often reinforces pass California stereotypes, and too seldom thrills beyond anything at lesser amusement parks.
But Disney deserves credit for the theme humming through its shiny new moneymaker: California's diversity. Climatic, industrial or demographic, the Golden State's diversity gets a positive spin at California Adventure—a golly-shucks, Disneyfied spin but a positive spin nonetheless.
Trotting out the race card is particularly praiseworthy (and ballsy) considering the ethnic-cleansing campaign going down in the town that surrounds the thrilling fields. More on that in a bit.
Two attractions that practically thump guests over the head with the racial-diversity stick are the twice-daily Disney's Eureka! A California Parade and the endless-loop presentation of the 23-minute flick Golden Dreams.
Costumers from Las Vegas and the designer of the Broadway smash The Lion Kingwere enlisted for the parade, a procession of six floats, dozens of 14-foot-high marionettes and more than 100 brightly clad performers that fills the park's central plaza as the upbeat song "Come Away With Me" blares out of hidden loudspeakers. Around the midsection of each kaleidoscopic float is the likeness of a giant woman. Although she's from a different ethnic group each time she passes, she's apparently the same chick: Eureka, the spirit of California.
The parade also features living women of differing ethnicities in African outfits, geisha getups and flowing folklorico dresses. Frightening, borderline racist images occasionally emerge. A white guy riding a bike decorated in a dragon motif during the media preview wore makeup that made his eyes appear slanted; seeing white guys in "Chinaman" outfits pulling a Golden Gate Bridge replica raises the hairs on the back of your neck when you think about the way Chinese laborers were treated back in the day. And a white dude in a giant Chinese-takeout box used large chopsticks to menace an Asian girl in a fortune-cookie costume. Even my Disney-appointed media guide had to remark, "I don't know what that's supposed to symbolize."
At least every group in California was represented. Well, everyone except gays. What the hell am I talking about? This was a Disney parade! Of course gays were represented!
And how about the 70 mm film Golden Showers? That's what one media production guy came up with when he tried to recall the title of the film that one Disney executive called "the heart of the park." Actually, it's called Golden Dreams. It's narrated by raspy-voiced center-square Whoopi Goldberg and may be the first motion picture in history that includes images of Ray Kroc, Harvey Milk, Jim Morrison, Richard Nixon, Jerry Garcia, Ronald Reagan and even Rodney King getting the stuffing beaten out of him.
Through a bit of Haunted Mansionesque magic, Whoopi is introduced as Califia, the spirit of California. Hey, wasn't Eureka the spirit of California? Shut up and watch the picture! Directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa and The Secret Garden), Golden Dreamscelebrates "the people and cultures that shaped California." Ours is a state that attracts dreamers, and when dreamers in the film begin to lose faith, Califia—who's named after a character in the Portuguese novel that gave California its name—shows up to prod them.
We see Native Americans from the Chumash community on a beach 13,000 years ago. We see the 18th-century Spanish settlers who were, as Whoopi puts it, "on a mission" to build missions and a new way of life from San Diego and San Francisco; but as the film boldly points out, the missionaries also brought new diseases that nearly wiped out the native people. We see two of the 15,000 Chinese laborers who risked their lives laying railroad tracks through the West's rugged terrain get blowed up real good.
Golden Dreams also features a scene in which a just-arrived Japanese woman gets a ripe-tomato facial from an angry mob of white boys; white boys will be white boys, after all. Califia tells her to be strong, but the young woman still seems confused—perhaps because she can't understand a lick of what Whoopi just said, being Japanese and all.
Mexican farm workers get their due, as an actor portraying union organizer Cesar Chavez tells fruit pickers that "freedom and dignity are not just for the rich. We want them, too."
The piece ends with the newly commissioned song "Just One Dream" playing over the montage of images "representing the glorious diversity of California's landscape." One sequence has Anaheim's own Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez raising her hands in election-night victory on one side of the screen, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown glad-handing on the opposite side and a giant mug shot of the late Sonny Bono between them. I didn't know what that was supposed to symbolize. Whoopi?
"I guess when people from all over the planet come here with their dreams, we've got to come up with something special," she says as she sits on a modern-day park bench in her cool shades. "What about you? Have you got a dream? Well, bring it on because this is the place."
This is the place? Anaheim? A town settled by Germans? Oh, we know how the Germans feel about people of diverse backgrounds moving in to chase their dreams. Indeed, the world just outside the gates of California Adventure remains vastly different from the fantasyland inside.
This is a town where people don't give donations to charities unless they're assured undocumented immigrants won't be among those getting help. This is a town where suspected gangbangers have been brutalized by police anti-gang officers. This is a town where the now-national program that puts federal immigration officers in city jails was born. This is a town where the cops' penchant for profiling Asians landed them in hot water with a federal appeals court. This is a town where the cops' treatment of minorities brought a fact-finding mission by a federal civil-rights panel.
This is a town where—if the hatemongers get their way—anyone who looks Mexican could face constant harassment by cops demanding to see citizenship papers, a notion one clear-headed councilwoman correctly likened to something "that happens in communist countries."
This is a town where schools have flirted with billing Mexico and—when that failed—the federal government for educating children of suspected undocumented immigrants.
This is a town where longtime Anaheim cop and Mexico-hater Harald Martin thrives. Championing the abolition of bilingual education, Martin was elected by Anaheim voters to serve simultaneously on the city's primary and secondary school boards—until he was slapped with a lawsuit that forced him to step down from one of the posts (he chose to stay on the high school board).
This is a town where Martin and former Anaheim police civilian employee Barbara Coe try to shape anti-diversity policy through their Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR). Coe recently told KOCE's Real Orange news program that her group has designated Anaheim as the beta site for its anti-immigrant campaign. Once it takes off there, she explained, it'll go nationwide. The CCIR is allied with the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has suggested forming a "citizen militia" to take care of immigration if police fail to get INS authority.
This is a town where the officially sanctioned treatment of immigrants and minorities creates clouds of fear, mistrust and lawlessness directed toward nonwhites.
This is a town that has been a hotbed for housing discrimination against nonwhites in low-income neighborhoods.
This is a town of more than 300,000 people (more than 50 percent of them minorities) where only two hate crimes were logged in 1999. Officials say that proves all is well in the shadow of the Mouse, but you could make an equally strong case that the frightened people feel safer underground. A 12-year-old Anaheim boy died of complications from leukemia in 1994 because his parents, undocumented Mexicans, feared they'd be asked about their immigration status at the local hospital.
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This is a town where skinheads and White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger flock to hear white-power bands.
And this is a town where fallout from Disney's nightly fireworks show often blows over poor folks who are forced indoors to escape eye-irritating, sulfur-laden black smoke.
This is also a town where poorer neighborhoods didn't see a dime of improvement from the $4.2 billion, city-, state- and Disney-funded transformation of the Disneyland Resort and its surrounding area.
Given Anaheim's history of hate, we should welcome California Adventure. Despite its shortcomings, anything that plays up the positive side of racial diversity is sorely needed in this town. Given the city that surrounds the park, the $43 admission price is a cheap escape.