Disney Owns the Night

You've likely seen the new exit on the 5 freeway, the one that warrants its own offramp from the diamond lane. It's Disney Way, and it feeds you directly into the ravenous maw of the Happiest Place on Earth. Ever since Walt and a sense of propriety died, the Disney organization has never been shy about demanding infrastructure and concessions from the locals. We were used to it being Disney's way or the highway. Now even the highway is the Disney Way.

I suppose they know what's best for us. The untold months of traffic snarls we've endured have finally paid off in easier access to Disney's latest cash wicks, the California Adventure park and Downtown Disney mall.

Disney Way delivered me recently to the mouse mall, nestled between the Disneyland Hotel, the original park and California Adventure. The magic that is Disney surrounds you, and naturally, you think, "Jesus, I need a drink." Now, finally, they will pour you one.

Though I understand that some of the park's best mellow-drunk rides, like the submarine, are toast now, it's still nice to regard the place with some manner of buzz on.

Disneyland used to be entirely dry, with the lone exception of the private Club 33 that lays as mysterious as an opium den behind a closed door in New Orleans Square. Unless you were at least as famous as Telly Savalas, there was no getting into the place. Those in the lower rungs of show biz, such as my high school marching band, had to settle for smuggling in our own hooch. If you've never appreciated the skill involved in being in a marching band, it's probably because you've never tried to balance a bottle of rum on your head under one of those tall, furry helmets.

I have also been privileged to drink there on press nights when the park is scoured of the public and four-fingered cartoon characters hand you an alcoholic beverage every time you blink—which is pretty often, unless you're accustomed to having linebacker-sized chipmunks decant your merlot.

I wouldn't say the media is unduly swayed by Disney's flowing largesse, just that if Osama bin Laden laid out a similar spread for reporters, you'd be reading a lot more about what a swell destination his Afghani compound is.

But even for you regular folk, it's a brand-new Disney day now. California Adventure may have ignored some of the more obvious California adventures —there's no Rolling Blackout or Road Rage rides—but it salutes the state's wine country with a Robert Mondavi tasting area, and there are other spots where adults might experience the magic of being liquored-up.

Downtown Disney, meanwhile, is awash in upscale drinkie-winkie opportunities. At the Catal restaurant and connected Uva bar, for example, you can toss back a $125 bottle of Chateau Pichon Baron de Longueville Pauillac Bordeaux before heading back in to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Both Catal and the neighboring Naples Ristorante are from the folks who own Pinot Provence, and with menu items like osso bucco, paella, escargots and spicy ahi tuna tartare (most entres are between $15 and $20), it's a distinct improvement over $9 Country Bear fur-burger platters.

Other eateries include Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen (po'-folk food like their catfish and black-eyed peas is a whopping $27, but you can get a powerful bowl of gumbo at their walk-up window for $6. It won't cure your hangover, but it'll keep you awake so you'll know you've got it) and Y Arriba Y Arriba, featuring "a magical cocktail of Latino food, culture and entertainment"—not to mention a floor show whose dancers have smiles so forced they look like they're biting down on dental x-ray film.

There's a megaplex with an ESPN Zone, where you can see actual ESPNs made; a confectionary; a pretzel shop; a shop that sells nothing but watches; another with only sunglasses; and another with only hood ornaments boosted from cars in the parking lot.

In the sprawling World of Disney store, you can find $18 kids' T-shirts; sweats priced from $24 to $58; and some genuine bargains, such as a $10 highly detailed, 11-inch hiking Mickey doll (peel back the boot and he has socks on, and his tiny backpack has a real mesh side pocket). I wish I'd been made with this much detail.

Then there's the House of Blues, the one that was originally going to open in the Irvine Spectrum until Disney reminded them it owns a piece of the House of Blues chain, along with a clause giving the Mouse dibs in areas where Disney has a presence. So Downtown Disney got the House of Blues, giving the center its bit of prefab bad-boy cachet. When Social D's Mike Ness did his expletive-repeating bit at the new venue, one could only hope the rumors of Walt's head being cryogenically frozen were true: the ice would have made for less friction when it started spinning.

This is an all-around edgier experience. Even the typically child-centric Rainforest Caf has a serious bar, with an effervescent bubble aquarium running its full length and stools that have hooved feet and tails so that, seated in them, you look just like a horse's ass.

Good luck making one of yourself, though, because the hint of edgy debauch is illusory. Disney's fabled security hasn't loosened up just because you may have. A bartender acquaintance tells me that all "cast members" at Downtown Disney are within easy reach of phones on which merely dialing 0 summons security to smoothly remove anyone who looks a little too lit. Persons who are at all difficult are turned over to the Anaheim police, who maintain a strong presence on the street.

The handout pamphlet for Downtown Disney has a list of thou shalt nots, including littering, loitering and "all other activities prohibited by the Downtown Disney District Code of Conduct. The complete Code of Conduct is available in the Downtown Disney Security Office. The Code of Conduct will be strictly enforced." Reading "Code of Conduct" in every line makes me suspect they're leading up to producing a Steven Seagal movie of that name.

In the fawning local press coverage, Downtown Disney's designers related how they spent two years scouting the great plazas of Madrid, Berlin, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong, et al., searching for the right feel for their downtown. Oh, the privations they must have endured when all the while, the model for their final product was so close to home: Toontown.

There's scarcely been a new mall built in SoCal that doesn't owe a design debt to the cartoon-based land. You'll find the bright, contrasting paints; the playfully skewed angles; and the overriding sense that, after you've had your little fun, they can just hose away any sign you'd ever been there. All that remains of you is your money.

These modern esplanades have no give and take, none of the random possibility of life. You don't interact. Nothing you do, short of abject vandalism, would leave a mark or make a difference. This is not where a Henry Miller would go to seep up inspiration. The relationship Downtown Disney has to real street life is the same one their jungle boat ride has to a real wilderness.

Already, some locals are referring to the Downtown Disney House of Blues as the Mouse of Blues. It's all right, but it's no Linda's Doll Hut, which struggled to stay open while access was choked off by the Disney-desired freeway "improvements."

It will probably survive. Some years back, I visited the site in New Mexico where we tested the first atomic bomb, and even there, vegetation was springing up anew in the cracks in the fused earth. Disney will probably someday put a park there. In the meantime, life goes on.


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