Christmas in Southern California can be harsh; the season's traditional trappings-fake snow, holly by the pound-play bleak against a landscape to which they are anathema. The sad bit of forced merriment showcases more desperation than cheer, illuminates in a glare rather than glow, and the more that's put up, piled on, hung to and strung from, the more one confesses there is something to hide.
This was Disneyland, my friends. Disneyland, Christmastime, the Year of Our Lord, 1998.
I had not seen the place in months, not since I had slipped out in the dark, a phantom bridegroom, triumphant yet unknown. I'd returned once, I suppose, when the account of my conquest-riding every attraction in Disneyland in a single day-hit the stands in the Sept. 17 issue of the OC Weekly. But I hadn't been to Disneyland since.
I'm not sure what I was expecting to find when I arrived a couple of weeks before Christmas with my wife, Sharon, who had served as support crew during my previous endeavor. How would they treat their conqueror, the man who had stripped them of the mantle of invincibility, of magic? Parades? Tribute? Squadrons of balloon-noggined, fuzzy-trunked characters, trembling and prostrate before me, chanting in some high-pitch desert yawp? Cookies?
Cookies is the first thing I saw upon entering Disneyland, once-proud Disneyland. Cookies strewn about on what appeared to be a couple of card tables. Behind the tables, a female employee in turn-of-the-century garb tended to the one girl who had taken her up on the offer of decorating her own "special cookie" with frosting and sprinkles. Jaycee carnival stuff.
I am not a man who reads military history, so I do not know how Patton felt when he entered Berlin to find its citizens eating bark. I have no idea what ran through Sherman's mind upon seeing great Atlanta smoldering before him. I assure you I took no special pleasure in seeing Disneyland so pathetic, took no comfort in the fact that a more garish population had not been so pliant in defeat since the German army took an extended Parisian holiday.
I had heard the radio ads feverishly promising lights, decorations, choral groups, cookies-anything, anything-each promise a graduated cry for help. I had even heard the numbers: the 4 percent drop in park attendance, the 10 percent drop in Japanese tourists, a 40 percent drop among Koreans.
A revamped Tomorrowland was opened with much fanfare only to get a lukewarm response, partially because one of its marquee rides-Rocket Rods-broke down in the first week and wasn't operational for months.
Then there were the arrests, the lower-than-usual customer-satisfaction survey-all of it because everyone knew what I did last summer. I'd stripped the park of its reputation, exposed its vulnerable innards, and as anyone in the theme-park industry will tell you, an amusement park with guts lying all over the place is a little less special, a little less happiest.
I suppose one could argue that the drop in Asian tourism had something more to do with the collapse of Asian economies, that the overall 4 percent drop had more to do with Disneyland's high entrance prices, which could also contribute to low customer satisfaction.
Yes, someone could argue on such thin evidence for a while. That same person might believe, for a moment, that the arrest and conviction of former Mouseketeer Darlene Gillespie on stock-fraud charges had nothing to do with me.
But all of that ignores the fact that none of this happened before I subdued Disneyland. If anyone doubts the causal effect of my work, consider this: after I rode every ride in Disneyland in one day, the park changed its hours of operation for certain rides and lands. Certain rides were not opened until noon, and others closed earlier. Toon Town-which I took late at night in a tactical maneuver that was pivotal to the success of my campaign-now closed two hours before the park. Disneyland, like many areas under siege, had declared martial law.
As one would expect, the citizenry was not happy. Almost from the moment I walked in, I heard the most dreaded Disneyland curse-"That would have never happened if Walt were still alive." I heard it applied to everything-from the guy wearing the South Park T-shirt to the popcorn kernels not swept up in seconds to the clumsy, handwritten sign that said Autopia would not open until noon to the T-shirt with silkscreened rabbits performing numerous and varied sexual positions. It was an angry crowd, whether it was the old man piked upon an iron fence waiting for a Christmas parade that was already 15 minutes late ("This would have never happened . . .") and muttering, "I pay 40 bucks to sit on a rail?" or the kid in the Promise Keepers cap who perched himself atop a ship in Toon Town and simulated picking off patrons with a gift-shop rifle. Is this what my efforts had wrought? Texas?
Of course, thinking about it, I realize that I bear no responsibility here. Disneyland would eventually have to be taken by someone. It was just a matter of time before someone with the requisite courage, can-do attitude and rough-hewn good looks came along to do the job.
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Everything that followed was as natural a process as erosion. So I was not surprised when criticism rose to the highest levels, to the park's president, Paul Pressler, whom many had blamed for what befell the park.
Those who wanted Pressler out wanted it so bad that they started an online campaign to get him kicked upstairs and away from Disneyland. In December, their Christmas wish was granted. Pressler was promoted.
He's now in charge of all of Disney's theme parks.
Happy new year.