Mickey Mouse Watchtower: Gateways and Kingdoms

For anyone who’s ever been to both the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and the flagship kingdom in Disneyland, it’s always fun to compare attractions, architecture or entertainment that is shared in both parks. Many even have an impassioned stance about “their” park but I choose to respect both interpretations. To me, I like to use “All Along the Watchtower” as a metaphor. The song, originally written and performed by Bob Dylan, was popularized by Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation. Whether you like either artist or their version of their song, you cannot deny their impact on popular music. And you wouldn’t find many rock critics saying one is inferior to the other. There is a place for both. And that was my feeling after seeing both parks. I could compare and contrast all I wanted, but ultimately I thought both kingdoms to be magical. With Mickey Mouse Watchtower, I'm going to talk about those common experiences side by side and try to be objective when weighing the better of the two.

I thought it would be great to kick-off this series the way any guest would start their vacation with Disney—the arrival at the park, the very unveiling of the magic. To me, some of the best memories come before you’re even halfway down Main Street, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Joe Penniston

Arriving at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are two distinct experiences that have been detailed for many years in describing the isolated expansiveness of the latter in contrast to the former’s placement amidst encroaching city development. You know the story by now: Walt purchased the real estate in Florida under dummy corporations to avoid an increase in land value (that would come with the prospect of a theme park opening in central Florida). But he was buying more land than the company ever planned on using, in part to harbor all his visions (i.e. the original EPCOT) and also to keep away the same type of leeches who surrounded his first kingdom in Anaheim. As such, the very first sights you see at each resort are vastly different than each other.

At the Walt Disney World resort today, you know what to expect as the highway signs point you along your way. You crane your neck to see certain park icons or hotels looming over tall trees, whether it is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Spaceship Earth or the top of Typhoon Lagoon’s Mount Mayday. On certain roads, you are joined by monorail tracks sending guests to and fro Epcot. But when it was just the Magic Kingdom, the magic was very much a shrouded mystery, tucked far back on the property.

I first visited Walt Disney World in 1982 and was thus able to experience visiting the resort before its first wave of significant expansion. At that point, our first glimpse of the magic was the spires of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain across Seven Seas Lagoon from our hotel, the Polynesian Resort. It was almost like we had actually visited a kingdom, relegated to our quarters within distant view of the castle, awaiting our trip to see the king. That king was Mickey Mouse and we were transported not by horse but by a futuristic monorail. Every step of the way unveiled more of the magic before you were fully immersed in it, walking down that monorail platform to the entrance way, perhaps catching your first glimpse of a character (in the days when they were allowed to roam free). The anxiousness of getting through the line and gate and underneath the railroad station.

We are often told about how the Imagineers set up a guest’s experience entering the park, with the preview posters, the story in Main Street, U.S.A.’s architecture and then finally the reveal of the castle (whether it be Sleeping Beauty’s or Cinderella’s). But we don’t hear enough about the imagineering of the entire resort as part of the show. The hotels, the transportation, and the general lay of the land are all part of the experience, whether you’re a young child or an aging adult. My first four stays (during impressionable years) at WDW all took place along the monorail loop which built a foundation for this vacation experience.

Photo Credit: Athena1970

That included the walk through the hotel grounds to the monorail station, catching glimpse of all the architecture and theming of the resort as you hurry towards the destination. There is something nostalgic now about those monorail station waits, especially in comparison to the uninspired, tortuous bus-station waits one must endure at most of the resorts today. Then you’re on the memorable loop with the unforgettable Jack Wagner spiel and views of Seven Seas Lagoon, before finally arriving and rushing down the ramp to the gates of Magic Kingdom.

Off the monorail and towards the MK gates! Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik

(In my recent trips to the World, hotel stays were distant from the parks, only reachable via bus or rental car. Sure, I was happy just to be there at all but the lodging loses quite a bit of luster when you’re forced to utilize the type of transportation you would take commuting to your job!)

In the 27 years since my first visit, I’ve exhibited significant physical and internal growth and seen life grow into the complex challenge that adulthood brings you. But in that time, the heightened, eager anticipation of arriving at Disney World has not changed. The only difference now is the size of the ticket and camera that I’m eagerly grasping for. As jaded as I might be at any given moment in life, when I’m getting off that monorail, I’m practically yearning to just sprint through the gates and on towards Adventureland. It’s as inexplicable to me as it is to naysayers, but a long time ago I chose not to question this type of nostalgia and rather embrace it vividly. This is why our collective fandom flourishes on the Internet; because many of you know exactly what I'm talking about, making me feel slightly less strange.

Outside of Mickey and Friends Parking. Photo Credit: DTrigger05

Disneyland may not have the same mysterious, expansive borders but arriving there was just as wonderful. I distinctly recall waking up early, the happy result of the previous day’s jet lag. With my wife elsewhere on business, I ventured North on the 5 in a rental car, to the sounds of a Golden State-themed mix CD I had created for the trip. It was colder than I had expected in Southern California. I had my directions on the passenger seat and headed to Disneyland for the first time. The year was 2006 and I was 8 years old again inside the body of a 31-year-old.

How thrilling it was to be driving along a California highway with all the typical city sights lining either side of the road and then suddenly catch a glimpse of the Tower of Terror and Space Mountain rising above the Anaheim skyline. Unlike the subtle slow unveiling of its younger Floridian sister, Disneyland just suddenly emerges from the cityscape. I pulled off my exit with childlike glee and made my way to the Mickey and Friends parking garage, with a quick tram ride to the entrance plaza. I knew I was arriving much earlier than the park opened but felt that it would give me time to check out the entrance plaza and a bit of Downtown Disney. However, it turned out that this particular day was an early opening so I was able to get into the park right away.

A view of the plaza outside of DCA and Disneyland. Photo Credit: Loren Javier

My early entrance allowed me to take some fairly clean photographs of the castle, the Matterhorn, Space Mountain and the partners statue (a picture which acts as part of the banner of this website). It also allowed me to get some popular rides out of the way before the morning rush arrived. Not only did I have immense joy in seeing this park for the first time, but I felt like a kid in an abandoned candy shop. (Such was the benefit of visiting Disneyland on a Thursday in February.) But as big a memory as my arrival inside of the park is, that whole experience of getting there is equally as strong for me.

The first thing I saw after entering the gates of Disneyland.

While I can’t speak from experience on all manners of arrival, I assume for many guests, they arrived within clear view of the resort, whether via nearby lodging or the three official hotels. I don’t know if the monorail loop had the same effect. When I rode it, I certainly appreciated the inherent majesty and history behind the transportation line but it’s simply not presented with the same intentions as the Disney World line, mostly due to both the lack of great distance between the park and the hotels, but also the line’s intention as more novelty than practical transportation.

It’s almost impossible not to compare the kingdoms but I never quite understood the need to debate them as if one was far superior (or inferior). When I was younger, I distinctly recall reading about Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye and feeling like I had to get there to see it. As I got older and started becoming more immersed in the history behind not only Walt himself but his theme parks, I knew that I’d have to one day check out Disneyland. And when I visited, even having variations of many of the rides and the Kingdom itself, I still had that feeling of wide-eyed excitement as I approached the park. Now in retrospect, as much as I can make comparisons and judgments, I not only have a sense of nostalgia for Disneyland but I would love to return there, even if that desire isn’t as frequent as the one I have for Disney World.

As far as arrivals, visiting Disneyland showed me that the nostalgia of the Disney vacation experience can supersede those moments just within the resorts and reach into every facet of your vacation. My Disneyland experience broke through the insulated barriers of previous Disney World experiences and entailed the type of adult responsibilities that were invisible in my childhood visits. Only three years later, I can look back at something as pedestrian as a rental car trip on a freeway as part of wonderful nostalgia. Yeah, the destination is what it was all about and if Disneyland or Walt Disney World weren't such wonderful places, all that other stuff would've disappeared in our minds. But when I long for my return to either park, I daydream of the entire experience and one of those strongest visions is seeing myself on that monorail approaching the Magic Kingdom station or driving that rental car into Mickey and Friends parking garage. Because like in real life, they are portals to experiences that never stop fueling the imagination.


Scott said...

Hey, that's my icon picture!