In spite of what some internet pundits and self-righteous types would have you believe, being a film critic and entertainment journalist does not mean you're handed the keys to Hollywood along with your W-9. Attending screenings and junkets, transcribing interviews, and spending the vast majority of every single day (all day) sitting in front of a computer is far more exhausting than one might expect. In which case, the rare and unique opportunity to have fun and see some truly exclusive stuff is always welcome.
About two weeks ago Disney invited Cinematical to join a small group of print and online journalists for a press day in conjunction with their upcoming return to hand-drawn animation, The Princess and the Frog. In addition to conducting interviews with Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys not only responsible for Princess, but The Little Mermaid as well, our group took a tour of Disney's storied Animation Research Library, and even spent a little time at Disneyland itself on an exclusive behind the scenes tour.
Starting our day at 7:00 AM in Burbank, California, we piled into a shuttle van and made our way to Disneyland, which is located about an hour away in Anaheim. Arriving ahead of schedule, we were greeted by a cheerful but thankfully mellow fellow named Dean, who started our tour at the entrance of the park and then led us to the first of several rides we would get a chance to check out: Space Mountain. As I strapped in to the most famous of the park's roller coasters, I realized that it had been probably a decade since I'd been to a Disney theme park, and probably 25 years since I'd been to Disneyland itself. Memories came whooshing back to me as we navigated the dark twists and turns of its cavernous facility, which were further enhanced – and genuinely scary for the uninitiated – by "Alien Encounter," which essentially sent a creepy extraterrestrial force following you around in the dark.
After that, we wandered through several different areas of the park, which by 9:00 AM was already filling up, but still manageable to negotiate. Although I skipped the log flume in lieu of the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride (which requires some mood-altering substances to fully understand and appreciate), we soon found ourselves at The Haunted Mansion, which is annually outfitted with Nightmare Before Christmas-themed imagery. Somehow I ended up in the same car as Dean, our guide, and he offered plenty of interesting tidbits about the ride, including a noteworthy change they made a few years ago. Remembering how I got scared by a guy who jumped out at me when I rode it as a kid, I asked if they still had real people in the ride who interacted with the guests, and Dean explained that the used to have someone in a suit of armor who jumped out at people, but they discontinued this because the poor guy kept getting punched in the stomach.
While the rides themselves were fun, what was more interesting was the little, generally-unrevealed details we learned about during our tour. For example, Walt Disney designed the entrance to Disneyland with a specific kind of architectural perspective so that it would look longer, taller, deeper, and generally more immersive; the bricks get smaller anywhere the buildings climb higher, creating a real sense that you're able to lose yourself in this fairytale world. The culmination of these secret and exclusive looks behind Disney's curtain was twofold: first, we toured the Disney Dream Suite, a one-night stay in which is randomly awarded to guests who attend the park (although Dean showed us that none other than John Lasseter stayed there in recent months); and then we ate at Club 33, an exclusive, members-only restaurant that happens to be the only place in the entire park that serves alcohol.
The Dream Suite was absolutely magnificent: each room has a specific theme, and plenty of little surprises for folks who stay there. In the master bedroom, for example, the bathtub roof is adorned with blue tiles that have tiny lights in between them, approximating a starry night at the push of a button; in the living room, a music box and a grandfather clock not only signal times to wake up, but perform a duet with one another. (There was also a $50,000 trash can that one of my fellow journalists tried to steal, but that seemed like the most spendthrift of the Suite's otherwise glorious amenities.)
The restaurant, meanwhile, served really amazing food, including a dessert buffet that would rival Willy Wonka. But this was actually one area in which being a diehard Disneyphile might have helped me appreciate the experience more; while I'm a longtime fan of their films and familiar with many of the ins and outs of the company, a restaurant is still a restaurant – even if it allegedly costs $10,000 for a membership and a five-plus year wait in order to get in there.
After a ride on the Indiana Jones attraction, which was the bumpiest and probably most unnecessary ride to go on (particularly after a filling lunch), we hopped back in the shuttle van and headed back to Burbank for Part Two of our tour. Although I felt like an exhausted little kid who wanted nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed, I rallied by the time we arrived at the Animation Research Library, a nondescript building outside the grounds of Disney's Burbank studio. I'd actually been there before, when Disney was promoting the release of their terrific re-release of Lady and the Tramp on DVD, but was nevertheless wowed when I walked in again to find an expansive landscape of images and icons from the Disney universe.
Our tour of the facility, led by Fox Carney, showcased not only the content retained by the studio, but the way in which it's protected, and most importantly why it's protected. Showing us background plates from various Disney productions, animation tests, and other assorted images, Carney explained that every single sheet of paper the studio retained was in the process of being scanned and digitized for posterity, allowing filmmakers and scholars access to the archives in order to prepare for their own projects, or find some inspiration from the studio's vast wealth of talent.
Showing us a hand-drawn image from the original tests for Snow White, Carney revealed their massive library of materials, which are kept safe in a climate-controlled room that boasts the latest technology in order to keep the art safe in case of emergency or fire. Later, he introduced us to several of the staff members who help in that digitization and organization process, showing how they not only scan and save images, but make sure that those images, if accessed by computer, represent the original image as accurately as possible.
Wrapping up, the tour took about an hour total, and reinvigorated the group for the interview with Clements and Musker that lied ahead. But while such indulgences as a trip to a theme park sometimes seem frivolous, in the case of Disney, who perhaps not coincidentally released Snow White on Blu-ray for the first time recently, a look at their legacy is essential to understanding not only what they have done for family entertainment, but what they have to protect, which is why Princess and the Frog isn't merely "another" Disney movie. Rather, it's the rebirth of what truly was their bread and butter, and allowed a once-small studio to become an empire. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the film will really resuscitate hand-drawn animation, or prove as powerful as their longtime classics; but after a day immersed in the stuff that sustained imaginations for decades, I can better appreciate how it falls in line with their earlier movies and the magnificent world – both on screen and in real life – that Disney has created.