Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gay Days at Disneyland 2007

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, October 14, 2007)

This year marked the tenth anniversary of Gay Days at Disneyland (http://www.gaydaysanaheim.com/). What this means is that every year on the first weekend of October, gay men and women from all over the country (and sometimes from all over the world) put on their red shirts and descend on Anaheim California for a weekend of fun and visibility at one of the greatest amusement parks in the world. The red shirts are a way of making sure we are very visible to all attending the parks on those days.

Skip and I have been attending this event for about five years now and have seen it grow more popular with each passing year. While it is an unofficial event that Disney corporate heads continue to deny they support every year, there are parties thrown on Disney property and even official merchandise that ties into the event. This year there was a very nice pin that was an outline of Mickey Mouse's head done in rainbow colors. And while it didn't say anything about gays on it, there were bowls of them for sale at every pin stand throughout the park. Disney knows where its cash is coming from and how to exploit any given market, even if it refuses to officially recognize that market. (This refusal to acknowledge gays ands lesbians is breaking down more and more each year. This year, Disney finally allowed gay commitment ceremonies to take place on their property through their official Disney Weddings department.)

This year, our newly single friend Karl came down from San Francisco to join us once again in the celebration. We usually drive back and forth between Anaheim and our house in Sherman Oaks each day, but decided that it was worth renting a hotel room this time so we could party and drink and take full advantage of the weekend without worry. On this front, Disney was offering discount hotel rooms and we decided to go all out and rent a room in the best hotel, the Grand Californian. This cost us $250 a night, but considering what these rooms normally cost, it's a real deal! The room was small, as I suspected a discounted room would be, but it was extremely comfortable and well worth the price to have a room that we could walk to in minutes. The hotel itself is gorgeous, designed in the Craftsman style of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a pleasure to stay there and we will probably take advantage of the discount every year from now on.

Disney also offered discount park tickets. Karl bought a three-day park hopper and Skip and I bought a five-day park hopper. Park hopper means that we have unlimited entrance for each day to both Disneyland and California Adventure, the two side-by-side parks in Southern California. Skip and I bought 5-day tickets because they were just $25 more for the two extra days. We paid $150 each for the 5-day tickets and considering that a one-day park hopper is normally $91, that's quite a deal. (All these discounts are what make me smile when I hear this described as an "unofficial" event. I guess they keep it unofficial to ward off the crazies and the no-fun police of the religious right. I can't say that I blame them.)

On top of paying for rooms and tickets, there are also parties thrown throughout the weekend. There is a small dance party (Wonderland) thrown on Friday at the Ralph Brennan's Restaurant in the Downtown Disney shopping district ($15). Saturday brings a larger party (Kingdom) thrown at the House Of Blues in Downtown Disney ($30-40). There is also a Saturday cocktail party in the Disneyland Hotel for just a hundred people who buy the highest priced party package tickets ($100). And there's a casual cocktail get-together at the end of the whole event on Sunday at the Hearthstone Lounge in the Grand Californian Hotel. Throughout the event are also book signings, movies, dinners and meets for various sub-groups (youth, bears, ladies, etc).

We arrived Friday at mid-afternoon and checked into the hotel. I was originally a bit pissed off when they told me that the room they had for us had one queen bed and a bunk bed in it. We were told there would be a king bed and a foldout couch. But after some negotiation, we ended up with two queen beds and everyone was happy. Our small room overlooked the middle court and the monorail track. We were afraid the cheap rooms would all be along the Downtown Disney area and that would mean noise and distraction, so we were very happy with where we were. (Our friends Lisa and Alison had a room along Downtown Disney and they said it was non-stop noise from 6 am until 12 midnight, so be sure to request a room away from that area if you book this hotel in the future.)

We made our way to the Gay Days Info Center, located in the Disneyland Hotel, where we all got a bag filled with luggage tags and other promo knickknacks along with a schedule of events. I also bought an official Gay Days pin to add to my collection. At that point, Karl decided he wanted to go work out at the gym provided by the hotel, but Skip and I have little time for that and we wanted to ride the rides. We agreed to meet later for dinner and off we went to different ends of the park.

We usually try to participate in some of the Gay Days activities, such as the group photo, the "I Love A Parade" group watching and the final gathering to have a drink at the Grand Californian's lounge. For what ever reasons this year, we didn't get to any of them. I think we were just too busy trying to get on rides and arrange meetings within our party. Karl kept running off to the gym or the spa and Lisa and Alison didn't arrive until Saturday morning and then wanted to do more shopping than the rest of us, so it was a constant effort to keep ourselves organized enough for dinner and rides without worrying about scheduling in other activities. So, instead of giving you a step-by-step rundown of what we did, I'll just break it up into rides, dining and so forth.

First, I should describe the atmosphere at the parks themselves. It was extremely crowed that weekend. Disneyland has been hitting record attendance as it is and with the influx of thousands of gays and lesbians, the park was almost bursting on Saturday. In fact, it got so bad that the park almost closed its doors in the afternoon, but the top brass decided to keep it open and the attendance topped out at about 58,500 people with an additional 16,000 next door at California Adventure. These is the type of attendance numbers only seen at Christmas time, so I would say that Gay Days was a big success this year. There are no estimates up on the Gay Days site yet, but the promoters are claiming it to be the biggest one yet and I believe that. I have never seen so many red shirts at the park in my life. It also seemed to be a happier affair this year. I usually see a few upset families, but I didn't see one scowl or hear one complaint this year. Everyone, gay and straight, just seemed to want to have a great time. And everyone did.

Once we got into the Disneyland park, Skip and I were extremely eager to ride the new "Finding Nemo" Submarine ride, so we made our way there first of all. We were expecting huge lines, so we were surprised to find that the line was only about 30 minutes long. We ended up riding this ride three times (once again with Karl and then with the girls) and even at it's busiest on Saturday afternoon, it was less than an hour wait. Karl thought the ride was a bit dull. The girls thought it was cute. Skip and I loved it! While the original submarine ride is a great memory, it was never that much of a ride. In essence it's just a more elaborate dark ride, like the Alice In Wonderland or Mr. Toad rides. It just so happens that in this particular dark ride, you're in a real submarine submerged under water. Using new animation technology, the Disney Imaginers have brought the world of "Finding Nemo" alive in a beautiful and imaginative way. Once the submarine dives, you join Nemo and all his friends in their adventures, surfing the currents, avoiding jellyfish and escaping predators. Most of the animation is as lifelike as animation can be. And I loved the nods to the original ride in rocks shaped like mermaids and sea serpents at the end of the journey. I think this ride is every bit as good as the other elaborate dark rides in the park, such as the Haunted Mansion and Pirates Of The Caribbean.

Speaking of the Pirates, we also made our way to the new Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island twice during our visit. While Nemo was pretty much what I was expecting it to be, this new attraction is much better than I ever thought it would be. The Imaginers took what was a rather tired and rundown kiddy playground and turned it into a bright, shiny and fun interactive attraction. Injun Joe's Cave is now a haunted Dead Man's Grotto, where you can catch glimpses of pirate treasures and the spirits placed there to protect it. Around the two bridges are now a picture-perfect Bone Cage and pumps and ropes that can be used to pry treasure from the hands of pirate skeletons. Captain Jack Sparrow and other pirates roam the grounds spoiling for a fight. It's all a whole lot of fun and busy exploration. I was sorry that old island had to go due to political correctness and apathy due to kids not reading Mark Twain any more, but what they came up with is exciting and still pays a nod to the original source. Another big thumbs up for this one.

Other than that, the rest of the park remains the same as it has been. The Haunted Mansion has been converted into the "Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion" and it is pretty much the same show as the last two years, although it's beginning to look a bit tired and ratty in places. Hopefully if they do it again next year, they'll give it a major overhaul.

I always have to go on "It's A Small World" despite the complaints of Skip and any other friends with us. I know it's cheesy and all, but I love Mary Blair's art and look at it more as an art instillation than a ride. It too is getting run down and patchy though, so it was with great relief that I read this week that the ride is going into an almost year long rehab and when it opens again late next year it will be sparkly and beautiful again, with a completely new, reworked beginning and end.

We also got on "Pirates Of The Caribbean", a super-wet "Splash Mountain", "The Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh", "Big Thunder Mountain", "Space Mountain" twice, both sides of "The Matterhorn" and even with my bum arm, I managed to beat everyone on "Buzz Lightyear" with a high score that was a rather small one for me.

(We didn't make it to "The Jungle Cruise", "The Enchanted Tiki Room", "Star Tours", "Roger Rabbit" or any of the Fantasyland rides, but Skip and I will be going back next week and we'll make up for that then.)

The next day, at Disney's California Adventure, nothing much had changed since I was last there. The big thing was that the whole front of the park had been converted into Candy Corn Acres, where you can marvel at candy corn plants growing all over the place. There are candy corn grapes, candy corn melons, candy corn tomatoes and even candy corn corn. This is all looked over by a giant piece of candy corn with a large bite taken out of the side of it. If you wait long enough, then Heimlich, the caterpillar from "Bug's Life", pops up and talks about his love of all things candy corn. It was an amazing and fun do-over of this part of the park and was the perfect celebration of Halloween. Almost all the kids I saw there were in absolute awe.

The new "Pixar's Toy Story Midway Mania" ride is really taking shape under the "California Screamin'" rollercoaster as well, and now that I can actually see the building that will house it, I can hardly wait until next summer until it opens.

We also managed to ride "Monsters Inc", "The Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror", "Muppet Vision 3D", "Heimlich's Chew Chew Train", "Francis' Ladybug Boogie", "Grizzly River Run" and "Soarin' Over California". All the rides were pretty much the same as they've always been, except that the "Ladybug Boogie", which is a kiddy ride, has been refurbished and has much more spin in it than it used to have, even for us older kids. I love the "Tower Of Terror", but the Disney brass keeps talking about reprogramming the drop sequence in it and I wished they'd finally get around to doing it as I have the whole thing memorized by heart now. If they would make it a random sequence, as they have been promising to for over a year now, it would just be amazing.

The good thing about California Adventure that is unlike the main park is that they serve alcohol there, so we would go on a ride and then sit and have a glass of wine at the Golden Vine Terrace Wine Bar or enjoy a cocktail at the Cove Bar in Ariel's Grotto. This is why I really love the California Adventure Park. It's fun and a lot more relaxing than the rush at Disneyland. There are big plans to completely revamp the park though, starting this winter, but I think the alcohol will stay, making this a must-visit park for us.

We had several great meals at the park during our visit. In the past, we've made sure to visit the Blue Bayou in the Pirates ride and the private restaurant, Club 33, when we can get into it. This time we decided to give them a rest. Friday we had a nice Japanese meal at Yamabuki in the Paradise Pier Hotel. The restaurant has recently been redone and the menu simplified. Karl enjoyed a wonderful miso-glazed sea bass and Skip and I loved our assortment of sushi, including a really delicious and sweet uni (sea urchin). We washed it all down with several kinds of sake and agreed that the restaurant was much better now than it used to be.

Saturday, we had breakfast at the La Brea Bakery in Downtown Disney. My bacon and egg croissant sandwich was delicious and filling. With a ginger scone, I didn't need any lunch that day. For dinner on Saturday, we all met at Napa Rose in the Grand Californian. This is not just the best restaurant on the Disney property; it is one of the best restaurants in the Los Angeles area and we always try to eat here whenever we can. It can get pricy. My four coarse Vintner's Menu, paired with four glasses of wine, was $125 before tax and tip. But for the quality of the food, I think it's well worth the price. The Vintner's Table Menu right now is inspired by the Autumn Harvest of the wine country. Both Skip and I had:

Agnolotti Pasta filled with Pancetta, Parmesan & Fresh Sage with
Grilled Eggplant, Spinach and Apples with Red Pepper Sauce. This was beautifully paired with a 2003 Williams & Selyem Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley in California.

Braised Veal Cheeks and Sweetbreads, Roasted Mushrooms on Creamy Corn Polenta and Blackberries. This was served with a 2005 Sammarco "Verve" Negroamarom from Salento, Apulia, Italy.

BBQ "Maple Leaf Farms" Duck Breast with Smoked Chanterelles, Butter Nut Squash, Wild Rice and Black Mission Figs, paired with a 2005 Andrew Murray, Tous les Jours Syrah from Santa Barbara County.

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Green Apple Granite, served with a 2005 Levendi Estate Late Harvest Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

And I added a side order of Shaved Brussels Sprouts sautéed with Toasted Garlic, Olive Oil and Parmesan Cheese just because I love that vegetable. Everything was great, although the veal cheeks were as close to Heaven as food can get. I love this restaurant and always look forward to getting back there again and again.

For lunch on Sunday, we had yummy salads at the Wine Country Trattoria; mine served in a pizza crust. Then later, for dinner, we went upstairs to the Vineyard Room Restaurant. This restaurant is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, so I seldom get to eat there as I'm usually in the parks on weekdays. The last time we ate there was more than a year ago, when we went to a Francis Ford Coppola wine tasting and the head chef turned out a gastronomical tour-de-force that almost reviled Napa Rose. The new Executive chef, Gloria Tae, isn't quite as accomplished, although she still turned out a very good meal. She has worked at the restaurant since the very beginning as a sous chef and has finally worked her way up. Hopefully, she will learn to reign in some of her overindulgence and she will go from being a very good chef to an excellent one. The reason I say this is that it just seemed that every dish had one ingredient too many, making for a somewhat fussy meal. (I should say that both Skip and Karl loved what they had and didn't entirely agree with me.) Here's what I had:

Pan Roasted Whole Artichoke with Tomato Lemon Salad and Mint Aioli – The artichoke itself was great, but the salad should have been served on the side instead of on the choke and the aioli could have used a little salt or something to perk it up.

Parma Proscuitto, hand sliced to order with Grilled Stone Fruits, Shaved Pecorino Toscano, Arugula and Agrumata Lemon Oil – Delicious except for the sautéed onions under the whole thing. I love onions, but these just clouded the flavors that should have been up front.

Citrus Saffron Chicken with Toasted Angel Hair Pasta, Roasted Tomato Sauce and Ricotta Salata Cheese – Again, delicious except for the cheese, which only muddled up the other flavors.

Apple Blueberry Crostata with Roasted Granny Smith Apples and Blueberries, Drambuie Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Bean Gelato – No complaints about this one. It was an excellent fruit dessert and I would have loved to take a bottle of that caramel sauce home with me.

Now, while it would seem that I'm heavily complaining about this meal, even with its problems, it was very good. It's much cheaper than Napa Rose and maybe even Catal in Downtown Disney, so it was worth the price. Given some time, it may even turn into a great restaurant and the Disney property could certainly use another great eatery. I'll be curious to try it again next year to see what happens.

We didn't go to any of the various parties and discos this year either, although Karl went to "Kingdom", but said it was pretty dull, playing typical gay anthems and the lot. They used to hold these parties in the parks themselves, but it's gotten so big over the last few years that they moved them to outside clubs (although still on Disney property). I would have loved to have gone to one of the in-park parties when they had them, just to experience it, but now days Skip and I just prefer to sit in a bar and relax and talk and we seldom have the patience for a big, loud group of partiers.

The only thing I missed that I really wanted to do was the final mixer at the Hearthstone Lounge. It's always fun to meet up with others who were in the park and exchange stories about the weekend over a martini or two (or three or four), but this year we were in the park watching the wonderful fireworks show and then trying to get on as many last rides as we could and by the time I remembered the Hearthstone, it was too late and we were extremely exhausted. We probably should have rented a room for that third night as well, as the drive home was a bitch. We'll remember that next year.

I'm glad that Gay Days at Disneyland are getting more successful every year. I think these types of events are extremely important to getting visibility and understanding for our cause. Every time someone sees a big group like this and realizes that the people in the group are not all that different from their own group of people, it helps bridge the communication gap between both sides and helps make everyone more comfortable with the other. I salute Disney for allowing these events to happen and for not being shouted down by the religious right, who have unsuccessfully tried boycotts and other threats to coerce Disney into banning these inclusive "unofficial" events. (There are several others, including Bats Day, or Goth Day, in August, which is also always extremely fun to attend.) This country and the world are better places for it.

I'll be back next year wearing a red shirt with thousands of others. I bet it will even be more fun then.

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