Disney's kingdom losing magic Online: Hard-core fans of Disneyland post their complaints on the Internet in hopes of restoring the vision of the park's creator.

Sun Journal

September 21, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For Rick West, finding stuffed animals for sale in Disneyland's Main Street Penny Arcade was the final indignity.

The self-described theme park historian had chafed at the proliferation of "cheap, carny" elements he considered anathema the vision of the park's founder. When a rack of grinning $10.95 Mickey and Minnie dolls turned up, he posted a message on an online Disneyland bulletin board, asking people to "take back Walt Disney's Disneyland."

"If you want to fight for Disneyland," West's message said, "I beg you to do so with all your might."

You may be surprised at such passion over a few stuffed animals. But that is to underestimate the park's emotional sway over some of its visitors, particularly Southern Californians reared in the shadow of Walt Disney's original Magic Kingdom.

Disney fan clubs and collectors' societies operate worldwide. But the Anaheim park has spawned a subculture of hard-core enthusiasts who visit dozens of times a year and have become almost an extension of the show. Disneyphiles such as West know cast members on a first-name basis and can trace the genealogy of practically every attraction.

They also notice things the average visitor wouldn't: a Coke bottle floating in the River of the Americas, a gradual reduction in full-service restaurants throughout the park -- small flaws and changes they perceive as a threat to Walt Disney's standards.

In the past, such concerns would have taken the form of phone calls and notes to the park's guest relations office. But through the help of Internet bulletin boards and Web sites, Disneyland enthusiasts have linked up to create a free wheeling public forum for their views.

Park patriots have responded to West's electronic call to arms with a volley of complaints about crass merchandising, lax maintenance, rumored changes to long-standing attractions and the encroachment of corporate greed on Walt Disney's legacy.

Passionate, open letters have surfaced asking Disneyland Resort President Paul Pressler to resign. Pressler's smiling face and resume now adorn a cheeky, satirical Web site devoted to getting the youthful executive "promoted" right out of the park. The online complaints have apparently been noticed by Disneyland officials, who have removed the stuffed animals from the arcade.

In a year when the Walt Disney Co. has been accused of everything from dumbing down the classics, exploiting Third World laborers and demonizing Arabs in its films, complaints about cheesy souvenirs and gum on the handrails probably won't rattle the executives. And Disneyland remains one of the world's top tourist attractions, setting an attendance record last year (an estimated 14.2 million guests) that made it the most-visited U.S. theme park.

Still, the flap is a reminder that ardent Disney supporters can be a pretty tough crowd when managers start messing with the house that Walt built.

"We probably sound like lunatics complaining about all these little things," says Karen Kammann, a Disneyland lover from Northern California who saw the same piece of trash on Pirates of the Caribbean for four consecutive days. "But it's all those little things that add up to the magic."

On a bright Sunday morning, Disneyland's Main Street couldn't look more inviting. A marching band's crisp melodies accompany visitors as they enter the park. The White Rabbit, Captain Hook, Chip -- or maybe it's Dale -- pat children's heads and sign their autograph books.

Scott Garner is starting his Sunday like he starts more than half of them each year, with breakfast at the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant. He is dressed for the occasion in a red Disneyland T-shirt, straw hat with a smattering of Disney pins and a portable scanner clipped to his belt that allows him to eavesdrop on walkie-talkie conversations between park employees regarding ride closures, medical emergencies, shoplifters and the like.

"It's a great way to find out what really goes on around here," says the 37-year-old computer analyst after eating a waffle shaped like Mickey's head.

Garner is joined this morning by Al Lutz, 39, a product manager for a small classical music label.

It's tough to square how enthusiasts such as Garner and Lutz can be be so thoroughly enchanted by the Disney "magic" when they know how all the gears and levers work. At the Storybook Land Canal Boats, they note that Monstro's eye is not blinking, nor is the customary steam rolling from the great whale's blowhole. Garner spies a popped balloon and its dirty string hanging forlornly from a post in the queue, then observes that plants on one of the terraced islands need a trim.

And that's just the first attraction of the morning.

"We're not obsessed," says Garner. "We're normal people with jobs and families who just happen to love Disneyland. That's why we do it."

The park's loyal patrons have found change hard to accept.

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