June 9, 2013

‘Mickey and the Magical Map’ redraws Disneyland plans

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Eastern philosophy is not the first thing one associates with the Disneyland Resort, but the message of the Fantasyland Theatre’s new and quite splendid stage show “Mickey and the Magical Map” is decidedly, and surprisingly, Zen.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Eastern philosophy is not the first thing one associates with the Disneyland Resort, but the message of the Fantasyland Theatre’s new and quite splendid stage show “Mickey and the Magical Map” is decidedly, and surprisingly, Zen.

Or as Zen as a show can be in which young men and women in rustic fantasy-wear sing and dance their way through some of the studio’s greatest hits in front of a gorgeous three-tiered screen awash in animated wonder.

Like many characters of his demo, Mickey Mouse is, above all, a seeker of enlightenment. In “Mickey and the Magical Map,” he’s back in Sorcerer’s Apprentice mode, trying to prove himself by filling in the final empty space on his master’s map.

The black spot, which does not want to be painted, comes to life and takes Mickey on a magical, musical, multimedia tour. A handful of Disney films, including “The Jungle Book,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Lilo & Stitch,” are given the stage craft that made “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” Broadway sensations, with the added bonus of a fabulous animated backdrop.

Finally accepting the unpainted spot on its own terms, Mickey learns that what makes the map magic is the fact that it’s never really finished. Which could very well replace “The Happiest Place on Earth” as the resort’s liturgical tag line.

For all its devotion to, and commercialization of, the iconic, Disney has a healthy respect for the impermanent. Over the last few years, early summer has become synonymous with change in Anaheim, where park designers have spent years steadily fixing the initial disappointment that was California Adventure.

Last summer’s double opening of Cars Land and the newly refurbished Buena Vista proved such a success that Disney celebrated by jacking up its prices across the board.

With its popularity tied to an ever-growing library of films, Disneyland likewise never stopped self-tweaking. Buzz Lightyear got a ride and a show, the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse became Tarzan’s, and Tom Sawyer Island took on a Pirates of the Caribbean flavor.

As the packaged princess brand grew among the merchandisers, the park made the characters and their gowns available for meet ‘n’ greets, first at the Fantasyland Theatre, then, as of this spring, at the new Fantasy Faire. Between Frontierland and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, where the Carnation Plaza Gardens long stood, a mini-Elizabethan village has sprung. It’s complete with the Royal Hall housing three princesses and the Royal Theatre, where the stories of Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel are depicted in family-friendly vaudevillian style.

Many protested the passing of Carnation Plaza Gardens, which hosted such musical legends as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. But if Benny Goodman’s modern day equivalents aren’t headlining at Disneyland, there’s certainly no lack of music here.

“Mickey and the Magical Map,” which had its official opening May 25, is just the fireworks finale of an explosion of live shows. In addition to daily parades in both parks — Pixar-themed in California Adventure, Disney-themed in Disneyland — a bevy of street performances are increasingly impossible to pass up. At California Adventure, the live acts range from the slick and joyful jazz combo “Five & Dime” to “Phineas and Ferb’s Rockin’ Rollin’ Dance Party,” from the goth- and teen-friendly “Mad T Party” to the Grammy-winning Mariachi Divas.

All of which is just part of a master plan, of course; Disney wants the Anaheim resort to become a multi-day destination, like that other park sprawling amid the mosquitoes in the swamps of Orlando.

And, alas, it’s working. In addition to being a rousing and technologically revelatory show, “Mickey and the Magical Map” is the final blow to the delusion to which many locals still cling: That a smart, prepared parent can do both parks in a day.

Let’s be honest; the less than stellar performance of California Adventure in its early years was a boon to local parents. Disney would do anything to get you into that park, including, for several years, offer two-for-the-price-of-one tickets.

This Disneyland-with-benefits scenario challenged every resident who considered the resort a local playground rather than an international tourist attraction. Slapping down fast passes like a high-stakes blackjack dealer, my friends and I could get our families on every ride we cared about in both parks in any 12-hour non-summer period.

We were Disney’s worst nightmare — we brought our own water and sandwiches, packed apples and cheese sticks and Goldfish crackers. The best my kids could hope for off those carts was popcorn (and only because their father used to sell popcorn at Disneyland).

But they knew the rules going in: No wait times over 15 minutes, no churros and no shows. The last were for suckers, the breadbasket that filled up precious half-hours of your day, which was much better spent on “Pirates of the Caribbean” one more time (that line always looks worse than it is).

Over time, many of my new-parent convictions shook themselves into dust, but on this I held firm — Disney in a day or bust.

I suspected those glory days were over last year when Cars Land made it clear that California Adventure had finally become a Real Park. But it wasn’t until the premiere of “Mickey and the Magical Map” that I finally surrendered completely.

Running the park-standard 22 minutes, the show is fun, festive and amazing. Pocahontas and Mulan — two beloved but previously under-utilized characters — sing the songs that have launched a thousand talent show auditions. Early on, live-action Mickey descends into the screen and becomes animation Mickey, which is something I have never seen before and want to see again.

Yes, you can technically still do the two parks in a day, but only if you’re willing to miss a lot. I concede that “Aladdin” is worth the hour the line and the show require, that “World of Color” is something you can’t see, or even imagine seeing, anywhere else on the planet.

Now here’s the Fantasyland Theatre finally being put to good use with a show celebrating Mickey, music and the contradictory power of impermanence.

Drat that mouse, I’m in. Go for the rides, stay for the shows.

But I’m holding the line on churros.

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