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A couple weeks ago I traveled down to Los Angeles for a very unusual press day for Disney Animation Studio’s new film The Princess and the Frog. Disney is really hoping to promote the return to hand drawn animation with an old school Disney look and feel, and took a group of online journalists on a day trip to Disneyland where we went behind the scenes, back to the Walt Disney Archives in Burbank, before seeing some never before seen footage from Frog, and talking to directors Ron Clements and John Musker.

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One thing you probably don’t notice while walking down Main Street is the rolling screen credits. Disney believed that the entrance/exit should be treated like a movie, complete with credits. You can find the names of the designers and some of the people who were instrumental in creating the park on the second story of the buildings on Main Street. The credits are disguised as business names. The idea is that when you leave Disneyland, walking down Main Street, the credits roll by you, on both your left and right. These are the kind of factoids you learn when you’re walking around Disneyland with a personal tour guide.

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One of the worst known Disneyland secrets is the Disneyland Fire Dept, which houses Walt Disney’s private suite on the top floor. Disney would stay in the suite when he was staying late at the park, or with family members. To this day, no one is allowed to stay in this hidden suite other than Disney family members.

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One of the interesting things on display on Main Street is the actual park bench from the Griffith Park Mery-Go-Round in Los Angeles where Walt Disney first dreamed up the idea of Disneyland.

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Walking through the park during Halloween Time, Disneyland’s own trademarked celebration of the October dark holiday, we were able to revisit some of the rides and attractions from years past. First up with Space Mountain, which this year has been transformed into a customized Halloween attraction called Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy.

Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy

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It’s been years since visiting Disneyland and my first reaction is that this ride still holds up. It’s not just for kids. Pretty impressive for a ride that was built in the mid 1970′s. For the Ghost Galaxy transformation, Disney has added creepy music, projections of ghosts in space which chase you through the ride, and more. Overall, the additions add new life to this already impressive attraction. In the photo below, from left to right, Alex from First Showing, Me, Todd from Cinematical, our way too happy Disney tour guide, a lovely Disney publicist and the always mugging for the camera George from Latino Review.

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Haunted Mansion Holiday

We also got a chance to ride the Nightmare Before Christmas Holiday Time version of the Haunted Mansion. I love the Haunted Mansion and have always wanted to experience the Halloween version of the attraction, but have never been in Disney around this time of the year. I’ve always assumed that Disney merely decorated the attraction with Jack Skeleton and the other characters from Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated Holiday classic… how wrong I was.

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The Holiday version of Haunted Mansion is almost a completely different ride. Sure, the cars go in the same areas, on the same tracks, with the same basic gags… but almost every single scene, character, location has been transformed by Nightmare Before Christmas. I know I’m late to the party on this one as the Holiday remodel has been at the park for almost a decade, but I’m really surprised at how much work went into transforming this classic into something new. Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy and the Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion attractions both make visiting the park during Halloween Time a must for those who have never ventured to Anaheim during this pre-Thanksgiving season.

The Disney Dream Suite

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But you’re probably wondering about some of the more exclusive sights we got to during our visit. We had a chance to tour a 2,600-square-foot luxury apartment located in the New Orleans Square area. In the early 1960s as the New Orleans Square section of the park was under construction, Walt Disney decided he needed a bigger entertaining facility for various VIPs that came to the park. The apartment above the Fire Station on Main Street was too small to host elaborate events, so Walt decided to design a suite set back from the hustle and bustle of the park.

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In the two bedrooms in the suite, Disney designed a “good night kiss”, which is essentially a switch on the wall that starts a magical light show.

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A January 2008 company press release described the suite as follows:

“Guests may enter the Dream Suite by climbing the grand staircase outside the entrance to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. An elevator will be available to accommodate guests with disabilities. Through the doorway at the top of the stairs is the Living Room, designed in a French Provincial style reflecting the New Orleans Square setting. Unusual decorative items like a full-size carousel horse, a mechanical songbird and original wall paintings of European castles will conjure up memories of Walt Disney and the inspirations that went into creating the magical world of Disneyland.

The suite features not one, but two master bedrooms. In one, the spirit of early 20th century innovation and the American frontier are summoned with an earthy color scheme, leather furniture, a cast-iron stove, an electric train and vintage mechanical toys. The other master bedroom is on the side of the residence nearest Adventureland, and its lush décor and atmosphere evoke the exotic flavor of jungle adventure stories as told in the Victorian era.

The bayou-themed patio, central to the Disneyland Dream Suite and open to the sky above, is filled with tropical vegetation, furnished with comfortable chaises and illuminated by Chinese lanterns. Using a type of Disney magic familiar to guests on Pirates of the Caribbean, the patio is also visited by fireflies. As guests settle in for a stay in the Disneyland Dream Suite, they’ll discover special effects surprises in each room. It could be a special tune in a striking clock, a sunset or a starscape that appears when the lights go down, subtle audio enhancements, or something totally unexpected.”

Even the bath tub has a button which enables sparkling stars above.

bath

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The suite was fairly close to completion at the time of Walt’s death, including infrastructure and plumbing, but Roy Disney decided to abandon the plans. The suite was finally completed as part of the Year of a Million Dreams promotion that ran from Oct. 1, 2006, through Dec. 31, 2008. Lucky park guests were randomly chosen to spend a night in the suite. Apparently they were given a tour of the park after closing, and locked in the suite until morning. Everyone who stays in the suite signs the guest book. Earlier this year Pixar head John Lasseter stayed in the suite with his family. Here is a look at what he wrote in the guest book:

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Here are some more photos from the Suite:

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This glass trashcan cost $50,000:

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Here are some photos from the kids room:

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A plasma hidden behind the mirror, and a Playstation 3, games and movies hidden in the dresser:

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And you can watch what happens when you hit the goodnight kiss button in the kids room by watching the video below:

Club 33

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For lunch, we were taken to another place where only a few park guests have ever visited, a secret club hidden in New Orleans Square. Only members can book a reservation at the club for lunch/dinner, and the waiting list to become a member is over 10 years (and rumor has it it costs upwards of $10,000 a year to join). To this day, the club is the only place in the park that sells alcohol, and actually the club is named after its real mailing address – 33 Royal Street, which was required for the restaurant’s liquor license. Walt dreamed up the club as a place where dignitaries, celebrities, corporate sponsors, VIPs and their families could come and dine in elegance. The idea was inspired by the 21 Club in New York City. The secret door is hidden to the right of the Blue Bayou restaurant. After you ring the doorbell, a receptionist will ask who you are and confirm you have a appointment/reservation.

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Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos inside of Club 33, so I’m unable to show you some of it’s awesomeness. The whole place feels like a country club restaurant. In fact, you can’t even book a same day reservation (unless you’re some huge VIP). The fact that a group of movie journalists got to eat in the club without a membership took months to approve, and even went as high as the office of John Lasseter. Basically, don’t expect to walk in without a reservation, and don’t expect to make a reservation without a membership.

The small lobby features both stairs and a a lift that was recreated from a similar lift used in Paris that Walt tried to purchase and bring over here, but the owner wouldn’t sell. Walt had his designers recreate the lift exactly to the original’s specification, and even flew them out to see the original, take photos, and create design drawings. On the wall are vintage photos and props from older Disney movies. This is a fine dining experience, with meals starting in the $70 range. They even have an extensive cold bar and desert bar, which is so fully stocked, it would be good enough for a meal just by itself.

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And here is a photo of the press group, from left to right, top to bottom: Bill (Animation), Mr. Beaks (Ain’t it Cool), Peter (/Film), Alex (FirstShowing)
El Guapo (Latinoreview), Liz (Fandango), Todd (Cinematical, SyFy). And yes, they gave us the Mickey Mouse hats with our own named embroidered.

Disney Animation Research Library

We then got into a van and headed back to Burbank to visit the Disney Animation Research Library, which archives most of the original artwork from Steamboat Willy to today. In the old days, the research library was housed in the basement of the Ink & Paint building on the Disney lot and was referred to as “The Morgue,” and old newspaper term. They moved in 1999 to this new facility. We got to view a selection of samples from the collection, including pieces from Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. On one of the tables was 1930-39 story sketches for The Little Mermaid created by Kai Nelson.

Over 16 million pieces of artwork is housed in this facility, and anyone working at Disney has access to the work. Animators and licensors regularly request pieces of original art for research and reference. Disney also sometimes provides art for exhibitions at educational venues or museums. The day we were at the archives, they were busy moving a lot of art to the new Walt Disney Family Museum which just opened in San Francisco. Right now they are in the beginning stages of creating a digital database of all the artwork, complete with an extensive searchable database. A Disney animator will be able to search “berries” and see every piece of art in the collection that features berries.They will be able to access the painted animation cells, the original sketch drawings, background paintings or even concept art. But right now there are a group of archivists going through each piece of art, carefully, cataloging them into a computer, while another group is scanning the art into incredibly high resolution digital files.

We saw a room with a huge large format scanner which they use to scan some of the large background paintings. Imagine something that looks like half a ping pong table. The resulting digital files are anywhere from 800mb to 1-2gb in file size. The large format scanner they are employing is only one of three other machines on the west coast. The Getty Library and Jet Ppopulsion are also using the same scanner.

We got to go into one of the vaults, which is always kept at a constant 60 degrees, 50% humidity. The ceiling features a gas first suppression system, which means in case of a fire, none of the artwork will need to get wet or destroyed. The vaults themselves are on tracks which are hand cranked. You can only enter one of the isles at a time. Our guide starts cranking one of the wheels at the end of a vault isle and says to me “I call this our time machine.” The vault we’re in houses the features that Walt was personally involved in. This is the special room where all the classics from before I was born are housed. Our guide carefully removed some original sketch animations from Sleeping Beauty from one of the walls.

You really get the sense that all of this artwork is in very good hands, and is getting the treatment it deserves. It’s just nice to see that Disney is taking its history so very seriously, and is spending the money to preserve these classic pieces of art. There is so much great artwork in these vaults that I can only hope that Disney someday makes some of this more available, through either art of books, or an online on demand database where Disney fans can have print reproductions of any piece of art printed, at a premium cost of course.

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