With Disneyland Still Closed, Watch These Movies To Get Your Theme Park Fix

One of the most pervasive thoughts I've had in the last four months is a few simple words: I miss Disneyland. Like many cultural institutions, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California has been closed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even though some parts of our popular culture are restarting, or are set to restart, Disneyland's doors remain closed. 

This time last month, though, that wasn't the plan. On June 10, the Disney Parks Blog announced that Disneyland was reopening on July 17, a banner day in more ways than one. It wouldn't just be a perceived return to normalcy for American culture; July 17 is the anniversary of Disneyland Park's opening day. This year doesn't just mark any old anniversary, but the park's 65th. Yet due to the increase in coronavirus cases in California (and in plenty of other states around the nation), the fact that California Governor Gavin Newsom never approved the reopening plan, and the passionate outcry from thousands of Disneyland Cast Members that reopening was unsafe, Disney postponed the reopening. 

So Disneyland isn't just going through an extended closure – for the first time since its opening, the park is closed on its own anniversary. (Prior to the pandemic, Disneyland had only been closed on a literal handful of occasions, all grim parts of American history such as the day of JFK's assassination and September 11, 2001.) For those of us who enjoy the Disney theme parks in all their imperfections, whether we visit every day, every year, or once every few years, the sight of an empty Disneyland is perverse and depressing.

So, again: I miss Disneyland. Maybe you do too. Since we can't be at Disneyland today, the best we can do is replicate the experience. Now, you can go to YouTube and find ride videos for basically everything at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. But I want to do something slightly better and different. Here, I'm going to highlight one film or TV show, and one piece of theme-park music, per land at Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure (which may not be celebrating an anniversary today, but why not?). I hope you're a Disney+ subscriber, because you can find all the films below there. Let's go.

MAIN STREET, U.S.A.

Film: It's a shame that The Music Man was released by Warner Bros. Pictures in the early 1960s – much of the film's music can be heard playing throughout Main Street, U.S.A. And why wouldn't it? The film's old-fashioned, lily-white presentation of turn-of-the-century Midwest America is much in line with the visual atmosphere evoked by the opening section of Disneyland Park. But alas, it's not a Disney film, so I'm not recommending it here. Instead, let's go with Pollyanna, a 1960 family drama starring Hayley Mills and Karl Malden. Though this isn't as upbeat a film as other 60s-era Disney live-action films meant to take place in the nostalgic past, Pollyanna is a sweet and baleful story anchored by the young and extremely talented Mills. It captures the image of a low-key lifestyle in a town where everyone knows each other and supports them in good or bad times. Bring the Kleenex for this one.

Music: Main Street, U.S.A. has lots of musical options, depending on what you prefer. Do you like the era in which Disneyland announcer Jack Wagner (if you remember the stentorian voice telling you to stay seated at the end of Matterhorn Bobsleds, that's Wagner) was compiling thematic pieces into background loops? Or are you a fan of the more recent version of Main Street loops, in which film music from Up, Hello, Dolly!, and The Music Man butt up against each other? If you go to YouTube, you can find lots of different options. I'm sticking here with the most recent version of the background loop. It's an hour long, it's full of ragtime-era songs (or covers of songs, as mentioned above, that fit within that Joplinesque style), and sure to put a smile on your face.

ADVENTURELAND

Film: Normally, I'd point you to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is an incredible film. But since it's not available on the Disney+ streaming service, I'll stick to the themes of the jungle with the 1967 animated film The Jungle Book. This animated classic is really the last hurrah of Walt Disney, who passed away months before the film's release. Though he had some level of oversight on the early production of The Aristocats, The Jungle Book marked the end of his true connection with the animated fare released under his name. The story of the man-cub Mowgli is, like Adventureland itself, both beautiful and problematic, mixing white culture with a perceived exotic flair. The animation is gorgeous and colorful, the music is alluring, and some of the songs are true bangers. 

Music: To each their own, but if I want to hear something that will evoke the sensations of Adventureland (the strangest, most compact, problematic, and yet thrilling land in the original Disney theme park), I put on "Moonlight Time in Old Hawaii", composed by Disney Legend George Bruns. The slinky, seductive strains that Bruns and his fellow musicians play throughout the 36-minute album (many of the tracks can be heard in Adventureland, including the title track) evoke a soothing sense of the exotic. Listen to this album, and you'll be instantly transported to a place where the cultures of Hawaii, Africa, and Asia butt up against each other with a strange cohesion.

NEW ORLEANS SQUARE

Film: While New Orleans Square is home to two of the very best theme-park attractions, which both inspired films from 2003, The Haunted Mansion inspired a pretty forgettable one. On the other hand, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a wild, exciting ride. Gore Verbinski wasn't as off-the-leash as he would be by the conclusion of the original trilogy, or with his garish 2013 adaptation of The Lone Ranger; and Johnny Depp had not yet fully given himself over to the cartoonishly louche stylings of Captain Jack Sparrow. In short, this movie is so damn fun not just because it's got plenty of thrilling action sequences, genuinely clever and unexpected humor, and a swooning romance – it's the first of its kind in so many ways. There are light references to the ride, but this is just an incredibly exciting film Disney hasn't ever topped.

Music: The Rivers of America cover a lot of ground, facing parts of New Orleans Square, Critter Country, and Frontierland. It's the spot where the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic! is performed, as well as where you can help steer a canoe, play on Tom Sawyer Island, and more. But my favorite part is the jazz music you can hear emanating from the speakers surrounding the Rivers. It's not just that the music is a perfect example of the auditory experience of New Orleans, but that many of the pieces – including my very favorite, "After You've Gone", first used in Make Mine Music – communicate a sense of thrilling excitement that's met by the E-ticket attractions in the land itself. Take a listen and imagine yourself all but floating on the water.

CRITTER COUNTRY

Film: Even before the announcement last month that Disney would be retheming its main attraction in Critter Country, Splash Mountain, you wouldn't have been able to watch Song of the South, its heavily controversial and racist inspiration, legally. While I think hiding the film is wrong – Disney should confront its past, as grim as it is – I wouldn't have recommended it here no matter what. Instead, I'll stick with the other animated film represented in the land, and a perfectly charming one at that: the 1977 package film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. There are critters aplenty in this lighthearted and calm series of stories featuring all of Christopher Robin's friends from the Hundred Acre Wood; these adventures are basically timeless, winning over the young and the old alike. There's nothing more relaxing in Critter Country than the ride bearing this film's name, so why not highlight it here?

Music: And the same is true for this section. Richard and Robert Sherman composed the wonderful, earworm-y songs for Winnie the Pooh, and you can hear instrumental versions of them whenever you walk by the ride at Disneyland, or experience it for yourself. Even the weirdest song of the bunch, "Heffalumps and Woozles", sounds soothing when you listen to it as filtered background music. For now, at least, as Splash Mountain remains dormant, there's still background music based on the themes of Song of the South that you can listen to, but that music is likely to go away (and is long overdue to do so). Stick with Pooh.

FRONTIERLAND

Film: Frontierland was one of the early staples of Disneyland. There are twice as many lands in the Anaheim park today, but one of the original four was this Western-themed area dedicated to the expansion of the United States of America in the 1800s. And while I could recommend to you a film such as Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, I'd like to jump forward in time to another movie that is extremely American, and heavily steeped in Midwestern culture and masculinity: David Lynch's The Straight Story. If you can move past the shock that, yes, David Lynch made a Disney movie, and yes, it's rated G, you may well fall in love with this sweet, elegiac, straightforward drama based on a true story in which Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) drives a John Deere lawnmower across state lines to visit his estranged, ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton). This film is quiet, but when it talks loud, it packs a hell of a punch.

Music: The music you can hear in Frontierland is often a compilation of the scores or main themes from some big, grand Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. And while it's undoubtedly true that Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is vastly better than its American remake, The Magnificent Seven, the latter film has one hell of a theme composition. That composition, from Elmer Bernstein, is one of the most rousing and thrilling pieces of film music ever written. It's been name-dropped in popular culture for decades, from cigarette advertisements of the 1960s to James Bond movies to an episode of Cheers. So yes, it's omnipresent, but there's a damn good reason. Just listen to this.

STAR WARS: GALAXY’S EDGE

Film: As you're no doubt aware, there are a lot of options for you to choose from on Disney+ if you want to watch a Star Wars movie. I could troll you here and say that you should skip it and head to YouTube to watch George Lucas' beloved Star Wars Holiday Special. (I mean...you should watch it. It's hilarious.) But no, I'm going with the original and best film in the franchise, Star Wars from 1977. Yes, that's right, I'm here to argue that it's the best of the overall series. Not only does it serve as a magical and fantastical introduction to a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago, but Star Wars is the fleetest of foot, the goofiest, and the most indelible of the franchise. 

Music: Here, too, the choices aren't entirely difficult. Granted, I'm cheating a bit – there's not really any background music for you to listen to in Galaxy's Edge. But, thanks to the fact that the presence of Star Wars is unavoidable in other parts of the park, I can point you to the background music available as part of the Star Tours attraction in Tomorrowland. Because Galaxy's Edge takes place during the sequel trilogy, I am again fudging here to include anything from the original trilogy. But many of the musical cues that John Williams is working from within the new films are derived from what you can hear in the original trilogy. So enjoy, and be transported into a spacey land from the past.

FANTASYLAND

Film: Seeing as it's the epicenter of many of the fairy-tale adaptations that best define a "Disney movie", there's plenty of options to recommend for Fantasyland. I'm going with my favorite Disney animated film of all time, 1940's Pinocchio. After an intensive redesign in the 1980s, the film got a ride of its own in Fantasyland, entitled Pinocchio's Daring Journey. It's arguably not the best dark ride of its kind (as much as I adore the film, you really have to know the movie to appreciate the ride, which begins its retelling of the story at the film's halfway point), but the movie cannot be beat. Pinocchio is heavily steeped in European design, and though there's no castle centered in the story, its story of a little wooden head proving its worth as a human is one of the most thrilling, terrifying, and unforgettable films ever made.

Music: With so many different rides located within Fantasyland, you can listen to lots of different options to put yourself in the mood. What I'll recommend here is something almost as good as listening to all of it: listening to a suite of music that encompasses the dark rides at Disneyland. The Dark Ride Suite is just over 17 minutes long and highlights a number of the attractions in Fantasyland, from Snow White's Scary Adventures to Alice in Wonderland. If your favorite spot in Disneyland is where all the fairy tales come to life, then listening to this music will help you imagine yourself there once again.

TOMORROWLAND

Film: Disney is no stranger to science fiction, but not all of their sci-fi films work as well as you might hope. (Some of you may be diehard fans of movies like Tron or The Black Hole. I am not.) And Tomorrowland has now become heavily reliant on intellectual property, some of which has little to nothing to do with the concept of a futuristic land. Finding Nemo is an excellent film, but not a futuristic one in spite of being the main focus of one of Tomorrowland's core attractions. Toy Story 2, however, does have some flashes of futurism in its depiction of the Buzz Lightyear video game that inspired Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. The glimpses we get of the future that Buzz exists within as a character are bright, zippy, and bursting at the seams with fantastical touches. It's just a shame we don't get more of that.

Music: "Tomorrowland 2055" isn't just a sly reference to the 100th anniversary of when Disneyland Park opened. It's a series of electronically infused pieces of music that not only perfectly encapsulates what the land is intended to represent, but they're all pretty catchy too. The basic concept of Tomorrowland is rooted in optimistic futurism, the very same kind of mentality that's reflected in Walt Disney's own personality. Though many of the rides in the land no longer reflect that concept – nothing against Autopia, but it has literally nothing to do with the future – this music strikes the same hopeful note for the future.

MICKEY’S TOONTOWN

Film: There's no better option here than the film that inspired the land itself: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I've written at length before about how wonderful the film is, specifically by looking at Bob Hoskins' remarkable and game-changing performance as hard-bitten private investigator Eddie Valiant. But even though the majority of this 1988 classic is live-action – Eddie only visits Toontown in the final third of the noir riff – its spirit is firmly embodied in the outlandishly designed area added to the back side of Fantasyland. What's more, the best attraction in Toontown is all about Roger Rabbit and his hijinks. What's more times two? Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of the very best films you'll find on Disney+, period.

Music: Most of the music you'll hear floating around Mickey's Toontown is not only silly-sounding, but extremely fast. Not just fast-paced, mind you, but quick to start and quick to finish. The song I'll choose here is one from the earliest days of the Mickey Mouse shorts, a bouncy little number you can often hear played as background music: "Minnie's Yoo Hoo". Now, listen. Let's ignore, if we can, that this title...is a little odd. ("A little?", I hear some of you retorting now.) The song is meant to represent Minnie's greeting to Mickey back when they were a young black-and-white couple, and is often heard in the parks thanks to some sharp and jaunty saxophone music that brings the Toontown sensibility to life. Just...forget the title.

BUENA VISTA STREET

Film: If I could recommend Who Framed Roger Rabbit twice, I would do so here. (The Red Car Trolley in Disney California Adventure is similar enough to the Cloverleaf in the Zemeckis film.) Instead, I'm going to recommend a short film here to tie into one of the dining establishments in this section of the park. The Fiddler, Fife and Practical Cafe takes its name from the lead characters of The Three Little Pigs, and you can stream it right now. I'm not going to lie to you – this short more than earns the vague "outdated cultural depictions" text once you see the Big Bad Wolf dress up and act like a stereotypical Jewish peddler. (Hey, I said I wasn't going to lie to you.) The short, for better and worse, represents Disney as it existed in the early 1930s, the days before they aimed to make feature animated films and were still boosted up by animators' dreams as by full-throated financial success.

Music: One of my favorite parts of the Disneyland Resort is walking through Buena Vista Street and following its path to and through Grizzly Peak. When I'm not at the facsimile of 1920s-era Hollywood, I'm able to mentally go back there by listening to the lengthy background music loop that plays there all day long. The extended track, running more than 80 minutes long, combines a series of fast-paced, jazzy, upbeat pieces of music that not only put you in the right mood for a day full of excitement but are distinctly able to put a pep in your step. (The stripped-down jazz covers of Disney music from the Carthay Circle Restaurant are an extremely close second here.)

GRIZZLY PEAK

Film: I love The Rocketeer. I mean, I love The Rocketeer. No, really, you don't understand: I love this movie. I adore it. So, it should come as no surprise that I've found good reason to recommend it here. There are arguably a couple of spots within Disney California Adventure that could easily be represented by The Rocketeer, such as Hollywood Land or Buena Vista Street, the latter of which is a throwback to the Art Deco architecture of Old Hollywood. Among other things, The Rocketeer is about Hollywood. But it belongs in Grizzly Peak because that laid-back section of DCA is largely inspired by flight, with the E-Ticket attraction Soarin' being its flagship ride. The Rocketeer, in which a test pilot discovers a jetpack and helmet that enables him to become a 30s-era superhero, is one of Disney's very best films, a sincere and upbeat adventure that owes as much a debt to the Indiana Jones franchise as it does to Back to the Future

Music: I could just as easily tell you to listen to James Horner's wonderful score to The Rocketeer here. (I won't. But you should.) Instead, I'll encourage you to get into the mood by listening to the work of another great film composer, Jerry Goldsmith. The legendary talent was called upon by Disney to write the score for the original iteration of Soarin', entitled Soarin' Over California. This version of the ride was shot on film back in the early 2000s, and has mostly been replaced by Soarin' Over the World, a slickly filmed version with computer-generated transitions from scene to scene and a different score. (Before it closed, Disney California Adventure was temporarily playing Soarin' Over California.) Ride aside, Goldsmith's score is calm, lovely, and triumphant. This music would send you soaring even if you weren't on the ride.

HOLLYWOOD LAND

Film: The idea of what Hollywood Land was meant to be has been filtered down to a nub – the area used to be anchored by a wonderful and terrifying E-ticket attraction, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, for example, which has since been replaced by a Guardians of the Galaxy overlay that will connect to the Avengers Campus area once that opens up. What's left are a series of intellectual properties hanging out right next to each other. For this, I'll recommend a title that's part of the Mickey's PhilharMagic 4D experience (in what used to be the Muppet-Vision 3D building). Beauty and the Beast is – let's be honest – a movie I shouldn't have to recommend to you. It's Disney's first animated Best Picture nominee! The inspiration for a massively popular but very bad remake! Full of wonderful music, memorable characters, a great romance and...what are you waiting for? Go to Disney+! Watch the animated movie!

Music: My favorite part of Hollywood Land is the Animation Building, where you can enjoy a number of animation-themed miniature attractions, meet some characters from Frozen, and stand back in awe to look at the many screens adorning the building's lobby to watch brief clips and storyboard art from many of Disney's and Pixar's classic animated films. The music loop in the courtyard area is one of my favorites – it's not just that the lobby is itself something of an attraction to any animation buff. It's that the combination of songs is an excellent distillation of the history of this company. It's come so far over so many decades, with the changes apparent if you just listen.

CARS LAND

Film: To each their own. As I have written about at /Film, I am not a huge fan of the Cars movies. I'm not so displeased with them as to troll you here, though. The best film to watch to put yourself in the mindset of being in Radiator Springs is the original Cars, which is a pure celebration of small-town America. The film has no interest in clarifying how its world even works, so don't even try wondering. As much as Cars Land isn't quite my bag, I'll admit that it does an excellent job of bringing to life Radiator Springs the way the film tries to. The middle hour of this film (which, if you forgot, is two hours long for some reason) is what you'll want to focus on, though.

Music: The Cars Land background loop is going to hit the sweet spot for you. Whether or not you're a gearhead (I am not), the songs on this loop are themselves nostalgic for a time when a town like Radiator Springs would've ruled the roost. Of course, you'll hear the Chuck Berry-performed version of "Route 66" along with plenty of other songs about heading out in your car, driving through the open road, enjoying all the smells and sights that the American freeway has to offer, and more. If you've been cooped up for a while, and you're in the mood to follow in Lightning McQueen's tire tracks, to just take a drive, crank up the volume and play this loop as your soundtrack.

PIXAR PIER

Film: By this point, you've noticed that a number of Pixar films have been well-represented in this list. (That's what happens when Pixar becomes so dominant within the world of animation – a lot of their films are represented throughout the Disney theme parks.) For the recommendation here, though, I'm going to briefly remind you that one of the great superhero films of all time is Brad Bird's The Incredibles. This movie was a big risk for Pixar – while they'd made their name on original stories through their first decade of features, Bird hadn't been part of the studio from the start. And his was the first Pixar film predominantly about humans, too. But while The Incredibles has a lot on its mind, its presentation of the American family as a series of heroes tapping into their superpowers is at once a brilliant action film and a whip-smart deconstruction of the nuclear family.

Music: There's plenty of Pixar music – both the few handfuls of songs in their films and many of the compositions – to be enjoyed in the Pixar Pier area loop, which became part of the parks' overall soundtrack when Pixar Pier was unveiled in the summer of 2018. (Remember the summer of 2018? Two years ago? I wrote about Pixar Pier then, and my God, does it feel like a century ago.) Being newer pieces of music, the production quality on these is very high – some of the earlier loops in Disney park history have relied upon the kindness and passion of dedicated online fans, whereas that's fortunately not the case here. Pixar's films aren't always connected with music, but listen to this loop, and you'll be surprised by what you hear.

PARADISE GARDENS PARK

Movie: For this recent adition to the stable of areas in Disney California Adventure (this part of the park used to be one half of the larger Paradise Pier, which has since been Pixar-ified), I'm going with a film that...arguably shouldn't be so heavily represented in a theme park tied to the state of California. But The Little Mermaid is one of Disney's best animated films, and the source material for a very charming, slow-moving dark ride in Paradise Gardens Park. Again, the placement of the film isn't very clear – Prince Eric's castle and the neighboring kingdom seem more Mediterranean than Californian – but it's not just the film that revitalized Disney animation for a whole new generation. This is a movie that's withstood the test of time, only growing in power over the years.

Music: The best Disney theme-park music is calming and pleasant. And while the events of The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure are sometimes adventurous and thrilling, the music that plays on the bed of the ride soundtrack is often soothing and relaxing. So that's the recommendation here. Especially since you can't ride on the Undersea Adventure anytime soon, you might as well turn up your stereo and enjoy the experience aurally. The balance of isolated music and voice work (from a few actors doing their best to impersonate characters like Sebastian and Scuttle) will make you feel like you're almost in a colorful clamshell of your own headed under the sea.

PACIFIC WHARF

Movie: Now, if you've ever walked around Pacific Wharf, you know that it's largely defined by being full of food...and that it's centered around the winding streets of San Francisco. I can't say that this film is full of foodie delights – the best examples within the Disney/Pixar canon are specifically located outside of America – but you know what movie takes place partially in San Francisco? George of the Jungle. And you know what movie's a lot funnier than you may remember? George of the damn Jungle. Brendan Fraser has rarely been more well tied to a role, as the stupider but friendlier version of Tarzan who just can't keep himself from slamming into a poorly placed tree. George is brought home to the States in the second half of this 1997 comedy, during which surprisingly funny hijinks ensue. Yes, this is a silly film, but it's still damn funny.

Music: Pacific Wharf is free of any rides or attractions of just about any kind. (The closest you could find is a filmed tour through a Boudin Bakery, hosted by Rosie O'Donnell and Colin Mochrie of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, filmed in late 2000.) The food is quite good in the area, as you'd hope. The music loop playing throughout the section isn't too bad either. There's a vibrant mix of music representing the different cultures that you can find serving their comestibles throughout, from mariachi music to Asian themes as well. Just as much of the food in the area strikes a homey sense of comfort, so too does the music loop in Pacific Wharf.