The scattered nature of L.A.’s expansive urban grid is never more noticeable than during the winter holidays. While certain centers festoon the streets with lights and artistically ambitious homeowners create front lawn tableaux, Los Angeles simply lacks the central pedestrian thoroughfares that make Christmas so enchanting in cities like New York and Chicago, London and Paris.
But if we don’t have Oxford Street, we do have the Disneyland resorts, where Walt Disney’s initial nostalgic imagining of Americana has become more festive with each passing holiday season. What began in 1956 with a Christmas tree on Main Street and a Santa hat on Mickey has become an increasingly dramatic, and dramatically marketable, Christmas-fication of Just About Everything.
The Christmas fantasy parade, the holiday version of “It’s a Small World,” the sudsy snow falling in “Believe,” the Haunted Mansion gone all “Nightmare Before Christmas” — every few years Disney adds something new and tinsel-rific to the glorious scallops of lights and wreaths hung along every building and across every byway in twinkling display. Last year, Jingle Jangle Jamboree came to Big Thunder Ranch, while the new Cars Land and spruced-up Buena Vista Street got their own signature decorations. (Seriously, Cars Land looks even better at Christmas.)
This year is the most ambitious yet, with the debut of five new seasonal attractions: a holiday-themed “World of Color” show and a “¡Viva Navidad!” party in California Adventure, an old-fashioned winter village and ice skating rink in Downtown Disney, and a meet ‘n’ greet with characters from the upcoming “Frozen” in Disneyland — where the beloved Jungle Cruise has also been transformed into a Jingle Cruise.
A Jingle Cruise. Honestly, how did no one think of this before now?
Obviously, some of the increased wattage is fueled by the Thanksgiving debut of the winter-themed film “Frozen,” which the folks at Disney are clearly hoping will become a new holiday tradition. Of the new attractions, three have “Frozen” tie-ins — the skating rink is named for Olaf, the film’s talking snowman, who also serves as narrator for the new “World of Color — Winter Dreams.”
“Winter Dreams” is the most significant addition. Wildly popular since it opened three years ago as part of the great California Adventure rehab, “World of Color” has since been tweaked to add new characters but never wholly changed.
And “Winter Dreams” is quite a change. It opens not with a parade of Disney characters (that comes later) but as an extraordinary collage of ordinary people, gathered through the Internet into a virtual chorus that performs an original composition called “Glow.”
At the premiere event on Friday, guests were given light-up Mickey Ears that were somehow synchronized to turn colors in time to the music, making the audience part of the show. Which then moved, with signature dancing fountains and swelling music, through winter and holiday scenes culled from a variety of Disney films and TV shows and projected onto the water scrim.
From classic Mickey and Donald to the recent holiday special of “Toy Story,” in which Buzz, Woody and friends performed “The Nutcracker,” “Winter Dreams” celebrates the spiritual and the secular, with beloved characters and an increasingly operatic soundtrack. Both Olaf and Elsa from “Frozen” have big numbers (fingers-crossed the movie succeeds!), Beauty and the Beast throw snowballs, and Bambi and Thumper steal the show early on with the film’s scene of them navigating a frozen pond, which played remarkably well across the wide wall of mist.
The various children of “It’s a Small World’ made an appearance (their doll equivalent recently began showing up in Disney stores) as did messages of nonbranded holiday cheer.
With its themes of jewel-colored, gentle and family-oriented magic, Disney does have a built-in relationship with the holidays. That star could be the one shining above Bethlehem, or it could just be the Wishing Star.
“Believe,” Disney’s holiday exhortation, applies to fairies and religious faith alike, and although Anaheim is not exactly Alpine, there is a quaintness to much of the Disney ethos, which, like Christmas itself, one can find cozy or cloying.
The “¡Viva Navidad!” party may be the most-needed addition, providing a little relief from the Eurocentric vision of the holidays and aiding in California Adventure’s attempt to differentiate itself from Disneyland while retaining the brand’s essential charm. Still, it’s a traditional decorative holiday that Disney’s pushing, with its red flannel Minnie and Mickey-wear, the dancing gingerbread men and Christmas ball princesses of its parade, a snowman named Olaf.
It’s a vision at odds with the native topography and often the local weather (the day of the “Winter Dreams” debut, it was a crispy 93 in Anaheim). But it’s a lovely vision nonetheless.
And until Los Angeles gets its own version of the store windows on Fifth Avenue, the winter markets of Munich or the lights on Oxford Street, it’s the best holiday magic in town.
– Mary McNamara
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