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This story first appeared in the August 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If I could live anywhere, I would live in The Haunted Mansion, like all year long,” director Guillermo del Toro said last year at Comic-Con while discussing his upcoming film featuring Disneyland’s iconic haunted house. And he’s not alone.
Hollywood is full of filmmakers and talent who are addicted to Disneyland, which opened in 1955 and now averages 40,000 visitors a day. Zachary Levi, Gwen Stefani, John Stamos and Miley Cyrus count themselves as Anaheim regulars, and it’s the date place of choice for Ryan Gosling (he’s taken Kat Dennings, Blake Lively and Eva Mendes). “It’s not about going on the rides as fast as possible,” says music producer Matt Beckley. “It’s an appreciation for the art that goes into it.”
No matter how fanatical, though, few want to brave tourist hordes. With the June opening of the $200 million Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, where waiting times in lines are two hours plus, both theme parks are at peak capacity.
Luckily, there are tricks and tips to making visits as painless as possible. Hiring a VIP Premium Tour guide (from $195 to $295 an hour for a minimum of six hours, 714-300-7710) will result in a customized experience. The guides (called “plaids” for their signature costume) will get you into the park easily, make reservations at top culinary spots such as Napa Rose in the Grand Californian hotel and nearby Catal (which has hosted parties for Drew Barrymore and Justin Bieber) and reserve prime viewing spots for shows and parades. While plaids can’t get guests to the front of every line, they can for rides in the Fastpass program, including Indiana Jones, Star Tours and all the major mountains. If your kids are “let’s go again” types or autograph seekers, the guide will get them in front to meet and greet castmembers portraying everyone from Mickey to Merida, the redheaded heroine of Disney/Pixar’s Brave. For celebrities, park officials practically insist on VIP guides (James Threadgill is Once Upon a Time star Ginnifer Goodwin‘s favorite). “They don’t want bedlam breaking out if Miley Cyrus is standing in line,” says one insider.
There are places that VIP guides can’t take you, including the private Club 33 with a 10-year-long waiting list. (It recently welcomed a select number of new members.) How carefully are the keys to the castle guarded? Goodwin — who’s such a fanatic, she visited the park five times during a recent six-week hiatus — admits she recently became a member. But even she hasn’t yet gotten access to the fabled Dream Suite, the only on-site guest room in the park. “I would do just about anything legal to stay there,” she says.
Pilot House on the Mark Twain River Boat
Not part of any VIP tour, the pilot house is an unofficial spot to which the captain can extend an invite. Guests need to inquire to request access — or can just butter him or her up.
This 2,600-square-foot private space is invitation-only to VIPs and kids from charities like Make-A-Wish. Once in a while, official fan club D23 members get sneak peeks. Access cannot be purchased. The suite has two master bedrooms, a French Provincial living room, an electric train and a full-size carousel. Says del Toro of the amenities provided by Disney Imagineer designers, “The quarters come to life at several points during the night and objects and audiovisual effects light up the room unexpectedly — it’s the essence of Disney magic.”
Aside from the beloved mansion itself, a favorite destination of Whoopi Goldberg, “there have been occasional special private dinners that are announced and sell out immediately — they’re not dinners that can be set up by request for a fee,” says Chris Strodder, author of The Disneyland Encyclopedia. “There’s also a cool pet cemetery feature hidden behind it, and if you ask an employee, they’ll usually let you see it, though you can’t walk through it.” Adds Beckley: “A little thing that fanatics do is try to get the Haunted elevator to themselves and lay down in it when it goes down. They call it the stretching room — it seems to be stretching. You look up while the portraits get smaller.”
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
Get like Stefani, a Disney fan who dressed as Cinderella for Kate Hudson‘s Halloween party last year, or do the more age-appropriate thing and turn a child into a Disney princess for $200, which includes makeup, nail polish, tiara and costume. Make reservations up to six months in advance — walk-ins have about a 1 percent chance of getting in.
At the top of this bobsled ride, which recently had side-by-side seating replace the lap-sitting that titillated teens for generations, is a basketball hoop. “We played basketball in the Matterhorn,” says The Young and the Restless executive producer Maria Bell, who is such a fan that her husband, Bill, proposed to her at the Castle. Another insider insists: “No one can go up there. It’s for maintenance people.”
A private walk-through with a Disneyland designer pointing out behind-the-scenes facts and anecdotes is rare, extended only to high-level business contacts, or given away for charity. Says Bell: “We won an Imagineers tour at LACMA that was donated by Willow Bay. We had the most amazing time.”
Lily Belle Railroad Car
The luxury observation parlor car on the Disneyland railroad, named after Walt Disney‘s wife, has carried royalty and heads of state, including Japan’s Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako, and is not always available on the track. A VIP tour guide can gain you entrance if it’s present.
Walt Disney’s Apartment
Overlooking the town square and built for Disney to oversee construction, this humble apartment above the fire station also housed Disney and his family, with his wife, Lillian, using the patio to entertain. Disney sometimes descended using the fire pole as a form of egress. Says Beckley, “They still leave a light on in the window in honor of Walt.” Not open to the public, the apartment can be seen via a behind-the-scenes Backstage Magic tour; call 800-543-0865 to book.
Can You Find the Hidden Mickeys?
A slew of websites are devoted to identifying the “hidden Mickeys” designed into nooks and crannies throughout the park. Basic representations of Mickey can be a circle with smaller circles for ears; look for Mickeys in gears, the Space Mountain speakers, one of the Conquistador breastplates when exiting the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and virtually every ride. “You start to see them everywhere. If you look at the Matterhorn from a certain angle, the caves converge to become a Mickey Mouse shape,” says Beckley. “There are multiple layers — you can come back and discover things you didn’t notice at the beginning.” There are seven on our map — can you find them all?
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