Tuesday, October 07, 2008


It’s sometimes hard to recall some of the simpler pleasures of Disneyland in this rough and tumble era of season pass holders and video game attention spans, but once upon a time they flourished from one end of the park to the other.

Luckily there are still places you can go in Southern California that succeed in stirring up some of the sense-memories that were very much a part of vintage Disneyland. One of these places is the newly re-opened Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

It’s here, in this painstaking recreation of the Villa Dei Papiri in ancient Hercullaneum, where much of Disneyland’s missing mystique is alive and well.

Plumb the exit polls of Disneyland in its first two decades and you’d get a clear idea of what informs the Getty Villa playbook of today:

Disneyland was obsessively clean. Back when there seemed to be one janitorial host for every 10 square feet it was common for guests to bet on how quickly a cigarette butt would be scooped up the moment it was tossed to the ground. The winner always knew to bet on seconds.

Disneyland cast members were courteous and well informed. Mid century America swooned with approval at all the well groomed smiles and came back year after year for more.

Disneyland was often bucolic, pastoral and idyllic. There were moments to be found around every corner of Walt’s park that celebrated the quieter pleasures found in a small town or a rural countryside.

It is these elements that truly transform mere fun into pure bliss, elements that are in full bloom and firing on all cylinders at the Getty Villa and that underscore so much of the compromised Disneyland experience of today.

Though primarily a world class museum of Greek and Roman antiquities, visitors to the Getty Villa wishing to merely revel in the experience of being transported to another time and place are richly rewarded.

On arriving at what might as well be called Rome A.D. 79 Land, docents greet everyone up close and personal with a smile and guide map and send you on your way through the garden path stairwells to the shining Villa on the hill. This personal touch is classic Disneyland.

Lush landscaping abounds, unobstructed by souvenir stands, vacation club kiosks or popcorn vendors, from the Italy specific herb garden and fruit trees to the 300 varieties of plants endemic to ancient Rome. Along covered walkways around the inner and outer peristyle guests are treated to fanciful fountains, bronze statues and intricate wall paintings. Past the jaw dropping 220-foot reflecting pool a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean awaits, poking up between two terraced hillsides bordering the villa.

Everywhere small wonders excite the senses; the gorgeous sculptural banisters on the way to the second floor, the fountain festooned with seashells, the painted crickets scampering over the peristyle murals, the exquisite craftsmanship of the pocket window shutters along the gallery hallways or the whimsical intermingling of rosemary and boxwood topiaries for textural variety in the gardens.

Granted, these subtle qualities are far removed from the more animated theatrics of Disneyland today but, within the more reflective and calming wonderland of the Getty Villa, no less effective in stirring up a true sense of wonder.

Visits to places like the Getty Villa help to clarify where the Disneyland touch has tarnished over time. Guests are finding it a little harder to find more peaceful pleasures at the park, like an evening stroll along the gas lit banks of the River’s of America, quaint water features like Skull Rock or lazy hikes along the trails surrounding Fort Wilderness. Cast member smiles and personal service are often as barren as Thunder Mesa. Visual clutter and errant trash has eroded the suspension of disbelief in many a themed environment. Crowds and noise seem to have edged out the meaning and value of quieter oases of enchantment.

Luckily there are hold outs in the Disney Theme park hierarchy. The Zen-like environments at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Epcot’s World Showcase in Florida immediately come to mind.

Still, if you’re looking to reconnect with the simple pleasures of Disneyland at at its finest look no further than the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.