California Screamin' (Westworld magazine)

California Screamin'

Becoming a man in the wilds of La La Land

Westworld magazine, June 2001

It’s 1 p.m. and I’m waiting on the pier for friends. We’re setting out to discover California. We’ll stroll the boardwalk, take in the attractions, head over to the mountains, do some whitewater rafting, check out the vintners in wine country, go hang-gliding over the Golden Gate Bridge and Mission Bay in San Diego, stop by Hollywood, take in a show. We’re on foot so we figure we won’t get back to the hotel until dinnertime.

Oh, did I mention this is Disney’s California Adventure theme park? The good folks at Disney came up with the idea to celebrate the wonders of the Golden State -- all in one convenient 22-hectare location beside the original Disneyland. The park is divided into three sections: Paradise Pier, Golden State and the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Because really, what else to the state is there?

My friends Jon and Chris come bounding off California Screamin’, a giant roller coaster that takes its helpless victims from 0 to 90 kilometres an hour in four seconds, beaming. The ride includes a loop-de-loop, which sounds so innocent and fun. This is brilliant marketing -- loop-de-loop is much more inviting than, say, the Upside Down Circle of Death. Which is what it looks like to me.

You see, I’m not what you’d call a “ride” guy. Not only that, I don’t know enough about centrifugal force to even contemplate going on that puppy. But my pals insist. They’ve been on it twice already and want more.

I insist right back that I can gain just as much enjoyment from watching and listening to their chilling screams while standing safely on the ground, right-side-up. Jon tells me he’s terrified of rides, but this one’s “a hoot”. He, like I, went on the old wooden coaster at the PNE once and vowed never again, so I believe him. Reluctantly, I proceed ashen-faced to the front of the line. How bad can it be? I reassure myself.

There I am, locked into my fate as we shoot off for our mile-long, 3.5-minute thrill ride, grabbing on for dear life, eyes clamped shut. At the first turn I remember to open them. Once I can see where I’m heading, I’m fine. Jon is laughing and screaming beside me. But I play it cool. On our ascent to 120 feet (sounds so much more menacing than 36 metres), I engage in small talk.

“So Jonathan, how’s work going?” Apparently not well, judging from his blood-curdling scream as gravity takes over and we hurl straight down. Part of the thrill of these kinds of rides is surviving them. You step off and feel like you’ve cheated death.

“Let’s do it again!” I scream. And we did. Suddenly, I’m a “ride” person. At least when Disney’s involved. I think I trust Disney rides because they’re run not by carnies but by shiny, happy people. Sure, their wide-eyed, smiling faces remind me of infomercial audience members, but I definitely feel safer on Disney rides. And certainly cleaner.

We try them all now, including Soarin’ Over California (Californians apparently are too laid back to pronounce “ing”). This simulated hang-gliding (make that glidin’) ride is amazing. I keep looking to the side of the 80-foot bowl-shaped screen for reassurance that I’m not actually hundreds of feet in the air floating over rivers, valleys, mountains and ocean. We feel the wind on our face and somehow smell the smells. Unless that was Jon.

We manage to see most of “California” in an afternoon but come back for more that night and again the next day. It’s easy to be cynical of Disney and all it represents (wholesome family values and litigation against anyone who dares copy those wholesome family values). Still, I defy anyone not to have fun at the “Happiest Place On Earth” (TM, just in case, lest we be hit with our own lawsuit). What can I say? Disney knows how to build a theme park.

Plus they know how to build character. I’m proud of myself for turning into a “ride” guy, though I think I could have enjoyed the place while maintaining my previous chicken status. There are enough shows and games and kiddie rides to keep a coward like me occupied.

And thankfully, no earthquakes, floods or riots.
Guy MacPherson is a Vancouver freelance writer usually afraid of his own shadow. He has won no awards.