Even without Merlin's, the night of May 26, 1983, was magical.
It was my first Cast event. My date and I didn't end up in a Cinderella story, but we had a fabulous time in the warm glow of the New Fantasyland. Supervisors manned the attractions as we rode with Toad and flew with Peter and Wendy like we hadn't done in years.
We had seen both incarnations of the world of imagination, hopes, and dreams. The version we experienced that night as adults was fundamentally the same as the one that we had grown up with—same simple attractions, same themes. But because it stayed true to itself even as it evolved, it didn't damage the memory of the earlier version. Instead, the new version let the old keep its dignity, free of the disappointment that comes from seeing something you once saw as incredible become diminished beside what you've seen since. The event was as much a reunion as a premiere.
Fantasyland grew up without growing apart.
Walt once asked why we have to grow up. I'm sure that he didn't mean the question literally. I think that he meant to express the idea that we should grow without losing the things that make life so wonderful before we're grown. That's what happened behind the drawbridge in 1983.
In my view, the "Disneyland Resort" represents expansion, but it's not really about growth. The New Fantasyland shows what happens when an idea grows into being what limitations prevented it from becoming when it was created. You can't see the original Fantasyland anymore, but it's still there.
When we walked over the bridge into the new land for the first time on May 26, 1983, we entered a more sophisticated Fantasyland. We found richer architecture, theming, and artistry. But we didn't have to search for its identity.
Individual decisions could have been better. Merlin's should have remained. Skull Rock should have survived the bulldozers. As a whole, however, the re-creation was superb.
It's not an easy thing to unlock the magic. Disney has tried a lot of keys since 1983. It's almost as if Walt is watching and waiting for the right incantation, one respecting the past while reinvigorating it. Walt gave the keys, but, like Tolkien's doors to Moria, the drawbridge will open only for those who understand the kingdom.
Without understanding, new parks may be built and new marketing may be pushed into old attractions. The doors to Disneyland's brand value will become tarnished with wear from the attempts to force them open, but they'll hardly budge. As in the Lord of the Rings, the key is to "speak, friend, and enter."
It doesn't take never-ending promotions and discounting. Mr. Iger and company should simply restore and re-create the Disneyland that they knew as kids. The Disneyland that showed how on May 26, 1983.
Those were happier times.