New-Look Grand Circle Tour of Disneyland!

Yesterday, we headed back to Disneyland for the first time since the Disneyland Railroad and Rivers of America had full reopened. Wow. That’s really all I have to say. Okay, that’s not really all…I’ll probably manage to ramble on for dozens of paragraphs despite “wow” being my initial reaction.

Our last couple of visits to Disneyland have been days that we ourselves forecast to be busy on our Disneyland Crowd Calendars, and we did not have the best of times. Since we’re locals, we’ve developed something of an attitude that crowds don’t matter to us because we aren’t really in a hurry to do anything in particular. The problem is…that is not really true. No one likes crowds–some people can just tolerate them better.

This time, we elected to our our own advice, and chose what we expected to be the least-busy day before the Annual Passholder blockouts are lifted, and all hell breaks loose with locals rushing back to see Fantasmic and the Rivers of America. We booked a hotel for the night, arrived early, and stayed late. It was glorious–one of the best days we’ve had at Disneyland in a while. In this post, we’ll share some of our experiences from the visit, giving you a general update from Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in the process…

(EDIT: This was originally intended to be an all-purpose Disneyland update, but after writing 2,000+ words just about the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad, I’ve decided to save the other material for a dedicated update post tomorrow…)

Anyways, let’s get started with our Grand Circle Tour of Disneyland aboard the Disneyland Railroad, and our cruises along the Rivers of America!

If you read the blog much, you know I’m a pretty boring dude who likes boring stuff. Slow-moving boat rides, atmospheric attractions, and just wandering around are all things I very much enjoy.

My perfect day in the parks has less to do with how many thrilling E-Tickets I do than how relaxing, transportive of an experience I have.

Suffice to say, not having the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad for the last ~18 months has left a glaring void in my version of an ideal day at Disneyland. I’ve long felt that Disneyland is really lacking in the ‘relaxation’ attractions department by virtue of no longer having the PeopleMover, Carousel of Progress, and Country Bear Jamboree–this refurbishment only underscored just how lacking it is in that regard.

With these attractions down the last year-plus, Disneyland’s relaxation lineup has basically been limited to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Tiki Room. (I don’t count the Disneyland Monorail, as it’s often too hot for that.) Yes, I realize I probably sound about 30 years older than I actually am, but get off my internet-lawn ya punk whippersnappers!

Before we start with the big changes to the backside of the Rivers of America, let’s talk about the Grand Canyon Diorama. It looks better than I’ve ever seen it. This is an unequivocal upgrade, with new light, refreshed scenes, and some nice new visual effects that enhance existing scenes while not overpowering them with flashy (but ultimately ill-fitting) tech.

This is a solid plussing with no downside (at least that I could spot), through and through. The dinosaurs are back, and they’re better than ever!

The question for me leading up to the reopening of the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad would be whether the re-imagined experiences lived up to the original, or felt like truncated versions of the originals. After all, these refurbishments were not born of a desire to improve the Rivers of America or Railroad. They were done out of necessity to fit the colossal Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge into space-constrained Disneyland.

As such, there were a lot of concerns that Imagineering would, at worst, be condensing the Rivers of America as quickly and cheaply as possible. Most likely, they would be in a position of having to make lemonade out of lemons, trying to sneak a few improvements into a project that was otherwise about shortening these experiences.

The end result, I think, was the best possible case: the Rivers of America has been enhanced with a more dynamic landscape that is visually engaging for the duration of the rides; one that offers more kinetic to Disneyland than its previous incarnation, and presents an overall experience that is going to be more satisfying for the majority of guests.

This may not be popular sentiment among Disneyland purists, but I believe the modifications to the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad are not just well-done viewed through the prism of necessary changes due to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. They are improvements even when viewed in isolation that better the overall Disneyland guest experience.

In the past, the greatest strength of the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad have been their transportive nature. I don’t mean that literally, despite these all being transportation attractions.

By it, I mean that they remove you from present-day Anaheim, California and take you to a different time and place.

Much like you feel transported when stepping foot onto Main Street, you feel this when taking the Grand Circle Tour of Disneyland or floating around the Rivers of America. The difference is that it’s always been more pronounced with the Railroad or Rivers. Not only are you somewhere else, but the park is moving at a slower pace.

This is all essentially the antithesis of modern-day Los Angeles, a concrete jungle full of buildings, bustling with people…and traffic. Disneyland in general provided a nice change-of-pace from the population centers of Southern California, and that’s probably why it has always resonated with locals. In this regard, the Rivers and Railroad have long been the pure ‘escapist’ options for locals.

I think this is as true than it has ever been, and will only become ‘more’ true in the future. The problem is one of expectations and modern sensibilities, I suppose. Even if Angelenos and other locals need a respite from their ordinary day-to-day, the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad pre-refurbishment did not compute. At least, not for many guests.

On the ‘back stretch’ mostly filled with untamed wilderness, guests would routinely check out; you could spot a sea of people glued to their phone screens, as if seeking an escape from their escape.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was a matter of expectations? For the contemporary price of park tickets, they didn’t expect to be transported to the frontier? (Griffith Park and the Santa Monica Mountains offer free escapes from urban life.) Perhaps it’s a matter of modern attention spans? People in general do not savor the tranquil moments like they once did?

Like I said, I cannot begin to explain the ‘why’ of it. If anything, I would expect things like the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad to be more important to (local) guests now than ever before. Based upon first-hand experiences and guest feedback, I do not believe that’s actually the case. Unfortunately, what I want to be true (Country Bear Jamboree is beloved by all!) and what I actually observe (it’s not.) are often very different.

In light of that, I think the re-imagined Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad deliver an experience that better caters to modern-day guests. While definitely not as transportive as before, these things do an exceptional job of meeting guests halfway. The Rivers of America and Railroad still feature their transportive character, while increasing the portions that are visually-engaging and stimulating.

I’m a fan of this departure in style. In my opinion, the best railroad any Disney park has ever done is the Western River Railroad at Tokyo Disneyland, which benefits heavily from weaving guests through remote stretches as well as over its Adventureland, Westernland, and Critter Country. The visuals combined with kinetic energy make that such a different and more dynamic attraction–both for guests on it and those walking throughout the lands.

The changes at Disneyland seem made in that mold, at least to the degree possible. It’s low-key stimulation (if that’s a thing), but it’s enough to keep (most) people off of their phones and fully immersed in the scenery.

Guest buy-in is essential for suspension of disbelief, and I think the enhancements make these experiences more conducive to buy-in.

The rides are more engaging in the sense that there’s more interesting scenery and nuggets of detail to enjoy. At the same time, this was accomplished deftly and with a sense of restraint: Imagineers did not go overboard, shoehorning in some contrived story or attempting to constantly entertain every guest, even those with the shortest of attention spans.

It still feels like you’re traveling back in time to the American Frontier, but with more to see along with way and a greater energy to it. Whereas before, these were passive, leisurely experiences that removed you from modern civilization (to the extent that guests bought into them), now you feel more like you’re at the precipice of an adventure.

The re-imagined Rivers of America is not perfect. Aside from it not being quite as transportive, the biggest criticism is that it has a sense of new-ness to it.

The easy response here is, “well duh, it is.” However, I think Imagineering has done a better job of creating additions that feel their age from the get-go.

Cars Land is a great example of this. Even from the moment it opened, it had an exceptional, lived-in quality to it. There was no feeling that it would need to mature or grow into its faux-age. It already felt like Route 66 of a bygone era and I think it maintains that same feeling today.

By contrast, there are aspects of the Rivers of America that seem like they will rely on natural aging and maturation to be fully realized. The foliage is the obvious example of this, and should look great within a few years–probably just in time for the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

The walkways are another example. From the pavement to the handrails, it just feels new. It’s tough to totally put your finger on why, but it just does. Again, this should be taken care of with a few years of wear, so it’s hardly a glaring issue from my perspective.

My guess would be that this project did not have the same financial resources as something like Cars Land, so the same fixation on artificial aging would’ve meant less money on the rock work, gags, etc.

The other criticism is a temporary one: that you can plainly see Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge construction towering in the background, as well as the Mickey & Friends parking structure.

This definitely pulls you out of it from time to time while walking through New Orleans Square or cruising the Rivers of America right now, and will probably diminish a first-timer’s opinion of the new-look Rivers.

Maybe I’m I’m being overly-positive, but I prefer to think of this as a future asset.

Those bits of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge framework you can see rising over the tree line in the background today? A year from now, that will be rock work. When viewed from New Orleans Square, the backside of the Rivers of America will align with the landscape of that faraway planet to create the illusion of grandiose mountains and waterfalls in the American frontier.

There is no reason to believe that Star Wars rock work will be anything short of exceptional (Imagineering is at the height of its rock work game right now). The results should be stunning, and easily trick the eye into believing the Rivers of America exist on the edge of a stunning, layered landscape that continues in the distance.

All things considered, I am very satisfied with the modifications made to the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad. While I personally found the old, lengthier experiences very satisfying and a nice change of pace, I think what was done amounts to positives that will make these attractions more approachable and enjoyable for the general public. I’m definitely a fan of the gains in terms of kinetic energy and scenery achieved through the rerouting of the River and Railroad, too. Finally, I think it’ll be fascinating to watch this area of the park mature and improve, which should make it look even better in a few years (even before you consider the grandiosity that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge should add). It’s great to have the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad back, but the enhancements were worth the wait.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of the new-look Rivers of America and/or Disneyland Railroad’s route and scenery? If you’ve experienced these areas, what’s your take on how the changes impact them? Any other thoughts about how these attractions impact the overall vibe and energy at Disneyland? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!


14 Responses to “New-Look Grand Circle Tour of Disneyland!”
  1. Karen H August 11, 2017
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