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While it might be for the best that Southern California’s theme parks have remained closed since mid-March to curb the spread of COVID-19, state restrictions have left local theme park lovers looking for ways to enjoy their favorite rides, treats and costumed characters while in lockdown.
So Los Angeleno turned to L.A. comedians Mike Carlson, Scott Gairdner and Jason Sheridan for help. The three men are lifelong theme park enthusiasts, who have turned their obsession into “Podcast: The Ride.” While the show mostly focuses on popular attractions like Disneyland’s Matterhorn and Universal Studios’ Jurassic World, the three hosts riff on everything theme park-related, from churro flavors to E.T.’s teacher Botanicus to a 19-episode exploration of the shops, restaurants and parking structures at Universal CityWalk.
Their deep well of knowledge made them the perfect source for tips on how to enjoy theme parks from the safety of our homes.
“I think we’re extremely lucky that this unprecedented thing in theme park history is happening when there are so many ways to experience theme park media at home,” Gairdner says. “Any taste of that is more special than ever because all those things are off-limits, or we don’t want to go to them right now.”
Here are seven suggestions from the self-described “good boys” on how to embark on the theme park experience at home.
One of the easiest ways to experience theme parks from home is via ride-through videos on YouTube. If there’s an amusement ride somewhere on the planet, you can probably find a video of it.
But how do you spot a good one?
According to our podcasting trio, you should look for videos with high views or that mention specific details like “4K,” “GoPro” or “front of car.” Gairdner jokes that you might be able to tell if you’re watching a good video if you catch the reflection of the videographer.
“Do they look miserable? Do they look so intense, like they’re shooting war footage for National Geographic?” he says. “If they’re having fun and smiling on the ride, the video’s probably bad because they’re not focused!”
Since the pandemic started, Sheridan has favored relaxing videos, like a 20-minute journey down Disneyland’s Rivers of America on the Mark Twain Riverboat. He also watches YouTube channels like Wind Walk Traveler and CityPedia, two channels that provide POV walking tours of major cities, theme parks and other attractions. “Especially the first couple months where it was like, try to minimize going anywhere, being able to put on a video of someone walking around a place was very soothing,” Sheridan says.
As for Carlson, he’s been checking out stuff he doesn’t normally have access to. “I’ve tended to watch videos from Tokyo or Halloween Horror Night mazes or even just boring roller coaster videos from Knott’s over something like Pirates because I’m a maniac and I’ve been on it a lot, so it’s still fairly fresh in my mind,” he says.
With this year’s Halloween season canceled, videos of mazes like Knott’s Berry Farm’s Paranormal Inc. allow the self-proclaimed “haunt guy” to escape the horrors of 2020 with some fake scares. Not to mention, watching these walkthroughs is a good way for the haunt-curious to check out mazes without having to worry about a scare actor jumping out at them. While Carlson has most major rides carved into his brain, he has used YouTube to revisit his favorite theme park experience. “The best thing at Disneyland is riding Big Thunder at night,” Carlson says.
The guys joke that despite quarantine madness, they haven’t tried to make the ride video experience fully interactive. “I haven’t watched the Jungle Cruise and sprayed myself with a spray bottle yet, or sat on a rickety chair while my wife tips it back and forth,” Gairdner says. However, they do think parents might want to try that with their children.
Even though the parks are closed, you can still get a live look at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park thanks to the “Mattercam.” “It’s a webcam on the roof of the Howard Johnson Hotel on Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim,” Gairdner says, calling it mundane while pointing out that 25 other “weirdos” were watching at the same time he was. The webcam streams 24 hours a day and offers live views of locations like Space Mountain, Pixar Pier and the Matterhorn.
Shows and Specials
One of the best and weirdest ways to enjoy a virtual theme park visit is through old TV specials filmed at Disneyland and other parks. Not only do these specials provide great footage of rides, but if you’re looking for ironic laughs, you’re bound to find something so bad that it’s good.
According to the hosts, specials contain an element of “chaos Disneyland,” which apparently takes many forms, like in Disneyland’s 30th-anniversary special, which opens with a bizarre montage featuring the park’s audio-animatronics singing a reworked rendition of The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.”
To mark Disneyland’s 65th anniversary in July, “Podcast: The Ride” devoted an episode to watching the 1955 Disneyland opening day TV special. Opening day featured many notorious “chaos Disneyland” moments, including numerous technical snafus and what appears to be one of the hosts making out with a Frontierland cowgirl who is not his wife. Even Disney itself has gotten in on the action, recently releasing its 1977 TV special, “The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World,” on Disney+ complete with the original 1977 commercials. “It’s such a good promise of inanity from the vault to come,” Gairdner says.
Each host has a favorite show. Gairdner recommends Disneyland’s 35th-anniversary special, which he describes as “oddly cinematic,” featuring Miss Piggy, Tony Danza and Will Smith doing a “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” based rap. “It begins like an episode of ‘Cheers’ with Woody remembering riding Haunted Mansion for the first time and meeting a girl who turns out to be a ghost,” Gairdner says.
Carlson recommends the opening special for Walt Disney World. “It’s got Glenn Campbell singing, and Bob Hope does a bizarre comedy routine at the Contemporary Hotel,” he says.
Sheridan recommends a very different opening spectacular: the 2001 special made to showcase Disney’s California Adventure. In addition to showcasing how Disney tried to sell what wound up being its biggest theme park failure, “the opening special for California Adventure is a great time capsule of who ABC had on retainer in 2001,” Sheridan says jokingly, referring to hosts Barry Bostwick and Richard Kind.
When California Adventure first opened, it was met with negative reviews, leading to a significant overhaul of many rides and attractions between 2007 and 2012, so this special offers a glimpse into the original version of the park.
For similar time capsule experiences, the trio recommends archived hotel information channels, which often showcased what was new and exciting at the hotel’s associated theme park at the time.
“There’s an account called RetroWDW that uploads vintage footage,” Sheridan says. “They have someone who’s cleaning up old hotel room information loops and cleaning up the VHS static and fuzz.”
Much like taking a virtual ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat, these old hotel information videos can be oddly soothing. “2020 has been so miserable for everybody that to mentally escape to 1990 with phrases like ‘Mom and dad dance the night away at Pleasure Island!’ is nice,” Gairdner says.
Virtual Theme Parks
While you can watch theme park videos, it’s not quite the same as interacting with the space. There are a few video games that can give you the theme park experience. Recently, The Sims 4 unveiled an expansion where players can visit the planet Batuu, the fictional setting of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new “Star Wars” land that opened at Disneyland last year. While none of the “Podcast: The Ride” hosts have played this Sims expansion, they are excited by the prospect of getting to visit the virtual recreation and seeing their “favorite character in all of fiction,” R-3X, the Star Tours pilot droid turned cantina DJ voiced by Paul Reubens.
Carlson has also found theme park fun in an unusual place. “Grand Theft Auto V online has been a kind of normalcy this summer, driving around a pseudo-Los Angeles that doesn’t have the virus,” Carlson says, adding that he likes to visit the “fake Santa Monica Pier and go on the roller coaster there. You can feel the rumble in the control.”
For more family-friendly fun, there are old favorites like the RollerCoaster Tycoon series, which allows players to develop their own amusement park, and the Xbox One and Windows game Disneyland Adventures, which features an uncanny recreation of every pathway in the happiest place on Earth.
Local landmarks like Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl have started selling takeout Dodger Dogs and barbecue picnics. And while it was rumored that Disneyland would start selling Dole Whips, Monte Cristo sandwiches and churros to-go, nothing has come of that yet.
However, Knott’s Berry Farm has returned to its roots and is selling chicken dinners to go. “The chicken dinner has been there since before there was a theme park, so it gives me some personal security knowing that if the chicken can survive this, so can I,” Gairdner says.
Food, Drinks and Music
Back in May, Sheridan drove to Knott’s to try the curbside pickup. “Going down to Buena Park might still be the farthest I’ve driven in months,” he says. The full meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits and boysenberry preserves held up on the drive home and, of course, was a topic of discussion on the podcast.
If you don’t feel like driving to Buena Park for chicken, there are plenty of theme park treats you can make at home yourself. Disney’s official theme park blog features recipes for dishes like Walt’s chili, while fan sites like Disney Food Blog can teach you how to make a New Orleans Square-style alcohol-free mint julep.
One spot the podcasting trio particularly miss is the Carthay Circle Restaurant, a charming art deco cocktail lounge and restaurant in California Adventure housed in a recreation of L.A.’ long-lost Carthay Circle Theatre movie palace. In the meantime, Carlson and his girlfriend have enjoyed recreating its Dill Gin & Tonics, while Gairdner is partial to Carthay Manhattans, often pairing it with the restaurant’s music online. “You can listen to the Carthay music loop on YouTube, which has wonderful relaxing jazz piano versions of Disney standards,” Gairdner says.
Theme park music is also a great way to soak in the nostalgic atmosphere, whether it’s an individual ride’s soundtrack or the music loops that play in themed lands. Most loops can easily be found online — perhaps the folksy Frontierland loop can make your distanced backyard dinner feel more charmingly rustic. Even before the pandemic, Carlson would tune in while researching for the podcast. “My algorithm suggests every video of every Tomorrowland music loop that there is,” he says.
For decades, Disney has released albums of theme park music, and last year, they released a compilation of the Star Wars universe pop songs that play at the cantina in Galaxy’s Edge. In some cases, listening to a soundtrack is the best way to experience a theme park attraction digitally. Space Mountain, for instance, is almost entirely in the dark, so while a video will give you some sense of the ride’s atmosphere, you’re mostly going to be looking at a black screen.
The guys joke around, saying you can also enjoy the experience of dining at Universal Studios from home. “If you want the Universal culinary experience, go to Panda Express,” Gairdner says. “That’s what they have at the theme park.”
“Just give them a couple extra dollars in addition to whatever your bill is,” Sheridan says.
“It’s not a tip! Be insistent that money goes to the Panda Express corporation,” Gairdner says. “This is to make it more expensive, like at the theme park.”
Finally, Carlson has a tip on how to enhance your Universal/Panda Express experience. “To get that ambiance at home,” he says, “have some 2012 will.i.am song you’ve never heard blasted at you.”
Nine months into the pandemic, you probably aren’t afraid of getting a little weird, and the “Podcast: The Ride” hosts are right there with you. Gairdner has started “driving” his newborn around the house to Space Mountain music. Sheridan has started buying weird theme park merch on eBay, like a coffee mug promoting a ride at South Carolina’s failed Hard Rock Park.
“It’s square with a circular bottom,” he says. “It’s very stupid.”
Carlson has considered “buying one of those cheap VR headsets for your phone” so he can watch ride videos up close. Upon hearing this, Gairdner joked that a good idea would be to have someone you’re quarantining with “drive you around while you watch a roller coaster video.”
Of course, there’s one theme park experience that’s especially hard to recreate at home: the character meet-and-greet. Don’t worry, the guys have a simple solution. First, ask your roommate or significant other to wear a mask of your favorite character and 10 or so T-shirts for padding.
“Then, obscure their vision, shove a marker in their hand, and make them write a poorly executed autograph,” Gairdner says. “Now it’s just like meeting Mickey!”