A few weeks ago, I was faced with the unenviable task of trying to come up with something special for my wife's birthday. It was one of those big birthdays. I won't say which one it was, but suffice it to say that she probably got at least one card that used the word "nifty" in some clever fashion. Since it's likely the last birthday she'll ever acknowledge having, I figured I'd better go along with whatever she wanted.
But what she wanted was a trip to Disneyland (insert comical antiquated-needle-sliding-across-record-sound-effect here).
And she told me I had to pretend to be happy during the entire visit. Ouch. I think I never really learned
to enjoy the whole Disney thing because the first
went I was in my 20s. Disney magic is like politics and religion: You have to have it crammed into your skull while it's still young and mushy; it's a tougher sell later on down the road.
But, as I said, this was a big day, so I was determined to cram it full of highlights. It was this raw determination that led us to that most sacred bastion of Disney lore, Club 33.
If there's one thing Disney absolutely knows how to do, aside from vacuuming vast sums of cash from people's pockets, it's media relations. I've been invited a bunch of times in the past to help promote new rides and attractions and so I became acquainted with a young-up-and-comer named Greg, who handled all the VIP stuff. You don't need to know Greg's last name. I feel kind of bad about telling you his first name.
I hadn't talked to Greg in a few years, mostly because I didn't want to go to Disneyland. But these were desperate times. I got his voicemail and left a moderately polite message. One of those "remember me?" kind of things. Exactly two minutes later, my phone rang. Greg was at lunch with some executives and apologized for not being able to take the call immediately. He asked how my wife and kids were doing, and I mean by name. Such is the power of Greg. He set me up with a reservation number for a fancy suite at the Disneyland Hotel and a lunch reservation at Club 33.
Every person who's ever been to Disneyland has heard the stories about this mysterious restaurant carefully hidden in New Orleans Square. It's known as a haven for the upper-crust types, zillionaires, movie stars, corporate execs and the like. Which of course it is. The whole idea of this exclusive eatery is to give really fancy people a place to eat far away from people like me. In other words, just the kind of party I'd like to crash. And not for the five-star dining or the exclusivity of it all, but for the opportunity to violate their rarified environment.
Walt Disney built this members-only club, right next to the Pirates of the Caribbean, as a place to wine and dine his corporate partners. Legend (one of many) has it that there were originally 33 of them, thus the name. People always act like the place is hidden or something, but there's a big "33" plate right there on Royal Street.
Our reservation was at 11:45, and we got there early. Part of our birthday experience was fancy passes that allowed us immediate access to rides without all those pesky lines. I was under strict orders to let my wife ring the bell. Apparently it's part of the experience. She pushed the button and an immaculately dressed lady opened the door and asked for our names. For a second I contemplated the possibility that Greg was just putting us on, getting revenge for some perceived slight back in the day. But the nice lady showed us right in.
About the time the door closes behind you, you realize that you are in a very special place. There's a brass and glass lift (don't call it an elevator) that Walt had built after riding in one at a Paris hotel. The staff had been notified about the birthday and reacted in true Disney fashion. Most people are directed to the crazy-awesome red velvet staircase. Birthday girl was escorted into the lift. I don't know how rich corporate types react when those lift doors open, but we pretty much lost our minds. The decor lives up to the hype. It's totally devoid of Disney's trademark artificiality. Everything in here is vintage and real. If my mom had been there, she surely would have told me not to touch anything.
Our hostess instructed us to act as if we were at home. She opened one of the doors to the balcony so we could be just like those people we'd gawked up at in the past. She told us to take as many pictures as we wanted. So we did. We even used the antique phone from the 1967 film "The Happiest Millionaire."
After getting all the touristy nonsense out of the way, it was time to get down to brass tacks. Club 33 is a five-star restaurant, and I was at least four-star hungry. We were shown to our table, and a waiter turned up about three seconds later to take our drink orders. That's right, drink orders. Club 33 not only has a full bar, it has a bartender I assume was literally put on this earth just to make drinks, probably the son and grandson of the previous Club 33 bartenders. Watching that guy work was like watching Clapton play guitar. I don't know where they get the servers, but I assume Disney has a server breeding colony someplace, raising them from birth for just this task, weeding out any genetic weaknesses, thus creating a sort of master race of totally classy, lightning-fast, borderline-clairvoyant waitstaff. Seconds later, we had bread, something like (but better than) butter, and menus. There are only about five choices on the lunch menu, which turns out to be a moot point. The before-meal buffet is so full of delightful food that your entree becomes an afterthought. After a couple of plates of salad, crab, lobster, soups and on and on, I nearly forgot that they were bringing me a steak. My wife had baked chicken, because -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- it came with truffled macaroni and cheese, which sounds stupid until you taste it.
We were about halfway through our lunch when yet another lady came to visit. She was our dessert steward. She very tastefully reminded us that the elaborate dessert buffet was awaiting us and that everything in it was made fresh that morning. It was the classiest possible way to say, "Don't fill up on spuds, morons; the cinnamon in those apple tarts is flown in from Paris."
Time stands still
The great thing about this place is that there are no clocks, and nobody would care if there were. You are never rushed. We went back out to the balcony to get some air before dessert. I'm not a huge dessert fan, but this stuff is simply ridiculous: the tiny apple pies, the S'mores, the macaroons -- it was not of this world. They also let you take some with you. They will not, however, let you chuck them over the balcony like some kind and generous king sharing his bounty with the masses.
We struggled to our feet, bloated with meat and chocolate, picked up a few souvenirs -- Disney, after all, is not bashful about providing guests with merchandise opportunities -- and headed back to the real world. There's nothing so bracing as going back out that door, being transformed back into a regular person, Cinderella-style.
As a regular person who likes regular food and the company of regular people, I have to say that even I was blown away by the Club 33 experience. Not only am I not a "foodie," I think anyone who even says that vile word out loud should be hit immediately with a chair. But every so often, it's pretty neat to treat one's self, and one's elderly spouse, to a memorable meal.
It's also worth noting that the menus don't list the prices. But if you find yourself in this place, not only will you not care, you'll be happy to pay it.
I recently got invited back to Club 33, and I have it all planned out. I don't ever want to go to Disneyland without a little kid again. But my grandson will be ready to go in another year or so. I'll get everyone in line for Pirates, then head upstairs for a mojito and a washtub full of macaroons while they all wait in line. I'll sit on the balcony and wait for them to get their fill of Johnny Depp, then meet them at the bottom of the stairs with my pockets jammed full of S'mores.
And by that time, my pal Greg should be running the whole company.