A Grand Night Out

REVIEW: Though not totally authentic, Disney’s
new hotel is pretty darned impressive.

The new Grand Californian at Disneyland is triumph of Imagineering, a sleepover fantasyland that’s a modern take on the Golden State’s golden age of architecture.

Imagineering is Disney’s melding of imagination and engineering to create something magical for those who can suspend disbelief. For guests who can overlook a few telltale modern touches, the 751-room hotel is a time capsule to the heyday of the back-to-nature Arts and Crafts era of early 20th-century California.

The overall quality of the workmanship, the high standard of service and the excellent flagship restaurant, Napa Rose, put the Grand Californian in the top tier of Orange County lodgings, alongside the Ritz- Carlton Laguna Niguel and the Four Seasons Newport Beach — with prices (rooms from $205 a night) in league with its fellow all-stars.

The Grand Californian is a Greene & Greene Craftsman bungalow on steroids or a long-lost national park lodge done by Frank Lloyd Wright. The designers have borrowed from the best of an encyclopedia of design greats, from Bernard Maybeck to Louis Sullivan to Julia Morgan.

Even the modern aspects like the huge picture windows and interior columns are muted versions of the work of post modernist architect Michael Graves, a Disney favorite. If you aren’t familiar with these names, no problem — the hotel gift shop has plenty of picture books about the Arts and Crafts style for sale and hosts a twice- daily lecture tour on the movement.

The soaring six-story main lobby is stunningly beautiful.
Overstuffed chairs crowd around low-slung Arts and Crafts-style tables. A fire roars in a massive hearth-like side room where tiny rocking chairs await three-times-daily storytelling events. Another fireplace with a copper dome keeps the bar off the lobby cozy and warm.

The lobby of the Grand Californian is instantly one of the great interior spaces of Orange County, alongside the Crystal Cathedral and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The detail work is exquisite. Wall sconces are etched with a tree motif that’s the hotel’s signature.
Something for everyone.
Adults can indulge in the sumptuous wine country-inspired cuisine of Napa Rose, the resort’s signature restaurant with more than 700 labels in its wine cellar. And kids? The wee-one welcome begins at the check-in counter, where children can sit in small easy chairs and watch “Toy Story” on television while their parents do the paperwork.

Two pools, including one with a large, curving water slide, beckon in the courtyard. Breakfast can include a morning parade with Chip ‘n Dale and Pluto at the Storytellers CafĂ©.
The wow of the public spaces doesn’t carry over to the rooms. They’re pleasant, but hardly eye-popping.
The box-like spaces feature a queen-size bed, a pullout sofa bed and a smattering of pretty Arts and Crafts furnishings. Rooms come with Graco playpens for infants and Disney television shows on cable television (but not competitors Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, which are available at hotels just outside the park).
But is it real?
Quibbles? A few. The hotel is a wonderful re-creation but shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. The fireplaces run on gas jets, and the boulders around the lobby are actually some kind of molded substance. What look like thick wood-beam arches over the lobby are actually steel beams encased in brown-painted fiberglass. Then again, Disney says, modern fire and building codes wouldn’t allow some Craftsman-style elements in such a large structure.

Suburban-style sliding-glass balcony doors and suites with floor-to-ceiling picture windows diminish the realistic look of the hotel.

Bathrooms are surprisingly small with shallow, chain hotel type tybs and jarringly modern stainless steel fixtures.
Despite reported efforts at insulation, muted noise from both the park and inconsiderate guests in the hallway can be a nuisance.
But anyone willing to jump into the fantasy with both feet will find the hotel a revelation. Unlike the utilitarian Disneyland Hotel, the resort’s new flagship lodge keeps the fantasy going even after you’ve left the park. Here, you’re not a hotel guest, you’re part of the audience.

Disney’s Grand Californian is not like other hotels.
At other hotels, a doorman opens your door, and a valet parks your car. At other hotels, a front-desk clerk checks you in, and a bellhop carries your luggage. At other hotels, a maid cleans your room, and a room-service waiter brings you breakfast.
At the Grand Californian, those services are not provided by doormen, valet parkers, front-desk clerks, bellhops, maids and waiters. They are provided by “cast members.” You are not hotel guests; you are members of an audience witnessing a performance.

“They are part of a show,” General Manager Tony Bruno said of his staff during a recent tour of the hotel. “They are not wearing uniforms; they are wearing costumes. They don’t learn job descriptions; they learn what part they play in the show.”
Bruno said Disney looked for a special kind of job applicant when staffing the hotel.
“We were looking for people with a certain passion and energy level,” he explained. “They need that as a starting point. Then, during the interview, we let them know what we expect of them. We want them to understand that this is a fun place, not just a place to go to work each day. And we want them to feel good about the company. There is a day and a half of orientation before they step foot on the property.”

After that orientation comes a seven-week training period, during which new employees learn everything from grooming tips to Disney history.
“They are immersed in Disney history,” said guest-services Manager Dorothy Stratton, who also is one of the trainers at Disney University, an office building behind Disneyland where the training takes place.
Carly Pritchard, guest-services coordinator and another Disney University trainer, said the technical training goes far beyond normal hotel training. And it goes far beyond the actual work required on the job.

“The training is all about an attention to detail,” Pritchard said. “It’s about teaching a history of California so they can answer a guest’s questions. It’s about remembering a guest’s name. It’s about tucking in your shirt and how to wear your hair. It’s about being part of a cast. It’s about loving your work and feeling The training appears to have paid off, at least for Heidi Smith of Colorado Springs, Colo., who was one of the first guests to
stay at the hotel before its grand opening.

“I arrived at 4 a.m., and they walked me from my car to the front desk, and stayed with me until I was taken care of,” the tourist said. “I’m used to a Four Seasons-level of service, and this impressed me.”
Bruno said the difference between the Grand Californian and other hotels extends beyond outstanding service.

Most significant among the differences is the location. This hotel is not just close to the Disney theme parks. It is in the middle of the Disney theme parks. In fact, there is a private entrance to Disney’s California Adventure on hotel property. The hotel rooms are said to be soundproof, so those park rides are better seen than heard. The hotel also borders Downtown Disney, and a number of rooms overlook a main plaza of the entertainment center.

In the hotel lobby, that huge, walk-in fireplace is not just another huge, walk-in fireplace. Each afternoon, a storyteller entertains children in front of the fire. As befits a Disney hotel, the children will sit in rocking chairs built especially for youngsters. The hotel also offers 161 rooms with bunk beds.

Said Bruno, “People come to Anaheim for a different kind of vacation, and they stay at the Grand for a different kind of hotel experience.”