Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Behind the Sage Green Door

Both you and I could escape a long drawn out story about how much of a memorable experience we had on Saturday night at Disneyland’s exclusive Club 33 by doing one of those corny MasterCard commercial clichés that lists how bloody expensive each item turned out to be but the end results were “Priceless.” It would be cute and clever and work on many levels because of the coincidence of my last name and how the experience of going to Club 33 could very well be a one-in-a-lifetime experience for Kara and I… but frankly, summing it all up in a few words with a couple of pictures would go against everything I believe in. Plus, you’re not getting off that easily. Here is a picture of Kara in front of the sacred door.

Everyone reading this is aware of Club 33, and if you’ve ever stood outside the Blue Bayou, just to the right of Pirates, wondering if they might be able to squeeze you and your family of seven in at a five-thirty spot for dinner on a Saturday night during a three-day weekend may well have wondered what was that mysteriously looking door emblazoned with a most regal Club 33 logo on a fancy placard. It seems that only the fancy dressed folk were allowed admittance after, perhaps, pushing a hidden button and whispering a secret code. And when the door was opened, you could only glimpse over the hostess’s shoulder into a most splendorous of rooms draped in velvet and mahogany…just for a second, until the door was unceremoniously closed and you were shut out, back into the reality that the Blue Bayou hostess is laughing incredulously at you for even thinking of eating there without making a reservation at least a couple of weeks in advance.

You thought you were trying to eat at the nicest and most excusive restaurants in all of Disney’s great kingdom… but you were wrong. When you found out what Club 33 was all about, the bar had been raised. You had your sites set higher.

That was me. That was me many, many years ago, with the allure and secrecy of Club 33 was first presented. This is long before the Internet, so the access to insider information was impossible to discover, unless you knew someone who had actually been there. As a teenager or earlier, I knew exactly squat. So, it remained a mystery. Was it Club 33 because Walt Disney only allowed 33 members at a time, 33 of the greatest leaders in the free world could meet and dine with Walt Disney? Was it called Club 33 because it was 33 years between the time Disney started working on Disneyland and when he died? (It isn’t, of course, since he started planning Disneyland in the 40s). But there are a couple of other theories which hold some water: 33, when turned on its side look like MM, which could stand for Mickey Mouse; Walt’s favorite number was three; his daughter was born in 1933. Who knew, but I wanted to find out.

Years passed and I grew no closer to getting behind that mirrored Club 33 crest than when I first thought about it. Meanwhile, one of the girls behind the wine bar at the hotel would regale us with tails of Club 33 (she was dating some exec), only whetting our desire to visit.

Then you forget about it. You grow up, maybe, move on to life’s daily grind. Suddenly, out of the blue, an email arrives with an invitation to go behind the sage green door (as an afterthought, I added "sage" here so as not to confuse my story with that of the classic adult film of the same title).

One of Kara’s high school friends happens to be a fraternity brother of mine; in fact, I met Renato before I met Kara, and she had known him long before she knew me, of course. He and his wife Ester are big fans of the Magic Kingdom, and they have just as many scratches on their Annual Passes from frequent swiping as we do (though we are currently between Passes right now). Another fraternity brother, Jeff, is a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he is one of the few individual members of Club 33 (most are corporate members and used by more than a few executives), and I had no idea he was a member. Both Jeff and Renato are on FaceBook, where Jeff noticed Renato’s frequent postings of Disneyland related photos and updates… he’s there with his family all the time… and he asked Renato if he’d like to dine at Club 33, a highly coveted invitation, as you can only eat there if you are a member or know a member well enough to make reservations for you. On the balcony overlooking the commoners, Kara and I pose for a picture during the fireworks show. We were told by the waiter, that the view isn't what it used to be thanks to all of the trees that grew over the years... he said people complain to Michael Eisner's office all the time to have them cut down.

Needless to mention in this story is that Renato jumped at the chance… but then who would they bestow the other two coveted spots to? They created a criteria of people who they wanted to accompany them and I’m told the list was short. They had a three-point roll of conditions: 1) For starters, they had to be people they’d actually enjoy dinner with; 2) They had to be able to afford it (and in this economy that narrows it down quite a bit); and 3) They had to be people that would appreciate it for what it is.

As it turns out, Kara and I fit the bill most perfectly (as we are most delightful dinner guests). Funny enough, at first, reluctantly, I had to turn it down, as criteria Number Two became a big factor. Since we are between Disneyland Passes, I assumed we would have to of either bought at ticket to get in (at $69 each) in order to eat there or renewed our Annual Passes (at $200 each), both options seemed like a misappropriation of funds in the post-Obama 2009 Household Budget. It would have made for an overly expensive meal, but Renato called me and clarified that admittance to the park is included with the reservations. After dinner, Kara standing in the main dining room with the bar and upstairs foyer in the background.

We were in.

Now, what to wear? Normally, I’m not one for fashion, and although I enjoy looking nice, I don’t go out of my way to buy expensive clothes and the current trends. As long as I’m covered in all the right places and the colors match as best as I can tell, I’m good with it. Because of this, my options for fine dining are limited to two nearly opposite sides of the spectrum: shorts and sandals or a full black suit. The various websites I consulted advised business casual, but I felt uncomfortable not wearing a tie, as Club 33 seemed like a place that you’d wear a tie to. If I was going to wear a tie, I had to wear a coat… and the only coat I had was the one nicely paired to my suit pants. That wouldn’t work, as a suit is too dressy for an amusement park.

Soon after Easter, I noticed a significant swelling around my middle, coupled with the fact that simultaneously, all of my clothes have inexplicably shrunk on the hangers, the pants I planned to wear no longer fit. So I hit the streets, walking and running about four miles each day in the hopes that Easter would work its way out of my system and that I’d drop 10 pounds or so, just enough to fit into my comfortable khakis and a nice button-up shirt. Well, after four days of exercises and a somewhat muted diet, I gained two pounds!

I couldn’t suck it up any more, so instead I bit my lip and forked out for the size 38 waist pants. While I was there, I saw a nice sportcoat they had in my size (46-long in case anyone needs any Christmas ideas), so I got that too.

I was all set, wearing three layers of clothing on the first 90-plus-degree day of the year, wouldn’t you know!

At about 5:30, we arrived at Guest Relations and picked up our complimentary admission tickets (that says Club 33 on them!) and since we didn’t want to walk around in the park on this especially packed day (we parked on the top level of the structure… I had never seen the top level of the parking structure before, and they weren’t taking the usual $11 parking fee either)… anyway, since Kara was wearing attractively strappy shoes that looked good but functioned like thumb screws, we decided on sitting out the crowds at our favorite watering hole, The Wine Cellar. Our table with the Villacortes.

With plenty of time to spare, we made out way into the park and over to the Magic Door, where we took a couple of pictures and saw a few other parties anxiously awaiting their turn through Disney’s most secret of places. There were a couple of little girls about Natalie’s age, all wearing their Sunday best no doubt, excitedly and perhaps impatiently waiting their turn. An older man stood next to me and asked if I was going in there, and the way he asked it was akin to him asking me if I was going to storm the beach at Normandy. I replied with determination, “Yes, I’m going in there.” He wondered out loud to me, “How does one get to go in there?” There was only one answer I could tell him: “Either you have a lot of money or you know someone that does… and we defiantly don’t have a lot of money.”

We met up with Renato and Ester, and at the precise time—a few minutes early actually—he lifted the secret cover on the brass call box, pressed the secret button and announced our arrival.

The door opened. We were in.

I won’t give too much away, lest I ruin the experience for anyone who is lucky enough to follow in our footsteps. I enjoyed how ornate it all looked. We rode in a quite compact elevator… ahem, excuse me, a French lift, to the second floor, where we passed the Trophy Room, so named because it used to have animal trophies on the walls. In this room is where the famous vulture resides, famous for being equipped with a microphone so that it could interact with the guests. Pictures on the walls so show some dignitaries and their visits. There was a beautiful phone booth that came from one of Disney’s movies, and a small marble table from Mary Poppins.

Our table was in the northwest corner of the restaurant, with views onto Rivers of America from the balcony. Unknown to us at the time, we were actually not over the Blue Bayou as we suspected, but instead, we had so twisted and turned a few times through the Club that we were sitting right over Café Orleans facing Rivers of America. This picture is of our table taken from out on the balcony.

I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have, and I felt like a goofy tourist (no pun there) every time I did take it out, as if it was the first time I’d been out of the barn. I didn’t take a picture of my dinner, like I would have normally at any other restaurant, and I didn’t take a picture of the menu, like I should have (hell, I came close to taking the menu). For that, I’m a little disappointed, as more pictures would have been nice mementoes; however, to better illustrate your possible lacking imagination or my inability to properly describe the scene, Google it, as there are countless pictures of the Club much better in quality than I'm able to take.

I started with local field greens, candied pecan, summer melon vinaigrette salad that was only $8, a glass of Zinfandel that was probably around $15, but I should have ordered the caviar instead (it just seemed like a good place to do that). One of the waiters arrived at our table every time I so much as sipped some of my water, to make sure my glass was topped off. I probably had five glasses of water to replace what I lost under my three layers and a most unforgiving sun that day.

During our meal (I had the boneless ribs) we ventured to the balcony to watch the fireworks and to look down on the regulars on the streets below, feeling very much like royalty. Dinner lasted almost three hours, as they took their time between courses, but it wasn’t like we were in a hurry. Frankly, I could have stayed there all night. It was very elegant, very accommodating and very much worth it. I had some sort of fruit tart for dessert, shown here in the picture. I should have picked the cheesecake, but I wanted to try something different.

The bill for the four of us came to just over $350, and since Kara and I had the wine and I finished dinner with a nice 20-year tawny Port I can’t normally justify buying, our portion was $190, plus a $30 tip (each).

Yes, it was worth it, just to say that we got the chance to go to an exclusive club that few people get to go. Of course, I hope we get asked again!

Afterwards, Kara and I took the opportunity to go on the Indiana Jones ride, as it has the tallest height requirement in the park and we wouldn’t normally get to go on it with the kids until they grow a bit more. It was five minutes to midnight and that was the closest ride.

Kara and I were home just after 1am, still full. It was a most enjoyable evening, and I’m glad we had the opportunity.

Sport coat and pants: $160.00
Kara’s new blouse: $25.00
Pre-dinner wine: $38.00
Dinner and dessert: $220.00
A night at Club 33: Priceless.

See, corny isn’t it?

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