The ubiquity of the Disney brand is such that it’s a wonder that babies’ first words aren’t Mickey rather than dada. Those who even begrudgingly admit they’re suckers for Disneyland (this writer included) can’t help but fear Disney’s sheer omnipresence. Still, Disney is about being accepting (especially of your dollars) to everyone.
That’s why it’s fascinating to know that Disneyland holds out one bastion of exclusivity—Club 33. We’re talking so private it’s only mentioned on the Disneyland Web site as a stop, really a tip of one’s toes, into its lobby, on a special walking tour. Club 33’s roots go back to Walt Disney’s desire to have a corporate VIP spot, but Walt himself died before the Club opened in 1967. Since then, corporate members and lucky individuals willing to fork out the big bucks (actual figures are mostly rumors, so I won’t risk a misstatement in print) to join have had the chance to enjoy fine dining—something the park dramatically lacks elsewhere—and, of all things, alcohol, in this hidden spot above Pirates of the Caribbean and the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square (where else would fine dining be?).
A few weeks back, I had the great honor to go, for lunch, at 11 a.m., right when the club opens. Fortunate ones can’t be choosers, but that did mean I was savoring a tasty Manhattan in Disneyland before noon. Just for that, Club 33 seems worthwhile, the sheer odd decadence pileup of booze and Buzz Lightyear; plus they take their liquor very seriously, offering Maker’s Mark as their well bourbon, not even flinching when one dining companion ordered her sidecar. Thus fortified, we hit the appetizer buffet, where one could almost miss the lobster amid the ice and crab claws. Or fill up on pasta salad when there was salmon, not to mention a dessert buffet long as a Finding Nemo sub waiting on the other side of the hallway. Even more surprisingly, the lobster’s cocktail sauce had some zip—they might not actually be aiming for Middle America, as it were, here.
The mains proved Disney can do real food (hint—if you can’t get into Club 33, always eat in Downtown Disney, especially at Brennan’s) and not just anything shaped so it looks like it has Mouse ears; c’mon, Eucharistic Mickey is taking brand consumption too far. This is a club, after all, from its paneled wainscoting to its chummy waiters, even to us first-timers, so it offers the classics classically done, from lamb chops in a lamb mint reduction to certified organic free-range chicken (okay, there’s a concession to the up-to-date foodie) with truffled mac and cheese (who has no cholesterol problems). While two of my companions enjoyed the monkfish napped in a lobster bisque and sided with a spiced arugula salad, I figured when in Disney, go Main Street U.S.A. all the way. Which, of course, means beef; big beef. The kitchen offers a chateaubriand, for one, a dish one might think hasn’t been seen on a menu since the People Movers got yanked from Tomorrowland. But it’s a carnivore’s dream of meat, exquisitely pinkly medium rare and happy in its cabernet demi-glace bath. While potatoes might be a more traditional mash of choice, the parsnip-cipollini purée gave a nifty kick to the cow’s tenderloin.
But there was still dessert, another buffet with so much it threatens to turn one into a donkey with its pleasures. There were perfect macaroons, sweet but not too, chewy but not gooey; white chocolate straws one of our party was tempted to fill his pockets with; a lemony cream puff concoction worthy of the famed Ladurée in Paris; a raspberry mousse (yes, extra “s”) that was both airy and rich.
After all that, we needed some air, and luckily you’re allowed out onto the balconies from the dining room. From there the rest of Disneyland seems beneath you in more ways than one. You see the strollers line up outside Blue Bayou, the placid door where you entered, signed only by its mirrored “33.” Off in the other direction, it’s Tom Sawyer’s Island, the Mark Twain stern-wheeler, the Haunted Mansion. Everything is blocked a bit from more Mardi Gras decorations than they might have in New Orleans itself, as if you’re in a beaded, glass-bright wonderland.
Disney suddenly seems less about line engineering and more about a peculiar beauty that is aptly American, a glory of a kind of excess, a kind of privilege. And somehow you didn’t blow it and get kicked out by violating the no profanity clause of the proper conduct rules. Goddamn.
If you want to par-tay at Club 33, either get lucky with a connection (thank you, you know who you are) or apply to be a member yourself, save your shekels, and join if they ask you in a few years—the waiting list is long. Write a letter of intent and ship it to: Disneyland, Attn: Club 33, 1313 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92803.