Being denied access somewhere exclusive is maddening: what do you mean I can’t get in? Now I must go!
Strangely, one of the most exclusive invitations in the world isn’t in London or New York or Zurich…but in Anaheim, of all places.
It’s a secret members-only dining establishment at Disneyland called Club 33, founded by Walt Disney himself in the 1960s. Not only is it the one place at Disneyland where you can drink, but it’s a list so exclusive that there’s a more than 10 year wait just for the privilege of paying the $39,000 initiation fee. Oh, and after you pay that $39K? It costs $17,000 every year thereafter. (I’ve seen reports saying it’s a “mere” $25,000 initiation fee and “only” $10,000 a year. Maybe in 1995, but no longer!)
Lest you think this is the kind of place that pretends to be exclusive but will let that Academy Award-winner with the mega-watt smile waltz in the door unannounced: nope. Even A-list celebrities who show up without an approved reservation made in advance by a member are turned away. No exceptions.
Naturally, once I heard about it, I was dying to get in. I made a few phone calls, promised a few firstborn babies, and presto! E. and I went there for his birthday back in December. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, made all the more special by the fact that the club just closed for the first time in its history for renovations. We got to experience the true, original Club 33 magic before it changed forever. Here’s the full rundown.
Walt Disney conceived Club 33 in 1964 after visiting the World’s Fair. He wanted a place at Disney where corporate sponsors and celebrities could dine in VIP style, and imagined it as a private club for his guests worthy of the Disney name. Sadly, Walt Disney died before he ever saw his beautiful club. But his spirit lives on in the opulent, magical rooms.
First things first: Club 33 is located in New Orleans Square, at 33 Royal Street right next to the entrance of the Blue Bayou Restaurant and by the exit of Pirates of the Caribbean. There’s a discreet number 33 next to a green door: if you didn’t know what it was, you’d likely think it was just set design like many of the other fake doors. You press a button, give your name, and then are buzzed inside.
Once through the door, there’s a small red foyer with a beautiful elevator next to an elegant staircase laid with red carpet. Since E. and I were there in December, it was decorated for Christmas and looked gorgeous. ‘Tis the season! (Well, ‘twas the season.)
You’re escorted to your table on the second floor, which is either in the Main Dining Room, or in the Trophy Room. We were in the smaller Trophy Room, and I was initially worried that E. would be bummed because we weren’t in the larger, more opulent Main Dining Room. Turns out he was thrilled, because the hunting-themed Trophy Room is the “cooler” option, complete with memorabilia from Walt Disney and Family’s private collection. It also has cool features like microphones in the chandeliers and an animatronic vulture in the corner that Walt envisioned parroting people’s conversations back to them. Sadly, the Trophy Room won’t be part of the renovation.
(Fun bit of trivia: the microphones were never used. They were conceived just before Watergate, and once that scandal broke, the Disney executives figured their high powered clientele wouldn’t appreciate having their conversations broadcast to the room at large.)
The larger Main Dining Room feels very opulent and Edwardian: it’s the kind of place you imagine first-class passengers dined on the Titanic. (Pre-iceberg, obviously.) There’s a huge balcony that wraps all the way around the Main Dining Room, and you can bet your bottom dollar that E. and I took about seven zillion photos out there. The balcony overlooks both Royal Street and a larger section of the park–all the way out to Tom Sawyer Island–so there were quite a few people that noticed us up there, taking photos and mugging like fools, which added to the fun exclusive feeling.
The ambiance is off the charts: there are amazing paintings, photos and memorabilia dotted throughout the club, including Lillian Disney‘s harpsichord (played by both Paul McCartney and Elton John!), hand-painted original artwork from Disney movies like Fantasia, a vintage telephone booth from The Happiest Millionaire starring Fred MacMurray, and a table from Mary Poppins. If you’re a Disney geek, your head will explode.
Club 33 offers a four-course menu with a small wine list (and there are also cocktails available at the full-bar in the upstairs foyer). The food offered is traditional: steak, salmon, scallops, potato puree, truffle mac and cheese, etc. (We chatted with a member at the table next to us, and he told us there are several off-menu options that those in the know can request.) We were surprised by how affordable it was: only about $80 per person, plus alcohol. The food itself is very good, but not exceptional. Honestly, you’re barely even noticing the food because of all the cool touches everywhere.
Oh. And the women’s bathrooms are hilarious. I’ve never taken a photograph of a loo before and I couldn’t bring myself to do it now, but if you Google “bathroom at Disney Club 33,” you’ll see what all the fuss is about.
There’s apparently another Club 33 at Disneyland Tokyo, and if you’re a member of one, you have reciprocal privileges at the other. Only about 500 people are allowed to be members at any given time, which makes the two clubs rarefied spots, indeed.
On the whole, we were blown away by Club 33. I don’t think we’ll be dipping into savings anytime soon to pay for a membership, but having a chance to experience it as a guest was such a treat. Club 33 Disneyland has closed until summer 2014, so once it reopens, work those contacts to visit for yourself! It was memorable and magical, and something neither of us will ever forget.