Inside Disney's exclusive Club 33, where the recession doesn't seem to matter

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Disneyland may indeed be the happiest place on Earth. At least, that would help explain why the park's extremely expensive and exclusive Club 33 has managed to accrue a 14-year long waiting list -- in the middle of a recession.

Located behind a nondescript green door marked "33" in Disneyland's New Orleans Square, the members-only five-star restaurant was built by Walt Disney in 1967 as a place where he could privately entertain guests and dignitaries that visited the theme park. However, Walt passed away beforehe could enjoy the highly-rated food and the unique features that he had installed in the club, including talking chandeliers and a mechanical vulture who can participate in the dinner chit-chat.So exclusive is Club 33 that it isn't even mentioned on the Disney web site and although there is a stop at the Club's lobby on a behind-the-scenes tour, only Club members may dine there or even purchase Club 33 souvenirs.At some point in its history (when exactly is hard to determine), the restaurant was quietly opened to the public. It now boasts about 475 paying members. But that membership comes at a high price. Members pay an initiation fee of $27,500 (if they are a corporation) or $10,450 (for individuals). On top of that, they pay annual fees of about $6,100 or $3,275, respectively.

What does all of that money buy them? The right to make a lunch or dinner reservation. Seriously.




And right now, in the midst of the country's deepest recession with record unemployment and home foreclosures, the waiting list for membership is so long that names are no longer being accepted. (The rumor is that if you pester them too much about where you stand on the list, they'll add some time to the wait.) Basically, the only way to join this club is to wait for a member to die.

That may explain why Beverly Hills Realtor Burt Bakman recently posted a plaintive plea on Facebook: Did anyone have a Club 33 membership he could use for a lunch? Says Bakman: "This was for a date with my two-and-a-half year old daughter. I just thought it would be a special treat." Special indeed when the children's menu offers a three-course meal for the fixed price of $59, plus tax and the main course includes a choice of chicken fingers or a cheeseburger. It makes the idea of standing in the Disneyland hot dog line less painful in perspective, doesn't it?

Club 33 is the only place in Disneyland where alcohol may be purchased or consumed. But that's not the reason behind the powerful draw. People want to join an exclusive club because it is just that, exclusive. A lunch for four without alcohol or tip will run about $275, according to an unofficial web site about the club, which also notes that $200 per bottle vintages are available.

Because Disney fans can be somewhat fanatical (think Star Trek convention but with Mickey Mouse ears instead of Spock ears), I feel compelled to disclose that for their thousands of dollars, Club 33 members also get daily admission to the park on days they eat at the club and up to six "fast passes" which allow them to return to a ride at a proscribed time and walk to the front of the line without being publicly hanged before an angry mob. Other club "privileges" include valet parking at a Disney hotel.

Of course, not all Disney fans hold the club in such high esteem. A few more level-headed mouseketeers on www.micechat.com openly criticize those who crave the hard-to-come-by Club 33 membership. As the poster who calls himself Sediment wrote: "Bragging rights? OK. You can't brag instead about feeding 1,000 people on Thanksgiving Day every year for the rest of your life?"

Besides the club in Anaheim, there is a Club 33 at the Disney theme park in Japan.
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