A Mooning Festival Is Something The Mayor Just Can't Get Behind
As Town Turns Its Back on 30-Year-Old Event, Will Train Flashing Go Into Eclipse?
By SARAH MCBRIDE
Wall Street Journal
The biggest event of the year in Laguna Niguel, Calif., is coming up on Saturday, but Mayor Robert Ming has a message for those planning to attend: Keep your pants on.
For 30 years, the town has played host to an affair dubbed "Moon Over Amtrak." Crowds line Camino Capistrano, a road that runs along the railroad tracks, and pass the day dropping their trousers every time a train rolls by. Some regulars compare it to Mardi Gras, others to Woodstock. Moon Amtrak once was so small the bar whose patrons thought it up gave free beer to everyone who took part. Last year, between 8,000 and 10,000 people showed up.
Thousands come each year to Laguna Niguel, Calif., to moon Amtrak trains.
This year, the city, on the busy Orange County corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego, is planning a crackdown.
"Avoid the area this year," the city advises on its home page. In a cheeky Twitter feed, it added, the city is "saying 'NO' to crack."
Some Laguna Niguel habitués, particularly the loyal clientele of the Mugs Away Saloon -- directly across Camino Capistrano from the railroad tracks -- aren't exactly over the moon about the authorities' new attitude. In 1979, according to city lore, a saloon patron offered to buy a drink for anyone who would moon the next train. He did -- for one guy -- and the annual rite was born.
Last year's event, bolstered by word of mouth and mentions by radio disc jockeys, was much bigger than the one the year before. So much traffic poured onto Camino Capistrano, which dead-ends in that area, that cars were trapped. A handful of 911 calls came in, the city says, mostly from people who were panicky about the heavy crowds and drunkenness. Local businesses complained their customers couldn't come and go. Backup cops and a helicopter were called in from surrounding communities.
Given that there were few incidents last year, city officials "totally overreacted," says Mugs Away regular Rick Sanchez, who says he has been coming to Moon Amtrak for 15 years. Patron Glenn Manthe blames a "stuffy, yuppie mayor" who has "never even been to a mooning." The 39-year-old mayor, who took office in December, confirms that he's never attended and says he has no desire to do so.
Server Rebecca Shahan, who was behind the bar last year, says, "It's not fun when you see a bunch of cops show up in riot gear when it's just a bunch of people having a good time."
But the city says the event set the stage for grave harm, exacerbated by the difficulty emergency vehicles would have had getting through the crowds. This year, "we had to take action," says Mayor Ming. While the city has an ordinance banning public nudity, it decided to go a different route. In March, the City Council adopted a resolution banning on-street parking in the area Thursday through Sunday this week. It also passed ordinances that prohibit alcohol consumption and urinating in public. In a news release, it announced its deputies "will be out in force, enforcing all laws and ordinances." Last year, the city estimates it spent $20,000, mostly on law enforcement. Volunteers handle cleanup.
Now, what used to be the biggest day of the year for the Mugs Away pub, might be more of a hassle than a cause for celebrating. While in the past as many as 200 people crowded into Mugs Away, according to estimates by people who were there, city officials have informed the bar's staff they plan to enforce its occupancy limit -- 49 people. The owner of Mugs Away, Rob "Hutch" Hutchinson, didn't return a call for comment on Moon Amtrak.
At Haines & Cross carpet cleaning, a few doors down from the bar, office manager Michelle, who declined to give her last name, says it is high time the city takes action. Every year, the business must close its doors during Moon Amtrak, she says. The company also must drive its vans off the premises, or lose access to them all weekend. Last year, the density of parked motorcycles jamming the area made it impossible to move carpets in and out of the building, she says, although nobody actually tried to do that.
But others don't mind the visitors. Some report seeing other business owners setting up stands to hawk T-shirts or drinks to revelers. "It's one day a year," says Greg Adams, owner of Adams Woodworking. "I don't care one way or the other," says Kevin Brady, of Brady's Auto Repair, who nevertheless cordons off his premises with tape.
It's unclear how effective the city's tactics will be. Moonamtrak.org, the closest thing to an organizing body the event can claim, is still providing directions and tips for attending, although it notes the rule changes, highlights the lack of liability insurance surrounding the high jinks and alerts readers that "the city and the railroad would rather you didn't bother coming to this event."
With all the new restrictions, Moon Amtrak "is done," as in finished, says Mr. Manthe, as other patrons nod in agreement. "Nobody will be talking about it anymore." But others aren't so sure. Mr. Adams predicts crowds will be only slightly smaller than last year's. If they must, determined mooners will "hoof their way in," he says.
By Wednesday, the city had begun putting up traffic markers and notices on Camino Capistrano. In years past, attendees say, recreational vehicles started rolling onto the thoroughfare as many as three days before the event, to get prime viewing spots.
Tony Terzo, who came for the first time last year, feels the spots people jockey for aren't all they might be, given that naked rear ends are aimed at the railway tracks rather than at the street. "From this angle, you don't get a good view," he says, except of the occasional train passenger returning the bare-bottomed favor to the crowds on Camino Capistrano.
"This year, my first moon is going to be that way," says Mr. Sanchez, pointing his finger in the direction of City Hall.