My earliest memory of Disneyland is from when I was three. I was on Space Mountain, I felt like my whole body was going sideways, and I knew I was going to die. I also knew my parents were having the best time of their lives. And I‘m not sure if Space Mountain made me chicken or if I had been a chicken in search of his Space Mountain, but I didn’t ride another fast ride for many, many years.
My next memory, from a little later on, is of Japanese guests asking to have their pictures taken standing next to my little sister Kristen, a blonde-haired natural child beauty.
After those two memories I’ve got piles and piles of memories from efficient trips to the Happiest Place on Earth with my family while I was a kid living in California or a slightly-older kid visiting from Chicago and I developed a sort of reverence for and enduring interest in the park.
This summer I heard that most of my family would be in California and going to Disneyland on Tuesday, June 8th. I got jealous and I got curious so, at the very last minute, I took two days off work, packed up a pair of Mickey Mouse ears I had inherited a few years back from my friend Don (that’s his name embroidered on the back, not mine), and caught a late afternoon flight from Newark to Los Angeles.
I was jealous because it had been nearly ten years since my last trip to Disneyland and even longer since I had been there with my family. And now almost everyone (meaning Mom, sister Emily, sister Kristen, her husband Cory and their little family of Blake, Rachel, and Ellie—so everyone but Dad, Owen, Greg and myself) were getting together for a visit to the Happiest Place on Earth? Without me? It irked me enough to do something about.
And I was curious because, well, little reason first: in the last few years I had visited DisneySea in Tokyo and taken my first trip to Disney World. I spent those two trips comparing these parks to Disneyland, so it was time to return to my original template of what a Disney park should be for a reverse comparison and, big reason second: this was Kristen’s family’s first trip to the park and I wanted to see how this would go. While geography has kept me from being an ever-present, doting uncle to Blake, Rachel, and Ellie, they’re dang cute kids and things could be happening on this trip that might be talked about for the rest of our lives. I didn’t want to miss it, I couldn’t miss it. I wanted to witness the joys of their first visit to the park and I wanted to be there for their formative traumatic Disney experiences. Not because I’m a mean uncle, I’m a nice uncle, but because of the pure “I-can’t-miss-this”-ness of the experience. I wished to be an impartial observer to this grand day out, to sit back and see everything I could have missed. I did not want to hear the tales later, I did not want to see all the pictures on my sister’s blog, I wanted to witness the tales. I wanted to post the pictures.
My flight out was uneventful and I passed the time thinking about previous Disney trips and wondering what would happen on this one. My buddy Mike picked me up at LAX, we grabbed some fish tacos, cruised around a bit, and headed over to Grandma’s in San Marino.
Arriving at Grandma’s house, I see the living room lights are on, implying that the family is to be found gathered therein, grownups visiting while the nieces and nephew tumbled around on the floor. I put on my Mickey Mouse ears, fling the front door open and enter with an enthusiastic hop, my hands out in a jazzy approximation of how I imagine Mickey Mouse might hold his hands out if jumping into a room to surprise a bunch of kids. But instead of family, I find Grandma hosting her weekly gathering of church friends. These senior members of the former San Marino ward, seated comfortably around the living room, looked over at me with surprisingly little surprise but definite “Now who’s this?” looks on their faces. “Well, hello Brigham!” Grandma exclaims in her jolly-greeting tone, “This is my grandson, Brigham” she tells her gathered friends and numerous members of the group remark, “That’s Brigham?! Why I remember when he was only this (hands demonstrating) tall.” as they always do whenever they see me every year or two that I’ve been to California since I moved away at age 8. “Why you must be my grandson Daniel’s age,” remarks the lady who always remarks about my being her grandson Daniel’s age.
—So . . . when do we leave tomorrow?
—Well, the park opens at 8.
—8? Wow, not 9?
—During the summer it opens earlier
—How late is it open?
—10, not 12?
—It’s too early in the summer for it to be open until midnight.
—So, if it opens at 8 . . . we should leave here by . . . at least 6:15?
—At least then.
This is how I was raised, taught by my mother through words and deed that an early departure for Disneyland is a must, because if you aren’t there when it opens, you might as well not have gone. Then I ask the next most important question:
—And what are we riding first?
This I was also taught by my mother, that a trip to Disneyland needs to be well-planned and that the rides and attractions need to be attacked with strategy, big ticket line-attractors first, less-popular time consumers later. This was an issue for me as a kid who wanted nothing to do with the fast rides and instead was drawn to the futuristic but utilitarian Monorail . . . if I had it my way back then, we’d have started our day with the Monorail and ended the day with the Monorail, with perhaps a few Monorail rides in between.
My question could not be answered. Kristen, Cory, Mom, Emily, they looked at each other, then told me they didn’t know, asked where I thought we should start. And I told them I didn’t come to California to decide where we’d start, I came to see where they would have gone if I hadn’t been there. I was there to be an impartial observer, I wanted to see the next day’s adventure, not make it . . . but I'm not above discussing this vital decision with them.
We recognize that there are two routes to choose between when the park opens: we can run left to Splash Mountain, then work our way east through the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, the Jungle Cruise, Thunder Mountain, etc. or start by going running right to Tomorrowland so we can ride Space Mountain before it becomes, linewise, a beast for the rest of the day. Problem is there’s fewer popular rides near Space Mountain, but fewer Ellie-friendly attractions over by Splash Mountain. And while Tomorrowland seems to make the most sense most of the time, there’s something about starting on that side of the park that goes against my Disney-gut. But I mean to keep my Disney-gut suppressed, it is my ambition to observe. Always I must remind myself, it is my ambition to observe.
A little later a handful of Los Angeles friends join me at Grandma’s house. I shows them Grandma's big backyard. We kick the kick balls—the sort bought at a grocery store—as deep as we can into the yard, then I take them on the backyard tour, where you walk all the way to the back, talk by the wall for a while about how there used to be big dirt piles and a lot more shrubs and ivy and stuff and how right over the wall is the neighbor’s house from Mr. and Mrs. Smith but the house where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie lived is a block over, then conclude the tour by walking back to the house with stops at Charlie the Cat’s marked by marble grave and to collect the kickballs.
Back on the porch we share childhood Disney memories of joy and terror well into the night, but not later than 10:30, whatwith my big day coming and all.
I can’t believe how quiet it is when I wake up a tiny bit past five Tuesday morning, and I can’t believe I didn’t have to wait in a line four people deep to take my shower, either. As I dress in my Disney uniform—shorts, Guayabera, New Balances—it seems mysterious I didn’t hear the soft footfalls of little rubbersoled feet running up and down the hall in quick little bursts. Up early to observe pre-Disney excitement, I seem to be the one excited party in the whole house, but as I finish my breakfast cereal breakfast, dressed and ready family members begin to join me in the kitchen. Blake, Rachel, and Ellie take seats at the table, Emily pours bowls of cereal for them, and they eat with an eye on me like zoo animals watching you watch them eat.
I had come up with this little joke to play with the nieces and nephew: “Are you excited to go to the museum today?” I ask, hoping to get a sort of “Noooo, silly uncle, we’re going to Disneyland” response. Instead, Rachel and Ellie just keep eating and Blake, between spoonfuls and without condescension or scorn, quietly corrects me: “We’re not going to the museum, we’re going to Disneyland” like I hadn’t received the memo. Each child hops down from their chair unceremoniously and runs out of the kitchen when they fancy themselves done with breakfast, bowls with three spare Cheerios floating in a quarter-inch of milk left behind without a care.
Some time is lost in Grandma’s driveway as each child changes their mind a few times about which car they want to ride in and who they want in that car with them and car seats have to be switched back and forth a few times between Grandma’s Crown Victoria and Cory’s new pickup—the kind of pickup that seats five or six, the kind for a trip down to California from Utah. Grandma takes some pictures then waves us goodbye from the front porch and we are off to Disneyland at 6:25. I let out a breath. Ten minutes behind schedule. We’d be okay. We can make that time up out on the road.
This is how you get to Disneyland from Grandma’s: South on San Marino blvd down to Huntington Drive west, left on Atlantic into Alhambra, down Atlantic to West Valley Blvd (except this time a surprise tiny detour is taken by the lead car (not mine) down Olive to show the kids where their Mom [and Uncle! And Aunt!] lived when she [they] was [were] little), then west along West Valley past the recycling place to the 710, down the 710 to the 5, then straight on to morning.
Everything is greased well on the way to the park, everything runs smoothly. Most of the time traffic is light: “Looks like no one else is going to Disneyland today!” And when traffic gets heavy for a stretch: “Uh oh, looks like everyone is going to Disneyland today.” (Which is a joke, but . . . what if they are?) I ride with Kristen, Cory, and Blake—Blake is quiet in the back, quiet in the way that suggests great excitement. An excitement beyond fidgeting, excited into silence, saving the nervous energy for the day ahead, feeling the electricity right at your fingertips. I was excited, too, but not in the quiet way. I channeled my energy into addressing the most pressing issue in the universe at the time, asking over and over again which ride we were going to go on first and exclaiming over and over again that I couldn’t believe we hadn’t decided where we should go first and going over, over and over again, the pros and cons of heading to Splash Mountain first or Tomorrowland, like I was Archie choosing between Betty and Veronica, except with less dignity. My impartial observer persona was dangling by a thread and I wasn’t doing anything to reel it in.
In the good old days there was an important game we played as we got close to Disneyland, the "I See the Matterhorn!" game, which is won by seeing the Matterhorn first and yelling “I see the Matterhorn!” Mom taught us this game, most often played from inside a Peugeot station wagon, and Mom just about always won it. In semi-recent years an entirely new exit has been built to route cars almost directly to the park from the freeway before the Swiss landmark is even visible and the “I See the Matterhorn” game has been replaced with a “Wait, is this the exit?” game, which really shouldn’t be so hard as the exit is rather excessively and clearly marked, but the change is one the family does not seem to be adapting to and we must make sudden last-second multi-lane changes to keep from missing the exit. From this new exit Disneyland is approached parking structures-first, with no teasing glimpses of castles, mountains (snowy, Thunder, Space, or Splash), or monorails so pulling up to Disneyland is about as exciting as arriving at a mall, but Kristen is a good mother with her, “We’re here, Blake, we’re here! This is Disneyland!” And Blake whips his head around, back and forth, taking it all in and clearly seeing that right now Disneyland is just a mall parking lot.
There’s nearly no activity in the parking lot when we arrive at 7:22 AM and we aren’t surrounded by other guests as we strap on our packs, pull out our cameras and head, some of us nearly skipping, others absolutely skipping, for the trams that shuttle you to Disneyland proper. A tram recently departed, we’re the first at the station for the next ride and as we wait we’re joined by more and more guests, enough eventually arriving to suggest not everyone will fit on the next tram, but when it arrives everyone seems to be able to squeeze aboard and our family discovers that we hadn’t been standing at the space for the front of the tram but at the back. We toss our heads about in shame over this error, acting like we may have just ruined our whole Disney trip as the kids change their minds back and forth about which row of our car they’ll sit in and as I continue to ask if we’ll be going to Splash Mountain or Tomorrowland first.
After a few-minute ride beneath monorail tracks and beside ivy’d fences (through which obscure outer-Disney structures can be glimpsed, the non-descript buildings that house the actual Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones, or Haunted Mansion attractions) the tram drops us off at Downtown Disney, the resort’s commercial district, and our many fellow passengers, our begrudged competition for prime spots in line, disembark from the tram and dissipate into nothing in this space that seems completely empty.
Our job now, with twenty minutes left until the park opens, is to buy our tickets and then get in line to get in. But there doesn’t seem to be any place to buy tickets, there’s no bank of box offices with a big line of would-be ticket buyers queued up at it. There’s just all these huts with advertisements for vacation packages between us and the park, no lines anywhere. And then we realize that these little huts advertising vacation packages, these are where you buy your Disneyland tickets. A one day pass to Disneyland is apparently the last thing on their list of things they’d like to sell you, like you’d be loco to buy one and what should be a simple transaction of setting down a credit card and saying “Three adults, please” snowballs into a bit of discussion: One day at Disneyland, that’s it? Not a season pass? Not a three-day park hopper? All right, whatever, the booths and the cast members within shrug, like you’re buying just one chicken wing, no sides, no biscuit.
But getting as close to possible to first pick on rides isn’t the only reason I was taught to make it to Disneyland for the opening. You must also be there to participate in the most exciting part of the day: the opening of the park. Through my years I had seen the park opened in several different ways. Sometimes the crowd would be let in through the gates to wait at the foot of the Mainstreet, U.S.A. train station, other times we were let into the square at the beginning of Mainstreet to wait behind a line that would be dropped at the moment the park opened. And in the last few years I had experienced the wonder of a Disney park opening in Tokyo and Florida. In Japan, the elite Disney characters—Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy—came out to greet us in their finest resortwear as we waited behind the turnstiles, and at the moment of opening Mickey conducted a uniformed band of several dozen in a fanfare of welcome while we hurried into the park, past shopkeepers standing in front of their workplaces, waving and bowing and smiling their welcomes to us, Japanese guests halting in their full sprints towards the Tower of Terror to have their autograph books signed by characters from the supporting cast of Pinocchio. A year after that, at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, I beheld an opening ceremony of the first order: Before the park opened we were welcomed through the turnstiles into the area in front of the Main Street USA train station where a woman dressed after the manner of the Turn of the Century (the last one, not the millennium) announced the arrival of a train with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, Alice, the Mad Hatter, Clarabelle—Disney characters nearly beyond number—aboard and a lucky family, winners of some random selection, declared the park open with the cutting of a ribbon or perhaps the pressing of a button, accompanied by an explosion of streamers and confetti. With these experiences at parks I considered lesser in comparison to the original Disney amusement park, it is my expectation that we'll receive an especially fine welcome to Disneyland when the clock strikes 8—no, not my expectation, my certainty. My certainty is fixed on their definitely being a fanfare-filled and exciting greeting for us to Disneyland that morning, something that would get all goose bumps going and teach my nieces and nephew the meaning of a magical day.
But as the hands of the clock above Mainstreet Station clank closer to 8, unsettling little is happening on the other side of the turnstiles, evidence daring to suggest that maybe things weren’t going to be such a big deal that morning, but this strikes me as an absolute impossibility. I anticipate, naturally, that we’d at the least be welcomed through the turnstiles to gather before the train station, to be photographed in front of the big Mickey of flowers, prior to some sort of welcome production But with mere minutes left before 8, we are still standing behind gated-off turnstiles while certain families trickle intermittently through some kind of “Magical Morning” entrance off to the side from us and my nieces and nephew, anguished to be in line, murdered with anticipation over just!-getting!-in! and the severe desire to be best-behaved but the absolute impossibility of that under the present conditions of finding themselves experiencing the longest wait of their little lamb years, whine to their mother about "how come they get to go in?" “That’s because they stayed at a hotel, or something . . . and this is what you do at Disneyland, you wait in line” Heads roll and shoulders slump, I find myself relating to Rachel Ellie and Blake completely and admiring Kristen’s matter of factness, she really sounds like a mom.
And then, out of nowhere, it's 8. And with no fanfare except the sudden clanking of turnstiles and beeping of ticket scanners, without as much as a pre-recorded greeting over the loudspeakers or a single song of welcome nor a single Disney character in sight, Disneyland is open for business. Almost resentfully and completely startled and baffled by this treatment I make my way through the turnstile, wondering, like a disgruntled Quizno’s customer, if there's a manager on hand I can complain to. And, I begin to worry, if this is how they welcome us to the park, how would they tell us goodnight? Just turn off all the lights at midnight? Or switch on the floodlights and unleash the all-night maintenance crew upon the grounds as we fight our way out of the park? Disoriented but not having lost my aim, I follow my swift family into the park, I grit my teeth and focus on the future. The welcome might not have been proper, but the feeling of being there, of setting foot in the Land and heading towards what this Happiest Place on Earth held for us that day was correct. The Anaheim sun breaks at perfect angles over Disneyland’s artificial horizons of train tracks, town halls, castles and hedges. Everything looks and smells like it has just been washed clean, (because it has) and the air is filled with an after-the-rain sense of possibilities. We swerve around a line forming for lockers, we swerve around a line forming for breakfast with costumed Disney characters, and enter our near-empty Tomorrowland.
I wish to wax philosophical for a moment on these aforementioned artificial horizons. As the foreshortened architecture of Mainstreet, U.S.A., the Matterhorn, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, etc. help the park seem bigger than it is, Disneyland’s tightly controlled boundaries make the park seem to be all that there is. At no place in the park can you see a lick of Anaheim or the outside world . . . all there is is Disneyland, and your sense of space is confined to this land of imagination that contains all that you’ll need from the world that day. And in Disney World’s case it’s the same, except there actually isn’t anything outside the Magic Kingdom except the forested space between parks . . . the control of boundaries is so effective at creating a sense of space that, while visiting most of the park, the only way I knew I wasn’t in Orange County was from the humidity or by encountering things drastically different from Disneyland, like Thunder Mountain being on the far side of Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Haunted Mansion being on the near side. These differences created a sort of dissonance similar to dreaming of your home but now your house has an extra floor or swimming pool that your subconscious struggles with knowing doesn’t exist.
Conversely, the lay of the land at Tokyo Disney prevents the same control of space. From several locations I could spy buildings in the distance, the outskirts of Tokyo, even perceive the bay upon which the park sat or watch airplanes coming in for a nearby landing. The effect was jarring and yanked my magical journey to a magical place down to reality: I was in a parking lot, I was by the sea. It was just a game.
We begin our day with an appetizer, Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, something like a plate of nachos for the whole family to grab at and share before we divide ourselves in discussions of what ride is next and who will watch Ellie while we ride what ride and who is even riding what ride at all. We bump and tumble over each other as we park the stroller and rush through the attraction’s total non-line, past a life-size animatronic Buzz Lightyear and lots of pictures of those three-eyed aliens from Toy Story, to the ride’s pods, sliding along on their shared conveyor belt through the loading area. Blake, suddenly gripped by Kierkegaardian anxiety, hesitates before our chariot and while he battles with the dizziness of freedom, my foot is half run over by our pod. I pat him onboard and save my foot from a full crippling and the complete family is slowly drawn into the ride.
Astro Blasters is a dark ride after the manner of most of what you’ll find over in Fantasyland but each rider has a laser gun to fire at the dioramas and characters that we roll by. You see, we’re on an adventure, an adventure to defeat General Zerg. And while a direct hit rarely causes any effect to the scenery, points for your marksmanship are accrued and tallied on a display before you. Each pod can be rotated a full 360 degrees to get at targets you may have passed or that were hiding behind you . . . it is a rudimentary case of a video game being brought to life or an old timey shooting gallery updated for the video game era and it works. Not having known that triangle and diamond targets would have scored me the most points, I’m fairly proud of my 84,100 points —that’s a Level Three score, my rank: “Planetary Pilot.”
With this ride everyone can love behind us and without consulting Blake and Rachel on their readiness for a fast ride (or, should I say, the fast ride) we barrel straight on towards Space Mountain, Kristen remaining behind with Ellie and Mom when we reach the admission threshold.
Because of my traumatic childhood Space Mountain experience, Space Mountain was the ultimate challenge of this first Disney trip for my nieces and nephew in my impartial observer mind and if the day had followed a proper narrative arc, Space Mountain wouldn’t have been our second ride—but the day didn’t, and it was. Under a proper narrative arc, if you were now reading a fine story instead of a grueling report, we would have worked our way little by little through the park, each child seizing minor victories, before arriving at Space Mountain where the children would face their ultimate test of courage. But, like I said, the day wasn’t a tale, it was a battle and Kristen and Cory, knowing full well that they were risking ruining the entire day before 8:20 am, dealt with this ride and this coming-of-age amusement park experience like a bandage that needed to be ripped right off. I asked them about this later and they knew what they were doing, they knew it was a risk and that if Space Mountain went disastrously they could have spent the rest of the day dealing with two sobbing kids who refused to board anything that looked remotely fast or scary or fun.
I suppose this is how it must be done: few are the children that would answer “Yes” to the question “Do you want to go on the scariest ride now?” so it’s best not to ask. This must be what my parents did with me in 1980, shepherding me through the line, onto the ride, telling me it was going to be fun while I took in all the outer space sights, my heart pounding against my rib cage. And yes, that experiment had its repercussions, but at least my parents got to ride and the adults here seem to be aware of the risk they’re taking with this day, with these kids. But spirits are properly maintained through the quick queue and the air bubbles with their innocent excitement troubled by a mild undercurrent of emergent worry. But we board with enthusiasm, we are in a space station, after all. That’s pretty cool and as our rocket rolls out of the boarding area I, seated alone behind the two rows of pairs, commence to hoot and whoop. I imagine it helps provide an entertaining and soothing environment for the children, but probably mostly just tosses a little embarrassment onto Emily’s experience.
My California friends had told me the night before that the ride had changed and it was true—after the familiar ascent and “launch” the ride is nothing but tight turns through a blizzard of projected stars—no glowing red masses and next to no dips or dives—being thrown constantly to the side is nothing to me compared to an unexpected drop in the dark. Thankfully the surf guitar soundtrack remains—on my trip to Disney World I was grieved to find that Space Mountain silent, soundtrackless, rendering the ride nearly pointless, leaving you to whip through the darkness with nothing buy your own yips and the rushing rolling of wheels to listen to.
The ride runs quick and ends quick and the children emerge victorious but a little shaken, the notion of “rides they potentially might wish to avoid” having now been birthed in their minds. But they immediately become the recipients of so much praise and congratulations from their aunt, their Dad, and to some extent their impartial observer uncle that it seems to effectively distract them from fixating on whatever trauma they may have felt they just endured. And when they’re reunited with their mother they are praised once more and each is awarded a nickel or maybe a quarter to their end of the day spending money for their bravery here in Tomorrowland, and suddenly everyone feels like a champ, everyone feels like they had a pretty good time.
Observing this process, observing Kristen and Cory so clearly going about what they know must be done how it must be done, my brain opens to a concept I have never considered before but my sister and brother-in-law have clearly prepared themselves to be dedicated to: at Disneyland, the maintenance of children is a constant must—they need to be congratulated for their bravery, congratulated on their good behavior, congratulated on their having a good time because as soon as this reinforcement disappears, the child could slide into fear or fussiness. The child must always be reminded that he is having fun and this constant reminding is mirrored in the child’s continuous appeal for support. The day long questions of “Is this a scary ride, Mommy? Does this ride go fast, Daddy?” are met with a “No, not too scary and remember, if you get scared, just close your eyes” or “No, not very fast and remember, you’ve already been on Space Mountain and you Did! So! Good! And that’s the fastest ride there is!” or preemptive “I’m so proud of you, bud! You’re doing so good/being so brave!”s. This whole system, to fight total emotional breakdowns, this whole system to keep a single kid from derailing the entire day, it is a wonder for me to behold.
And as I observe the constant necessary maintenance of the children, I realize that I actually don’t really know anything about kids, which is the exact opposite of the belief I had held up until that morning, which was that I knew everything about kids. My key observation is that you cannot appeal to a child’s moral decency or to their sense of serving the greater good. Children have binary brains with only two settings: Want and Do Not Want. They either want to be carried and held or they don’t want to be carried and held, you can’t reason with them, you can’t explain that Daddy is so tired from carrying everyone because that has nothing to do with if the kid wants to be carried or not. And if a kid wants to ride in their Grandma's car, what does it matter that there won't be enough room for all the car seats? And if you want to ask a child what ride they’ve liked best for your impartial observer study, what does that matter if they think you’re being silly or they think you’re not their mom and would rather not talk with you.
In light of all that and because of all that, when a child awards you with their attention, it inspires the same joy-filled stillness as when a butterfly should land on your shoulder. A surprise, a wonderful surprise followed by the quiet, enthusiastic question, “A butterfly has chosen to land on my shoulder! How can I participate in the wonder of this fleeting moment without scaring it off?” My personal butterfly moment for the day: after a wonderful ride shared by all on the Little Nemo-rethemed Submarine Voyage, where we each sat at our window hungry for what would emerge from the next curtain of bubbles on this buffet tour of the liquid deep, a designated spokesperson informs me that young Ellie had decided she will be riding with me on our next stop, the Autopia. I'm rendered nearly speechless by the honor, and not only do I get to ride with Ellie but it also seems a prerequisite of hers that I carry her while we are in line. Once we board I do my best to drive our auto with the greatest care as to make the experience as delightful (if it were delightful at all) as possible for Ellie. As we ride down the mobius highway, Ellie alternates between covering her ears (very sensitive to noise, this one) and holding her Autopia Driver’s License out before her, jabbering but drowned out by the noise of many an engine, occasionally agreeing to look at my camera for a photo. And when the ride is over the spell is done, my little Monarch alights for the arms of her parents, to be carried to her stroller and our experience is seemingly filed away with so many memories you can try to get a child to remember back at you during a later family gathering.
Walking away from Autopia there’s this Star Wars stunt show/audience participation extravaganza occurring on the Tomorrowland Plaza. A trio of friendly and enthusiastic Disney Jedi lead at least two dozen youngsters with loaner robes and light sabers in a canon-defying face-off with Darth Vader, Darth Maul, and a few Storm Troopers. The Jedi speak authoritatively through pop-star style headsets while the Darth Vader gestures grandly along to his pre-recorded dialogue, both sides asserting their superiority until the Jedi instructed the Padawans to take a few steps toward the Darths while waggling their light sabers at the villains—this demonstration of coordinated instruction-following proves to be enough to cause the twin Sith Lords to proclaim themselves outnumbered and retreat, vowing a return confrontation (in approximately 1.75 hours, according to a sign posted nearby) as they escape aboard platform sinking into the ground amidst hissing bursts of steam. This little show that surely would have thrilled my youthful heart to participate in had I had the opportunity turns my thoughts towards the secret third purpose of my trip to Disneyland:
This was my last chance to ride the original Star Tours, as it was about to be closed and renovated into something a little more 21st century.
When Star Tours opened in 1987, it was born into Star Wars-starved world. We were four years (might as well have been forty years) out from Return of the Jedi without prequels even whispered of, without Kenner toys on shelves, without new Ewok Adventure films, without anything. Star Tours was the first and only fresh taste or evidence of the viability of Star Wars in the universe and it was welcomed and revered like a gift from Mt. Olympus. From Chicago I fixated on news of the ride’s opening, where the park stayed open for sixty hours straight just to meet demand for this ride and fantasized about what dreams it could hold.
On my first Disneyland visit in the Star Tours era I waited twice in lines of the hour and a half/two hour variety—first with my family, then the second time on my own. I was a ten year old chicken who refused to ride roller coasters and was too shy to buy his own comic books but Star Wars enters the equation and suddenly I’m willing to spend two hours in the company of total strangers for another go at a thrill-ride. My first ride was a revelation . . . the hour and a half wait was just about how much time I needed to take in everything there was to see while in the line: a simulated Star Tours spaceport with C3P0 and R2D2 bickering in the first room and a couple of droids making conversation in the next room; then the ride itself was a transcendental, transporting experience for my dweebish heart. To be placed in the midst of the Star Wars universe, to charge through this galaxy so far, far away . . . it was more than tens of thousands of people just like me could ever ask for.
Nearly as thrilling as the subject of the ride was its nature. It was a simulator ride, and at the end of the 80’s, simulator rides were emerging as the obvious direction for the thrill rides of the future and Star Tours exemplified this new technology at its early height. To think that all our shaking, diving, zooming, halting, twisting and turning was happening with our Star Speeder 3000 remaining in the same place . . . this step towards the future was intrinsically exciting no matter what was on the screen. And with the contemplation of the nature of the simulator ride came the realization: If this ride has no track, if it is just a film plus motion, then . . . couldn’t the film be changed? And the ride reprogrammed? Couldn’t Star Tours be updated to feature new adventures? Like every year or two? It was a topic deserving of the enthusiastic lunchroom conversations dedicated to it.
Time passed, and Star Wars returned to the world. The original trilogy was updated and rereleased in 1997, then the prequels began coming out in 1999. Star Wars novels filled Waldenbooks around the country, disappointing Star Wars videogames began to be released regularly, and toy stores became rotten with more versions of Star Wars toys than I could have ever dreamed of in my prime toy-buying years. And while all this was happening, Star Tours and the simulator ride phenomenon began to feel a little dated and then, not much later, very dated. This attraction that once attracted throngs now sat at the gates of Tomorrowland as unpopular as the Adventure Thru Innerspace ride it had replaced. Anyone curious about this pre-Phantom Menace era attraction could walk right on, as I did until I lost interest completely. The last time I rode it, in 2001 or maybe 1998, the ride was definitely looking like Disney hadn’t been keeping up on their famous upkeep with it—video monitors were burnt out, everything looked like it could use a new coat of paint, cast members seemed especially bored. And the ride itself came across as not particularly thrilling. I just felt like my chair was being leaned forward sometimes and leaned backwards other times . . . as that was what was happening, after all. It left me with no need to return, no compulsion to run right back in line for a second ride.
But in 2009 the news we were expecting around 1989 but may have given up on around 1999 was finally announced: Star Tours was getting its update. Not just with a new trip, but a trip that would be displayed in high definition 3D along with an overhaul of the speeders and the venue. Star Tours as I had known it would cease to exist on July 27th and I could feel in my guts that I would regret not having at it one more time before then. When I heard of my family’s impending Disney trip, I recognized an opportunity that needed jumping at.
Cory and Blake were the only other members of the group interested in taking a ride (Mom still vulnerable to terrible dizziness from these sorts of things, the rest of the girls apparently not terrible enthused by the notion of a Star Wars ride) and, although I expected a crowd of other sentimental visitors making their farewell visits, we slip into the near empty ride building with only a handful of other guests. We cruise through the line almost too quickly for me to snap a picture of 3P0 and R2 in the first room and weren't held up until the end of the second room by the simple matter of "the-line-cannot–go-anywhere-if-all-the-speeders-are-in-use." While Blake takes it all in with the proper wide-eyedness it deserves but I can no longer give it, Cory remarks to me about how much the talking droids in there looked like Johnny Five from Short Circuit, and I agree, because they do. The woman in front of us, a member of my age group, turns around and asks, “Oh my gawwd, do you remember this thing when it opened? The lines were soooo long and now there’s nobody in here. This used to be so cool!” I agree with her and tell her I had just been thinking the exact same thing, because I had.
Approaching the ride I had been deeply curious about what the experience would hold but possessed little genuine hope of being entertained or—if it were even possible—impressed. Honestly, I expected to feel a little embarrassed by it. The night before, amongst my California friends, we spoke of Star Tours like a worn-out old pet. Not as fun as it used to be and a little depressing to have around, but all those loveable memories of the early years! But when we we are brought to stand before the doors that will soon open to our Star Speeder, I realize something was happening. They play this safety video on the monitors above you while you’re waiting to go featuring Star Wars aliens along with normal Disney visitors sitting down on the ride and fastening their seatbelts, being reminded not to take flash photos or smoke—and it was doing it for me. The light Star Wars humor was doing it for me, I was pleasantly tickled by it all. And then I realize something: I'm excited. I am so, so excited for Star Tours. When the doors finally swing open we take seats in the very front of the ride and I can't believe it but I catch myself thinking"Sweet! Front row!" I watch Cory make sure Blake is buckled in. He moves his be-spectacled head about, looking at this, looking at that, his mouth a little agape as it ought to be. I take a picture. I take pictures of everything. I focus my camera on where the view screen will be so I could take pictures during the ride. I have leapt into full geek-uncle mode.
The cast member that boarded us consults the onboard safety panel to make sure all seatbelts are fastened then shuts the doors. On a video screen our robot pilot, Captain Rex (on his first day of duty as it always was these last 23 years) greets us before lowering the blast shield in front to reveal himself and the front viewport (movie screen) through which we will watch our adventure. At the moment the view was of the hangar of wherever it is that Star Tours departs from, and we begin our trip to Endor with a sudden wrong turn that plummets us down a shaftway before straightening out and heading into space and making the jump to hyperspace . . . Right into a field of comets! As usual! And then we fly right into a Rebel/Imperial entanglement. Which leads to a Death Star trench run. It is a four minute voyage of wrong turns that always lead right into danger. Death Star dispatched (just like that!) we make a final jump to hyperspace and come out just in time to arrive at . . . I cannot say where, actually. It isn’t clear if we actually make it to Endor or return to where we started, because you land in this hanger (nearly crashing into a fuel truck) without getting a glimpse of where you are or without being welcomed to Endor or anything. Rex raises the blast shield, bids us adieu, and the Star Wars end credit theme swells as exit doors swing open.
I cannot account for my bouts of extreme Disney nostalgia, but I rode the whole thing in churchly silence, grinning from mouse ear to mouse ear, and struggling with an asteroid-sized lump in my throat. Was it Star Wars? Or was it that I might as well have been riding beside my ten year old self? The past isn’t so far away, memories of feelings pierced right through the twenty three-year gap, and I accepted the adventure. So much. I do want to go on a trench run, I do want to fight with the Rebel Alliance. I do. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father. I do. Cory and Blake lead the way out of the ride and down into Tomorrowland’s massive primary gift shop while I dab conscientiously at the corners of my eyes. No one, no one could see me choked up over Star Tours. In a post-hyperspace daze I try to make sense of statuettes of Chewbacca with Goofy’s face, Lego play sets without number, Yoda knapsacks, and make your own Light Saber stations, wondering what sort of Wonderland I've stumbled into.
From Tomorrowland we head due west (or Disney West, at least—suddenly I realize I don’t actually know if Disneyland is aligned with the standard notion of North/South/East/West or imposes a compass rose of its own—I hope it’s the latter) for Adventureland, keeping the kids good and “south” of the Sleeping Beauty’s Castle entrance to Fantasyland (all in due time, young ones . . . all in due post-lunchtime time). Once inside the bamboo’d and tiki’d alley that makes up this pan-South Asian/deepest-darkest Africa-land we address its attractions quickly, efficiently, and precisely . . . mostly because it seems this could be the least popular portion of the park.
The Jungle Cruise we walk on to so quickly that at first I worry we’re in the wrong set of switchbacks but no, we were in the right place and are waved onto a river boat just about to depart. Our French (so says his name tag, as all Disney cast member nametags offer the person’s name and place of origin) river guide makes spastic work of the tried and true Jungle Cruise script, yelling into his microphone as he leaps and ducks about the front of the boat, dealing us shrill earfuls of static for the duration of the cruise, barely do we understand that Here, this is the backside of water and There, Hippos are only dangerous when they wiggle their ears and blow bubbles and He, that headhunting native chief will offer you the low, low price of two of his head for one of yours.
A similar non-line waits for us outside of the Enchanted Tiki Room, except I accidentally spend a minute at the back of the rather long line for Dole Whips (that’s a frozen pineapple juice treat, if you didn’t know), wondering how the Tiki Room had become so popular with teenagers, before being dragged to the right place by a sister and waved inside just as the doors are closing. Inside, the birds sing words and the flowers croon, to the delight of children and adults in search of air conditioning alike. The Disneyland Enchanted Tiki Room, unlike Tiki Rooms all around the world, hasn’t been updated to feature Stitch from Lilo and Stitch or Iago and Zazu from Aladdin and the Lion King is it's a magnificent throwback to the classic Disneyland of before my time—something to satisfy the nostalgic impulses of my Mom or Uncle now that the flying saucers have been gone for so, so many decades. But Adventureland on the whole gets far from a perfect score on keeping it real as it features the world’s only Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse rethemed as a Tarzan Treehouse (there should be a sign in front reminding guests that Disney had a Tarzan animated feature in 1999), perhaps the most unnecessary spoiling of an attraction through retheming in the entire park.
A probable explanation for the quick lines to all the attractions of Adventureland is the presence of its one E-Ticket and Disneyland’s last major ride addition, the Indiana Jones Ride (formally, “Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye”). When it opened in 1995 it attracted lines reaching all the way back to the entrance of Frontierland, fifteen years later it’s still wise to put your Fastpasses to work here.
On our visit, the Indiana Jones Ride bears the distinction of being the ride that brings young and brave Rachel to tears . . . not because it was too scary for her, but because she was too short to ride it. When my brother Greg was about her age we solved this problem for him in one out of two tries by stuffing rolled-up socks into the heels of his shoes, creating the inch or half inch he had needed to be cleared to ride, but similar trickery would have still left Rachel short of the goal. To ease the tears kind aunt Emily gives Rachel $5 for a treat and when we return from our first ride (the harmonious union of well-planned Baby Pass and Fastpass usage finds us riding Indiana Jones twice in a row, young Blake digging deep into his courage reservoir to have at it both times) we find her sharing a cotton candy the size of a hay bale with Ellie.
On the critical tip, I’ve never been as thrilled with Indiana Jones as I would like to be. Impeccably themed and featuring the best waiting line of the park (Falling ceilings! Decodable messages written in a long-forgotten language! Skulls on spikes!), I don’t really get a kick out of the ride. Its selling point is that, thanks to the miracle of computers, it’s supposedly impossible to have the same ride twice . . . partly because there’s so many different things that the animatronic Indy might say to you the few times you cross his path, and also because the Jeeplike vehicle your group rides in features the ability to stall randomly throughout the ride . . . for me, the thrill of not knowing if my ride might need fake turning back on again does not exceed a good old-fashioned plummet. Also, allegedly at the beginning your car will enter one of three different chambers but in all my years I don’t know that I’ve ever visited any besides the golden Chamber of Earthly Riches. But my brother-in-law Cory is a known Indiana Jones super-enthusiast, having watched the Last Crusade daily while working at a video store in high school and it is the wish of my heart that this ride provides him with unending delight and that his two rides on it with Blake created lifelong father/son good memories.
After the separations and fun-partitioning required by Indiana Jones, we head to Pirates of the Caribbean as a family going on a family ride for the whole family, with no concern whatsoever over the potential scariness of this 100% nostalgic voyage amongst villains and knaves—a ride you ride to see stuff you’ve seen before, a ride you ride to be jealous of those dining waterside at the Blue Bayou. In other words, we're a little reckless or perhaps indifferent about younger feelings, reassuring Ellie that there was nothing to be scared of even though we can hear screams ahead of us and then suddenly our own boat takes a dive down a waterfall in near total darkness.
Ellie did not like that drop down the waterfall. Screaming, sobbing, and leaping at her mother’s neck . . . how do you calm down a poor child and tell her it’s all okay when you know there’s another drop coming up soon? And suddenly it’s skeleton pirates to the left and skeleton pirates to the right, counting coins and swilling grog (and she doesn’t care you can see it flowing down through the ribcage)? You realize that maybe this isn’t an all ages ride. The plucky three year old, she can’t be calmed down even at the sight of the doggy with the keychain but luckily for us she’s the sort whose tears dry themselves in daylight and she’s content again once we’re out on the backstreets of New Orleans Square, looking for the bathrooms . . . which I know have to be around here . . . oh yeah, right over there.
So we wisely leave Ellie with Cory when we ride the Haunted Mansion, which itself seems to hold Blake and Rachel captive at the edge of terror. What is wrong with me when I’m holding my nephew’s clammy hand and leading him to the center of the stretching room so he can make out each of the portraits as they grow longer and more morbid (which, fortunately, he and his sister are able to point and laugh at) before I make sure, absolutely sure that he’s looking up at the ceiling for the thundercrack reveal of the our hanged man narrator? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with the men with crew cuts who decided on all these macabre details in the 60s? The most startling moment of the ride, a leaping shrieking ghoul, has been removed from the attic which has been rethemed around a perpetual bride heavy into ax-murder. I think the bulging doors are really unsettling, torture happens here. Anguish behind doors. Doom Buggies. And that’s always been the mood on this ride, right? A bit of pointing and laughing, a bit of feeling creeped-out and spooked?
Eating on the . . . let’s be generous and call it the “veranda” . . . the veranda of Critter Country’s riverside and flumeside Hungry Bear Café, I tried to get journalistic with my family members, asking nephew Blake what his favorite part of the Haunted Mansion was.
—All of it, he says.
—But didn’t you have a favorite part?
—I liked all of it.
Emily is watching me fail, she knows I won’t succeed.
—I liked the ballroom best! Emily chimes in, towards Blake, showing him how an answer is given, even though she knows I won’t get one.
—All of it!
—Okay, I say, thinking I might know how to approach this, If the whole Haunted Mansion was going to burn down and you could only save one part, what part would you save (All of it!, he nearly interrupts). . . wait, no. Listen: I’m going to burn down the whole Haunted Mansion (You can’t do that [not a command, a statement of fact. Imagination has been banned from Disneyland]) unless you tell me your favorite part—and if you do that, I’ll save the whole thing.
—No o o o. (again, informing. Not restricting)
—Tell me! What’s your favorite part!
—All of it! Still kicking his feet.
—All right! The whole Mansion, it just burned down!
After lunch we ride The Many of Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a family-friendly darkride embedded in the old Country Bear Jamboree space, just an acorn’s throw from the Hungry Bear Café. We ride the honey-centric attraction aboard tan yellow beehives, conical and spiraled. “We’re riding in poos . . . on Winnie the Pooh.” I note in what I think to be a subtle voice, but everyone hears and what should be dismissed as an extremely juvenile quip goes over better than any other joke I make all day and might count as the moment that my nieces and nephew were most glad I was on this trip with them.
Inside, the ride is innocent and the hive rolls gently as it proceeds through the attraction, enough movement to keep post-Pirates Ellie mildly on edge, but everything else is so magical under the black-lights that no panic results. When I observe a cheery, hunny-mittened Pooh stuck in his cave hole, I think of both my friends Ace and Andy. Later, at Eeyore’s birthday party, I postulate that perhaps Ace is Pooh and Eeyore is Andy, or that they switch positions, as needed.
If sister Emily had a downfall, it was aboard Splash Mountain. During the frantic motions of boarding our flume log, Kristen Cory Rachel and Blake plop into the rear seats, leaving Emily and I to sit in the front. I try to take the absolute front spot, but my legs won’t fit in the log’s short snout, and I instruct Emily to switch with me as the ride operator is pressing the final buttons to send our log on its way. At the same time, it is occurring to me that I’m causing a serious weight imbalance and that this is not good if we’re trying to stay dry . . . which we are. Adding insult to epiphany, the ride operator asks, snidely and under his breath “Are you sure you want to do that?” as we float away. “We have all our weight in the front, we’re all going to get drenched!” I call out to the rear of the log, oblivious and indifferent.
There are three drops to speak of on Splash Mountain. First, a minor one outdoors, a prelude drop. Next, a substantial plunge through pitch-blackness within the mountain that you never remember going into the ride and finally, the keynote drop from the top of the mountain, down through the Briar Patch.
The first drop, the baby drop, sent enough water into our log to soak our shoes—“our” meaning mine and Emily’s, the rear remained safe and happy. Emily—typically so reserved, so unexcitable (typically)—let out a piercing scream, a terrible shriek more befitting a stabbing than a sloshing, followed by a shuddering “I’m we-eh-eh-ht.” Her reactions did not mellow through the rest of the ride and before, during, and after the final dive she screams bloody, terrible murder in a voice of absolute . . . well, it's not your typical “Oh no! I’m going down fast and then I will be splashed!” yell, there was no amusement or thrill in Emily’s yell, she screams like someone walked in on her in the bathroom.
In the picture, the one taken as the fall is beginning, the one you’re invited to buy, framed, for your living room, to display on the mantle alongside your Space Mountain family picture and Buzz Lightyear High-Score picture and, heck, maybe a picture from Magic Mountain or Knott’s Berry Farm? The photo: Cory is in the back, a traditional yell, Blake is blocked by his mother, Rachel by me and I, basically I look like I’m saying the pledge of allegiance as I grasp at shirtfront pocket (to keep my phone from flying out) and hold my mouse ears high like a cowboy hat and Emily—you can hear the scream in the picture. Her eyes are closed, her head thrown forward in a tooth, tongue, and throat bearing cry.
The splashing was substantial.
From Splash Mountain we follow the half-moon coast of the Rivers of America, past characters costumed after the Frog Prince and rafts departing for Pirate’s Island (an unabashed re-themeing of Tom Sawyer’s Island) to Thunder Mountain, where the line is so insubstantial as to render our Fastpasses non-essential, but used nonetheless.
During my years of cowardice, Thunder Mountain is the ride I most remember not riding, having spent so much time on the benches across from it, either with a parent and baby Emily or a grandparent and just me or just by myself, waiting for the riders to return from their ride. As I got older I remained just as committed to my religion of non-riding, I refused rides basically just on principle, every single member of my family so enthused and so happy and so eager to get me onto it, telling me, telling me “It’s not even scary!” or “It doesn’t even go in the dark at all!” and deep inside I could feel myself wondering if it was time to just go for a ride, but then always resolving that just hanging back to hang out with Grandma doesn’t sound so bad. Yeah, you guys go on, I’ll just kick it here with Grandma, watch the boats make another loop or two around Tom Sawyer’s island, until you all come running back, trotting over all smiley from the ride and from what a great time you had.
So you might wonder how it was I started riding fast rides, as this is something I do now with enthusiasm: Well, absolutely having to ride Star Tours played a part, but so did my first trip to Raging Waters, where I realized how incredibly impractical and wimpy it would be to stick to just the kiddie slides, but also some late grade school trips with friends to our Chicagoland Six Flags park really did the trick: playing the coward with the family was one thing, but with friends it was entirely another, especially when observing how lame a fellow-chicken appeared as he refused a ride on the triple-looping Shockwave. So on some trip, who knows which one, I don’t remember it at all, I just played grown up and rode all the big rides without any pomp nor circumstances nor big to-do about anything, not even a big “Okay, here I go” breath or interior monologue as I boarded Space Mountain for the first time since I was three.
With the majority of the attractions featuring height requirements behind us, we head for Fantasyland and change our course so that we may approach it from the front entrance through castle entrance. Many a family, in matching Disney apparel, can be found here at any hour of the Disney day having their picture taken in front of the park’s number one landmark. Couples, too. And small families, say a husband and a wife holding a child way too small to be enjoying itself at the park that day at all. Also, inexplicable solo visitors directing strangers as to how they’d like to be photographed with their own complicated DSLRs. More unique: I see an Asian girl in full high school graduation apparel being photographed with her siblings, then solo, then with grandparents, then with siblings and grandparents, then with her parents, then solo again. There is no congregation of graduates in the park this day, just this one, it must have been the plan: the whole family is going to the park together, daughter will bring along her cap and gown for some photos in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Her grandparents, very old, wizened, wear baseball caps with extra-long brims, oversize extra-dark sunglasses, surgical masks, and ride matching silver Rascal scooters, and this reminds me of something I have been observing all day that I should finally share now:
At Disneyland, there were so many people on Rascals! I almost couldn’t believe it. At times it seemed like the ratio could have been as high was 1 out of 8 guests. When I went to Disney World I was struck by how everyone at the park was overweight, here in California guests all all slimmer, but a far higher number appear to be mobility-challenged. Except, and I have learned from personal experience the danger and hurtfulness of making these sorts of judgments but I must be direct about my observations this day, the majority of these rolling guests do not appear to be especially scooter-dependant, most just look like disgruntled Moms or plump, glum teenagers, along with sunglassed dopes in flamed-out bowling shirts and the rare occasional person with an actual cast on their leg. I figure they’ve all heard about the magnificently convenient straight to the head of the line privileges afforded to Disneyland’s mobility-challenged guests, a beautiful aspect of the park I learned about when I visited on a pair of barely-necessary crutches in 1998.
And now that I’ve mentioned one species of fellow-guests, I feel it as good a time as any to focus on a few more: First, there were a conspicuously high number of park attendees in BYU t-shirts and baseball caps or other conspicuous indications of a Latter-day Saint background. The non-stop run ins with fellow saints had me wondering if today were some informal Mormon Day we hadn’t gotten the memo on or if this was just how things always were at Disneyland: rather Mormony, what with all the Orange County Mormons and Los Angeles Mormons and Utah and Arizona within striking distance. Coincidentally and highly unusually, no Edwards parent or child attended the park that day in a Cougar cap or sweatshirt, but certainly some BYU apparel was definitely among the clothes they had packed up for this trip.
Another species of visitor I can’t go any further without addressing: The roving packs of SoCal teens, milking their annual passes for another afternoon at the park, wearing knock-off Ray Bans in white, red, orange or purple. Everyone texting, some girls wearing mouse ear headbands, most boys wearing skateboard company flat-brim baseball caps, shaggy hair leaking out at the sides like in a picture of a baby with a bowl of spaghetti on its head. I just don’t know what to do with these kids, these kids who can go to Disneyland every day if they want. I know so many Disney visitors live this way, and a lot of these visitors love Disneyland, but to my Disney-visiting philosophy it just doesn’t seem right. I recall a lunch conversation from first or second grade where a classmate was explaining to me that she hadn’t gone with her Brownie Troop on their Disneyland trip because, in her family, “Disneyland was special place you only went to with your family” and, although no such pronouncement had ever been made at my home, I nodded in agreement, I told her that was our rule too, because I felt in my heart that her words were true. And in my life I’ve made a few (three) trips to a Disney park in the company of friends, not family, and while I had fun I knew I was not having as much fun as I could have, or not having the 100% right kind of fun, as it would be better to be at DisneySea or Disney World or (after this trip to Disneyland, actually) California Adventure with my blood.
Okay, back to the story . . .
So we cross the drawbridge to Sleeping Beauty’s castle, pass through the portcullis and inner gate where When You Wish Upon a Star so dramatically plays, and enter this most magical of Disneyland lands and commence to terrify Ellie twice more.
At Disneyland there are very few children’s rides that won’t entertain an adult as well. There are no tiny trains chugging in tight, endless circles, no junior rocket ride (in tight, endless circles) of no altitude with unceasing buzzing ray guns effects. Instead, Fantasyland is filled with rides that both entertain adults on their own merits and appeal to their nostalgic, childhood memories. These rides, themed after Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the Wind in the Willows, etc.—are presupposed as safe spots by adults and were the sites of young Ellie’s near undoing. Adults forget that the Snow White ride’s full name is “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” for a reason, so Ellie’s horrified and tear-filled reaction to 70% of that ride shouldn’t have been such a surprise—Sister Kristen did try to do a good job of keeping a friendly face on this ride through dark passages and around dark corners for Ellie by narrating as we went along, “Oh look, there’s the silly dwarves! Oh look, there’s the friendly animals! Oh look, there’s the Queen — oh! Now she’s a witch (her crone face swinging from straight at us to leer right into Ellie’s eyes)! Look . . . there’s her apple! (its skullface dripping poison in my three year-old nieces direction) Look, a monster! (actually it’s a fountain in the dungeon shaped like a monster with a skeleton lying in front of it) and by the time alligators were snapping and the Queen Witch is electrocuted in an attempt to administer boulderdeath to the seven dwarves Kristen’s narration was abandoned and redirected into comfort and consolation, concluding with an exasperated “There’s not even a happy ending?!” As we roll back into the loading area. No, no happy ending depicted, just a mural on our way out, a footnote, really, assuring us that White and Prince lived Happily Ever After.
We hope to do better on Peter Pan, biting the bullet and putting up with our one major line of the day (something about this classic attraction attracts a substantial line of would-be riders all hours of the day). This beloved attraction, based on such a beloved and loveable cartoon, it seems like it ought to be a high point for the day, and things are going well aboard our pirate ship for the first twenty two seconds of the ride as we fly through the Darling family nursery, past Nana and out the window to Peter Pan’s exultant “Off to Neverland!” But as we fly out into the Kensington night, over the grand glowing model of London after dark, Ellie’s switch to Pirates of the Caribbean-like panic sounds is immediate and dire. She wails as we circle the island model of Never Never Land, as we witness the rescues of Tiger Lilly and Wendy Darling. Even the sight of a our villain, Captain Hook, straddling the jaws of the crocodile, crying his “I’ll get you Peter Pan, if it’s the last thing I do!”—everything is sheer terror and total panic for my niece. My mom later tells me she thinks Ellie really doesn’t like the sensation of there being nothing below her, a ride on a glass elevator in a mall had gone equally as poorly a while back.
Things are happier on the outdoor rides. Ignored for years and years, visits and visits, our ride on the Casey Jr. Circus Train through Storybook Land (a mountainous suburb of Fantasyland filled by miniature castles and cottages, also accessible aboard canal boats which make an enviable entrance into this land through the mouth of Monstro the whale) proves to be a swift and pleasant trip, and although the steam engine being slightly too loud for Ellie’s liking and she rides with both ears covered as her older siblings who point excitedly at recognizable landmarks when not resting their chins on hands. Dumbo’s Flying Elephants, although frustratingly long in line, turns out to be the happy family joyride we had hoped Peter Pan would be and we are surprised to be joined by a non-marching band right out of Mary Poppins aboard the King Arthur Carousel who bang out a resonantly joyful rendition of Let’s Go Fly a Kite as our bejeweled steeds tackle their eternal course energetically. During this ride I impartially observe my family members fully immersed in perhaps their most memorable and joyful Disney experience of the day, I record it all with my camera, Kristen standing between horses with her hands on her daughters, Blake making monkey faces in a nearby mirror, Mom snapping her own photos of her offspring and descendents.
Let’s talk about kingdom planning for a moment: As we know, Fantasyland is known for its main entrance through the drawbridge gates of Sleeping Beauty’s castle and all of Fantasyland’s attractions are found within (sometimes literally) the walls of the castle. On Fantasyland’s western boundary there’s a gate in the castle wall opening to a wide, sloping path to Frontierland (this walk, between fort walls and thick trees leading to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, goes past attractions I’ve never even dabbled with, a petting zoo and a covered wagon-themed barbecue. Kristen noted to me that this avenue was one of her iconic Disney locations, I agreed that it was my best known non-space in the park). But theoretical barbarians seeking to lay theoretical siege to Sleeping Beauty’s castle should take note of one minor weakness in the fortifications: as the castle’s east, there is nothing. No castle wall, no gates, nothing — just the Storybook Land Canal Boats to the north and the Alice in Wonderland attractions to the south as Fantasyland spills out into the rest of the park and onto the Matterhorn (an attraction without a country)’s doorstep. And this is how we came to arrive at those famous bobsleds, by working our way through Fantasyland until we find there’s nothing left to work our way through, a firm executive decision having barred the Mad Hatter’s nauseating teacups (and, for the record, Captain EO) from our itinerary.
The Matterhorn, even if it looks a lot browner on the outside than I remember, is just a work of art to me, a work of art appreciated in glimpses as you race through it far too quickly. I love the cool blue curvature of the ice walls, the white stalactites, the resonance of the Abominable Snowman’s bellows throughout—I like that I don’t have this ride memorized, unlike Thunder Mountain (joyfully: “Here’s the turtle! Now comes the goat, chewing dynamite. Look out, an earthquake!) I don’t know what’s next on this Swiss thrill ride, I don’t remember and I can’t guess when I’ll see scary red eyes or when I’ll find myself suddenly zooming along the outside of the mountain or if there are two different courses through the mountain for the two different entry lines or how many Snowmen there are on the ride—this time I counted three, which seems a definite increase from my last visit.
And a lesson learned riding this time: If spared the indignity of a rider between your legs because you’ve got your half of the sled all to yourself, you may find yourself pinballed around in a lot more violently than you’d expect with no one to brace yourself against all the way through to the ride’s kind of out-of-nowhere, rather non-climactic end.
This is how you know they’re done: Not that they’re crying (she wasn’t) but that they won’t answer, won’t look you in the eye when you ask them if they liked it.
Parades are an aspect of a Disney visit that I have no patience for nor interest in. In my philosophy, they just steal valuable attraction time—in Tokyo, parades and spectaculars were especially popular and seemed to outnumber those featured at the American parks two to one. Every land in DisneySea seemed to play host to at least one hourly stage show and families staked out spots for the park’s afternoon BraviSEAmo spectacular at least an hour in advance, rendering the rest of the park nearly entirely neglected for a midday span of a couple hours. And while the seriousness of those drawn to the spectacular suggested that it was a dishonor to one’s ancestors to skip the show, this lull in activity proved a prime opportunity to ride the Tower of Terror twice more.
At Disneyland, parades are a continuous procession of floats topped by costumed characters waving at the crowd, heralded by young and grinning dancers, spinning and saluting, to some song, an upbeat song generally themed to the verb “Celebrate.” Additional costumed characters, about two per three floats, can be found lumbering through the route, approaching the crowds for handshaking and high fives. This visit’s parade is a celebration of sorts of service, of the Habitat for Humanity variety, as there’s this current promotion where if you give a day of service at a pre-approved charity (such as Habitat for Humanity), you get a free pass to Disneyland. The characters skew heavily Muppet, as Jim Hensen Productions is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company and its Affiliates and are featured in these volunteer service ads. My nieces and nephew take to the Celebrate music like to the calls of a square dance leader and I repeatedly fail to catch their impromptu dancing with my camera’s video mode.
On this trip through I find the ride looking ship shape and well-maintained and that Disney characters, adapted to suit the It’s a Small World house style, had been inserted in the appropriate nations—Mulan and dragon in China, Aladdin and Jasmine amongst the flying carpet riders in Arabia (racist?), the Little Mermaid beneath the sea, Stich surfing in Hawaii, Buddy and Jesse alive and well in the American West, etc.
After It’s a Small World we pay a visit to the only portion of Disney Land towards which I bear no goodwill, Mickey’s Toon Town, a wretched suburb of Fantasyland that appeared beyond the northern tracks of the Disneyland railroad in the mid-nineties. Toon Town is not so much a land as a subdivision and is about as charming and attractive as its real world, cul de saq’d equivalents. And yes, visiting it it does seem you’ve walked right into a cartoon, everything’s colorful, yes, and everything is a little puffy, a little inflated seeming—everything from the tug boat to the town hall looks like it’s having an allergic reaction. By day Toon Town is a horrible terrible sunblasted and shadeless place of concrete, concrete, and asphalt where Disney guests come to get heatstroke and have their pictures taken posing beside cartoony-looking gas pumps or in a cartoony looking jails(“Oh look! The bars are rubbery! You can escape right out of this jail!” Nonsense.) so it’s to our advantage that the sun is now nearly lost to the horizon.
Toon Town, I suppose, is a nod to the land where all the Toons lived in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and now it’s the land where you can visit Mickey in his house or Minnie in her house or ride the Roger Rabbit ride or sit on a fake tree stump and imagine what it would be like to be Chip or Dale.
My family learned our Toon Town lesson in the 90s when we visited for an hour, all nearly burned up and died, and waited too long for the Roger Rabbit darkride, which was popular because it was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride except you could rotate a car—yeah, but now there’s the Buzz Lightyear ride where you can rotate your car AND shoot things, so why bother with the Roger Rabbit ride in 2010? But we came over to this subdivision after because inspiration was running low and it’s just right there right by It’s a Small World After All, if kids catch a glimpse of its cartoony glow it’s pretty hard to argue against spending a minute or two there, especially if the sun is on its way and the asphalt is only radiating the least amount of the day’s leftover heat. Earlier in the day Ellie had expressed an interest in riding Toon Town’s junior roller coaster, Gadget’s Go-Coaster (you know, inspired by inventor mouse Gadget Hackwrench, from the Disney Afternoon program Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers? From 1992?), but by now she’s lost interest and Blake has totally checked out on fast rides, no matter how slow. So Mom, Emily, Rachel and I ride—I’m not sure if any of us even wanted to, I think we ride out of respect for Ellie’s prior interest, out of obligation for being there, out of a general sense of “oh, why not.” While there’s basically only one ride’s worth of people ahead of us in line the line space set aside for this ride is terrifyingly large. I shudder to imagine the throngs of near-dead roasting in the sun in 1993 as they waited over an hour for this less-than-a-minute series of loops. We ride in pleasantness, disembark, and wonder where the rest of the Edwards family went—some texting reveals they’re inside Mickey Mouse’s house and they can’t get out. Turns out you have to watch a show or something before you meet Mickey. We sit and wait at the edge of Toon Town where it’s concrete backdrop meets concrete colored sky seamlessly, suggesting a wall that rises forever, a Truman Show dome. The previously wondrous mysterious boundaries of Disneyland here create a feeling of entrapment, captivity.
When Kristen, Cory, Blake and Ellie finally exit Mickey’s happy home, we’re absolutely stunned, when we look at our watches, to realize how much time we’ve spent in Toon Town without having done hardly anything, and we make our way for the exit, trying to subdue Blake’s declarations on how cool it may have been to meet Mickey in a grown-up and awful effort to keep Rachel from wanting a turn meeting him in an grow-up and awful effort to keep the group moving along. A plan is hatching to hop on the Disneyland railroad and head for Splash Mountain again to make use of some soon-to-mature Fastpasses. But after a surprisingly difficult Edwards family portrait session (where I’m last to learn that Rachel hates posing for family photos) in front of It’s a Small World (chosen because Sleeping Beauty’s castle is too far away at the moment) it is becoming apparent to the decision-making parties that perhaps the day has run its course and by the time we reach the Matterhorn (which is not far) on our way to Tomorrowland we agree to quit while we’re ahead (if we’re still ahead). I’ll admit the non-impartial observer side of me was at least somewhat tempted to argue for a longer stay, for a complete running-into-the-ground of our trip, for some rides on Alice in Wonderland, Buzz Lightyear, a viewing of Fantasmic, and that last go at Space Mountain, but it doesn’t break my heart to call the day done.
We decide the train is still worth riding and head to the Tomorrowland Station to catch it, we’ll just ride it over to Main Street so the kids can spend their hard-earned obedience, discipline, and bravery money at the gift shop there. When the train pulls into the station we board the second to last car, nearly empty except for a pair of youngish women dressed like they’ve spent the day at the office, one of whom is sitting (of course) on a Rascal. Soon after leaving the Tomorrowland station the train begins a trip through a building housing a Dinseyland treasure that I imagine 90% of Disneyland visitors don’t know about or have forgotten about—the world’s longest diorama. Featuring a seamless painted canvas backdrop measuring 306 feet by 34 feet, the diorama is decorated with taxidermic animals and depicts life on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We enter as dawn breaks over the canyon’s southern rim, roll past hills dusted with frost then sunbaked rock formations and then through a thunderstorm that gives way to a shining rainbow, and then leave the canyon as the sunsets brilliantly across the horizon—this day on the canyon lasts about 55 seconds—and as the train then through darkness a narrator informs asks us to keep quiet as we’re traveling back in time now to the primeval world, the land of the dinosaurs and we emerge in a new, ancient version of the canyon where the animals have shifted from stuffed to animatronic. Now we witness a group of Diplodoci (or some similar sort of long necked herbivore since ruled to have never existed by a council of archaeologists) grazing in a swamp followed by a flock of pterodactyls roosting on stone pillars, then a family of Triceratops guarding their latest batch of hatching eggs. Passing some foliage that gives way for cracked desert floor, times appear to be getting tough in the primeval world as a desperate looking group of tiny dinosaurs (compys? Is that what they were called in Jurassic Park?) make the most of a muddy puddle and then, the climax, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus standing off in a volcanic deathmatch, the crimson lighting bringing both blood and lava to mind.
This wonderful relic of yesteryear, it still excites and looks kept up. As we roll through, if you lean forward you can see the theatrical lighting hung overhead, it reminds me of peaking backstage at a theatrical performance, it makes me imagine stagehands running around behind the scenes, dressed in black, making sure the next fox is ready for us, prepping the wings of a pteradon. As we take in this wonderful shoebox, the female companions just to my right have a full voice conversation centered the Rascal-riding one’s To-Do list for the rest of her California vacation. She’s telling her friend “. . . and before I get back to Colorado I have to eat at Subway” and I want to lean over and hiss “Shhh! Be Reverent!” but instead I wonder to myself, “There don't have Subway in Colorado?”
When we arrive at Mainstreet Station we find the town square, the entry to the park’s esophagus, jammed full of guests, milling about, entering or exiting the park, but not necessarily shopping because when we enter Mainstreet’s primary gift shop I’m surprised to find it nearly almost empty instead of shoulder to shoulder with memento-grabbing visitors from the world over.
While the Edwards children search for the prizes for their bravery, obedience, non-fussing, and previous good behavior has earned them I grow glassy-eyed amongst oversized mugs, postcards, figurines, and additional ephemera. Emily, Mom and I play the “Oh, look at this” game where you take something off a shelf and show it to whoever is right by you. Growing tired of glassiness, I slip outside to inspect the store’s window dioramas, depictions of favorite scenes from Disney films ancient and recent. The investigation lasts a minute, and then I turn around, consider Mainstreet, and my eyes are drawn to the old Magic Store . . . I remember this place, I remember going in when I was real young. I head for it.
Do people still like magic tricks? Is anyone going to buy one of these sets of metal rings or foam balls? Or the shrink-wrapped Secrets of Magic books sold on rotating racks, or the elaborate “101 Magic Trick” boxes on the higher shelves—or is this store a fully subsidized establishment, kept running by the park to maintain the old timey feel of Mainstreet, USA—the same way attractions like the little theater that plays Steamboat Willie on a continuous loop or Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln are still here for guests to pass by? The magic shop employees, in dignified store-appropriate costumes, stand behind a glass case with felt mats in front of them, shuffling cards or shifting cups and balls, smiling warmly to the store, waiting to catch a customer’s eye and begin an illusion. I keep my eyes down like I’ve walked into the wrong locker room, Please don’t do a trick for me. I can’t stomach the obligation to interact or react right now, but if they catch another visitor, I’m willing to watch the trick with curiosity over their shoulders, smile at the cleverness (if it is clever) and walk away. Which is what I do, after another minute of browsing.
I head further down Mainstreet where the crowd grows thicker and, as I confirm on my watch that a fair little bit of time has begun to pass since I was at the Disney Store, I can feel that my common sense, my clear thinking, that I’ve left it behind, possibly with my family, and the deeper I walk into the crowd, the further away from sense I grow. But I am suddenly hungry a notion has bubbled up in my brain that I can’t suppress. What I have on my mind are corndogs.
There had been this corndog cart in Frontierland near Big Thunder—I hadn’t had dinner, that idea/necessity had fallen by the wayside—and I was thinking about those corndogs, how great a freshly dipped corndog, a corndog straight from the fryer, might be, just one, right now, a snack, no one would know—wouldn’t one of these Mainstreet storefronts, these eateries, shouldn’t one sell corndogs? At one of these ice cream parlors, maybe? At Disney World I had lunched on corndog nuggets purchased at an old timey baseball-themed commissary at the very end of Mainstreet—so in the appropriate corresponding parallel direction I head, pressed tighter between the crowd, sticking my head into “restaurants” to look at their menus—constant corndog failure—and I could feel myself, still, growing farther and farther away from where I should be, I could feel, my distant common sense could tell me, that souvenirs were finally being rung up 100 yards back, that my posse was banding together to make their exit, little arms were being raised in petition for little bodies to be carried, and I was here, headed in the opposite direction, hoping for a selfish corndog—suddenly I was the one without a sense of a greater good, my Want/Do Not Want was switched strongly to corndog, I could feel I was settling into a cave of indifference, a hole of selfishness, and I was beginning to tell myself “I’ve been good, they can wait down there by the flagpole holding all their bags, I’m getting a corndog” when I was sprung from this mist of darkness by the vibrating of my cell phone. It was Mom. She told me, as expected, that they were done and headed out—she told me this in the tone used with the child who can’t be pulled away from the toy section of the department store, with the frankness that suggests your family is about to drive away in the station wagon. And so suddenly I realize where I am: Far away and that my corn dog chances were zero, and that for the greater good, I need to get back to the mouth of Mainstreet before the impartial observer becomes the deadweight dragging down the last minutes of this Disneyland adventure.
—Stay where you are, I’m coming!
—We’ll just be . . .
—Please, stay where you are, stay where you are, I’m coming straight there.
When I get to the empty southern end of Mainstreet I see that the group hadn’t stayed together, the Edwards family had headed for the tram on their own but weren’t there when Mom, Emily, and I arrive. Amidst a mighty crowd, growing wetter and wetter in a drizzle that’s shifting in the direction of occasional solid and determined raindrops, we call them over and over, and by third calls they answer. It seems that the Edwards family was, well, wherever they were it was someone else, “What was the name of our parking lot? It wasn’t the Toy Story lot, was it? No? Okay, we are definitely in the wrong place.”
So we board the next tram and head back for the right parking lot, no surprise: we have definitely beaten the Edwards family here, but I receive a text notifying me of their semi-imminent arrival. I decide to lay down in the back of Cory’s pickup at surprise them when they get there. I lay, staring up at the glowing Anaheim sky, the odd deliberate raindrop smacking me in the face from time to time. I can hardly hear anything, just the low low voices of Mom and Emily. How am I even going to know when the Edwards get there? I turn my head to focus my mind in the direction of their impending arrival, it is like meditation. Then I hear the sound of muted reunion and hop up in the back of truck, Surprise!
Emily, who knew I had been hiding, screams. The Edwards don’t even notice, they’re farther away than I estimated.
We partition the family, Kristen, Cory, Blake and Rachel in the pickup; Ellie, Emily, Mom and I in the Crown Victoria, and leave the park just as the evening’s fireworks go off behind us, like when action heroes walk towards the audience as the scenery explodes behind them. It gives the day a feeling of success, triumph. Not a Lot's wife amongst us, we keep our eyes over our shoulders, watching this well-timed goodbye.
Fielding calls from the other car, we direct them in the direction of the freeway but a few wrong turns of our own later we find our car completely separated from them and nowhere near a freeway. We find ourselves approaching an Orange County In n Out and decide that’ll make as good a dinner as the previously considered El Pollo Loco.
We have the whole hygienic place to ourselves until a band of unruly teens arrive, foul-mouthed and barefoot from a day at the beach. We work our thick milkshakes through weak straws in near silence as they cause trouble and use terrible language in the booths behind us, our conversation reserved for trying to get Ellie to eat a hamburger that she wrinkles her nose at. Lift it towards her and she’ll swing her head away, her switch was firmly set to Do Not Want, but eventually she eats the top half of the bun on her own.
At the In n Out I find myself on several volunteer missions back to the counter for napkins, spoons, or one more missing order of fries, catching my reflection in the establishment’s ample reflective surfaces. I look so different and tired without my ears on.
Back to the car with us, back to the freeway, home to Grandma’s. I don’t remember how long it took us to get there, I don’t remember if I went right to bed or if we sat up talking for a while. I think I checked my email, though, with nieces and nephew asleep on the floor around me.
The next day we have lunch with Grandma at her favorite Chinese restaurant and everyone is on their worst behavior. This is a forgotten tradition, the epic comedown of a Disneyland hangover. Kristen’s kids, who regularly eat Thai, Indian, and sushi at home treat the Chinese food, our slippery shrimp and General Tso’s chicken, our sautéed green beans and hot and sour soup, like it is the vilest food they’ve ever seen. Us grown ups are not much better, I snap at Blake for pushing at the Lazy Susan like a playground merry-go-round as I’m trying to serve myself some slippery shrimp and early rides home are offered sternly left and right in an effort to motivate more civil dining. But the kids, my park buddies, are sweet and generous with hugs when I leave for my flight a few hours later.
On the plane I start to think over my trip, my attempted impartial observer experience. I mourn a little, for writing purposes, that nothing too major happened at the park, nothing very anecdotal. But I write down notes for most of the flight. And then at work I start writing making notes on the side. And then I start transcribing my notes on my computer, then organizing my notes, then writing what happened between the notes, then printing out what I have an rereading them, then editing them, then writing more, then printing again, then editing more, and writing more. And writing more. And writing more. Then I print it again, read it again, edit it again.
And then, about seven months later, I post it.