I went to Disneyland for the first time when I was 10-years old. My parents, aunt, and grandma loaded my sisters, two cousins, and me into two Oldsmobile Cutlass wagons and we caravanned from Portland (OR) to Anaheim (CA) in a sprawling, Vacation-esque road trip.
We visited the Redwoods, Universal Studios, and San Diego. Wonderful places, all. And yet I only have three or four fleeting memories from that stretch of the trip. Then we hit Disneyland and here my recall of events snaps into sharp focus. I can see expressions on faces, and replay snippets of conversations. Even more crystalline is how it felt — that heart pounding delirium I experienced when I was greeted with seemingly infinite amounts of stimulus. By age 10, I knew I wanted my life to be one filled with grand exploits and derring do, and at Disneyland I was presented with a vision of what that might look like. It’s as if the park had taken my wildest boyhood fantasies and shaded in all the fuzzy details. Rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and the newly opened Splash Mountain were so thoroughly set designed that they felt like they had to be inspired by real places. Places I longed to see one day.
It’s no surprise then that I became a travel writer and focused on tropic locales frequented by pirates. Places that teemed with wild animals, where waterfalls tumbled out of deep caverns. My one trip to Disneyland had given me the seedlings of a career and pushed me towards a life of adventure.
For twenty years, I didn’t go back. I had too much exploring to do. There were too many places to see that were wild and raw and didn’t have lines. “I want real adventures,” I thought to myself. “Not crowds and corndogs.” Then, in 2009, I was sent on a magazine assignment to the 20th anniversary of Splash Mountain and found myself — through some strange sorcery — smiling.
I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. I was supposed to roll my eyes and dub the experience a supposedly fun thing I would never do again. In the 20 years between my first visit and my second one I’d become anti- many of the things that Disneyland is full of: crowds, lines, t-shirts with clever slogans on them, multi-national corporate interests, cheap plastic toys, and overpriced food.
But in spite of myself, I liked it. So much so that I’ve gone back once a year ever since. And even though Disneyland tempts my derision, whenever I hear it mocked I’m quick to play the Devil’s advocate. “I bet you’ll be surprised,” I say. “It’s better than you think.”
When challenged to defend that stance, here are the reasons I offer:
Are you a Game of Thrones fan? Biggest show in TV history, right? I mean, it’s got dragons. Dragons! And the battle scenes, they’re wild and wide-ranging and epic in scope. Well guess what? Disneyland creates a spectacle of that size every single night. The show I saw on my most recent visit sees Ursula from The Little Mermaid setting the River of America on fire in an attempt to kill Mickey. That’s right, Disneyland basically stages the Battle of Blackwater seven times a week with Mickey standing in for Tyrion.
Then, when the show is over, they put on an insane parade, and finish by shooting off more fireworks in ten minutes than most cities in the country do in any given year. If a display of that scale can’t impress you, what the hell can?
THE SOCIAL CLUBS.
Go to Disneyland as a kid and the only characters you care about are Mickey and friends. Visit when you’re older and you can’t help but notice the hundreds of adults roaming the park in cutoff denim vests, covered with Disney-themed patches and pins. These are Disneyland’s Social Clubs and if you visit on a weekend, you’ll see scores of them.
These “definitely not gangs, make sure you don’t call us gangs” intrigue me endlessly (and other writers, too, apparently, as the social clubs are popular longform subjects). They are connected by one common trait: they love Disneyland and everything it stands for. They are adults, often without kids, and yet somehow the park has become a major centerpiece of their lives. They go weekly (if not more), they stay late, and they patiently answer endless questions about their very distinctive vests. Even though I’m pro-Disneyland, I just can’t fathom living this way — which makes it absolutely fascinating to me. Whereas my hobbies (surfing, hiking, reading) are essentially selfish in nature, the Disneyland Social Clubs are focused on improving the experience of others.
“If I see someone with a birthday button, it’s second nature to wish them happy birthday,” says Sean Macready, co-founder of the Wonderlanders SC. “Or if we’re in line I will literally scream ‘Hey, it’s Patty’s birthday’ and our whole club will sing them happy birthday. We’ve had people come up to tell us, ‘That made my day.'”
If you can’t fathom publicly displaying that sort of rah-rah enthusiasm, or don’t feel like having a bunch of strangers sing to you would improve your birthday, trust me, I get it. And that is perhaps the best part of the whole scene to me. Within the boundaries of the park, these adult-aged Disney-mega fans seem perfectly reasonable. Their sincerity and earnestness is able to be viewed clearly, without the muddling haze of post-internet-era snark.
THE CLEVERLY PLANTED IN-JOKES.
What I like most about Disneyland is that it’s fully imagined. I hate myself for writing that because Disneyland actually employs “Imagineers” and their marketing materials fetishize the word “imagine” to such a degree that my endorsement of it feels cheesy. But seriously, these people thought of everything. Did you know that if you rub the apple outside of Snow White’s Scary Adventures you can hear the queen laugh maniacally? Or that every plant in Tomorrowland is edible, as per Walt’s vision of the future? Or that the sea smell in Pirates of the Caribbean is piped in? Or that “Egroeg Sacul” gets paged a few hundred times a day in the Star Tours line because that’s George Lucas’s name spelled backwards? Or that the Disneyland Railroad station loops Walt Disney’s opening day speech in Morse Code?
It goes on.
My favorite of these sly winks to the guest are the hundreds of hidden Mickey Mouse silhouettes painted all over the place — just waiting for some keen-eyed kid to spot them, or some disposable-time-having adult to build a website dedicated to tirelessly cataloging them. Sure, it’s self-referencing and cynics might consider it just more #branding, but it’s also a fun distraction for the eye while waiting in line. Basically, if you liked the Julia-Roberts-playing-Tess-Ocean-pretending-to-be-Julia-Roberts gag in Ocean’s 12, you’ll love all the clever references Disneyland has for you to discover.
THE FASCINATING TIDBITS.
With 60 years and more than 600 million visitors under its belt, Disneyland has collected some secrets. There are nooks and crannies and weird features that few people know about. Places that were used decades ago have been repurposed, or abandoned altogether. Over the years, a select few obsessives have learned many of these tidbits and passed them down (until every “secret” surfaces on the internet).
Here are a few of my favorite threads to tug on:
- The place is teeming with cats. Disneyland has a lot of mouths to feed, food equals trash, and trash equals mice. At night, hundreds of cats (brought in intentionally) roam the park hunting mice and rats. The cats are given veterinary treatment, spayed and neutered, and even have their own website. Yes, a place built on the logo of a mouse brings in cats to kill them.
- There’s still a real human skull left in Pirates of the Caribbean, right above the bed where a (fake) skeleton looks through a magnifying glass.There is also a Captain Jack Sparrow Lego character sitting atop a treasure chest.
- There is a VIP club with a 10 year waiting list in New Orleans square called Club 33. If you ever see the inside, you’ve officially hit the big time.
- The purple teacup spins the fastest at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
- Guests are allowed to pilot the Mark Twain River Boat — all you have to do is ask. Okay fine, the boat actually runs on a track, but you do get a cool certificate afterwards.
- People have been known to scatter ashes at the Haunted Mansion (perhaps this is why the ride no longer offers “death certificates” to riders savvy enough to ask).
- Disneyland employees are instructed never to point with one finger, as it’s considered rude. You’ll only ever see is the two-fingered point.
THE “USER EXPERIENCE.”
Due to the whole “living in a capitalist society” thing, I have been a consumer almost every day of my adult life. I order food, I rent an apartment, I buy clothes, I purchase plane tickets. I have traveled widely and stayed in very expensive resorts on behalf of magazines, and I have never in my life witnessed a place so obsessed with the “user experience” as Disneyland.
If you ever had a waiter as friendly as the least friendly Disneyland employee, you would tip them 30% and walk away feeling like you should have kicked in an extra fiver. There are smiling cast members everywhere you turn, the custodians carry buttons to give to crying kids, and some of the park’s most coveted experiences (like riding in the fully restored Lilly Belle car on the Disneyland Express) are reserved for people who seem to be having a rough day. I don’t care if you think it’s all profit motivated (what isn’t?), I promise, there is nowhere else on earth that wants its customers to be happy to this same degree. Pretty cool, when you think about it.
Also, not for nothing, but it is also legitimately one of the greenest places you will ever visit in Orange County.
THE CELEBRATION OF NOSTALGIA.
This is the easiest reason to buy into, and probably the reason why the Neverlanders, the Wonderlanders, Mostropolis, and the many other social clubs exist in the first place. For kids, the park is part of childhood, but for adults it serves as a nostalgia factory.
For better or worse, if you grew up in the United States, Disney was probably a part of your formative years. Perhaps it was a crucial part, offering respite from the tricky, often painful world of adults swirling around you. That’s not to say that Disney panders to any unrealistic fantasies that everything is perfect. There are scary moments in almost all of the rides. Villainy abounds.
“Life is composed of lights and shadows,” Walt Disney once said, “and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil.”
That sounds like a pretty fair appraisal of growing up if you ask me, and maybe that’s why Disney’s stories endure. It also explains why (besides boatloads of money) Disney Corp. was so intent on acquiring Lucasfilm. George Lucas certainly isn’t infallible, but he does get the importance of the war between the light and the shadows.
Disneyland doesn’t reflect a sticky toffee version of childhood, it reflects a semi-realistic one (with garish villains standing in for real life traumas). That’s a good thing– and as our adult lives get increasingly dizzying by the day, I do understand the desire to revisit the the stories that helped us wrap our heads around the world’s complexity back when we were kids.
THE ABILITY TO KEEP ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF PEOPLE FROM RIOTING EVERY SINGLE GODD*MN DAY.
This is a huge deal. I don’t think any of us have any idea how hard this is. Disneyland has parades, and fireworks shows, and so many people. And yet, there are no riots. No mobs. Brawls are rare.
People may be tired, and they may be burnt out on crowds, and they may be done getting jabbered at by animatronic figures, but they leave happy. They really do. And the ability to create that on such a huge scale is absolutely and completely mind-blowing. All I can conclude is that it takes a lot of work, huge vision, superb employees, endless diversions for the agitated mind, and plenty of singing.
Still, watching thousands of people head for the exits after the fireworks show and witnessing the situation not dissolve into madness makes me marvel, every time.
Happiest place on earth? That might be overshooting it a little. But it’s definitely worth going back to.