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.