I believe everyone should have a Disneyland in their lives. Not that it has to be Disneyland. If you’re from Boston, it might be the Eastern States Exposition. If you’re from Ft. Worth, it might be the State Fair of Texas. But for those of us who grew up in Southern California, it was Disneyland.
You see, like those other regional experiences where the smell of fertilizer or the taste of a fried PB&J sandwich can evoke memories that are indelibly etched in one’s mind, Disneyland stands out as more than a fun-filled destination for a California kid like me. It was a place that marked my physical growth, my social development, my independence and my maturity.
Let me tell you about the first time I went to Disneyland. It was the week it opened and a special day was put aside for Boy and Girl Scouts. I know the word “magical” is always used to describe the place, but trust me…it was. The sounds, the colors, the cleanliness, defied anything I had ever before seen in all of my ten year-old life. At one of the park’s theaters a new group called The Mouseketeers was entertaining. This place was so magical that I was certain I would join their ranks despite the fact that I couldn’t sing like Darleen, dance like Bobby and would never have the physical attributes of Annette. GE and Monsanto predicted the future, Main Street showed me the past and my head was spinning like one of Alice’s sherbet colored teacups. I was hooked.
Each subsequent visit to Disneyland provided another developmental stepping stone. While some kids had their heights marked off on the door jamb of their bedroom, I marked my growth by the bottom of the sign that said “You Must Be This Tall to Ride.” Hair fluffed, neck stretched and fingers crossed, I’d align myself to the sign that would give me the physical proof I was growing up and finally allow me to take the wheel of The Autopia.
Disneyland was also a place to pretend I was far more grown up than I really was. Sure, we’d take the drive to Anaheim as a family, but we could break away from our parents once we got there. Let them browse the shops on Main Street or sit down and have a real meal. We were armed with ticket books and were going to take as many of those A to E rides as we possibly could. Carnation Gardens was our meeting point and, as long as we showed up every now and then to check in with our grandmother, we were independent and free to wander this wonderful world.
Another skill honed at Disneyland was the fine art of flirting. As a gawky teenager I would go with my girlfriends or my cousins and we’d see just who we could pick up. Now, I’m not talking about any of those boys who might be there with their friends or cousins…we weren’t quite ready for them. We could however, try out our developing bodies, imaginations and skills on all those good looking college guys who worked at Disneyland. We’d practice smiling under lowered lashes at the lederhosened Aryan as he offered his hand to help us disembark the Storybook Canal Boat Ride, or try to see how many Mickys, Goofys, Chips or Dales we could get to break the rules of character silence to say “hi” through the black mesh part of their costume that obscured their own faces. Fantasyland wasn’t just a place; it was an adolescent’s dream come true.
Once the practice was mastered and real dating began, a true test of how a guy felt about you was if he took you to “Date Night at Disneyland.” Despite the fact that I’d often hold my hands high above my head as the bobsled traversed the Matterhorn’s hairpin turns, come Date Night I’d scream and clutch my date’s hands as they encircled me from behind. And, if Date Night wasn’t enough, Grad Night at Disneyland was the pinnacle. While Pomp and Circumstance and the cap and gown of high school graduation were important, it was Grad Night that marked the official end of childhood.
It is that end of childhood that makes life move faster. Suddenly, I was a young mother wielding my infant son’s stroller towards rides he could only gaze at and later watching as my daughter stretched her own back hoping to reach the bottom of the sign. Suddenly, I was the person with the bad back being warned away from the risks of Space Mountain. I was the distraught middle-aged woman who one day, in the depth of depression, took myself to Disneyland for how could one possibly be sad at “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Life sped, and took me to places like The Czech Republic where, upon gazing at Prague Castle, I could only think of Sleeping Beauty, and to Botswana where I marveled at what a wonderful job had been done on the Jungle Boat Ride. Life raced, and I met important people doing important things but little compared to the day I saw Walt Disney pointing to the area that would someday become Tom Sawyer’s Island. Life flew, and suddenly I was sixty.
And so, this year, on my 60th birthday I, once again, drove to Anaheim with my family. My six month old granddaughter was along for her first visit to this place that has played such an important part of my life. I watched as her blue eyes widened when we took the first dip down into the Pirates of the Caribbean and I laughed as she squealed while rising up and down on one of King Arthur’s Carousel painted ponies. Through her, I felt the same wonder and excitement I had that very first day fifty years ago. Later, when my granddaughter fell asleep, my husband and children went off to explore the new rides and attractions. I sat at Carnation Gardens and waited for them to check in.
So, pick your spot. It can be a tree in a nearby park that comes into bloom every February 21st, or a street fair that transforms your city block from a busy street into a small town neighborhood. Find your Disneyland to mark the changes of the person you were, you are, and who you will be.
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