“You WILL come to Disney.” my friend Kevin said, as though he was attempting to persuade me that he was not in possession of the droids I was looking for.
Kevin was my Eskimo into the land of Disney. The day that was soon to come, under the accompaniment of Kevin and his 4 year old son, did more than simply provide another line on the “Things to do with Jack” list. It helped to further melt the phony cynical, pseudo-intellectual exterior that I used to thrive on. The mask that I wore for so long to hide from a world I was terrified of and sat in judgement of was destined to be shattered by the melodies of Welcome to Pooh Corner, the exhilaration of climbing Space Mountain and the touching, innocent fanaticism of packs of toddlers meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time. See, this would not only be Jack’s introduction to The Happiest Place on Earth, but mine as well.
Let’s hop back a bit. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for around 12 years. I’ve been to Anaheim about a dozen times, even stayed across the street from Disneyland. I never had any reason to go. However, I couldn’t leave it alone at that. I had to come up with a justification for why I’d never even WANT to. First of all, it was representative of the over commercialization of childhood experiences. I do not know if I’ve ever tried to convince myself of a bigger line of crap. Second, I’ve been to DisneyWORLD and Disneyland is just a smaller, more outdated version of it…so what’s the point? Okay. I was at Disneyworld when I was 3. All I remember is that I didn’t meet Mickey Mouse and that the wooden plank bridge over the moat of crocodiles seemed dangerously flimsy. I have heard of this thing called “Space Mountain” all my life. For a long time I had even actively lied and just told people that “Of course I’ve been to Space Mountain.” I had no idea. No idea what I was missing. No idea what was to come.
The decision was made to become Pass Holders to Disneyland after Jack turned 2. With the SoCal Select Pass you get to go Monday thru Friday, with most of the summer and holidays blacked out for 16 bucks a month. It’s already more than paid for itself, considering a simple Day Pass is about a hundred dollars per person. Jack doesn’t have a ton of Disney experience, but he knows and loves Winnie the Pooh (both in book and movie form), he’s seen Pixar’s Cars (Jack loves cars), and a handful of Mickey Mouse cartoons spread throughout some of the various sick days of his short life. He knows enough but, as I was soon to learn, none of that even matters. You don’t need to know a damn thing about Disney to love Disney.
Our first trip to Disney was on Tuesday, January 6th. We have (as of this writing) been there a total of three times. Our first trip can be summed up in one word: bewilderment. Jack was taking in new stimuli on a minute to minute basis and (as Kevin later noted) the formation of new neural pathways was constant. He was looking around in seeming awe at the realization that these characters, settings and stories could exist outside of the paper pages he touches before bedtime or the glow of a 46 inch television set. We didn’t start slow either. We gate crashed at 9am and managed to squeeze Buzz Lightyear, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Safari Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s A Small World and The Tiki Room in all before we shot off at 2pm to beat gridlock traffic back to LA. Oh, and through the magic of going with a few friends we managed to “kid swap” so that I could finally experience something in real life that in the past I had only jealously lied about having done.
I’ve talked about before on this site about how I believe that there are certain people, situations and places that I can only describe as magic. I saw magic that day. It’d be so easy, and way too comfortable, way too familiar to look at the overpriced tickets and see greed. To see the 6 dollar pretzels and only see a multi-billion dollar corporation trying to squeeze the working man for every last dime. To look at the over-crowded walkways and try to wax poetic about the eventual fall of the American Empire due to our own Roman Empire like excesses. As tempting as that is, I saw none of that at Disneyland. I saw magic. I saw 4 year olds sitting on park benches and singing the theme song to The Mickey Mouse Club. I saw older brothers who know the ropes carrying their siblings into wooden boats and fighting pirates with them. I heard screams of excitement, splashes of watery relief from the sun, and barbershop quartets singing redone Top 40 Songs much to the delight of passersby. I smelled Kettle Corn and crisp, clean air. I saw my son go from the nervous interaction of a 6 foot tall man in a stuffed dog suit on his first visit to chasing down the character he now knows is “Pluto” on his 4th visit.
Some one told me recently that when they are really happy, like REALLY happy, they can relate to the feeling of being a kid playing with Matchbox cars. At first I thought I understood that, and I factored it under the innocence of being a kid and having this small object of obsession that you knew only the surface details about. I thought it was more about the wonder of the unknown. I loved playing with cars because I didn’t know what cars really were, just that they seemed grown up and cool. I don’t think that was it at all though. I believe that when we are children we get to experience everything in that same way. That is, that everything that we enjoy is pretty much as great as playing with Matchbox cars. The reason for this is so simple and yet so elusive to most adults. It’s living in the moment. Being truly present. The past is not a place of regret and the future is not a place of anxiety, because all you have is this moment. You and your Matchbox cars. When I am able to do that, to the limited degree that I can, is when I find serenity. When I remind myself of where my feet are right now and start to think of all that I have in my life is when I’m most happy, no matter what dire circumstances may have come or are to come. As silly as it sounds I got an entire day of that at Disneyland and each days since has been remarkably different and remarkably better than the one before. There are always frustrations, but they fall away in the presence of who I am today and what I get to do. They pale when compared to the smile on Jack’s face. They fade into the quiet of sitting in front of a fountain in Downtown Disney and sharing a Wetzel Pretzel with my son, because in that moment I cannot be anything but grateful and truth floods in. I’m alive. My son is healthy and happy. I’m at fucking Disneyland. Today, life is pretty damn good.
So, how was I indoctrinated into the Cult of Disney? It didn’t take much. If I could sum it all up in one simple experience it would be this: Jack almost started crying during the first unexpected drop of Pirates, but he didn’t. He quickly recovered and looked around at the dated animatronics with marvel and any sense of fear was replaced with wide-eyed curiosity. I could almost see the questions his mind was asking in those eyes: what is all this? When we got off the Tram on our second trip he looked up at me, holding my hand, and asked in his most high-pitched inquisitive voice: “Pirates?”
“Yes, Jack. Pirates. Do you wanna see Pooh first?”
“Ok. Let’s go see some Pirates. Arrrrr!”