On Disneyland and Magic

Vacations are not something my family has been great at coordinating. By “my family” I mean my little immediate family consisting of Nik and Callie and myself; as a kid I remember my parents loading my brother and I up in cars or RVs pretty regularly and taking jaunts to visit family in the Midwest or camping or some other exploratory excursion. Somehow as an adult a combination of financial concerns and a heavy demand on my limited vacation time due to three distinct extended family units has meant stringing a full week of days off together with some sort of plan has been a challenge. This year we made a pact that we were going to have a real family vacation no matter what, and I carefully rationed my PTO days so we could take Callie to Disneyland as our “big” gift to her for her third birthday.

Disneyland is, to Nik and I, one of the few vacation-y spots we’ve made trips to in the almost 13 years of our marriage, although again, we’ve never put a full week of vacation into one of these visits, usually lumping our returns in with some other event like a wedding or a concert or a convention. But whenever we’re in the neighborhood and can swing it, we try to make it a point to spend a little time in the parks because we both share a particular fondness for the Magic Kingdom. I know my enthusiasm for Disneyland originates from several of those family trips as a kid where my brother and parents and I would gamely brave the summer lines to experience Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and The Jungle Cruise. Later, when Disneyland became a thing that I did more with friends or with Nik, the nostalgia buoyed the trips beyond the middling thrills offered me many of the rides compared to other destinations. It helped that while Nik enjoys the sort of safe-n-sane excitement of Space Mountain, she’s far more leery than I of the bigger/crazier/loopier rides and coasters at places like Six Flags. I may be a roller coaster nut, game for just about any steel-rail madness the engineers can devise, but a minimum of half the fun is experiencing it with someone else, so I’ll take any ride over no ride and Disney seems to offer the happiest middle ground between my wife and I.

Yet, nostalgia can carry you only so far. In one of the last trips Nik and I made to Anaheim prior to Callie being born, we paused at one point and wondered aloud if we had gotten to the point where Disneyland was no longer quite the same for people of our advancing age to do alone. Unsaid but understood was that it wasn’t Disneyland that was changing, it was us, and we made a half-joking, half-serious pact to make it a point to return only when we had children of our own to bring along.

Flash forward five years or so and after initially nixing a trip somewhere in Callie’s second year for fear of her being too little to really appreciate it (and, as usual, the time off/funding conundrums), we decided three was a good age to introduce our daughter to the magic we both felt from our trips early in our lives to Disneyland. I confess, this put a fair amount of pressure on me and, to an extent (although I hope she didn’t feel it at all) Callie to make the trip memorable, to instill that sense of awe and wonder present as a child in the park that had taken well over twenty years to completely shed.

There is a piece written by SF author Neal Stephenson called In The Beginning Was The Command Line, which is interesting in and of itself, but applicable here in that there is a digression within where Stephenson notes that among Disney’s principal characteristics is their ability to nail user interfaces. Which is to say, the facade of a place like Disneyland, the way the park presents itself to guests and the way the customers interact with the park, the rides, the queues, even just the visual presentation of information and experience is a huge part of what makes Disneyland (and other Disney theme parks, presumably) have that unique factor which makes it, and not, say, Magic Mountain, the most visited amusement park in the world. Six Flags’ close proximity might make it a stronger competitor, and on paper it may perhaps be even better with more rides and more exciting attractions (and shorter lines), but Six Flags isn’t a theme park, and the lack of theme is part of why it is a second run to the Disney mega-destination.  It’s not just that Disneyland seems better curated, it is a more engaging place to be, because even when you’re not on a ride you’re immersed in a place where the details matter, whether you notice it consciously or not.

The challenge became trying to get an energetic and strong-willed toddler to acknowledge and appreciate these details, or to appreciate much of anything beyond “what else you got?” I went in to the trip armed with apps and maps and game plans and strategies to hit the attractions that I considered to be the highlights, determined to depart the trip with a child who recognized what it was that made mommy and I so excited when we advertised (starting about two months before her birthday and three and a half months before the actual trip) our destination. I knew going in that some things were going to have to be deferred; I don’t know that I necessarily remember my very first visit to Disneyland. I think my parents took me when I was about Callie’s age, maybe a touch younger. I have a hazy memory of the Autopia ride and my mom being pregnant with my brother, though that could be a confabulation with a different park (possibly Great America which is local). I know that by the time my brother and I went during the 30th Anniversary event for the park (in 1985) I was already enraptured by the place and the possibilities inherent in a parent-sponsored trip. I would have been seven years old at the time, and it was probably the first time I was tall enough to go on all the “big kid” rides like Space Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Point being, this early trip may not stick many details in my daughter’s mind about what it really means to be at Disneyland, but I think there is more than enough cognition to give her an overall sense of why going to Disneyland is more exciting than, say, going to an indoor jungle gym with themed rooms. Both are certainly fun, but there is an element present at Disneyland that you don’t get from just anywhere, an element that, at risk of sounding like some kind of shill or drone, is close enough to magic to be virtually indistinguishable in a child’s mind. As self-appointed tour guide for her, I went in feeling like it fell on me to ensure that she tasted that enough that if I were to come back to her in a year or two with, “Would you like to go back?” the answer would be as enthusiastic as I would be offering that to her. Presumptuous? Over-ambitious? Perhaps. But in context with the discussion of what it meant to be a childless thirtysomething at Disneyland trying to understand why that sparkle was fading from the experience, it felt significant to me to believe that there was a new element to a favored activity waiting to happen.

We decided to fly down rather than drive. A dull trek down I-5 with a kid in a rear-facing car seat didn’t sound quick or appealing for any of us so we had our flight out of SFO early on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon we traveled to the City to stay overnight; our flight wasn’t just early, it was crazy early for us so saving that little bit of time by waking up within spitting distance of the airport seemed smart. Sunday evening we took Callie to Pier 39, hit the aquarium there and showed Callie the sea lions before having dinner and then retiring very early. We were all up by 3:30 the next morning which might have felt more intense than it did if not for the vacation adrenaline, yet somehow despite our what-time-did-you-say-it-was morning and wise pre-planning our boarding experience was a little stressful, and we just squeaked on the plane with a hasty breakfast scarfed down at the gate. Our arrival at John Wayne airport was further frustrating in that the shuttle we had paid for ahead of time turned out to be more or less a regular passenger vehicle with no child seats. We confirmed with the booking agent that because it was registered as a public transportation vehicle it didn’t fall under the same guidelines as what I assume the exact same van would have if registered differently, but we weren’t at all comfortable with tossing our three year-old in the back of a van and hopping on the LA freeway system. With limited options we ended up paying for a rental car that came with a child seat, which we frustratingly used only to get to our hotel and back. I might have thought it an ill portent, but we were too focused on getting settled in and heading to the park.

As soon as we arrived, my notions of coordinating the trip carefully for maximum Callie-friendly exposure were tossed aside. Our solid-12-hour-sleeper was working on maybe seven hours of rest if you include the short nap she took during takeoff and though she gamely stood in line to meet Minnie Mouse (she was wearing a new Minnie t-shirt, some Minnie Mouse sneakers and sporting a temporary Minnie tattoo on her arm), she didn’t seem all that charmed by the silent, imposing form of the costumed character. I had wanted to stroll leisurely down Main Street and let Callie take in the sights and sounds and smells of that iconic entry point, but it was quickly agreed that we needed to get her on a ride to whet her appetite for the meat of the park. We chose Peter Pan’s Flight as it has been a long time favorite of mine and Nik’s, but in retrospect I think we might have gone a different direction: the line was sluggish and long, most of the switchbacks being positioned right under the unforgiving noonday sun and an already tired Callie was uninterested in anything but clinging to an adult. The resulting 45-minute wait was a sweaty, grueling ordeal that culminated in a ride that didn’t seem as vibrant as I remembered and which Callie declared upon exiting as “scary and too dark.” If she was going to be skittish about dark rides, we were potentially poised for a disappointing trip: a very large number of the attractions at the park are indoor rides with a heavy reliance on spot lighting.

For the rest of the morning session we relied on outdoor rides like Dumbo and The Jungle Cruise, but before long we realized we needed to get the little one some sort of nap so we hopped the shuttle back to the hotel and she promptly conked out on my shoulder during the ride, only to snap to vibrant alertness once we hit our room. Nik and I were dying for the planned nap so we slept fitfully while Callie kept half an eye on the TV and spent the rest of her time arranging our belongings into various drawers around the suite, which made for some fun rounds of Finders Keepers as we tried to interpret Callie’s organizational scheme. As we went back to the park and stayed as late as they would allow us (we ended up being the very tail end of the line for Autopia with a Cast member standing behind us the whole way to dissuade any after-hours sneakers, which afforded me a few opportunities to ask Stupid Guest Questions), something began to dawn on me but it took until later in the week to understand it.

To me, the thing about Disney is that they are integrated into my childhood which means they play a specific role in my formative years. For some time now I’ve shuffled my feet when confronted head on with the truth of my affection for the company and its intellectual property, especially as terms like “intellectual property” have crept into my vocabulary and the cynicism of adulthood has crowded out the blissful ignorance of youth. Disappointments along the way as well as just a pseudo-hipster posture of being sort of half annoyed by everything, particularly if it has intentionally broad commercial appeal had soured me somewhat on thinking of myself as a fan of any corporate entity. I catch myself doing this even with companies that my behavior would indicate places me squarely in the fanboy camp like Apple or Google or Marvel or TiVo or Fantasy Flight Games. It’s as if my smirking, shrugging adopted attitude of feigned nonchalance insulates me from the horrific outward impression of enthusiasm.

And yet I continue to wax philosophical about the aspects of favored enterprises. Case in point, when I think of Disney I dissect it down to the point where I acknowledge that I admire the way that Disney, when they’re being successful in my eyes, are a company that focuses on aesthetic. This harkens back to what Stephenson referred to when he talked about Disney as purveyors of excellence in interface design; it’s visible in the whimsical title animation, now updated from the stylized Disney castle logo of my childhood and beyond the reminiscent 3D one found on Disney/Pixar films, including a chugging train, a quiet dusk setting and a tranquil river leading to a triumphant castle, all towering spires and soft orange lighting. As fireworks light the sky above the waving banners, a sparkling arc of pixie dust hastens the fade in of the company logo and the orchestra swells with an overture of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” In these 30 seconds, Disney conveys a number of things about what they represent, or at least what they mostly try to embody: Hope, dreams, imagination, wonder, and a child-like innocence rooted firmly in a sanitized version of the past that—hopefully—still applies today.

Truth is, I like the concept, perhaps even the worldview, that Disney, to varying degrees of success, traffics in. Worlds where phrases such as “Happily Ever After” aren’t scoff-worthy, where fairies and princesses burst into catchy songs, where tough times are just obstacles to overcome on journeys of self-discovery (often with the comic relief of anthropomorphized animal companions), where wishes and dreams and books and imagination are virtuous, where love can happen with a glance and where magic just is. The adult in me knows there are issues with this perspective, and particularly in the way Disney has handled their own ouvre: The whitebread protagonist syndrome (even dipping into darker, overt racism in earlier work), the implied materialism, the sometimes conflicted role of women or the frequently one-dimensional male figure offering timely salvation, the simplistic moral reductionism and so on. Better minds than mine have and will continue to pick apart the stories and products Disney produces, but those grown-up critiques are separate from the point that on its best days, Disney resonates with kids and with adults who are  still able to divorce their world weariness from their inner child and find joy in movies about dreamers, attractions featuring singing bunnies and shorts about an affable talking mouse and his slapstick-happy pals.

Disney isn’t a charity enterprise, and money sullies everything, so naturally there will be problems inherent with blind acceptance; no one wants indoctrination or the creation of the Cult of Disney. Excessive merchandising, hasty direct-to-video sequels, and inflated premium-brand pricing exists to mine the pockets of exhausted parents. Even the very act of creating that Disney mythos leads to princess culture and pink femininity which can itself be worrisome. It’s easy to over think it. Ahem. Obviously.

It was probably during our second session on Tuesday that it started to dawn on me as I struggled to not burden Callie with a toddler’s incessant need for reassurance that she was, in fact, having a good time and was understanding how cool everything was. It started during a solo stint where Nik and her sister, Sam, and Sam’s husband Chase went off in search of lunch that Callie and I weren’t as interested in. We wandered through “a bug’s land” in California Adventure and she noted an elaborate water play area, one side designed like a giant outdoor water spigot with a concrete hose running and the leaky connector poured a fine mist of rain over an area; around the other side of the land the faux hose terminated with a giant sprinkler head that shot water in hops and jumps from both the functional head and several jets set into the ground. We weren’t fully prepared for a soaked child, but it was hot and Callie kept asking about it. At once I felt my mantle as responsible father, constantly worrying about safety and preparedness and mindful limits, slip off completely. “Yeah, buddy,” I heard myself say, “you can play in the water. We’ll figure it out afterward.”

At first she was timid, standing to the edges and looking wide-eyed at the delighted crowd of children drenching themselves in the irregular jets of water. Occasionally on the sprinkler head side all the jets would just go nuts at once and the chorus of squeals and laughter from the kids would drown out the rest of the din of the park. After one of these climactic events Callie finally began to edge her way around the perimeter of the arena, moving with her deliberate, semi-graceless half run in a regular circle that I noted was more of a slow spiral as she gained confidence with each lap and drifted closer and closer to the actual thrill of cool splashing water. When she finally miscalculated a jet and got nailed, water running down her full cheeks and onto her t-shirt in perfect defiance of every parental missive to “try not to get messy” the grin on her face was unforgettable. After ten minutes her hair clung in sopping strands to her forehead and her shoes squelched with squeezing water from the soles on each giddy step and I couldn’t stop laughing, nor could she save for the few stops to check in with me, grab a drink of non-chlorinated water from my bottle and then back into the cooling fray she’d dance.

It wasn’t a ride, it wasn’t necessarily a unique-to-Disneyland experience, but it triggered something in both my daughter and I that it took until the last hour we had at the park to really clarify. Wednesday was our last day and after two days of shortened hours for the park (open from 10-8 only) that were even shorter when you factored in the two-to-three hour round trip shuttle ride and nap break, we made the call to try and push through a full day with only cat naps in the stroller or on calmer rides and attractions. But Callie, perhaps sensing the end of the trip, seemed determined to not miss any more than was strictly required and she refused to sleep even during the dim and soothing 15-minute Enchanted Tiki Room show I took her to. She did fall asleep for a bit in the line for the kiddie thriller in Toontown, Gadget’s Go Coaster, and didn’t wake fully even once we sat down in the car, only finally coming around when the train took its first dip down the track. But for the most part she was committed. After dinner in Downtown Disney, Nik, Sam and Chase were exhausted from the long day and though there was still an hour left before the parks closed, they called it a night. Callie and I weren’t quite ready, so we headed back to California Adventure for one last round of fun before the trip was over.

The nighttime show, World Of Color, was just about to start as we re-entered, which put a damper on my plan to hit up the area we had least frequented, Paradise Pier, since during the show nearly all the rides in that section are closed down including the big Mickey Mouse ferris wheel that Callie and I really wanted to try out. We settled on Toy Story Midway Mania! which is kind of a ride, kind of a video game and then tried to fight our way through the throngs of people filing out as World Of Color came to an end. We went back to Cars Land where we had stopped earlier in the week and practically walked onto Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, a sort of updated Scrambler type ride. Time was drawing to a close by the time we walked off, laughing and smiling, and I hoped to find one last ride to catch before they shut it all down. We made it over to “a bug’s land” again and the guy at Flik’s Flyers, a spinning carriage ride, agreed to run it one last time for us, closing the line behind as we entered. Turned out we had the whole ride to ourselves and as we spun over the darkening park I watched the look on Callie’s face and reflected back on the things we’d done on this trip.

The list was drastically different from the last time Nik and I came alone: Dumbo, Mad Tea Party (x3), It’s A Small World (x2), Gadget’s Go Coaster (x2), Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, Astro Orbiter, The Disneyland Railroad (x2), Flik’s Flyers (x2), Tuck N Roll’s Bumper Cars, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (x2), King Arthur’s Carousel (x2), Autopia, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Toy Story Midway Mania, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Very few of those were ridden by us in our grown-up only visits, and the only standards we hit were The Jungle Cruise and Peter Pan’s Flight plus Nik and I got to ride the updated Star Tours and the Halloween-themed Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy while Callie spent a bit of time with her aunt and/or uncle. By the standards of our pervious trips, this was a dull, thrill-less trip, lacking any of the must-sees like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, California Screamin’, Indiana Jones, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Maliboomer, etc. Nik and her sister did make it on the New Orleans Square highlights and I got to do the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, but all told for a three-day visit it should have been a disappointment.

It was anything but. I had so much fun. I didn’t know the smaller, slower, less elaborate rides could be enjoyable ever again. But then I’d sit there, arm wrapped protectively around Callie, hearing the delirious squeals of sheer delight, watching her head drop back to feel the wind rush by her face or feeling her arm raise to point out a funny animatronic figure, and I saw what she saw. She made me feel what she felt, that sense of awe and excitement of watching characters come to life without thinking “I wonder how the robotics work under that plastic skin?” I grasped the simple pleasure of gently bounding off another “victim” in slow-moving bumper cars, understood the simple thrill of being able to ride a merry-go-round horse all by yourself for the first time. We stayed that last hour on Wednesday night because both of us, in at least equal parts, didn’t want it to end. We wanted to stay, to keep spinning and soaring and riding and seeing and sharing.

As we walked out to the snap of lights being shut off and rattle of chains being drawn across line entrances, Callie’s little bottom lip protruded and her soft eyebrows arced up and inward. “Daddy,” she said so softly I had to stop the stroller, lean down to hear, “I’m sad. I don’t want to go.”

I tried to force a brave smile. “I know, baby,” I said, “I don’t either.”

And at last I got it. Finally it was clear that I hadn’t needed to worry about making sure Callie loved Disneyland, that there was no need to go to extra lengths to expose her to everything the park had to offer. I wasn’t opening her eyes to anything at all. I wasn’t her guide. She was mine. This tiny three year-old, with sweetness and exuberance I’d long, long ago forgotten, re-introduced me to the place I’d been a dozen or more times, a place I’d sworn I knew inside and out, a place I was sure I fully understood. And she showed me I didn’t know it at all. I wanted to thank her, to hug her, to pay the price to push our flight back and buy one more day’s worth of tickets. Anything to keep it going, to retain that exact moment. But you can’t force the magic to happen, and it was time to apply the lesson my daughter had so effortlessly taught me.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” I said, feeling a last smile on my sore cheeks, “we’ll come back.”

She considered this for a moment, looking off at the near horizon and seeing the lights behind Mickey Mouse’s visage on the Paradise Pier ferris wheel. Her lip tucked itself back in and she smiled at me, the hint of tears still shining just so in her eyes, no longer needed but still lingering with the understanding that this small chapter was bittersweetly closing. “We’ll come back,” I said again, touching her hair.

“Yay!” she said, with all the genuine optimism only a small child can muster.

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