The house I grew up in is about forty miles from Disneyland. An hour’s drive or so, depending on traffic. And every year when I was a kid, we took that drive and spent one day at what claimed to be the Happiest Place on Earth. My sisters and I knew all the landmarks, once we started getting close. I remember the year they had the big notice about the start of the Disney Channel and my mom’s decision that we would subscribe. (It was a pay station at the time!) My junior high school marching band and the community orchestra I was in for two years both did Magic Music Days. Grad Night was at Disneyland, my senior year in high school. I spent my childhood as a regular Disney visitor—to the point that it’s my first thought for vacation—and I grew up to be a Disney devotee.
Actually, the last time I was down there for a visit longer than overnight, my aunt, with whom my partner and I stayed, thought it was a little strange that we were planning to spend as long at the park as we were. She couldn’t imagine what we’d do for a week at Disneyland. But the fact is, I could do it again, and happily. Is Disneyland really the Happiest Place on Earth? Depends on your tastes, I’m sure—for one thing, the only place in the park you can get alcohol is a place I’ve never been, because I don’t know any Club 33 members. (I feel like it’s the least they should do for my friends Chris and Ariel, but they didn’t even get lifetime passes out of having their kid get measles there.) On the other hand, I’m never surprised when friends turn out to be annual passholders.
Would I be one if I were down there? Hard to say; the cheapest annual pass is currently $400 or so. But one thing that Disney does for me and one place it’s happy for me is that it brings me back to my own childhood. I don’t have a lot of pictures of myself from Disneyland; my dad was the photographer of the family, and I don’t think we even brought a camera most years after he died. But I can still tell you a lot of details about those long-ago visits, and I suspect my sisters could as well.
We got up fairly early—well, Mom always does, but my sisters and I were not by nature early risers, especially since the family trip was generally in August or September. (Apparently, the year my younger sister was born, my mother decided that the Fourth of July would be a good day to go, and picturing dealing with Independence Day Disney crowds in LA heat while seven months pregnant is not fun.) But we’d get there as close to opening as we could, generally. We’d be allowed to pick out a pin with a character on it, as I recall, and we generally got mouse ears—the excitement of watching your name sewn on a hat is hard to express, especially since it was about the only way we’d ever get personalized stuff, except Elizabeth.
Dad was really into trains; even after he died, family tradition held that the first thing we’d do would be ride the train. Sometimes all the way around; sometimes, just deeper into the park. I remember getting mouse-ear pancakes in Frontierland for breakfast sometimes, and I remember that there was a mint julep-like drink available at New Orleans Square that I really liked despite not being a huge mint fan. We’d check out the windows of the Emporium and what movie was on display this time.
I remember the New Fantasyland of 1983—the first Disney trip after my dad died, actually, so there was something interesting about seeing things Dad, himself a Disney fan, had never seen. I remember being impressed with the new look, but my memories of the old Fantasyland are so sketchy that I can’t be really specific about it. Except Dumbo; I remember being really pleased with that.
Dad liked Autopia, so we went on that, often one of the first things. But I also have a fond memory of riding the Motor Boat Cruise, which I liked better. I remember the Autopia cars being awfully fiddly and unsatisfying, to be honest. Mom likes the Jungle Cruise and laughs so much that other passengers have assumed she’s the mom, or by now grandmother, of the skipper. I don’t think it’s still there, but there was a Pendleton wool shop that my mom really liked in Frontierland.
Dad used to ditch us to go on Space Mountain, and the last visit before he died, he tried taking me and Elaine on Big Thunder Mountain. We didn’t like it. He and Mom loved the Haunted Mansion, and for many years I did not. I know I went on Adventures Thru Inner Space once, and I remember Dad being there for that, but I don’t know if that was another “ditch us” for it ride or one I only actually remember once. I didn’t like the drop on Pirates, but I liked the rest of it so much that I dealt with it.
And, too, we went on the slow rides—not just the Fantasyland dark rides but the Peoplemover and the Skyway. The Peoplemover was a nice, cool rest in the dark, and the Skyway was the best way to see everything. Even better than the train. Though it was still weird that there was a line; the line for the Monorail at least made sense, because you could only get on the Monorail when it was in the station. We would always climb up Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and sometimes the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. And CircleVision was not fun to stand through but fun to watch. And Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln even had seats!
Sometimes, we’d go for a sail around the Rivers of America on the Columbia or the Mark Twain. Or we’d take a keel boat to Tom Sawyer’s Island. We usually ate at the Hungry Bear Cafe, because of course we did, and then there was always time for the Country Bear Jamboree. Another one that always had a wait because of its nature, really, but also one of the first places to make the wait area interesting.
And then last thing, late at night, would be the Main Street Electrical Parade and the fireworks—as the Jungle Boat skippers said, throwing Tinkerbell off the Matterhorn and trying to shoot her down. Then to the Carnation ice cream parlor for dessert and the Emporium for a treat; we only got one thing on a Disney trip other than maybe mouse ears and a character pin, and that was at the Emporium just before we left; don’t bother asking. Though I suppose if we’d seen something we absolutely couldn’t live without at another store, we might’ve gone back for it, but I don’t remember that it ever came up.
As I got older, there was Star Tours, of course, and the year before I moved away there was Indiana Jones. I even started liking the various roller coasters. There is nothing so exciting to an LA-area teenager of my sort, I think, than roaming the park without parental supervision. My friend Shannon and I would hang out together when we were with the marching band, and I loved it. On Grad Night, eleven of us rode Indiana Jones together, and then my friends wanted to go dancing and I didn’t, so I spent the night in a haze of amusement, riding whatever I wanted to with no one to tell me otherwise. The skipper let another kid steer the boat, and I walked out of Space Mountain as the sun was coming up; I bought a stuffed Maleficent on Main Street that I own to this day.
I mean, I also remember seeing Cinderella in the theatre when I was probably four, in its 1981 rerelease. The first movie I remember seeing, in fact, where I had to sit still in a theatre and behave; mostly, we went to drive-ins. Pretty sure I saw The Fox and the Hound in the theatre that year, too, the first Disney movie I would’ve seen in its initial release. If it wasn’t, it was The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. We had the Disney Channel pretty much from day one—and so is it any wonder that I got Disney+ from day one as well? After all these fond memories, who wouldn’t love Disney enough to write this column?