I don't remember my first Disney experience. I rode
through this rite of childhood in a baby carrier on my
dad's back, gurgling and snug. A big hairy head
blotted out most of the Magic Kingdom; the
occasional white-gloved, honk-nosed Disney character
pranced along the periphery.
So if I couldn't really appreciate it, why were we
there? My parents wanted to go. They were both 27 at
the time -- young Angelenos; I was 3 months old.
It was June 1969 and the wonderful world of Disney
consisted of a single theme park -- Disneyland -- just
down the road in Anaheim. It was a day trip, a quick
jaunt. An easy invitation to act like a kid -- even if you weremarried and a new parent.
My mom's favorite ride was the Mad Tea Party, so that was our always our first
stop. You sit in enormous teacups that whirl violently
around and if you really want to make yourself sick,
there's a wheel in the middle you can turn that will
spin you even more. When I got a little older, my mom
took me on that ride and I almost threw up. She sat
across from me in the cup, laughing like crazy.
To me, Disneyland was the neighborhood theme park. Even after we moved overseas, to countries where Disney didn't own every child's imagination, I visited Disneyland every year, during our trips back to the States. This was in the '70s, when Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy were the mainstays of the park. The place was a palace of '50s nostalgia by then; Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were already historic relics. Nothing ever seemed to change or to need updating -- not the rainbow-colored construction-paper flowers of It's a Small World nor the fake hairy pirate's leg dangling over your head as you sailed through the archway in Pirates of the Caribbean.
As an adult, it's this sameness that pulls me through Disney's gates. I know which rides I want to go on and that I'll want a piece of peanut-butter-chocolate fudge. I'm still awed by the parade, teeming with characters from my childhood. But when I look around, I see the kids clamoring for the more recent characters: Mulan, Pocahontas, Tarzan. As soon as a new movie is released, its animated stars appear on Main Street, in Disney stores, on Broadway. Kids sing Disney theme songs ad nauseam and beg for the latest stuffed toy or action figure
It's this commercialized fanfare that makes parents dread the trek to Disney these days. Add in the cost of expensive daily passes and the prospect of hyper kids running amuck among the stockinged legs of big-headed make-believe characters and you've got a ripe situation for short fuses to blow. A perfect excuse to skip Disney altogether.
So don't go. Especially if you're going to blow. Last
time I visited Disney World, in Florida, was in May, and I saw
a terrible thing, a very un-Disney thing. It was a
hot, humid day, steaming and brilliant. I was standing
in line at the snack bar, deciding between the Donald
Duck orange ice pop or the Mickey Mouse-eared
chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream stick, when I
heard a sharp voice behind me. A mother was
reprimanding her young daughter for dropping a soda.
Nothing spilled, since the bottle hadn't been opened
yet. The child was startled, wide-eyed and silent. She
bent down to pick up the soda, her mother's words
still fierce. I was shocked. "That's wrong," I said
rather loudly to no one in particular. "This is Disney
World. You can't get mad at kids here."
The woman heard me and looked up, surprised, maybe
even embarrassed. I was a little embarrassed myself.
After all, I was being a busybody, casting aspersions
on a sweaty, frustrated woman who was probably
consumed with far deeper issues than a dropped soda.
Still, I didn't want her messing with my -- or her daughter's -- memories of Disney. This was supposed to be a place where parents chill out, reveling in their
children's joy, and kids run around like lunatics,
magically protected from pedophiles, injury, food
poisoning and kidnapping; a place where no one ever
gets lost without being found.
I figured this cranky mom was an aberration. But when
I told my tale to a colleague, she matched it with a
disturbing story of her own. During her visit to
Disney with her two young sons, they went to one of
the must-attend Disney character breakfasts.
Anticipating the arrival of Mickey and friends, one
child became overly excited. When the
characters finally arrived, he bum-rushed them, giddy
and wild. Unable to keep him under control, his mom
trussed him up in one of those child-leashes, the ones
with a harness and plastic coiled lead. I can just
imagine this poor kid, arms flailing as he's snapped
back by the leash, just out of reach of Simba or
Ariel, maybe even Mickey himself, hot tears spilling
down his puffy toddler cheeks, wailing. That'll be a
whopper of a Disney memory someday, one for the
These days, the worst-behaved
people at Disney theme parks are the adults.
Maybe they're pissed they had to shell out all that
cash or that they gave in to their kids' whining in
the first place. But maybe it's something more than being
forced to consume. Disney is a kid-centric universe. Real
world rules don't apply: Kids feel empowered, but adults may feel debilitated. To
me, the greatest thing about Disneyland was that I
could choose the rides I wanted to go and go on them
as many times as I wanted. Nobody stopped me. No one
said no. As adults, we look for instructions,
guidelines, advice. Someone to tell us how things are
supposed to be done. Apart from the Kodak photo-opportunity signs instructing you to point and shoot
and the occasional warnings that pregnant women should
avoid certain rides, Disney is rule-free. Even if you've read all the guidebooks and planned for the perfect Disney experience, there's no telling what your kids might decide they want to do.
A friend of mine calls Disney World a freedom zone,
one of those places where kids wrest free of the adult
world and experience an independence that breeds
imagination and responsibility. He recalls visiting
Disney World when he was 11. The highlight of his trip
was driving a mini-speedboat by himself in one of the
lagoons. "I remember what it was like when the adult
world let me go, totally, at young ages like that," he
said. "I could really take my world into my own
hands." He assured me that as soon as he recovers
from all the "corporate patriotic programming" Disney
lodged in his brain at the time, he'll go
back and ride those speedboats again.
When I asked my friends, all around 30 now, to tell me
their Disney memories, most of them gushed: a first
kiss in the Haunted Mansion; a chance meeting with
Cher and Chastity Bono on the Dumbo the Flying
Elephant ride; getting high while sailing through the
Pirates of the Caribbean; hiding out in Sleeping
Beauty's castle. These experiences remind them that
freedom is as much the domain of adults as it is
children. Disney lets adults do grownup things -- with the playfulness of kids.
So the only way to really enjoy Disney as an
adult is to be like a kid. For me, it's the nostalgia
of the place that lets me let go. In this Never-Never
Land, I am a princess and my biggest issue is deciding
whether to eat the filet mignon (hot dog) or the
polenta (nachos). I don't have to ponder the merits of
kissing frogs (men) or battle an evil sorceress
(boss). On the stroke of midnight all my dreams will
still be intact (no deadlines) and when I'm ready to
go home, I'll leave the same way I came -- in a
beautiful glass coach (beat up Integra).
Being an adult has its advantages. Going to Disneyland is one of them.