When I was a kid and we were broke, I’d go to the local travel agent in our mini-mall and gather as many maps and brochures of Disneyland as I could carry.
“They’re for my mom,” I’d lie, “We’re thinking about maybe making a trip.”
Long before the Internet and interactive maps and access to countless pictures and videos, I’d hurry home and unfold the maps on the couch, spending whole afternoons planning trips, making routes to the best rides and imagining what it must be like to stay in one of the fancy resort hotels. I’d worry the papers until they grew white with crease lines and eventually rip. Years later, it’s not difficult to pinpoint the reasoning behind these exercises in escapism. My brother had just died. My dad had left. We had visited Disneyland once or twice as a family before all that, and I have vague memories of the trips: the endless walking, the whispers of darkness inside Space Mountain, the lines for Big Thunder Railroad. At 15, when I was apparently desperate to hold on to my virginity, my mom saved up and took me, and we road everything there was to ride. The idea of a land known as the Happiest Place on Earth must have struck some internal chord, some electric deep root riddled with fairies and magic and, most likely and more clinically, one more day of childhood.
We woke Emmeline up casually, having never told her about the trip.
“What do you want to do today?” we asked.
“I dunno,” she said, “Why are you both in here anyway?”
“How about we go to Disneyland?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
Until we got on the plane, she thought we were tricking her.
“I feel like crying,” she said.
We never really talked about Disneyland with her. I found it odd that a place she had never visited and only heard of from friends could evoke this longing.
All she wanted to do was ride the Dumbo ride. She had seen it at some point, I don’t remember how or when, and all she could talk about the whole way there was Dumbo. She danced in the line and fidgeted as we drew near.
“That was great!” she giggled afterward.
We made a bee line for the Pinocchio ride afterward, having completely forgotten how dark and foreboding these Fantasyland rides are. Things jump out. Creatures wail. Most kids have a great time, embracing these minor thrills. When the ride was over, Emme was near catatonic. On every ride afterward, she gripped our hands.
“Will you hold me if it’s dark?”
Dana and I had to split up if we wanted to ride something scary. One of us would take Emme to It’s a Small World or something equally as soothing, and the other would hop on as many scary rides as possible. I jumped at the chance to ride the Haunted Mansion when the line had no wait time at all. But nothing makes you feel like a pedophile like riding the Snow White ride by yourself at 11 p.m. when it’s just tired parents and wide-eyed, keyed-up children.
How did people visit theme parks before cell phones and texting? “Meet me here at 2 o’clock” seemed like a line out of the Brady Bunch, when really that was probably how people did it until just 15 years ago, maybe less.
“We’re at tea cups. Meet there.”
“Wait! No line at Dumbo. Hurry!”
You would not believe the freak outs we witnessed. By kids and by parents. I saw a mom wrench her daughter’s neck and push her into a wall. We were in Toon Town. Dana saw a dad make a younger sibling spank an older sibling for some infraction. The kids, by and large, seemed well behaved, while parents pushing 500-pound strollers in 80-degree weather clearly needed a nap.
A friend gave us some great advice. If you’re going to stay for a couple days, take advantage of the hotel pool. Leave the park when you’re tired, knowing you could easily go back, and spend the afternoon lounging and swimming. It was a life saver.
The Fast Pass has to be the greatest invention Disney has ever imagineered up. I’d see these snaking lines thousands of people deep and think, “Suckers.” Fools, more like it. Everyone there has access to Fast Pass. You simply slip in your card and it gives you a time to come back when you can take advantage of a separate, faster line. On some rides, even if the wait time was more than an hour, we’d slip in after a five-minute wait, if that. I couldn’t figure out why someone would willingly wait in a 90-minute line when they could just come back. At the end of the day, we started giving out unused Fast Passes to people in the long lines, knowing we wouldn’t have time to get to them. But having ridden them twice already, thanks to the Fast Pass, we didn’t care.
I always liked wandering Main Street and New Orleans Square best — these neat, orderly, clean little places that were nothing like the turbulent world outside. While we were there, the stock market made like a roller coaster and left us whispering fearfully at night, after Emme slipped into sleep.
I still love Tomorrowland, even if the vision of the future is old as soon as an exhibit opens. The Dream House was the only downside. It was full of gadgets and coffee table-sized iPhones. The Dream Houses of yesteryear were all about architecture and materials. Now everything has a screen.
There were a lot of things we never got to do, such as riding the Mark Twain river boat. It seemed like too much, for all the running around we were already doing. Even after three days there, I could count more than a dozen things we didn’t do. And was still incredibly happy.
We took full advantage of iPhone apps that told you how long the waits were at rides. One even included a map that you could zoom in and out on. It told you wait times and gave mini reviews of restaurants. When Dana and I visited as a young, single, unmarried couple 10 years ago, I remember our map was folded, tattered, drenched in butt sweat and corn dog grease after a day at the park. This was much better, this lack of butt sweat. But there is also something to be said for wandering, for aimless walking without regard to wait times or ride plans. That’s how I found Club 33, an exclusive, members-only Disneyland speakeasy that is the only place you can buy a stiff drink inside the park. Even if I was still drinking, however, it would have to be a pretty fancy cocktail to make up for $10,000 in initiation fees.
We rode Small World every day, many times a day. It was the only ride Emme was really comfortable in. Despite the fact that she had seen all the kids and animals more than a dozen times during our stay, I could still sneak a peek at her and watch as she mouthed the words to the song. Every once in a while, she’d feel the spirit move her and she would suddenly clap and then wave both hands, as if she’d been spooked by some notion of joy. She waved at the dragon at the beginning as if he was a friend, and she pointed out all the tiny things I never would have spotted: Tinker Bell flying quietly above, Jiminy Cricket peering from a window.
From time to time, we’d try to get her on a more daring ride. She rode Space Mountain and said she liked it, although she declined a second ride. She rode Big Thunder Mountain four times one day but then wanted to hurry back to Small World. Except for that ride, she probably considered Disneyland the scariest place on earth.
We got held up by a parade once on the way to the ride. We tried to avoid the parades whenever possible, thinking all those schmucks sitting on the sidewalk were wasting their time while good rides were free of people. But one day we physically couldn’t get to Small World and had to wait it out in the sun.
“Did you see that?” Emme asked suddenly, “Pick me up, pick me up!”
I carried her in my arms as Ariel the Little Mermaid went by, twirling her hair and waving.
“She waved at me!” Emme shouted, “Right at me!”
By the time we made it to the Small World, she was tired and smelled like sweat and sunscreen and cotton candy and chlorine. She scooted close to me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I could feel her burning head hit my shoulder.
“I’m not napping,” she whispered.
But I saw her wave to her friend the dragon and then close her eyes. I fought an urge to pull out my phone to see which rides were nearby and what their wait times were. Instead I closed my eyes too and thought about what place can sometimes do for you, or to you, and how wonderful it is to feel tiny arms around you, like deep roots riddled with magic.