Today marks the 57th birthday of The Happiest Place on Earth. What a brilliant tagline. Walt Disney was pretty good at that. Branding. He was good at many things and while there are many who fault him for this or that, I can’t help but admire the guy. Through the desire to create and innovate he developed, well, the happiest place on earth. There may be things wrong with the Disney company. It is one of the largest corporations in the world. What large corporation is perfect? (are you reading this on your iPhone?) I won’t focus today on what Disney could do better, though I’m sure there is a list. Today I focus on what Disney does better than anyone else.
If you have followed my writing at all you must know that I am a bonified Disney nerd. Why? Why do I like it? I’m sure many of my friends and family wonder that. Why do I like something that is ultimately made for kids? I’ve never really been able to articulate a proper answer to that question. Why do I love Disney and specifically Disneyland so much? Sure there’s the obvious answer. It’s a theme park. It is by definition a place to have fun. There are rides. There is junk food. Six Flags has those things too. As does Universal Studios. So what makes Disneyland special? I shall try to put it into words.
Passion, love and ideas are the driving force of life but they aren’t worth anything if one can’t find a way to communicate them. This is what art is for. This is what literature is for. Heck, this is what science is for. (Carl Sagan communicates more passion through his study of the cosmos than I read in most plays or hear in most songs). I admire deeply the masters who can articulate exactly how and why they feel something. Whatever the feeling is, doesn’t matter, if what they communicate makes me understand them, I’m on board. I’m moved. I admire that ability greatly perhaps because I count myself bad at it. I’m an actor. I need other writer’s words to be able to communicate my passion. I just finished playing Mary Warren in The Crucible. My favorite role to date. Mary Warren told my story more than I could have told it on my own. I’m grateful to Arthur Miller for writing it. So what am I getting at here? I’m trying to build up the courage to explain why I love Disneyland so much and prefacing it by saying that I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Yet, I think there’s something in my love for the place that goes beyond the place itself. I want to share it. So here goes. For its birthday I bestow upon the Mouse House a humble gift, a love letter to Disneyland. I don’t have the skill to compose a song about it. I don’t have the skill to paint it. I don’t have the money to make a movie about it. But I can write. I can write about it and hopefully you will read it, and you will look for your own Disneyland in life. Your own place that elicits imagination and possibility. Here goes…
I don’t remember my first trip to Disneyland. I believe I was 5. I know it was a big trip with aunts and uncles and grandparents. I know we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel. I know we made the obligatory day trip over to Knott’s Berry Farm and counted the hours until we went back to Disneyland. These are things I’ve been told about the trip. They are not things I remember. I have a vague memory of feelings. Can you remember feelings? I think so, but not until you feel them again. That’s when you’re reminded that you’ve felt them before. When the familiarity strikes you like lightning. This, I believe, this mingling of faint memories to emotions is what ultimately made Disneyland a mythical place in my life.
About 5 years after that first trip, we started planning another with my brother, my mom, and our family friend Erin (a fellow lifelong Disney fan). My brother gets excited about things. Really excited. Perhaps obsessive. Especially as a kid. Perhaps only as a kid actually. I haven’t seen the same level of unbridled frantic joy about anything since those years. When he visits me in L.A. I always ask him if he wants to go to Disneyland in the hopes that I’ll rekindle some of that fire in him. It doesn’t really work. He’s grown out of it, I think by choice. Or maybe he really is, just, over it. Nowadays he just makes fun of me, for I have chosen not to grow out of it. And I think I’m the better for it.
In the weeks leading up to our trip down south, we would get home from school every day and watch Disney Sing-a-Long: Disneyland Fun
When I say repeat, I mean, literally, repeat. A couple of times a day, every day, for several weeks. So here is my first point of analysis. Why did this excite me so? Why did I love this video so much and why did I get more excited about this trip to Disneyland than I did about a new Barbie, or a trip to the State Fair, or Knott’s Berry Farm. It must have been those cloudy feelings that I couldn’t put images to from when I was 5. I think my 10 year old self yearned to remember what it was that made me so deliriously happy. There was mystery in it and that intrigued me. I couldn’t wait to get there, and to remember.
I won’t go through the details of this trip to Disneyland. It would take me the entire chapter of a book let alone a simple page on a blog. I will say this. It was the trip. You know which one I’m talking about Disney fans. You all have one. That one trip that cements your status as a Disney nerd forever. You can repress it for the rest of your life but once you’ve had that special trip, somewhere within you there will always be a little kid who wants to go to Disneyland. You can let that little kid come out once in awhile, or you can bury it. I let mine out quite frequently.
I was thinking a few weeks ago about how there is something inherently sad about being a Disneyland fan. Let me explain. I can’t remember being as in awe of anything as a child as I was when I first stepped foot back on Main Street. I’ve had more awestruck moments as an adult. Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Looking at the Sistine Chapel for the first time. Hearing Brad say “I’m falling in love with you” for the first time. These awe struck moments are treasured; but of my childhood memories that moment on Main Street takes the cake. We walked through the gates. “Here you leave today, and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” It was a perfect place. I could dream there about anything and everything and there would be no limit to my imagination. What more could a kid ask for?
Have you ever been to a place, or had a dream about a place, that felt so familiar yet you had no memory of it. Every time I turned a corner I uncovered something about the park that felt so familiar to me and brought back a flood of happy feelings, yet I couldn’t place them so I still enjoyed the place as if I was discovering it for the first time. In that way this trip was better than the first, for how many times in life do you get to rediscover something you love as if for the first time? You get one first love, one first kiss, one first trip to Disneyland. Not me, I felt like I got two. Going back to my previous comment, why is this sad? Because I can never get that back. I think many Disney fans spend lots of time in the parks waxing poetic about their previous experiences there, feeling nostalgic, and trying to reclaim that feeling of being 10 and like you’d just stepped into heaven. But you never can. As much as I love going to Disneyland to this day, obviously, it will never be like that again. Even if I didn’t go for the next 10 years and tried to forget everything, it wouldn’t be like that. I know almost every nook and cranny in that park. I will never again turn a corner and not know what I will find. I will never be in awe of Fantasmic like I was for the first time. I will never get the same giddy bubbles in my heart when I’m driving down the 5 and see the Matterhorn poking up next to the freeway. I will never be 10 years old and be allowed to express that kind of unbridled excitement. There is something sad about growing up. Going to Disneyland now is both a bittersweet reminder of that fact as well as a welcome allowance to get back in touch with the wide-eyed little girl I once was.
There are ways to deal with this inherently sad aspect of being heartsick for a child’s view of Disneyland. You become an annual passholder like me and go three or four times a year to try and capture a fleeting moment of that joyful nostalgia, and in the other 59 seconds of every minute you enjoy a new kind of Disneyland experience; one where you know every window on Main Street and know what the light in the window of the firehouse stands for. Or you don’t really go anymore but you hold on to the memories of loving the place as a kid. Or you go there once maybe every 5-10 years if you’re invited by a group of friends or an event of some sort. Or you bury that child within you and try to focus on being an adult. Adults don’t go to Disneyland. Adults don’t play with toys. Adults don’t get nostalgic. Adults move forward. Or, you never liked Disneyland in the first place, in which case, I hope you have some place or some thing from your childhood that was the equivalent.
What else is it? It must be more than just memories that make a place special? And why DO kids like it so much? I asked my brother that one time and he answered with this, “Because it’s theatre. Disneyland is theatre.” And that’s exactly it. The theatre is a place of dreams and ideas and fantasy reflecting off of reality. Everything in Disneyland is fake, and I know this is what turns a lot of people off of it. It’s what turns me on. It’s the most elaborate theatrical set I have ever seen. Every cobblestone on the street, every boulder, every door, every piece of music playing in the background is all part of an elaborate artistic design to tell a story. Many stories actually. Many stories that make up one story, the story of Disneyland. I mean how incredible is that? In real theatres, we get one stage (Most of the time anyway. I once went to a play in London that took place in the underground tunnel system and we walked through several tunnels to see the play, but that’s rare.) Most of the time, you get one stage, and you get the best set designer possible to bring your little empty space to life. Disneyland is an entire LAND. You get to look at it up close and inspect it. You get to pretend you’re part of the fantasy. It’s immersive theatre, and it’s done well. It’s sensory. Every sense. Not enough can be said about the execution of this theatrical experience. I’m an annual passholder. I go to the park about 4 times a year. I’ve been going since I was 5. I always discover some new small detail I never noticed before. Even if you don’t like the “play” itself, you have to appreciate the artistic execution.
On top of everything and maybe most of all, I’m a dreamer. I have passionate dreams for this world and my place in it. Life is hard and drags down these dreams often. When I’m in Disneyland, it welcomes them. Disneyland fulfills a fantasy and a dreamer’s sensibility at every stage of her life. When I was young, the fantasies were imaginative. I was a princess, I was a dragon, I was fighting off snakes with Indiana Jones (who am I kidding? I still fantasize about that). When I was a tween, I fantasized about being independent and going places with my friends. When I was a teenager and finally went to Disneyland just with my friends, I fantasized about being in love, and going to Disneyland with a boy. Now I go to Disneyland with a boy, and we hold hands and watch the fireworks. Now I’ve started to fantasize about one day going to Disneyland with my kids. (Don’t worry sweetie, not quite yet). One day I hope to fantasize about going to Disneyland with their kids. Disneyland makes me interested in storytelling. It makes me interested in people. It makes me interested in history. It sparks creativity. Everything I’ve ever dreamt about accomplishing in life I would love to celebrate in Disneyland. Love, marriage, kids, career, family. I want it all, and I want to celebrate in the land. Because it’s there that we can let our freak flags fly. It’s there that we don’t have to worry about anyone telling us we can’t. Or anyone telling us we look stupid, or aren’t right, or aren’t being realistic. How many places can you go and find dozens of Monday thru Friday Executive types wearing Mickey Mouse ears? How many places in the world do you go where thousands of people all at once are full of joy, love, and excitement? How many places in the world do you go where thousands of people squeezed next to each other are all happy? There’s something to be said about that.
Disneyland started from an idea Walt had one day while watching his daughters on the merry-go-round at Griffith Park. He imagined a place where parents could take their children, and enjoy the day just as much as they would. Reeeeally enjoy it. Not just fake enjoy it because the kids are occupied and having fun. Disneyland is not just a place for kids. It’s a place for people who need to remember what it’s like to be a kid. What it’s like to dream, and to let the sky be limitless. After all, “Adults are only kids grown up.” -WD-
I’m certain that Disneyland does not and could not mean this to everyone, but this is what it means to me. If you don’t have a Disneyland, find one. It may be a book, or a song, or a city, or a park, or a toy. Hold on to what made you joyful as a child, for chances are the same will make you joyful today. And it will be a pure joy, full of possibility. So after 57 years of making billions of people all over the world smile, thank you. Happy birthday Disneyland.