Just a few weeks from now, I’ll be strolling through my happiest place on earth—which, coincidentally, happens to be The Happiest Place on Earth.
It’s never easy to come out of the closet as a 46-year-old Disneyland junkie. The assumption is that, once someone has reached a certain age, the Magic Kingdom becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. You do it for the children or grandchildren, perhaps, gritting your teeth all the while, but you certainly can’t find the experience enjoyable. Such an admission carries with it a variety of other assumptions about one’s maturity, sanity or maybe just plain creepiness.
Yet, there it is: I adore Disneyland. I loved it as a kid growing up in California, visiting regularly thanks to an aunt and uncle who lived nearby in Orange County. I loved it as a high-school senior experiencing the all-night teen experience known as Grad Night (including a performance by the John Doe/Exene Cervenka/Billy Zoom/DJ Bonebrake incarnation of X). I loved it as a young adult, visiting with the lovely lady who would eventually be my wife. And I loved it when taking my own kids for the first time a decade later. From the nervous childhood energy of my first roller-coaster experience on the Matterhorn to taking pictures of my children with Mickey Mouse, it has never, ever ceased to enthrall me.
By all logic, this should not be the case. Those who know me well can attest to the fact that there are few things I hate more than being in massive crowds, and that one of those few things is waiting in lines. The Disneyland experience that infuriates so many visitors appears to have been designed on a dare to create the kind of day that, under almost any other circumstances, I would do everything in my power to avoid.
Instead, it has become a slightly obsessive facet of my personality. The end of one visit—my last was in 2011—generally finds me lamenting how long it will be until I’ll have another opportunity. Dreams crawl into my head at night about days at the park. This current planned trip even became reality because, as my wife went through a search for a full-time job, she promised we could go to Disneyland if and when she got hired. And no, I’m not ashamed that such an anecdote makes me sound vaguely like a 6-year-old; I also agreed to move from California to Utah only if my wife promised that I could have a puppy. (True story.)
It would be easy enough to attribute my love of Disneyland to simple nostalgia—an attempt to re-create gleeful childhood days with my brother and cousins, or the rite-of-passage feeling in adolescence of being allowed at last to head out to our favorite rides on our own (this before anyone could stay in touch with a cell phone). Indeed, it would be silly not to acknowledge there’s at least a little of that going on, even as the park has evolved and expanded to something radically different from the way it looked in my 1970s childhood—ditching the old-school lettered ticket books and adding the California Adventure sister park on the spot where I once remember my mother pointing out which Disney character silhouette marked our parking spot.
But I think there’s something more fundamental going on, something that has never happened in trips to other amusement parks, from California’s Magic Mountain to Utah’s own Lagoon. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve appreciated the way Walt Disney planned his park as a thoroughly immersive experience, with the entire outside world shut off from view. Those infamous waiting lines have, over the years, become even more a part of the visitor experience, full of charming details and supplemental information to enhance the “story” of the rides. It’s not about any particular connection I feel to the Disney characters; it’s about a connection I feel simply to being where I am, and the experience I’m having in that moment, with nothing intruding.
That’s another part of the great counter-intuitive mystery of my feelings about Disneyland. Where reluctant visitors find themselves focusing on the frustrations of elbow-to-elbow humanity, I notice myself feeling more relaxed; where so many others simply see a corporation cashing in on its beloved movies, I find myself freed from the cynicism that invades my thinking the other 362 days of the year. Even the days—OK, fine, weeks—that I spend charting our family’s specific plan of action through the park become part of the fun. The places in modern life where one’s mind can find sanctuary and joy are rare, and utterly unique to every person—from isolated wilderness areas to experiences with the arts to religious services
or meditation. They’re too rare not to embrace, wherever you find them. Even on Space Mountain.
So, this year, I’ll be joining Utah’s annual October exodus toward Anaheim, as the annual four-day UEA weekend break for the state’s schoolchildren offers a rare off-season getaway opportunity. I’ll enjoy a couple of brand-new-to-me rides and the pleasure of my family’s company. And I’ll revel in a few days that I won’t be experiencing ironically, or grudgingly, or with an expectation of perfection. There, in the midst of 30,000 or so fellow travelers, I’ll be at peace—remaining in the moment until my swirling everyday mind has come to a full and complete stop.