This past week, my thoughts have turned to Orange County, California, and my first visit to Disneyland. Reason is simple; family is there enjoying a much deserved vacation. The sun still is shining, temperatures are in the 60’s, and Mr. Disney’s magic kingdom remains the happiest place on Earth. I appreciate fifty-eight years of continuity. In a world where someone fooled the populace into believing constant change is not only necessary, but good for us, Disneyland has steadfastly stood as a bastion of consistency, even with expansions and renovations, a familiar and unchanged beacon to that which resides in all of us, our innocence and youth.
In the fall of 1955, I recall watching the Mickey Mouse Club every afternoon after school, and seeing this brand new, incredible theme park, called Disneyland, advertised as the greatest place a family would ever experience. It had opened in July, and nothing before had struck me as attractive and appealing as this wonderland where past, present and future all met and coexisted in a gorgeous, sunny park where people looked so happy just to be there. I was hooked. No doubt about it, nothing occupied my thoughts and dreams more than getting to Disneyland.
Keeping in mind I was an eight year old true believer in all things possible, I put into action my two strongest skills. First: Wishing on a bale of hay. Yes, a bale of hay. When one grows up in an agricultural area, seeing truckloads carrying bales of hay is a common, everyday experience. My grandmother taught me early on never to waste opportunities to achieve life fulfillment, and bales of hay, for reasons that still elude me, had the ability to provide said fulfillment. She explained, on one of our many car rides, all that was necessary for the hay bale protocol to succeed was to follow a simple rule, that being…Bale of hay, bale of hay, make a wish, and look away. Easy. As I rode my bike to school each morning, I more often than not, was passed by a truck carrying baled hay. As it approached, I began my mantra, and right at the passing moment, I wished with all my might to go to Disneyland. And, I never looked over my shoulder after the wish was made. No, I looked straight ahead, peddling on to school, knowing my super wishing power had been unleashed into the universe, and I was going to get to the magic kingdom. Second: Wishing upon the first star of the evening. I faithfully stood at my bedroom window every single night, waiting and watching with an eagle eye for that first starry twinkle, whereupon I immediately recited…Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight, followed by my fervent wish to go to Disneyland. It was so simple back then, and interestingly, those wishes never failed me. Not one time.
So it was, dreams did come true; the following June my family loaded up our 1956 Ford, and headed down Highway 99 to Southern California and Disneyland, the mecca of all childhood fantasy and fun. I was beside myself with excitement, and exhilarated at the prospect of a three hundred mile road trip.
On today’s highways, the trip from my valley town to Anaheim should take around five to seven hours, depending more on traffic than road conditions. However, in the 50’s, Highway 99 was a two lane road in either north or south directions, separated by huge oleanders, and bordered by fragrant eucalyptus trees. A straight shot down the San Joaquin Valley, it should have been an easy drive. However, with stoplights and stop signs in every little farm town along the way, an occasional tractor chugging down the road from one turnoff to the next, five individuals whose rest stop needs never coincided with anyone else’s in the car, and the necessity of eating something besides candy orange slices or marshmallow peanuts; our journey from Northern California to Southern California took on epic proportions for three kids sandwiched into the back seat, sweating from valley heat in a car with no air conditioning, muscles twitchy from the inability to move, and bored beyond words from the unchanging vista of a flat, brown valley. It took us two days to complete the trip, and all of us were overjoyed and relieved by the time we finally got to Anaheim.
There it was. Surprisingly, the initial impression was not at all as glorious as I expected. I think of all things that struck me as the most incongruous with my vision of a magic kingdom was the parking lot. Of course there was a large parking lot, because people needed to park their vehicles somewhere; I just never factored that into my dream of the place. A field of asphalt filled with cars did not seem right. But, after a few puzzled moments, I took a deep breath and decided the parking lot would be all right, because I was practical, even as a child. I understood the need, and decided to accept this most unmagical and unattractive aspect of the kingdom.
Inside, it was absolutely, inexpressibly beautiful. Then, as now, I easily am overwhelmed by excess. When faced with too much of anything, I become so charged mentally, as well as physically, there is a span where I actually become immobilized and have difficulty making choices until my senses mellow out. That was precisely my reaction to Disneyland. There was so much to see and experience. At first, I had to be guided from place to place, unable to speak, and wide-eyed at everything unfolding before me. With tickets ranging from “A” to “E”, with “E” tickets being the best, I had made it to my dream destination, but was rendered, for a few brief moments, senseless with anticipation. A little time and a little food took care of that, and it was not long before I became fully engaged in the magic kingdom experience.
Main Street was a sight to behold. A lovely, heartwarming, I don’t ever want to leave here sight. I never have forgotten how taken I was, feeling I finally had found where I belonged. Add to that the sheer glory of varied theme lands, each filled with attractions and rides, colorful landscaping, people, characters; I could barely put one foot in front of the other fast enough, I was so excited with dream come true overload.
Fortunately, I have a few photographs from that vacation; nothing that actually captured the bliss of our experience, but rather, here and there, a glimpse into an average 1950’s family touring a magic kingdom in the first year of its existence. There is one of my siblings and me sitting at a table with our mother, drinking from paper cups filled with ice and soda pop; my dad and me in a tea cup from the Mad Hatter Party ride, and a photo of us all gazing into the waters of the Jungle Cruise.
Studying the old black and white pictures, I smiled at how dressed up we were. Everyone in those days wore their Sunday finest to Disneyland; no jeans, no shorts, nothing casual or comfortable. We all looked like we just stepped out of Sunday Services. I smiled at the grin on my dad’s face, happily enjoying the ride, as he and I spun around in an oversized tea cup, illuminating to me at the sweet and tender age of eight, that the child in each of us never goes away, it merely gets buried, if we allow it, by years of toil and care. And I smiled, with mixed feelings, remembering so clearly how the Jungle Cruise guide seemed friendly and knowledgeable, describing in a nonstop authoritative manner all about life on a river in a jungle, then pulling a pistol out of somewhere, and shooting at a curious hippopotamus whose head had peered up from the depths of those dark waters. I was stunned and horrified, but as we passed the hippo, realized it was not real, and felt so relieved no live animal had been shot during that cruise. I also recall whispering to it this was its lucky day as we glided on down the river.
It has been fifty-seven years since my family visited Disneyland that summer in 1956. Even living in Orange County, and visiting the park countless times during that period, has never diminished the wonder and joy I took away from my first time there. And after all these years, I also admit, when visible, I still wish upon that first evening star, I believe dreams do come true, and I will always listen to the child who lives within me, because she sees things so clearly, and knows how to laugh and have fun. Finally, I will never, ever shoot at a curious hippo. My cruise down a jungle river taught me curiosity should never be discouraged or shot at; frequently popping up at the most unexpected times, it observes and listens, merely wanting to understand just what this journey is all about.
Perhaps, just like Disneyland, our innate sense of joy, our ability to experience life with unbridled enthusiasm, and especially, our endless curiosity about it all is the essence of innocence and youth. We must never let those go, or carelessly shoot at them; and an occasional visit back to Disneyland, holding a fistful of tickets, might just be the way to help us remember how important it all is. And even though they no longer are in use at the park, in my heart I want all my rides to be “E” tickets.