It’s said that the hallmark of a good restaurant is that, with every return visit, the quality and taste of your menu favorites never changes. Since its opening days on a former orange grove in 1955, Disneyland has been serving up savory memories that have endured for generations of families.
In the early 1960’s many a post elementary school afternoon was filled with the Mickey Mouse Club on television. Sure, I wanted to be part of the club with Annette, Frankie, Tommy and Jimmy, but it was the vision of a sleek monorail and excitement of whirling tea cups that pumped a bellow of desire across the hot coals of young imagination. By the time I was in ninth grade the announcement from my parents that, my fantasy destiny would be met on a spring break trip to California, was news that put best behavior skills in direct conflict with annoying impatience.
The plan was to arrive at the park in the early evening and the sweet scent of long paved over orange groves floated along the cool spring air and in through the open windows of a rented Oldsmobile, with an annoying tendency to honk the horn when the steering wheel was spun to the right. Shifting in the back seat I could see, rising above the orchards, the jagged peak of the Matterhorn lit in the distance as a beacon of promise for the fantastic adventures that were soon to come.
I think my parents were also excited as the three of us walked briskly across the parking lot, almost skipping to the ticket office. And then, truly the unthinkable, the completely unimaginable happened. . .the park was closed for a special event. How could this be? What sinister plan could ever have been devised to savage a young man’s desire with the effect of performing heart surgery with a chainsaw?
I stood next to my father paralyzed by the implosion of years of desire. It was Orange County Public Workers night and the park was closed to the public. And then, my dad, a World War II vet who would only grudgingly talk of being under Japanese fire in the Aleutian Islands, performed the single bravest, fatherly act worthy of a Congressional Medal of Honor, without missing a beat he said, “I work for Orange County.” And there it was. We were in! And, better yet, instead of the old style tickets for various attractions we were issued wristbands for an all-you-can-eat buffet of every attraction. No lines for repeated rides on the Matterhorn. What a night!
Subsequent trips to Disneyland over the years all had special moments, though none quite as memorable as the first one. There was an evening with a college buddy and a blind date and a make-out session that still makes me smile. Some years later, before we were married, Terry and I had our first “traveling in sin” visit to the park. Then, of course, now married, we returned some years later with our young son Andy. By rough calculation it’s been nearly twenty-five years since our last visit when the parking lot was where the sister park, California Adventure, now stands.
As we walked under the park’s railroad overpass up the slight incline to Main Street I could see that all was well with the Disney brand. And, in sunny southern California where seasonal change is barely noticed, the park looked remarkably autumnal bedecked with Halloween decorations and liberal plantings of orange and red hued mums. On a school day in the middle of October I wondered how all the excused absence notes would be written by doting parents who were patiently standing in line waiting for photo ops with Goofy. In the hierarchy of human maturation, it should be allowed that a day at Disneyland is a reasonable trump over learning fractions or vocabulary building.
Now, with sixty years of planetary existence under my belt, I could see Disneyland through generational eyes. And through that perspective I saw many three generation families with grandma and grandpa sporting shirts to affirm, as if there was little doubt, who they were. I actually did see a customized Disney shirt emblazoned with “Grandpa Don” which made me contemplate a possible future with Andy, now married and with his wife, Brenda, just two weeks into living in their first home. Step one, build a nest. Step two, Disneyland on spring break. With that in mind, I found myself equally captivated by the theatricality of the park and all the high-tech, lightweight strollers.
One of our first stops was at the Tiki Room, which is one of Disney’s oldest attractions. Next to the ear worm of “It’s a Small World,” “In the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room,” really sticks with you. The room was predominately filled with young parents and pre-school children. The young ones sat transfixed as Jose the parrot and his compadres clacked and cackled the timeless songs. I thought to myself that not much had changed, except that the old tape decks driving the mechanical birds and tiki carvings had probably long since been replaced with computers and never-wear-out digital sound files.
There’s two kinds of sensory stimulations that easily provoke memories. One is smell and the other sound. And the bouncy, sunny and fully orchestrated songs in the Tiki Room were the signature “Disney Sound” of the 50’s and 60’s, which lifted the floodgates of wistful golden memories. It was the era of “Mad Men.” God, I could perfectly envision Don Draper sitting across from us in a v-neck golf shirt, his kids enthralled, while unconsciously flipping a pack of Lucky’s around his fingers, he would sit distractedly brooding about a young, shapely, attractive mom he stood in line behind a few minutes earlier. As we walked out of the bazillionth performance of these mechanical birds, I had thoughts of mid-modern furniture and realized how unexpectedly appealing the nostalgia of “mid-century Disney” had become.
The rest of the day progressed as we made our clockwise circle around the the park. A stop at the Haunted Mansion showed that you can teach an old attraction new tricks. Cleverly, drawing upon Tim Burton’s film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” the Disney designers have created a seasonal mashup that runs from October to December. While entertaining, we felt that the design storyline softened the “haunting” feeling of the mansion, but that’s a minor quibble for what remains an impressive attraction.
New to us were the areas for younger kids at Big Thunder Ranch with a petting zoo complete with post-goat-petting outdoor hand washing tubs (brilliant!), and a delightful performance venue for music, magic and demonstration shows. Mickey’s Toontown carved the dimensionality of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” into real life with plenty of do-it-yourself slapstick yuks when you opened a certain door or pushed a certain button. We were also pleased, that in the middle of this youngsters fantasy land, good nutritional choices were also front and center.
True to the Disney way, the park remains one of the cleanest places on the planet, and every cast member (employee) we interacted with was attentive, cheerful and helpful. Ahh, if only that Disney magic crossed the street more often into the real world.
Our one letdown was in Tomorrowland, and this one I chalk up to generational shift. In my younger days, Tomorrowland projected an optimistic sense of future possibilities. Today, the old GE Carousel of Progress building now houses an upper level that pushes the company’s Marvel movie brand (Ironman, Thor). Downstairs, was an HP sponsored “home of the future” which, to us seemed a lot like the “home of the now” with mission styled furniture supporting home theaters, Kinect video games, and automated thermostats. What was missing was the patented sense of wonder that Disney excels at. This felt like a design driven by a spreadsheet and not the company’s famous imagineers. However, they do have a 21st century challenge that they didn’t face in the late 20th century in that we’ve become inured to rapid technological change. I’m sure there’s a park design team thinking about this right now.
After two decades away, we were both pleased and satisfied that, as the Disney corporate empire has widely expanded, that Walter Elias’ vision still “animates” the company to deliver an unparalleled family-friendly entertainment experience. It’s the same as it ever was, and for an American icon all the brass remains brightly polished and the streets are as glisteningly clean as ever.
Where to Stay
Visiting Disneyland with an RV is a very popular and convenient strategy. However, it’s just gotten a little harder. Recently one of the RV parks with several hundred spaces nearby closed. Interestingly the property was purchased by Disney to be turned into an employee parking lot.
There are several parks nearby and we chose the closest, the Anaheim RV Park Resort. This is an older park with a variety of spaces for tents, trailers, and RVs. For its proximity it’s pricing is slightly higher, but certainly fair.
After spending three days here, we could see that a lot of care and effort goes into maintaining the property. All the sites are paved and the pool area was frequently tended to. The park has recently refurbished one building of bathrooms and all the other common facilities, even if older, were well tended to.
We enjoyed the friendliness of the front desk staff who explained to us that they had a full range of Disney friendly services such as a low-cost, city-run shuttle that stopped in the park, car rental delivery to your site, and the all important pet walking service if you’re at the Disney parks all day.
Sites offer basic cable and some, but not all are satellite friendly. Ours wasn’t, but we enjoyed the shade of a large solar panel system feeding the park’s grid. Fortunately, HD over the air TV signals come in loud and clear. The park has TengoNet wifi, but we stuck to our speedy AT&T hotspot which gave us good LTE speeds.
What we really loved was that it was an easy and safe one mile walk to the park entrance. For us, the 20 minutes it took to walk back and forth was about as hassle free as it gets. There are also two grocery stores within a 5-10 minute walk if you don’t have a car (or even if you do).
If there’s a drawback, it would be the screened noise from the adjacent freeway. Remember, it’s southern California, so freeway traffic is a 24/7 event. Nonetheless, with our windows closed and the A/C on it wasn’t bothersome. For all of these reasons, the park, while not fancy, certainly deserves the good on-line reviews it’s earned over the years.
(And now a brief legal moment. For this trip I had contacted Disney for press information. They graciously extended a one day pass for two guests. We spent our first day at California Adventure, which will be another article. Outside of that I was free to write and photograph anything I wished without any corporate review. Day two was on us and we happily helped enrich the company’s cash flow with several tasty meals and the obligatory don’t-come-home-without-em’ gifts.)