I know I’m supposed to make fun of Disneyland. I am an edgy, postmodern, anti-consumerist person of bohemia. It’s what we do.
I know that Disney is a giant ultra-clean behemoth, controlling vast swaths of American culture through its television networks, sports teams, real estate holdings, shopping centers and cruise ships. I know its offerings are vanilla and relentlessly perky. I know that until the late 1960s, Disneyland’s dress code prohibited the entrance of longhaired men. I know that in Florida, the company has its own government, with its own police force, building codes and taxes, which lets it operate free of local and state regulatory authority. I even know that until recently, the actors inside the Mickey suits at Walt Disney World had to wear official Disney-issued communal underwear beneath their character costumes, until cast members complained about getting pubic lice and their union won them the right to wear their own underpants.
I know all this, people! And yet, I feel the love that dare not speak its name — the love for Disney theme parks.
My husband proposed to me on the Skyway to Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World. Back then, we were young and kicky and ironic. We mocked the bright colors and hallucinatory chirpiness, but we loved it. We admired the creativity of the rides, the trippy architecture, the scary genius of the park’s crowd-controlling layout, the many layers of artifice. We reveled in the fakery. We giggled like fiends. And on a ride that symbolized a glorious atomic-age future, we could act tongue-in-cheek about our own tomorrowland while also feeling as full of hope about our future as those long-ago folks who once believed that by 1998 we’d be traveling by jet-propelled backpack and drinking cocktails served by robot butlers.
After we got out of our gondola, Jonathan and I ran to Main Street, where he bought me a place-holder engagement ring. It featured a Mickey Mouse head made of a big cubic zirconium, with two tiny ones for ears. I was giddy.
Today, I have a real engagement ring, featuring Jonathan’s grandma’s diamond. But the Skyway to Tomorrowland, alas, is gone. (All the Skyways to Tomorrowland, in fact. The one in Anaheim closed in 1994; the one in Tokyo closed in 1998, and the one in Orlando closed in 1999, a year after Jonathan and I got married.) We can never go back to the scene of the engagement. Even if we could, we have little vacation time, little money and a little person who takes up most of our energy. And even if we could afford Skyway to Tomorrowland merch on eBay, Josie would get applesauce on it.
Fortunately, we have Josie’s Auntie Ellen, who was in college when Jonathan and I got engaged, but who now works for the Walt Disney Co. Auntie Ellen took us to Disneyland, gratis. (Are you aware of how much entrance to Disneyland costs? Almost 50 bucks a person! Thank God for Auntie Ellen! I should note that people under age 3 get in for free, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that Josie can eat her own weight in overpriced theme-park popcorn.) We decided to spend Sukkot with Auntie Ellen and Uncle Jon. (And to bring rice cakes to the park.)
And heaven help me for going all shehechiyanu moment on you, but Disneyland with Josie was a revelation. We’d had a great, if slightly arch, time as single grownups there; but seeing it through Josie’s eyes was delicious. (And a cliché. I know.) Her wonder was so sincere, how could ours not be? My child lives everything intensely, at high volume. And Disneyland made her vibrate with excitement. Did she want to go on the Winnie the Pooh ride? “I know Winnie the Pooh!” she shrieked joyfully. She wanted to sit next to me “like a big girl” as our beehive car went into the tunnel. She whimpered for a moment in the dark, then got sucked into Pooh’s way-psychedelic honey-induced dreams of Heffalumps. She pointed and called out, “Tigger! Piglet! Owl! Hi!” as she saw each character. When our hive was propelled back into daylight, she announced, “Again!”
Here are Josie’s reviews of some other toddler-friendly rides.
• Mad Tea Party: “Pink teacup! Other way! I’m spinning!” (The girl seeks altered states like a hippie in a parking lot. At home, she spins on the tire swing in the park until the other kids are staggering off, whimpering. On the teacup ride, Auntie Ellen turned green, but Josie screamed, “Faster! Faster!” as if she were starring in a Russ Meyer movie.)
• Dumbo the Flying Elephant: “Go up! Go down! Up! Down! So fun!” (After the ride, Josie had to be pried out of her elephant. Sobbing, she then hurled herself to the cement, forcing other people to step over her on their way to the exit. Her mother tried to look pleasant and competent while dragging her off.)
• It’s a Small World: “It’s a tunnel. It’s dark. I see penguins! The crocodile didn’t bite me! I see hula dancers!” (A week later, Josie is still periodically shrieking, “I do hula dancing!” and breaking into a crazed shimmy. This ride was the biggest hit. Unfortunately, the jingle has been going through my head since then, and I may have to kill myself.)
We also enjoyed the basic-but-reliable merry-go-round, Donald’s Boat and the tram from the parking lot. But we hated Mickey’s House, a “character greeting area” that’s the only place in the park where you’re guaranteed to meet Mickey. The lobby was dark and very air-conditioned, and Josie started to whimper fearfully, so we dashed out before we even made it upstairs. Luckily, Pluto was outside. Josie told him, “I got scared in Mickey’s House!” Somehow, Pluto managed to convey, in sign language, that sometimes he gets scared in Mickey’s House, too. Pluto then indicated that he would enjoy some of Josie’s rice cake, which she’d been clutching since Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Treehouse. Josie forgot her tears and began patting and kissing Pluto and touching his slightly creepy red-vinyl tongue. I give such props to the guy in the Pluto suit (wait, he’s not a real dog?), who was an amazing communicator, a skilled baby-wrangler and a prince of a pooch. He was the Meryl Streep of people who wear giant fur heads. In tribute, we bought a stuffed Pluto (Josie calls him “tiny, tiny Pluto”) at one of the gazillion gift shops. Please note, we did not purchase anything pastel or princess-themed. Damn, there are a lot of Disney princesses.
My advice for future visitors with small kids: Try to go at an off-peak time (our midweek, autumn trip had much smaller lines than a summer- or spring-break-time trip would have). Familiarize yourself with the park layout before you go. Map your route and prioritize, so you won’t have to wait in too many long lines. Bring snacks. Start your day early. Be related to Auntie Ellen.
Look, I know some of my hipster friends are going to read this and weep. They’ll figure I’ll soon be collecting Precious Moments figurines and scrap-booking. But hey, you just can’t view your kid’s shimmering, overwhelming joy with any kind of ironic distance.
E-mail Marjorie at email@example.com.