For a day I got to live every 5-year-old's dream. I feasted on candy bars, and licorice for breakfast. I drank impressive amounts of soda. I devoured chocolate-chip cookies as big as my head and crisped-rice treats shaped like Mickey Mouse. No one ever gets to have Disneyland completely to herself, but this was as close as I was going to get. Giddy on sugar, I rode the teacups.
I rode them alone.
Such was the price of admission. It was a brilliant, standard-issue Southern California morning in May for the press-and-VIP anniversary preview day at Walt Disney's prototypical theme park. Disneyland opened 50 years ago today and is giving itself an 18-month market-driven celebration. The company had closed the park and invited more than 1,200 members of the media (some more credentialed than others) and a few thousand faithful fans, Hollywood celebrities, corporate Mickety-mucks and regular stroller-pushing Joes, who all dutifully showed up for the preview.
On a typical day, Disneyland hosts tens of thousands of people. (Exact attendance figures are a company secret, but the total number of visitors annually has been estimated at 13 million.) When you take the throngs out of the picture, the effect is slightly eerie. At first, you're intoxicated in an almost-private fantasy. Then, adrift on a teacup, you get it: Disneyland needs us as much as we seem to need it.
When Disneyland's gates opened on July 17, 1955, there were minor disasters immediately: power outages, stuck rides, faulty drinking fountains, backed-up toilets, a suspected gas leak. Fifteen thousand people -- and a live television audience -- were invited to the private party, but thousands more showed up uninvited. The park was only half-finished. In the July heat, women's high heels stuck in the asphalt.
Newspaper headlines mocked Disney ("Walt's Dream Is a Nightmare") and even he referred to the debut as Black Sunday. But only seven weeks after opening day, the 1 millionth customer walked through the gates. They've kept on coming, and much of American culture hasn't been the same, thanks to a Disneyland worldview -- shopping malls, mass events, marketing, urban planning, blockbusters. (And Disneyland itself was really just a beta test for the far larger Disney World and its offshoots; the 11th Disney theme park will open in Hong Kong in September.)
I grew up in Escondido, which isn't so far from Disneyland but seemed like another universe. Disney CEO Michael Eisner was a regular guest in my family's living room almost every Sunday night in the mid-1980s, as he welcomed my younger brother and me to "The Wonderful World of Disney" on TV. With a huge bowl of popcorn and a Coke, we watched reruns of "Davy Crockett" and "Old Yeller." We laughed with Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and sat agog for the nature programs with the narrator who seemed to know just about everything there was worth knowing about the animal kingdom. Drunk on Walt's Kool-Aid, Disneyland was the only vacation destination for us. While other kids had Maui getaways and European summers, my parents packed us into the back of a camper a couple of times a year and headed for Disneyland and a KFC picnic lunch in the parking lot.
It has always been a special place, where the rules of the outside don't apply and dreams can come true -- for a price. Now, a shot at seeing the Disney operation from the inside was irresistible but intimidating. What if it ruined Disneyland for me forever? And what if it didn't?
The Disney folks were nice enough to volunteer a company host, who would accompany me all day. It makes things easier, they said. The host can answer questions, show you where to go, wait for you outside the attractions.
I declined, and melted into the small and dispersing crowd. There was no line at the Mad Tea Party. This was going to be great, I thought, as I hopped right into my own pink and gold teacup. I started spinning.
Across the way was Kelsey Grammer, laughing and spinning happily in the special gold anniversary teacup, with his wife and young daughter, who was dressed as Tinker Bell.
As brilliant green and yellow ceramic cups full of families twisted and twirled around me, I felt silly sitting there by myself. Disneyland, after all, is Walt's elaborate love letter to families, groups, couples. It was the same everywhere: Splash Mountain, alone. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, alone. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, alone. The only company I had was in the Haunted Mansion, when a hitchhiking ghost hopped aboard my doom buggy.
That night, I spotted Eisner, working the gold carpet that lined Main Street on his way to a posh VIP after-hours party in New Orleans Square.
He was smiling, but wearily so. His voice was raspy from a day of countless interviews and public appearances at which he unveiled new rides and attractions. Or maybe he was tired of smiling and shaking hands as some in the throngs whispered about how he is being forced out of power; he turns over what remains of his control of the Walt Disney Co. in October. Suddenly the mythical figure whom I had come to know over so many years through my television was no longer a myth. He was, after all that, a man. And he looked sad as he preached the Disney message.
"Disneyland is America's home town. It is magical," said Eisner, who shook my hand and waited patiently to answer questions from the television crews pressing against the ropes.
The people who work here smile -- a lot. Specially selected for their friendliness, employees (aka "cast members") undergo a thorough training program that emphasizes courtesy above all else. Everyone is on a first-name basis. The city of Anaheim likes the way Disney develops nice people for its workforce and has adopted a similar training program called "the Anaheim Way."
In the '50s, Walt Disney hired the Stanford Research Institute, a public policy study group, to scout the perfect Southern California location. With forecasts showing that the region's future population growth would be in the Orange County area and with a major interstate freeway being built just blocks from the proposed site, Disney was sold. The park was built in a year.
Little more than a sleepy town full of orange groves and dirt roads at the time, the city of Anaheim has since become entwined with the fortunes of Disneyland and the 430-acre Disney metropolis that has sprung up around the park. There is a second theme park, California Adventure, and three hotels, as well as a dining and shopping district. Anaheim reaps more than $70 million in hotel-room taxes -- not to mention sales tax revenue from souvenir Mickeys and Disney Princess gear, among other paraphernalia.
A large number of Anaheim residents -- and those who live in neighboring communities -- can experience a little piece of Disney magic every night. All they have to do is walk into their back yards to see the park's fireworks show explode over Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Some who live closest to the park complain about the noise and the residue. Other longtime residents worry that the ash and debris are giving them cancer, and they complain about the noise. But many step out of their sliding glass doors and into their yards to watch the light show -- without ever having to pay admission. Disneyland has always been such a handy metaphor for our consumer desires, for bad and for good: It's always there when you want it, and it's also there when you don't. Fireworks forever.
Almost every president since Harry S. Truman has found his way to Disneyland. Elizabeth Taylor rented out the place for her 60th birthday. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threw a public fit when his trip to the States sidestepped the Magic Kingdom.
Disneyland is now so old that its visitors are sometimes overcome by their own nostalgia -- seeing it with grown-up eyes, they notice that it's not as big as they remember, or that it's gotten too big. ("Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world," Disney once said.)
It is still magical, though sometimes with a worn-out quality. The statue of Mr. Toad needs its tongue repainted. The bandstand that used to host Date Night has largely been abandoned. Parts of the park that long-ago visitors once loved have been replaced with something shiny and new. Gone are the mule rides, Tomorrowland's people movers and Critter Country's Country Bear Jamboree.
Here instead are Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and Turtle Talk. Real guns and ammunition have been replaced at the Frontierland Shootin' Exposition. (Some classics remain: The King Arthur Carrousel with its magnificent painted horses, just beyond Sleeping Beauty Castle. Peter Pan's Flight, where guests glide over downtown London and Never Land in a magic pirate ship. Dumbo the Flying Elephant.)
There will always be something new at Disneyland, but the Disney fans trekking from Midwestern farmhouses and East Coast high-rises to celebrate the 50th anniversary are not coming back for the newest park attractions. They are coming for the memories.
Wrapped in blankets and wearing ski caps to ward off the chilly California night, the Disney faithful who were invited to the preview party showed up at the park's front gates in darkness, staking out a place in the entrance plaza for a chance to come home again.
To love Disneyland is to grumble about the crowds -- the winding, never-ending lines that weave back and forth, sometimes stretching for hours, for a ride that lasts just minutes.
But I like them, and so I had to go back, one more time, not as an extra-special guest but as a lowly denizen of the everyday world. So I dragged my boyfriend along for yet another shot at the Disney experience.
Sitting in the front seat of our rustic log, I screamed (he kept his composure) as we plummeted five stories down Splash Mountain. We ducked cannonballs being launched from a giant pirate ship. I paddled with abandon in a Davy Crockett canoe -- the only ride at Disneyland where guests actually have to work. I let myself wish -- just for a second -- that the animatronic parrots that populate the Enchanted Tiki Room could really talk. The roller coasters seemed faster. The ice cream tasted sweeter. The lines were much longer. The dream was intact, and dreamier still.