I grew up watching football players declaring "I'm going to Disneyland!" after winning the Super Bowl. It didn't occur to me at the time that it was an advertisement. It just seemed like Disneyland must be that good.
So when I was looking down the barrel of my 40th birthday, wondering how I would outdo the skydiving adventure of my 30th, the one thing I couldn't get out of my head was The Happiest Place on Earth. I didn't really want to do anything other than go to Disneyland—finally.
I may have had opportunities to go in the last four and a half years since moving to LA, but it's pricey, and I haven't wanted to go alone. I thought flying solo there would be really sad...and maybe just a little bit creepy. But when Edith and Michelle were up for doing whatever during their visit for my birthday, it just seemed like the perfect time to go.
Besides, I've always enjoyed my birthday at the end of September as the official kick-off of the Halloween season. And we managed to get tickets to "Mickey's Halloween Party," when Disneyland is all decked out, and taken over by the villains of their movies.
I don't know what better way to celebrate getting old(er) than visiting The Happiest Place on Earth during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
I didn't have lofty goals for my visit. I just wanted to be there. It's a slice of history and American culture that I had not yet experienced, and it's probably the closest thing I'll ever get to the '64/'65 World's Fair without time travel.
First stop: Space Mountain. We both came into this world in 1975, although the first one is actually at Walt Disney World in Orlando. This one in California opened two years later. Others have popped up around the world since.
I actually had no idea what I was in for, but because we were at an event that required a special ticket, we didn't have to wait in line for very long in order to find out.
Oh my God. Everywhere I turned, oh my God.
It was like I walked into a video game of my youth. Or a sci-fi movie I couldn't quite remember.
And then it got very dark, and we embarked on our wild ride through the Ghost Galaxy.
With a crick in my neck and a lurching stomach, we decided to take it easy in the Fantasyland section of the resort park and visit the King Arthur Carousel, built by Dentzel Carousel Company in 1922. Walt Disney bought it and moved it from Toronto to California, removing giraffes, deer, and other animals and replacing them all with horses. It's one of the few original rides from Disneyland's 1955 opening, 60 years ago, and it's very much a centerpiece of the park.
The story goes that Walt was inspired to create Disneyland while watching his daughters ride the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. He wanted to give more people a chance to experience that kind of magic. Now, everyone from preschoolers to adults clamor to ride Jingles, the lead horse, though they'll settle for any of the other white horses. Too bad they don't gallop off like they do in Mary Poppins.
There are a few other Fantasyland rides that are original to the park, including "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," a reference to The Wind in the Willows...
...and "Snow White's Scary Ride," another "dark ride" that uses black light to illuminate various Disney characters and familiar backdrops.
Fantasyland reopened after a renovation in 1983, so most of the current iterations of the rides are from that.
The whole place is kind of spooky and weird at night. At my age, I remember Alice in Wonderland and Pinnochio and Sleeping Beauty, but the Disney movies of today are very different than what I grew up with. I was glad to see the park not totally taken over by Frozen, Tangled, or Brave...yet.
Instead, Disneyland will be closing some rides—some temporarily, some permanently—to make way for the new Star Wars Land. The Big Thunder Ranch area of Frontierland is pretty much being wiped out. Disney considers it the most underutilized and least-visited area in the park, but maybe because if you want an olde tyme Western experience, you'd just go to Knott's Berry Farm.
The only other park attraction I knew I had to hit (since Adventureland and its animatronic bird show at the Enchanted Tiki Room were closed) was The Haunted Mansion. At this point, the batteries on both my camera and phone had died, so instead of spending time trying to document everything, I just absorbed it.
This time of year, The Haunted Mansion features the extra layer of The Nightmare Before Christmas in its "holiday" iteration, which runs through Halloween and Christmas. There is so much going on in this dark ride, between the voices and the ghostly paintings and the dancing apparitions and the room that stretches and the "Doombuggies" that spin you around as you make your way through.
And just when I couldn't imagine any better way to celebrate my birthday, then came the fireworks, and the tiki drinks that followed at Trader Sam's at the Disneyland Hotel.
I'm going to try and let this experience linger with me for a while—the feeling of wonder and disbelief and, above all, belief. I'm going to try and not think about my 41st birthday, or worse yet, my 50th birthday.
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