Friday, November 20, 2015

Disneyland: an Appreciation

It seems like I’ve been going to Disneyland my entire life. And that’s because I have.

And my delight upon experiencing it as a child only gave way to my wonder upon seeing it as an adult which has become a sincere appreciation of being there as a grizzled old silverback.

I was lucky enough to grow up in Orange County. No, wait: I HATED living in 500 square miles of housing tracts, strip malls and business parks. A metropolis so deeply, lobotomically Republican that I didn’t even know there WAS a two-party system until I went off to college.

There were precious few escapes when you grew up behind the Orange Curtain. Surfing was about the only thing that held a hint of the Wilds of Nature that had been bulldozed to make more Leisure Worlds. But we alone had this…..oasis of Thrills, Fantasy and Fun right in our backyards.

I was lucky to grow up in Orange County because we had the worlds greatest
Parachutists eye-view
theme park for our very own. But Disneyland was more than a Six Flags to me. It was a Portal away from the pre-programmed solipsism of Suburbia and to an inclusive Magical Realm, where we all belonged.

Yeah yeah yeah, I KNOW about the Conservatism of Walt and his personal State. The racism, sexism and homophobia of the times that distilled into a white-washed fiefdom of small town, Midwestern NO-ness. All true. Also true was that it was WAY WORSE in the reality of living in the real world outside of the park.

1970. Note pith-helmet on my smoking dad.
Disneyland, whitebread-beerless-beardless-no-gum-for-sale Disneyland was the only place in my childhood that encouraged me to think for myself, to explore, and consider alternate realities. It was the safe haven for my Imagination.

Some Reminiscences

I don’t remember my first visit as I was 2 in 1967. From 1970 I have a few washed out snapshots but not my long-lost set of mouse ears. Soon though the visits became so frequent that they all blurred together. Back in the wild, wild 1970’s my mom used to drop off 12 year old me (and my friend Richard) and then pick us up 14 hours later. I doubt few parents attempt such stunts now-a-days!
From 1985. Unlimited rides for less than $15.00!

I have wonderful memories embedded about every 60 feet of the parks walkways. I can sit on a bench in New Orleans Square and see myself walk or run by at about 10 different ages. And each time my expression is pretty much the same. :-)

A couple of memorable memories:

·      The only time my entire family went was when I was 5, my Sister Joni was 10, my parents, and my brother Michael was 17. Mike had brought a buddy and they took off and disappeared as soon as we got inside the park. The rest of us headed for Tom Sawyer island to burn off a little kiddie adrenalin. We were walking near the South end of the island (where one day the Fantasmic! stage would be), when a bush started talking to us.

2015: My nephew Ryan, Admiral
Karen and I, still dripping from
Splash Mountain. Ah, that strange
distinctive smell of Disney water.
And the bush said: “Will the Latham party please report to Security at the top of Main Street. Thank you.” We hurried back to the mainland - no waiting for the Becky Thatcher raft when you say you need to get to Security - and when we got to the top of Main Street we looked around for Security, which of course we couldn’t see (because its EVERYWHERE). But then a kindly old gentleman stepped out of the “Photo Supply” shop, called us by name, and ushered us into the back of the shop, where we all sat down in a small, sparsely furnished room.

2002: Blasé on Space Mountain.
Grandpa calmly explained to us that my stupid brother and his buddy had been caught on the Skyway tram, pouring Coca-Cola onto people below. We all hid our smiles. My father then asked if we would have to leave the park, and Grandpa said Yes. We all hung our heads.

But, Grandpa continued, with a twinkle in his eye, WHEN we leave is up to us. He then explained that if we liked, we could continue on with our day and they would “watch” our morons until we came to claim them. The four of us Latham’s looked at each other and shrugged. Then we all smiled, shook Grandpa’s hand, and headed for the Submarine Voyage.

“The park closes at Midnight tonight,” Grandpa called to us, “and don’t worry. We’ll take GOOD care of them.”

1987: My brother, Dad and I, on the riverfront.
11 or so hours later we returned, feeling exhausted, delighted and a bit guilty, and reported in to claim our idiots. Another kindly gentleman met us and escorted us down Main Street. We asked, a bit sheepishly, if they had been locked up all this time. “Oh no, no no no” Grandpa #2 laughed, “We wanted them to have a bit more……stimulation during their stay with us.”

He then explained that they had spent the day on a bench at the foot of Main Street, watched over by a variety of Security Grandpas, who also got them lunch and dinner. All day long they had to watch thousands of happy people stream past them. And every fifteen minutes the Marching Band would set up and blast a Sousa march or two - right over their heads.

2015: Ryan and I, waiting for the train.
When they saw us Michael and his friend rose to their feet and hung their heads. They could not have looked more tired, or ashamed. We looked back at Grandpa #2, who was conferring with Grandpa #15 (or whatever). The kindly old gentlemen then waved at us, smiled big smiles, and headed back up to the “Photo Supply Shop”.

The teenagers did not say word 1 to us on the way home, and by tacit agreement this episode was never mentioned in my stupid brothers presence, ever. But he would always leave the room if I put on marching band music.

1982: On the brand new Big
Thunder Railroad.
(I DO have a chin!)
·      In 1981 Richard and I, aged 16, had the brilliant idea to attempt to go on every single attraction at Disneyland in one day. We hit the turnstiles at the 9am opening bell, grabbed a map and ran to Space Mountain.

The rest of the day was literally a blur as we ran from land to land, discussing strategy and circling the things we had already done. I'm not even sure we ate at all. 14 hours later we had just three more things to go and one hour to do them in:

1.     The cute young girl piloting our Storybook land Canal Boat found it hilarious that two young, exhausted sunburned boys wanted to ride at 11pm. But she dutifully grabbed her spotlight and guided us through the miniatures, while we struggled to stay awake.

2.     Last up was the deserted Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which we slept through, standing up, leaning on each other.

3.     On our way out of the park, we double checked our soggy, ripped map, now all but obliterated by our pen circles. And damnit - we forgot something - there, on the weird piece of land between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland - the fucking Motor Boat Cruise. Jesus. We shambled back through the emptying park and somehow convinced a very dubious guide that we did indeed wish to ride his stupid kiddie ride at 11:45pm.
1982: With my cousins, Francis & Debra.
Yes, I am wearing a fannypack.

Pointless mission accomplished! No achievement unlocked! Eternal Dork status confirmed for being a teenaged boy who willingly rode the stupid Dumbo ride.

Music Magic

Dad and me. I look more like my Mother,
but I got Dad's eyebrows.
A lot of my memories of the park are Music-related. My Father and I used to go there in the 70's, back in the 'ticket coupon' era, and just get a general admission. We'd go just for the Big Band and Dixieland bands. I saw Bob Crosby and his Bobcats at the Carnation Plaza Gardens, a slightly seasick Kid Ory on the Mark Twain riverboat (motion sickness smells like bourbon, right?), and a very bemused Pete Fountain on a raft in front of Tom Sawyer Island. "I've been adrift many times onstage - but this is the first time I've ever had the stage drift!"

Before I came along my Dad used to go see the Firehouse Five + Two at the Golden Horseshoe, and later Richard and I once spent two whole hours listening to the Teddy Buckner band blow the baguettes out of the French Market Restaurant.

2015: Karen, Kim and Ryan about to go on
Indiana Jones. Ryan is driving, OF COURSE.
(I remember that Teddy's bass player was so ancient that the entire band had to help him up to the stage. They then inserted his double string bass into his hands, and he slapped the hell out of the thing for two full sets. Then the band gently took it out of his hands and helped him down off of the stage.)

Imagineering Lines

I've written before about why I think Disneyland will always be the best Theme Park ever (In short, because you are almost never out of sight of water), but I will add that a big part of the charm of the place is that it seems small. Disneyland - crowded, blistering, screamy Disneyland is HOMEY. How is that accomplished? Engineering, boys and girls.
16 is the new line complex on the Jungle Cruise.
15 is the way to Indiana Jones. Pirates is just off to the left.
 Take the stretch from the Jungle Cruise up to Pirates of the Caribbean. Picture that. Walk it in your mind. Its only about 100 yards. On your right are bathrooms, open-walled shops and a restaurant. On your left are 3 of the biggest rides of the park. 16 million people walk through here every year, and yet foot traffic is always smooth and serene. There is even room for a kajillion strollers to be left behind (On any given day 40 of the parks 160 acres are occupied by empty strollers).

So where are all the millions who want to ride the rides?
  •  On the Jungle Cruise* the crowds are packed into an ingenious two story maze right on the dock. 
  • For Pirates, the line snakes all over a pedestrian overpass and also alongside the building. 
  • Forget Johnny. We all know who the REAL star of Pirates is.
  • And between them, the Indiana Jones ride (which barely has a footprint next to the Swiss Family Robinson Tarzan Tree house) has a line that cleverly sneaks you out of the park completely and into a huge building that used to be the 'Eeyore' part of the parking lot.

(In true Disney fashion that obscure fact is immortalized by having one of the Eeyore signs visible way up in the rafters of the queue.)

The only constant is Change

Walt was very adamant about the fact that Disneyland would never be static. I've seen a lot of things come and go in my 6 decades of attendance. I remember the hype of Space Mountain opening in 1977 - now the park had TWO rollercoasters. (Big Thunder Mountain in 1981 boosted the total up to THREE!!)

2016-2017 will see the opening of a 14 acre Star Wars land, located between Big Thunder Mountain and Fantasyland. My question here is what will they then do with Tomorrowland, which is already decked out in plastic light sabers and
1970: Me and Joni with a real, live "Red Indian".
Chewbacca mugs. I mean Tomorrowland was always pretty pathetic, but the only thing it had going for it recently was the Star Wars stuff. Take all that away and you'll be left with 40-year old Space Mountain, Astro Burgers at the Tomorrowland Terrace and a lot of shuttered buildings on display.

Cultural sensitivity is also on display. I remember the embarrassing 'Indian Village' from the 60's and I paddled the 'War Canoes' around the Rivers of America, before they were renamed the 'Explorer canoes'. On Splash Mountain you will see all of the cartoon characters from the never-ever-ever-to-be-released-again "Song of the South" movie, but not one mention of Uncle Remus.

I love Karen's grimace behind Kim.
But its not just the rides that have changed. On my recent day there (November, 2015), I was happily astounded to see Female ride operators, even on such traditionally 'Macho' rides as the Jungle Cruise and Pirates. And in general, the whole Gender Equality thing has really taken hold at the park.

Beards and goatees on the male employees, benefits for same-sex domesticpartners, a rainbow flag mickey-shaped pin - this is not the same park I loved as a child. But now I love it even more.

Customer Service

Rudeness and trash at other amusement parks were the two factors that motivated Walt into making his own.

Litter is simply not present at Disneyland. I think its instantly vaporized by translucent drones or something.

As for treating the customers, well, there are four places where I have been
1982: On the Autopia, on purpose.
consistently dazzled by the care and consideration I was shown.
1.     A.T.&T.Park
2.     WholeFoods
4.     Disneyland

And I will return to those places precisely because I am so well treated there.

An example from my recent trip to the Mouse House:
I left Admiral Karen, her sister Kim, and my 11 year old nephew Ryan at the Jungle Cruise line and went to the Aventureland Bazaar (my only obstacle being the 11,000 strollers forming a Great Wall of WTF).

Wearing my Father's pith
helmet. No other part of this
outfit is endorsed by my Dad.
I was looking for a pith helmet. Actually, to be honest, a replacement pith helmet. My father had bought one here back 1970 and it was finally just about worn out. But alas, the modern ones were too small for my enormous skull. I asked the two clerks if there were any other sizes available. They glanced at each other and said "store room" at the same time. The younger fellow then leaped out the back door and I saw him running down a hallway.


Meanwhile the other guy turned on the happy chatter (a mixture of Holmesian observation and careful listening). I was wearing a "Mickey 28" and he asked me if I knew what the 28 meant. I said it was Buster Posey's number. That got a chuckle out of him. But then I said it was the year Mickey debuted on the silver screen.

"Plane Crazy".
1987: Fantasyland with Biddy

He shook my hand. "And that sir, is why our pith helmets do not fit you. You have too many brains."

The younger fellow then reappeared, out of breath, and told me that there was only one size, and it fits "most".

The older one then smiled and shrugged. "Sorry, you are just not one of the Most."

2002: Hangin' with Mr. Mouse
What is excellent Customer Service? The ability to tell the customer "no" and have them want to return to your place of business.

Well done, Gentlemen: I'll be back.

Tips and Tricks

1.     Download the app. Seriously. The Disneyland App showed us real-time wait times for the rides, the location of the nearest bathroom relative to where we were, where all the characters were going, nearby food places, times and locations for the fireworks, and on and on. Quickly indispensable.
2.     Smart phone in general. D-land has the most interesting line queues in the world, but you are still waiting in a line. Doing my Scrabble turns on my iPhone made the wait go by in a breeze.
3.     Good food is everywhere. (The best is at the Blue Bayou in New Orleans
The Monte Cristo sandwich from the Blue Bayou.
This is everything that civilization has pointed us
towards. (From
Square, but you must make a reservation as soon as you enter the park.)
·      I had an excellent lunch at the French Market (with a live swing band): French Dip with crispy onions and lots of tangy horseradish and a generous portion of handmade potato chips for $14.00
·      Mid-afternoon snack was a churro in front of Big Thunder Mountain. Not as good as the ones at a San Jose Giants baseball game, but nothing is.
·      Dinner was at the "Galactic Grill" (A/K/A the Tomorrowland Terrace), where the burgers are still there, but now available in 'dark' and 'light' versions, cuz its more Star Warsy that way. I paid 12 bucks for a "First Order Specialty Burger" that had Me beef with chorizo, fried cherry
"Served in a 'Han Solo in Carbonite' Lunch Box"
peppers and a spicy lime aioli. And a dark bun, because its evil, EVIL! This was all kinds of spicy goodness and came with fries. I washed that down with a 'light side' drink (Odwalla lemonade with yogurt 'meteors') that included a small, plastic Millennium Falcon that lights up a different color every time you press the button. So yeah, I paid 20 bucks for a burger and fries dinner, but every part of it was above average and geeky fun.
Yes, pentacle just above Mickey.
And I would venture, not the first time
that these two paths have crossed.
·      Plus! We had drama in our short line at the Tomorrowland Terrace Galactic Grill. Three people ahead of us some douchehat wanted to buy 25 Chewbacca mugs, but he didn't want them full of soda. Just the mugs. Our server, Carissa from Pico Rivera, did her best, but this item wasn't technically on the menu. She graciously handed Douchehat over to her Supervisor, who then got an earful from Douchehat about how terrible Carissa had been. While she's standing there 6 feet away. (Meanwhile, back in our line, another employee sidles up and makes sure we are doing okay with this bizarre scene.) Supervisor then adroitly laterals Douchehat to the Manager, who stone-facedly hacks the register programming and gets him every single
1981: Me and 'rents On Main Street. End of Day.
wookie cup in the place (even though I'm sure they sell them at 6 different gift kiosks throughout Tomorrowland). Douchehat then leaves, via a gauntlet of snarky remarks from the rest of us in line. When it was my turn, I told Carissa that she was the hero of our line and asked if is she allowed to accept tips. She blushed a bit, smiled, and looked suddenly tired.
·      So the quality of the food is uniformly excellent, but everywhere we went we were also presented with healthy alternatives. Doing Disneyland with two diabetics was a real, and pleasant, eye opener.
4.   Hidden mickeys are the BOMB. Every land, every ride, every gift Hidden Mickeys are yet another layer of Imagineering throughout the park that added great fun to our day.
2015: Karen, Ryan and Kim on Main Street.
End of Day.
shop, every churro stand has one or more "hidden mickeys" somewhere on it. The subtle outline of big-round-circle-with-two-smaller-circles may be in the handle, or woven into the paint job, or maybe its in the 'tree-topper' up high. Once we started looking we found them in bunches of painted berries, in the footprint of light poles, the shape of the planters in the parking garage (!), in a rope on a dock, even in the sample bread bowl at lunch. Once we found a couple we couldn't stop and we found ourselves scrutinizing leaf clusters on live trees and staring intently at the fake snow patterns on the Matterhorn.

Ryan, asleep on the escalator
going up to the parking garage.
More overlays

I could gush on and on about Disneyland, but this is already 3,300 words long and I think you get the idea. So I will leave you now. I will be sitting on my bench in New Orleans Square overlooking the Rivers of America, wearing a silly hat, listening to a live band play Hot Jazz, and people watching.

There I go in a stroller, wearing mouse ears and looking confused and sunburned. Here I come with a plastic sword, holding my sisters hand and walking as fast as I can to keep up. Stepping off the Becky Thatcher raft is my entire family looking confused (and amused). That blur is me and Richard running by with our map, laughing and geeking out. More sedately my Father and I are strolling along, eating Fritos, headed for the Carnation Plaza Gardens, discussing the possibility that Peanuts Hucko may be sitting in with Bob Crosby tonight. Admiral Karen and I are singing the "Yo Ho" song as we walk quickly up to the Haunted Mansion. And my nephew Ryan and I just got off the train and he's telling me all about our Solar System as walk along the riverfront, with all the minute detail and enthusiasm that an 11 year old can muster.
My face all these years? Its pretty much this face.

Thank you, Disneyland. You are a delight, you are a wonder, and you are appreciated.

Angus McMahan

*Rechristened the "Jingle" Cruise for the Holidays, and seeing wreaths on the elephants, a star on the rhinos horn and ugly Christmas sweaters on all of the 'natives' is flat out hilarious.


  1. I'm not crying, *you're* crying! Damn it.

    1. I'll call that Mission Accomplished, then. ;-)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.