Happy Already In The Happiest Place On Earth

My friend Chris loves Disneyland. Loves, loves LOVES Disneyland. He’s the kind of still-in-love with Disneyland that makes it even more magical to be there with him. Ask him what was the best job he ever had and he’ll tell you about taking a job bartending at the Disneyland hotel once a month just so he could say he worked there. Plus he got to the park for free, of course.

Once he was in the park with a woman he had been dating for a while. When she called Tomorrowland, “Space Town”, a cold chill of foreboding sped up his spine. He shook it off, albeit reluctantly. He took the high road, thinking maybe she just wasn’t experiencing the magic in the right context. So he took her to see the lamp above the fire station on Main Street, which is lit all the time now like an eternal flame in tribute to Walt Disney. You see, when “Uncle Walt” was alive, they would light the lamp to indicate he was in the park, so everyone could be on their best behavior. However, as Chris was laying down this insanely cool piece of trivia for her, disaster struck. “And over there is the lamp that used to be lit when Walt was in the park”, he offered.

To which she replied, “Walt who”?

Chris, ever the gentleman, spared her the embarrassment of breaking up with her right then and there on Main Street. But the relationship was over.


When he met and fell in love with my dear friend Tiffany, she was blissfully unaware of how high the stakes were. But their love was sealed for all eternity while they were way back in line for the Pirates of The Caribbean ride. Chris turned to her and said, “I may have to marry you if you can tell me what’s written on the sign above the loading area”. Without missing a beat, she turned to him and said smoothly, “Lafitte’s Landing”.

They just tied the knot this August.

See how much Chris loves Disneyland? SO MUCH.

Ithink I get it. Since I was small, we’d go every year or so, waking up before the sun and driving down to Anaheim like a pilgrimage. The rush of excitement and anticipation always peaked just as we were getting off the freeway, as we caught that ethereal glimpse of the snow-capped Matterhorn, and it would hit again just before boarding every. single. ride.

And then I got older, and the traffic became noticeably awful on the way down. And on the way back. My feet started to hurt by the afternoon. The large families all wearing matching t-shirts that read “_______ Family Reunion” started to creep me out, and the exit-through-the-gift-shop mentality would drive me so crazy it became the secret reason I was screaming my head off on Space Mountain.

I’d rally though and by the time the Main Street Electrical Parade started I’d end up crying it was so lovely… but each time it got harder and harder to pay $$$ plus $15 parking to walk shoulder-to-shoulder all day long along the walls of people with their souvenir cups and churros. Or spend an hour+ waiting in line not making direct eye contact with anyone, then finally succeeding in breaking the ice with the people next to us in line, only to find out they were annual pass holders that proudly drove all the way down from Pasadena every week for date night.

It became something I wanted to protect my kids from, not expose them to.

And then Disneyland committed a betrayal so complete I vowed never to return.

They messed with “it’s a small world”.

“Small World” was not only my favorite ride but my first spiritual experience. I was five years old when I went to Disneyland for the first time, and the ride was one of the first we went on. My little mind was completely blown. Contemplating for the first time that there were children all over the world, from countries I had never heard of, exactly like me, but different, stunned me into the stratosphere. I wanted to meet them all! They were living lives with traditions I had no exposure to. Which meant of course that all the people of the world were special and unique. And yet that very quality bonded us to each other in mysterious ways.

The world opened up for me that day. I felt smaller and yet closer to something larger all at the same time. I know, it seems like a lot for a five-year-old kid to understand. But I kid you not. I demanded to go on the ride eight more times in succession. I was obsessed. I think that was the day I decided to make friends with everyone forever and ever.

So imagine my delight when eventually I got to take my own five-year-old son on the same ride and watch him take everything in. I was literally breathless with anticipation as we waited in line watching the children puppets of the world as they marked every quarter hour by parading out of the giant clock, its faćade all gold and silver and sparkly. My heart pounded as we boarded our boat. I got all verklempt as we excitedly began the ride. Once inside I watched his little face light up with joy as he pointed to everything he saw, entranced just like I had been!

Especially when he got so very excited and shouted out, “Look Mommy! Nemo!”

Cue sound of a turntable needle scratching the crap out of the “it’s a small world” soundtrack.

Not only had they sprinkled Pixar characters throughout the ride, but they’d evidently hired third graders to refurbish the original puppets when they needed repair. The whole thing was criminal. The ride had become schlocky, shabby, sentimental, and just screamed, “The artistic budget has been diverted elsewhere until further notice”. How stupid did they think we were, that they could throw a few Pixar references into something that was supposed to transcend even Mickey and Minnie, and we wouldn’t notice??

I was apoplectic.

No joke, for years after I couldn’t do anything on the ride but sit in stony silence and bite my lip. And try not to cry, not always successfully. It wasn’t that the flagship attraction of the park had been discarded as a worthless relic. It was that pushing the “brand” had become more important than anything else.

Itwas my red jello moment, of course. I refer here to my friend Ann’s tenure back in the day as a Disneyland employee working at Carnation Cafè, whose responsibility it was to continually scrape the bits of dried red jello off the tables and counters so they shone. Evidently it is a Sisyphean task, one which inspires many new combinations of swear words to stream forth from under one’s breath. “Fucking asshole red jello,” being most common of course.

It’s that moment when Disney stops being easy. When what it takes to maintain the illusion of The Happiest Place On Earth is more than you’ve got. When all around you are people cutting in line, drinking their weight in fluid ounces of Diet Coke, dragging their screaming kids around, and you suddenly realize that just above the horizon in Toon Town, above the pristine blue sky, there is a burnt orange line of smog.

Sometimes in those years, I could make it through the day without too much angst by white knuckling it, or by making fun of myself for being too sensitive. But then at the end of the day as we left the park through Downtown Disney, there it would be, the obelisk of consumerism, rising into infinity. The mother of all gift stores, the Emporium of Useless Crap, calling all her little bees home to the hive.

Sometimes in amusement parks, adults throw tantrums too.

This fall we went back to Disneyland two days after scattering my husband’s ashes. 11, 13, me, Tiffany, Chris, Carrie and her two teenaged daughters.

We had an absolute blast.

We even went on “It’s a small world”. Everyone was watching curiously to see if I would blow. They were all very proud of me, I didn’t once raise my fist in protest shouting, “THIS IS TOTAL BULLSHIT!”. I didn’t even feel like it.

I was just so happy, Gosh darn it! I arrived at the park having already laughed so hard in the car I’d almost coughed up a lung. Chris drove, so I didn’t have to contend with traffic directly, and it had rained, so not only were the numbers at the park lighter, but I am telling you, getting to spend the entire day with people who are deeply embedded in your heart like Tiff and Carrie (who I have known since I was thirteen), and our families, it was like, who cares what we do or where we go? We’re all here together!

True, Disneyland is a place that manufactures desire. It is designed to provoke even the most content into wanting something, anything. But if you are happy to be alive, with the people you love, a lot of that icky outer stimuli rolls off and what you are left with is a sense of abundance. Not of adrenaline, or fried foods, or merch, but one that draws from a deeply felt well of unshakable gratitude. I think children still hold that at their center, mostly. They are able to experience the good even in fraught or tragic circumstances.

But adults, we have to remember that it still lives within us. I already knew that Disneyland couldn’t make me happy, but what I didn’t know was that it couldn’t make me unhappy either. I re-discovered this over and over all day long.

My joy was not dependent on circumstances. I knew this intimately from loss, but here, in that pressure cooker of imagined cheerfulness, I did not resist anything nor did I grasp for anything. Everyone I walked past — even the desperate, the cranky, the consuming, the impatient, the bedazzled — everyone was okay. The world was perfect exactly the way it was, (even though the amount of money spent there on one day could have fed a small city of hungry people).

I could care about that and also be completely present to friends who after years and years still make one other do spit takes from silly jokes.

Holy guacamole, it was my first full day of equanimity since my husband died, maybe ever, and I was spending it in a place where people believed animals can talk, and where they sell Princess Leia mouse ears.

Plus, hello? They remodeled The Matterhorn!! So I didn’t exit that ride barely able to walk from bruised knees and wondering about the symptoms of whiplash.

I wanted for nothing that day. Except to show Chris how if you stand at a certain right angle to the statue of Walt and Mickey, you can see something that really proves why it is the Happiest Place On Earth.

(In the parking garage, 11 observes the decals that indicate we are in the “Donald Duck” Section)

11: Why do they make Donald Duck look like that?!

Me: Like how?

11: He looks so angry! That is gonna scare little kids!

Me: Well Honey, have some compassion. Back when Donald Duck was making cartoons, life was very hard. The studio system kept you pretty much working at their whim, and remember he had little ducklings to support, they couldn’t unionize, they worked long long hours…

Tiffany: I heard he was on quack.

A match made in heaven!
Ohhhhhh yeah.
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