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I used to believe that it was best to wait until your kids are about 8 or 10 years old before taking them to Disneyland. My reasoning was that they need a great deal of stamina to handle all the walking. (We won’t get into the stroller issue at the moment). I also felt that kids that were a bit older got more out of the experience with a little more maturity. I’ve rethought all of that. You only get one first visit to Disneyland. (Remember this…it will come up again in a future column about Disney Legend Rolly Crump and our fascinating time with him). When that first visit to Disneyland takes place can make a real difference.
My parents first visited Disneyland in 1959 when they were in their 20’s. Their timing was great since the expansion of ’59 brought new attractions to the park that it’s hard to imagine Disneyland without. The Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail, and the Submarine Voyage numbered among the big changes that debuted that summer. Then it occurred to me that the opening of Disneyland had slowly created an important division between two groups of people in the mid 20th Century: those that could not visit Disneyland as a child, and those that could. People that were already adults when their first chance to visit the park came – like my parents – really enjoyed it. I asked my Mom what her impressions were and she said that she just couldn’t wait to come back after her first visit. What didn’t — and couldn’t – happen for them was to have the experience of a first visit to Disneyland as a child. When I was 5 years old and going down the twisting stairs to take my seat at the porthole on my first time aboard the Submarine Voyage, I had no reason to doubt that we were actually going underwater in a real submarine. When I went through Mission Control before boarding our Rocket To the Moon, I thought we were really going on a rocket. Why not? It was 1968, and I saw people taking off on rockets all the time. My parents, like any adults on a first time visit, couldn’t help but be impressed by the sophistication of the illusions, but they still saw them as illusions. They would have needed to practice the “suspension of disbelief” that is necessary to fully enjoy this form of art. They never got the chance to really believe as I did.
The suspension of disbelief is critical to the full enjoyment of many art forms, and especially so at Disneyland. (This term was coined by Samuel Coleridge in 1817). One day Vicky and I exited from our little pirate ship after a typically magical flight to Neverland with Peter Pan. We were walking toward the Castle behind two men in their 20’s that had been in the pirate ship right ahead of us. We overheard one say to the other, “That was so fake!” I’ll pause for a moment while you experience the same feeling of slack-jawed incomprehension that Vicky and I did. How could they fail to “get it” so badly? Did these same young men walk out of a screening of “Star Wars Episode IV” and say, “That was so fake!”? Or perhaps they went to see the “The Lion King” at the Pantages Theatre and said, “That was so fake!” I felt sorry for them, as they were failing to execute their part of the agreement that exists between artists and the members of their audience. They didn’t “meet the artist halfway.” We all know (at least on an intellectual level) that the movies aren’t real, that live theater features actors on a stage, and (sadly) that we’re not really in a flying pirate ship. But to hold that knowledge consciously during the experience is to rob oneself of the joy to be found in the beauty of achievement. When I fly into the “star-field” room on Peter Pan, the last thing on my mind is how they do it. I’m too lost in the feeling of flying through an inky black night sky surrounded by twinkling stars as I circle the glowing waterfalls of the volcano below. It’s one of the finest moments in the park and it never once feels fake to me. It’s art, it’s beautiful, and I enjoy it fully because I’m doing my part.
The genuine and unquestioning belief that I had as a child created a sense of wonder that simply can’t be reproduced in a first time visitor as an adult. I had no disbelief to suspend, and thus I was swept fully into the experiences. As a 5 year old, I just took it all at face value. I vividly remember being shocked that the streets were dry and the sun was shining when we walked out of the Enchanted Tiki Room after seeing my first show. I had heard the thunder, and seen the lightning and rain. On later visits though, when I was older, I came to notice little things that broke the illusion of the attractions. When aboard the Submarine Voyage, I could see the surface of the water still visible only inches above the porthole long after we had “submerged.” But that never erased the thrill of my first journey to the underwater world. I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to have their first visit to Disneyland coincide with that perfect age of wide eyed wonder. My parents never had that chance at all. I think that I received an extra layer of experience through the timing of my first visit, and it gave me a “foundation of wonder” upon which has been built a lifetime of deep enjoyment of Disneyland. No current visit ever fails to stir those childhood feelings of excitement that I had when it never occurred to me that the fireflies weren’t real…
My latest piece of Disneyland Disneyana is a candy dish that has probably been around for 45 years, but has only been with me for a few weeks. Vicky picked it up at a garage sale (for 50 cents if you can believe it. One man’s trash…) and it now has a home in which it is properly revered. It’s in great shape, and I would date it’s design to around 1971, though it could have been made and sold later.
My version is of smoked glass, with print in gold, blue, green, and white. It features seven attractions representing six lands, with “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle” in the center. Clockwise from above the Castle is: the “Mark Twain Steamboat” for Frontierland, “It’s A Small World” for Fantasyland, “Entrance To Tomorrowland” for Tomorrowland, “R.R. Station” for Main Street U.S.A., “Hippopotamus” for Adventure Land (as two words here), and finally, “Dunking The Mayor” for New Orleans Square.
It is interesting to note that the Tomorrowland Entrance image is not very accurate, and is clearly missing the distinctive spires of the Bell and Monsanto attractions that flanked it. (The spires were in place very early during construction). The palm trees are very accurate however and their growth in this image would place its original creation between 1968 and 1972. The missing spires are thus apparently an artistic oversight.
This piece takes me back to shopping in the Emporium as a young boy. It’s the sort of thing that would have spoken to me when I was on my way out of the park on our last day and looking for a something that was truly representative of the trip. I suppose that even then I may have recognized the future value of a good memory trigger. If you’d like to have one of these for yourself, they’re readily available on eBay. They were likely produced in great quantity, and sold for many years since the images featured remained largely unchanged even into the ’80’s. They come in clear and smoked glass versions, with conditions – and prices – all over the map. Try searching for “Disneyland Candy Dish.”
We hope you’ll join us again here at Stroll Through Disneyland for future columns that will cover — among other things — the zeitgeist of the New Tomorrowland, Frontierland’s influence, and even Ray Bradbury.
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