Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Happiest Place on Earth… Well, For Some

Being closet Disneyland enthusiasts forced into a sabbatical after having babies, Kara and I felt the time was nigh in our lives to introduce Natalie to all the wonders and joys that the Magic Kingdom has to offer, from that feeling of euphoria that’s power injected into yours senses the moment you push through the turnstiles at the front gates to the somber elation of showering off the dust and germs of thousands of people before you snuggle deep into your bed after a long day of pushing through the crowds for a piece of that euphoria.

It is easy to see why people are fascinated with Disneyland—the rides, the movies, the innocent recollections of your childhood—and it is easy to see why people hate it—rude people, bratty kids, exorbitant prices, forced charm, and the blatant marketing used to hock it’s wares (that subject will go on my list for future blog topics), but if you overlook the negative and concentrate on making it a memorable experience for your kids, no amount of people walking in front of your camera or clipping you with their shoulder because they’re too unrefined a civilian to consider other people can affect your day at Disneyland.

The day almost didn’t start at all. We had originally planned to go on the 17th and then stay the night at the Grand Californian for a follow-up day on the 18th, but I had a series of projects to finish by the end of that week and economics reared its ugly head, so we decided to push off the trip until Tuesday and then make it only one day. Instead of staying over and going for two days, we settled on saving some money by getting season passes so we could go any day we wanted, assuming Natalie would like it.

A couple of days leading up to our foray into all things Walt, Matty started to look worse for wear, runny nose, dark circles under the eyes and general crankiness. We opted to again postpone the trip, but figured that if he’s going to be sick, he’s going to be sick, and he can do it at Disneyland just as good as he can do it at home. Of course, I decided to start work on a freelance project the night before, figuring Mother Bear—who was also complaining of illness—wouldn’t allow one of her cubs out of the house with the hints of a cold, so I was up to nearly three in my office here writing. Wouldn’t you know it that bright and early I was rousted out of bed by Natalie, exclaiming, “We’re going to Disneyland” (even though I’m sure she really didn’t know what that meant).

I had some trepidation about our trip, especially concerning the sizable outlay of money that was ahead of us. For starters, they don’t just give season passes away anymore. When we first started getting them (about 10 years ago), the premium, no-holds-barred passes weren’t that much, maybe topping $200, including parking, but the same pass today equates to $1 a day for the year, plus parking (another $50 or so). Yikes, and the fact that Natalie is over that magic age of three, she’s now a full-terms ticket holder. What if she didn’t like it? What if it just didn’t agree with her and she never wanted to go back? I know, I know; it’s Disneyland, and how is that possible, but she doesn’t like chocolate or Twinkies so it could happen.

Plus, I had worries about losing her in the crowds. I know, I’m a worse-case-possible kind of person sometime, but I pictured the torrent of multitudes engulfing her when I was distracted by the marvels of the tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki room and we’d find her in some security detention center in the bowels of the park, three lands away. That sort of experience not only ages a father to the point of geriatrics but it scars a small kid for life (I still remember being lost in the supermarket one time and that was just for a minute). So much so that we considered writing Natalie’s name and our cell phone number on her stomach so she could show someone if she got lost, as it is the method of choice here amongst the neighborhood parents whenever they take their youngest out to theme parks and county fairs. Sure, sounds silly and maybe even a little country, but not so much when your cell phone rings and its some stranger saying they found your daughter following Tigger into ToonTown and do you mind coming to get her.

Then, I worried that Natalie would be afraid of everything from the sound of the trolley on Main Street to the roar of the roller coasters in Tomorrowland. After all, I can’t vacuum with her on the same floor of the house, and the sound of anything from an electric toothbrush and razor to the whirling of the blender sends her into crying hysterics, a condition I’m sure she’ll grow out of. Disneyland, if anything, can be an assault to the senses if you’re not prepared for it (such as we will see with poor Matty).

It wasn’t that crowded, as we arrived there about 20 minutes after they opened up the park in the morning. First order of business was to shell out the cash to pay homage to the mouse, but I considered it an expense well worth it (I say through gritted teeth), as I pictured countless hours of enjoyment in the year to come since it allows us to visit Disneyland and California Adventure any time during the day and night for as long or short as we wanted.

I’m sure everyone reading this has been to Disneyland, and if you’re from out of town or have just never made it to the park, I assure you, the core essence of what you can imagine Disneyland to be like could never amount to the actual delight you’ll experience on your first visit. I saw that in Natalie’s pancake eyes as we wheeled the stroller under the train tunnel and onto Main Street.

For weeks, we had described some of the things she was about to see, and I wonder what she had actually pictured up until she finally saw them. “You get to ride in a tea cup as it spins around.” “You’ll sit on the back of Dumbo and fly just like he does in the movie.” “You can say hello to Mickey Mouse and you can see animals and monkeys up close on the Amazon--that's a river!” “We’ll even see a parade with lights and dancing, and all of the princesses will be there.”

Surely, I described some nonexistent figment of a senile old man’s imagination, as there cannot possibly be such a place where all of my favorite movies actually come to life and I can walk around them and see them in action… with my own eyes. Please, I maybe three, but I'm not that gullible.

Yes, Natalie, you can, and we’re here. It’s Disneyland, and there is nothing better than to see Disneyland through the eyes of a three-year old.

We figured the best way to introduce Natalie to the Magic would be in Fantasyland, and the first ride she went on was “Snow White’s Scary Adventure.” There was no waiting at all, and we basically walked right onto the ride. Nice. Once tucked into the little car, with Natalie and Kara up front and Matthew and I picking up the rear, the ride began and we were off on our adventure.

Neither kids liked it, and I suppose it wasn’t such a good choice to start off with, because it is laden with elements of such evilness as it is probably one of the most evil of the movies. Of course, upon reflection, all of the rides end up either in some psychedelic mind trip, such as Alice in Wonderland, or in hell, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (after being clobbered by a train). I guess it is the essence of the “dark rides” at Disneyland, and they’re dark for two reasons, lack of light and lack of good cheer. Up front, Kara said later, Natalie was asking if she could go home because it was too scary, while in the back, Matty’s head was darting back and forth like a scared monkey from one indigo-glowing element to the other, and each time I could hear a squeaking squeal come from his mouth.

I found his fear cute; I guess, because there was nothing to be afraid of and he didn’t understand it. Yes, that’s cute in my book. When the snail exited the doors later on Alice in Wonderland, I looked over at a couple roughly our age waiting in line and they were giggling in that “poor baby” way, and when I glanced down at Matthew to see how he faired, his mouth was crinkled down and his eyebrows were half-moons over his head, not sure if he should cry for Mommy or just close his eyes and wait until the darkness goes away. If he could, he probably would have exclaimed, “What the hell was that?” As an adult going on Alice in Wonderland, and it’s probably been 10 years since I have, I was thinking the exact same thing.

Next up was Dumbo, and since Kara doesn’t like to spin, I got to be the one to take Natalie. I was surprised that Natalie was so excited to go on it, as it was one of the rides I thought she would want to avoid because of the heights involved. We lucked out on a couple of levels that may have made the ride easier to stomach: First off, the line was only about 10 minutes long and second off, we got a purple Dumbo. The whole 10 minutes we were waiting, she kept saying, “I want to go on Dumbo. I want to go on Dumbo,” to which I could only reply, "We are going on Dumbo, but we have to wait our turn." When she saw it, she insisted that we get a purple Dumbo. I looked up the line and counted out the groups ahead of us and compared it to the number of Dumbos, 16, (and the number of purple Dumbos, 2) and then steeled her to the fact that since we were the 14th group in line, the odds weren’t good we’d get a purple, especially if the purple one landed right in front of the line. I suggested a green one, but as it turns out, we were able to dart to the back of the cirlce and score the second purple one. She controlled it well, soaring right to the top as fast as possible so she could look down and see Mommy and wave.

It was really fun; her eyes wide, mouth open, hair blowing in the wind as we zoomed around on the back of a purple Dumbo. Of course, she wanted to go on it again, but we thought it best to make sure she saw other things too. One thing we went on that I hadn’t been on since I was probably Natalie’s age was the Casey Jr. Circus Train; we sat in the Wild Animals Cage car for the trip, and it was the only thing all day that I think Matthew enjoyed.

Lunch at Village Haus Restaurant (which I remembered being called Geppetto’s Resturant, or something like that) consisted of ridiculously overpriced food, but I was surprised at one thing: There is a lot more fresh fruit at the snack stands and resturants around the park than I remember; it’s everywhere, bananas, apples, oranges. I only remember churros, sodas and those giant lollipops shaped like Mickey Mouse when I was younger, and on your way out the exit that night, they handed you recommendations for local dentists and coupons for dentures.

With our season passes, we enjoyed a 10 percent discount on all the food, which takes care of the tax at least. Hey, it was better than nothing, but my $9 bacon cheeseburger left me a little hungry, and I can’t imagine how Natalie’s $5 glop of macaroni and cheese filled her needs either, especially when she dropped most of it on the floor. I think the only one happy with their food was Matthew, who devoured his share of the fresh fruit bowl.

However, Kara’s sandwich left her a little sick to her stomach, which kept her out of action for an hour or so.

While Kara was changing one of Matty’s three poopy diapers of the day (why he saved it all up for that day is beyond me), Natalie and I rode the tea cups, and since Kara can’t handle spinning rides—I haven’t gone on that ride since I met her; it’s no fun going by yourself—I had to teach her the ropes of how to make the cup go around. Natalie’s Baby Sara even came along for the spin, and though I took it easy on Natalie, it was too much for me not to give the cup a few good hard spins to push her back into the rim. She squealed with delight.

We parked the stroller at ToonTown and took the train around the park, through the Grand Canyon and a visit to the dinosaurs and then back to ToonTown, where Natalie got her picture taken with Goofy and we all took a tour of Mickey’s and Minnie’s houses.

Matthew was getting tired—well, we all were but him specifically.

In ToonTown, they have the Gadget’s Go Coaster, a short 30-second roller coaster for kids, though I thought it would have been too fast for Natalie’s tastes. I was wrong. Kara and Matthew watched while I took her through the line, and every time the coaster whooshed overhead, Natalie’s face burst into a smile and she said, “How fun!”

We were in row five of the train (I'm waiving), and as it climbed to the top of the first incline, the people in front of us (a mother and daughter) both raised up their hands. I’m sure Natalie, who has never been on a roller coaster before, thought that just what people do when they ride a roller coaster, so she let go of the bar and put up her hands, all the while, a big smile streaming across her face. The train of cars reached the summit. The familiar clicking gave way to the roar of the wheels on the track, and we started our decent. Natalie’s hands instantly grabbed onto the bar as we twisted and turned around on the ride, and she tucked her head under my arm and held on tight. At the end, she said it was her favorite ride!

While Matthew slept (finally), Kara and I took turns escorting Natalie on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in what is now called Critter Country (nee Bear Country), which she went on three times in a row. If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t feel bad, I hadn’t either. However, picture where the Country Bear Jamboree used to be and put in a Fantasyland-esque “dark ride” and a bunch of broke-open honey pots and you’ve got the Pooh ride. Incidentally, it fits the dark theme in the same manner as the rest of them, because Pooh’s soul leaves his body during a dream sequence. I can’t verify this exactly. I really wasn’t paying attention too closely, as I was watching Natalie enjoy the ride and thatwas much more enjoyable than the ride itself.

We avoided Tomorrowland, not on purpose, we just didn’t go in that direction, but there’s nothing really there for us yet. People Movers are gone, so is the Submarine ride, and even what replaced the People Movers is gone too. The Skyway has stopped dumping people off there. The Monorail was closed for the day and Autopia (which I irritatingly heard being pronounced by people all day as “auto-topia”) was always crowded. She can’t go on Space Mountain or Star Tours until she grows another three inches, and I thought we would save the Rockets (excuse me, Astro Orbitors, as they call them now) for a later trip.

There was plenty that we didn’t do, for whatever reason, but that is okay. We have season passes; we can do it next time, but if I had shelled out $170 for the three of us (Matthew's free) to get in for just one day (10am to 8pm), I would have been miffed with all that we didn’t get to do. It’s not like we sat around and stared at the people walking by. It was an action-packed day, at least action-packed for those with single-digit ages.

We ended it with hot cocoa and cookies, sitting on the curb by the Main Street train station waiting for the parade, and there must have been technical difficulties as it started 20 minutes late. Natalie sat in my lap and a five-year-old girl from Colorado sat next to us and told us all about her Cinderella phone and blinking-light necklace. By the time the parade started, my feet were completely asleep and tingly, but I still managed to get some good video of Natalie in awe of the sights of the parade, especially of the princess float.

All in all, it was a great first day. Natalie earned her ears on her first day at Disneyland, but I think we’ll wait until Matthew doesn’t want to eat them before we get a pair for him. So far, he’ll have to settle with the frightening memories of some queen yelling at him, “Off with your head!”

Ah, Disneyland. They say it is the Magic Kingdom, but I didn’t find any magic in the park that day, no matter where I looked or how hard I searched. The real magic was found in the sparkle of Natalie’s eyes, as she gazed at all of the wonders of the happiest place on earth.

Guess who’s going to be a princess for Halloween?

Matthew on Disneyland? He could take it or leave it.


Tris said...

Lucky you! It doesn't look too crowded. The photos of the coaster are great; my compliments to Kara for those. In the photo with Matt in your arms, where in the park are you?

Ryan said...

We're standing in line, waiting for the train at the ToonTown station. The camera is pointing southwest with the Princess show behind us.


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