Try as I might, I can’t let this week’s 50th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland go by without comment. I know it’s sort of cool these days to dismiss the entire Disney corporation as an evil empire whose sole aim is to lure our children into their corporate lair like crack pushers in the school playground and create new generations of mindless consumers with glazed eyes and open wallets. I have often joined in anti-Disney rants, railing about the over-commercialization, condemning Disney’s distorted treatment of women, sympathizing with showbiz friends who say it’s the cheapest studio in town, and repeating speculation that Walt Disney himself was an anti-Semite (Jews were the butt of many jokes in the early Disney cartoons—in one scene in the original version of “The Three Little Pigs,” the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler—an image straight out of Der Stürmer). But in the privacy of my own blog, do you want to know what I really think about Disney’s worldwide domination?
I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it!
Being the pop culture slave that I am, many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around Disney. Seminal moments of personality development occurred as I was hooked up to the IV drip of the Disney machine. My supersized Disney diet included such staples as the Mickey Mouse Club, The Absent-Minded Professor, Babes in Toyland, Swiss Family Robinson, Mary Poppins, The Sword in the Stone, The Three Lives of Thomasina, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat, The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, The Happiest Millionaire, The Gnome-Mobile, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Jungle Book, and, every Sunday night, Disney’s Wonderful World of COLOR, COLOR, COLOR! (Please note that the absence of the classic Disney animated films on my list is only because of the lack of VCRs and revival screenings in the 1960s—I came to love those films later on.) But by far the most exciting Disney experience of my childhood had to be my trips to Disneyland.
Our first visit to the Happiest Place on Earth occurred during the 1967 Summer of Love. While hippies and other counterculture types were gathering in the head shops of Haight-Ashbury, I was breathing in the psychedelic fumes of Disney Spirit. We stayed in the glorious Disneyland Hotel (back when there was only one official hotel for the park—I believe this original one was recently bulldozed)—a child’s Shangri-La complete with themed restaurants, a monorail stop that would take us right into Disneyland, and a distinct smell of oranges (did they pipe in this artificial smell in memory of the groves that once filled these 100 acres?). It’s almost embarrassing to admit how excited I was to hurl myself into the Disney dream. Somewhere in a box in Chicago is my dog-eared scrapbook of the trip, stuffed with Mickey Mouse-shaped menus, Instamatic portraits of our encounters with Goofy, Winnie the Pooh, and Chip n’Dale, and remnants of our Disneyland ticket books.
In those days you paid a very small admission fee to get inside the park ($2.00 for adults and 60 cents for children) and then you purchased ticket books for the different rides which were given with A through E designations. The coveted E-tickets, of course, were for the Big Experiences like the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Submarine Voyage, and It’s a Small World, a ride that premiered a few years earlier at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Going on this ride helped me deal with the trauma I still felt at being left behind during my family’s fabled vacation to the World’s Fair. E-Tickets were supposed to be the most sought after coupons but I also favored the more sedate C-Tickets that provided entry into escapist fare such as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Mike Fink’s Keel Boats.
We stuffed our faces at Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen where large African-American waitresses called us “honey chile” and recreated the “happy, carefree days” of life in the Old South (the NAACP must have rightfully protested this throwback because the name of the restaurant was changed to the Magnolia Tree Terrace in 1970). We went on Monsanto’s Adventures Through Innerspace (Disneyland pioneered the idea of amusement park rides with heavy corporate sponsorship) and I truly believed with all my heart that we were shrinking down to microscopic bits as we explored the world residing inside a snowflake. As we exited our little cars which had miraculously returned to normal size, we were shown the “modern miracles created by rearranging the molecules, not only of water, but of air, coal, petroleum and many other raw materials. THIS IS MONSANTO!”
We marveled over “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” (which also debuted at the blasted 1964 World’s Fair) featuring the first fully functioning audio-animatronic human figure who actually stood up, spoke, and gestured to the audience. Amazing. What if the rumors of Disney’s predelictions were true and this technology was secretly handed over to our enemies? Can you imagine “Great Moments with Adolf Hitler” with a walking, talking Fuhrer and an army of audio-animatronic SS officers?
The Disney “Imagineers” had also created the brand new “Pirates of the Caribbean” which featured a whopping collection of 64 fake human figures and 55 fake animals. This was my favorite ride and we waited again and again in the hellish lines to join the bloodthirsty pirates on their rampage through a Caribbean outpost. What other children’s ride in the world boasts a scenario that is centered around rape and pillaging? We learned the word “wench” and laughed when the local women were caught by the lascivious pirates. “Yo-ho-ho, the pirate’s life for me!” Four decades later, the pirates are still chasing women, but as a 1990s nod to political correctness, we are now supposed to believe that they are chasing them for the trays of foods that have been awkwardly placed in their audio-animatronic hands instead of for their bodies. Oy.
Our second trip to the Magic Kingdom occurred in 1971. My parents were in the middle of their hideous divorce, and during the worst of it my dad got the idea to squirrel us away to California for a bit of a reprieve. The Times They Were a-Changin’ at the Happiest Place on Earth. The summer before Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies had invaded the park and forced it to close early for the first time ever. While the park had just welcomed its 100 millionth guest, the changing political climate had forced the closure of Frontierland’s Indian village (featuring REAL Indians, the signs boasted—dirt poor locals who were forced to shvitz in the sun all day long looking authentic while tourists riding by on the Disneyland Railroad snapped their photos). The Indian War Canoes became the Davy Crocket Explorer canoes and that paean to the Old South, the Magnolia Tree Terrace, was shut down for good.
Our new favorite ride was New Orleans Square’s Haunted Mansion, another marvel from those clever Imagineers. The original plans for the ride told the story of the owner of the house, a wealthy sailor who built the mansion for his soon-to-be wife. When the wife discovered that the sailor was actually a pirate, he had no choice but to axe-murder her just before their wedding. At the last minute Walt decided this story was a bit too frightening for the kiddies so they did away with it while keeping many of the original props including the distorted wedding march, the skeletal bride with the glowing, beating heart, and the disembodied heads that popped up in the graveyard screaming “I do!” to taunt the would-be bride.
In 1971, Tomorrowland was looking a bit tired. Following the Apollo lunar landing in 1969, Disneyland’s “Voyage to the Moon” was given a minor facelift and renamed “Mission to Mars” but it still looked woefully out of date compared to the real NASA footage we were able to see every night on the news. This image of the future where everything was encased in sparkling white plastic was starting to seem a little retro but it wasn’t until 1998 that Tomorrowland was re-envisioned as a place of color with hydrophonic farms and state-of-the-art computer technology.
My next trip to Disneyland took place in 1984 when I was in Los Angeles on a business trip. I made a nostalgic pilgrimage to the theme park which looked even more faded than it had in the 70s (Tomorrowland was now truly Yesterdayland) but what I remember most about that visit was the 30th reunion of the original Mouseketeers. There, in the flesh, were those icons of my youth, now in their mid-40s and being forced to dance and sing their original Mickey Mouse Club tunes over and over again in the blazing Orange County heat. Annette, Sharon, Bobby, Darlene, Karen, Cubby, Tommy, Cheryl, Don—they were all there, God love them. Annette Funicello, by far the most famous Mouseketeer and a bona fide Disney goddess, would soon be diagnosed with debilitating MS so this was sadly one of the last times we Baby Boomers got to see her strut her stuff and play off her “Beach Blanket Bingo” persona. And poor Darlene Gillespie, once my favorite Mouseketeer, would soon become embroiled in a case of securities fraud and spend a couple of years in the slammer.
M-I-C—See you real soon!
K-E-Y—Why? Because I LIKE you!
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1986, one of the advantages frequently repeated to me by my Chicago family and friends was that I could go to Disneyland ANYTIME I WANTED TO! But DID I want to? After Leah was born I loved introducing her to the park, especially since her French mom wouldn’t go near the place. But my youthful tolerance of the oppressive heat, endless lines, and rides that deposited you into high-priced stores was gone. I realized that it only worked when Leah and I went to Disneyland by ourselves. If another adult accompanied us, I couldn’t resist spewing a steady stream of complaints about all that was wrong with the place. When we were alone, I was better able to see Disneyland through my daughter’s eyes and remember why it was so magical for me when I was her age. I did institute a two-year rule—I could only handle a visit every two years, and that one had to be off-season, preferably a freezing rainy Tuesday in November.
The new trend is to create feature films out of Disneyland attractions. “Pirates of the Caribbean” with Johnny Depp was a surprise success, “The Haunted Mansion” with Eddie Murphy was a surprise flop. Please tell me they’re not going to make a movie version of “It’s a Small World.” If they do, it should be made as a horror film. As it is, I can never look at those scary multicultural dolls without thinking of the infamous “Trilogy of Terror” in which Karen Black is chased down and hacked to death by an African doll straight out of that evil ride.
It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all.
This simple ditty would have made Joseph Goebbels proud. Never in history has any song been implanted more easily in people’s brains, causing even the most mild-mannered Disney lover to wake up in the middle of the night, three days after their visit to Disneyland, shouting:
“SHUT UUUUP YOU FREAKING DOLLS OF SATAN!!”