Friday, March 11, 2011

You can't cry at the happiest place on earth

I first visited Disneyland when I was 15 years old. It was part of a trip my sophomore year in high school. I was in the marching band and we were performing at half time of a then LA Rams and San Francisco 49er's game. All summer I'd sold light bulbs, washed cars and picked up garbage at the Idaho State Fair to raise money to pay for the trip.

It was my first flight on an airplane and the first time I'd stayed in a hotel without my parents. We flew into San Diego and toured the zoo and Sea World. Then we boarded a bus and drove to LA. We spent one day at Disneyland where we were supposed to march down Main Street. But it was raining so we didn't get to perform.

Disneyland had always been one of those mythical places to me. I'd grown up watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on a black and white television every Sunday night. Every now and then they would feature the amazing rides at Disneyland. It was always tantalizingly out of reach for me.

Vacations for our family always consisted of packing up my father's 1940s era Chevrolet with camping gear and driving to either the Sawtooth Mountains or McCall, Idaho on the shores of Payette Lake. We never stayed in hotels or motels and we most certainly never left Idaho.  Disneyland was pretty much not in the picture.

So having the opportunity to go to Disneyland when I was 15 was pretty cool. Even in the rain, I was pretty awestruck at the time. Back then, there were still in the A, B, C, D and E ticket mode. This was 1973. E tickets were the big rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. A and B tickets were stuff like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and the tea cups.

I bring up Disneyland and my nostalgia over my band trip because I just got back from a trip to Disneyland with my family. And I have to tell you, it's a lot different going there now then it was 38-years ago. For one, I was pushing a stroller with my 4-year old daughter in it while my wife pushed another stroller with my 2-year old son in it. It is amazing how your priorities shift when you go to Disneyland with your kids. Instead of dashing as fast as I could to get in line for Space Mountain or Thunder Mountain Railroad, we maneuvered our strollers down Main Street to have breakfast with the Disney characters at the Plaza Inn.

Gone are the tickets, too. You buy one day passes or three-day park hopper passes for the price of a small car to have unlimited access to Disneyland or California Adventure and all of the rides. Unlimited access actually means unlimited access to the infamous Disney lines that deceive you into entering a ride queue thinking it is short only to discover it loops back on itself a million times through an intricate maze of chains and stanchions. We must have waited in line 45 minutes for the Dumbo ride for a 20-second flight in the flying elephants.

I have to hand it to Disney. They are geniuses at maximizing the opportunities to separate happy visitors from their life savings. After plunking down your four or five hundred dollars to get your family into the happiest place on earth, they employ their mass merchandising resources to extract out hundreds more for character dining experiences. Then they deploy photographers at strategic photogenic spots to snap your family photos and soft sell you on buying the memories online.

And, after winding your way through a beautifully landscaped maze of Pixie Hollow to have your children meet Tinker Belle (dutifully photographed by the Disney photographer), you find yourself exiting through a gift shop exploding with Tinker Belle merchandise. More than once we had to shake off our weariness and speed wheel the strollers through stacks of glittering bobbles before the protests of our children reached the critical meltdown stage.

It was hard to believe after gazing wearily at the throngs of people at Disneyland that we as a nation are still in the recovery stage of the recession. As we walked  toward Cinderella's Castle, we passed a couple comforting their daughter as she threw up a corn dog. I began to focus on the crying of other children pushed to the edge by one too many moments of happiness. And I felt remorse at the terror I instilled in my own children by taking them through the Haunted Mansion. My two-year old son and four-year old daughter weren't quite ready for what I used to think of as harmless cartoon like ghosts. As the famous stretching room just inside the mansion began descending, my son uttered a heart wrenching, "I want to go home."

It was then that the irony of crying at the happiest place on earth stuck me. You have to love mass marketing.

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