I’ve wanted to write a post with this title since my first visit to Disneyland in 2011. I will probably still write about the different types of Disneyland differences in future posts, but today, it’s all about the intangible.
The date of my first visit is actually embarrassing to admit – a lifelong Disney fan such as myself only visiting the original park that started it all, just 4 short years ago. And yet, I feel such love and devotion to this place, it’s almost as if I’ve now edited it into my childhood memories and have meshed its history with my own. How can that be, you may wonder? How can a theme park in the former Anaheim orange groves, a place with rides and parades and corn dogs have so much impact on a girl that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in New England?
Well, the answer to that question could be found at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. Oddly, I didn’t visit that spot until last September, but after roaming through its rooms and soaking up every chapter of the Walt Disney story on two different visits now, I had so much more respect, love and reverence for the man behind the name. The why of Disneyland can be found there. The how of Disneyland can be found there, along with all of Walt’s history and accomplishments. Of course I knew Walt’s story before I went to Disneyland, visiting the museum just expounded that knowledge and respect. So is that the answer? Is Walt himself the “Disneyland Difference”? In a word, yes. In many more words, continue reading…
Obviously, Walt is no longer walking down Main Street, or spending the night in the family apartment above the firehouse. But the fact that he did, the fact that he put so much of himself into his park and in turn into its stewards, is truly the definition of a legacy. Much like oral traditions passed down from family to family, the Walt Disney story, the Walt Disney philosophy and work ethic and determination and desire to make families happy and entertained – has lived on and spread like the unfurling roots of a great tree.
As with all great figures in history, Walt had his own disciples to spread his good word over the years. I don’t mean that in an irreverent or sarcastic way, I mean it very seriously. Walt had a different way of doing things from the very start. If he had an idea, and he couldn’t make it work, he didn’t give up on it, he figured out a new way to make it happen. That could mean a completely new way of creating and sharing animation, it could mean hiring great people to make his ideas come to pass, or it could mean a completely new way of designing and building a family amusement park. Because of his ideas, and his ideals, as his reputation grew, so did people’s desire to work with him. Animators led the way for Imagineers, and together they carried on the work, as well as the quality of work, that Walt established from the start. In addition to the way Walt did things, he had a very particular way of telling the story he wanted to tell. And those two combinations are forever etched within the walkways and walls of Disneyland. While the park has changed over the years, there are still stories which will never evanesce from the grounds, no matter how many other things may.
Walt did not just want to have us ride a merry-go-round or a train, he wanted to take us on an adventure, and be a part of the story along the way. As a result, we do leave the world behind and enter into a world of yesteryear, fantasy, adventure, or tomorrow. Walt found the perfect equation to make everyone happy in his park, with the caveat that it would never be finished. The initial fear from investors that the idea would be a flop and fail within weeks was proven wrong within days. Turns out we did want to remember the past and hope for the future, and we wanted to do it again and again.
When Walt was no longer around to tell his stories, others passed on the tradition. When you get a corn dog from the Little Red Wagon, or board a pirate ship to fly over London, you may be helped by someone who’s mother worked in the same park, or who’s grandmother remembers the time she visited the park and Walt was there, waving to guests. The stories, the legends, the myths, are passed on. We are lucky enough to still have some of those first-hand stories shared by original Imagineers, or Disney Legends like Richard Sherman. I think any of us would happily sit in a room and listen to them talk for hours, still fondly remembering the man and his ideas, as if Walt had just walked out of the room a minute before.
The spirit and energy that has been there since day one hovers over the park like an invisible cloud, enveloping the park and all within it. From the crowded moments when you just want to get a FastPass to ride Space Mountain one more time, to the quiet moments of solitude, when it’s just the music, the twinkling lights, and the faint scent of popcorn; it’s all still there. The simple joy. The memories. The promise.
Some of those same experiences may be felt in Walt Disney World and other Disney parks, but none of them will ever duplicate the uniqueness, the charm, and yes, the comfort that is Disneyland. Perhaps that is why this little girl who grew up in far off Massachusetts and had only ever visited Walt Disney World in its vast expanse of family fun, felt instantly at home, walking down the very first Main Street, U.S.A. Much like putting on prescription glasses for the first time and seeing every leaf – vibrant and crisply outlined on every tree; Disneyland is concentrated, amplified Disney magic. Which I know, sounds corny and cliched, but there is no other way to describe it: the perfect storm of all the senses coming to life, even the ones which lie hidden within our hearts and our minds and cannot be put into words (despite my feeble attempts to do so).
If you were to take away all of the walk-around characters, all of the merchandise and specialty-anything at Disneyland today, it would still be the Happiest Place on Earth. That moniker does not come from profits or stockholders or board room decisions. It comes from the heart of the park, which is, in fact, the heart of its guests, and in turn its cast members. Walt knew that, and succeeded at putting hopes and dreams behind a turnstile, where you could visit them any time you wanted. Disneyland itself became our best friend. Our first love. Our stolen kiss under the stairs. Our tears of remembrance. Our hope for a better tomorrow. Our happily ever after.
Happy Birthday, Disneyland. It may have taken me a while, but I found my way to you. And much like the person who guided me to you on my first visit, you were worth waiting for.
Here’s to 60 times 60 more years of memories to come.