More than Disneyland
September 26, 2013
I wasn’t just at Disneyland a month ago. It was more than that. I was at the place of my childhood. I was two miles from the little Anaheim cul-de-sac where I grew up until age ten. Towering juniper trees stood to the left of my house. An olive tree branched out from our front yard. I flew across the blacktop street when I crashed over the handlebars on my purple bike and lodged gravel into my skin. I’d sit on the cracked sidewalks and wonder about the little ants and what they said to each other in the privacy of their tiny homes. Garbage cans sat to the right, where one time I saw thousands of squirming white maggots. On summer nights I would climb onto the rooftop with my cousins, watching the exploding colors in the Disneyland sky. I remember the map of the streets, the way the neighborhood was enormous in every way. The drive from one end to the other felt so long. Time and space had an entirely different meaning for me from 1975 to 1985. To small me, it was three times the size that it is now to grown up me. I revisit those streets on occasion when I’m back in Southern California, and the streets are so humble, so quiet. Hard to imagine they held my whole world. Even now the map of those streets are in my dreams. When I sleep, I often walk them and live in them; they are still home to me. It’s still the longest I ever lived in one place. After that, with the disruptions of life, from age ten to twenty I had 14 different addresses, and I’ve had at least eight more since then. I’ve now been rooted in one spot since 2004, but that place of my childhood in the shadows of Disneyland– that Anaheim map will always be simply Home.
By the time I was a teenager and living farther away in the Mojave Desert, Disneyland had lost its lure. I put away childish things. I knew better. I knew more. Childhood was for babies. I didn’t want any superficial promises over the reality that is life. I didn’t want any excuses for people to take things even more lightly than they already did. I watched the Tiananmen Square protests and the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake on TV. My diversions were the charged and intense kind, the newsworthy kind. I left behind a lot of things in Anaheim, and I made something new for myself in the desert. Dry wind. Wide open skies. Bright crisp winters and glowing oppressive summers. The harshness of the desert land, the trying-to-be-some-kind-of-suburb-but-failing town where I lived, the absence of anything interesting at all to actually do… something about it brought people and their goings-on into sharp focus. There was hardly anything else to pay attention to. There was no outside culture there. We were the culture. I revisited Disneyland maybe once or twice. A few hours and I was done. It didn’t do much for me.
Fast-forward 15+ years. I had two children. First one boy (so exhausted) then another (now what?) and I set my sights on Disneyland again. With our annual visits to Orange County family, it was natural to add in a visit to the big park. For most of the 1980s, entry to the park was less than $20, and an annual visit was just something we did. My mom remembers Disneyland as a small place when she was a kid during the late 1950s. Strawberry fields surrounded it and she got free entry through my grandfather’s union membership. By 2005, I found out it had become two huge parks: Disneyland plus California Adventure. Now I was the parent wandering the place with my own children. I took them to the musty coolness of Small World, Pirates and the Haunted Mansion. I gave them candy and I trolled the souvenir racks. We managed to catch a parade and the late fireworks. It became my out-of-this-world place to be, shutting out everything so I could lose myself. My exhaustion was more than physical; it was mental and creative. I had almost nothing to give. I wanted relief from pressure, and somehow taking my small children around this sprawling place did the trick. The whole integrated environments of Disneyland, the sights and sounds, the details and the big picture, the spectacle of the grand scheme of the story of Disney: I was entranced. We started to go to Disneyland again and again. Disneyland on Valentines Day. Disneyland for my birthday. Disneyland for Halloween. Disneyland in the Summer. Disneyland in the Winter. Among the people who know me, I became one of those people: an expert on the saccharine-sweet happiness that is Disneyland.
I’m still a little embarrassed about it. But I like what I like. (I’m also embarrassed that I’m embarrassed.)
As my boys got older, we considered adoption (a girl!) and spent half a year preparing to add to our family. It wasn’t meant to be. Our application fell apart (technicalities!) and we realized we weren’t ready to grow by one anyway. I returned to my art studio. Exhaustion finally dialed down. I started to make things that had been hibernating in my head for years. I returned to my sketchbooks. I connected with other artists. I went from dazed to alive. Life complications happened. Disneyland was an occasional visit, but less so as we got busier and both boys started school. I had the depth of art making back in my life. Time passed. Although I agreed with Disney-detractors that the conglomerate, princess culture, and force-fed consumerism were irritating, I could still see through it all to what that place means to me. These days, my work as an artist can be mentally exhausting. Sometimes I’m stuck on a concept for weeks. When I take a break from my creative process and family matters, I turn to a cultural diet that’s easy to digest. Sometimes I find the best answers for my studio work when I take a break from it. I follow lots of television series (I affectionately call them my dumb TV shows), I watch cartoons with my boys, I watch Hollywood movies. Popular culture is the place where I can shut off the overwrought parts of my brain. (No offense, everyone who likes popular culture like I do, but it doesn’t take too much effort to watch that stuff. You know what I mean.) When I stop being in overdrive, what’s subconscious can rise to the top.
And so, I keep ending up back at Disneyland. In August, we were there again. It had been 18 months since our last visit. I let my mind wander and wonder.
My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. –Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817
I enjoy Disneyland. I sometimes have to shed the excessive critical thinking and accept it at face value. Remembering the purity of innocent fun gives me a thrill. I look for the details that are hiding, waiting for discovery. You can make a treasure hunt out of looking for Mickey silhouettes all around the park. I found some at our last visit. There are balloons inside the It’s a Small World ride that create two Mickey shadows on the ceiling. I was so proud. I love to explore the dark corners of the rides; they insert particular details in the most surprising ways. I love to check out the nostalgic places and the brand spanking new ones too. When I shed pretentions, I’m full of wonder. I’m a kid again. And Disney likes me that way. The place is perpetual childhood. There’s a wonder about seeing the world that way, and it’s honestly something I love.
White City [the Chicago World Fair] represented itself as a representation, an admitted sham. Yet that sham, it insisted, held a truer vision of the real than did the troubled world sprawling beyond its gates. –Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America, 1982
Is there a cost to spending time in suspended disbelief for the sake of entertainment? Does a thirst for this kind of fun replace hunger for something more? How much does my participation keep the machine running, and does it make me culpable? Do we create the entertainment industry, or does it create us? Do I have to stop partaking altogether? When I’m done being a kid at Disneyland, what it’s not is what gets to me. The Disney tools of expression can be fascinating, but they lack the qualities of a real challenge to my prepossessed notions. I want a challenge. Since the Disneyland concept has its roots in Chicago’s 1893 World Fair Columbian Exposition (Walt Disney’s father worked on the construction of the pavilions), it naturally follows that the foundation of the idea has to do with entertainment, not seriousness. The skill of the Disney Imagineer makes me happy while I’m there and the escape just feels so necessary sometimes. If only these places had been created with greater creative ambition. If only that had been part of the experience all along, maybe we’d be a different people instead of a nation of children. Does that make me elitist? I don’t want this critical view to mark me as one, and I don’t want… the elites (self-proclaimed?) to think less of me for my love of the place. (What a dead end to care what people think or to try to control it!) The amusement park experience provides plenty of unadulterated happy pedestrian enjoyment. I have few complaints about that. Other than the fact that I’m starting to wonder if the American drive for fun shuts out an appetite for real art. And I wonder about the Disney conglomerate that perpetuates this industry of shallow delights. So, I really have my fun when I’m there, and then I take away plenty of material for complex social observations. It’s all a matter of choice.
At this point, for better or worse, I choose both.
Related things to check out:
• Mojave desert (Google images)
• Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (Google images)
• The San Francisco Earthquake of 1989 (Google images)
• Disney Imagineers (Wikipedia)
• Disneyland Map, 1980
• Disneyland & California Adventure Map, mid-2000s
• The Walt Disney Company (Wikipedia)
• Rose, Julie K. “The Legacy of the Fair.” Http://xroads.virginia.edu. American Studies at the University of Virginia, 1 Aug. 1996. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.
• Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. NY: Hill & Wang, 1982.
• Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness in the Fair that Changed America. NY: Crown, 2003.