This post is part of my NaNoWriMo 2017 Life Excerpts Posts.
A Childhood with Disneyland as a Playground
There’s a lot of oddities about growing up in southern California. The close proximity to Hollywood meant that movie premieres and filming locations were always within reach (though I seldom took advantage of this). Every popular American chain store imaginable was within driving distance and every band seemed to stop somewhere on tour in the region, often multiple times. And, you know, car chases and earthquakes and In’N’Out. California stuff, you know?
But in my adolescence the strangest thing was how close and how important Disneyland was to me. Not a single year in my childhood went by that I didn’t go there at least once, if not twice. During my pre-teen years when I had an annual pass that number skyrocketed even further. But from my birth in 1986 up to when I finally achieved my life long dream of having an annual pass in 1997, planning by yearly trip to Disneyland basically what kept me going every year as I trudged through the monotony of school and homework (the true struggles of every elementary school kid). If there wasn’t a Disneyland date set for the future, I was eagerly asking for when the next trip might be so I could start planning again.
I remember that I had an old Disneyland map that I’d hang above my bed in the weeks before each trip. I’d stare at that map for hours and create a strategy for how I was going to tackle the park and make the most of our day. I needed to do Splash Mountain. But if I did it in the morning I’d be wet and gross all day. If I did it in the afternoon, the line would be an hour long and I’d waste valuable time. I had to find a sweet spot. It was important. We didn’t have a lot of money and a one day ticket was expensive, so I had to maximize every second of the day.
Look at that… I was an obsessive planner even as a kid. Some things never change, eh?
I remember that we took mostly Spring and Fall trips to avoid the summer crowds, but there were occasional summer trips as well (the last week of August was always lighter than the rest of that season for some reason). I even recall a few times where my mom let me play hookie from school to go the park for the day. I felt like a complete rebel. All my fellow students were learning arithmetic and I was hanging out with Mickey Mouse. How cool was that? That THAT grade school math.
Even when I couldn’t get to the park, Disneyland was an unavoidable part of my life. I could see their fireworks show from the field next to my house. The park was just a little less than 10 miles away, but when the wind was just right and the skies were clear we could hear the booming explosions from the east and see the sparkling fireworks igniting over the tree tops across the field. Having that large empty block long field beside our house also helped making this nightly spectacle visible. This was the time when not all of southern California was developed yet. Shortly after I left that neighborhood that field was filled with giant McMansions with hardly any room between them. It’s a very different place from where I grew up, but I digress… perhaps that’s a rant for a different chapter.
Many of these pre-passholder trips were with my cousin Kristen, who was basically my sister growing up. Our moms were the youngest two children of five (with much larger gaps between the others). Me and my cousin were only 22 months apart ourselves so we grew up extremely closely simply due to age. She didn’t go nearly as frequently as I did, but many of my prominent pre-annual passholder memories feature her and her parents. I remember riding It’s A Small World with them and falling asleep on my aunt’s lap while waiting for a parade.
I don’t know where my first desire to get an annual pass came from, but I do recall a kid in elementary school having one and being just a tad jealous that he could go whenever he wanted. He could afford to waste time in line all afternoon to go on Splash Mountain at the hottest part of the day because he could go back the next day and see what he missed. How stress free must that be? I know that for many years I asked for an annual pass for both my birthday and for Christmas and one year, for who knows what reason, my mom finally got me one. It was just before my 11th birthday and I don’t know what finally tipped the scales, but this set off some of the most memorable years of my adolescence. After a decade of begging and pleading to go to the park every few months, I finally became an Annual Passholder. The park was mine.
Goal Unlocked: A Disneyland Annual Pass Has Been Acquired
Unless you “grew up Disney,” it’s hard to describe what this experience is like. You can go whenever you want, for however long you want, and do as much or as little as you want. Your life becomes consumed by Disney which, for a pre-teen, isn’t exactly a bad thing. Rebellion takes on a different context. While many my age were starting to rebel in a typical pre-teen and teen fashion, I was rebelling by seeing how many times in a row I could go on Gadget’s Go Coaster before I felt ill. That was my rebellion. (I think I went at least a dozen time one night because there was nobody in line and the guy didn’t make me get off the ride. I didn’t get sick! Success!).
Don’t get me wrong – “bad kids” still existed at Disneyland. It’s something we all go through. Even I rebelled, despite my wholesome Disney persona. I still did things I shouldn’t have done all while wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt. I had certain teen life experiences far earlier than I should have and I didn’t always listen to my mom. In fact, I argued with her quite a bit. I stayed up way too late and sometimes I cussed. Yes, I cussed at Disneyland. How that didn’t earn me a life time ban I darn diddly do not know. But the point is, I went through what many people go through in their pre-teen years and yet I was still, at heart, a wholesome Disney kid. It was unusual to say the least. It was a contradiction and yet it was my life.
I did face repercussions in school for constantly wearing Disney clothing in late elementary and Junior High. Apparently that wasn’t “cool.” This affected me in High School much more severely and I began to drift away from my Disney lifestyle at that point, but for several years I was fine with being the “uncool Disney Geek” and finding a posse of like minded Disney kids who were also blessed enough to having annual passes to the Happiest Place on Earth. This was my first taste of what it was like to be “different” from others and, while I would go through a period of trying to fit in later, I did find a Happy Place at Disneyland where I could just be me.
I found my “clique” in line at the Hunchback of Notre Dame stage show. I adored this show more than I can possibly express. The movie itself was darker than most other Disney films, which I always found incredibly fascinating. It even had a darn heckin cuss word in it (Hellfire). I think this film was where I first began to love French culture and get into literature that was a tad above a pre-teen’s head. I struggled through the Victor Hugo novel at that age and probably didn’t understand half of it at the time, but I was obsessed. I had to read it.
The show was equally as fascinating. The stage wrapped around most of the audience, with a center stage where much of the action happened. I was totally in love with the character Clopin and would often select a spot in the audience where I had the best views of his action in the center of it all. I had most of his choreography memorized and could tell the subtle differences between the actors. It was… an experience.
It was my first bit of obsessive fandom activity and while it seems strange from the outside, it’s comparable to many fandoms that are not considered so strange today. People know subtle differences with sports figures, have tons of facts and stats memorized about them, and never miss a game. So really, how bad is that a kid became so enthralled by a stage show that they began to learn similarly detailed information? Even now people view my fandom activity as strange and I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t really care what people think. Still, there’s a heavy air of judgement about fan activity. There still is. Whatever.
They’d have shows four or five times a day and I’d try to be at every one of them, though I’d often have to skip one or two due to other obligations (or, let’s be real, just for a chance to sleep in sometimes). Still, I’d show up every day that I could and get in line, watch the show, exit the theater, and then get right back in line. Eventually I noticed several other people with the same habits and eventually we began to talk to each other. I don’t recall who initiated the conversation, though one person in the group group seems to recall that she approached me first. But soon our friendship network grew. Me and Leti and Jen R and Jen B and Elizabeth and our extended network of friends that would come and go in our little posse. It was a family.
But my Disney family stretched even beyond that group of people, though they were by far the most significant ones I encountered. My mom had her own clique. That group went by many names, but one pejorative term by several cast members for them was the “River Rats.” They were the ones you could find camping out for Fantasmic! more than four hours before the show. They became known for their blue tarps, which they put out on the ground to mark their space by the river before the show. Another name given to them were the “Blue Tarp People” due to this habit. They were kind of infamous. And I kind of loved the reputation.
They were also mostly older than me, so while I considered them friends, a lot of them also paralleled parental figures, or “friends of the family.” I attended the wedding between two of them and we’d often spend Thanksgiving together in the park (at The Plaza Inn restaurant, if I recall). My mom even began dating one of them, though that story is not something I want to dwell on here at this time. Bad things happen at Disneyland. Rebellious teenagers and family drama don’t just evaporate when you step into the park.
Regardless of the negative set of memories from those years, these groups were a crucial part of my life and had a profound impact on who I would eventually become. I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for this period of my life and the people who influenced me during it. I would not be able to fan over things so unashamedly or take pride in memorizing minutiae about the media I consume. I wouldn’t be as attentive to film production and narrative structure if I didn’t start analyzing Disney movies early on. I wouldn’t have even gotten into film and photography if I wasn’t so inspired by the park. It created the stepping stones for the path that led me to where I am now. I’m a big dork and it’s largely thanks to Disney.
Who I am now is not exactly straight forward. The remnants of my Disney years are hardly visible anymore. The only franchises that are owned by Disney that I still obsessively fan about are Star Wars and Marvel Studios, neither of which they had at this time in my life. But the influence it had on me remains. I am a product of Disneyland. I am a child of southern California and the accumulation of late 90’s and early 00’s passholder culture. My focus has just shifted a bit.