On Disneyland and Magic

Vacations are not something my family has been great at coordinating. By “my family” I mean my little immediate family consisting of Nik and Callie and myself; as a kid I remember my parents loading my brother and I up in cars or RVs pretty regularly and taking jaunts to visit family in the Midwest or camping or some other exploratory excursion. Somehow as an adult a combination of financial concerns and a heavy demand on my limited vacation time due to three distinct extended family units has meant stringing a full week of days off together with some sort of plan has been a challenge. This year we made a pact that we were going to have a real family vacation no matter what, and I carefully rationed my PTO days so we could take Callie to Disneyland as our “big” gift to her for her third birthday.

Disneyland is, to Nik and I, one of the few vacation-y spots we’ve made trips to in the almost 13 years of our marriage, although again, we’ve never put a full week of vacation into one of these visits, usually lumping our returns in with some other event like a wedding or a concert or a convention. But whenever we’re in the neighborhood and can swing it, we try to make it a point to spend a little time in the parks because we both share a particular fondness for the Magic Kingdom. I know my enthusiasm for Disneyland originates from several of those family trips as a kid where my brother and parents and I would gamely brave the summer lines to experience Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and The Jungle Cruise. Later, when Disneyland became a thing that I did more with friends or with Nik, the nostalgia buoyed the trips beyond the middling thrills offered me many of the rides compared to other destinations. It helped that while Nik enjoys the sort of safe-n-sane excitement of Space Mountain, she’s far more leery than I of the bigger/crazier/loopier rides and coasters at places like Six Flags. I may be a roller coaster nut, game for just about any steel-rail madness the engineers can devise, but a minimum of half the fun is experiencing it with someone else, so I’ll take any ride over no ride and Disney seems to offer the happiest middle ground between my wife and I.

Yet, nostalgia can carry you only so far. In one of the last trips Nik and I made to Anaheim prior to Callie being born, we paused at one point and wondered aloud if we had gotten to the point where Disneyland was no longer quite the same for people of our advancing age to do alone. Unsaid but understood was that it wasn’t Disneyland that was changing, it was us, and we made a half-joking, half-serious pact to make it a point to return only when we had children of our own to bring along.

Flash forward five years or so and after initially nixing a trip somewhere in Callie’s second year for fear of her being too little to really appreciate it (and, as usual, the time off/funding conundrums), we decided three was a good age to introduce our daughter to the magic we both felt from our trips early in our lives to Disneyland. I confess, this put a fair amount of pressure on me and, to an extent (although I hope she didn’t feel it at all) Callie to make the trip memorable, to instill that sense of awe and wonder present as a child in the park that had taken well over twenty years to completely shed.

There is a piece written by SF author Neal Stephenson called In The Beginning Was The Command Line, which is interesting in and of itself, but applicable here in that there is a digression within where Stephenson notes that among Disney’s principal characteristics is their ability to nail user interfaces. Which is to say, the facade of a place like Disneyland, the way the park presents itself to guests and the way the customers interact with the park, the rides, the queues, even just the visual presentation of information and experience is a huge part of what makes Disneyland (and other Disney theme parks, presumably) have that unique factor which makes it, and not, say, Magic Mountain, the most visited amusement park in the world. Six Flags’ close proximity might make it a stronger competitor, and on paper it may perhaps be even better with more rides and more exciting attractions (and shorter lines), but Six Flags isn’t a theme park, and the lack of theme is part of why it is a second run to the Disney mega-destination.  It’s not just that Disneyland seems better curated, it is a more engaging place to be, because even when you’re not on a ride you’re immersed in a place where the details matter, whether you notice it consciously or not.

The challenge became trying to get an energetic and strong-willed toddler to acknowledge and appreciate these details, or to appreciate much of anything beyond “what else you got?” I went in to the trip armed with apps and maps and game plans and strategies to hit the attractions that I considered to be the highlights, determined to depart the trip with a child who recognized what it was that made mommy and I so excited when we advertised (starting about two months before her birthday and three and a half months before the actual trip) our destination. I knew going in that some things were going to have to be deferred; I don’t know that I necessarily remember my very first visit to Disneyland. I think my parents took me when I was about Callie’s age, maybe a touch younger. I have a hazy memory of the Autopia ride and my mom being pregnant with my brother, though that could be a confabulation with a different park (possibly Great America which is local). I know that by the time my brother and I went during the 30th Anniversary event for the park (in 1985) I was already enraptured by the place and the possibilities inherent in a parent-sponsored trip. I would have been seven years old at the time, and it was probably the first time I was tall enough to go on all the “big kid” rides like Space Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

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