It’s quiet, with the faint hint of music playing in the hotel lobbies in the background. I first discovered it when I offered to grab my wife one early morning a coffee at the shop in the hotel. But the moment I exited the elevator (and the haunting overture from The Jungle Book was playing in the speakers), that I realized I had discovered something unique.
It was still dark outside and I was alone.
I walked along the pool, passed the Tangaroa Terrace restaurant (with its fireplace still ablaze). There is a smell to Disneyland that I have yet to put my finger on, but the blossoms around the hotel and the restaurant added to its intoxication.
It was so peaceful that I almost felt a tinge of regret when the coffee shop finally opened at 6 AM and I had to make my purchase and return to the room and the excited kids. Dawn was approaching, a new day of adventure. Holding sweaty palms, wondering about bathroom breaks, and taking a lot of pictures.
That pre-dawn walk became a little ritual for me during my stay, and I picked up a coffee for my wife every morning at the same time. She always said thank you, but she didn’t need to.
It was for both of us.
Before I came to Disneyland on that family trip I had my own private Disney ghosts.
I always remember my first visit, on a rainy afternoon when it felt like I had the entire park all to myself. I walked off and back onto all of the rides, over and over again (the first time was the thrill, I returned after to study, like a patron in an art museum). I went on to have an annual pass during my stay at the University of Southern California and would go often, sometimes with friends or families, but many times alone.
Disneyland was an escape for me then. I could forget my responsibilities, my stress (What was I going to do after graduating? What was I going to do with my writing? My books? My screenplays? Where was I going in my life? Etc.) and just be… me.
I even wrote part of my thesis while there, sitting at a table in the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café and the Refreshment Corner (I loved those hot dogs), scribbling away on my notepad, studying out of the corner of my eye the other guests. Now and then I would glance at my watch, mentally checking off the work I needed to do before I visited pirates and other park attractions.
It was like therapy on a grand scale. A calming that felt necessary. And really, I have never felt anything like it since.
People often like to write horror stories about trips to the park. It’s always easier to write bad reviews of things than good, it taps into a cynical part of the brain that we can all giggle over. But the park, even on a busy day, was never that for me. And to this day, if I am feeling stressed or over-anxious about something, I can put on music or a soundtrack from a ride and slip back into that mental and emotional cool I felt there.
It is almost like a meditation.
On the first night of arriving in the park, my son and I sneaked away while my younger daughter went to bed early with my wife, exhausted from our flights in.
The two of us took the monorail and rushed through the crowds. I was a pro at doing this, but now I was holding a small hand, carrying him sometimes. He was taking everything in, I was returning to a location I knew like the back of my hand. I casually pointed out the different attractions to him; he tiredly blinked, his mouth slightly ajar in wonder. Looking back I should have gone slower, allowed him this moment.
He wanted to do the Haunted Mansion first (brave kid), and he held my arm as we rode our doom buggy. He said he liked the ghosts singing, but didn’t like the ghost dangling from the ceiling in the opening. We also walked through Tarzan’s Treehouse, which he seemed to enjoy more. Then I raced him back to get a good night’s sleep. The real trip would begin the next day.
It was that night when he was falling asleep that I first realized that this trip was going to change the park for me. My once-held tranquility would come with footnotes now, and new memories.
For I would share its ownership now.
They never say what you lose when you go to Disneyland with the kids.
You lose normalcy.
What I mean are those endless days that slip by under the responsibility of parenting. Get the kids up, get them dressed, make lunches, drop them off, get them to bed, etc. It’s almost criminal how easy it is for all of us to let those days, months and years merge together and then disappear, Mondays bleeding into Tuesdays, Tuesdays into Wednesdays. They are just “another day” but in actuality they are each unique, we just don’t take the time to note them, or even remember.
The thing is now for me that if I could capture one moment of my life, preserve it in a bottle, it would have been those days at the park with my family. Even those moments when the kids were over excited, too sleepy, I would still choose any one of those seconds, and happily live an eternity of it. That is the heaven.
Someday my kids will grow up, have their own families, their important and special family moments are ahead of them. For me though, the park is changed and will never go back. And every time I am lucky to return to the park in the future, the shadow over me will no longer be my own solo time there, but will be the first time I spent there with my little ones. The little ones who grow bigger and older each day.
Each ride, each attraction, will have its own personal ghost of that, from laughing with my son to carrying my daughter on my shoulders.
I feel this change down to my bones.
In the end this all may be silly, and I’m just a sentimental fool lost somewhere between a daydream of innocence and make believe. Yet, I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, Walt would have gotten what I am saying.
It is a gift, and it has lovingly been passed on. At least that is what I thought each morning as I walked through the hotel, enjoying the silence before the dawn.
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