I turned 56 yesterday, and I celebrated by visiting an old friend who was, like me, also established in 1955: Disneyland. In some ways my life can be divided into two eras, the first being from birth to 1976, during which my single enduring ambition in life was to get to Disneyland (at age 3, I'm told, I begged my L.A. business-trip-bound dad to let me climb into his suitcase). The second era, after my fateful first Disneyland visit that Bicentennial summer, has involved manipulating my life in various ways to get myself back there as often as possible. This obsession has led to, without exaggeration, scores of return trips either to the Mothership in Anaheim or the more sprawling, if somewhat less magical, colony in Orlando.
Now, please understand I'm not one of those Mouseka-geeks who fawn over the names on every second-story window on Main Street or bellow in outrage when the Overlords of Disney decide to modify or (heaven forbid) close an attraction. But I have been going through the turnstiles long enough to remember A-through-E-Ticket attractions, and Voyage Through Inner Space (Presented by Monsanto!), and America Sings and the beloved People Mover. I actually rode the almost-never-open Davy Crockett canoes, remember when there were two Autopia rides, and recall when the ride was called "Snow White's Adventure (Scary)" instead of the latter-day "Snow White's Scary Adventure." I was privileged to be a guest on Disneyland's 50 th Birthday, and was doubly honored to be ushered for a quick visit to Walt's private apartment above the Firehouse in the Town Square. If you had told 3-year-old Billy Newcott in 1958 that 47 years hence he would have that experience, he would have begged you to put him into a coma until then, because really, what more could life have to offer in the interim?
Today was one of those glorious middling attendance days at Disneyland, when no ride has more than a 15 minute or so wait. So upon passing into the Town Square I was happy to drop in on Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln without the nagging fear that I was burning precious line-standing daylight. The Lincoln show-which was gone for a couple of years in favor of a very good 50 th Birthday film starring Steve Martin-has been restored to its original format, the one Walt approved for the Illinois pavilion at the 1964-5 New York World's Fair (and for those of us kids cursed by the cruel accident of geography that caused us to be born a continent away from Disneyland, Walt's participation in the Fair was akin to that moment in the New Testament when Paul the Apostle was granted a glimpse of Heaven). They've kept the original soundtrack, but the Abe Lincoln robot is astonishingly improved-from two rows back I could see subtle facial expressions, and he shows endearing human qualities, occasionally referring to the written notes he holds in one hand, and glancing behind him before he sits back down in his chair as The Battle Hymn of the Republic swells. It was always a good (and under-attended) show; Mr. Lincoln is now better than ever.
A quick walk down Main Street put me at the drawbridge of Cinderella's Castle, and I was struck by how quaintly tiny it is. By coincidence of schedule, just two weeks ago I was at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, where Sleeping Beauty's Castle towers almost threateningly above the landscape (but I will say they do a new nighttime light show in Orlando, using the castle as a massive projection screen, that is quite simply jaw-dropping). This castle in Anaheim, the one Walt himself built while long on imagination but short on budget, is appealingly squat, and its use of forced perspective is almost childlike. It radiates make-believe, and for most inside and outside the Disney fold, after 50 years of Disney-erected castles on these shores and distant ones, it remains the sentimental favorite.
There was no line on the Jungle Cruise, and that's a rare thing. The skipper of my boat-I think her name was Tammi-was one of the best I'd ever heard; in fact, there were two skippers-in-training sitting by her side, hanging on every joke ("Isn't that nice? Those lions are watching over that sleeping zebra!"... "That headhunter is having a special today: He'll trade you two of his heads for one of yours!"). While working his way through college a few years ago, my son Zack landed a job as a Jungle Cruise skipper, perhaps the most prestigious position in all of theme parkdom. I watched him work once, and as I saw him there in his jungle outfit, firing his cap gun over the heads of the hippos ("They're only dangerous if their ears are wiggling...oh no!"), snapping off one half-century-old gag after another ("That's Schweitzer Falls, named after Dr. Albert Falls"), I found myself thinking I would trade places with him in an instant. Felt the same way about Tammi today. Tammi, I'm sure you go home and complain to your pals about how Disney makes you walk all the way to the cruise dock before you clock in, and about how the Main Street Parade can make you late for work, and about how easily the boats can run off their submerged rails, and about how little you get paid. But you are a freakin' Jungle Cruise skipper, and 46 years from now, when Disneyland turns 100, you will not trade the experience for every penny in your IRA, or whatever the government will expect you to survive on by then.
After the Jungle Cruise I checked off Pirates of the Caribbean (they've added Johnny Depp robots, and I think it's a good move) and the Haunted Mansion (still love those singing plaster busts), and I was about to leave when one last ride called me, the strangest ride of all in Disneyland, the one with the most totally whacked-out finale, the ride that, when it's over, has you asking yourself, "Did I just dream that?"-Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Now, when you're walking past Mr. Toad, it looks suspiciously like a cheap carnival dark ride. You know, one of those low-rent fun houses where you sit in an electrically driven car that takes you through a series of supposedly scary rooms. And yes, the propulsion system of Mr. Toad seems to be no more sophisticated than what you'd find at a Jaycees Fair. It's the story line that makes Mr. Toad seem like the fever dream of a burnt-out acidhead. You're in this car, and the first thing you know you're driving through a library. And then you're plowing through a crowd at a pub, like one of those drivers you read about in the newspapers. Next you're on some London dock, rushing full-on into a stack of gun powder kegs, and before you know it, you're driving like mad through a courtroom, where a judge declares you're "GUILTY!!" But believe it or not, the truly weird, the utterly, profoundly disturbing part, is yet to come. Because no sooner do you escape the courtroom in your runaway car than you drive smack head-on into an oncoming locomotive! And for a finale-are you sitting down for this?-you go to HELL! That's right, you're surrounded by demons with pitchforks, and up ahead is Satan himself, condemning you to an eternity in a fiery, torturous pit!!
Gentle reader, I am closely related to a number of people who have, over the years, accused Disney of being anti-faith, hopelessly New Age-y, and a mindless purveyor of a mystical, magic-based theology. For them, I would prescribe a little spin with Mr. Toad. True, his theology is far from fully formed, but he does emphatically remind us that when we croak, there could be hell to pay.