‘Dizzyland’ is what my brother and sister called it, perhaps believing that it was named for the effect produced by the tea-cups ride. My child-self secretly believed that Disneyland was the first level of heaven; I had recurrent dreams that one could break through into other levels of heaven if one found a way past certain boundaries into hidden entries—my dreams had me threading through low-cut mazes of topiary into a rabbit hole, or slipping past a heavy red-velvet curtain and through a mysterious crystal-knobbed doorway, popping out into ethereal realms. But always, Disneyland was the entry point. This is what happens when you grow up agnostic in Southern California—you devise your own religion. Fantasia was my Ramayana, Disneyland was my Mecca, and Walt was my prophet.
I went to Disneyland for the first time when I was four years old, the year it opened. They had me at the Peter Pan ride; I was a convert, a zealot, a true believer. I saw Fantasia that same year. It pushed all my past-life buttons; centaurs, faeries, Greek gods, dancing Japanese mushrooms, the glorification of Nature. A bit short on dogma, but long on enchantment.
My family made pilgrimages to my Mecca once a year—occasionally more. One year my father’s employer, Aerospace, rented Disneyland for the day, for their employees and families only—a glorious day with no lines and each ride ridden as many times as we liked. Paradise. Other years, we had a blue Mexican piggy-bank painted with flowers, nearly the size of an actual pot-bellied pig, in which each family member tithed their spare change, and when the bank was full, we could go.
Once, we even met the great man himself, dapper in a gray suit and tie, with his pencil-thin mustache and a twinkle in his eye that would rival St. Nick. He got down on one knee to speak to us, his young acolytes. “How do you like my park?” he asked.
“It’s heaven!” I said, basking in the light of the guru’s attention. Walt seemed quite tickled at that, ruffled my brother’s hair and shook my hand as if I were a grown-up, and just like that I was enchanted into the cult, ready to drink any amount of Kool-aid required. (Of course, my childhood was already awash in Kool-aid and Tang. Kool-aid was our summer drink, cheaper than lemonade, and Tang was what the astronauts drank; since rockets were my father’s business, I never touched real orange juice until I went to college.)
* * * * * *
“It’s completely fascist. Its like working for the Gestapo,” Maureen complained, taking a long drag off our water pipe. A knife twisted in my heart. Disneyland, run by fascists? But Maureen would know. She had actually landed a job impersonating Alice in Wonderland. Her hip-length blonde hair and china-blue eyes must have sealed the deal, though at all times, whether on parade or hob-nobbing with Snow White, she wore an enormous blonde wig along with her checked blue and white dress, rendering her naturally long blonde hair somewhat moot.
“If you punch in five minutes late—five lousy minutes—you’re fired!”
“But what about the benefits—all the magic mushrooms you can eat?” Jemal surmised.
“One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,” Donna sang, swaying like a snake charmer.
“If they caught me stoned at work they’d probably take me out back and shoot me,” Maureen grumbled.
“You have to be Alice in Wonderland straight? Awww…” Jemal sympathized. Off-work, Maureen took her explorations of Wonderland seriously, leaving no pill or herb unsampled.
Maureen was my idol. The whole time I was growing up, my plan for adulthood was to be a mermaid at the submarine ride. Though this cushy job has since been eliminated, when the submarine ride first opened, live young women with long hair and latex fins lounged around on the faux coral surface of the ride, waving enticingly to unwary mariners and park-goers alike.
Yes, I wanted to be a mermaid when I grew up.
Explains why I thought growing up to be a writer was a realistic career choice.
“I almost lost my job last week,” Maureen continued, jarring me out of my aquatic reverie.
“I was driving down the freeway, and I was running late so I was going like a banshee, and this cop pulled me over. I was already dressed in my costume, so he looks in the window and does a double-take and says, “Get out of the car.”
“So I get out and I’m standing there in my outfit and this guy walks around me in a circle looking me up and down and then he says,
“Oh I get it, I get it…you’re late you’re late, for a very important date!”
Then he just starts laughing like hell and says, “You go on girl, you catch that white rabbit!” Then he walks off chortling, “Wait ‘til I tell the boys who I pulled over today!”
“So you didn’t get a ticket?”
“No. And I was only four and a half minutes late. So I still have the damn job. But do I want it?”
Later that same year, Elie and I took my gorgeous red-haired sister Gwen and our friend Jemal, who was six foot two, black as night and lithe as a panther, to Disneyland.
As we were waiting in what seemed to be an interminable zig-zag line for the Matterhorn, Jemal decided he had to have some popcorn and zipped off to procure it. The line moved surprisingly quickly however, and soon we were right at the turnstile, ready to enter our bobsled. Jemal, hurrying to catch up with us, started leaping over the fences like an Olympic track jumper. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a cluster of guards appeared as if conjured by an evil magician, and seized him.
“No! Wait! He’s with us!” I yelled. Elie and Gwen and I all waved our arms. The security guards looked over at us with shock and frog-stepped Jamal over to us.
“This guy is with you?” a guard asked unbelievingly. A black guy with white people? Inconceivable!
“Yes! He’s our friend. We’re together. He just went to get some popcorn, and the line moved faster than we expected…”
The guards looked bewildered, but one said—begrudgingly—“O.K., but from now on—no jumping over chain link fences, right?”
We all nodded and the guards evaporated as mysteriously as they had appeared. I had the sick feeling that if we had all been black we would be cooling our heels in the parking lot by now.
“So much for the wonderful world of color,” Jemal grumbled.
My disillusionment was complete.
Giving up being Republican was easy.
Even though elephants were so much cooler and smarter than donkeys.
But facing the truth about Disneyland?