I’ve always been the kind of person who feels emotion through stories. This isn’t to say that I don’t experience more immediate emotions, but that the two best ways for me to process my emotions are by thinking and writing or by thinking and reading.
So when I thought of where I wanted to go on vacation—a vacation that I decided to book because I thought of the part in Ballet Shoes where Pauline says “we need a holiday, the other two are crying,” which is to say that I thought of that part instead of crying myself, and then read the entirety of Ballet Shoes to process that emotion—there was only one place I wanted to go. It might have been the only place in the world that would have counted as a vacation for me, and by the end of this you’ll know why.
I had a friend who once said that if you go to a new place by yourself, you’ll understand yourself better. I went to Disneyland alone because I hadn’t gone to a new place by myself in a very long time. I hadn’t taken a vacation that was just me in years. I’m lucky to have family and friends to visit, or to go places with, but this time I needed to go somewhere by myself.
I wanted to see who I was, as my former friend put it, when I was somewhere else.
I also went to Disneyland alone so I could take as long as I wanted to look at things.
Of course I was going to Disneybound, because I love dressing up and because there’s always something fun in perusing a group of characters—or wizard boarding school houses—and deciding which one of them is most like you.
When I was very young I imagined myself as Alice; once the Disney Princesses became a thing everyone assumed I was Belle, because she liked books, even though I more strongly identified with Ariel, who decided what she wanted and made the necessary sacrifices to go after it.
But I don’t feel like Alice or any of the Princesses, anymore. I’m not dreaming of a different life, or going to the ball for the first time. I’ve been to the ball, I’ve worn the dresses, I’ve had the kisses. (I’ve read the part of War and Peace that describes that phase of life as a brief moment that only some people get and been sad because it doesn’t last forever; I’ve thought about it later and felt happy that I had it at all.)
Now I am a thirty-five-year-old bespectacled spinster who is focused on improving her craft, which is why I Disneybounded as Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ Eglantine Price.
Which, by the way, no one recognized except one person on Instagram.
I remember not liking Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a child because it was mostly about adults. Now I’m exactly the right age for it. I love that Eglantine’s “I want” song—which was cut from the film, but it’s on the soundtrack—is actually a “keep trying” song, because she’s at a point in her life where she doesn’t have to wish that she lived in a different town or with a different species or whatever. Instead, she wants the same thing I do: to get better at what she does.
And… she does end up at a ball, eventually. Wearing a gray suit with box pleats. (If there’s one thing that should have given my Disneybound away, it was finding a gray dress that had box pleats. I had to scroll through so many Amazon listings.)
I paid the $10 extra (per day) with my tickets not for the MaxPass part, but for PhotoPass. I know how to take selfies that make me look like the vision of myself I have in my head; I wanted to see how the Disney photographers would view me.
That’s about right. I squint when I smile, and I look more boxy when I’m not leaning forward to do the “head slightly bigger than it should be because we’re used to seeing those proportions in art” look. (Or the “drop the jaw to make your face less square” look.)
I’m less pretty when I don’t craft my own photographs, in the same way that I’m less engaging when I’m not writing something or talking on a podcast. It is disheartening to pay $10 (per day) to know this, but I came to Disneyland to understand myself, which means understanding how I appear to others.
On the plane ride over, I sat in front of a mother and her two children (the dad sat across the aisle). The kids wanted to touch and look at everything; they wanted to talk constantly; they didn’t want to sit down even after their parents and the flight attendant told them, multiple times, that the plane was about to land.
I thought of myself at that age. I liked to look at things, and I’d been taught not to touch things, and if my parents had told me to sit down and be quiet I would have sat quietly and thought about things. (I spent so much time, as a little kid, sitting quietly and thinking.) It occurred to me—and this assumption may be completely wrong—that these kids experienced the world externally and I experienced it internally.
I’m not sure I know what experiencing the world externally is like. I do know that’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to Disneyland instead of, say, staying home and reading another book—or even, like, going to a national park, because that’s another place that would prompt me to be quiet and think about things.
Going to Disneyland engages the entire body, all the senses, and—as I found out—every single emotion. You can climb things, you can fall, you can walk for miles, you can hug characters or sing along with the Dapper Dans, you can be sprayed with water or doused with scents, you can buy a slice of pineapple that is so juicy that a stranger to whom you’ve just started talking will get up from the table and bring you a stack of napkins.
The thing that bothers me about the Disneyland renovations is the way they lose some of this engagement by removing the rider from the center of the story. Take the Alice in Wonderland reno, for example; the original ride was constructed as if the rider was seeing the world through Alice’s eyes—or, more specifically, through their own eyes, imagining themselves as Alice. (Or, if they were the kind of child I was, imagining themselves as themselves, in Wonderland.)
The renovated ride asks the rider to watch Alice. It’s a three-dimensional movie, made explicit by the loops of Alice animation that weave between the animatronic cards and flowers.
The Pirates reno, although it keeps some of the first-person-POV by having characters address the riders directly, no longer allows riders to build their own interpretation of what they’re experiencing. It’s the strongest memory I have from my first trip through Pirates of the Caribbean—arguably the strongest memory of that entire Disney visit. The two drops, and then the ride opening up into this space that felt like I was inside a dream. The lights weren’t bright enough, and the scenes kept changing. (I would later learn that this dream sensation was, perhaps, Disney’s intent.)
Now it’s about spotting the Pirates of the Caribbean characters. You don’t get to fill in the gaps with yourself, because they’ve all been filled in with Jack Sparrow.
Here’s my other thought about Pirates of the Caribbean: they’re removing the “buy a bride” auction scene and replacing it with a scene in which pirates with guns—including the infamous Redhead—force townspeople to “surrender their loot.”
So they’ve removed fat-shaming, lust, and subjugation of women and replaced it with… armed robbery! But hey, the Redhead has agency now? (Arguably she had agency before; it’s clear that she’s making her own choices in that bride auction scene.)
It’s hard for me to read the claims that Disney no longer wanted children to see the bride auction and think that buying/selling/leering at women was okay, because the inverse is “but we’re fine with them thinking that threatening people with guns is okay.” Pirates has slowly stripped away all of its non-Johnny-Depp sexiness, including a number of scenes involving dubious consent, but there’s still an extraordinary amount of violence; at one point the pirates burn down an entire town, and I’m pretty sure none of the residents consented to that.
I don’t even bother with the renovated Star Tours.
My favorite ride, officially, is Mr. Toad. The first time I rode it I was expecting to be safely pulled away from every danger at the last minute, the way rides (and stories) usually worked; learning that the ride actually killed you and sent you to Hell—and this is a first-person-POV ride, you are not watching Mr. Toad from a distance—was as formative an experience as seeing the Narrator get killed in Into the Woods.
I ride Mr. Toad again and again because when I was young I didn’t know stories could do that. I keep worrying that they’ll renovate it, or tear it down.
I brought three pennies to Snow White’s Wishing Well, because I was thinking about how many pennies I could bring, all the wishes I might want to make, and then I decided that three seemed like the only fair number.
And yes, I took my wishes very seriously. I don’t believe in magic but I do believe that people can create magic, which is to say they can imbue items or people or experiences with meaning. They can imagine, to borrow what seems to be the theme, something more—and then it exists.
I stood across from a woman who crossed herself after she tossed in her coins, and it was comforting to know that she and I both, as the Disney T-shirts like to put it, believed.
I dropped my first coin, and I will not tell you what I wished for but I will tell you that it came true instantly. (Think of The Magician King, and Asmodeus asking for a scar to be healed.) I dropped the second coin, and we’ll see what happens with that. I dropped the third one, and it hit a metal bar at the center of the well and made a noise like The Price Is Right trombone sound, which is to say it sounded nothing like that at all, but I knew that wish would probably not come true.
It was the kind of wish that relied on someone else’s actions, anyway. Maybe you can’t make those kinds of wishes in a well that you only believe is magic because you’ve decided to believe it is magic. (Or, at least, more important than other wells.) Maybe the best wishes for that kind of well are the ones wished on yourself and your own actions, since you’re already in the position to believe they’ll come true.
When I read the news the next morning I thought that of course I should have wished that we wouldn’t have a nuclear war. (If I’d read the news two days later I probably would have felt guilty for not wishing that we would have fewer devastating hurricanes and wildfires—or that we would successfully prevent future damage, and mitigate the damage done by, global climate change.)
I spent my second day at the park, when I remembered to check, scanning the ground for dropped pennies. I figured if I found one, it could count as a bonus wish—but I never did.
A short list of Disney Magic:
- Discovering the Rose Court Garden and sitting in the wedding gazebo
- Everything about the Grand Californian Hotel, from the architecture to the lounge pianist
- Walking into the park at 8:05 a.m. and feeling like I was one of the only people there
- Hearing Maynard give the safety instructions in the Tiki Room
- Eating my first Dole Whip
- Stopping to listen to the Disneyland Band and watching the very precise drum major
- Walking into the perspective shift at Toontown
- Coming around the curve on the Storybook Land canal boats and seeing a near-full moon
- Walking through Pixie Hollow after dark and catching the Matterhorn, perfectly framed, between two blades of grass
- Riding the Jungle Cruise after dark
- Riding Peter Pan’s Flight for the first time and being once again amazed at the way Disney can blend both story and craft while still leaving enough space for emotion and imagination; I love Mr. Toad but Peter Pan’s Flight might be the one perfect ride currently in the park, in terms of what it provides and what it asks of the rider
And of course as soon as I say that Peter Pan’s Flight is perfect I remember that the way the film presents Native people isn’t that great, and even though that song isn’t in the ride it’s still part of Peter Pan—and when my gondola swung by the cliff where the Native chief was drumming, my imagination briefly dropped out so I could think “fuck, that song.”
I also don’t know how to emotionally respond to Small World; I spent the entire ride alternating between optimism, fear that our various political leaders would not heed the song’s message (which reminded me that I needed to look for that penny), and a feeling called are they seriously flying on magic carpets?
I’ve been to Walt Disney World, but I love Disneyland best. It’s small enough that you feel like you can know it, the whole thing; in two days you can do everything you want and still have time to ride your favorite rides twice.
One of the reasons I booked this vacation is that I kept thinking that if I won some big prize or a bunch of money, or met a magician who would sing about my charms while pushing me around on a library ladder, I would go to Disneyland. Then I decided I didn’t have to wait for someone else to give me a reason to go.
In two days, I did everything I wanted.
The second time I rode Pirates I sat in front of two parents who were enacting the familiar familial bitch: you should have done this, I told you I did, well I would have done it this way, and so on.
When we went into the tunnel, and everything became dark, I heard the woman say “this is Mommy’s favorite ride.”
I didn’t turn around to look at who she was talking to. For all I know, it could have been an infant. But it could have been a young child like me: sitting quietly, taking it all in, and thinking about it.
I left Disneyland feeling like I’d had all my emotions, all the way through, to the end. (I know the word for this is catharsis, and it is literally the Aristotelian goal of storytelling. Disney is really good at what it does.)
We don’t get to have emotions to their end very much anymore. I didn’t realize it until I opened Twitter and was hit with rising blips of FEAR! INDIGNATION! ANGER! SHAME! that changed as fast as I could read.
But being in Disney was like dreaming, both in the “lights too low, flowing between scenes” sense and the “clear all the gunk out of your brain” sense.
I left Disneyland in a state that was beyond happiness. Full and empty; satiated and clear-headed. (Also, sunburned. Despite multiple sunscreen reapplications.)
And yes, I know myself a little better now.
I hope you do too. ❤️