ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For nearly 65 years, Disneyland was a place where millions came for a joyful reprieve from the outside world.
Then the coronavirus hit, and Fantasyland became impossible. Walt Disney Co. shut down its two theme parks and three hotels in Anaheim on March 13, furloughing tens of thousands of workers and vowing not to reopen until a safe plan to move forward was ready.
The theme parks are still closed, but Disney's retail center, Downtown Disney, reopened this week to huge crowds and immediately became a flashpoint for the larger debate about whether California is reopening too quickly even as it sees record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and rising death tolls. Orange County has been hit particularly hard, with hospitalizations increasing nearly 100% in three weeks.
At the same time, the county remains a hotbed of the coronavirus resistance. Cities sued to keep beaches open. Politicians openly scoffed at the suggestions of health officials that residents wear masks in public places. Residents hectored the county's chief health officer into resigning; videos of customers who berated store employees for not allowing them in without a mask went, well, viral.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds of people wandered around Downtown Disney, a strip of restaurants and shops that ends at the gates to Disneyland and its sister park, Disney California Adventure. It had reopened the day before to such demand that security had to close the adjacent Simba parking lot to keep people away.
"We just wanted to get out and start living again," said Kimberly Poff, an annual pass holder who proudly held up her newest purchase: a navy blue 65th anniversary long-sleeve shirt that sparkled in the sunlight. She was equipped with hand sanitizer and disinfectants.
"For those of us who love Disney, it's sad to see the parks closed," said Missy Pebley, who was there to celebrate her 48th birthday. "We've been waiting since the day it closed."
At first glance -- and ignoring the fact that everyone was wearing masks, per Disney's requirement -- the scene was like any other day at "the happiest place on Earth."
Families wore T-shirts with Disney characters -- Donald Duck, Stitch, Iron Man. Workers were chipper and dressed dapper. The wait to enter the World of Disney store ranged from 15 minutes to an hour.
But these attempts at normality only heightened how off everything felt.