After a year in which the world came to a halt and so many experienced some form of pain, stress or grief, perhaps a theme park that can charge more than $150 per ticket would be seen as ... frivolous?
Yet if early demand, hype and talk are any indication, one of our most treasured experiences is the great American theme park. And the original Disneyland, just a few months shy of its 66th birthday, still stands as our preeminent example. Deeply embedded with a playful and sunny Southern California leisure lifestyle, Disneyland for locals is a habitual, cross-generational hangout — as much a tradition as baseball‘s opening day or a hike to the Hollywood sign.
When Disneyland re-opens today after 13 months of closure — essentially its second grand opening after July 1955 — it will do so as a Californians-only locale due to pandemic restrictions. But a quick scan of the Disneyland reservation calendar — both a ticket and a park reservation are required to visit — reveals slim options for those who solely want to visit Disneyland without purchasing a ticket that also grants access to Disney California Adventure. Dining reservations too are in short supply, if they’re available at all.
Don’t act surprised. The park’s popularity doesn’t rest solely on the fact that Disney owns the Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar franchises.
Globally, Disneyland has become one of the greatest exports of the United States, with copy-cat parks expanding the Disneyland mission not just in Florida but in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai. While there is a corporate and capitalistic mandate underlying the enterprise, one that can often be at odds with what the park represents culturally, Disneyland still symbolizes a place where America’s most popular art form — cinema — can take physical shape and become a spot to reframe, re-contextualize and reorient our relationship with our country’s myths and possibilities.
Is it fake? Not at all.
The façades of Main Street, U.S.A., may have a backlot feel, and Sleeping Beauty Castle may lack the majesty of its German inspiration, but these are very real landmarks. Disneyland’s relationship to Southern Californians isn’t all that different from other monuments — Griffith Park, Dodger Stadium, the Santa Monica Pier — a destination that collects shared experiences, a theme park that has become something akin to a national park.
It was designed at first by those trained in the art of animation, lending a quaint charm that, in the words of one of its early designers, “freaking hugs you and kisses you.”
And what, perhaps, could feel more real after a year of so much uncertainty, when daily life didn’t feel like any known reality at all? Write it all off as nostalgic escapism if you must, but I don’t think anything is more real than the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of all that we have to survive. Sometimes those stories just so happen to involve singing, sinful pirate robots.
While many of those who return, including myself, will no doubt head straight for a favorite ride or a treat, Disneyland is more than a collection of rides and calories. Here are a few small ways to rethink how we relate to the park.