Birthday Tripping with Mickey

It’s a Smaller World, After All

The author (second row on the right) and his family ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on their recent excursion to Disneyland
Sam Woodard

There are three or four types of people in this world, vis-à-vis the subject of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World: (a) those who find it so charming that they crave repeat visits, possibly motivated by a strong sense of nostalgia (present company) or an essential optimism (present company semi-included); (b) those who find its platitudinous message, nattering, loopy tune, and robotic child figures “creepy”; and (c) those who couldn’t care less or have no clue what Small World is in the first place.

And then, for the fourth category — those who appreciate the ride and ethos both ironically and sincerely — there I was recently, happily ensconced in the dreamy boat ride again after too many years away, after having the ride etched into my being (including when it first opened, in 1966). This time, I was riding a boat into the Small World mind warp with my wife, daughter-in-law, and two adult children. One child sincerely loves the ride. The other enjoys it as a journey into the all-American kitsch and questionable motives beneath the “we are the worldly” multiracial mash-up. I sat between them, literally and philosophically, and enjoyed every minute of it.

The statue of Walt Disney and Mickey peer into the distance, with the Teutonic Magic Castle in the background
Josef Woodard

My relationship with Disneyland is complicated, as part of the large demographic of SoCal kids who grew up going to Disneyland, who saw Tomorrowland rendered obsolete many times over, and who no doubt have had the D-land atmosphere and implied messages seep into their view of life, forever (good job, Walt). Fast-forward some decades, and this time, I was on a special intergenerational Disneyland trip on a certain Significant Birthday (involving a zero), which earned me rights to invite/drag my family, including grown youngsters and daughter-in-law (our able organizational ringleader), to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” To quote the song (not a Disney song, by the way), “Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.”

Rain on the parade, for me, involved business and corporate factors for a megacorporation that has been keen to access outside entities — the lucrative Star Wars franchise, and now Pixar — diluting the old Disney reality that we’ve known. Mega-corporate homogeneity creeps into the old Disneyland that we (you know who you are) loved as innocent youths. Our visit was during the Pixar Fest and just before Pixar Pier opened. But the Pixar-fication of Disneyland seems a potentially distressing thing. Disney is becoming an Orwellian conglomerate, as seen in the fireworks-adorned Main Street parade at night, mostly an advertisement for Pixar characters and movies, which have been funneled into the mighty corporate dynasty and foster home of family-friendly entertainment that is Disney.

For relief, I had to duck into the blissfully very old-school Main Street Cinema, where I could happily bask in antique Mickey Mouse cartoons — including the groundbreaking, early synchronous-sound cartoon, circa 1928, that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world, Steamboat Willie (by Ub Iwerks, whose offspring are proud members of the Santa Barbara art scene). It was, in fact, sweet relief reconnecting with the Disney of an earlier era, even before Anaheim property was a gleam in Walt’s eye.

But I digress — easy to do in the distraction-enriched and nostalgia-triggering expanse of Disneyland. Call it Digressionland.

Speaking of the “trip” aspect, so much of Disneyland experience is trippy in various ways, especially in Fantasyland — but also in the alternative-reality zone that is Toontown. A certain hallucinogenic quality comes naturally in Alice in Wonderland, as it does in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Not incidentally, Fantasyland has the best and most classic American songs floating about, inside and outside the rides, some of which — “Alice in Wonderland” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” for instance — were recorded by jazz greats Bill Evans and Miles Davis. There’s some cultural riches for you.

Thankfully, music is still a potent and omnipresent force around Disneyland, woven into the fabric of its being (with such previously alien sounds as the Star Wars theme and Pixar tunes sneaking into the mix). Practically speaking, Disneyland itself is a rare employer of live human musicians — some from the SoCal scene, but also veterans from New Orleans and elsewhere dishing out the real deal.

Toontown, which opened in 1993 and still hasn’t been given proper props, has its own consciousness zip code, akin to the Vatican City being its own sovereign dominion (probably because there are no flashy rides or modern-day trivia attached to help its amusement-park marketing cred). The absurdist, fourth-wall trickery of Mickey Mouse’s house/movie studio alone — a faux world inside a faux world — is worth the price of the detour to this corner of the enchanted Anaheim real estate.

Other latter-day realizations of forces beneath Disneyland’s chipper surfaces aren’t so pretty. Splash Mountain, for instance, is still a great time of a ride, with characters and folklore tucked into the folds and a forced, watery chill moment on a hot day. But the adult in us can’t help feeling twinges of discomfort recognizing the racist resonances of its narrative source, the semi-animated 1946 film Song of the South. The “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” refrain doesn’t seem as sweetly singsong and joyful as it was in our old, ignorant youth.

After the Main Street parade/Pixar storm, my family left for the hotel, having had enough. They were amused by but nowhere near as enchanted by or obsessed with the enchanted kingdom. I stayed late, discovering a secret: Disneyland after dark and after hours becomes a much easier place to navigate and hop on rides sans lines. Another go on Thunder Mountain? No prob. Taking the train ride around the park (well, the old park before the continuing add-ons to the original, 1955-launched park), with its wonderfully cheesy dinosaur and Grand Canyon episodes? Enjoy. Going down the Lewis Carroll rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland at midnight, humming the tune as you leave? Done deal.

Before being ushered outta the park, I stopped by to pay respects to the statue of Walt Disney and his Mickey, with the Teutonic Magic Castle in the background. He stands tall, and Mickey stands as tall as is possible for a diminutive legend, surrounded by a floral moat and suggesting the stance of a dictator-mascot of the gentlest and most benign kind, peering off into the distance. The distance that is the ever-unfolding and corporate-expanding now. But it’s still a world of wonder, of laughter, tears, hopes, fears, etc., after all.


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