Reflections following a (mostly) grown-up trip to Disneyland.
If you watch for long enough, you can pinpoint the exact moment when Queen Elsa loses her will to live. It’s all in the eyes—strained and dead now, perched above an unwavering smile, after posing for what is likely her 900th consecutive portrait with the latest in a long line of endlessly hyperventilating little girls.
For these kids, many of whom have no doubt been screeching “Let It Go” all the way to Anaheim, this is the culmination of a lifelong dream (an easy declaration when you’re seven).
For them, this photograph represents unlimited social capital (“What did you do this summer?” “Oh, nothing, just spent some time chilling with THE STAR OF THE HIT FILM ‘FROZEN’”). For Elsa, it’s just another day at the office. To be fair, she’s an easy target; her lineup dwarfs those of the other, B-List princesses, like Cinderella (who?), and That One From The Emperor’s New Groove, both of which contain a fair contingent of jealous-eyed girls accepting them as a consolation prize.
Having spent some time as a theme park photo-prop myself (the Capilano Suspension Bridge went through a brief, horrible fascination with mascots), I immediately wonder whether the costume is hot, or whether it itches, where she went to theatre school and how hard she parties on the weekends, whether she and Belle have ever accidentally hooked up with the same guy, or what she does if that wig ever gets knocked askew.
This is, after all, The Happiest Place On Earth (a declaration I’ve attempted to apply to as many situations as possible during our trip, ie: “The Happiest Burrito On Earth!” “The Happiest Riverboat Cruise On Earth!!” “The Happiest Case of Adult-Onset Diabetes On Earth!!!”, a joke which has elicited only vague amusement from my travel companions), and all that Happiness is bound to be hard work.
Carcinogens and other questions
Naturally, this wasn’t the sort of thing that had occurred to me during boyhood visits to the park. As a 10-year-old, the farthest thing from your mind is Snow White’s hourly wage, or what the inside of Mickey’s head smells like after a couple of hours in 30-degree heat.
But as an adult (my three travel companions and I fit this definition, at least in the broadest biological sense), particularly as an adult without kids who also happens to be in possession of a Diet Coke bottle filled with cheap bourbon, observing grown-up details about the Magic Kingdom becomes a perfectly legitimate way to pass the time between rides, second only to watching families irritate each other.
This particular excursion—my first as an adult—was a joyfully spur-of-the-moment decision, and although we have but one day in the park, it’s during the off-season, which (along with the fact that none of us is being dragged along by a three-foot-tall, yelling thing) allows for a more relaxed pace.
It allows us to notice the sheer number of “restrooms” (an unfortunate euphemism considering that, after three days of American cuisine, the experience of visiting one is anything but restful), as well as the staggering variety of gift shops, merchandise, garbage cans, and disclaimers (including an alarming sign out front which declares, “The Disneyland Resort contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”).
It allows us to wonder at how much waste the park produces (“The Happiest Landfill On Earth!!”), how much the weary-looking ticket takers make (“The Happiest Minimum-Wage Employees On Earth!!!”), and whether there’s any truth to the rumours that, until 2001, mascots had to share underwear (“The Happiest Genital Lice On Earth!!!”).
Attempting to peek beneath that polished veneer for even a second, you’re immediately reminded that Disneyland is a highly efficient, polished sensory experience. It’s the Magic Kingdom, and as such, they take their magic extremely seriously.
A gas leak in Fantasyland
Not that they’re always successful; the park’s opening in July of 1955, was such a disaster, it was forever known amongst Disney and his associates as “Black Sunday.” The asphalt had been poured so freshly, that women’s high heels sunk in. Due to a plumber’s strike, ol’ Walt was faced with a grim decision: water fountains or functioning toilets (preferring not to jump-start the park’s reputation as The Crappiest Place on Earth, a forward-thinking Disney opted for the latter). There was a gas leak in Fantasyland. The event was being broadcast live, and guests fell headlong over the cables wiring ABC’s broadcast equipment.
For some families, trips to the Magic Kingdom have even turned tragic (“The Deadliest Place on Earth!!!”), with in-park fatalities on rides as diverse as the Matterhorn (two deaths), Big Thunder Mountain (one death), and Roger Rabbit’s CarToon Spin (one death).
At least three incredibly stupid people have been seriously injured by attempting to jump between cars on the now-dismantled PeopleMover (two were crushed to death, and the third survived, suing Disney for not warning her that jumping between cars on the PeopleMover was incredibly stupid).
Most horribly of all, in 2009, a quadriplegic guest was trapped in It’s A Small World for more than 40 minutes before being evacuated. He later sued, and won $8,000 (mathematically speaking, that’s $200 dollars for every trip through the chorus).
The Queen has left the building
Fortunately, we manage to make our way through the park unscathed. In fact, due to the off-season, and the fact that our lack of a stroller greatly increases our speed in crowds, we’re able to do every single ride and attraction we want (in one particularly heroic moment, we manage to crush Splash Mountain twice back-to-back).
We’ve braved weather, children, and the darkest recesses of our own selfish hearts (a minor tantrum over a water bottle in the line-up for the Cars ride will forever live in infamy). We’ve holidayed hard.
And, as we sit in the 24-hour Denny’s across the street (quite possibly the Saddest Place on Earth), ensconced in our own miniature Happiness Hangover, we’re already talking about doing it again.
And in that moment, on the other side of the restaurant, I imagine seeing Queen Elsa, her hair freed from under the wig, her glittering blue dress replaced by sweats and a zip-up hoodie, playing Candy Crush saga on her phone while gratefully slugging back an end-of-work cocktail.
For millions of people each year, it’s magic. For her, it’s all in a day’s work.