Last Friday, while riding the Jungle Cruise, the boat quietly drifting past Trader Sam (the head salesman in the area, who is running a special today: two of his for one of yours), I realized it was almost 34 years to the day since my first trip to Disneyland.
It was a rainy day in early April. We'd been living in California for less than a month, leaving Pennsylvania after what I now understand to be the most difficult period in my parents' lives. It was three months since my dad had symbolically handed my mother his winter coat and strode across the Scranton-Avoca airport tarmac to his flight to California.
We joined him in mid-March, wide-eyed waifs smiling in the face of a massive cultural tsumani that would later swallow us completely, forcing each of us to find a way to rebuild from the ground up. Later, there would be trauma; right now there was an actual big league baseball stadium ten minutes away.
Before March, 1976, I'd never seen a live palm tree. The ocean was a yearly trip to Long Island's Jones Beach with my grandparents. The nearest "theme park" was Ghost Town in the Glen. California was something we watched on TV, a bizarre world where it never snowed and vintage sports cars never rusted away.
Disneyland was a big part of that package. It seemed redundant that such a place would call only part of itself "Fantasyland." The minute we arrived in California, my sisters and I began laying the lumber on our parents to take us there.
But it was raining the day we were supposed to finally go. There might have been a short period of debate. Would it be better to wait for a sunny day? We were having none of it.
Within an hour of arriving, we were all second-guessing ourselves. Everyone was disappointed, uncomfortable and clammy. My little sister, all of five, was having a bad time of it. Tempers were already beginning to fray.
We went on the Jungle Cruise only because it was dry. The boats had awnings.
The ride lasted a few minutes, during which time we heard for the first time puns and one-liners that would remain unchanged for -- so far -- 34 years. As we rounded the final bend toward the most dangerous part of our journey (the return to civilization), the sun broke through the clouds, lifting an equally weighty gloom from my little sister's face. At that moment, Disneyland took hold of my family's collective imagination.
For those of us who grew up within the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland sat in for life's normal settings. You spent July 4 at a barbecue? I was in line for Pirates of the Caribbean. Your prom night ended with a party at someone's parents' house on the lake? Well, Amber Hike and I were busy wandering the halls of the Disneyland Hotel, looking for a party suggested by Russ Lehman.
We lived on Disney time: the distant popping of fireworks meant it was 9:37. At 10:30, our shifts at Baskin-Robbins complete we drove to the Disneyland Hotel and walked aimlessly around its festive grounds. One time, Mike Sigalas and I stood at the entrance of the hotel's gold rush-themed restaurant/bar, checking people's IDs for no other reason than to see if they would hand them over if we asked.
For me, last Friday's visit to Disneyland was one of more than 100. After all of these drop-ins, the park means something entirely different to me than it does to the majority of people -- most of them from other cities, states and countries -- who were also there on Friday.
Pirates of the Caribbean means a boat full of rowdy little leaguers, disrupting everyone's good time by shouting to each other that the skeletal pirate guarding the treasure looks exactly like Steve Rotsios, pitcher for our hated rivals, the Padres.
Space Mountain is waiting in line and making sure to superstitiously touch the soundproof walls, to ensure that the ride would go okay and I wouldn't get sick. The Matterhorn was being extremely aware of that after a year of pining for Jolena Betts from a distance, here she was sitting inches away from me, which could (but sadly, did not) mean that she liked me and wanted to go together.
Trips with Dave Krueger meant making time to at least once walk slowly through the Fantasyland castle, close our eyes and listen to Jiminy Cricket sing "When You Wish Upon a Star," because it was the most romantic thing we could imagine and the next time, we promised ourselves, we'd have girls with us.
One time, I watched Roger A. Hunt run through the parking lot, carrying Kristin Page on his back. For Grad Night, in response to the event's jacket-and-tie dress code, Fred Luna and Sean "Dr. Bando" Cook arrived clad as the Blues Brothers.
It was at Disneyland that I learned Thurman Munson had crashed his plane and died.
When you're a kid, Disneyland is an exercise in mathematics: how many rides can I get on before the park closes? On Friday, we got to twelve, pretty good considering that the park was so crowded there was a line for the Disneyland Limited, which is unheard-of.
As a jaded adult, you don't really care so much about the rides. Their value as pieces of nostalgia has by now far outstripped their ability to entertain.
But the great thing is that Disneyland never loses its ability to create new memories. All it requires is a little paradigm shift.
I spent most of Friday dodging crowds and noticing people cutting in line. By dinnertime, I was ready to go home, dreading the four more hours we'd committed to stay. The temperature was dropping. Everyone was cold. Our patience was on the ragged edge, but I'd promised the Jawa that I'd go on Splash Mountain with him.
At nine o'clock, I was the only adult waiting to ride. Everyone else was a kid or a teenager, the only people crazy enough to wait until sundown to go on a ride guaranteed to get you wet. The Jawa and I had left our coats with Sandra Bullock and were already cold, leaving us wondering just how unpleasant and clammy we would feel after our fiberglas log plunged into the pool at the ride's conclusion.
The answer, we soon learned, was "very." Which, of course, made it that much easier to add the experience to what I'd thought was an overflowing messenger bag of Disneyland memories. My Jawa and I, running through the dark, freezing, our shirts drenched, laughing at ourselves for being the fools who ride Splash Mountain at night in April, when it's not even warm out.
I'll remember that one for awhile.