A Happy Place

Why an almost-50-year-old film critic devotes himself to Disneyland and Disney World

click to enlarge The author has a confession: He loves Disneyland, and he had to write a book about it.
The author has a confession: He loves Disneyland, and he had to write a book about it.

Our main film critic, Scott Renshaw, has spent the past few years exploring his own love of the Disney theme parks, while also digging into why so many people — young and not-so-young — are captivated by these attractions to the point of obsession. The result is Renshaw's first book, which was released this week. Here's an exclusive excerpt:

I was born and raised in California, migrating steadily northward over the course of 30 years from my birthplace of San Diego, through Orange County into the San Joaquin Valley, and eventually to the San Francisco Bay Area. And throughout that time, there was Disneyland, which feels as though it has always been a part of my memories.

As a child, there were family visits with my parents and brother where the first glimpse of the artificial-snow-capped Matterhorn from Anaheim's Harbor Boulevard would produce a surge of adrenaline that we were here, we were finally here. In my tweenage years, my brother, closest cousins and I engaged in early experiments in independence, as we took off through the park to find our own adventures and meet up with our parents later in the day. I celebrated the end of high school there at Grad Night 1985, and then the end of college four years later, with my best friends and significant others of the moment. I visited in the early '90s with the wonderful woman who would become my wife, and again a decade later with our children, watching them get their first picture taken with Mickey Mouse. Memories are Disneyland's unbreakable souvenir, and for me they spill into dreams and into days when I need to recall times of renewal and transition, or moments of pure bliss.

It's not easy to come out of the closet as a nearly 50-year-old Disney parks junkie. The assumption is that once you've reached a certain age, these Magic Kingdoms become something to be endured rather than enjoyed. You do it for the children or grandchildren, perhaps, gritting your teeth all the while, but you certainly shouldn't find the experience too enjoyable. Such an admission carries with it a variety of other assumptions about one's maturity, sanity or, maybe, just plain creepiness.

Yet, there it is: I adore Disneyland. It has never, ever ceased to enthrall me, and by all logic, this should not be the case. Those who know me well can attest to the fact that there are few things I hate more than being in massive crowds, and that one of those few things is waiting in lines. The Disneyland experience that frustrates so many visitors appears to have been designed on a dare to create the kind of day that, under almost any other circumstances, I would do everything in my power to avoid.

Instead, it has become a slightly obsessive facet of my personality. The end of one visit generally finds me lamenting how long it might be until the beginning of the next. One trip even became reality because my wife, as she went through a job search, promised we could go to Disneyland if and when she got hired. And no, I'm not too proud to admit that such an anecdote makes me sound vaguely like a 6-year-old; I also agreed to move from California to Utah only if my wife promised that I could have a puppy. (True story.)

It would be easy enough to attribute my love of Disneyland to simple nostalgia. Indeed, it would be silly not to acknowledge that there's at least a little of that going on, even as the place now officially called the "Disneyland Resort" has evolved and expanded to become something radically different from the way it looked in my 1970s childhood — ditching the old-school lettered ticket books and adding the Disney California Adventure sister park on the spot where I once remember my mother pointing out which Disney character silhouette marked our parking place.

But I think there's also something more fundamental going on, something that has never happened in trips to other amusement parks. The older I've gotten, the more I've appreciated the way Walt Disney planned his park as a thoroughly immersive experience, with the entire surrounding world shut off from view. To enter Anaheim's Disneyland is to experience one of the most ingeniously designed anticipation-building machines ever created. From the entry gate, very little of the park itself is visible — just the Mickey Mouse-shaped flower beds beneath the tracks of the Disneyland Railroad, part of the high landscaped berm that hides the rest of the park from the outside world. Disneyland entices you: There's something amazing in here; you know you want to see it.

Happy Place: Living the Disney Parks Life is available through Amazon, IndieBound, Powell's and Barnes & Noble.

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