This morning when I logged onto Facebook I was greeted by the usual notification for my ‘On This Day’ memories. I had a flick through, laughed and smiled at some of them, and remained puzzled at what other strange, vague statuses meant, and then I discovered that 5 years ago, on this very day, I went to Disneyland for the very first time. “Well!” I thought, “I definitely have to write about this on the blog!” So here’s a little flashback to my first visit to Disneyland, and some of the memories that have stayed with me to this very day.
I come from Australia, and whilst I remember when kids would come into class with Disneyland or Disney World shopper bags filled with treats for ‘Show & Tell’ after the school holidays I was never one of those kids. My family wasn’t particularly big on theme parks. My Mum and my sister are guaranteed to get motion sick, and Dad can get a little that way too. We very rarely went to parks in Australia let alone those on the other side of the world. I had never dreamed of going to Disneyland, so when the opportunity came up to go it just felt like I was going to any other theme park- hey even I was a bit scared of roller coasters.
In 2011 I was living for a year in the US on a new ‘Graduate Exchange Program’ that allowed me to work and travel all over the US. It was an amazing year, made better when one of my friends, Nate, told me he’d be going to Disneyland. At the time he was managing merchandise for the national tour of the musical ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which meant he was a Disney employee, which would be super handy when we headed out to California.
The first night we didn’t go in the park, but we picked up our tickets for the next day and explored Downtown Disney. Suddenly it hit me. All sense of being an adult disappeared and I was swept up by the incredible joyous feeling of being a child again. I even got a ‘First Visit’ badge, which absolutely rocked my world. The Cast Member in the ticket booth was surprised that I hadn’t been before, but I was a long way from home. We ate dinner in an Italian restaurant, and while we did the fireworks went off. The anticipation was building.
The next morning we headed from our hotel to the park. Disneyland was of course first on the list. We entered the park and joined the crowd of people waiting on Main Street for the ropes to drop and for us to be welcomed to the many lands envisioned by Walt Disney himself.
Now the excitement was overwhelming. The music, the stirring welcome speech, the growing crowd. I couldn’t wait to explore. Nate was a seasoned Disneyland Pro and knew exactly where we should head first. We made a dash for ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye’ and what a perfect way to start my Disneyland experience, to see that these parks were unlike anywhere else in the world.
As we began the descent into the temple, through the highly detailed archaeological tunnels that made the queue I instantly realised what Disney does best. They immerse you. It’s not a queue, it’s part of the adventure. I was instantly hooked. For the rest of the morning we took in various classics from The Haunted Mansion to Big Thunder Mountain all whilst exploring the incredible scenery. I even made Nate take me on ‘It’s A Small World’ despite his pleading. I begged “But it’s a classic!”… “FINE!”… and now I know why it was so hard to twist his arm.
I was having a great day so far and now it was off to the second park, Disney’s California Adventure. Now, this was an interesting time to be at DCA. Cars Land was being constructed, Ornament Valley that makes up its backdrop was in the process of rising from the ground, and the entrance to the park was the old cut out, 3D postcard facades. Compared to Disneyland it wasn’t very impressive. In fact that entrance felt the complete opposite of Disneyland. Whilst Disneyland made you feel immersed in the story, this felt like every theme park I’d ever been in. But that was about to change. We headed for the Hollywood Tower.
So far, despite my ‘inherited dislike’ of rides, I’d been on some pretty thrilling stuff, and had been having a great time. Big Thunder Mountain was a roller coaster and I’d enjoyed it, Indiana Jones was bumpy and jerky, and that was great too! So I approached the Tower of Terror with excitement. The design was impeccable. The dusty, cobwebbed lobby, the creepy boiler room, the costumes, the Cast Members acting the role to perfection. It was great. And then suddenly it wasn’t. That day I carried with me a Lego satchel bag (that everyone LOVED…like people-stopping-me-on-the-street level love.) I placed it on my lap, and then off our elevator went. The doors opened, and we dropped, and I hated it. I’m sure I busted my neck, and it kept going and going, when the doors opened again I saw my satchel floating at eye level. I couldn’t stand it.
The Tower Of Terror threw a bit of a spanner in the works for our plans. To this point my fear of rides was disappearing but now I wasn’t sure. We watched California Screamin’ fly overhead and I felt sick. I’d been building up to Space Mountain, but now a roller coaster in the dark sounded terrifying. The Tower had put a whole lot of terror into me. I soon started to forget about it though as the sun was breaking through the grey and soon the sky was turning blue. Time to jump back over to Disneyland!
I got my cliche pictures with the castle and we headed for Toontown to meet Mickey. From the outside of Mickey’s house it seemed like we wouldn’t have to wait long to meet the iconic mascot of the Disney brand, but ‘Oh Boy!’ was I wrong. I was moved slowly around his house, then his backyard, then watched the same short films 800 times, I wondered if I’d ever meet him. But there he was, dressed as Steamboat Willie, which was perfect!
After a few more rides (including Splash Mountain where I expressed to a seven year old how I was afraid of California Screamin’ and she told me if I could handle Splash Mountain I’d be fine) we ducked back across to DCA for some food at Ariel’s Grotto. Whilst we ate our incredible food (and the fancy desserts above) I watched as the coaster headed up and around those hills, and through the loop. I counted the time it took from start to finish. “You handled Space Mountain” said Nate “And that’s in the dark.” He was right. Earlier I’d just been on Space Mountain and it had been my favourite ride of the day. The feeling of rushing through space, the music, the lights, the wind through my hair, it didn’t feel like a roller coaster at all, it felt like pure bliss! Now it was Nate’s time to beg “Please, it’s my favourite ride!” I said maybe. We headed over after our meal, and as we stood below the entrance I felt physically sick. “I’m sorry” I said, “I can’t do this.”
The sun was setting. It was beginning to get dark all around us, and the beautiful boardwalk lights were coming on. We knew that soon this part of the park would be closing for the exciting ‘World Of Colour’ Spectacular we’d be seeing tonight. It was now or never for California Screamin’.
“Ok.” I uttered.
Nate leapt with excitement and we raced into the line.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. What am I doing? What am I DOING?” I yelled as the safety restraint came down over my shoulders. Soon the car whizzed down the track and around the corner to the launch. I stared up at the tall mountain of track ahead of me. The car lurched to a stop. It locked on. Neil Patrick Harris commenced a countdown and suddenly we were off. Launching faster than I ever had before, up, up and away. We dropped, I screamed, we churned around corners, we climbed again, and suddenly I was upside down. More hills, and turns, and screams. Finally with triumphant music blaring in my ears we came to a stop.
“Well…” Said Nate “What did you think?”
“Oh my God.”
“Oh my God?”
“THAT WAS ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE WE NEED TO GO ON IT AGAIN.”
We got straight off and headed right back into the queue. I had conquered my fear of roller coasters. I was absolutely in love with them. So in love that we road California Screamin’ three times in a row.
‘World Of Colour’ commenced and I was once again blown away by the magic of Disneyland and the work of the Imagineers. I watched as the fountains and projections combined seamlessly to recreate scenes from my childhood. I cheered and laughed and oooed and ahhhed with the crowd, and as it came to a close, we headed for one last go around Disneyland. We rode Big Thunder Mountain (allegedly faster at night) and finally we book ended the trip with another go at Indiana Jones. We started our day at gates open, and we left at gates close. Midnight. What a day.
I had arrived at Disneyland as someone who had never felt the need to go, and who was petrified of roller coasters. I left feeling all the joy of a child, chomping at the bit to get on more coasters, and now desperate to return to ‘The Happiest Place On Earth.’
I was incredibly fortunate to go on this trip with Nate Gardner. You can follow all his adventures around North America on tour with various musicals via his Twitter. All photos were taken by me (Sean Bryan) and come from my first visit to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure in 2011.