My family came to visit last week. It was the first trip to California for my little niece and nephew. They had heard about this legendary place where Uncle Nathan lives, but being not-yet five and not-yet three-years-old, they had no concept of where this mythical land was that I would disappear to after visiting for the holidays. That was until last week. But it wasn’t just sunny California they got to experience. I took them to the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disneyland.
Trying to explain Disneyland to a 4-and-a-half-year-old who has never been is harder than it sounds. I told her Disneyland is the place where the princesses live. She looked at me skeptically. How do all the princesses live in the same place? Don’t they all have castles?
I explain it another way. “Disneyland is a park.” I see the recognition in her eyes. “But there are no slides or jungle gyms.” The recognition fades. “There are rides that tell stories of the princesses and other characters. You watch the story sort of like how you watch a movie, but the ride tells the story using real characters - but not real people, robot people called animatronics.”
I see the questions surfacing. “So the princesses aren’t real?”
“The princesses are real people, I mean, they are played by real people. So is Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy. You can meet them when you’re not on a story ride with robot people.”
I give up trying to explain it. “We’re going to Disneyland to see fireworks and eat ice cream.” She beams. That she understands.
But Disneyland, I’ve come to see, is not just a place to watch fireworks and electrical parades or a place to excuse your diet for a day or practice the spiritual act of patience while standing in a queue. For all the talk of magic and dreams and imagination, it more than that. It is a place we go to learn how to face our fears.
The first ride we took my niece and nephew on was Alice in Wonderland. They had been watching the animated film and were familiar with the story, so when we mentioned there was something with Alice they latched onto the idea. (Actually, my niece latched onto the idea. My nephew latched on to any idea that his older sister liked.)
The ride is simple enough. We sat securely in our vehicles and entered the world of Alice’s Wonderland. We encountered the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee & Tweedledum. It was all innocent enough until the ride went dark and the Queen of Hearts appeared, frightfully declaring, “Off with their head!” My niece buried her face into my brother’s torso. She would remain like that for rest of the ride only occasionally peeking up to see what she might be missing.
After debarking the vehicle at the ride's conclusion, we asked my niece what she thought. “Did you like it?”
“Yes.” She said timidly. “But it was a little scary.”
In an effort build up my niece’s ride confidence, our next adventures were Dumbo, the Tea Cups, Casey Jr., and the Carousel - rides with no dark parts, no surprises, their paths transparent by the light of day. She liked those rides.
But there was no escaping the dark rides. Eventually, my niece would have to face them again. We asked her if she would go on Snow White. (We didn’t tell her the actual name of the ride is “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”) She was reluctant. “It might be scary.” We knew it was scary but coaxed her on with the promise of a princess balloon if she was brave. She summoned her courage and rode the ride. When she exited, she was a bit apprehensive. “I liked it, but it was a little scary.”
Over the next few days, we rode more “light” rides and “dark” rides. As my niece's bravery was tested, her joy grew. After riding Peter Pan and Pinocchio, she exited with a smile gleefully recalling the funny parts, not the scary parts.
On the second day, while practicing patience, I overhead an anxious teenage girl tell her friends that she was going to ride the California Screamin’ roller coaster for the first time today. She warned them. “It’s going to get real.”
This, for me, is part of the magic of Disneyland. Sure it is a celebration of family and optimism, a celebration of story, creativity, and magic. But it is also a testing ground, a place where children (and adults) can learn to face their fears with their family and friends by their side. Where kids are rewarded for bravery with a princess balloon, ice cream, and a fireworks show.
It is an introduction to one of life’s truths: the path we travel is not always illuminated by the light. There will be dark and scary times, moments when it “gets real.” But with your family and friends by your side, you will be okay.
The next time my niece visits Disneyland there will be more tests – The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Tours - a little darker, a little scarier, a little more thrilling. Those tests of courage will come in due time, and her family will be there with her when it does.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES