Let me first get this out of the way… I LOVE DISNEYLAND!
I always have. The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain. Call me a goofball if you want, I love them all. As long as can remember there was always a certain rush of magical excitement whenever I talked about it. That smell of the train’s axel grease mixed with fresh popcorn as you take first steps down Main Street. Your first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty’s castle sitting bright and vibrant against the Southern California sun. The wonderful dilemma of having to choose between The Matterhorn or Mr. Toads Wild Ride. All of this comes with one caveat, the crowds. But with such great adventures about to happen, who cares? We’re all there for the same reason. Well, maybe not everyone.
These feelings I have towards the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ were ones I so wanted to share one day with my own kids. And for the most part I have. My son, who’s ten years old, is just now appreciating the magic. Admittedly, not as much as I did at his age. However, last week I saw his excitement finally spill over as we parked the car and hopped on the tram for our annual summer visit.
In late August the crowds sometimes thin out as school seasons are beginning. This is different for us; having home schooled our son since the fourth grade. We have more freedom with our schedules than most and this trip to Disneyland has become our unofficial end to summer and a start to his school year.
We all have our favorite rides. My wife and I, the Haunted Mansion (of course). My son’s favorite, surprisingly, is the Jungle Cruise. Looking back, it was a fitting place to meet them, while waiting in line for a ride with a savage survivalist theme. A boat ride where everything goes wrong and you’re attacked by all sorts of wild animals. Because that’s what they were, wild animals.
They seemed normal enough, a wholesome family of five and friendly as can be. It was the young boy, about the same age as my son that started the conversation. I hadn’t noticed that they were talking, but soon we all became locked in an enthusiastic conversation about our favorite place in the whole world. And they sure knew their stuff. Like what years the rides were built, oral histories about rides long gone, and when I heard the dad, Walter, call his daughter Ariel I knew these people were way hardcore Disney folk.
Walter and Belle have been together for over twenty years and with their three kids Ariel, Donald (Don) and Woody make up the most intense Disneylanders one could ever meet. Everything about them was branded by Disney in some way or another. From the matching mouse ear tee shirts, to the branded lanyards filled with collectable pins, right down to Ariel’s pink Minnie Mouse sneakers. Even the teenager of the group, Woody, wore his fair share of the Magic Kingdom flair.
And they talked about the place as if was their home, addressing some employees by their first names. Funny thing, the employees certainly didn’t respond as if they knew or even recognized them. It was nothing but confused looks in return. Maybe that should have been the first sign we could have picked up on. Or the fact they were all named after Disney characters. But we didn’t. In fact, after that first ride, we became ‘Disney pals’ so to speak.
We went on a few more rides together and it was nice, especially for my son. Since he’s home schooled, making friends can be challenging and watching him mixing it up with Ariel and
Donald was gratifying. Both Walter and Belle were nice too and filled to the brim with all sorts of Disneyana facts . Woody, however, was not so friendly. He would stand there quiet and observant.
After a ride on Peter Pan’s flight we stopped off to get a refreshing cola and have a quick rest. We sat together in the shade as we waited for the kids to finish their drinks. Meanwhile, Walter’s Disneyland stories started to become strange.
“I’m actually a lifetime member of Club 33!” Walter said at one point out of nowhere with an infectious enthusiasm.
For those unaware, Club 33 is an exclusive, nearly impossible to get into, VIP only private club located in New Orleans Square. It was hard to swallow that he was a lifetime member and my gut instinct called this out as bullshit. But his promise of us having lunch at this exclusive club kept my doubts at bay. Maybe it’s true I thought.
“Let’s do a few more rides then head over,” he said.
I politely tried to steer in the direction of breaking away but he insisted we join them. I could see that look in my wife’s eyes. The one that’s telling me to man up and cut this cord. But hey, Club 33 is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As we all got up to leave I noticed Walter take my son’s empty soda cup from him. He proceeded to dump the leftovers into the trash can then take the mouse ear lid and straw combo. He handed it over to Belle who placed it in her fanny pack. Walter looked at me and smiled, exposing his bright white row of teeth.
“Everything’s a souvenir” he said.
We should’ve left them right then and there, but we didn’t, instead the kids began deciding which ride to go on next and being the passivists my wife and I are, we just went along with it.
My son broke out his park map to give it a look. Somewhere in the process he gave himself a nice and deep paper cut across his thumb. I didn’t notice until we were all waiting in line at the Haunted Mansion when I heard Ariel explain to my son that he should suck on the cut to stop the bleeding. I gave him a napkin to use instead. She kept insisting that he suck on the cut. I found her persistence about it unnerving. But it wasn’t until later, within the darkness of the stretchy elevator that I saw Ariel with my son’s thumb in her mouth that my unnerving turned into terror.
I was frozen in shock at what I was seeing and so was my son. She was sucking the blood from his cut. My fatherly instinct grabbed his hand and pulled it away from that little shits’ mouth. She looked at us both as innocent as a porcelain doll, stoic and calm. I looked around to see if my wife had noticed but Walter was talking her ear off. In fact, everyone’s ears.
“This ride was the last one Mr. Disney worked on himself before he died,” he boasted out to the annoyance of everyone in line.
I tried to corral my family so we could ride together, but in the nonstop conveyer belt commotion I saw my wife ride away with Belle and I was stuck with Walter. I made sure my son was squeezed in with me. Ariel and Donald rode together, Woody rode alone.
For the duration of my favorite ride Walter proceeded to explain away details from every scene we passed through. The hydraulics in the animatronics, the techniques used to create the holograms. I learned more than I needed to or ever wanted, sitting there while he systematically ruined my most favorite and cherished dark ride. But even more disturbing to me was the little blood sucker in the car behind us and my wife sitting next to god knows what to our front. We were trapped. All I wanted to do was get us the hell off this thing and away from them. As the ride finally came to an end, the narrator’s warning “Beware of hitch hiking ghosts” suddenly
took on a whole new meaning.
I rushed us off and asked the first employee I saw where I could find a first aid station. Who knows what kind of disease these people could be carrying and that girl was sucking on my son’s fresh cut. Walter tried to steer us toward Club 33. I took my family’s hands once we were entangled amongst the crowd and changed course to Main Street.
“Keep walking, don’t look back…”
My wife understood what I was doing and went along. We walked briskly, navigating the scores of people for what seemed like forever hoping those weirdos were not behind us. Once we got to Main Street I finally glanced back and saw nothing. We lost them.
I nervously dumped gobs of first aid ointment on my son’s thumb explaining to my wife what I saw.
“You’re not gonna believe what I saw either,” she replied, as I wrapped a Disney theme band aid around my son’s greasy thumb. But there was no time to discuss. We needed to make a decision. We ultimately decided that instead of leaving the park all together; that we would head over to the sister property California Adventure. We did pay for a park hopper pass and those damn things aren’t cheap. Why let some freaks ruin our last day of summer? Fuck them. Plus, we were super hungry.
Once at California Adventure, we sat in the corner of the most out of the way eatery we could find and started to relax as our food digested. I told my wife about the paper cut sucking incident and she told me what she had seen. It was just as disturbing. While on the Haunted Mansion she got a glimpse inside Belle’s fanny pack where she saw a clear plastic bag with stuff in it.
“What kind of stuff?” I asked.
Used tissues, gobs of matted hair as if pulled from a hairbrush, flattened out Disney soda cups, remnants of someone’s leftover fast food from the park, what looked like (to my wife) a used dry and blood crusted tampon, and to top this all off, our son’s mouse ear soda lid/straw combo that Walter had taken earlier.
We sat there stunned, almost paralyzed. The only thought that came to mind was, WTF…
“Look! There’s Woody!”
My son stood up pointing at him. I turned to see his tall and hunched over lanky figure pass by in the crowd. He was alone. I quietly sat my son down and tried to make like a hole in the wall. My wife and I locked eyes again. We knew it was time to go home, but when we got up, they came into the eatery out of nowhere.
“Where’d you guys go?!” Walter belted out with a giant smile full of teeth.
They took their seats blocking us in. I glanced over at Woody, sitting a few tables down all by himself and grinning like a madman. He was following us.
“What should we ride next, friends?”
There was a slight change in Walter’s voice as he spoke. Like he knew we were on to them. “I think we’re heading home…,”
He wasn’t buying my wife’s lie.
“Home? It’s barely two!”
We sat there, trapped again. Then an idea hit me.
I mustered up my best polite person persona and suggested another ride, Mickey’s Fun Wheel. Their kids lit up with excitement. My wife looked at me like I had five eyeballs. I just played along and tried to act just as excited.
“We can get a car all to ourselves and ride together!” Walter was overcome with joy.
While waiting in line my wife squeezed my hand so hard I thought she was going to break it. But, I had a plan and it was nearing deployment, especially as we inched closer to the loading platform. The most important thing was to keep this family of freaks in front of us. Every time my son mingled too close to the front I’d pull him back as inconspicuous as possible keeping us together. And it was working, except for Woody, who kept lingering behind us.
There was only three groups ahead of us and my heart was lodged into my throat. If this plan didn’t work I’m not sure what we could do next. I had to execute this perfectly. The big gamble was how many riders per car, which was eight, perfect!
It was our turn next to board and I managed to get us in the perfect position. They were to our front and therefore would board first, even that creep Woody. When the wheel turned and our gondola was ready I casually took my family’s hands. Game time.
Once the freak show boarded I pulled my wife and son off to the side and squeezed us back through the line. We quickly made our way past puzzled faced until we reached the nearest exit. I looked back to the magnificent wheel now starting to turn, where I saw those creepers crammed into their gondola, trapped.
My plan had worked!
I met Walters eyes one last time before they disappeared higher into the sky. They were pure darkness.
We wasted no time getting out of there, not even waiting for the tram and high tailing back to the parking structure. Once we got into our car I let out a huge sigh of relief.
“What are you doing?! Start the damn car!”
My wife was not so relieved.
And she wouldn’t be until we were completely out of there. I started the car and backed out looking first to my son in the backseat. A feeling of anger came over me. What a shitty day for him. I noticed his band aid was gone.
“It fell off somewhere,” he said.
Fitting, I thought. We drove home in silence.
It’s been almost exactly one week since our doomed trip to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. We’ve had a few family talks about not letting things get in the way of our fun time, no matter where we are.
We should not let that bizarre experience get in the way of future visits. I mean, shit happens right?
I was feeling real optimistic about everything until I went to collect the mail yesterday. There was a plain, unmarked envelope mixed within the week’s mail. I opened it and inside was my son’s band aid along with a note written on “It’s a Small World” stationary.
“Everything’s a souvenir – your friend, Walt.”