Happy Place

Living the Disney Parks Life [second edition]

by Scott Renshaw | Release Date: November 1, 2017 | Availability: Print, Kindle

What's Your Happy Place?

If you said Disneyland, you're in good company. Journalist and film critic Scott Renshaw profiles some remarkable people who have let the Disney theme parks take over their lives—in a healthy way, of course—and examines why Disney holds such primacy in our culture.

You'll hear the stories of:

  • Deb Wills, owner of the uber-popular fan site AllEars
  • Jeff Reitz, who has visited Disneyland consecutively for 2000 days
  • Guy Selga, who tramps through Disneyland for hours every week, jotting down wait times for TouringPlans
  • Leo Camacho and Sarah Sterling, whose DisneyBounding characters are almost as popular in the parks as the real thing

And many others for whom Disneyland is not just a park but a passion.

Table of Contents

Here You Leave Today...

Chapter 1: Attraction Rewind

Chapter 2: Jeff of the Thousand Days

Chapter 3: Jon and the Pit Crew

Chapter 4: Bounders

Chapter 5: A Small World After All

Chapter 6: Standing in Line for Fun and Profit

Chapter 7: Ready Player One

Chapter 8: The Thinkers

Chapter 9: Indecent Exposure

Chapter 10: Last Day of the River

Chapter 11: All Day and All of the Night

A Kiss Goodnight...

At its heart, this book was born of envy.

Oh, sure, there was love, too. Always love. You gotta have love. But yeah, there was envy. Bone-deep, undeniable, unquenchable envy.

I was born and raised in California, migrating steadily northward over the course of thirty 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 (and this was some thirty years before it was possible to keep track of one another by cell phone, which meant that standing in line for Space Mountain without adults felt like the most exhilarating kind of freedom). 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 nineties 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. I remember songs that were playing on the radio when the family car entered the expansive pre-Disney California Adventure parking lot (“Close to You” by the Carpenters), and songs I saw played live at Disneyland (“Hungry Wolf” by X). 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 fifty-plus-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 the 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 six 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 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. On the esplanade between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, classic tunes play over the speakers, from Song of the South’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” to Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” to the fanfare from Star Wars. 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.

Once you’re through the turnstiles, tunnels on either side of the entry plaza are lined with attraction posters teasing you with all the amazing things ahead. Those tunnels also offer the first glimpse inside the park—the turn-of-the-twentieth-century-styled storefronts and picturesque Town Square of Main Street, U.S.A. The world begins to slip away as you move down the nostalgic, sentimentalized thoroughfare, while straight ahead lies the breathtaking landmark of Sleeping Beauty Castle. From the hub at the end of Main Street—where the various lands become the spokes—your day’s opportunities spread outward in every direction. You can visit the Wild West of Frontierland, the jungles and exotic mysteries of Adventureland, the whimsical storybook delights of Fantasyland, or the futuristic thrills of Tomorrowland.

It takes mere moments to recognize Disney’s genius in fashioning this place, and building it not just around rides but around themes. The layout alone trains you to accept, step by step, that you’ve entered another world.

It’s a world that sometimes seems very far away.

In 1997, my wife and I made that puppy-bribed move from northern California to Salt Lake City, escaping the expensive, crowded Bay Area for new opportunities. This city and this state have been remarkably good to us, allowing me to find work as a full-time journalist and film critic, and providing a beautiful, easy-on-the-cost-of-living place to raise a family.

It also happens to be a not-entirely-convenient location from which to stage quick jaunts to Disneyland. This presents…a challenge.

On a late summer day in 2014, when I was wondering how long it would be until I’d be able to make my next Disneyland visit—not even a year removed from the most recently completed one—I was poking around Disney park–centric websites. I found the stories of Brent Dodge and Jeff Reitz, both of whom had managed epic streaks of more than a year attending Disney parks and/or resort properties every single day. My first reaction was, “Why in the hell would anyone do that?” And it was instantly followed by, “Those lucky sonsabitches.”

Happy Place was born partly out of fascination, but more than slightly out of envy. As a journalist, I’d had the opportunity to cover Salt Lake City’s thriving Comic Con, where I found myself drawn to the energy that characterizes fan subcultures, even those that can seem extreme to outsiders. The stories included in this book are an attempt at vicarious living, while also trying to capture the qualities that can make fandom so infectious—and, occasionally, so complicated. As easy as it is to find it crazy that someone could visit Disneyland for a thousand-plus consecutive days like Jeff Reitz has, or ride one attraction three thousand times, or even turn going to Disneyland into their livelihood, I was more interested in this kind of passion as one of the sanest things imaginable: finding something that gives you joy, and pursuing it with everything you’ve got.

As a Disneyland junkie, I also wondered about those blessed souls who didn’t have to wait every two or three years to get their fix, and how it happens that the intense feeling I attach to such a place doesn’t wane with familiarity, but might in fact grow richer and more complex. I’d had to confront a variation on that question for two decades as a professional film critic, a job that inspires mixed reactions from people. For every new acquaintance who sighs at my good fortune when I explain what I do for a living, there’s someone who speculates—either in person, or in a journalistic think piece, or in that most treacherous of all places, an online comments section—that being a critic must be killing my “pure” love of movies. Critics don’t watch movies the way the average moviegoer watches them, goes the conventional thinking, which clearly must have transformed me into an arms-folded cynic rather than an open-minded fan.

I struggle to express that this impression is both true and false. Watching two hundred-plus movies a year for twenty years with an analytic eye has changed the way I experience movies; it couldn’t possibly not change it. But this change, rather than somehow diminishing my joy, has heightened it.

This book is a journey to understand my own feelings about the Disney parks. Maybe, as I had found with movies, a different kind of emotional attachment emerges from a relationship with anything—just as it does from a relationship with a person—when you’re living with both its beauties and its flaws on a regular basis. Maybe what I’d always thought of as a love for Disneyland was more akin to infatuation.

Over the course of a year and a half that included Disneyland celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, I spent countless hours talking with Disney parks devotees, trying to understand these fascinating places in the way they understood them—radically different from the experience of people who only know them as sporadic tourist destinations. I also participated in events built around the reality that people had this unique relationship, while trying to get my own sense for what it was like to live a Disney parks life. Maybe I’d be relieved that my only occasional visits had kept my Disney parks love simple and uncomplicated. Or maybe I’d learn even more about the salutary effect of days and weeks and years spent remaining in the moment, allowing a swirling everyday mind to come to a full and complete stop.

Permanecer sentados, por favor.

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been the arts and entertainment editor and film critic for the Salt Lake City Weekly newspaper since 2002, with film reviews appearing in alternative newsweeklies in ten states. Over a twenty-year career as a professional writer and critic, he has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and has contributed writing about Disney parks to Indiewire. This is his first book.

Deb Wills talks about the genesis of AllEars.net and how fan culture has changed over the years.

Deb Wills—the lithe, energetic, spiky-gray-haired, sixty-year-old founder and editor in chief of AllEars.net, one of the earliest websites dedicated to Disney fandom and the Disney parks—came at it from a rather different perspective. While she’s been experiencing Walt Disney World for forty years, her love of Disney magic traced back to a time before she ever stepped foot in one of the parks.

As we sat at a table in Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café in Tomorrowland, Deb talked about growing up in New Jersey, seeing commercials promoting the creation of Walt Disney World. Before the Orlando resort even opened, she and her family attended the 1964–1965 World’s Fair in New York, where Walt Disney was involved in the creation of four major attractions: It’s a Small World, with its boat ride through figures of singing children representing cultures around the globe; Carousel of Progress, a rotating theater show exploring technological advances through the twentieth century; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, with its animatronic recreation of the president; and the Ford Magic Skyway, providing a car ride through the prehistoric world of dinosaurs. “I rode It’s a Small World, and I wanted to go on it over and over,” Deb recalled. “But you had to pay for each ride, and we didn’t have a lot of money. And I remember going with my great-aunt on the Carousel of Progress, and she flat-out refused to believe those were robots. Just flat-out refused: the dog was not a robot, those people were not robots. That stayed with me a long time.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, as a recent college graduate living in Maryland, that Deb made her first visit to Walt Disney World, accompanying disabled adults as part of a vacation program. Her love of the Disney parks continued to grow through the 1990s, just as another technological development was beginning to grow. As the youngest person in her office during the mid-1990s, Deb was the one willing to take a dive into learning how to use the computer, which indirectly led to discovering websites while surfing the internet during lunch breaks. “I found my first Disney website—and it was only two pages,” she said. “I dreamt about it that night: ‘There’s people out there like me that just have this burning in their heart for Disney.’” By January 1996, she had launched AllEars.net, beginning at first with including menus for park restaurants, “and then it just evolved, evolved, evolved,” Deb added.

Nearly two decades later, Deb is in a position to visit the parks more often than she ever did when AllEars.net first began. After retiring in 2011, she moved to Florida—just twenty minutes away from Walt Disney World—and the website became her full-time job. Yet with the timing of that move has come another evolution that Deb perceives in the parks, one that can be a challenge to those who have loved them for so many years.

“The culture has changed,” she said. “Lately, it’s been harder [for me] to find where the magic is.”

Part of that change has been exemplified by the launch of the controversial, expensive MyMagic+ program, which involves wristbands for park visitors and the strong suggestion to plan one’s schedule of attraction visits and dining choices weeks—even months—in advance, a strategy more appealing to tourists than locals making a spur-of-the-moment visit. Walt Disney World fans also lamented the decision to close the Maelstrom boat ride in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot—an attraction built around the history and mythology of the actual country—and replace it with an attraction themed after the popular movie Frozen. Deb’s own anecdotal observation of fan reaction to changes like this is “kind of like the country [as a whole]: on every issue, it’s pretty well split.

“But I get my magic mojo back by talking to people, meeting people who are here for the first time. I get to see it through their eyes, see it through kids’ eyes. That’s what’s special. And there’s so much history here. There are wonderful cast members here who want to keep the stories alive, and that’s the good thing. So that’s the real balance: between the stories and…the bean counters, basically.”

Recognizing that split—and responding to it—is a challenge for a website that caters both to tourist visitors and hard-core park fans. “I try to look at it from a guest perspective more than not,” Deb said. “We try not to be critical and nasty, but we try to have objective reviews. If something’s not good, we’ll say [so]. … We try to be a planning and news site, tell people objectively what’s going on, and balance the good with the bad.”

Continued in "Happy Place"!

Jon Hale has ridden Disneyland's Radiator Springs Racers for over 10,000 laps. Why?

Jon made his way through the single-rider line, a shortcut that can shave an hour or more off of wait times for Radiator Springs Racers that regularly reach ninety minutes for the “standby” line. The ride vehicles feature two rows of three seats each, meaning pairs riding together often leave an extra seat, which the park will fill from the single-rider line. Sometimes, those single riders are groups willing to split up in order to save time waiting in line. Sometimes, they’re folks like Jon who visit the parks solo.

Jon generally comes by himself, although occasionally he’ll come with friends or family members. In his early fifties, he is unmarried and has no children, and lives with his mother and brother in the house where he grew up. He works Wednesdays through Sundays for Television Games Network, which produces the live feeds from racetracks including nearby Santa Anita. Some days, he’ll drop in for a few rides after his workday is over. On his Monday-Tuesday “weekends,” he’ll often come for an entire day, turning in as many laps as possible depending on the variables of crowd size and whether or not the ride has been “down” for any period during the day. His top single-day total for laps was forty-five; it was not unusual for him to reach thirty during a full-day visit.

As we approached the front of the single-rider line, Jon said hello to Cameron, another CM. She greeted Jon with a hug, and he took a selfie with her. As she headed back to her post, Jon said, “I don’t see Cameron that often anymore. She’s only working part-time now, while she’s going to nursing school.”

Jon appeared to know every cast member at Racers; he said that more than a hundred of them were Facebook friends. Sometimes he brings them cookies or bread that he bakes himself. He was invited to the wedding of a cast member named Katie; when the reception included projected photos of the bride and groom with family and friends, one of the shots featured Katie with Jon. “It made me cry,” he said.

“This is a hard job,” Jon said of being a Disney cast member, “especially when it’s the most popular ride in the park, like this one is. Not everybody shows them respect. But I always show them respect. And they’ve always encouraged me.”

In June 2012—just before Disney California Adventure’s Cars Land expansion, including Radiator Springs Racers, was set to open—the park held a preview event for annual passholders. Jon was one of those passholders, but only eight months removed from his double knee replacement, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to fit himself into the ride’s seats. He did fit—and on his first ride, he lost a souvenir hat from the Disney fan convention D23 Expo. Two days later, he had it back, retrieved and mailed to him by the park. That’s an important part of Jon’s Racers story, it seems; he never fails to mention it in blog posts or conversation. From his very first experience with Racers, it has been associated with people acting out of consideration.

For the rest of 2012 and through the end of 2013, Jon’s lap total stood at an impressive 372. But for 2014, he set himself a goal of one thousand rides for the year. “I’m a competitive person by nature,” Jon said.

Not surprisingly, the cast members working the ride started to recognize him, and his tradition of carrying hand-drawn signs, indicating landmark laps, that he could hold up for the in-ride camera that takes souvenir photos. On July 21, 2014, when he was approaching his thousandth lap for the year, the cast members knew the Big Lap was coming.

“After lap 999, I came around and saw the CMs waiting for me at GWD [the separate side-loading area for guests with disabilities],” Jon recalled. “Four of them rode with me on one thousand. Then at the end, they gave me a Piston Cup trophy and two pieces of art that they’d all signed.”

Continued in "Happy Place"!

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