Stephen Wimer spends most of the day hooked up to a dialysis machine, his blood slowly pumped out and cleansed before being slowly pumped back in. He thinks often of Disneyland. He was there on the first day, in 1955. That's where his Disney story begins.
Until you meet Stephen Wimer, formerly a surfer, formerly a school teacher, always a self-proclaimed Disney geek, you'd never equate Disneyland with a medical process as dehumanizing as kidney dialysis.
But for Wimer, as for many others, Disneyland performs the same function: it cleanses our impurities and dissatisfactions, returning our lives to us at the end of the day infused with that peculiar "pixie dust", Walt's special recipe, found only in the happiest place on earth.
Wimer's story starts on a swing in his suburban California backyard, one day in 1955, when his father, a reporter for a local paper, scoops him up and takes him to Disneyland, on opening day, where he's the first kid in Fantasyland. His life takes many twists and turns, including substance abuse, frittered opportunities, and spiritual rebirth, but Disneyland figures through it all.
You have never read a Disney tale like this one.
Chapter 1: Magic Morning
Chapter 2: First in Fantasyland
Chapter 3: High Adventure
Chapter 4: Old Times, Good Times
Chapter 5: The Age of Aquarius
Chapter 6: I Hear My Train a-Coming
Chapter 7: Disneyland Dilemma
Chapter 8: One Pill Makes You Larger
Chapter 9: California Mountain High
Chapter 10: Finding Nemo
Chapter 11: I Get Around
Chapter 12: Changes
Chapter 13: Joe College
Chapter 14: Sad Sack
Chapter 15: Christ the Redeemer
Chapter 16: Losing Status at the High School
Chapter 17: One Fine Day
Chapter 18: Disney Geek Symptoms
Chapter 19: Certain Women
Chapter 20: Magic Bus
Chapter 21: The Tease That Pleases
Chapter 22: Trouble in Paradise
Chapter 23: Deja Vu All Over Again
Chapter 24: Goodbye Kiss
Chapter 25: Location, Location, Location
Stephen Wimer is a disabled English teacher who does dialysis at home on a machine 10½ hours each day. He’s happily married to Stephanie. Stephen has lived a life of passion. A surfer for 35 years, he appeared on a billboard surfing for “Niguel West Homes”, published an article on surfboard design, and lived in Hawaii for years surfing Oahu. As a real estate broker, he sold residential real estate, wrote and edited courses for the world’s largest real estate school, and developed substance abuse problems. He overcame his demons through the help of Jesus Christ and taught high school for 15 years.
Steve was at Disneyland on opening day #1 with his father, a reporter for the Riverside Daily Press. His dad went to hear Walt Disney give a speech on the Mark Twain while Steve stormed the castle. The entrance was blocked in front, so Steve walked around the castle and entered Fantasyland from the back. Steve was not only the first kid in Fantasyland, but the first, and second, guest to ride Mr. Toad. When Walt Disney died in 1966, Steve lost interest in Disneyland.
In later years, Steve rekindled his love for Disneyland, and has visited the park many times.
Little Stephen Wimer, then just three years old, remembers the boxes of Cracker Jacks that Disney cast members tossed into the crowd on opening day in July 1955.
Dad said, “We’re going to Anaheim.”
Call me slow, but I hadn’t figured out our destination. Sure, I watched Walt Disney’s TV show every Sunday evening. I loved the introduction with Tinker Bell’s pixie dust and animated fire works. I loved how Disney narrators told nature stories. I’d watched with interest as Walt told us about his plans for Disneyland, but at age three, I thought about Disneyland for an excited hour, fell asleep, and forgot it. After all, it wouldn’t open for months, and age three, that’s an eternity. It’s funny, but I can vividly remember that television show. I was so fascinated by the concept of Disneyland. It was like a dream that I had only when I was awake. It was my portal to the infinite. It felt like church.
I also remember going inside a bomb shelter at the supermarket. It was a trailer someone transformed into an underground bunker. Back then, everyone was worried about the bomb. I remember reading a newspaper prediction of the future when everyone would have his or her personal flying saucer. I thought that was really cool. It seemed like science fiction was everywhere.
Finally, after thirty miles of being stuck on a slow, stop-and-go highway, past miles of driving by orange tree after orange tree after orange tree, we turned into the Disneyland parking lot. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was at Disneyland. On opening day! I got as excited as a rocket count-down to the beginning of time and space. I wanted to see and hear everything!
Dad parked. I got out, to a strange and sticky surprise. My foot sank into the freshly paved black asphalt. I lost a shoe when I raised my foot up. I struggled to get my shoe back on. Then I ran to my father. I tripped. I was on my knees in the black muck. It felt like tar. I got up and joined the crowd of suits near the closed gate.
Dad was exchanging greetings with other reporters in suits, ties, short haircuts, and spit-shine shoes. I was a child in a forest of adults. I saw the world from belt level. Don’t ask me how, but I found my dad. I think I heard his voice. I stuck to my dad. We waited, for five minutes. At age three that feels like two hours. I had black muck on me, but Dad didn’t notice. I could never escape notice today. My wife doesn’t miss a thing. She would have made me drive home to change shirts.
A Disney front man broke up the monotony with a case of Cracker Jacks. He had kids use brown grocery bags to pick up Cracker Jack boxes off the asphalt. The kids attacked the boxes of caramel popcorn like sharks in a feeding frenzy. I got enough boxes to last me for months. I couldn’t believe it. Every kid had smiles on their face. I loved it! It was like Halloween in June. It was a fat boy’s dream come true. I loved those golden boxes with sailor Jack and his dog Bingo on them, the toys inside, as well as the popcorn and peanuts. I still do. Back then, the big marketing push toward kids was the toy in the box. Every cereal had toys, and so did Cracker Jacks. Food was fun. They had cool toys in them. I hadn’t had so much fun since blowing out the candles on my birthday cake. I was definitely feeling the Disneyland magic, and I wasn’t even inside the Magic Kingdom yet. We used to have 8x10 photographs of the Cracker Jack session, but after my father died, my mother lost them. I really wanted to put them in this book. I sometimes doubted whether this incident happened on opening day, but when I got an annual pass at Disneyland, a clerk remembered the great Cracker Jack Give-Away Day.
Continued in "My Disney Side"!
For every ride, there's a first rider. In the case of Disneyland's Mr. Toad, that first rider was Stephen Wimer.
On opening day I admired the attraction posters on the fence. They were wild, wonderful, and whimsical. It didn’t feel like I was at an amusement park. It felt like a travel agency. It felt like I was on a trip around the world. I’d never been so excited. I could see high adventure at faraway destinations. I was on my merry way. That was the thing back then. Folks celebrated retirement with a globe-trotting vacation. It was a status symbol. It was how people rewarded themselves for working fifty years. It hadn’t even started and this trip to Disneyland was feeling like the grand adventure of my life. I didn’t know what to expect. My father took me by my hand into Main Street, USA. I was too young to read the inscription above the tunnel.
My father had the big camera and a pamphlet in hand. At the flagpole we stopped for a meeting. Dad would join the Walt Disney entourage to the Mark Twain Riverboat. He said to meet him at the flagpole at noon. I wanted to go into the castle. It was like a big magnet pulling me to it. Dad went his way, and I went mine. In a way I didn’t want to leave him. On the other hand, I was glad to escape the clutches of the pincher.
I hardly noticed the shops as I ran toward the castle. I felt like I was running backwards in time. A cast member in the hub told me to stop running. I went into a speed walk because I wanted to storm the castle.
When I reached the castle I discovered the gate was closed. This made me think. Nothing was going to stop me. I was afraid to enter the moat because it might contain alligators. The walls were too high to climb.
I decided to walk around the castle. I walked into Fantasyland from the back on the right. On my way around the castle I noticed dirt under weeds next to little signs in Latin. I would see lots of museum-type exhibits like this during the early sixties when my mother took a lot of botany classes. We would drive to these places on Sundays so my mother could study them.
I turned the corner into Fantasyland. I was the only one there. Dig it, Disneyland brothers; I was the only kid, the first kid, in Fantasyland. I saw the painted lines outlined with chains for a couple of rides, and I walked through the maze. A sign announced they were closed. Finally, Mr. Toad was open. There was no one up front, but I saw an old gray and bald guy in Farmer John jeans in the back.
“Hey, Mister, can I go on this ride?”
The cast member’s head rose from his daydream. He shook his head a little bit as his eyes opened. He said, “Sure.” The cast member looked like he belonged on Captain Kangaroo or had just escaped from a retirement home. He wore farmer dungarees. I guess Disney hadn’t gotten around to making cast member uniforms yet. That was how new Disneyland was that first day.
He pushed a button. The ride lit up and began to hum. I went through the turnstile. I got in the antique car. The ride gears began to turn and I took off on my first ride at Disneyland. It was my first car ride through a fireplace. Mr. Toad hypnotized me. By the time we reached the “No Way Out” scene with the train locomotive headed straight for me and the train whistle loudly going off, I was scared to death. It got worse. As I entered hell I saw the devil. Heat emanated onto the ride. I felt like I was on fire. It was the perfect special effect. I began to panic. Before I knew it, the ride was over. I got off, and I walked out of the ride, back to the start, and rode it again. I still love walk-ons.
That was my first, and second, and last walk on at Disneyland for a long time. There was no one else in sight. I was not only the first kid in Fantasyland, but the first to ride the Toad, and the second as well. I was the first kid to get scared to death by a Disney ride. I would relive that ride in my sleep, and suffer a nightmare that night, and strangely, for nights to come. It was sweet suffering. I loved it and hated it. It was like a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I was afraid to go to sleep. I still get uneasy watching a horror film. In fact, I avoid them. As a youngster, at the Saturday afternoon matinee, I remember leaving my seat during Sinbad the Sailor and running for the restroom when the Cyclops made his terrifying appearance. I vividly remember screaming during The Tingler when Vincent Price urged the audience to scream when he reveals the monster is alive and joining the theater audience. You’d think no one would fall for it, but everybody did, hard. That was the best audience involvement scene Hollywood ever made.
After I got off Toad the second time, I checked out Fantasyland. It was empty, but I could feel the magic. I knew this moment was special. I would remember it for the rest of my life. Heck, at 63, I am wearing my Mr. Toad t-shirt. It felt like hours, but it was probably only a few minutes, as I gazed at a fantasy world come to life. It was like a Magic Morning of today. I was the lucky guy in Fantasyland. Everyone else was waiting to get inside.
Probably the most amazing thing at Disneyland to me was the cleanliness of the place. There were no balls of gum on the benches, no litter in the wind or body fluids on the streets,. Best of all, the rest rooms looked squeaky clean. For a kid used to the cesspools called public restrooms in California, this was definitely new. The public rest rooms were so bad I would wait until I got home to go. Have you ever been to a gas station rest room? Awful. Most amusement parks were even worse. Disneyland was different. If I could just find a place to sleep, I was set for life.
Continued in "My Disney Side"!