Disneyland overlords, all about branding and stealth marketing, apparently have an in-house name for the likes of me: “nonfamily guests.”
I’ve been called worse.
It’s nothing derisive – derision and mockery, after all, is verboten at “The Happiest Place on Earth” – but I cannot help but feel the term connotes something vaguely sad and pathetic, a sense of displacement, as if you’re that odd-man-out guest at a Thanksgiving dinner, welcome but not quite accepted, superfluous even, the answer to the old children’s book game of what’s-wrong-with-this-picture.
But that’s just me, long a sufferer of intense, sometimes crippling, self-consciousness. I had been assured and re-assured before making my first pilgrimage to the park since I was a snot-nosed 11-year-old in 1971 – somehow, I avoided accompanying my own brood here during their childhoods – that Disneyland is crawling with adults, sans kids, all looking to have a good time.
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Wait, that sounds creepy. Let me rephrase: Disneyland, I am told, can be just as enjoyable, just as infused with wide-eyed wonderment, for those with crow’s feet and middle-aged spread as for those whose cheeks are spackled with cotton candy or topographical maps of acne. It’s a nostalgia trip, veteran “nonfamily guests” say, a chance to relive misty watercolor memories and, for a few hours, forget that your 401(k) is tapped out, and you’ll probably be working until you shuffle off this mortal coil.
By now, you’ve probably inferred that I am not the ideal NFG. Much of my misspent youth occurred in the Orange County ’burb of Placentia – not a place of uterine-like placidity, despite its name – located not 10 miles (as the drone flies) from Disneyland, such proximity meaning the place held little mystique, no sense of a Magic Kingdom visit being an epoch-making childhood event. Leftover E tickets were strewn about the house like detritus.
To understand the viselike hold Disneyland, celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer, has on some grownups, and to quell my anxiety for my first visit inside its gates in 44 years, I contacted a Sacramento woman, Kelly Shinar-Reed, 56, who is just wild about the place, a NFG par excellence.
She only visited the park a few times as a child but, as an adult, has been back, with equally smitten friends, at least once a year for a dozen years. She assured me that, of course, the lines for Space Mountain would be dotted with men graying at the temples and women in thick pince-nez bifocals who aren’t just ushering around their grandkids; that childless couples in their early 30s roam the grounds, especially over at the California Adventure annex, where alcohol is served; that you’ll find many couples not thinking twice about squeezing into so-called kiddie attractions like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Submarine Voyage.
“Only now they call it the ‘Finding Nemo’ Voyage,” Shinar-Reed said. “That’s a good one to do. Try that.”
Really? Doesn’t she feel slightly silly standing in line for rides where you’re not fretting about the height limit but hoping beyond hope they don’t have an upper weight limit?
“I’m not self-conscious at all,” she said, laughing. “I just push the kids out of the way and go.”
She was kidding, I think.
“I’m a big kid at heart, totally,” she added.
Me? I’m a curmudgeon at heart, my mom once claiming to a concerned elementary school principal that I was “6 going on 60,” sadly born without the whimsy gene.
Yet, I would heed Shinar-Reed’s advice. I wouldn’t, as she does, subject myself to three days of Disney delirium, which assuredly would result in hospitalization, but I would go with an open mind and wallet (the park is much more expensive than in 1971; a one-day “park-hopper” pass is $155). I would stand in long lines next to squalling blobs of infectious protoplasm held by their uptight anti-vaxxer parents, but I draw the line at the Snow White ride. I don’t do Snow White. I would attend the “Frozen” singalong, but vowed not to “let it go” and give voice. I would not don mouse ears – that much degradation is absolutely death-dealing – but I would kindly chat up adults wearing same. I would not ingest corn dogs, cotton candy or ice cream – doctor’s orders, not mine – but search for the reasonably healthful concessions Shinar-Reed swore are in abundance.
“Any final bits of advice?” I asked her.
“It gets pretty crowded at night, so I usually like to get there first thing in the morning,” she said. “But if it gets busy in one section, just keep moving. And have fun.”
Half-past 8 a.m., and the swarm already has descended. The park opens at 8, but apparently you can pay extra and get early admission. Already, I feel I’ve been outsmarted by these smug extended families at the head of the line for Space Mountain. I take Shinar-Reed’s advice and try to use the Fast Pass machine, an ATM-like device in which you insert your ticket and out spits a card with a one-hour “window of time” when your place in line will be reserved. My window would’ve been 10:30-11:30. I really don’t want to make a commitment, at least not this early.
Besides, I’m here, in large part, to do that journalistic man-on-the-street thing and scan for NFGs. But all I’m seeing are parents steering strollers, sporting thousand-yard stares, hellbent on exiting Tomorrowland and careening, doubletime, hut-hut, over to Mickey’s Toontown. Traffic slows by the ubiquitous stroller parking lots, overseen by gimlet-eyed valet attendants. Some of these tricked-out conveyances look so elaborate, sporting whitewall tires and multiple cup holders, pouches, zippered panniers and UV-shielding sunroofs, that they might cost more than an automobile.
At last, I find my way back to the roundabout on Main Street, the park’s geographic center. A crowd has formed around the bronzed, life-sized statue of Walt Disney, one arm pointing into the firmament, the other clasping that adorable scamp, Mickey Mouse. From a distance – and maybe it’s just my middle-aged myopia – Uncle Walt looks uncannily like the statue of Saddam Hussein U.S. troops lassoed and tore down in 2003.
Here, I meet a couple holding hands, the balding man wearing a backpack and the woman holding a clutch purse. There’s no stroller nearby, no toddlers orbiting their legs. Might they be the elusive “nonfamily guests”?
“You are never too old for Disneyland,” says Alana Barron, 25, of Edmonton, Canada.
Her partner, Steve Kane, 30, confirms it. They are vacationing and came to Disneyland for themselves.
“When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to go as a family,” Kane says. “As soon as I could afford it on my own, I’m here. I mean, as a kid, this is the place you want to go. There’s literally no other place you want to go as a child, particularly if you’re from out of town.”
Over at the entrance to Fantasyland, I make another NFG spotting. A young couple is posing before the castle facade, a selfie-stick with pink smartphone attached extended from the arm of the woman sporting Mickey Mouse ears and a bright red bow.
They are Ashneel and Ivania Nand, from the Contra Costa County suburb of Pittsburg. Ashneel looks a little abashed when I approach. Maybe it’s because I caught them in mid-selfie, maybe just a reaction to the whole Disneyland-as-an-adult gestalt.
“I was just telling her, it’s kind of weird we’re here because Disneyland is for families, people with kids, you know,” he says. “But sometimes you just gotta forget about it. I just got off Space Mountain. I still love it. Some of those turns, I was like, this is crazy.”
“We don’t feel too out of place at all,” Ivania adds. “It’s awesome.”
Must just be me. Time to have some fun. I take the plunge and get a Fast Pass for Splash Mountain , a two-hour wait.
A sign says the wait for the venerable Pirates of the Caribbean ride is 20 minutes, so I queue up, taking deep breaths to quell my agoraphobic inclinations. As the line shuffles through switchbacks denoted by metal railings, I check out people exiting the ride. I notice some wringing out their T-shirts.
Soaked in nostalgia?
No, just soaked.
I try to make people think I’m part of the extended family ahead of me, lest I be branded as that most pathetic of outcasts – the solo NFG. I sort of glom on to them. But once we’re inside and darkness descends, I back off a little. The toddler in her father’s arms is scared and shaking, her face a rictus of fear, her eyes red-rimmed. The happy, smiling attendant filling the boats tries to keep families together. When she gets to me, she says, a tad patronizingly, “You by yourself? OK. Go to (row) number six.”
The back of the boat for me.
From childhood, I remember Pirates of the Caribbean being scarier. But the animatronic pirates shooting at each other over the tour boats is just how I recall it. The tame, though still stomach-churning, dives we take in the boat come as a surprise, but that hologram of Jack Sparrow cackling out of the mists wasn’t on the original ride, was it? I do remember, and unfortunately can’t forget, the “Yo Ho” song in my head.
I retreat to the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe to regroup over a felonious $2.50 bottle of water, and strike up a conversation with honeymooners Teresa and Chad Day, both 36, from Kent, Wash. I mention my slight disappointment with Pirates, and Chad nods. He’s experiencing the downside of nostalgia, the feeling that not everything is as before.
“Little things have changed,” he says. “The fireworks thing at night: They used to have a Tinkerbell that would come down at the end of the parade, on the zip line, you know? That was part of the attraction of fireworks. Not anymore.”
But the couple is otherwise effusive with praise. There’s no other place they’d rather spend their honeymoon. Disney functionaries have given them buttons advertising their “just-married” status and, says Teresa, “they are so attentive. From 20 feet away, they’ll recognize that and make a fuss over us.”
I probe, with the gravitas of a Diane Sawyer, “Do the buttons enable you to cut in line?”
“The lines are about the same as when I was a kid, really long at Splash Mountain,” Chad says. “You know, when I was little, I actually got to see the movie the ride is based on (“Song of the South,” 1946) in a movie theater. Kids don’t know anything about the movie.”
As Disney, apparently, would like it. You won’t find “South of the South” on sale in stores in Critter Country, or anywhere else. Seems the film was based on the old Uncle Remus stories – with the racially insensitive character Tar Baby – so it’s not deemed suitable for today’s audiences.
“Great ride, though,” Chad says.
Here is just one of the indignities NFGs of a certain age must endure, a sign at the entrance to Splash Mountain (and other extreme rides):
For safety you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure …
High blood pressure? Check.
Back problems? Check.
Motion sickness? Check.
Other conditions? Check and check.
Still, if these two kids in front of me can handle Splash Mountain, with its 52.5-foot drop on a 45-degree angle, then so can this NFG. Though I must admit, as we made our way to the six-seat logs that would hurtle us about, both the little girl, no older than 6, and I were visibly fretting. The girl’s mother, directly in front of me, kept reassuring the girl that “you’ll have fun,” while her older brother, probably 9, made faces at her. Dad, up front, was oblivious.
Turns out, I share a log with the family. The smiley-faced attendant put me (“alone, sir?”) in the back. As we ascend, the water rushing past us, the girl starts sobbing, the mom trying to distract her by bopping to the plucky banjo music. Once we level off, the brother turns and says to the sobbing sister, “It’s over. Good job,” knowing full well what awaits. Mom, slightly shrill: “We’re having fun!”
After several stomach-flipping descents, including the 52.5-foot plunge, the partially soaked but fully traumatized girl is inconsolable. Mom leans forward, rubs the girl’s shoulders, says, “You did it, honey!” Brother: “No, we’re not done.” More tears.
Even with a Fast Pass, the wait is long at the Indiana Jones Adventure Ride. To kill time in Adventureland, I wait in another line – for lunch. The Bengal Barbecue, specializing in kabobs, looks to be the most healthful option. I need protein to gird myself for Indiana Jones, so I opt for the $4.99 Chieftan Chicken Skewers, glazed with Polynesian sauce. What arrives a minute later are three tiny chicken cubes impaled on a stick, swimming in red syrup. It’s a three-bite lunch.
Dinner, several hours later, is at the fancy Blue Bayou, reservations mandatory. I snag a table in the corner, though, sans reservation. Strangely, there are no other “parties of one.” Shinar-Reed had raved about the ambiance of the Blue Bayou, and it’s nice, truly it is, dimly lit, right on the water as the boats carrying Pirates of the Caribbean riders float by. I fear, however, that the riders will spy me all by my lonesome, tucking into a $40 salmon fillet the size of a Taco Bell taquito, and think, “Loser.” I eat fast and leave.
Curmudgeonly NFG though I am, even I must admit that the Indiana Jones ride is … fun. The bladder-jangling jeep ride and special effects, culminating in the hologram of the giant stone rolling toward you, is worth the wait.
As I stagger off, I notice I’m not the only 50-plus rider. Jackson Wong, 63, and his wife, who wants nothing to do with the media, are longtime NFGs. They live in San Francisco – he’s a retired engineer – and were in Orange County for a wedding.
“Every time we happen to be down here, we stop by,” he says. “Nice place to hang out for a day.”
Wong first came to Disneyland for his high school graduation, and I ask how the place has changed.
“That’s one of the nice things about it – it doesn’t,” he says. “They refine it. They improve it. They add to it, but everything that’s existing is the same.”
Tracy Kalvin, age 39: “Kids? Oh, s–, honey. Where are the kids?”
Graham Handford, 28: “Oh, they’ll come back – eventually.”
This couple, from Vancouver, Canada, is easy to spot in Frontierland. They lurk at the Shootin’ Exposition, having just blown away several animals (not real, of course) and loving every second of it, when yours truly notices Kalvin’s elaborate tattoo sleeves and pegs the two as NFGs.
They only feign parenthood for a few seconds. This is Kalvin’s first time at Disneyland (Handford came in fifth grade) and they seem happy not to be pushing a stroller.
Handford: “We plan to catch some rides, have a drink or two. That’s my idea of a good day.”
I inform them that Disneyland is a “dry” park – no adult libations, that is – and the two are crestfallen. I tell them the alcohol is on the other side.
“What other side?” Kalvin asks. “You mean there’s more?”
I fill them in on California Adventure, its wine-tasting room, its craft beer garden, the margaritas at the Frozen exhibits. Kalvin is stoked. A careening little boy with light-up shoes almost runs her down, and she smiles. I mention something about Disneyland being a form of birth control, and she shakes her head.
“After being here, I want kids now,” she says. “Well, not right now. But it looks like it’d be way more fun with kids.”
When you make the crossover to California Adventure, you expect a higher ratio of NFGs. Wrong. Kids gravitate toward the “Frozen” attractions in Hollywood Land and rides at Cars Land. Never underestimate the power of movies as a indoctrinating medium.
To gain entrance to a late-afternoon Frozen sing-along, I had to hustle over in the morning for a Fast Pass. Just before curtain, I am the only adult waiting in the lobby without a child in tow. This is awkward. I even creep myself out. For the first time in forever, I consider a profession where I just sit at a desk crunching numbers, a job with no human interaction. But I am unable to leave the theater early, though I’m scanning the exits and avoiding eye-contact with pursed-lips moms no doubt trying to memorize my facial features to later give to the police sketch artist.
Confession: I have never seen “Frozen.” But the movie excerpts prove entertaining, as does the tyke three rows up who stands and acts out every scene in which Queen Elsa appears, her mom positively beaming.
Afterward, I need a drink.
But no alcohol. I’m working, after all, and, it doesn’t seem right to get buzzed at Disneyland, or California Adventure. It is jarring to see adults walking around with cups of beer and fluted plastic wine glasses.
California Adventure has my drug of choice in the form of a Starbucks. Once revived, I have no trouble tracking down NFGs. One obvious place is the bar, formally known as the Carthay Circle Lounge, next to the white-tablecloth Carthay Circle Restaurant (in a reproduction of the theater where “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” premiered in 1937).
There, I find three 20-something friends, Rebecca Talsky, Dhae Jones and Britney Hewitt, enjoying cocktails. Jones says she’s there for the rides, but Hewitt is bluntly honest. “If there’s lines for rides, I just like to drink,” she says. “That sounds bad, but it’s true.”
Newlyweds Antony Lowbridge-Ellis and David Lowbridge-Ellis, both 32, of Birmingham, England, have just finished a wine tasting and are feeling quite happy in “The Happiest Place on Earth.” The two have visited all the Disney theme parks in Europe and North America and, Antony says, will hit Asia next. They make no apologies for being adults having Disney fun.
“Some of our friends think it’s all a ‘It’s a small world’ kind of twee thing, but, actually it’s great,” David says. “I’m a cynical person, but I find my cynicism evaporates as soon as I walk in through the gates.”
Antony: “I see adults here with kids, and I almost feel sorry for them. Yes, they have a good time, but sometimes I think they need to come here as a couple. It’s not all about the kids.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
The Diamond Celebration begins May 22 (the anniversary is July 17) and continues throughout the summer with new shows, parade and fireworks at both theme parks, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
For information (hours, prices, and anniversary events) at Disneyland (1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim): disneyland.disney.go.com.