"To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created america, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world" -Walt Disney's Opening Day Dedication Speech, July 17, 1955.
Walt Disney's opening day dedication speech as well as many of these pictures made it into the Disneyland-themed collage I made in my eating disorder treatment binder which I presented in a group therapy session themed around "values."
It is helpful, they said, to determine and understand one's individual set of values while climbing toward recovery. By understanding your values, you can come to see how your eating disorder is preventing you from living according to those values. Eventually, you can learn how to use your value system to help manage your anxiety in a healthy way, instead of relying on your disorder to soothe anxiety symptoms- not unlike how I am using this blog to express my values, particularly about feminism, creativity, and compassion for other human beings, as a way to work through and cope with my anxiety.
But despite being raised as a feminist, when I was in treatment, I didn't yet think of feminism and feminist activism as my primary guiding principles. So when asked to present my "values" to the group, I did a presentation on the one thing I could think of that had always been there for me. The one place that always made me feel better. I did a presentation on the happiest place on earth.
I did a presentation on Disneyland.
My relationship with the Disneyland Resort is a long and special one, and our story begins long before I was even born.
My great-grandfather was one of the original investors in the Emporium on Main Street, USA when the park opened in 1955. At that time, the shops on Main Street were run independently of the Disney company, though Walt Disney retained the option to buy them out after a certain number of years if the park ended up being successful. My great-grandfather visited the park with my great-grandmother on opening day, and upon arriving at the store was taken aback at the sheer number of people trying to purchase Disney-related items. The retail staff had not been prepared for such a crowd, and the Emporium was a mess. So my great-grandfather decided he needed to protect his investment- he rolled up his sleeves and opened up a register, to help the staff manage the guests as they poured in to the happiest place on earth.
I first visited Disneyland when I was four years old (though my parents insist I was only three. They probably know better than I do, but in my internal narrative I have always been four, and so in my memory, four I will always remain). I don't remember much about the trip itself (except for the weird indoor pool at our hotel and how much I wanted a plush of Percy, the dog from Pocahontas), but two stories stand out to me. The first happened before we left Sacramento. I told my mom I wanted to go to Disneyland, she responded with, "Ok. If you can look at the merry-go-round in the mall, we can go to Disneyland." She never thought I would actually do it.
Because I was TERRIFIED of the merry-go-round- almost as terrified as I was of the Ronald McDonald statue outside the Wal Mart McDonald's. I couldn't tell you why. I probably couldn't have even told you back then. They were manifestations of my anxiety. Maybe I had a bad dream about one of them and couldn't separate that fear from reality, or let my imagination run wild thinking about what could happen if that statue and those horses came to life. I know something bothered me about the motion of the merry-go-round horses; I was afraid to go up and down, maybe because I didn't feel in control of my body. Regardless of the reason, whenever my mom took me to the mall - which was a lot - she had to warn me before we passed the merry-go-round so I could close my eyes. Otherwise, a melt-down was inevitable.
But after my mom gave me that challenge, the very next time we went to the mall and passed the merry-go-round, I stared right at it. So she had no choice. She had to take me to Disneyland.
Once there, I was of course terrified of most of the rides. Peter Pan's Flight was fine, It's a Small World was GREAT, but other than that I was content to stay safely on the ground and in the sunlight, getting autographs and taking pictures with my favorite characters. But on our last day, my parents decided they needed to take me on the old submarine ride (RIP!). They knew I would love the mermaids, and they knew it was probably tame enough not to freak me out. But I sure didn't know any of that. I didn't know anything about this ride, and that's exactly what scared me. I had no idea what to expect. I could be walking into ANYTHING. I could DIE, or even worse, feel panicky or anxious or motion sick and not know how to come back from the feeling (because "the worst that could happen" is almost never death, because death is pretty much inconceivable; the "worst that could happen" is that I could get lost inside myself, lose my mind, forget how to live outside the realm of fear, and those things are all VERY conceivable). I literally kicked and screamed as my parents dragged me onto the ride. I cried all the way until the ride began, at which point, I fell into an awed silence, because of course, I absolutely adored the ride. Especially the mermaids.
Over the years I would, of course, visit Disneyland several more times- when I was 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and then too many times to count after I turned 18. Every time I rode a new ride, building up in thrill and scariness. When I was 8 it was Pirates and Haunted Mansion Holiday. When I was 10 I tried the Matterhorn and Splash Mountain. 12 was Thunder Mountain and Indy. 14 was regular Haunted Mansion, and 16 was Space Mountain. I didn't even try Star Tours until six months ago, and I still won't go on Tower of Terror (soon to be Misson: BREAKOUT) or California Screamin'. But with every new attraction milestone, I conquered my anxiety a little bit more. Disney rides, particularly the thrill rides, gradually taught me that my fears were not based in reality, but rather in projections of how I was afraid I might feel. I wasn't actually afraid of the rides, I was afraid that I would feel afraid during the rides. And that is what anxiety is- the anticipation that you will feel fear or that you will lost control. And even when the rides didn't go well (*cough*Matterhorn*cough*...and don't even get me started on Expedition Everest...), the experiences taught me that feelings of discomfort and fear are temporary and will eventually pass, which is a key lesson to learn when figuring out how to manage anxiety. In this way, riding the thrill rides at Disneyland became my own mini-version of exposure therapy.
Disneyland has been a significant player in other aspects of my life: I met one of my good friends while she was putting my family and me into a car on the Indiana Jones ride (Chloe, you get yet another shout out. Also, I want to tell everyone that Chloe promised me that if I write this blog post she will get it tattooed onto her body, so I am expecting her to do that as soon as I publish this). I directed a play for the first time for a performance competition my high school attended through the Guest Talent program. I went with my parents a few weeks before I left for college in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety we all felt about that milestone. I even had sex for the first time at Disneyland- well, not actually in the parks, but in a hotel room on a trip to Disneyland with my high school boyfriend, which is a whole other story for a whole other blog post.
And now I work here- it is my first real job as an actor out of school, and it is allowing me to financially support myself for the first time ever. Working at Disneyland, while...challenging, has not made me love the park any less. Seeing how things really work backstage has not ruined the onstage excitement. In fact, one of the things that has always inspired me so much about Disneyland has been the behind-the-scenes magic- the incredible scientific innovations, the attention to detail, the commitment to treating every guest with kindness, dignity, and respect, and of course, the performers. I fell in love with Disneyland because I believe in magic, but the magic I believe in is the magic that happens when talented and dedicated human beings create something incredible; something that has the capacity to impact the lives of millions of people for the better.
And I don't believe Disneyland's value lies only in escapism, either, although certainly everyone needs a way to escape from the harsh realities of our world every once in awhile. Take Frozen: Live at the Hyperion. On its surface, it is simply a fun, innocent bit of Disney entertainment. But in truth, our little theme park show is in itself a protest, and a work of art which is particularly poignant in our current political climate. When Elsa sings "Let it Go," she is singing about letting go of the internalized oppression she has lived with since a child and allowing her remarkable power to finally shine through. That is why so many women and LGBTQ individuals related to that song when it first came out, and still relate to it today. Elsa is prosecuted by two male characters with the support of the Arendellian citizens because they fear what they do not understand. They fear the power of their female leader. But with the help of her sister, another strong woman, who refuses to be afraid, Elsa learns to accept who she is and use her power for the good of her kingdom- and in the end the sisters defeat both the power-hungry young man with no respect for women or their feelings and the capitalist, money-grabbing old man who thinks he can control them. Oh yeah- the story also begins with a "wall" being built around the castle to harness Elsa's power, and ends with that wall being torn down, so that everyone in Arendelle can learn to love and accept each other, rather than be led by their fear and ignorance. Every single day, we get to share this story with 6,000 guests, young and old. To help tell our story, we have cast actors of all colors and ethnicities to play our leads, so we can show those 6,000 people that diversity and representation is important (show even the dad my friend overheard outside saying he wanted to complain about Anna being black because she "shouldn't be that way"). And most of those 6,000 guests would not have the opportunity to be exposed to live theatre or such social commentary on a regular basis.
As has been proven by my previous blog posts, not all has been harmonious at my workplace lately. On the day when all the shit finally hit the fan, I had some hours to kill between a physical therapy appointment (because Disney provides free physical therapy for work-related injuries, you guys, which is pretty incredible) and a late-night rehearsal shift. So I went into the park. I went on Thunder Mountain. I browsed some shops. I also just sat on a bench in front of the castle and watched guests walk by. I listened to children laugh and to the "Music Man" and "Hello, Dolly" songs that play through the Jolly Holiday Cafe speakers. I watched couples and groups of friends take pictures in front of the castle. I helped some guests find the Starbucks. And I felt better. I was reminded of why I do what I do. I was reminded that human beings can be good, and that magic will always exist as long as we know where to go to find it.
So if I had to go into Intensive Outpatient treatment again (which I SWEAR I never will), and if I was again asked to make a presentation about my values, I would probably read some feminist theory and share some feminist poetry. But maybe, I would also just sing "Let It Go." Because I will always love Disneyland. It will always be my happy place, the place where I feel most welcome. It will always be where I relive my fond memories of the past and savor the promise and challenge of my future. It will be the place I reconnect with the ideals, dreams, and hard facts that make up the foundation of creativity, and Disneyland will always be my main source of joy and inspiration.
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