March 14th and 15th of 2020 feel like a long time ago but also like they were just yesterday. The 14th was the last day of Disneyland operation before a closure that lasted a year plus and the 15th, the first day of said closure, was when the Disney College Program and many Cast Member’s jobs ended. It was deeply personal for us at Wandering in Disney as Michaela, writer and lead editor here, was a part of the program at the time. In the course of two days, worlds of both fans and Cast Members were turned upside down. So was the entire world. No one knew what lay ahead or the loaded months that would follow. For us here on the site, we had planned for a return in May. As you probably know, May didn’t happen and stretched into June which stretched into Autumn and back around again. While those two days stick out in my head, I’ll take my story back a little further.
March 3rd was the last day I was in Disneyland and I remember the weekend vividly. Magic Happens debuted, Rise of the Resistance was only a month or two old and I think I got about 3 or 4 hours of sleep each night. I’m lucky enough to travel a lot and sometimes it’s just perfect. I’ve always loved Disneyland, falling hard for the charm, Americana and feeling that are unique to that park relative to all other theme parks. On that trip and the two previous ones, the park became something more to me.
I grew up going to Washington Husky football games. Every home game Saturday in the fall, you could find me on the shores of Seattle’s Lake Washington at Husky Stadium, joining with my brother, sister and dad (along with other family and friends from time to time) and 70,000 other close allies to bark and cheer along the team clad in purple and gold. Like with most sports teams, there were bad years and great years. Eventually, the place became more important than what actually happened on the field.
Don’t get me wrong, how the team did (and still does) deeply mattered to me. It’s one of my biggest passions and hobbies right along with Disney Parks. But along the way, just being there mattered more. At first, it was seeing my older brother who had gone off to college while I was growing into my teenage years a few hours away. Then it was a way to bond with my sister. My turn for college came and that stadium became the best place to remedy any homesickness outside of actually being home.
We’d always take the bus across the lake to the games and get dropped off about a half a mile from the stadium. We’d walk the rest of the way and cross a bridge over what’s called the Montlake Cut. It’s a beautiful scene and the respite felt was similar to one you’d get as a kid once you reached the driveway of grandma’s house on Thanksgiving or Christmas. For most of my life I’ve been a pretty low-anxiety person, but even I must admit that there are places where it’s just easier to breathe. Husky Stadium and that walk is one of those places for me, regardless of if I’m screaming my lungs out or not. Disneyland is another.
On that trip during the first few days of March 2020, the walk down Harbor Blvd. (the road that runs next to Disneyland) became that driveway. The street brings a flood of memories and serenity all at the same time. There was dropping off the rental car and running from the rare Californian rainstorm by myself, there were late night ice cream walks and there were so many stops at the 7-Eleven, Walgreens and CVS at the corner of Harbor and Katella.
The road is a straight shot past those stores before cutting in a little about a block away from the park. There are typically some homeless folks sitting along the sidewalk contrasting the general anticipation other parkgoers exude. By all means, it’s a strange street and unlike any other Disney Resort in the world that I’m aware of – a real world reminder just outside of the gates of ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’. It all feels similar to the themes seen in 2017’s Florida Project. Perhaps that juxtaposition on Harbor grounds me a little before entering Disneyland. For some reason, it’s a street I’d longed for. A feeling of familiarity, humanity and memories that we just haven’t been able to experience the emotion of for the last 16 months.
We all have different stories to tell through the pandemic. I’m lucky enough to not have had to deal with it on a personal level as much as others. We all felt something at least vaguely familiar though – this feeling that it was all unbearably long but still felt like we were still in the same month over and over again. A true Groundhog Day feeling. And no matter how good your home environment is or how good you have it, most people need that home away from home where they can breathe a little better now and then. In the midst of jobs lost, losing loved ones and seemingly everyone going through a struggle of some kind, getting back to a familiar place that wasn’t our living rooms seemed essential. A walk down Harbor followed by a ride on Pirates, the Mark Twain or Matterhorn felt so far away sometimes and only a day old on others.
The country and theme parks have reopened although I’m fully aware that the pandemic surges on. About a month ago, we arrived in Southern California and have been here ever since. First visiting beaches, Universal and Knott’s Berry Farm before making our way to Disneyland and savoring a few days there before Magic Key (annual pass) goes on sale. Michaela’s got her custodian job back and, after months and months of stagnation, motion has returned. Life isn’t back to normal but it feels closer, like the Sailing Ship Columbia about to come around the bend. I’m reminded of this haiku Michaela sent me in the midst of feeling stuck in a job she didn’t care about as much as when she was in DCP and in a place she didn’t care as much about as Disneyland:
The journey home hits
Yet we reach for another
Home, it isn’t here
Now that time has gone and Melissa and I live a little over a mile from the parks right now, on the west side opposite of Harbor Blvd, while Michaela is set to move into a place a few miles down the road. Even on days I don’t go to the parks, I try to get out and walk or run, catching the fireworks or maybe hearing a bit of the sounds and screams from those zipping by on the Incredicoaster. I’ve even made my way over to Harbor a few times and soak it in. It feels like a dream a lot of the time, living so close to one of those places that helps you breathe. I’ve written before about there being moments in your life that you don’t know how good they are until they’re gone and there are also moments that you’re well aware of how good it feels at the time. I think and hope we’re all going to fall into the latter category for a while.
That’s not to say the heaviness is all gone. Those losses and burdens of the last year added up and it takes a while to sort through regardless of if you’re in one of your favorite places or not. You look one way and there’s the memory and beauty of the happiest place you’ve ever been but looking elsewhere can be a stark reminder that life is fragile and can turn on a dime. That line seems thinner than ever and aren’t we all better for it? Walking down Harbor and only seeing Disneyland doesn’t make you better. Seeing the resort and loving it while valuing and helping those less fortunate does.
The walk home right now after a day at Disneyland is a little longer than most of the hotels we’d typically stay at. It’s enough time to think about Billy Goat on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and how I’ve slept about 5 hours per night for the last week. The mind can wander to riding 5 rides in the last hour of the park being open and how bad my feet hurt. Or about how I live so close to Disneyland and how long the road was to get there. The fragility of life so evident and joy still apparent.
I was in line for Pirates the other day, my favorite attraction in the world. Once in a while, you catch a foul scent in a Disney Park and that’s what happened that day. It could be me for all I know, it gets hot and there’s lots of sweat around. The stench lasted for a little longer than expected but eventually I was inside the building and the familiar smell of Pirates, that musty, sweet water, came through my mask and into my nostrils. Breathe easier.
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