Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, the “happiest place on earth,” pretty much describes my experience over the years. We live a few miles from Disneyland in Anaheim, California. At 9 p.m., every night, we hear the distant boom of fireworks hearalding the end of the day’s parades.
Family and friends have worked there and, on occasion, signed us in for a free day of rides. Otherwise we ante up the daily entry fee for Southern California residents.
Six years ago our grandson was born and we knew Disneyland would take on a new dimension for us.
We celebrated Jake’s first birthday at Disneyland. He had just started walking. Our major focus was sights and sounds of the Main Street parade with its colorful floats, dancing characters, and trademark upbeat Disney music. We didn’t care about the rides, long lines for food or the hustle and bustle of navigating the busy streets. We found a relatively quiet corner and let him play.
The scent of popcorn, fried churros and cotton candy filled our nostrils while California’s September sun warmed our bare arms. Sweet memories. But we knew as he grew older there’d be a shift in how he’d enjoy the park.
Jake turned four. During that visit the carousel, Tea Cups and It’s a Small World delighted his eyes and ears. He was walking. We rented a stroller to hold our bags and jackets, and a tired Jake, too heavy to carry.
For the last two years he’s worn his Halloween costume to Disneyland’s Halloween Haunt – one year he was a dragon, the next Stitch from the story LILO AND STITCH.
Now he’s six-years-old. You can’t live in Southern California at that age and not be enculturated into the world of Disney. The movies (Finding Nemo, Cars, Toy Story), the television shows on DISNEY JR (Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Sofia the First), the endless array of Disney inspired Leap Frog games, live productions like “Beauty and the Beast.” Children learn so much about life from those stories – friendship, loyalty, team work, bravery.
Every week it seems he’s reading or watching a new Disney story. This week it’s THE ADVENTURES OF BR’ER RABBIT. He knows the “Song of the South” story from which Br’er Rabbit hails, and that there’s a connection to Disney.
Friday he asked if Disneyland has a Br’er Rabbit ride. I Googled. Sure enough in Disneyland’s Critter Country the Splash Mountain ride features characters from that book. He loves the story so much he wanted to ride it. “Can we go on Sunday?” he asked. So we did.
He mentally prepared a list of rides for his trip. He recited them throughout the day leaving off an attraction once he’d completed the ride. We started in California Adventure with the Jellyfish ride, the Raisin Boxes, and King Triton’s carousel. All three rides are designed for preschoolers.
In the Main Park we made our way to Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Tea Cups (his favorite), followed by Casey Jr Storybook train from Dumbo (first time ride), Mickey’s Rocket Ships, with the finale at Splash Mountain. He mentioned Splash Mountain several times during the day. Random reminders that Splash Mountain was an important stop. Although it would be the most mature ride he’d thus far experienced, I also knew he wouldn’t leave without taking it on.
Splash Mountain’s essentially a roller coaster. A hollowed out log takes its occupants down a man-made river into caverns and canyons where animatronics characters tell the story of Br’er Rabbit. Anyone over 40 inches tall is eligible to ride. Jake meets the requirement.
In the afternoon the crowds were overwhelming.
We got in line. Five people from the entrance. The gate was closed. A guard announced, “Technical Difficulty . . . the ride is closed.” I took Jake’s hand to leave.
He said, “Let’s wait until it opens.”
“What if it doesn’t open again today. We can’t wait all night.” Yet a line was forming. “Let’s go, then come back,” I offered.
“No.” He didn’t move. “Let’s wait.” I know his determination. If he was that adamant only a long wait would deter him.
The line continued to get longer.
Jake was a boy on a mission, determination written all over his face.
I took his hand. “Let’s get in line.”
No sooner did we queue up the line started to move forward.
We were being swallowed up by the mountain so quickly we had to run to keep up.
Finally the line slowed, then stopped. I read a warning sign posted on the wall: “If you don’t like fumes, sudden stops, steep dives get out of line now.” He can read but wasn’t looking at the sign. There was no turning back.
The line started to move again. Running we plunged deeper and deeper into the cave.
“Will I be scared, Yanni?” Jake asked.
“No. You won’t be scared.” And prayed it would be true.
We could see sunlight, then a glimpse of the logs. We were close.
Within seconds a guide assigned our seat. I prayed we’d sit in the back of the six passenger log. Bingo! The last two seats.
Our turn. Jake hopped in. I slid in behind him, leaned forward and hugged him from behind.
His pulse was racing, his heart thumping faster and harder than ever.
Our log started inching forward. Water splashed on our faces. Jake laughed.
“Will I be scared,” he repeated.
“No, just hold on to me.”
Our log bumped, thumped, teetered and tottered forward, inching its way to the first steep embankment. The log fell down a few feet then plateaued. No big deal. Jake laughed.
Water splattered us again. Sadly, the girl who sat in front of Jake couldn’t block the spurting cold water that landed on his forehead. He gasped.
Outside the mountain sunlight shown for a few seconds then back into the cave of total darkness. Grinding gears. Rattling chains. Gleeful characters singing. Jake’s heart beat riotously against my arm. No words escaped his lips.
“We’re going to take another dive. Get ready,” I warned into his ear and felt his body tense.
Sure enough, boom . . . the doors flew open and we dropped down the steepest decline, followed by another plateau.
“That’s it,” I told him. The sweet sound of laughter escaped his lips again.
Our log slowed, til it eventually stopped as we bumped the log in front. The log behind bumped us. The ride was essentially over as we queued to disembark.
We slowed to a stop and jumped out as fast as possible so the next group could take our seats.
He turned toward me waiting for me to join him on the platform.
A glow of pure joy mixed with relief mixed with accomplishment mixed with awe animated his happy face.
I expected him to say “Let’s go again.” And I was ready to get back in line, no matter how long it took, to re-traverse the den.
Instead he said, “I don’t want to do that again today or the next time we come to Disneyland.”
But I knew that was the little boy he’d been before the ride speaking. He’d think about this journey inside Splash Mountain and he’d never be able to return to preschooler rides again.
His footsteps seemed different. A new self-confidence laced his stride.
He looked up at me and said, “Splash Mountain is just like It’s a Small World.”
We smiled at each other confirming the truth of his realization.
No further words were needed. He equated Splash Mountain to a ride that was tame, comfortable, familiar. Next time he’d approach Splash Mountain with excited anticipation, but he’d never be afraid again.
As we made our way out of the park we passed the Jungle Ride and Pirates of the Caribbean. I knew he’d turned a page. These are the types of rides he’ll choose next time. He’d taken a step toward manhood by facing his fears of the dark and speed. The Disney parks had opened up a whole new world of experiences for him.
I see his face again as I write these words and glory in having shared such a monumental moment in his life. As the years pass I’ll see that face again and again as he braves new challenges in different arenas. I’m excited about what the future will bring and I hope I’ll be along to witness many more of Jake’s magic moments.
Photos (1) Jake holding SkippyJonJones, (2) Splash Mountain at Disneyland, (3) Random riders descend the final plunge down Splash Mountain