And where you’ll find me every December 23rd
(For those who aren’t in the know, I visit Disneyland at least once a year on Dec. 23, if not more times throughout the year. This year will be the tenth year I’ve visited on Dec. 23rd, and I’m going to tell you all about it)
Ten Years at the Happiest Place on Earth
I didn’t even realize that this was the tenth year. It seems so improbable, since that would mean that this tradition began just after the first year that I moved down to Los Angeles. I was still attending the Los Angeles Music Academy (Now Los Angeles College of Music, although I’d never call it that), I had just started what would turn out to be an almost six-year relationship with my girlfriend Kana, whom I met at Los Angeles Music Academy. I was still making less than $1000 a month installing car audio and security systems because it was the only job I could find that would work with my heavy Los Angeles Music Academy schedule. I still had my first 4Runner, with it’s custom dark red flame paint job and American Racing rims. I was struggling with money, bills, and time. It's strange to think back to that time in my life and see that I was even able to afford a trip to Disneyland. But the holidays snuck up on us and Kana and I decided to visit Disneyland before a trip up north to Reno, not knowing it was the start of ten years of happy holidays.
Our visit to “The Happiest Place on Earth” made an impression that day. I’ve loved Disneyland since I first visited in my very early youth (some memories of which I still remember well, and just recently discussed with my mother) and this was one of my first trips there completely free of parents or chaperones, entities that tended to take control of the visit. As far as I can remember, and as the available photos show, it was just Kana and me, enjoying ourselves to the fullest in our first Holiday season together. And speaking of photos, the small set that I have from that day are apparently from a camera I don’t even remember! I think it must have been Kana’s. I guess it was 2005 and digital photography didn’t have the entry-level quality that it does today, but man these photos make me equal parts nostalgic and equal parts disgusted.
LOOK AT ALL THOSE NOISY PIXELS!! AHHH!!
AND LOOK AT THAT GLORIOUS HAIR!!
I'm getting sidetracked by dirty ISO noise and bad flash photos, but as I said, our visit to Disneyland stuck with me. We were able to visit during the holidays and enjoy all the holiday shenanigans available to Disneyland visitors, but somehow the crowds were at a minimum for almost the entire day. I think they wait to visit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Then the day after our visit we had time to drive home to Reno and not worry about any awkward holiday scheduling. It worked out perfectly! And as an added bonus, this was the first time that I’d visited Disneyland to find a faux snow storm on Main Street at the end of our stay. (Here’s a nice little article on how that came to be: https://bit.ly/3H8R2w4) I remember talking about how much I’d loved that trip to Disneyland and how well everything had worked out for Kana and me.
Thereafter, Kana and I decided to make a tradition out of the Dec. 23rd Disneyland trip.
I think this is where I'm supposed to say, “A tradition was born!”
Ever since the first visit to the park when I was four or five years old, Disneyland has been a special place for me. It was just far enough away from where I grew up that it was a large undertaking to have our family visit the park, making it all the more special when we were able to visit. During my high school years both my Spanish Springs High School marching band and orchestra, and my extracurricular Reno Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, all visited Disneyland; the high school sponsored visits providing live shows in the Royal Theatre and a special trip to the small sound stages located behind Toontown at the back of the resort. There, my fellow musicians and I were given the chance to sight-read the scores to a handful of Disney animated videos while the animations were projected for us, just like how the professional orchestras would record for Disney. These trips provided a romantic scenario as well, since I was a teen, so of course there were more than a few kisses under the fireworks or in the dark caverns of The Pirates of the Caribbean. I always had a great time in Disneyland, and along with it being just far enough away to make it a very special treat, made Disneyland a special location for me.
And of course it’s not just the special occasion of a Disney trip that I love. It was always fun with my parents or teachers standing behind me, guiding me through large crowds of smiling faces. But when those restrictions were removed, Disneyland opened up into something else entirely. I was able to people watch, walk (or run, of course) around, and generally explore with a freedom I’m now very grateful I have, and enjoy Disneyland the way that I wanted to. For someone as independent as myself, this was a dramatic change. And by the way, Enjoying Disneyland means by showing up early to enter when the doors open, and leaving when the doors are being closed. I do not believe in any of this half day malarkey. If you’re going to visit Disneyland (and some would say, “If you’re going to pay the high price of admission for the visit.”) why not enjoy it to its fullest? Absorb everything you can! I’ve never felt the urge to enjoy Disneyland in any other manner. I would spend the entire day riding everything, planning where to eat and what to purchase and what to see. The fireworks are of course a mainstay in Disneyland for almost all visitors, but I can’t count how many times I’ve mentioned the Aladdin stage show in California Adventure only to be met with a blank stare, lacking any knowledge of the great stage play that you can use as a battery recharge as well. Or the Bug’s Life skit that is always seemingly empty, regardless of the quirky “4D” experience that the Disney Imagineers strived to provide. Even the incredibly dated and supremely goofy Tiki Room can be a nice little stop, especially if it is actually raining outside. It just seems to add to the experience a bit. All of this, and of course all of the fun that you can have riding the mainstays like The Pirates of the Caribbean, California Screamin’, Hollywood Tower of Terror, Big Thunder, Space Mountain, and most especially during the holiday season, the Nightmare Before Christmas version of The Haunted Mansion, would get jammed into a solid day of awesome. In fact, I almost got to where I’d burnt myself out because of the way that I enjoy Disneyland. Of course, I found my own ways to work around the inevitable Disneyland burn out.
I didn’t realize that maybe I’d been enjoying a bit too much Disneyland until my birthday in 2009. In 2009, Disneyland offered free admission to just the Disneyland park (no California Adventure) on their birthdays. I of course wanted that free admission, but I was a little saddened at the lack of the park hopper option. Park hoppers are in my opinion, of course, the only way to go. California Adventure at the time hadn’t had many of the revisions that Disney has used to improve it’s experience, but it was still a nice walk away from the bustle of Disneyland. And the slightly more “geared towards adults” vibe helps out too. But Kana and I decided to enjoy just Disneyland for once, as opposed to the heavily saturated experience we were now accustomed to. And let me tell you, that day in Disneyland was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. Relaxed from the very start of the day, content to walk and hold hands rather than run, visiting small attractions that we would otherwise have skipped due to lengthy lines or time constraints; it all led to a very different Disneyland trip than we were used to. It showed that maybe we were pushing ourselves a little too much and trying to fit everything into Disneyland instead of enjoying the little details that are hidden away everywhere in the park, or even missing out on the people we're with. It can seem like a dumb thing to say out loud, but sometimes when you’re trying to do 40 things and you only have time to do 30, little things slip past. Having the day where we planned to do 15 things and had time to do all of them made for a beautiful day. We realized that we should enjoy Disneyland differently.
Which was why we didn’t go to Disneyland again until we were in Tokyo.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea were obvious requirements for Kana and me when we started planning our holiday trip to Japan in 2009. I have to really give all of the credit to Kana for planning the entire trip to Japan. Everything worked out so well that we were able to seamlessly move from Osaka, to Kyoto, to Tokyo, then a full day in Tokyo Disney and a full day in Tokyo Disney Sea (with a night in the fabulous Miracosta Hotel), and then take a bus straight up to Hitachi over the course of the night and early morning. She couldn’t have planned the trip to work out any better and at the same time indulge our silly tradition of Disneyland on Dec 23rd. But I’m pretty gorram sure that we both felt it was worth the indulgence.
Still Beautiul ===>
Oddly enough, Tokyo Disneyland on Dec 23rd didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I think that was my own fault, expecting it to be everything I love about the original Disneyland and then some. But the Japanese Disney Imagineers decided to make it more of a faithful recreation of the original, with excessive use of Japanese mainstays like Stitch. (Stitch, by the way, is HUGGGGGGE in Japan.) I’m not saying that I didn’t love my Tokyo Disneyland experience, it's just that I went into the day expecting the park to be better than Disneyland Anaheim, and I got the Disneyland Anaheim in Tokyo, with a much more beautiful castle. Seriously, isn't this castle amazing? It is. Oh, and the awe-inspiring Winnie the Pooh ride, which is more than enough of a reason to visit Tokyo Disneyland if you’re in any way a fan of Disney. It’s easily one of the best parts of the park.
But where the Tokyo Disney resort really shines is Tokyo Disney Sea. Disneyland took a small part of what makes Japan and Tokyo special, and made it into a hallmark of the park: water. Disney has always found interesting ways to incorporate water into their attractions. The aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean is obviously completely dependent on dihydrogen monoxide, with a good majority of the storybook rides relying upon the liquid in the same fashion. A Bug’s Life uses small sprays of water to simulate the squirting bug defenses, and the always jaw dropping Fantasmic is of course nothing without it’s improvised water projection screens. Even just as a slight visual embellishment on Big Thunder and Matterhorn, water is a key component of the experience in Disneyland.
Tokyo Disney Sea took this key aspect of life in Japan and of most Disney attractions and made it THE key component.
Everywhere you look there is water. There is a huge sea in the middle of the park, with a huge volcano looming over the park, steam slowly pouring out of its throat, making for a beautiful view as you walk into the park. The rides are almost exclusively built around the life-giving substance. You ride on the water in Aquatopia (an obvious nod to Autotopia) that takes you through a whirlpool filled oceanic ride, and fishing trawlers and Venetian gondolas take you up and down the rivers and inlets of the park. Mickey's statue is dressed up as a fisherman, and there is a miniature version of the Queen Mary named the SS Columbia. A giant globe is kept in rotation by a plume of water below. You travel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the nightly show is performed on the sea in the middle of the park, as characters and cast members dance on floats, and in our lucky case, around a Christmas tree of light with fireworks overhead (Memory serves, and I did some light fact checking to verify this, we were actually in attendance for the final Candlelight Reflections seasonal event; they retired that show after that night) The ingenuity and the beautiful visuals, coupled with the cheerful Disney themes that we all know and love let Tokyo Disney Sea stand above the Tokyo Disneyland next door, and gave me exactly what I was expecting when I visited Disneyland in Japan. The memories and experiences of Tokyo Disney Sea are something I still hold quite dear and left me with an experience that I highly recommend to anyone else interested in visiting Japan.
So there came a time where I felt as though I was becoming burnt out. I needed to find a balance of what I love about Disneyland and the enjoyment that the relaxing Disney days had brought. I felt that there must be something else that I needed to get out of my Disneyland visits, that could be enjoyed right along with the usual Disneyland visit, without having to tweak the recipe. And what I’ve pulled from more and more at Disneyland throughout the years is photography.
A lot of what we see in the photography is staged. We’re able to find subjects that give us candid moments that can yield some of the best photographic results, or we can find naturally occurring examples of beauty that are staggering in their imagery and impact, but this photography is far less prevalent than the photos we see on an everyday basis. Stock photos, modeling, photographic sets as simple as myself in my living room; they’re all staged. Disneyland provides an amazing amount of staged photos with candid moments interlaced in between.
From the architecture, to the props, and the cast members, it’s all staged and created for the highest level of visual impact. It’s meant to provide a memorable reaction from yourself and from all of the other visitors around you. This creates a fun environment for novice photographers to learn and grow, with more than enough scenery and numerous subjects that won't shy away form the camera lens. Experts can find subjects that others would ignore and turn them into something beautiful and powerful. Using Disneyland as a consistent and open setting and subject for photography allowed me to try out a wide variety of photography without a lot of the obstacles that I’d found elsewhere. I am able to experiment, learn to frame photos in unique ways, learn to be patient, and have a dynamic environment for long low light exposures. I've even enjoyed playing around with high dynamic range photos in Disneyland for a while, although I never could find too much that I enjoyed with that style of photographic editing.
The photography took on it’s own life when my good friend Jo and I made the decision to get Disneyland annual passes for October 2011-2012. The annual pass had always been of interest for me, but at the time I was single and my sister didn’t have the money to buy her own, so I had no one to visit with consistently enough to make the price point worth it. But Johanna not only gave me the right person to spend day after day in Disney laden bliss, but the enthusiasm to get me off my butt and onto the 5 freeway for the drive down to Disneyland, Rammstein blasting through the car speakers, of course, since Sonne had become our official driving-to-Disneyland song. (For obvious reasons: https://goo.gl/OpFHV0) The season pass allowed for another way of enjoying Disneyland. In the past the trips were big occasions, planned for months in advance, invites to friends sent out, a few hundred dollars saved just to make sure we didn’t go overdraft in a gift shop after the fireworks, time off for work requested if needed. The planned days were stuffed full of rides to hit and when to hit them and food to eat and when to rest if the resting was desired. But these big time Disney events are the way of the past when you have an annual pass. Jo and I found that the planning was less necessary, that we didn’t have to worry about hitting the Cars ride tonight or getting to Blue Bayou every time we were there, or seeing this night showing of World of Color. We were allowed to put stuff off; try new things that we wouldn’t have otherwise because if we really wanted to we could just come back next week. (One thing we did fuck up on was parking. If you get an annual pass, pay for the additional annual parking!!) It gave us the ability to just romp down to Disneyland after a hard day of work and enjoy a beer, standing in line for Cars and not really give a shit that the line is 90+ minutes long. It let us take our time with long exposure photos and explore the framing of the subjects of our photos a bit more extensively because there was absolutely no rush. There is no worry about time or cost when you pay $15 a month to have an all access pass to Disneyland and you live less than 45 minutes away (without LA traffic, of course). It was yet another way of experiencing Disneyland, albeit a pricier one; one that requires you to visit Disneyland as much as possible to validate that cost. Sadly, when Jo left California and our annual passes were expired, I could no longer justify this cost. I let the annual pass slip away.
Dec 23, 2014 found me in an interesting position. I was without a love interest at the time, my close family wasn’t available for a Disneyland trip, and my friends were disinterested or otherwise unavailable. I decided to take a plunge and do something I'd considered for sometime: Spend an entire day in Disneyland by myself. No one on the drive down in Irbe, no one to giggle with if one of us was ousted as a rebel spy on Star Tours, no one to joke with in line to get a turkey leg, and no one to save a spot for fireworks while the other rushes to the bathroom. And worst of all, no one to people-watch with. People-watching alone is just stalking. This was a particularly daunting idea for me, since Disneyland is one of the few places that I’m decent at interacting with other people. To spend that amount of time with only my own thoughts and machinations to drive me after spending every single other visit to the park with someone else was a difficult choice to make. But I wouldn’t let my tradition fall by the wayside, so I pulled myself up and bought my tickets as usual alongside my Blue Bayou reservation for dinner.
Luckily, I was surprised to find that my Disneyland trip that day was similar to my birthday 5 years earlier. I was able to wander Disneyland with no purpose other than what struck my fancy in the moment. I was able to stop for photos, change my plans without worrying about messing up a larger schedule, skip over long lines due to my single rider status, talk to people I otherwise wouldn’t have, and just generally relax at Disneyland in a way that was different from the routine trips I was used to. It was the final experience available, filling in the last piece of possible Disneyland visits. I’ve been with family, I’ve been in large groups of chaperoned teens, large groups of unchaperoned adults, and with one other person, I’ve even gone exclusively for a small photo shoot. To spend the day entirely to my own devices was liberating and satisfying, and also brought a greater appreciation for the trips I’ve made with others. As I’ve stated in past blog posts, I’m not a social person. But in the streets of Disneyland, the people who you visit with can make a lovely day a perfect one.
The park is now closing...
Disneyland seems to be a love or hate experience. There’s a little bit of wiggle room if children are involved, but usually you’ll find two groups of individuals with polarizing views of Disneyland: Those that appreciate the innocence it imbues and the bright, vibrant dreamland that it strives to create, or those that are put off by the massive corporation that the parks represent, the corporate greed that is immediately associated with The Walt Disney Company, the make-believe wonderland that individuals are brought into to forget about the brutal honesty outside of the Disneyland walls. I don’t find any argument to either side really, since both are a matter of personal opinion and effect me very little. Unless of course fewer people visit the park, in which case my wait lines will become shorter, and that would make me even happier. I believe that those that enjoy Disneyland are able to enjoy a step outside of reality for short times and find value in retaining at least a small portion of their child-like innocence. An innocence that allows them to stop caring about the woes of our society, even if for just a short time. And those that believe they’re pawns in a corporate game based around capital growth at all time are probably not entirely too far off. The size of the Walt Disney Company is so incredibly massive that I would be surprised if there’s much humanity left in it’s upper levels.
Disneyland is an amazing place that was created by one man and the company that he created to make people happy. You can get out of it what you put in, whether that be positive or negative energy. I’ve always put as much positive energy as I can into my visits, whether that be energy from those around me, or dressing up as Jack Sparrow, playing with a school band, or spending that secret extra hour after the park closes to sit in the dark with my camera. In return I’ve received fond memories, some sore feet, the photos that you’ve seen across this post, and a lot of laughs and smiles. I’ve spent the last ten years visiting at least one very happy day at Disneyland per year, and when I had my annual pass it was upwards of 22 times in less than a year. I’ve seen these trips with family members, loved ones, and friends. I’ve spent 24 consecutive hours at Disneyland for Leap Year, I’ve gone with Jo for our very own Goth Day before heading to The Pond to see Rammstein light a stadium on fire. There have been long lines, there have been ridiculous entrance ticket prices and unnecessary gift shop purchases. I’ve judged grumpy faced adults and made dumb faces at giggling toddlers. I’ve travelled to the continent of Asia to visit a water fueled Disneyland interpretation while eating sashimi and udon with Kana and the most polite Disney cast members I’ve ever met. I’ve enjoyed all of these experiences because I wanted to step away from the world and smile for a day, sometimes two if I’m being particularly selfish. I’ve done this consistently for ten years, and I have no intention of stopping now.
I love Disneyland
Family members are of course, by default, important to us. Our parents bring us to life. If we’re lucky, our grandparents are able to regale us with stories of age-old experiences. And if we’re even more lucky, we have siblings that are great examples and better friends, all wrapped up into annoying little human bodies that will torment you until you love them.
My sister has been all of these, and more. My sister has driven me to madness, tricked me into cutting the bridge of my nose open so badly it required stitches, let her dog piss all over my brand new bass guitar, and then got away somehow with hitting me in the nose with a baseball bat. She’s also won more equestrian awards than can fit into a tack room, shown her artistic self by evolving and creating through years of experimentation and experience, grown past her genetic quirks to find happiness, and held together the Whitaker family through some very tough times, I’m sure due to no lack of sheer resolve and Whitaker stubbornness.
She’s understanding and caring, and she has shown through her actions that she deserves the love of her family and her husband, and probably doesn't deserve half of the shit that I put her through. (but she totally did)
I love her dearly.