What is it that it is – this theory of mine. Well, this is what it is – my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine…
Miss Anne Elk
I get this way any time someone mentions going to Disneyland as an adult, this need to defend both the park and my conflicted love of The Magic Kingdom. I start to think of all the ways I’ve been able to explain and express what is, ultimately, a personal affinity for a place that, as Monica has pointed out over at educating alice quite succinctly, is both fake and good.
In my mind I tend to break down my theories about Disneyland into three rough categories. The first is the Treasure Map Theory which has a lot to do with experiencing the park when I was still young enough to believe whole-heartedly in the worlds contained in books. The second I alternately think of ad the Deja Vu Theory or the Reincarnation Theory, depending on who I’m talking to, and it is the oddest of the bunch. The last of these is the Theory of Telescoping Nostalgia that isn’t only a theory about the park but about the perception of time and place according to the age and knowledge of the visitor.
Today I am going to talk as best I can about the Treasure Map Theory. Depending on how this goes I will try and set out the other two theories within the course of the next month.
I’m not sure if I was five or six, but it was around my birthday that I went to Disneyland. I have fleeting memories of specific places and scenes within the park, like mental snapshots; strand of hair getting caught in the mouth of a tiki in the Enchanted Tiki Room; the humidity in the tunnel along the Disneyland Railroad that made the dinosaur dioramas uncomfortably realistic; a tease of what it would mean to be a worldly traveler (in the mind of a small boy) while riding the Small World attraction. But none of these (and other) images is as strong as me, at home after my day at the park, sprawled out on my belly on the living room floor studying The Map.
Compared to the map of the park as it is now, Disneyland circa 1967 looked like a quaint roadside tourist attraction. In it’s first dozen years the park we still back-filling into areas that had been designed for expansion (as opposed to today where Disney Imagineers seemed to have succeeded in building worm holes into space to accommodate added attractions). On that map, the Jungle Boat cruise appears to take up a full one-quarter of the park. This is mere creative license as the scope and scale of rides is played up or down in order to make the park not look so empty.
But these aren’t the concerns of my young eyes. To me The Map was as real as any map to pirate treasure. With it I could trace my steps to various attractions, find those attractions I missed or longed to visit when I was old enough (and brave enough in the case of the Matterhorn) ride. The Map didn’t have roads or highways like boring adult maps, it had paths and passages, and areas of adventure grouped by theme instead of dull cities named after people no one remembered. The Map held out the promise of things to come and the visual proof of things seen. With no knowledge of what Disneyland was or what specific attractions offered, one could invent entire narratives around those rivers and vegetation.
The whole idea of a theme park was still new — innocence plays a large roll in how Disneyland works with young minds — and the idea that one could gambol from a Western village complete with pack mules to a Rocket to the Moon within minutes was hard to fathom.
The “treasure” within the map differs from person to person, and is as personal as any path a life will follow. With so much to see it is impossible for the overloaded brain to take it all in, but somewhere along the way specific moments catch and become cemented as core memories for the experience. The Map becomes the key that unlocks the memory and builds a bridge between the fantasy, the real, and the remembered. Disneyland takes the fantasy of Injun Joe’s caves from the books and gives them a real home on Tom Sawyer Island. The Map recalls the memory of both, by name and by experience. It validates the fantasy locale, and lends a certain weight of verisimilitude to those that have yet to be encountered.
The Map promises: “This is a record of these places that exist. And they do not exist only here.”
Many years later, when I first went to Europe, I had a strange dissociative moment. In the architecture of the the old buildings, the crooked paths of narrow streets and the distressed paint on old plaster, I suddenly felt I had wandered into an adult Disneyland. I wasn’t so sheltered or naive that I couldn’t perceive that it was Disneyland that copied the rest of the world, but I hadn’t fully expected to have those childhood feelings of joy and discovery come rushing back so strongly. Even in a small college town like Heidelberg with it’s “minor schloss” (a smaller, less-important castle), it was impossible not to wander through with a huge grin plastered across my face. Disneyland has Cinderella’s castle, a charming little passage way through to Fantasyland, but in a way it not only gave me the appreciation for the real thing, it validated the promise that castles were real. What comes across as “fake” in Disneyland implies there is a something “real” in the world worth searching for.
I suspect that to the jaded world traveler, and to those with a disdain for fantasy and the physical re-creation of past eras, Disneyland can come across as crass and obnoxious. But to a boy who knew only the dusty streets of of his Southern California town, who watched a show called “The Wonderful World of Color” on a black-and-white TV every Sunday night, there was a place full of the most amazing things I could imagine and plenty more I’d never even considered.
And I had The Map to prove it.