Most families go to Disneyland because it's fun for the kids. My parents went to Disneyland to patch up their marriage. When they fought, which was often, they stopped talking to each other for weeks at a time, mounting pitched battles of passive aggression that left me and my brothers huddled in the demilitarized zone in front of the living room TV.
My father's idea of a truce was to take us to Disneyland, where the geography became as familiar to us as our own Los Angeles neighborhood. He would keep us out of school—preferably on a rainy Tuesday, when there wouldn't be crowds—and drive to Anaheim with my mother sitting mutely beside him, reluctant to make up on enemy terms but unable to deprive her children of a treat. The two worked things out over coffee at Carnation Café while my brothers and I rode the Teacups, Small World, the submarines, and Autopia. By the time we stopped for fried clams at the Anaheim Howard Johnson's on the way home, my parents were usually nuzzling again. I don't remember them ever going on a ride. And we may never have bought a pair of mouse ears with our names sewn on the back. But on those afternoons, Disneyland was, as advertised, the Happiest Place on Earth.
I am considerably older now, and my wife and I are not exactly people of the Mouse. Sometimes, Disney seems determined to become to childhood what Microsoft is to computing: the default operating system for the juvenile imagination. When a nephew told our 12-year-old, Isabel, that he wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons, I told her to tell him she wasn't allowed to watch the Disney Channel. But do we take her and Leon, our three-year-old, to Disneyland anyway?Every chance we get.
THE SHOCK OF ARRIVAL
The approach to Disneyland used to be romantic: a souk of space-age lodges and topiary gardens, a glimpse of the Matterhorn. When Disneyland expanded in recent years, a freeway ramp was built, shunting visitors straight into the nation's biggest parking structure. A brisk walk leads to a spaghetti-snarl of escalators, which run toward a seething, stroller-clogged tableau—the line for the Disneyland trams. I hope you remember where you parked your car.
THE WALT FACTOR
Watching any children's DVD 75 times is enough to bring out the inner Pauline Kael in all of us—you can hardly help noticing the Shakespearean underpinnings of The Lion King for example. It is the subtext that keeps us parents sane. And what I have grown to appreciate about Disneyland is that it is still the single-minded creation of Walt Disney, a man who was cheerfully bat-shit insane. A backyard hobbyist who managed to harness major corporate resources to build himself a better train set, Disney translated his back-of-the-envelope scrawlings into millions of tons of concrete and steel. The guy liked railroads?You can still see his private car, the Victorian Lilly Belle, tacked to the rear of the choo-choo that circles the park. He had a nifty trip to the French Quarter?The beautifully detailed New Orleans Square has wrought-iron balconies, Mardi Gras beads, and an army of Preservation Hallgrade Dixieland bands—all realistic enough to have passed as the background for a campaign ad in last spring's New Orleans mayoral race. Like a Frank O'Hara poem or a Norman Rockwell painting—and unlike anything in Orlando—Disneyland is both completely of its time and ageless.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Since its opening in 1955, Disneyland has been famous for intricate foot-traffic control, for tricks of forced perspective that would have Palladio scratching his head, and for its hermetic, self-contained feeling (at almost no point can you see anything of the world outside). Like Gaul, the Disney resort is divided into three parts: the historic Disneyland, piped straight out of Walt's skull; Disney's California Adventure, which is more or less an old-fashioned amusement park built on a portion of the former parking lot; and Downtown Disney, an outdoor mall that is, ironically, less Disneyfied than several other Los Angeles malls but has dozens of restaurants and a Disney store the size of Anaheim Stadium. If you plan to spend only one day at Disney, you can safely skip California Adventure, although its signature attraction, Soarin' Over California, may be my favorite Disney ride ever.