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Up The Road: The Happiest Place On Earth

Sean Denny
Disney’s California Adventure.

We’ve been exploring Orange County, till now, to show there’s more here than just Disneyland. But now we’ve arrived, at the heart of the O.C. family experience.

Walt Disney wanted to take his daughters to a non-sleazy amusement park—something that didn’t yet exist in the 1940s. He built a better mousetrap, so to speak, on the genius of his animated cartoons.

Disneyland’s opening day in 1955 was nationally televised, broadcast live from coast to coast. More than a million people visited Disney’s Magic Kingdom in the next ten weeks alone. The first and original Mickey Mouse house is still California’s number one tourist destination.

Monique Pinto
Everybody loves Disneyland.

Anyone who has either been a child or had a child since Disneyland opened already knows the key facts: Even the saddest stories have happy endings, when you wish upon a star.

“Happy” is official policy, so expect every cast member on the Disney stage—from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to the latest audio-animatronic adorable—to smile, wave, and then smile some more. And in Disneyland, if the hero doesn’t save the day, then whiz-bang technology will.

In other words, Disneyland isn’t real.

Real or not, Disneyland is as good as it gets if you’re looking for a clean, well-lighted place showcasing Mom, Pop, and apple pie. A deep desire to recapture, reimagine, and re-create lost American innocence—both an individual and national need when shell-shocked veterans came home from World War II.

Craig Adderley
Pluto on Parade

Walt Disney had the talent to “Imagineer” this new American innocence. He was smart enough to build walls around it, with ticket booths.

In another sense, too, Walt Disney was a visionary. From its inception, this perfect world foreshadowed modern culture, with shops and restaurants on every street, near spendy Disney-brand hotels. Only abject poverty lets you escape product tie-ins and merch.

But, highfalutin philosophy aside, Disneyland just is. It’s its own world, a whole new world. And a fun one, especially with kids, because Walt Disney’s idea of the world is as safe, playful, and well done as it is commercially cunning. Each of the eight distinct “lands”—from Main Street, USA to Fantasyland and Tomorrowland—has one theme but many attractions.

Craig Adderley
What would we do without Disney character branding and other product tie-ins?

That’s not counting what we could call “Californialand”—Disney California Adventure, a separate 55-acre park next door, showcasing Hollywood, the California beach scene, and outdoor California.

You won’t see any churches at a Disney park—no houses of worship, period—because Walt Disney considered religion divisive. But weddings are big, if you tie the knot here officially and allow Disney to do the event setup and catering. You pay for the privilege of wedding photos in front of Cinderella’s Castle.

If you, like me, wonder why people would want to marry—or honeymoon—at Disneyland, maybe, like Queen Elsa in Frozen, we just need to Let it Go.

Until next time, when we visit America’s first theme park—not Disneyland, but not far away—this is Kim Weir for Up the Road.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.