disneyland with dad

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“Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.”
– Walt Disney

On vacations to see the Mouse, my brothers and I were raised to get up with the sun, arrive at the Disneyland gates before the park opened and play until the dragon and fire debuted in Fantasmic,  the Electrical Parade floats had made their way down Main Street and cast members were ready to put all pirates, ghosts, tiki birds and Small World dolls to bed for the night.

We knew the expectations. We had to see and do it all  – and if time allowed, we had to see and do some things two, three maybe four times. There would be little time to even eat because we would all be too excited for rides and shows, but we’d make sure to get salty popcorn, sugary churros, pink cotton candy and frozen pineapple ice cream along the way, often as we were heading from one attraction to another.

My brothers and I were Disney kids from the beginning because our parents loved it so much. Every few years we’d make our way to southern California, buy multiple-day passes and take part in everything the Happiest Place on Earth had to offer – from chili fries at the Golden Horseshoe, to a giant yeti scaring around Matterhorn corners, to being whipped around on “the wildest ride in the wilderness.”

In most of my Disneyland memories, my dad has a strong presence. It’s actually one of the last things we talked about over the phone the day before he died. A child at heart in some ways, my dad loved everything about that place. If there was anyone who didn’t want to waste a moment while we were there, it was him. It didn’t matter if we were in line for a child’s ride like Peter Pan, or something more adventurous like Indiana Jones, he was always enthusiastic about each experience – even if he’d done it many times before.

If the line wasn’t too long, he didn’t mind if I wanted a picture with Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh or some other character, and he always took the opportunity to dress up like a character himself at the Mad Hatter in Fantasyland. He liked doing pretty much everything at Disneyland, from getting into submarines to see Nemo, to wearing 3-D glasses for “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” to screaming on the Tower of Terror as it dropped us over and over. And if a ride threatened to make him sick – like California Screamin’ or Space Mountain – he even liked waiting and watching us ride it for him.

He had his favorite shows and Billy Hill and the Hillbillies was on the top of the list. I remember being at the park on a hot day and taking a break at the Golden Horseshoe for some food, ice cream and that show of hillbillies playing instruments, singing and cracking jokes. Every time Billy Hill pulled out those fake costume teeth and made faces at the audience, my dad laughed as hard as the first time he’d seen the show.

He loved looking for new hats and hoodies in the Main Street shops, along with various Disney decorations for the house. And it wasn’t a Disneyland vacation without at least one breakfast at Carnation Cafe, where we’d order Mickey-shaped waffles and talk to waiters who’d been employed there for decades, and Oscar the chef who started working at Disneyland a year after the park opened.

About a year ago, my parents began planning a Disneyland trip that would get our whole family together for a vacation for the first time since 2007. We had all been so excited, and then tragedy struck. During that first week after my dad passed away, we weren’t sure we wanted to go, but with some guidance from others who know and love us, we decided going to Disneyland would be what my dad wanted.

Before we left for California, I told myself it didn’t matter if I got to do everything at Disneyland, but that I should do the things that reminded me of my dad. It turned out he was everywhere. He was close on our first ride – Indiana Jones – because I could hear him laughing and whooping in my heart.  It was the one ride where I had to fight back tears because I know how much he loved the way the jeep takes you around corners by fire, over that rickety bridge, near bugs and rats and beneath a giant, falling ball.

My dad was also in the holiday firework display when they played Silent Night, and he was in the Aladdin show when the genie said, “Wazzzzz uuuuup?” I really hope he got to see that we had front row seats to the holiday World of Color show in California Adventure, and that a kind Disney manager who found out he passed away got us in front of a 1.5-hour line to meet Olaf, and subsequently gave us fast passes to any ride of our choice. Other times, it’s like I could hear him saying how impressed he was with the holiday versions of It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion.

After my 3-year-old nephew Owen survived Space Mountain, I was wishing my dad could have seen his face. None of us were sure whether or not Owen liked it, or if he was just in pure shock after riding a roller coaster in the dark with laser stars all around him. Maybe somehow my dad did see his face, and if so, I bet he was laughing and proud at the same time.

My dad was in my mom’s eyes and in all her memories, and she told me she thought about him every second. I could see it one time specifically as she looked out over the water surrounding Tom Sawyer’s Island with Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion across from us. Her eyes were filling up with tears and I could see her picturing their happy moments from several trips before.

My dad could never hold back spoiling us and the grandkids when it came to holidays and Disneyland, so when you combine the two, you can only imagine he’d do a few extra things for everyone. A few weeks before Christmas, my mom said he found Disney watches for all the grandkids and picked them out specifically for each one – Mickey for Zachary, Cars for Owen, Frozen for Macie and Madison, and princesses for Chloe. I hope that somehow he saw how excited about them they were, and how Macie and Madison kept looking down at Elsa and Anna on their wrists and telling us what time it was.

It’s interesting how a person can be everywhere and no where at the same time. My dad was definitely everywhere on this trip. He was there from the moment we entered the park. He was in all the Christmas decorations – in the giant tree they had set up on Main Street. Every ride reminded me of him, along with so many signs and buildings and shows. It’s interesting how such a place – an amusement park – could hold so much of him.

But even though the memories surrounded us every moment, we were all a little lost without him. Did he see how we could have benefitted from his direction? Was he there every time it took the 12 of us a half hour to decide what to do next? Did he see how much we missed his guidance, even though that sometimes meant he walked away and expected us to follow?

I wish so bad he could have been there with us in person for one last Disney trip, but I guess my family knows now that if we want to feel his spirit somewhere other than home or close, familiar places, Disneyland is one more place we can go.

I love you, Dad. Keep watching over us. Help us laugh and feel you close as we heal.

“A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep
In dreams you will lose your heartache
Whatever you wish for you keep

Have faith in your dreams and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling through
No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
the dream that you wish will come true”

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