I was not quite one year old when Disneyland opened in Anaheim California in July of 1955. I was twelve by the time my family could afford to go there, the only vacation that ever took us farther than the Wisconsin Dells. We took a plane to California in August of 1967. My God, we took a plane! That was so unlike us.
Think back if you’re able, or imagine if you can’t. There was no Great America then. The Dells were just a place where you could ride the “Ducks” and watch a dog jump between towering rock formations from your vantage point on the river below. Amusement parks at that time included Kiddieland, Santa’s Village and Adventureland if you’re from Chicago. And of course the legendary Riverview Park, which closed the year we took our trip.
In the early 1960s we watched Walt Disney’s, “The Wonderful World of Color” on our black and white TV. Thinking back, I guess I filled in a lot of the colors with my imagination, or did so in hindsight after I saw the real thing. But Disneyland was heavily promoted on that show. Its construction was overseen by Walt Disney himself and was a hoped-for destination for most young baby boomers. Going there was a dream come true.
Disneyland was a day trip, lacking the on-property accommodations of the Buena Vista property that opened in Florida in 1971. So, to say I ran my parents ragged is probably putting it mildly. We had a finite amount of time to see every corner of the park, from Frontierland to the Magic Kingdom, and I wanted to see it all.
But it was in Fantasyland that I had the ride of my life.
My sister had gotten ill at dinner the night before. She wasn’t up to roller coasters or spinning rides. My parents mostly watched from a distance once they’d begun to experience motion sickness, so I had to go it alone, which I did eagerly.
The list of attractions I hadn’t ridden was growing lean by late afternoon.
“What’s that one?” I asked as I ran toward the Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride.
The line was short, perhaps because it was intended for smaller children, or maybe because it looked too tame. But it easily accommodated adults who needed to ride with kids.
I waited for the swirling multi-colored platform to come to a stop and for riders to exit on the far side, leaving the teacup doors open behind them. I scampered to an empty cup and watched all the other vessels fill with parents and children, or small groups of older kids. I was alone. I looked longingly at my parents, willing them to join me and make the ride worthwhile. After all, each cup had a central wheel that riders gripped and turned to spin the cup. The more riders, the better the ride. Being alone pretty much guaranteed an unexciting time, if I could turn the cup at all.
I saw my parents look at each other and mumble a few words. They were still a pale shade of green. As they talked, one more rider passed through the gate. I think he may have noticed my plight and decided to do me a favor. He was a mountain of a man, a refrigerator with legs. He had a crew cut on his round head and looked like Dick the Bruiser of early professional wrestling fame. His t-shirt bulged with Muscle Beach bulk, and his neck was pretty much hidden between his shoulders and jaw. He grinned ear to ear as he entered my cup, closed the door and was seated across from me.
|Dick The Bruiser|
I don’t recall that he ever said a word before the door was latched shut and the rotating platform began to move. I gripped the central wheel and strained against the weight of the cup, the man and myself. I was barely able to rotate it by more than a foot or so before releasing my grip and attempting again. By that time our motion had stopped. I looked across at him as if I’d failed. He allowed only a moment to lapse before smiling and grabbing the other side of the wheel. His arms bulged as he squeezed the metal ring and began to turn it like a man possessed, a trucker out of control on a mountain slope, steering hand over hand to maximize control and momentum. No ship captain avoiding an iceberg has ever spun a wheel with more intensity or purpose.
I attempted to keep up with the motion of his Popeye-like forearms, matching his hands in a coordinated dance around the wheel, but failed almost immediately. Instead, I was thrown back in my seat by centrifugal force, plastered like pasta against the wall. He laughed like a madman now, getting an immense thrill out of the entertainment he was providing and from the ride itself. We were masters of the Mad Tea Party, spinning seemingly out of control. I saw glimpses of my laughing parents as we passed them on the periphery of the platform, rushing briefly past my dizzy gaze, a snapshot in time with each revolution. Any concern they might have had dissolved instantly as my obvious joy became apparent.
Spinning faster now, the big man mastered a rhythm that allowed him to accelerate the cup further, throwing his head back on his thick neck and bellowing in a joyful outburst that caused people passing by to stop and watch. We spun and spun and spun some more. I was helplessly held against the side of the yellow cup, my shoulders pressed against the hard shell, my hair streaming behind me. The elation I felt in the dizzying spin was the drug of childhood, the loss of control and lightness of being we leave behind as we age. I had the advantage of youthful resilience, my insides still tight within my young body, but my arms felt like concrete. Lifting them was impossible, so I just sat and laughed, and laughed some more. And then the ride began to slow.
Soon it was over. The man let out a sigh and mopped his brow with the back of his bear-like hand. I thanked him, still giggling, and we left the cup, dizzy and barely able to stand. The cute little teacups silently awaited their next victims, colorful and motionless. Meanwhile, the line for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was noticeably longer as we headed off to Space Mountain, and the big man disappeared into the crowd.