In 1955 suburbia, our quiet street was typically filled with young baby boomers seeking to play in the remaining after-school sun. In the late afternoon, we would hear the recognizable unique sounds each parent used to call their kids to come home. They ranged from whistles to something between a scream and a yodel. Mine was simply a shout out of my name and these days, I had my parental alarm clock set at 4:00 pm, the time that the new Mickey Mouse Club television show began.
Walt Disney’s first major achievement in 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club had many diverse features that were presented in a very regimented way. Firstly, it was anyone’s
guess on the outcome of cartoon Donald Duck’s daily ringing of the gong to introduce the show. Sometimes the gong remained rigid, like a stone, leaving Donald to vibrate off the screen and other times it had the consistency of watermelon, surprisingly exploding on contact. Then, there was clubhouse time with the original Mouseketeers including Cubby, Annette, Jimmy, the adult leader and one of my early crushes, Cheryl. The Mouseketeer activities changed daily, always woven within a fabric of wholesomeness. They were the envy of every seven-year old that I knew.
Twenty minutes a day was devoted to special family serial dramas like “Spin and Marty” and “The Applegate Mysteries.” “Spin and Marty” was about two boys who grew up on a cattle ranch, always finding themselves with strange conundrums to resolve, usually before their parents discovered them. Disney always revealed his latest cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy or Pluto, two mice, a couple of mutt dogs and an irritable, ill-tempered duck. One of his most famous cartoons starred Goofy as a mild-mannered man-dog who became a crazed maniac when he got behind the steering wheel of a car. This cartoon not only foreshadowed current life in the fast lane, but serves as a segue to the rest of my story.
Walt Disney used his new television show to market and promote a uniquely innovative and awesome new theme park, his second major achievement of 1955. There would be nothing like Disneyland anywhere in the world and ample time on the Mickey Mouse Club and Sunday evening “The Wonderful World of Disney” television programs featured Walt himself, with models and drawings, looking like everyone’s grandfather, explaining new aspects that were well beyond people’s imaginative comprehension. Anticipation throughout the country was so high that the grand opening was nationally televised, something unheard of in
1955. Television personalities Art Linkletter, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan hosted the show, guiding the nation down Main Street and eventually into a jungle boat, a delta riverboat, a castle, then to Autopia in Tomorrowland, the attraction that I most coveted.
It seems ironic today that the opportunity to drive a car on a scale model freeway usurped my fascination with visiting far away tropical forests or the Wild West. Like Walt, I saw freeways as alluring conduits that would enhance our freedoms and connect our communities. Sustained with cheap, plentiful gas and enough
rubber plants in the world’s jungles, the new freeways would be filled with families passing in shiny convertibles, waving to each other on the way to the beach or a picnic. The obsession with driving clouded my memory of the Goofy’s “road rage” cartoon, Walt’s prophetic warning of the dark side of his mobile utopia.
While watching the grand opening show, I said, “Mom…” Without letting me finish my thought, she said, “I’ve already talked to Aunt Naomi and we plan to visit her next spring and all go to Disneyland.” My parents were in their twenties and probably wanted to go as much as I did. This would be a dream for most kids in my neighborhood, but as a somewhat spoiled, only child, I complained to myself that our visit was almost a year away. Maybe I would be too old for Disneyland by then. Turns out I wasn’t too old, just too short.
The drive from Aunt Naomi’s house in Encino to Anaheim seemed to take forever. Once we passed downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway, their was nothing but orange groves and blue skies. Most people had never heard of Anaheim, California before Disney selected the rural area for his ability to secretly buy up several large parcels under separate, newly created real estate companies, a feat he would repeat in assembling vast contiguous acreage for his Disney World theme park in Florida. An enormous sign announced that we had arrived at the Magic Kingdom. After entering the property, traveling along a half-mile entryway to access the colossal parking lot, waiting for a tram to pick up and deliver us to the entrance, we were about to experience the dream.
Originally, Disneyland offered five categories of attractions ranging from A tickets for the more common rides to the E-ticket for those most popular and exciting. To this day, the term “E-ticket” is a commonly used metaphor for describing something thrilling like “Surfing the pipeline was an E-ticket ride.” My parents purchased the largest fifteen-ride book for
$5.95 Adult ($12.35 value) and $4.95 Child ($9.50 value) that included the following tickets: one A ($.10), two B’s ($.25), three C’s ($.40), four D’s ($.70) and five E-tickets ($.85). By comparison, in 2007, I treated my son’s family to a day at Disneyland, who now sells simplified general all-day passes. Responding to my request for two child and four adult passes, the attendant responded, “That will be five hundred and thirty-six dollars, please.” In 1956, the attendant would have requested the hefty sum of twenty-nine dollars and seventy cents for the same entry passes.
Since it was on the way, we went directly to the jungle boat ride in Adventureland, an awesome experience for my generation and a true E-ticket ride. Surprisingly, the Autopia ride was only a C-ticket, but I wanted to drive those cars around that beautiful miniature freeway, and begged to go there next.
After rushing everyone through Fantasyland, by the Madhatter’s Cup and Saucer ride, we were soon standing at the
Autopia entrance. Moments later, my lingering anticipation and excitement would crash like a lead balloon falling from the sky. With a red arrow pointing to the bottom, the sign said “You must be this tall to drive the cars.” I walked under the sign several times in disbelief. I was two inches too short. My only option was to ride as a passenger, arms crossed, bottom lip protruding and silent while my father drove the car, boring for him and humiliating for me. C’mon, I experienced this on the drive down from my aunt’s house. The consolation that “there’s always next time” was not consoling at this moment. An otherwise tremendous day was marred by this episode. I had a bone to
pick with Mr. Walt Disney.
In 1959, we returned and I finally drove the small cars on the Autopian freeway, though at age eleven, some of the original excitement had waned. Besides, other attractions like Tom Sawyer’s Island and The Matterhorn had been added, enough new imagination for any young mind to feast on. Later in the day, we were walking in Fantasyland when my mother, grabbing my shoulder, pointed and said, “Look, over there.” It took a few moments, but I soon realized it was Walt Disney, strolling through his masterpiece, holding the hands of his two grandchildren. There was no crowd or entourage following him around. We asked for a photo and he said, “Sure,” adding, “are you having a good time?” “This is the greatest place ever,” I responded, deciding to put the Autopia incident behind me. He was forgiven. Few people had more influence on the my generation than Walt Disney and this small, barely focused photo, is a constant reminder of the wonderment that he created in me.
Epilogue: It’s always nice to get through these childhood disappointments and laugh about them later. But, really, two fricken inches!