My O.C.: Remembering a Time When O.C. Itself was Adventureland

When I was a boy, Orange County was another galaxy somewhere to the south where Walt Disney recently created a home for his Mouse. You could travel there in the family car, but any notion of ranging that far from my hometown of Lynwood on one’s own was fanciful at best, foolhardy at worst. Venture to the edge of L.A. County and all that was visible beyond were dairy farms and the occasional outcropping of dying citrus. Disneyland might as well have been on Mars.

But in the autumn of ’59, I owned a Schwinn and a strong sense of adventure. The urge to explore coincided with a requirement for my Boy Scout cycling merit badge. I needed a 50-mile bike ride. According to my map—and the pencil compass I bought for a draftsmanship merit badge—Disneyland was a little more than 25 miles away.

Of equal importance in my plans was the E-ticket. Disneyland had been open for four years, but it wasn’t until the summer of ’59 that the E evolved out of the fertile imagineering of Disney marketeers. There were A-tickets for minor Main Street attractions; B- and C-tickets for the mildly intriguing shoot-’em-up galleries in Frontierland; and D-tickets for the fabled Autopia, where a prepubescent boy could set aside his two-wheeler in favor of a gas-powered go-kart.

But an E-ticket covered the whole enchilada. As Disneyland grew, the fabled ducat would grant access to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Tom Sawyer Island Rafts, the Haunted Mansion, and beyond. It now has been more than 30 years since Disney retired the A- through E-ticket book, but the lingo lingers. To generations unborn, an E-ticket remains the ultimate admission to the ultimate attraction.

On an overcast October morning in the waning months of the Eisenhower administration, I set out with my friend Richard Bailey to experience an E-ticket adventure. It was the kind of autumn day in Anaheim that never appears in Chamber of Commerce brochures: gray, drizzly, misty as memory. Richard and I were about to journey across the plains of Orange beneath a gloomy inversion layer. We had the same steely determination of Fess Parker heading into Comanche territory. Who knew what lay beyond the horizon?

Richard was six months my senior, but far more mature. He sprouted fuzz above his upper lip and had a voracious appetite. In the future, our mutual interest in the same woman would end our brotherly friendship. But during the fall of ’59, there were no faster friends in the universe. We were Damon and Pythias, Tom and Huck, Archie and Jughead. Richard didn’t understand my merit badge obsession, but recognized the ineffable lure of the E-ticket.

We set out at dawn to reach the gates of Mickey just as they opened, assuring a full day of jungle boating and rocket rides. We each had $2.50—the price of admission plus a full set of A- through E-tickets, with no money left for food. I whipped together bologna sandwiches, simultaneously marking off a requirement for the cooking merit badge, and we were off.

The only throughway to Anaheim in those days was Artesia Boulevard. No 405 Freeway. No 91, or 55, or 22, or 605. No paved shoulders or gutters either. Each time a cattle truck or delivery van rumbled by, we had to waddle our bikes into the sand at the side of the road. That’s how I found the five-dollar bill. In one fell swoop, we doubled our money. We dropped our sack lunches and pedaled on.

But Disneyland turned out to be farther than it appeared on the map. My Schwinn had but one gear, and my thighs howled. By the time we passed Buena Park, Richard squawked every hundred yards that he needed to stop and rest. An hour passed, then another. I pictured myself hobbling bowlegged aboard the Monorail like Hopalong Cassidy. We soldiered on.

I broke out my compass at one point, but all it did was point north. There was no Siri to ask for directions, no app to give our GPS coordinates. The Bermuda Triangle had nothing on Orange County. Finally, after following a set of dubious directions we solicited, Richard spotted the turrets of Sleeping Beauty Castle. We sped across a vast, empty parking lot—our first clue that Disneyland was closed. No reason was given, but none was needed in those early days. I knew how the Griswold family felt when they arrived at Wally World.

By the time we accepted defeat, it was well past noon. We were hungry, but there was no place to eat. If Disney was open, everything was open, but if Disney was closed, you starved. It began to rain—gently at first, but a little harder with every pump of the pedals. I remember wiping the water from my glasses and riding into the wind, soaked to the skin with Richard bellowing behind. How could it get worse?

My legs gave out at Beach Boulevard, at about the same time Richard advised me that I had a flat. There was a curb at that particular Artesia intersection, so I sat for several sober moments in the rain, Richard waiting patiently for my instructions. I eventually picked up the bike and limped to a service station. Fixing the tire should have cost $4, but it needed a new tube and the attendant had to get one from a bike shop a mile away. That bumped the price to $9. Come back in two hours, we were told. It should be ready then.

We headed south on Beach and wound up at Knott’s Berry Farm. No gates or admission in those days, and the only thing approaching an E-ticket attraction was the locomotive. If I couldn’t hobble aboard the Monorail, I wasn’t going to waste time or money on a slow-moving train. Besides, Richard was demanding food.

Drenched, we presented ourselves at the entrance to Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. With just a dollar between us, we ordered boysenberry pie a la mode.

“You boys been out in the weather?” asked the lady behind the counter.

And thus spilled forth the whole sorry saga. While I talked, Richard ate. By the time I got to the part about the vast, empty parking lot at the entrance to Disneyland, two large glasses of milk and another slice of pie with ice cream magically appeared on the counter.

“No charge,” said the lady.

Richard went for the ice cream, and wisely left the pie to me.

The skies were clearing when we finished. Our clothes had dried, but before we began the trek back to the service station, the lady handed each of us a large sheet of plastic from the back room, the kind they apparently used to wrap chicken parts. She cut holes for our heads, fashioning ponchos, then winked and said, “Be prepared!”

On the way home, we passed the sandwiches we’d abandoned at the side of the road. Richard stopped and picked them up, steering with one hand on the handlebars while munching with the other. When he caught up to me and we were riding side by side, out of O.C. and back into the civilized safety of our own hometown, he grinned.

“Be prepared!” he said.

And from then on, I was.



Illustration by Pushart
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.