Essay: Even New Rules for a Post-Pandemic Disneyland Couldn’t Dim the Magic

Illustration by Pete Ryan

Tickets were set to go on sale April 15 at 8 a.m.

By 7:45, we had two laptops and two cellphones fired up and ready to rock.

My husband, Michael, was the designated driver, my Han Solo at the controls.

Ten minutes earlier, he’d thought to go make his oatmeal, but I forbade it. The online reservations system had been sluggish during our practice run the day before. No telling how challenging it would be with thousands of eager fans logging on at once.

Sure enough, it was slow going as my guy worked his way through the “Get Tickets” maze. Finally, the magic words appeared: “Reservation Confirmed.” I danced around the room before bursting into tears. “For the first time in forever,” we were going back to Disneyland.

“No offense, but what’s the big deal?” a friend asked the next day.

I blinked, confused. Because … it just was. It had been ever since my dad drove us kids there from our desert home in Las Vegas, and I thought we’d landed in Oz.

Ever since my high school grad night when I got to slow dance at the Carnation Plaza pavilion, sadly long gone, with the guy in chemistry I had a crush on.

And especially ever since a cold December night in the park years ago helped heal my broken heart. I was going through a divorce and went to escape a too-empty home. I hadn’t planned on going on any rides alone, but after one too many hot chocolates, I thought, why the heck not?

Hello, Indiana Jones. It was a wise choice: At the ride’s climactic end when the giant boulder bore down on us “tourists” and our battered jeep dove under the danger in a narrow, thrilling escape, I finally felt alive again.

After that, “Indy” became my favorite ride, my talisman for new beginnings. I was desperate to experience it again and feel the heady rush of survival after more than a year of the coronaboulder bearing down on us all.

Plus, I really wanted a Dole Whip.

Those who say you can never repeat the first time have never lived through a pandemic. Gone is the tendency to take things for granted. It’s replaced with a renewed sense of wonder. Returning to Disneyland that day in May, I was all of 10 again, holding Michael’s hand, looking around with wide-eyed wonder.

Things had changed. Mickey and Minnie were kept high atop the blocked-off train depot, welcoming us from afar. I waved back, happy to see them again, even at a lengthy social distance. 

Ground markers everywhere showed us where to stand while waiting in line, lest we get too close to strangers.

We already knew there would be no parades or fireworks, no “Fantasmic” show to draw a crowd. While not impossible, it wasn’t easy to breathe in the (spoiler alert) piped-in bakery scents along Main Street while wearing a mask.

Some might have found this restrictive, confining. I found it liberating. No crush of people to slow my pace or make me feel unsafe. No long lines snaking around the Main Street Emporium or nearby ladies’ restroom.

Instead, this was a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity to enjoy the Happiest Place on Earth with plenty of extra space and safety features in place. For that, I was grateful.

The biggest challenge? Our dependency on the mobile app. Before the shutdown, the Disney app was a helpful friend—fast passes, maps, and wait times at your fingertips. Now it was essential to getting on certain attractions and making food and restaurant reservations.

Sure, mere mortals and other non-techy guests could still enjoy themselves without “leveraging technology,” as my husband would say, but they’d have longer wait times.

Two rides, we soon discovered, required guests to join a virtual queue—Rise of the Resistance in Star Wars land and, uh-oh, my precious Indiana Jones Adventure.

Still, I had my data guy with me. When I heard him say, “Aha, got it!” while fiddling on his phone, I let out a small cry of excitement. “Indiana Jones? You got us in?”

Not quite. Instead, my husband had scored a reservation for … a corn dog. He held up his phone to my astonished face. “I can pick it up between 11 and 11:30,” he said, looking pleased.

Which made one of us.

Closing time was 9 p.m. I made it to 7. That’s 10 magical hours and 21,000 eager steps.

With the trams not yet running, we had to walk the mile or so distance from Downtown Disney to a half-empty parking structure, a feat more easily achieved on the way in. Michael drove us home as I lay my head back, exhausted, reflecting on a day that was Disney history in the making.

With the 25-percent-capacity rule still in play, we got to enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean in a nearly empty boat, sitting close in the “kissing seat” in back.

We fairly strolled onto Soarin’ Over the World, and I reveled in that first weightless moment when I forget I have a fear of flying.

On Smuggler’s Run, it was only me and Michael in the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit; two copilots caught in a thrilling space journey that had us crashing and laughing at every wrong turn.

With fewer people allowed in, the whole park had a charming, small-town feel I like to think Walt would have enjoyed.

And then there was Indy.

I smiled, remembering how Michael had finally managed to get us in, redeemed after the corn dog incident. We’d had the front row to ourselves, separated from the only other rider in our jeep by a clear Plexiglas shield.

I called dibs on the driver’s seat, and soon we were propelled once more into the fire-lit cavern with its crawling spiders, giant snakes, and high-speed corkscrew turns in the dark. As we dove under the giant boulder, as big as the moon, I raised my arms high toward the pitch-black ceiling (but really toward heaven) and shouted, “I’m back!”

And it’s a big deal. A big deal after all.

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