Instead, my heart melted the moment I saw Goofy and Minnie Mouse dancing down Main Street. And, in that instant, it all came rushing back.
Disney and I have a long history. Growing up in Southern California, I lived just 20 minutes from the world’s first Disney theme park in Anaheim. One of my earliest childhood memories, in fact, is of meeting the founder himself during a visit to the park in 1956, the year after it opened.
I was seven and completely enchanted by the magical place. We had just walked through the front entrance when a train slid into the station and screeched to a halt. A jaunty man with an engineer’s cap pulled down over his eyes jumped from the locomotive and hurried toward the fire station across the town square.
“Oh goodness,” my mother said, “I think that’s Mr. Disney.”
Before I could react, the great man himself stood staring down at me from what seemed like an enormous height. “Hello young man,” Walt Disney said in the familiar grandfatherly voice I’d heard often on TV. “Are you enjoying the park?”
I don’t know how—or if—I responded. What I remember is him hurriedly scribbling his name on the E-ticket we proffered. Had I kept it, I certainly could have retired early.
It was not until decades later, as a newspaper reporter, that I learned of Mr. Disney’s destination on that distant afternoon; the tiny secret apartment he maintained above the firehouse featuring a large picture window from which, park historians later said, he often gazed.
There were other intersecting moments between my life and Disneyland’s. I was 15 in 1964 when a classmate named Mark Maples stood up on the Matterhorn Bobsleds and got whacked by an overhang. I was standing in line for the ride when it happened and had seen him just hours before. His was the world’s first death ever recorded at a Disney theme park.
Later, I covered other mishaps for the Los Angeles Times; two visitors seriously injured when a metal cleat popped off the clipper ship Columbia and a 22-year-old killed in a crash that closed the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
I also covered Disneyland’s gala 50th anniversary celebration in 2005, at which park officials awarded me a unique set of commemorative golden mouse ears. In perhaps an omen of what was to come, last year’s Typhoon Odette in the Philippines whisked those beloved ears into oblivion. And, indeed, a series of events since then considerably dampened my enthusiasm for all things Disney.
It began when Disney CEO Bob Chapek, bowing to pressure from some employees, declared the company’s opposition to Florida’s recently enacted Parental Rights in Education bill. The new law, falsely labeled “Don’t Say Gay” by opponents, prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for school children through grade three and, for older students, limits it to materials considered “age appropriate.”
Then, making matters worse, a leaked video showed an executive producer bragging about advancing a “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” at Disney by inserting “queerness” into children’s programming.
And, finally, adding insult to injury and expanding the battlefield to include other disputed cultural issues, leaked documents revealed a “white privilege checklist” Disney requires of employees to “pivot away from white dominant culture.”
The reaction was swift, especially regarding the Florida legislation. A group of conservative Disney employees circulated an open letter asking the company to remain politically neutral. Fans and workers staged protests outside the Walt Disney Co.’s Burbank, California, headquarters and a group known as Moms for Liberty called for a company-wide boycott.
Politicians, meanwhile, jumped into the fray led by Florida lawmakers who passed a bill this week to end a special tax district that has allowed Florida’s Walt Disney World to govern itself with relative impunity for decades. Others have gone as far as calling for the repeal of Disney’s original Mickey Mouse copyright, set to expire next year.
For the record, I stand firmly with those offended by Disney’s recent leap into America’s culture wars. Like most parents I know, I want my children to enjoy Disney products and experiences free of social or political manipulation.
And yet, and yet…seeing Goofy and Minnie Mouse dancing on Main Street turned my anger into joy, the kind that sprouts tears. Perhaps there’s a better word for what I felt that day, grief. I pray that the Disney of my childhood and old age finds its way back into the good graces of those in whom it has inspired such lasting awe.
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David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” includes a chapter recounting his early memories of Disneyland. A seasoned author, journalist and radio broadcaster, Haldane divides his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.