Storm in a teacup

With a boy of his own, Stephen Lacey makes his first visit to the Disneyland of his childhood.

When I was a boy, my idea of Disneyland was pretty sketchy; it was where Mickey and Donald lived. And there was a ride where you sat in a giant spinning teacup.

I knew only one kid who had been, a boy in third class named Brian. He was terribly thin, with bruises all over his body. One day our teacher, Miss Staniland, told us Brian was going to Disneyland and that we'd never see him again. Then she started crying and left the room.

Disneyland was a place that swallowed up ill children. And yet it was called the happiest place on Earth. Perhaps it was heaven?

It's taken me more than four decades to find out the truth for myself. By the time I get there, I have a three-year-old child of my own. Mercifully, Henry is a healthy specimen, albeit a wild one.

We make the drive from our apartment in West Hollywood to Disneyland in less than an hour. It's difficult to believe that Anaheim - the sprawling suburb of concrete, brick and neon, where Disneyland is situated - was a place of orange orchards, walnut groves and god-fearing farmers, before a giant rodent named Mickey turned up in 1954.

For the first-time visitor, Disneyland can be overwhelming, confusing even our GPS. We take a series of wrong turns and arrive in a massive underground car park instead of our hotel. The attendant slips a giant pink exit sticker under our windscreen wiper, shameful evidence to everyone we pass that we're absolutely clueless.

Eventually we find our hotel, the Paradise Pier, close enough to walk to Disneyland. To be frank, it's neither paradise, nor a pier but rather a 1980s construction that Disney bought in the mid '90s and spruced up. Our room is a come-down after our salubrious West Hollywood apartment: two queen-sized beds, a Mickey Mouse lamp and a view over a car park the size of Nebraska.

Walking towards Disneyland Park, as it's known these days, I get the distinct feeling I've gatecrashed a convention for kidults waddling about in mouse ears, clutching giant sodas and cajoling their progeny named Jackson and Madison.


"Just relax and remember how this was your dream as a child, to come to Disneyland," my wife says. "Otherwise you'll ruin it for Henry."

She's correct. The only way to enjoy this place is surrender all cynicism. So we make our way through the turnstiles, where our bags are checked for weapons, just in case the urge arises to run amok in Sleeping Beauty's castle with a machete.

After years of seeing images of Disneyland on film, television and print, it's quite strange seeing it in the flesh, like meeting a favourite movie star and not knowing what to say.

Because of my penchant for nostalgia, we decide to focus on discovering the Disneyland of old. Of course, being a theme park and driven by technological advances, the place is perpetually evolving but it's still possible to find a smattering of Disneyland as it was in the early days. You just have to know where to look.

We do our research in Main Street at The Story of Disney, where the entire creation of Disneyland is explained in drawings, artists' sketches, models and a rather cheesy video presentation by Steve Martin, who worked at Disneyland as a teenager.

We learn that Disneyland was going to be located adjacent to Walt Disney's Burbank studios (it was to be called Mickey Mouse Park). However, the site was too small, so he opted instead for a 65-hectare orange orchard in Anaheim. Construction began in 1954 and the park opened its gates to the media and invited guests on July 17, 1955. By 1959, some 15 million people had visited the park and Disneyland was known throughout the world as the quintessential fun-park experience.

So with map in hand we head straight for Tomorrowland, designed to represent the futuristic world of 1986. Walt couldn't have got it more wrong. In the decade that taste forgot, we weren't flying around in rockets and having robots clean our space homes. Instead we were listening to Simply Red, watching Greg Evans on Perfect Match and getting about in VL Commodores.

However, Walt was highly prescient with Autopia, a ride that predicted the rise of the US's Eisenhower freeway system. On the park's opening day, Sammy Davis jnr and Frank Sinatra piloted the Autopia cars around the concrete track. More than half a century later, it's still one of the most popular rides at Disneyland and one that Henry loved.

Soaring high above Autopia is the Disney Monorail. Opened in June 1959, the Monorail was the first to operate in the US; it was declared a historic mechanical engineering landmark in 1986. We ride up front with the driver, as our retro-groovy orange train loops four kilometres around the park in eerie futuristic silence. It's enormous fun and an ideal way to get an idea of the sheer scale of the park.

Opening at the same time as the Monorail was the Matterhorn Bobsleds, located in Fantasyland. It was the first tubular steel rollercoaster in the world and the man-made mountain down which it rumbles towers 44 metres into the Disney sky.

Speaking of height, Henry just nudges the 91-centimetre minimum height restriction, so it is with pride that I take him on his inaugural rollercoaster ride. For a toddler, he handles it with aplomb, not even complaining when we clatter up through the mountain's pitch-black bowels and hurtle down its rickety track at up to 43km/h.

"That was great," he exclaims. "Let's do it again."

But there's no time, because we've been invited to a tea party. Or rather, a Mad Tea Party. The childhood image of Disneyland that stuck in my mind was the spinning teacups. The ride debuted on opening day and has been a feature ever since.

Henry and I clamber inside our giant teacup and off we go, turning the wheel in the centre of the cup to rotate faster and faster. It is with great shame that we stagger from our teacup wearing each other's breakfast and being photographed by bemused Japanese tourists.

Over the course of the day we track down and experience as much of the original Disneyland as possible, including the Disneyland Railroad, King Arthur's Carousel, the Jungle Cruise, Mr Toad's Wild Ride, Peter Pan's Flight and Snow White's Scary Adventures. And in spite of wanting to hate the place, we have a damn good time.

It is easy to be disparaging, particularly when you notice newlyweds wearing "just-married" badges and mouse ears with a veil attached. And many have argued Disneyland kills creative play.

Disneyland is what it is. It has been creating childhood memories for more than 55 years. That's got to be worth celebrating.

Stephen Lacey visited Disneyland courtesy of Disney.


Getting there

V Australia has a fare to Los Angeles for about $1550 low-season return from Sydney (13hr 45min) and Melbourne (14hr 30min), including tax. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at

Touring there

A one-day ticket to Disneyland costs $US80 ($74) an adult, $US74 child (3-9 years). A two-day park hopper ticket to Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure costs $US173 adult, $US161 child. Booking online at will avoid the long queues but there are no discounts. A range of packages combine accommodation and tickets.