Monday, October 3, 2011

Kindergarten Kingdom Keepsake

In 1971, I was 5 years old, no doubt cute as a button (okay, actually, I had an authentic "Toni Tenille" haircut), and living with my family in Florida.

And Disney World--just the Magic Kingdom then, no Epcot, Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios--opened its doors for the first time.

Guests entering the newly-opened park received maps like this. In those days, you had to buy tickets to ride the rides.

I remember the tickets. They had them for a few years. Disney guests would buy either a group of 7 or 11 tickets, in categories A-E.

E tickets were the best. In historical ticket analogies, they were roughly equivalent to those gold tickets Willy Wonka gave out. The rides you most looked forward to? They were all E tickets.

So naturally you only got a few E tickets in your admission booklet. I guess technically you could buy more, because apparently they were worth ~80 cents in 1971 money--but part of the fun back then was deciding which of the rides really deserved that precious E ticket expenditure. And once you'd decided, what if the lines were too long for that one, or it was broken down? Save that ticket, or splurge on another ride so you could go twice?

Decisions, decisions.

Of COURSE you were going to ride the Haunted Mansion. In those days  before Space Mountain or any of the other roller coasters, HM was the best ride around, even if it was awfully scary for a little kid like me, like the infamous Snow White's Adventures with the wicked stepmother/witch--what in the world were Disney thinking with that one?! Talk about terror.

And It's a Small World was pure, magical Disney, the ride you remembered (song and all) even weeks after visiting the park.  Later, as an oh-so-sophisticated teen, you would gripe with your sophisticated friends about how annoying that song was!

But when you went to the park? You'd ride it again, just the same.

The cute little animatronic kids singing their catchy, repetitive song in their idyllic lands (we always tried to guess which country was being represented in each room); the serenely drifting boat even little kids weren't scared to board; and the quickly moving line--put it all together and weary parents, tired of lugging their kids around the park, happily endured the earworm music for a moment's peace and the opportunity to rest their feet.

Best of all? Disney didn't have a Small World themed gift shop at the end of the ride for the parents to have to navigate while the kids begged for sourvenirs.

Surprisingly, apparently there still isn't one.  There have, though, been several changes to the ride over the years (like removing the one frowning child ).

If you're interested in how else the ride has changed, this video compares today's It's a Small Word  from the debut version in Disneyland back in 1966.

So when you were divvying up the E tickets, the Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World were pretty much a given.

But what else might you use your E tickets on? The Jungle cruise, maybe. The Country Bear Jamboree, as I recall, was also considered a must-see (Remember the Southern Belle bear who came down from the ceiling on her swing? What was her name? Damn, that's going to bother me now until I remember!*).

One thing I have never understood, though, was how in the world the ticket booklets thought the Hall of Presidents merited an E ticket!

So what if it was historical, educational, blah blah blah. For little kids, that show was a snooze fest. The Hall of Presidents is what our parents used to threaten us with when we misbehaved. It was what you used to calm down hyper kids that were SO excited to be visiting the house of the Mouse they couldn't stop yammering. Seriously, my best friend actually fell asleep watching the show when we took her with us to Disney one year.

The Hall of Presidents has improved a LOT since then, adding the new presidents, a Benjamin Franklin that (sorta, kinda) climbs stairs, and changing the narrators (Maya Angelou for a while, which I'm sorry I missed, and now Morgan Freeman, who could make a grocery list sound good).

But back then? E ticket worthy? Please. No way.

C tickets covered the second-tier "fun" rides for kids. After my big sisters rode the Speedway (too loud for my little ears), we would all head over to the Mad Tea Party, watching the ride as we waited in line to determine which was the spinniest Teacup.

Naturally we'd run to that one and pile inside.  Lacing our hands across the silver disk in the center and bracing our feet on the floor, we'd start straining to turn it even before the ride started, so that we'd be off and turning right away, our complicated choreography of reaching arms and swaying bodies sending the madly whirling Teacup careening around the rails as we giggled and turned, circling faster and faster, until we lost our breath and stopped giggling. Still we'd spin, until finally our spinning heads (and aching arms) told us we absolutely couldn't take it any more. Sick and reeling from the centripetal force, one by one we girls gave up and threw ourselves back in our seats,  holding on helplessly while the world blurred past us in streaks of color, like the stars when Star Trek's Captain Kirk called for warp speed. My older sister was always last to surrender; by that time I was ready for the ride to be over. My legs always felt like jelly once we got out.

Looking back, I can't explain for the life of me why making ourselves sick like that was fun.

 But it was.

After all that spinnig, we were ready for some sweet flying and Peter Pan's Adventures. We'd usually eat after that, at the cafe that overlooked It's a Small World. (Pro tip: Never, Ever eat before the Mad Tea Party ride!).

We'd finish up our C tickets with Dumbo and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Man, my Mom hated that last one. When the car'd get to the dark tunnel with the train sound and the bright light overhead, she felt like she ought to jump off! I don't think she rode it more than once in her life.

But I'm still sad Disney chose to get rid of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Not only did I recognize all the Wind in the Willow characters; mini me thought I was actually driving that crazy car!

After all that excitement, the A ticket rides were almost a relief. An A ticket let you take a ride down Main Street on the horse-drawn carriage (I loved to pet the horses, and felt bad they had to work at pulling the people around in their carts) or flag down a double-decker omnibus.  Or you could spend a ticket on the carousel.

Now, even though we looked down our noses at most merry-go-rounds, deeming them too 'babyish' for big kids like us, the carousel at Disney was different.

Walt Disney used to say, "Whenever I go on a ride, I'm always thinking of what's wrong with the thing and how it can be improved," and if you saw that attention to detail reflected anywhere in his parks,  it was on Cinderella's Carousel. The horses, gorgeous and always freshly painted, made little girls dream of becoming princesses and riding off with their own Prince Charming .

This was before the Cult of Princessdom came into being to fill those deep Disney pockets, like Scrooge's basement vault, with showers of gold. We had no Belle, Ariel and Jasmine back them to charm us. Not for me the gullible Snow White, so easily tricked with poison apples and a witchy disguise, or even lovely Aurora and her sweet singing voice, falling love with some stranger in the wood and then stupidly pricking her finger just like everyone told her would happen! No, for me it was always Cinderella. I know she gets a bad rap these days; girls should not sit around waiting to be rescued! But Cinderella worked hard taking care of that household, and I wanted her to escape from the Evil Stepmother and Wicked Stepsisters to a better life. Plus, although her father and mother were dead (Moms always die in Disney animated features!), you could tell she remembered her with love from the moment she modestly pulled her old, dated ballgown from her hope chest and murmured softly, "It was my mother's..."

*Sigh.* Where was I?

Oh, yeah, the tickets! The B and D ones, it seems to me, ended up in our kitchen drawer as often as not. We weren't into the Swiss Family Robinson tree--in fact, we skipped it altogether, a fact my spouse couldn't believe when we first went there together, as apparently it's one of his own cherished memories of the park, along with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Davy Crockett canoes (all attractions I don't remember my own family bothering with).

You know, I'm glad they don't do the ticket booklets any more, but this little trip down Memory Lane has reminded me how saddened I am by some of the other changes the park has undergone in recent years.

Walt Disney wanted to create something to appeal to the little kid in all of us, and he DID that--but now, the Mouse has lost his charm.

When you go to the Magic Kingdom today, the futuristic, space-agey monorails I loved are more like subways, with too many people crowded inside, having to stand and hold on.  Mickey and Minnie are still there, but Buzz and Woody and Winnie the Pooh are much more recognizable to kids, and no wonder. Mickey was supposed to seem like a real person in the days of Steamboat Willie. Now his squeaky-clean persona, even more than his squeaky voice, is not appealing to today's kids.

In my day, the characters ran around actually acting out their movie parts (I remember one fabulous battle between the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John with Robin Hood, for example), and you thrilled at catching a glimpse of any of them,  instead of scheduled appointments in designated character "meet and greet areas" where they stand and smile and nod while you take pictures.  Plus, it seems like the only characters that show up now are the ones that have clothing lines and themed merchandise out the wazoo. You don't see Baloo the Bear or Shere Khan unless you watch a parade.

When I went as a kid, I remember feeling, despite the crowds sharing the lines, that somehow this magical place was a secret we had discovered all by ourselves. You always left feeling awestruck, wondering anew how they managed to create those sophisticated animatronics that looked so real.

Plus, we felt like we had this special claim to the park, as Floridians. We had passes once they started selling them, so we could come back throughout the year. We knew which elephant squirted at your boat in the Jungle Cruise, where in Adventureland you could get Welch's Grape Juice, and that the Sealtest ice cream (damn I miss Sealtest!) was for sale on Main Street.

We expected the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to get stuck, because it always did.

We even knew the words to all the songs in the Tiki Show, because Mom and Dad had bought us the record--and that was a Big Deal, because you had to get Disney stuff at the parks then. You couldn't just walk into a store and pick up a Tinker Belle t-shirt like you can now.

We were really, really careful not to scratch that record.

We don't even have passes to the Magic Kingdom now, though we still do to Universal Studios and Busch Gardens, and we even worked at Busch, so you'd think if we were tired of anywhere, it would be there. But no.


The whole Magic Kingdom, and the sisters parks, too, just seem less special these days. It's all about the merchandizing.

Maybe the new Avatar land (you heard about that, right?) will bring that magic back for the next generation. Or maybe Disney will remember its roots and dial back the merchandizing a little bit (I doubt it), so that the stuff sold in the parks regains that mystique.

Until then, let's just say I'm rationing my E-tickets.

*Ha! Googled it. Teddi Barra.

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