Disneyland: The Godfather of Modern Theme Parks Turns 60

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I’m used to the Abominable Snowman. I see his mangy face once a year or so. This time something’s changed, though. He’s grown angrier, more restless. Instead of standing in a full-body pose like a fur-pelted Charles Atlas he reaches out at me as I careen past in my bobsled, his roars quickly fading behind me. The cavern full of shimmering crystals has disappeared, and a pile full of junk collected from around the mountain now rests near the peak. My short blast through the Matterhorn is familiar, echoing my previous trips down that mountain, but it’s also something new and unexpected.

The Matterhorn is one of the attractions that’s been upgraded this year in honor of Disneyland’s 60th anniversary. Like the ride, the park itself is a powerful piece of nostalgia that’s always slightly changing, updating as technology allows and the audience desires. It’s that combination of the classic and the ever-changing that defines Disneyland on its 60th birthday.

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When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, the Matterhorn did not yet exist. Admission was free. For rides or attractions you had to buy books full of tickets. Today you can experience all the park has to offer for a one-time, one-day fee of $99. There’s a second theme park right next to Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure, which opened in 2001; it’s also $99 a day, or $155 for a park hopper ticket, which lets you visit both parks on a single day. When I was a kid in Florida, my family of six would visit Walt Disney World in Orlando almost every year; today a family of six might consider selling a kid just to afford to get in. New Abominable Snowmen aren’t cheap.

That opening day in 1955 was an infamous disaster, despite a live broadcast on ABC with guest hosts Art Linklater, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan. It was 101 degrees and a plumbing strike left the park without working water fountains. A gas leak closed over half the park, including all of Fantasyland, Frontierland and Adventureland. Initial reviews were scathing, but that didn’t stop children watching that broadcast throughout the country from wanting to flock to Anaheim.

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Those children are now our parents and our grandparents. When I’m in line today for Peter Pan’s Flight or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, two of the few attractions that have remained open since 1955, I’ll find myself thinking of my mom as a young girl watching that telecast in a small town in North Carolina, wishing she could somehow visit California. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to visit it together. Despite the expense, and despite the increasing reliance on corporate cross-promotion, you can still feel that connection to the past, to the youthful excitement of family members both here and gone. It’s a combination of joy and loss, childhood innocence and adult remembrance, periodic bursts of fun that fade to wistfulness whenever the lines grow too long and I have time to think. Despite its upgrades and changes, time seems to stand still in Disneyland, the losses and turmoil of the outside world momentarily forgotten until the waiting gives my mind time to wander.

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