“The human soul can always use a new tradition. Sometimes we require them.”
— Pat Conroy
Amy and I have travel rituals. Rituals for road trips, rituals for camping trips, rituals for airplane rides, and rituals for almost every other aspect of our vacations. Of course, it goes without saying, we have rituals for Disneyland. For example, every time we go, we do something we have never done before at the Disneyland Resort.
This is sometimes hard for me to imagine, considering how many times we have been there, but there are things Amy and I have never done at the Disneyland Resort. There are three reasons this is possible:
First, the Disneyland Resort is much bigger than it seems. At a bit over 500 acres, the current, developed property can feel claustrophobic for two theme parks and a shopping district, especially when compared to Walt Disney World’s 25,000 acres. But there is a lot packed into that space.
Second, the Disneyland Resort is always changing. Walt Disney originally bought 160 acres for Disneyland, to address the first point, but it is not just expansion. There are very few sacred cows at Disneyland and change is the only constant, as management develops new experiences and opportunities for guests just like us. This is not always met with widespread public enthusiasm, but they do it anyway.
Third, our definition of “never done before” is pretty flexible. Like, really flexible.
The morning of Wednesday, October 17th [2012, I should add, with this trip recap now extending far, far beyond expiration date], Amy went to have breakfast with the Duffin family – her sister, her sister’s husband, and their six kids – while I grabbed a breakfast bar and skipped over to Disneyland. I was on my own, in Rugged Nate mode, and ready to try out a new experience. I went at once to wait near the east stairway of the Main Street, USA train station for an attraction I had never checked off my list, but long harbored an interest in riding: the Omnibus.
As one of the vehicles that add color and motion to Main Street, the Omnibus is a very simple ride: it is a large, green, double-decker bus that drives a large loop. That is the extent of it. The attraction is one-way, meaning that you get on at Town Square and get off at the Hub, or vice-versa, but there is no round-trip ticket. I happened to be first in line and sat on the top deck, all the way forward, on a front-facing seat.
I write this without the slightest word of exaggeration: it was one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. In the course of that all-too-brief trip to Sleeping Beauty Castle, I asked myself about 200 times why I had never done it before.
Main Street, USA is well-known as an iconic homage to small-town America at the beginning of the 20th century, and Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri served as the inspiration for this land.* Main Street is mostly theming and shops, but has at least a couple of classic attractions in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Disneyland Railroad. And, as it turned, out, the Omnibus.
[*The trivia answer of “Marceline” is a password among Disney fans, a way of sharing bona fides, but the true Disney historians know that Fort Collins, Colorado — home of legendary Disney artist Harper Goff — was the primary visual reference.]
Our typical trip down Main Street goes like this: We pass under the berm through the west tunnel, not out of any preference, but because it is closest to the western approach from the hotel row. There is a first-or-last-chance souvenir stand on the right and a tall lattice of green along the left-hand wall. The old bank building — now the location of the Disney Gallery — is the first building right ahead. Our eyes slip along the front of the Opera House to the corner of the street, looking for costumed characters. We take our first steps into the sunshine (because the sun is always on your shoulders when you first walk into Disneyland) and look across Town Square to see City Hall.
We step into the street, and follow it around the loop. I have been evaluating the population density since we left our hotel room, and at this point I say, no matter how absurd it sounds: “the park doesn’t look too crowded.” We move into the straight section of Main Street and get our first look at Sleeping Beauty Castle. We move to the east sidewalk so we can peek in the Emporium as we progress toward the Hub. We weave around and through those heading toward the gates (there are always people heading out of Disneyland, no matter the time of day), taking bets on what will be featured in the window of the Candy Palace. We walk past Refreshment Corner into more open space, and it is here that I first take notice of the Partners statue of Walt and Mickey — the visual draw of the castle having been too strong. Thus we have reached the heart of Disneyland, and from here the Happiest Place on Earth is open to exploration.
The Omnibus is just like that, only elevated to twelve feet in the air, and you ride and watch. It’s practically a transformative experience.
I stepped off the Omnibus at the hub and looked at the loading sign, considering waiting for it to cycle again and returning to the starting point, but decided, instead, to attend the real business of the day. It was time to take the Scrooge Quest to the next level.
So. The Scrooge Quest. Wow. Where do I start with this that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic?
Scrooge McDuck is a character in the Disney universe. Shown as an unnamed conscience figure in the 1943 Donald Duck short film The Spirit of ’43, Scrooge was more formally introduced in the 1947 comic book story “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” He is the maternal uncle of Donald Duck and the great-uncle of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Scrooge is also the world’s richest duck – ranked #1 in Forbes’ “Fictional 15” list of the richest fictional characters – with an insatiable appetite for money.
Although he had been a character since World War II, and starred in 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol as his namesake, Scrooge came to the attention of many people through the pivotal 1987-1990 television series DuckTales. This chronicled the exploits of Scrooge as the adventurer-duck and his three grandnephews as they sought to expand the miser’s fortune.
More significant to this narrative: Scrooge is my all-time favorite Disney character, and, probably, my all-time favorite fictional character from any medium. I am (clinically) crazy about Uncle Scrooge, and have spent an embarrassing amount of time and money pursuing my interest in him. I like Scrooge McDuck better than I like some of my friends.
I did love DuckTales (and continue to love on DVD), although I was very proto-hipster about Scrooge. I had become a fan years earlier, before he went mainstream. I got to know Scrooge through a taped, stickered cardboard box full of Disney comic magazines – a legacy from my dad – that ended up in my room as a young boy. My brothers, my dad, and I read every single magazine in that box, cover-to-cover, a dozen times, at least.
That is the background of how I came to love Scrooge McDuck, and all of the ducks, really, although Scrooge still wins that race by a Secretariat-at-Belmont margin. The Disney ritual that spawned from that legacy is something I call the Scrooge Quest.
The Scrooge Quest started in 2002, during my first trip with Amy. We became interested in pin trading that year, and, of course, I wanted to find a Scrooge pin. It should have been simple, as there were dozens (hundreds?) of pins to choose from, with lots of exciting designs. And we overdid the pin thing, to a ridiculous degree. But amid the sheer volume of pins we bought, willy-nilly, I struggled to find Scrooge. It wasn’t until the second-to-last day of the trip that I finally found one, just when it seemed likely that I would not.
I realized that the search for the Scrooge pin had been one of the most entertaining aspects of the trip, for me. Thanks to Disney’s increasing homogenization of the characters, it was not easy to find merchandise with a fringe figure like Scrooge on it. So it became a kind of treasure hunt (a theme I found very appealing, in a Scroogey sort of way). A couple of years later, on our next trip, I decided to undertake the very same challenge and found it just as rewarding.
The rules of my nerdy, made-up game have evolved to this: in order to win the Scrooge Quest, I have to find a piece of Scrooge merchandise during a trip to a Disney theme park. It doesn’t have to be anything big; a piece of candy won it for me one trip, and a pressed penny another. But it cannot be anything I have acquired before. It also has to be found on Disney property, meaning the theme parks, hotels, or Downtown Disney.
As of the vacation described herein, we were on our 12th trip to a Disney theme park since I started the Scrooge Quest in 2002. I was 11-0, with the one still pending. I had never failed to complete the Scrooge Quest, although it had been very close at times.
I didn’t want to break the streak, but this trip had me worried. I had exhausted all of the recurring items in previous trips. I had scoured the pin displays. I was looking at cast lanyards for pins – I had once completed the Scrooge Quest in this fashion – but seeing most of the same dross. I was trooping through the shops with my head on a swivel. I kept reminding myself that it was just a weird, insignificant ritual, and not important in any way, and that I was 36 years old, and probably should have let it go years before.
But… I was still keeping my eyes open.
Amy arrived with the Duffins, and our plan was to spend the day in Disneyland together. We found each other at the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean for our first ride of the day, before everyone splintered into smaller groups. The weather was unchanged from previous days on the trip, meaning it was still unseasonably hot. We had come down expecting highs in the mid 70s with cool nights, but the whole system was 20 degrees too high. We had several conversations about this – in fact, we seemed incapable of saying anything else – as if the heat removed all other subjects we may have wanted to talk about.
But there was a saving grace: Disneyland was empty. Not empty-like-my-work-parking-lot-on-a-Friday-afternoon-during-golf-weather empty, but relatively empty.
Which raises the point that everything about the nature of crowds in Disneyland is relative. Disneyland is crowded. That is the nature of the resort. On every day of the year, the population of the Happiest Place on Earth is measured in tens of thousands. A thoughtful park guest must recalibrate his or her crowd measurements accordingly.
My method is to shuffle around the parks, with a frowning eye to the streaming humanity, and say: “it doesn’t seem very busy” once or twice an hour to anyone who will listen. Or, on the occasion that it is busy, saying: “it sure is busy.” This bears repeating: between the weather and the length of the lines, my small talk in Disney parks can be a little dry.
After a leisurely tour of New Orleans Square and Adventureland, we made it back out to the Hub. We noticed some tables in glorious shade as we were walking past Refreshment Corner, and with lunch not too far off, we decided to grab pretzels and Diet Cokes with cherry flavor shots for a mid-day meal. We both sprung for the half-filled two-ounce cup of additional cheese for dipping. The big, soft pretzels are not the most cost effective snacks in the park, but we eat at least one every trip, because they are delicious.
As an added bonus for me, the act of purchasing the pretzels presented itself for one of my favorite jokes. As the cast member was ringing us up, Amy stepped in to buy the pretzels with her cash, as I had paid for a previous snack. I fell into my routine: I patted her indulgently on the rear end and said: “Thanks, Sugar Momma!” The cast member giggled and handed Amy back her change. I did this for the first time years ago, and because I am a comedy genius, it almost always gets a modest laugh. The trick, for those who want to try it with their own significant others (Amy has run the “Thanks, Sugar Daddy!” once or twice before, and it gets a laugh, as well) – is to be as ingratiating as possible.
Now, apropos almost nothing else in this post, is a story from my life as a young man. It so happened that I had developed an interest in a young woman who was a friend of my older brother Josh; something you might call a “crush,” if I was half a decade younger, instead of being, as I was at the time, in my early 20s. This was not unusual behavior for me, as I seemed to go bonkers over someone new once every two weeks or so.
In accordance with the International Guidelines for Guys, Josh and our mutual friends had volunteered to help me pursue my interest in this young woman — something guys do for their own amusement, and, sure, to support their friend, if there is overlap. We had thrown together a casual bowling outing with those mutual goals in mind.
Josh and our friend, Kingsley, played loud rock music and barked encouragement (“You can do it! Don’t even think about it, just ask her out!”) to me on the way to the bowling alley. It was standard “pumping up” behavior, and by the time we rolled out of the car to head in, I was riding a wave of adrenaline and self-confidence. I WAS going to just ask her out. I WASN’T going to overthink it. What was the big deal? It was just a date. I wasn’t proposing marriage, or anything.
I started scanning to find my target. I was ready. I might just ask her out before any other words escaped my mouth. The crowds parted and standing there, with some of her friends, I beheld my Current Object of Infatuation. The sight of her was like a cold bucket of water on my raging confidence. My first words to her were barely a squeak.
To explain: I am the middle child of three brothers. Our father is also the middle child of three brothers. That makes two generations in a row of He-Man Woman Haters, from households with heavy emphasis on testosterone, without the balancing influence of sisters. Our mothers’ roles were akin to embedded wartime journalists, just reporting on the atrocities of the front line to a more civilized world.
I found girls were more mysterious and intimidating than they probably ought to have been, the efforts of my good mother notwithstanding. Just the sight of a girl I liked — however casual that interest may be — smothered whatever confidence I had been able to summon.
We divided up into two teams, with me “happening” to end up on a lane with this girl and another guy that came with her group. My idea was to ask her out when our third team member was bowling. The first couple of frames passed with no asking on my end, and my nerves were starting to get the better of me. The entire engineered scenario was ridiculous enough, but especially so if I failed to take advantage of it. The time was now or not at all.
Fortunately, I had a mantra. A phrase I had adopted from the flawed-but-charming 1973 animated film “Robin Hood” when I first became interested in girls. I said it in my mind when I was more nervous than usual and needed a little extra motivation. I had used this tactic dozens of times in my life. It was also the point where Disney ties in to the tale.
As our teammate stood up to bowl, I looked down at my hands, and thought in perfect imitation of Robin himself: “Faint hearts never won fair ladies.” Then, I sat forward, locked eyes with the girl, and asked her out. To my shock and delight, she said yes.
The lesson in this overlong story: since adolescence, in moments where I needed to summon extra courage when interacting with a girl, I turned to my fervent love of Disney, and an animated, anthropomorphic fox. I have never told this story to anyone before, because of how truly crazy it sounds.
One final note: I still get a bit of the excited, bucket-of-water sensation any time I see that girl, even though we have been married for over fifteen years and I have kissed her more than 75,000 times. Actually, maybe it is because of those things.
Later that afternoon, as Amy and her sister, Julianne, took the younger kids over to watch the afternoon parade, while the older kids were off together having their own experiences. That left Joel (my brother-in-law) and I with an hour to wander around the park with no specific agenda in mind. We had met in Fantasyland by the Dumbo ride, and in absence of anything else that suggested itself to us, went on Snow White’s Scary Adventure and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, in that order.
In the hierarchy of Fantasyland dark rides, Peter Pan’s Flight is the most popular, Snow White’s Scary Adventure is the most engaging (even if the ending is laughably abrupt), Pinocchio’s Daring Journey is the most boring, Alice in Wonderland is the most underrated, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is the most, well, wild. With a prime spot adjacent to Peter Pan, it is arguably the second-most popular ride of those five.* Which is extraordinary for an attraction that has no current, recognizable characters, no ties to the Princess cabal, commences with a mad, vehicular dash through a house and concludes with the death of the guest avatar, and throws in a visit to Beelzebub himself. Joel, who may have ridden Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on his previous trip decades ago but did not remember a bit of it, was deeply amused by the shock ending. “Are we in HELL?,” he said, laughing, not long after Toady turned us down the train tracks.
[*NOTE: I am not sure if Disney brass considers “it’s a small world” a Fantasyland dark ride, but it is different enough that I left it out of this comparison. I welcome any thoughts on the subjects in the comments.]
After our wild ride, Joel and I wandered through the rest of Fantasyland and past Big Thunder Ranch on our way to the rendezvous point in Frontierland. We had fifteen minutes until the designated meeting time, and I thought we might try the nearby Frontierland Shootin’ Exposition, an oddball attraction I quite enjoy. However, the sign for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad indicated a wait of just ten minutes. It was a calculated time risk, as the posted wait times are accurate in broad strokes, only. We did fifteen seconds of: “Should we get in line? Yeah? Do you want to?” And then zipped into the queue. It felt like stolen time, however odd that sounds, and I cackled the whole way about our good fortune.
Even with the renegade ride on Big Thunder, we were not the last to arrive at the meeting spot, where we were going to split up for the evening. The Duffins were eating dinner at nearby Rancho Del Zocalo, and we were heading over to Disney California Adventure to find my brother, Jake, and his wife, Valerie, and our friends Rich and Hydee.
While we were waiting, I strolled over to the restaurant to toss a coin in the small, trickling fountain, in observance of another travel ritual. This was something I started after reading about the coin throwing tradition of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. The legend states that if you turn your back and throw a coin over your shoulder and into the water, it is a plea to the gods that you will return to Rome one day. There are some guidelines about throwing the coin with your left hand over your right shoulder, and how you are to approach the fountain, but I don’t concern myself with that. I shuffle over, toss a coin, and watch it bloop into the water. My other tweak is to toss a coin in as many different fountains as possible, just in case one fountain is the correct one. I wouldn’t want to anger the Disney travel gods, after all, and be relegated to the last 25 seconds of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for eternity.
Amy and I left, so the Duffins could eat at my favorite restaurant at the Disneyland Resort (see greater detail about this problematic choice here). I cautioned them to not expect too much, my enthusiasm notwithstanding. Rancho Del Zocalo has good food, but not great. It is the atmosphere, especially on the portico, after dark, which makes it special. Right when they would be dining, in other words.
I tried to not be too emphatic, nervous to scare off the Duffins with my fervent love of Disney and their overpriced theme park restaurants. But I was still excited for their report. It came later that night: my sister-in-law, in accordance with the International Guidelines for Sisters-In-Law, did not care for the experience.
We found Rich on Main Street, USA where he was waiting for Hydee, his sister, to emerge from the Emporium. Soon enough, she materialized and we crossed the Esplanade to Disney California Adventure for the evening. The parks were both closing at 8:00 PM during the week, which felt early, in spite of us having been in the parks all day. We had a couple of hours to go, but only one firm item on the agenda.
Jake and Valerie, as a result of their unhappy experiences at Radiator Springs Racers the previous evening, had been given a six-party FastPass for RSR as a peace offering. As it was their last night in the park before leaving for home, they thought it would be a great ride to finish their trip. My parents had agreed to watch Jorja, their toddler, so they could take advantage of the pass. They invited Amy and I, and Rich and Hydee to join them.
Radiator Springs Racers was, for the second night in a row, amazing at night. With six of us on a single FastPass, we were able to have our own ride vehicle, which made it all the better. The cooling temperature of the evening after such a hot day was a delightful touch, like falling into a swimming pool.
We said our farewells to Jake and Valerie, who left to retrieve their daughter, and started wandering toward the gates. We stayed with Rich and Hydee, poking our heads in shops and looking for Scrooge merchandise (I was, at least – the others had their own agendas). We left the park at close and drifted with the shifting crowds to Downtown Disney, where we ended up in World of Disney, a massive retail store filled with the same merchandise a person can find in the parks. It is a logical mystery as to why we spend so much time browsing the shops in the parks and then in World of Disney afterward, but there we were.
It had been a long, hot day, and we were hungry, but Amy and Hydee had been seized by the shopping madness. With no Scrooge merchandise in sight to fulfill the quest, and in an effort to break the spell, Rich and I indicated we would slip out and get our names on the waiting list at the nearby Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, one of my favorite dining spots in the resort. Amy and Hydee indicated they would meet us over there shortly. There was no wait, which we thought was fantastic. We sat down and ordered an appetizer right away – neither of us had eaten much that day – and managed to eat every bite of it before Amy and Hydee arrived.
At least it was something I had never done before.