The Real Disneyland

Long before I lived in Mattapoisett, long before I settled into a traditional lifestyle – a lifestyle I longed for but failed at that point to achieve – I was a struggling single mother. As such, vacations were out of the question. Sure, there were fun activities – going to city parks, public beaches or simply reading a story at bedtime to my small, frail little boy – but destination vacations were not part of our reality: a tough reality when you live within driving distance of Disneyland.

We lived in Long Beach, California. The beach, however, was nearly 30 minutes away from our home, making it difficult to allocate limited gasoline resources to a day at the beach. And the beach part of Long Beach had yet to experience its renaissance.

The city in the 1970s was a burnt out, ragtag post-war remnant of itself. It was a gritty Naval base town studded with bars, seedy tattoo parlors, and adult shops. While there were a few signs that investors were looking at the waterfront city with lust, the dirt and discarded waste from decades of neglect hung over Long Beach.

From our little bungalow situated on the idyllic sounding Pacific Avenue I eked out an existence for us. The struggle was very real. With the original Disneyland an hour’s drive away, it might as well have been on the moon. My little boy never asked to go there, but I wanted very much to give him that treat. I wanted him to have the escape only Disneyland could give us both, an escape from grinding worry over rent and groceries, if only for a few hours.

We were lucky in that I had a friend who lived in Anaheim. My gal pal from ‘back home’ didn’t have children to support, but she was a single woman earning low wages while paying high rents in the Golden State. She was struggling, too. One savings grace, she worked for Hyatt Corporation.

My friend called me up one day and said, “I’ve got passes to Disneyland, do you want them?” It was Christmas in July, literally. The catch was that the passes would expire in two days. There wasn’t enough time for her to send them in the mail and she couldn’t bring them to me as her car was on the blink. I’d have to find a way to go and pick them up ASAP.

My own car, a yellow 1969 VW bug, needed mechanical work that I couldn’t afford. But in my mind at that time I also couldn’t afford to pass up the opportunity to give my son a fun day spent in that fantasy mecca we had only experienced through television. I had to get those passes.

From Long Beach to Anaheim where my friend lived was about an hour’s drive, depending on freeway traffic. My gas tank was nearly empty. Even if I managed to scourge up a few dollars-worth of coins from the bottom of my purse and my son’s piggybank, I couldn’t drive to my friend’s apartment, home again, and then the following day return to Anaheim to go to Disneyland. It would have to be one trip out and back. To add to the drama, my friend would only be available to meet me for the handoff between ten o’ clock and eleven o’ clock in the morning that day – Saturday. It was already 8:30 that morning. Freeway traffic would be horrendous.

Freeway traffic is everything you can imagine. Heavy volume, four or more lanes, all aggressively moving forward with little margin for error. They terrified me. As I scrambled around our house searching for a misplaced quarter or even a dime, my son was raiding his little bank. Counting out the money on the kitchen table, we had $2.78. It would have to do.

Before leaving the house to gas up the car and head out on the Long Beach Freeway to the Santa Ana, I packed a medium-sized purse with two peanut butter sandwiches and a jelly jar of water that I then wrapped in aluminum foil. I tossed in two apples for good measure. We were ready to roll, ready for adventure.

In fits and starts the VW chugged along threatening with every mile to leave us stranded on the side of the freeway. But we made it just in time. My friend was waiting outside her apartment complex. As she handed me the passes she surprised us with vouches for free drinks inside the park and a crisp five-dollar bill. “It’s your lucky day,” she said as she picked up my kid for a big smooch and a pat on his head. “Have a good time,” she hollered as she jumped on a bus.

I put the money in my bra for safekeeping; it was too precious to put in my purse that might get stolen. Then we scrambled into the car that I had left running for fear it wouldn’t start again. We had made it. We were happy and laughing and singing along with the Mamas and the Papas.

Most of what we experienced that day inside the happiest place on Earth has faded from my memory. I’m left with snippets. Tiny bits like sitting in the cart as we rode into the tunnel of Small World, the submarine ride of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the teacups, the haunted house, the white bread peanut butter sandwiches, the look of wonder on my son’s face.

There would be other trips to Disneyland courtesy of my friend. Dear heart, she has since passed away. Six years after we had returned to the east coast and I was earning a better living wage, there was the weeklong real destination vacation to Disney World in Florida.

I may remember that Florida trip more vividly: I can’t control what my aging brain will allow for reflection. Yet that first trip to Disneyland with my little boy’s hand firmly holding mine has a special place in my heart even as the images fade away.

In honor of my friend Anne Nightingale who made our dreams come true.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell


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