Last Thursday was Disneyland's 50th Anniversary. Before I came to this country, all I knew of Southern California was Disneyland. As a little girl growing up in Guam, I would watch planes fly overhead and my mom would explain, "Those planes are headed for the mainland." In my imagination, not only had I elevated Disneyland as a far-off magical place, but I also believed that the Magic Kingdom and the rest of California resided in the clouds, high above the ocean and the tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where I lived. Planes came and went, and eventually I wound up on one that took me and my family to live in Southern California and to visit the Happiest Place On Earth.
Five years ago, the California Adventure Park opened next door to Disneyland, the largest expansion in Disney's then-45 year history. While the new park didn't magically transport me to lands of whimsy the way Disneyland does, the retro feel allowed me to relive the excitement of seeing California for the first time. Wandering through the three "themed" lands that make up the California Adventure Park triggered a flood of memories, reminding me why I love California and how this love affair began.
The Hollywood Pictures Backlot, which celebrates the magic of movies, was my first stop. Humming along to movie theme songs, my thoughts drifted to memories of standing in line for hours on Hollywood Boulevard to watch Grease on opening weekend. Years later I was in front of the same theatre, patted down by security and shuffling through a series of metal detectors to attend the star-studded premiere of Friday. As a child I imagined living in a "California in the Clouds" much like Lando Calrissian lived in Bespin's Cloud City, but the little girl that I was would never have imagined the hip-hop culture and lifestyle, or having to undergo security measures like that.
While at the Golden State, a tribute to California's wilderness and culture, I boarded a flight simulator called Soarin' Over California. Suspended over an IMAX-ish screen, surround sound, hydraulics and spectacular aerial views combined to approximate scenic flights over California. With my feet dangling freely and unable to touch ground, I was a little girl again, watching the waves crash on the California shore for the first time from the airplane cabin, peering through the fog to catch my first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, and weaving in and out of traffic through downtown Los Angeles. Aerial views of downtown Los Angeles didn't come courtesy of a plane, though. My first job out of college was working for the City of Los Angeles. Once a week I boarded a helicopter at City Hall South to take pictures of the city's capital improvement projects. We flew from Malibu to the South Bay, sometimes further if I remembered to smile sweetly and bat my eyelashes at the pilot. Did I mention I have a fear of heights?
Visiting the Disneyland resort all these years later I realize the most significant changes aren't to the physical landscape, or to the little girl who once looked to the sky. I look at pictures from my first excursion to Disneyland and laugh - I am deep in the throes of culture shock. For my Asian family, the Disneyland visit underscored the fact that we were foreigners in a strange land. Where were the other Asian families? Why wasn't rice on the menu at any Disney eateries? Why were the only images that resembled me limited to It's A Small World? Why did my dad take so long to snap that picture (everyone was staring at us!)?
Today, evidence of California's diversity is all over the park. Over one in three Asian Americans call the Golden State home, and while many are fully assimilated immigrants as I am now, I'm glad that many of today's newcomers won't experience culture shock as severely as I once did. This past Sunday at my sister's wedding reception (the second, not the fun one at Cole's), I sat and talked to my cousin visiting from Toronto. Her kids were running around wild-eyed and I was silently thanking Buddha for birth control. Ignoring the still-wiggling bug in her five-year-old's mouth, she said "We're here for another week. Tomorrow we're going to Universal Studios and Tuesday we're going to Disneyland." I almost volunteered to go with them.
I remembered that at days' end, I strolled through Paradise Pier, Disney's homage to seaside amusement piers and I marvelled at the crowd. Black, brown, and yellow faces filled the landscape of the Happiest Place On Earth. No longer a magical destination in the clouds, Disneyland will always have a special place in my heart. My cousins will probably still have to make do with a hotdog instead of rice or lumpia. I still can't order a boba drink or snack on mochi at the park, but I know it won't take another 50 years for that to happen. It's good to know that although Disneyland has been a world-class destination for decades, it's finally becoming a small world after all.