Disneyland Forever: Why We Keep Going Back

Wherever I looked, psychedelic Mickey Mouse ear-hats blinked in unison, little bright pinpoints in a sea of darkness. Neon LED balloons leisurely bobbed past us, disappearing into the night. Cinderella’s Castle loomed in front of us, straight out of the TV screens of our childhood, its façade glowing under a multitude of lights. Children danced to an amped-up version of Hakuna Matata as projections of Simba, Timon and Pumba strutted across the front of the castle.The air was a heady mix of magic, fantasy and nostalgia.

As we weaved our way through a crowd of mini Snow Whites, Ariels and Peter Pans, I heard kids say exactly what I’d been thinking all day: I want to stay here forever. I reckon that’s a phrase you’d hear a lot at a Disney theme park. These places, with their talking mice, singing mermaids, flying elephants and happy endings, make it very difficult for you to ever want to leave, no matter your age.

I don’t stand a chance; I’m hooked from the second I step through the gates. I’m a die-hard, unabashed Disney fan: I know the lyrics to the songs (and still sing them), I have the merchandise and I will always take those Disney quizzes on BuzzFeed. If I’m anywhere near a Disney park, it’s almost as if a homing device has switched on inside me, directing me straight to its gates. The parks aren’t known as the “happiest place on earth” for nothing.

The California Disneyland’s diamond jubilee today got me thinking about the appeal of these theme parks. What started 60 years ago as a wild dream has now spawned several Disney wonderlands across the planet, each building on the blueprint of multiple themed lands inside a giant playground.

Why do I, and so many others, relentlessly return to Disney parks? What is it about the place that equally thrills a 3-year-old, a 23-year-old and a 60-year-old? Is it the promise of those 12 solid hours of manic happiness? Because no matter how tired I am, or how hot it is, or how many whiny kids I have to endure while waiting for a ride, I will always have a smile on my face when I’m inside a Disney park.

Disney works hard to create dreamworlds where anything can happen, even mice riding in hot-air balloons. Photo: kawaiikiri/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)
Disney works hard to create dreamworlds where anything can happen, even mice riding in hot-air balloons. Photo: kawaiikiri/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

There’s a term for this tendency to revisit things: emotional efficiency. Coined by researchers Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J. Levy, it refers to the habit of seeking out known experiences because of their “potential emotional payoff”. Here’s how Russell and Levy explain it: “Engaged in the re-consumption of a book, movie, or place, consumers anticipate and especially seek out the “emotional peaks”, the climax they know is available in their re-consumption experience.” In other words, we revisit experiences because we know how great they will make us feel. For some it might be a song, for others it could be food; for me, it’s a shot of Disneyland every few years.

Beneath this layer of emotional efficiency is a whole lot of nostalgia magnifying my experience. These parks are like giant, extravagant time-travelling machines that take me straight back to my childhood, when all that mattered was whether the White Rabbit got to where he had to be on time.

The entire time I’m at a Disney park, I’m in a technicolour world with a sepia-toned slideshow running in my brain. I’m not just squealing with glee in the swirling teacups of the Mad Tea Party ride with my friend, I’m also reliving the time I sat in the same ride with my mum, over a decade ago. This is one of my favourite things about going back to places: reminiscing about the great time I’ve had there while slapping on a fresh coat of memories.

Disney theme parks are also one of the few places on the planet where my inner hypercritical voice shuts up. In the world outside, it speaks often; sometimes cynically and at others, second-guessing. But as soon as I enter the park, a thick film of Disney covers my eyes and I am a child again, ready to believe anything. Everything is allowed. Yes, I need to ride that carousel for the third time. Yes, I will buy that music box with Aladdin and Jasmine flying on a mechanical magic carpet. No, there is no such thing as too much sugar.

It’s an escapism that I find freeing and cathartic. My mind is free to wander, probe and stretch as it pleases, ready to dive out of the daily rut and into the magic of possibility. Like Neil Gaiman, an author who writes brilliantly about fantasy, says, “Someone who is in a difficult or impossible situation [read: adulthood] who is offered an unlocked door to somewhere else that they can go through… and they can genuinely get away…That’s a good thing.”

A very good thing – the kind that makes you want to keep going back to “somewhere else” forever.

The picture might be blurry, but the memories aren't. Photo courtesy Kamakshi Ayyar
The picture might be blurry, but the memories aren’t. Photo courtesy Kamakshi Ayyar

Published on National Geographic Traveller India – July 2015

Cover photo: Ian Carroll/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)