Readers recall visiting happiest (or scariest, or friendliest) place on Earth

When we asked readers to share their favorite Disneyland moments, we expected to hear about “Snow White’s Scary Adventure” and shaking hands with Mickey Mouse.

What we didn’t expect were the more poignant moments — the Vietnam vet overcome by emotion when a greeter welcomed him home from the war. The adopted orphan from Russia who started to embrace her new culture through the wonder of Disney.

Reading these recollections, it becomes clear that Disneyland is a cultural touchstone, a place that helps define our childhood, or early adulthood, or whatever time in life we go.

For this Southern California native, they triggered flashbacks of Mom dressing us in color-coordinated outfits, pulses racing as the Matterhorn came into view from the freeway. I remember — as did reader Elizabeth Leyden — the magic of seeing Tinker Bell glide down from the tip of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as darkness filled the park.

In her words:

“I suddenly heard this little boy over the speaker talking about dreams. ‘Just look deep into your heart, look to the sky and make a wish and maybe, if you believe, your wish can come true.'”

Leonard Johnson of Walnut Creek ponders the fate of the Disneyland squirrels.

“Ever notice that there are none in a place where there should be hundreds? They do not use poison to keep them out, but have a great way of doing it … Some day, I will tell you about where the last squirrel is buried in the park.”

Johnson has a pretty amazing memory, too, of visiting Disneyland on July 20, 1969, and heading to Tomorrowland.

“It just happened to be the day that the United States landed on the moon for the first time, and they had large screen coverage set up in front of the mission to the moon rocket ride — so we watched the first moon landing … then took our own ride to the moon and back.”

We received too many Disney memories to print them all, but here is a sampling:

Unexpected emotion

One reader, who asked not be identified, recalls returning in 1969 from two tours of Vietnam being given tickets to Disneyland by the USO. He took his wife and little sister:

“As I entered with my USO tickets, the young woman at the gate looked up, smiled at me and simply said, ‘Welcome home.’ I was able to walk three steps before the tears came and somehow made it to a quiet, out of the way bench where I could sit down for a few moments. I have no idea who or where she is and I am quite certain it was part of her training to identify those tickets but I still need to acknowledge her.

“To this day that young woman at Disneyland is the only person who has ever welcomed me home from that war.”

Snow place like home

“Our daughter Stasi joined us in 1993 at age 3 from an orphanage in Minsk, Belarus. Stasi was born with a club foot so the orphanage kept her in a crib for most of her first three years. When Stasi joined us she didn’t speak English and, because she had been kept in her crib, she didn’t speak Russian either. Stasi started watching Disney videos to learn to speak.”

The princesses were her favorites, says dad Rand Chritton of Lafayette. Then came that memorable trip to Disneyland, waiting for the parade to start.

“A Disney employee was in charge of keeping the guests back, she and Stasi started talking. The young lady told Stasi that she was really Snow White and that she was just helping out during the parade. As the parade progressed, the seven dwarfs … all recognized our newfound friend, who made sure to introduce Stasi to each of (them) as they walked by. Stasi got a big hug from the incognito Snow White as the parade ended, and a great memory for both her and her dad.”

Snow White, Take 2

It was the summer of 1960, and Marek Relich of Antioch was around 6 when his family moved to the United States from Canada. They were staying with relatives in Southern California when his parents took them to Disneyland. At one point, they had to change the baby’s diaper and instructed the other three children to sit on a bench and eat their ice cream cones.

“My younger brother Peter was a little on the wild side and was jumping around when his ice cream popped out of his cone on to the park bench. My brother and I were yelling at each other when along came Snow White and one of the dwarfs. Snow White walked up to us and asked how we were doing. As I stammered out an answer, flustered from infatuation, I watched in horror as she sat down next to me right on the ice cream. I finally gathered enough courage to inform Snow White of the ice cream, but she only laughed and said that Mr. Disney will have the dress cleaned.”

Shrinking the kids

Linda Petrak of Martinez remembers one anxious trip to Disneyland in the late ’60s. They headed to Monsanto’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, a ride that took visitors through a microscope aboard “atommobiles,” where they became molecules, even atoms.

“Waiting in line … the riders could be viewed in their buggies as they traveled through a clear tube at which point they were just a few inches in height. Realizing that this was just the beginning of how tiny I would eventually become, I began to cry. I was puzzled how my parents could subject me to such a risk. Suppose the machine broke down and I would never return to my current size?”

Grumpy Walt

Jim Clarke recalls the very long car trip from Pleasant Hill — before I-5 was built — to attend the opening of Disneyland when he was 6. Not much was open when they entered the park on that sweltering July day in 1955. (He also remembers the special blue-and-white-striped shirt his mom made him, “which made me look like a very small carnival tent.”)

“Without thinking, I picked up some small stones and began chucking them into a little creek we were walking beside. From behind me, I heard a rather stern voice telling me to stop throwing rocks as I might harm some of the fish. … I turned around to find Walt Disney staring intently at me. I immediately dropped the stones and having been scolded I sheepishly said ‘yes sir.’ I was so embarrassed and felt that I had ruined whatever chances I might have had to be picked for the Mouseketeers and meet Annette Funicello.”

Busted by Brer Bear

Jeff Mitchell of Pleasant Hill has an unusual memory:

“Getting busted by Brer Bear for jumping the fence in Bear Country so I could smoke pot! Hey, I was only 19 and obviously pretty dumb, thinking it really was a wilderness. But I did get a tour of the Main Street USA Disneyland Jail, something most guests NEVER get to see!”

A dream fulfilled

“A daughter of crowded Watts in L.A.” is how Kem Tetlow of Concord describes herself. As a child, she’d always dreamed of riding a horse, but the closest she’d come was the carousel at Santa Monica Pier, wearing her red-and-white Dale Evans cowgirl outfit. Then came a trip to Disneyland in the early days, when they had horseback rides.

“What is crisp and clear to me? The smell of the earth, the ranch smells of manure and hay, the musty smell of old leather saddles, all mixed with the green trees and lemony sunshine. … The sight of the horse’s ears ahead of me twitching forward and back as I talk to it. The feeling of triumphant pride and pleasant fulfillment. Thanks Walt for making a girl’s dream come true.”

L.A. in flames

Friends warned them not to go, not in April 1992 when the Rodney King riots had just erupted in Los Angeles. Besides, theme parks held no allure for Deborah Burstyn of Walnut Creek. “Spending a lot of money for the privilege of being tossed around on big machines surrounded by a lot of fake stuff? No thanks.” Still, the family forged ahead with reservations at the Disneyland Hotel.

“We figured the rioters were not dragging Goofy and Mickey up to the tower of the Sleeping Beauty Castle. … Others were not so optimistic and stayed away in droves. Although we didn’t even see any smoke rising from the city as we passed it on the freeway, we had Disneyland to ourselves. … The rest of the family, now three kids, has been back to Disneyland. Not me. I’m not going to push my luck.”



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