“The tranquil water-way leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was on my mind as we made our way from one attraction to another at Disneyland. Your first assumption is that the Magic Kingdom is all sweetness and light. After all, it bills itself as The Happiest Place on Earth.
But that can be misleading. Walking through the cheery front gates onto a bustling Main Street inevitably leads you toward a darker subtext of the Disneyland story.
And that realization really hit me for the first time on our most recent visit. I’ve been to the park dozens of times as a visitor, and I worked there for a year during high school, but for some reason I never truly noticed all the death and fear that makes up the place.
The first thing that clued me in were the skulls. They’re everywhere! Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates Lair, Peter Pan’s Flight. Piles of them! The Disneyland Hotel even had a gigantic skull-shaped rock to slide through at their pool before they remodeled and ripped it out.
If it’s not skulls, it’s scares.
The Matterhorn features two appearances by a ferocious demon-eyed Abominable Snowman. Alice in Wonderland is like some sort of freaky LSD trip. Indiana Jones almost drops you off a bridge into a pit of fire. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride actually concludes by sending you to hell, complete with blasts of hot air and a face-to-face meeting with Satan himself.
And then there’s the dead come to life.
The classic Haunted Mansion features a killer bride who wants to rip your still-beating heart from your chest. There’s a graveyard of ghosts and ghouls popping up from underneath their headstones, eager to come home with you. And then there’s that poor sap who is about to be buried alive and pleads with you to help him escape from his coffin. When I was a young boy, I kept my eyes closed the whole way through the Mansion. Sometimes I’d even plug my ears. That place was the stuff of nightmares to me.
There’s only one truly innocent ride in Disneyland — It’s A Small World. But the case could be made that cruising through room after room of unblinking, perpetually smiling, singing dolls is actually kind of creepy. You can very well imagine the place to be populated with the offspring of Chucky and Annabelle.
Okay, okay, don’t get me wrong. I love Disneyland.
In fact, I love the place so much I would make it an annual vacation destination if allowed by family and finances. I love every ride at Disneyland, and so do my kids. We’ve been to the park five times over the past ten years, and always for multiple days because you just don’t rush through it.
And those scary rides? They’re the best. Every time we visit, those are the rides we rack up the frequent rider miles on. Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder, Indiana Jones, Snow White. We get off and get right back on. The spookier it is, the more we want to ride it. During our last trip, my son and I set a personal record for Pirates of the Caribbean. 10 times in a 10-hour day.
We always have a blast being scared and bedazzled by the skulls and snakes and man-eating whales. Part of the magic of Disney is knowing that the things that frighten are just for fun. I’ve never seen bigger smiles on my kids’ faces than when they’re jumping out of their seats after something has shocked them silly.
Of course, as you get older you start to think that the best ride is in the little circle at the end of Main Street, next to the statue of Walt and Mickey. There you can find a lovely green bench, from which you can comfortably sit and watch the crowds go by. The way tourists act and dress might just be scarier than anything else you see in the park.
All photos by Idaho Dad