Consider it a rite of passage, maybe even ordinary, when a Southern California family has annual passes to Disneyland. We’ve been putting it off for years, saving our money until the kids were old enough to remember the experience. But when our youngest turned three and fell in love with all things Mickey and Minnie, we knew it was our year.
An old plaque hangs at the entrance of Disneyland, welcoming families for the past 60 years. “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” The cryptic quote brought a smile to my face as we stepped onto Main Street that very first morning, towards our family’s new adventure.
Walt Disney’s vision is manifested throughout every inch of the park. It was evident while we soared with Dumbo in flight, fell down Alice’s rabbit hole and blasted into orbit at Tomorrowland. We stood in long lines for our favorite rides and received many hugs from Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh along the way. At the happiest place on earth, you’re free to be a kid again, riding on rollercoasters, indulging on ice cream, cookies and churros.
The first time our family saw Mickey Mouse, he was riding on a trolley through California Adventure. One glance and my three-year jumped out of her stroller and chased him down the street. I jogged along while she shouted, “Mickey! Mickey!” waving her arms at her long, lost friend. It was a memorable moment – and if Evelyn’s uncharacteristic performance is representative of how other children behave, then Disneyland employees have funnier children’s stories than most parents.
Can you imagine a day in the life of Mickey Mouse? Every day he gets ready for work like all of us, but then he drives to Disneyland, walks into some top-secret building and POOF!!! No longer anonymously living among millions of people in Southern California, he transforms into the most well-known character on earth, chased by every child in the park.
He has to look, think and act like Mickey Mouse. I’m sure there’s a script and he’s initially overwhelmed trying to bring this character to life. But somewhere along the way, he’ll memorize the role and no longer need to think about what’s next. Having been through the motions so many times, it becomes second nature, so ingrained in his mind he forgets where Mickey cuts off and the real person begins. Like a child lost in play at Disneyland, altruistically bringing happiness to everyone in the park.
When I walk through the gates of Disneyland, a rush of pixie dust allows me to see the world through new eyes. It unlocks a youthful energy, unconcerned with judgment and criticism. The inner child breaks free, wearing Mickey Mouse ears, whistling and skipping through the park. It’s the one place on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to be a kid again, no matter what your age.
Like a moth to a flame, children are to the senses, submersed in their moment to moment experience as if nothing else exists. We went hiking a few weeks ago and Mason picked up a stick, but in a matter of minutes he transformed it a dozen times. An airplane, monster, snake, cane – there were no limitations to its usefulness. Infinite possibilities, but my white washed, distracted version of the world won’t let me see it. My mind lacks the color, dimension and, more importantly, the creative potential to step outside of the mundane.
When I was a child, I wanted to be an adult and experience everything the world had to offer. Pursuing a “successful” life, I left behind my childish ways. Like a potter, creating her dreams out of clay, I reached new frontiers of responsibility. And only when I achieved what I set out to do, did I look back and notice how far I’d gone, standing in the corner of my own creation. Now that I’m here, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out a way back, as I’d happily exchange the daily grind and monotony of adulthood – responsibilities, work schedule and routine – for the openness and freedom of my youth.
Somewhere along the way, happiness became synonymous with results and achievement, as I drown in my plans for tomorrow. Where is the present moment when it’s staged in the future and forgoes the innocence of experience? Children are free of that burden until adolescence arrives and reflects the mirror of self-awareness, forcing them to compare and contrast, dividing their world into categories, separating them from their experience.
I should have listened to Peter Pan. For once there was play and now there’s pursuit. I left the security blanket of childhood with a curiosity yearning for more and fell into a prison of my own creation. You can’t unlearn it once you know and it’s nearly impossible to find your way back. The ignorant desires of adulthood now separate me from the simplicity of happiness.
Like the man behind the mask at Disneyland, I have more quick changes now than a child growing up in the theater. Tiffany’s cast of characters present themselves throughout the day, invisibly trying to please and evoke confidence in those around me. At work, the manager is serious and analytical, trying to portray an image of control in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. At home I’m more relaxed and (usually) a fun mom, but I’ll quickly become a sergeant when my kids step out of line. The person that shows up depends on who I’m with and what circumstances are presented.
Contrary to the adult persona, covered in labels and expectations, a child’s mind has the freedom and security to be itself and dissolve in the moment. At the happiest place on earth, our family escapes into a world of fantasy, playing out unadulterated yesterday’s. Courageous vulnerability shines through in tomorrow’s free of the mask that separates the public and private self. Children are the portal, the keys to escape, illuminating the way to secret treasure and freedom. Not concerned with how they are perceived, raw truth is all that remains.
In the wee hours of the morning, while the world is still fast asleep, there are no faces, no masks – no need to perform. It’s the closest I’ve come to revealing my inner child in complete freedom and vulnerability. The darkness of the night carries me into the light of the moon, where the stillness and security give me enough courage to stretch beyond the confines of my mind. My thoughts float freely to the surface, peacefully, harmlessly. I accept everything as it is.
I’m determined to remain in the space where freedom lies, where my quirky tendencies are free to roam, where I’m not caught up with some idea of what I should be thinking or doing, where masks are no longer necessary because I have enough courage to be myself – because an imperfect truth is greater than any false, perfection I could portray.
When the sun goes down and the last firework blazes the sky, Mickey returns to the room of his creation. Rainbows descend from the corners of the room as he stores his costume for another day. A bittersweet relief reflects in the mirror, that’s no longer obliged with the need to perform. The remnant echoes of laughter provide shelter in the silence that follows. Stepping outside, under the light of the moon, he’s amused at the sight of his shadow. He looks up to the stars to guide him back home, with anonymity and silence til morning.