If there’s one thing I never thought I’d do in my life it was go to Disneyland. Which is strange given that I grew up in a seaside resort town in England where one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was go to Peter Pan’s Playground.
I don’t remember riding the roller coasters but I did enjoy the bumper cars, and I especially liked staring at all the scenery some creative mind had concocted to make visitors feel like they had stepped into a world where people could fly, and houses weren’t always exactly plumb and square.
And the best part was the lights that came on after dark, adding an element of wonder to this land of make-believe with the longest pier in the world stretching out into the sea behind it.
So you’d think that having been wooed by this kind of setting in my formative years, my imagination budding at the sight of flying Darlings and candy-colored trains, I would leap at the chance to go to Disneyland. But somehow it wasn’t in my comfort zone. Neither was writing a novel about the workings of a small animal vet, to be honest, but when our friendly veterinarian, Dr. Timothy O’Rourke asked me if I would take on this challenge, I didn’t hesitate. Partly because I owed him for two knee surgeries he’d performed on my dog, Molly Moon, but mostly because my inspiration for writing my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons, had been the books by James Herriot about being a vet in Yorkshire, England. So when Tim proposed this idea, of a book about the facts of small animal care wrapped in whatever fictional storyline I cared to come up with, I saw a circle in my life spin to completion just as surely as if Tinkerbell had whisked it through the air with her sparkly fairy dust.
Yet still, when I handed the finished copy of The Gift to Tim and he offered to fly me and my husband down to Disneyland as a thank you I shrugged. Maybe not. “You just have to put aside your preconceived notions,” he told me, “and let loose your inner child.”
Hmmm. I pondered this. What were my preconceived notions? That Disneyland was mega-commercial, that it would be awash with people, that we’d have to wait for ages to get on rides? Yes. So? Those weren’t the things holding me back. It was the thought of the rides that was making me nervous. Wait, what? When did I become such a wuss? Specifically when I went to a fairground with a college girlfriend oh these many years ago and the greasy-haired youth operating the spinning circle seat ride decided he’d have some fun with the two blonde co-eds and spun us so fast I thought my neck was going to snap. Did I really want to put myself in that position again?
But Tim persisted. He told me that he was so pleased with what I’d come up with in The Gift he wanted the whole world to read it. But since he didn’t know how to make that happen, he could at least treat me to a moment in a place that he was sure I would find inspiring. My mind skittered to Topsy Turvy, the film by Mike Leigh about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how, when the operatic duo are in the pit of a creative slump, Gilbert’s wife tells him about a Japanese Exhibition going on in Knightsbridge.
“You need to go,” she insists after he flatly refuses to be distracted by such frippery.
“Do I,” he replies, so matter-of-factly that it’s obvious that he thinks he does not. “You know my mind better than I do, do you?”
“I know you better than you think I do,” she retorts.
Gilbert finishes by telling her she can go but that he will not accompany her “for all the tea in China.”
And then we see the two of them at the Japanese exhibition, with Gilbert captivated by the Japanese girls in their colorful kimonos, peeking out from behind flowery fans as they bow gracefully to the passing crowd and . . . well . . . the rest you know.
Might I get so inspired by something I saw at Disneyland? Well, of course I might, I realized. So I went.
And it didn’t take me long to get caught up in the make-believe. As soon as I walked through the entrance gate it was if I had stepped onto a movie set, which appealed to the actress in me. I made a beeline for the cart laden with Disney paraphernalia and picked out a headband of velvety Mickey Mouse ears fronted with a bright red bow covered in white polka dots. I needed to get in costume if I was going to be on set all day. Besides—and here’s the truth of it—I’d seen others wearing similar headbands coming in on the shuttle and I’d rather taken a fancy to the bright red bow.
We started around the set, stopping at all the “locations” that appealed to us: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted House, Indiana Jones, Buzz Lightyear. I went from feeling like I was on a gondola floating through the starlit canals of Venice, to reading headstones with clever wordplay names like I.L. Beback and Theo Later, to seeing puppets made to look like roosters at an auction or like skillet toting women chasing bawdy men out of alehouses.
We drank mint juleps that were essentially iced water with a sprig of fresh mint in them and ate donuts dusted with candy cane sugar. Which you’d think wouldn’t taste that appealing but there was just enough candy cane in the sugary coating to make it reminiscent of a spice you couldn’t quite identify but which you knew was adding to the flavor sensations in your mouth. In fact it was so good I can still bring to mind the taste of the tiny, sweet, minty crumbles around the warm, airy dough of the donut.
And yes, there were waits to get on the rides. The longest was almost an hour, waiting to board “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” But you know what? Nobody complained. Instead people chatted and played with their phones, signed up to fast track on other rides and watched themselves creep closer to the boats that were going to ferry us through a long, meandering tunnel where we would see Christmas around the world. And that’s when I got my favorite moment of the entire day. As our boat jostled into the darkened interior of the ride and the lights came up on sleighs stuffed with giant squares of cardboard painted to look like wrapped gift boxes tied with colorful ribbons, the little girl sitting behind me in the boat gasped a long, delighted “ohhhhh” and I felt my face break out into a smile. The wonder and enchantment in that gasp epitomized the best of Walt Disney; how he was able to use his artistic talent to bring cherished stories to life in ways that make us say, yes, yes, that’s what it looks like. I can only aspire to using words to create such glorious pictures in people’s minds but aspire I will, because who wouldn’t want to try to conjure an image that leads to a spontaneous, unselfconscious gasp that says the wait had been entirely worth it.
Our day continued with more indulgence in the mega-commercialism (I got a Goofy hat for my little friend, Leo, in addition to the Mickey Mouse ears, which I gave to his sister Lily, and a little Dumbo to sit on the dash of my car and remind me that apparently I like characters that can unexpectedly fly) and ended with the lights being lit on the Christmas tree.
And suddenly I was a little girl again, standing on the seafront in Southend looking at the lights of Peter Pan’s playground. My inner child had been set free and I found myself thinking about my Nan, and how she took me to the cinema when I was about five to see Mary Poppins. My Nan died before I turned ten and I don’t have any memories of time spent with her except that one, which should tell me something about why I was destined to go to Disneyland. Because Walt Disney provided for me the lasting image of two girls, separated by about sixty years, sitting next to each other in a darkened cinema, spell bound by the pictures on the screen in front of them. Somehow I think there might be a story in that.
So thank you, Tim.
For repairing my dog’s knees so she can run and dodge and leap with the agility of a pro-basketball player.
For asking me to write the book in the first place.
And for Disneyland.
And as far as the whole world reading our book is concerned, maybe you could try wishing upon that star.