Going solo at Disneyland helps the imagination go wild

The Disneyland employee — "cast member" in park parlance — caught me by surprise. "You look really lonely," she said.

"I'm sorry?" I said. I was alone, but I wasn't lonely, and now I was concerned: What does lonely look like?

I had simply been watching the cars go by.

"Will you take this free milkshake?" she asked. She turned, hopped and then walked back inside Flo's V8 Cafe.

I was sitting by myself with a book and a beer in Cars Land within Disney's California Adventure. I had been in the same spot for a few hours, occasionally pausing my reading to watch the cars of Radiator Springs Racers.

Some people go to spas or Marin County. The only getaway I'm interested in is Disneyland. OK, that's an exaggeration. I'm also interested in Walt Disney World. And Tokyo Disneyland. And Disneyland Paris. And Hong Kong Disneyland. And a Chicago Cubs World Series game.

All of them just happen to be based on fantasies.

The 15-year-old me assumed I'd be living happily ever after with someone by the time I turned 25 — likely the side effect of repeatedly watching "Sleeping Beauty" as a child — but life has turned out differently. Still, I've learned an important lesson: Sometimes the best company in the world is an animatronic pirate.

Full Coverage: Disneyland at 60

Alone has become my preferred way to visit Disneyland; alone and with reading material, to be precise. Yes, there are negatives. Sometimes it inspires weird looks. Another time a prospective girlfriend said it was "creepy."

"You realize they probably have a photo of you somewhere, like, 'Hey, everyone, the dude who comes here alone in his 30s is here again,'" she said. I've found that being "out" with my Disney fandom has made it harder to date. "Here's a tip," said a woman I recently tried to woo, "don't buy your wardrobe at Disneyland."

She said it in jest, but still, what was she going to think when she was in my apartment, which is decorated with works from Disney artists such as Ronnie Del Carmen and Brittney Lee?

I was reminded of the wardrobe comment as I spent three days at the park by myself in May to take in the new shows and ride additions for the just-launched 60th-anniversary celebration. I spent the trip debating whether a 60th-anniversary plastic castle play-set would look good on my bookshelf. I decided it would not, but I'm still on the fence about the 60th-anniversary Barbie.

Such is the life of a single rider.

***

Like most Disney aficionados, I can quote Walt Disney's opening-day dedication by heart. Sixty years ago this month, Walt decreed that Disneyland was "your land" and was devoted "to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that created America."

It's a mixture that resulted in a fake world based upon a real one that never existed, less a theme park than a museum committed to the mind's eye. As such, I've always believed the Disneyland experience is a uniquely individual one.

As part of its 60th-anniversary celebration, Disneyland has updated attractions such as the Haunted Mansion and the Matterhorn, added a new nighttime electrical parade and revamped California Adventure's "World of Color" show. The latter has morphed from a clip show on water to one that tracks the Disneyland creation myth, complete with Disney's oft-quoted line that "it was all started by a mouse."

Sure, but it wasn't a mouse that inspired him to build a personal railroad in his backyard or to retreat by himself sometimes to a private apartment on Main Street U.S.A., as reported in Neal Gabler's biography. He was, as a friend recently put it, the original single rider.

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For the record

An earlier version of this article misspelled biographer Neal Gabler's first name as Neil.

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Disneyland has over the years become more welcoming to those of us who go it alone.

So-called single-rider lines corral the unaccompanied into our own group, easing the stigma of standing among families and the coupled-up. While some single-rider lines such as Indiana Jones send riders through the exit, the launch of Radiator Springs Racers in 2012 gave the singles their own queue.

Thus, these lines are gradually making the idea of a solitary Disney trip seem normal — or slightly less abnormal.

Like every shortcut, however, there are dangers to going this route. Single-rider lines aren't necessarily dedicated to the lonesome but are instead aimed at filling every available seat. Be brave, for you may encounter a family who will ask you not to ride with them.

"Oh, would you mind waiting for the next one?" said a mom as I had one foot in the log on Splash Mountain. She wanted a family photo, and I apologized and later imagined what it would be like if I kicked everyone out of a log because I wanted a solo picture.

Few things in life are more awkward than stepping out of a log ride and turning to face the stares of dozens at the front of a line. What if all the denizens of Disneyland now declare mutiny and flat-out refuse to ride with me?

The Disney employees put me on the next log out, but I was a little shaken and didn't go on another ride that day. This is the stress in going to Disneyland alone. Even if I think that I've become comfortable being alone, I find it discomforting that others aren't always at ease with it.

Have we learned nothing from "Frozen"? It's fine to embrace solitude, as long as you don't inflict a natural disaster on your hometown. That's the message, right?

The first time I was at Disneyland alone it was something of an accident. It started to pour, and the others I was with called it a day. A decade ago an annual pass wasn't in my budget, and I sure as heck was going to get my money's worth, so I bought a hat and embraced the rain. Handling bad weather was easy, but the first time a cast member said "just one?" in a ride queue, it was bracing.

But what's the alternative? To not go to Disneyland? Out of the question.

I've learned how to enjoy the park sans rides. Maybe that means sitting with a coffee in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle or enjoying a strawberry twist and a short "Frozen"-inspired show at the Royal Theatre. Or partaking in park rarities, such as a ride on the fast-booking Lilly Belle presidential caboose.

Lilly Belle seats are limited and go quickly in the morning, but being alone has meant it's less likely I'll be turned away. Solo has its benefits beyond having to answer to no one.

When I wanted to partake in the historic Walk in Walt Disneyland's Footsteps trek in December 2013, it happened to be booked for the four days I was staying at the park, at least until a cast member took pity on me.

To embrace Disneyland alone is to embrace the theatricality of it all. The park is a stage, a large-scale open space for interactive theater. We're just briefly acting upon it, even if we're paying an obnoxious amount of money to do so.

Go alone, slow down and I promise you'll see that you are not ... alone.

We single riders are few, but we can find one another, such as the time a dashing woman in a Goofy hat spied that I was wearing a wristband, which denoted that I was in the park for an annual pass-holder event. At the time, I was sitting on a bench in Grizzly Peak, staring into the brush for cats, and we struck up a conversation about past pass-holder happenings.

I was about to ask for her number but stopped myself, not wanting to bring real-world headaches into the conversation. Those dramas are for outside the gates.

***

My most vivid memory of time at a Disney park is the afternoon I spent screaming my head off in the hotel lobby of the Polynesian Village at Walt Disney World. I still feel bad for the other families who walked by and had to endure a crying child. We were checking out and going home to Chicago.

I trace all this separation anxiety back to one character: Figment.

Figment, exclusive to Walt Disney World, is a little purple dragon on Epcot's Journey into Imagination ride, an attraction that has since been remodeled and is a shell of its former glorious self.

Figment is a dreamer, his very existence the result of a dreamer. While I don't necessarily trust the memory of my 10-year-old self, I remember Figment becoming an astronaut one moment and pretending to be a ship's captain in the next. Using toy-like objects, Figment plays at being anything he wants.

Visions of that ride are burned into my brain. To this day I can picture Figment atop a treasure chest or Figment rocking on a wooden horse. Figment was a reminder to a video-game obsessed kid that while you can't do everything, you can at least envision anything.

Figment is why I became a writer, a profession that allows for the ability to live vicariously through others. Figment is why I continue to go to Disney parks. It's not reality I'm after, not when the fantasy version can take me somewhere that can only be imagined.

You can't escape into your own mind and spend an afternoon daydreaming when others are around. Their very presence requires that one be present. I can certainly enjoy Disney with company, but it's less a vessel to transport me somewhere else and more just, well, a theme park.

There are schedules to keep, rides to tick off the checklist and midafternoon passive aggressive conversations to be had ("We can totally go on the Buzz Lightyear ride, if that's something you think is good"). Just a couple of weeks ago I went to Disneyland with a friend.

"I'm making you miserable, aren't I?" he said.

No, he was fine, but I looked longingly in the direction of Pirates of the Caribbean and thought about the joys of going on the ride without having to have a conversation before and after.

Alone, a ride about singing pirates is a trip into my own psyche, inspiring me to create a scenario in which I've accidentally sailed into a dangerous pirate town.

Alone, every detail, every conversation, becomes magnified.

"You've been here before," said the hostess at Steakhouse 55 in the Disneyland Hotel recently. Why would she remember me? Maybe that prospective girlfriend was right and my picture is up on a wall somewhere.

"Do you stay here for business?" she asked.

I told my go-to lie, that I was here with my sister and her husband, but they have kids and they already called it a night and I was therefore enjoying a nice dinner on my own.

Then moments later I thought up what I wish I would have said: I stay here because I want to believe pirates and personal spaceships coexist, and I want to believe that it's still possible to solve every problem with a kiss.

Disneyland puts me under that spell. Reality and other people all have the power to break it. I rush back here when I need a fix.

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