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Disney’s Lost and Found : Tales of Missing Children Have Happy Endings at Park

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To 9-year-old Noemi Rodriquez, Disneyland wasn’t such a small world after all.

Barely 4 feet tall, the elementary school student from Janitzio, Mexico, remembered staring up at the 147-foot-high Matterhorn on a recent sunny afternoon. When she dropped her gaze to look for her teachers and classmates, they had vanished into a sea of Magic Kingdom visitors.

She was lost.

Rodriquez is one of scores of children who are separated from their parents or adult supervisors every day at one of Southern California’s largest tourist attractions. With summer season bringing in bigger crowds to the world-famous park, the numbers of lost children can climb into the hundreds, Disney officials say.

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Although it is traumatic for adults and children alike, the experience is also tough on the Disneyland employees who try to soothe the lost kids.

“We get kicked. We get thrown up on,” said Ginger, who does her best to calm youngsters at the park’s lost children facility, a holding station where younger children are kept until a parent or chaperon arrives. (As a matter of policy, Disneyland does not permit the release of the last names or other personal information about park employees.) “The poor little things get so panicky,” she said. “It breaks your heart to see them this way.”

But image-conscious Disney officials are quick to point out that there is always a happy ending to their lost boy and girl stories. Unlike the Lost Boys in Never-Never Land, a vast majority of lost children at Disneyland are reunited with adults within a few minutes, officials say. And in its 34-year history, Disney has never failed to reunite children with their parents or chaperons before the park closed.

“We’ve never lost a child at Disneyland,” said Verna, another worker in the lost children facility.

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Although a perfect record may reassure parents, it unfortunately offers little comfort to a frightened child such as Noemi Rodriquez. In tears after realizing her predicament, Noemi was quickly spotted by two park employees, who combed the immediate area for her group of 40 classmates and eight teachers.

In most cases, such a search usually turns up the child’s guardian within 15 minutes, park officials say. But in Noemi’s case, it did not.

She was brought to the lost children facility, just off Main Street. Had she been 12 or older, Noemi would have been escorted to the park’s City Hall instead.

Once inside, youngsters can play with toys, read Disney books or watch television (the Disney Channel, of course) as they wait to be picked up. Housed in a small, quiet room, the air-conditioned facility also has a VCR, a pair of comfortable sofas and a handful of chairs.

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During the summer, as many as 30 children are sent to the facility each day. On a recent Fourth of July--traditionally the busiest day of the year at Disneyland--more than 200 children were in and out of the room.

“It was just chaos,” said Verna, a great-grandmother who is experienced in comforting youngsters at the facility. “Thank goodness we haven’t had another day like that one.”

Disney chooses older women to staff the facility in hopes the motherly figures will help soothe troubled children.

“It’s not a sexist thing,” said Disney spokeswoman Pam Espinosa. “From our observations, children seem more comfortable with the grandmotherly types.”

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In Noemi’s case, the strategy seemed to work. Although separated by language, the little girl appeared to be comforted by Verna, whose eyes welled up with tears as she embraced the sobbing child.

“This is so horrible,” Verna told the girl. “Everything is going to be fine.”

After about an hour, news came that a teacher from Noemi’s school had been spotted by an alert employee.

“We are so happy,” said her teacher, Eduardo Cisneros, giving Noemi a hug. “We are responsible for her. Thank you. Thank you.”

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Sometimes, parents and adults berate themselves for allowing children to escape their supervision, officials say. Several parents refused to talk about their experience, fearing that it would make them appear irresponsible.

“I’m not a neglectful parent,” said one mother who headed off toward Tomorrowland after being reunited with her child.

But park officials tell parents not to blame themselves. With an 86-acre park and tens of thousands of visitors each day, combined with the park’s excitement and distractions, separations can occur easily.

“We tell them not to be too hard on themselves,” Espinosa said. “The park can be overwhelming, especially on a first visit.”

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Eight-year-old Kevin Stewart from Hesperia found it easy enough to get lost. Kevin remembered standing with his mother in Toontown. Then the Jolly Trolley went rolling by and he lost her.

But Kevin, who admitted that this was the second time he had been lost in two years, seemed to take his sidetracked status in stride. He spent his time assembling jigsaw puzzles, playing with Legos and inquiring how he might install a laser “like the one in Star Tours” in his back yard.

After about 45 minutes, Kevin’s mother, Sylvia Stewart, showed up. Smiles lit up both their faces and they embraced.

“I went around the ghost house and you weren’t there,” said Kevin, who was supposed to wait at the Haunted Mansion for his mother in case they split up.

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“We must have just missed you,” said Sylvia, 32, clutching her son.

“Mom, come on,” replied the boy, tiring of the reunion and eager to go to Star Tours.

Separation from a child at the park can be a trying experience for parents and chaperons. Robert McCollum, a truck driver from Las Vegas, had a scare when he could not find his companion’s 8-year-old daughter, Carrie White. The second-grader disappeared near Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.

“I was praying, ‘God, Jesus, find her,’ ” said McCollum, 38.

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Frantic for nearly an hour, McCollum finally got word that Carrie was safe at the lost children facility.

“They found her. I don’t know how they did it, but they did,” said McCollum, holding Carrie’s hand.

“It’s a happy ending,” he added.

Just what you’d expect at the happiest place on earth.

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