Castles and rocketships

Elizabeth Donald
Sep 13 · 16 min read

The first time I saw the castle, I was very small and it was very large.

I was standing beside my father, and I barely came up past his knees. I held his hand as we walked down the long Main Street with its music and colorful flags, and my eyes were fixed on the giant castle at the end of the street.

But we didn’t walk up to the castle. Instead we turned right, past clouds of colorful balloons under the shining California sky, and suddenly there were spaceships flying over my head.

I stood there marveling at the rocketships soaring so high in the sky, holding my father’s hand. The castle and the rocketships, and a world full of wonder.

It is my first memory.

I know now that I was barely three years old, and that the magic place with the castle and rocketships was Disneyland. There are no pictures of this moment — at least, none that I have seen, which is a minor miracle in a family that documented its moments in photography at a near-relentless pace.

My father grew up in Los Angeles, approximately 1.5 suburbs away from the Happiest Place on Earth. He was there the day it opened in 1955, and later as a young journalist, he interviewed Walt himself. This was a fact that kept me in awe as a child.

Logic and the family timeline suggests that the first trip was just before or after my baby sister was born, but I don’t know if she was with us that day.

It’s just the image of that moment: the castle and the spaceships and my father’s hand.

We moved away, to places that the warm California sun never reached. Wisconsin was cold and New York was colder. In Massachusetts there were no castles, but there was deep snow with a hard, icy shell that formed on its surface so thick that I could walk on its surface without my small boots breaking through, almost until my age reached double digits.

But every other summer, we returned to the castle. We would fly back to my parents’ homeland and visit our grandparents in the place that was always sunny and warm, and we would go back to the castle.

There are photographs of these visits, faded images of my sister and me at varying heights with terrible 1980s haircuts, smiling beside a cornucopia of cartoon characters. We used to buy hats at the Mad Hatter each time, and I always picked some strange wide-brimmed sun hat while my sister chose a succession of baseball hats that looked like characters.

There we were with our cousins on a family reunion trip, or grinning on Main Street in our acid-washed jeans, or smiling beside Goofy or Mickey.

Being… goofy?

Never Donald Duck, though. He was the family namesake, of course, but somehow we never caught up with him for a photo.

There’s one now-famous picture of us with our cousins, and I am wearing a hideous jungle-print jumpsuit while my sister is wearing shorts that inexplicably has a giant hamburger printed on it. We drag it out from time to time so we can tease each other. It was the eighties, okay? I have not included this, because I want to be welcome at the next family reunion.

We got bigger, and thus the castle became smaller. High school, college, independence. We were supposed to be grownups. What happens when the castle still looms in your mind when you’re an alleged adult, and you wonder whether the magic that filled your childhood can be found after you lose the pixie dust?

I found a new castle on the day after I turned twenty-one. It was spring break from college, and my friend Amanda had somehow acquired a villa and tickets at Walt Disney World — the big one in Florida. She invited me along with a few friends.

Despite my family’s fondness for Disney, we had never been to the World. My father, an eminently practical man, never saw the sense in paying so much more money for Florida when we could stay with my grandparents only twenty minutes from the California castle.

But I was a newly-minted legal adult, and journeyed to Florida with three pals as much in love with music and theater and Disney as I. Chris was one of my fellow theater students, and Mike was a dentist-in-training, but had sung on stage many times as well.

We were loosed on the Magic Kingdom with songs in our hearts, literally. We passed the time in line for the rides by singing Disney songs in four-part harmony, and a few times we caught people filming us on their camcorders and had to assure them that we didn’t work for Disney, we were just theater dorks.

It was only the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and what was then known as MGM Studios in 1996. The latter would eventually be renamed Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom was a distant dream on somebody’s drawing board. It didn’t matter; it was magic on an epic scale. We toasted my new legality in the Adventurer’s Club, a delightfully-themed “explorers” club now sadly lost to the march of time, as Pleasure Island became Downtown Disney became Disney Springs, and there is probably an Aeropostale where the Adventurer’s Club once stood. Progress.

We laughed together at the delightful lameness of the Norway ride in Epcot, a “ride” that was really a travel video for visiting Norway. For the rest of the week, “Norway” became the catchphrase for anything silly or ridiculous — anyone who could work Norway into a sentence was queen of the moment.

We dined together in King Stefan’s Dining Hall, a lush reproduction of a medieval dining hall up inside the castle itself, an experience I have never repeated. The view was amazing, and the food horrifically overpriced even then. We swiped children’s menus because they were royal crowns made out of paper, and we wore them the rest of the day. There is a delightful photo of all four of us in front of the shining blue-and-white castle, wearing those ridiculous crowns, declaring ourselves the Royal Family of Norway.

It was the best vacation of my life, up until that point.

Sadly, the crowns were not present for this image.

I never saw Mike again. I transferred colleges not long after that, and we lost touch. We all found each other on Facebook many years later, and talked about one day reuniting at Disney World with our families. But Mike unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, and talk of the Royal Family Reunion has dissipated.

It would be many years before I saw a castle again. With adulthood comes responsibility. My fondness for magical fiction and flying rocket ships never waned, however, and eventually it translated into short stories and novels. But the real castle and rocket ships were contained in the photographs in my scrapbooks.

My son, Ian, was genetically required to be a Disney fan. I think the first video he really wore out was a sing-a-long tape of “Disneyland Fun.” His second toy was a stuffed Mickey; his second birthday was Mickey Mouse-themed. By the time he was seven years old, his one dream in life was to meet Mickey Mouse.

But by then I was a single mom, struggling to make ends meet. There were times when I was juggling whether to pay the electric bill or the water bill. Disney was absolutely out of reach.

Ian contented himself with trips to the Disney Store, which had enough magical ambiance that he considered it an annex of the castle. We were not permitted to leave the mall unless we stopped by, even if we couldn’t afford to buy anything. He was perfectly happy sitting by the bin full of stuffed characters or perusing the costumes, and sometimes I thought he was waiting to see if this time, Mickey himself would drop by.

And then we found a way to the castle.

My father and stepmother rented a beach house in Los Angeles for a week in the summer of 2006, and we were invited along. It was a beautiful beach, and my son’s first view of the ocean. On the day we arrived, he and his cousin Alexis could not take the time to open their suitcases and dig out their swimsuits. They ran full-tilt down the beach and threw themselves into the ocean, fully clothed.

I have a wonderful photo of seven-year-old Ian and nine-year-old Alexis cavorting in the Pacific waves in full clothing. It is framed in poster size and hangs in my dining room.

There were many things we loved about that vacation, including seeing friends who lived in Los Angeles whom I had not seen in decades, the sound of the ocean just outside my bedroom window each night, and standing by the edge of the water with my sister as the waves washed up over our feet and buried them in the soft sand.

There was a near miss for my sister, however. She looked down and saw a large black mass stuck to the side of her leg.

“Oh my god, Elizabeth, help me get it off!” she cried. “It’s a leech!”

I’m a terrible sister. I started laughing as I grabbed a stick to pry it off her leg. “First, leeches are saltwater,” I said. “I think this is tar, princess.”

She splashed seawater at me. The little ones thought this was hilarious, and intermittently called poor Melanie “princess” for the rest of the vacation. Sometimes I have referenced the Dreaded Sea Leeches when chatting with my sister, who no doubt wishes for more saltwater to dump on my head.

For wonderful memories, it is hard to match the looks on Ian and Alexis’ faces when we walked down Main Street and they saw the castle for the first time. For Melanie and me, it was a chance to see the magic of our childhood all over again, through our children’s eyes.

Everything about it delighted Ian, and I captured it all in photographs. He was amused by the Mickey-shaped chicken nuggets, and mugged for the camera with Alexis wearing goofy hats. He got to “drive” a go-cart car and received an official Disneyland driver’s license, as Alexis feigned terror at his driving skills.

At one point, Melanie came running over to me insisting that a trash can was talking to her. “I swear, it said, ‘You’re just gonna throw that all away?’” she told me. “And then it started chasing me!”

I might have gently suggested that if Melanie had drugs on hand, she really should share. This did not get the reaction I felt it deserved.

The highlight of the trip, of course, was that Ian finally met his hero. This picture is lousy, because my little film camera was dying by that point and this was the era before cell phone cameras. But there he is, standing next to Mickey Mouse with a grin so wide I don’t think it’s ever been topped.

For him, the magic became real.

Not long after we got home, I read an article about Push the Talking Trash Can. It seems in Tomorrowland, they have a remote-controlled trash can with a little speaker inside, and the operator is in disguise as a tourist nearby and talks into a small microphone to freak out the guests.

In my defense, I forwarded the article to Melanie, who graciously replied, “HA! I told you I wasn’t high! So there! Believe me next time!”

It was another six years before we could return. Ian was thirteen, and I was living with a truly wonderful man — the first person I’d lived with since my divorce. Jim and I were talking about marriage, but at first it was the subject of massive fights, as I had burned the bridal T-shirt many years ago. Jim is a traditional fellow, though, and he wanted me to make an honest man of him.

Once again my parents planned a trip, this time in Florida at Cocoa Beach. Alexis was in high school and would be joining us with her boyfriend.

Jim had never been to Florida, never seen an ocean, and never been to Disney World.

There’s a big rock, and under it is pretty much where Jim lived before me.

We road-tripped out to Florida, and on the way we stopped for lunch in Nashville, where we met up with several friends who have settled there. It was a delightful hour of silliness, reminiscing and passing around pictures — children, puppies, snapshots of our lives.

At one point, I went to the restroom, and when I came back, everyone at the table had big weird grins.

“What? What did I miss?” Nothing, they insisted.

You can probably guess where this is going.

After two days of endless state highways, we reached Cocoa Beach. With faint memories of another ocean in another decade, the first thing we did was head to the beach.

They didn’t leap into the ocean fully clothed. Thus is the difference between seven and thirteen — or fifty. But I caught a picture of Jim’s face when he saw the ocean for the first time in his life, and it was beautiful.

On the Fourth of July, my father had snagged us tickets to go deep sea fishing. I personally do not fish, but I was happy to tag along and take pictures. There’s a terrific shot of Ian standing at the front of the boat doing his best Titanic impression, and several others with Ian and my father catching itty bitty fish too lame to keep.

Then there was Jim, on his first time deep-sea fishing, and he caught a flounder so big that it won the boat pool and we ended up with a $275 cash prize. It was an absolutely fugly fish, and when I posted the picture of it, someone replied, “Dafuq is that?”

We took it to a seaside restaurant that happily cooks up your catch, and it made so much fish Jim brought two whole servings back to the condo. He was inordinately pleased with himself.

The next day was our one and only day at Disney. We could only afford one day’s pass, so we picked the Magic Kingdom, of course.

It’s hard to say which I like better: Magic Kingdom or Disneyland. I could write an entire article on the pluses and minuses of each, as a true ears-wearing Disnerd.

But the main place where Magic Kingdom has Disneyland beat is the castle. Now that I am grown, Disneyland’s castle really does seem small, and strangely pink. It’s the original, and the one that stands out in that initial memory, but the Florida castle is shining white with blue turrets topped with gold, glinting in the merciless Florida sun. It seems bigger, and maybe it is, having learned a great deal from building the first one in the 1950s. No matter how they change it, light it, improve and decorate it, it is now the castle of my imagination.

There’s a reason for that.

Let’s start with this: Jim would be a terrible spy. He cannot lie to save his life. If I ever need to hide a body, the very last person I will ask is Jim. He apparently shared his nefarious plans with roughly the population of North America, barely managing not to simply tell me in advance.

We had planned our day at the Magic Kingdom carefully. I purchased a guidebook that gave a very specific plan of attack for the maximum attractions with minimum time in line.

Of course, we were going on July 5. Lines and blistering heat were pretty much inevitable. Still, we had good luck: crossing the lagoon on a boat with my dad, my stepmom Karen, Alexis and her boyfriend, and of course, Ian and Jim. This was the first visit to the Florida park for both of them, and they were as excited as little kids, Jim included.

At least, I figured that’s why he was being so squirrelly.

Upon arrival, I declared we needed to hit Space Mountain right away, because the line would be ridiculous for the rest of the trip. Jim seemed reluctant, but I dragged him and even first thing in the day, the line ate most of an hour. We chatted in line, looked for hidden Mickeys, and enjoyed the hell out of one of my favorite rides.

My dad had had a heart attack a year or two before, and so he could not ride the rollercoasters. We caught up with them afterward, and headed for the castle to get a family picture taken before we went on to Splash Mountain. I figured we should get our pictures before we got soaked and looked like sweaty drowned rats for the rest of the day.

We arrived at the little plaza at the base of the castle, and found there was a giant loud parade going on. We discovered later that this parade occurs three or four times during the day. It’s full of catchy music and dancing characters and Mickey-shaped confetti flying through the air. The noise was so loud we could not hear each other at all, and crowds were heavy, so we decided to wait out the parade before taking our picture.

I sat on the curb and waved to Donald Duck — family mascot, again. Jim talked for a few minutes with my dad while Karen and I gathered up Mickey confetti for scrapbooking. Finally a stranger agreed to take a group shot of us, so I could be in the photo too. Pictures, again, a little moment of memory captured in an image that lasts forever.

Then Jim drew me away from the family, and I thought he was planning to lead me up the ramp into the castle toward Fantasyland. I protested — we needed to go through the side passage toward Adventureland if we wanted to get to Splash Mountain.

Instead, he held my arms and started to speak. I only heard about every fourth or fifth word, because the fading parade was still loud and he was speaking very quickly and very quietly.

I tried to get him to speak up, and he leaned in… and spoke very quickly and very quietly, only closer. Something about “I’m asking you…” and something else about “begging.”

Then he dropped down to one knee.

I’m not all that bright. But even I’m not that dense.

He pulled out a small gray ring box and opened it, still talking too quietly for me to hear.

It was a lovely silver promise ring I had seen at the mall several weeks ago. It was small and subtle, with a row of blue and white sapphires, and suddenly I recalled that he had ducked away from me for a while that day at the mall and my son was distracting me when I looked for him. Sneaks.

Jim caught my left hand and started slide the ring up my finger. I had to suppress a mental giggle: I hadn’t said anything yet! Later he told me he was hedging his bets.

Sure enough, my friends later confirmed that he had spilled the beans to them while I was in the restroom back in the Nashville restaurant. They told him good luck, and be sure to tie me to a chair or glue my shoes to the floor before asking.

Instead he just made sure to put that lovely ring on my finger before I responded.

He stood up and kissed me, while my family took a zillion pictures and cheered. Then he held me, and I held him, and it was a little while before we remembered that there were other people at the castle that day.

We turned and saw my family, all beaming at us. My niece was madly texting, and my stepmother held a pair of Mickey ears. One was white, with a tiny tiara and veil. The other was black, with a tuxedo front and mini top hat. They were already stitched with our names.

Oh yeah, someone had the inside track. I’m pretty sure if I had said no, my stepmother would have shoved me in the moat.

In fact, Ian had informed my mother and stepfather a week before, and my sister found out from Alexis, and there was a bottle of champagne chilling beside engraved flutes with our names on them when we got back to the condo that night.

We married a little over two years later, and we are married to this day. A Cinderella pumpkin coach whisked us away from our ceremony, and a small white ceramic castle with blue and gold turrets sat atop our wedding cake. I painted it myself. And any time I want to make Jim sniffle, I have only to lean over and whisper, “Castle.” He’s so sentimental.

If the castle wasn’t central to our family history before, it certainly was now.

There were more trips. For two years after the wedding, we saved our pennies and returned to Disney World for a full week, staying on site and riding everything. A year later, we went on a trip with good friends of mine from college. We stayed in a cabin at Fort Wilderness for a week in July and we’re still friends, which is no small feat for six people crammed into a two-room cabin.

In 2017, I finally returned to Disneyland. It was a solo trip — totally business — and I was able to spend one day back in the old stomping grounds. I visited my first castle and the rocketships, which sadly no longer fly above our heads, but inexplicably on the ground.

I met Donald, after all these years, and got an utterly silly picture of him hugging me as the long-lost family member because, after all, Donalds stick together.

And any time we see or hear anything about the Land or the World, we all wistfully say, “I want to go back!” My sister’s youngest is now approaching the right age, and plans have begun for a family reunion at the Florida castle, to introduce another youngling to her pixie dust.

Other people don’t always understand my family’s Disney tradition (we prefer that word to “obsession”). It isn’t about the castle, really. It isn’t about the movies or the characters or Disney’s ongoing purchase of just about every form of entertainment in the country. That isn’t why we always want to go back, why we wear T-shirts with a mouse on them, why the castle always makes my darling, sappy husband sniffle.

It’s my childhood bound up in a place, a family history encapsulated in a succession of photos, moments that mark our lives. It’s a history that continues with generation after generation, from my impossibly-young father interviewing Walt to a girl in a sunhat and jungle-print jumpsuit to a little boy meeting Mickey to a man kneeling before the woman he loves at the base of a castle.

It’s history, adventure, imagination, and magic, all in a fantasy kingdom ruled from a castle while rocket ships fly. It makes it okay to believe in magic. It’s memories and laughter and family, and a place where anything can happen, because the magic is what you make of it.

Wish upon a star, and make the world you want to live in.

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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