Tuesday evening, philanthropist, daughter of Walt Disney, and the inspiration for his creation of Disneyland, Diane Disney Miller, passed away in Napa at the age of 79. This news struck me like a ton of bricks, because I had the privilege of meeting Miller a few years ago and our conversation is one that I will cherish as long as I live.
Not only was she one of the warmest people I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing, she was also the most genuine. It probably helped that while we sat in the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco, we were surrounded by Disneyland concept art and a small-scale replica of the park. While cameras rolled, we spoke about the park and the role it plays in many kids' lives, including her own. It was lovely, but once the cameras were off, she stopped me and asked me about my own experiences at Disneyland — for the official interview, we'd spoken in general terms and while I'd tried to keep my professional wall up, Miller spotted this Disney kid a mile away. As we chatted, I told her that the park is tied inextricably to my family history, good times and bad, and that no matter how built up Disneyland gets, it will always have a sense of home about it. A smile came across her face and she told me with genuine pride and joy, "That's what Dad wanted."
For someone who grew up not only as a "total Disney kid" in the Tumblr sense of the term, but as a Disney kid in the emotional sense as well, speaking to Miller that day was incredible. Like many late '80s babies, I was raised on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but my family's near yearly trip two hours up the California coast to Disneyland was more exciting than Christmas and my birthday wrapped into one. For us, Disney is not a giant corporation (though believe me, we are well aware of how enormous it's become). The world of Disney takes on a different meaning in my family, one that feels as if it belongs to us and no one else; it's a comfortable shell in which we've placed our own family history.
Now that I'm older and living in New York, the city that taught me to be a cynic, I'm often inclined to keep my Disney origins to myself. In fact, when I got the assignment to travel to San Francisco to interview Miller, I remember the snide comments. Friends joked about the rumors of Walt Disney's racism and the greediness of the Disney corporation. I'm no stranger to those concepts, and I certainly don't support corporate greed outright, but for me, this meeting was significant on a different level.
When I was in high school, my aunt passed away from cancer. She was the one who injected Disney into our lives so resolutely. Her house was a menagerie of Mickey Mouse statuettes and trinkets (she had an equally large Christmas set to swap out the day after Thanksgiving) and on her mantle was always a brass coin collector that struck me as some sort of futuristic castle. It held her Disneyland fund, and though I suspect it was actually a tool to teach her children, nieces, and nephews to save (I doubt that stack of quarters purchased four park tickets, let alone snacks and souvenirs), it was a constant reminder that the next glorious trip was just around the bend.
Then the yearly trip would arrive. Before driving up from San Diego to Anaheim, Calif., my aunt would always organize the troops with the efficiency of a Navy Chief (it probably helped that she was actually one). We were up at 5 a.m., no excuses, with breakfast in hand and occasionally matching neon t-shirts (it certainly made it easy for the parents to keep track of us). We'd arrive at 7 a.m., with plenty of time to park and get our things together and we'd be in Disneyland at exactly 8 a.m., when the gates opened, and stay until midnight when the sleepy music of Main Street U.S.A. sent us home with sore feet and contented faces. To me, and to most of my family, Disneyland is not a park that charges way too much for tickets (though those things are starting to really kill my wallet), it's a place that connects my family — to those who've passed and those who live halfway across the country.
From the plinky old timey music in the Emporium, to the glittery knell of the carousel, to the goofy futuristic music in the wildly dated Tomorrowland, every little piece of that park is tied to a distinct family memory. And one brief conversation with Miller, the woman who, as a child, inspired her father to create a place where the paint wasn't chipping off carousel horses, a place so pristine that visitors could leave their own emotional marks upon it, was so incredibly special. Through all the outside factors and business elements of Disney, the corporation, the true purpose of the park in its original form had survived. In that one brief moment, two women with fond family memories of the park coursing through our veins shared in the wonderment that against all odds, her father's original intent had prospered.