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Kingdom’s magic: a calm sense of freedom

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

This past weekend my wife Grace and I went to a public place along with thousands of strangers, an activity which was unthinkable just a few short months ago. And I am proud to say it felt great.

Over the past year we have been pretty strict about staying at home, wearing masks in public and keeping our distance when we did venture out for essential errands. For 13 months, whether forgoing visiting her east coast parents or simply choosing to skip a crowded aisle at Stater’s, we have avoided people in situations small and large.

During 2020, we made one short overnighter to camp in Joshua Tree National Park and a day trip to watch the trains in the Cajon Pass. So when we got the (Johnson & Johnson one and done) coronavirus vaccine last month, both of us were ready to reenter the world.

Our choice for the first outing? An action-packed day at the Magic Kingdom. Now Grace is a much bigger fan of Disneyland than I am, by which I mean I was dragged there kicking and screaming. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but I agree to Disney adventures mainly because she loves them so much.

Orange County was at the time in the orange tier of the state’s reopening framework, which means that Disneyland had to limit attendance to California residents at 25 percent of the park’s capacity. Prior to our arrival I assumed that the place would be pretty empty, but that was not the case, and by midday Fantasyland was wall-to-wall strollers as usual. While many waits were short, capacity on the rides was definitely drastically reduced so wait times for the most popular rides were similar to pre-pandemic times. As my wife pointed out, Disneyland has never released its attendance data so we just have to take their word that it’s at 25 percent.

The mask mandate was 100 percent in force and there were few if any scofflaws. Guests could only remove their face coverings to eat and drink. Staff were properly trained and, to a person, were friendly and helpful. Navigating the park is a bit cumbersome, mainly due to closed or diverted pathways to accommodate queuing of patrons outdoors. At times it was confusing to determine where a line began, but directions were gladly given (see above comment about friendly staff).

Overall, the experience was pleasant and you had better believe that Disney managers thought of every conceivable way that people could congregate and took steps to minimize any impact. For example, popular Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, did not interact with the public directly but waved from a safe distance with a team of minders.

This is not a review of Disneyland’s performance at reopening its parks, rather it’s about freedom. Specifically, the liberty of the spirit that comes from no longer worrying about dying from COVID-19.

This beautiful conviction occurred while waiting to enter the Haunted Mansion, but I guess I had been aware of it in the back of my mind most of the day. But then Grace just crystallized the notion while we were in the queue in the mansion’s surrounding immaculate gardens.

“It feels so good to be able to be around people again,” she said. “Waiting in line at Disneyland is just about the most crowded place you can be, and I haven’t felt any sense of concern about being around all those people.”

It was pretty clear that other park visitors felt a similar sensation of freedom. A friendly and talkative Huntington Beach dad named James struck up a conversation while we waited in line for Space Mountain. He half jokingly apologized for bothering us, offering an explanation, “I’ve spent the past year conversing with a three-year-old and a five-year-old.”

Reporting on the pandemic for the COURIER, I have indulged myself in a greedy dose of gloom and doom thinking. And to be fair, we still don’t know what life will look like on the other side—when we can finally say “the pandemic is over.” Which is precisely why that moment outside the Haunted Mansion mattered so much. This impossible year with all the uncertainty, the overcrowded hospitals, the daily case counts and the mounting deaths vanished in that one moment of casual normalcy. An instant of not caring that a stranger was in my personal space.

“I wasn’t even considering what it was going to be like to be at Disneyland and surrounded by strangers, it feels so amazingly freeing,” Grace said.

There are some people who never had any concern about the virus, their personal vulnerability or possibility that it could end or impact their life. Aside from the conspiracy theory types who are beyond rationality, these folks may have felt immune and that the rest of us were overreacting. It reminds me of the description of Robert Duvall’s character Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in the Vietnam War psychological drama Apocalypse Now. “He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn’t gonna’ get so much as a scratch here.”

Of course, some of those coronavirus doubters did in fact die. The Washington Post reported on one man in a South Dakota hospital who was so convinced that COVID-19 was fake that he insisted the doctors had misdiagnosed his aliment up to the moment hospital staff put him on a ventilator.

Here in the United States we are a nation of free spirits and that is to be celebrated—most of the time. But there are times when we need to come together, and this is the most important moment in generations. Vanquish the ghosts of 2020, get the Fauci ouchy. Not just for you and your family but for everyone so we can get to herd immunity and back to the activities we love.

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