Wherever I looked, psychedelic Mickey Mouse ear-hats blinked in unison, little bright pinpoints in a sea of darkness. Neon LED balloons leisurely bobbed past, disappearing into the night. Cinderella’s Castle loomed in front of us, straight out of the TV screens of our childhood, its façade glowing under a multitude of lights. Children danced to an amped-up version of Hakuna Matata as projections of Simba, Timon, and Pumba strutted across the front of the castle. The air was a heady mix of magic, fantasy, and nostalgia.
As my friend and I weaved our way through the crowd of mini Snow Whites, Ariels, and Peter Pans, I heard kids say exactly what I’d been thinking all day: I want to stay here forever. I reckon that’s a frequently whispered phrase at a Disney theme park. These places, with their talking mice, singing mermaids, flying elephants and happy endings, make it very difficult to leave, no matter your age. What started 60 years ago in California as a wild dream has now spawned several Disney wonderlands across the planet, each building on the blueprint of multiple themed lands inside a giant playground.
I don’t stand a chance; I’m hooked from the second I step through the gates. A die-hard, unabashed Disney fan, I know the lyrics to the songs (and still sing them), I have the merchandise (but will still buy more), and I will always take those Disney quizzes on BuzzFeed. If I’m anywhere near a Disney park, it’s almost as if a homing device has switched on inside me, directing me straight to its gates.
What is it about it that seems to thrill 3-year-olds, 23-year-olds and 60-year-olds? Perhaps it’s the promise of 12 solid hours of manic happiness. Because no matter how tired I am, or how hot it is, or how many whiny kids I have to endure while waiting for a ride, I always have a smile on my face when I’m inside a Disney park.
There’s a term for this tendency to revisit things: emotional efficiency. Coined by researchers Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J. Levy, it refers to the habit of seeking out known experiences because of their “potential emotional payoff”. Here’s how Russell and Levy explain it: “Engaged in the re-consumption of a book, movie, or place, consumers anticipate and especially seek out the “emotional peaks”, the climax they know is available in their re-consumption experience.” In other words, we revisit experiences because we know how great they will make us feel. For some it might be a song, for others it could be food; for me, it’s a shot of Disneyland every few years.
Beneath this layer of emotional efficiency is a whole lot of nostalgia magnifying my experience. These parks are like giant, time-travelling machines that take me straight back to my childhood, when all that mattered was whether the White Rabbit got to where he had to be on time.
The entire time I’m at a Disney park, I’m in a technicolour world with a sepia-toned slideshow running in my brain. I’m not just squealing with glee in the swirling teacups of the Mad Tea Party ride with my friend, I’m also reliving the time I sat in the same ride with my mum, over a decade ago. This is one of my favourite things about going back to places: reminiscing about the great time I’ve had there while slapping on a fresh coat of memories.
Disney theme parks are also one of the few places on the planet where the hypercritical voice in my head shuts up. As soon as I enter the gates, a thick film of Disney covers my eyes and I am a child again, ready to believe anything. Everything is allowed. Yes, I need to ride that carousel for the third time. Yes, I will buy that music box with Aladdin and Jasmine flying on a mechanical magic carpet. No, there is no such thing as too much sugar.
It’s an escape that I find cathartic. Free of the restraint of reality, my mind is free to wander, probe and stretch as it pleases. Like the author Neil Gaiman says, “Someone who is in a difficult or impossible situation [read: adulthood] who is offered an unlocked door to somewhere else that they can go through… and they can genuinely get away…That’s a good thing.”
A very good thing, the kind that makes you want to stay here forever.
is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.