I grew up in Southern California, in a small suburb outside of LA. My family never took any grand vacations when I was young, but every year (since before I was even old enough to remember) my parents would load me and my little brother into the car and we’d drive 45 minutes to Anaheim, home of Disneyland. The theme park’s tagline is the Happiest Place on Earth. And you know what? As far as I’m concerned, that’s not too far from the truth.
I remember lying in bed the night before our annual trip, unable to sleep from the impending thrill, kicking my little legs under the bed sheets and clenching my fists out of sheer excitement. Walking around Fantasyland, with its colors and lights and characters brought to life, felt just like that: a fantasy. The taste of an ice cream cone from the Carnation Cafe on Main Street was pure heaven. And I can still hear the chug of the embroidery machine as it stitched my name on a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.
I’m certainly not the only one. If the mouse ears sold annually were laid out end to end, they would stretch over 175 miles; more than 80 million ears have been sold since the park opened in 1955. And that’s just one element of Disneyland’s world of souvenirs. You can also nab postcards, keychains, T-shirts, mugs, pins, and Christmas ornaments. Pretty much any darn thing your heart desires is available for purchase somewhere in Disneyland.
You’d think, being the “adult” I am now, that the magic of Disneyland wouldn’t hold up; I’m old enough to see the wig cap on “real-life” Ariel, Pirates of the Caribbean’s underwater track, the abundance of plastic souvenirs and the commerce behind it all. Walt was a businessman, first and foremost. Every Disneyland milestone or event has associated collectibles and Disneyland attractions aren’t so much rides as they are potential merchandising empires. And yet, when I see the Matterhorn, the park’s Alps-shaped roller coaster, looming over the Orange Country sprawl from the 5 freeway, my stomach tickles with excitement. And somehow, my initial sense of Disneyland wonder will be forever encapsulated in the charm bracelet my mom passed on to me from her own childhood trip to the park.
It’s this inextricable link between the experience and the souvenir that make Disneyland collectibles feel so intimate. Tangible pieces of ephemera can take you back through the park’s ever-changing history—like the booklet of E-tickets that acted as ride entries when the park first opened, or photos of ’60s-era Tomorrowland featuring the epitome of retro futurism: the white, aerodynamic, Monsanto-sponsored (!) House of the Future.
But what’s even better is that for collectors, souvenirs take you back through your own history as well. Last year during the holidays, after a nearly two-decade hiatus, my family took that annual trip to Disneyland, which felt like a retro future experience in and of itself. I marked the occasion with my iPhone, instantly uploading the moment to Instagram, as we do now: a photo of me and my brother during the drop on Splash Mountain — hair flying, arms akimbo — and pure, unadulterated joy on our faces. But I also marked it tangibly: the pressed penny I got at the arcade on Main Street that night sits in my wallet — a little bit of magic amidst my money.
What’s your favorite childhood souvenir?