• Shona McCarthy

Hong Kong Disneyland: Faded Memories From 2012

On my very first time overseas, one of the places I went was Hong Kong Disneyland. This was October 27, 2012. I know the exact day because it was my 24th birthday. It was long before the rioting and brutality of the recent years took place. Before having a smartphone with a camera was normal to me. Before anyone had even heard of Covid-19. Hong Kong was humid, complex, futuristic and safe back then.

I had gone to Disneyland in Hong Kong not so much because I wanted to, but because I had once been a child who had desperately longed to. I used to rent Disney Movie VHS tapes from the local Blockbuster Video and Video Easy as a child. Classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. Many of these videos would include commercials showing how fun and glamourous a trip to the California Disneyland. I wanted to go so badly I even once dreamed that a DIsneyland was built in a vacant lot near my home. That vacant lot had seemed so large to me as a child. I didn’t know that at 24 I would spend a whole day at Hong Kong Disneyland and only see about half the park. Something had changed between my childhood and myself at 24. Everyone goes through it to some degree. The childhood sense of wonder fades into the melted hopes of adolescence. By 24 I had tried to find my Prince Charming so many times and failed over and over again. The worst attempt had involved drugs, abuse and some amount of homelessness. By the time I was on this trip, many of the things I had wanted in childhood now seemed terrifying, and I had spent much of that first trip to Asia in such a deep state of terror that I had been unable to enjoy anything. At 24, I was resigned to the idea that good things didn’t happen. I had even spent a period of time thinking that DIsneyland was evil. I had heard stories about people being rude to each other in lines; people all shoving forwards to get their way, pushing other, weaker people back. It was called “the happiest place on Earth”. But what does happiness mean?

Since it was so long ago, before I had a smart phone that could take so many photos, long before Instagram, I can’t remember my trip very well, and it isn’t so well documented. I remember being on a beautiful train where the handles hanging down were in the shape of mickey heads. There were ornamented display cases against some of the walls containing elaborate, statuettes of famous Disney Characters. The train felt clean and pleasant. A funny thing has happened, where I am able to find footage and images of the things I saw that day on the internet and jog my memory.

The train stopped at an antique style station, looking something like a scene from Harry Potter. There was some sort of green detailing. That part is a blur. The footage looks somewhat different from what I remember. I was there with a friend, a young woman from Northern China. When we entered the park, we didn’t really know where we wanted to go. But we soon spotted the carefully planned and manicured garden and train track that people have come to identify with Disneyland. We decided it would be best to take the train, since it would trial the park and we would get to vaguely see what the park contained to get an idea of what we would want to do.

I noticed rather quickly that a surprising amount of the park was in the style of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The cleaning staff seemed to wear costumes in the style of peasants of that period. The bathrooms looked as though they had been modelled off a Medieval castle. Many of the food stands likewise looked like gypsy market tents. They were remarkably clean from my perspective. Most of the bathrooms I had used on the trip were horrifying to me.

I had spent much of my time on that trip afraid to eat anything, to the point where each time I’d swallow a morsel, I’d feel dizzy and sick. But somehow, knowing that it was Disneyland, I for once felt safe eating. So I went up to a counter. The tickets I had been gifted by a family friend came with food vouchers. So I bought a noodle bowl that was meant to be in a style of regional China I was unfamiliar with. I think I mostly went for that particular dish because a guy I had gone on a date with had come from that region, and while he and I had resolved to be friends, I thought it would be fun to be able to tell him I had eaten such a thing. I enjoyed as much of the bowl as my shrunken stomach would allow. I never told the guy about it.

But I remember wishing that I could have had a larger stomach. So much of the foods at Hong Kong Disneyland looked delicious and beautifully presented. There were sushi dishes, and various forms of pasta from different parts of Asia. I remember being surprised at the time that they didn’t have more classic American foods or specifically Hong Kong dishes. The things I’ve seen on the internet suggest that this has changed since my visit. I vaguely recall either watching or being on a boat ride. The host was able to speak English, and while the ride itself was insipid, and its attempts at excitement were in the form of underwhelming animatronics, there was a point where a kind of watered spigot of a fake crocodile emerged violently from the water. The way the host mugged and somehow managed to over and underreact at the same time was what made the ride truly entertaining.

I can dimly bring to mind a sort of cantina in a Jungle style area that looked so remarkably realistic; just like a scene out of Tarzan. And they were selling satay skewers so fragrant that just a sniff put the taste of peanut butter in my mouth. Again, I wished I’d had a bigger stomach. Or was it that I did buy some and find I didn’t have enough stomach to finish them, much to my chagrin?

There was a wishing well, and a woman dressed as one of the Disney Princesses nearby. Sleeping Beauty I think. I didn’t drop in a coin. But I do recall the way the well was specially equipped to simulate Snow White’s voice. The water seemed to have special effects too. And I vaguely recall a mountain close to that decorated with the figures of various Disney characters, with forced perspective invoked so it seemed larger than it was. Looking at the footage on Youtube, it seems those figures were Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the area was called "Snow White's Grotto".

We went to see what I think was Mickey’s Philharmagic. Various live performers dressed as Disney Characters performed songs from the films. Oh, wait no, looking at Youtube I think it was called "Golden Mickeys!"

In another area, something related to sea life seemed to be happening. But I don’t recall seeing much there. I think at some point, the friend and I went on a Dumbo themed ride. We definitely went on the “It’s a Small World” ride. I remember wondering why it was such a classic, since so much of it just seemed to involve dioramas of dolls in different cultural dress singing the song over and over as you ride a little boat past them. I didn’t dislike it at all. I was just surprised that it was so well loved given its relative simplicity compared to other, more grandiose, park attractions.

I didn't remember it until I went digging around on Youtube, but I did go on the Winnie The Pooh ride with the friend.

At some point, the friend and I wandered into one of the many gift stores around the park. They had beautifully made it look like an old-timey shop. But inside it was full of Disney hats and Mickey ears and all the classic accoutrement one would classically want to buy at a Disney store. I bought a Jack Skellington hat, meaning to one day incorporate it into a Gothic Lolita outfit. This is something I’ve never actually done, since I am so fearful of losing the hat itself. It was pricey, and knowing what I do now, I tend to simply keep brochures and bags from my trips to theme parks instead of buying merchandise much of the time.

(Photos of the Jack Skellington hat I bought that day.)

(Photos of the bag and brochure I got that day. Sadly, I didn't get to see the Spooktacular.)

There was some unpleasantness on the day itself. But there was something about the release of being somewhere that felt that safe after being afraid so long; of getting to see what had once seemed like an impossible childhood dream come true that marked me. Not a lot, but at least a little. After years of hating Disney Movies, I went on to collect all the Disney Princess movies I had once watched as a child. I’ve never gone to a Disneyland with a lover, though I’ve sometimes wanted to. But it isn’t the point of the thing. The point is that happiness doesn’t have to hinge upon just one situation or thing or even a place.

Since then I’ve gone though more failed attempts at finding Prince Charming. I’ve gone through times of immense joy and immense sadness, over and over again. I’ve visited Tokyo Disneyland alone, even after I thought I’d be going there on my Honeymoon. But I’ve also lived to see many more of my seemingly impossible dreams come true. So I wonder if maybe the people who say Fairytales won’t come true might have simply not have lived long enough.

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