Dreams do come true, 24 hours in the happiest place on earth

Annie and I soak in the excitement at Disneyland Feb. 29 as the park was kept open for 24 hours straight in celebration of Leap Day.   - Kristin Okinaka
Annie and I soak in the excitement at Disneyland Feb. 29 as the park was kept open for 24 hours straight in celebration of Leap Day.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka

I usually don’t make a big deal when a leap year comes around. It’s just another day in the year — an extra day of school or work. This year, however, I was going to take advantage of the extra day.

I would spend 24 hours at Disneyland Park. Leap Day was to be the first time in park history that the amusement park would stay open for 24 hours straight.

For someone who had never pulled an all-nighter — not even while in college cramming for final exams or writing papers — it seemed a little crazy to my family and some of my friends.

But, Disneyland is supposed to be the happiest place on earth. Why wouldn’t I want to spend 24 hours riding roller coasters and hanging out with Mickey Mouse and his friends? Besides, it had been a few years since I paid a visit to the Anaheim theme park so I’d been itching to go back.

My friend Phyllis — who I somehow coerced into going on the trip with me — and I flew into Orange County late in the evening Feb. 28. With about five hours of sleep, we arrived at the park at 5:30 a.m. Feb. 29. The park opened at 6 a.m. but because of the number of other Disneyland enthusiasts, by the time we entered through the gates it was 7 a.m.

No one was complaining. Everyone was filled with anticipation for the day.

“It’s nice being here. It’s an odd feeling,” a middle-aged man in line behind us said.

Once inside the park, I was flooded with the feeling of excitement that I am always overcome by when I visit Disneyland. It’s similar to the feeling of seeing old friends. As Phyllis and I walked down Main Street, the park employees cheered everyone with high-fives and “good mornings.” I couldn’t stop smiling.

This was Phyllis’ first visit to Disneyland and I wanted to be a great host. We hit all my favorite rides like Indiana Jones and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad first thing in the morning. Star Tours, the Star Wars ride in 3D, became one of her favorite rides quickly. A morning filming of an episode of the TV show “Modern Family” in the park was an added bonus.

People walked around dressed in T-shirts, many of them a canvas for a Disney character. It was a pleasant change from the rain-mixed-with snow weather I left behind in Kitsap.

And, there were hardly any lines for the rides. Our longest wait time during the day was about 25 minutes, which is nothing compared to the one hour waits for popular rides in the summer months. Practically everything I said to Phyllis was an exclamation!

Around 1:30 p.m., my friend Annie who goes to dental school at UCLA, met up with us at the park. We continued leisurely riding our favorite attractions. Little did we know that in 12 hours, it would be near-impossible to ride anything.

By 5 p.m., the three of us were getting low on energy. We opted to hop aboard a sailing ship rather than go on another roller coaster. My mom texted me asking “if I was tired yet” and because my cellphone reception had been spotty all day, I could not respond. She probably thought I was having too much fun to respond.

Finally after we ate dinner, I had a better outlook on the rest of the 24-hour adventure. I regained energy and momentum. I also felt better after overhearing multiple park staff say that the crowd would die down or be non-existent after 1 a.m. — that was when the last show would be. Phyllis, Annie and I envisioned being about to ride all the roller coasters over and over again without a wait. It would be like a free for all, we thought.

As the evening progressed, the park became more populated. After watching a 10 p.m. parade, we found ourselves trapped in a mob of people. These were frustrated, angry and tired people. Some of them were trying to leave the park and others make their way in. These were not the same people who happily waited in line to gain entrance into the park with Phyllis and I 11 hours earlier.

Parents tried to strategically maneuver their strollers to move forward. Others blatantly elbowed and pushed people away to get through. I stood still. Phyllis had wiggled her way forward and Annie was close behind me. Over the intercom system, music started to play. It was the song, “One Jump Ahead,” from Disney’s “Aladdin,” which I thought was a very opportune time to play. In the movie, it’s a song Aladdin sings as he runs away from palace guards.

No one else around me seemed to be amused by the song selection — most of them probably weren’t even listening. After several minutes, I was able to escape the mass of people. Just like magic, the crowd had somehow dispersed.

Even after this, I held my head high. Sure, I had to purchase a $50 sweatshirt to wear the rest of the night and early morning because it got so cold. I may or may not have left the tag on and returned it before we left the park. Nothing else however would stand in our way.

But an even darker side to Disneyland was born.

Thousands of annual passholders descended to the park in the wee hours — mainly teenagers and college age-looking kids — and the park became more crowded than it was the entire day. I quickly felt like I didn’t belong, even though I was probably not much older than most of the people around us.

Swearing in conversation became commonplace and people casually smoked cigarettes while walking by, even though Disneyland has a designated smoking area. Once or twice I got a whiff of what smelled like marijuana. A group of Southern California college boys admitted to being drunk while waiting in line in front of us for a ride.

It was a free for all.

Reading some of the local papers the next day, I found out that new park tickets were not sold between the hours of about 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. because of overcrowding.

While I did not approve of the attitudes and actions of some of my fellow park-goers, Phyllis tried to make me feel better by saying that everyone was at Disneyland to have fun and some just chose to do that in different ways.

Phyllis and I said farewell to Annie at about 3:30 a.m. She had class later that day so she went back to the hotel to sleep. After forgoing a two-hour wait to ride Indiana Jones for a second time, Phyllis and I rode the Dumbo ride and the King Arthur Carrousel with an approximate five minute wait for the two.

Walking though the park around 5:15 a.m., in every hallway, nook and bench was a napping person. Everyone wanted to make it to the 6 a.m. finish line — some, like Phyllis, just needed a power nap.

As we walked down Main Street for the last time, the park employees were out again giving high-fives along with comments like “You did it!” Sleeping Beauty’s castle looked pretty as the sky behind it began to turn from black to light blue. I couldn’t stop smiling. That feeling of being with my old friend had returned.

The crowd of people that remained cheered as the clock struck 6. We had all survived, endured or celebrated 24 hours, or 1,440 minutes, at Disneyland. I rode 26 rides, some more than once, visited six other attractions like Mickey’s House, and saw one parade. As a long-distance runner, Phyllis compared the day-long event to running an ultra marathon.

“I feel accomplished, but tired,” she said. “But I guess this is what accomplishment feels like.”

Twenty-four hours later, I can confidently say that Disneyland continues to be the happiest place on earth. See you again soon, friend.

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