On the Importance of Making Happy Travel Memories
Can a stepfather and stepson grow closer on a family-friendly LA getaway?
By Mark Sissons
According to Meik Wiking, founder of the world’s first Happiness Research Institute and author of The Art of Making Memories, accumulating happy memories is essential to our mental health because they strengthen our sense of identity and purpose and bond our relationships. For many people, travel offers some of our best memories, especially when shared with our loved ones. Who doesn’t fondly recall that first big family trip abroad, that backpacking adventure with your best friends, or the moment you first touched down on a new continent?
During my career as a travel writer, I’ve had many opportunities to create happy memories, occasionally even transcendent ones. But seldom have I been able to share these extraordinary experiences with those nearest and dearest to me, due to my often solitary journeys. I was always jetting off alone to exotic locales around the world to write about adventurous pursuits like heli-skiing, scuba diving, trekking and tracking wildlife. What I hadn’t ever done was help introduce the wonders of the world to a wide-eyed child.
Then I met Nayam, and my peripatetic life started to take an unexpected direction. Nayam is my eight-year-old stepson, who I first met when he was a toddler. Since then, we have taken some memorable trips together. Our first, when he was four, was a visit to Legoland in Carlsbad, California. Since then, we have road-tripped through the mountains and islands of our home province of British Columbia. And explored the Badlands surrounding the dinosaur capital of the world, Drumheller, Alberta, which supercharged Nayam’s enduring fascination with paleontology.
Eventually, the adventure travel guy became partly a family travel guy as I began to see and write about the places we visited through Nayam’s fresh eyes. By seven, he had already been to India and England and Amsterdam with his mother, Anisha. By that age, I had barely left Manitoba, my home province in Canada. Traveling with Nayam often reminded me of how different traveling was when I was a kid. Back then, the prospect of a car trip or a hotel stay induced giddy anticipation. A plane ride anywhere was positively otherworldly. And of course, there was one place that EVERY kid dreamed of visiting.
“Hey Nayam, would you like to visit Disneyland?”
Nayam’s eyes bulged. The D word! A jolt of excitement hit him.
“How about Universal Studios Hollywood too?”
Dinosaurs! Nayam’s other favorite D word. Already a Youtube fan, he instantly knew that the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park was home to the awesome Jurassic World — The Ride. Not surprisingly, this kid was instantly all in. So was I, curious to see what had changed in Walt’s world in half a century.
The dawn of Disney World
In the spring of 1972, my family and I visited Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, just a few months after it opened. Pre-Watergate Richard Nixon was at the apex of his presidency, basking in the afterglow of his historic visit to Mao’s China. The Beatles’ breakup was still recent. The infamous Munich Olympics were still a few months away, and the Godfather was breaking box office records.
I wasn’t much aware of all that world-historical stuff. But the notion of visiting Disney World, on the other hand. Now that resonated like a bolt of lightning striking the mind of a country mouse of a kid from a farm in rural Manitoba, Canada. And so my parents, brother, sister and I set out in a rented Winnebago motorhome on an epic journey down through America’s heartland and into the Deep South, passing through states like Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, en route to the promised land.
At that time, the Civil Rights Movement’s battle scars were still fresh. Notorious segregationist governor of Alabama George Wallace was making a Presidential bid, and soon to be crippled by a would-be assassin’s bullet. But all I could recall was the greenish fluorescent glow of roadside truck stops as we passed them at night and the aroma of fried chicken, dumplings, hominy grits and fried green tomatoes lingering in the humid air when we stopped to eat at some diner. And a lot of real friendly Southern folks with twangs bushier than a bobcat’s tail.
Once we finally reached Florida, it was like the heavens opened and singer Anita Bryant’s smile beamed from billboards everywhere, declaring that “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” Still a few years away from her ugly transformation into a virulent anti-gay rights activist, the former Miss Oklahoma seemed the epitome of the Sunshine State’s wholesome appeal. So did the happy, shiny new Disney World that awaited us.
In 1972, a ticket to enter Disney World cost $3.50, and the most popular attractions included The Hall of Presidents, The Jungle Cruise, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and everybody’s favorite, The Country Bear Jamboree, featuring animatronic bears belting out wildly politically incorrect hillbilly tunes. Presiding over it all at the end of Main Street, U.S.A. towered the majestic Cinderella Castle, from which radiated the “lands” of the Magic Kingdom — Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland — all connected by a futuristic monorail.
I mostly recall the snaking lineups for each ride, my ice cream cone melting in the torrid Florida sun as I watched the Disney Characters parade past and feeling a sense of exuberance and wonder that I had come so far to finally meet Mickey and his pals. All that, and the thrill of visiting the nearby Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where the mighty Saturn V rocket sat on a floodlit launchpad, ready to transport the crew of Apollo 16 into orbit on their upcoming journey to the moon. For me, this was science fiction come to life.
Yesterday meets tomorrow
Fast forward fifty years and here I was again entering the gates of the Magic Kingdom. Only this time together with Nayam, at the original Disneyland (and only one designed by Walt Disney himself) sprawled beside a freeway in Anaheim, California. As we passed beneath a bronze placard that said ‘Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy’ I wondered if you could ever really return in your heart to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’.
For Nayam, like it was for me once upon a time, this day was all about maximizing the number of rides we could hit. And hit them we did in rapid succession because Anisha secured Genie + fast track passes, essential for anyone not wishing to spend their entire Disneyland day waiting in lineups. Unlike me, Nayam obviously didn’t notice that many of Disneyland’s signature rides hadn’t changed in decades. When you’re in Disneyland, time, it seems, waits for everyone.
“This has been the best day of my life!” Nayam declared that evening as we watched the nightly Disneyland fireworks show light up the skies from our room at the nearby Viv Hotel, Anaheim, a family-friendly property that recently opened this summer across the freeway from the Park. “All of today I felt like I was dreaming and that I would wake up and have to go to school,” he added with a tired, happy smile.
And then it clicked. For the millions who flocked to Disneyland each year, it was more about creating intergenerational memories than about experiencing the latest and greatest technology. Which also explained the ocean of Mickey Mouse-eared adults happily shepherding each new generation to the Magical Kingdom, where yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy so comfortingly collide.
While Disneyland felt timeless by design, Universal Studios Hollywood was all about timeliness — as in, maximizing the return on the latest and greatest movie franchises. The park’s most popular rides, all derived from blockbusters, included Nayam’s favourite, Jurassic Park: The Ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Transformers: The Ride – 3D.
From virtual reality roller coasters and GGI-generated chaos to actual special effects used in today’s Hollywood films, Universal Studios delivered a cutting edge experience. Whether we were plunging into a den of angry animatronic dinosaurs, escaping with Optimus Prime from the Decepticons, or feeling the high velocity whiplash of the Revenge of the Mummy, it was all high speed, high octane mayhem for Nayam and me. Even the twists and turns of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey left us shaken and giddy for more. It took the relative calm of the world-famous Studio Tour for us to catch our collective breath.
Back at our hotel, the recently opened Conrad Los Angeles located in downtown LA directly across from the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, we had time to reflect on our LA family getaway over burgers and ginger ale. I hoped that these past couple of days would forever be etched in Nayam’s memory, as were my memories of my first trip across America to the Magic Kingdom so long ago.
“When I grow up, I’m going to tell my kids about our trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios,’ he said. “And I’m going to tell them it was the trip of a lifetime.”
The world has changed so fundamentally in half a century. Yet in some ways, hardly at all. A kid can still dream of magic and wonder. And a travel writer who never dreamed he would, could find himself making happy travel memories together with a kid like Nayam.
Time saving tip
For any chance of enjoying the rides at Universal Hollywood and Disneyland Resort without waiting for sometimes hours in line, upgrade to the Universal Express and Genie + fast track passes, respectively, in addition to general park admissions, well before you arrive.
Mark Sissons has explored seven continents and dozens of countries on assignment as a travel writer and photographer specializing in adventure and family travel. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Robb Report, National Geographic Traveler, the Globe and Mail, the San Francisco Chronicle, Men’s Journal, NUVO Magazine and the Dallas Morning News. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.