I’m really needing a Disney fix. I can tell because over Christmas I was totally obsessed with looking at Disney fine jewelry charms, and ferreting out little companion jewels that could be layered into a charm necklace. It’s tricky for a grown woman to retain her credibility while wearing a Snow White reference, and even thornier to pull off Cinderella. I am way too old for this, but here we are.
The last time I was like this was the summer of 2013, when we came to the U.S. for six weeks to see our family, and somehow spent an excessive number of hours in front of the Disney channel, saccharine sitcoms and all. Naturally such an enterprise would not have Communist Party approval, so we had no access at home in China. That’s not to say we never saw a Mickey, because we were actually swimming in Chinese knock-offs, most of which had a cheap and broken air, the kind of feeling you get when you bite into a beautiful cake and realize someone dropped an entire eggshell in the batter.
Since moving to China in 2011, we’d heard Hong Kong Disneyland was little more than a kiddie slide and a couple of puddles, so we’d been excitedly holding out for the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland, which was located less than an hour from our house—for a bunch of Disneyphiles, it doesn’t get much better than that. We’d even driven as close as we could to the construction site, and taken long range photos of the castle as it was being built, but in the end it wasn’t enough to slake our thirst. By 2013 we’d decided that kiddy park or no, we needed to see what Mickey sounded like in Cantonese.
In Hong Kong we emerged from the special Mickeyed up subway train into a beautiful, cool station where Mary Poppins would have looked perfectly natural spit spotting about with her parrot umbrella and high button shoes. We didn’t know it yet, but it was to be one of those moments when the cake is not only beautiful, but the first bite reveals a stunning ganache with little flakes of edible 14k gold winking from the middle. Halfway through the first day we exchanged our tickets for annual passes which never had a chance to gather dust.
To be fair to all the naysayers, Hong Kong Disneyland had opened very small and catered to the youngest children, the ones being watched by their grandparents while their mothers and fathers were at work. But expansion had rolled on, and three new lands had appeared. When we stumbled onto the scene in 2013, Mystic Point was still brand spanking new; that’s where we met Mystic Manor, the Chinese Haunted Mansion, sort of.
In Chinese culture the number four is considered very bad luck because the word “four” sounds nearly identical to the word “death.” Consequently, no one wants fours in their phone numbers or license plates. As Americans our family swims in western cultural weirdness, so we felt free to point and mock the whole “four” business. When my son, Chase, got a license plate for his new scooter, he shocked the clerk by asking for a plate with all fours. Horrified, the woman saved Chase from himself by firmly telling him no, and giving him something much less frightening, possibly containing the number eight, which is good luck because it sounds similar to “wealthy.” Sadly, it seems Chase tempted fate, because a couple of months later he was riding along when he got clipped by a distracted driver who proceeded to do what Chinese drivers do, get out of the car and start screaming that it was his fault. Something similar happened to my daughter, Abby. They were young tweens and picking themselves up off the ground while an adult screamed at them, bullying them into taking responsibility for the driver’s mistake because, legally, they knew they would have to pay restitution if they couldn’t make them flee in shame, or in 12 year-old Chase’s case, limp away because he had just been hit by a car.
There are moments I can’t help but hope karma is real, but I digress.
If the Chinese are so superstitious about death that they avoid the number four, just imagine how keen they would be to get on a theme park ride with 999 happy haunts proclaiming there’s always room for one more. That doesn’t even begin to address the horror produced by the little ghost at the end reminding riders to “Hurry back, and don’t forget your death certificate.” They might as well pave the whole park in number fours, but Hong Kong did need something mansion-ish. Think of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square without its haunted Louisiana manor, Disney World’s Liberty Square without its rambling red brick mansion, or Paris Disney’s Frontier Land without its western Victorian Psycho house, all it needs is a Bates motel.
Perhaps magic could fill the void.
Mystic Manor is set in Papua New Guinea in 1896, and inside you meet explorer and adventurer Lord Henry Mystic and his dearest friend, a mischievous monkey named Albert. Lord Henry has spent his life amassing curiosities from all around the world, and has opened his home to anyone intrepid enough to chop through the jungle to view his collection. However, there has been a new acquisition, a mysterious music box that legend declares can bring objects to life if opened. Naturally Albert the monkey cannot keep his hands to himself, so visitors must dodge firing weapons, brave magic mirrors, and survive flesh eating scarabs, just to name a few. It is hands-down my favorite of all Disney rides.
As I said, our passes did not gather dust, and we soon developed a system based on our two most beloved attractions, first Mystic Manor, and second Grizzly Gulch Runaway Minecars. Each morning when the park opened, we watched the grandparents and their little charges filter into Fantasyland while we rushed straight through to the back, passing up the wonders of being completely alone in Grizzly Gulch or Toy Story Land, never pausing ‘til we hit Mystic Point. When I had both Chase and Porter with me, they ran flat out. Porter once tripped and fell splat on his face, but he jumped straight up and they both kept going. We were generally the first ride of the day, and as evening approached, it was Porter who figured out how to time it just right so we could be alone in the ride. The game had become as fun as the attraction itself.
On Halloween ghostly figures in white Victorian dress emerged from the manor through a creamy mist, their hands gloved, their faces covered in opaque white stockings. The Victorian specters did not sing or dance, or even say a word. They simply began living their lives in the square as they would have in 1896, setting up old timey cameras, strolling along in families, or twirling lacy white parasols, making no acknowledgement of the modern onlookers. It was a bit of performance art that may not have worked in noisy, raucous America, but it was perfect for polite, controlled Hong Kong.
I wish they could bring Mystic Manor to America, but they are much too busy with Star Wars and the Avengers. Those are fun too, don’t get me wrong, but Mystic Manor has a special place for us. Porter and I even have a Mystic Manor music box, a silly bit of souvenir nonsense I enjoy just as much as my Waterford candlesticks. We would never have bought it, except when we purchased a t-shirt the cashier let us spin the wheel of luck, and we won an $800 H.K. credit, about $100 U.S. It was a lucky moment, a bite of cake with golden flakes inside.
I know why I’m old and still jonesing for a trip to Disneyland. It’s all about the ghosts and magic of memory, the many happy times spent there as a child and later with my own children. When I put on my ridiculous Snow White charm, it has nothing to do with an animated princess. It’s all about riding the paddle boats with my parents and sisters. It’s about the moment my son Porter stood at the Snow White ride and first recognized the true darkness behind the story, or the day little bitty Chase sat just inside the Disneyland entrance in his vest and oxford shirt, saying “I’m sure I’m sure,” or the time three-year-old Abby curtsied all the way down Main Street and through the castle because she could not contain her joy. My children are all in college now, and not being people who let their lives gather dust, we have been very busy having all kinds of new adventures. But for me a bit of Disney here and there is like opening an enchanted music box which breathes life into good memories.