One sunny day in early May, the entire choir loaded up on the bus and headed for beautiful Anaheim, California, home of the world famous Disneyland. It was our reward for selling all those damn fundraiser candy bars, cheese logs, and greeting cards over the course of the year. Of course, we had to make a stop first. To justify the school sending us all the way to Disneyland, Mr. Lotze scheduled us to sing at an Anaheim junior high school that morning. We sang a couple of songs with a local choir, then jumped back on the bus and headed off to the park! As a result, we were all decked out in our hideous uniforms that all those fundraisers helped pay for: a bright purple button-down and white pants. Like I said, hideous. Erik, Bryan, and I sat next to each other on the bus, busting with excitement, trying to decide what to ride first. We settled on the Matterhorn, the roller coaster inside the giant plastic mountain in the center of Fantasyland. The plan was to hop off the bus, change into our street clothes in the restroom, and head off into the park. Mr. Lotze told all us to be back at the bus by 6:00. We were all in junior high and there were no chaperones with us (it was the 80s, remember). As far as he was concerned, we were on our own. As we pulled up to the gates of the park, the excitement was palpable. Kids were bouncing up and down on the seats, trying to contain themselves, just waiting for those bus doors to open and release the pressure. The hiss of the air brakes filled the air, the door opened, and kids shot out of the bus like a rocket, scattering in all directions. I spotted a restroom right by the entrance. I ran inside along with several other kids. We quickly changed into our street clothes, stuffed our uniforms in a locker, and ran out into the park. Different groups of kids broke off in all directions, disappearing into the crowd and noise. I looked around. I didn't see Erik or Bryan anywhere. They were right behind me when we ran off the bus, where did they go? I thought for sure they followed me into the bathroom. If not, surely they would have waited for me, right? I checked the bathroom again. I scanned the crowd again. Nothing. They were nowhere in sight. And by this point, all of the other kids in the choir had disappeared, too. I was all alone. I wasn't scared. I was almost 13, being left alone was not a big deal. I figured Erik and Bryan must have headed for the Matterhorn, so I found a map and figured out where that was. I took off into the park.
But as I walked along Main Street U.S.A. I started to wonder if Erik and Bryan ditched me on purpose. At first, I couldn't imagine why they would have done that. But then the wheels started turning. Maybe they got tired of waiting and decided to go on without me? Maybe since most of the rides at Disneyland are two-seaters, they thought 3 was a crowd? Maybe they were just 13 years-old and ditching someone at Disneyland is the kind of thing 13 year-olds think is funny? By the time I arrived at the base of the mountain, Erik and Bryan were nowhere to be found. There was no use in trying to find them now, they could be anywhere. And I didn't want to waste the entire day looking for them. And if they did really ditch me, I certainly didn't want to hang out with them now. I was on my own. Just me, all by myself, alone in Disneyland with no adult supervision. I could ride whatever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted, spend as much time in the gift shops as I wanted. The disappointment over being ditched by my friends shifted into a sudden sense of freedom. I had never been let loose like this before. I felt so adult. It was kind of cool. Granted, I was 12 years old and if my parents knew I was running around by myself, I'd be in so much trouble, but I didn't care. I was free to roam. And being the sci-fi geek I am, there's only one place to start. I headed straight for Tomorrowland. To Space Mountain, young Cunliffe! And beyond! I spent the next 5 hours or so wandering through the entire park, stopping when I was interested, riding whatever I wanted as many times as I wanted. The People Mover! Pirates of the Caribbean! That rocketship thing! That other one with the tea cups! And many more! For a while, it was kind of fun, but after about hour 3, it started to get kind of boring. Sure, there was a lot to see and do, and I even met Pluto, but hanging out in the Magic Kingdom all by myself was, to be honest, really dull. There's only so many times you can ride Mr. Toad's Wild Ride before the novelty wears off. I remember just wandering around the park for a while, taking it all in. I started noticing the rough edges. Like the where the employee entrances were. Or that all the snack bars pretty much sold the same 10 items, they just called them different things based on where they were located in the park (Mickey's Frontier Burger vs. Tinkerbell's Fantasy Burger and so forth).
Pretty soon, all I wanted was for 6:00 to roll around so I could go back to the bus and go home. Disneyland was no fun with no one to share it with. I didn't have anyone to sit with on the rides, I didn't have anyone to talk about the rides with after we got off. No one to talk to in line, no one to try on Mouseketeer ears with in the gift shops. When the clock finally hit 6:00, I wandered back to the bus, alone. All the other kids were glowing from their wild time in the park, sharing stories, laughing. I trudged to the back of the bus, where I found Erik and Bryan. They hadn't even changed out of their uniforms. They simply ran off the bus and into the park when we arrived, wearing what they had on. They laughed as I walked up, as if I was the punchline to the joke they started 5 hours earlier. I just shook my head and sat down behind them, silent. They snickered, but stopped pretty quick. I think they could tell how upset I was. They didn't apologize (they were still 13 after all), but they didn't bring it up again the whole bus ride home. Practical jokes are great if everybody is in on it. But there was one guy in the trio who didn't think it was funny. I got over it (and even went to the park again the next summer with my family and had a great time), but I never forgot about my game of solitaire inside the happiest place on earth. Now that I am older, I find a lot of parallels in my life to my time alone inside Disneyland. We were an Air Force family, so we moved nearly every 3 years. We went thousands of miles in the opposite direction with every new base Dad was assigned to. I travelled all over the world as a kid, saw some amazing things, but when we moved away, I had to leave all of it behind. I had to forget all my friends and make new ones. I can't call kids from my childhood and reminisce about all the things we did together because I have no idea where any of them are. When I was alone in Disneyland, I didn't realize it at the time but I was making memories for no one to share with but me. It's kind of sad to think about sometimes, but I wouldn't change it. Sometimes in life, we take for granted what we have and think that things will always be the way they are. Then something happens and turns that upside down, leaving you by yourself. If I have learned anything in my travels, it is that you must make memories with those around you as often as you can, because you never know when you will find yourself all alone in an amusement park with no one to ride the roller coaster with.