Tourists and tears: Disneyland’s last day open before closing for coronavirus

Disneyland cast members gather in the final hour of business before closing for two weeks to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Carrie Graham / el Don

It was almost midnight on Disneyland’s last day in business for at least two weeks and the amusement park’s most beloved characters ascended the iconic Main Street Station. Cast members lined walkways leading towards the exit, sprinkling “pixie dust” on visitors, many of whom were in tears.

Everyone was waving goodbye to “The Happiest Place on Earth” before it shut down March 14 for the fourth time in history. The drastic move was part of a public health effort to eliminate large gathering places and stop the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that is the cause of a growing global pandemic.

What would have normally been a packed Friday at Disneyland was eerily subdued. Rise of the Resistance had just opened and boarding passes — only available through the Disneyland app after entering the park and limited to less than 200 per day – that were typically gone within 10 minutes of park opening, were available until the early afternoon.

Popcorn and churro carts stood open and ready to serve a crowd that never came. Clusters of cast members stood chatting, looking slightly unsure what to do with so few guests. The visitors who were there stuck together in tighter groups than usual, giving everyone an amount of personal space rarely seen inside the House of Mouse.

Main Street, which is usually packed to the brim with people window shopping, buying souvenirs, waiting for parades, and making their way through the lands of Disney, was a ghost town. All it needed was some tumbleweed blowing through.

An empty Main Street on the last day of business before closing for two weeks to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Carrie Graham / el Don

Other popular rides, such as Space Mountain and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run can sometimes have a 2-hour wait on a Friday. Throughout the final day of operation, however, almost every line was 15 minutes or less. Ride operators had lost some of their usual trademark pep, and those waiting in line seemed to talk more quietly and leave a wider space between the group in front of them.

One visitor, Amber Brighton was there with her husband and young son from Alberta, Canada. They were mid-flight on their way to spend a weekend at the parks when Disneyland announced it would be closing the gates starting March 14. As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, after arriving in California they were also informed by their health ministry they will now be required to self-quarantine when they return.

Those who visit the park frequently shell out top dollar to be an annual passholder. And for many of them Disneyland is much more than a theme park. On Friday, passholders mentioned the sense of safety they usually feel when entering the parks, both physically and mentally.

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“This place truly is my happy place since my husband died 16 years ago,” Mary Spencer, a retiree who visits the park two to three times a week, said. “I go to remember him and the good times we had with our kids.”

Foster parent Katie Sanders made the drive from Menifee, Calif. With her family of six.

“This is the first big experience we do with our babies,” she said. “Whether [they’re] here for a month or forever, we Disney! Our social workers think we’re crazy.”

A transwoman who asked to remain anonymous said Disneyland is the one place she has the freedom to be her true self. She says she isn’t out yet, but here she doesn’t have to hide who she is, and knows she will be safe and treated with respect. For her, even a short-term closure feels devastating because that freedom is gone.

A number of attendees on that final day also mentioned how it helps them cope with disabilities and mental illness. Sufferers of PTSD, depression and anxiety feel safe and at peace knowing the fears of their everyday lives are left behind at the front gates. Families of children with disabilities who often feel isolated in most social environments are able to let their kids be kids. Deep emotional attachments to the park synonymous with Southern California explains why so many were crying as they savored the bittersweet final moments of the day.

Disneyland is set to reopen April 1, but as COVID-19 continues to spread and life as we know it continues to be put on indefinite hiatus, that date is likely to change. Prior to this, they’ve only closed three times: after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and on 9/11.  Each of those closures, however, lasted only a day.

The parks that have been a light in the lives of so many for now sits dim. Here’s to hoping a safe reopening is just around the riverbend.

Disneyland cast members gather in the final hour of business before closing for two weeks to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Carrie Graham / el Don

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