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The Californian

Californian contributing columnist Steve Flores.

I look back now as a father of four adult children and find it unbelievable that my dad would load our blue Chevrolet Bel Air Impala station wagon with me, all seven of my siblings, my grandmother, a green metal ice chest filled with food and drinks for 10 people, and each summer head to Disneyland.

That was our family vacation each August during the 1960s: a day at Disneyland.

Each trip began the same way.

Our early-morning journey began with my grandma leading us with two prayers. We said one prayer before we pulled out of the southeast Bakersfield driveway, asking for a safe trip. The second prayer happened on Highway 99 before we began our climb up the steep and seemingly treacherous Grapevine. We prayed that our station wagon wouldn't overheat.

Even to this day, I still say a prayer each time I drive up the Grapevine, because you know what will happen if I don't.

As we approached Disneyland, the atmosphere inside our station wagon began to change. Our cramped quarters filled with 10 people began to feel even more constrained. My grandmother pulled out the washcloths and had us all clean our faces as she began brushing my sister's hair.

Even though my dad was a drill instructor in the Marine Corps, my grandmother out-disciplined him when it came to making sure we all behaved. And behaved we did.

She had all my brothers and I wear the same shirts and my sisters wear similar dresses. It was like we were going to church or getting ready for a family portrait.

It's interesting to me now, but the things I remember most about our summer day trip to Anaheim weren't the rides. Of course I remember the mountaineers climbing the Matterhorn, playing in the caves and fort on Tom Sawyer Island and seeing Tinker Bell magically sliding down the thick cable from atop the Matterhorn at the end of the fireworks show.

But it's the smaller things I seem to emotionally cling to the most.

I remember how much fun it was to go back to our station wagon in the Disneyland parking lot and have our grandmother make us lunch. We would pull down the tailgate, and all my siblings and I would eagerly wait for Grandma to make us our sandwiches or finish off the breakfast chorizo and egg burritos we were eating earlier on the road. We shared our stories about our favorite rides so far that day, and then planned what we hoped to get on that afternoon.

As each year passed, we didn't have to dress alike when we went to Disneyland. And as though a rite of youthful passage, I distinctly remember standing on Main Street in front of "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" and my dad saying to me and my older brother, Willie, "OK, you guys go ahead and have fun. We will meet you back here at 1 so we can go to the car and have lunch."

The Richie Havens song "Freedom" plays in my head every time I recall that exhilarating memory. Each subsequent year, my younger brothers eagerly awaited their rite of passage as Dad let them join me and Willie on our liberation journey through Disneyland.

My wife, Susie, and I continued the annual family tradition of visiting Disneyland, just never during the summer. And although it's been several years since we have been back, I asked my now adult children Nikki, Brenna, Sean and Aaron what they remembered most about going to Disneyland.

Their reply surprised and warmed me all at the same time. "I remember how much fun we had swimming in the hotel pool." "I remember all of us taking our nap in the afternoon in the cool hotel room." "I remember taking turns in the showers at the end of the day and us all eating pizza watching a movie together."

Wow. Not one mention of Mickey Mouse, Pirates of the Caribbean or It's a Small World. Just a lot of "us", "we" and "together."

I came to realize that after all these years, Disneyland had helped make this father's dream come true.

Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at