As I have said before, most Dennison family vacations revolved around visiting boring relatives. The idea that a family vacation could involve going someplace to see and do things other than extended family sometimes seemed lost on my parents. But one of the rare exceptions to this happened during winter break of my sophomore year at Jeromeville. Around the time I first got home for winter break, Mom said, “I was thinking, maybe we should go somewhere fun for New Year’s this year, since we aren’t doing anything else. Like Disneyland.”
“Yes!” I shouted enthusiastically.
“Do I have to?” Mark complained.
“Disneyland is fun! You liked it the other time we went.”
“Yeah, because I was in kindergarten,” Mark said sarcastically.
“I promise, if you aren’t enjoying it, and you think of anything else you want to do on that trip, we can,” Mom said. Mark grunted unenthusiastically.
Within the intervening twelve days, Mom booked a hotel and found someone to come over and feed the cats, and on the morning of December 30, we hit the road headed south. Disneyland was in Orange County, California, about a six and a half hour drive from Plumdale in perfect conditions. It took us more like eight hours, including stops for meals and all the bathroom breaks necessary when traveling with 19- and 14-year-old boys, in addition to traffic, although it was Saturday and traffic was not quite as heavy as usual.
When I was younger, road trips with the family always seemed so long and boring. Being a roadgeek, I always enjoyed traveling roads I had not seen before, but usually I just wanted to hurry up and get where we were going. As I got older, though, I began to appreciate road trips more, and I discovered that just looking out the window at scenery can be inherently fun. This trip was interesting because, starting from my parents’ house in Plumdale, Disneyland is in the opposite direction of San Tomas, Bay City, Jeromeville, Bidwell, and just about everywhere else we regularly go when on road trips as a family. I only played hand-held video games for about an hour on that trip.
There was one thing I did enjoy about road trips when I was younger compared to now, however. Before, we all mostly agreed on each other’s choice of music. But about three years ago, Mark discovered gangsta rap; now he listened to little else, and that often started arguments when we were all in the car together. Mark brought headphones to listen to his own music, but Mom decided it would be fair to give him a turn to listen to his music through the car speakers. So he got his turn to play Snoop Dogg and 2Pac in between my turns to play R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish.
“So what are you most excited to ride?” Mom asked as we waited in line at a McDonald’s drive-thru, about an hour before we would reach our hotel.
“Space Mountain!” I said.
“I hated that ride,” Mom replied.
“And Pirates of the Caribbean. Remember, it was closed the other time we came.”
“Oh, yeah. Did you ride it when you came here for your senior trip?”
“Yeah, but that means I’ve only been on it once.”
“There’s that new Indiana Jones ride too,” Mom said. “That one is supposed to be good.
“I haven’t heard about that one,” I said. “But, sure, that sounds good. I’ve also only been on the Matterhorn once. I didn’t ride it when we went before.”
“You didn’t? That one is a little too fast for me too.”
Dad turned off the freeway when we reached the exit for our hotel. “Maybe we’ll see someone famous at Disneyland,” Mom said. “Sometimes you hear of people going to Disneyland and seeing famous people.”
“Maybe we’ll see O.J. Simpson at Disneyland,” I said sarcastically, trying to think of the most obnoxious, joke-worthy famous person possible. “He’s not going to jail, you know.”
“I don’t think so,” Mom replied.
“We should go find O.J.’s house. I remember which highways he was on when we watched the police chase in the white Bronco.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, speaking up for the first time since we left McDonald’s. “Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”
“We’re not going to find O.J.’s house,” Mom said.
“Mom,” I said, “you told Mark that if there was anything he wanted to do to make this trip more fun for him, that we could.”
“Yeah,” Mark added. “You said we could do something fun for me. Let’s go find O.J.’s house!”
“We’ll see,” Mom said reluctantly.
In 1995, the Disneyland resort had only one park. California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping area would not appear until 2001. Those were built on land that was the Disneyland parking lot in 1995, and a giant parking garage would eventually replace these lost parking lots. We parked and walked past the sea of cars toward the park entrance. A large group of people was already gathered waiting to get in; we joined them, waiting until the park opened, then moving forward. About forty minutes after we left the car, we finally walked through the entrance gate and continued through the tunnel under the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street.
The reality that I was at Disneyland hit me as I looked down Main Street, with the statue of Walt Disney at the other end and the castle behind the statue. I had only been to Disneyland twice before. The first time was in sixth grade, also with my family, and I enjoyed it except that I got diarrhea at one point during the day, and I hated pooping in public bathrooms. The second time was my senior trip. During May and June, Disneyland will close to the public early on certain days, then stay open all night specifically for senior trips. Melissa Holmes and Kevin Liu were making a joke that night about how Anthony Tejeda always got separated from the group on marching band field trips, so one of them found a helium balloon with a string on it and used it to tie Anthony’s wrist to Renee Robertson’s wrist. By the end of the trip, as the sun was rising, the balloon was long gone, but Renee and Anthony were still attached at the wrist, holding hands, and they were still together a year and a half later, now in a long distance relationship. Looking back at the way all those people acted that night, I suspected that either Anthony and Renee had liked each other for some time, or that the others had been trying to set them up for some time. But it made me feel awkward, because, if this thing between Anthony and Renee had been going on as far back as April, I never would have asked Renee to the prom, even though it was clear we were just going as friends.
We began the day riding a few of the low-speed rides. Autopia, the ride with the miniature cars on a fixed track, was much less exciting at age 19 than it was at age 11, since now at age 19 I drove a real car all the time. Star Tours, the spaceship simulator set in the Star Wars universe, still felt very real, even though those of us on the ride did not actually move during the ride. The Submarine Voyage was fun once I overcame the initial claustrophobia of having to climb into the ship. The Mad Tea Party made me feel a little bit nauseated.
“Where to next?” Mom asked after we got out of the teacups.
“I want to go on the Matterhorn,” I said.
“I don’t,” Mark said.
“Maybe we should split up,” Mom said. “You and Dad can go on stuff together for a while, and I’ll take Mark. Then we can meet up again in a couple hours. Let’s say one o’clock, right here, and we can get lunch then.”
“That sounds good.”
As Dad and I waited in line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride, he asked me, “So are you having fun today?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Good,” Dad said. Being with Dad was always much quieter than being with Mom. Mom was much more talkative than Dad, and because of that, I have a slight discomfort with silence in the presence of others that continues to this day.
After we finished the Matterhorn, Dad and I went to Space Mountain. This had been the first roller coaster I ever experienced when I came here the first time. On the few occasions in which we visited amusement parks in my childhood, Mom drilled into my mind that roller coasters were scary, so I never rode them. We all went on Space Mountain when I was 11, not knowing what it was. I loved it, and Mom hated it.
The line was long; Dad and I waited for over half an hour. Space Mountain is a completely dark roller coaster, with only projections of stars and flashing lights, beginning with a climb like many roller coasters, but then twisting downward with many turns instead of having a large drop. The first time I rode it, I kept my eyes closed for most of the ride, even though it was dark, but this time my eyes were open. “I love that ride!” I shouted to Dad as we got off and walked outside.
After we met up with Mom and Mark for lunch, we all walked over to the Adventureland section of the park and got in line for the Indiana Jones ride. This was the newest attraction at Disneyland at the time of our visit, and unsurprisingly, we stood in line the longest for that ride, almost an hour and a half. Much of the line was inside the ride, in corridors designed to look like an ancient temple that Indiana Jones was exploring, along with short videos in the style of 1930s newsreels, telling the story of Indiana Jones’ discovery. The ride itself resembled the old rides based on movies, but this one had much better special effects.
After Indiana Jones, we split up with the opposite parent and child combination. Mom and I went on the Jungle Cruise, located right next to Indiana Jones, and Dad and Mark went off by themselves. We sat leisurely in the boat as our tour guide narrated and told bad jokes. As we got out of the boat, I told Mom, “I really want to go on Space Mountain again.”
“You already rode that with Dad. Make him take you again.”
“Please?” I said. “Just give it another try. I’ve been on it every time I’ve been to Disneyland, and nothing has ever happened to me.”
“All right,” Mom said begrudgingly. We walked back across the park to Tomorrowland and got in line for Space Mountain. “Captain EO!” Mom exclaimed as we walked past the theater next to Space Mountain. “If you’re going to make me go on Space Mountain, then I’m going to say we’re going to Captain EO next.”
“Sure. That’ll be fun.”
The line for Space Mountain this time was longer than it was when I came with Dad; it took almost an hour to get on the ride. About ten feet in front of us in line, I saw a teenage girl with red hair who resembled a cute girl I had had in a few of my math classes. This definitely was not that girl. She wore a skimpy tank top with her pierced belly button showing, and she had torn jeans and a green dyed streak through her hair. She was with a boy who had spiked hair, ear and nose piercings, and equally shabby jeans. They began kissing passionately, and I looked away.
“Look at those two,” Mom said quietly, gesturing toward the teenage couple. “I’ve been watching people today, and it seems like Disneyland is letting some rough-looking people in these days. They wouldn’t have been allowed in back in my day.”
“Hmm,” I replied, unsure of how to respond to that.
The ride was just as thrilling as it had always been. I enjoyed every second of it. “See?” I said as soon as Mom and I were outside. “You’re fine. That was fun.”
“That was ten times worse than I remember it!” Mom shouted. “I felt like I was going to die! Never again!”
“If you say so. Let’s go watch Captain EO.”
Mom and I did not have a long wait for the next showing of Captain EO. I had only seen Captain EO once, the first time I came here with my family, and I barely remembered what it was like, so seeing Michael Jackson and his weird alien puppets defeat bad guys by turning them into backup dancers, complete with special effects in the theater, made for a nice enjoyable break from rides that move quickly.
Dad and Mark met back up with us a couple hours after Captain EO, and we rode as many rides as we had time for the rest of the day. At 11:00 that night, after leaving the Haunted Mansion, Mom said, “We should probably go head over to where the fireworks are going to be.”
“Good idea,” Dad said.
“It’s only 11. This early?” I asked. “I guess it’ll probably get crowded.”
Disneyland had been getting steadily more crowded all day, and the plaza at the end of Main Street facing the castle was a solid mass of people when we arrived there. The next hour was one of waiting, standing uncomfortably in the cold night, and sitting on a curb when it got too cold to stand. I complained about being cold a few times, and Mark did too. I checked my watch: still 39 minutes to go. I stood up again. I sat again. I checked my watch again: 31 minutes to go.
Finally, at around 11:55, music started playing. People turned toward the castle in anticipation of the fireworks starting. The surrounding area got dark a few minutes later, and eventually I heard people counting down.
“Ten! Nine! Eight!” I shouted along with thousands of people in unison around me. “Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy new year!” Toward the end of the countdown, the unison broke down, and some people started cheering. Auld Lang Syne began playing as the fireworks show started, followed by music from various Disney movies.
I loved fireworks. We did not watch fireworks shows often when I was growing up; I am not sure why. But there was something impressive about watching these giant explosions in the sky. I watched every one, full of awe and excitement.
After the fireworks show ended, voices came on over speakers asking us to leave the park. We walked, carefully among the huge crowds, down Main Street back to the parking lot.
“That was fun,” I said when we got back to the car. “Thank you for bringing us.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Mark complained. “It was boring!”
“We’ll be home tomorrow night,” Mom said. “And we’re still going to go see O.J.’s house, remember.”
“Yeah,” Mark replied.
“I can’t believe we’re actually going to do it.”
The next morning, we exited Interstate 405 at Sunset Boulevard, following the route we remembered from the news. In June of 1994, retired football player and television personality O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her male companion, and a few days later, a special report showed police chasing Simpson on the freeway, following him to his house. The murder case dominated the news until October of 1995, when he was found not guilty.
“Star maps,” Mom said, pointing to a kiosk just off the side of the road. “Should we get one?”
“Sure,” I said. Dad pulled over, and Mom walked to the kiosk, paying its occupant and returning to the car with a sheet of paper.
“I still can’t believe we’re doing this,” Mom said again, looking at the star map. I looked over her shoulder. “There he is. O.J. Simpson. And there’s Nicole Simpson, ‘deceased.’” Next to their names were printed their addresses, O.J. on Rockingham Avenue and Nicole on Bundy Drive, along with about a hundred other addresses of celebrities. On the other side was a map of the area with main streets, less detailed than an actual street map from AAA.
We continued down Sunset Boulevard for about a mile, starting to wonder if we were going the wrong way. But then Mom exclaimed in a foreboding tone of voice, “There’s Bundy!” as we crossed the street where Nicole Simpson had been found murdered in her home.
“O.J. lives on Rockingham,” I said, reading the map. We got to Rockingham Drive about a mile later, but I noticed that several white concrete barriers were blocking the street. “It’s blocked off,” I said. “Probably because too many people have been doing what we’re doing.”
“Yeah,” Mom agreed. “That was disappointing.”
Dad turned the car around and started to head back toward the freeway. Just as we began driving east, I said, “Wait. Take the next left, and see if we can get around to Rockingham from the next block over. We came too far to give up now.”
“It’s worth a try,” Dad said. He turned left on the next street over, Bristol Avenue, then left again, and as I had hoped, that street intersected Rockingham Avenue. We turned right, watching street numbers, until we arrived at the address printed on the star map. It was a large house on a corner, surrounded by trees and a tall stone wall, with a white wooden gate across the driveway.
“Who’s that?” Mark asked, pointing. Someone with a camera was attempting to climb the wall. A private security guard was running after him.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed. “Cool!”
“Not for him, once he gets caught,” Mom said. “Come on, we’ve seen it. Let’s go, before we get caught up in whatever else is going on.”
We returned down Bristol Avenue to Sunset Boulevard and back to the freeway to begin the long drive home. We drove through mountains, suburbs, more mountains, and long, desolate, isolated stretches of road. As the scenery passed outside the window, I thought of all the girls I had been talking to on the Internet in the last year. Brittany from Texas, Molly from Pennsylvania, Mindy Jo from Georgia. None of the three of them had ever been west of the Rockies. I hoped someday that they might be able to visit me, so that I could welcome them to my home and show them my side of the country. So far I had only once met a girl in person whom I had talked to on the Internet, Allison DarkSparkles, and it did not go well, but I was closer to those three than I was with Allison. It was a new year, and maybe 1996 would bring a new opportunity like that.
The year was starting on a good note; I now had a funny story to tell, about the time I drove past O.J. Simpson’s house and saw a paparazzo trying to sneak in. With all the sad nights I had spent alone in my little apartment toward the end of 1995, I was glad 1996 was beginning on a good note. I had much to look forward to in the coming year. In June, I would be halfway done with my studies at the University of Jeromeville, assuming that I graduated on time. In August, I would finish my teenage years and begin my twenties. And I had made a lot of new friends recently, leaving me hopeful for fun times to come.
It turned out that I would not meet any of my Internet female friends in 1996. But some of the biggest and most lasting changes of my life would happen in 1996. This led to a number of new experiences, including traveling farther from home than I ever had before, for a reason that was not even on my proverbial radar at all that day. It was a new year, and it would be an unforgettable year.
Disclaimer: The Walt Disney Company was not involved in the writing of this story, and I received no compensation for it. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.