Streetwise - Labor Day Extra - On the Road Again


More by Frank Dunnigan

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Labor Day Extra - On the Road Again

by Frank Dunnigan
September 2011

It just dawned on me that this summer marks the 50th anniversary of our family's one (and only) lengthy car trip—to Disneyland, where else? So in honor of that momentous occasion, which was replicated by every one of our Parkside neighbors at one time or another, let's take a look back at just what it was like.

For most 1960s families with kids, there was never a question of IF we were going to go south to visit Disneyland, but just a question of when. I probably began lobbying my parents in earnest in late 1959 when I was in the 2nd Grade, and those efforts finally paid off 18 month later, in July of 1961. This was the first of only two times throughout the 1950s and 1960s that Mom and Dad decided to alter our usual summer vacation and go somewhere other than Marin Town & Country Club.

For that first trip, Dad decided to drive, taking our family's new Dodge Dart down Highway 101. Armed with AAA maps that the auto club highlighted with a yellow marker (the folks at AAA then bound the narrow pages into a spiral booklet about 4 inches wide by 11 inches long), it was easy to follow directions. Along with thousands of other families, these low-tech navigational aids assisted the driver (generally a Dad), the navigator (generally a Mom), and the bunch of restless kids in the backseats of all those cars to understand just where they were and how far there was to go.

Dad always bought his gasoline in fixed amounts, probably to make his mileage calculations easier. I can still hear him leaning out the window and saying, "Ten gallons of Ethyl," just after driving over the rubber hose that evoked a loud DING in the office. This practice of 10-gallon purchases also guaranteed that restroom breaks on this trip would be as frequent as needed, with no emergency stops required. In retrospect, I now understand that my Dad and a few thousand others actually coined the phrase that became the title of newscaster Al Roker's autobiography—"DON'T MAKE ME STOP THIS CAR!"—a familiar command to all of us former backseat-riding baby boomers.

Thinking back to that July day now, I can truly attest to the fact that there is no heat in the world quite like Bradley, California that summer, when the thermometer at the Flying A gas station read 115º (no car air-conditioning in those days). Fortunately, Mom had stocked the Coleman ice chest in the back seat with our lunch and several extra bottles of 7-Up, for just such an occurrence. Windows down, heads hanging out for the breeze, we were so excited and relieved to reach the fog of Pismo Beach just a short time later as Highway 101 meandered its way toward the coast.


Coin box for Magic Fingers machine that vibrated motel beds. -

Like many "modern" motels of the time, the place we stayed that first night had "Magic Fingers" vibrators on the beds, along with a wall-mounted push-button coffee maker (then cutting-edge modern) in the bathroom. Needless to say, armed with a supply of quarters, I managed to test both devices multiple times during our overnight visit, with Mom and Dad thoroughly caffeinated and vibrated by the end of our overnight stay.

Our first stop the next morning was Marineland, the granddaddy of all marine-themed adventure parks. Located on the Palos Verdes peninsula in Los Angeles County, it was a must-see destination for families with kids from the mid-1950s until about 1987. Its peak years were the late 1950s and early 1960s before the opening of Northern California's Marine World (in Redwood City in 1968, and then moved to Vallejo in 1986). It was a combination of aquarium/circus show/feeding zoo, and there were thousands of people there the day we visited, yet we managed to spot two different families of St. Cecilia's schoolmates.

Throughout the trip, our daily meals were always eaten in restaurants attached to the motel where we were staying—places like Denny's, International House of Pancakes, Sambo's, or any establishment that had the words "Waffle Shop" or "Family Restaurant" as part of its name. Mom correctly theorized that such places always had clean restrooms plus menu selections that were not too exotic for kids who might be picky-eaters.


Marineland of the Pacific -

Following a brief one-day visit with the performing dolphins and porpoises, it was off to spend a couple of days on the Southern California beaches before finally reaching Disneyland. Mom ran into a childhood friend from San Francisco on the beach at Santa Barbara, and one night, I saw my own classmate, Cathy Straub, having dinner with her parents at a seafood restaurant in Santa Monica. Even then, it amazed me that for all its population, California could be such a small place.

Finally, it was time for the BIG EVENT. Spotting the Matterhorn from the freeway sent every backseat-riding kid into an absolute frenzy—"WE'RE HERE, WE'RE HERE" could literally be heard from thousands of vehicles navigating Highway 101's Harbor Boulevard exit and the streets of Anaheim each day. Disneyland was only six years old then, and much smaller than today's site. Even so, the rides were still a definite step-up from our usual Playland-at-the-Beach entertainment, though still light-years away from the high-tech wizardry that exists down there today.

Mom had read somewhere that kids and parents should have some sort of distinctive clothing or headgear—in case they became separated in Disneyland, it would be easier to spot one another. So on that first day, we stopped at The Mad Hatter, one of the shops just inside the park, where we were all outfitted with peacock blue alpine hats that were accessorized with a 12-inch-tall white feather—our family plus a couple of hundred others, from the looks of things that summer.

Once in the park, kids quickly learned the lingo of the A-B-C-D-E tickets. An A-ticket was for something pretty dorky like the Main Street Cinema. A B-ticket was a bit better—attractions like the now-gone Motor Boat Cruise where passengers could steer (even though the boats were guided along on an underwater rail). A C-ticket was for things like the Tomorrowland Autopia (once a narrow curving track, but with a guide rail added circa 1964 to control over-adventurous 10-year olds and others). A D-ticket gave access to the now-gone Skyway from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland or TWA's iconic Flight to the Moon, while the coveted E-ticket was the best of all—things like the Submarine Voyage, Jungle Cruise, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Monorail. In later years, E-tickets also covered It's a Small World (with its hauntingly sweet theme song sung in ultra-soprano), Space Mountain, and many others.


E Ticket from Disneyland -

The few remaining tickets I have left are in a booklet that shows a face value of $10.55 ("only $4.75 for Magic Kingdom Club members") back at a time when every large employer offered Magic Kingdom Club discount cards. Those single tickets disappeared in 1982, to be replaced by full-day fixed-price passes, and I shudder to report that today's on-line discounted price for a one-day park pass for those aged 10 and up is a wallet-busting $80 per person.

After many hours of waiting in lines and whooshing through rides like the Matterhorn bobsleds (then the most "scary" of all the attractions), we headed back to the hotel for an afternoon dip in the pool, and at Mom's insistence, a one-hour nap. About 5 p.m., we would be off to dinner at nearby Knott's Berry Farm, where fried chicken with gravy and biscuits plus boysenberry pie a-la-mode were the staples. Like the Disneyland of that era, Knott's was also a much lower tech operation in 1961, featuring mule rides and panning for gold—I still have a tiny plastic bottle, the water long-gone, with a few teeny, tiny flecks rattling around. Then it was back to Disneyland at night—the absolute best time to be in the Park, with cooler weather, shorter lines, and the guarantee of a relaxing frozen treat at the now-gone Carnation Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street or the Tahitian Terrace in Adventureland. There were nightly fireworks shows, but these were nothing like the spectacular events that were to come with the Main Street Electrical Parade of the 1980s and 1990s.

By the second morning, Mom & Dad decided that room service for breakfast was the order of the day—and an easy way to avoid the local eateries and the crowds of families that had a few too many rambunctious kids. Over breakfast, the daily drill began—which new rides would we go on that day, and which rides did we all want to go on for a second time? The ticket book concept ensured that at some point, even the lackluster attractions that used an "A" ticket, such as the Main Street Horse Cars, would be visited by most families.

Armed with the Kodak 8-mm movie camera in Mom's oversized tote bag, plus Sea & Ski lotion, Life Savers, Wash & Dry ("the miracle moist towelette"), Kleenex, Band-Aids, and enough assorted other items to stock a small convenience store, we set forth to await the park's opening in the crowd along Main Street. Throughout the day, it was still line after line, but we never complained—it was Disneyland after all, and there was always something to see, even when waiting. By the end of that day, we were tiring somewhat, and a quick dinner at a nearby air-conditioned restaurant was just fine with everyone.

Finally, on the last day there, it seemed that every kid went into a wild buying frenzy of souvenir items from the shops on Main Street, and I was no exception. I still have a lapel pin, and I occasionally drink my morning coffee from a Donald Duck mug with my name on it. Best of all, there was the leather beaded belt with ADVENTURELAND spelled out across the back, which will be very handy once again just as soon as I get back to having a 28" waist.

Cramming the car's trunk full of suitcases and a variety of shopping bags from our weeks on the road was no small task, and we began to resemble the Ricardos and the Mertzes packing their car for the trip from New York City to Los Angeles. Dad still favored Highway 101 over the Coast highway, and we were rewarded with cooler weather on our trip home than what we had on the way down. After endless games of Auto Bingo and family sing-a-longs (plus reading the Burma-Shave signs—then about to disappear into roadside history), we finally reached 19th Avenue for the last leg of the ride home.

Then for the next few years, it was back to our family standard vacation—Marin Town & Country Club, until Mom raised the idea of a return visit to Disneyland a few years later. Seems that she caught an episode of Wonderful World of Disney when she veered away from The Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday night, and apparently liked many of the new attractions that were being shown, so I didn't have to do any persuading that second time around.

We made our second visit in June of 1964 when Dad decided that it was high time for a family train ride. On the Sunday morning of our departure, Grandma and Aunt Margaret picked us up at home and dropped us off bright and early at the old Southern Pacific station at 3rd & Townsend (an intersection and a neighborhood that is barely recognizable to anyone who has not seen it in the last five years or so. For a present day look at the same intersection, Google "747-3rd Street, San Francisco", and then scroll slightly left for today's view up 3rd Street at that spot.).


Submarine ride at Disneyland -

Onto the Coast Daylight, and we were off—breakfast in the dining car in San Mateo County, lunch somewhere deep in the Central Valley, and dinner just before arriving at Union Station in Los Angeles. This was still the era of white linen service, heavy silver utensils and thick china plates with the railroad's logo emblazoned at the top. I must say that Dad was right—47 years later, I still relish the entire day that we spent zipping southward on those steel rails that Arlo Guthrie would sing about several years later.

That year, we stayed at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, and had dinner with a couple of Dad's cousins whom we had never met before. It was my first lesson in genealogy, which led to a lifelong fascination with the subject. We also rode on the old Angel's Flight cable car that climbed one of the downtown hills, explored Olvera Street and the Farmer's Market, and visited Graumann's Chinese Theater. (Mom apparently didn't approve of whatever they were showing at the time, and it was years later, traveling on my own, that I had the pleasure of experiencing the film Titanic on that enormous screen at Grauman's—with such a great sound system that you could literally feel that magnificent ship go down.) Then after a few days, it was off to Anaheim, with a list of favorite attractions firmly in hand.

By that year, Disneyland had expanded its offerings to include the Enchanted Tiki Room, Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, Haunted Mansion, and Flying Saucers—round pods that, filled with one child, floated on a field of pressurized air (but only for a year or so before they disappeared). The Skyway was still running then, with new rectangular rather than round baskets (now, sadly, it is a feature that has been discontinued). Along with the Monorail, I began to think that Mr. Disney had mastered the whole idea of transportation better than San Francisco's MUNI—and I hold that opinion even more strongly today.

Future attractions like General Electric's Carousel of Progress, Monsanto's Adventure Thru Inner Space, and the People Mover were all added later. My personal all-time favorite, Pirates of the Caribbean, was still a bit of pixie dust in Mr. Disney's imagination at that time, and the blockbuster draws like today's Star Tours, 'Toon Town, and Disney's California Adventure were yet to be dreamed.

Knott's, too, had expanded somewhat by 1964, but the big thrill was taking one of the new public tours up at Universal Studios. Far smaller than today's rendition, the tour involved simply boarding a tram and being given a glimpse into a Hollywood backlot and soundstages. The visit was quite an eye-opener for this 12-year old who could never again attend a movie or watch TV without declaring with a voice of authority, "I know how they did that…" at every scene of a bloody bar room brawl, collapsing bridge, rock avalanche, parting waters, or fiery inferno. The sets from the infamous Bates Motel, the Leave It to Beaver House, streets of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, and Quentin McHale's PT-73 were all designed to involve family members of every age, and Universal did the job very well.

Too soon to imagine, it was back on the train for the ride home to San Francisco. Leaving downtown L.A. in the morning, then racing through a sun-baked Central Valley at mid-day, we were finishing up our dinner on the outskirts of San Jose, and about to return home to a classic foggy summer evening in the Parkside.

For me, though, the travel bug had bitten, and after just a few more years, I was off on adventures of my own—travels that would eventually take me far beyond our beloved Outside Lands.


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Page launched 4 September 2011.