9/11 at Disneyland

By Anne Gagliano

Do you have a place where you simply love to go? A place where you lose yourself to reckless abandon, supreme joy, utter delight?  Maybe that place is Hawaii, or a rock concert, fishing with buddies, or even the firehouse. But you know what I’m talking about, a favorite getaway that you long for on dark days. A recluse, a harbor, a source of rejuvenation that restores your soul. A place of celebration. Everyone seems to have one; for me, that place is Disneyland.

I don’t know what it is about Disneyland that is “next level” for me. Perhaps it is my past associations; my grandparents lived nearby, and when we would visit, they’d take us there. My grandparents were a solid, happy part of my fractured childhood. They are long gone, but my memories of them are precious and most vivid at Disneyland. Or perhaps it is the current associations with my own children. We took them whenever we could possibly afford to do so, as it is a spendy place for a single-income firefighter family. My children grew to love it as much as I do; I guess my enthusiasm was contagious. Our family memories of trips are the stuff of legend, of heartfelt conversation, of our common vernacular. Or perhaps it is the sights and sounds of Disneyland itself, the rush of the rides, the delicious smells, the unique and tasty foods. It is a total sensory emersion into an innocent world of childish delights; perhaps that’s what I love most of all. Nothing bad can happen in Disneyland, good always wins, and evil is always conquered. The fairy tale.

In the real world, of course, this is not true. And no one knows this more than a firefighter family, particularly a firefighter spouse. I live with the threat of potential death every day that my beloved firefighter goes to work. And even on his off-duty days, he gets urgent calls from the firehouse demanding his immediate attention. It seems there is no escape–except, perhaps, at Disneyland.

A few weeks ago, my husband Mike was on the phone arranging a fire-teaching engagement, and in the midst of his conversation I heard the word “Anaheim.”  My ears perked up, Mike and I made eye contact across the room, and he and I both knew in that instant what I was thinking: Does this mean we’re going to Disneyland?  Yes, as a matter of fact, it did. It was short notice, but no matter. I’ll move mountains to arrange such a trip!  I didn’t really note the dates, as they were mostly out of our control. But it just so happened that we would be in Disneyland on 9/11, 15 years after one of the darkest days in American history. A day that is particularly tough for those of us who love a firefighter. And a scary day to be traveling to a known terrorist target. All fears aside, my “happy place” beckoned, and I couldn’t wait to go.

When I’m at Disneyland, I go a little “mad.”  I forget my normal reserve and even become a bit aggressive as I battle my way through the slow-moving crowds to get to the next ride. We have it down to a science, maximizing fast passes like pros. Our son Rick was able to join us there, and he can run like no other to get our many ventures perfectly synchronized. Our wait time in line is thus kept to a minimum. I was in “the zone,” the immersion into the fairy tale complete; the reality of firefighter death a dim and distant thought. So total was my escape that, after a few days, I no longer realized the calendar date. But that would soon change as the morning of 9/11 in Disneyland dawned.

I was in Downtown Disney, the shopping area outside the park, pursuing souvenirs and gearing up for the day when reality came crashing into my carefully crafted escape from it. A crowd of nearly 400 thoughtful, caring souls had gathered to march through Downtown Disney for the 1st Annual 9/11 Disney Walk. They came from across Southern California to commemorate the day, all on their own accord. The event was arranged by members of Main Street Fire Station 1955, a social group named after the Disneyland Fire Station. It was set up on social media using Facebook, billed as a way to honor the 343 firefighters and others who died that terrible day. “We just decided to do it,” said John Sarno, a firefighter from Sacramento who visits Disneyland several times a year. They had hoped to get 343, enough so that each could wear the name and picture of a fallen firefighter. And, wonderfully, they got more than enough. Sarno’s wife Leslee and others from the social group had special T-shirts made. Many purchased the shirts, and all proceeds went to a charity in New York that gives scholarships to families of the victims.

The march began as a woman in the crowd played on her trumpet a simple, humble, heart-stopping rendering of taps. Then, quietly, the nearly 400 moved outside of Downtown Disney, around the front of the Disneyland Hotel, south to Katella, east to Disneyland Drive, then north, entering back into Downtown Disney after rounding the Paradise Pier Hotel on their 2.5-mile trek. Quiet and respectful, unobtrusive yet powerful, they honored each and every fallen firefighter at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

I was stunned by this. Guilty, I felt remorse as I had forgotten in my mad dash of selfish delight what day it was. Despite the heightened security throughout our vacation, including armed visible police, metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and long lines of bag and stroller searches, I had managed to deny the threats of terrorism here in my most favorite getaway. The march brought this reality crashing back. Firefighters did, and still do, die. Die from fire, from cancer, from terrorist attacks, and now even at their own hands as the mounting pressures of this job cause many to crack under the strain.

I could hardly look at the T-shirts the marchers had designed. One glance, and a lump rose in my throat. On the back was a rendering of the Twin Towers and standing next to them was Mickey Mouse, head bowed in sorrow with his right (gloved) hand over his heart. Above this image was written, “1st Annual 9/11 Disney Walk,” and below it in signature Disney font it read, “15 Years Never Forgotten.”  And on the front of each shirt was pinned the smiling image of a fallen firefighter.

I felt a sudden defensive resentment at the intrusion into my “happy place.”  Resentment mixed with shame and tinged with sorrow. Why here, why now?  I tried to go on with my day in the park. We saw the shirts everywhere—Mike even took pictures. He was moved and appreciative and told the wearers so as he got permission to photograph them. I mumbled such words, too, but my heart was dark. Selfish. Guilty. Fighting to avoid pain on a day in my favorite place.

Then something wonderful happened. While flying at high velocity on “the wildest ride in the wilderness” (a.k.a. Big Thunder Mountain), it occurred to me that I didn’t have to feel guilty—guilty for celebrating life on this day. This is exactly what the fallen firefighters would have wanted me to do!  This is what they lived for, what they died for, The American Dream. The freedom to live, love, and pursue happiness. To build magical, imaginative places such as Disneyland where children are loved and cherished and their innocence protected. Osama Bin Laden in a rare interview once said, “You Americans love life. We love death. That is the big difference between us.”

American firefighters love life most of all; that is why they are willing to pay the ultimate price to preserve it. It was okay to enjoy my day at Disneyland on 9/11; in fact, it was possibly the very best way of all for me and my family to honor the fallen heroes, by celebrating and loving life.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 31 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.


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