Children, you have no idea what your parents endure to get you a little "Frozen."
Merchandise is scarce. Birthday parties with official tie-in decorations are nearly impossible to pull off. And the theme-park lines to meet Anna and Elsa, the sibling royals at the heart of the world's highest-ever-grossing animated movie, are long.
Very, very, very long.
I was dispatched to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, to stand in one of those very, very, very long lines — to observe the struggle, to witness the phenomenon, to figure out the why, as in, why do people do this to themselves?
To be honest, I didn't think I would see or learn much. I arrived at Disneyland on the Wednesday after Easter. Most area school children were back in the classroom, their spring breaks done. How much "Frozen" clamor could there be on a non-holiday, midweek morning?
As I walked from the parking lot (not crowded) to the entrance (not crowded), I had a plan: I'd zip through the Anna and Elsa line, and then get back in it and zip through it again. I would write about the time I beat the system, met Anna and Elsa multiple times and became the envy of all my 5-year-old friends.
Insert knowing laughter here.
"Anna and Elsa are most definitely the characters to meet..," Deborah Bowen, a professor of writing at the University of South Florida, and a Disney travel guru, told me via email the day before my visit. "When they were still located in the Norway pavilion in Epcot [at Walt Disney World in Florida] posted wait times got as high as six hours!"
Bowen had advised me to pack "boredom-busting" games, crackers, trail mix, nuts and dried fruit. So, I bought a tall Starbucks tea, and, to mess with the franchise gods (and catch up with my speed-reading 7-year-old), stuffed a library copy of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" in my backpack.
I passed through the admission turnstile at 9:03 a.m. The park had been open for three minutes. I unfolded my Disneyland map, consulted the day's itinerary insert and set off for Fantasyland. When I say I "set off," I mean I walked.
Let me repeat: I walked to Fantasyland.
Ah, but how I paid for that mistake.
Per my keen navigational skills, I had determined that Anna, the princess of Arendelle (voiced by Kristen Bell in the movie) and Elsa, the Snow Queen (voiced by Idina "Adele Dazeem" Menzel), were based just beyond Sleeping Beauty Castle, tucked in between the Pinocchio ride and the Village Haus restaurant.
I found the spot. I saw what seemed a smallish group of people queued up outside a fake-snow-topped roof. I looked up and saw a sign that said the Anna-and-Elsa wait from this point, the very point where I was standing, was 120 minutes.
I was unfazed.
While I'd imagined a no-hassle walk-up, I'd also been warned of a scene straight out of an airport terminal. Two hours wasn't so bad, I thought.
I asked the woman at the end of the line if she was indeed at the end of the line. It turned out that, no, she wasn't. She was at the end of the first part of the line. The actual end of the line was around the corner, in front of the oompah-pahing Village Haus. I left the snowy-roof area, took my proper place, and without a signpost for a guide, wondered how bad a mess I was in.
Heather, a Disneyland guide, approached the stragglers like me.
From where you're standing right now, Heather said, it's a four-and-a-half-hour wait.
Reinsert knowing laughter here.
I checked the time. It was 9:10 a.m. The park now had been open for all of 10 minutes. Or had it?
Was this one of those Disneyland days when people can buy early admission (Extra Magic Hour, it's called), I asked someone — maybe Heather, maybe one of the people in line next to me. I was dazed. I was confused. I was regretting not packing trail mix.
In any case, I was informed that, no, there had been no Extra Magic Hour admissions on this day. The park had indeed opened at 9 a.m. sharp.
So, how was it then that in just 10 minutes a line of DMV-dwarfing proportions had developed outside of Anna and Elsa's Royal Reception room?
"Everyone runs here," Heather said.
Me and my stupid walking.
From that point on, the morning played out like a version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief. There was denial. ("Maybe they just tell people that," somebody said of Heather's four-and-a-half-hour prediction.) There was bargaining. (A line-waiter would hold another line-waiter's place while the second line-waiter went off and did something exciting, like wait in a shorter line somewhere else.) There was mild depression. ("I knew it'd be bad," a man said, his voice trailing off, "but...") There was more-pronounced depression (as seen in the face of every passerby who was informed there were no Fastpass shortcuts). There was schadenfreude. ("Now, I look back," one person said as we inched forward, "and go, 'Suckers! Five-and-a-half hours!'")
There was, however, no anger.
The "Frozen" line might not have been the happiest place on Earth, but it was far from the most miserable.
Marissa Harris, from Oceanside, California, was in line, and cheerily so, for her daughter, who was marking her 4th birthday. Harris's two children, including her 2-year-old son, had seen "Frozen" at a special screening at her husband's military base. "The most expensive free movie ever," Harris would say of the experience.
Her daughter's interest in "Frozen" was piqued when she saw a Facebook picture of another girl meeting Anna and Elsa at Walt Disney World. (The characters made their debut on the theme-park circuit in November, around the time the Oscar-winning film was released in theaters.)
And so Harris and her family came to Disneyland, and set about to meet Anna and Elsa for themselves. The act of standing in line was something doable, unlike, say, acquiring a "Frozen" princess dress (lotsa luck on that one, parents said) or buying "Frozen" paper party plates for retail price (as opposed to relying on inflated auction bids or resorting to the arts-and-craftsy black market suppliers at Etsy).
Not everyone in line was there for their kids. There was, for instance, the decked-out-in-Disney couple who were marking their first wedding anniversary. There was, for another instance, me.
While I don't know anyone who likes to stand in line, I especially don't like to do so. Even as a kid in the 1980s, I favored the PeopleMover above all Disneyland rides because I could get on and off over and over again. (The then-downtrodden Mission to Mars was another favorite for that reason.)
I wondered if I could or would stand in line for four-and-a-half hours so my son could meet two bewigged actors. And then I realized what I'd do: I'd sell him on getting face time with the current PeopleMover of Disneyland characters, Merida.
At about 10 a.m., I asked my fellow line-waiters to hold my spot so I could run — note, run — across Fantasyland to the It's a Small World attraction where the star from "Brave" was holding court. I'd heard that Anna-and-Elsa mania was siphoning off visitors from the other park characters.
"The other princesses are pissed," one visitor from the outside Disneyland world remarked as she stopped by our "Frozen" line.
And so I had to see for myself, and so I did: While the wait to meet "Frozen" royalty would take all morning, and perhaps stretch into the afternoon, the wait to meet Merida was five minutes.
Sadly, I did not see Merida, five-minute wait or no. I was told by another park patron that she was out feeding her horses, or hiding her head in shame or something.
Merida need not take her lack of buzz personally. On this day, the wait time to meet Cinderella at Royal Hall was 30 minutes; the same went for Captain America at the Marvel-ized Innoventions in Tomorrowland. Thor, also at Innoventions, was slightly more popular — I was told it would take 45 minutes to come face to armored plate with the hero.
On the whole, standing in the Anna-and-Elsa line was good for me, and not just because I now laugh at 45-minute wait times. (God of Thunder, please.) I met nice people. I had lots — and lots — of time to ponder my parental skills and patience. I got through a couple chapters of "Harry Potter." And I got no further in truly understanding why "Frozen" has grossed $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office, incited a run at the sales register and spawned four-and-a-half-hour lines at theme parks.
It's the songs, I heard. It's the sisters, I heard. It's the magic, I heard. The fact is, the parents of "Frozen"-enchanted children don't really know, and Disney can't really know, either, otherwise it'd do the same on every film, and with every property, and Merida wouldn't have time to feed her horses on a Wednesday morning.
And so I now accept "Frozen" is massively popular because it is, just as I came to accept that if I stay put, and placed one foot in front of the other, I'd get to the front of the line. And I did. And it only took three hours. And I'm not going to put quote marks around the word only because once you've steeled yourself for a four-and-a-half hour wait, three hours feels like a bargain. (You should've seen the priceless looks on their faces — the grown-ups', not the little kids'.)
My inner sense of accomplishment, you have no idea what I endured to get you a little "Frozen."
P.S.: I couldn't end this story without ending it with me inside the Royal Reception room. Any self-consciousness I might have felt once about being there as a middle-aged person sans a mouse-ear hat or a child had long ago disappeared. I did my time; I was going to get my fair share.
To their credit, Anna and Elsa didn't make me feel creepy when I asked for their autographs. (Then again, I lied and said they were for my 9-year-old niece.)
As we posed for pictures (yes, I wanted pictures, too), I asked the "Frozen" pair how they thought the other Disney princesses were dealing with not being the center of theme-park attention.
"They probably think it's awesome," Elsa told me. "They get to spend more time with guests."
Oh, Merida. Can't you see? You are the lucky one.