IF, LIKE Jeff Reitz and Tonya Mickesh, you go to Disneyland often—very often—you know that asking for a roast beef melt made without horseradish, as opposed to a roast beef melt with horseradish removed after the fact, will require a ten-minute wait at the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café. You know that, if conditions are right, you may ride in the wheelhouse of the Mark Twain Riverboat and help steer. You know that if you want to see records of the number of times you’ve entered the park you must visit Disneyland City Hall. Because you do want to see those records.
“Sometimes it’s fun to pull something out of your pocket,” Reitz told me. “It was the two of us and one of our other friends one day, and I’m like, ‘What you do you guys wanna do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Okay. I’ll pick the first attraction, and then you guys get to pick.’ I said, ‘Follow me,’ and I led them right through the castle, and there’s a walkthrough in the castle, it’s a diorama-type setting of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and they’re like, ‘Hold on a second, this isn’t a ride.’ I said, ‘It’s an attraction.’ And it is. Most of the rides here in Disneyland are attractions. There are only two actual rides. Like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
That is something else you know.
Reitz and Mickesh are friends, not a couple, who go to Disneyland every day. They do it because, at the end of 2011, both received holiday gifts of a $649 annual pass to the park, and both had no job. Mickesh had worked for 18 years at a Santa Ana-based company called Financial Statement Services, Inc. until she was let go in the late spring. As the months of unemployment dragged on, Mickesh grew despondent. Then she shared an idea with Reitz: resolve to go to Disneyland each day of 2012. That way, life, preferably in the form of a job, would be sure to get in the way of the plan. “You know how when you go to a restaurant and you order a meal, and it doesn’t come and doesn’t come?” she explained to me. “But you get up and go to the bathroom, and it comes.”
It worked. In April of this year, she found a full-time job as an assistant operations manager at Dekra-Lite, a design firm specializing in Christmas light decorations, and, occasionally, Halloween. It pays less than her old job did, but it covers basic expenses. Now, in order to stay faithful to her daily-Disney pledge, she drives 14 miles from her house in Lake Forest to Dekra-Lite in Santa Ana, 10 miles from Dekra-Lite to Disneyland in Anaheim, and 15 miles from Disneyland back home. Reitz, for his part, has been less lucky with employment; he gets by on temp gigs. They help cover the child support payments he must make for his teenage daughter in Alaska, where he was stationed as an Air Force firefighter in the 1990s.
A few weeks ago, I drove down from Los Angeles to Anaheim to meet Reitz and Mickesh in their natural habitat. Reitz, a fortyish fellow with wireless frames, waited for me to pay $87 to get in and took out his smartphone. He was wearing a tan hat and a black t-shirt with a picture of Mickey silhouetted in front of the moon. “So, okay, at $649, divide that by 366 visits, brings it down to a $1.77 a day,” he said, showing me the results. “Or, if you turn that around, do 366 visits times $140 for Park Hopper and parking each day, it’s $51,240.” I agreed that an annual pass would be more economical for the 366-day-a-year visitor.
We strolled down Main Street past storefronts and cafés and the Disneyland All-American College Band marching and practicing. “This is the heart,” Mickesh told me. She wore a nondescript maroon sweatshirt jacket over a gray shirt, a combination that made her nails—done in French-manicure style, with the white tips accented by a tiny dollop of blue—stand out. “This is where Walt would come every morning and watch the guests come into the park.”
I purchased a round of sandwiches at the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café, a Mary Poppins-themed eatery. For Reitz and Mickesh, who knew they wanted nonhorseradish roast beef melts, this was a minor extravagance. Generally, they eat modestly. “The kid’s meals are exceptional values, and they’re actually really filling,” Mickesh said. Often, they bring breakfast sandwiches from home and find a dining spot in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, where they can watch the crowds coming in. When it’s just the two of them, they’ll talk about things like scuba diving (they met while doing it off the coast of Catalina), job searching, and, of course, Disney.
Mickesh told me that coming to the park got easier after the first hundred days. Sometimes, she just comes to relax and ride the Disneyland Railroad around the park, and if you ask and there’s space, you can ride in the locomotive with the engineer. “We talk to people in line,” she said. “We find other things to look at. We’ve spent hours watching baby ducks.”
Because what they’ve done is weird, Reitz and Mickesh have gotten international press attention, which makes things weirder. Online comments in response have ranged from supportive to condemnatory (often “Why don’t you look for a job?” even though Mickesh is now full-time employed), but, either way, the idea of fighting unemployment with Disneyland touches on something visceral. Anyone who has suffered a bout of joblessness knows that one of its effects is to spoil leisure. Absent work, play loses its meaning. The bold stroke of Mickesh and Reitz was to forbid the bad from spoiling the good, to enjoy play even without work. Going to Disneyland is, sometimes, a way to persevere.
As the clock approached nine, Mickesh got up to go home. She’s looking for a housemate because being unemployed for eleven months ate through her savings, and she has a mortgage and maintenance payment of about $1,600 a month for a three-bedroom home in Lake Forest that she bought in the late ’90s.
Reitz, who likes to stay for the fireworks, and sometimes until the park shuts down, showed me around some more. We strolled by the Enchanted Tiki Room and wandered through Adventureland. The Haunted Mansion had no line, so we walked in. As we waited in the Portrait Gallery, not long before a voice from above broke in to say, “Welcome, foolish mortals,” I asked Reitz about dealing with the bad days. What about when he’s feeling dejected? “I might go and sit on one of the benches somewhere, just relax, look at the sights, stay by myself a little more, not talk to people,” Reitz said. “Then I’ll get into my photography, find different things to take pictures of, and that sometimes can do it.” Reitz showed me a smartphone picture of a flamingo lawn ornament he’d snapped in one of the gift shops. “Every time I take a look at it, it puts a smile on my face,” he said.
Outside, the water show Fantasmic! was underway, with animation projected onto clouds of fog. I asked Reitz if he’d ever taken his daughter to Disneyland, and he said he had, but changed the subject. We were nearing the Matterhorn, Reitz’s favorite attraction. “My mom talks about how I used to go on this, because back when we were kids, they didn’t have those height restrictions,” he said. “So I’d take my blankie and go on the ride with them.” Soon, we were boarding the Matterhorn’s bobsled-like cars. We swooshed through the mountains in seconds. It was a good ride.
I was tired by now, with a drive ahead, so Reitz walked me out of the park and pointed me toward the Buzz Lightyear buses that would take me back to my car. Reitz said he was going to stick around until closing time, maybe meet up with some friends. We shook hands, and I headed out to get on with reality, and Reitz back in to escape it for a little longer.
T.A. Frank is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.