The thought of going to Disneyland and standing in 2 hour lines behind grouchy children right now, in the dead heat of summer, might not sound like your cup of tea (hopefully it’s ice-cold tea). But I have been daydreaming about a trip to Disneyland a little later in the year, when it’s cooler, not so crowded, and the Nightmare Before Christmas theme has taken effect at the Haunted Mansion. So I’ve been looking forward to the annual Rock Around the Park event, when hundreds of rockabillies and psychobillies liven up the landscape with their retro style and flair. Book your calendars now for Sunday, November 3rd, to join in the fun.
One might not automatically associate rockabillies and psychobillies with Mickey Mouse’s Kingdom, but it actually makes quite a lot of sense. As the organizer of the event pointed out to me, Disneyland opened in 1955 and therefore represents a time that rockabillies and psychobillies are invested and interested in. The mid-century vibe that the park still exudes appeals to the members of the scene today. But I can’t help but think that when Disneyland opened its doors, it stood for just about the exact opposite of everything that the budding rockabilly scene embodied. In 1955, a twenty-year-old Elvis Presley was popularizing his fusion of R&B and hillbilly while shocking conservative audiences with his gyrating pelvis and his wet-your-underpants voice and lyrics. Teens were boppin’ to Bill Haley’s jump blues-based rock’n’roll hits like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and “Rock Around the Clock,” and they were causing riots at movies like Blackboard Jungle. And – horror of horrors – black and white teenagers were breaking down the ropes that separated them to dance with each other as they rocked and rolled to the thrilling new music. In the midst of this cultural revolution, Disneyland opened its idyllic grounds, an oasis for family values and wholesome entertainment. And so I love the idea of Disneyland being taken over by the people who carry on the legacy of that rebellious spirit of the mid-1950s rock’n’roll revolution.
Regardless of this little bit of irony, I am, like most rockabilly and psychobilly fans, a sucker for the mid-century history and atmosphere of Disneyland. Plus, there’s hardly a psychobilly I know who doesn’t love Nightmare Before Christmas, the most alternative of all the Disney movies and the only one that I think we identify with as society’s misfits. And there’s even a little bit of musical entertainment that rockabillies enjoy, as Billy Hill and the Hillbillies entertain with their boot-stompin' country-and-bluegrass show. One final random connection between rockabilly and Disneyland: the official theme song of Disney’s animated TV show House of Mouse was composed and performed by neo-rockabilly hero Brian Setzer.
I got a chance to talk to the organizer to see what’s in store for this year’s event, which will be the sixth annual Rock Around the Park.
What was your motivation for starting this event?
First of all, I myself am a rockabilly fan and I’ve always loved Disneyland. I was at Disneyland one day and thought it would be really cool to have a car show at Disneyland. Obviously Disneyland isn’t going to let us bring a bunch of cars into the park and so my original idea morphed into “let’s have a cool family day for rockabillies at Disneyland.” You only see most of your rockabilly friends when they’re drunk in a dark bar so I wanted to get people out into the sunlight and host an event where people can bring their kids.
Tell me a little about what happens during Rock Around the Park.
There are group events throughout the day where people can meet up and do things together (see the schedule on the website). And throughout the day I send out alerts on Twitter with clues about where to find me to get prizes that are donated by different companies. I feel like it’s a good balance of events for people to come together for and also free time for people to do what they want in the park, especially for those who don’t get to go Disneyland a lot.
And we can caravan together to Disneyland right?
There’s a mini car show where people meet up in the morning from 8 AM to 10 AM. It’s run by Los Valientes Car Club and there are trophies and prizes there for things like “earliest arrival” and “best of show.” Then people caravan over to Disneyland and the Disneyland employees in the parking structure have been really cool about letting us all park together.
What’s one of the most enjoyable things about organizing this event?
I like watching everyone have a good time. That’s my reward for all the work I put into it – to see them out there having a fun day out.
What type of preparation goes into planning this event?
It’s really a labor of love. We put a lot of work into finding a sponsor and donations for the prizes and gift certificates we give out throughout the day. This year the sponsor is Monkeys to Go. I’m grateful for all the people that help out with the artwork, flyers, printing, photos, promotion, and the car show. When all’s said and done, I just want people to come out and have a good time!
Do you get weird looks from people at Disneyland who are wondering what’s going on?
People always ask “what you are all dressed up for?” And Disneyland caught on pretty quick to what we were doing each year and they put up notices to tell their employees that it is happening. So the ticket takers will sometimes say, “Have a good Rock Around the Park Day!” Also, one of the events we do is to meet up at the Billy Hill and the Hillbillies performance. Once they started to expect us, they started to tailor their show for us, like by adding a song in they don’t normally do, and making references to us during their show. It’s cool that they have started to recognize us and have fun with us being there.
Anything new this year that participants can look forward to that hasn’t happened in the past?
I try to change it up every year a little bit at least. Usually after the group photo, everyone goes to a ride together. This year, instead, we’re all going to the Mark Twain Riverboat. There’s always one really big prize each year that changes – one year it was a guitar, another year it was a Sirius radio with a 3 month subscription – so we’ll see what it’ll be this year…
Do you have any goals or plans for the future?
I’m pretty happy with how it is now and I want to keep doing it here, but I would also love to expand to another park. People have asked, “When are you going to do this at Disney World?” So I’d really like to try to do this same thing in Florida.
Can people use their annual passes to get in to Rock Around the Park?
I moved the date to an earlier weekend this year just so that we could have the event on a day when most annual passes weren’t blacked out. The Premium, Deluxe, and Southern California Annual Passes can be used to gain admission.
Do you get a diverse crowd of rockabilly and psychobilly fans?
I’d say it’s a 60/40 split with just slightly more rockabillies than psychobillies. What’s cool is that there is also a range of ages, from teenagers that come on their own, on up to people in their sixties. And there are also lots of families with little kids.
What’s one of the funniest things that’s ever happened at a RATP event?
Probably one of the most fun memories I have was the first time when Billy Hill and the Hillbillies recognized us in the crowd and started personalizing the show for us. We weren’t expecting them to say anything about us, so that was fun and caught people off guard.
So if you’ve been craving a trip back to the Magic Kingdom, plan to be there for Rock Around the Park. Check out the website for the skinny on the pre-event (usually held at Juke Joint the night before), the morning car show and caravan, and the meet-ups during the event. Make sure you dress to the nines so that people know you’re one of the cool Rock Around the Park guests. Just remember to factor in how you’re going to wear those Mickey ears over the hair-do you spend an hour fixing up!