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Why is the world's first theme park still the world's best-loved theme park?

Perhaps because at Disneyland you can meet the characters from your favorite stories. At Disneyland, you can pretend to be part of the story.Any day, all over the park, you can see people pretending. They are wearing pointed princess caps with flowing ribbons. Pirate plumes. Duck hats.

Sherry Modl and Carol Bergen chose identical Minnie ears. In real life they are responsible adults in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. At Disneyland, though, they are free. They can be as giddy as girl mice in a cartoon.

Dennis Rowe couldn't talk his little boy into a wearing a cap. But Rowe, of Castor Valley, Calif., was undaunted. He just rolled up his sleeves - to reveal the tattoos on his arms - and bought himself a hat like Captain Hook's.

He wasn't the oldest nor was he the youngest pirate in the park.

He didn't feel conspicuous at all. He was surrounded by people wearing hats, humming theme songs, riding the rides and being transported to one adventure after another.

Other amusement parks have themes, too. And they may even have bigger roller coasters than Disneyland - or scarier haunted houses or more water rides. But they don't have Mickey Mouse.

Mickey, Peter Pan, Snow White. These characters are classic, says John McClintock, Disney publicist. They are the stuff of bedtime stories and matinee movies. Generations of children have pretended to be part of their adventures.

Only the classic characters endure, McClintock explains.

So when Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner wanted a log flume ride, the creative minds at Disney Imagineering had no doubt about what was necessary. There had to be a story and characters - and both had to be classic.

Tony Baxter, an "imagineer," imagined the new ride one day on his way to work.

"I was on the Santa Ana freeway," he recalls. He was on that freeway for two hours every day, actually, driving to work at the Imagineering studios in Burbank. In the car, Baxter found the solitude to do his best thinking.

The plot of the Splash Mountain log ride occurred to him, he says, because he spent the summers of his youth working at Disneyland. "When you grow up in the park you have the story background for adventures to happen."

Baxter's background also includes his boyhood hobby of designing marble chutes and a college major in theater.

Baxter says he has always been drawn to the world Joel Chandler Harris created in the Uncle Remus stories, and he finds "Song of the South," the 1946 cartoon based on those stories, to be the best of Disney animation.

So there he was, sitting in a car in the smog on the freeway, only in his mind Baxter was in the Laughing Place, surrounded by 100 animated critters. . . .

He was lazing down a river on a log, feeling for all the world like a fat and sassy Brer Rabbit. And geese and bullfrogs, turtles and possums were singing to him, "How do you do, everybody's happy, great day sure as you're born."

Everything was satisfactual for a time - until Brer Fox entered the scene.

First Baxter heard a mamma rabbit warning her babies about Brer Fox. Her voice was shrill, panicky. At once, the dread name was on everyone's lips. The music changed and so did the mood of the trip. Suspense.

He floated around the bend and saw Brer Rabbit _ strung up, about to be roasted by Brer Fox. He was bound. Not gagged though, the rabbit was talking for his life. Vultures loomed.

Suddenly the log was going up, up, up. And then - terror! terror! - he was poised on the edge of the world. Hurtling down. Down. Down.

To the safety of the briar patch. Splash-sh-sh-sh.

Whew. Now the animals sang "zip a dee doo dah," and he felt like joining in. He'd survived. There was a Hollywood yellow glow in the sky _ and in his heart.

Baxter turned his daydream into a ride.

Splash Mountain was five years in the making. It opened this summer to huge crowds and is still the park's most popular ride, despite being shut down regularly so bugs in the computer switching system can be worked out.

Meanwhile, Tony Baxter has been made producer of Euro-Disneyland outside of Paris and travels by plane more than freeway. His new duties call for a car phone; these days, even when he is stuck in traffic, business keeps him too busy for daydreaming.

At Disneyland, on a sunny fall day, a young couple with French accents sit on a bench, talking to their son. The boy looks to be about 3 years old and has the dazed expression of someone who just woke up from a nap.

"We are in America," they say to him. "This is America." "No," he says, firmly. "Not America."

"America," they repeat. "Disneyland. California. North America."

"No. NO. NO!"

Each side of the argument sounds desperate. The parents want their child to know and remember this lovely vacation. He has no words to explain his disbelief.

He looks around. To his left are the whirling teacups of Alice in Wonderland. To the right a towering snow-covered mountain. Elephants fly over his head. Winnie-the-Pooh and Eeyore stroll down the street toward him.

America? No. This is a storybook. Or maybe a movie.

He has somehow been set down in the middle of a fantasy, and he is smart enough to know it. "Not America," he says again, daring them to argue. They don't. Instead they buy him some Mickey Mouse ears. A memento of Disneyland.

Susan Lyman-Whitney and Gary McKellar were among a group of Deseret News staff members invited to Disneyland to preview Splash Mountain.