The relationship began with infatuation. Our first, brief encounter lasted only a few days but I was totally smitten. She was exciting and wonderful and new. As I got older, it was only the excitement I craved, but what she had to offer wasn’t enough. Somehow she was too tame. I became jaded about her, noticing how much was only artifice. Her in-authenticity was galling. I finally wrote her off. I was done, our relationship was through. She just didn’t thrill me any more. In fact, she embodied everything that I thought was stale and wasteful and avaricious about “traditional values.” But now, older and hopefully wiser and not expecting her to be everything, I’m taking another look at our relationship.
I am talking, of course, about Disney World.
Less than two years after Disney opened their Florida theme park, my family made a pilgrimage. For my fifth-grade self, it was a rush of images and experiences – The first palm trees we saw in Florida! There’s a monorail track running through our hotel! Topiary Disney characters! Shaking hands with Mickey Mouse! Fireworks! Parades! Tasting Lasagna for the first time! The Jungle Cruise!
After spending a fortune to get us from Virginia to Florida and back in the summer of 1973, my dad was transferred to Florida the following summer and we moved just a couple of hours from the park. I’m sure my dad appreciated the irony as he remembered how much he’d spent on train tickets and hotels.
For my sister and I, it meant Disney became an attainable family day-trip option, not a distant once-in-a-lifetime dream. We became familiar with the layout, and what rides to do right away (Space Mountain) and which ones had lines that kept moving even when the park was crowded (Haunted Mansion).
When I got old enough to drive, a sign I had really grown up was the first time I went to Disney World with my buddies. Yeah, it was Disney World, mostly for littler kids, but our parents felt it was safe enough to unleash us for the day.
No parents! We could avoid all the cheesy rides and focus on only the best. The plan was always to get to the front gates right at opening time, then sprint to Space Mountain. If you took the shortcut from Main Street through Tomorrowland Terrace without going all the way to the castle, you could get there before most people. We would get into the line at Space Mountain, hearts pounding from the run and from our discussion about all the people who had supposedly been decapitated on the ride, walk past the video of the astronaut saying “it was the closest thing to space flight I’ve experienced,” then enter the little spaceships and take a twisting, turning, jolting ride in the dark. Then we’d run back to the front and do it again and again, until the line got too long and it was on to other things.
Those Disney World trips were great, but even then I was noticing the plasticity of much of the place. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse came to embody for me that creeping cynicism – a big fake tree (300,000 plastic leaves!) with a fake treehouse with fake props from a fictional movie. Plus over 100 stairs to climb, always behind some older northeastern tourists looking at their peeling, sunburned backs all the way up . . . and down. And the man always had on Bermuda shorts with dress shoes and black socks.
But Grad Nite was a rite of passage. The park was open all night just for high school seniors. Security was tight – you had to be bussed in by your school, guys had to wear ties and girls had to wear “modest” dresses, and everyone was searched on the way in. But hanging at Disney at 3am listening to Kool and the Gang was indeed pretty kool. So was a busload of seniors singing “We don’t need no education . . .” to all the teacher-chaperons on the bus when Pink Floyd came on the radio. I still have my official Grad Nite picture, with my goofy smile, wearing a maroon button-down shirt with a big ol’ clip on tie. Oh, and a thick head of blow-dried dark hair.
It’s nice to remember that once I did have hair . . .
As a young adult, I still visited the Mouse with friends who came home with me from college, or when I’d visit home after I moved away. But the magic of the Magic Kingdom was fading, and my suspicions about capitalism were confirmed by the gift shops you were dumped into at the conclusion of every ride. And the constant entreaties to have your picture taken by a smiling “cast member” so you could buy it later. And the rule that you couldn’t bring in your own food and drink so they could charge outrageous prices for mass produced food. Visits to Disney in those days were sparse. I looked down my nose at co-workers and friends who spent vacations there.
Then I had kids of my own. With family still in Florida, we have been able to visit Disney over the years. I have watched my kids grow from denizens of Fantasyland into thrill-seeking teens following their father’s footsteps onto Space Mountain and beyond. Their joy has warmed my heart even as the Mouse has emptied my wallet. I have been grateful for all the memories. But there are those other memories . . .
There are the lines, the heat, especially the 4th of July that got so crowded they stopped letting people in. The effect of the lines and the heat on small children – and their parents – was often not pretty; the worst thing I ever heard a parent say to a child was in the now defunct Mickey Mouse House. As we waited in line on a sweltering summer late-afternoon, a mom screamed at her exhausted, fidgety, whiny, overstimulated toddler: “Jessica, if you don’ t stop I’m going to bury you alive!”
Right in Mickey’s front yard, I guess. I’m sure that was out of character; it was only something she would say at the end of a day at “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
And I’ve heard some of the horror stories from those who have been “Cast Members” (never “employees”) at Disney World. There are books about their less than magical experiences. Once, I was giving more money to the mouse at an EPCOT gift shop when the cashier yawned. She covered it up quick. “Don’t tell anybody. They’ll fire us if they catch us yawning in front of a guest.” (Always “guests,” never “customers.”) The Mouse can be a pretty exacting employer.
But . . . as my own children have required less supervision I’ve been able to appreciate something else about Disney World – the incredible logistics of the place. More than 48.5 million folks visited the big four Disney Parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios) last year. To move all those people around, to keep the place clean and welcoming, to staff parks that open early and don’t close until after midnight some nights has to take monumental planning and management.
Is it all to make money? Yes. But it is making money by selling the promise of happiness.
And maybe, now that I’m 51 and know there’s lots of unhappiness in the world, I can write that line without too much irony of my own. I can start to believe that offering happiness is really not such a bad thing.
I just spent three days at Disney World. My 16-year old daughter has been sick with a chronic illness for over a year, and I promised her I would take her anywhere in the US (lower 48) when she had a remission. I was hoping for the California Redwoods or some other place we hadn’t seen . . . she picked Disney World.
We had a blast. I gave in totally to the Mouse. “Disney’s Magical Express” picked us up at the airport and took us to our Disney hotel. Even the “bargain” property we stayed at met our needs. It was easy to get around the Disney property on the fleet of buses that come every 20 minutes bound for all of the parks, Downtown Disney, and other places to have fun and spend money.
I recaptured some of my youth, riding Space Mountain again. It was the first time I’d rode it with my daughter – we bought the picture. We visited three of the four parks (all but EPCOT) and were exhausted at the end of the three days. But we (at least I, I hope she) will remember this trip for a long, long time. Like I said, she’s 16 – how many more trips will she want to take with her dad?
The highlight was late on the second night. We were in the Magic Kingdom. The Electrical Parade was marching down Main Street, followed by another show. That, combined with most of the young children having gone back to their hotels combined to make Fantasyland a virtual ghost town. We rode all the “kiddy” rides together – Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Flying Dumbo, and even that happiest ride at the Happiest Place on Earth that I had once sworn never to endure again . . . It’s a Small World.
It was awesome! We were, yes, happy. Together.
Thank you Mouse.
I still struggle with some of the more craven elements of the Disney empire. I still cringe at some of the artifice. But . . . the parks were full each day, full of people not just from all over the US but from around the world. Huge groups of Brazilian and Argentinian youth were everywhere while we were there, chanting and clapping and showing their national pride. Even without those groups, it seemed a large percentage of the “guests” spoke Spanish as their first language. But there was no tension, no fretting about borders and language differences or race. Just lots of folks engaged in being, well, happy. Together.
Sure it’s temporary. But so are most things. (Here I’m resisting the urge to get theological because that’s not what this post is about, but you can probably guess where I could go.)
So I have made my peace with the Mouse. Like everything else in the big world, Disney World is far from perfect. But that’s okay.
I don’t know if it’s the Happiest Place on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be. It gave me the opportunity to feel, even for just a few hours, like the happiest dad on earth.