My love of Disney began on a Sunday night. Sometime in the 70’s. As Sunday nights were meant for “The Wonderful World of Disney”. I can’t say that any one program (usually a Disney movie) had a profound impact on me. But what I do remember … are the feelings.
Of excitement. Of happiness. Of joy. Of wonder. Of magic.
I have a vague recollection of wanting to visit Disneyland; though, as a young child, you might have guessed I didn’t really have a voice in vacation planning. You might also imagine my excitement, when in 1978, my parents finally decided it was time to visit Walt Disney World (WDW) in Orlando, Florida.
We journeyed by car, making stops along the way, to see this roadside attraction (in my opinion, distractions because it only delayed our impending arrival at WDW) or have lunch at that roadside park (food? who can eat at a time like this???). The anticipation building in my 13-year old heart with every mile.
We were going to Disney World!
We stayed in a Best Western (because we always stayed in Best Westerns on family vacations). Certainly not one of the two existing on-site resorts, Disney’s Contemporary Resort or Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Those were reserved for the rich and/or famous, or so I was led to believe. My father wasn’t German, but he had penny-pinching down to an artform. Still does, actually.
Our arrival in Orlando, if not on-site, then at least within the same vicinity as WDW, cause for celebration.
Two days. One park. (Magic Kingdom, because that was Walt Disney World at the time.)
|Cinderella's Castle circa 1978|
I remember there were no organized queues to see the characters; it was simply a free-for-all, which I gladly got in the middle of while my parents sat atop the train station.
|Yes, that's me! The one in the red/blue/green striped shirt!|
I remember the parades. And how I fell in love with “Baroque Hoedown”, the infectious theme music for The Main Street Electrical Parade.
|Photo credit: my mom|
|Yes, this was taken in 1978 too!|
Fast forward 15 years. The Wonderful World of Disney has ended its run on TV. And my five-year old son is proving to be quite the fan of Disney’s animated movies. Evan’s first movie (in a theater)? The Jungle Book. And even though we left halfway through (he needed a nap – bad timing on my part), I think he was officially bitten by the Disney bug. At the ripe young age of 2.
When VHS was introduced, there were countless hours spent watching Disney movies. The Lion King, Aladdin and Toy Story, among the favorites. (So you can imagine our excitement when this year, all three will be in theaters again!)
Five years later. And I’m taking my 10-year old son for his first visit to “The World”. First and foremost, I must share with him, the enchantment that is seeing Cinderella’s castle for the first time. I think he was as speechless as I was.
There it was. The joy. The wonder. The magic.
And thus began a tradition which we continue to this day: Magic Kingdom and seeing the castle is always the first thing on our “to do” list when at WDW.
We made it through all four parks in four days. We sought and found as many characters as possible, taking pictures and filling Evan’s autograph book.
It was during this trip that we had a quite unexpected one-on-one interaction with both Minnie & Mickey. With no one else around.
It was early in the morning in Animal Kingdom. We were walking down a path to a part of the park we later found out was closed (which explains why no one else was around!). When who walks out, but the big cheese himself, along with his best girl. They run to Evan and smother him in hugs. I’m left standing there, slack-jawed, fumbling with my bag, and I missed the photo op (at least of the hug). It was our favorite memory of the trip.
Eager to plan our next trip, I started visiting Disney-related message boards.
I found a trip report (i.e., a trip diary, of sorts) by one Kevin Stringer from the U.K. Kevin’s writing style was detailed and humorous. To the point that my office mates probably thought me crazy as I giggled my way through his tales of traversing the Disney parks over the course of my lunch hour.
I outreached Kevin, sharing my appreciation for his writing style and peppering him with no less than 552 questions about planning a Disney vacation.
And thus began a friendship which now spans over 20 years (and still counting).
Visiting various Disney message boards became habit. I soaked up all the info I could on how to plan the perfect Walt Disney World vacation. Or as perfect as one could be.
And I gained more “Disney Friends”. A group of people from different backgrounds and from all over the world. Who know the value of Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust.
|Postcards from Mickey|
The cast members at our resort (our on-site resort, I might add) got in on the fun too, and had a welcome letter made out to Evan in Mickey’s “own handwriting”, welcoming him and wishing him a magical stay.
I learned the “language of Disney”. Commonly-used acronyms amongst Disney-philes that, if you are lucky enough to be one, you will recognize:
MK = Magic Kingdom
AK = Animal Kingdom
ToT = Tower of Terror
BTMRR = Big Thunder Mountain RailroadSSE = Spaceship Earth (that’s the big, round, golf-ball looking thing in Epcot)
Now you try: IaSW = ???
It was from these boards (and from corresponding with Kevin) that I discovered there’s so much more to WDW than just the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom).
There are water parks. And mini-golf. And big-kid golf. And a petting zoo. And trails to ride on horseback. And shopping. And water mice (mini speed boats you can take out on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon). And fishing. And resort hopping (visit the different resorts to find out where you might like to stay next); and for the over-21 crowd, there’s bar-hopping and bar-hopping among the resorts! And a night-time district which includes a rollicking piano bar.
And then there are the details. Because no one does detail the way Disney does detail. It’s these little things that keep us coming back time and again.
The way that the characters stay in character. From Tigger hopping up and down. To Pooh signing his name in the way that Pooh does. To Cruella Deville never smiling. To Cinderella’s step-sisters fawning over the men and trying to reel them in; on one trip, as we passed the evil step-sisters, one of them called out to Evan to try and get his attention, motioning to him, the universal “call me” sign as we walked past.
The leaf imprints in the concrete sidewalks in Animal Kingdom. The cobwebs (reportedly) blown into The Haunted Mansion. The costuming of the cast members and why you’ll never see a cowboy-clad street vendor walking through, say, Tomorrowland; the utilidors, underground tunnels, make this possible. The hidden Mickeys placed throughout the parks; different items, such as 3 plates, placed in the shape of a Mickey-head. Prayer flags hung around the queue area for Expedition Everest. And the “drainage ditch” that runs through the middle of the walkways in Liberty Square, representing how sewage was drained in the 1700’s. Cool stuff like that!
And the food! Or more importantly, the snacks! I mean … who doesn’t like a chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream in the shape of a Mickey-head? Or a Mickey-head shaped rice krispie treat (my personal favorite)? And what’s better on a steamy Florida afternoon, than a deliciously sweet Dole Whip (pineapple soft serve)? I’ll tell you what’s better: a dole-whip margarita!
And the attractions. I don’t even know where to begin with this one.
Of course, you have the classics, the ones designed by Walt and which can mostly be found in Fantasyland (what some call “the kiddie rides”). But no one can put you in the middle of a storybook, a la Peter Pan (something else I recall from my first visit and which is a must-do on every trip) the way Disney can. Or allow you to stamp your passport 11 times in the span of an afternoon. Or put you on the back of a banshee, gliding through the floating mountains of Pandora. Or send you screaming through the “streets of Los Angeles” with Aerosmith blaring on the radio; a favorite since it opened, mine and Evan’s record for riding Rock-n-Rollercoaster in one trip: 15.
Or qualifying for American Idol. Evan didn’t qualify, but he did perform on stage. Too bad they typecast this Texas boy and had him sing “Achy Breaky Heart” - not exactly his niche.
In 2001, Kevin and I decided it was time to meet. It was the first of many WDW vacations that our families would take together. And with each trip, we’ve had a rotating group of Disney Friends, a cast of characters who’ve joined our merry band whilst touring the parks. People who “get it”, this fascination (obsession?) that we have with the Disney Parks.
|Look at how little the kids were! (2001 - top left)|
Keith took me to the motherland, the land that Walt built, the place where it all began, aka Disneyland, in 2013. I was so excited to walk in Walt’s footsteps. To experience so many of the attractions that Walt himself had had a hand in creating and bringing first to the 1964 World’s Fair and then, to the park.
It was everything I thought it would be. And more.
Given that I was somewhat of a (self-proclaimed) Disney World aficionado, I was quite surprised to see that one can walk a mere 100 yards between the two parks on the west coast (versus spending 20 minutes or more on a bus to traverse the more than 10,000 square miles of the park on the east coast). What’s more, our hotel bordered one of the parks and had its own entrance into said park! You can’t get much closer to the magic than that!
And I was not emotionally prepared. As we stood in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at the end of the day. Waiting for the fireworks show to begin, the castle aglow. And as the night sky lit up behind the castle in only the most spectacular of ways that Disney can do, there came from the speakers, Walt’s voice, Walt’s words:
“To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past … and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
I stood. Gob-smacked. Tears in my eyes. And the biggest smile on my face. My heart filled with those old familiar feelings: happiness, joy, wonder, magic.
There is a bench that sits near the hub (or rather once sat, I think it’s gone), along the walkway between the castle courtyard and Adventureland, where we spend our last few moments. Taking it all in. Sitting silently and staring at the castle. Yet sharing this moment. Together.
And then we make the long walk down Main Street, USA. Stopping several times to look back at the castle. The sounds of the barbershop quartet singing in the background. The Mickey balloons blowing in the wind. The smell of Disney popcorn emanating from the street vendors’ carts. And the characters standing in Main Street plaza, with children and their parents, anxiously awaiting a picture. And an autograph.
And we say “See ‘Ya Real Soon”.
And by “real soon”, I mean, in just a few months.
Why yes, I AM going to Walt Disney World again. Trip number 19 and my 13th trip to WDW is less than 90 days away.
Considering my ‘aficionado’ status, a girlfriend of mine, who hasn’t had the pleasure of experiencing WDW, says I’m the only one she’d want to go to the Happiest Place on Earth with. And while I’ve found other things to occupy my time, and I’m not as obsessed with trip planning the way I used to be, I’m still just a wee bit excited.
I won’t take Christina by the hand as we walk down Main Street, USA, but I can promise you one thing: there will be tears in my eyes when we do make that walk. And upon seeing “The Castle”, I know my heart will be full.
Of happiness. Of joy. Of magic. Of the wonderful world of Disney.