Wednesday, June 26, 2019

It Was All Started By A Mouse

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.) 

There are a few things I recall about that first visit.  My first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle as we rode the ferry to the park entrance.  My excitement barely containable as we passed underneath the train station.  My anticipation, palpable.  And then … walking down Main Street, U.S.A..  Getting closer and closer to “The castle”. 

Cinderella's Castle circa 1978
The joy I felt as a young child watching Walt’s movies on Sunday nights, suddenly filling my heart. 

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
And the rides attractions.  My favorite, without a doubt, and one which I still mourn today (because it’s since been closed and re-imagined into something a bit more … princess-like) was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I’ve long been fascinated with all things underwater (Under the Sea) and this was no exception.   Climbing aboard the Nautilus and exploring the depths of the ocean and all of its creatures.  Oh, how I longed to dive and explore the ocean floor in the same way the divers (animatronic though they may be) did on this attraction.

Yes, this was taken in 1978 too!
My first rollercoaster was Space Mountain.  I wanted to ride with my Dad because I was only a wee bit scared.  And who knew when I’d ever get the chance to ride Space Mountain again.  It was, after all, an E-ticket attraction, and we only had so many E-tickets to use during our visit; back then, you bought A, B, C, D and E tickets for the attractions, with E-tickets being the “big ticket” rides.

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
It was these very friends, and others who were headed to WDW in the year leading up to one of our trips, that helped me bring a little bit of the magic to our mailbox.  Each month, they sent postcards to Evan “from Mickey”.  Saying how much he was looking forward to seeing him.  Couldn’t wait to have some fun.  

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 Railroad
SSE = 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)

Disneyland Paris
While visiting the Stringer family in 2003, Evan and I made a side trip to Paris.  Not necessarily to see Notre Dame.  Or the Eiffel Tower.  Or the Arc de Triomphe.  But to go to … you guessed it … Disneyland Paris.  (and yeah, we did go see all those ‘other things’ in Paris too!)   

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.

Shanghai Disneyland
In my lifetime, I’ve made 18 Disney-related trips (and ridden Space Mountain at least that many times, probably more), if you consider trips to the parks on both coasts, Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, and a Disney Cruise.  I certainly hope that one day I can complete the circle and make it to Tokyo Disneyland/Tokyo Disney Sea and Hong Kong Disneyland; though Keith has sworn off any future Disney trips, except for ones that involve our grandchildren, I think I could convince him if I flutter my eyes just right.

Over the years, Evan and I have maintained a tradition.  In addition to going to the Magic Kingdom (and seeing our beloved Cinderella’s castle) first, it’s also the last park we visit each trip before hopping the Magical Express (yes, that’s the name of their transportation system that runs between the airport and the resort). 

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.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Lions, Giraffes & Elephants, Oh My! Part 6: Cape Town

Cape Town.  The southernmost point on the African continent.

South Africa

We bid adieu to the remaining members of our tour group at Cape Town International Airport and for a moment, there is an air of excitement.  Keith and I together, enjoying each other’s company and ready to explore on our own.  Our adventurous spirits, delighted that our trip is not quite done.

We only have a few short days here and we’re determined to make the best of it.

And by “best”, I mean we are upgrading our accommodations to the 5-star Taj Cape Town.  After roughing it for a few days (and for this city girl, tent camping in Kruger was most definitely roughing it), we feel totally pampered just walking in the door, which is held open by a doorman in full dress coat.  Suffice to say, we would highly recommend this place if you ever venture to Cape Town.

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is home to a working harbor, as well as a plethora of shops and eateries. 

Cape Town, South Africa

We find here, an African craft store.  And because you can never shop too much (am I right, girls?), we make our way through each room of the four-story market, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we go.  I’m still in search of a shield, the likes of which I saw on our first day in Johannesburg and which I haven’t found since.  Maybe I’ll find it here.

After searching three floors and still no shield, our stomachs tell us we really should eat something.

Far from home, we settle on something close to home and reminiscent of my heritage:  a German brewhaus, complete with German-style craft beer and sausage.  Lots and lots of sausage.

The most culturally-diverse city on the continent is home to over 4.5 million people (when you consider the many suburbs).  Like most of the places we’ve visited, it too has a storied history, of which Apartheid played a part.  Sadly.  It is a modern city, trendy, beautifully scenic. 

And then there are the shanty towns.  Informal Settlements that were established during apartheid and which remain standing and populated today.  Those who lost their jobs and were banished from the suburbs and basically became squatters on open, government-owned land.  They built homes using whatever materials they could find:  scrap tin and wood, mostly.  The homes, seemingly built one on top of another.  A closer look shows they are built side-by-side, often sharing walls with the adjacent homes.

For many years, there was no electricity.  No running water.  The government, recognizing they had to provide services, ran central electric lines throughout the settlements and provided communal bathrooms and faucets which allowed the residents to retrieve fresh water. 

Our guide tells us there are no rules here, inside the settlements.  You can play your stereo as loud as you want and for as many hours into the night as you want.  And you can party (and by “party”, we get the distinct feeling he means smoking weed, toking the ganja, partying with Mary Jane).  He tells us many who live “in town” maintain a home in these settlements and retreat there on the weekends to relax and do as they please. 

It very well may be true, that people retreat to the shanty towns on the weekend.  If you happen to be in a gang.  We find it hard to believe anyone would consider this a “weekend home”.

Cape Town, South AfricaIn the neighborhood of Bo-Kaap, the now brightly-colored houses were originally leased to Dutch slaves.  To assert their independence from their owners, the slaves began to paint their houses, the colors of which identified the trade of the resident.  Need your shoes repaired?  Make your way to the red house.  Need a dress made?  The tailor lives in the blue house.  As apartheid ended, descendants of the slaves moved into the homes.  Regentrification of the area now makes it a desirable location for newer Cape Town residents.

Natural beauty abounds on the Cape. 

From rugged mountain tops, to waters the deepest shade of blue, to white sandy beaches deserted save for the few horseback riders because the beach is reserved just for that.

We visited Maiden’s Cove, where we were supposed to have a view of the mountain formation known as The Twelve Apostles.  Sadly, this day, the clouds covered the mountains, but the view of the bay was still beautiful.

Cape Town, South Africa
The drive along the coast took us to Hout Bay, with its many sailboats in the harbor and many seals in the water.  And then to Chapman’s Peak.  I’m not sure why it’s called Chapman’s Peak, but it provided a gorgeous view of Hout Bay.

And then there is Boulder’s Colony.   Its 2200 tuxedo-clad residents freely wandering the beaches.  And in the early-morning hours, parading along the street as the shop owners prepare for the hundreds of daily visitors who just want to get close to all the cuteness.

Cape Town, South Africa

I have long-loved penguins, their waddle creating in me, spontaneous giggles, and visiting Boulder’s Colony made my heart so happy.

Cape Town, South Africa
The lighthouse at top, our destination
Cape Point is the south-eastern most point on the cape.  The view from the top, breath-taking.  Not only were the views breath-taking, but more so because after three weeks with very little exercise, the hike up to the lighthouse proved to be a bit strenuous and literally left us gasping for air.

Keith loves end-of-the-world type movies.  In the movie, “2012”, the natural disasters which have virtually destroyed planet earth, turning it on its axis, leave the survivors to find a new home.  They set course for The Cape of Good Hope.  This was one of his bucket-list items. 

Cape Town, South Africa

I have to say, there really is not much here.  Except for a sign, identifying the spot.  The beaches are rocky, the surf, rough, the mountains and landscape left un-touched. 

Still, it was just something we had to do.

Our second night in Cape Town again found us at the Waterfront.  We dined on the freshest of seafood and made our way to the 4th and final floor of the African Craft Market.

At the top of the stairs, we encounter a couple of the ladies from our tour group.  Happy to see familiar faces, we talked about our respective days and again bid them adieu.

Our final day on the African Continent and we are hopeful we’ll make it to the top of Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain.  The day before, we are told, the mountain was shrouded in cloud-cover until late afternoon.  There’s really not much sense in going up then. 

I feverishly begin praying for a clear morning as we are due to leave for the airport around 1:00 p.m.

We wake up to the sun shining through our curtains and know that are chances have greatly improved.

The hotel’s shuttle service takes us to Table Mountain.  Aptly named because indeed, it looks like a table.  With Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head peak book-ending the flat portion.

Cape Town, South Africa

Upon arrival, who do we spot in the queue, but our tour group!  They had attempted to go up yesterday but were unsuccessful.  Today, they are all bundled up and ready to go.

Bundled up?  You mean it’s going to be cold up at the top?

We opt for the funicular ride to the top, rather than the 2.5-hour hike.  We just don’t have that much time (not to mention, we are not really physically prepared for it).  Much to our delight, the cable car rotates as you head upward (and downward), providing a 360º view of the mountain.

At the top, paved pathways allow you to traverse the length of the mountaintops and take in all the views. 

But there’s one thing.  It’s windy.  And … It.  Is.  Freezing.  Okay – that’s two things.  

We do our best to take in as much as we can as quickly as we can.  Because, you know, we’re cold.

Happy that we’ve seen Cape Town in its entirety from this vantage point, we make our way downwards.


As we await our transportation back to the hotel, the clouds roll over the top of the mountain.  Completely covering it and reducing visibility to about zero.

Satisfied that we have checked all of the boxes on our African Adventure, we are headed home.  

Without the shield I searched three countries for.  But with memories to last us a lifetime.  

We are well and truly grateful that we have had this incredibly amazing adventure. 

And I thank you for going along for the ride.