Mickey, Donald, Shelley and I
When I open my mind, new possibilities open as well. I was almost embarrassed to be telling people where I was about to spend my winter vacation. In terms of what’s considered hip or cool, most people would place Walt Disney World right up there with George W. Bush and Canasta. But that’s where I went. I told people it was Shelley’s idea. She was about to turn 60 and she wanted to celebrate by going there. So before I went, she got the blame. Now, having gone, she gets the credit.
Disney World turns out to be just that – a world. Stretching over more than 25,000 acres and over 40 square miles, it’s about the size of San Francisco. It includes four huge amusement parks, with 850 acres of lakes and some 31,000 guest rooms. it’s also the largest single-site employer in the U.S., with over 50,000 people on the staff. Not to mention it’s also one of the world’s largest tourist attractions. Now I see why.
The attention to detail there is impressive, down to the African Safari shack plastered with authentic looking old fliers and posters promoting local safaris into the tundra, right under a sign saying “Post No Bills”. One doesn’t need a car here, as the public transportation by bus (some 230 of them!), monorail or boat runs continuously and takes you anywhere on the site for free.
What surprised me the most was how much fun I had. I mean, as a child masquerading as an adult, I found it easy to remove the mask. The roller coasters are unique and one was truly, and thrillingly surprising. The street parades full of performers and Disney characters were surprisingly entertaining. And whoever came up with the idea of infusing these parades with rock music was a genius.
Other highlights for Shelley and I included:
* A ride on a Segway (it feels like having motorized wheels for feet).
* Talking to the workers (known as “cast members”). They seemed genuinely happy (though not in a smiley-face way). On their days off, they often opt to stay on the grounds. It’s just so much fun, they explained to us.
* “Fantasmic” is a twice-weekly free multi-media show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It ‘s full of special effects, music, and fireworks, and it’s really good. Waiting for the show to start, 9,000 of us kept doing The Wave. It was that kind of feeling.
* “Soarin’” at Epcot is a “ride” that’s actually a movie you feel you’re in the middle of, as you’re lifted, feet dangling, almost right into the screen. The effect is one of hang gliding across the state of California. I saw it twice and would love to do it again.
* “PhilharMagic” at The Magic Kingdom, is one of the many 3D movies filled with Disney characters. This one has Donald Duck being taken on a ride through a phantasmagoric world of music and color that was breath taking. We went back in a second time.
* “Captain EO”, also at Epcot, is a 3D space fantasy from 1986, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and staring Michael Jackson at the very top of his game.
* The country exhibits at Epcot of France, China, Morocco and especially Mexico.
* “Monsters Inc.”, a live, interactive animated show. (Read that again.) I can’t figure out how they do it!
* Expedition Everest, at Animal Kingdom. This roller coaster completely surprised me, because there’s a point where something happens I would never expect.
One of the most inspiring exhibits was at Hollywood Studios: a biographical exhibit of Disney himself called One Man’s Dream. It shows how this guy interested in animation as an art form at the early part of the last century started with a mouse and, in a rocky ride punctuated with failures, going nearly broke, and at least one major nervous breakdown, imagined and then manifested larger and larger visions. He had many early prototypes of what would later become everything from Mickey Mouse to the first full-length animated movies, to an entire movie studio, to TV shows, breakthrough creations (e.g., Fantasia) and finally, entire worlds in the form of amusement parks that could appeal to adults as much as children. Not to mention communities where people can (and do) live. For me this is a story as extraordinary as it is inspiring.
One cautionary note: We (by which I mean she) planned for us to go during an off-peak, pre-winter-school break time. Otherwise, we would have suffered a terminal case of Line Disease. If you go, I suggest you also plan accordingly.
Which brings me to the time I took three months off as a 20 year old to hitchhike around the continent. I wrote a song at the time I called “Movin’ Over This Land”. The chorus goes:
No matter what the weather,
I know I can’t be doing this forever.
So I’m movin’ over this land while I can.
The song, which was written in 1970, goes on to explain that revolution was surely imminent, and maybe repression after that, so I was traveling over the land while one still could.
Well, the revolution didn’t come. But now there’s another one brewing. Why, I can feel it in my bones. As a matter of fact, it is in my bones — ok, maybe it’s more like a devolution — and in my muscles as well: they’re getting older, and fast. At Disney, Shelley and I at times found ourselves exhausted, and I found that song playing in my head again.
“I’m glad we’re doing this now,” she remarked. “While we still can.”
On our last night we saw “Illuminations”, which is Epcot’s daily extravaganza. The title is a pun, and the show celebrates all the nations of the world, with the national exhibitions around Epcot as the backdrop. (Indeed, all of Disney World promotes, surprisingly enough, an internationalist, if not downright New Age worldview. In exhibit after exhibit, ride after ride, alongside an entirely global and environmental perspective of life on earth, one hears phrases like “new renaissance”, “a whole new world”, “a whole new way of looking at life”, “change the future forever” and other such exhortations.)
And it was here I fell in love with Shelley all over again. We were sitting at a table at a restaurant with a good (if limited) view of the show. But when the fireworks started, Shelley slid from her chair onto the floor to get a better view of the sky. I looked around; no one else had done this, which meant practically everyone there also had a view partially obstructed by the restaurant’s roof. I decided to join her. Amongst dozens of families with kids in tow, only these two elders went down on our butts.
Only Shelley could get me to Disney World, and only she could get me sitting on the floor like an 8 year old.
I’m a lucky man.