It’s hardly a huge revelation, but for those of you who read me regularly who may have chanced to wonder why August was a bit quiet here at the cracker factory, it’s because I decamped southward for a well-earned week of play at Walt Disney World and left all my cyber paraphernalia back at home – going “off the grid” as it were. My better half and I hemmed and hawed for months about whether we were going to scrape together the scratch to celebrate the expansion of our family at our favorite vacation spot, deciding finally that we’d rather take our son now while he’s still full of childlike wonder and before life turns him into a cynical bastard like his father. It was a huge deal for him – first time on a plane, first time voyaging abroad with his new mom and dad, first time away from his new home for more than a couple of nights. Yet any worry on our part was unneeded; he ate it up, as any kid should. It helped, too, that he had an expert pair of guides.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Disney World – it’s probably somewhere in the high teens and the odyssey began right around the time Epcot first opened in 1982. Almost half the pictures of my childhood that I’ve managed to hang onto were taken on the hallowed grounds of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the thousands of acres of swamp that old Walt bought up for a song with a bunch of shell companies and subsequently transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden of family entertainment – and it does feel that way at times, like a universe removed from the cold reality of your life back home. The misanthropes of the world deride it for predictable reasons – price, crowds, kitsch, a jaded perception of the Walt Disney Company as a greedy capitalist predator feasting on the willing yet innocent souls of impressionable children. Without descending too deeply into cliché, it’s worth asking those folks if they can name many other places in this world where you can truly let yourself be a big kid (deeply a propos for myself as height sometimes makes fitting into the seats on rides a bit of an exercise in figuring out how squishable one can be.) Also, as the title of this post suggests, I think it’s a place every writer owes it to themselves to experience. There are other theme parks, to be sure, but going to Disney isn’t so much about waiting in long lines for a bunch of rides as it is immersing yourself in a story that is taking shape around you. The commitment to the story is what elevates Disney far above the pretenders to the throne.
Day One saw us arrive late in the afternoon, checking in at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort. This is the fourth on-property resort my wife and I have stayed at since we began voyaging here together about six years ago, after Port Orleans Riverside, Saratoga Springs and Old Key West, and the first for us to have more of a focus on der kinders. Obviously you can save a few quid by choosing a non-Disney hotel nearby instead, but doing so robs you of not only the convenience and flexibility of the free (i.e. buried in the cost of your park ticket) Disney buses that run back and forth between their resorts and the parks at a constant clip, but of the sense that you are completely immersed in Walt’s world. Being at Disney is not simply being a passive tourist, it’s diving into this realm of the fantastic, and why would you want to remove yourself from it each night to go sleep in a pre-fab Howard Johnson ten miles down the road?
Art of Animation is probably the most colorful of the resorts, and boasts four “worlds” of its own, each based on a Disney animated film: The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Cars. Larger-than-life-size 3-D depictions of the characters await around each corner; Mater and Doc Hudson were there to greet us each time we returned to our suite after an exhausting/exhilarating day. (Is “exhilazausting” a word? Because that’s the most apt descriptor I can come up with.) Anyway, after picking up our passes and with our luggage still in transition, it was park time. And onto the aforementioned Disney buses, whose spiel I can recite pretty well verbatim at this point. “Hello everyone, and welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Transportation System. We’re on our way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”
Formerly known as Disney-MGM, Hollywood Studios is the odd step-child of the four parks. As I understand it, the park was originally intended to be a “half-day” experience and a few rethinks occurred during its development and construction, resulting in what can seem at times like only a partially formed vision, even if the atmosphere does succeed in replicating to almost museum-like accuracy the golden era of Tinseltown as it probably never truly was. As a dedicated movie fan I am of course partial to anything old Hollywood, so I love the clapperboards and the old fonts and directors’ chairs you find sprinkled throughout the shops on the main drag leading up to the replica of the famous Chinese Theater that houses The Great Movie Ride. This is the one element of DHS that hasn’t changed since it first opened over 20 years ago. A slow-moving vehicle with a live guide takes you through recreations of classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, before you’re held up in 1920’s Chicago (with James Cagney peering at you ominously) and your guide is replaced by a gangster named “Mugsy.” Greed becomes Mugsy’s undoing, however, as he gets zapped by a cursed gem in Raiders of the Lost Ark and your original guide returns to shepherd you safely through Alien and The Wizard of Oz. I’ve done the ride enough to not be surprised at the same story playing through each time; what is interesting is seeing how deeply into the roles the performers are willing to go. If you’re unlucky, you get a bored Mugsy who can barely be bothered to mumble the lines; if you’re as fortunate as we were this last time, Mugsy reaches for the rafters and the experience is that much more memorable, even if you already know how it’s going to end.
The Great Movie Ride is a bit of a relic of the old Disney World, where all the rides proceeded at a stately pace suitable for grandma and grandpa. Ensuing generations have insisted on “faster and more intense,” and DHS has responded with a trifecta of high speed, high thrill attractions. First up for us was Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator that foreshadowed for years Disney’s eventual purchase of Lucasfilm. The old version, where a first-time droid pilot named Captain Rex (voiced by Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman) accidentally veers you through a field of comets before stumbling into an attack on the Death Star, had long been a favorite of mine even if the storyline had grown a bit stale. The 3-D upgrade has an animatronic C-3PO mistakenly take the captain’s chair and lead you through different world experiences (racing snowspeeders on Hoth, pursuing podracers on Tatooine, etc.) while Imperial forces chase you down in pursuit of a “Rebel spy” onboard your ship – one of your fellow riders selected at random. (We rode Star Tours four times during our entire visit with our son crestfallen that he was never chosen to be the Rebel spy. Maybe next time.) The West Wing fan in me was tickled, of course, to hear Allison Janney as the voice of “Aly San San,” the flight attendant droid reminding you not to smoke or take flash pictures during your space voyage. Original trilogy purists might be a little miffed at the emphasis on the prequels (and the appearance of Jar Jar during the Naboo sequence) but when you’re hearing your kid laughing hysterically at the pit droid chirping in angry bot-speak at Threepio for having broken his ship, that all goes away. Bouncing around with hyperspace and blaster bolts flying at you and John Williams’ music pounding in your ears is as close as anyone who doesn’t get cast in Episode VII is going to come to being in the movie itself. You’re not an observer, you’re part of it.
After that it was off to where story truly takes center stage – The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror. It scared the bejesus out of me the first time I rode it, about 15 years ago, and as it happens to be my wife’s favorite I’ve had to endure it several times since. The showpiece is a thirteen-story sudden drop, with the car being pulled down faster than gravity (resulting in a momentary weightless feeling between plunges). With a stomach that has never cared for having the ground disappear beneath it, I always feel a shot of trepidation looking up at the ginormous, creaky old tower as we walk towards it and assume our place in the queue. You’d think that after having been on it nine or ten times you could steel yourself against what’s coming, but damn if it doesn’t still get to me. Firstly, the drop pattern is randomized so you can’t predict it. But what really amps the queasiness and the dread is the pre-show theatrics, including the waiting area itself; an old 1920’s hotel lobby, its furniture rotting under decades of dust and decay, framed by the stale scent of abandonment. Chills seize your spine as you step from 115-degree Florida humidity into the dank, air-conditioned alcove, tightening the mood and the sphincter. Then the lights go dark and on comes Rod Serling (voiced by an impersonator) to introduce tonight’s adventure with all the eerie trappings of that episode with the weird-looking pig mask people that made you shake under the covers when you were a kid. You’re loaded into your car, and up you go into the black void, and like the best storytellers, they make you wait, drawing out the tension to unbearable lengths until despite this being your tenth time your fingers carve into the safety bar in horrified anticipation of that inevitable fall. And fall you do, and against your better judgement and the rules of decorum you hear a wail erupt from your lips as the car plummets and bounces up again for another drop. It’s somewhat cathartic, in fact, and as the car withdraws into the safety of the unloading area you feel a blush color your cheeks and the relief of the sensation of ground once more. And as you exit through the gift shop you feel a bit sheepish at how worked up you got and how ashen you look on the ride photograph, and force a stiff upper lip lest you show weakness to your slightly-more-freaked-out son.
Contrast this to the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, where there’s no time for anticipation – you just GO. The setup is that Aerosmith is late for a gig and they don’t want to leave their fans behind, so you’re loaded into a “super stretch” limo and propelled on a 90-second race through downtown L.A. to meet them. The ride is unique in that unlike your typical roller coaster where you s-l-o-w-l-y chug up an interminable hill to get to the good part, here you only get a five-second countdown and a warning to keep your head back before the vehicle blasts out of the gate, hitting 60 miles per hour in 2 seconds and careening headlong into an upside-down loop that slams you against your seat with 4 G’s while Steven Tyler wails “Sweet Emotion.” Neon roadsigns fly by as you curve into a corkscrew and round a series of tight bends before screeching to a halt at the big show (i.e. another gift shop). As an approximation of the power and rush that is rock & roll (as well as a bit of the sense of never quite knowing exactly where you’re going), it fits the bill quite nicely – not that I’ve ever stood on stage at an Aerosmith or any other major rock concert, mind you. I find it fascinating, though, how my response to this ride has evolved from my first experience on it (wheezing, never-gonna-do-it-again terror, as I recall) to now (giddy bring-it-on joy), as opposed to Tower of Terror, which still freaks me out every time. I have to come back to the concept of story. Every aspect of the Tower, even down to the costumes of the ride attendants, is designed to unnerve you (the screams you hear coming from it as you stroll the nearby boulevard are solid proof), whereas Rockin’ Roller Coaster is about inviting you to take a brief taste of the lifelong party that I’m assuming is Aerosmith’s existence. Both thrill rides, but wildly different thrills and emotional impacts, and the story makes the difference.
We closed the first night with Disney’s Fantasmic, a show that combines live performers and images projected onto plumes of water spray in an exploration of the imagination of Mickey Mouse. What begins as a lush and pleasant journey turns sinister as the Disney villains assert their power and wrack the little fella’s mind with nightmares, before Mickey manages to fight back in the name of all that is good and pure. This is a fairly common plot with the shows throughout the parks, whether the theme is dreams, wishes, magic or what-have-you – everything starts out sweetly and then the bad guys turn up to wreck the fun briefly in advance of the triumphant, reaffirming conclusion. While focused mainly on dazzling your senses, there is a message underlying it all; the power and importance of belief, the same resonant moral that has mature adults clapping desperately to revive Tinkerbell. This is why my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when wags attack Disney for what they perceive as an attempt to homogenize culture, to filter everything through Mickey and Donald and Goofy. It’s not so. What you’re being asked to believe in and to imagine is not their product. Rather they’re showing you what their imaginations have wrought and challenging you to open yourself to the possibilities of your own. Yes, it’s amazing and wonderful and unbelievable and having a billion-dollar profit margin certainly helps, but when you go back to the beginning you find the same simple origin: someone who had to have thought it up. As a writer I find the message encouraging, daring to conceive the characters I’ve created as coming to life in front of me and thousands of others in this way and perhaps someday being as widely known as Mickey and Donald and Goofy. Is that realistic, asks the cynical bastard lurking in the pessimistic corner of my brain? Who cares. For the moment my mind is convinced that it is, and that’s creative rocket fuel.
So we shuffle back to our resort and to our Cars-themed bedroom, having logged 2000 miles of air travel and what feels like an equivalent in walking, happy to see our luggage there safe and sound as expected, and ready to settle in to rest up for the adventure ahead. Because we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
To Be Continued…