Getting up before seven a.m. seems antithetical to the very concept of a “vacation,” but as rays of sunlight sneak through the crack in the curtains decorated with tiny traffic cones a la Cars, one cannot help but stir with delight at the prospect of another day in the Disney sunshine. My wife made a great point the other night as she lamented not being able to return for a while: when you are at Disney World, you are stepping into a pocket universe that seems as utterly removed from reality as any of your favorite fantasy novels. You forget that you’re in the state that threw the Presidency to George W. Bush because its voters couldn’t read their ballots, where the current governor came from a business that was convicted of defrauding Medicare – paying almost $2 billion in fines – and believes so completely in the Tea Party’s desire to drown government in the bathtub that he signed a bill defunding mosquito spraying (because lower taxes are much more important than preventing outbreaks of malaria). You cross the border onto the Disney property and you’re transported from that depressing place into somewhere that logically shouldn’t be able to exist in adjacent space. Thoughts of the world flee from your consciousness; everyone is so blessed friendly and helpful here that smiles become currency and delightful surprises the expectation. And today we’re headed to the nexus of the fantasy, the beating heart of the dream: The Magic Kingdom.
Modeled after Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom is the original park, opened in 1971, though a 1971 visitor returning in 2013 would find it dramatically different as attractions have come and gone and entire lands have disappeared and been replaced with experiences new and improved. Pirates of the Caribbean includes three cameos by Captain Jack Sparrow now, and the “roll call of the Commanders-in-Chief” portion of the Hall of Presidents grows increasingly crowded. The staples remain, of course, as timeless as Cinderella’s castle, its spires visible from every spot throughout the realm, and the turn-of-the-last-century charm of Main Street U.S.A., though the bakery that once sent wafts of the aroma of warm cookies skipping through the nostrils of every passerby no matter the hour has, in a nod to the passage of time outside the Disney gates, become a Starbucks (the cups do feature an appropriately colorful rendering of sparkles and fairy dust). And what never changes is this place’s ability to let you leave the cares of adulthood at the gate and regress to the time in your life when you were the happiest, when you knew nothing of cynicism or the burdens of responsibility, when you held your mom or dad’s hand as you waited in line to climb aboard Dumbo and soar into the sky. Dumbo has been upgraded (two carousels instead of one and an interactive waiting area under a Big Top) and you don’t fit into the car as comfortably as you once did, but that feeling of reassurance is still there, that you have not lost your childhood completely. It’s just been dormant for a while.
The day began with an early arrival at the park so we could see the opening ceremony, where Mickey and the gang arrive by train along with a specially-chosen family to welcome one and all. The entrance is designed so that you can’t actually see Cinderella’s castle from the outside; it is unveiled to you like the rolling back of a stage curtain as you step through into Main Street and stroll past its collection of galleries and emporiums, boasting seemingly infinite varieties of curios, souvenirs and Disney paraphernalia to suit all tastes and wallet sizes. The rides await further on, however, and a right turn at the end of Main Street takes you into Tomorrowland – which hasn’t looked futuristic since at least the mid-80’s and is now more of a time capsule of what we once thought the 21st Century would resemble; in a way, the child’s dreams of the decades to come. Presiding over Tomorrowland is of course the giant white dome that houses Space Mountain.
The most intense of the trifecta of “Mountain” rides in the Magic Kingdom – the others being Splash and Thunder, respectively – Space Mountain is another of those bits of Disney that used to terrify me as a child. I was afraid to even go near it, and couldn’t even summon the courage to give it a try in the face of my younger sister deciding to brave its twists and turns through the darkness. Of course it doesn’t help that there’s an urban legend about someone being decapitated on it too (in fact, the only thing that ever lost its head on Space Mountain was a dummy that was placed in the car standing up so the ride engineers could test for clearance). Wanting to impress my then-girlfriend six years ago on our first Disney trip together, I gathered my wits and took my place in the rail-mounted spacecraft, and 90 seconds later, although I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit for a repeat voyage, the horrifying Space Mountain turned out to be not so bad in the end. You’re actually not going nearly as fast as the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, but the complete darkness you’re traveling through and the resulting unpredictability of the track intensifies the sensation of speed, as though you are indeed on a rocket out of control in the heavens. And yes, despite myself, I do still feel like I have to duck. (Note: You do not have to duck.) You know, I never had much of an appetite for high-speed rides in my youth, but as I grow older, I’m beginning to grasp the appeal. Perhaps it’s the creeping understanding of the passage of time, of ruing the inaction of younger days and wanting to seize as many of the moments as possible now, before it’s too late. There’s the old saying that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do far more than the things you did; how one wishes that wisdom could be applied retroactively. At the Magic Kingdom, you do get that second chance. Space Mountain’s not going anywhere.
Nor, indeed, are the characters that inhabit the parks. In fact, they’re much easier to find now than they once were; in the distant past you had to rely on luck and happenstance whereas now they are located in specific viewing areas with appointment times clearly listed. Some Disney fans feel this is a bit of a loss of the magic of the random encounter that used to occur, but it’s the inevitable consequence of too many short-tempered parents blowing a gasket that little Johnny didn’t get his picture taken with Mickey and in some cases even physically attacking the characters in reprisal. What then is Disney to do but provide a more structured, consistent environment for these meet-ups? In New Fantasyland, Ariel’s Grotto is a new permanent installation (on the site of the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride) that gives you the opportunity to say hello to the eponymous Little Mermaid, but the “secret” appears to be multiple Ariels waiting within, disguised by the bends and twists of the queuing area, to better handle the often crushing flow of eager youngsters. The more traditional encounters are still held in the open air: Chip and Dale and Woody and Jessie hang out in Frontierland, Pluto and Daisy Duck can be spotted on Main Street, and the whirling tea cup ride of the Mad Hatter features regular appearances by the White Rabbit and Alice herself. Meeting her was our first and probably our single most delightful character greeting; upon saying hello to my son, who was wearing an Iron Man T-shirt, Alice inquired, “Are you Iron Man? You don’t look like you’re made of iron.” Another cast member suggested that the real Iron Man was considerably taller, to which Alice replied, “Well, perhaps he shrunk. Or perhaps I grew?” My son is at that age where reality is seeping through fantasy’s borders as he begins to suspect the truth of things, but I swear he thinks he really did meet Alice that day. We certainly weren’t about to disillusion him by telling him it’s an actress doing a role. Hell, she almost had me convinced. So of course Dad had to get his photo op as well.
Since we’ve been back I’ve had conversations with a few friends and colleagues about Disney and been disappointed to hear tales of people who’ve found it frustrating, tiring or just not living up to expectations. Folks who’ve spent no more than a day or two there and declared “I’ll never go back.” While you can’t speak to the reasons why others may feel the way they do, the common theme seems to be a completely wrongheaded approach to “doing Disney.” In fairness to Disney, they give you every opportunity to leave your misanthropy behind. But if you enter determined to find flaws and disappointment so you can regale your knitting circle with smug superiority about how you’re the one person in the world that Disney’s magic didn’t work on, that’s exactly what you’ll come away with. And that’s your loss. If instead, you enter with an open heart, if you tuck thoughts of the outside world away, if you forget that it’s a 27-year-old actor about to collapse from heatstroke under the Mickey head and give yourself permission to be charmed, then you will be. And buying into the illusion doesn’t take a lot of effort, it’s simply a question of appreciating the park as intended – as a child would. As you once did. So just play along, you’ll have a lot more fun that way. I did Disney as a sullen teenager once and it was awful – but that was my fault, not Disney’s. I’ve come full circle now, and I can watch my son’s eyes twinkle as he runs up to embrace Winnie the Pooh and feel just as giddy when it’s my turn for a Pooh Hug. And as the sun sets over Cinderella’s castle and the last float of the Electrical Parade disappears up Main Street for the night, I can stroll to the exits with a weary body yet rejuvenated soul, and confident that this little pocket of eternal childhood stands ready and waiting for the next visit, and the next, in the years and decades that follow – whenever I need a reminder. And this is only Day Two, there’s so much more to come…