Disney World has made the news a few times over the last few weeks, and not really in a good way. First up was the brief notoriety afforded to Escape From Tomorrow, an unlicensed movie shot guerrilla-style surreptitiously throughout the Disney parks, with a storyline suggesting malevolence lurking behind the facade (the movie’s regrettable tag line: “Bad things happen everywhere”). Then there was this item from the New York Post revealing that one-percenters have been gleefully paying intellectually or physically challenged people to escort their families through the parks so they can skip lines. It’s nearing two months since I last left the place that for me remains a reservoir of goodwill and good feeling in a world growing increasingly greedy and misanthropic. And while I am ever aware of the essential contradiction at the heart of Disney World’s existence – a theme park celebrating the innocence of childhood that is lorded over by a corporation – I push back hard against the tide of cynicism lapping at its shores. Reviews of Escape From Tomorrow are tainted by the writer’s opinion of the place; those who dream of kicking Mickey in “his pious balls,” as one sort put it, find their smugness vindicated by the movie’s skewering of the Disney tropes, where others who thrive on their positive memories struggle with the creep of darkness along the edges of the frame. (For the record, I haven’t seen the movie. With Escape From Tomorrow‘s official release looming in a few days, Disney has apparently chosen to simply ignore it, sidestepping the Streisand Effect. The chatter and the publicity have likewise diminished, so good call there, Mouse House.)
We remarked upon returning from our voyage how much we in point of fact didn’t get to see; a great deal of Animal Kingdom, including the delightful Festival of the Lion King show and the serene Flights of Wonder bird exhibit, was left unexplored as it was the only park we weren’t able to repeat visit during our eight days. A healthy portion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was either down for refurbishment, still under construction or hidden behind impenetrable wait times. I’ve long held the dream of dining at least once in each of the eleven different full service restaurants throughout Epcot’s World Showcase; a glimpse of the seating area in Mexico would be all we’d get on this occasion. Speaking of food, one can’t conduct a proper review of Disney World without mentioning the dining fare – while one might cringe at the sight of folks strolling through the parks gnawing maniacally on oversized turkey legs that clearly aren’t from any turkey that wouldn’t fail an Olympic drug test, Disney does in fact boast plenty of culinary experiences that manage to enchant both taste bud and heart. Our selections ran the gamut, from the ripped-from-Leave-It-To-Beaver meatloaf and pot pies of the Prime Time Diner in Hollywood Studios (where the waitresses yell at you if you put your elbows on the table or – horrors – use your walkie talkie – i.e. cell phone), to the finger-lickin’, artery-bustin’ ribs, cornbread and fried chicken of Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque (where the characters join you for an after-supper country dance party to burn all that stuff off), to even a messy yet tasty pizza delivered to our hotel room.
Of the more upscale options, we have two favorites in particular. First is Sanaa, the African restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village. The food at Sanaa is exotic and flavorful, replete with a wide array of tongue-tickling spices and compelling textures, but what truly sells it is the incomparable view. Animal Kingdom Lodge wraps around an open area that is accessible to the animals of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, so it’s typical to have giraffes and zebras wander by the windows of Sanaa as you’re sitting there enjoying your appetizer. The first time we went, my wife uploaded a photo of the view to her Facebook page and one of her friends thought we were in Africa. After dinner you can wander out to the central firepit and use night vision goggles to see if you can spot a wildebeest sneaking in for a bedtime snack. There’s a guide on hand to assist with the goggles and answer questions (and presumably ensure that no one jumps the fence), and in one of the most serendipitous examples of small world I’ve ever encountered, I and the Namibian gentleman on duty that evening turned out to have mutual friends – these folks.
Our other favorite is Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, on Disney’s BoardWalk. This Greek-themed restaurant, nestled comfortably amidst the old-timey seaside architecture and only minutes by foot from Epcot’s rear World Showcase entrance, is not somewhere I’d recommend if you’re looking to count your calories, not when the signature appetizer is the Saganaki, or flamed and decadently rich Greek cheese. Another standout is the Pastitsio, a Greek take on lasagna with cinnamon-infused meat sauce and bechamel, which no one in our family has ever been able to finish in one sitting. I opted for the braised short ribs this time, but even they come with potatoes mashed with smoked feta so alas, no room for dessert.
One surprise last-minute addition was Ohana, the immensely popular Hawaiian family service restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. We’ve wanted to try it for years but have repeatedly been thwarted by its tendency to book up months in advance. It was a fellow countryman, one of the cast members at Epcot’s Canada pavilion, who alerted us to a new app that tracked up-to-the-minute dining availability. Spotting a convenient cancellation, we leaped at it. The equivalent of an indoor luau, Ohana is probably the friendliest restaurant we sampled this time, with staff calling you “cousin” and a ukulele-strumming entertainer leading the junior diners in hula lessons, Hawaiian karaoke and coconut races between courses, while you wait to be served beef, pork and chicken that’s been marinating for three days straight. I can’t say it ranked quite as highly as Kouzzina or Sanaa with me, but I’m still glad random fortune allowed us to fit it in. One more item scratched off the Disney Bucket List, as it were, a document that seems to get longer with each trip rather than shorter, and will probably never be satisfied. There’s just too much, and Disney World is too far from home, and finances aren’t infinite.
It’s doubly ironic, because as I draw to the close of this series, I find myself reflecting on all the things I didn’t find space to include: the Wishes fireworks show over Cinderella Castle, the five-floor DisneyQuest arcade and the rest of Downtown Disney, the quirks and quibbles about FastPasses, character encounters and LeFou’s brew. But there’s an incident that occurred a few weeks after we got back that I think helps to put things into context and provide a sense of unity and completion to this quintet of ramblings.
My wife was in line to renew her driver’s license. She was wearing the black Minnie hoodie she’d acquired on our trip, which sports ears and a bow on the head. It’s really cute. Thinking she couldn’t hear them, the couple behind her in line openly sneered at her, and the dude boasted to his charmless companion that he was proud that she would never wear something like that. Apart from wishing I’d been there to deck this smarmy douchebag, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and his undoubtedly equally hipster-esque friends. They do themselves no favors by pretending they’re above embracing Disney. Sure, you can climb onto a soapbox and lecture the world about capitalism-run-amok under a layer of artificial pixie dust, but isn’t that the obvious argument? Doesn’t it require more sophistication and a greater capacity to seek truth to look beyond these tedious trappings and find something of value that you can carry with you? I am reminded so much of the late George Harrison, who while dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical achievement could still laugh at Monty Python’s jokes about cannibalism. And I would not even suggest that Disney is somehow lowbrow, or lowest common denominator. Yes, sometimes their attempts are clumsy, some of the movies aren’t great, we all wait with bated breath to see what they do with Star Wars and they’ve been accused of complacency as Universal Studios Florida nips at their aging heels. But there is so much that should be celebrated rather than scorned.
Like the character in the U2 song “The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, I went this time in search of experience that would challenge me as a writer and enrich me as a person. In each park, I discovered a fundamental lesson. Belief. Being. Connection. Communication. Four simple concepts that should be obvious but often get buried under layers of irrelevant complication, and form the very heart of the art of placing one word after another. And isn’t it wonderful that these lessons didn’t have to be learned at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or in the depths of personal crisis. They were plain to see and framed with Mickey ear ice cream – the literal spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I departed after eight days, feeling my sense of storytelling renewed and a certitude about continuing to share my words with the world. The writer journeying through Disney World is a wandering bard stopping for a drink at a wellspring from which imagination flows, and eventually he moves on, his thirst quenched, carrying that inspiration onward to wonderful parts unknown. With a stuffed Winnie the Pooh under his arm.
So long, Disney World. And see ya real soon.