Tag Archives: Magic Kingdom

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part V

mickey float

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.)

Disney's Boardwalk at sunset.
Disney’s Boardwalk at sunset.

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.

May I join you for dinner?
May I join you for dinner?

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.

kouzzina

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.

ohana
Flame On at Ohana.

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.

farewell

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A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part IV

spaceship earth

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections.  Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park.  Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again.  Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present.  This is the park for the grownups.  Epcot the Expo.  Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths.  Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.

There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim.  A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder.  What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication.  Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga.  (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.)  Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence.  A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar.  We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value.  The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first.  Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned.  Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us.  Every precious word is written into the future.  One way time travel, as it were.

Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.
Spaceship Earth‘s Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.

Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring.  It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands.  Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada.   The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary.  Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States.  If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands.  And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco.  You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.

Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.
Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.

Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it.  About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime.  The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer).  When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again.  Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh.  I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises.  It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.

But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’.  It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular.  Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few.  The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble.  Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.

soarin

I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic.  But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation.  A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day.  What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up.  The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat.  Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak.  In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later.  It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it.  To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.

It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back.  I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush.  Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993.  Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares.  But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me.  Writing into the future.  Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time.  The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled.  Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot.  The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.

illuminations

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part III

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Tree of Life.

A week at Disney challenges even the hardiest of physiques; you spend an inordinate amount of time standing, walking on hard concrete, jammed into close quarters with folks who’ve perhaps not devoted as much of their energy to the maintenance of personal hygiene as you would prefer, and going from soul-sapping swamp heat to bone-chilling meat locker-grade air conditioning in as little as a single step.  There comes a moment, usually on day three, when you accept that the pain in your lower back and in your arches is inevitable.  Oddly, where at other vacation destinations you might resolve to spend the next day or two lounging in the pool to recuperate, at Disney World there is simply too much to do, too much to see, to let a mere trifle like physical discomfort discourage you from getting out to explore some more.  It was odd, reflecting on the trip from a few weeks’ distance, realizing that although we had about seven and a half days’ worth of park time, the list of what we didn’t get to do remains astonishingly long.  (Better to stoke the desire to return sooner rather than later, naturally).  A quick rewind back to Day Three, however, and our third park.

hungryturtle
Where hungry baby turtles awaited to devour us all.

Opened in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the newest of the four major parks at WDW, and unless the Imagineers are hard at work on a secret project none of us know about, it is likely to be the last at the Orlando location, at least for some time.  Animal Kingdom is light on rides; apart from the rollercoaster Expedition Everest and the simulator Dinosaur, the park is dedicated to shows, educational exhibits and animal encounters.  The latter, then, is where it needed to shine, to give guests an experience they weren’t going to get at any of DAK’s elder siblings.  The Magic Kingdom had long featured the Jungle Cruise ride, but the biggest drawback to it was that the animals weren’t real (Walt wanted real animals, but wasn’t able to figure out the logistics of housing them safely).  Considering the preponderance of zoos in more easily accessible locations around the world, Disney had to do something extra special to compete in this realm.  What else, then, but to recreate a slice of Africa in central Florida?  And so we have Harambe Wildlife Reserve, and Kilimanjaro Safaris.  This enormous nature preserve (over 4 million square feet) is a Noah’s Ark of living African treasures, some critically endangered in their natural home across the ocean.  So typically scrupulous is the realism of the terrain, it’s said that when Disney finished building it, they invited a group of their African-born cast members for a glimpse of the attraction before it opened to the public.  Upon beholding the recreated savanna for the first time, one man burst into tears and declared, “I’m home.”  But you don’t have to have been born in Africa to feel a connection to this place.  My wife and I had visited countless times before; we would usually ride at least three times in any given day as the sights will always be different.  Normally, you board a diesel-powered truck with a dozen other guests for a 20-minute drive past the different habitats.  (There used to be a story along with it as you were supposedly on an expedition to chase down poachers, but this has been wisely pared back and ultimately removed to let the natural vistas take center stage.)  This time, with our son in tow, we decided to pay the extra cost to do the “Wild Africa Trek” – an intimate guided journey into the Reserve, to stuff the regular guests don’t get to see.  There were supposed to be eight of us, but for whatever reason the other five folks never showed – so we got a private, three hour tour.

hansthehippo
There is an untapped market, I feel, for hippopotamus dental floss.  “Hippoflossamus,” maybe?

Conservation was a passion of the late Walt Disney himself, and Harambe Wildlife Reserve is as much a research center as it is a chance for tourists to take pictures of elephants.  Our first stop along our hike was the hippopotamus pool and a meeting with Hans, the hungry hungry hippo.  Hans shares a habitat with his father Henry, and is segregated from the extensive female hippopotamus population in Harambe as “Disney isn’t in the business of breeding hippos.”  Said group of hippos is called a bloat, however, the collected group of females there is referred to as a pod as it isn’t considered Emily Post to make the indirect implication about a lady’s weight.  The researcher who was conducting Hans’ feeding clued us in to another amazing piece of trivia about these endearingly bulbous creatures:  in lieu of perspiration, the hippopotamus secretes something called “blood sweat,” a reddish fluid that contains natural sunscreen and antibiotic properties and is being studied extensively with the aim of recreating a similar substance for human use.  Not that any of that would matter to Hans as he gulped down one head of Romaine lettuce after another, leaving scarcely a leaf to dear old Dad.  I tell you, these young hippos with their sense of entitlement and their loud music…

overthegorge
“Drop them, Dr. Jones! They will be found… you won’t!”

Further on was a chance for us to channel our inner Indiana Jones and venture across a rope bridge hoisted high above a float of crocodiles, two of whom got into a scrap as we hovered over them.  One of the smallest crocodiles, nicknamed “Lethargic” for every reason you might expect, has had his hind leg spray-painted blue so the staff can ensure he’s getting an adequate supply of food, as he tends to be muscled out of the good stuff by his larger, snappier, more ill-tempered cousins.  Mindful of that scene in Live and Let Die when Bond is marooned on a small island surrounded by crocs and escapes by using their backs as stepping stones, I was deeply grateful for the cable and harness holding us securely a few feet out of range of their jaws.  I’m sure even Lethargic wouldn’t pass up a meal of fresh tourist.  However, ’twas not to be, and instead it was on to the second part of our tour, the drive across the savanna, where the animals are all (mercifully) herbivorous.

And occasionally amorous.
And occasionally amorous.

I’ve been trying to think of a good term to describe the savanna portion of Harambe since we’ve been back and the best I can come up with is that it’s an oasis of living miracles.  Existence for the Harambe animals in their native Africa is fraught with peril and predators (some, sadly, human-shaped) but here they are free to be themselves and live quiet lives, as nature might have intended in her most idealistic mood, indeed, had she been crafting a Disney version of herself.  And it always looks picture perfect; park staff go out every single night to replant literally thousands of bushes and shrubs that have been eaten and otherwise worn and torn throughout the previous day.  The giraffes are particularly placid and accustomed to seeing those rolling metal boxes full of the squat little hairless creatures pointing lenses at them all day long, and they are content to wander about and do their own thing, secure in their safety.  Stephanie, the affectionate reticulated giraffe on the left in the photo above, who can be distinguished by her Mickey-shaped mark just below her right ear, seems to be a born showgirl.  Midway through the savanna is an observation post called “Boma,” or “safe place,” where guests on the Wild Africa Trek can stop for lunch and a chance to commune with these wonderful creatures.  While we watched, Stephanie entertained us with a comedy of giraffe errors; trying to access the leaves on a high tree branch, she would pull it down with her tongue only to realize she had no arm to grab hold of it with, and watch sadly as it snapped back into place, pulling the tasty morsels far out of reach of even her statuesque neck.

As I stood beneath the hot sun, inhaling pure air, listening to nought but the steps of hooves on grasslands and smiling at Stephanie’s resolve, I felt an unfamiliar sense of ease, and of serenity, the aching feet and back retreating into distant memory.  I felt the sense of belonging to the earth that is absent in the confines of the cubicle, the glass and steel of the city street, the world of the schedule and deadline and insatiable hunger for material things.  Stephanie wasn’t stressing about her job, her kids, rent, politics or some lousy losing sports team (or hits and likes on her blog, for that matter).  She just wanted the leaves on the tree.  There was a purity to her intentions that was enviable, a clarity of purpose to be admired and replicated.  I thought about some of the other animals we saw that day, like the white rhinoceros who is expected to be extinct within the next five to ten years, because of poachers killing them for their supposedly-aphrodisiac horns (you’d boost your sex drive more by eating your own fingernails, not that this fact convinces anyone).  A deep sadness came over me at that moment, a fundamental recognition that we are Doing Life Wrong here on this planet.  We like to think we are the masters of everything, you know, that old Genesis verse about having dominion over all life, but has acting this way made us happy?  Human arrogance has only cluttered our minds with trivialities, and the more we obsess over them the more miserable we become.  It’s no revelation that a walk in the woods heals the soul.  We come from nature, and whenever we go back to it we are renewed.  And sometimes it takes a giraffe staring at you like you’re smoking something to realize this again.

"Lighten up, dude.  And could you help me with this branch?"
“Lighten up, dude. And could you help me with this branch?”

The lesson the writer takes from the Harambe Wildlife Reserve is to be a sculptor with your words – carve away the unneeded bits, the bullshit (or wildebeest shit if you prefer), and hone in on the plain emotional truth of the experience.  Within the phenomenon of basic connection lies a million untold stories, and all the flash and fancy vocabulary in the universe can’t substitute for the simplicity and universality of raw feeling, like the unbridled joy in watching giraffes at play.  You must be able to feel, fully and completely, before you can hope to transmit that feeling to someone else.  Until then, you’re just a tourist with a camera, recording the superficiality but not the substance, and your pictures will be no more enduring than the ones of drunken Uncle Ralph with the lampshade on his head at last year’s Christmas party.

In Part IV, we visit Epcot, and go Soarin’.

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part II

topiary

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.

cindcastle

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.

opening

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.

alice
Yes, I am really that freakishly tall.  And no, Royal Caribbean did not compensate me for wearing that shirt.

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…