For those who have never been to Disney World or have been there perhaps once and didn't think much of it, you are probably reading this and contemplating running into a panic room and locking your doors the next time I come around. I'll admit...that's exactly what I thought of about some of those families who would go down to the exact same place time and time again. It wasn't until I was several days into our trip in 2005 that I really started to understand. Since we're getting within spitting distance of our June 2010 trip, I figured that now might be a good time to explain it to friends, family members, students, and anyone else who hears of our planning another trip and thinks we're either filthy rich or mentally unstable (granted, the latter accusation may be true regardless of the Disney fixation…).
A lot of people (some of my friends and family included) make a big mistake about WDW in thinking that it's just a place to visit and ride the rides. I had that very mindset myself early on; to me, WDW seemed like it would be nothing more than a really expensive alternative to Six Flags. Still, my wife and I decided to give the place a try in 2001. Sheri had been there once before on a quick one-day trip, and I had never been there. There was really no planning involved, other than booking the Polynesian Luau dinner show and one ressie at the Coral Reef restaurant in Epcot. We stayed off-site at the Holiday Inn on Black Lake Road (nice hotel…even nicer once we discovered the back road into WDW near Animal Kingdom).
I was kind of "eeehh" on Disney World with this trip. Granted, I think a part of the reason as to why I didn't get into the place that much was because I qualified to appear on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" about 2 days into the trip, which set off a whirlwind of events that put my hyperactive mind in overdrive (and, yes, you can read the Millionaire story on here).
Even before I qualified for Millionaire, we did the same routine every day…we'd drive over to the parks whenever we were ready to go (usually with me cursing under my breath at how far it was to get there and wondering why everything was so spread out), park the rental truck, take the tram, pass through the turnstiles to get into the parks, grab a map, look at each other, and say "whaddyawannado?" I remember the first full day…we went to the Magic Kingdom. We walked around without a clue and were overwhelmed…we ultimately found ourselves over in Tomorrowland, where we saw the wait time for Space Mountain to be ugly; in fact, most wait times were rather ugly. We hopped in the shortest line…Alien Encounter. Yeah, that was the first attraction we went on for our Disney World experience. Sheri and I came out of the ride with this look on our faces that words couldn't capture. What the Hell was that???!!! We then opened the map back up, looked at each other, and said "sonowwhaddyawannado?" The process repeated itself ad nauseum. We dashed from ride to ride without regard for the experience between the attractions.
We stayed there the entire day until we got to the point where we were really tired and cranky (you know, the people I make fun of now). I do remember that we tried the new Buzz Lightyear ride and were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed it. I also really liked the Main Street Electrical Parade, which was being shown there for a short time. For the entire trip, we outright planned only a couple of meals…we didn't even know what restaurants there were or where they were or how they were. We were on a fairly strict budget, so we went without any table service meals (except for Coral Reef and the luau) and only an occasional counter service meal. We'd grab a free continental breakfast at the hotel in the morning, and, throughout the day, we snacked in the parks, but we were hungry quite often. Worse, we were idiots for not keeping hydrated (we didn't realize how hot it was going to be and how much walking you did in the parks...chalk that up to being young and naïve).
The other parks gave me a similar vibe to what I thought of the Magic Kingdom. Epcot seemed like a big waste of space…We walked through Innoventions and yawned at most of the things we glanced at as we walked by. We ate at the Living Seas, and we looked in the Wonders of Life pavilion. Okay, so we did like Test Track and Honey I Shrunk the Audience. Over in the World Showcase, with the exception of that movie in France, we didn't realize you could walk around and in the country pavilions…we just walked by them on the promenade.
I'll pause here for a moment for everyone to call me a moron.
I had similar thoughts about MGM (though I liked the Tower of Terror and Rock and Roller Coaster, and the Backlot Tour seemed neat) and Animal Kingdom (I do remember being really wowed by the Festival of the Lion King, however). We left the parks and this vacation more stressed than when we got there (again, thanks in part to Millionaire and the heat). Pretty much the most relaxing part of the trip was the first evening, when we made a trek up to Universal's Citywalk to phlock with fellow parrot heads at Margaritaville.
Fast-forward to 2005. As the 2005 TR pre-trip post mentions, we toyed around with the idea of taking Aaron down when he was about to turn 2. There really wasn't a huge reason to do it as best as I can remember. We bought into a timeshare in Vegas but could use the points to stay within the Fairfield (Wyndham, now) resort family. The Bonnet Creek resort was just opening up, so we could save on lodging costs. Aaron wasn't going to cost us anything (they don't charge until they're 3 years old at WDW and could be a lap kid on the plane)…we could do this kind of cheaply. There was no "magical" pull to go back. It was more a budgetary decision than anything else…plus, we knew Aaron was starting to get into some of the shows on The Disney Channel with their Playhouse Disney lineup.
As we planned for this trip (yeah, we actually planned this one, compared to the first trip), we tried paying attention to some of the guide books we finally bought (we started with Birnbaum's 2005 Walt Disney World and Sehlinger's & Testa's 2005 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World) and focusing the trip around our son, rather than all of us. I cringed at the thought of missing the rides I liked (the coasters), but everything I had read was telling me to NOT push it with a child. As we went through the books and web sites (particularly Allears.net and Mousesavers.com), we started realizing just how much we missed in 2001 (e.g. people actually ate meals with employees running around in costumes or that artists actually snuck images of Mickey Mouse in the artwork). The planning consumed my mind as we got closer...as we realized the amount of money we were spending on this vacation, I wanted to make sure we made the best use of that money.
My "transformation" occurred in several steps. I bring this up now because, at this point of the 2005 trip, the first steps had already occurred during the planning stages with all the information-gathering. The pictures from the sites I frequented and the reports of trips that people had just taken got me intrigued in their experiences. I still thought they were loony, but my interest was at least piqued. Unlike the first trip in '01, the anticipation was building up with all the newness we were all going to experience. There was also quite a bit of apprehension that goes along with the unknown, however.
The next step of my transformation occurred in Florida on our very first day, at the Visa Meet-and-Greet in Epcot. This was the place where we witnessed our son meeting his first characters. When Aaron (not even 3 years old yet) ran as fast as he could to hug Minnie and Goofy, despite the fact that Goofy was a flippin' 8-foot tall dog, I realized that they weren't people in costumes to him...it really was Minnie and Goofy, and Aaron was beside himself with happiness. And there I was, a grown man, an Air Force Veteran who didn't shed a single tear at his grandfather's funeral (the grandfather who he essentially lived with for over a year), who went through an ugly custody battle from the ages of 9-14 (which made me grow up a lot quicker than I wanted to)...there I was…with my eyes watering up. That sight alone, scarcely an hour into our first park (the one that I called a waste of space a few paragraphs ago), made the entire trip totally worth it.
The final stage of my transformation was spread throughout the trip. I remember that we went to MK on the first full day of that trip. I remember looking out the window of the Disney Transportation bus with Aaron and trying to see the castle for the first time. Once we saw it as we passed the Contemporary, I found myself keeping my eye on it as long as I could. Finally, we got to the bus stop and were let out. We've arrived, but we could no longer see the castle. The train station is in the way, blocking everything behind it. I heard the music, however…calm, playful, and recognizable. It made you think of what lied behind the train station. It made the anticipation of getting in the park rise in me and in everyone around me. Finally, we made it into the park and under the train station, only to realize that we still could not see the castle. The Town Square entrance was created in such a way as to build the anticipation even more. It's only when you make the turn past the Confectionery that you can FINALLY see the entire castle. The music around is of the era Main Street is created in…the turn of the century Midwest small town. The trolley and the carriage harken back to what you'd expect from that era. The crispness of everything can't help but make you feel like you've been transported to the early 1900s…that is, until you reach the hub and turn left into Adventureland. You don't even realize when it happens, but the Main Street music is long gone, replaced by the drums. The atmosphere takes you away to a place where you believe pirates really do exist. You keep moving along and, again, somehow, without you realizing it, the feel changes into the wild west. You imagine what it was like in the frontier area of the U.S. in the 1800s.
And then it happens.
Your brain shuts off, and you find yourself using your imagination.
We spend much of our childhood yearning for the day we turn 18 (or 21, for some)…where society considers us to be "adults." It's funny that, once we are labeled adults, we often yearn to be children again. Society, however, dictates otherwise, and that inner child is kept under wraps. We are supposed to accept the responsibilities inherent in the role of employee, spouse, parent, borrower, owner, etc. As those of you who are in any number of those roles know, we (hopefully) love these responsibilities; however, the stress levels that go hand-in-hand with what we do are always there.
Here is where the Magic of Disney is created, in my opinion. It is found right here, in its ability to transport us, even for just a short time, to a place where many of the stresses we consistently deal with simply vanish.
Whether it's when you leave your house, land at the airport, pass under the big Welcome sign, or wherever, I'm willing to bet that those of you who make the return pilgrimages to WDW have some experience where you find yourself suspending reality and leaving most of the day-to-day stresses behind. I'll have to admit here that having Aaron as the primary focus of the 2005 trip planning really helped. He changed our perspective of the place to the way I think Walt Disney had intended us to see it – as that of a child…the inner child within us that will always be there. When you shed the "I have to be the adult" skin that you spend so much time wrapped in, your eyes start to see things that you swear weren't there before.
A Disney theme park is a place where the impossible is possible…provided you are able to actually imagine the impossible. Those who have never been to Walt Disney World as a child or who don't have children in their lives (either their children or perhaps nieces/nephews) may have problems understanding the effect that the place has on us. They haven't seen the movies…they don't know the underlying stories behind the attractions. I vividly recall riding Peter Pan for the first time and wonder just what the heck the appeal was with that attraction. I commented on this in the May '07 trip report. Imagine not knowing the story line and then experiencing the ride…it might justifiably be compared to an odd acid trip. Once I rode the attraction after seeing the movie however, it immediately became one of my favorite attractions. As we fly over London and towards Neverland, I think back to the movie...to a place where only a child (and a band of misfit pirates) can get to…a time of innocence and a time where you don't have to worry about the bills and the kids and the job and the…
As I write this, I recall something I heard a couple of years ago online that puts into words what I am trying to say. Mike Scopa, a blogger at AllEars and co-host of the WDW Today podcast, gave a wonderful keynote address at a Disney gathering called Magic Meets in 2007 titled Why We Do What We Do. I truly wish I would have heard back in 2001. In this presentation, he calls what I am trying to describe as the "Disney Zone", where, as he puts it, "that state of mind which a Disney park guest finds him- or herself at a point where they forget any problems they have, any stress they've recently felt, and, more importantly, an emotional uplift that presents itself in a manner that even establishes a moment of carefree happiness." To those who don't quite understand it, I try to compare it to something else that they might be familiar with…the state of mind known as "Margaritaville." It serves the same purpose, though with a much different approach.
Going back to "The transformation"...it continued all throughout the 2005 trip. I developed a huge appreciation for the imagineers who created this place, with their attention to detail that would make a perfectionist blush. Absolutely everything in that park is there for a reason. I remember reading that they had to come up with a way to make the top of the Tiki Birds roof seem to fit in with both Adventureland and Frontierland, as you could see the top from both lands. Other theme parks wouldn't take the time to do this. The theming that goes into Walt Disney World is simply astounding. At AK, everywhere you look, you'll see an animal. The background story behind Dinoland and Chester and Hester's makes me appreciate that area even more (yes, it's tacky for a reason). If you go to Wilderness Lodge, watch what happens to the trees as you approach WL…they all become evergreens in a place where palm trees rule. The minute details in the MK lands…the costumes of the ride operators there…the seamless transition from one land to another…everything has a purpose and a story. The adventure of finding the story and the detail (and the hidden Mickeys) makes the place different and fresh every time I step foot on WDW property.
One thing I like to do is stand on the sidewalk on Main Street and watch people see the castle for the very first time. Granted, there are some who are like the Griswold's Vacation experience with the Grand Canyon (run out...look for 2 seconds...and get back in the car). But then there are some who just stop in their tracks, awestruck at what they see.
Parents interact with their children. Children giggle. Couples become younger. People smile.
I think that all of those would be considered by most to be very good things.
There's a reason that those who "get it" experience similar emotions...the excruciating buildup towards a trip; seeing that first monorail; passing under the gates; entering the turnstiles and experiencing all those familiar sights, sounds, and smells; remembering past times on an attraction/location; and, yes, even the mini depression that most feel when a trip is over and we are confronted with reality again...
...which is why us Disney Freaks often start planning our next trip immediately after we return from the last trip.
If you're one of those who don't quite "get it", please try to keep this in mind when dealing with those who do "get it." It's not easy to describe why Disney Freaks exist. It's kind of like trying to explain what graduate school is like to an undergraduate student or like trying to explain childbirth to a guy (I'm guessing).
We Freaks hope you get it eventually.