If I am to be honest, I would tell you that I was not looking forward to Disney World. In fact, I was kind of dreading it. But, if anyone looked my way, I pretended to be excited – I mean, I’m not a jerk – I didn’t want to spoil the excited anticipation or the experience for Jenn or Hunter, but, really, who wants to go into an over-priced, over-hyped and overrun amusement park?
Besides, I never was a big fan of Disney. I remember as a kid preferring the Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cartoons over the vanilla pap that Disney seemed to ladle out. Of course I watched them – any port in a storm, right? – but what sensible kid would choose preachy, dialogue-laden cartoons and movies over the slapstick hijinks of falling anvils, Acme electromagnets and shotguns that can be plugged with a finger? Disney’s outlook on life, the one where all the animals get along and everything can be fixed with a song, was not one I believed in, nor wanted any part of. False and overly sweet, it turned me off as a kid. Imagine all that Utopian treacle smacking you in the face. Under the hot Florida sun. Amid a mob of Mickey-eared tots all sticky from candy. After you have just forked over the equivalent of a third-world goatherd’s yearly income – each – to get in (which isn’t enough expenditure: the rumours are true – every ride, every show, every exhibit exits you into a gift shop.) Oh, I was just shaking with excitement.
Walt Disney began to set up shop on his chunk of Florida real estate by using a host of dummy companies to purchase land, disguising some of them as ranching firms. That nobody caught on to what was happening is somewhat amazing considering much of the land was deemed swamp. What would a ranching company want with swamp? It seems like a good way to lose your herd. And the mineral rights. The ‘ranching companies’ also bought up the mineral rights. For $15,000. Swamp ranching or not, something sneaky was going down. Nobody noticed or, if they did, nobody said anything and now that chunk of Florida swampland makes 36 billion dollars a year. Far more than ranching and mineral rights combined could have.
Paved over and built up, Walt Disney turned swamp into a dream and now, here we were only one more shuttle bus stop from walking into probably the best-known, most recognized theme park the world has ever known. Once out of the bus, I looked around the parking lot. Bus after bus was disgorging tourists already glitzed and glammed as their favourite character. And these were the adults! There were all sorts of Princesses, a few Mickeys, a Minnie or two. I even thought I spotted a Geppetto, but he just turned out to be an old man. For the most part, the kids were still too tired or under threat of not seeing Mickey to misbehave this early on but, as we made our way to the ticket booth, there was that one family with the three kids running five different directions. The fact that they were being yelled at was certainly furthermost from the minds of the kids, but that didn’t stop the dad. He yelled louder which, it seeemed, suggested to the kids that if he was going to yell like that, they’d be able to hear him all the way over…THERE! They took off into the growing crowd. I expected the headlines in the next day’s paper to read: “Near Tragedy at Disney: Three Kids Just About Strangled.” All of this and the sun was barely up.
Standing amid a steadily growing crowd is not one of my preferred activities, so imagine my delight, when out of a prop Victorian-style house pile the dancers. I know they are dancers because nobody else runs like that. The men are wearing straw boater hats and gingham vests, the women are in gingham dresses and bonnets. They are here to open the park by singing and dancing to Good Morning, Good Morning. I try to get a look under the façade of makeup – are they really happy under there? Is their smile a pasted-on, vaseline-on-the-teeth one or is it genuine? Which ones are otherwise failed dancers/actors and which ones have aspired to this position. Does anyone aspire to this? How many are just trying to put themselves through post secondary school to get a real job? And then I wonder if they sit around at night, perhaps in a bar, complaining about the day, the job or their peers.
-“Pfft! Did you see Brandy out there today? Who does she think she is with leg kicks like that? She needs a pole if she‘s going to dance like that!”
-“I know, right! And did you see that guy in the crowd this morning? He wasn’t even smiling!” And then, to the server: “Oh, Miss! Another round of Shirley Temples, please.”
But this made me wonder – Disney must have some pretty strict rules by which staff have to abide. Like the perpetual reference to park goers as “guests” and themselves as “cast members”. Or the irritating two finger or whole-hand point when giving directions. Or the swooping motion they make when they pick up stray litter: no stooping, just one fluid motion. Probably in the official rulebook is a dresscode, too. A code that dictates how long your hair can be (shoulder length for women) or your sideburns (no lower than the earlobe. I‘m assuming this is for the men). Even standing at your booth/concession stand is likely regulated. No hands in pockets: only at your sides or behind your back. (All are, in fact, Disney rules.)
None of that mattered now, though. The park was open and people were funneling though the gates like cattle being loaded into trucks. I hung back a bit, just in case. Once inside though, the park opened up and it was, dare I say, not the least bit crowded. We made our way to the Tomorrowland section of the park because Jenn wanted to get on Space Mountain early. No long lines for her. Space Mountain is the only ride I can recall from my trip to Disneyworld way back in grade six, so it must’ve been a good ride. The sign at the entrance said it was out of commission for part of the morning – probably something about a missing section of track or something – so we decided to duck into a fairly calm and sedate-seeming animatronic show featuring Stitch from Lilo and Stitch fame. Briefly, for those not entirely familiar with Stitch: he’s an alien. A mean and strange one but with a fondness for a little girl (Lilo) who herself doesn’t exactly colour in the lines. Together, they make an odd pair. The animatronic show was about escapee aliens and how the audience was supposed to be new recruits going through an indoctrination for their first shift at the galactic police station. It was very realistic if you were a kid and wanted to believe. Even before we entered the actual theater, a little boy was crying at the seriousness of it all. I looked at Jenn as if to say “Who brought little Bradley the Bawler?” and she just gave me a smug look back “I know, eh? Some people’s kids.” Finally inside the theater, we all sit around the teleportation tube in the center of the room. Beside me is Bawlin’ Brad. The theater goes dark and Stitch, a high-security risk has escaped and is on the loose. LOOKOUT! a big puff of smoke and there he is, glaring at the audience. Screams from every corner of the theater. Some even very close to me.
In the movie, laser cannons are trained on Stitch’s DNA so that if he tries to escape, they would just shoot him. Smart alien that he his, though, Stitch spits and the cannon blasts his saliva while he makes his escape. In the theater now, there are red ‘lasers’ shooting and ‘pew, pew-ing” all over the place and some of them are pointing at people in the audience. Bradley beside me is terrified but when the water jet, meant to mimic the spit of Stitch, hits Bradley – and I couldn’t make this up – right between the eyes, he can’t take anymore. He is escorted out of the show. Now with his terrified screams gone, I can hear others. Closer. Like, beside me closer. Hunter, the Vampire Diaries, Walking Dead watcher, is cowering in her seat pleading to be taken out. Jenn and I can’t help her because we are too busy laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Which, for Hunter, only makes it worse. When the show finally ended, we tried to avoid the smug, judgemental glances that were our due as we exited the theater.
It wasn’t until after lunch that we tried Space Mountain again. We had eaten close to the ride and, given the time of day, figured we’d have enough time to digest our lunch before the ride so we strode over to stand in line. “From here, your wait is an hour and a half” the sign said. People were standing just past the sign, so we stood behind them. Great. An hour and half of standing in line. This was the Disneyworld I was expecting.
A bright flash of light went off just ahead of the people in front of us and then we started to move. We had been waiting for someone to take a picture. The line didn’t start til way up ahead. We passed the 45 minute sign, the 30 minute sign and the 15 minute sign. We were going to be the third car out, starting…NOW! The passengers screams disappeared down the passageway as the coaster car shot around the corner.
Settled in our seats, Jenn and Hunter beside one another and me alone behind, I reach around to give Hunter a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. I can’t find her. My hand takes in the situation: the shoulder restraint designed to keep passengers in is on either side of Hunter’s body. Her head barely makes it above the restraint. Outwardly, I say, as I squeeze “This is going to be so much fun!” and inwardly, “What have we done? This can only end badly!” I want to ask the cast member if there aren’t some pillows we can stuff around her wee body but we are suddenly propelled out of the space dock and into the terrifying darkness of space. My hand won’t leave Hunter’s shoulder. I try to pull it off, but I can’t. It’s locked in place by some paternal protective mechanism. I don’t know if Jenn is holding her or not, but I’m not about to let go. We zoom up hills and plummet down their other side. I swear I can feel Hunter sliding between the shoulder restraints. Another upward swoop and then the bottom falls out of the coaster and we dive down again. Please, god, end this ride now! It feels like we’ve been to Mars and back by the time the coaster glides into the dock at the end of the ride. We are all intact and accounted for, although judging by the looks on our faces in the pictures they took during the ride, we all had our doubts. The walk out of Space Mountain was long enough that we emerged into the sunny and hot Florida afternoon jitter-free. It was a beautiful day, we were on vacation – our first ever – and dammit, as much as I hated to admit it, I was having fun.
We ran all over that park. Whirling on Mad Hatter tea cups and riding more sedate coasters. We spied princesses from afar and toured the treasure-strewn wrecks of Caribbean pirates. We drifted though a Small World and down jungle rivers fraught with peril at every turn. Our day finally ended seated in front of Cinderella’s castle. We had just watched the parade of lights go by, the stars were out and the fireworks were just about to start. All evening long, from the various vantage points throughout the park, we watched the castle undergo its colour change. It really was a striking landmark, made even moreso by the constantly changing lights that shone on it. We sat in front of it as the fireworks exploded behind it, Hunter on my lap and Jenn leaning into me, and I thought that really, the day couldn’t have been better, even though we had spent it on some cheap swampland in Florida.