Really is “the most magical place on earth!”

My wife, daughter and I returned from Orlando, Florida yesterday after a 5-day vacation. It was simply amazing! It exceeded all my expectations, fulfilled nearly none of my fears or worries, and quite simply–I didn’t want to leave. Even now I feel a mixture of happiness and elation as well as depressed longing as the memories begin to fade and the acceptance of being back in the mundane and troubling “real world” sets in. More on that later.

Now, I’m going to try to describe the experience chronologically:
Arrival and Animal Kingdom
Magic Kingdom
Kennedy Space Center, Shuttle Launch, & the Beach

(Picture sets, probably Flickr, to come soon.)

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Arrival and Animal Kingdom
We traveled on Monday (very nice flight…I still hate flying), rented a car (not the Pontiac Vibe, but a nice car in any case) and checked into the Disney All-Star Music Resort late in the evening. The All-Star Resorts are the Disney-fied versions of a Super 8–small and very basic with uncomfortable beds, but all very charming! There was an automated “personal” phone message of welcome waiting for us, and even the wake-up-call menu was friendly and charming. The decor is kind of campy and silly, but fun. One of the nice things about the resort is they have shuttles you can take to any of the parks, although we decided to drive our own car and avoid the hassle. The All-Stars are the cheapest of the Disney resorts, they have some rather first class resorts closer to the Magic Kingdom we hope we may be able to stay in one day.

After a short night’s sleep, it was on to Animal Kingdom.
Now, some time ago we bought the Unofficial Guide to Disney World, and man was it ever worth it! It’s filled with advice about the resorts, when and how to book, each attraction at the park, what time of day is best for each one, even detailed itineraries for what to do in what order and when to get FastPasses (more on those later) as well as general tips for if you don’t want a rigid schedule. I believe this book is one of the main reasons we had a nearly perfect vacation when oh so much could have gone so wrong! One of the other reasons, still connected to the book though, is the fact we went in early February. The weather was warm and sunny but not hot and humid. The crowds were the perfect level of enough people to share the fun with but not so much that it’s crowded (except the gift shops…more on them later). We really only had maybe two significant waits, everything else was either walk right in or a wait of a couple minutes or so.

We used the general schedule advice, looking up specific times for things to kind of keep us on something of a track. We walked right onto Expedition Everest first thing. I have a love/hate relationship with coasters: I love them, but my inner-ear hates them. I get terribly motion sick on them. Now, I don’t know if it was the Dramamine doing a great job, or the fact that the coaster is extremely well made (and that DOES make a difference!) but Everest was a perfect coaster experience! Exhilarating, fast, fun, and not an iota of motion sickness. There’s this great moment early in the ride when you shoot up this hill, but find the track in front of you destroyed. You pause there for several seconds (we were in the first car on the ride, by the way!) then fall backward down a different path you came up on, riding backward in the dark for some time. Eventually, you are stopped again, and you watch a shadow-play of a Yeti destroying more track, and you’re shot forward again and run under an huge animatronic Yeti. Wow!

My nine-year-old daughter really wanted to ride this, mainly because of the Yeti, but I don’t think she had any idea what she was in for. She came off it shaking and stunned, but still says she loved it. She didn’t want to ride anything coaster-like for the rest of the week, but that’s OK. Her first ever coaster ride was one of the most entertaining in the country, and that’s cool.

After that, we got into a dinosaur time-travel trip ride that’s not really a coaster, but it a track ride through fantastic effects and thrilling animatronics as you experience the moment before the eco-destroying meteor hits. A nice touch is the “security camera” video of a lost dino running through the center’s hallways you watch as you exit the ride into the gift shop.

Ah, the gift shops! After every attraction in both parks, you are deposited right into a gift shop with a lot of items based on the attraction you just got off and a lot of redundant items found in other shops. At times it felt like you are literally dumped into the shop. But it’s interesting: the shops are so well integrated into the theme of the attraction that they almost seem a part of the attraction. They seem to create a sense that shopping for the souvenir is a part of the fun of the attraction. Of course they likely have spend decades of research and tweaking to best effect that feeling, and I can cynically recognize the elements of the tactic…but I can’t help but also feel the effects of it. I so much wanted to buy useless but fun things to hang onto the enjoyment of the oh-too-short attraction. I developed a love/hate relationship with the shops (I happen to have a lot of love/hate relationships.) I like looking at the stuff, being in the shop that extended the decor and feel of the attraction, but I hated the swarms of people that tended to linger in them. And the whole “shopping” thing for other people that just brings back the loathing I feel for Christmas shopping. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting things for other people! And I would so have loved to have been able to bring back scads of stuff for friends and family…but at some point it becomes a chore, and that sucked.

Anyway, after the dino ride, we were able to walk right into the Nemo live-action musical. It was really interesting. The actors are there as the elaborate fish costumes, puppets,…things they controlled. At first it seems odd–should we pay attention to the actors/singers or the fish they’re controlling? Eventually it becomes a non-issue and you just accept the duality of the presentation. The music was kind of mediocre…this isn’t a Steven Sondheim production. But the costuming and set was spectacular! There’s one scene where the effect the jellyfish scene (if you’ve seen the movie) where many actors control these giant, tentacled, jellyfish on poles which were quite hypnotic and beautiful. They compress the entire movie into I think about 45 minutes, and while I thought it was pretty cheesy at first, I found myself grinning like an idiot throughout. I was truly delighted.

So, barely into the morning as we’d already been able to walk right into three major attractions and have a blast. Following that were lots of shops, some street performers, walk-through nature attractions, and a fantastic lunch at a place with an interesting south-east Asian circa 1880 feel. (The orange wasabi glaze on my roast duck was incredible!) One of the many interesting “small attractions” we encountered was a character called DiVine. She’s dressed in a vine-like plant costume, with stilts and arm extensions, so well crafted that when she stands still against a light post or fence you can’t tell she’s a person. When she does move, very slowly, it’s in a fluid Cirque du Soliel fashion until she finds another resting place where she again blends in and becomes unnoticeable. We’d read about her before going and had hoped to be able to catch her–it was quite by accident that we did! She’s fascinating to watch.

I would highly recommend adding the Dining Plan to your tickets should you go. You pay a set amount for a sit-down meal, a counter-meal, and a snack for each person for each day. It could be a waste of money if you would normally pick the less expensive menu items, but even so, we think just having the luxury of pre-paying for our meals and not having to worry about costs and prices and whatnot there at the park and avoiding that anxiety and potential argument starter to be well worth the money.

The afternoon was leisurely, and we had pretty decent placement to watch the daily parade. An almost carnivale feeling with dancers (some in jungle shorts and pith helmets and some in colorful and elaborate “tribal” costumes, many people controlling these giant animal-like structures, and the occasional jungle jeep conveying a character such as Goofy or Mickey. It was pretty fun.

A couple of the main afternoon attractions were Kilimanjaro Safari and the It’s Tough to be a Bug! show. I’m actually pretty sick of the whole ride-through animal sight-see things. How many captive elk and ostrich in hot and smelly simulations of African plains can one see? But this one was actually pretty fascinating. You could barely detect the methods they use to fence in the various areas to keep from escapes and inter-mingling. My wife saw a documentary on how they use plant frond shaped electric fences and other techniques to make the ride look completely natural. You could almost believe that the lions were there in the same area as the wilderbeasts. Plus, and this is crucial, unlike the ride-throughs where you just drive on a path and look and sigh with boredom, this safari ride is on a controlled vehicle with a tour guide who’s both interesting and entertaining, and there’s something of a drama going on where a voice on the radio would break in now and then and give an announcement about nearby danger of poachers, or something interesting the guide should take us to see, and an underlying story unfolds about a newborn elephant and her rescue from poachers. (A serious, real-world issue that you are educated on via video while you wait in line for the ride.) So instead of having to read aged wooden signs of what animal is nearby and their habitat, and having no connection with the animal in reality even though you’re seeing it in real life–the safari creates a simulation of reality that allows you to really connect with the environment and dangers to animals, and actually learn something about them that you just ignore when you’re reading a sign. A strange dichotomy, where in the one place that’s the most fantasy oriented in all the world, to have a more substantial connection with reality thanks to a simulated experience.

Then the Bug show was another theater show but animated and with polarized 3-D glasses. You get this short but funny show that sprays water on you to simulate termite acid, get gassed with fog to simulate being hit with bug spray, you actually smell the stinkbug’s fumes, and little drama plays out with an animatronic grasshopper. The seats are rigged to feel like bugs are running down the benches under your butt at one point, and it was a multi-sensory 3-D blast!

Magic Kingdom
The day before at the Animal Kingdom was about as perfect as it could have been–there was no way the following day at the larger and more crowded Magic Kingdom could possibly live up to it. Wow, was I ever glad to be proven wrong!

We drive in the morning from the resort to the Magic Kingdom parking lot which is a lake away from the park. We take a monorail to the park, which allows us an amazing view, as well as passes us through one of the 1st class resorts showing us what kind of swank we could be experiencing. (Although, my wife and I wondered if the sound of the monorail passing through the resort would be an annoyance.) We arrived at the park at waited at the front for the gates to open, and five or so minutes before it did they had this little performance above and in front of us where some people in turn-of-the-century The Music Man Americana costumes gave a rousing song and dance to welcome us to the park. Fun and cute. But then the train arrived carrying Mickey and Minnie and various other classic Disney characters, and I will admit to getting a bit emotional. While I’ve never been unduly obsessed by Disney in any way, I grew up in the 70s and 80s on the classic movies, had tons of the Little Golden Books, and the like. Then in the 90s, even before we had a kid, my girlfriend then fiancé then wife, watched the new production of Disney movies: Little Mermaid, Lion King. And then of course with our daughter in the 2000s, we have Disney Channel, and the Disney/Pixar movies we’re in love with. So in some way Disney has always been a positive element in my life.
Add to that the fact that when I was a kid, around 7 to 9, my grandmother visited one of the Disney parks and brought back ears for me and a Viewmaster with some Disney ride disks. So I’ve wanted to visit Disney World, of course, since I was a kid. Now, at 37, I’m finally there, and I started tearing up a bit at the joy of my inner child and at the joy that came from being able to give my 9 year old daughter the chance to experience this as a child and not have to wait until she’s an adult.
And the opened the gates and there was Cinderella’s Castle as big as anything in the distance. It was surreal being there, seeing that icon in person.

The first thing we did, thanks to the Guide, was make a bee-line to Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. (It actually recommends hitting Space Mountain first, but with our daughter unsure of coasters, and the Guide’s warning that it’s an older, rough coaster with motion sickness potential, we gave a pass–to my wife’s disappointment. She’s a coaster junkie.) Then Stitch’s Great Escape. The interesting thing about this one, is the Guide says it’s a must-avoid, and all its negative comments are true! However, it really is fun regardless. And it ended up being our daughter’s favorite attraction. So this is one instance we ignored the Guide for the better!

And after that we crossed the park to hit The Haunted Mansion. Boy was I gleeful! Of course I’ve been a “dark” kid and always loved the ghosts and ghoulies, so The Haunted Mansion was my favorite Viewmaster disk; imagine my excitement as I rode that and saw the sights I knew by heart. Unfortunately it kind of spooked our daughter and freaked her out a bit. But she overcame that quite well! What’s interesting is how every employee, or Cast Member, of the park is very happy and upbeat and friendly! Except the Cast Members at the Haunted Mansion. Dressed as house servants (butlers, maids), they all wore morose, dour expressions in keeping with the Haunted Mansion atmosphere. Even so, their dark countenances were as entertaining as any of the chipper Cast Members’ (if a bit more silent and unresponsive.) I do wonder if those particular Cast Members have issues with depression, having to affect a dark demeanor all day….

At this point, I can’t remember what all we did as we crisscrossed the park. We did Small World, of course. Had to. It’s Disney World after all! And the antithesis of Haunted Mansion. That attraction was interesting for a couple of reasons: One was the way it escalated the fantasy of the park another layer by taking the romanticized stereotypes of every major culture, from boomerang carrying Aboriginals to lariat twirling American Cowboys. I could so easily see the mindset of the 1960s American as they view the world in these general archetypes in this grand fantasy of the world as a simple, amusement park for the enjoyment of the American traveler and adventurer. Then I also noticed the edges in the fantasy: the seams between the plywood and the painted over nails, the missing tiles in the oddly very visible ceiling, the some tattered strings coming off a costume here and there. If I looked, I could see the fantasy for the construction that it is. But also, if I stopped looking and just absorbed, I easily fell into a sort of simple, gleeful acceptance of the childlike presentation of happiness and peace. More on this in Afterthoughts.

We hit Pirates of the Caribbean at some point. I’m of two minds. Oh, it was wonderful, from a child’s dream come true point of view. I didn’t have a complete Pirate’s Viewmaster disk, but there were some images I was quite familiar with as a kid, and when I saw them in the ride I think I giggled. But then there were the additions to the ride due to the movies, such as Jack Sparrow animatronics and a Davey Jones visage cast upon falling smoke. They were cool, but they weren’t “classic”. But is that bad? I mean, I know there are some attractions that used to be something else entirely! I think Buzz used to be something related to Roger Rabbit at one point. But then, that was never a “classic attraction” filled with classic elements know to generations. I guess it really doesn’t matter, and really, I don’t mind. What I did notice though, was how well disguised the construction was, unlike It’s a Small World earlier. Every direction was well simulated cave stone that was cold, hard, and tactile to the touch. In fact, I realized I wasn’t touching stuff that much those two days but when I did, a feeling of solidity and wonder would rush me. When I put my hand on the “cave wall” of Pirates of the Caribbean, it would suddenly come home to me that I was experiencing the reality of the park. Not a TV program, not a Viewmaster, but the actual thing and I had a sense of “being there” that would otherwise remain a little surreal, or felt a step removed. As I seemed to float through a dream for most of it. (All very ironic since the parks themselves are creating false realities for entertainment.)

One of the Guide’s recommended must-experience was Peter Pan’s Flight. For being one of the park’s original rides, it was a fun little experience. Brief, and a little dated in appearance, but the fact that you “flew” through the various scenes in the Peter Pan story made for an great little gee-whiz time. But the real showstopper was Mickey’s PhilharMagic! A 3-D theater show that featured a montage of music from various animated films (mostly the newer ones but a little Fantasia thrown in) with poor Donald trapped in various animated chaos. The 3-D effects were absolutely phenomenal, and it too had it share of full sensory experience. The smell of apple pie at one point, squirted water at another, wind rushing past you other moments…it was a thrill. Capping off in a clever humorous merging of 3-D animation and a live action animatronic farce that left the audience gasping and laughing in childlike enjoyment.

The afternoon parade was fun, with the return of The Music Man dancers and many floats featuring various aspects of Disney history. In fact, the first float was an actor costumed like a young Walt Disney sitting at an art easel with a bold sketch of an early Mickey on a page for all to see. The actor would pantomine drawing on the easel and then spin around and wave for the onlookers, followed by a float featuring Mickey with the words “It all began, with a MOUSE!”…and I got emotional yet again at the enormity of this Disney empire, and everything positive it begat. At that moment the idea that Disney was antisemitic and a shrewed capitalist baron and any other negative aspect of Disney was shoved out of mind as I simply thought of the decades of cartoons, comic books, movies, parks, that was all started by the visionary. Endless entertainment, innocent and hopeful, always positive, and every bit of cynic and critic in me went away for that moment as I just enjoyed the “magic” of the moment. In that moment I felt, subconsciously, not with any actual thinking of it, a wish that this could be reality. Simple, joyful, without strife and conflict. I wished it for my daughter who is growing up in a world ever more dangerous–and it’s been plenty dangerous all along as it was. I wished that this fantasy could be forever instilled in her heart, and she’s never have to experience the pain of reality except as presented in the safe and sometimes comedic manner of Disney storytelling. My heart broke for longing for an end to worry and angst and politics and religion and conflict as it was completely embracing the fantasy of Disney World. The later being so powerful that it even overshone the longing and heartbreak. In that moment of watching the simulation of an image of a man which is itself likely a fantasy, I was truly happy for the first time since I was a child. In a way, more than the birth of my daughter as that joy was and constantly is overshadowed by worry and concern and fear. More than my wedding as that two was and always is tinged with fear and anxiety and self-doubt. Even back when I was a Christian and felt the “joy of Christ,” it was never as happy as this. At that moment I fully understood how some people come to obsess over Disney, visiting year after year, collecting every memorabilia they can get their hand on. Even as I sit here examining that moment, that day, that entire week, recognizing the cultural influences and the psychological reasons for the inducement of feelings and the reasons for the reactions to them, I still feel that irrational and quasi-spiritual exultation, even if now I consciously feel that heartbreak of reality that the fantasy of Disney is the escape from, more acutely. I sit here teary-eyed from an equal mix of remembered fleeting happiness and despair for reality.

But I’ve digressed terribly.
The parade was fantastic.

After that was a leisurely wander around gift shops. A stop at the Enchanted Tiki Room was mandatory as it was my wife’s favorite memory from childhood Disney LPs. Unfortunately, only about a third of the original Tiki Room material existed around all new material and characters. Which was fine by me since I wasn’t familiar with the old Tiki Room, but I think it was a disappointment for my wife. Before the evening fireworks, we rode the Jungle Cruise in the dark. Not having a daytime cruise to compare it to, I can’t be certain, but I think the nighttime version is far more entertaining and interesting than the daytime one would be. Plus I was very impressed with the guide’s performance. For all I know, she’d been doing her routine all day long, but it felt like the first time she’d done it with the little jokes and bad puns, the display of curiosity at revelations of items on the tour, the energy. I was impressed. But then, I was impressed by pretty much all the Cast Members. All of them were cheerful, upbeat, and energetic. Only one ever spoke meta and broke the 4th wall when she corrected herself when she said “ride” instead of “attraction” and mentioned she wasn’t supposed to call them rides. But even then, she was friendly and nice.

Both days we had great lucking getting pictures with Disney characters. Stitch is our daughter’s favorite, but we found pretty much all available. Except a good Mickey. In fact, we didn’t get a Mickey until the very end of the Magic Kingdom day! Quite literally. Only moments before attractions were shutting down and fireworks were to begin, we found Mickey’s House and got some wonderful shots of us with the mouse. Everything all vacation seemed to work out perfectly!

The evening fireworks were quite impressive! Set to an audio track of music and character dialog with a theme of “believe it and your dreams will come true,” the lighting on Cinderella’s Castle, the centerpiece of the display, would change along with the mood of the displays. All culminating in a brilliant final show of spectacular explosions and fountains. We stood in a place the Guide had recommended as an excellent viewing location, and it was. If we had been able to find a place front and center of the Castle, that might have been better, perhaps. But we would have been squished by people and I think that’s one of the considerations the Guide took into account when recommending the place we stood. Which we did for a little while after, in pleasant quiet idleness as the majority of park attendees made a mass exodus down Main Street.

Kennedy Space Center and the Shuttle Launch
So while at Animal Kingdom we met some friends from “back home.” What serendipity! They’d mentioned that they were planning on visiting the Kennedy Space Center this week, but because of the shuttle launch they were afraid it’d be too packed? Shuttle launch?! So of course our next task was to call people who would be able to get as much info for us on KSC, I talked to very friendly and helpful Disney concierge for info, and the next day I called KSC and reserved tickets for us. We’d intended to spend this 3rd day just relaxing at Siesta Key Beach, over on the Gulf Coast where the sand is white and soft and the water warmer, but we couldn’t pass this opportunity up.

Evidently this shuttle mission had been attempted since early December, and even today the weather was a 50/50 chance of yet another delay. But we went, took a modified bus tour of (since some areas are closed off due to the launch.) I wasn’t expecting much–basically some displays, some plaques, some signs, some model pieces of artifacts like space suits and buggies. But the tour stops had some very impressive displays and shows! One featured the launch of Apollo 8 (the first moon shot) using actual capcom consoles from the time, rigged to light up and work as things happened in the 3-screen movie of the countdown and launch. It’s hard to describe exactly what it was like, but it was impressive. That was followed by an entry into an open gallery which housed an actual Apollo Saturn V rocket on its side! All 100 yards of it, segmented. An Apollo 11 moon landing show/movie/animatronic display was viewed. And across a lake could be seen the shuttle on the pad about 4 miles away!

We visited the International Space Station modular element construction, walked through a couple of them (small and cramped!) Then returned to the Visitor Center where we Dined With an Astronaut. We and about 200 other people who paid for the privilege. The buffet style food was actually not bad, and the astronaut was Jon McBride (OK, that is an OLD picture!) He was part of the very first shuttle trained astronauts, and had a brief but interesting speech about his experience and the importance of staying in school and don’t do drugs! (Yeah, that was the message, as satired as it is, and he gave it in the way that’s usually satired.) Then a question and answer where they took questions posed only by kids in the audience.

After that shopped at the interesting yet packed and crowded gift shop, then found a place to watch the shuttle launch. Wow! They had a giant screen jumbotron on a truck for us to watch as they switched from view to view of the shuttle on the pad, until they lit it up! Boy did the crowd go wild applauding and cheering, and off it went! We watched it lift off on the screen, and we were perfectly located to watch after a few seconds of the shuttle flying up on the screen, the actual shuttle appeared in reality from directly behind the screen and up and up leaving a huge vapor trail behind it! Boy did we all go nuts. Another childhood goal accomplished for me. Since the first launch in 81, I was enamored by spaceflight, and hoped to one day witness a launch myself. And it happens, almost by accident.

After that, we watched a very effective 3-D IMAX film about the ISS, and went through an attraction that contained anamatronic robots and simulated Mars habitats and other areas, with a humorous presentation on the use of robots in space exploration. Like the Disney parks, there were other things that we just didn’t have time to do, like go into an actual shuttle orbiter–but we’ll be back again. What an experience.

We tried to leave in time to head to Cocoa Beach, not far away, and spend a few hours there while we could. However, what should have been a 15 to 20 minute trip ended up being almost an hour and a half! This was the only bad point in the vacation, and it was bad. The crawling, snail-like traffic was driving me quite mad. We ended up getting to the beach as it was moving from gloaming to dusk. We had no time for changing, just rolled up our pant legs and play around barefoot in the cold and darkening water. We’d promised our daughter we’d show her the ocean and beach, and by darn it, we did it! Then back to the hotel for the night and an uneventful plane ride home the next day.

I’d actually said quite a lot of what I thought I’d say here, back in the section on Magic Kingdom. Like I said, those feelings I had those two days at the Disney parks, and most strikingly at the Magic Kingdom parade, were intense and subliminal and it’s been a couple of days before I could analyze what they were. But now, while the reasons and the critique is have made the feelings liminal, they still exist and move me. From the moment I left the Magic Kingdom, I wanted to go back. I didn’t want to leave. As I rode the monorail out of the park I had to choke back sadness. It’s a feeling I recall having when leaving church camp as a kid. That feeling of having a transcendent experience with the spiritual and not wanting to leave that experience. I’ve long since recognized those supposed religious feelings for what they are; is that awareness of the power of human emotion regardless of spirit, religion, philosophy, experience, what helped me to have an equally powerful and moving “secular” moment of Agony and Ecstasy?

What do I do with this? I’m sure the intensity of the feelings will fade, in a couple or few days, maybe more. My acute “need” to return to the safe fantasy of Disney will evolve into a desire and then an interest to make plans for next year. My desire to avoid the real world, and hatred of being a part of it (I can SO understand what makes some people embrace religion so fervently and join monasteries to escape the world!) will mute and I’ll return to being the cynic who feels like by commenting on the ridiculousness of culture seen around me I’m laughably doing something about it instead of feeling like a powerless cog in the machine, or debris in the downward spiral of existence. There just seems to be no way to feel good about the world and one’s role in it without in some way embracing a fantasy. At least, not unequivocally and joyfully good. I’m a believer in rational reality as the only way to see clearly and get through life undeluded…but man, do I desperately want the fantasy.