Today I finished Neal Gabler’s impeccably detailed biography of Walt Disney. The vivid portrayal of Walt and his empire reminded me of a piece I had written and originally published playing travel writer while visiting Disney World in March of 2015.
I am on vacation and it feels amazing. Right now I am leisurely lounging in my hotel room at the Port Orleans Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, USA, and I decided that I am impressed. It’s been quite the process to get here though. Let me start from the beginning.
Looking out the window of my red eye flight, the blinking wing lights reflecting on the clouds simulated what looked like static fuzz on a TV. I hadn’t seen anything like it before…I had to shut my eyes because it was really strange. Before I knew it we had touched ground in Orlando. I could feel the humidity immediately upon exiting the plane and I must say that it was very much welcomed. I decided I like warm. I prefer it to cold weather, and living in Utah can just be exhausting in that sense. Florida is warm and moist, like being wrapped in a blanket all the time and I am totally loving it right now.
I picked up my bag and made my way to the area where I would catch “Disney’s Magical Express” to the hotel. This bus was super hip. The outside was painted in a throwback fashion to make it look like an old-school bus from the 1960’s, which gives it a certain go-lucky, retro-positive vibe. The driver, who was my first encounter with a Disney “cast member,” did his job flawlessly as he made jokes and told interesting anecdotes (all Disney related of course) as well as gave valuable instruction throughout the duration of the ride regarding our stay at Disney World and how to make it more enjoyable. I plugged in though and got busy listening to my latest finds on Spotify.
Upon arrival to the hotel, it started to rain. And I mean really rain. Florida rain. My rain jacket was in my suitcase which was swept away by the bell hops so I quickly made my way inside the lobby. Because of the early hour, I was able to check in and get my nifty new Disney super-wristband-thingy, but I wasn’t able to claim my room until an estimated 2 or 3 in the afternoon! It was an inconvenience, but I made the most of it. I left my suitcase and valuables with the bell hops and took the shuttle to Downtown Disney.
Downtown Disney in Orlando has some cool things going for it. Obviously it’s nothing compared to what the “Disney Springs” they are gradually turning it into will be, and they make a specific effort to make you aware of that. There is music, tons of great shops selling overpriced things completely irrelevant to your vacation, and a myriad of eating establishments tempting the senses from every direction. I wandered around the whole place and saw what I needed to see. I went in to the World of Disney store, which is the largest Disney store in the world, and found a cool Disney World pin to add to my destination pin collection I started for myself last summer.
Inside Downtown Disney there is a movie theater. I still had a few hours to kill before I could check in so I decided that I would check out what was showing. I hadn’t seen the new Cinderella movie, so I obviously decided that there is no better place to watch a new Disney movie than in a theater at Disney World. So I went. Stunning movie from start to finish. I loved it. I was floored by this film. It was magical, and it has been a long time since I have felt what I felt while watching it. I left the film inspired, believing that there is a little bit of royalty, magic, courage, and kindness in all of us. This Cinderella is gorgeous and perfectly personifies the animation we all grew up adoring with few exceptions. I highly recommend that everyone see the film if you haven’t already done so. I just can’t say enough good things about it!
It was time to head back to the hotel, and I decided to do it in style by riding the river boat along the canal to the dock close to my hotel room located specifically at the Acadia House. It was a gorgeous ride. I watched as smiling seniors strolled hand in hand along the board walk. The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining causing the colors of the flowery Florida landscape to glow vibrantly.
I made it to my hotel room and was pleasantly surprised with the place. Very comfortable with all the right amenities. The AC blows cold which makes for a nice break from the humidity, even though I do love it. After I took a nap and cleaned myself up I went out and had myself a nice bayou-themed fried chicken dinner – absolutely delicious. Worth every cent. Then I decided to get to know the hotel a bit better and took a stroll around the whole vicinity. Beautiful black-stallion drawn carriages passed me as I admired the vivid greenery that surrounded me. I took in the beautiful victorian themed architecture of the hotel suites and lodges, and listened to the laughter of children playing in the various pools scattered throughout the property. It was such a surreal moment. I decided I would stay on vacation all the time if I could.
The day concluded with a failed attempt to watch and outdoor presentation of WALL-E in the courtyard of a neighboring house due to a sudden infestation of mosquitoes for which I was not prepared with proper repellant! Although I be in a world famous Walt Disney Resort, that does not in any way change the fact that I am in the middle of a central Florida swamp. I high tailed it out of there and escaped with so far only two bites that I have counted. Would have been a lot more…
I am just so glad to be here. Disney magic is another topic of its own, but all I can say right now is that it is real and it lingers around these parts. There is happiness in the air. Just from what I experienced today without even going into a Disney Park is enough to get me energized about the child-like imagination and wonder within me that makes this vast, man-made marvel nothing short of a giant, magical kingdom. I can’t wait to see what the next few days have in store for me.
Man oh man what a day! Morning came early because I had to catch a van to a Disney Leadership Seminar down at Hollywood Studios. I scarfed down a humble breakfast of granola bars and mini-donuts I keep stashed in my room and was on my way. Another cloudy and misty morning.
I won’t go into too much detail about what I learned at the seminar only because that isn’t the nature of this post, but let me just say that Disney has an excellent customer service model and today I learned a ton about how to work with people. Maybe I’ll implement it someday. I underwent something of an exclusive tour, being able to enter the park several hours before it opened, and the best part was certainly the backstage access to the Disney Costume Studio. That is the facility used to make all of the costumes for all of the characters for both the Florida AND California Disney parks. Inside I got to see everything from Prince Charming’s military tunic to Ariel’s flipper-skirt-thingy and Peter Pan’s leafy belt. The system they have there is absolutely amazing. I would have taken photos, but that was strictly prohibited. I can see why.
Today I learned a lot about movie magic because I took some time and focussed on the life of Walt Disney as I was in Hollywood Studios all morning. What an inspiration. I was so impressed by all that he managed to do in such a relatively short amount of time. The museum they have there along with the short film “One Man’s Dream” are an absolute must see. There is a love that one develops for Walt as they go about the tour. Probably because of the realization of exactly how much Disney is a part of all of our lives. Disney truly is quintessential Americana, and I love that.
“The Great Movie Ride” attraction inside Hollywood Studios is a wonderful interactive experience where you get to be a part of some of the greatest movies of all time. I really loved that one. All of the other rides were just…rides. Nothing particularly moving about them. No need to get into detail. The only thing worth noting was when I struck up a conversation with two little Scottish kids named Calum and Eilith (pronounced e-leeth) while standing in line for the Tower of Terror. We discussed how Americans take so much time off school to do fun stuff like come to Disney World. They were fantastic kids, and their Scottish accents were spot on (naturally).
After I milked Hollywood Studios for all it was worth, I took the bus over to the Magic Kingdom to get a head start. This is the capital, and Main Street USA is surprisingly identical to Disneyland. The overall layout of the entire park is the same. Same rides with few exceptions, and I felt that same Disney “feeling” I have always felt at Disneyland. I managed to ride all of the classic rides today, namely Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain (which I rode three times in a row because there was no line), The Haunted Mansion, and I had a fast pass to Thunder Mountain but of course it broke down so they let me switch it over to Space Mountain instead. I didn’t complain. All in all it was good to get those out of the way so that I can get out of Magic Kingdom early tomorrow and focus on EPCOT. At least that was the plan.
The highlight of the day, if I had to pick one, would definitely have to be the Disney Electric Parade. We came out of the President’s exhibit (at which I lost my phone…but some kind sir turned it in for me) just in time to grab a great spot on the parade route a few minutes before it started. It was dark outside, and they turned off all the lights in the park as the parade started to come through. It was so cool! The lights, music, dancing, beautiful costumes and everything just made it a ball. It was all so…happy.
Before long it was almost midnight and I made my way back to the hotel. A huge Disney day is in the books. Now I’m back lounging the same way I was last night writing about it. I had better get some sleep. I didn’t come to Florida to sleep though…but I guess it’s necessary. I think I could get used to this routine!
I had my first “Meh…I’m on vacation” moment today, and it resulted in me sleeping in until 11:00 AM. I had planned to spend the morning back in the Magic Kingdom, but when my alarm went off I decided that my Florida bed was better than anything Disney World had to offer for a few more hours.
So after I pulled myself together, I made my way to the Magic Kingdom because it was time for my lunch with the characters from Winnie the Pooh! That was so much fun! It’s an all you can eat buffet, and the characters come right to your table. It certainly beats waiting in line for hours and hours to get the photos and autographs you need. The whole experience was exceptionally positive. It can be pricey though…I suppose you just have to determine if you think it would be worth it or not.
I spent a few more hours after lunch exploring Fantasyland. I hit “It’s a Small World” just to say I did it. It’s a classic, but I really hate that ride. Animatronics kill me after a while. But it was in Fantasyland where I saw my favorite attraction of the day: Mickey’s PhilharMagic. I gained a pretty important insight today. Chip N’ Dale, Phineas and Ferb, Lilo and Stitch – yeah they’re cool and all, but people come to Disneyland and Disney World to see the Mice, the Duck, the Dog, and the Princesses. That is why they come. They come for Mickey Mouse and his friends. When I watched the PhilharMagic show, I saw that heritage animation come to life again with the characters that we all love and pay to see. It really is such a fun show. There is a 180 degree 3D screen with music and all the interaction you could ask for. They even squirt water in your face. I decided it won’t be long before normal cinema reached that level.
I bucked up and stood in line for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland. It wasn’t worth it. The problem with that roller coaster is that the trains are too long. There isn’t enough time to gain a lot of momentum as you ride because by the time the back of the train finishes a peak, the front has already made the turn and that decreases the overall velocity. So I don’t think that one is worth riding again. However, I struck up a conversation with the woman standing behind me who was pretty interesting. She was from New York City and was in Orlando for a business conference. She worked in the finance department for a multi-billion dollar disaster relief company. She also kept reiterating the fact that she was a theater major in college and how much that goes to show that it doesn’t matter what you study. I liked that insight. She was cool.
I was getting tired of Magic Kingdom. It was magical and all, but I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen. I didn’t even bother to go to Tomorrowland. Nothing there is particularly interesting to me. I mentioned previously that the Magic Kingdom here at Disney World is almost identical to that at Disneyland, and I decided officially that I like the Disneyland version better. More original. Walt Disney preferred California and so do I. So I left the park and made my way to Disney World’s own EPCOT. This would be new.
I took the iconic Monorail down (only after I bought a big long lollipop at the Confections shop on Main Street USA) and for the first time I saw the iconic “Spaceship Earth.” I had been waiting to see that for a long time and it certainly did not disappoint. EPCOT is a very interesting place. The concept of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow is pretty awesome. Today I managed to only get through Future World. My first stop was Mission: SPACE.
This is me publicly stating that I have NEVER felt as much G-force at one time as I did on that ride. It was crazy. They simulate a shuttle launch to Mars and I don’t imagine it feeling much different than that in real life. Like the force was so great I could hardly keep my eyes and mouth open. And the most amazing part? It’s a simulator. You are never even really leaving the ground. You are inside a little pod with 4 other people and somehow they find a way to put you through the stratosphere inside of a box. Unbelievable. I can’t even begin to think how they do something like that.
When I left the ride, I needed to calm down a little bit so I went to watch another classic EPCOT 3D exclusive called “Captain EO” starring the late Michael Jackson. That was really cool, too. The King of Pop meets Star Wars. Just use your imagination on that one. Now here comes the great disappointment of the day. I stood in line for over an hour for Soarin’, only to find out that it is the exact same ride as Soarin’ Over California at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim. I blame my own ignorance on that one. I knew they were the same type of ride, but I didn’t know it would be the exact same ride. I anticipated a Florida version. I was disappointed. I felt like I had wasted a lot of time because I have ridden that ride a hundred times before in California. But, it still is a great ride and at the end of my wait I still got to cut in line because I was a single rider!
After that I went on the Spaceship Earth ride. It’s pretty amazing how much they cram into that giant sphere. The concept was fascinating, and the animatronics were second to none. It really does an excellent job at portraying the evolution of society and inspired me to innovate more in my life. We’ll see how that goes. I walked around EPCOT for the rest of the evening visiting a variety of attractions. Tomorrow I’ll go back and finish up EPCOT with the World Showcase. I am amazed at how much ground I have been able to cover in the last couple of days, even for being alone. I’m not stopping, either.
There is a unique opportunity to be seized at Walt Disney parks and it is called the “Keys to the Kingdom Tour.” I went on it this morning, and 5 hours later I had a much better idea about how Disney gets things done. Before I started the tour, I was concerned that perhaps seeing things in their raw “backstage” form might ruin some of the magic for me. But in the end, the exact opposite occurred. Here’s why:
We wandered through the Magic Kingdom with our guide (a.k.a. Guest Jockey) Anna learning a whole bunch of interesting facts that I had never known before. Things such as the fact that Disney is only using about 1/3 of the total property they have here in Florida. As vast as this place is…they haven’t used the half of it. Amazing! All throughout the park there are little secrets and details that I never noticed, yet now will never not notice.
Disney is basically a logistical genius. Everything is happening at a specific time and even stored in a specific place, and there is some employee (a.k.a. Cast Member) everywhere to do every job. Disney World is also the largest single sided employer in the whole state of Florida with over 63,000 “Cast Members.” The park never sleeps.
There’s no point in going into detail about what the tour entails, and I wouldn’t want to say anything I shouldn’t, but I have to say that the magic is still alive and well within me, only now I have a better idea about what humans do to create a fantasy in real life. Movies and cartoons are different because you have unlimited possibilities thanks to technology. But this is real life. These are in person, face to face situations that are carefully orchestrated so that a little girl meets, in her mind, the exact same Elsa and Anna she sees on the screen and on her backpack and on the plates and napkins she had at her last birthday party. That is what 63,000 people do for a living. They create those moments.
When I was down in the “utilidoor” tunnels, I wasn’t seeing a different side of Disney. It isn’t something top secret that they need to hide. It is just the power behind the alternate reality being experienced above or outside. Signs on the doors exiting backstage areas read, “REMEMBER TO SMILE” and “YOU ARE IN CHARACTER.” It was a testimony that people can, in fact, create magic when they try. It is really simple. And that is something I hadn’t exactly comprehended before. Yeah, I always knew it was some guy behind Mickey’s face. I also realized eventually that Santa was in fact…well…not Santa. But for some reason that can’t be explained, the magic doesn’t die. I just realized that it is us, humans, that have to create it so that we, humans, can experience and enjoy it. The audience is just as much responsible for the magic as the performers and Imagineers, and that was a life-altering epiphany.
I went to Animal Kingdom and rode what is, hands down, the best roller coaster in all of Disney World (and having never visited Six Flags, Universal Studios, or Knott’s Berry Farm, the best I have ever ridden. “Expedition Everest” is a must ride for anyone who comes to this place. Absolutely thrilling. But it was even better for me. Just as I boarded the ride, another one of those massive Florida tropical rains began to fall. I rode the entire ride through a constant barrage of warm rain. It was awesome! I got drenched to a degree that it wasn’t even worth preserving any remaining dryness. It was like I had jumped in a pool. That is how wet I was. Animal Kingdom was way better than I had originally anticipated. I didn’t stay to see every attraction, but I did manage to walk around and see most of the park. Asia was awesome because it has a cool Indian theme throughout most of it, and I really like Indian themed things…Africa was great and the monkeys and other animals were all actively entertaining from their enclosures. It was great, but I had to experience the other half of EPCOT before I could consider my Disney World vacation a complete success.
I had to ride “Mission: SPACE” again. This time, however, I didn’t think it was as intense as yesterday. Regardless, it was great. I made my way to the World Showcase and went from country to country. I didn’t even realize that the people working in each country exhibit were actually from that country! It wasn’t until I got all the way to England and met a cast member named Holly that was probably the most beautiful girl I had seen all week. Brunette, blue eyes, fair skin, almost a perfect fusion Kate Beckinsale and Kate Middleton. She spoke and I noticed in her accent that she was from the UK. Then I put two and two together. I felt dumb…I decided that Holly was way out of my league …and English. Oh well!
I wanted to get something to eat, but I wanted to eat something that wasn’t common where I live. Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian – I could get those back home. So I decided to visit Morocco. I probably couldn’t find Morocco on a map, but the food was delicious. That is what I wanted to experience. But I couldn’t resist stopping in the good ol’ U.S. of A exhibit to get a funnel cake. God Bless America, that’s all I can say. The World Showcase was cool and all, but I finished fast. I was exhausted. As 8 o’clock rolled around, I decided that I had completed everything I wanted to do and that it was time to complete one other task that my vacation had been missing. Rest. So right now it is 9:30 PM, I am back at the Port Orleans Resort in my nice air conditioned room, and it is time to sleep. What an amazing day. What an amazing trip!
You know you’ve had a good vacation when you wake up on the last day after sleeping uninterrupted for 12 hours and say, “I want to go to work now.” That is precisely what happened to me. Today was a chill day. I checked out of my hotel and made my way back to Downtown Disney on the ferry to make some last minute purchases and get some more pressed pennies for my collection. Then I got out of there as quick as possible!
I took a long leisurely bus ride back to the hotel lobby to wait for the Magical Express. As I waited and sat glued to a really good book I am reading currently, all of the sudden there was a noticeable sudden change in the humidity level of the room. Even my subconscious mind began to question what was happening to the once comfortable cool temperature of the room. Turns out I had made it back to the hotel lobby just in time because another monsoon rain storm began to blow through and an insatiable amount of rain fell. Sheets of warm rain similar to what I experienced yesterday at Animal Kingdom. I was happy to be dry and indoors this time though. When the rain stopped, the temperature regulated itself again. Mother nature is a magnificent thing.
The hour long Magical Express ride was prime time to plug in and admire the gorgeous lushness of central Florida. I was a child in the pacific northwest, so I know green. But this is…extreme. There is a difference between pacific green and tropical green. Something green and lush is growing out of every crack on the face of this beautiful place. It takes me back to the week I spent in the Bahamas back in 2004. Such moist vivid radiating colors are a sight to see. And I’m just talking about my view from the freeway! Though I don’t anticipate ever living in Florida, I am intrigued. Shorts, flip flops, and a Hawaiian-type shirt as an everyday wardrobe certainly has its draw. Living in Orlando would be like being on vacation every day. But then I realized that a certain type of person would say the same thing about Utah and I considered myself blessed.
So the trip has come to a close, and I am ready to get home back to life. This has been such a rewarding and fulfilling trip. I feel like I have learned some important things about life. I had the chance to visit a beautiful destination and be in one of the happiest places on Earth. I smelled enticing aromas, got drenched from head to toe, saw children laugh uncontrollably with joy, ate a frozen banana, met people from different countries, and felt proud to be an American. I felt inspired by art, heard amazing music, eavesdropped on a thousand conversations, and saw some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen in my life. Sounds like a pretty satisfying journey if I do say so myself.
Now it’s time to head home. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to sing at the top of my lungs in private. But the experience carries on! These are the things that we remember our whole lives. 50 years from now I will remember this trip. Things on this trip will come up in conversations for the rest of my life. I will never see any of the people I met ever again, but I will never forget them. From Eilith and Calum from Scotland and that woman from Manhattan whose name I never asked to the family from Georgia that loved Auburn and Holly the gorgeous British Cast Member in England at EPCOT. Those are things that I never forget. This is what life is all about. In a world where more and more people are living to work, I am working to live. Hopefully my next adventure isn’t too far off. Give me a week and I’ll need another vacation!