This week, we have the exciting conclusion of my Disney story!
From the time I met Max, I would say, “Someday we are going to go to Disney World in Florida. When I retire, we are going to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. We are going to stay at a deluxe hotel, eat at a character meal, and do everything I’ve always wanted to do.” He would smile indulgently and repeat, “Someday.” When he moved in with me in 2002, his tune changed. In a good way. When I started my oft-told tale about my once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disney World, he stopped me and said, “Why are we waiting until you retire? Why don’t we go now?” Max is the epitome of planned spontaneity and carefully controlled adventure. The fact that he would suggest such an idea was almost blasphemous- but appealing.
Not that we just went all bananacake and packed our bags immediately. We spent a year planning our trip- planned spontaneity and carefully controlled adventure. I produced a spreadsheet, using two different guidebooks to schedule parks, rides, shows, meals, and other “must-dos.” I had a list of level B attractions to fill in time in case we had a moment to spare. We researched the different Disney hotels and initially booked a package that included a room with a view of grazing giraffes and zebras from our balcony. In the year-long planning process, another package became available that was $1200 cheaper, but had us staying at the Yacht Club. This was my sole concession to price for this trip. I mourned the loss a little bit when I made the change, but it turned out that the Yacht Club was the absolute best choice because… location, location, location. We could walk to Epcot, which we did almost daily.
One of the things I learned on that first trip to Disney World is that there really is magic there. I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001. I was fastidious about watching my diet and testing my blood regularly. I forgot what it felt like to be full. On Christmas, I allowed myself one square of Dove chocolate, which felt like a religious experience. At Disney World, it turned out I could eat anything I wanted. I kept testing my blood and finding it was low, so could just keep eating a pretzel, ice cream, or other food-like substance I had not ingested in two years. Some people would probably argue that my newfound food freedom was more about the miles and miles I walked each day rather than magic, but I’m sticking with the pixie dust story.
I’ve never been very good at “once in a lifetime.” Max and I ended up making three more trips from California to Florida to visit Disney World during the first decade of the new millennium.
In 2012, Max and I began thinking about retirement. We knew we probably wanted to move out of Southern California. We discussed several possible destinations but kept coming back to central Florida. Truthfully, having spent so much of my life in Disneyland’s backyard, I thought my DNA might unravel if I moved too far away from a Disney park. When we looked into the idea more carefully, we found that there were many attractive benefits to moving to Florida. The biggest one is that I could buy a three-bedroom, 2 bathroom detached 1500 square foot detached house with a garage for $50,000 less than what my 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, 650 square foot condo in California would be worth on the open sales market. I poked around on the internet and found a central Florida real estate agent who used to live about 90 miles from my home in California. Max and I decided to take a trip to Disney World (he twisted my arm… not) and add on a couple of days to drive 45 miles north of Orlando to Lake County to look at some houses.
Some people go to Disney World and buy a t-shirt. I bought a house.
I retired in October of 2014. We moved to central Florida to live in my pretty little house at the beginning of December. It was quite the whirlwind. By New Year’s Eve, we had annual passes to Disney World and had already created some skid marks on them. We began a flurry of years doing Disney in ways I had only imagined before- seeing the Candlelight Processional at Epcot at Christmastime, wandering a park for just a few hours before getting tired and going home because we knew we could come back any time, resort-hopping at Christmas and Easter to see the special decorations, taking advantage of special festival opportunities like learning to make paper art with a Disney artist and creating an abstract spin picture by riding a bicycle, buying Disney merchandise for a 20-30% discount. I was sad when we left Disney property in 2012 when we went to look at houses. Max asked me why and I explained that, if we bought a house nearby, we wouldn’t be staying at Disney ever again. He patiently pointed out to me that living 40 miles away did not mean that we could not spend the night at the House of Mouse occasionally. So, we did.
In February of 2015, two months after we moved to Florida, I went back to California to pack up my mother and move her to a mobile home park near our new home. This was a huge transition for all of us. My mother’s health had been deteriorating for some time, but she still led a busy, fulfilling life in California. I was determined to make up for what she was leaving by providing as much fun and amusement as I could. For my mother, that meant two things- endless trips to Walmart and regular excursions to Disney. I pushed her around the parks and pointed out small details that most people would miss, especially people riding in a wheelchair. One of my happiest Disney memories with her was going to the Osborne Family Light Spectacular. It was jaw-dropping. As I inched her through layers and layers of crowds, I did not even mind the lack of personal space. The look on her face was worth every jostle, every recapture of momentum, and every whiff of smoke and body odor. To cap off the evening, we bought t-shirts to proclaim that the Osborne Family Light Spectacular was a wrap, and we were there. We bought popcorn in souvenir buckets in the shape of Mickey Mouse wearing an elf costume. Elf Mickey still stands guard outside my front door every Christmas season. Perfect night.
After my mother died in 2017, Max and I made a trip to Epcot during the Flower and Garden festival. During the festival, Disney erects giant topiaries of favorite characters. I wanted to sprinkle some of her ashes by the Tinker Bell topiary. There is also always a butterfly garden. In 2017, the butterfly habit was called the “Butterfly Garden of Goodness.” I could not think of any place more appropriate to leave a little bit of my beautiful mother- Dorothy Goodness- than with the butterflies in the garden that I decided was named for her. All of this ash-scattering was highly illegal and carried a minimum penalty of Disney shunning, but I did not care. Some things are just worth the risk.
Disney in the time of COVID was certainly a new take on things. It was a microcosm of the rest of the world. For someone who did not know life without Disney parks in it, I could not conceive that Disney actually closed the gates even after reading it several times. It just seemed so shocking. I do not overstate when I say it felt like the world might actually come to an end. Churches could close and live stream services. Children could stay home from school and learn remotely. Employees could begin a whole new era of telecommuting. Disney, however, is just such a visceral, here experience. On one day- March 16, 2020- the world got quieter, sadder, and lonelier.
In September, Max and I attended a special preview reopening for annual passholders. Despite the possible risk, I really wanted to go. I wanted to see the creativity with which the Disney cooperation devised distancing and other safety protocols. I wanted to see what activities were still operational. I wanted to feel something normal again. I just wanted to see my happy place. When we arrived, there was a weird quiet in the air- there were so many fewer people even in the parking lot. There was almost no hustle and bustle. The brave souls who did venture into the park that day seemed to be navigating cautiously and tentatively- almost as if they were trying not to breathe. The paths to the entrance were lined, at appropriate social distances, with masked cast members waving their Mickey-gloved hands at us. They were beaming and shouting “welcome back.” It had something of the flavor of those old movies where the grateful townspeople cheer the returning heroic soldiers who have saved their village from invasion.
The eerie quietness we noticed in the parking lot did follow us throughout the day. Never in my life have I been to Disney with so few people around me. We could walk on nearly all the rides. The queue areas were designed with social distancing in mind. That sounds easy enough, but it was actually a pretty complicated feat with the way Disney lines wrap around. It was a fun game to see if we could figure out the reasons for seemingly random stretches of empty space clearly exceeding six feet.
We attended this quasi-reopening knowing that certain elements, like parades and character meet-and-greets, would not be available. That did not stop Disney from throwing in a few surprises. As we came out of Starbuck’s, Tinker Bell was riding down the road on a huge treasure chest! She sat atop the treasure chest, clearly socially distant from everyone, waving her wand and laughing. Because there were so few people in the park, it was easy to see her, and it was easy for her to see individuals. She pointed down at me and giggled. I was wearing a t-shirt depicting a huge Tinker Bell wearing a mask with the word QUARANTINED! brazened across it. She called down to me and made a heart with her hands. She spoke directly to me, and I trailed along next to the float like some sort of Neverland stalker. I did not need for her to stand next to me or hug me. I was a member of her posse.
During that first year of the pandemic, I was able to reach a milestone. In the days of Disney desolation, I was able to go on every ride I wanted to experience that I had not been able to because of crowds pre-COVID.
When restrictions loosened and people began feeling more comfortable navigating the outside world during the pandemic, crowds returned to Disney. Did they ever. I swear that everyone who stayed locked in their homes for 12-18 months decided all at once to go back to the World. It is rare to find six inches of personal space much less six feet.
Recently, in 2022, my brother died. He had always said he wanted his ashes scattered in the river at the jungle cruise ride. Always a little bitter that I moved away from California and took our mother with me, he stipulated “and not in fuckin’ Florida, either… I want to be scattered on the jungle cruise ride at DISNEYLAND.” I made a quick trip back to California and spent about $400 on admission and parking so my sister-in-law, step niece, and I could go into Disneyland to do this one activity. We were successful in our mission and my brother is now relishing his view of the back side of water.
Everyone has various frameworks for their lives. We see the events of our lives from different angles, with different cropping. I will not say that Disney is the only framework of my life, but it is certainly one of them. It is not that Disney reflects my life. It is more that my life, over the decades, reflects how I view Disney.
I offer these musings to those who scoff at people like me and say that Disney is not “real life.” I beg to differ. Disney might not always be a fairy tale, but I am human evidence that Disney life is most certainly real life.
Have a pixie-dusted day!
REMINDER: The launch party for my new book, Puppies, Guppies and Letting Go, is THIS Saturday! The party is scheduled from 3-5pm on 10/22/22. If you are local to Leesburg, Florida (or even if you are not and feel like exerting a huge effort- I’m looking at you Bob and Judy!) and can attend in person, we will be getting together at the St. James Episcopal Church parish hall at 204 N. Lee Street in Leesburg. If you want to join by Zoom, you can click this link:
If you are not able to attend, you will be able to purchase the book in paperback and/or kindle edition on Amazon starting Saturday.