A Day in the Happiest Place on Earth

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July, 1994, St Matthews Catholic School, Mudgee, Australia

It’s a chilly winter morning in Mudgee and a much younger, more naive Chris is sitting outside of the fifth grade classroom listening as cooler students discuss their recent winter holidays.

“We went to Bali,” Peter Flynn boasts to the small crowd gathered to hear the telling, “We spent every day at the beach”.

“That’s pretty cool,” Nicholas Cox concedes, “But we went to DisneyWorld”.

A collective awed silence falls over the group. Disney World – the apex of the child holiday pyramid. And suddenly my two weeks at Byron Bay on the NSW north coast doesn’t seem so cool. But then again, not being cool is something ten year old Chris is used to.

At that moment, I have a bizarrely clear memory of knowing that I’d never get to see Disney World. My family weren’t in the income bracket to make something like that happen and – in an emo moment that came years before the emo obsession swept the teenage world – I just didn’t think good things like that would ever happen to me.

You see, Disney World wasn’t just some cool vacation idea to an oft bullied and regularly overlooked kid with buck teeth, too many freckles, and a god awful mess of semi curly brown hair. Disney World symbolized a better life and being a better person. To that ten year old fifth grader, Disney World was the wavering mirage that never seemed to get any closer.

And I’d never get the chance to go there.

A Moment of Transformation

It didn’t really sink in until I was standing by the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse with an over sized sweet tea in one hand and my camera in the other. A sea of tourists eddied and whirled around me as I gawked up at the fairy tale castle like the hayseed that we Australians well and truly are when it comes to the world at large.

Disney Fairy Tale Castle
Just an Aussie guy in front of a castle. No biggie.

I’d been at the Disney Resort for the better part of an hour, but it didn’t really feel like I was anywhere special as of yet. Through the sun-baked car-park, the crowded ferry across to the resort, and the seemingly unending line to get into the park – it felt like just another theme park.

I was underwhelmed not only by the park, but also by the fulfillment of some half-formed childhood dream. This day should have meant more to me, but it was just another stinking hot Florida day and I was just another tourist in the world’s largest theme park.

But something changed when music began to blare out of the speakers and Disney characters began to arrive on brightly colored floats escorted by dancers smiling impossibly big smiles. Nobody could ever be as happy as those singers and dancers, but a strange thing happened as they circled the statue:

I started to feel that happy.

Disney World parade
The parade begins!
Disney parade clown
The enthusiasm of Disney employees is infectious

I can’t explain it in any way that makes sense. There was an infectiousness about the music and the dancing and the singing and the way the eyes of children lit up as Mickey Mouse deigned to wave at them or Buzz Lightyear looked in their direction. And all at once I wasn’t a twenty eight year old Aussie guy on vacation – I was that awkward ten year old and I was where I had always wanted to be.

I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that I felt the tell-tale prick of tears threatening to trickle out as I took it all in, but you best believe a burly Aussie lad like me was quick to wipe them away before anybody saw.

Disney World was no longer just another theme park. It suddenly did feel like the happiest place on earth that it claims to be.

I’m Going to Disney World!

How had this all come to pass? That requires another brief flash-back…

It’s winter. Again. In a darkened apartment, 2003 Chris is huddled over his garish pink iMac frantically tapping out another angst-ridden poem in dedication to his lost ‘love’ of three months the previous summer. The cold of Mudgee mornings has been traded in for the bitter chill of Armidale nights and I’m in the very middle of what I like to call my ’emo phase’.

I whiled away those late, lonely nights alternating between writing poetry on AllPoetry and chatting with various girls around the world on MSN. Those were the days of my long distance romance with Delia, my often steamy chats with a girl from Adelaide, and countless hours spent talking with a best friend – Bridget – who I’d never meet.

It was also the time when I started talking to Candy, a fellow poet who lived in Florida. To this day, she’s the only one of my online friends from that time that I’ve been lucky enough to meet. And she just happened to work at Disney and could get her hands on a few free passes…

I’ll talk more about my experience meeting Candy (and other ‘online friends’) in a future entry, promise! But we’re here to talk about Disney World.

Exploring Disney World

I’m not going to bore you with a blow by blow of my day in the Magic Kingdom. Let’s be honest, the internet is littered with guides to the world’s most famous theme park and how to exploit Fast Pass or save a buck.

Below, you’ll find a series of pictures and my observations from the day. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a ‘guide’ to Disney World, but for now I’ll leave that to more educated minds than mine. I didn’t even get a chance to ride Space Mountain, for God’s sake!

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse
The statue where I made the transformation from cynical 28 year old to wide-eyed 8 year old.

Once the music had died down and the performers had gone back to wherever it is performers go when they’re not performing, it was time to actually explore the park. Despite the sunny day it was actually not too busy as we made our way into Adventureland to see what was on offer there.

Adventureland, Disney
Entering the first stop of the day – Adventureland
Swiss Family Robinson House
Exploring the Swiss Family Robinson house. Haven’t never seen the movies, this was a bit ‘meh’. I’m sure my folks would have loved it.
Enchanted Tiki Room
The Enchanted Tiki Room may be a bit cheesy with its animatronic birds and songs, but it’s a cute little escape from the sweltering Florida heat.

While the ride selection at Disney World isn’t comparable to a Six Flags or a Kings Dominion, it makes up for that in atmosphere and with its wonderful live shows. We checked out the Enchanted Tiki Lounge, rode the Jungle River Boats, experienced Pirates of the Caribbean, and had a chat with a lovely Disney employee before moving on.

Pirates of the Caribbean
My favourite ride of the day
Me and Goofy
Goofy and I hanging out at Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean was my first brush with how Disney World differentiates itself from other, thrill-centric parks. While the ride itself is not particularly scary or exciting – the attention to detail is utterly enchanting. From the animatronics to the simple effects used to simulate fire or movement to the very cool theme of the whole place. The addition of Jack Sparrow ties in nicely with the movies, but the ride has a storyline of its own. Burning port towns, ships exchanging cannon fire… it’s just a fantastic ride. It’s more experience than thrill, and it’s the only ride I also queued up for when visiting Disney Land later in the trip.

Jungle Cruise at Disney World
The Jungle Cruise may be a little tame, but I loved the pun rich commentary provided by our guide.

Our next stop was the colonial themed area that encompasses two of the park’s more famous rides (Splash Mountain and the Thunder Mountain ride) as well as hosting the Hall of Presidents and our lunch venue. Food at Disney World has a good enough amount of variety, but it’s neither cheap nor particularly healthy. I settled for a bland cheese burger and we were on our way again.

Thank God for Fast Pass, by the way. I could not have stood in hour plus queues to ride in the heat.

Splash Mountain
Riders taking the plunge on Splash Mountain

I got a real kick out of Splash Mountain. Songs of the South is one of the first Disney movies I remember seeing, and it was fun to see the characters come back to life. It ranks as one of the better flume rides I’ve been on as well – I got utterly drenched on the plunge at the end.

Thunder Mountain is a fun little coaster as well. It’s not overly scary, but the twists and turns are fun and it’s again got a wonderfully set up theme that is persistent throughout. Much better than other ‘themed’ roller coasters at more thrill focused parks.

Thunder Mountain
A POV shot from my own run on Thunder Mountain. Good times.

The shows at Disney World were a highlight for me. While animatronic may seem a little tacky, there’s no faulting the production values – especially of the impressive (and inspirational) Hall of Presidents. My personal favorite with the Philharmagic 4-D experience. It was just beautifully done and featured a lot of my favourite films from growing up. It was a little bit enchanting to see Ariel, Simba, and Aladdin bouncing around right in front of me.

Country Bear Jamboree
The amusing (and slightly inappropriate) Country Bear Jamboree pokes fun at stereotypes of Southerners and rednecks.
Hall of Presidents
The Hall of Presidents (narrated by Morgan Freeman, no less) is a moving and quite wonderful tribute to American patriotism. I’m envious of that.

Short queues meant that, largely, we were able to experience all the park had to offer before the sun had even set. Sure, we didn’t browse every shop and we had to give Space Mountain a miss because of its criminally long line – but we still hit a lot of the big ones. We experienced the sugary sweetness of It’s a Small World, the outdated techno-babble of Walt Disney’s pet project, and the very cool effects inside the Haunted House.

That one warrants special mention too. Even the line was fun! With humorous headstones, interactive things along the way, and the occasional surprise – even lining up felt like a part of the ride. And the ride itself? I loved the use of projections and stuff – much more evocative than cheap thrills and pop out ‘monsters’.

It's a Small World
It’s a small (and not particularly interesting) world
Australia, It's a Small World
Australia’s meager representation on the It’s a Small World ride will be the subject of a STRONGLY WORDED LETTER
Haunted Mansion
Lining up for my second favorite ride of the day, The Haunted Mansion
Haunted Mansion queue
One of many little diversions along the way. They made the wait much less painful.
Haunted Mansion Organ
This organ was fantastic. You could touch an instrument carved onto the side and it would play a corresponding tune. Very groovy.

Any day at Disney World needs to end with the fireworks spectacular. With sweet tea in hand and a belly full of remarkably good hot dog, we staked out a bit of curb for the triple threat that ends a night at Disney World – the Electric Parade, the Magic Moments projections onto the enchanted castle, and the fireworks to wrap it all up.

Enchanted Castle at twilight
The Enchanted Castle acts as canvas for a saccharine sweet ‘Magic Moments’ show that precedes the fireworks.
Electric Parade, Disney World
The colorful and cheery Electric Parade is a cute way to wrap up the day. Some innovative floats too.
Disney World fireworks
I hate that I forgot my tripod for the fireworks!

As the last boom of the fireworks echoed in the night sky, Candy grabbed me by the arm and lead us in a mad rush for the front gate. While the park would remain open another two hours, we were ready to call it a day. Bone weary and a little sunburned, we made our way back to the car and continued on into the city to have a few drinks.

My day at Disney World was the culmination of a near twenty-year daydream that a much less bald, much less bearded CWB had first day-dreamed on a chilly winter morning in Mudgee. And while I’d gone in skeptical, I came out a believer.

Disney World may really be the Happiest Place in the World.

Your Say

Have you ever been to a Disney park? What did you think?

Maybe you took a school trip to Disney Land Paris or Tokyo Disney?

And what was your earliest travel dream? Can you remember where the kid version of you desperately wanted to go?

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