The text message from my wife arrived a few days before we were to leave on a 1st anniversary trip to Disney World.
It read, “lol,” and contained a link to a 2012 bit by comedian Jim Gaffigan. (This is the formula for a successful Millennial marriage: YouTube link + “lol” = communication.)
I already knew where this was going, but clicked anyway. Gaffigan starts by describing a trip to Disney World with his children before launching into the portion my wife wanted me to hear.
“Now, there are adults who go to Disney without children, and they’re called ‘weirdos,’” Gaffigan says. “Very nice people, absolutely crazy. Even the ComicCon people are like, ‘Yeah, they’re a little frightening. I got a Batman living room, but these people are scary.”
He was talking about me. I wanted to defend myself, but I knew I couldn’t.
How could I? I recently realized that I somehow have collected enough Disney apparel that I could travel to Orlando for a week, wear new clothes every day, have all my shirts be Disney-themed, and still have Disney T-shirts left unworn. There’s no coming back from that.
But I’m not apologizing. There’s must be a reason the place sends me into mania.
This time was much worse than the others. After all, I can’t even fully recall how our trip came to be. I had planned it on autopilot, in a fugue state. It started in early August when I found full episodes of Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers—a childhood favorite—on Amazon. Then, I somehow transitioned to watching YouTube videos of a guy going to theme parks to do impressions of Disney characters to those same Disney characters (it’s as trippy as it sounds). And, further and further down the nostalgia hole I fell until I found myself on the Disney World booking website.
It was at this point I woke up to catch myself torn between logic (“do you really want to spend money you don’t have on this?”) and sentimentality (“yeah, but, Disney”).
Turns out, I was too far gone. I reserved a mid-September dinner at one of my favorite spots in Disney, Yak and Yeti, with every intention of canceling. But the fine print on the reservation gave the Yeah But Disney side of me the loophole it needed.
“Oh wait, there’s a $20 cancellation fee,” I thought, ignoring the fact the penalty only applies if you wait until the day of the reservation. “We can’t back out now, so might as well book the flight, hotel and park tickets. Household budget? We just won’t run the heat or go food shopping for a few months. The warm memories will sustain us!”
My wife generously let me have this one. She enjoys Disney, but, unlike me, is not prone to Disney-induced frenzies. She was, however, extremely supportive in the “If you want to go to Florida in September to sweat your Mickey ears off, let’s go for it” kind of way. (Stand-up routines suggesting I’m a weirdo were the only exception.)
So, we booked the trip around our wedding anniversary. For the weeks leading up to it, I felt as if the sugar of Disney Treats Past had reactivated itself in my bloodstream.
Once I arrived, I realized that I had edited my memories somewhat, and that Disney World, at its core, is standing in line all day, being exposed to the various scents of overheated, exhausted strangers. Yet, I was fine with it. And there are so many people like me—returning to Disney World time after time, deciding odoriferous queueing hours are a price worth paying.
More than 20 million people went to the Magic Kingdom in 2017. Think about it: that’s 56,000 people a day in a park that’s only 107 acres. You have the population of New Brunswick paying $125 per person to squeeze into an area 32 times smaller than the city of New Brunswick every day.
It is this lure—thoroughly engineered—that always has intrigued me about Disney World. How Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom employs forced perspective to draw people in. How Disney has studied the behavior of park-goers to determine—to the inch—the adequate distance between trash cans. How certain smells, like chocolate chip cookies on Main Street, are piped in to entice people in that direction. How, in recent years, Disney has introduced Magicbands, a technology-packed bracelet which serves as your park ticket, your credit card, your room key, a link to an album of digital photos of your trip and more. They’ve thought of everything so you don’t have to think about anything.
Previous adulthood visits to Disney World had given me this different kind of appreciation for the park, the ability to separate the individual parts from the overall experience, to see what’s required to create the illusion Disney’s selling.
But I think I was subconsciously searching this time to see if I still had the old kind of Disney experience in me, the ability to achieve the feeling of awe and joy that’s plastered on all the (non-crying) children’s faces. I think that’s why this trip—my 10th to Disney World—sent me into a delirium the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in a quarter century.
It didn’t take long for me to confirm my hunch. On our first night, we went to the Magic Kingdom for an event called Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. I, having an assortment of Disney shirts, decided to wear one inspired by Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger from Toy Story.
At one point, I heard a woman say, “Look, honey, he’s Buzz, too,” as we walked by.
I turned around to find a little girl, no more than 2-years old, wearing a Buzz Lightyear dress. As she registered what her mother had told her, her eyes grew to three times their normal size. A huge smile made its way on to her face.
“Wow, you’re Buzz, too!” I said to her. “Very cool. Have fun!”
She nodded, still smiling.
The interaction took just 30 seconds, but her reaction stuck with me. Even though it wasn’t me experiencing the awe, I felt just as energized seeing someone else encountering it.
And though I don’t know when I’ll make it back to Disney World again, I had found what I was looking for this time—confirmation that though we might not see it ourselves, imagination, wonder and joy are still alive and well in the world.