Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Libras: Forty Years and Counting

So here we come to it: the reason why I shaved my goatee down to nothing but a creepy 70s porn-star mustache, the reason why I spent an hour cutting my jeans down to shorts, then to short-shorts, then to … well, something thisclose to obscene, the reason why I and my roommates woke up on October first at 6:00 AM, sleep-congested and stumbling about our somewhat cramped room at Pop Century before birthing out into the day without a drop of caffeine or a hint of coherent thought.

October first, 2011 – exactly forty years to the day that the Magic Kingdom, and Walt Disney World, opened to the public. It was the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World today, and by gum, we were ready for it.


Now, I know what you’re wondering. Did we have to dress up like it was 1971 in order to gain admittance to the Magic Kingdom that day? Of course not. But the understanding on the Internet – remember, kids, the Internet is never wrong – was that squeezing into getups that our parents would have approved of back in those dim, distant days before Springsteen had released his first album and Nixon was still in office was heartily encouraged. Paul was the most encouraged. He somehow managed to find an outfit that not only looked pretty good on him, but that epitomized the 1970s: all polyester and rayon and prints … and I am telling you now that he did his level best to feather his hair. I put on my Obscenity Shorts and my red striped tank top and wished desperately for mustache wax. I’ve since seen pictures of my Dad from the early 70s and was startled at the eerie, unsettling resemblance. Joe and Marty dressed like Joe and Marty, because seriously, there’s such a thing as going too far.

At the gates to the Magic Kingdom, we were each given a 40th Anniversary Button and a park map whose cover resembled the old ticket booklets you’d buy when you came to Disney World in those years before I was born. There were five kinds of tickets, A through E, where the A tickets were inexpensive and the rides were basic, but the E tickets – stuff like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean – cost nearly a dollar and were balls-out amazing. Even now, new rides with big budgets and tiny details are called E-tickets, and it’s stuff like that, legacy stuff, that makes me feel like the past is not so distant from the present.

Inside the E-ticket booklet was a regular, present day map … and a replica of the Opening Day map from 1971. As far as I know, this was the only day the maps were going to be distributed, despite the fact that Disney’s dedication to celebrations is vast and ongoing. I made sure to get me a handful; I wanted some for my own archives, but I also wanted one I could thumb through at will. I spent a lot of that morning opening my map up and looking through at another slice of this world of which I was never a part … and which I’m now inextricably bound to. Time’s a funny thing.

The courtyard outside the entrance was thronging with people, and while it took some intense mobile coordination, we merged with the larger Crew, Disney folks we’d met on Twitter who eventually became real-life buddies. Kristen, as promised, brought her homemade cinnamon scones. Her home, by the way, is in New Jersey, which meant she had to transport something like fifty scones on an airplane. They were as good as fresh-baked. Doug, who I haven’t seen since he jettisoned New England for the year-round Disneyness of Florida, stood by in a red shirt as if he’d never seen Star Trek. Kim, who loves my dimples so much I send her dimple pics on days when we’re apart. So many more friends, too many to count. We got this picture before the opening ceremonies, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Marty (in the back with his hands outstretched) looking happier. There are few things as thrilling as seeing Marty drunk with happiness.

Me and Kristen!

Paul and Scarlet!

Marty and Robbie!

The opening ceremonies went according to tradition: the Mayor of Main Street appeared at the train station overlooking the courtyard and welcomed us all to the Most Magical Place On Earth (Disney specificity: Disneyland is the Happiest place, Disney World is the Most Magical. You can’t have the same superlative for two places!) Then other citizens of Main Street come out and dance and sing a medley of “Good Morning” (Good morning! Good mooooorning! It’s great to stay up late!), “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and “Casey Jr.” Then the Disney World railroad pulls in, steaming its steam, with Mickey Mouse and a whole bunch of other Disney characters in tow. It’s cheerful and wonderful and it scares my husband to death.

Good morning!

Then we were in, rushing up Main Street with the unwashed masses, taking fewer moments than normal to savor the grandeur of Cinderella Castle, making sure we got good spots for the 40th Anniversary celebration. We managed to force our way through the paths to a covered shelter so close to the castle forecourt we could almost touch it. Our friend Colin emerged from the rabble … wearing an all-too similar outfit.

“I’m afraid my shorts aren’t short enough,” Colin said, glancing at my pasty-white legs and the pockets hanging beneath the frayed cutoff line.

Paul glanced at us. “Or, you know, too short?”

“No such thing!” I said, and looked back down at my map. I loved my map.


The Walt Disney World Ambassadors appeared at the Castle Forecourt, followed by the Main Street Philharmagic, launching at once into a jaunty medley of classic Disney melodies: “Heigh Ho,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Under the Sea” and a bunch more. Was I singing along? Maybe I was singing along. Soon, the big parade started up Main Street, and this was a small slice of genius. Disney is a big fan of spotlighting itself, and over the years, parades have been a large part of it celebrating the wonder that is Disney. As this parade approached, we realized with dawning amazement that it wasn’t just one parade; it was all the parades. At their ten-year mark, Disney had something called a “Tencennial,” and a section of that parade led the march. Then there was something called Mickey Mania, then music from the 15th, the 20th (Remember the Magic!), the 25th anniversaries and more. Marching along in all this was the Cavalcade of Characters: Mickey and Minnie, of course, the whole Big Five, and all the princesses … but also the princes, which made Paul happy, and Chip and Dale and Br’er Fox and Bre’er Bear and the White Rabbit and Alice and the Mad Hatter and the Seven Dwarfs and BALOO WAS THERE and Buzz and Woody and Stitch and it was overwhelming and thrilling and I never wanted it to end.

Of course it did … which is okay when you have the cushion of Walt Disney World to buoy you back up. The ambassadors spoke some, CEO Meg Crofton delivered a nice address, and then the Main Street barbershop quartet, The Dapper Dans, led everyone in a sing-along of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” My buddies were close by, and we knew all the words.

Then: fireworks. During the day at Disney, you can totally have fireworks. And that’s how we saw in the 40th Anniversary of Walt Disney World.

* * *

The Crew, like the Avengers, assembled. Through the space-age power of our texty machines, we all gathered in Tomorrowland, within sight of Space Mountain. As we prepared to hand over our passes to emissaries bound for the FastPass Machines, Kim noticed that an inordinate number of us had the Premiere Passport, the card that grants you unlimited access to both Disney World and Disneyland over the course of a year. Two years ago – hell, a year ago – I would have found the concept absurd. Even when I’m doing well, I can’t really afford to jet off to Anaheim all pell-mell. Or willy-nilly. Or helter-skelter. One of those. Anyhow, Disneyland is far, Disneyland is expensive to get to, and worst of all, Disneyland is super mega awesome and yes, I would like a Premiere Passport, thank you.

“Take them, Doug!” Kim said, grinning. “I want a picture!”

“All of them?”

All of them!” She was laughing. Doug was laughing. We were all laughing. Maybe it was the nervous titter of rampant consumers, or the residual glee of the day … but in circumstances like this, when your laughter mixes so easily with the laughter of others, it’s more a matter of I’m here with people who understand me, at least this part of me, this special, important, childlike part. Maybe I don’t know everyone here all that well, but I’m among friends. Of the Three Libras Plus One, Paul and I had Premiere Passports, and, giggling, we handed ours over.

We just couldn’t stop laughing.

* * *
Very briefly: if you have a low blood sugar crash at Disney World, the best people to have with you are Joe, Paul, and Marty. They’re like EMTs, those guys.

* * *
We tooled around the Magic Kingdom for awhile, then monorailed over to Epcot for some more of that delicious Food and Wine. I’ve been noticing something interesting about Epcot: a lot of the time, you can only make your way halfway around the World Showcase Lagoon. Like all Disney parks, it’s fun and immersive and brilliant … but it’s also a bit of an endurance test. World Showcase most of all, because it’s all cement and it’s wide open. Depending on the heat and – even more importantly – the humidity of the day, you can only really bring yourself to journey part of the way across before giving up and retreating back to Future World and, eventually, the comfort and cool of your car, your hotel room, your pool. Still, only getting partway across always feels like a slingshot I only pulled back a little and let go with a sigh. It’s less than one and a quarter miles across, which is nothing back home, less than fifteen minutes on the treadmill. But at Disney, that 1.2 miles can, on occasion, feel immense. Ergo the unslung slingshot.

But not today. Not this time. Somehow the four of us managed to make it all the way around World Showcase, stopping, sampling food, gorging, overgorging. Slingshotting, in other words. For the first time this whole trip, Marty, Paul, Joe and I slingshot around the World.

“The best thing about getting one of these Food and Wine gift card bracelets is that it forces you to watch your budget,” Paul and I agreed at the start of the trip. Within a day, we were reloading them. It wasn’t the last time. France had milk chocolate crème brulee! You can’t just have that once.

By the time we passed by the Mexico pavilion, we were won out, utterly exhausted, and ready for some indoor time. At once, we veered right to Future World West, where we dove into The Universe of Energy, featuring Ellen’s Energy Adventure, a long, dark, gently entertaining attraction where Joe and Paul would take various naps.

The Universe of Energy is one of the original Epcot pavilions, back when it was called EPCOT Center and everyone’s childhoods were still intact. It’s partially solar powered and it used to have jaunty music during the preshow and the finale and the whole thing was about energy. Does it sound dull? Maybe. It’s one of the most aggressively “edutaining” offerings Disney ever constructed, and in 1996 they redid the attraction, calling it Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Disney decked it out with a pre-out Ellen Degeneres, a pre-shaved Alex Trebek, a pre-Halloween H20 Jamie Lee Curtis, and a pre-obscurity Bill Nye the Science Guy, hoping that some funny would inject some life into the attraction. They succeeded, and the pavilion has remained the same since. This means that it’s been Ellen’s Energy Adventure for longer than it was the original attraction; it further means that, while it’s not antiquated eighties nostalgia you get wrapped up in, you get a full-on rush of the 1990s. Ellen’s got a sweet appliqué vest, is all I’m saying. Plus there’s dinosaurs!

After our jaunt into the past – always there, especially at Epcot – we retreated back to our hotel for more swimming, more sleeping, more being away from the humidity of the day. Paul, who had embraced the commando ethos before arriving, had forgotten about how muggy Florida in the early autumn can be, and was flagging like whoa. Even I, Mr. Go Go Go, needed a break. I had all too recently been there in mid-summer, and boy, that’s not a thing you forget.

So we rested, and rested some more, and soon the sun dipped below the horizon and we were off to our second birthday party of the trip. There was a blizzard coming, but we didn't know it yet.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Libras: Thunder Riders

We got off the bus at Epcot and within moments I was looking up at Spaceship Earth, gleaming high above the trees. Marty, Paul, and I headed into the park and there it stood in front of us, towering, gleaming. As you approach Spaceship Earth, there are these marble monoliths that jut up from the ground at dramatic diagonals. They were part of this “Leave a Legacy” campaign in the 90s, where people could get their names and pictures printed on steel and then riveted to these monolith things, which were intended to look all futurey but really, sadly, totally look like gravestones. Of course, you can equivocate on them, and when they’re lit up at night there is a sort of noir futurism to them – a little Blade Runner, maybe – but I’m not sure what’s the original Imagineers had in mind.

Here’s what the Entrance Plaza looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like in 1983, when the world was new and bright and airy and open:

Of course Spaceship Earth still looks majestic, but it’s not the same. I’m not generally one to say, “O, how better it was in the misty past,” but … kinda here. Ditto Horizons. But let’s not get into that now. We have a Joe to catch up to!

We forged forth into Future World East, where Joe would be meeting us in front of Mouse Gear, a retail establishment whose name is singular and not plural, despite the fact that there are actual gears on the front and that’s really misleading (see similar: Cinderella Castle, The Epcots). But first we paused at the information booth to look for Food and Wine Festival Passports, which Marty totally had the idea for first and which Disney totally stole from him. Basically, you get these passports that list each country and each unique food or beverage item you can get from that country. Like, the section for Australia will list the pork chop which, I mean, multigenerational wars have been fought over less, is all I’m saying. Anyhow, the point of the passport is that every time you get something at a country kiosk, you get a stamp, and you’re supposed to collect them all, like Pokemon.

Alas, the information booth was plumb out of passports, and the rumor was that since it was the first official day of the Festival, they hadn’t quite gotten fully up to speed. Disappointed but hopeful, we headed over to Mouse Gear to wait for Joe in the shade. Animal Kingdom might be more humid, but Epcot is one hot park.

Moments later, Joe sauntered up to us.

“You’re smiling,” Paul said, smiling himself. “What gives?” (Paul didn’t say what gives, by the way, but I’m trying to bring back 70s slang for the purposes of the trip report arc.)

“Search me,” said Joe (he didn’t say that at all!), and pulled four Food and Wine Festival Passports from his satchel. They all had our names on them.

Every once in a little while, the smallest gesture makes the hugest impact. More than almost anyone I know, Joe is a sweet, kind, earnest sentimentalist, and it is this reason above all others that he and I have been such great friends for so long. I’m sappy as hell, and Joe’s sappier, and sometimes in the middle of the best place in the world, all it takes is one quiet, beautiful moment to make you stop and try not to well with tears.

My passport had my name on it, and for whatever reason, that meant the world to me.

* * *
I’ll be a little quick here, because it’s already a long trip report and I need to finish writing it before my actual next trip: we toured around World Showcase, we noshed well, and we did it in terrific company. We returned to Future World with our tummies overfull and our steps logy. But we managed to make two more stops before heading out of Epcot for our midday break, and I wanted to quickly talk about those.

This is, by the by, not simply an excuse to use this super mega fantastic old Epcot map. But since I’ve mentioned it.

See that domed building between Horizons and World of Energy? That used to be the Wonders of Life pavilion, which was set back a ways from the other original Epcot pavilions, up a winding path and behind a gently spinning double helix rising up from a quiet pond. Inside it were two motion simulator rides – Cranium Command and Body Wars – and a film about, uh, human reproduction, and also some other stuff I wish I’d been around to see but now can’t because they lost their sponsors and gutted it and turned it into a convention center and also because Saddest Christmas Ever.

But unlike Horizons, which no longer exists and has been replaced with the okay but clearly inferior Mission: SPACE, the pavilion building for Wonders of Life still stands. I know it’s ridiculous pseudo nostalgia – I was never there when it was real, when it was tangible – but I feel it, just the same. This year, the pavilion is the Food and Wine Festival headquarters, with all these expensive seminars and that guy from all the cake challenge shows on Food Network and expensive cookbooks stacked and rising like shaky pillars to the curved ceiling high, high above.

It’s still there, though, this place I never was and which will never quite exist again. The place is bustling with the now, the fervor of the present … but the past is still there, subtle, unassuming, beguiling. It’s in the walls, in the small triangular windows by the entrance. The structure of the restaurant exists, and I collapse into one of the seats, glad to be out of the sun and glad to be with my friends, but also glad to be communing with the past. I guess that sounds silly, but it doesn’t feel silly.

Walt Disney World was never meant to be a museum, and I’m happy for that. I welcome change, so long as the change makes sense and it’s as engaging as whatever was there before. But it’s good to understand the past, and sometimes take trips there.

* * *

Oh, and we also rode Spaceship Earth, because Dame Judi Densch says papaaaaaahrus and it makes up for calling Rome the first World Wide Web.

* * *

When you’re a devious schemer in the name of making awesome things happen, it’s good to have a co-conspirator. For months, Joe and I worked together, planning surprises for the other boys, in part because Joe is genuinely a nice guy and in part because I have a hero complex. This night’s excursion was to be twofold: one, to have a surprise birthday at Kona Café at the Polynesian for Marty, and two, to treat both guys to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.

Now, I’m not going to say that I completely ignored the WWII adage Loose Lips Sink Ships. All I’m saying is that Paul may have had an inkling that something was up. Look, I keep secrets like I keep full tubs of hummus: poorly. Plus, because the whole concept of the Halloween Party was dressing up, I had to toss together some cockamamie story about it being Dapper Day, which is all about dressing up nice-slash-steampunk and everyone knows is in the spring and I’m transparent but I mean well.

After a jaunt in the pool and a refreshing nap in icy-cold air conditioning, the four of us got dolled up to, uh, one degree or another. Paul wore his snazzy Tiki-with-Dole Whip Adventureland shirt, Joe and I of course did Steampunk, and Marty? Marty sort of went as Isaac from Children of the Corn.

Don’t question it. Just go with it.

Marty is either easily fooled or easily fooled on purpose; I’m not sure I care about the distinction, I’m just happy we got to surprise someone. We parked at the Polynesian and sauntered to the Kona Café inside, resplendent in all our Dapper Day/Surprise Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party/Marty’s Soopa Sekrit Birthday Party finery. They sat us right away, a cozy table by the back, and we feasted like drunken kings. I had the coconut almond chicken. Paul had Too Many Wings. Joe tried the shrimp and scallops. Marty had the pomegranate barbecue pork chop. He could have had anything he wanted. As the meal ended, I toasted him and we all raised our glasses.

You know, the Polynesian is where John Lennon officially dissolved the Beatles. I’d like to think that the four of us, joyful and building friendships with each other, served to counteract that a little. We’re not the people who did “Help!” or “Hey Jude” or “Eleanor Rigby,” but we’re us, and us is pretty okay.

* * *

Here’s the basics of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party: it’s a hard ticket event, meaning that there’s a separate charge to get in, though you don’t have to actually have to have a “regular” park pass in addition to your MNSSHP ticket. There are fewer people there, meaning lines are lighter and rides load quicker. There’ a special edition of the regular Wishes fireworks spectacular, called HalloWishes, and the Halloween Parade that opens with the Headless Horseman riding his horse down Main Street, USA carrying a flaming jack o’lantern in one hand. Seriously, he is headless. It’s terrifying and awesome all at once. Plus, there are trick or treating candy stops, a Villains Ball, special Halloween projections and decorations, and everyone dressed up real nice. Disney fanatics are iffy on the Very Merry Christmas Party, which people claim was better in years past, but no one is iffy on the Halloween party. It’s spectacular.

Honestly, the parade might very well be the best part … though in a previous year, I met Baloo at a special meet and greet and danced with him, which might be a high point of my life. The Headless Horseman is one reason the parade kicks so much ass. Seeing unusual characters – like Rabbit, from Winnie-the-Pooh, of all creatures, and Clarabelle the cow – is another. Then there are the Grave Diggers, these creepy dancers in skull makeup, dressed in ominous purple and swinging portentous shovels. They’ll whirl around as a group, retreat and approach, then slam their shovels to the ground and sccccrape them so sparks fly. It’s all done in rhythm with the parade music and the effect is eerie and thrilling at the same time. There are people who go to MNSSHP just to see the Grave Diggers, and I can’t say I blame them.

My favorite part of the parade, though, and by definition my favorite part of the Halloween Party, is when the float with the giant chicken in the henhouse who clucks along to “Ghost Riders In the Sky.” Now, you know my buddy Joe. Tall, sweet, mostly quiet. Some might say circumspect. And yet when that chicken comes along singing cluck-cluck-cluck-cluuuuuuuck-cluck-cluck, Joe loses it. He throws his head back and laughs like laughing is the only thing in the world worth doing.

We spent the rest of the night cramming candy in our mouths and riding rides in the dark. The Haunted Mansion is, inevitably, the most popular attraction during Halloween parties. Usually, there’s a ghoulish woman perched on the lawn outside, wearing spectral robes and cackling and occasionally tossing sarcastic barbs your way. She wasn’t out that night, or perhaps she was off, I don’t know, poltergeisting or whatever spirits do when they’re not contractually obligated to Disney. The Mansion was shrouded in a dense layer of fog, though, and eerie blue lights shone within, like will o’the wisps dancing in the dark. We rode two-by-two in our Doombuggies, and escaped with our heads barely attached. It’s one thing to come out of the Haunted Mansion into a bright, shiny, sunny day – mid-July, maybe, when there are fluffy clouds in the big blue sky and there’s magic afoot. We emerged into darkness, with low organ music intoning over the grounds. Maybe Disney doesn’t to sheer terror, but man, do they have spooky down to a science.

We capped off our night with a one-two punch on mountains from the past and from the future. My newfound love and dedication to Space Mountain never flagging, I settled in next to Marty for another blast off into the vast unknown. Over in Frontierland, the skyward buttes of Big Thunder Mountain are lit up with earth tone illumination. We headed up the long and winding queue, past the boxes reading Lytum & Hyde Explosives Company, into our mine train where the disembodied old-timey prospector voice tells us to hang onto our hats and glasses because this is the “wiiildest ride in the wiiiilderness!” Marty always cracks up when they translate the fun stuff into sedate, well-meaning Spanish. Marty’s kind of awesome.

The four of us clambered aboard our rickety Big Thunder Mountain Railroad train, Marty and Paul in front of us, Joe and I riding behind. A galaxy of Disney stars can’t compete with the real thing: we click-click-clicked up that first lift hill and above us the sky was a star-littered ocean, dark and vast and far away. Big Thunder tricks you, every time, because it’s not the biggest or the fastest coaster in Walt Disney World, or even in the Magic Kingdom. But it’s thrilling, just the same, and especially at night. There’s a science to it, actually – the tracks are warmer, or more well-oiled at night, something – but this is beyond science. This is heart, and gut, the places you feel the important things most insistently. It’s faster at night, and those bunny-hop hills toss you out of your seat more casually, more frequently, as you round the mountainside and point up at the goat standing on top of the shack, because it’s Disney World and there are incongruous goats everywhere. Then it’s past, flying past, and there’s another click-click-click rise, and off in the distance there’s Cinderella Castle, its soft lights and pastels a dream away.

But we’re in the now, the four of us guys. Big Thunder is our world and we’re screaming and laughing, and as we plunge again, falling fast and falling faster, I can’t think of anyplace else I’d rather be.

There’s another drop up ahead, so I hold on tight.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Three Libras: Animal Kingdom In My Soup

For the first time, the four of us sat down to eat as a group. I was famished. The last thing I’d eaten was that porch chop at Epcot, and the sun had been high in the sky then. We ambled over to Pecos Bill’s, the friendliest establishment in all of Fronteirland, and along the way, Joe and Paul told Marty about the fixin’s bar, which was legendarily ample and more than earned its status. “You can make a whole salad on the side,” Paul enthused. I was just thinking about the pickles. Holy God, the Pecos Bill’s pickles.

The rest of our first night together passed in a weirdly calm serenity. There’s sometimes a danger bringing your best friends from different parts of your life together, but none of that awkwardness seemed to seep in. We broke bread with each other – by which I mean we consumed mass quantities of burgers and pulled pork sandwiches – then made our way to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, always better at night. There are some Disney foamers who like to endlessly debate which Big Thunder is better, Disneyland’s or Walt Disney World’s. On this, I’m afraid I must declare a draw. There’s nothing at all like riding through one of Disney’s mountains in the deep dark, screaming and laughing as it slams down hills and throws you into momentary airtime. I’d ridden this with Joe more times than I could count. Last time Paul had been here, he’d clutched an open soda the whole way around the track, never spilling a drop; that’s been his legend. Tonight, I rode with Marty for the first time ever, up, down, spin around, look at the goats and howl into the night.

Some complain about the “magic” at Disney being a corporate imperative, not organic like when Walt was alive. It’s always a little disastrous to compare anything now to when Walt was alive, especially if you were never there. Maybe it’s corporate, and calculated, and specifically designed to force me to “feel” magic that doesn’t really exist.

Well, so what? What is entertainment but a way to manipulate your emotions? If you allow yourself to feel them, if you give yourself willingly to the concepts of joy, and happiness, and, yes, magic, then who’s to say what’s real and what’s not? I rode Big Thunder with three of my best buddies from all over everywhere, and ain’t no one gonna tell me there isn’t magic in that.

* * *

We headed out of Magic Kingdom soon after, exhaustion setting in, and headed out to the frigate launches. The Seven Seas Lagoon, a huge man-made lake just outside the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, is bordered by the Contemporary Resort, the Grand Floridian Resort, and the Polynesian Resort, with boat launches available to take you back and forth from your hotel to the Magic Kingdom. The Lagoon and the monorail serve the same purpose: to honor Walt’s intense desire to avoid urban sprawl at his Florida resort. You park far away, at the Ticket and Transportation Center or at one of the Monorail Resorts, and you travel to the park by monorail or boat (or a bus). Sometimes it’s an inconvenience; on my birthday, the lines for the boat launches were like that scene in War of the Worlds, and the monorails were too intense to even consider. But more often, traveling the ways you don’t at home just adds to the aura of other, of different, of, yes, magic. You shake off the skin of your normal life and put on a new one. Maybe it’s a better one.

We whispered across the Seven Seas Lagoon in the pitchy dark. The water was calm. The tension I carry with me at all times drained away. Once, Joe and I took a ferry over to the Polynesian at sunset, and it’s one of my best memories. This is another. We didn’t really speak, the four of us, and the silence was companionable.

* * *

We had a quick snack at Captain Cook’s, learning that Paul is an absolute fiend for Dole Whips (you could simply say it’s pineapple soft serve, but that’s like saying that the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground, or that Russell Crowe is moderately attractive). You used to only be able to get Dole Whips in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom and in Disneyland, but the Poly is an exception. The exception. The delicious exception.

We toured the Poly for a while, but the four of us were bone-tired. Soon enough, we jaunted back to the Pop, where Paul immediately went to bed and Joe and Marty and I unwound in the pool for a bit first. Then sweet, delicious slumber for maybe six hours. Okay, maybe like five.

Because, seriously. It’s Disney World. We never sleep.

* * *

Paul had never properly been introduced to Animal Kingdom. Last time we were at Disney World, we made this our first stop … but it was late, and there was a kerfluffle getting Paul’s park ticket, and we only really got to ride Expedition Everest once or twice before heading back to our hotel. So this, our first full day at Walt Disney World, was to be Paul’s first real introduction to Animal Kingdom, and I was some kind of excited.

Joe, given all his driving back and forth to the airport the day before, was understandably exhausted, so he chose to get a little extra shuteye while the three of us slammed out the door for Extra Magic Hours. For those unaware, Extra Magic Hours are this perk for staying on property; each day, one of the parks either opens an hour early or stays open three hours later. The best thing about EMH mornings is that you can get there earlier than most park guests and get on all the rides first and don’t have to wait around much. The worst thing is that they don’t do the opening ceremonies for EMH, and Animal Kingdom’s is one of the best. Mickey comes out. There’s a jeep.

Ah well. It’s just after eight and we’re shuffling as fast as we’re allowed toward Expedition Everest, the best roller coaster in all of Walt Disney World and maybe, just maybe, the best ride. Ever? Maybe ever. You can see the mountain up there, rising up over the village of Serka Zong in the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. You get in a tea train, two by two, and climb up the mountain, bam, slam back down backwards, slam, plunge into the dark, zoom, come face to face with the towering Yeti … which isn’t quite up to snuff right now because its foundation has cracks in it and they’re using strobelights to approximate movement which is why some wags call it the Disco Yeti but it’s still imposing and scary, eek! There were three of us, so in the interest of fairness, we had to ride three times, switching riding partners so everyone got a chance to ride with a new buddy. Then, Safari Time!

Animal Kingdom is the largest theme park in the US, and the Kilimanjaro Safaris are most of the reason why. You take this jeep throughout the huge back area of the park and see real animals in kinda-real habitats. There’s a whole savannah and there’s, like, giraffes just wandering around. There are hippo pools. And a lion. No cages, just these clever barriers you can’t see that preserve the illusion of these animals just hanging out. There’s a whole story to your jeep trip – poachers and elephants and animatronics, oh my – but honestly, even though Disney does story remarkably well, it’s the weakest part of the safari. Paul, who had never been on the Safaris before, seemed suitably impressed, if jostled. (I do find it funny that Marty, who has only a marginal interest in Disney, has done WDW stuff that Paul, a lifetime fan, has not. I guess it’s all about proximity.)




“I’m hungry,” Marty said as we stepped off the Safari.

“Yeah, me too. There is a noticeable lack of Food and Wine Festival here at the Animal Kingdom.” I glanced around. “Um, we could go to Tusker House.” Don’t believe what the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World says. About most things, it’s 100% right. About Tusker House, it’s 100% wrong. It’s the best buffet on property and no fooling: there’s regular buffet food, but then there’s also a lot of African-themed stuff like chutneys and couscous salad and stuff. Plus, I’d never been there for breakfast, which I’d heard was a Character Meal.

Paul asked, “Do you have a reservation?”

With a sinking heart, I admitted I didn’t. And I remembered last time I went to Tusker House with Shawn; we had our ADR (advanced dining reservation), but the guy behind us didn’t. We got in immediately. His wait was an hour. “But might as well try, right?” We approached the podium, hopefully looking like the hungriest little boys in all of Animal Kingdom. The Cast Member there smiled at us, took our name, and gave us a buzzer. “Should be about ten minutes.”

Ten minutes! What? I love ten minutes!

We rested our feet for a few minutes and then my pocket began buzzing. “Okay, boys,” the greeter cast person said. “Time to get your picture with Donald!”

“Um, what?” Paul asked. A few things to point out: Paul’s favorite in-park characters are the princesses and the other “face” characters. He’s not as keen on the “fur” characters, even the Big Five – Mickey, Donald, Minnie, Goofy, and Pluto. The other thing you need to be aware of is my mustache. I swear it’s for a reason.

After our photo op with Donald, we got ushered in and dined like kings. Very greedy kings. I had like three helpings of the vanilla topping I used to think was pudding but so, so isn’t. And to be fair, Paul was an amazingly good sport about the characters coming up to us and my insistence that we get pictures with all of them. I insist a lot at Disney World. It’s the best way to get what I want!

Paul and I decided that this was Marty’s birthday breakfast. See, we had a secret planned for later, but there was no reason why we couldn’t start celebrating our First Libra Day at once. Hooray for Libras! Now take a picture with Mickey!

After the cool of Tusker House, the heat outside was punishing. Almost immediately, we took a trip on Kali River Rapids, a white water rafting ride whose queue is intricately detailed but whose actual ride is a little short (especially if you’ve been to the similar but much longer Grizzly River Rapids in California Adventure; I don’t necessarily believe in comparing parks in the negative, but even though Kali has a terrific message of conservation – including a part featuring deforestation, yay? – Grizzly is just more fun. I have a Grizzly hoodie! I also have a lot of hoodies.) Here’s the thing: do we go on these rides expecting to stay dry? They’re designed to drench you. We were across from this woman and her family, and she was laughing on our first big plunge. Then the massive wave came over the side and she wasn’t laughing any more. We were. The three of us got soaked, but it was all okay because we had dry clothes in our locker at the front of the park. Thinking ahead!

Oh, and one last thing before we left Animal Kingdom.


Paul and Marty looked round. “What?”

“Baloo. I have to see Baloo.”


“Oh, I insist.”

At first glance, Baloo (and his picture-partner King Louie, both from the Jungle Book) wasn’t in his customary spot on the path between Africa and Asia. As when I dropped the toothpaste that time, I was crestfallen. Then! A shock of blue among the trees! “There he is you guys it’s Baloo let’s go, let’s GO!” Did I run? A thirty-six year old man with a creepy 70’s mustache and wearing a sleeveless Animal Kingdom T-shirt? Oh, I ran.

It’s played out before and it will again, but it never gets old. We step up. The photographer is all, Oh my God, there are grown men here to see Baloo. I flash my Baloo tattoo. King Louie gets upset beyond reason. Baloo goes apoplectic with joy and dances about, perhaps adding stylish body art to his list of bear necessities. And then we get this picture:

As we stepped off the path, Joe texted. “I’m awake, showered, and on my way to Epcot. Meet at Mouse Gear?”

And off we went!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Three Libras: Maps and Stuff

I did not set out to be a minor character in my own Trip Reports, but as you will clearly see, that’s how it happened. Earlier this year, I was at the center of things. July, 2011: the first and last time I ever visited Walt Disney World on my birthday. Meals were heaped upon me. Gifts were lavished. I had a lunch at Le Cellier and everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”

This time around, though, we were at the cusp of September and October, and three of the best friends I’ve ever had were going to be accompanying me. Joe, who I’ve been on more Disney World trips than I can count. Paul, the only person who’s been with me on both my Disneyland trips, and on a Disney World visit. And Marty, who’s only been here once his adult life – and with me – but is eager to claim new experiences. All three of them are here for birthdays: Marty just before the trip, Joe during, Paul just after.

Three Libras, and that’s how I became a minor character in my own story. My three Libras, my guys, my buddies, three of the best friends a fellow can ask for. This is what happened:

* * *

Joe arrived first, and was waiting for me when I deplaned. Two months is too long to go without seeing your friends, and I hugged him as fiercely as I could. We hopped in his rental and got to Pop Century Resort within forty minutes. Pop’s great and here’s why: of all the resorts on property, it’s probably the most accessible. While not as loaded with amenities as the deluxe resorts (the Polynesian, the Grand Floridian, and the Contemporary, for example) and not as intricately themed as the moderate resorts (like the New Orleans immersion of the Port Orleans resorts), Pop is fun, a little campy, and always the right price. Also, unlike the other value resorts – All Star Sports, Music, and Movies – Pop only has one bus stop. You don’t know crushing disappointment until you’ve stood in line waiting for transport to Epcot and then see a super-full bus buzz right past, full of happy children in Mickey Mouse ears, while you sit and cry and then your ice cream falls in the gutter. Yes, in this scenario, you have ice cream. Had. Now it’s in the gutter.

After checking us in, Joe had the unfortunate task of zooming back to the airport to pick up Paul and Marty, who were landing within minutes of each other. I want to point out right now that Joe took on the thankless task of transporting the three of us with no complaint and no hesitation. One of the real-life lessons I learned on this trip is that my friends are goodhearted, and selfless, and sweet beyond belief. Did I mention sexy? Also: sexy.

Moments before Joe clambered back into his car, we both got a text from Marty: his plane was still in Newark. He wasn’t going to be there within moments of Paul, after all. “What are we going to do?” I asked Joe, standing outside Pop in my glittery Epcot shirt and shorts. In September.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said, and hugged me again. Joe has this inscrutable little smile I’ve been witnessing for close to a decade now and I still can’t read it. I think it’s a good thing. He took off and within literally seconds, the bus to Epcot sidled up. I leapt aboard and here my adventures begin!


Now, I don’t really like to do in-report commentary about trip reports, but this seems like a necessity. Somewhat recently, I’ve gotten some criticism of my reports being well-nigh impenetrable to casual readers. I write a lot of trip reports, and with frequency comes a bit of shorthand. For those readers not well-versed in Disney, they want a little education. For those readers who are well-versed in Disney, my entries have maybe been a little heavy on the personal, light on the actual Disney stuff. Basically, to write for everyone, I shot for the middle and wrote for no one but me. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing just for myself, but these trip reports are intended for audiences. So, for this series of reports, you’re in for a little more explanation, a little more history, a little more geography, and also maps and stuff.

This right here? Is Epcot:

That big round thing in the front, the #1? That’s Spaceship Earth, the best thing in the whole world. Every Disney park worldwide has a main icon, the thing that serves as a beacon, a calling card, something that catches the eye and makes you go toward it. Walt Disney called those things “weenies,” which is only slightly embarrassing. Spaceship Earth towers over the Epcot park entrance. You can see it for miles and it always bowls me over. Inside it is an attraction that spirals slowly to the top, taking riders through the history of communication … which, admittedly, sounds like dullsville but is anything but. I think part of the reason Spaceship Earth tugs at me so much is that, in a way, it’s about me. From the blue books I wrote my first stories on, to the typewriter I got for my middle school graduation, to the laptop into which I unfurl my trip reports, I’ve been part of the history of communication. It keeps getting bigger, more complex, and I’ve always been here, telling my stories both true and not. Spaceship Earth puts that into context both historical and global. It sounds grandiose, but coming here helps me center myself in the universe.

None of that was chief on my mind that afternoon, though. I’d tweeted about being there the second I was on the bus, and my friend Meghan immediately texted me. “Where are you? I’m at Epcot! Chris is here! Come and find us!” Meghan, like me, speaks exclamatorily.

After a brief side-journey to acquire my annual Premium Passport (it lets you get into every US Disney park for a year for free! After a $750 deductable!) I was in. Like every Disney park, Epcot is divided up into lands: Future World and World Showcase, what some people refer to as “science in the front, social studies in the back.” A lot of people like to put a negative spin on that, as they’ve never heard the portmanteau edutainment or something. (BTW, my spell check has long since given up trying to correct the word “edutainment.” Ditto “automagic” and “innovention.” I don’t know what flavor this Kool-Aid is, but boy is it tasty!) With barely a pause to fawn over Spaceship Earth like a clumsy teenage girl ogling a sparklevampire, I rushed through Future World and headed into World Showcase, where Meghan and Chris awaited me.

Now, the annual International Food and Wine Festival – where countries from around the world set themselves up in kiosks and sell you regional cuisines and offer wine pairings that I won’t drink because ew wine, but you get stuffed before you’re three kiosks in and you just keep eating – was set to begin tomorrow. But Disney is a fan of the “soft open,” which means stuff that opens a day early but no one talks about it. After so many hugs, they led me directly to the Australia kiosk, where I devoured the grilled lamb chop with the shiraz reduction with such gusto Chris seemed nervous.

“Um, buddy?”

“All I’ve eaten today is animal crackers from the plane.”

“You know bone isn’t edible, right?”

Neither are monoliths.

We ambled about for awhile, us three, sampling the Hawai’I kalua pork sliders and the lamington, which is yellow cake covered in chocolate and coconut but sounds like a horrible gene-splicing experiment that resulted in a baby sheep crossed with a proper British gentleman. “’allo, mistah Lamington, sir,” the cockney livery service would say, “what goods you want transported this foine afternoon?” No one else liked my Lamington jokes.

As Chris and Meghan were headed off to go do their Disney jobs, what with all the working there they do, I got a text. It was Joe. “Marty’s flight delayed until 6PM arrival.”

My heart sank, and I expressed it the best possible way I could, with all the words of the English language at my fingertips and a lifetime of reading and writing at my disposal. :(

But Joe, ever the trouper, had dropped Paul off at the Contemporary Resort – walking distance from the Magic Kingdom – and was headed back to the airport to get Marty. I’d like to take just a second to relay that Joe had not only flown into Florida from Atlanta that morning, but he had already made two trips from Orlando International to Disney World property … and was off on another. We’ve all known for like years that Joe’s amazing, but this really cinches it. Let’s all have a hip-hip hooray, what do you say?

Epcot likes to play hide-n-seek with me, but I CAN SEE YOU, EPCOT!

I scampered back through Future World and caught the next monorail out of Epcot. Within minutes, the spires of Cinderella Castle – Magic Kingdom’s “weenie” – rose up over the trees as I whisked along that single beam in the sky. You know, no matter which park I love the most on any given day – it’s usually Epcot, but it’s been Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on occasion – arriving at Magic Kingdom, especially by monorail, is the quintessential Walt Disney World experience.

The last time I’d seen Paul, it was at Disneyland, and he’d been pretty much deathly ill. The time before that was here at Disney World around Christmas … and he’d been pretty much deathly ill. I had begun to think that the combination of Kevbot + Disney = Paul gets Ebola. But as I made my way down the ramp to the Magic Kingdom entrance plaza, I spotted him leaning against the wall, looking hale and healthy and smiling. Spoiler alert: Paul doesn’t get sick once on this trip, you guys. Curse? Broken.

We fell into a buddyhug – the more you go to Disney, the more friends you accumulate; the more friends you accumulate, the more buddyhugs you look forward to; this is math I enjoy – and then together we entered the Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney intended Disneyland to be a theatrical experience, and the concept carried over to Magic Kingdom when it was built in 1971. When you first enter the park, you go under the train station. It’s covered and shaded and on either side of you are posters of the attractions you’ll find in the park.

“Wait,” Paul said. “They’re like coming attractions! I didn’t make the connection! It’s like these are the things ‘coming soon,’ like at the movies!” Paul’s giddiness at Disney is palpable.

You come onto a cul-de-sac, and only after you walk around to the center of things do you get the big reveal of Cinderella Castle – just like at the start of every Disney film – standing somewhat incongruously at the head of a quintessential turn-of-the-century American Main Street, where it’s always Independence Day (I just found that out like two weeks ago, by the way. It kind of explains the red, white, and blue bunting that’s always everywhere. This is either a testament to Disney World’s rich level of often surprising detail, or my ongoing cluelessness). The windows of Main Street feature the names of Disney Imagineers … like movie credits. When Main Street ends and you’re at the Hub – the roundabout before the forecourt of Cinderella Castle that connects to each of Magic Kingdom’s six themed lands – you look back at the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor and there’s Walter E. Disney’s name, as Graduate School of Design & Master Planning. The last name you see before the movie begins is the director’s. I am constantly blown away by the level of detail in this.

“What should we do first?” Paul asked, marveling up at Cinderella Castle. Paul’s from California, which means he gets Disneyland – awesome – but also Sleeping Beauty Castle, which is roughly the size of a trenta cup from Starbucks.

“Space Mountain!” In the months leading up to this trip, I had only two things on my mind: Space Mountain and “colonial stuff.” I’ve been watching the John Adams miniseries and doing a lot of living in Boston. “We have to go on Space Mountain like 8,000 times! You know that, right?”

“I’ll go on Space Mountain like twice?”

“Good enough!” And we veered east toward Tomorrowland!

I don’t know why Space Mountain’s been on my mind a lot. I went on it a few times in July, and before that at Disneyland’s version, which – by popular consensus – is the “better” one. Still, it was this Space Mountain, the one at Magic Kingdom, that had so occupied my mind and heart lately. Sometimes with Disney, you just go on instinct.

This is the best moment of my life!” I shouted to Paul inside the queue.

“You say that a lot.” There was a sparkle in his eyes, though, and not all of it was from the blue light flooding everything.

“You know, maybe your ride is better, but my queue is better.” When you talk about Disney with West Coasters, the parks are always “mine” and “yours,” because that’s healthy.

“We don’t even have a queue! We walk on a roof.” And then we giggled, because hanging out with Paul is truly the best time.

We rode and soared and climbed and dipped. There’s this second major drop near the end of the ride that I always forget about, and all my ballyhooing gets lost in the gasping. We climbed out of the vehicles to look at our goofy ride photos, and Paul said, “You know, our ride is smoother and has the onboard audio, but your track layout is more interesting.”

“We should ride it again, just to make sure.”


On the subject of which Space Mountain is better, I declare this a draw.

Finally, we emerged into sunlight. “Where to now?”

“Well, I want to see Hall of Presidents. It’s the only thing I really want to do on this trip besides Space Mountain. Yep, Hall of Presidents – that’s my deal right now and at some point on this trip, that will definitely be the one thing I can cross off on my list.” This is what writers call foreshadowing, friends. By the way, I never got to do Hall of Presidents once. This is what writers call Sad Kev.

“Wait, you’ve never seen the new Haunted Mansion stuff!”

Paul grinned. “No, I have not!”

“This must be remedied!” I do, indeed, talk like this. The Haunted Mansion “stuff” might be the most controversial thing that’s ever happened at Disney, ever, ever, if you happen to read message boards, which only sad and lame people do. Also: me. Basically, Haunted Mansion is one of those attractions Walt sort of had his hand in before he died, even though his initial idea was a spooky walkthrough that didn’t have much to do with the Omnimover (constantly moving ride vehicles) attraction we know today. In Disneyland, the Mansion is this big stately antebellum house on the outside, hot and cold running creeps inside. The one in Disney World is this huge New England-type manor. For a long time, they were pretty similar inside, but lately, our Mansion’s been getting some touch-ups. They took out the lame giant spiders and put in this Escher staircase with ghostly footsteps walking up and down them. There’s an attic scene now where a ghostly bride relishes the many times she’s lopped off husbands’ heads. All improvements, all upgrades.

Early this year, they extended the queue with some sort of cartoony graveyard stuff and some interactive stuff for kids. Fun, inoffensive stuff. Also, at the end of the ride, there are these “hitchhiking ghosts” that used to just appear in your ride vehicle as you rode past this long mirror. Now, the ghosts are more active, and they can do stuff like take off your head and replace it with the one belonging to the person you’re riding with. It’s amazing technology, sort of spooky, and a lot of fun.

People went insane over this. And by “people” I mean message board obsessives – they’re called “foamers,” which is just perfect – who objected on every level. Vehemently. Like, “Disney is mutilating Walt’s legacy,” and “Now that Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is the only one that exists anymore, let’s fight to save it from the demolition that happened to Disney World’s.” Foamers. Which, let’s face it, is a super adorable term. As for the grotesque changes that all sane people would vomit at just thinking about? Paul seemed to like it just fine.

This is unrelated and hilarious.

“I got a text!” I said outside the ride. “It’s Joe and Marty! They’re here!”

“At Disney?”

Here!” I texted furiously. The light above was growing dim quickly. Night was coming to the Magic Kingdom. I looked up and there they were, Joe and Marty, and there was an almost audible click. We were here. Four buddies. Three Libras. For the first time, we were all together, in the most magical place on Earth.