Friday, December 2, 2011

Disney Trip Report Hub

Three Libras

In which three of my best friends come from all corners of the country to celebrate their - and Walt Disney World's - birthdays, and I come along!

  • Part One: Maps and Stuff
  • Part Two: Animal Kingdom In My Soup
  • Part Three: Thunder Riders
  • Part Four: Forty Years and Counting
  • Part Five: Buoyancy
  • Part Six: Pieces of Art
  • Part Seven: Marching Home Again
  • Three Libras: Marching Home Again

    Unless you’re John Irving – who writes them first – the hardest thing for any author is writing the ending. There’s various reasons, but at the bottom of it is that when you’re living with something for so long, when you’re invested, when you love the characters and the story, you simply don’t want it to end. It’s not just finishing a chapter, it’s closing the book. There’s melancholy there, even if it was a happy good-bye.

    This is farewell, my friends.

    Here we come to the end.

    * * *

    On our last full day at Walt Disney World, we woke as a group and sped toward Epcot. Getting FastPasses for Soarin’ first thing in the morning is at least as important as getting them for Toy Story Midway Mania at the Studios, if not more. Plus, the going is more treacherous. After grabbing everyone’s park passes, you dash under Spaceship Earth (taking a bare moment, of course, to gaze up and marvel at the beauty, because you’re nutty over Spaceship Earth), you veer right into Future World West, up the ramp into the Land pavilion, then down the stairs, then you elbow tourists in the face and get to the FastPass machines. It’s magical.

    My three Libras caught up with me at Sunshine Seasons, the best quick service eatery in Walt Disney World … which kind of stinks, because it’s at Epcot, and should Epcot really have all the best food? Especially during Food and Wine? I mean, spread the wealth, Epcot, jeez.

    I love The Land. Those are balloons that represent seasons, in case you were wondering.

    We had some hours to kill before we lifted off on Soarin’, so we took the time to … you know, just kind of take some time. We had one Event today, but it wasn’t like we had to be at the 40th anniversary or meet people for Blizzard Beach or get back to Animal Kingdom at any set time. We were already at the park we needed to be at, we had nothing particular to do, and we were in the perfect frame of mind to do it.

    One of the coolest things about being with Disneyphiles is that in general, they seem more willing to get into certain mindsets. A lot of my favorite things at Walt Disney World fall under the category of “edutainment,” which I’ll eventually stop putting in quotes because it’s seriously been a valid portmanteau for two decades. I like history. I like science. And I apparently like agriculture.

    At the ground floor of the Land pavilion, there’s a boat ride called Living With the Land, which used to have this ultra-groovy folk song that went with it called “Listen to the Land,” which would not have been out of place on Schoolhouse Rock. The boat takes you through these huge dioramas showing different landscapes and how plants grow there, and then you go into an actual greenhouse and lab where you get to see all these, like, sciencey ways to cultivate stuff, and there’s a nine pound lemon, and tomatoes grow on trees, and I swear to you it’s awesome and fascinating and not boring. I think Epcot – early on and still – challenges the staid concepts of what a theme park can and should be. It’s not that you can go there and either learn or have fun; you can go there and learn and have fun.

    Nine pound lemon. You thought I was being facetious!

    You’ll never convince a skeptic, I guess. I love the Hall of Presidents, and I was still angling on seeing the Fife and Drum Corps , who performed near the American Adventure in World Showcase; despite the fact I live in Boston, I go to Florida to get my fill of Colonial reenactments. I also have a cousin who lives twenty minutes away and we only ever see each other when we’re both in New York. I bet there are lessons in there I’m supposed to be learning.

    Anyway, after we Lived with the Land, we broke out into the sunlight and humidity, and immediately detoured into The Seas With Nemo and Friends, because hooray indoors! Now, there’s a whole gigantic long history involved with this pavilion. It used to be called The Living Seas, and there were these hydrolators that made it feel like you were going into an underwater station and there was a whole film reel with an epic female narrator who is remembered best for her somber delivery of “…and it rained … and it rained … and it rained. The deluge.” It’s heartily missed and people put up a stink when they “Pixarified” the ride, and I get that, absolutely. It went from a hugely immersive attraction to a charming dark ride, but there’s still one of the largest aquariums in the world at the end, and the four of us spent quite a long time doing aquatic quizzes and staring at fishes and wondering if the manatees know they’re adorably ugly.

    Emerging back into the world, we headed straight up split up for a bit so that Joe and I could sing along with Michael Jackson in Captain EO, because my rampant and often misplaced nostalgia knows literally no bounds. Did I dance in my seat? I might have danced in my seat. (BTW: I danced in my seat. And sang. Out loud.) The other two, fearing Michael Jackson’s awesome de-Borgifying powers, opted instead for Journey Into Imagination with Figment and a Lot Less Awesome Since the Days of Epcot Yore. That’s its full title.

    Today, we ventured not into the Food and Wine Festival, and there was a reason for that. A good reason. A secret reason. See, I may have mentioned in these reports that while Paul can take or leave “fur” characters, like Mickey or Donald or even, yes gasp, Baloo, he is a humungaloid fan of the Disney Princesses. I’m not sure how he feels about the expanded Princess line, with Mulan and Pocahontas and stuff, but the core? With Cinderella and Ariel and Tiana and all them? Paul goes nuts. (He goes even more nuts over the Princes, but as most – aside from Aladdin and Beast and, currently, Flynn Rider – are somewhat rare, he contents himself with full-on princess squee. But you shoulda seen him when all the princesses and princes showed up for the 40th celebration. He went lunatic.)

    I feel like I should be doing another flashback here, but who wants to hear about my workout while texting Paul three months prior? No one, because talking about your workout is always boring to anyone who’s not your workout buddy. And even then. Seriously, just don’t do it. To sum up: awhile back, while I was totally maxing on my quads (literally just made that up; are quads like fingers, or perhaps your duodenum?), Paul and I were texting about what dining he’d fancy during our trip. His Great Big Wish was to have lunch at Cinderella Castle, which literally books up six months in advance. No, I’m not exaggerating. I did my mobile thing, just for kicks, and the Ghost of Siri Future laughed her electronic butt off at me.

    Such predicaments I must forge ahead! I then tap-tap-tapped and within moments, I had reservations at the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway Pavilion … which, incidentally, was the first full-service location I ever dined at in Walt Disney World. Hooray symmetry!

    Somehow, against logic and my own blabbermouth tendencies, I managed to keep Akershus an almost complete secret from Paul the entire time. He had an idea something was up, but didn’t seem to have the foggiest as to the specifics. “Is it going to be fun?” Paul asked as we waited in the blue-neon-drenched corridors of Soarin’. “I mean, will I like it?”

    Joe said, “You’ll like it.”

    Paul: “I want to know!

    Me: “Soon enough, young padawan.”

    And so it transpired. We trudged north – oh, did we trudge, in the rampant humidity and the baking, unforgiving sun – out of The Land and into World Showcase. Did we head right and walk nearly the entire circumference before arriving at Norway? That … that seems absurd, but for some reason, I have a feeling that’s exactly what happened. Why would we do that? Why would anyone do that? There are eleven countries in World Showcase. In counter-clockwise order, they are: Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and then Mexico. I haven’t even mentioned the bridges and this place called The Outpost, which is almost like an African pavilion but mainly serves Coke and has bongos. All the way around.

    Regardless of how we did it, we eventually ended up at the Princess Storybook Dining, where we were immediately shown indoors for our picture with Belle. This totally happened, you guys:

    We were seated and at once the princesses started coming. Unfortunately for Paul, there was no Tiana in sight. Boo! However, Snow White was there (who I’d gotten my picture with way back in the day, the day being 2007), and Ariel with legs, and even Cinderella, who managed come down off her high horse and mingle with the commoners awhile. Look, I love Cinderella, but like, she knows there’s a Castle named after her, and she seems all haughty about it. You heard me. Haughty.

    But our favorite lady at the table was not one of the princesses, but our awesome waitress Ina, originally from Norway and going back the very next day. She told us stories, and listened to ours, and seemed genuinely nice and interested in our trip. “These three are all Libras,” I said, pointing to my friends. “And this is the last birthday party of the trip!”

    She beamed down at Paul, and he stood for a picture with her. When she disappeared out back for ten minutes, we were initially concerned … until she returned with Paul’s birthday cupcake, and a song to help him see his special day in.

    Three Libras. Three birthdays. Three awesome friends. God, I miss hanging out with those guys.

    * * *

    The next morning, we ate an early breakfast at Everything Pop, the combination food court/gift shop connected to our resort. It was with some sadness we ate our Mickey waffles; all of us knew this was going to be our last meal together.

    I won’t draw that part out, because it hurt then and it still hurts, a little. After we ate, we tossed our suitcases and baggage into Joe’s car.

    “I’m gonna miss you, Paul,” I said, hugging him fiercely. “You kind of rule.”

    “Maybe December,” he said … although that ended up not happening.

    Marty and he exchanged hugs, too, and then Joe was off on chauffer duty again, heading to the airport with the first of us going. Stuffing my emotions deep inside, I caught the bus to the Magic Kingdom with Marty, where we rode Space Mountain again. And again. And again. (My current obsession with Space Mountain will wane, I promise. Just not yet.)

    Joe texted to say he was on the way back. There was a Betamouse podcast meet at the American Adventure in Epcot, and wouldn’t it be fun to go there? Indeed it would be! We met Joe by Spaceship Earth, sitting by his lonesome against the fountain and looking impossibly young. Then I made him and Marty have a fake conversation for awhile, because I needed more candid shots of the two of them. At this point, I’d be quite fed up with me.

    "So tired of him!" "Me too!" "Oops, here he comes!"

    We headed through Future World and all the way to the back of World Showcase. There, we ran into some old and new friends, like Angie and Bob Basl, with whom we’d later travel around the Showcase and sample Food and Wine until our bellies threatened to give out. That milk chocolate crème brulee, I am serious.

    But one last thing happened before all that.

    “Kevin?” Joe came up behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders.


    “Do you hear that?”

    “Hear what?”

    “Hear … that.” He turned me around, and there, advancing up the World Showcase promenade, were the Fife and Drum Corps, who I’d wanted to see since touching down at Orlando International all those days ago. So much had happened, and so many plans had gotten shunted aside in favor of new things, more important things. But now, completely unplanned, was this. My thing.

    I broke free of Joe and dashed toward them, snapping as many pictures as I could. They played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and a whole bunch of other Revolutionary War songs. They were serious, stolid, committed to their work and to what their uniforms meant. I felt almost as if I could reach out and touch the moments before we were America, when George Washington and John Adams were men instead of legends. My trip was coming to an end, but what these people represented was a beginning. History was before me in red, white, and blue, a larger history which I, by comparison, can only feel humbled.

    But then another thought hit me: these people, these women and men, return every day, to this spot. History repeats itself, right here, where I was standing. What I’m getting at is that there are new beginnings, every single day. We experience them. And just because these were the last moments of my trip didn’t mean that a brand new one wasn’t just around the corner.

    * * *

    I’ve been a minor character, sort of, in these reports. I’ve let these recollections be about the parks themselves, and my friends. Disney World, along with Marty, Joe, and Paul, is a Libra. I was there for its birthday. I was there for all of their birthdays. That makes me gladder than they’ll ever know.

    One day, the four of us will do it again. Maybe next year. I hope it’s next year.

    Until then, though, I will read these reports back, and smile, and laugh at my silly inconsistencies and my ridiculous mustache and the way nothing ever goes the way you plan, but how life is richer for it.

    I miss you all. So very much.

    Happy birthday!

    Three Libras: Pieces of Art


    Two months prior to this trip to Disney World. It’s high summer, and I’m returning from a trip to visit my New York friends. I’m on a Greyhound, and night has come down, and with it, a little melancholy. I’m halfway between my Empire State buddies and my home, and things rarely seem as lonely as when you’re traveling alone and your tethers are so far away.

    Then, in the dark of the bus, my phone buzzes against my leg. And there’s Joe, glowing in the dark.

    “You know what I’d really like to do on our upcoming trip?” he texts. Smiling, I text back that I’m not entirely sure. “I’d love to go to Sanaa for my birthday.”

    Before responding, I tap my app for Disney Dining. Within three minutes, I’ve secured a table for four on October 2nd, Joe’s birthday. “Got you a table, good buddy,” I text into the light.

    “Thank you much.” We fall silent, but it’s okay. Suddenly the dark doesn’t feel so lonely.

    * * *

    Sanaa is a restaurant tucked onto the ground floor of the Animal Kingdom Lodge, a deluxe resort that offers rooms with “Savannah View,” meaning that you can look out across the grounds and see giraffes just, like, grazing. The place is beautiful, all golds and reds and browns, simmering earth tones that calm me and thrill me in equal measure. The place is done up like an African wildlife reserve lodge – I’m told it’s all done in the Kraal African village design, but I know little to nothing about real Africa or design – but it towers, six stories up and beyond impressive. “Sanaa” means “work of art” in Swahili, and I think the term applies to the whole resort.

    Joe and I had first (and last) been here for a somewhat raucous dinner with my friends Lee and Doug and Tom and Tom’s mum. We’d marveled over the bread service: four different kinds of bread and eight kinds of sauce, which we’d shared around, discussing what we liked, what we didn’t, and why. It had been like a miniature version of the Food and Wine festival, only we got to rest our feet and double-dip. What made the whole thing boisterous were all the birthday celebrations all around us, in which three of the serving people walked up to a table and played bongos and sang “Happy birthday (to ya); HAAAPY birthday (to ya)!” Seriously, they’d gone to four other tables before Lee got the bright idea that we should tell them it was Doug’s birthday, too (which it most certainly was not), and they came over and Doug protested vehemently and Lee lost his shit and we all howled.

    Not so this time. The server sat us in a darker area of the restaurant, perfect for a sedate, relaxed meal. The four of us – Joe, Paul, Marty, and me – settled into our seats and ordered the bread service and our meals. I looked at each of them, all wearing a contented smile, and I took just a minute to marvel that the four of us – from Atlanta, from San Diego, from Jersey City, from Boston – were all here, around one table, in an Orlando restaurant that looked and felt like Africa. I think it’s amazing when four people have interests similar enough that they can enjoy the same place at the same time. I think it’s remarkable that they can find kinship with each other, that beyond our shared interest there are people there, who like each other easily enough to spend time with. Good time. Important time.

    Inside our work of art, we quite literally broke bread and shared food. After our plates had been set down, I raised a glass. “To Joe,” I said, and Marty and Paul also raised theirs. “One of the best friends I’ve ever had, and one of the best people I’ve ever known. Happy birthday, Joe.”

    He smiled his inscrutable Mona Lisa smile, always open to interpretation, but then the bongos came and sang us home. It wasn’t quite as boisterous as the time before, but you know? When it’s Disney World, and you’ve been pushing yourself almost nonstop for three days, and it’s hot and muggy and occasionally overwhelming? Sometimes quiet is better.

    * * *
    Paul thinks I have my sequencing wrong, which is the challenge of writing trip reports two months after the trip. Remember during my last trip reports, I promised to get these out super quick? Boy howdy, did I lie. What the hell, though, I had deadlines. Next year: photo essays. All photo essays. Oh, except for my midsummer Disneyland trip. For reasons I will reveal then.

    Anyway, the way I remember it, after Sanaa, the four of us headed out to Hollywood Studios, which I will illustrate for you with this swell map:

    We … okay, look, I don’t remember what we did. I’m pretty sure we did the Rock N Rollercoaster, which I did indeed hear someone calling the Rock and Roll Rollercoaster. Handily, I had my portable trebuchet on me. They won’t be fucking up portmanteaus anymore.

    Just as Big Thunder Mountain is better at night, so is the entirety of Hollywood Studios. The whole thing is meant to represent an idealized Hollywood of the late 1930s and the early 1940s, what with its art deco and California Crazy landmarks, where there are buildings made up to look like other stuff (for example, one of the Brown Derby restaurants in actual real-life California was actually in the shape of a brown deby; in one of my many childhood hometowns, there was a diner that looked like a milk bottle. I’m not sure why, as it wasn’t a dairy place. I think it sold burgers. None of which explains the building in the Echo Lake section of the Studios that looks like the early cartoon character Gertie the Dinosaur. They serve ice cream in there. In Gertie’s belly. Think about that next time you have some delicious soft-serve at Disney World. Pardon me, I’m addicted to parenthetical run-ons.)

    The reason why the Studios is better at night isn’t so much the architecture as it is the neon covering the architecture. Magic Kingdom has lamplight on its Main Street and Epcot has futuristic LED lighting and Animal Kingdom has this sedate, mostly hidden light so that the park continues to look wild. But the Studios has all this neon, and popcorn lights, and when you step inside at night, it really is like stepping into a dream of old Hollywood.

    One thing I know we did that brightly lit night was the Tower of Terror, because if we hadn’t, how could this brilliant slice of awesome have happened:

    Later, we…

    You know what? Instead of relying on my increasingly unreliable memories of that evening (did I get a shake at the Prime Time? I think we did Star Tours), why not instead take on the next day, for which I have pictures and thus an antidote to my Memento/Quantum Leap memory. It’s easy to go from night to day in trip reports! You only need to mind the triple asterisks!

    * * *

    The three of us – I say three of us because Joe slept in again, having been utterly tuckered by the activity and lateness of the night before – got to the Studios just as the park was opening. Paul was wearing my Crocs because he’d left his actual shoes in Lee’s car the day before. There’s a whole involved story of how we ended up getting Paul’s shoes back, which felt a lot like a mini-game adjacent to the main quest in a very involved RPG. Suffice it to say that me having Mickey Crocs saved Christmas, so everyone who made fun of me for owning and liking them can totally suck it. Disney!

    As instructed, we did not run up Hollywood Boulevard, the Studios’ main thoroughfare and analogue to Main Street USA. We walked. Briskly. Maybe we jogged a little. One of the important things to know about any trip to the Studios is that if you don’t get in line at Toy Story Midway Mania like first thing in the morning, you will probably die. Okay, maybe you won’t die. Unless someone you’re with has a portable trebuchet. But you will get trapped in one of those Disney lines that everyone who thinks you can just go on trips without planning gets caught in. (Brief editorial: seriously. Disney World is the size of San Francisco. It’s bigger than Boston. Why do people think they can just go down and “wing it”? These people inevitably come back complaining that they stood in line for hours on end, and that Disney only had burgers and hot dogs to eat. I know this one family whose daughter was a Disney expert, and she kept trying to get her family to understand how Touring Plans can save all this time, and to make Advanced Dining Reservations, and do all this pre-planning, and they laughed her off. Later, she told me that her family had a miserable time there, argued the whole time, and wanted to go home by day 2 because all they were doing was waiting in line. All I’m saying.)

    Joe and Paul wait in line. With some guy.

    Toy Story Midway Mania is the second most-popular attraction in all of Disney World (Soarin’ in Epcot is the first), and the thunder of people beating feet there first thing is a sight to behold. You slam up Hollywood, down the steps into the Animation Courtyard, then a hard left into Pixar Place. The throngs here are so overwhelming that just the four FastPass lines are each ten people deep. It’s a split-second decision: do FastPass and come back later in the day – a later that gets later with each consecutive second, as the FastPasses disappear with a rapidity that brings hotcakes metaphors to mind – or leap into line right now and get this thing ridden.

    We got this thing ridden. Did I love it? I loved it. I always loved it. It does seem a little strange that a playful dark ride is so insanely in demand, but I never regret the early morning run, or the strategizing, or braving the crowds. For me, that’s all part of the game.

    Duffy eats my head.

    Joe joined us midmorning, and I’m going to say right now that this may have been my favorite part of the whole trip. I always tell myself that I’m going to calm down, relax, just go with the flow … but that never happens. Maybe I’m not built that way. I get there, I get hyper, and I stay hyper.

    But that afternoon at Hollywood Studios? We marched down Sunset Boulevard and did Rock and Rollercoaster, of course. Shooting off at sixty miles an hour that early in the day never fails to make me scream in delight (by the end of that day, I was hoarse and my voice was constantly crackly). And we rode Tower of Terror like 80 times (note: twice). I think at one point, I showed Marty the floating penny trick, where when you’re poised at the tippy-top of the elevator shaft and the doors open and you see Hollywood Studios laid out thirteen stories below you, you hold a penny in the palm of your hand and have a hot makeout session with physics as you bullet back down. This trick has only worked once with me, by the way. Usually, physics goes a little too far and smacks me in the face with my pin lanyard. I promise you that’s not a metaphor.

    "It's a metaphor."

    Back at the Animation Courtyard, we took part in the Animation Academy, where Joe and Marty drew passable Piglets, Paul was without a pencil, and I sketched something that looked like Cthulu’s regurgitated lunch. Awhile back, I drew Bolt and gave him an earring. The Animation Academy instructor did not seem pleased. I didn’t show this new guy my Piglet travesty, for fear that his eyes would combust out of his head and he would weep dark tears forever and ever.

    Paul with Brother Bear!

    The best part of the day happened not at Star Tours, but in the gift shop afterward. Some quick observations about Star Tours: in the past, it was never my favorite ride. I don’t really love Star Wars as my nerd friends think I should, and its alternate name has always been The Flight Simulator That Makes Me Blow Chunks. It opened in 1987, and you’re supposed to be a space tourist person on board a Starspeeder with a droid pilot named Rex, who is of course inexperienced. Then, further of course, Something Terrible Happens and you’re caught in some big climactic battle like at the end of Blue Harvest or whatever. I really like Star Trek.

    Last year, they did this massive overhaul of the ride. They made it smoother – with six ways for the Starspeeder to move, not just four – and they made it 3D, so that it’s more immersive an experience. When it comes to 3D in general, I’m on the fence, but adding it to something like this drastically changes the attraction. You’re involved now. The effects are better, too, so that it not only feels smoother, it looks smoother. The whole ride can be broken down into four distinct chunks: preflight, the first planet, a holographic message from a Star Wars person, and the second planet and finale. There are options for each of these parts, and the options are randomized, so that you will, in general, rarely get the exact same ride twice (though we, unfortunately, got the exact same ride twice in a row).

    Two other things: one, C-3PO is now your pilot, a decision that (in my opinion) allows non-Star Wars fans to more easily connect wit the ride. When you start in with Sarlacc Pits and whether Greedo shot first, you’re traipsing on the edge of internal Wars mythology. C-3PO exists beyond Star Wars fandom. He’s just pop culture. The other thing: at the start of the ride, someone from your Starspeeder shows up on a little screen at the front of the cabin, and is declared the Rebel Spy (which gives more a coherent reason for us to be involved in space battles; above all other things, the actual storytelling in this version of Tours is better).

    On our second trip through that morning, the screen lit up … and the Rebel Spy was Marty.

    “Oh my God!” Paul shouted, giggling.

    “We’re harboring a fugitive!” I laughed. I am pretty sure I never saw Marty smile so wide.

    Except for now.

    Joe, who had opted out of this trip through the cosmos, met us in the gift shop … and there we spent the next hour or so. There was a family getting themselves Star Wars-ified at a photo area as we came out of the exit, and at once we all agreed we had to do it. For various reasons, I don’t actually have the picture we got, but let me describe the tragic awesomeness. The shop had only, like one template for four people. The idea is that you become the characters, though clever photography and Photoshop wizardry. The picture they have is prequel Star Wars – already a little ridiculous – and that picture features Anakin Skywalker, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi … and of course, Queen Amidala. Four guesses as to who got to be Amidala. Amidala with a hugely disturbing mustache.

    I posed for a picture solo … but even though it was super cool, I couldn’t really afford it. I headed deeper into the shop, where Joe was pointing out that there was a Pete figure dressed up as Boba Fett. Two things I know about this scenario: Boba Fett is some sort of bounty hunter who was sad as a kid, and Pete rules my life. I snatched it up faster than you can say tauntaun.

    Ah, but sneaky Paul was being all sorts of mischievous behind the scenes. As we headed out of Star Tours, he turned to Marty and handed him a brand new shirt. It says I Was the Rebel Spy. I thought Marty was going to burst in half. Then Paul looked at me and said, “Here you go. It suits you.”

    Cautiously, I took the bag. This, friends and neighbors, was inside:

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Three Libras: Buoyancy

    Returning to the scene of the 40th might have been a mistake.

    “I’m going to drop you guys off here, you get in, and I’ll catch up in time to see Magic, Memories, and You.” Joe was talking about the Magic Kingdom’s newest attraction, a show against the front of Cinderella Castle that uses projections to trick your eye and mind into thinking you’re seeing something that’s not there. When I first heard about this new show, I wasn’t immediately overcome with jollity. The first reports were that Disney was just going to project guests’ pictures on the walls … which, you know, should have set off alarum bells. It was Disney, for Pegleg Pete’s sake; were they really just going to throw up some random pictures on a wall and call it chilly? Then a funny thing happened: reports flooded the internet about how just how cool the show was. Beyond just the photos of park guests, the show would utilize the latest in projection technology, giving the illusion that the Castle is transforming before your eyes. More on that in a moment.

    Joe was also saying that, once again, he was willing to sacrifice his own time in the parks for his friends. “Are you sure?” I asked. There’s selflessness and then there’s us taking advantage, and I was all about avoiding that distinction.

    “Sure I’m sure! You guys scamper, and I’ll be back soon.”

    He was not back soon. We entered the Magic Kingdom and found it nearly impossible to maneuver. Silly me, silly we: I had assumed that since the festivities for the fortieth had concluded that morning, the park would be pretty much back to normal at night. That was a big old roundhouse no.

    “I haven’t moved a foot and we’ve been here for twenty minutes!” Paul said. Which was blatantly untrue. He’d moved at least a foot and a half. The place was choked with people. Eventually, we managed to force our way into one of the shops on the right side of Main Street, the kind that communicated with the rest of the shops that marched up Main Street. It’s one of those moments of crowd-control brilliance that Disney excels at: you can head into Disney Clothiers, for instance, and without having to go back outside, you can easily slip into the Main Street Gallery. It was nearly as crowded inside as it was outside, but at least movable. We made our way to the Gallery, and almost at once, the three of us realized that this was where we were grabbing Joe’s birthday gifts.

    Joe is notoriously circumspect. It is ridiculously hard to get out of him stuff he wants or likes or craves. When it comes to giving him gifts, this can turn into either a fun challenge or an adventure in torture … sometimes at the same time. We know some things: he loves steampunk, Dr. Who, the Haunted Mansion, and Disney history. On this trip, he’d mentioned a couple of times that he was into the Disney artist Shag, who does these quirky retro interpretations of Past Disney. Paul saw the Shag lithograph display and slammed over there so fast I could almost see cartoon speed-lines trailing out behind him.

    Marty and I followed. There was a Shag piece featuring the Haunted Mansion called “We’re Dying to Meet You” that Marty snatched up. I found a moody, red-tinted litho with a raven that was more spooky than Shaggy. We arranged to have them shipped to our hotel and got back out on the street to see a sliver of Magic, Memories, and You happening at the Castle. Marty craned his neck to see it, but I pulled him back in. Seeing it that way would have been a travesty. As it was, I was a little dejected that we’d missed it. Oh, you crazy 40th, and the ways you toy with me.

    I glanced down at my phone. “I’m here finally!” After forty minutes, Joe had arrived. “I’m at the Bakery.”

    I furrowed my brow and typed, “WE’RE at the Bakery!”

    In my ear, I heard, “Look up, then.” I did and Joe was standing there, that inscrutable smile on his scruffy face. I gave him a big hug and informed him he’d missed the show. “That’s okay,” he said. “There’s another.”

    My eyes went wide. “Oh wow! I’d forgotten! How had I forgotten there were two shows tonight? Am I mental?” Paul opened his mouth. “Don’t answer that! I know I’m mental!”

    An unknown time later, the four of us were situated in the Hub. The Partners statue, depicting Walt Disney holding Mickey Mouse’s hand, stood watch over us as we settled onto the ground and looked up expectantly at the Castle. Joe and I had seen this here, and Paul had seen the Disneyland version, which is projected against “it’s a small world” because there aren’t projectors small enough to do shows against Sleeping Beauty Castle. This was Marty’s first time.

    The lights go down. Cinderella Castle goes dark. All at once, a spotlight shines from nowhere, and Tinkerbell appears, larger than life. Then – then – theatre curtains appear and fly open across the whole face of the Castle, revealing the show behind it. And what a show! Vines sprout and grow magically up the Castle walls. Bricks from the walls explode, appearing to shower down below. The entire building turns into a daylight sky, where cartoon planes dip and soar. At one point, the high turret becomes a rocketship and took off. How cool is that?

    The newish song swells: “the pictures we make / the dreams that come true / may open the window to a memory made by you.” It’s always gratifying when Disney creates new songs for new shows; we don’t always need a rehash of songs from movies we’ve seen hundreds of times. Besides, the song is apt: in the midst of all these amazing transformations, pictures and video actually taken at the parks pop up and have a brief spotlight against the Castle walls. This in itself was more interesting to see rather than to read about, with actual park guests taking part in a major Disney spectacular.
    The show concludes with Walt Disney himself appearing with his famous line, “To all who come to this happy place, welcome.” It always brings tears to my mind. I turned to Marty to share my giddiness.

    Marty had gone blank. His eyes were wide, staring. His mouth hung open as if on a busted hinge. Later, he explained: “I literally couldn’t make sense of what was happening. It was absolute sensory overload. My brain just could not keep up with the Castle changing like that. I knew it wasn’t real, but it seemed real. I wasn’t scared, precisely. It just totally overwhelmed me.” By the time the show concluded and we’d beat our way back through the extant crowds into Fronteirland, he seemed mostly okay. He assured me that he absolutely liked the show; it was just that watching it challenged his fundamental reality. The dark side of magic, you could say.

    None of this, of course, stopped us from gamboling up to Splash Mountain, however. Joe, though, decided to sit this one out. “I don’t want to risk getting soaked,” he said, “but I’ll take all your bags and stuff.” We handed them over and I gave him another hug. One of the things I’ve learned on my many, many trips to the Disney parks is that not everyone you’re traveling with is going to have the same drive, interest, or stamina as you. If someone says they want to sit something out, you listen, acknowledge, and respect. If you force it, everyone ends up crying into their Dole Whip.

    We headed into Splash, and that’s when my phone buzzed. It was Kristen. “Hey, Lee and I are going to hit Blizzard Beach tomorrow morning. Want to come along?”

    Blizzard Beach is one of the two water parks on Disney World property (the other being Typhoon Lagoon). I’d only been there once before, on my birthday trip in July, when it was as packed as the Magic Kingdom was for the 40th. And I realized all at once that I could go, because even though the water parks are a separate charge when you have a plain old Annual Pass, they were included with the price of a Premiere Passport. I consulted with the boys – Paul, who had his own Premiere Passport, and Marty, who did not. Both seemed game, especially Marty, who hadn’t been to a water park in decades.

    “Hooray! Everything’s the best!”

    And then Splash Mountain for the first time on the trip. Perhaps sensing that it would also be our last time, we made sure to get evidence.

    * * *

    Joe, who had accompanied us on our July Blizzard Beach trip, opted to sleep in a little while the three of us went cavorting with Lee and Kristen. We arrived at Park Opening and, unlike my trip in July, which involved the awesome of a Polar Patio cabana but also the less awesome of waiting for thirty minutes while the Cast Members set it up, we headed right to the slides. Slopes. Slipes? See, Blizzard Beach is set up like a ski resort that was constructed on the quick after a freak snowstorm hit Florida, because Disney is all about “everything’s awesome and fun and OH MY GOD CATACLYSM.” The theme permeates the whole park: there are ski slopes and mountains and an honest-to-God ski lift.

    Ladies and gentlemen: Blizzard Beach.

    See, I love water parks, but more than anything I hate those rickety-feeling scaffolding structures you have to climb up and look down and contemplate your fragility in an uncaring universe. To combat the absolute worst part of any waterpark, Disney does one of those things Disney does best: they built a mountain. Mount Gushmore (no, for real) is the main feature of Blizzard Beach, and it’s home to most of the park’s best waterslides … which, in this context, are meant to be ski slopes. It’s so simple – take away the bad parts of waterparks so people can focus on the good parts – but it’s brilliant. You get off the ski lift at the top of Mount Gushmore and you’re on solid ground.

    Of course, at the top of the mountain, you could always look up and see one of those tall, rickety-looking scaffolding structures and realize, oh wait, the top of the mountain isn’t the top of everything. Way up there is a waterslide called Hey! You Want Your Shorts to Ride Up While Simultaneously Your Life Flashes Before Your Eyes and You Attempt To Remember Every Prayer Ever. No, wait, it’s called Summit Plummet, and it’s 120 feet tall and you travel down it at roughly the same speeds as Test Track zooms around the loop. In other words: it is one of the fastest attractions at Walt Disney World … and you’re doing it in your swimwear. I went on it in July and vowed never to ride it again, which worked out well for Paul and Marty and Lee and Kristen, none of whom were at all interested in plummeting, gibbering to their doom. We instead took our chances on the Slush Gusher, which is thirty feet shorter but includes, like, moguls, and gives you actual airtime and yet feels like a security blanket smelling vaguely of sweetness compared to the implied malice of the Summit Plummet.

    Not pictured: implied malice.

    We did almost all the slides, relishing the pleasant weather and the lack of tour groups that had so plagued our July. Paul and Marty – especially Marty – seemed ecstatic, and so was I. Plus, I hadn’t gotten any quality time with either Kristen or Lee this trip, and getting to hang with them for a whole morning thrilled me. We got on mats for Snow Stormers and Toboggan Racers, where you slalom down the water-slopes on your belly. We did the Downhill Double Dipper, with its canned and oft-repeating “HEY Double Dippers!” announcement that was the genesis of all our waking nightmares.

    The best of the day, though, the absolute ginchiest, was of course Teamboat Springs, whose name I constantly forget and call the wrong thing because apparently I’m Adrian Zmed’s character from Grease 2. Marty called it Tugboat Willie. I think at one point I called it Steamtrain Circletron. Look, I don’t know, okay? Six people fit in a circular raft, like the structure of Grizzly River Rapids or Kali River Rapids. Then it surges down the slide, taking turns at a suicidal pace, sloshing your entire raft up the sides before righting itself down the straightaway. It’s waterslides, but you’re doing it with your buddies, all at once, and I’m laughing every time we go up the side, and Kristen’s laughing at me laughing, and Marty is thrilled beyond belief, and Paul is giddy as all get-out, and Lee’s trying to catch all of it on his waterproof instamatic, but it’s tough because he’s laughing just as hard as the rest of us. At the very end, we very nearly caromed off a teenage boy and girl just hanging out in the water, but in the end we sailed right over them, erasing the possibility of mortal malfeasance by water flume off our to-do lists.

    Marty and Paul and I finished our stay at Blizzard Beach as Joe and I had last time, with a relaxing trip around Cross Country Creek, a slow-moving river that circumnavigates the whole park. After the thrills of the day – which may include a race down the terror machine known as Summit Plummet – you can’t ask for a better end to a day at Blizzard Beach.

    Except for the mini doughnuts in raspberry sauce. Holy mother of yum, I can’t even tell you. I don’t like raspberry sauce, even! And yet by the time we’d showered and dried and put on our changes of clothes and got a text from Joe saying that he’d meet us at the Studios in a half-hour, Theme Park Kev was craving mini doughnuts in raspberry sauce like Normal Everyday Kev craves chai. “They’re for Joe,” I explained to the boys as I presented them. “He really liked them last time!”

    Paul said, “I guess the question is, are we going to save any for Joe?”

    I glanced about conspiratorially. “He never has to know.”