There are five Disney resorts and 11 Disney theme parks, and until recently I had no interest in visiting any of them ever again. I was raised in California and loved Disneyland, the West Coast outpost, when I was of Disneyland-going age. Then I grew up. My taste matured, as one’s taste is supposed to. In the last 20 years I have entered Disneyland only once, out of parental duty, and had never set foot in Walt Disney World.
But I may be the exception. About a third of the 51 million annual visitors to Walt Disney World, which includes the company’s crown jewel, Disney’s Magic Kingdom, are adults without tykes in tow. I even know a few.
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“Oh, my gosh, I love Disney!” gushes Marie Bostwick, a best-selling novelist who once up and moved to Mexico City for the adventure of it. I was flabbergasted to learn that she and her husband, a corporate chairman (they now live in Connecticut), have visited Disney dozens of times — with their kids and without. “You just have to embrace the cheesiness,” Marie says, before she starts going on about fireworks displays, rides, live entertainment and lazing by the pool with a book.
And it isn’t just that the place offers something for everyone, she tells me: At Disney, one is allowed to embrace one’s inner child, the happy innocent who is full of wonder and not afraid to look like a dork.
Still…is it worth the trade-off? There is an entire planet’s worth of art, architecture, and culture to discover, and time off is precious. Why would any adult choose to squander it in a place associated with screeching toddlers, brutal lines, mediocre food, and a preponderance of twee? However, I am an open-minded person and can see that there might be some value in cultivating a more carefree, innocent self. So I’ve decided to spend six days and five nights within the 40-square-mile confines of the Walt Disney World Resort.
I’ve asked Marie to be my Tinker Bell for the first few days, sprinkling me with pixie dust and encouraging happy thoughts. Then she’ll return home, and my husband, a world-weary journalist and world-class skeptic, will join me. As for our 13-year-old son, it’s midterms week at school. I’ve reluctantly left him behind.
On the curb at Orlando International Airport, I board Disney’s Magical Express bus service for the place where dreams come true. Okay, Disney, I think, as the wheels start turning and an orientation video begins to play, work your magic.
Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, the first of four hotels where I’ll stay, is part of a 1,200-room complex of cupola-topped gray-and-white buildings sited on a 25-acre Disney-made lake. The place evokes 19th-century Martha’s Vineyard, except with palm trees and powerboats. At the edge of the ersatz bay is a decorative lighthouse; in the distance, an old-fashioned boardwalk hugs a curve of shore. Three handsome sailors stride past, looking as if they’re on leave for Fleet Week.
To enter Disney World is to enter a world of illusion made possible by the company’s unparalleled attention to detail. Every area at Disney has a “history,” from the iconic Cinderella Castle to Typhoon Lagoon, a surf pool supposedly created by a make-believe storm, and Big Thunder Mountain, the fictional former center of an 1850s gold-mining operation. Guests board this roller coaster, the company says, “at the ramshackle headquarters of the Big Thunder Mining Co., in the town of Tumbleweed, established during the Gold Rush.”
A merry soundtrack plays just at the threshold of your consciousness nearly everywhere you go. Fragrance is another special effect: During Soarin’, a ride that uses a filmed background to simulate a hang-glider flight over California, the scent of citrus blossoms circulates as you fake-swoop over an orange grove.
Keeping this massive illusion alive also requires the commitment of tens of thousands of workers, who at Disney are called “cast members.” The sailors I see are in fact costumed employees, as is the blue-blazered “captain” who appears in the Yacht Club’s brass-accented lobby from time to time to welcome guests. Their commitment to their roles is flawless.
From time to time I must remind myself that the princesses, pirates, and historical figures running around are just actors who clock in and out every day, and that everything here was manifested out of a swamp by Walt Disney in the late 1960s. In fact, one’s reaction to all of these little fakeries depends on how open one’s Disney chakra is. Marie will chide me again and again to “relax, have a good time, don’t overthink it.” But already, 15 minutes in, I’m a little unhinged: While I wait in the Yacht Club’s gardens for Marie to arrive from the airport, I puzzle over whether the petunia scent could be simulated, whether the chirping birds I hear are a recording, and even whether the egrets wandering around the lawns are animatronic. If you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, how can your reaction be honest? I need a drink.
The bar at Stormalong Bay (a.k.a. the pool area) is pleasant and civilized, populated by attractive people in business attire who sit at tables and work on their laptops; they’re either here for a corporate convention or they’re cast members portraying people here for a corporate convention. The area is almost child free. A few giggling tots splash around, but most, it seems, are still out at the parks.
By the time Walt Disney World opened in 1971, its creator was not around to see it. Walt Disney’s first theme park, Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, had been a success since 1955, but Walt had a bigger vision: an entertainment megalopolis supported by a workforce that would live nearby in a utopian city of his own design. Disney was the quintessential American—optimistic, self-made, patriotic. He romanticized the future and the past over the complicated, sometimes disagreeable present.
In the beginning, Disney World comprised a single park, Magic Kingdom, and two hotels. Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom came later. Today, the four parks combined draw 47 million visitors annually and Magic Kingdom is the most-visited theme park in the world.
Those numbers are a testament to Walt Disney, one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived. His genius was in satisfying our desire not just to escape but to be inspired. You can’t not be hopeful about world peace as you watch Israeli and Arab child-figurines sing and twirl in the Magic Kingdom ride It’s a Small World. For dinner on our first evening, Marie and I walk from the Yacht Club to the shops and restaurants along Disney’s BoardWalk, where the atmosphere is 1920s Atlantic City—bare light bulbs, street performers, and a wooden walkway that runs along the lake. We could be at any charming, touristy waterfront resort.
Dinner is at the Flying Fish Café, a contemporary seafood place with nary a cartoon character in sight. The Degustation of Flying Fish Artisanal Cheeses rivals any degustation of artisanal cheeses I’ve enjoyed in New York; the Asian-inspired char-crusted yellowfin tuna is respectable; and there are some nice wine pairings. Marie awards the meal a 9 on a scale of 10 for Disney cuisine, and we agree it’s a 6 or 7 in the real world.
Good morning, Magic Kingdom
With the sun rising in a crystalline Disney sky, the Victorian-esque buildings along Main Street U.S.A., just inside the park’s entrance, are bathed in an ethereal golden glow. Barbers at the Harmony Barber Shop stand at the ready (they really do cut hair, and there’s a barbershop quartet, naturally). Gleaming Mickey merchandise is ready to be sold, and am I imagining it or do I detect a whiff of homemade snickerdoodles on the breeze?
This morning we’re on an adult group tour called Keys to the Kingdom, a five-hour odyssey through off-limits areas of the park, including its mythical underground tunnels. Our guide is a young German woman inexplicably dressed in an equestrian outfit, with a velvet helmet and riding crop, and the tour is, in a word, exhaustive. If you are Disney-obsessed, it might be for you. If not, here are the highlights: Listen carefully to the dancing animatronic natives near the end of the Jungle Cruise ride. One of them clearly says, “I love disco.”
The tunnels employees use to get quickly around the park and to transport deliveries are not the dank catacombs I’d imagined. They’re rather prosaic industrial corridors, called Utilidors, and aren’t truly underground but on the “first floor” of the Magic Kingdom; the public part of the park starts on the “second floor.” As for pumping in a cookie smell, Disney does no such thing, our guide tells us, as we stand in the Utilidor under Main Street U.S.A. Then she indicates a small compressor above our heads. “But that doesn’t mean we didn’t try it once,” she says.
After the tour, Marie and I are as giddy as middle-schoolers sprung from detention. Time for rides! I vote for Space Mountain, the extraordinary roller coaster that spins you around in the dark under a simulated galaxy of stars. Marie worries she’ll hurt her neck. We settle on Pirates of the Caribbean, the crowd-pleasing boat adventure. Since the 2006 addition of an animatronic Johnny Depp, Pirates has turned into the ride version of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — which, in a Gordian knot of entertainment-industry synergy, was originally conceived as the movie version of the ride.
After that it’s on to the fairy-tale-themed New Fantasyland, to the brand-new Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid, the ride version of the 1989 movie. Then we pass the gift shop. This being New Fantasyland, it’s full of princess gear. Marie and I can’t resist ogling the tulle dresses and magic wands, and before we know it, we are buying matching pink crowns. We put them on, walk out giggling, and get in line for It’s a Small World. “Hello, Your Majesty,” the ride operator says to each of us, curtseying. We step into our boat, waving with queenly decorum.
That evening, and again the following morning, we head to Epcot, the least cohesive of the Disney theme parks. More than twice the size of the Magic Kingdom, at 305 acres, Epcot is not the working, futuristic city Walt Disney imagined it would be. Nobody lives there. It’s an odd amalgam of attractions with rides that were once futuristic but are now amusingly retro — including Soarin’ and Living with the Land — and corporate-sponsored, children’s-museum-style exhibits on topics such as fire safety and money management.
Epcot is probably best known for its World Showcase. There, visitors can stroll through re-creations of 11 different countries, each approximately the size of a few city blocks, with shops, restaurants, architecture and “culture” reminiscent of the real place. As with all things Disney, appreciating the World Showcase takes a willful suspension of disbelief. The France area includes a 1:10 scale reproduction Eiffel Tower; Italy is a mashup of Venice, Florence and Rome.
Most peculiar of all is the ultra-patriotic American area, sandwiched between Italy and Japan. First you have to wrap your mind around visiting pretend America while actually in real America. Then you enter the supersize American Adventure hall, built in Georgian-ish style (though the bricks of its facade are made from real Georgia clay) and so excessively stately that I come to call it the American Hall of Americanness.
Our packed itinerary leaves us no time to stay and see “We the People,” a 30-minute stage show starring an animatronic Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. Instead, we watch the Voices of Liberty, an a cappella group in nineteenth-century costume, sing a rendition of the national anthem that has me covered in goose bumps with my hand over my heart.
On the third morning of my Disney visit, I find myself in the center of a rope bridge (the rickety kind that straddles Third World gorges in adventure movies), looking down into a ravine filled with crocodiles that I’m certain are not set decorations. I am strapped into a safety vest and hooked to a steel cable, so there’s no chance of my falling into the hungry gullets below. But this feels pretty darn real, which might be why the Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom proves to be one of the most memorable parts of the trip. I’m in a group of eight on a mini safari, led by a pair of guides who take us on foot and in an open-sided truck through 100 acres of wetlands and grasslands.
During the three-hour excursion, led by an appealing and peppy 20-something duo who share lots of fun facts about the animals, we see grazing giraffes, snoozing cheetahs and regal lions. About two hours in, we stop at a viewing platform for a simple lunch of cheese, cured meat and dried fruit that is my favorite meal of the week.
I’ve never been to Africa, so the small-scale safari seems authentic enough to me. So does Harambe, the theme park’s ersatz East African port village from which we “depart,” with its faux-dilapidated stucco colonial buildings with their faux-faded signs. My second hotel, the six-story Animal Kingdom Lodge, seems authentic enough, too. It has a rustic, airy lobby and an Africa-themed restaurant. My room overlooks a “savanna,” one of three ten-acre areas stocked with gazelles, zebras and more giraffes.
While I am bothered by the weirdness of visiting all of these phony foreign countries, Marie has a different spin: Maybe, she says, people who come to fake Africa will be inspired to travel to real Africa. She posits that through movies such as Bambi, Walt Disney helped start the environmental movement by making baby boomer children care about talking animals. Perhaps in some small way, Disney, which makes a point to hire employees from the countries it re-creates, is fostering a greater communication between Americans and other cultures.
Family of the Day
The manager at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Walt Disney World’s premiere property, is giddy with delight when he announces the good news at check-in: My husband and I are the hotel’s Family of the Day! We have been chosen at random for an upgraded room and access to the concierge floor, with its bounty of complimentary snacks. He even snaps our photo as we stroll up a red carpet that has been rolled out especially for us.
But if Marie was Tinker Bell, my husband is Grumpy. I remind him that we are supposed to be immersing ourselves in the Disney experience. Which is how I end up at the fanciest restaurant in all of Walt Disney World, wearing a Prada dress and twin buttons that say “Disney’s Family of the Day!” and “Happy Anniversary!”
Weddings and honeymoons are a significant business here. Couples wear bride-and-groom mouse-ear hats and Disney buttons announcing their relationship status. Grumpy and I have decided to celebrate our real wedding anniversary a few days early with dinner at Victoria & Albert’s, the award-winning and very expensive restaurant the company describes as “a tiny oasis of opulence.”
Opulent it is: This time we’re transported to 1885 England by way of 1985 Las Vegas, with mirrors, dripping chandeliers and swaths of brocade. Afterward, we step outside for a short private boat ride into the middle of Seven Seas Lagoon to watch the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks show. Synchronized audio on board our little boat plays a sound track, a mélange of dialogue and music from classic Disney movies. The message is pure Disney: Anything you wish can come true, anything you dream is possible.
It occurs to me that I have traveled to a foreign land after all. Walt Disney World — litter-free, poverty-free, with its industrious labor force, mannerly guests and all-encompassing positivity — is Fantasy America, the America we all wish we lived in. It’s the America that Americans are nostalgic for. It is secular paradise. And it has never existed, not ever, except in Walt Disney’s imagination.
And this, too, is the man’s genius: He found a way to satisfy our collective dream of a better country while relieving us of the burden of effecting true change. The garbage and disgruntled workers and urban sprawl of real America are a lot easier to bear if you can escape it all for a few days in Disney’s America. In the same way we gobble up “Downton Abbey” or Ralph Lauren’s vision of an elegant bygone era that didn’t quite exist, it’s a comfort to believe in Disney’s cuddly nation. It’s the America of our innocence. But for me, at least, experience has won the battle with innocence. There’s just no going back.
And yet…the following morning, our final day together at the resort, Grumpy and I head to Epcot for one last tour. After a quick tutorial, we step onto Segway scooters for a look at the theme park’s archetypal renderings of a Moroccan bazaar and a Japanese pagoda. Riding the Segways is a blast, and before long, Grumpy and I are laughing and zipping around like, well, kids. It would be impossible to maneuver one of these things on the packed, uneven, littered sidewalks of New York, out there in the real world. But Walt Disney World, with its perfect terrain on this perfect day, is the perfect place to ride.