Places I Never Thought I’d Go (or, be let into): Walt Disney World

I have tried several times now to sit down and write about our March trip to Cambodia, but I struggle with it each time.

Basically, Cambodia broke my heart.

A sign at tuol sleng prison reminding you that visiting a prison is not a laughing matter.
A sign at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum reminding you that laughter is not appropriate when visiting a former prison/torture/execution site.

It’s not just the fact that its people are desperately poor. I’ve been to plenty of economically disadvantaged places. My personal-travel-arranger-for-life XFE pointed out that many parts of Peru were very, very poor, and yet, I had hardly mentioned it when we visited in 2013. In hindsight, I suppose I was distracted by the intestinal parasites that were slam dancing through my bowels like it was an Anthrax concert to notice or comment on anything that was going on around me.

And, it wasn’t just the fact that Cambodia and its people had gone through a horrific genocide in the late 1970s. Again, pointing to Peru, which had its own history of internal terrorism. Or Croatia, which we visited in 2013 (dang, 2013 was a good travel year!) and had its own very recent, very violent ethnic wars. Or even Bali, which we visited just last year. That peaceful oasis lost roughly five percent of the island’s population as part of a hysterical anti-Communist purge during the Indonesian killings of 1965-1966. And well, we also went to South Africa last year (again, another damn good year for travel!), and we all know about South Africa’s long and tortured history.

(I swear, we’re not thanatourists. It’s just that every country seems to have some seriously messed up period in their history.)

Anyway, Cambodia’s recent history and continuing struggle to overcome its past moved me deeply and just made me very, very sad.

So, let’s switch gears abruptly and talk about the happiest place on Earth, shall we?

If you can't tell, I'm a bit creeped out.
If you can’t tell, I’m a bit creeped out.

I’ve been working on a freelance project involving the travel industry for the last five months. Thanks to that work, I was able to attend a major industry conference in Orlando recently. It was amazing. Seriously impressive. And one of the most impressive events was a private evening for conference attendees at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Now, I had never been to any Disney properties. Not for any political reasons or anything. It’s just that when you grow up in a trailer park, trips to magical pixie theme parks in far off California or Florida aren’t really a part of your childhood reality. Sure, we visited the Alamo once and the beach in Galveston, but definitely not anywhere out of state. My experiences with amusement parks involved a couple of trips to Six Flags and El Paso’s now defunct Magic Landing, which was a lot less magical than the name might suggest (lots of maimings and accidents during its four-year run).

To be truthful, I had built up a hardened adult shell towards all things Disney. I figured it was just a big scam to fill children’s brains with fantasy and drive them so mad with consumerist desire that they make their parents crazy until they fling their hard-earned money at every colorfully-clad mermaid or cricket or talking candlestick that approached them holding a t-shirt or snow cone.

I’m still not completely convinced that that’s not the primary objective, but I gotta say, Walt Disney Resort was pretty freaking magical. A group of about 6,000 of us arrived at dusk and were greeted by rows and rows of very friendly workers who were waving and smiling. This immediately aroused my suspicions. Working late for a private party? And you’re all happy with this? I figured they must be getting paid some serious overtime.

Minnie, one of our overlords....I mean, gracious hosts. (Photo Kerry Tice)
Minnie, one of our overlords….I mean, gracious hosts. (Photo by Kerry)

Next up, hitting some rides. I was totally unfamiliar with the different lands that were open to us (Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Magic Kingdom, Boardwalk, Downtown), or their offerings. But, I had two experienced travel writers with me and they were Disney experts. They knew what rides were new and where they were, and they prioritized appropriately.

The rides were fun, nothing too scary or jarring. I was awestruck by the incredible attention to detail. When you flew over London in the Peter Pan or glided past Ursula in the Under the Sea ride, you really felt like you were there, inside the movie. But best of all, because it was a private event, there were no lines. No lines on anything, which is, I believe, unheard of.

Practically all to ourselves (Photo borrowed from Kerry Tice)
Practically all to ourselves (Photo borrowed from Kerry)

Since it was a party, there were free drinks (not even a tip jar, y’all) and some seriously great food that just kept being replenished without anyone seemingly bringing it out. I mean, I know they did and must have, but it seemed like there was just a ton of staff keeping an eye on things and making sure everything went smoothly. Again, they were all incredibly nice and patient, which then caused me to ask a few of them if Disney maybe gave them some special “happy vitamins” before their shift every day. I also urged one employee to blink three times if he was being held against his will. He just nicely asked me if I’d like some more lobster mac and cheese. (To which I obviously said, “hell yeah.”)

Photo borrowed from Kerry Tice.
Photo borrowed from Kerry. Those are some LeFeu Brew wenches in the background.

There were plenty of trash cans everywhere, but they were all painted to blend in with their surroundings and none of them were full or overflowing with discarded LeFeu Brews (a delicious nonalcoholic frozen drink that was being handed out at Gaston’s Pub.)

Photo: Kerry Tice
Photo: Kerry

It was fantastic. I used to think that these kinds of things (or, “experiences” to use travel industry parlance) were a rip off, but at Disney, you totally see where the money goes. And I’ve got to think a big part of the budget (besides the special “happy vitamins,” but I’m sure they get a discount) has got to be the fireworks. Those fireworks were amazing. I worried that it was all some trick and they were now going to burn the entire place down. They even run sprinklers on the roofs of the nearby buildings so that a random spark won’t catch on fire.

Then, when we were leaving, another parade of characters no doubt sweating in their elaborate costumes and heavy makeup. Including some of the characters from “Frozen,” who might have had it the worst of all, swathed in furs that were not at all weather appropriate for Florida.

I went in to Disney’s Magic Kingdom a skeptical adult and came out three hours later as a grinning……well, still an adult, but I did get into the spirit of things. I even put on a pair of free mouse ears to take pictures before passing off said free mouse ears to someone else who had children.

(Oh, one creepy side note about those “free” mouse ears….they lit up. And not only did they light up, they were synchronized with the rest of the 6,000 attendees free mouse ears. Which means we all lit up at the same time, in the same color and same pattern. So, yeah. Cult-like brainwashing isn’t totally off the table.)

With my two Disney experts.
With my two Disney experts.
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