Countless visitors flock to Disney World every year to experience a “magical” vacation that only the park can provide. As one of these visitors, I too have sought after that particular brand of enchanting escapism, but revisiting Disney World as an adult has forced me to come to terms with the fact that it is a real theme park that exists for the purpose of earning profits. Yet amidst this revelation, I have found new ways to find joy in the place where I’ve made so many happy memories.
Elsa, Miriam and Lorraine gather together for a family photo in front of the iconic Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Photo by Ann Linson
The change was actually the result of another family tradition. My younger sister, Elsa, had graduated this past spring and thus it was up to her to choose where we would be going on vacation over the summer. Following the precedent set by my senior trip, Elsa decided that the Linson family would be going to Disney World. My family had already been to the famed theme park twice before. Once when I was in third grade and once to celebrate my own aforementioned graduation. I was looking forward to another visit to the park, but something about this trip felt … off.
At first, I simply chalked this apprehension up to stress. A gauntlet of end-of-semester projects and final exams had made the close of this school year a hectic one, and we left for Florida shortly after summer break started, so maybe I was just too busy to build anticipation for the trip.
Or maybe it was just that I was older and events that once seemed beyond thrilling to me didn’t quite hold the same allure. I found it easy to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, toys sometimes seemed more like clutter than cherished childhood relics, the first day of summer break felt like any other day.
I found some clarity when my family arrived in Orlando and headed to our first excursion on Disney property: an afternoon of browsing at Disney Springs, a shopping center known for its Disney-themed stores.
The youngest of my two sisters, Miriam, immediately wanted to visit the large Disney store in search of a special pair of Mickey Mouse ears. I agreed to accompany my sisters and mother to the store, thinking it would be fun, but when I walked in the door I felt immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff.
Everywhere I looked, shelves were crammed with T-shirts, hats, backpacks, purses, mugs, toys, blankets, home decor and kitchen utensils featuring characters ranging from Snow White to Spider-Man and just about every major landmark in the park itself. People swarmed around us, some appearing to be clad only in clothing that could be found in that very store. Disney songs blared in the background and I practically had to shout just so my family could hear me speak over the music and the dozens of other people.
Had there really been so much Mickey Mouse merchandise last time I came here? I found myself asking. Are there really that many people who want to buy all this? And since when did it all cost so much?
That was when it all came together. Growing up, I loved Disney movies and cartoons. There was a time when I watched “Cinderella” every day (I think I was 5) and I adored Mickey, Donald and friends. Later on, I came to love the now-Disney-owned properties of Star Wars and Marvel even more than the company’s original characters. Yet in the past few years, I had struggled with reconciling my nostalgia for Disney’s classic animated features and affection for newly acquired franchises with my increasing distaste for the company of Disney itself.
In my mind, there were two Disneys: the Disney that cared about creating quality art and memorable, magical family experiences and the Disney that used popular characters and stories to make as much money as possible.
The first time I visited Disney World, when I was in third grade, I seemed to have found the first Disney. I remembered the excitement I had felt when I had walked down the cobblestone path of Main Street and caught a glimpse of Cinderella’s castle for the first time.
It’s real! I had thought. I’ve seen this castle so many times at the beginning of my favorite movies and in one of my favorite movies, and now it’s right here in front of me!
I remembered a warm night in Hollywood Studios, gazing at the neon lights, entranced by their soft glows of bubblegum pink, lime green and turquoise blue, the velvety, star-studded sky arching overhead. It was as if I had truly been transported back to another time, to the golden age of film.
I remembered suspending my disbelief as I saw people impersonating my favorite characters, willing to pretend for a day that I could actually meet the princesses and personalities that I loved.
“Enchanting” was exactly the right word to describe the experience.
“Disenchanting” was almost too apt a term to describe what was happening now.
For what it’s worth, I want to take a moment to make a few things clear. I am not a complete cynic or a pessimist. I don’t bear any ill will toward people who enjoy Disney movies and parks and I don’t think they’re childish or immature for wanting to enjoy their experience at Disney World. If anything, I can relate to these people.
The problem was that the blatant consumerism I witnessed that day in Disney Springs seemed to directly contradict the enjoyable Disney experience that I sought after. Realistically, I knew that both versions of Disney existed, that the company meticulously maintained the magical theme park experience because it was profitable, but that didn’t stop me from grieving the child-like wonder that seemed to have died in me that day.
Now that the veil of ignorance had been ripped from my eyes, I was faced with a choice: spend the rest of my trip ruthlessly exposing every flaw in Disney’s fantastical facade, or make a new kind of magic.
The choice turned out to be easy. As I said before, I’m no pessimist, and I soon discovered that the enchantment I sought wasn’t so hard to come by.
That magic made itself quite plain to me the next day when my dad excitedly pointed out Easter eggs in the “Star Wars” section of Hollywood studios. My sisters and I joyfully reminisced with him about our days watching “The Clone Wars” series over glasses of blue milk while my less lore-savvy mom was delighted by an animatronic alien cat. As I witnessed my family smiling and exploring the park together, it occurred to me that bonding with family is meant to be a part of the Disney experience too, and that seemed like something I could accomplish.
For the rest of the trip, I resolved to enjoy myself by making as many memories with my mom, dad and sisters as I could, starting with some friendly competition at the Toy Story Mania ride, an old family favorite. I came in last place, but was more than willing to accept the loss, though it meant I had to put up with a little friendly ribbing from Elsa and Miriam.
No trip to Disney World would be complete without at least one long wait for a ride, and Mom, Elsa and I were able to check that off our bucket list when we spent over an hour melting in the stifling Florida heat waiting to ride the Slinky Dog roller coaster, but we got the last laugh when we found out that Dad and Miriam hadn’t accomplished their own mission to ride the Rock’n’Roller Coaster at all due to a malfunction.
Two days later, the family fun continued in the line to Pirates of the Caribbean. We passed the time in line by people watching, amused by the parents who were clearly at their wits’ end trying to keep their children from touching every prop barrel, fake sword and faux lantern in sight. Miriam and I jokingly reminded Elsa to be careful not to fall out of the boat, a callback to a near-misadventure from our last trip.
But perhaps my favorite memory comes from a ride that is generally passed over by any group without children age 5 and under.
Taking a break from major attractions like Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, we happened upon the classic spinning teacup ride – with virtually no line in sight. All it took were some conspiratory whispers exchanged between Elsa, Miriam and I to determine that this was the perfect opportunity for some sisterly mischief.
No doubt we 16-, 18- and 21-year-old girls looked out of place amongst the toddlers hanging on to their grandparents’ hands. If any eyebrows were raised, we didn’t notice them, we were determined to be in the fastest-spinning teacup on the ride and nothing would swerve us from our purpose.
As the attendant opened the gate and the previous riders trickled out, the passengers for the next ride gingerly stepped on. Except for us three. We raced to the first empty pastel teacup we could find and piled in. As music from “Alice in Wonderland” started playing, the turntable the teacups were on began to twirl.
Glancing around, I noticed most families were letting their little ones turn the wheels in the center of the cups that made them spin, causing the oversized vessels to rotate lazily, though a few elected not to tempt fate and increase their motion any more than necessary.
Once again, the Linson trio was the exception. All three of us grasped for the wheel at once, giggling hysterically as we whirled faster and faster. The scenery and people around us swiftly blended into a colorful blur.
Dizzily stumbling off the ride, still convulsing with laughter, we immediately begged Mom to show us the video she had taken of our wild ride. Sure enough, we had easily outpaced the rest of the teacups when it came to revolutions per minute. We looked like a shrieking, pastel tornado. It was a far cry from meeting a princess, but I didn’t mind.
Amidst these family-oriented adventures, I was able to summon up a little of that old Disney magic I had so loved as a child. It took a bit of stretching of the imagination, but when we visited the “Star Wars” portion of the park, I was determined to indulge myself by pretending we really were in a galaxy far, far away. And I think it worked.
Instead of being thrilled by a castle, I exclaimed excitedly when I saw a life-size model of an X-wing starfighter. Instead of being transported back to the golden age of cinema by the sight of neon, I was thrust into an intergalactic battle by the stern presence of fully-armored stormtroopers. Instead of meeting “Mickey Mouse,” I got to connect with one of my favorite rebels, Han Solo, when I played the role of pilot on the Millennium Falcon ride.
I even caved to the merchandising machine and bought a model Millennium Falcon to commemorate the occasion (and my sisters’ teasing. Turns out my flying skills could use some work.)