2. The Values Yes, I know Disney is a massive corporation, and that, like all corporations, it exists to make money. But every corporation also has a vision, a mission, a culture. A company can encourage and support positive, healthy values, can be a force for good even as it strives to satisfy its stake-holders.
When I am at a Disney park, I am aware of the messages that run throughout all lands and all attractions. This is one reason I find our trips to Disney World both uplifting and affirming:
I am encouraged to believe in myself and my potential.
I am encouraged to respect and appreciate diversity.
I am encouraged to see the world as one and peace for all humanity as a possibility.
I am encouraged to value and respect the natural world.
I am encouraged to practice kindness.
I am encouraged to live in awe and wonder.
I am encouraged to value the importance of play.
And that's why I return from a Disney trip refreshed and grounded.
1. Companionship Top reason! We will enjoy all of the above surrounded by good friends--hearty laughter, soulful conversations, shared memories, new experiences.
It's good to be a kid again; it's even better when great friends become kids with you.
5. Technology Disney has always been a leader in tech innovation. It's said that Walt himself would tell his "Imagineers," "I want an attraction that will do THIS." They would sometimes respond, "But there's no way to do that." And he'd say, "You keep working on it until you do." And they would.
That's another characteristic of WDW that attracts me, the technology. From the Magic Bands that function as your room keys/park passes/charge cards (and more), to an auditorium that breaks apart into moving platforms to cruise through prehistoric jungles, to creating the illusion of hang-gliding, to nighttime shows combining the latest in pyrotechnics, projection, LED lighting, music and water, to an animated Crush (at "Turtle Talk") who somehow manages to interact with the audience in real time...I am fascinated and sometimes baffled. It's the same "How do they do this?" sense of awe that I experienced at the New York World's Fair in '64.
And that technological "Wow!" extends to the logistics of the place. At twice the size of Manhattan Island, WDW works. Imagine what it takes to coordinate, just to mention a few examples, 27,000 guest rooms (and counting), 70,000 cast members (we know them as employees), 3 million flowering plants installed annually, a fleet of over 400 buses (1,600 drivers), the second largest aquarium in the country and the largest wardrobe department in the world, not to mention maintaining their own power plant and highway system. Quite impressive to watch it all work so smoothly.
4. Artistry and Detail Wherever you stand at Disney World, you stand in an elaborate, carefully designed "set," like a movie or TV set. That artistic touch is evident everywhere, from the choice of colors to the carefully engineered view from one area to another, from architectural design to the use of artifacts gathered from around the world and arranged to support an attraction or themed area. It is both art and science.
If you are in a shop (and there are many...they are also masters of merchandising), stop and look up...chances are there are hand-painted murals surrounding you, worth pausing to admire. Stand in any line for any attraction and you'll see the results of hours of research, design and artful construction.
It's all in the details, and if there's one thing Disney does well, it's the details. But more of that in the next item on the list...
3. Story Disney is all about the story. Walt Disney wanted, more than anything else, to tell the story. Starting with film and TV, the importance of story-telling is evident at the parks. You are immersed in stories. It's not just a ride you're going on, you're participating in an expedition up Mount Everest, or you're about to take a wild ride through NYC in a limousine, or you're preparing to launch into space.
My favorite example is the Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror, which is themed around The Twilight Zone. You enter the hotel lobby, part of the queue, and it's filled with furniture and accessories (many of them antiques from the 30's) covered with dust and cobwebs. The line typically moves too quickly to see all of these amazing details, but if you take the time, it's as fun as the ride that's coming. You then move into the library where you are greeted by Rod Serling (yes, that Rod Serling) speaking to you from a black and white TV, giving you the story of that fateful night decades ago when lightning hit the elevator tower and its riders plunged to the basement...and were never seen again...except they are back and inviting you to ride with them. That's the beginning. By the time you strap in to your "service elevator," you've wandered through the hotel's boiler room and encountered several hotel employees, all of whom stay beautifully--and unnervingly--in character.
10. It's a Small World Though the song is often maligned as an "ear worm," this attraction is my favorite. When I was an 11-year-old boy, eyes and heart wide open to wonder, our family attended the 1964 New York World's Fair. Disney produced several attractions for that fair, including Pepsi's, which was "It's a Small World." And my dad paid extra for the two of us to ride it (60 cents for me, 95 cents for him--the proceeds went to UNICEF).
Once inside, I was astounded: over 300 figures of children from all around the globe, dancing and singing in sync. Even at that age, I observed that the soundtrack--long before the digital age--involved dozens of different tracks, all playing perfectly together...the song in various languages plus individual instruments and noises coming out from different spots in each scene as you rode by. How in the world are they doing this? I wondered.
It has remained my favorite for five decades because of something more profound: This, to me, is God's vision for the world, and when the ride ends with all nations coming together, singing as one, reminding us that, "though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide, it's a small world after all," it's hard for me not to choke up. And this message has been shared with 10s of millions of children and adults from all over the world.
Did you know that Disney traveled around the world to record children singing in their various languages?
And that there is a seldom-heard third verse, written for the ride's 45th anniversary, which really brings home the point of world unity:
It's a world of wonder, a world of fun And in years to come we'll know peace on earth We will open our eyes And we'll all realize It's a small world after all
It's also the most-heard song in the world and the only non-copyrighted Disney song (at the insistence of UNICEF).
9. Soarin' I can name my second-favorite attraction as well--Soarin' over California (as it's called at Disney's California Adventure, next to Disneyland) and Soarin' (as it's called in EPCOT at Walt Disney World). Soarin' is a simulated hang-gliding tour of California. It's breath-taking, both thrilling and strangely calming, a very Zen-like ride, in my experience, that combines the feeling of flying with spectacular, immersive film and even the scents of orange groves and pine forests. At the moment when the lights dim, the soundtrack starts, your feet lift off the floor and you rise into the clouds, my spirit flies as well--and this after riding it many times.
But this time, we won't be seeing Soarin' over California. They've produced a new film, Soarin' Around the World, which debuted last year. We now visit various sites from eight continents. I've deliberately resisted doing more research, because I want to be surprised...and awed.
8. The International Flower & Garden Festival This annual springtime event is held in EPCOT. I've seen it twice before, and it's beautiful--acres of flowers, demonstration gardens, topiaries, a butterfly pavilion. It's all expertly done and a photographer's paradise (for this photographer, at least).
7. I'm Ten Again Yes, once I board the Disney Magical Express at the Orlando Airport, I'm no longer an adult. I return to childhood. I am a kid again. Everything is new and wonder-filled. I never tire of seeing the grounds, riding the monorails, taking a shuttle-boat, seeing a castle, experiencing the attractions, seeing the characters ("Look! It's Lilo and Stitch!"), letting the so-called "real world" slip away and immersing myself, once again, in what really matters--laughter, joy, unity in diversity, beauty, innocence, trust, hope, gratitude, life, Mickey-shaped rice-krispie treats (dipped in chocolate).
Yes, I'm 10 again. I believe. What a gift this is.
6. Food Theme-park food is typically not the best, and that may be true in plenty of places at WDW. They do, after all, have to crank out a lot of food to satisfy the 50,000+ visitors they get every day (that's on average; we will be there in the off-season, so not that many.)
But they also have some amazing, top-rated, fine-dining establishments, and they never disappoint. Some are found in the parks, others in Disney Springs (shopping and entertainment district) and yet others at the resorts. We'll be eating at the Brown Derby (in Hollywood Studios), Be Our Guest (new in the Magic Kingdom) and the Boathouse (in Disney Springs) among others. Yum! Other favorites: Coral Reef (seafood at The Sea, in EPCOT, dining in front of one massive glass wall of the aquarium) and Akershus (Norway, in EPCOT--all the pickled herring you want!).
Our bed frame is metal, probably steel, but dimpled and coated in dark green paint, with four posts and four rails, decorated at each corner with curly tubing that ends in three-lobed leaves, all suggesting vines. The head- and foot-board carry this theme further-- more tubing, more leaves, and diagonal, metal slats, crossing each other, like garden trellis.
I like the bed. I picked it out, and even though, in some places, the green, speckled paint has chipped, exposing gray metal beneath, it still feels right for me. I've never seen another bed like it. Organic.
The railings and curlicues provide places to hang things. At the head of the bed, Tibetan prayer bells, and on one side, a lantern for a tea light-- bronze with a clear, rippled, glass shade.
We use the posts to store our ball caps-- easy to grab on mornings when we want to start the day without doing anything about our hair.
From the rail across the top at the foot of the bed hangs the item I like most, a metal bird given me by a friend. It's a glossy, metal bird-- no type in particular-- embossed metal, stamped out in several pieces, then welded together-- the top of the body, the bottom of the body (which includes most of the tail), and two wings, plus a few extra "feathers" to complete the tail. It's wings are spread in flight.
There's not much detail, but the lack of detail gives it its graceful, dreamy look-- a few embossed lines on the wings, but other than that, just gray, glossy luster.
It hangs by a pale blue, satin ribbon. The ribbon and the bird, both smooth and cool to the touch.
And when the ceiling fan is on, as it is now, the bird turns slowly back and forth. It flies. I like that it flies.
What does all this represent for me? Peace. Refuge. Home. Beauty. Solace. Oasis. Calm. A bed frame, a lantern, prayer bells, the bird-- a quiet place, protection, angels fending off the harsh, demanding world, absolutely sacred space, almost like a pet's crate providing safety for the night-- or an afternoon nap-- or, like now, a place to be free to see, observe, express, create, breathe into me.
Perhaps I'm a poet whose poems to this point are but rough-cut rocks chiseled from the depths of a cave the mouth of which lies within the lobes of my brain, the chambers of my heart, the still, craggy mountains of my soul, all still waiting to be broken open, cut and polished into gems.
Perhaps I'm a photographer whose images to this point are but snapshots stolen from the pathways along which God and fate have led me-- from city streets, to patio gardens, to a friend's living room, to museum galleries, to foothill trails-- all still waiting to be color-corrected, cropped, and coaxed from commonplace to iconic.
Whatever. The point is discovery, authenticity and joy.