When people find themselves taking a stroll through a garden or a beach amidst a sunset, they often feel like they are at peace. Maybe they have an ice cream cone in hand or a dog leash close by. But for yours truly, there’s nothing quite like the tranquility that a specific vacation destination brings to me. The place? Well, it features a majestic symbol – one created by a man who said that all of his dreams came true thanks to the popularity of an animated mouse.
That’s right, I’m one of those. I love Disney Parks. I love the magic that comes from walking down the middle of Main Street USA (even if it isn’t in the United States.) I admire the sounds of an old-timey train pulling into the station. And I adore the music that pipes in through the well-hidden speaker system. In truth, there’s no tiny detail that I don’t have some sort of affinity for when it comes to Disney.
But how did I arrive at such a passion? Why does my fondness for Disney’s collection of theme parks continue to exist? That’s an answer that needs a bit of an explanation. For it is a tale (as predictable as it sounds) that is as old as time. Or at least, in this case, as old as my odd assortment of Daisy Duck shaped hats.
In the spring of 1996, my grandfather happened upon some luck. Using the numbers within my birthdate, he won the local lottery. And because (in his words) he owed that success in small part to my existence, he asked me what I wanted to do. And as any kid naturally requests, I wanted to go on vacation. Specifically, a trip to Walt Disney World.
Now, it’s important to know that before even grabbing my Mickey and Minnie suitcase, I had studied what Walt Disney World could be like via the “magic” of a vacation planning VHS tape. It opens on two small children (decked in perfectly themed Disney pajamas) crossing their fingers in the hopes that they’ll get to go to Disney World. Suddenly, Tinker Bell zooms past Sorcerer Mickey and three overwhelmingly large park icons. As the various segments continued, I kept wondering, could Disney World be as magical as this? Well, little did I know, it would be even more so.
Right from the get-go, this trip was already the definition of an adventure. I had never been on an airplane and was terrified of the results. But once we landed, the magic of Walt Disney World felt like a combination of sensations. Imagine simultaneously biting into a candy bar, being wrapped in a blanket, smelling an apple pie, and being doused in the most colorful of confetti, all from just walking into the lobby of a hotel. And when we entered the gates of the Magic Kingdom, all of those sensations mentioned were upped to an eleven and beyond.
No matter which land I stepped into, or ride I took a seat on, Walt Disney World felt like the most intoxicating solace that any human could ever experience. For not only did I have a smile on my face, but so did my grandparents and, most of all, so did my single, hardworking, beautiful mother. We all were enjoying ourselves. We all were getting something out of it and creating our own bit of pixie dust. And regardless of the state of my then-speech impediment and other childhood struggles, I was accepted. I belonged somewhere.
But then the trip was coming to an end. It was time to say goodbye to Figment at Epcot, wave to the Muppets at MGM, and smile at the sight of Cinderella Castle one last time. My mom had to return to work. My grandparents had to go back to their normal lives. But for that one trip, I finally felt like everything was at peace – a feeling that this little girl from the suburbs of New York would hold onto for the foreseeable future.
As my childhood days went on, Walt Disney World would become a routine experience for my mother and I. We’d usually book a March trip, a tad before Easter, and do as many magical Disney-related things before the Spring Break crowds came through. Yet when middle school rolled around and other interests came in and out of my life (aka anime conventions), Disney trips slowly took a back burner. That is until I made several returns to a certain Florida resort in my early adult years.
This is when I knew that Disney Parks meant more than just a trip through nostalgia land. This was my therapeutic retreat from the stresses of everyday life. No angry college professor could get me down, no smelly subway car could interrupt my day, or political conversation that sucks the life out of the room. Walt Disney World (and eventually Disneyland) would become one of my “churches” – my place of pure relaxation, content, and joy. And as I began my adult journey of friendship and romantic relationships, I dreamed of sharing these most magical of places with the people I trusted the most.
On many occasions, the best of these friends did indeed enjoy said Disney adventures, just like moi. Some would join me in the evening for a few incredible rounds on Big Thunder Mountain. Others would spend the earlier parts of the day amidst the jungle settings of Animal Kingdom. While the rest would dance in the most ridiculous of ways in the lobby of the Grand Floridian. Regardless of how they accomplished it, they all made me feel that connective magic that only close friendships (along with silliness and humble emotion) could provide. It was that sensation of belonging, just like I felt back in 1996.
But then there were the trips that delivered the opposite sort of experience. The kind that from the moment you set foot on the plane, something didn’t seem to click. And these were the vacations that felt like the human embodiment of those nitpicky TikTok videos and other judgemental memes. The sort that makes you feel more lonely than an abandoned rag doll on the side of the road.
There’s no denying that entering back onto Disney property can feel like home. In fact, almost every single time I step off of the platform of the Magical Express bus, I feel like I’m walking into the backyard I never had as a child. My shoulders drop, my tensions lessen, and everything seems to be falling into place. But for others, that isn’t the case. And they are often the individuals that like to make that point loud and undeniably clear, even without uttering a single word.
Some of these interactions will be the definition of passive-aggressive behavior. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells to try and make the trip comfortable for them. But their ideal version of relaxation is clearly quite the opposite of your own. And when you’ve put a countless amount of your own energy into making the said trip as enjoyable, all efforts can be dashed to the side with one singular look or sigh. And those reactions seem to reach to the pit of your soul, judges your entire life, and throws your passion through the blender that is your sanity.
Yes, I can agree that from a certain perspective, Disney theme parks can seem like the epitome of everything any full-grown adult could hate. Corporate symbols, rules, screaming children, large costs – the list goes on. But that isn’t what I see when I choose to spend my time and money on a Disney vacation. Instead, the various Disney parks speak to a multitude of elements that make up the person I am today. The ideas of optimism, imagination, and creativity. The journey that brought us to hold onto our own personal goals. And the stories of the flawed human beings that shaped the legacy of these several iconic pop culture landmarks.
But when someone gives you that look, that sigh, or expresses how uncomfortable such a place makes them feel, it translates to a concept even more degrading than simply fighting in the middle of a crowd. Because they are essentially saying that your passions make them uncomfortable. That the fundamental elements of yourself are an embarrassment to society, and that the view you have on the world is one to be ashamed of. And when they tell you these things, even in the midst of merely enjoying an ice cream cone or laying on your respective beds in the hotel room, you can’t help but feel like you should wipe your heart like one does a hard drive.
There’s no way to honestly describe what it’s like to walk through a place that means so much to you with this level of disappointment on your shoulders. You glid past happy families, groups of friends, couples – all dressed in their mouse decor best. You wonder, what did you do wrong? Don’t you deserve not to feel so utterly alone? And when you’ve lived a life where people have continuously ripped the heart you’ve worn on your sleeve off, even before your first Disney trip, you wonder, will it always be like this?
Good News? No. It won’t.
When thinking through the history of incredible Disney attractions, one in particular (now defunct) continues to inspire my optimistic side. Located in Epcot, the attraction was called Horizons. It was a dark ride that would take you through the possibilities of the future and the magic of what could be. At the end of the journey, you got to choose the future you wanted to see – in space, underwater, or on land. But if there were a fourth option, I would go for one a tad bit more metaphorical: a future built on happiness.
Yes, I’m quite aware of how lame that sounds. But if being a Disney Parks fan has taught me anything, its that you have to do a lot to make your dreams come true. And if that dream is having a substantial amount of contentment in your life, then that’s a goal worth fighting for. Yet what defines that feeling is something not as quickly answered with a multiple choice question on a survey. Instead, it is one you have to discover throughout the journey that is your life.
So what have all of my Disney trips (both the good and the bad) taught me? That I have to stick up for myself. That I’m worth more than just one person’s happiness. That my comfort is important. And I’m done with people putting me down and telling me to calm my excitement. I refuse for individuals to allow themselves to convey their emotions but not give me the same room for earnest expression. And most importantly, no more will any of this behavior be tolerated in my happy place.
Finally, I’d like to leave some bits of advice. If you have a place that brings you joy, never let others ruin it for you. Never let the joy inside of you die out because it doesn’t fit someone else’s ideas of what is acceptable. Remember that whatever makes you happy (Disney, Lucky Charms, Hall and Oates, etc.) is something to treasure. For this passion is a significant part of your narrative. Never erase it to fit someone else’s. For this isn’t their story – it’s yours. And when it comes to my own adventure, I want to end it on Main Street, looking up at the fireworks, and (like the cheesy song says) reaching out to find my own happily ever after.