09 July 2012

Just hold on tight and don't forget

I’ve been writing about Walt Disney World with the Main Street Gazette for almost five years now. You’d think I would have run out of things to say by now, but I always feel as if I am only just getting started. Today, however, I want to take an article on a personal spin. The more time you spend around the podcasts, forums, and blogosphere dedicated to Walt Disney World, you become almost numb to the steady sounds of those longing for the good ol’ days, those who miss 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Horizons, River Country, etc. I’m not complaining mind you, I know add to the same conversation, but as a community we do tend to look back quite a lot. So, today, as I'm thinking ahead to what is to come for the Main Street Gazette and Walt Disney World in the coming months and years I’m taking a page from Walt Disney himself and keeping one foot in the past and one stepping towards the future. With that in mind, I want to head back to my early days in Walt Disney World, think about what they were like, and what I’d love to have just one more chance to see again.

Any trip to Walt Disney World began with the AM radio station dedicated to the happenings taking place in the resort. As we approached the Transportation and Ticket Center, we would say we were checking in at Fort Wilderness and have to follow the painted stripe towards the campground, where we would check-in without ever having to get out of the van.

Now, I was born too late to have ever enjoyed the Fort Wilderness Railroad during its short run, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t fascinated by the railroad tracks that still crisscrossed the campground. Before I was old enough to be aware that there were no trains, I would constantly watch for a train as we crossed the defunct tracks.

We would set up a lavish campsite in those days. My dad’s panel truck served as our base of operation. Inside there were two dressers, both of the four drawer variety. One would house a variety of food and the other was dedicated to our clothing, with a drawer each for my dad, mom, sister, and myself. We would place a visqueen on the sand and shell pad where our tent would go, with a green plastic canopy running between the trees, over the top of the tent and table. Miniature plastic lanterns on a Christmas tree light string surrounded our picnic table where we would eat items from the campsite’s grill and my dad’s gas burner or play cards into the late hours of the night.

Inside the tent were two air mattresses that we had blown up at the Bike Barn, where we also picked up a cart to get around the campground on, sheets covering the mattresses, and a thick sleeping bag for each of us. On occasion I would be allowed to drive the golf cart around our camping loop, Jack Rabbit Run more often than not, even after being chided by security regularly.

When the golf cart was not being utilized, my sister and I would venture off on our bikes, heading off to wooden forts and sheet metal tepees, or even to the Meadow Trading Post to check out the latest in souvenirs, grab a postcard for my unsent collection at home (that I have somehow lost between there and today), and maybe share some fudge. Back at the campsite, the pair of us would often run off along the trails connecting the back of the campsites to the Comfort Station in order to get the schedule of what Disney films would be featured at the campfire sing-a-long and race back to the site in order to be the first to report back to our parents the schedule. The first one back would often have forgotten what the films were because we had been in such a hurry to get back and be the one to tell the family.

When evening set in, we could undoubtedly be found at the campfire sing-a-long, roasting marshmallows, belting out refrains of My Bonnie, and reciting how you can tell Chip and Dale apart. After the movie, filled with memories of watching Peter Pan, Robin Hood, and 101 Dalmatians under the stars with my head on my mom’s lap, we’d head over to the Meadow Swimming Pool for a late night dip where my dad would launch me off of his shoulders into the pool and a zebra ice cream cone, a soft serve swirl of chocolate and vanilla.

If we weren’t knocking around the Meadow area, we could be found down at Bay Lake. An evening would start with a Motor Launch over to the Contemporary to get lost in the arcade, my personal favorite being the targeted scene, a la the Frontierland Shootin’ Arcade, where a great shot could set off a smile-inducing gag. A quick trip back to the shores of Bay Lake would allow us to steal glimpses of Fantasy in the Sky fireworks from the Magic Kingdom while we waited for the Electrical Water Pageant, a show that can still leave me slack-jawed.

When we weren’t at Fort Wilderness, we divided our time between EPCOT Center and the Magic Kingdom which, for most of my childhood and teenage years, I referred to as Disney World and was never corrected.

The Magic Kingdom has changed a lot since those days I remember from the 1980’s, things have come and gone, but there is a lot that I still recognize and the spirit of the park has remained steadfast. I can remember the Citrus Swirls being the treat to eat any day we stepped into the park, and that I wanted nothing to do with my sister’s two favorite rides: The Haunted Mansion and it’s a small world. Likewise, she was terrified of my favorite: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. What we did agree upon were the WEDway PeopleMover and Skyway, loading in Fantasyland of course.

My parents never forced us onto a specific attraction or nudge us into a direction they wanted to go when we were in the Magic Kingdom, or EPCOT Center for that matter, this was our park. I can remember my dad, who has always been plagued by a paralyzing form of claustrophobia, pushing it deep down into his gut to take us on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. Memories of my mom are a bit more foggy because she was always the infectious smile peeking out from underneath a camera, capturing all of our magical moments.

My family was a big fan of the motor launches and ferries, as well as the colored flag system of navigating the bus routes. It was, however, a special treat to board a monorail at the Transportation and Ticket Center and head towads EPCOT Center. Those trips, flying high above acre after acre of untapped land and then over the top of Future World, were some of the most excruciatingly exciting, as I could not wait to start running down the ramp to the park. I would always wait at the bottom of the ramp for my parents, as I was told, though I think it may have had more to do with the fact that they had my ticket into the park.

EPCOT Center was my wonderland, because I absolutely believed this is what the future was going to be like for me. Anything was possible! It was not a trip to EPCOT Center unless I had a whirl around Horizons, complete with tricking the system to offset the tie for the choose your own path back to the Futureport, and sat through a showing of Kitchen Kabaret. Dragon Boats and daytime fireworks would often pull me away from watching either the Water Engine in World of Motion’s Transcenter or the incredible robotic arms of Expo Robotics in CommuniCore. If there is something I took away from the repeated trips to EPCOT Center, it was the ability to believe I could create anything I could dream up, courtesy of Dreamfinder and Figment in Journey Into Imagination and the manner in which words and phrases that had not previously existed were produced (see Transcenter, CommuniCore, Tomorrow’s Child, Futureport, World Key, etc.).

My sister was enthralled with Captain EO and, as a child of Star Wars, you would have thought I would have been too. Yet, the Supreme Leader so horrified me, that I could barely bring myself to leave my ears, much less my eyes, uncovered during this 3D show. Any fear I had, however, could be squelched by heading over to The Odyssey for a charbroiled chicken sandwich. I would more often than not put my sandwich on a napkin and fill my cardboard boat with a gigantic salad of mushrooms, olives, pickles and the like. Yes, my younger self is one of the reasons toppings bars are no longer what they once were in Walt Disney World, and I probably put The Odyssey out of business all by my lonesome.

The afternoons were tedious for my sister and I, World Showcase was not as fascinating as Future World for us. My parents discovered Guinness at about the same time as the original IllumiNations came on the scene. This meant many afternoons could be spent sitting by the Rose & Crown’s stone wall while my parents slowly sipped a couple of pints, waiting impatiently for night to fall and the fireworks to soar. Luckily, these were different times. Once I was old enough, my parents would allow me to chaperone my sister and we could explore the park on our own, provided we came back and checked in at set times. More than once we used this as an opportunity to activate the reservation system on a World Key station, hide, and snicker at the video operator calling out to no one.

The days were long and I know my parents carried us back to our campsites on regular occasions, but they were good days, they were our days. Eventually, my sister and mother lost the interest to continue the hour-plus trek across Florida to go to Walt Disney World, but my dad and I kept on. Today, the days are filled with me and whomever I can convince to come along, my wife, dad, mom or a handful of friends I’ve made over the past several years are along among my chief conspirators.

Were those bygone days perfect? No. Can I recapture those days? Pieces of them maybe, but overall those days are long gone. If I could have them back, would I want back the same Walt Disney World I remember? That’s the rub, isn’t it? This is the Walt Disney World I remember, and even if it were recreated down to the last nail in the last board, it wouldn’t be what I hold in my heart, would it? Oh sure, if time travel is unveiled in my lifetime, I’d love to see it again, but I know it’d not be the same as I remember.

Walt Disney World has given me so much over the past thirty years. It has given me smiles and lumps in my throat. It has given me a course to follow, everything I create is in some way shape or form inspired by what I found there, or trying to live up to the standard it set in my formative self’s eyes. It is filled with memories and people I will always love, and I know it will do so for as long as I live and breathe. And I’ll keep finding ways to write about it as long as I live and breathe.


Dan said...

Great article. I have similar fond memories of visiting Walt Disney World as a kid during the '80s and early '90s. I have the same mixed feelings about wanting things to be like they were at that time. It's not going to be the same as an adult (with my own daughter now), but I still wish a bit more of that "magic" remained. It's definitely still there (we had a wonderful trip in February), but there are a few examples (especially in Future World) where I hope for a bit more.

Estelle said...

So happy to read a post centered on your personal experiences. It's funny how much those early trips shaped who we are as Disney fans today. I didn't go to Disney until I was almost 13 and it was the mid-90s (which, sadly, are the years many complain about) and I have such fond memories of road tripping from Jersey with my parents and camping out for parades because my mom wanted to and having some glorious meals. I really feel like I grew up there. Thanks for sharing these memories with us! (I especially love how you and your sis liked different things... now I'm trying to remember if my sister and I had the same challenges! ha)

Rich T. said...

What a beautiful article -- well done! I have similarly cherished memories of my family's summer trips to Disneyland in the 60's. No matter how what different paths my family have taken over the years -- no matter how different our tastes and interests -- we all love Disneyland, and it remains our hub for family get-togethers.

It's fun discovering how East-Coast Disney fans' experiences differ from West Coast; Jolly Roger Inn, Parking Lot trams and Knott's Berry Farm on one side and the camping, exploring, and Bay Lake memories on the other.

I'd love to re-visit the Disneyland of my youth, to see Rainbow Caverns, the Pack Mules and Adventure Thru Inner Space again. But, on the other hand, I'd sure miss Big Thunder and Star Tours. It would be awesome if we could have the best of both worlds.

I often hope the decision makers at Disney realize just how deep the emotions they create run -- and not just for the sake of ad campaigns and merchandising. Family memories and traditions -- now spanning generations -- are born on their properties. Keeping that element alive will keep the parks successful far more durably than short-term profits.

V @ No Privacy At All Around This Place! said...

Wow I love this post so much. We had different "routines" on our WDW family trips but the fact that so many Disney fans can remember their routines from their childhood trips is just so special on it's own. Love it!

TongaXtine said...

Well said! Love it!

Bartsy said...

Great post Ryan! I can remember visiting Disney World as a kid in the 70's and 80's and I too sometimes would love to be able to spend a day or two with it just as it was back then. I tell my son a lot of how it was back then compared to now... I don't ever say it was better or more magical, because as great as I remember it being back then, my son feels that way about it now (and rightfuly so)...And even though it wasn't necessarily better, it just has that special feeling that I always associate with it. And just as I have fond memories of those bygone days, I'm sure that in twenty or thirty years our kids will have the same nostalgic feelings toward their experiences and memories that we are making with them right now. For as long as Disney keeps being a part of our lives, there will be whole new generations growing with the resort. And I'm sure that they all will one day long for taste of how it was when it was all new and magical and oh so real...

Debbie V. said...

Reading this brings me so much joy. I grew up on the West Coast and visiting Disneyland many times as I lived about 30 min away. But ever since I saw EPCOT on whatever TV show or I think it was part of the People Mover ride - I was so wanting to go to WDW. My husband and I finally went last year - celebrating our 60th birthdays.
But we didn't go everywhere. I YEARN to go back again soon.
But I digress. Your word picture of the campsite and Fort Wilderness is so touching and wonderful.
Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to post your memoirs. May you ever continue as you said.