Guys, look out the window,” I say from the driver’s seat. We’re just outside Kissimmee, Florida, speeding along a tollway in a rented Ford Expedition. “I think we can see Disney coming up.”
Jessica, my wife, had just passed the last few hours curled up in the passenger seat, making steady progress on her Pachinko paperback and slipping in and out of sleep. She stretches, sits up, and peers out the windshield.
My family of five split the drive into two days, stopping overnight in the Atlanta suburbs. Empty water bottles and breakfast bar wrappers litter the floor. A few hours earlier, Jessica and I attempted to brush Pringles off the boys’ seats at a gas stop, but stubborn sour cream and onion crumbs still cling to the fabric seats.
Isaac, our oldest son, the teenager, sits behind me. After a recent growth spurt, he stands about an inch taller than his mom now. His voice has deepened, and I’m not as good at reading him as I used to be.
He and I exchange a glance in the rearview mirror. Isaac beams me a toothy smile and looks out the window.
# # #
Every couple months, the Walt Disney Company occupies my mailbox with booklets and postcards; glossy pages intended to remind me of their latest vacation offerings.We’ve been in the park less than an hour, and I’m reminded of the ways the mail has lied to me.
The photographs in these mailings hit the same emotional beats. See these diverse, never-been-happier families? This could be you! Come back!
We’ve had a hard year. After more than a decade, we left our church home. That painful decision came gracefully enough with prayerful, abundant assurance. But the aftermath still wrenches my guts and breaks my heart. I knew the rebuilding of community and finding a new faith community would be slow-going, but the loneliness of the process still gets me.
Work stressors follow Jessica and me home each night. School obligations—both mine and the kids’—stretch us thin. Extended family suffer from perilous illnesses as each of their doctors dish out more grim prognoses than happy ones.
Ailments hit our doorstep as well. Asthma sent Owen, the tween of our family, to the emergency room some months back. A month after that, Jessica’s endometriosis finally made a hysterectomy unavoidable. She had barely recovered from the surgery when she tweaked her foot in a bad sprain, leaving her in a walking boot for the foreseeable weeks.
Something broke the spell when Jessica and I were dozing off to sleep one night. “I miss you, and I think we need a vacation,” she said. “I want to go back to Disney with you.”
The next day we began our planning in earnest.
# # #
In the SUV, Owen rests next to Isaac, nested in a pile of blankets and pillows. He takes out his earbuds, vaguely aware he missed something important. “What did you say?” he asks.
Jessica intercepts the question. “Dad said we’re almost there.”
He perks up.
“Look out the left window,” I say. “You may see it.”
Owen drops his Kindle Fire to the floor. “Silas!” he shouts.
As the middle child, Owen has dual roles as both little and big brother. Lately he’s leaned hard in the big brother direction with an endearing, yet paternalistic, concern for Silas, the youngest Poppe.
He turns to the backseat. “Siiiilas!” he repeats. “We can see Disney from here!”
Our nearly 9-year-old opted to sit by himself in the backseat for the second leg of the drive. From where I am, I can’t see Silas, but I hear his reply. “We can?! Where?”
# # #
Flipping through the pages of a Disney brochure, I linger on a photo of a girl about Silas’s age. She’s sitting with her dad on a park bench in the Magic Kingdom. A pair of strategically coifed mouse-ear-shaped buns rest on top of her head, matching the black Mickey ears that her father wears. They each clutch Mickey-shaped ice cream bars.
Cinderella’s Castle lingers in the background, just out of focus. No clouds mar the perfectly blue sky.
The photo locks the couple’s faces in place, forever framed in the loudest, most joyful expression I’ve ever seen. Mere moments before, someone told them the best joke they ever heard. Now they’re frozen mid belly laugh, the kind of laugh that makes asthmatics like Owen and Jessica short of breath.
But the father–daughter duo aren’t alone in the frame: Mickey Mouse himself occupies a third seat on the bench, sitting right next to them, his hand over his mouth, as if he cracked the joke.
I realize Disney has two goals in mailing this picture.
Goal number one highlights my unmet emotional needs. I see my need for happiness here. My need for closeness with my wife and kids. And my need to release anxious thoughts. To drop the cynicism. To let loose again.
Goal number two promises a solution to the needs: a trip to Disney World.
# # #
A semi passes on the left. As if on cue, the trees break, and I make out the unmistakable A-shape of Disney’s Contemporary Resort on the horizon.
Disney World is right over there.
Renewed energy fills the vehicle.
“It’s the Contemporary!” Owen shouts as he does a jig in his seat.
The famous deluxe hotel towers at the edge of the world’s most-visited theme park, the Magic Kingdom. The rooms facing Cinderella Castle fetch a premium nightly rate, giving Contemporary Resort guests one of the best views of the nightly fireworks. Disney’s monorail system runs right through the center of the building as a vision of what the future looked like to people in 1971.
The last time we came this way, we went straight to the Contemporary’s must-do family restaurant, Chef Mickey’s. Like nearly everyone else there, we had booked a reservation six months in advance because it’s the only meal on Disney property where guests can get pictures with the entire “Fab Five” of Disney characters—Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto—all while consuming unlimited chicken tenders and mashed potatoes and soft serve ice cream.
After we went to bed that night, Silas got sick and puked on the carpet of our hotel room. The five of us spent the rest of the week trading stomach bugs and head colds in the most magical place on earth.
As Owen continues his little dance, pumping his fists in the air, none of us remember that right now.
# # #
A massive archway stretches over four lanes of highway as people drive onto Disney’s property; a gaudy, primary-colored monstrosity emblazoned with stylized type: WALT DISNEY WORLD: WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE. A cutout of Cinderella’s Castle peaks up from the top. A smiling Minnie and Mickey beckon the travelers who cross this way daily.
An icon unto itself, the arch’s design screams, You made it! You’re at Disney! But because people can’t be trusted to have the same idea, less jovial traffic signs dot the sides of the highway: NO STOPPING. STRICTLY ENFORCED.
As we pass underneath, I’ve cued up the audio of Walt Disney’s original dedication of Disneyland in California. “To all who come to this happy place, welcome,” Walt declares. People cheer and clap.
“Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts which have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
A car with its hazards blinking is pulled over. Near it, a man poses in front of the archway while his buddy frames the shot.
# # #
Disney fans affectionately refer to the space beyond the sign as the Disney “Bubble”: 27,000 acres nestled about 13 miles south of Orlando, all owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company.
Under a veil of secrecy, in the mid-1960s, the man Walt Disney and his cohorts purchased the land, plot by plot, via a series of shell companies.
Once finished, Walt filmed a sales pitch to potential corporate sponsors and government officials with whom he hoped to partner in the development of his “Florida Project.” In the film, a blown-up map of the property stretches to the ceiling.
“Here in Florida,” Walt says to the camera, “we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland.” He smiles. “The blessing of size.”
Disney World, he said, had enough land to house everything the company dreamed to do and more.
Today, the world’s largest concentration of corporate employees clocks in daily somewhere within the perimeter of Disney World, an area twice the size of Manhattan.
# # #
The swelling and pain have barely let up in Jessica’s ankle. We prayed for healing, but a miracle never came. She’s still wearing a walking boot when we arrive early at the Magic Kingdom to include ourselves among the first guests welcomed inside that day.
Jessica can’t walk long distances, so she wheels herself on a knee walker, a small scooter-like contraption with an elevated pad for resting her injured leg while her good leg propels her forward.The real Disney World—the physical space we enter—is an idealized derivative of imagined pasts, futures, and fantasies of the actual world.
The device’s tiny wheels catch in the stones and bricks that line the themed walkways of Adventureland. The uneven terrain forces frequent turns and abrupt stops. When the scooter won’t budge, she sighs and stands up, walking the scooter to the nearest flat surface before continuing on.
I’m exhausted just watching her.
In Frontierland, a decline in the path sends her careening ahead of the boys and me. The brakes fail her, so Jessica steers in a wide angle to avoid plowing into a family of four.
“Sorry!” she yelps as she speeds by them.
“It’s okay!” the dad yells back. “Maybe I’ll get one of those! It looks like fun!’
“Haha right!” she shouts, playing along.
It’s not fun at all.
We ride Big Thunder Mountain, then Splash Mountain, both with little wait. But Jessica struggles again, this time on an uphill path.
We’ve been in the park less than an hour, and I’m reminded of the ways the mail has lied to me.
There is no park bench in front of Cinderella’s Castle where Mickey Mouse jokes with guests as they eat ice cream bars made in his likeness. The park bench picture and the hundreds of others like it portray an idealized derivative of the real Disney World.
Just as the real Disney World—the physical space we’ve just entered—is an idealized derivative of imagined pasts, futures, and fantasies of the actual world.
The people in the postcards don’t sweat under the Florida sun. The postcard toddlers don’t cry. Decreasing check account ledgers don’t faze the dads. None of the moms stomp down Main Street USA announcing, “We’re never coming back!” while a trail of scared, guilty children follow behind.
The picture people have an unobstructed view of the Castle fireworks, never cornered from every direction by a sweaty, smelly mass of humanity, strollers, and ECVs. Their smiling, laughing families are never corralled by the hundreds onto ferry boats and monorails and buses while megaphone-wielding Cast Members command, “Fill all available space, please! There are people behind you still coming in, folks! Fill all available space!”
Sprained ankles never sour the postcard picture people.
Silas holds my hand, and I say to Jessica, “You’re not burdening us.”
“Ha, well,” she says, catching her breath, forcing a smile. “Thanks.”
“I mean it,” I tell her. “I’m happy we’re here and excited to spend the week with you and the kids.”
“I am too,” she says. “It hurts, and I’m just…” she trails off.
We’re at the entrance to Liberty Square now, a land themed after colonial America. Fife and drum music fills the air.
Guests of all kinds pass us from every direction, speed walking along to their next attractions. Some laugh. Others look lost and stressed, burying their faces in park maps, pointing in the direction they think they’re going.
“I’m just slowing us down,” she finally says.
“I hate that your ankle isn’t better,” I tell her. “And I wish it was. So what if we have to slow down a little? This trip wouldn’t be the same without you.”
I look around. “We’re not actually here for this,” I say, gesturing to our pixie-dusted surroundings. “We’re here for us.”
Jessica sighs. “Thank you, babe,” she says. “I’m glad you said that.”
We embrace and kiss. Silas keeps his hand locked in mine. Owen and Isaac smile sheepishly.
As we meander through the rest of Liberty Square, Silas points to a young boy posing for a picture, restrained inside a pair of fake, wooden stocks.
“Why would anyone pretend they’re being tortured like that?” he asks.
“Well, I think it’s a funny, make-believe picture that people like to take,” I tell him.
I remember Isaac on our first trip here, just a little older than Silas now. He gleefully posed in the exact same stocks, letting his body hang limp, milking the moment for the camera.
He was so little then.
Later that night, we visit Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. The original Tiki Room debuted at Disneyland in 1963, the first show to feature audio-animatronic technology. For 15 minutes, the room comes alive as birds, flowers, and totems serenade the audience with a catchy medley of calypso and Polynesian-inspired songs.
The robotic performance appears quaint and cutesy by today’s standards, especially after the Chuck E. Cheeses of the world brought the once-revolutionary technology to every outlet mall in America.
Midway through the show, the entertainment lilts in a colorful ballroom waltz as a choir of animatronic birds croon in faux-French affectations: “Let’s all sing as ze birdies sing! Tweet… tweet tweet… tweet tweet!”
I adore the Tiki Room. I sway in my seat and sing along. Jessica and the boys join in. I can’t imagine anything cheesier (and more embarrassing) we could possibly be doing at this moment. But then again, it’s Disney World. And we’ll probably never see any of these people again.
Afterward, Owen buys a Tiki Room styled magic band. He straps the plastic to his wrist and beams. “Look, dad. Your favorite!”
# # #
Along the edge of the Magic Kingdom, a quiet path leads from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland. As our evening winds down, we make our way along the dark walkway to reach Space Mountain, our last ride of the night before we head to bed.
In the distance, the nighttime fireworks blast near the Castle. I hear the faint roar of thousands of families cheering the spectacle.
Silas and I stay close to Jessica as she rolls along the mercifully flat surface of the pavement. Isaac and Owen walk a few steps ahead of us. One of them says something funny, and both boys laugh.
Isaac, the teenager, reaches over and holds Owen’s hand as both boys walk a little lighter than a moment before.
In a few minutes we’ll reach Space Mountain, back in the crowd, back in the noise and the lights. A few park benches and designated smoking areas mark the trail, but otherwise the path contains nothing particularly exciting to see. No live entertainment or Photopass photographers dot the way. No parades. No stressed out, tired vacationers vying for a spot in line.
Mickey and the postcard picture people are nowhere to be seen.
We’re just us here. Alone. Remembering who we are. Remembering why we came.