Growing up, my family took plenty of trips. We traversed beaches and mountains and partook in our fair share of amusement parks. Which is why, people are always surprised to learn, among the fun facts about me: I am not ticklish, I am afraid of butterflies, and I have never been to Disney World. Until now. It only took twenty odd years and one of my best friends to get engaged for me to venture to the sunshine state’s most frequented attraction.
Which means, nine girls traveled to this family-friendly mecca for a bachelorette party— each of us wearing a pair of glittery mouse ears, one with a white net veil trailing behind. I wore my “First Visit” pin proudly, comparing it to those worn by small children holding melting ice cream cones, many decked out in full costumes. Boys with disarming face-painted facial hair dressed as Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean walked side by side girls fresh from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where, for a fee, they were coiffed and dressed as their favorite Disney princesses.
Throughout the weekend, the question asked of me prior to my departure rang in my ears: Would I appreciate Disney World as an adult? My mom even sent me a text message: “Have fun! Sorry we didn’t go when you were little.”
The truth is that I was a very timid child. And as much as I would have dug trading Disney pins with the other sun-averting bespectacled collectors, I was far more comfortable reading about adventure than I would have been testing my upchuck reflex on a roller coaster.
On our first day, as I sat on the slightly damp bench of a Viking ship in Epcot’s Norway, slowly chugging along through a tunnel with the simulated night sky above me, I saw my childhood-self in the small, wispy brunette sitting behind me. She was tucked into the back of the vessel, curled beneath her mother’s arm, gasping at the special effects, which seemed to me now both realistic and impossible. A few rows ahead of us, the first of our bachelorette brood sat perched on her own bench, playing up our Viking adventure. As the boat lurched to a halt and began backing up close to the edge of an impressive simulation of a waterfall, two things happened.
“We are going over the edge!,” the bachelorette’s giddy sister screeched in delight–an exclamation which caused the cautious child behind me to peer out at us with genuine terror on her face. I smiled at her, and shook my head. “We are not going over the edge, don’t worry.”
In that moment I realized one part of the experience that I could never reclaim. I could never feel the fear she had, the sheer belief that something was about to happen. Where she saw rushing waves and a dramatic fall over a steep incline, I appreciated the technical work that went into the startling special effects. Yet, in that moment I also realized that maybe I wasn’t as jaded as I thought. I appreciated her experience, and the wide-eyed awe that may have been even more beautiful with the tint of nostalgia blurring the edges.
The next day, wandering through the Magic Kingdom, I was taken aback by just how many literary characters are now primarily known by their Disney incarnations. As I took a quick jaunt to Never Land (after twenty minutes in line) on Peter Pan’s Flight, I was struck by the character’s image. Peter Pan is now most easily recognized by his green tights and tunic, red feather in his cap, even though J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is not described in much detail. Separated from her counterpart, Tinker Bell is a veritable staple in the park. She flies across the sky above Cinderella’s Castle on a zip line, at the start of a much-anticipated nightly fireworks display.
As Disney’s Fantasyland expands in the next year, one can expect to see many new additions, like another castle for the characters of The Little Mermaid, which will pay homage to the Disney film. Yet, The Little Mermaid wasn’t always a wide-eyed redhead collecting “whozits and whatsits” in an underwater cavern. The tale was first imagined by Danish fairy tale master, Hans Christian Andersen and (spoiler alert) it was hardly the feel good musical treat that it became under Disney’s tutelage.
It is fascinating to think about how many Disney characters were pulled from the pages of plays, folklore, fairy tales, and novels. Each one given a makeover, as if they emerged directly from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
And so, as we prepared to leave the park on our last day in Disney, I stood in the middle of the Magic Kingdom next to my best friend, bachelorette and fellow student of English literature surrounded by costumed cast members frolicking with grinning children in lopsided mouse ears that, although less sequined, mirrored our own. They squealed in delight and pulled out autograph books, hoping to secure a signature from their favorite princess. The question rang in my ears: Do I appreciate it as much now? Yes, I think I do.