A week before I left for my most recent trip to Disney World, one of my coworkers asked me, over lunch, “So, like, what do you do in Disney World? Like, do you just ride rides?” I can understand her confusion. I don’t have children, I don’t wear a Mickey Mouse fanny pack to work every day, and I do not show any signs of being a roller coaster enthusiast. In fact, we met up with my sister, brother-in-law, and 2 nephews in the Magic Kingdom, and my brother-in-law asked us what we did all day in a Disney theme park.
Well, personally, when I’m in a Disney theme park, I experience attractions, watch some shows, do some shopping, eat theme park food, enjoy the themed atmospheres, and spend time with loved ones. I’ve been going to Disney theme parks regularly since I was a kid, so the parks are imbued with the ghosts of past family vacations. In just about every “land,” I have memories of people I love and stories we tell over and over again. So, in that way, I am Disney’s target audience: a nostalgia junky. I cry at commercials, I think wistfully of the Epcot “nighttime spectacular,” Illuminations, every time I happen to catch the clock at 9 pm, and I love looking at old photos from our trips. For this reason, I am always excited to have more experiences with family, and bringing E along has been a particular joy. Each trip adds to the cache, and the fact that the parks are reassuringly little-changed between trips is part of what makes the parks comforting and keeps us coming back.
The other reason I enjoy visiting Disney theme parks is that I am fascinated by the development of attractions, themed areas, and the totality of the parks as immersive environments. I am a Disney enthusiast who is not so much interested in movies, animation, and characters as I am interested in the queues, backstories, and show buildings of the parks. Therefore, I love to read blogs about the histories hidden in the parks, immerse myself in books about the processes of designing a world in an attraction, and study the details that make places like Main Street, USA, so wonderful to visit. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the Magic Kingdom, to give you an idea of how far into nerddom I’ve ventured. So, my love for the parks is also an appreciation of the technical and artistic talent and skill that has gone into creating them, and that continues to evolve them. The basic core of the parks tends to stay roughly the same between visits, but it is constantly being changed, layered upon, and “plussed.” And that is what makes it interesting to keep going back.
This combination of comforting and interesting is there on a first visit, and grows over time. The Disney theme parks attract millions of visitors each year around the world to four resort complexes, with a fifth on the way. The Disney brand is known far and wide, and has contributed to sinister and benevolent causes. There is no question that the Walt Disney Company is a corporation, with corporate interests, not the least of which is making money off of saps like me. But, if I, as an intelligent, critically thinking adult, choose to visit the theme parks on occasion, and get enjoyment out of those trips, that is my own business. I find the cultural impact of Disney (and the pilgrimage to the Disney theme parks) to be fascinating, and for that reason I continue to learn about, discuss, and visit the Disney theme parks.
When I’m there? Well, I relax. I let other people take care of me. I feed ducks by the Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace, and people watch on benches in Epcot’s Future World while listening to the bouncy synthesizer background music. I wander through trails flanked by animal habitats in Animal Kingdom. I grab an orange from a fruit stand in the Hollywood That Never Was in Hollywood Studios. I ride rides. I watch shows. I nerd out. I end every night with a fireworks display. I have fun with my loved ones. And I allow myself to be inspired by the evidence of so much hard work and creativity come to life. I let the outside world fade away to a blur for a couple of days.
And once I get home, I am back to reading and learning and sharing, and thinking about the time — usually far in the future — when I’ll be back. I know the parks will be there when I’m ready.