Death of a Skeptic

Feature Article

This article appeared in the November 20, 2001, Issue #113 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

(Editor's Note: ALL EARS® readers are also writers! This week we welcome Guest Columnist Steve Reppucci of Boston, Mass.)

DEATH OF A SKEPTIC

I hate Disney.

At least, that's what I thought.

I didn't start out that way though. I was born in 1961. As a kid, I can vaguely remember taking my bath and getting myself ready for bed a little earlier than normal on Sunday nights, so my parents would allow me to stay up to watch The Wonderful World of Disney. Yes, I actually can recall when Walt himself used to open each show. (I also remember trying to coax my parents into letting me stay up for the first part of the Ed Sullivan show, so I could see Topo Gigio the mouse, who I thought was hysterical -- but that's another story...) I'm sure this is where I first saw reports of Disneyland and all of the wonderful things that went on there.

I never traveled to Disneyland (nor Disney World after it opened) as a kid. But as a young adult, I took a trip to southern California with my wife-to-be, Maggie, and we visited Disneyland one day. We came away unimpressed, and I specifically remember leaving the park early, driving instead to another theme park where we could go on bigger, more adult thrill rides -- just what we were looking for!

Cut to a dozen or so years later, and I'm now a 30-something parent with three young kids. And they're all talking about Disney. I was working as a software consultant, the Internet revolution was in full swing. Consulting was easy, jobs were plentiful, and we started talking about using some of our disposable income for a family vacation. My suggestions were California, or maybe the Grand Canyon, or even an island in the Caribbean. But Maggie and the kids kept asking, "What about Disney World?"

"No!" my inner voice screamed, as I tried to gently dissuade them from *that* idea. "Disney is too crowded, too expensive, too hot, and too much of a hassle," I reasoned, while thinking "and way too cutesy" to myself. "Wouldn't you rather go to a place where we could relax and have fun?" Still, after months of family negotiations, I realized my resistance was futile, and we booked a week at Disney's Contemporary Resort.

Now, I had given in, but I hadn't changed my mind about Disney. When it came up at work that I was planning a trip to Disney World, I always let people know that I was dreading it.

"I can't believe I'm going to spend my whole vacation week surrounded by screaming kids and all that saccharine cuteness!" I complained. I justified it by saying, "Well, I guess every parent with the means has to bring their kids there once -- it's just one of those parental duties. So I'm just getting this trip over with so we can take real vacations in the future when the kids get a little older."

I'm not one of those militant trip planners you often read about. Still, I am one who likes to be at least slightly prepared for entering an unknown environment. I spent a fair bit of time in the months leading up to our trip reading some of the Disney-related websites and I purchased a couple of guide books that explained some strategies for getting the most out of a Disney World trip.

I was continually amazed at some of the people who were absolutely fanatical about all things Disney. There are hundreds of messages a day on the Internet message boards I monitored, and some members on these lists seemed to post dozens of messages each day. I told Maggie about this, and we shook our heads and laughed at how people could get so wrapped up in it all. After all, we had tried it in California, it was all kids' stuff, nothing to get that obsessed with.

The one forewarning I had of what I was about to experience came from an unlikely source, my boss. He wasn't at all fanatical; in fact he was rather staid and reserved. I was surprised he had been to Disney World at all. When I told him about my plans to take time off for a family trip to Disney, he told me enthusiastically I'd have a great time. I assured him that he had gone completely mad, and that we were only doing this because it was "one of those things you've got to get over with." He nodded and smiled and wished me a fun trip. And I remember thinking that there was something about his smile that was odd -- like he knew something I didn't.

On the morning of our trip, we were up at the crack of dawn to make a 7:30 flight. For all of the kids -- Michael, 9, Amanda, 5, and David, 4 -- this was their first plane ride, so that in itself was an adventure. At this point, I was just looking forward to the trip for the time off from work -- I wasn't completely dreading the trip, but I still had myself convinced that this was going to be a "grin and bear it" vacation, rather than a real fun time.

On the drive from the airport to the hotel, the kids were absolutely bursting with excitement. When we reached Disney property, seeing the monorail and glimpses of other Disney resorts resulted in a chorus of squeals from the back seat, as they recognized things they had read about in the guide books.

As we turned into the Contemporary Resort's entrance and caught sight of the hotel, we were all in awe. Even I wasn't prepared for the scale of the main building, and the sight of the monorail disappearing into it. We went to registration, checked in, and took a ride on the monorail to get an idea of how things were laid out.

I was surprised at the cleanliness of everything. Boston is an old city and, as I had learned from traveling for work, filthy when compared to some other US cities. Still, this place was unlike any place I'd experienced. No trash, no grime -- in fact, everything practically gleamed. And everyone we encountered, from the hotel staff to the people on the monorail to the parking lot attendant, was happy. Not that forced, phony "have a nice day" happiness that seems to have pervaded our American culture, but rather a genuine expression of pleasure. No one here seemed to be just going through the motions of being happy because it was part of their job description.

We did some exploring, then decided to spend the afternoon at the hotel pool. We had a great afternoon, the kids loved the pool with its slide and fountains. And that evening, we experienced our first character dinner at Chef Mickey's. All of the singing and dancing characters had us all smiling. The kids were just having fun being kids, and Maggie and I loved watching them enjoy themselves.

That night, we watched the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom from the beach at the Contemporary, and talked about all of the fun we'd have the next day, when our plans were to visit the park. Shortly after the fireworks ended, the Electrical Water Pageant began its performance just offshore. Standing there on the beach with my family, and watching the expressions on the kids' faces, it hit me: "Hey! I am actually enjoying this vacation!"

We spent the next day at the Magic Kingdom. Again, Maggie and I were grinning from ear to ear as we brought the kids through the park and watched their reactions. Yes, some of the attractions were a little too cutesy for my taste -- that "Small World" song just doesn't cut it for me! But all in all, I was again surprised at how well everything was done. The ride details were amazing, and the Disney friendliness and cleanliness were everywhere.

I also discovered my own personal favorite ride -- Splash Mountain. I've been on many more thrilling rides, but this has to be one of the best "experiences" I can recall. The detail and presentation of the scenes that make up this ride really did it for me. Even the background music is perfect, from the gleeful tunes of "The Laughing Place", to the doom of the vultures in the final ascent before the big plunge, to the zip-a-dee-doo-dah exuberance of the ending when Br'er Rabbit has escaped (and you've survived the final splashdown). I've probably ridden Splash Mountain 30 times now, but every time I notice something new.

That night, watching the fireworks over Cinderella's castle, I spent a lot of time watching Maggie's and the kids' faces -- they were all in awe at the spectacle, and just incredibly happy, as was I. That "Disney Magic" that I had heard about (and scoffed at) from the people on the Disney newsgroups was happening to us! I had to admit to myself, I really, truly was having a blast -- I was being converted into a Disney fan.

I'd love to be able to report how we spent the entire week at Disney, and had similar magical times all week. Unfortunately, I happen to have the world's worst luck when it comes to vacations. (Want to be assured of having a wonderful weather week for your Cape Cod vacation this summer? Just find out the week I'm taking, and book the week before or after. It will certainly rain for the entire week I book!) The following day, we visited Blizzard Beach, and Amanda complained of not feeling well. When we returned to the hotel that afternoon, as she was undressing for her bath, Maggie noticed lots of spots on her back and stomach. Yep, Amanda had chicken pox!

I felt like crying inside, but tried to keep a brave face. I drove Amanda to a local health clinic to confirm our suspicions, while Maggie took the two boys to the park for the evening. After getting a rather callous, "yes, your vacation is over, that'll be 75 bucks" from an uninspiring medical attendant with a real need for some work on her bedside manner, I drove Amanda back to the hotel to wait for the rest of the family to convene. She was heartbroken, and I with her. I remember thinking how cruel this was, to have something so unthinkable interrupt one of the best times we'd ever had together as a family.

I couldn't think clearly about how we'd recover from this disaster and get ourselves home, but I made a promise to Amanda that I'd bring her back to finish the vacation as soon as we could afford it.

I'll spare you most of the details of the trip home. Chicken pox, as I quickly discovered, while really only a nuisance disease in most child cases, *is* contagious, and as such we couldn't enter the theme parks (not that Amanda was feeling up to it) nor board an airplane. After discussing our options the next morning, we ended up renting a car for the following day and driving the 1800+ miles back to Boston over the next two days. Trust me, you never want to do this.

This left us with one abbreviated day at Disney, for which we had already paid for our park passes, so we tried to make the best of things. Maggie took our oldest son, Michael, to Disney-MGM Studios during the day, while I stayed sequestered in the hotel with our two youngest. That night, we reversed roles, I took Michael and David to the Magic Kingdom while Maggie stayed with Amanda.

Of all the nights of my life, I think I remember this as one of the best. Even with the Damocles sword of a long, unwanted drive home looming for the next day, and with our longing for the rest of the family to be with us, the boys and I attacked the park with abandon. We rode all of the big attractions, running from ride to ride, trying to squeeze as much fun into our few remaining hours as possible. We rode Splash Mountain at least a half-dozen times, each time trying to be more daring with how long we'd keep our arms up during the final plunge. We even managed to talk the ride attendants into letting us be the last riders of the night, when the call for closing came just as we were floating into the disembarkment area. I've still got the final photo on my wall of the three of us alone in the log during that last plunge. It's always a good source for a little boost in spirits!

We watched the closing fireworks, and lingered as long as possible during the walk down Main Street and out of the park gates. The monorail ride back to the hotel was a melancholy one, with each of us wishing we hadn't had our fun cut short so painfully.

During that long ride home, I thought a lot about how much my attitude towards Disney had changed during those few short days. I had gone from being a certified skeptic, to being a confirmed Disney believer. We *had* had a lot of fun, and I resolved that we'd make another trip as soon as our budget could support it.

We've now visited Disney twice since that first trip, each time convincing more of my siblings to join us (and adding an additional member, Kristen, to our family in the meantime). So far, I've been able to convince all four of my sisters to accompany us at least once, and they've brought along assorted extended family members. During our last trip, we had my parents, three of my sisters (plus families) and even my cousins from Buffalo join us, and we had a blast. I've even turned one sister into a complete Disney-holic -- she's been with her kids at least five times now!

Now, I know some reading this might chalk me up as one of those obsessive, over-zealous, overbearing parents, who get just too wrapped up in doing things for their kids, but hey, really, I'm just a normal guy who recognizes a good thing when he experiences it. I approached the world of Disney with a pretty firmly held belief that it was something to be endured, rather than enjoyed, and I was completely won over by the Disney magic, even during a trip in which we'd had pretty close to the worst circumstances we could have imagined.

And for those who think that Disney is too expensive, when we were talking about a vacation for this year, we initially looked into Caribbean resorts. After researching the hotel and airfare rates, we realized that our trips to Disney were about the most affordable resort vacations we could take as a family. So we went back in September!

In planning this year's trip, I invited my brother to join us. He grimaced and replied, "Disney? Isn't that too cute and expensive for a vacation?" I thought back to the look my boss gave me before my first trip, and I just grinned at him.

His two daughters are still a bit young (3 and 18 months) for Disney, and they already had a summer trip planned to visit his wife's relatives in Scotland, so they didn't join us this time. "Maybe a couple of years from now, we'll bring the girls down for a week, just to say we've been there," he told me.

I'll be watching when he goes. I'll bet it's more than once.


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.