For weeks now, I’ve had a Disney hangover that will not quit. Every day, “It’s a Small World” barrels through my brain like Conor McGregor on a high-dollar coke binge. I want to jam a switchblade into my ear just thinking about that song. And yet, somehow I need an overpriced churro. I want to be stuck behind moms snapping photos of their ugly-ass kids in front of scenes crafted out of American dreams. I keep finding myself in the lunch line buying tortillas and feeling so bummed – the pop and hiss and crackle of hourly fireworks celebrations ringing in my memory is way more enthralling than the age-old Texas food truck conundrum: corn or flour? Being an adult straight-up sucks.
This past October, the Dean clan did the one thing all good families are supposed to do. The one mandatory rule decent, loving parents must abide, the cornerstone of American vacations: we descended upon Walt Disney World.
I was not thrilled about Disney. I wanted a mommy-and-daddy-only trip. My mind was walking London cobblestones or making out in Parisian courtyards, not staring at menus exclusively featuring chicken fingers, hamburgers with ketchup only, and macaroni and cheese.
As parents of a four year old and a one year old, my wife, Sarah, and I rarely get time alone. I can tell you everything there is to know about Hey Dugee or why the new DuckTales reboot is actually pretty great, but ask me when the last time I saw a movie with my Sarah, in an actual theater? That would be The Force Awakens – two years ago. My little dudes are my favorite humans, but I am a fan of hanging solo with Sarah, who was nice enough to make them with me.
Sarah did not care one iota about my annoyance. She booked meals, ordered our Magic Bands, devoured the Disney World guidebooks, and set up a good, old-fashioned Clipboard of Fun itinerary. Sarah knew about the character meet and greets that only super fans discuss on messageboards, she joined Disney Facebook groups, she planned out what size shirts the boys would need – a year in advance, and she even knew what five stores would carry the Snow White poisoned apple mug she’d coveted for months.
The much-anticipated day had arrived. We’d been counting down on a calendar with Mickey stickers and everything. Sarah’s alarm went off at five am and she sprang out of bed, ready to Mouse. Me, I was on deadline and had worked till three am, so I managed to get a two-hour nap in lieu of actual meaningful sleep. It was pitch black outside and my dog had taken a leak in the kitchen. The coffee could not come fast enough – except when you’re up so damn early Starbucks wasn’t even open yet.
Jackson was snoring like a broken Honda Civic when we crept into his room and cranked the original “Mickey Mouse Club Theme” from our iPhones. Once he was up we slapped an appropriately-themed Mickey Mouse onesie on the one-year-old, Luke, and then scrambled in the Texas pre-dawn to get to Austin-Bergstrom. From our Southwest cattle car, we watched as the sun lit up the BBQ-stained sprawl of tech startups and hipster bars, rising over blocks dense with tattoo factories and food trucks. We were hurtling toward sunny Florida.
Once we checked into the resort, we grabbed an Uber and hit Disney Springs. When you’re on the Orlando time clock, you gotta spend every minute doing stuff. I’d forgotten how hot Florida gets. The unrelenting heat was karate chopping my ability to breathe and making humans less tolerable by the minute. Navigating the sea of people guffawing at signs beckoning them into Spiderman’s juice stand, the Disney Princess dress barn, and the faux Irish bars that were trying way too hard was exhausting.
At this point, we’d been up for about eight hours and I was beyond tired. Disney Springs was not my idea of a good time. Because it was unrelentingly hot, lemonade sounded like a novel idea, until ten other people walked up and we got into an awkward line of sweat and sun anger. As I waited for my lemon and sugar pick me up, a wave of tween girls in sparkly fedoras made a beeline toward a stage. A murder of moms with “can I speak to the manager” haircuts stood at high alert, ready to smash the record button on their iPhones. I was confident I was about to be miserable for the next week. With every ounce of energy I had left, I willed the universe to move this line faster. There was no way in hell I was about to endure a dance routine to Justin Timberlake’s “Sunshine in My Pocket”.
We made it to the Monorail station the next morning ready for combat – if combat consists of sporting sensible shoes and plenty of snacks for the two velociraptors I call my children. We rented a boujee stroller the week, complete with a handbrake and storage basket big enough to hold a dead mobster’s body. We were ready for whatever Hell The Mouse brought forth.
As we stood at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom, all of my fears about killing our bank account for a terrible trip melted away. The Vegas shooting was a week old. I’ve adopted the sad mentality, of a “when” not an “if” regarding violence. I was so ready to grit my teeth and let 2017 continue to drop its signature cruelty, but instead, I was met with cartoon birds over my head and happiness surging through my black heart. The 36-year-old Bobby Dean reverted to a younger, less cynical edition and you know what? It was pretty damned nice.
Leading up to this moment of watching a bunch of crazy excited dancers imploring us to have a wonderful day, I was just over everything. I’d worked myself blind to save up for this trip. I fought demons, lost jobs and still managed to make it here. We had arrived at Walt Disney World. This joy was the last thing I expected, but I was emotionally open for business.
Walt Disney World has audacious power. It’s a place that can strip adults of their ordinary lives and drop them like innocents into a kingdom where dogs drive cars and we’re promised bad things never happen.
That day the Deans rode Space Mountain and grabbed photos with Mickey. Jackson fell in love with the Haunted Mansion, which rules because it’s my favorite ride, too. We watched like, nine parades. Luke liked all of the loud noises and bright stuff to look at. I saw plenty of frustrated parents soothing kids who were red-faced and losing it to an After School Special Why Mommy Shook The Baby degree. Thankfully, my dudes were wonderful little humans the whole trip.
One thing I can say about that day in the Magic Kingdom is we apparently stumbled upon a whole plethora of folks who need to clean their asses from eating way too many waffles at Chef Mickey’s pancake house. Sarah and I were strolling through one of the gigantic Mega-Mouse stores looking for stuff for Jackson and Luke when we stumbled through a green mist gross enough to choke a dog.
We walked through so many farts. Let me tell you, there must be something in the $3 bottles of Dasani and the enormous turkey legs because everywhere we went, there was a little dookie mist lingering. I couldn’t help but remember Pumba’s operatic singing of “When I was a young wart hog….”
Another Walt Disney World trend that was endlessly entertaining? People trip. A lot. We kept count of how many times we’d see someone in flip flops try to walk just a little too fast, and then trip themselves up and wind up with a bloody big toe.
It’s widely documented that when Disneyland opened in California, Walt Disney was over it almost immediately. He’d built this domain. A world obsessively curated within his walls, a place for children of all ages. Soon after opening, though, Anaheim erupted around it. Motels and cheap diners spread out on all sides of the park like your gross uncle in an above-ground pool, and it drove Ol’ Uncle Walt bananas. One day, Walt would get his revenge on Anaheim.
On the second day of the Dean family does Disney, Sarah and I managed to do what all parents long for on their GREAT AMERICAN vacations: we topped day one and got low-key sloshed at Epcot’s World Showcase. It was Food and Wine Festival time. It was miserably hot, and I’m an idiot, so I drank pretty much everything along our walking route.
I may or may not have lost my family. They had Cooper’s Ale and I had to get some, only when I turned around my crew was gone. After a few tries, I got through to Sarah, who was in line for a photo op with Minnie across the park. How did people manage to keep track of one another before cell phones? I go to grab a cold one and my squad had managed to get at least mile away from me in minutes flat. If this was the olden times of the early 00’s, I’d have been telling far different story of “how I got drunk alone in Epcot and walked through a bunch of farts”.
I was about five or six drinks in at this point. The Disney Parks app updated crazy slow and mixed with some other side of the world strength vodka, trying to grasp what the map was telling me was almost like an abstract artform. Finally, I made it to the doors of the place where the photo op was and immediately turned heel. Once I saw the sea of screaming kids and parents looking haggard, I took a hard pass on hustling through the bodies to hug Minnie on film.
I noticed the line to meet Big Hero 6 was super short. Drunk, this seemed like a great idea. Let me tell you, I. was. into. it. I was striking poses, acting like Big Hero and me were about to stomp buildings and create havoc Godzilla-style. Here I am, trying to headlock some poor kid in an inflatable robot suit in order to appease my tourist fantasies. The photographer wanted me outta there immediately.
One thing I did notice while walking through Epcot’s less worldly parts to sweat out the booze: there’s no corporate marketing barfed onto every surface in Disney World. I mean, the station is programmed to Mouse, Duck, and Dog 24/7 but, that’s a part of the deal going in. Ronald McDonald isn’t hustling fries and there’s no Burger King creeping the little ones out with that weird head of his. It was kinda nice not seeing advertising everywhere. It was like North Korea, but you know, for kids.
By day three, I was in full-on geek mode. Our Dear Leader Uncle Walt had his magical hooks in the whole Dean family. We were having all the fun he envisioned. We were hitting Hollywood Studios AKA the park with all of the Star Wars stuff. I’ve been a Star Wars fanboy since before I understood what that funny feeling was whenever I saw Leia in Return of The Jedi. As an adult with a car payment, constant acid reflux, and two kids, my excitement for anything related to the Skywalker family gives me a full-blown disturbance in the force.
Right out of the gates we rolled up on Boba Fett choosing who would pose with him and you can bet your boy got his photo. There’s no way I was walking from this vacation without a picture with Boba Fett. He’s been my favorite character since I was a kid. I may or may not have excitedly pointed at the tattoo of his helmet on my left shin to get that photo. Who’s to say?
We packed in a lot during our six days in Walt’s Universe. We hit every park, the Magic Kingdom on three separate occasions, one being Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Shout out to all of the folks who dressed as every obscure Disney character, ever. People take Halloween mega-serious down in Mouse-ville. You name it, we did it on our Orlando escapade.
We hit the Animal Kingdom, where I managed to get Jackson and Sarah onto the Dinosaur ride, which is easily the scariest ride in Disney. Afterward, I received death threats from my wife. Animal Kingdom is actually a nice park, but I learned a weird fact I wasn’t expecting: folks are insane about Avatar. Yes, Avatar, the movie with the blue mouse people. The world they’d built looked dope, and if it’s any indication of what’s to come with the Star Wars land, hold onto your pants. But, a few intrepid riders were waiting over three hours to ride the two Avatar rides. I like a lot of stuff, but I ain’t waiting three hours to ride anything, blue mouse people or not.
Back in the day, Walt schemed and plotted behind closed doors, and a few shady land deals later, central Florida was in his back pocket, folded nice and neat. Your man Walt set up some fake businesses to mask his intentions and to get the land cheap from farmers, and wound up with 40 square miles on the down low where Walt’s House Of Mouse could micromanage a guest’s trip. No more tacky motels and no more sketchy dudes selling knock off Mickey Mouse ears out on the street outside, where Walt had no jurisdiction. Orlando now belonged to Walt and his creative vision for inclusion.
Disney could stage direct the guest experience down to a Buzz Lightyear-themed double cheeseburger or the Mickey heads made out of hand-towels. Regular Joe’s could slip away and dive into Walt’s imagination.
Years from now the Peter Pan’s Flight and the photo with Daisy Duck will fade from memory. The feeling of unlocking the latch on the pressure cooker of adult life, screaming my head off barreling down Splash Mountain is what sticks. I didn’t think about Trump or “Rocketman,” or football players taking a knee, or police brutality. I didn’t dwell on famine, or ISIS strongholds, or impending nuclear holocaust.
I accepted that this trip was expensive and just slid the credit card along the magnetic strip reader. I wasn’t going to nickel-and-dime this. I paid the premium to sign off on everyday America because the manufactured rage of adulthood needs to be exorcised. We let it boil up too long and for a lot of us, and it fires out in hostility or straight-up self-destruction. I’m no shrink, but maybe the answer is kicking it with a cartoon duck with no pants?
I still yearn to visit Europe. But even with a change in latitude and longitude, I’d be Yelping for a burger or google mapping the must-see spots. Whatever social problems exist, we incur those as our own, because if we’re visiting this world, we plant our signposts, even if just in passing. The Tower of London is on my To Do list, but at this point in my life, I needed the Tower of Terror.
I still have the Disney Parks app on my phone. I can’t bring myself to delete it. Not yet. I still check the wait time for Star Tours. I don’t want to adult. I don’t want to see people justify constant gross headlines with hypocrisy. In Walt Disney World, my family didn’t need “thoughts and prayers” because we had “hopes and dreams.” To be honest, Uncle Walt knew what we needed all along.
Robert Dean is a writer, journalist, and cynic. His most recent novel, The Red Seven was called “rich in vivid imagery, quirky characterizations, and no holds barred violence and mayhem. I never knew what the word romp really meant until now, but in case you’re wondering, this is it.” By Shotgun Logic. Robert is finishing a New Orleans-based crime thriller called A Hard Roll. He lives in Austin and likes ice cream and koalas. Stalk him on Twitter: @Robert_Dean