The magical kingdom of Disney

Dad-to-be Daniel Down worries that Disney might just take the Mickey out of him.

How do I get out of here? Help! I want out!” No, this wasn’t the beleaguered plea of an exasperated parent being dragged around Walt Disney World Resort by a little princess – my cynical preconception of a Disney holiday experience. In fact, this was my desperate cry as I sat strapped in a centrifuge; you know, the ones they use to test astronauts’ mettle as their faces turn to jelly. A guest of Disney for a week, here to see the opening of its new Avatar world and Guardians of the Galaxy attraction over in Disneyland Resort, I’ve suddenly found myself in an extreme situation: I’ve gone from riding the teacups to a simulated space launch in as little as 10 minutes, with no way out despite prior warnings of motion sickness and claustrophobia. But
it wasn’t really extreme at all; I’d simply succumbed to the trickery of Disney’s attraction builders (aka the Imagineers) and, for want of a better cliché, was giving in to my terrified inner child. Indeed, as I sat waiting to be slung into several chest-compressing Gs, I had thoughts of my own baby girl, due in a month’s time.

The attraction in question is Mission: Space in Walt Disney World Resort’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) zone, Walt’s rather charming vision of the future with swooping walls of concrete, a giant dome and a monorail snaking through it all like something from The Jetsons. Just an hour’s drive from here is the real thing, the Kennedy Space Center, but Mission: Space would be the closest I’d get to that. As it turns out, a little too close, as I am strapped into a mock-up of a rocket module with a small porthole showing me blue sky. Then we’re launched and my body is forced back into the seat. It’s too late now, there’s no way out, and we enter space, sling-shotting around the Moon and crash-landing on Mars. What a ride! I’m sweating, and it isn’t the Florida heat.

Perhaps contrary to Walt’s intentions, EPCOT is wonderfully retro today. His vision for his parks was conceived in sunny California, as he revelled in a post-war-era sense of optimism. This carried through to his plans for the massive Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, which has a footprint the size of San Francisco, although he passed away in 1966 just before construction on his masterplan began. A smoker, as most people were throughout the first half of the last century, he died of lung cancer. In the hotels and restaurants you’ll notice the occasional black-and-white photo of Walt, perhaps under the arch of the Cinderella castle, that iconic Disney landmark. Look carefully and you’ll see that his fingers are more often than not in a relaxed ‘V’ sign, the cigarette having been carefully airbrushed out. His uncompromising vision of perfection is alive and well.

The centrepiece of Walt Disney World Resort is Magic Kingdom. It opened in 1971 facilitated by colossal hotels like Disney’s Contemporary Resort, which looks like a NASA command centre rising out of the surrounding swamps; this is the part of the world where comically big alligators like to go for a stroll on golf courses. The gates to Magic Kingdom are as photo-worthy as the Chrysler Building until you realise that they were put up in the ’70s and it’s mock-Art Deco. It’s kitsch, but America is the land of kitsch, and perhaps the only place on the planet where this is acceptable… but then I would say that, having spent my honeymoon driving around California in a convertible Mustang.

Before long we’re on the old Jungle Cruise attraction, and I’d be clinging to my mum for dear life if I were the five-year-old boy sitting in front of me, as we pass unnervingly close to a tiger ready to pounce from a cave. Instead, unlike him, I can sit back and admire the old-school prop design in the tiger’s glowing eyes and the deliberately kooky, pun-laden delivery of our boat’s captain, whose slightly southern accent gives her lines a lazy drawl. It’s deliberate; these ‘cast members’, as Disney calls its staff, spend three months training for the Jungle Cruise, getting their lines just right to allow adults on the boat to groan knowingly at the ironic tone.

It all comes together perfectly – the five-year-old had the ride of his life while the parents sat back and chuckled; and all on an attraction that was conceived back in 1955 for the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim.

We pass by the carousel-style Dumbo the Flying Elephant that opened with the park. There’s an air-conditioned playpen for kids while they wait their turn, watched over by parents. ‘Genius,’ I think, picturing myself trying to keep a little one happy in a few years’ time. I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with Walt Disney’s parallel universe, and I’m eager to wander the original happy place on the other side of the continent in Anaheim. It’s refreshing to step into such a carefree environment, its all-consuming sense of innocence a perfect tonic to a world that seems to be becoming more troubled with every headline – or is that just a side effect of adulthood? Indeed, as you get older you’re supposed to become increasingly aware of your own mortality. It’s something I can vouch for on Disneyland’s old Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction, its huge recreated Swiss mountain forming a perfect composition with the nearby Sleeping Beauty Castle. The rollercoaster that shoots through and around the mountain is the first ever tubular steel-mounted rollercoaster; previously, rickety wood was used, like in Santa Cruz’s famous old Giant Dipper, circa 1924. Matterhorn Bobsleds has been going since 1959, and the fact that I’m careering around on what is essentially an antique merely adds to the delirium.

Similarly groundbreaking is Pirates of the Caribbean, celebrating its 50th birthday this year. It was Walt’s dream to have a pirates attraction, and this was the first attraction to inspire a movie franchise. It was also the first use of human-scale animatronics on an attraction such as this. Disney first used Audio-Animatronics in 1961, after purchasing a curiosity in a New Orleans antique shop in the early ’50s – an 1850s French singing mechanical bird. He brought it back for his Imagineers to study and improve on the technology. “The staff would kill you if you tried to change any of it,” our guide tells us, as we cruise under some of the original animatronic puppets. They’re still so convincing that, back in April, Johnny Depp took up a spot among them in full Captain Jack Sparrow garb to give people a scare, springing to life as they cruised past to promote the latest instalment of the film franchise. Walt was ahead of his time; probably with visions of a theme park populated by interactive robots like in the recent TV series Westworld.

We swing by It’s a Small World, which is definitely geared towards toddlers, but some in our group are insistent on having a go. A sedate boat journey like Jungle Cruise, it’s another classic from the very beginnings of Disneyland, where it arrived following two years at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s so endearing that even the most hardened cynic would succumb to the little moving puppet children, representing countries from all over the world, singing the same catchy titular song on a loop in among the intricate dioramas. Exiting through the gift shop, I can’t resist picking up a picture book for future bedtime reads. Consider my heart softened; I think I’ll be back at this place one day – a significant living, breathing slice of America’s cultural history – if
not just to see the smile on my daughter’s face.




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This article appeared in issue 30

Our annual "100" issue (Sep/Oct/Nov 2017) features: 

  • 100 Awesome places to see before you turn 100
  • Spain's ancient Camino de Santiago
  • Galapagos Islands by boat
  • The Northern Lights from the Scandinavian Arctic
  • Morocco's Blue City
PLUS we spend 48 hours in Abu Dhabi, find luxury in NZ's Bay of Islands, take a peek at UK's unique Lake District, and much more!