- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Adults I know who go to Walt Disney World have this annoying tendency to describe how the theme park has helped them bond with their children, or how

important it is to have the little ones teach them how to

feel young again.

Now, although I’m a grown man with no spouse or little ones to snuggle, I can appreciate those sentiments. I just don’t get one thing: Why is it that over-30s need children to bring them back to Disney in the first place?

See, I’m one of those silly grown-ups who, on occasion, goes to Disney World without children — on my day off from work; when someone from out of town comes to visit Florida; or, say, on a holiday weekend.

I suppose I could spend my free time more productively, more culturally, more exotically than getting nauseated from zooming in the pitch black on a high-speed roller jet called Space Mountain; dropping five stories into a wet briar patch aboard an artificial log flume; or dining at a restaurant that looks, smells and costs like some eatery on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, when, in reality, it is only a replica within a world of replicas.

But there is something about deciding to be childlike, silly, even for a few hours — without the circumstance of having to entertain a loving child or a pack of ornery brats — that is liberating, rekindling.

The last time I Disneyed was on my latest birthday. A fair lady who makes her living at Charles Schwab had flown in from the West Coast and wanted to spend some quality time with me. I said how about the Magic Kingdom. She asked me if I was kidding. I said not really.

She asked me how she should dress to meet Mickey.

We stopped first at City Hall, where a “Today is my Birthday” button was pinned to my shirt pocket, and continued on up Main Street, USA. Everyone — the boys selling balloons that look like cellophane, the men playing trombones and trumpets, the ladies in Mrs. Potts’ Cupboard — wished me a happy birthday.

“That button has made you pretty popular,” my lady friend said. “Is everyone going to do that?”

“You’re just jealous,” I said.

Now, I’ll confess: Inside the gift shops, where your vision is quickly saturated with a kaleidoscope of colorful, tastefully crafted gobbledygook — slip-on Minnie bedroom slippers, Winnie the Pooh soap dispensers, Tinkerbell crystal balls — the dour, cynical side of my being did rise up in a snit and whisper into my brain:

“Beware. Theme parks are mass-marketed, scripted experiences designed, quite sublimely, to lull the visitor into a consumeristic trance.”

She picked up the beer-bottle-top popper. The one with the chromed Mickey ears. “Oh, isn’t this cute?”

“Uh …”

“Hey,” she said, then plopped a tan golf cap with a blue, embroidered Mickey silhouette on my head. “Now, that looks really cute on you.”

I looked in the mirror. “Hmm … think so?”

When it makes perfect sense to plunk down 20 sweat-and-blood dollars for a Mickey Mouse golf cap, and when you stroll about in public wearing such a thing free of embarrassment — that is a sign that you have abandoned all logic and are truly ready to let go.

We made our visit to Disney World during the fall, one of the park’s least-crowded seasons. I’d heard rumors that the Land that Walt Built had taken a wallop from the hurricanes of ‘04 and that attendance had been relatively flat overall since September 11. So I assumed that Fastpasses — those vouchers to help you zip to the front of the regular line — would be unnecessary.

But the sign at the entrance to Splash Mountain said we’d have to wait two hours on the regular line. And aside from a few wind-tipped trees while chugging around the edge of the Magic Kingdom on the Walt Disney Railroad, there was no other storm damage. No animal carcasses, no sunken vessels, not even a ragged flag or a cracked pane of glass to critique.

“Bummer,” I said.

“Oh, be nice. Let’s get our Fastpasses to Splash Mountain.”

So we did. We returned four hours later and zipped right to the front of the line, passing scores of people. There was, I’ll admit, something childishly satisfying in noting their sallow expressions.

On Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I almost lost my precious golf cap careening through canyons and rimrocks and tunnels at breakneck pace. But in the end, it was all worth it. My face had gone pallid, and my companion felt a tinge of pity. “Poor baby. How about a kiss?”

“Well,” I said.

I suppose I could have kept the momentum going with a drink at Cinderella’s Royal Table or a launch ride across the Seven Seas Lagoon to one of those posh hotels where adults can sip white wine on a terrace and listen to palm fronds crackle and waves lap on sugary sand.

Instead, I suggested a boat ride at Pirates of the Caribbean.

We took the last row (on purpose, I may add) in the boat, and began to float through a dark, chilly tunnel. She huddled close when the sounds of cannonball fire started booming, and I didn’t see much else of the ride, except, perhaps, the sailor or imprisoned pirate groaning from behind bars — but otherwise, it was smooth sailing.

“That was nice,” she said. “Go again?”

“Better not,” I said. “This is a family park, dear.”

As it turned out, we turned back the clock on adulthood for another 10 hours.

Some golden moments:

• Mickey’s PhilharMagic, a multidimensional movie where you not only feel like you’re riding Aladdin’s magic carpet through clouds, but actually also feel breaths of wind, smell the spices of pastries and get squirted from popping champagne bottles (though probably not real bubbly).

• The plunging, bottoming-out, stomach-scooping sensation of that first drop into blackness aboard the Space Mountain coaster. (I will not comment on the second and third drops — they were wicked.)

• Watching the most spontaneous, childlike smile light up the face of my date as she gave Mickey a big hug while I snapped their picture in the Judge’s Tent.

• Seeing the glittery beams cast by the SpectroMagic light parade light up the eyes of an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

The end of the night found us beneath Cinderella’s Castle. Up above, fireworks burned diamond-like streaks across the sky.

“So what’s next on our list?” she asked. “Sea World?”

“Not so fast,” I said. “There are three more Disney parks to do, my dear.”

• • •

Walt Disney World: Starting tomorrow, the five-day Magic Your Way ticket with park-hopping privilege is $228 ($193 without the park-hopper option); for children ages 3 to 9, $190 ($155 without park-hopping). Hotel rates vary; “value season” is in effect through Feb. 16, with room rates as low as $77 a night. More upscale lodging includes Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, $339; Disney’s Polynesian Resort, $299; Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, $199; and Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, $289. For more information and vacation packages, visit www.disneyworld.com.



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