I recently returned from five days in Orlando, exploring Disney World for the first time in my 52 years. I cried a lot. I cried on the first afternoon, when I watched the show in front of Cinderella’s castle as Minnie, Daisy, Elsa, Anna, Tiana, Rapunzel, and a chorus of dancers sang about imagination and courage.
I cried that evening as the fireworks exploded and projections lit up the castle while Tom Hulce’s Hunchback sang “Out There.”
I cried when I rode the Pooh ride and when I saw stuffed Dumbos. I cried when the Peter Pan float passed during the 3:00 parade. I cried when Lebo M’s voice chanted:
“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama”
while I stood in line to enter Animal Kingdom.
I cried one last time, sitting on a grassy knoll at the Polynesian Resort, watching the fireworks show from a distance, making a memory with my niece and nephew.
Heck, I am crying right now, just typing this.
Why? Why do I cry so much?
Well, there’s the obvious answer: Disney is my children’s childhood. I didn’t grow up with much Disney. Some of that is simply because of when I grew up. During the 1970s, Disney animation was in a slump, resulting in limited access to the stories. We didn’t have a Disney channel, we just had Sunday night’s Wonderful World of Disney, which featured Disney shorts, sometimes Disney features, all hosted by Walt himself. My mom didn’t want to watch it. My parents did take us to an anniversary release of Bambi in 1975, I was just eight years old; and the only other Disney film I saw in theaters until I took my three-year-old daughter to see Beauty and the Beast was Herbie Rides Again.
Mary Poppins is the one exception to the paucity of Disney in my life. It blessedly ran on television frequently enough that I came to know it by heart. Julie Andrews as Mary was my hero. She, with her magical carpet bag, lilting soprano, and penchant for order, was the epitome of womanhood. I loved that she showed up unexpectedly, floating through the sky with an umbrella, feet turned out, impeccably dressed.
What I loved about Mary was that she could come into a house with miserable, neglected children and heal it. She could sing to the toys and they would put themselves away, birds were fed, and the parents eventually learned to see their lonely kids by the magic of flying kites. When I met Mary Poppins and Bert beside the swan topiary near the Sleeping Beauty castle in Anaheim, or in the English pavilion in Orlando, I was overwhelmed with joy. I understood completely that I was meeting gorgeous actresses. Truly, I did. But here’s the thing that happens, if one can set aside cynicism and just embrace the whole scenario: I met Mary Poppins, who spoke to me with flawless diction and loved my Jolly Holiday skirt and ears. I would say I was a child again, and maybe that’s a little true. But I was 51 years old, too. Fifty-one, and just really starting to recognize in a visceral way how short life really is and how essential it is to look for love and drop little seeds of it wherever one finds oneself.
I did not encounter the Mary Poppins of the books until adulthood. The literary, non-singing Mary is a little more acerbic. In the movie, there’s an underlayer of sweetness just under Mary’s efficiency, less evident in the books. In Travers’ hands though, whimsy is abundant and imagination is the cure for boredom, sadness, and grouchiness. In the very first book of the series, the grumpy author writes this simple yet profound sentence, when Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been all day and her answer doesn’t match their own expectations: “Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. ‘Don’t you know,’ she said pityingly, ‘that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?'”
My mom wasn’t much for fairylands, nor for stories, nor for books. I do not remember a single instance of being read to, and the only book I owned was a copy of Bible stories that my grandparents gave me. I didn’t have books with Disney stories, or records like my husband remembers having, ones with “Bare Necessities” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to listen to in my room.
My family was too poor to pay the light bill, never mind a trip to Disneyland; so when my first child was born in the same year that Ariel made her debut, I hopped right on board the Disney steam locomotive train (figuratively speaking, anyway. I wouldn’t get to ride the real thing until I reached middle age). We watched Little Mermaid over and over, I have the most precious photo of my dad on the floor playing with Hilary and her Ariel doll. When my son was just three, he went through a Dumbo phase: every morning, between 3:30 and 4:00, he sleepily stumbled into our bedroom, shook us awake, and asked for Dumbo. He was having bad dreams nightly, and the sweet blue-eyed baby elephant chased away the scary things happening in his brain. We began to leave the VHS cued up and ready before retiring to sleep each night, so that we could get him tucked in with as little fuss as possible. My youngest daughter chose Finding Nemo for her sixteenth birthday theme- unlike the other high school girls who were making duck lips and wearing too much make up, my girl dressed as a Pixar character. We read the stories, we sang the songs, we raised our kids with Disney magic all around us.
I cry when I think of it because Disney resonates: Disney is fueled by love.
I know that millenial ennui dictates we poo-poo that. But bear with me.
Disney, as a brand, is driven by story*; and the stories all center around one common theme: love.
Walt’s love for his granddaughters inspired him to create Disneyland so that they would have a place to play and imagine.
Love of story itself, whether revealed in orchestral pieces as in Fantasia, or in written words, as in the Milne Winnie the Pooh stories.
Love of planet. What is Moana but a great big hug for Mother Earth? The 1950s were a decade of documentary shorts like Nature’s Half Acre, all opportunities for Walt to share the wonders of eco-science with the country.
Love of parent/child. The Mama Bear character in Brave stands in for protective moms everywhere, and when Dumbo’s mom sings him a lullaby while rocking him in her trunk, I weep with melancholy. Gepetto’s wish for a son, made real by the Blue Fairy? Perfection.
Love of friendship. Are there two more sympatico friends than Woody and Buzz? Who doesn’t hope for a group of friends to stand and protect in times of vulnerability, like the dwarves did as Snow White slept?
Love of romance. I have my own Prince Charming, and so I love the romantic stories when shoes are left behind on staircases and hairy beasts are redeemed by the tears of a true love.
Love is magic.
We know it, deep down, but we forget. Walt knew that sharing these stories and building these worlds would give us glimpses and doses. It was his mission. They still take that mission very seriously in every facet of the company, as I learned when I attended the Disney Institute last year. Their people love what they do.
And so, when I immerse myself in the environment, it is a hug for my soul.
When I watch a movie, it’s an infusion of affection and strength.
When I don a Daisy tee or drink steaming hot tea out of a Tinkerbell mug, it’s an inoculation against despair and bitterness.
When I hit “play” on my Disney playlist, I feel joy. For the woman whose childhood was so devoid of play, of imagination and joy and connection, Disney gives me a place to act like a kid again.
I know I am not alone in this. The parks, cruise ships, and resorts are overflowing with other humans who love the stories. I daresay even the dad I saw in the Magic Kingdom, wearing a shirt that proclaimed in Disney font: “Most financially irresponsible day ever” encountered magic that day with his small children. Disney parks are brimming with all ethnicities, all physical types, all ages. Big, burly urbanites pose with Goofy, silver haired grannies get kisses from Minnie, and tiny boys hug Woody’s legs. We love it.
It’s that simple. Once upon a time, I was a lonely, bedraggled, neglected child. I found my prince, I made a family, and I created a life that is full of love, my very own magical kingdom; and the wonderful world of Disney helps me celebrate it.
At Disneyland Paris, the Haunted Mansion sits on a hill full of trees. It’s isolated in a way that it can’t be in Anaheim and Orlando.
A folly as you ascend to the Paris Haunted Mansion
*Yes, I know Disney is also profit driven- it’s a business. A big one. I don’t hold that against them. They craft story and they create a place where even grown ups can pretend their lives are perfect, even if it’s just a respite. I work in the world of theme park myself, and Disney does it better than anyone.