Disneyworld, the happiest place on Earth? I think not. Forget the lines jammed-packed with Crocs, khaki shorts, and sugar-high children who can’t stand still. Never mind the crowds, and dodging strangers’ family photos like landmines on your way to a restroom. Let’s talk about the rides. The nightmare-inducing, deep-rooted-trauma-causing rides of my childhood.
For an adult, Disneyworld is about logistics. Where am I going to change my baby? I need a second mortgage to afford a turkey drumstick? Am I aging towards a mid-life crisis waiting in line for a photo with Cinderella?
As a child, the crowds melt away. You don’t notice the price tags or socked feet in sandals. All you see is magic. Princesses’ castles, woodcarvers’ shops, and tap-dancing chimney sweeps.
Perhaps each generation believes they grew up in peak Disney, similar to how every few years, an end-of-times prophecy pops up. We all complain we have it the worst, while bragging our pop culture is, unequivocally, the best.
Case in point: I opine Early Millennials, those (like me) born from 1980 to 1987, grew up when Disney was at its finest. I watched the classics—Peter Pan, Snow White, and Cinderella— on VHS, and the Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast in theatres. We didn’t have Pixar or Elsa, but we had Eisner’s Angels: Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle. We’re an entire generation of women conditioned as hopeless romantics. (“Mom let us watch too many Disney movies growing up,” my sister once said, as we lamented our love lives.)
Most of my childhood memories are in some way infected by Disney. The cousins’ rescue mission to save Tinkerbell from the ever-feared, stench-spewing blackhole of the Outhouse at camp. My toddler sister, knocking on my bedroom door, presenting an Aladdin and Jasmine doll she found scaling my parents closet, where they were hidden away as Easter presents. “Which one do you want?” she asks, proudly. Egalitarian, for a thief.
Nearly five-years-old, visiting Disneyworld was like seeing my imagination puked into real-life. Photos show my face lit up from a halo of joy. I’m wearing a floral-print bomber jacket and socks pulled up to my calf, pretending to knock on Minnie Mouse’s door and shake hands with Captain Hook’s prosthetic.
I was, presumably, also happy to have my parents’ full attention; my baby sister, born four-months prior, lately stealing the spotlight. She was under the care of Grandma and Grandpa Florida, aptly named because they migrated to Central Florida to ride out our harsh Canadian winters. Although today I admire my sister as one of the coolest people I know, I wasn’t always so fond of her. I infamously once told her, “If you weren’t born, I’d be so spoiled.” Thank goodness for her existence or I’d be rotten.
Something Disney taught me is when things are peachy, an evil entity tries to ruin it all. Princess Aurora falls in love with Prince Phillip, then induced into a coma by an evil queen. Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric, then he nearly puts a ring on Ursula. Tina is living her best life at Disneyworld, then traumatized by the Snow White ride.
I remember stepping into a regal carriage, which magically glides into a set-by-set telling of Snow White, as though we are floating through chapters of a storybook. A Palace Courtyard, the Dwarves’ Homely Den. Then, our magical carriage makes what certainly-must-be a wrong turn into a haunted forest. Dark trees hover over our minuscule cart with glowing eyes and distorted, screaming mouths. Crows caw. A witch cackles in the distance! I cower close to my mom. This is not what I signed up for! Now, our once-regal carriage feels like a cast iron pot over a firepit. It’s boiling and I want out!
I don’t remember anything more, but deduction dictates there was a poisonous apple and a wicked witch, defeated by true love in the end. I blocked it out.
The Snow White ride is incomplete without a child’s wailing. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’m sure it helps revenue when parents buy ice-cream and Minnie Mouse ears to console their fear-stricken children.
I give Disneyworld a second chance. I am eight-years-old, and this time, my sister is old enough to tag along, but not old enough for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. My dad and my sister are off doing something else, while my mom and I climb into a 1920’s style car. By accident, I sit in the driver’s seat, behind a large, shiny wheel— even though I don’t have my driver’s licence; a fact I don’t yet understand is inconsequential. Like the Snow White torture chamber, the car is confined to a track. For all I know, I am in charge. I am an unlicensed, eight-year-old driver, solely responsible for my mother’s safety.
Indicative of how panicked I was, I recall this ride as fast and dangerous. That was the ride’s premise, after all: it was Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We zoom through busy streets, hitting pedestrians and buildings, smashing walls that split in half to reveal the next scene. Watching YouTube, I see that it is quite a slow ride, about the pace of a paddleboat or a leisurely row. Not fast enough to squash so-much-as a grasshopper under the tires.
My mom lightheartedly jokes I am a terrible driver, though it feels like admonishment. I try to explain, “I can’t control the steering wheel!” There is a manufacturing defect! We are doomed!
The zombie car drives through a dark room, plastered with signs that read the likes of “BEWARE!”, “WARNING!”, “GO BACK!”. I try to heed the advice. “I want to turn around!” I cry, exerting my strength to crank the steering wheel that I do not realize is a mere prop.
I blame practising motor vehicle accident law for my driving anxiety; though, I could see a therapist making the argument a dormant seed of this fear was planted that day in Disneyworld.
Like a masochist I return, yet again, to the happiest place on Earth. I’m 12-years-old and I think I can handle Space Mountain. My dad and I embark on the Herculean task of waiting in line, most of which is indoors in a sort of futuristic airport, littered with warning signs. Do not take this ride if you are pregnant. Turn back if you have heart disease or a history of stroke. As a healthy, pre-pubescent 12-year-old, my heart and brain are disease-free and my womb is without child. But, I wonder what kind of ride is this if it induces premature labour or heart attack? Can you die on this ride?!
I panic, wail, and abandon ship. My dad and I make the walk of shame, excusing ourselves as we push through the crowded line of eager thrill-seekers; our last forty minutes of turtle-paced line movement in vain. (Sorry dad.)
I’ve since returned to Disneyworld. I’ve faced my fears and ridden Space Mountain about a gazillion times. I’ve bravely looked in the eyes of the Evil Witch from Snow White, while flexing my biceps, yelling, “How do ya like them apples?” Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride closed in 1998 and was replaced by The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which is more my style. I’m a Piglet, not a Tigger.
Photo: My family’s collection, Copyright 1990.