When I was a little boy, my mother only took me to Walt Disney movies because she knew they would be good, quality movies, better than other movies for children.
I grew up learning the Walt Disney philosophy that good will triumph over evil, and you will succeed if you try hard enough. Walt Disney movies conveyed a way that things should be, an orderly, correct way parents and children may act, ideally. The movies showed examples of how civilized people behaved. They represented normal childhood (and human) emotions of fear and having strong wishes, and showed that struggling against challenges and villains is normal and is usually rewarded.
Part of the reason this had an appeal was to show me how things could be ideally, how I would someday live (when I grew up and had my own family), in contrast to the occasional turmoil, financial obstacles, and lack of orderliness in the environment of my own childhood. I could live in the Disney characters’ world for awhile, and I could even find things that were like their lives in my own life. If they went skating, I found there was a skating pond near me and I could make a goal of doing the same thing. (A similar effect resulted from my reading Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books). I especially recalled Disney’s “Atta Girl Kelly” TV movie, about Seeing Eye dogs, that took place in Morristown, New Jersey, not far from where I lived. It was nice to see a place closer to my home environment represented in the ideal Disney world.
Since I felt I had the same view of the world as Walt did, and Walt was my ideal father figure when he would introduce his TV show, I really wanted to go to Disneyland but it was all the way on the other side of the country. I felt that it would be so great to meet the characters.
Then when I turned 10, Walt Disney World opened on my side of the country but it was still too far away and too expensive for my parents to afford the trip.
Finally I was able to go to Disney World for the first time when I was 21. My mother had received money from a relative and decided to take my brother and me there with the money. To save money we flew down one way on PeopleExpress airlines and took the train back. Epcot had just opened and it was the Christmas season.
Being 21 seems like the wrong age, but in fact to me it was just as good as being a child’s age. I wasn’t as excited to meet Snow White as I would have been at age 10, but I really needed inspiration and fuel. I had just graduated from college and was working two minimum-wage part-time jobs to survive, as it was the recession of 1982 so there were hiring freezes just as I was trying to get my first job in film or TV. I was also struggling to get over shyness in making calls for my job hunt. The fact that no one was hiring made me start to believe that was the way of the world, someone had to die or retire before a new job opening would occur. Of course, later I learned that wasn’t true, that new jobs are always being created. My bedroom in the apartment I shared in Brooklyn with two other guys was cold, the window didn’t close all the way. I rescued a stray cat from the cold winter, but I wasn’t doing much better than the cat. So going to Disney World finally, after asking my mother to go eleven years prior, wasn’t so badly timed.
The Magic Kingdom was one of the few things in my life to that point that was actually better than I had imagined it. It was what I expected but with so many more beautiful, imaginative and fun details.
I remember on my first visit at age 21, how the customer service, the incredible willingness of everyone to help us out if we had any questions at all, was so unexpectedly comforting. Especially compared to the often very poor customer service and even lack of English comprehension in New York City.
I remember the first day we entered the park later than we had intended due to the difficulty of getting the family to work together in a timely fashion, and then it was raining a little. So the day started out with problems. But very soon, the spirit of the place had overtaken all the little obstacles, struggles and squabbles and turned it into a good day. I remember thinking, this is a good message to remember for life: a day (or a life) may start out with challenges and struggles, but if you stick with it, you will enjoy the day (or life) later as you achieve your goals.
All the messages of optimism and hope in Epcot were especially meaningful to me at a time when I could only see that I was working two uninspiring part time jobs for minimum wage and living in a cold bedroom and needed a solution. I remember wanting to work at Epcot, and asking the Kodak lady under Spaceship Earth about jobs there. She explained how to apply and that they promoted from within the company. I felt hope, and that I belonged there. I felt, this is the only company that says what I want to say, that does things the right way, and this may even be my way out of my predicament. Meanwhile I still planned (as I always had) to write books and screenplays on the side on my way to becoming a new Walt (or something like him even if on a small scale).
Even the other people visiting had such a happy, open, friendly demeanor. My family met a family from the Midwest, with a daughter, at an AT&T exhibit. We started comparing notes on the various attractions we had seen and what we recommended to each other, and I exchanged numbers with the girl. She and I visited each other a few years later, and we have remained in touch over the years, and attended each others’ weddings.
I remember having an epiphany at the Mexico pavilion. It was getting dark and the World Showcase was lighting up, we stood on line to enter the attraction and I heard the theme music and looked at the illuminated, fascinating designs in the Mexico architecture. I felt a wave of hope for my life, a wave of total certainty my life would improve and be wonderful.
This happens because Epcot and Walt Disney World are constantly reminding you that life is worth living. You are treated like a VIP by everyone. You are confronted with unexpected delights around every corner. If your days have been filled with drudgery, Walt Disney World reminds you how to play, that not every second needs to be spent working or trying to find a new job, that it’s okay to play with toys for the fun of it, like a child!
I went back to New York and the Disney feeling stayed with me for months. Nothing could get me down. Finally I applied to graduate school so that I would be more qualified for employment.
Graduate school was expensive, and there wasn’t the scholarship money that had paid for my undergraduate degree, so after one semester, I interrupted school and instead went on job searches endlessly. Soon I could do a call or an interview at the drop of a hat. I switched from job to job until I found one that suited me. I even worked at Disney World in 1989, drawing caricatures for guests, and working at their telephone switchboard. It was a great experience but I finally decided to return to my New York office job because the pay was so much better.
Now I am very fulfilled, my job pays decently, I’m doing my creative projects on the side–including self-publishing a comic book, writing scripts, doing a blog and soon a podcast– I’m happily married and I love being the best father I can be to my two children. I get to play with toys with my children every day, and watch DVDs with them of Walt’s Mickey Mouse cartoons and other Disney films. So Epcot did not lie to me, there really is hope even if you think you are in a rut. Just take action and pursue your goals and don’t settle for the unacceptable. And always make time to play and enjoy the sun!
My wife and I visited Walt Disney World every year since the time we first started dating seriously. Every time we go, we have a glow of happiness for a month or two. It reminds us how enjoyable life can be, how good customer service can be, and recharges our batteries to pursue big goals and to make our lives and our home even better. After we had our twins, we stopped going to Disney World, to focus on being great parents. This month, we are finally going to take the twins to Disney World for their first time. They are three and a half, a good first-time age, the same age I was when I briefly saw Mickey Mouse waving while sitting on a sign for “It’s A Small World,” as we sat in the boats entering that attraction at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
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