Monday, October 15, 2012

Disney Whirled: Highlights of a Nine-Day Adventure into Magicalness, PART 2: "First Impressions"

Sunday, September 16, we checked out of the Days Inn in Lake City, Florida, and pressed on to Disney World, a mere 3 hours away.  As I've shared, I had little idea of what to expect from Disney World.  But I must have constructed some expectations, even if subconsciously, because there were some characteristics of Disney that surprised me.  Here are a few of my “surprising first impressions”:

I don’t know why I was so surprised at the enormity of Disney World, especially since there is a clue to its size hidden right within its name.

It’s not quite as big as a "the world," but the entire complex is much more like a city than it is like any park or attraction I’ve ever been to.  Bear with me if this is old news to you, but “Disney World” is partially comprised of:
- 4 separate “main” parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.  Six Flags, The Hungry Preacher’s local amusement park, could probably fit into the land covered by any of these parks.
- a water park (or maybe 2)
- a large outdoor shopping area (like a mall)
- multiple golf courses
- 20+ self-contained resorts
- 100+ restaurants
- lots and lots of undeveloped land
- well maintained roads connecting everything

The "land" and "roads" were most striking.  Even if I could have grasped number and scope of the attractions, I kept picturing them bunched together.  They weren't.  Which makes me think: Remember how I said Disney World was like a city?  It’s actually more like a state.  When you enter, there’s a large, road-spanning sign, but no other manmade or geographic delineation between “Disney World State Limits” and where you were 2 seconds before.

The 4 big parks are like cities within the state.  The resorts are like suburbs.  Yes, it’s like a state.

We stayed at the newest resort on the property, the Art of Animation Resort.

This tiny sliver Disney World was comprised of 4 or so guest-suite buildings, each of which was about the size of the 5-story dormitory I lived in during my first year of college; 3 pools; a sprawling cafeteria-style restaurant; and lot of walkways and guest-relations areas to spread out in if you felt crowded.

Even their statues of Ursula are huge.

I had two thoughts about the 4-story Ursula statue.

First, I love that someone decided that a 3-story statue wasn't big enough.  Because I actually can imagine seeing a 3-story Ursula statue and, in my more critical moments, thinking, "Yeah, that's fine.  But 4 stories would have really driven the point home."  I really do feel like that 4th story is the one that ensures that if anyone thinks it's too small--well, the problem is with them, not with the statue.  It's the epitome of going the extra mile, of removing any doubt about your drive for success.  I'll have to remember this if I ever coach youth sports and have the chance to psyche everyone up with a pre-game speech ("Today, you need to dig down deep and build your 4-story Ursula statue.  Know what I mean?")

Second, I kept imagining myself being part of the resort-planning team, and having the team leader saying, "And Rob, you're in charge of the 4-story Ursula statue."  What would I do?  Who would I call?  That the folks at Disney know how to get one of these built (who to call, how to negotiate a fair price, etc.) is almost as impressive as the statue itself.

So everything was big.  Moving on...

Our resort had only been open a few weeks when we stayed there, so you would expect it to feel new and clean.  Even so, I was struck by just how clean and well-maintained it was.  I’m pretty sure I've never used either of these phrases, but here goes: “they really outdid themselves” and “they thought of everything.”

For example, the folks who built this new resort realized that suites (as opposed to one-big-room-plus-one-bathroom) are the wave of the future.  Also,“things that change into other things” are always popular.  Hence, this fancy-schmantzy table/bed:

It's just a table, right?

I was really lucky to get a completely candid shot of these tourists transforming the table into a bed

Whoa!  Where'd this bed come from?  Wasn't there a table here a second ago?

Less exciting to Beth and me, but not to our children, was the hide-a-bed sofa.

No, I didn't cut this out of a Disney brochure.  This is actually my child.

(True story: My friends and I used to take turns folding each other into our families’ hide-a-beds.  I always felt cozy and safe folded up in a hide-a-bed, like a sardine with the can all to himself.  But one time, my friend couldn't open up the couch to set me free.  I was big for my age, and he was small, and the couch was old, heavy, and awkward.  Also, his parents were out, and we weren't sure when they would be back.  I was staying the night at his place, so for all we knew, it could have been several hours.  So my friend ended up calling another friend who lived about a half a mile away, who set aside his annoyance and dutifully came right over.  The two of them together were able to open up the couch and set me free.  I know what you're thinking: "Rob, this story would make a great verse for one of those 'remembering old times' songs, like 'Never Say Goodbye' or 'Summer of '69'."  Great minds...)

Other shiny, new stuff:

"When I was a kid, we played in junkyards.  If we wanted 'tunnels' and 'coral', we used old refrigerators and empty, rusted-out, lead-based paint cans."

Not sure how this will look on your computer, but on mine the girls look photoshopped, like in the old vacation pictures in "The Truman Show".


In addition to the bells and whistles in our room, Disney World was just so clean (this is a way it is different from a state).  Apparently, the folks at Disney World don’t want the gazes of guests to fall upon trash even if it is where it is supposed to be; a source tells me that the trash cans in the parks are emptied from the bottom, from tunnels running underneath the park.  These tunnels, says my source, smell very bad.  I believe it.

So, yes, apparently there are people who inhabit those tunnels, with non-animated mice, and spend their days hoping that the bag they are standing beneath doesn’t rip and bury them in dirty diapers and germs from 100 different countries.  But I bet that those workers seem pretty happy.  Why?  Because Disney World employees all seem pretty happy.

They seemed happy.  Very happy.  Happy to work at Disney, happy to make the guests' experience as magical as possible.  Most impressively, the happiness of the employees stopped just short of being that creepy kind of happy.

I can only speak to the perceived happiness of the employees with whom I interacted.  Of those 100 or so, almost every single one not only followed whatever corporate mantra they were ingrained with, but they really, really seemed to believe it.  There must be behind-the-scenes bureaucracy and bickering.  And believe me, I was looking for cracks.  I maybe saw one or two minor cracks.  That's it.  I genuinely tip my cap to the employees and their trainers for the sincerity with which they seemed to fulfill their roles.

The day we left, our daughters wrote "thank you" notes for Disney.  We decided to hand-present these notes to a Disney employee.  I scanned the employees at our resort's gift shop and picked a smiley and outgoing one.  I approached her apart from my kids and told her that we needed a Disney employee to whom we could present these notes.  I told her she seemed friendly.  She seemed legitimately honored, and even said, "Oh, dear, you're going to make me cry."  The girls gave her the notes, and she complimented them and let each of them pick a toy from a bucket of toys that is stashed behind one of the check-out desks (think "10-ticket prizes" at Chuck E Cheese).

Next up: PART 3: Pretend People, Real Autographs.


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