Today, October 1, the Walt Disney World Resort is celebrating its 50th Birthday. It’s hard to believe the park opened 50 years ago, and even harder for me to believe that 25 years have passed since we celebrated its 25th Birthday with a bright pink castle cake in the center of the Magic Kingdom. I happened to work there then, and that castle cake was the subject of many heated discussions. People loved it or hated it. I’m glad to see the Imagineers decided on a more subtle change to the castle for the 50th Celebration. As I look back on the role Disney World has played in my life, it seems appropriate to share a few stories to honor this magical milestone. I might not be where I am today if Walt Disney had not dreamed it into existence.
My first visit to Disney World was in December of 1975. My father died on January 1 of that same year, and my mother decided to take the whole family to Disney World for Christmas. She wanted us be able to create new holiday memories without the sad ones hanging over us from my dad’s last Christmas in our house. It was a stroke of genius, and it worked like a charm. We had a great holiday in Florida.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about our actual visit to the park, but I do remember the fun we had driving from Binghamton, NY to Orlando, FL in our orange Chevy station wagon, the “butterscotch car,” as my dad called it. We still tell stories about the hijinx that occurred on that epic road trip. I give my mother a lot of credit for surviving a trip like that with a college senior, 3 teenage girls, and an 8-year old me.
I do remember riding Space Mountain because it was my first roller coaster ever. Since I was the smallest, they sat me in the very front of the rocket with my siblings behind me. That little boy squealed with a mixture of delight and fear as our rocket twisted, turned, and dipped abruptly in the darkness. When we got off, I thought I was pretty cool braving Space Mountain as my first coaster. My 8-year old self did not know that Space Mountain is relatively mild compared to other coasters around the world.
I also remember my mother saying I could have just one toy from the gift shop, but I desperately wanted a plush Mickey and Minnie. I must have worn her down. That Christmas Eve, I fell asleep in our hotel room with Mickey on one side and Minnie on the other. Some might say I was spoiled, and they would probably be right. However, I certainly appreciated those mice because I still remember how much I loved them over 4 decades later!
In fifth grade, I returned to Disney World with just my mother. Two things stand out from that trip. While riding “Pirates of the Caribbean,” my mother and I both noticed the dirty foot and hairy leg of the animatronic pirate dangling from a bridge as our boat sailed underneath him. We thought those details were pretty cool and made him very lifelike. When I ride “Pirates” today, I still smile and think of my mom when I see that hairy, dirty leg dangling from the bridge. The things that get stuck in our brains!
But what I remember most about that second trip was the Main Street Electrical Parade. Something about the combination of music, lights, and beloved Disney Characters completely captivated me. I wanted to watch that parade again and again. My mother would ask me what I wanted to do next, and I would answer, “I want to see the Light Parade!” She would calmly reply, “Yes, honey. We can watch it again tonight. But it’s 11 AM. What would you like to do now?”
Ten-year old John never could have imagined that he would perform in that parade when Disney brought it back for the Millennium Celebration. I wish my mother could have seen me in it, but sadly, that was during the height of her alcohol addiction, so she never made it to Florida. That’s okay. She saw me dance in other parades. Performing in the Main Street Electrical Parade at the end of my Disney career felt like a full-circle moment. Today, it only takes a few notes of that parade music to send tingles all through my body and goosebumps to appear on my arms.
After that visit with my mother in 1977 or 1978, it was 13 years before I returned to Disney World with my best friend from high school. The Disney/MGM Studios had recently opened, and we loved the movie-themed attractions at that park as well as Epcot and the three “mountains” at the Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain. Ironically, parades and shows were of no interest. I remember we were annoyed that the 3 o’clock parade prevented us from getting across the park quickly to the next ride! I had no idea just a few years later I would be the source of annoyance for someone trying to get to the other side of the park! It still never crossed my mind that I would work there one day.
In the fall of 1992, I moved to Orlando with 3 good friends. All 3 of us wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but felt LA and New York were too big. At the time, some movies and TV shows were being filmed in Orlando, so we thought we’d start there. Worst-case scenario, we could work at one of the theme parks while we pursued our dreams. Well, of the four of us, I was the only one who stayed in Orlando, and my “backup job” became my dream job for 7 years. Believe it or not, before working in the Entertainment Department at the Magic Kingdom, I was painfully shy! I could never do the work I do now, sometimes in front of large groups, had it not been for my experience at Disney World.
When I look back, I can see how Life was preparing me step by step. My first roles were in character costumes so no one could see my face. I could take chances and act as silly as I wanted because no one knew who I was. It was incredibly liberating and fun! It also gave me a second chance at childhood since I had to be a grownup for much of my first one. Some days I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play with my friends and get hugs from hundreds of little kids.
After my first year, show directors started casting me in roles where my face was showing. I’ll never forget the first time I stepped out on parade route without being able to hide in a costume. I could see the park guests clearly, and they could see me. It was a bit scary, but I was so grateful to be there that I just kept dancing. After a while, being in front of thousands of park guests as John became comfortable.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about portraying Captain John Smith at the Pocahontas character breakfast. There was no room for shyness when my job required me to walk up to a table of strangers and start talking to them. Now I can initiate a conversation with just about anyone. During those 7 years, I also performed in a traveling drug prevention puppet show at elementary schools all around Orlando. For obvious reasons, doing that show was extremely rewarding. It was the first time I used my painful childhood experience as a catalyst to help others. Now, I get to do that all the time with Family Constellations. Disney World was the perfect playground to overcome my shyness and gain confidence. That’s why I say I might not be where I am today without that magical place. So Happy 50th Birthday, Disney World! And thank you for all the ways you comforted, enchanted, supported, and grew me.
I would be honored to share some of the magic and miracles I have experienced to support you and help you grow into the fullest version of you. Please visit my website to learn more about my Spiritual Coaching programs and Family Constellations. Both assist you in seeing things from an expanded perspective so you can break free of unhealthy patterns and live the happy, healthy life you were meant to live. To schedule an appointment or to ask a question, simply send me an email.
This week, may you find a moment to reflect on a happy place or time in your life that helped you become the person you are today.
Count, then, the silver miracles and golden dreams of happiness as all the treasures you would keep within the storehouse of the world.
A Course in Miracles ~ T-28.III.7:1