Dreaming at Disney

It’s noon and about 35 sweltering degrees on this late September day as we slowly amble around the grounds of Epcot, the park in Walt Disney World that celebrates the cultures and wonders of the world.

The children we’re travelling with, including my daughter, run ahead of us in an excited frenzy – and who can blame them. Florida’s unforgiving heat and humidity along with the children’s anything-goes diet of ice cream and chocolate have formed a deadly combination, and the little ones are on the point of delirium. On top of this, we’re still more than a little disoriented from a recent ride aboard the hair-raising Expedition Everest roller coaster. It promises to be a fun afternoon.

It’s easy to enjoy this over-the-top exuberance because it’s Disney after all – if a kid doesn’t get excited here, you should probably check his or her pulse. And while the heat and humidity has reached levels we seldom experience up north, we don’t let it faze us, remembering the cold, wet weather we left behind.

What isn’t so easy to bear, however, is the plague of insects that has begun descending upon us in almost biblical proportions. For some strange reason, locals call these things love bugs, perhaps because while they do crawl all over your body, they don’t actually bite. But as we swatted our way through the growing swarm, other names for the pests came to mind – none of which included the word love.

It soon becomes clear that the bugs are winning the day, and a few of the more addled parents begin muttering dark threats about returning to the hotel room and locking the door for the remainder of the stay. But just when it all seems to be reaching the breaking point – cue the Disney magic. Mary Poppins, the loveable English nanny, suddenly materializes from nowhere and, just like the movie, quite literally saves the day. The kids flock around the impeccably costumed actor while she patiently answers all their questions, poses beside them for pictures and then signs her florid signature in their autograph booklets.

While Mary is working her soothing magic, grateful parents take advantage of the respite and repair to the beer stand to gulp down a quick pint of Sam Adams’ finest. Spirits restored, both parents and kids are once again ready to venture forth and enjoy the many pleasures that await us at Walt Disney World. And inexplicably, the bugs have disappeared. Is there anything Mary can’t do?

That’s the way it goes at Disney’s Orlando-based theme park. The rides are the best any theme park can offer. (For my money, nothing beats Soarin’, a ride in which it feels you are hand-gliding over famous U.S. landscapes and landmarks.) The spectacularly over-the-top shows such as Lights, Motors, Action! and Fantasmic! have a mesmerizing effect on the children. And the legendary customer service and spotlessly clean grounds are unparalleled anywhere in the theme park world.

But beyond all that, it’s those Disney extras – the brilliantly conceived, dream-like experiences that appeal so much to the little ones – that keep parents and grandparents booking trips to the world’s top tourist destination. To a cynical Canadian visitor, Disney’s “magic” may seem a bit contrived. But you must remember it’s for the kids and judging by the smiles that crease their faces, they’re completely buying into it and taking in memories that will no doubt last them a lifetime.

Realizing that fulfilling childhood fantasies is what makes Disney stand out in the crowded and competitive world of theme parks, the corporation has decided to pour on more of what it calls magic moments. “Our guests the world over have told us they believe a Disney Park is the place where dreams come true and that something magical happens when they walk through our gates,” says Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Rasulo wants to capitalize on this and has called for a huge increase in production of magical moments that Disney churns out each year.

During this Year of a Million Dreams, guests at Disney could win one of a bevy of special experiences. If a Dream Squad member taps you on the shoulder, you could win of any number of prizes, including a Disney Cruise, access to special after-hour events in the parks, a private shopping spree for Disney merchandise or that coveted FASTPASS, which allows you to get on rides without waiting in line.

As part of special year of dreams, Disney is also creating more of what it calls “immersive entertainment,” experiences which draw children right into the middle of the action. These were the experiences the children seemed to enjoy most – those seemingly unscripted moments where the kids will suddenly find themselves one-on-one with Mary Poppins or marching in a parade with other Disney characters right down Main Street, U.S.A.

For her part, my daughter enjoyed dancing with Woody, the cowboy from Toy Story, riding the famous Golden Carousel right next to Cinderella herself and sitting down for quiet chat with Alice in Wonderland, whom she bumped into quite by chance while taking a break behind the English tea shop in Epcot.

The stand-out prize is the chance to spend a night with your family in the new Royal Suite at Cinderella Castle, Disney’s most familiar landmark. This is the first time anyone has ever stayed in the Castle – guaranteed bragging rights for those lucky kids when they get back to school.

The Cinderella Castle is also the focus for the spectacular fireworks shows, which are on the scale of Canada Day and Victoria Day combined – on a nightly basis. Like these fireworks show, the parks, rides and shows are all built on a massive scale, which can sometimes be overwhelming and intimidating to the children. At such times it’s a good idea to seek out a quiet place to escape the sensory overload. Or cross your fingers and hope Mary Poppins appears.

Disney Dos
Best rides: Soarin’; Expedition Everest; Mission Space
Classic kids’ rides: Small World; Cinderella’s Golden Carousel; Peter Pan’s Flight
Best shows: Lights, Motors, Action!; Mickey’s PhilharMagic; The Seas with Nemo and Friends
Underrated: Kilimanjaro Safaris; Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
Place to stay: Disney’s Beach Club Resort
Place to eat: Le Cellier Steakhouse (Epcot)

Photography © Disney