My first trip to the wonderful world of Disney was in the summer of 1986. I have vague recollections of a rented pale blue Chevrolet hatchback, giving my mother the silent treatment for not buying me a chocolate sundae, and an extravagant dinner in Cinderella's Castle where I got to meet the princess herself.
My second experience was in 1993. My great aunt Anna treated me and my mother to a vacation during which we pushed her around the theme parks in a rented wheelchair. She later accused us of trying to kill her by breathlessly running her around in the Florida heat and humidity. She drove us crazy to the point where we fantasized about the untimely collision of her runaway wheelchair with an oncoming Snow White tram.
1998 saw me, fresh from high school graduation, flying down to see Mickey and friends once again, this time with the parents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousins. Torrential rain in Epcot. My father falling asleep during a 3-D Muppet attraction. My mother playing a ghost as a volunteer in an audience-participation special effects show...These were just a few memories taken from that summer.
Now, twenty years after my first encounter with the Mouse, October 2006 will go down in the Disney World history books as the time I saw a friend I've known since kindergarten take a giant leap into adulthood by tying the knot in a chapel across the lake from the Magic Kingdom.
The Fairy Tale Wedding ceremony took place in the Wedding Pavilion at the Grand Floridian Resort. The reception followed at Epcot, underwater at the Living Seas. I'll get to the lavish details later.
First, some things I noticed during my fourth visit to the Happiest Place on Earth...
Much like Vegas, Disney World is that great American destination where one can witness the Great American Fat Ass. If you want further proof that America is the fattest country in the world, feast your eyes on the wonders of the Muffin Top, a term I've picked up from the refreshingly kooky Amy Sedaris, which describes the roll of fat that usually hangs over tight pants or (denim!) shorts. The number of Disneygoers who are warriors in the Battle of the Bulge is astounding. And it certainly does not help that these theme parks offer fried Everything and chocolate-covered Anything at every corner (at ten bucks per serving no less).
My accomodations were supplied by the folks over at the All-Star Movies Resort, or as I like to call it, Disney's Rooms-With-No-View for the Budget Conscious. We were the poor folk housed all the way at the end of the boulevard, beyond the thicket of trees, shoved to the side like a forgotten child, the one with the pool "under construction."
As I stepped off my Disney Magical Express shuttlebus, on which I watched a video showcasing the 893 things I could do and see during my stay, the noise in the hotel lobby hit me - muzak versions of Disney movie theme songs. You can't escape it once you pass the gates of D-World. It's all-encompassing - In the lobby. At the food courts. In the restrooms. On the tram rides. I was itching for the iPod and some new tunes from The Killers. Instead, I got "A Whole New World" as my greeting song. And as I write this, it has never left my head.
I checked in at the front desk, where a heavyset cast member with a nametag reading "Jason" ("from Sarasota") asked for my ID. After showing Jason I was "from Los Angeles," I was given a map of the grounds and the card key to my room..."Any questions?"
"Yes," I answered. "Do you have a gym?"
Jason stopped typing on his keyboard, gave me a brief Are-you-kidding-me? look, and replied with a curt, "No."
As I turned to exit the lobby I could feel Jason's stare on my back and hear his un-Disney thoughts: "L.A. freak."
On the way to the room I stopped by the resort's gift shop to see what overpriced treasures it had to offer: Pirates, pirates...and more pirates (Damn you, Jerry Bruckheimer). I'd like to meet the person who thought placing coolers of beer and wine in the rear of the shop was a brilliant idea. Now Dad can get drunk, hit on the underage princesses and piss off Mom on the way to the Animal Kingdom! Or maybe Grandma can load up and make indecent gestures at Aladdin...who knows?
The resort was pleasantly modest. We stayed in the cute Love Bug complex, complete with Herbie parked out front for photo ops. Once I dumped my luggage onto the bed I flipped on the TV to discover that half the channels were Disney-themed. Radio Disney. The Disney Channel. Adult Disney (kidding...imagine?). If I had seen any more footage from the Hannah Montana concert special while channel surfing I was going to run outside and decapitate the Donald and Daisy statues in the garden.
A visit to Downtown Disney's Pleasure Island was on the schedule for Friday night. I met up with Susan, the bride, and Scott, the groom, and their group of friends outside the ticket booths for the clubs. Drinks in hand, we bought our tickets to the nearest venue. Mannequins Dance Palace is a large warehouse-type known for its rotating dance floor and sweet cocktails. We spun 'round like a record to Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguliera remixes that would make any circuit party boy scream.
Slightly hungover on Saturday morning, we rode a Disney Transport bus to MGM Studios. There, I enjoyed the brand-spankin' new security procedures the parks have recently adopted. Not only do they scan your park pass and check your bags at the turnstiles, they take an imprint of your index finger using a device straight from the "CSI" prop room. Just as I was expecting a retinal scan to follow, I was ushered into the park. I watched moms and dads behind me go through the same terrorism-proofing (because God forbid the terrorists blow up Mr. Toad's Wild Ride). Our integrity and identities as Americans will just be shattered to pieces if Osama ever struck terror in the hearts of every rider on Honey I Shrunk the Audience.
Erica and I walked the park, looking for the rest of our party. We all met up at the Rock'n' Rollercoaster, an in-the-dark thrill ride set to the music of Aerosmith. Thankfully I managed not to throw up the Mickey Mouse ice cream bar I devoured earlier. Next, we walked over to the imported-from-Paris stunt show at the back of the park where squirrels came out of their hiding to feed on fallen french fries. I later imagined the little critters returning to their lairs, breaking out into a chorus line, and singing their praises to the fast food gods in the kind of choreographed number you'd find in an animated Pixar musical.
It could happen.
Afterwards, we spotted Minnie and Goofy signing autographs for a crowd of impatient, sugar-fueled children. This is when Erica, having worked at the resorts back in '02, shared a dirty little Disney secret: Mickey Mouse...is a woman. Since the character is five feet tall and is constantly surrounded by kids, it is difficult to find a male actor who fits that description and has that level of tolerance.
Would that make Minnie a lesbian?
Later in the day we hopped on a boat that took us to Epcot, where the Food and Wine Festival took over the World Showcase. Get drunk in Germany! Get sloshed in Mexico! Puke your brains out in Japan!
Puke, no. Toasted, yes.
I savored a glass of green tea plum wine in China, munched on a meat casserole in Africa, sipped on chianti in Italy, and sampled a soft-baked pretzel just outside Norway, where every cast member on Maelstrom is blond and named Bjorn.
Sunday was the day of the wedding. After eating a pathetic salad for lunch at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney I bussed back to the hotel room, donned my cheap suit, and made my way to the Grand Floridian Resort, where a horse-drawn Cinderella carriage was to bring Susan to the resort chapel.
This girl I've known since kindergarten, this friend I've seen through high school dances, sweet sixteens, and various kinds of adolescent drama was getting hitched. I was my normal nostalgic self and couldn't help but reminisce about days gone by.
Whatever...on to the party and free booze.
All of the guests were placed onto a motorcoach and driven to the underwater reception dinner at Epcot's The Living Seas. We rode through the back entrance, allowing us a behind-the-scenes tour of the park. It was as uneventful as any backlot tour. Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen head was nowhere to be seen.
The bus stopped at the last building. Uniformed figures with guiding glowsticks led us into a hallway, down a flight of stairs, and through a dark lobby-like space. You'd think we were protected witnesses being led through a labrynth of shadows by the F.B.I.
Pluto, I don't think we're in the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow anymore.
The dark silence was soon broken. A sound so frightening, so hair-raising, could be heard at the end of the corridor. I stopped in my tracks, the dread creeping up my spine. Do we dare go any further?
"Good God," I whispered.
Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."
It was blaring from the pair of speakers the DJ set up in the aquatic party room. Honestly, I would have preferred to have a pitbull gnaw on my testicles than be forced to dance to this tired tune from the 70s. What next? Donna Summers's "Last Dance" at the end of the night?
I felt the urge to go up to the guy and say, "Listen buddy, this is my tenth wedding. I know all the musical tricks you have up your sleeve. Why don't you spare us the disco torture and shake things up with a little Ludacris?"
We ate. We drank. We danced. We drank. We waved to the scuba divers who swam by with the schools of fish and sea turtles. Mr. DJ pulled a few surprises by spinning a little Pussycat Dolls with a dash of Justin Timberlake. "Thank you," I whispered, giving him a thumbs-up from my seat.
The magical evening continued. Erica caught the bride's bouquet. I caught the garter belt (two weddings in a row, thankyouverymuch). Toasts were made. Conga lines were formed. Cake was had. Susan and Scott were celebrities surrounded by their own private paparazzi.
We returned to the resort stuffed, drunk, and exhausted beyond words. Mission accomplished.
And then there was Monday. A farewell breakfast at the Grand Floridian ended the long party weekend. Since my flight back to Los Angeles was in the evening I had time to kill in Downtown Disney. A souvenir here, a souvenir there, and my wallet was finally emptied. My throat started to feel sore. My sinuses were acting up. It looked like the weekend was finally paying me back. By the time I landed at LAX, my head felt as if it were going to burst.
Apparently what happens in Disney follows you home from Disney.