I was taken to Disney World as a child, but I don’t remember it.  I remember the book we got about Disney World.  I pored over the photos, and remembered my dad explaining that there used to be nuclear submarines, and a Mission to the Moon, and that the Matterhorn was only in California.  I held his stories, and the images in the book, closer than my own memories.  My sisters and I looked at the inside of the covers, at a mosaic of various characters, and tried to name them all.  Cinderalla, Peter Pan, of course, but also Brer Rabbit, Friar Tuck, the Aristocats.

As a child, I visited both Disney World and New York City.  They are my two favorite places in the world, which many people find bizzarre.  But they are similar.  New York is as rough and unsanitized as Disney World is clean.  New York is as aggressive as Disney World is romantic.  And both of them are living realizations of dreams.  Disney World is childhood fantasy, and New York is adult fantasy.  Disney World is adventure, kissing love, power without responsibility, dreams of flying.  New York is freedom, success, speed, choices.  New York is the manifestation of so many images in movies and on TV that it can almost feel like you can’t be there, really there, looking at the Brooklyn Bridge.  Dreams of fame and pain relieved, thirsts quenched.

When I was about eleven, we went into New York for the day with my grandparents.  We went into Macy’s for some reason– because it was famous, or because we knew it from the Thanksgiving parade?  I don’t know.  Inside the store, they had a special temporary set-up: make your own tape in our recording studio!  Be a rock star!  It was about 1987.  Tapes, still.  My grandpa asked me, “Do you want to do it?”

This was so outside my experience, being offered such a thing, that I hardly knew what to do.  My parents, like all good parents, were experts in “No.”  If we went someplace, we went for the experience.  At museums, we looked at dinosaurs.  At Disney World, we rode the rides.  We did not buy junk, and there was one snack a day, and the included events would be plenty.  You would not ask for more.  There was no point.

“Okay,” I said, partly because I was the oldest, and it was my job to be brave.  My little sisters were too young and too shy to try this.  First I had to choose a song.  I chose “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston, a song that remains quite apropos for me.  They put me in a snug booth with lyrics and headphones and a microphone, and I sang.  Many years before karaoke, this was an exotic experience.  I sang enthusiastically, boldly, like a beautiful, glamourous woman, I thought.

When I listened to my tape, my voice sounded thin and high.  I always thought of myself as a merely adequate singer, but my heart was still crushed.  I wasn’t a beautiful, glamourous woman.  I was a little girl.  Of course my grandparents and my mother said it sounded very nice.  What I remembered, years later, was that my grandpa had bought me something I remembered, an experience, and an artistic experience, of sorts.  Try something, make something, he offered.  Step into the dream.  Even if you disappoint yourself, it’s a better place to stand.

Fear and Loathing at Splash Mountain

I didn’t ride a roller coaster until I was twenty-one.  My life was basically a disaster, as it should be when you are twenty-0ne.  I was submerged in a codependent romance.  I was annoyed that my first three years of freedom were not more fun than rebelling against my parents.

My misery led me to join my family on their vacation, and may have also inspired my epiphany.  Unlike some famous epiphanies, mine lacked a spotlight or an orchestral crecendo, but still startled me: rides at Disney World are not something to be afraid of.  Cancer and death are things to be afraid of, but Disney roller coasters… no. 

Epiphanies force you to do things you don’t want to do at all.  I did not want to line up for Splash Mountain.  I wanted to listen to the sanitized “Song of the South” tunes in the Winnie the Pooh gift shop and rock in their rocking chair, while maintaining a moderate heart rate and dry palms.  The rest of my family would return in a half hour, and then we would seek the mild, sing-songy pleasure of the raping and pillaging Pirates of the Caribbean.

But Splash Mountain wasn’t cancer, or death, or even dangerous, so I lined up.  One of my sisters held my hand as we snaked through the maze.  Another sister narrated the entire ride (“First you do a small hill, which really isn’t bad at all…”), and yet another sister repeated that I was going to be fine, that this was actually going to be fun. 

It clearly wasn’t going to be “fun.”  I thought I was GOING TO DIE, and I weighed by options: actually riding the ride versus the shame of ducking out at the last minute.  I wondered if they would stop the ride if I screamed something like, “I can’t do this!  Let me off!” as the train pulled away and I was all strapped in like a mental patient about to receive electroshock therapy. 

I rode every ride that year: Thunder Mountain (which is a baby ride, even for me), Splash Mountain (I don’t like that slippery-falling feeling!), Space Mountain (now my favorite), the Rock n’ Roller Coaster (upside down, no problem), and the Tower of Terror (falling is fun, but the suspense almost kills me). 

My new plan was to spend the rest of my twenties doing scary things so that I could relax.  The more things I could cross off my list of fears, the more relaxed I could become.  So I went to Europe alone.  When confronted by my infuriated boss, I refused to snitch on my coworkers.  And I taught high school freshmen– by far the scariest. 

Still, I’ve been disappointed by how fear returns.  It’s not like a cockroach you squash– it’s more like diabetes.  You have to be keeping an eye on it all the time, monitoring yourself, and it could flare up into a big crisis at any time. 

Just because I’ve vacationed alone doesn’t mean I’m not scared to do it again.  Just because I rode the Tower of Terror in 1999 didn’t mean I wasn’t scared shitless to ride Expedition Everest in 2009.   Everest was awesome, though, and I rode it twice, screaming the whole way.

Vacation in 10 Sentences.

1. Stared across Missouri and radiated disbelief.

2. I hand my brother a book, and he reads the whole thing in two hours straight.

3. I chatter pathetically as I approach the scary roller coaster, and later attempt to photograph some ducks who had been making love in the bushes.

4. With both of us wearing plastic ponchos, I look at my sister as the young European man unbuckles his seatbelt gleefully, and think, not only does he want to get wet, he wants to die on the Popeye ride.

5. Eating another veggie-ful veggie burger, I silently concur with my middle school French teacher: corn is animal feed, not people feed.

6. I wait for my latte to cool, sitting on a fake New York City stoop, my thighs twitch from pushing my stepmom’s wheelchair uphill, and I know that my dad is enjoying the hell out of those fake Blues Brothers.

7. To satisfy my desire for a Mickey bar, three siblings ask six EPCOT employees, walk across six countries twice, causing me to bend double, reach out my arms, and cry, “GO ON WITHOUT ME!”  (Note: Freddie the American funnel cake man owes us a funnel cake… bastard.)

8.  Yes (gulp) I lost a Space Mountain Fast Pass.

9. As the delirious family begins to question the wisdom of dining at the Kentucky catfish restaurant, I insist, “We should just eat here!  We’re all starving!” ; consequently, I enjoy those hushpuppies tremendously.

10. After apologies for the obligatory family dispute, I eat Taco Bell’s edible rice and styrofoam tortilla chips, and gush at the unexpected forsythia and tulips in Kansas City.