The Happiest Place

In Reaching A Higher Level, Travel by Gregory Banks

It’s funny how some things from your past can fade into oblivion, while others become shadows that dog your footsteps for the rest of your life; or how things begin to take on more significance in retrospect than they ever did at the time they occurred. My last visit to Disney World in Orlando, Florida was one of those times. I’ve loved Disney since my first visit, when I was seven years old.

My parents were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Disney because of my fear of loud noises. And an amusement park, especially one of the magnitude of the “Happiest Place on Earth,” surely isn’t the best place to avoid noise.

So my parents bought me earplugs. It all seems stupid now, though I’m unsure if my lessened fear is because I’m an adult now (I’m still not comfortable with explosive sounds like fireworks and such, however), or because I’ve just grown deafer with age. Either way, those little rubber divers plugs proved a Godsend. As soon as I put them on, the joyful din of crowds and rides were muted, and the Magic Kingdom worked its spells on me.

Now, fast forward to around 16 years later. I was older and more mature (at least I didn’t wear earplugs this time), and my youthful love for Disney World remained.

The first thing I wanted to see again was The Enchanted Tiki Room, the dark circular hut where cheerful birds and stoic totem poles tell a musical tale. I get chills when I think of the dark clouds slowly overshadowing the stage as the room dims, the ominous chanting of the totems as the tension mounts, and the sudden clap of thunder at the height of the haunting song.

Unlike the first time, when I was so small that my parents carried me, this time I was in a wheelchair. Because of this, we didn’t revisit the creepy “Haunted Mansion,” or get reminded why “It’s a Small World.”

Nor did we travel “20000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But honestly, I didn’t miss them. I’m still not much for crowds or rides, especially now that getting on an attraction means abandoning the safety and comfort of my wheelchair. But the vocal stylings of those Tikis more than made up for that. Besides, EPCOT Center had been built by then, and touring the science, history, and agricultural exhibits were much more fascinating.

On my first visit to Disney, I had been smaller, able to ride in a stroller or be carried around on my Mom or Dad’s hip. I was just another little kid in a cornucopia of kids. Sure, I’d met Mickey, Minnie, and the Big Bad Wolf, and came away from the experience as scared/awed as any other child. But I wasn’t treated any more special than the others.

But as my family and I toured the park this trip, stopping at various venues to wait in disgustingly long lines, park attendants began to approach us. They would say “Hello!” with bright teeth flashing, and ask if we wanted to go inside.

Once we said yes, we were escorted past the long lines of hot and gaping patrons, led through rope barriers, and taken inside and given prime seating in perfect view of the show. We didn’t see many shows, but “Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 3-D” was the one attraction that stood out in my mind. The show itself was excellent, but the look of annoyance on the faces of all those patrons as we were led past them like royalty was totally priceless.

The treatment continued as we climbed aboard the “Living with the Land” boat ride, where I sat at the front of the boat next to the driver. But for me, the crowning glory of this star treatment was when we prepared to get aboard the Monorail. The attendant got on his walkie-talkie just like a Secret Service agent, and when the train arrived, a special key was used to unlock a seat and lift it up to make room for my chair. Even now I feel the thrill of having my wheelchair treated as a sign of utmost respect rather than the normal equivalent of a scarlet letter worthy of stark pity or scorn. As much as I’d enjoyed Disney World before, I think that it was during this visit that I truly fell in love with the place. Life’s not all roses, however, and beneath the sweet scent of the deep red petals, the stink of fertilizer is sure to linger.

After years of being the public spectacle, a sideshow attraction that’s not supposed to have the sense or sensibilities to know when I’m being stared at, I’ve got a built in radar that allows me to literally feel any gazes directed my way. But I didn’t need the radar as we left the EPCOT Geodome. The kid who was walking ahead of us, maybe around ten or so with sandy blonde-hair, made his views painfully obvious.

The moment he turned and laid eyes on me, he jumped up and down and pointed as he tugged his mother’s sleeve,shouting “Mom! Look!” The mother, who seemed uninterested after probably having had this very routine repeated a thousand times that day, finally turned around. As soon as she saw the object of her son’s hysterics, she grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away as she bent over to whisper admonishments in his ear.

I tried to shake the event off as if it were no big deal. “I’ve been through this hundreds of times before haven’t I?” I said to myself. But somehow, this time was different. After the exquisite treatment I’d enjoyed all afternoon, it was as if I had been unmasked and my secret had been revealed. Now everyone knew that in truth I was merely a freak all dressed up in a nobleman’s clothes.

On the outside it was no big deal, and the sun continued to shine as our day at the “Happiest Place on Earth” went merrily along. And yet in the back of my mind, in the well of my spirit, that moment lingered. As I think back on it now, the real reason it troubled me so much was that my own fantasy had been shattered. Until that kid came along, I was feeling a stronger sense of belonging than at any other point in my life. For once, I was in a place where I was truly welcomed and appreciated, and this child had taken it all away in the thrust of a finger.

I don’t know if such a nasty sounding word as “fester” is the most appropriate here, but lacking a better word, that incident festered inside me for days after, hurting me more than I understood then and even find it hard to admit now. As our vacation continued, we visited our other favorite place, Sea World, and all was seemingly well. And yet I can’t recall what happened from that moment in Disney World until we headed back home a few days later.

The only thing I see in my mind is the gesturing boy, except in my revised version of events he’s shouting, “Look at the freak! Look at the freak!” All the others who’d in some way, shape, or form treated me in this way were embodied in this one moment, as if this child had taken on the role of spokesperson for the rest of the world.

As my family and I headed home from Orlando, we stopped over for an hour at our old stomping grounds of Daytona. I once loved Daytona Beach, with its quaint and beautiful boardwalk overlooking its white sands. It was a place of peace and relaxation that even as a kid I’d come to appreciate.

But times change, and as big business recognized the potential boon the place held, they bought up the area and erected skyscraping hotels right along the shore.

While the boardwalk remained, as did most of the tiny shops and stores, it was all overshadowed by those buildings that stuck up like concrete middle fingers expressing what they thought of my beloved memories. The once family-friendly domain had become party central for the waves of spring breakers who descended upon the place every year, leaving the hangover of their youthful debauchery behind.

They say that you can’t go home again, so maybe the above perception is merely in my head, brought on by my change in perspective as I grew older. But I don’t think so, or least it’s not the only factor.

If a place is capable of having a spirit, Daytona Beach’s spirit had been corrupted from what I remembered. Beach bums and panhandlers ruled it now, one even approaching my Dad for a handout just minutes after our arrival.

Whatever had changed, this discovery only added to my melancholy. The cosmic/spiritual forces were attempting to drown me, and although I was keeping my head above water, I wasn’t making much progress swimming toward shore.

As my family and I continued to walk along the boardwalk, we passed several beachfront hotel bars. The long strip mall-like building housing the old amusements looked like a run-down shack compared to its modernized neighbors. And yet it held on stubbornly, an old relic keeping nostalgia alive. Meanwhile, that boy and his pointing finger kept haunting me.

We soon arrived at the old arcade, which hadn’t changed one bit. It was still dark and noisy. Skee Ball machines still lined the walls. Kids of all ages stlll crowded the place. When we entered, the room was as stuffy as ever. Even though being there brought back fond memories in one sense, I also remembered how much I hated being in that hot, raucous, and crowded room.

After a few minutes, I spotted a kid of around the same age as the “look at the freak!” boy, though perhaps he was a year or so older. He stared at me, but not with agitation or fear. He didn’t grab someone’s sleeve, nor did he jab fingers in my direction. The look on his face was mere curiosity. He left his game and approached. Cries of “Look at the freak! Look at the freak!” echoed in my head.

The boy walked up to me. He knelt, his head cocked to the side. He waved his hand in front of my face and simply said “Hi!” I said “Hey” in reply.

I wish I could remember exactly what else we said to each other. I know he told me his name and I’m sure I told him mine. He asked where I was from, and I think he was a local kid, not a tourist like myself.

Whatever we said to one another, our encounter was brief. But once it was over, I felt a lessening of the weight on my shoulders. The thick clouds blotting out my normally sunny view thinned a bit. I’d like to think that I experienced a life altering moment, a true epiphany in which I became a new man with a new outlook on life. Wouldn’t we all like to drag our inner demons out into the light and beat them into submission, then banish them from our sight forever? I know I sure would.

Too bad life’s not that easy, especially for a living, breathing, thinking human being. There are days when I feel invincible, and other days when I feel naked and defenseless to whatever hurts life throws my way. But what I have come to understand is that without the valleys, the peaks have little meaning. Without periods of sadness, you wouldn’t understand how miraculous those precious moments of joy really are.

Doesn’t make those valleys any easier to climb out of, but at least it helps me keep a balanced perspective when I find myself staring up out of that deep, expansive bowl longing to reach the cool peaks high above.

As much as I want to say that the “Skee Ball Kid” totally changed my life forever, it just isn’t true. But what he did do for me is make my life a little better at a time I was feeling particularly low. I’m sure he has no idea the impact his simple act of friendship had, but I hope whoever and wherever he is now, that he’s happy, healthy, and continuing to share his positive spirit with others. He’s probably forgotten me by now, but that’s okay. It’s enough to know that I’ll never forget him or what he did for me. As for the other kid, I’m sure he’s grown up to be a kind and generous man. I have no hard feelings toward him, and wish him

After all, it’s not his fault that for that one defining moment in time, he behaved like an idiot.

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