Juggling Act: Disney, heat, crowds – and pixie dust

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Careening through a dark tunnel as animatronic dinosaurs leered at us at Disney World, I clutched my daughter’s leg brace — which she’d flicked off in a panic, mid-ride — closed my eyes tightly and prayed.

I knew the ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom would be over quickly. And I knew there were worse things than having your child freak out on an amusement park ride. I also knew that if I could’ve given myself a good swift kick in the shin, I would’ve.

In an age of “doing it all” parenting — no birthday party is too small, no event too insignificant that it can’t be shared on social media — I wondered how I’d gotten swept into Disney World mania. Maybe because it’s hard not to.

We went to Disney a few weeks ago — yes, in late June, when 90-plus degree weather is the norm in central Florida and crowds number in the tens of thousands every day — because we already planned to be in Orlando for a medical conference for my daughter.

Why not go to Disney World, too, I thought? One day didn’t seem like enough. I settled on five.

Disney World has become a cultural rite-of-passage for the American middle class. Families plan elaborate trips around this beloved landmark, printing T-shirts and signs for their trips. At our hotel, I saw handmade posters taped in room windows, showing just how special these trips are.

But as our date with Disney approached, I felt more anxious than excited. I don’t like going to the mall during the holidays. How would I do — let alone my kids — at a place that attracts 50,000 people a day?

As magical as Disney is, it’s not for everyone. It’s vast and, for some, overwhelming. When I visited Disney World for the first time when I was 12, there was Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Period. Now, there are two other theme parks — Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — along with water parks, resorts and more rides being built every day. It sits on 27,000 acres.

When we arrived at Magic Kingdom for our first day, there were crowds 12-people deep when the gates opened at 8 a.m. By the time we left that evening, somehow, the crowds got even bigger, 90-degree weather and all.

But it’s hard not to get dusted by Disney’s special brand of pixie dust, no matter how skeptical you are. Within minutes of stepping on our first ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, we were flying over London, seeing Wendy walk the plank and Captain Hook fight off crocodiles. It was magical. My son is still talking about it.

And while Disney is very expensive — we spent more on park tickets than airfare to Orlando — it shines when it comes to the details. Every ride and attraction is impeccably planned and executed. At Animal Kingdom, where visitors are transported to different continents of the world, prayer flags drape over the streets of Asia and backpack gear clings to the ceiling near the restrooms just as if you really are at Mount Everest’s base camp. Even the exit signs are aged to look like they belong in the Himalayas.

But my most cherished Disney moments weren’t with animatronic animals or fancy rides. It was when my kids finally got to meet got Minnie and Mickey face-to-face.

“You were really great in ‘Fantasia,’ ” my son told Mickey. My daughter sat in Minnie’s lap and simply grabbed her white-gloved hand.

Maybe Disney really is the most magical place on Earth.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com