Opinion: The best lessons aren’t planned, and sometimes happen in theme parks

While we can debate amongst ourselves when is the “correct” time to re-open the parks, we can not debate what the parks have given to us in the past.

theme parks
Photos by Greg Nicholson, Jr.

By Greg Nicholson, Jr.

From family vacations to Walt Disney World in the summertime of my youth, to the Disney College Program in college, and now to my own family vacations as an adult with my children, I have seen every side of the Walt Disney World Resort. Many of the life lessons that have shaped my personality were taught to me by the parks. That might sound silly. “How can a theme park teach lessons?” While it’s true that my family were involved in these stories, I firmly believe it was the parks that were the educators.

My memory of this first lesson is hazy, which is funny given the outcome of the story, but I still remember it some 20 years later. In the late ‘90s (1997 or 1998) my family was in, I believe, Mickey’s ToonTown Fair. As I was the only child in the group, they were in this land for my benefit. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize this. We were in line for one of the shows (again, hazy memory) and I remember looking around and seeing children much younger than myself in line. Frustrated, and probably hot, I caused a scene. I was too old for this show! Look at these kids! As we were ushered into a theatre for a live stage show, my grandfather became rightfully equally frustrated by my actions and pulled me aside.

As we stepped out into the exit hallway so I could cool off, my grandfather sat me down against the wall. My grandfather advised me to stay put for a minute so he could talk to me. And, I didn’t listen. I should have listened. Angry, I sprang to my feet to walk away from him. In doing so, I smacked the top of my head on a box that held a fire extinguisher and knocked myself silly. Now you understand why the memory is hazy.

I learned that day to listen to and respect my elders, and always take my grandfather at his word (For those wondering, yes, I can still feel the notch on the top of my head from the bruising).

In 2000, the family unit on the trip to Disney-MGM Studios consisted of my eight-year-old brother on what was his second year at the parks, myself, my two uncles, and my aunt. You may recall that in late 1999, FastPass was introduced to the parks. As such, this was our first visit with the feature. I was 13 years old on this trip, which meant a little bit more freedom than in previous summers. I was sent to gather FastPasses for Star Tours from the little restaurant near the Indiana Jones stage show. Someone in line mentioned that you were able to get FastPasses for more than one ride at a time. I, of course, was excited, as I wanted to ride Tower of Terror but the line was too long and my brother wasn’t too keen on the idea of the ride in the first place.

Quickly, I ran back to the table and explained that you could have more than one pass at a time. The adults in the group didn’t believe this, but I wouldn’t let the issue drop. After talking my brother into going on the ride if we didn’t have to wait in line, we set out to the Tower of Terror to test my theory. Still, the adults didn’t believe me. All along the way, I essentially taunted my relatives. As we got to the machines, thinking back now, I fully believe my aunt and uncles wanted me to be wrong with every fiber in their being, but I wasn’t. The five of us got our tickets to the ride. At that moment, I said something heinous. Something that shocked all three of my adult relatives. Something so terrible…

I don’t remember what it was. I do, however, remember the look on my aunt’s face when the shock subsided. I was lucky she didn’t throw away our FastPasses then and there. “You have no respect! You do not appreciate this! You don’t appreciate us! You never say ‘thank you’!”

She was right. I didn’t say ‘thank you’ a lot. I didn’t take the time to appreciate what was given to me by those that loved me. I thought I was entitled to things like trips to Walt Disney World because that’s all that I knew. Since that exact moment, I have been appreciative of everything given to me. I am appreciative of every experience I have. I look on in wonder like a 13-year-old because life is too short to be entitled.

Flash forward seven years and to my first month in the Disney College Program. I was a Custodial cast member in Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland and ToonTown Fair, one of the busiest parts of the park. Pin trading was in full swing, and we as cast members were given pins to hand out on special occasions. On this day, I was located near the teacups. A woman who appeared to be in her early retirement years was walking with her family toward Dumbo with ice creams in hand. As she was walking toward me, I happened to see her lose her ice cream off of her cone.

I hurried to the spill to clean it up. Before I could get there, a young boy, probably not yet in pre-school, from a different family stopped next to her and offered his own ice cream cone to her. Everyone in each family was taken aback but the generosity of the little boy. As I made it to the group of people, I already had a set of Turtle Dove pins out—one for the little boy, and one for the woman he was wanting to give his ice cream to. As the pair took their pins, I reminded them that even though they might not know each other, these pins will be a token of this memory for the rest of time.

The generosity that little boy showed was the next lesson that the parks taught me. A child would give up a treat that every little boy enjoys just because he saw another guest lose hers. If this little boy could understand loss and decide that he’d rather her have an ice cream cone than himself, why couldn’t I, as a 20-year-old, show that same generosity in things that I do?

It was in 2018 that I took my first visit to Walt Disney World with my significant other and our children. For the eight months leading up to the trip, I was worried about my children experiencing everything I did growing up. We bought our children their own pin lanyards, we bought them character signature books, we made sure they had all of their dream Disney gear.  I wanted them to see the shows, I wanted them to enjoy the meals, I wanted them to get the same life lessons I got from the parks. I know I annoyed my significant other because she let me know every time I brought it up.

We booked an overnight flight from Southern California to Orlando so that the kids could sleep and be rested enough for a day at Disney Springs, but as our vacation grew closer I wondered if the children would be able to sleep on the plane with all of the excitement of the trip. Just being in the airport was a new experience for the children. As we walked around LAX, the boyish wonder that I experienced at Walt Disney World was the same boyish wonder that my son experienced in the terminal.

As we boarded the plane, as we began our taxi to the runway, as the wheels lifted off the ground, I watched as my son grew more and more tired and eventually drifted off to sleep. I, however, couldn’t sleep. Six agonizing hours later, it was 6 a.m. in Florida and we were waking up our children for our descent into MCO.

We checked in to our hotel room early. We took a resort bus to Disney Springs shortly after, and the boys and girls split for lunch. I took my son to T-Rex because he loves dinosaurs and I loved T-Rex as a cast member. We sat outside of the ice cave, which I thought was a bummer. Everyone loves the ice cave! It’s cool in there, literally and figuratively. And after lunch we built-a-dino in the toy shop. Even though we didn’t sit in the ice cave, lunch was a hit!

1900 Park Fare was our next big event. An expensive event, at that. We didn’t have the Disney Dining Plan so I paid for breakfast out of pocket. My son had never been to a theme park and wasn’t comfortable around the characters. How could he not enjoy Pooh? Or The Mad Hatter? Well, Greg, it’s because for a seven-year-old who had never seen characters in costumes, that is a very confusing experience. 1900 Park Fare was definitely not a hit.

And that was the last (but most expensive) life lesson the parks gave me.  I can plan out my children’s lives all I want, but their experiences are their own. I was very controlling of the trip before this moment. Maybe it was the $35 for my son’s meal that wasn’t eaten, maybe it was the uncomfortable look on my son’s face when he tried to eat, but the rest of the trip I was as hands-off as possible. And our children had a blast. Because the children had the time of their lives, we had the same.

There’s a lot of things that I’m still learning well into my thirties now, but one thing I know for sure is that Walt Disney World Resort should reopen, and when you feel it’s safe for you and your family, you should experience it. Don’t plan it.


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