Some of my earliest memories are from Walt Disney World (although not all of them are super magical, like when I got my head stuck in the balcony railing at the Polynesian Village Resort). My family visited for the first time in the mid-80s (there’s an ongoing debate between 1986 and 1987). I loved staying at the Poly with my grandparents, ordering room service, and dining with the characters.
Even as a little kid, I knew there was magic just in helping others to believe in the wonders of the parks. My family loves to tell and retell a story from a trip when I was around 4. My grandmother and I were sitting together and waiting for the fireworks to begin. I looked up at her and said, “ You know, Gran. Tinkerbell can’t fly. There’s a string. But don’t tell Mommy. She thinks she’s flying, and I don’t want to burst her bubble.”
Bless my precocious four-year-old self, but that story cuts to the heart of what’s always been so special to me. It’s the joy of being just a tiny part of the magic and sharing it with others.
Over the past 37 years, Walt Disney World has been a place I could retreat to with my friends and family to reconnect, celebrate, to escape. It was a way to connect with my parents, especially when my mom remarried. WDW was our happy place, even if it meant I had to concede to camping with my parents at Fort Wilderness. Sometimes I’d get to bring a friend with me who hadn’t experienced the parks. I was always so proud to show them around my world. For my 16th birthday, instead of a big party, I wanted to stay at the Grand Floridian with my best friend. My parents saved up and made it happen. She and I still talk about that trip, the fun we had together riding alone on the monorail, walking along the beach, talking late into the night, and feeling so grown up.
I celebrated my high school graduation with all my friends at Grad Night. For my 21st birthday, my closest friends from high school and college took a trip to Pleasure Island (Rest in peace, P.I.) and Blizzard Beach. When my mom finished her radiation treatments for cancer, my husband and I took her down to celebrate at the Magic Kingdom at a Pirates and Princesses Party, meeting up with that same best friend from my teenage years. It’s been a joy to watch my husband warm up to staying in the heart of the magic, strolling along the Poly’s beach or people-watching at the BoardWalk.
Nothing quite fills my heart as much as introducing my kids to the magic. I swore up and down I wouldn’t take my kids to Walt Disney World until they were 4. I held out until 4 with my daughter. However, before she ever walked through the gates of the Magic Kingdom, she still knew the thrill of being recognized by name by Princess Tiana and having Cinderella cuddle her favorite lovey on a Disney Cruise Line sailing. She traveled by train to Disneyland Paris with her best friends, where they rode Slinky Dog Zigzag Spin five times in a row, and she slept through Ratatouille: The Adventure when she couldn’t stay awake one more minute. Taking her to Walt Disney World for the first time to stay at the Polynesian is a precious memory, and she already had a deep love of Disney magic before she ever stepped foot in the parks. If you asked her now, she’d tell you it’s one of her favorite places on earth.
My son was 18 months old when we took him for the first time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. He soaked in every bit of the magic. He got his hair cut at the Harmony Barbershop, booped Goofy’s nose, and poked Minnie Mouse in the eye. He demanded to ride again and again and squealed with glee as he was tossed around in a teacup and an alien saucer. He won’t remember it, but I will.
The magic doesn’t just stop at the borders of Walt Disney World or Disneyland. It’s in Disney Parks worldwide, on all of the ships in Disney Cruise Line’s fleet. Every employee welcomed you to the Disney Store and the creators of shows on Disney Channel and Disney Junior. It’s in the animators of Walt Disney Studios and Pixar and, possibly more so than anyone, the Walt Disney Imagineers who continue to breathe new life into one man’s dream. Finally, it’s in the communities I’ve found on social media, kind and generous with sharing the magic they create when you can’t visit the parks.
I’m thrilled to be able to celebrate 50 years of magical memories on October 1, not just mine but those of every person who has stepped through the gates where “you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” Happy birthday, Walt Disney World.