Every great animated Disney film begins the same way, with someone longing: to be up where the people are, to go the ball, to find true love, to discover or recover some strength or power... Suddenly, something sparks in them, and they decide to pursue a dream, make a change, take a chance, risk a journey, and we accompany them, cheering them on.
When their happy ending comes (and of course it does, ’cause Disney) it reminds us of when our dreams have come true. For me: my first real kiss, my wedding day, my first music video release… indelible. We treasure and remember the happy endings.
But the beginnings, happy or otherwise?
It’s easy to forget that “spark” moment, when a dream first chose us (and I propose: we don’t have dreams; dreams have us). Can you remember any of those sharp-involuntary-intake-of-breath moments? Some before-it-had-words “aha”? That literal inspiration before reality let doubt creep in?
Even though it happened 50 years ago, I don’t even have to consult a calendar to recall the exact date, time, and location when my most life-changing dream had me.
Friday, Oct. 29, 1971, at 8 p.m., in Grand Rapids, Ohio.
I was 11.
We were only allowed to watch television three times the entire sixth grade year I spent in boarding school. The nuns of the Ursuline Sisters of the Sacred Heart didn’t usually allow such frivolity among the cadets of Nazareth Hall Military Academy. (Yes, I know, nuns and military school. Anyone else see the therapy bills in that future?)
I was enrolled in (read: exiled to) Catholic military school “to cut the apron strings,” or so my father hoped. I knew what that was really code for. You couldn’t grow up gay in 1960s rural Indiana with alcoholic parents (and a suicidal mother) without developing certain survival skills: a precocious sensitivity for subtext, and a keen eye for subterfuge. I overheard the whispers and caught the knowing glances between my father and Sister Mary Patrick, the principal (most definitely not my p-a-l). I recognized the military drills and mandatory early-morning masses for what they were: an all-out assault to discipline the “different” out of me and make me (gasp!) normal. I was conscripted into a system that demanded conformity: heads buzzed, shoes shined, belt buckles and buttons gleaming, and beds made with sheets so taut you could bounce a quarter off them.
I despised every part of it.
Until that fateful night.
We weren’t told what we were about to watch that autumn evening, but I knew it had to be something big.
The nuns marched us single-file in our pajamas down to the library and sat us on the floor in front of the console Zenith TV to watch a special Friday night broadcast of “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC. Exactly what my spirit yearned for in the bleakness of that grayscale gulag: something unashamedly “In Living Color” (cue the peacock, flute, and harp).
I watched, intrigued, as Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell hiked through unidentifiable scrubland, strumming his guitar and singing. I scanned anxiously for clues to his location, impatient for the “special” part to be revealed, when suddenly he stopped and looked up as a monorail passed overhead and the announcer trumpeted “The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World.”
Disney World? There was something beyond Disneyland?? How could I not have heard of this entirely new magical destination? I was so transfixed, I don’t think I even hazarded a breath. Mind. Blown.
Sad fact: growing up in the Midwest, only really rich kids got to visit far-off, magical Disneyland. I was from Muncie, Indiana, pathetically the most average town in America. Our family took sensible, educational vacations. Indian Mounds. Old Forts. Caverns. The Liberty Bell was almost too extravagant for us.
I don’t know what it was about that night: the Dickensian boarding school, knowing my father’s idea of a perfect family life didn’t include an unindoctrinated me, or realizing that I didn’t fit in anywhere (and probably never would)–-but right there and then, I decided–-no, I knew: I was going to Walt Disney World someday, no matter what it took.
And I was going to go there by myself.
Maybe it was divine inspiration. Maybe some queer angel looked down and knew this lonely, misunderstood gay boy needed a magical life-preserver to cling to during the oncoming storms of adolescence, bullying, and conversion therapy. All I know is I started acting like it was the most natural thing in the world for an 11-year-old boy to go around telling everyone he could about his upcoming solo trip to Disney World, reality be damned.
I started planning. And saving. And budgeting. Paper routes, odd jobs, and washing dishes in the school cafeteria so I could pocket my lunch money. Family friends gave me leftover Walt Disney World ticket books with the A-, B-, C- and D-tickets intact—I only had to buy my E-tickets (90 cents each). Park admission each day was—I’m not kidding—only $5.25.
Saving to stay in pricey Disney hotels would’ve delayed my trip by years, so I found the closest off-property hotel with transportation to the park, The Ramada Inn Maingate. The internet didn’t exist even in Tomorrowland, so I made my reservations by landline and paid by mail with traveler’s checks (remember those?).
I also researched everything to do with Disney World. I won’t say for certain, but if you check the main branch of the Indianapolis Public Library for magazine articles on Disney World published between 1965-1974 and can’t find any, I might know who still has them in storage in his four “My Disney World” scrapbooks.
I knew more about Disney than most of its employees.
Did you know that when Disney World opened, it boasted the ninth-largest navy in the world? I knew. That the Magic Kingdom is actually built on the second floor, with a basement full of cafeterias, costumes and characters underneath (“Utilidors”)? I could draw you a map. That water bridge they built to carry boats above cars driving below? The first of its kind in the world.
You get the picture.
It was almost 3 years (34 months and 4 days, to be exact) between that TV special and the magic carpet Eastern Airlines flight from Indianapolis to Orlando that carried me away on Monday, Sept. 2, 1974.
Five entire days at Walt Disney World, all by myself. At 14.
I’ve told this story hundreds of times, and this is where incredulity always kicks in and I hear, “Your parents let you DO that?!”
I never asked them.
They were both in the throes of their alcoholism. Home life was chaotic on the best of days. No one was clearly in charge. I’d made my plans perfectly clear for almost 3 years and worked like crazy to make them happen, and they never said I couldn’t go. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t suddenly play their Parental Authority Cards. I certainly wasn’t going to invite them along. They would’ve been the ultimate buzzkill at T.M.M.P.O.E. (The Most Magical Place on Earth).
Nothing was going to ruin my dream. Not even school–I missed the first four days of ninth grade. I figured if I was smart enough to make this trip happen, I was smart enough to catch up on whatever I missed.
My parents drove me to the airport. I don’t know whether he did it out of support or in resignation, but my Dad surprised me as I got out of the car when he pressed a hundred dollars into my palm, gruffly telling me to be careful.
My nose was glued to the window the entire flight, hoping I could glimpse Cinderella’s Castle from the air before we landed (you can’t). The then-terminal was little more than a brick shed with oversized garage doors on one side (now it’s just used for international baggage).
I’d pre-booked Mears car service to the hotel. The front desk clerk who checked me in didn’t bat an eye–I had pre-paid, I was tall for my age, and very self-assured. I dumped my luggage and raced to catch the next complimentary van to the park. We bypassed the iconic parking lot toll booths, approached the Transportation and Ticket Center, and I got out.
After 1,039 days of planning, hoping and dreaming, I had arrived.
I recall every single moment like it was yesterday.
The monorails. The feeling of walking through the gates and realizing I was really there. Seeing Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. Walking–no, skipping–no, prancing down Main Street, U.S.A. I didn’t care who was watching or what they thought of me–this 14-year-old positively joyous chubby gay boy, finally living out his ultimate Disney fantasy. I felt like I’d just tried on the glass slipper, and it fit perfectly. I was the happiest boy on earth, in T.M.M.P.O.E.
It was heaven. I arrived every morning before opening and stayed til after closing. I rode the rides and the monorails again and again. Visited each of the hotels. Rented a little speedboat and explored the lakes. Pretended to be a guest so I could swim in the pool at the Polynesian (you could hear the music underwater!). Filled an empty suntan bottle with water from the Seven Seas lagoon, and a used Disney soft drink cup with sand from the beach to take back to Indiana (I still have both). I went wherever I wanted to go and did whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. I was free.
I wanted to stay forever.
And before I forget: Fairy Godmothers are real. My first day there, waiting in line for The Haunted Mansion, I met Jean, an 18-year-old off-duty ticket seller searching for her boyfriend Dave, who worked inside. We struck up a conversation and she ended up riding with me. We eventually found Dave and they took me down into the Utilidors (OMG!), under their wings, and home for dinner. I saw them every day. Not only have they been two of my closest friends ever since, each of their children (and grandchildren) knows by heart the story of “Mr. Bill” and how he ran away to Disney World and became part of their family.
They say all dreams come to an end.
I’ve visited Disney World more times than I can count (Disneyland, too). I snuck into the Disney Studios in the ’80s, had lunch in the commissary, toured the archives, and might even have snagged myself an employee nametag. I finagled (ok, appropriated) press credentials to both the grand re-opening of Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland in 1998 and the Grand Opening of the Disney/MGM Studios in 1989 (I even appear briefly in their grand opening tv special on the Disney Channel–talk about full-circle). I’ve sung in two Disney films, Pocahontas and Mulan, and in an EPCOT attraction as a singing faucet (it was embarrassingly bad). Marvin Hamlisch granted me permission to be the first artist to record his and Howard Ashman’s “Disneyland”, for my first CD–they could’ve written it about me. So many Disney stories.
I celebrate that little boy’s grit and determination–so daring and unstoppable–and sometimes I also mourn the childhood he was so desperate to escape, and the parents who were so absent (or understanding?) that they let him go.
Without that suffering, I might never have longed deeply enough to summon that “spark,” take on that dream, and risk the journey that brought me the happy ending that saved my life.
I never realized that in doing so, I’d become the hero of my own Disney movie.
Some people deride impossibly happy endings with a dismissive, “That’s so Disney,” but not me. Not only do I believe in impossibly happy endings, I will proudly tell you that mine was perfectly Disney.