The Story That Never Ran

(But Should Have) By Stinson Carter

Author’s Note: In November of 2011, I went to Orlando, Florida to write a feature for a national men’s magazine. These were my editor’s instructions:

My idea is to send a writer to Orlando for a week and try to hit all of the theme parks: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Universal Studios, Sea World, The Holy Land Experience, Gatorland, and even some really low-rent ones. It would be part endurance, and part looking at the lives of the people who work there, like your cruise ship story. Let me know what you think. — DS

By the time I finished the story, the Editor-In-Chief had been fired. I got paid in the nick of time, but the story was in limbo. I had to dodge emails from the PR reps from several major amusement parks for months.

Orlando PR folks, if you’re still in the job, here it is… the story that never ran.

Surviving Orlando

Seven Nonstop Days in The Mecca of Mass Amusement

To ride this ride you cannot be pregnant, have a heart condition, be larger than this seat or shorter than this tall, and you must be able to survive on one or more of the following: funnel cakes, chicken fingers and turkey legs.

By Stinson Carter

55 million tourists will visit Orlando this year. Last year, Orlando became the first city in the US to hit the 50 million mark for annual tourists, beating out New York City. They’re expecting even more in 2012 — which will make this summer the busiest summer ever.
Magic Kingdom Park

The Airbus drops through the clouds over a flat, green plain of cattle fields, lakes and swampland. Downtown Orlando rises up from the terrain like a page in a pop-up book. It’s not much of a skyline, but still the biggest city in Central Florida; an area that was once a battleground of settlers and Seminole Indians, then the poster child of the citrus boom. People around here got by on oranges and cattle for decades, but everything changed in 1971 when Walt Disney opened up Walt Disney World, and Orlando became the amusement park capital of the world. Business has never been better––Disney now estimates that they are responsible for over $16 billion in economic activity in the area every year. Their profits are up 10% over last year, and late-bloomer Universal is up by a shocking 60% (thank you, Harry Potter), raking in nearly $400 million per quarter.

The parks already had to stop selling tickets once this year because they were “at capacity.” This summer will be insane — you have to have a game plan.

I’m supposed to be in jury duty this week, but I begged one final postponement to come to Orlando for a week of extreme amusement. Extreme amusement is about hitting three parks in a day, exploiting Single Rider lines and Speedpasses, and studying park maps like a Boy Scout. It’s about dodging groups in matching T-shirts, not getting on buses with mobility scooters that take 10 minutes to load and unload, and never eating more than one meal a day sitting down.

“What are you going to see while you’re here,” asks the native sitting next to me on the plane. “Everything,” I say. “Good luck,” he snickers.

My first and only previous visit to Orlando was in 1987, when I was ten years old. I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents had decided to get a divorce, and Go To Disney World was on their marital bucket list. They didn’t get around to it during the good times, but they didn’t let that stop them, and it turned out to be one of our best family trips. This time around, I’m turning it up a few notches to adjust for the fact that less wows me at this age than it did then. Back then, I was overwhelmed by two parks in four days. This time, I’ll be hitting 10 parks in seven days without missing a single major attraction.

Dog-Eating Gators and Flesh-Eating Banshees

Gatorland is a relic of pre-Disney Orlando. It’s been around since 25BD (Before Disney), as they like to say. The famous gator head out front was decapitated seven years ago by a gift shop fire. The head is still there, but it’s no longer structurally relevant. It’s just sort of… there.

After gawking at a “dog-eating” gator named Lester and the snake and tarantula show, Upclose Encounters, I find myself sitting on metal bleachers while Rob the Gator-Wrestler asks the crowd to pick which gator he should wrestle, a choice between two motionless creatures in a sandy arena surrounded by moat. We all cheer when he points the bigger one, obviously. “Yeah, of course you pick the male. You wanna know how you know it’s a male?” Audience gives a collective shrug. “If it was a female, it wouldn’t have kept its mouth shut this long.” Everyone laughs. The freedom of a family-owned park is the ability to make off-color jokes without getting sued. The actual wrestling isn’t really wrestling. These gators are like fish that have been caught and released so many times, they roll over in the fisherman’s hands to let him take out the hook. Rob just sits on the gator, tapes up its mouth, and manipulates him a little — putting him to sleep with a gator headlock maneuver, then wakes him up by tickling his belly. The real event here is after the show, when everyone lines up to sit on the gator’s back for a photo. Somebody’s 4-year-old sits on the gator by herself, and I clench my jaw and pray nothing bad happens. Then a Jersey-Shore-looking guy mounts the gator wearing a shirt that reads, “Bite Me,” and I can only pray for the duct tape around the gator’s snout to fail.

“Keep all children off the railings,” they warn, aggressively, at the Gator Jumparoo — the day’s last show, where raw chicken parts are hooked up to cables and suspended over a lake filled with about twenty gators, who instinctually jump up out of the water and tear them off.

A T-shirt in the gift shop shows an alligator with a human in its mouth and a thought bubble reads, “Tastes like chicken,” which pretty much sums up the experience of Gatorland: a theme park founded on the appeal of pushing the limits of our mastery of nature and sitting on the back of an animal that could eat you (or at least bite off a hand).

Halloween 2.0 (or whatever is scarier than scary these days)

At 6pm, Universal Studios closes for kids and reopens at 7 for Halloween Horror Nights. The lines are brutal for the haunted houses — nine of them in total, set up in sound stages around the park. I still manage to hit four of them in an hour (Thanks in no small part to my PR liaison).

The idea of a World War I hospital is terrifying, brutal, and gory. What’s scarier than that? Well, how about if the nurses were all flesh-eating banshees who feed on the corpses of wounded soldiers? Our capacity to adjust to fear is so well exercised these days that the question every year for Universal’s Halloween planners is how to make things scarier than scary, because scary just isn’t scary anymore.

The Forsaken is a WWI trench hospital where severed bodies hang from nooses and women in Florence Nightingale nurse attire with bloody, animal-like masks feast on the bodies of soldiers lying dead in bunks and on cots. The people paid to jump out and scream avoid me — I assume they’ve pegged me as being not in the demographic they can get a rise out of, and that’s fine by me.

I hit my creep-out limit at HR Bloodengutz, a holiday-themed house. And it’s not the gutted president in the oval office for President’s Day, nor the AK-47-toting elves of Christmas that get to me; it’s Thanksgiving. A table is set with a baked woman — oven-browned skin and legs splayed back like someone burned alive in the middle of a yoga class, with vegetables arranged to hide her breasts and nether regions. Her face looks like the face of a roasted pig at a Luau buffet.

The aggressive brand of fear-amusement here is reflected in the concessions. All around the park, young women in bloody, skimpy nurse outfits sell Jell-o shots in blood bags — a temporary work force selling their blood bag shots for tips and commissions. Freestanding cocktail bars are set up everywhere, sponsored by Full Throttle Energy Drink. The signature drink tonight is the Ante Up Cocktail, made of dark and light rums, crème de banana, OJ, cran, grenadine, and Full Throttle. But the real operative ingredients tonight are alcohol, caffeine, and fear. And coupled with the skimpy outfits and blood, they really manage to mix every adult thrill in a single venue.

A Good Day To Disney

After my horror night, I’m ready to embrace some Disney wholesomeness. On the way into Animal Kingdom, I ask the guy screening bags what he’s looking for while he goes through my satchel.

“There’s about 1500 things you can’t bring in here,” he says. “Nothing that can harm me, nothing that can harm you, and nothing that can harm an animal.”

African beats are coming from somewhere. I check trees and rocks for hidden speakers, but Disney has turned music into an element of nature; you might as well try to look for the source of the wind. The entire park is built around the Tree of Life, a manmade Baobab tree, 14 stories tall and 50-feet wide, with plutonium-green foliage. Newer is better, for these parks. The set dressers, or Imagineers, as they’re called around here, have mastered their craft over time and this place shows it. Even the food is better; and you can get chili-garlic sauce on your chicken fingers instead of just ketchup.

I head to Asia, which looks like Asia but with better sewage and less smog. The first big score of the day is discovering a Single Riders line at Everest Express — an indoor/outdoor rollercoaster that looks like a giant volcano from a kid’s science fair. I’m on the ride in under a minute, and lock into the safety bar next to a father from Mexico City. He’s part of a crafty subculture of fake single riders; his four kids and wife are all riding a la carte. “You need to get organized. More time games, less time waiting,” he says.

After a quick pit stop for $9 garlic-chili chicken fingers, it’s just a short walk to Africa. Here, they have a fair amount of pith-helmeted staff from sub-Saharan Africa. Better than a movie set, this place could fool Hemingway. I hop on an open-air truck for a Kilimanjaro Safari, save a baby elephant from poachers, then I’m dropped off and told to say “Quaharini” instead of goodbye.

A majority of the cheery young khaki-clad employees have colleges listed on their name badges, and I investigate. Turns out these are Disney CP’s — part of the Disney College Program. When the person checking your safety belt is a psych major from Bryn Mawr instead of a middle-aged, cynical townie, the whole experience benefits. And when you multiply that by eight thousand CP’s, the entire Walt Disney World experience takes on their youthful enthusiasm. Many of them have been obsessed with Disney since they were kids, and now they live together in shared dormitories with a fair number of house rules — no posters on the walls, and absolutely NO coed sleepovers — and they get free admission to any park on their days off, as well as discounts on food and Mickey paraphernalia. Disney keeps a rotation of new CP’s running through every park and resort, so that if there are any employees here who’ve succumbed to the weight of the world, they do a very good job of insulating you from them.

I make it into Epcot an hour before closing time. After jumping into the single-rider line at Test Track — a GM-sponsored racetrack on rails — I head to the Epcot World Showcase, where an annual Food and Wine Festival is under way, with a United Nations of food stands selling bite-sized portions of everything from Greece’s fried Haloumi to France’s escargot. At the Eat-To-The-Beat concert stage, Hansen is playing Mmmbop to teenage girls who think of them as “old guys.”

One of my only memories from being at Epcot as a 10-year-old is going to the Moroccan restaurant and eating a beef eggroll coated with powdered sugar, and it’s still on the menu. So I order one to go and take it outside to eat while I watch the fireworks.

“IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth” is the nightly fireworks show at Epcot. I’ve heard a figure of around 100k for how much this show costs every night, and it looks it. Fire spews from the center of the lake with more drama than an ignited Kuwaiti oil well. Then come fireworks that could pass for World War Three, and a spinning globe — at least four-stories tall — floats across the water to the middle of the lake. The continents are LED screens showing a montage of human history: horses running across a plain, cave drawings, sailing ships, then Rio’s Christ The Redeemer, the Statue of Liberty, the Sistine Chapel, Gandhi and Shirley Temple. This show is about fostering global patriotism, i.e. “You may be in America, but here at Epcot, we are The World.” After this montage, the globe opens like a flower, revealing a giant torch burning inside, just as all the torches around the lake spontaneously ignite. It makes you feel a swell of affection for your fellow man. And if you’re by yourself eating powdered sugar eggrolls from a Styrofoam to go box, it makes you miss everyone you’ve ever loved.

Nothing says Nightlife like Dueling Pianos

Tuesday is no-cover night for Disney Cast Members at Jellyroll Dueling Piano Bar, so they come in droves. Plus, the Canadians from the Best Western North America Convention have chosen this place to throw their “famous” annual after-party, and 80% of the people in the room are wearing a Canadian maple-leaf bandana on some part of their body.

Tonight’s drink special is “Sex On The Beach,” which strikes me as pretty racy for Disney. I tell a Cast Member next to me at the bar that I’m a journalist and she freaks out and runs away — actually leaves the bar. I take it that the rules against speaking to journalists are quite explicit. Jellyroll is one of the regular nightlife spots for people who work in “The Industry,” the other industry nights are Buffalo Wild Wings on Wednesdays, and House Of Blues on Sundays.

The “industry,” in this case, can be broken into several distinct groups: students and recent grads — US and international — on the college program; entertainers before, between, or post cruise ship contracts; die-hard Disney or Harry Potter fans fulfilling a lifelong dream; park-assimilated locals, and immigrants from far and wide in the land of a million service jobs. Together they make up a very pleasant melting pot: happy to be young, happy to have a job, or just happy to be out of the Balkans.

The industry crowd tends to exist within their own orbit, sometimes sharing bars and drink specials with conventioneers and bachelorette parties et al. Outside the bubble of park-adjacent nightlife, it all becomes a bit too Central Florida for my taste. Florida can often feel like the Jersey of the South; you start mingling with the Real Locals — Universal Citywalk gets its share of them on the weekends — and you intersect with crotch-rocket gangs and glow stick ravers and energy drink enthusiasts; in short, a group to be aggressively avoided.

Return Of The Cynic

Don’t begin a Wednesday by visiting an abandoned amusement park. Or any day, for that matter. Splendid China amusement park (1993–2003) was a $100 million dollar debacle aimed at inspiring interest in Chinese culture abroad. Americans tourists took it as a communist ploy.

Splendid China Amusement Park

I pull into an entrance with grass growing up through the concrete, and a chain link fence warns: NO TRESSPASSING. But I manage to find a utility entrance that gives me a good look at the decaying pagodas and miniature Forbidden City. It shouldn’t have cost them $100 million to figure out that just because we’ll let the Chinese float our debt doesn’t mean we want them sharing a zip code with Disney World. Take us back to the 1950’s, not the Ming Dynasty — we’ll choose formica over jade and Cindarella’s castle over an emperor’s pagoda any day of the week.

Jesus, the Bantamweight.

At the entrance to Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Holy Land Experience is an inverted bust of Jesus that causes an optical illusion so that no matter where you stand, Jesus is looking at you.

The cashier selling tickets is dressed in biblical robes and has a chinstrap beard. The park offers something they call a “shoppers pass,” where if you pay the $30 entrance fee (steep considering there are no rides of any kind here) and you leave within an hour, you get a full refund of the entrance fee. I highly recommend the shoppers pass.

If there were a hall of fame for Christian wax sculpture, then the Christus Gardens would surely be its first induction. It begins with a manger and a very blond, blue-eyed wax baby Jesus, then moves through the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Resurrection — complete with creepy life-size wax disciples. If you’re hungry afterwards, you can try the Goliath Burger in the Oasis Palms café.

“People ask me for fish and bread,” says the guy at the snack bar. “I have to tell them we just have chicken fingers.”

In the gift shops, you can buy prayer anointment oil, monk teddy bears, rhinestone bible covers, and plastic crowns of thorns and Roman Legionary helmets. But the most unique gift-shop item is an oil painting of Jesus as a Boxer: bare-chested, ripped, and with a label on his glove that reads, “MERCY.”

The Little Guys

Back on International Drive, the gaudy main tourist drag of Orlando, I stop to visit some lesser-known local attractions.

The Fun Spot is suffering from a mid-week, post-season lull. The park has probably a total of 10 customers and about the same number of staff. Most rides aren’t even in use, and those that are, are barely. At the bumper cars, only three cars are in operation, out of twenty. I ask the guy running it if this is normal: “This time of year, mid-week, yeah. This is when we fix things, get painting done.” There’s a ferris wheel with no riders, and a triple-decker go-cart track with only four cars buzzing around.

The last detour off International drive is iFLY Indoor Skydiving, the country’s original indoor skydiving facility. It looks like the world’s largest vacuum cleaner motor and sounds like a thousand Hoovers going at once. Inside is a training and viewing room, where benches face a plexiglass rotunda with a wire grating floor and massive overhead fans generating the 100mph wind. A woman with a headscarf watches as 8 young Muslim men in bodysuits are huddled around an instructor, practicing moves and learning skydiving hand signals. It costs $49.95 for two 60-second “flights.”

An instructor steps into the wind tunnel to show them how it’s done. He hovers for a moment, frozen in space, then shifts his body and suddenly flies upwards towards fan blades in the ceiling (covered by wire grating), springs off a steel crossbar upside down and dives straight for the metal wiring floor and then stops, like a hummingbird materializing out of a blur to tread air for a split second, then he starts doing flips — backwards and forwards­­ — then hangs upside down in the air and gives me a big thumbs up. When the paying customers get their turn and each stick to the floor, it’s a like watching someone struggle with their first power chord after the salesman at Guitar Center just channeled Hendrix on the same guitar.

The Mother I Never Had

I manage to get one hour in at Disney’s Hollywood Studios before it closes, shoot virtual reality darts in a shooting gallery at The Toy Story ride, save some Ewoks in Star Tours, then stop for dinner at 50’s Prime Time Café: a restaurant consisting entirely of rooms that look like 1950’s kitchens, complete with formica tables and black and white TV’s playing Dennis The Menace, Father Knows Best, and old Walt Disney newsreels. Not only do they take you back to the 50’s, but they’ve removed the bad parts for you (no McCarthyism, Cold War, or Polio). There’s also a bar called Dad’s Lounge, with wood-paneled walls and a mounted large-mouth bass, if that’s more your brand of nostalgia.

“It’s 1952,” the hostess tells me, “Mary Ann will be your mom tonight.” I don’t understand what’s going on yet.

“Sonny boy!” Mary Ann screams as she comes with the menu. She’s in her 60’s, white apron and gingham dress — she looks like a mom in a Shake-N-Bake commercial. Every table around me is already in on the act. “Mom, can I have some water?” and “Mom, can I have dessert, I ate my veggies!” I’m finally getting it.

“So good to see you, Sonny,” she says. “Are you old enough to drink yet?” I give her a look. “Well, then look at the grown-up drinks on the back of the menu.” She’s even learned how to up-sell in character.

I order a peanut butter and jelly shake instead. (It comes in a giant frosted metal mixing cup — enough for two, and at $4.99 it’s one of the best deals at Disney World. It is too thick for any straw and makes you wish you had an extra stomach so you could order two.)

“Nappies on your lappies,” barks Mary Ann, “and no elbows on the table.”

My mom is intense. The house rules are: “No walkie-talkies at the table,” (no cellphones), “no toys,” (no handheld video games), and no hats at the table. And if you don’t follow the rules, you could be ordered to wear a paper hat that says, “I’m a brat,” (contradicting the previous rule) or told to stand with your nose against the wall for five minutes on timeout. And people all take the punishment because they’re paying for it.

When I ask for water, she says, “I put the rubber sheets on your bed so I don’t have to worry.” Gee, thanks, mom.

At the table next to me is a family from Indiana: dad, mom, and two boys. The dad seems even more into Disney World than his sons are. They had Mary Ann as their mom last year, and came back just to have her again. This dad never went to Disney World as a kid, but now he’s a stockholder in Disney and owns a Disney Vacation Club timeshare. He points out that it goes to his kids if “something happens” to him and his wife before his 50 year share runs out, to which his 7- and 8-year-old sons respond with looks of shock and terror. “Don’t worry,” he tells them. “We come here every year, I would retire here. It’s safe, there’s no crime, you can let your kids run around and not worry. This is the way we wish the world was like everywhere.” I don’t mention that Orlando proper has one of the highest crime rates in the nation.

Mary Ann starts chastising a woman across the room for not eating her vegetables, then she starts humming airplane engine noises and feeding this woman her uneaten spinach like airplanes landing in a hangar. The woman just sits there with her mouth open and eats it. I ate all my vegetables, and Mary Ann gives me a sticker: “Official Member: Clean Plate Club.”

The only time Mary Ann breaks character is when she asks if I’m on the Disney meal plan, and when she runs my credit card. As I get up to leave, I get a glimpse of this role-playing game’s only major weakness. A family from Argentina comes in and she starts calling them “sonny” and what-not and they just stare at her. “Hablas Ingles?” she asks. “Tienes el Disney Meal Plan?”

Between Soft Rock and a Hard Place

A bellboy in knickers at the Boardwalk Resort helps me load up my rental car before I head to Universal Studios to check into my new digs at the Hard Rock Hotel — more PG-13 accommodations, with no banned websites on their wifi network à la Disney. Then it’s off to Sea World for the day.

Muzak greets you in Sea World’s $15-a-spot parking lot. They don’t have licensing rights to popular movie themes like Universal and Disney do, and I start to miss Under The Sea and Hakuna Matata.

You’re met beyond the turnstiles with Panama Jack kiosks selling sunscreen and Panama hats (and the surprise that Panama Jack still exists). There’s a large British contingency here today, and I observe that Brits are as unfamiliar with sunscreen as they are with orthodontics — and somebody needs to tell them that tube tops should not ride below tan lines… or be worn at all. But that somebody isn’t the guy walking around alone with the camera and the notepad, as British men are familiar with punching other men in the face.

Sea World’s Manta rollercoaster is the first ride that actually scares me. Once you lock into the seats, you’re hoisted into a semi-inversion so that you’re hanging horizontally — facing the ground. The health warnings here read like prescription drug disclaimers: they get into full paragraphs about amputees and prosthetic limbs. The seats look like they max out at about a 38-inch waist, and there’s a good many people around here who exceed that.

“It’s not the belly that gets ’em, it’s the thighs,” says one of the teenagers working the ride.

“Yeah, the thighs’ll get you,” another chimes in. “The belly you can push, I’ve had to jump on a guy to get it closed. I ask ’em, ‘are you okay? They say ‘No, I can’t feel my legs.’ And we have to let them off. And sometimes they say ‘yeah, it’s fine,’ but you can see their legs turning blue and you have to tell them they can’t do it.”

I blow off Shamu for a show called Blue Horizons, because the teenagers working Manta told me it was the best. It stars a large False Killer Whale and a fleet of Bottlenose Dolphins, and it turns out to be pretty jaw-dropping. These creatures (not fish… swimming mammals?) can splash the crowd on cue with a swipe of their tails, ride on the surface of the water on their tails, and let their trainers surf on their backs. The trainers direct them using gestures and a large Q-tip that I later learn is called a Target Pole.

There’s also an acrobatics component to the show, with people in bird costumes suspended from cables, high divers, and then a half-dozen trained parrots that fly out and buzz the audience. At the heart of this spectacle is the relationship between the trainers and the animals — after every trick they perform their trainers hug them, kiss them, and slip them a baitfish.

This trainer-animal relationship is what’s actually going on here, and the show is more or less the side effect. The animals have the attention of trainers all day, every day, and must train for 4–5 years before they’re ready for the show. Once they’re show-ready, they keep learning new tricks every 6 months. The depth of this time-intensive process seems lost on the crowd, already filing out and looking for the shark tank or the stingray petting zoo.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

“We’re not a show, just a continuous pearl-diving experience,” says a voice over a PA.

For $15.99, a diver will swim to the bottom of a giant outdoor tank, grab an oyster for you, and hand it off to someone who opens it up and digs out a cultivated pearl. Will it be a black pearl, or a pink one? Will there be more than one? The mystery is the gimmick. The divers have spent so many hours underwater they’ve started learning tricks: one lays on his back and blows air rings that float up and break on the surface.

By the end of day four, the rollercoasters haven’t fazed me. I’ve learned how to avoid the mobility scooters and the double strollers, and I could eat chicken fingers for life. What gets to me are solitude and gift shops. I’m tired of being the creepy guy in the Single Riders line. I’m tired of asking, “does this ride have a single riders line.” And I’m tired of the endless gift shops with the T-shirts and key chains and candy dispensers and snow globes and now I have to add oysters to that list? Gift shops are to rides what baitfish are to dolphin shows — you can’t have one without the other. And though technology is responsible for speedpasses, which I’ve learned to love, it also helps strengthen the invisible string around your wallet that you feel subconsciously tugged by everywhere you go. There are park apps to download, cards to swipe for pictures, and at Disney you can use your room card like an Amex anywhere you go (they call it Key To The World for its multi-functionality). Like Vegas, everything in a theme park is designed to get you to painlessly part with your money, and I feel as financially vulnerable as a housewife in a mechanic’s shop.

Calling In The Support

After five days of solo amusement, I’m suffering from being the only unattached atom in a sea of paired-off molecules. A security guard at one park even said, “awww, you’re all alone?” as I left by myself at closing time. Everyone here is part of a group: families, conventioneers, friends, and then there’s me — the suspicious guy taking pictures and writing furiously in a little notebook. If I saw me in an amusement park, I would be weirded out, too.

Seaboard Line Amtrak Station — my girlfriend is arriving on the 12:30 Silver Meteor. Her first job is to be my translator at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, none of whose books I have read.

A fair number of the staff at The Wizarding World are Harry Potter fanatics on a paid extended pilgrimage. It’s the most popular draw at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and I’m told that in the summertime, it’s packed tighter than Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. (Except that here the bile isn’t on the sidewalk, but sold in jellybean form in Honeyduke’s candy store).

At the Butterbeer carts, you can buy frozen or iced Butterbeer in a souvenir mug for $11.50 with infinite 85-cent refills. It tastes like a marriage of root beer and butterscotch, and comes with a thick, rich, butterscotch foam on the top. The recipe is top secret and always kept separated in three different locations so it can never be ripped off. It would be even better if it had booze in it.

Kids are running around in black round-rimmed glasses and robes, pointing their wands as they cast imaginary spells on people waiting in line for Butterbeer. You can tell the spoiled ones how much of the wizard ensemble they’re wearing — $100 robe, $35 scarf, $30 wand — it adds up quick.

“We sell more to adults than kids. Usually like… Microsoft guys,” says the clerk at Ollivander’s wand shop.

“Sometimes people even come in and try to speak in Parseltongue,” she says.

I stare blankly, and my translator whispers in my ear: “Parseltongue is the serpent language Voldemort uses to talk to his pet snake.” And Voldemort would be…

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the flagship ride, housed in a replica of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s a mix of simulation and actual movement, with IMAX-sized screens on which you fly your broomstick off a cliff, pulling up just before plunging into the ocean, then weave through a Quidditch match, all while following closely behind Potter himself, who keeps looking back and saying, “Follow me!” And you do, somehow.

Then it’s back to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for two last main attractions on the to-ride list. First, we get to feel our stomachs in our throats and listen to frat boys hum The Twilight Zone theme song in the very awesome Tower Of Terror. Then it’s over to Rock ’n’ Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith, with the longest line I’ve waited in all week: 15 minutes. The ride is what Space Mountain would be if it were built today. It goes zero to 60 in 2.8 seconds “with the force of an F-14.” Then you’re spinning around a blur of neon Los Angeles with a 32,000 watt sound system blasting Aerosmith from your seatback. And finally, after all my issues with gift shops, I find myself at the register with my wallet out. “Is that all for you, sir?” Yep, just the pink mouse ears. Gift shops aren’t so bad when you have somebody to buy for.

Bodily Rebellion and Magic Rain

A combination of factors causes my body to finally say, “enough” on the very last day. First is The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios; a simulation ride that is so utterly head-scrambling that both of us are dizzy for an hour afterwards. Do not, I repeat, do not ride this ride if you have recently eaten… or ever eaten. It could effectively replace waterboarding in CIA rendition facilities.

The second factor is my getting dragged onto the Hulk ride at Islands Of Adventure, which is described in Universal materials as having a “force equal to that of a jet taking off from an aircraft carrier,” reaches top speed of 67mph and has a total of 7 inversions and two underground trenches. I’ve been riding rollercoasters for 7 straight days. I’ve had my brains jostled in a million ways and my equilibrium violated repeatedly. But Hulk makes you feel like your face is melting off and your brain is being separated from the inside of your skull. Two minutes and fifteen seconds later, I stagger off the ride like I’ve just sparred with Manny Pacquiao on the wing of a fighter jet. For the first time since It’s A Small World a few days prior, I mumble to myself, “I’m too old for this shit.”

Sunday afternoon at The Magic Kingdom, we hit Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Pirates of The Caribbean, and, gulp, get our photo taken in front of Cindarella’s castle. And then it starts pouring rain. We take cover in a Mexican hacienda that’s as crowded as an airport terminal in a snowstorm — kids are sitting around on the floor, waiting for the rain to stop, and their parents don’t have an answer for them. (The $10 taco salad we get to pass the time only becomes edible when covered with seven pumps of fake cheese from a self-serve pump). For anyone without an umbrella or a Mickey Mouse poncho, there’s nothing to do but ride out the storm. And then it happens — a mother empties out all her gift shop bags into one, then pokes arm holes in the empty bags and tells her children, “Put these on.” To the kids, it’s cooler than a raincoat; something they wouldn’t be allowed to do back home. They put on their plastic bags and run outside. Pretty soon, other families start going out into the rain, too. Because you can do things here that you don’t do back home. That’s why they come. And the parents need that just as much as the kids.

Heading back down Main Street Disney in the rain, I finally get why my parents were able to be a happy couple here, even if they couldn’t be that at home. Disney resort staff will tell every returning guest “welcome home.” It’s a careful wording, clearly outlined somewhere in an employee handbook. But this isn’t home at all, it’s a magical place.

It’s Orlando.

Post Script: I married the girl.