“What’s the first thing you want to do when you retire?” my fiance’ John asked me late in May, 2018. After the insane six week period from early April till May 24th, wherein I had finalized training my replacement, retired from my 38-1/2 year career at Peter Pan, then turned 65 the following day; finally emptied and sold my house in Massachusetts where I had resided since 1991; then made the “big move” to my new forever home in Connecticut with my love of nearly six years, the answer was simple. I had two choices: either a cruise or one of my bucket list items – to go to Disney World. Well, as I had already been surprised by my love with a cruise to the Bahamas for my 60th birthday, it was a no-brainer…. I was going to SEE THE MOUSE! (A wish is a dream you build on, or vice versa, as they say in Disney-speak, and who HASN’T wanted to see what the Wonderful World of Disney was like in real life since the age of five, right?) So my intrepid Disneyphile man went full steam ahead, planning the ultimate Disney experience for us, from soup to nuts.
Now to understand fully, you need to first know that John has been to every Disney park in the Orlando area for the grand total of OVER 500 DAYS since 1978. He knows this because, (being a detail-oriented, annoyingly exacting [dare I use the term anal?] engineer for United Technologies), over the particularly boring snowy winter of 2005, he actually took the time to calculate how many days he had spent at one or more Disney parks up to that point…whether he had gone alone or with ex-wives and family, to only one park, or 3 in one day, it counted as only a one-day visit. Turned out that by 2005, he had amassed over 444 days….and he continued to go to Disney parks from 2005 to 2010 with his then-wife and her youngest child, and even by himself during breaks in business and training seminars for his company held in Orlando, West Palm Beach and at NASA, adding to the 444 day count. What better way to spend downtime than taking a ride on Splash Mountain, or visiting his buddy Figment at Epcot (what is it with engineers and Figment, anyway?) By the time of our escapade into WDW, he’d accumulated at least an additional 50+ days….hence, we were about to celebrate at least his 500th visit and my first time ever – a noteworthy event that was commemorated by Disney cast members “pinning” us with special badges stating our respective milestones (they are NOT referred to as “employees” in Disney-speak – that terminology doesn’t sound magical enough!)
So John planned every single excruciating detail, from finding the lowest possible crowd numbers (did you know “crowd days” are numbered from roughly 1 to 10, according to historic crowd density dates?), booking the best & least expensive flights (we learned NEVER to take Spirit Airlines again!), two weeks in a beautiful 2-bedroom “villa” at Orange Lake Resort in Kissimmee, his-and-her scooters from Gold Mobility Scooters (don’t laugh, they saved our arthritic knees and backs, Disney treats folks in wheelchairs and on scooters with TLC when it comes to getting into attractions, plus we always had a seat for fireworks-watching that didn’t have somebody else’s melted chocolate or gum on it!) He made several terrific restaurant ADRs (for those of you dear readers who are NOT in the know, that stands for “Advance Dining Reservations” at some of the insanely expensive sit-down specialty dining experiences at Walt Disney World – hey, somebody has to “feed the Mouse!”), and Fast Passes, Magic Bands, Memory Maker package, ad nauseum. He even went so far as to find an additional surprise “bucket list item” for us to experience together – a helium balloon ride over Disney Springs….talk about leaving no stone unturned!
Magic Bands firmly attached to our sweaty-because-it’s-95-degrees-heated wrists, we first visited Disney’s Hollywood Studio, saw the not-to-be-missed Indiana Jones show, etc. John had arranged for us to see the Fantasmic fireworks and light extravaganza from a great vantage point that first night at Disney – we attended a VIP dessert party, and got tasty adult beverages in special flashing keepsake mugs as well as incredible chocolaty treats while we watched one of the most beautiful laser light-water-fireworks displays I’d ever seen (up to that point). Second day, met up with my cousin and her family at Whispering Canyon Cafe’ restaurant at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and had a relaxing day poolside with them. (Until we’d talked in June, neither one of us knew the other would be at Disney at the same time, so this was a really happy coincidence). The next day, we visited Animal Kingdom & Epcot in one day, skipped a day to go shopping at Disney Springs, and tried for the first of several attempts to get on that helium balloon! (Winds had to be under 16 mph, and as luck would have it, Hurricane Michael was on its way, which, though it only dumped some rain on the greater Orlando area, made it far too gusty several days in advance to go up in any kind of balloon).
We did slow down the pace between park days to lounge poolside at Orange Lake, tube down the lazy river there, and take nice breaks from all the Disney frenzy for a bit. We even managed to squeeze in a day in Tampa with my Florida family members, taking in The Florida Aquarium, which was a great attraction.
Not to bore you with every single detail of our vacation, but we covered everything from Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival (nightmare crowds on weekends!), Disney’s Hollywood Studio, saw a gorgeous lion and his lionesses at Animal Kingdom, went on every ride imaginable (yes, I got wet on Splash Mountain as well as the Frozen ride, went Soarin’ twice, and rode Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain as well), but we also visited Universal Studios in between. (We went on Rip-Ride-Rocket roller coaster (YOU MUST HAVE A DEATH WISH IF YOU DO THIS MORE THAN ONCE!), flew with Harry Potter, plus the Escape From Gringotts ride and the mystical, magical Diagon Alley, all of which were breathtaking and fun…and the frozen Butter Beer is not to be missed!) The highlight of our day at Magic Kingdom was the most truly incredible light and fireworks spectacular, voted the #1 greatest display in the world, set to the magnificent Disney themes from all their best animated classic films – and the grand finale, with Tinkerbell actually in flight amidst the fireworks, had all of us in the crowded streets alternately cheering, screaming and holding our breath! Most amazing thing I have ever witnessed!
To tell you this was a trip to remember is an understatement, but one thing will always stand out in my mind and my heart for the rest of my life…..that very first moment at rope drop at Magic Kingdom, when we were scooting slowly on Main Street amidst the morning throng, and John suddenly said to me “Look up” – and I saw the iconic Cinderella’s Castle up close and personal for the very first time. Yes, I got a lump in my throat….yes, I teared up….and yes, my inner child, five years old, immediately started jumping up and down (on the inside!) It truly was “A Magical Day”…and the experience of a lifetime!
(Oh, and yes, we finally managed on our 5th attempt to get on that damn balloon – and it was well worth the wait!)