Walt Disney World, Part 1: Leaving the Bubble

My recent trip to Walt Disney World changed my idea of what I want out of a vacation

This summer, my fiancé and I went on a ten-day trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday. Because it was such an arbitrarily momentous occasion, I was selfish and splurged in all the ways I’ve never been able to before: two days in each park, a whole day devoted to just hanging out at the hotel, dinners at some of the fanciest restaurants we could get reservations for, and staying at my two favorite hotels for peak nostalgia value.

I’ve spent most of the last year convinced that with everything terrible happening, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong and make the trip impossible. But somehow, everything came together: we were both able to get vaccinated, our neighbors graciously offered to take care of the cat, we managed to get time off work, my favorite hotels opened up (at least partially), and Disney ran a discount that made the hotels just ridiculously expensive instead of impossibly expensive.

It ended up being a terrific birthday, and about as nice as it can possibly be to spend ten days in central Florida in late June. As great as it was, though, I could feel my perspective subtly shifting while I was down there. This felt like the last time I’ll take a lengthy trip to Disney World. Not just because I’ll never be able to justify the cost again, but because it doesn’t feel like my type of thing anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually committing blasphemy by saying I’ll never go again. I already want to see the new stuff that’s going to be opening for the anniversary and in 2022, and onward. I’d love to be able to stay at — I mean take a space cruise on the Star Wars not-a-hotel when it opens. But this felt like checking “dream Disney World vacation” off of a list, and I don’t feel the need to do it again.

It’s not that I’m getting tired of it, either. I got absurdly spoiled on previous jobs where I’d spend weeks at a time at the parks, and it never got old. (Almost. It turns out that two weeks living on theme park food is my limit). Instead, I think I’m just at the point where I want something different out of a vacation.

I can honestly say I’ve never had any hesitation or regrets about spending almost all my vacation time at Disney parks. Complaints that they’re just for kids, and it’s weird for childless adults to go there, are just absurd, and I never even give them a second thought. Same for complaints that it’s all a corporate money-making machine; I mean, welcome to the 21st century.

The only complaint that’s ever gotten any real traction with me is that it’s all manufactured, a fake substitute for “the real thing.” And that pretty much dissolved as soon as I went to Italy, and I realized that Epcot’s version felt more realistic than actual Venice and parts of Rome. I’m skeptical that the people so dismissive of Disney are actually going on exotic adventure treks, or living like a native in delightful out-of-the-way sections of foreign cities, but even if they are, that’s not me.

I’m not convinced that “travel and live like the locals do” is actually a thing, at least unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who are locals. And even then, I’m not convinced it’s all that great a goal. I live in one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States, and the thought of people paying money to recreate my day-to-day experience is profoundly depressing. They’d have a lot more fun doing the predictable, touristy stuff accessible to everyone: going to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking photos of the Golden Gate from the Marin Headlands, riding a cable car, getting a Mission burrito, desperately searching for a public restroom.

I’ve been lucky to do a fair bit of traveling, and I’ve always ended up in the touristy areas anyway, if only because I’m helplessly monolingual. I don’t even like talking to strangers in English; it was stressful enough being in Ireland, and people constantly greeting me with “Are you okay?” as if I looked like something horrible had happened to me. The idea of actually roughing it — either in terms of residence or social interaction — doesn’t sound like a relaxing vacation in the slightest.

So I’ve realized that I’ve spent years thinking about Disney parks — especially Walt Disney World, with its emphasis on all the resorts and stuff to do “inside the bubble” — in the wrong way. I’ve thought of them as taking a real-world travel adventure and making it safer, more compact, and more generically family-friendly. But now, I realize that it’s actually taking a family-friendly vacation and trying to inject a little bit of real-world adventure into it. It really doesn’t matter at all that it’s not an authentic experience; all it needs to do is give you something to look at and do that’s more interesting than just sitting by a hotel pool.

And I can’t speak for anybody else, but now that I’m firmly in my middle age, the idea of sitting by a hotel pool is more attractive than it’s ever been. My travel goals for the future are seeking out the most comfortable hotel pools in the most exotic places.

Next up: my report card for the trip.

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