Doing Too Much: Death and the American Vacation
Our trip began on a Friday evening. After eating airport burritos and hoarding the peanuts and crackers provided to me on our Southwest flight (I could already see my future: trapped and starving in a theme park, saved by these mediocre snacks), my boyfriend Jared and I landed in Orlando.
The inexplicable swelling I’d been noticing in my left foot for the last week was even greater after the pressure changes of air travel. I loosened the strap on my sandals as we waited for our suitcases to circle around on the bag carousel, and ran my hand through my hair. A dozen strands came loose and I waved my fingers, allowing them to fall to the linoleum floor, blonde and unnoticeable. I had talked myself into believing these symptoms were nothing serious, but already I was concerned I might need to interrupt our trip to see a doctor. My foot didn’t feel broken or sprained, but there was a dull ache in my arch that I hoped indicated some sort of strain. In the back of my mind, I worried I had a blood clot hiding in my leg or that I was experiencing heart/liver/kidney disease or that a lymph node was blocked. Web MD had informed me that all of these were possibilities, and while I laughed off my hypochondriac self-diagnoses, I considered all of them likely.
Despite the very common fear of planes crashing, it’s not the crashes that constitute the major threat in air travel. In the course of a given year, more people die in medical-related deaths on airplanes than are killed when a plane goes down. According to the Chicago Tribune, an average of 700 emergency medical landings happen yearly in the US. Between 114 and 260 of those are caused by someone dying on a domestic flight, though it’s rare that the declaration of those deaths happen in the air, whether because a qualified individual is not present or because they’re unwilling to expose themselves to the risk of making such a declaration. There are no reliable statistics reporting the ultimate mortality of the other 440 to 586 people who required medical attention, but it’s safe to assume the number inches up from there. Compare that to a mere 210 fatalities from commercial aviation accidents worldwide in 2013. It’s clear where the real danger lies.
“What is heart disease anyway?” I asked Jared as we rolled our bags toward the parking lot.
Disney, genius entity that it is, has named the buses that transport guests from the airport to their resorts, the Magical Express, and, of course, they’ve produced a video specifically for this bus ride away from the airport: a short feature, about the length and timbre of an episode of Entertainment Tonight, created to build hype for the days to come in the parks. I teared up three times watching this video. Memories of past experiences combined with anticipation get me every time. My particular ability to experience joy is firmly rooted in looking forward to what lies ahead. The effect of this trait often reveals the world to be a disappointment, but lucky for me, I don’t notice, because I am already busy daydreaming about what will come next.
According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, an average 63,000 buses of all types are involved in an accident every year in America, resulting in 14,000 injuries to people involved, 325 of them fatal, but only 50 of those fatalities occurring to passengers of the bus. In other words, it’s more dangerous to be near a bus than on one. Disney’s prevalent bus transportation contributes to this trend, though minimally. Only two people have been hit and killed by Disney buses, both at resort parking lots: a young boy riding his bike and an old man not looking where he was going. In 2010, a private bus collided with a Disney bus in the EPCOT parking lot, but only the driver of the Disney bus suffered critical injuries. There is no record of a passenger dying while on a Disney bus.
Upon arriving at our destination, our Magical Express driver, a soft-spoken gentlemen with a Caribbean accent, barely whispered into his mic’d headset, “Remember to use da handrail…as you exit da coach. Welcome to da Pup Century.” The budget resort where we were staying was actually called the “Pop Century,” but the driver pronounced the word like it was a hotel themed around one hundred years of small dogs. Many months later, I’m still whispering this to Jared, apropos of nothing: “Welcome to da Pup Century.” This line of dialogue constitutes one of my favorite memories of the trip.
At the Pup Century, Jared insisted on getting in 15 minutes of pool time before the deck closed at 11pm. We hurriedly put on our swimsuits and jumped in before returning to our room for the night. Doing some idle googling before bed, already overwhelmed by the unfaltering grin of the parks, and driven to hunt down the darkness that surely bubbled just below the surface, we’d find out that a person had recently drowned in that pool. Perhaps people had drowned in most pools I’d swam in in my life, but Disney’s commitment to keeping the magic alive made me wonder if it might not be protocol to shut down the pool after such an incident, reimagine it in another iteration, or cut their losses and move on to the next big thing, as rumors say they did in the case of River Country.
River Country was a Disney waterpark next to the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, that experienced an outbreak of—true story—flesh-eating bacteria. But that’s not what closed down the park. The bacteria snuck into the water in 1980, and, contrary to popular belief, was successfully controlled. Two children drowned in the park, in 1982 and 1989, and the park remained open until 2001, when it was determined two newer waterparks were drawing bigger crowds. You can find pictures of the decrepit remains of the River Country online, along with some more information about the parasite that climbed into a kid’s brain through his nose. It’s easy to pair the images of the ruins of a waterpark—empty swimming pools and slides overrun with dead leaves and fallen trees—with the story of a child dying, but there’s really not much of a correlation. Disney, it seems, followed the same rules as most other businesses: admit the issue publicly and move on as quickly as possible. The resort staff is tasked with the careful business of managing the guest experience from tip to tail, and that requires the simple act of withholding information when appropriate.
I should note, if I’m going to paint a full picture of my Disney experience, that before going to sleep that night, and early the next morning before heading out to the brand of fun Disney had carefully “Imagineered” for us, I worked. My day job at the time was that of a client manager at a software company. I answered emails and ushered project tickets to the colleagues who needed to complete the tasks associated with those tickets. I know what you’re thinking. “Certainly it wasn’t necessary that you work while vacationing in Disney World.”
But instead my self-prescribed fate resulted in grudging work done early in the morning before going to the parks, while waiting in line for rides (shaking my head), and late at night. The death of the American vacation is a popular special interest story, examining every data set to encourage Americans to stop doing so much. The articles dissect people’s competitions to leave the most vacation days untaken, the near pathological payment of lip service to “unplugging” while still checking email, people convincing themselves that to truly relax they need to get their to-do list entirely checked off before leaving, etc. It becomes obvious that we are attempting to incorporate relaxation into our lives in entirely the wrong way. And yet we persist.
My particular obsession with efficiency and hard work extends to an insistence that even vacation itself must be jam-packed and effectively managed. I am obsessed with making the most of my dollars, but there is no place I let this preoccupation overtake me so wholly as in a theme park. These parks aren’t cheap, and so the only logical methodology, because one must approach everything with a method, is to arrive when the parks open and depart when the parks close. Jared and I had bought only two days of Park Hopper tickets, meaning we’d need to visit two parks a day to ensure we got to all four main parks before we left. That required planning that started months ahead of time, obtaining Fast Passes for the rides we thought might feature the longest lines and strategizing about what parks complemented each other best, proximity- and time-wise.
We hit all the major rides in the Animal Kingdom before we even had lunch: Expedition Everest, in which guests track a yeti on a rollercoaster; Kali River Rapids, essentially just a reason to ensure chafing for the remainder of the day; the Primeval Whirl, wherein your body is jerked around with such force that your hips will bear the bruises long after you return home; and Dinosaur, where you are delivered the mission of smuggling an iguanodon back into the present while time-travelling to the cretaceous period.
Records indicate that individuals have died during or immediately after each of these rides, either from heart attacks or injuries sustained while occupying a restricted area of the ride. Since 2001, Disney has been required to report incidents of this nature to state authorities, but it seems crazy that they have to report a person dying of natural causes in the same way as a person hit by a spinning dinosaur car, as if it’s some black mark on the Disney reputation that a person’s life happens to stop itself on their property.
The Wikipedia page devoted entirely to these coincidences reminded me, in an inappropriate and tangential way, of a recent trip we’d taken to Berlin. Outside of various buildings from which a person or people had been taken to a concentration camp, brass bricks were paved into the cobbled sidewalk. Each brick shows the name of an individual and the details of their death. Guenther Demnig, who started the project in the 1990s, calls the bricks “Stolperstein” (“stumbling stones),” and in the two decades of the project’s existence, over 30,000 stumbling stones have been installed in dozens of cities and towns across Germany. Wandering the streets of Berlin, the effect is clear, and best stated by one of the private funders of the stones, Hendrik Czeczatka: “Everybody in the first place is responsible, individually, for remembering.” The bricks pull apart the pointillist image of the larger horror of the Holocaust, and refocus on the complex, distinct individuals that occupy each dot that makes up that memory. I realize that it’s dicey to even mention these two ideas in one essay because their gravity is so disparate: accidental death and intentional genocide. In Disney World, there’s no need to officially memorialize the lost lives, because if there’s any lesson to be learned from them, Disney is already forcefully pushing this moral on guests: Treat Yourself. You work hard. There’s no promise you’ll get another chance to do this right.
The list of these deaths constitutes neither memorial nor warning: it’s just a record, not quite distasteful, but definitely macabre. Less a tribute to the people who passed away in Disney World, the Wikipedia page functions as a place where people can point at Disney and say, “See? There’s the sinister side.”
You might be thinking, “But wait. Isn’t it true that no one can die on Disney property?” But that is an unfounded rumor, similar to the infrequency of people being declared dead while on an airplane. People have been pronounced dead at Disney World, in rare instances, but typically the final call is made once the person has arrived at a hospital, by a professional trusted to make such decisions, and that’s no different than any other place in America.
The lunch option that presented itself to us in the Animal Kingdom was a mac and cheese hotdog at a little hole in the wall called Restaurantosaurus. Separately, both the hot dog and mac and cheese were of acceptable, could-have-made-it-in-my-own-kitchen quality, but I wish I could say that the sum of the whole equaled more than its parts. The bun was stale (as most bread I tasted in my 5 days in Disney proper would be), and the mac tasted like Velveeta shells and cheese out of the box. The bacon bits that the menu claimed as a garnish were conspicuously missing, forcing me to grieve the vision of the chef who dreamt up this concoction, excited to push the boundaries of normal park food, but compromised by the economy necessary to prepare the dish for thousands of visitors each day.
Children all around us were eating their lunches out of plastic buckets, complete with ornamental shovels. This was Disney’s version of a Happy Meal, no doubt, and I guessed that this choice was made because the setting of Restaurantosaurus seemed to be vaguely tied to an archeological dig, but I saw these same sand pails many times throughout our stay, and was not always able to trace their presence to an appropriate theme. I wondered at the practicality of this choice on Disney’s part. Certainly parents resented having to drag along the pails for the rest of the day and then fitting them into already tight luggage for the journey home. Did the delight provided to the kids outweigh the parents’ dismay? Isn’t that what Disney is all about? Is a normal adult more willing to please their children than I would be? Probably.
The Magic Kingdom features the most elaborate attractions while also carrying the brunt of collective nostalgic weight. Disney plays a constant loop of melodramatic movie soundtrack as you enter each park, and, as if on cue, I teared up every time. The string section is somehow always swelling, so that, while the attendants search your bags with a flashlight and you hold your wristband to the check-in point while placing your index finger on the identity verification scanner, rather than thinking about the invasion of your privacy, you are imagining the world spinning around you, the star of your own movie, as you’re reunited with your lover or hoist the trophy into the air or step out of your black and white farm life into the technicolor of Oz. You emerge on the other side of the gates unknowingly micro-chipped and ready to see what the rest of this family-appropriate dramedy has in store for you.
In Liberty Square, the Haunted Mansion’s slogan boasts, “999 happy haunts, but there’s always room for one more!” It is not lost on me, that in this happiest place on earth, my favorite ride is the one that focuses on death. Coincidentally, no one has died on the ride to date, though an old woman once broke a hip while exiting one of the Doom Buggies. We checked this most important item off the list immediately and then our efficiency fell apart. Rather than boarding the rides in order, we alternated who would pick what we would visit next, walking from one side of the park to the other and back again over and over, wasting significant energy in the process. We moved next to Stitch’s Great Escape in Tomorrowland, then to Splash Mountain in Adventureland, then Philharmagic in Fantasyland. We pinballed around with no regard for our waning enthusiasm.
At Sleepy Hollow, back near the Haunted Mansion, we ate waffles while talking about whether it was worth it to wait in line for two hours to ride the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride. We decided it wasn’t, but this decision is something I’d fixate on for the rest of the trip. I would plan my days wondering if we could get back to the Magic Kingdom for a quick visit just to try out this one ride. I spent time working through my guilt around skipping other major rides, as well, even if I didn’t count them as favorites. Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, and Peter Pan all got the cold shoulder. In my mind, compromise was a sign of failure.
The Magic Kingdom is not without its own collection of incident, injury, and death. Months after our visit, falling embers from the Wishes fireworks show would land on grass beneath the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride and catch fire. The ride and area would be evacuated, no injuries reported, and the fire quickly extinguished. Even on the tame and leisurely boat rides, people have been found unconscious or lost a few fingers by allowing their hands outside the vehicle. A little girl suffered a collapsed lung, broken hip and arm, after falling out of and being crushed by a boat on It’s a Small World. A man suffered short-term memory loss and a paralyzed arm while riding Space Mountain when a guest in another car above him dropped her camera. A guest on Splash Mountain misunderstood the use of the emergency exits, and feeling woozy, tried to climb out of his boat before the big drop, suffering critical injuries.
More common than these Acts of God and negligence though, are unrelated issues of guests’ health. Because the nature of Disney is that you’ve nearly always “recently exited a ride,” it’s all but guaranteed that someone has died from a heart attack outside of whatever your favorite ride might be. Would this person have suffered the same fate on his own neighborhood sidewalk? Almost certainly, but our narrative-driven minds, the ones that love the magic of Disney movies, try to trace the connective tissue of a person riding an attraction to the cause of his heart’s seizing up. We imagine the trigger to be joy or fear, rather than looking deeper inside to the boring everyday excuse of our bodies failing us, or us failing our bodies. Seldom, in everyday life, do we attempt to trace the tragedy of a person collapsing in his driveway to his commute home, but in a place so loaded with storytelling, the urge is irresistible. We are apt to draw the most sensational conclusions, looking to exercise the gluts of emotion we’ve called forth so that we might feel this vacation most vividly. The name of the hospital serving Disney World, it must be mentioned, is “Celebration Health.”
Jared talked me into going to a performance called Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, mostly because it was indoors, thus air-conditioned and seated. Onscreen animated characters appeared to be manipulated in real time by comics behind the scenes performing live stand-up, mostly crowd work. One monster comic attempted to do a mind-reading exercise with an audience member. He asked her to think of a number between one and forty, and she immediately responded, out loud, “Ten.” The audience, knowing the woman was supposed to have kept the number a secret, laughed at her confused inability to play along. The cartoon comic slumped and chided the woman. “You’re making it too easy on me!” he said. He asked her two more times to think of a number and both times she again said the number aloud. He finally gave up and moved on in defeat. What the planned joke might have been, we’ll never know, and while this gap ended up being irrelevant, I stuck on what it must take to abandon a joke like that, especially when someone’s used to doing it a dozen times a day.
The second biggest laugh of the afternoon came when another of the cartoon comics asked the audience for the name of a country and the first audible response was, “Florida!” James Baldwin professed that, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers,” and I couldn’t help thinking that that was precisely what we witnessed there. The comics had jokes planned, but in laying the groundwork for these jokes, for which they knew the outcomes, they uncovered a deeper level of humor: the folly of human nature that cannot be tamed or surpassed reliably. The comics were smart enough to give up and move on, shining the spotlight on the true star: the humanity of the crowd.
By the time we were ready for dinner, thirsty, sun-sapped, and famished from walking back and forth all day long, none of the restaurants in the Magic Kingdom were still serving dinner and the streets had filled with spectators for the parade that closed out the park each night. We escaped on a bus we were told would take us to Downtown Disney, an area of shops and restaurants outside of the theme parks. Once on the bus, concerned that we hadn’t yet heard our stop announced, we were told by the bus driver, that this bus wouldn’t stop at Downtown Disney. This is an occurrence that would happen again and again: we’d follow directions we’d been given only to be informed they were wrong, rerouted, eventually delivered where we were headed in some amount of time greater than we’d planned, act like it was no big deal, seethe silently, fearful we might ruin the experience for our companion. The bus, it turned out, would take us near Downtown Disney, so we disembarked at the suggested stop, and walked around an unbarricaded lake to our destination, swinging our eyes to the edges of our sight for the possible threat of alligators.
The night slipping away quickly, we frantically chose another dinosaur-themed restaurant: the T-Rex Cafe. I know. Two prehistoric eating experiences in one day? What are the odds? Turns out they’re pretty good in Disney World. The host walked us to our table surrounded on all sides by growling animatronic dinosaurs and weeping children. We smiled at each other weakly.
A Disney-phile friend had warned against this situation, encouraging us to make reservations ahead of time at any of the recommended restaurants she’d carefully catalogued for us, but every time I’d looked at the list, I’d become stressed out. Did I really want to know that I had to be at the French pavilion of EPCOT by 6:05pm on Saturday? Wouldn’t I prefer to play things by ear? Let me be clear: I learned my lesson.
When we asked our T-Rex Cafe waiter, John, how he was doing, he said he was the best he’d ever been in his life, and I, cynical human being that I am, scowled disbelievingly inside, but responded with all the warmth I could muster, “Wow, I hope that’s true!” The vehemence with which John assured us was enough to have me convinced. He took our drink orders and I stared into John’s eyes trying to find the secret of his happiness. If I moved to Disney World to wait tables, could I, too, leave my misery behind?
Jared and I ordered the Megalosaurus Mozzarella – a seared blob of mozarella resting on a patch of creamy marinara accompanied by some fried mozzarella sticks and a ramekin of non-creamy marinara: aka cheese with a side of cheese. I also ordered a salad of greens, berries, nuts and cheese, misnamed the Omnivore’s Delight, but I looked past this inaccuracy, and ate it with urgency.
In the United States of America one in five deaths is linked to obesity, second only to smoking as a preventable cause of mortality. Smoking in Disney World is restricted to areas usually tucked down a pathway that leads nowhere so that the smoke won’t disturb the other guests. The scenery of these designated areas is lacking, providing smokers no reward for their unhealthy habit other than tolerance. The food options at Disney World tend toward the burger and fries variety, though Disney has been slowly adding healthier options through the years: apples or carrot slices as a side, salads and soups and veggie sandwiches.
Disney offers a wellness program to employees called Pursue Good Health. I knew this because Disney happened to be one of my clients at the software company and, at the time of the trip, we were working together on an e-learning element of this initiative. Some of those early morning and late-night emails were to a very dedicated consultant for Disney Human Resources. My personal tangle of workaholism’s roots on this trip were twisted indeed.
Pursue Good Health helps cast members manage stress, healthy eating, tobacco cessation, and high cholesterol, among other needs. Employees are encouraged to meet BMI and blood pressure goals to qualify for wellness dollars. As a vacation destination, it seemed clear that the parks were doing their best to reconcile these health initiatives with the permitted decadence of vacation-eating.
The highlight of the evening came when the table next to us–a family of four, with one child conked out in a stroller—ordered a dessert, advertised on every table, called the “Chocolate Extinction.” This was, no doubt, the request of the older child, a little girl who I estimate to have been about six years old. The dessert consisted of four huge slices of cake with four scoops of ice cream to match, smothered in related sauces, and the piece de resistance: a martini shaker that billowed dry-ice smoke.
The dessert arrived while the mother and daughter visited the bathroom. After about a minute of the smoke flooding the table, the father looked around nervously and placed a coaster over the top of the martini shaker to try to keep the remainder of the smoke inside. He could sense the imminent tantrum that would ensue if fog failed to blanket the table upon his daughter’s return. In another minute or two, the girl came bounding back, thrilled to see the dessert and asking after the smoke. In what I’m sure the father hoped would be the big reveal, he pulled back the coaster, but the smoke was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, the girl’s face crumpled and she laid her cheek down on the sticky tabletop, wailing. The parents attempted to ignore their daughter, delivering spoons full of denial into their mouths alongside the dessert. I watched the girl, not inconvenienced by her sobs, but hoping I might see her learn the lesson revealing itself to her plainly: that she might enjoy and appreciate what she’d been given, even if it was different from what she’d expected. They say that you hate most in others what you hate most about yourself.
Luckily though, the waitstaff at the T-Rex Cafe had another philosophy: Disney is not the place where lessons are learned; it is the place where dreams come true, and so they granted her a wish. They delivered a second martini shaker of dry ice billowing the fog of extinction. The girl perked up immediately and after gesturing incredulously at the spectacle before her, set to work inhaling her dessert.
Before we could leave, our waiter John made us promise we’d return to visit him again. I looked at Jared, furious our enthusiastic new acquaintance was forcing us to lie. There didn’t appear to be any option in the matter though, so I adjusted my syntax and made a minimal commitment, a philosophy that echoed through the entire trip, a note that rang false if only for its lack of definition: We’d do our best.
Looking back, I wonder about the reality of John’s working conditions, particularly if he was given paid time off. This was not information I was made privy to in my dealings with Disney HR. About a quarter of workers in this country aren’t afforded this decency, and it seemed within the realm of possibility that John fell into this bucket. If he did receive PTO, was he the sort to take every last drop of it?
Compared to other cultures, we’re dreadfully behind in this regard. Brits take a standard 24 days off and the French get an average of 39. Data, comparing last year’s vacation time in the US to this year’s, shows that the average number of paid vacation days has increased from a whopping 12 to 14 (for those of us lucky enough to have vacation time at all, that is), but that the number of days we leave untaken at the end of the year has also increased from three to four. We’re being offered more, but we’re still not taking all we deserve.
Interlude: Bristol Renaissance Faire
Several days after the trip, I’d visit my doctor who would order an ultrasound and an x-ray to try to determine a reason for the swelling in my foot, looking for a clot or a stress fracture. These tests would turn up nothing, and my doctor would prescribe a water pill that caused the swelling to go down, and return only very rarely without identifiable reason. I’d chide myself for my hypochondria, until a month later, when, outside Chicago, exposing myself to the possibility of more themed joy at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, I’d get a call that my grandmother was being rushed to the hospital because she had a blood clot in her leg. Twice that week, doctors had examined her and chalked up the pain and swelling to severe arthritis, but my grandmother insisted it was something more than that. The doctors, unable to clear the clot, said amputation might save her life, but, for an 86-year-old woman who was already mostly deaf and blind, who had spent the last 25 years saying she was ready to die, we were to consider what sort of life she might live post-amputation. She was moved to hospice and passed away a week later.
The lesson one might draw here is unsatisfying: Sometimes it’s nothing, and sometimes it’s something but nothing can be done about it. Worry and stress have no bearing on an outcome.
At breakfast in the hotel cafeteria, I chose the “POP Waffle” (or “Pup Waffle” if our Magical Express driver had been kind enough to recommend it) covered in fresh fruit, while looking at my watch in a panic. I spent worry on the fact that we wouldn’t be arriving to the waterpark at 9am when it opened, but instead closer to 9:30.
We thought we’d get ahead by purchasing our tickets to the waterpark at our hotel, and proceeded to wait in an interminable line at the concierge desk. As soon as we got to the front of the line, I decided it was worth saying to Jared, in the snidest of tones: “This would have taken less time at the waterpark.” Why? Why would I insist on making this point? Surely it was in both of our minds, and there was no need for me to call it out and place blame on him. We had not even left the hotel for the day and already I was grumpy and accusatory.
The ticket minutiae I am about to share is tedious to be sure, but this is what life becomes when one enters the Disney vortex.
Multiple people had tried to explain to us the cost of the addition of a waterpark pass to our existing Park Hopper tickets. I found myself infuriated each time because, while I am an educated woman with an advanced degree and a penchant for professing a certain grief over the lack of calculus in my present life, the concept of this ticket pricing was impossible for me to understand. Every attempt at delineating the costs failed to compute, but here is the best I can explain it (though it will become clear I am not up to the task). We had a 2-day Park Hopper ticket, but for our purposes, I will only discuss a one-day Park Hopper ticket. This ticket allows guests to enter all of the four main theme parks in the course of one given day. If you tack on a “Waterpark Fun & More” ticket, you also get admission to 2 additional Walt Disney World Destinations, such as the waterparks, mini golf courses, or the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. These additional Destination tickets, however, do not need to be used in the same day as the base Park Hopper ticket. Every single agent we spoke to did a poor job of explaining this clearly, and even once we thought we understood, we discovered we were wrong. After confirming we’d only spend $15 a person to tack on the waterpark tickets, we were charged a total of $80. Jared and I threw our hands up and handed over a credit card. I don’t know what I spent another $50 on, but that money is gone and I have forced myself not to think about it since.
The wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon has two settings, but I did not realize this at first. For a half hour the waves bob, typical of what you normally see in a wave pool. Jared had been talking this attraction up for days, and I remained unimpressed. Just moments before I was ready to give up and head to the lazy river, I heard a huge boom and, looking to my left, saw a monstrous six-foot wave crashing toward shore. It was mammoth and had a break and I felt certain a surfer could have stood up and ridden it to “shore” had the water not been crowded with so many bodies. In short: it was awesome. It was everything Jared had promised and more. And waves like that kept happening for another 30 minutes. For once, I was thankful that I hadn’t known what to expect.
Only one person has reportedly died at Typhoon Lagoon–a twelve-year old girl with an early-stage viral heart infection–but several incidents of lewd and lascivious conduct have occurred there, the most notable being a 51-year-old gentleman trying to remove the bathing suits of five teenage girls. The lack of detail on record is maddening. I can’t help but imagine a ten-armed man, someone akin to Mr. Tickle, his arms long and noodle-like, grasping at five different bathing suits at once, counting down in his head until he gives all five a firm yet ineffective tug. I was surprised no one had drowned in this pool, but chalked one more point in favor of the odds landing firmly on the side of people tending to die because of something internal rather than external.
As a point of reference, I decided to look at the incidents reported for non-Disney amusement parks, too. Six Flags leads the charge of catastrophic events for chain theme parks, with multiple beheadings and countless people getting thrown from or stuck on rides. (Yes, you can get stuck upside down at the top of that loop, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) In Sea World, the majority of death and injury is suffered by the trainers and caused by the stars of the show: whales stressed out by being contained in such tiny enclosures. Independent theme parks seem to have an even higher incident rate. At some point in my research, though, I tucker out. I can’t read about one more person whose seatbelt failed or who choked on taffy while on a rollercoaster or whose gondola fell off the skyway. I feel sick that the “I told you so” sentiment in all of these reports felt satisfying to read for as long as it did. I have no excuse, other than to acknowledge my shameful tendency toward schadenfreude, particularly when people are aiming for pure joy and make a direct hit on its exact opposite, theme parks being perhaps the most perfect setting for this.
A Disney-centric food blog had assured me that the turkey sandwich was the best lunch option at Typhoon Lagoon, and while it wasn’t the worst sandwich I’d ever eaten, the issue of stale bread persisted with inch-thick slices of herbed focaccia. The turkey, pesto mayo, and produce on the sandwich tasted totally acceptable though. About a million bees buzzed their appreciation at my having ordered a frozen strawberry lemonade as well, and, thanks to those bees, I witnessed a brilliantly hostile interaction between two young brothers, probably about 10 and 12, who were pitting one’s fear of bees against the other’s fear of roller coasters. “Danny, get away from me! I hate bees. I can’t stand them. You’re afraid of roller coasters, and I’m the baby? That’s funny, isn’t it? You’re afraid of roller coasters!” Their reasoning was entirely unsound and thrilling to hear performed live.
Over the course of the day, dripping wet, I traipsed back to our locker to check my work emails on my phone, responding to urgent matters between riding Humunga Kowabunga and the Crush ‘n’ Gusher. I happened to work at a company that offered unlimited vacation. Opponents of this brand of policy often refer to it as “the death-of-the-vacation policy” because of the tendency workers have to shy away from asking for the time they need and deserve. Without a guideline on how many days it’s permissible to take, studies show that people will tend to ask for less time rather than more. One of the most famous adapters of this strategy, Richard Branson, described the policy as giving employees the flexibility to take as much time off as they need, provided they feel “100% comfortable that they are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business or indeed their own career.” Framed that way, the vacation policy sounds like a guarantee that you’ll be fired if you take a day off. In what case could someone be up to date on every project when technology moves at a pace far exceeding our ability to develop it? Of course, if everyone worked 24 hours a day, and that were humanly possible, a company’s projects might be eons ahead of where they are now, but we’re only animals, and animals require rest to continue working.
The company I worked for encouraged people to take more time rather than less, without any such threats of discharge, and I was grateful for their attitude, and tried to make it work for me. Once a year, I truly unplugged for an extended period of time. The rest of the year, I tended to be stay connected, but it was my own doing. I’d convinced myself that I preferred such a trade-off, that unplugging for a day or two wasn’t even enough time to forget about work, much less forgive it. In a recent survey on Travelocity, one in three workers said not checking messages while out of the office was more stressful than doing the actual work those communications required of them and I agreed.
I don’t find the attractions at EPCOT—that’s the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, in case you didn’t know—particularly thrilling. The park is split into two areas. The first, Future World is where you’ll find Spaceship Earth, aka, the big golf ball, in which creaky old school animatronics lay out the best of humankind’s inventions. Journey into Imagination stars a wily purple dragon named Figment antagonizing a lab-coat-draped Eric Idle. The Test Track is a newer ride in which guests “design” a car and then ride it through a course to assess its handling. The “design” you choose is only reflected in some stats that display along the way; it doesn’t change the ride’s behavior, but it was fun to hear children around us buy into the idea that their experience was different because they painted their car pink and put in a jet engine.
We intentionally skipped a ride called Mission: SPACE. On this shuttle simulator, passengers experience an “authentic NASA-style training and an out-of-this-world space launch.” The last time I’d ridden it, my best friend had become incredibly nauseous, nestling her head between her legs afterward and begging off rides for the rest of the day. I’d been queasy, too, but also willfully proud, refusing to admit nausea or humility. It seems she and I were not alone. Though only a couple people have died after riding the attraction (and we’ve already established that that’s in the average range for most rides), between June 2005 and June 2006, paramedics treated 194 riders for nausea, dizziness, vomiting, difficulty breathing, chest pains and irregular heartbeats. The last time I rode Mission: SPACE, would have been just months before this tally, so I can only assume it was shortly after my ride that the park realized some changes needed to be made. In May of 2006, Disney began offering two versions of the ride: one with the intense centrifugal spinning, exposing riders to a maximum of 2.5G, more than twice the regular force of gravity, and one without the spinning motion for those with more delicate constitutions, prompting a sharp decrease in complaints.
The second part of EPCOT, the World Showcase, is segmented into eleven pavilions, each representing a country, simulating a permanent World’s Fair. Far fewer rides populate the World Showcase than Future World, but the standout is clearly The Maelstrom, for its rushing fjords, terrifying trolls and educational lulls touting Norway’s position at the cutting edge of technology, courtesy of Norwegian investors who hoped the attraction would drive import business when the ride opened back in 1988. Sadly, it was recently announced that this attraction, free of any Disney movie tie-in adulteration up until this point, has closed so that it can be transformed into a Frozen-themed ride.
The glassed-in passenger area of the Friendship Boat that delivers guests from the International Gateway at the EPCOT World Showcase Lagoon to the Hollywood Studios park traps the stale air, fetid smells, and dense heat surrounding the bodies of its 100 passengers very well (if that’s an endeavor meant to be excelled at). Experienced from within the gentle rocking of the water taxi, the sights around Lake Hollywood and Crescent Lake are not fantastic enough to distract from the very real seasickness that developed as the boat inched through lagoon and canal. By the time we disembarked, I felt ready to vomit, but, still, we ran to the Tower of Terror, strapped ourselves in, and proceeded to be repeatedly dropped tens of stories in the hotel’s elevator. This did nothing to improve my internal state, but Jared bought me an enormous ice cream sundae afterward, and I devoured it and felt better.
The injuries and deaths suffered in Hollywood Studios are primarily more of the same: loss of consciousness on the Toy Story Midway Mania!, a congenital heart defect expressing itself on the Rock’n’Roller Coaster, intracranial bleeding intensified on the Tower of Terror: none related to the rides. The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular proves the exception: Numerous performers have fallen from heights of several stories when cables and ladders have failed to properly function. No doubt this increased likelihood of injury is inevitable for a stuntman, but an even more silent and deadly professional menace exists at the Disney parks: the stress of character costumes on workers’ bodies.
Of the 773 injuries sustained by Disney employees in 2005, 36% were costume-related, 6% being related specifically to the costume head. Since then costume weight has been limited to 25% of the performer’s body weight, but that’s still mind-bogglingly (quite literally) heavy. Add to this 36% the 14% of injuries sustained by interactions with park guests: hitting, pushing, groping, and the unintentional harm caused by overenthusiastic children and adults, and you’ve arrived at 50% of the OSHA complaints filed at Disney. While news stories provided extensive coverage of an employee in a Tigger costume committing a lewd act, park guests appear to be the ones executing the bulk of the violations, intentionally or not.
We’d gone to the trouble of making our sole dinner reservation at the 50s-themed Prime Time Diner. Our waitress, a sixty-something-year-old lunatic, delivered me three simulataneous glasses of cherry coke and hollered at us to get our elbows off the table. She made another patron stand up and sing, “All we are saying is give peas a chance” while spooning the peas into his mouth. She gave “Clean Plate Club” stickers out to those who merited them and referred to herself as “Mom.” I loved every uncomfortable minute of it and ate the tasty shrimp and grits she fed me with relish. I couldn’t help wondering, If I’d made reservations, is this how I could have been eating all week? After dinner, Jared and I took one last opportunity to waffle over heading to the Magic Kingdom to try and board that Seven Dwarfs ride, but it was raining, but the Disney app said the wait was close to two hours, so we gave up on that dream once and for all, and headed back to the hotel.
Back at the Pup Century’s pool, the one we’d visited on the first night, where the child had drowned just months before, I finally let myself cry. I felt the privileged remorse that shows up at the end of every trip: sadness for the need to return to normal life and regret that I’d been unable to relax and enjoy myself. When Jared returned from changing into dry clothes, he surprised me with a Lava Colada from the pool bar, and I cried again, this time at his kindness.
In each of Disney’s iconic animated movies, death looms not just center stage but on every periphery. Parental figures are especially endangered. Both Snow White and Cinderella lose their mothers prior to the start of the films and then their fathers die supposedly natural deaths just a few minutes in. Ariel’s mother dies in an encounter with a pirate ship, foreshadowing the danger of Ariel’s dabbling with dry land in The Little Mermaid. Mufasa is betrayed by his brother and trampled by elephants in The Lion King. Both the mothers of Bambi and the fox in The Fox and the Hound get shot by hunters.
Minor characters get killed to set the stakes, but rarely remembered. In Lady and the Tramp, a dog named Nutsy is nabbed by a dogcatcher and dragged through a “one-way door,” making clear the imminent threat to Tramp’s life on the street. At the beginning of Aladdin, a henchman named Gazeem gets eaten up by the tiger-god-shaped mouth of the Cave of Wonders when he’s trying to retrieve the magic lamp for Jafar, and that’s only after Gazeem has complained to Jafar that he’s needed to “slit a few throats” to get the amulet needed to summon the cave’s opening.
The Queen of Hearts demands, “Off with their heads.” Cruella de Vil waltzes around in her puppy fur coat, flaunting her menacing desire for more. The thrust of Peter Pan comes from a fear of growing up and the figurative and literal death that accompanies that aging. An anthropomorphized wardrobe crushes a man storming the castle in Beauty and the Beast. In The Little Mermaid, the chef cuts off the head of a “poisson” as Sebastian tries to escape and Ursula eats live and fearful shrimp like it’s nothing at all.
Just about every villain is murdered or transformed by movie’s end, the metamorphosis signaling another variety of death. Villains in Disney movies are not the humble characters seeking the joys of a simple life, but the overly ambitious achievers who will stop at nothing for wealth and fame, who fall prey to excess, consumed by their own greed and vanity. It does not feel like an exaggeration to say that Disney World is a perfect setting for a villain to make themselves known, a boardwalk of the low-hanging fruits of temptation and inciting incidents, easily matched to line jumpers, parents and children alike throwing tantrums, or even the park itself, willing to take another few dollars from guests at every turn, if it might help maintain the illusion that this experience is incomparable and worthwhile.
When planning the trip, Jared and I opted not to purchase the Memory Maker package, hopeful that we might make some of our own memories without paying $169 for the photos of us taken by the official park photographers and the anonymous publicity shots of the park’s attractions. A feature of this service is called, “Magic Shots,” in which you can add things to your photos after they’re taken. For instance, you can choose to perch a cartoon Tinker Bell in the palm of your hand in post. But before you can do this, you’d need to think of taking a photo with your empty hand outstretched, anticipating the falsity of the memory. Could there be a more perfect illustration of Guy Debord’s thesis, “In a world which is really topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” Attending the parks is like living within live action nostalgia, and so it never quite feels authentic. To remember something while it’s happening for the first time disorients reality: the present is already past. Our inability to focus on the joy of the moment in our everyday lives sends us off to purchase manufactured experiences like this one. If we’ve paid the high admission cost of entering Disney World, we force ourselves to assign value and meaning. All those days of work and effort afford an opportunity to mark the boundaries of “vacation,” to name it even if our actions don’t match the title. As a kid, when our imaginations are wild and open, such a trip seems magical. As an adult, the level of artifice pushes us quickly through some revised stages of grief: denial in which we attempt to force ourselves into believing the validity of our experience; anger at our lack of ability to believe; bargaining to see if we might compromise and still enjoy the experience, perhaps purchasing additional ticket packages or an ice cream bar in the shape of Mickey or a tee shirt; depression that the trip will end before we’ve accomplished the joy we set out to experience; and, finally, acceptance of what the experience actually amounted to.
Upon disembarking out return flight, it felt like I hadn’t been on vacation at all, an emotion I’m sure is common to many. All of that anxiety about spending my time right had taken its toll on my nerves. All that future expectation and past regret had allowed me to escape the paralyzing opportunity for present joy. It made me wonder: if I’d collapsed outside of the Haunted Mansion to round out their spirit count to a grand of ghosts, or clutched my heart after eating at Restaurantosaurus, would I be happier I’d done less better or that I’d done too much, adequately?
At home, I called my doctor to see if she could examine my swollen foot and unpacked. At the bottom of my backpack, I found my back-up supply of crushed Southwest Airlines crackers. I threw them away, the threat of hunger mitigated for the time being.