The best day ever

My family moved from Bedford, Texas, to Lake Wales, Florida, in the summer of 1982.

For a 12-year-old kid, that summer had been a good one. I finished sixth grade and was preparing to transition to junior high school. I had a season pass for the Six Flags Over Texas theme park. My family had an above-ground swimming pool which my brother and I enjoyed extensively every day. My little league baseball team, the Braves, won the league championship.

In fact, I was in the car on the way to the team’s end-of-season picnic when my parents broke the news to me that Dad had accepted the call to pastor a church in Lake Wales. The news was as exciting as it was surprising. What I knew of Central Florida came from a childhood visit to Walt Disney World. I had no idea what I was in for.

I often joke Lake Wales is the farthest away from the beach as you can get and still be in the peninsula of Florida. Located 40 miles south of Walt Disney World and 60 miles east of Tampa, Lake Wales is in the heart of rural Polk County. It is home to orange trees, retirees, and cows.

More than the culture shock of shifting from the urban Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the move to Florida created a social upheaval in my life. I lost my best childhood friends: Ryan Nowlin, who lived down the street; Eddie Yancey, my constant companion at church; and Fred and Robbyn Lister, brother and sister who because of our parents’ friendship frequently spent time at our house or had my brother and I as sleepover guests. I left them all behind when we moved in August, and it didn’t take long for the newness to wear off and loneliness to set in. I was a preacher’s kid in a new town and had no friends. The first year was tougher than I had imagined. Living in Florida was not like a trip to Disney World.

The following summer of 1983 was our first full summer as Floridians, and our Texas friends began making pilgrimages to spend time with us as they visited the Orlando attractions. The best day of that summer and one of the best days in my memory was a confluence of visits from the Yanceys and the Listers. Their vacations overlapped and culminated in a visit to the Magic Kingdom together.

Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1983 with people walking nearby.
This isn’t my photo from that day, but thanks to the good people at RetroWDW.com, a fully-owned subsidiary of the Lake Buena Vista Historical Society, I have this image from the Magic Kingdom from the same summer.

I grew up going to theme parks. As I said, the last summer we lived in Texas, I had a season pass to Six Flags Over Texas and was able to go five or six times. I loved thrill rides from the time I rode my first roller coaster called “The Big Bend.” I was 5 or maybe 6, and I remember the car clacking as it ascended the first hill.  I crouched in the seat next to my dad, gripping the foam-padded safety bar, white knuckled. From that moment on I was hooked, and I loved everything about roller coasters. I loved the buildup of anticipation as I stood in line as well as the feeling in the pit of my stomach on the drops.

As much as I enjoyed Six Flags and its coasters, that first trip to Disney World around age 9 or 10 opened my eyes to theme parks at a new level. Disney was not just a collection of rides. It was an escape from the real world. It was an immersion in a highly landscaped, thoroughly swept and cleaned environment that spurred the imagination with its attention to detail, authentic costumes, and painstakingly decorated themed areas of the park. When I went to the Disney parks, I was transported to another place and time, and I loved it.

That magical day with the Yanceys and Listers at the Magic Kingdom offered two appealing experiences at once: an escape from the real world and a respite from loneliness.

All these years later, the details of the day are fuzzy. I’m sure it was hot – it was Central Florida in either late June or July. I’m sure the lines were long – it was summertime at Disney World. I’m sure the food was fast and not nutritious – it was overpriced burgers and French fries. It was all those things, but it was also glorious.

The Listers had multi-day passes, and they had already been experiencing the parks before the day my brother, Lee, and I joined in the fun. With a couple of days head start, Fred and Robbyn had figured out how to maximize enjoyment for a day at the Magic Kingdom. Even though Lee and I were the locals, the Listers had learned how to squeeze in the most rides. Adding to the thrill of being with our friends was the sense that we were getting our money’s worth.

The Listers taught us a trick we would use on many repeat visits to the Disney parks in the pre-fast pass era. Hit the rides with the longest lines during the parades. At the time, Disney had several character parades in different areas of the park throughout the day, and at night, their “Main Street Electrical Parade” ran twice.

My intuition would have been to avoid Frontier Land when the characters were parading through it, but Fred and Robbyn taught us that as long as you didn’t get trapped on the wrong side of the street, you could ride Thunder Mountain Runaway Railroad several times during the half hour or so the streets were blocked off for the parade. That day we got in at least three rides in 30 minutes, unheard of in today’s Disney of at least 90-minute wait times.

The key to Space Mountain, by far the most popular roller coaster in the park, was to ride it during the night parades for the ultimate space experience. If memory serves, we rode Space Mountain nine times that day, once in the afternoon, and eight more times during the two nighttime parades. It was my all-time record for Space Mountain, a statistic that inexplicably takes up space in my brain to this day. I probably suffered internal injuries or a concussion from all the shaking and rattling my body endured.

Another highlight was the Haunted Mansion. The puns and creepy mystique made it a nighttime favorite as well. Reading the joke tombstones and anticipating the opening area of the room that stretches, which was really just a big, open-ceiling elevator, and the perfectly themed costumes and dispositions of the ride operators contributed to our love of the slow-moving ride. We were too young to view it as a time to make out with girlfriends. It was great fun to just soak in the safely spooky ambiance.

We may have skipped the parades, but we made time for the fireworks. According to the Listers’ formula, most visitors viewed the fireworks from Main Street near the front gate before leaving for the day. I’m sure that’s what the park’s management had in mind: Get guests to move toward the exit to help empty the park as soon as possible after the fireworks. The trick the Listers taught us was to watch the fireworks from the Adventureland side of Main Street, then hit the rides in Adventureland before the park closed. I lost count of how many times we rode the Pirates of the Caribbean that night, but I do distinctly remember singing “Yo ho, yo ho, the pirate’s life for me” all the way back to Lake Wales, driving Mr. and Mrs. Lister crazy.

The thrill rides were a blast and the sense of maximizing our time heightened the fun. But the one ingredient that made it such a great and memorable day was friendship. Having Eddie, Fred, and Robbyn with us brought back some of what we missed most about Texas. The lines we did have to wait in provided time to reminisce and crack jokes. Fred and Robyn were a few years older than us, so we were under their supervision and largely parent-free in our quest to explore every inch of the parks. It gave us a sense of freedom that Lee and I rarely felt being cooped up in lives of scrutiny that came with being preacher’s kids. We had not yet established any deep friendships, and that day was a reminder of what it felt like to be known, to be appreciated, and to have a shared history.

I lost count of how many times I have been to the theme parks that make up the now sprawling Walt Disney World Resort, but that day was by far the best. It beats out other visits with family and high school friends. It was better than day trips with girlfriends, including my eventual wife. That day was better than the multiple times I stayed on the property in one of the resorts and pushed my children around the parks in strollers and took too many pictures with poor, sweating people in character costumes.

I have experienced the magic of the Magic Kingdom, and it was grand. It helped me understand on a deep level that escaping from life’s stresses is OK every now and then. I learned that escape is necessary for relaxing, making memories, having fun, and reconnecting with old friends.

That day in the summer of 1983 was just the magic I needed.

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.