Friday, May 09, 2008

Still the happiest place on earth

Like everybody I have goals in life. Retire at 55, own a piece of property on water, and put my kids through college without having to rely on student loans, just to name a few.
Then there are things I’d like to do just because they sound fun. For example, I’ve always wanted to heckle a motivational speaker. You know, those guys who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year speaking to corporate audiences and telling them, in no uncertain terms, that YOU CAN BE BETTER THAN YOU WERE YESTERDAY IF YOU WOULD ONLY BUY MY NEW BOOK AND FIVE CD PACKAGE AFTER THE SHOW FOR THE LOW PRICE OF $89.95. VISA AND MASTERCARD ACCEPTED.”
Seriously, wouldn’t you like to sit in the front row and keep repeating, “YOU DON’T KNOW ME. WHO ARE YOU TO TELL ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE!”
Okay, that would be a bit sick. But it would still be fun to force the speaker off
Another sick dream of mine is to get a Disney employee to break character. I’ve been to Disney World, I’ve stayed in Disney hotels and I’ve been to Disney Stores countless times. And I keep running into the happiest workers I have ever seen. If someone went into a Disney store intent on robbing it, I think the employee behind the counter would say, “may I help the next guest? You with the gun sir. Besides the cash from our register, is there anything else you would like today?”
I was determined to achieve my dream recently when I went to Disney World with my family. I figured it would be easy, given the sorry state of the economy. Disney employees should be as cranky as the rest of us, right?
First, let me say that, even in good economic times, I have never been a huge fan of Disney World. Maybe it’s the crowds, maybe it’s the expense, maybe it’s the incessant Disney music that sticks in my head for weeks after coming home. I once set a wakeup call at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and, six hours later, the phone rang and DISNEY MUSIC was coming through the earpiece. That was the day I learned to use the alarm clock feature on my cell phone.
When I was growing up I visited Disney World exactly zero times. Even though I had relatives who lived only two hours from Orlando, my parents never took us on that “magical Disney vacation.” Instead we spent our summers visiting places like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Mackinaw Island, Michigan. Cheyenne is famous for its rodeos and Mackinaw visitors get around by horses. I guess my Dad just liked being around the smell of horse poop on vacation.
We also visited Yellowstone Park one year, Yellowstone is famous for its geyser, Old Faithful, which erupts about every half hour or so. The reason it blows its top so frequently has little to do with nature; it’s because there is NOTHING ELSE to do at Yellowstone. Personally I think the whole thing is operated by a couple of retired park rangers who push a button once a sufficient crowd has been assembled. When the spectacle is over, everybody looks at their watches and starts talking about when it will occur again. It’s like my Dad after he finishes lunch.
No, DisneyWorld was never a vacation destination for the Schwems in the 1970s. My wife, however, went there plenty of times as a kid. Heck, she even marched in one of the parades as a high school band member. And when our first child came along, she bought lifetime Disney passes, or something to that effect. They were good for multiple visits, so we kept going back. True, some of the visits were coupled with business trips (corporate comedians such as myself perform lots of shows in Orlando since it rivals Vegas for the most popular convention destination). We piggybacked another trip onto a friend’s wedding at the Grand Floridian Hotel on Disney property. Probably the weirdest wedding I have ever attended. The bride and groom got married in a gazebo with a picturesque view of Cinderella’s castle in the background. Thankfully the wedding processional did not include Disney music although I was expecting a chorus of “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s down the aisle we go” to erupt at any moment. I should also mention that the ceremony lasted almost as long as the marriage.
I’ve lost count of how many times my eleven year old has been to Disney World but I think it’s about seven or eight. My other daughter is catching up. So when my wife decided earlier this year that it would be wonderful to take my youngest to Disney World to celebrate her sixth birthday, I put my foot down as only the man of the household should do.
“Why don’t you three go?” I said meekly. “Make it a girl’s trip.”
“Come on,” Sue said. “Your girls are the perfect age.”
I reminded her that she’s been calling them “the perfect age” for Disney World since they were sleeping in incubators in the maternity ward.
“No,” I repeated. “I’ve had enough of Disney World.”
My wife and daughters begged and pleaded. For about 15 seconds. Then they forgot I even existed and started packing.
But as the trip got closer, I began to suffer guilt. My little girl would be turning six at Disney World and I would be home. True, my work schedule didn’t allow me to spend the four days that they had planned there. But I could probably fly down for a day or two, right?
So the decision was made. I would drop my girls at the airport, kiss them all goodbye, pull away, park the car in the airport garage and meet the plane prior to take off.
The plan went smoothly and when I showed up at the gate, my little girl beamed as only a six year old could. A six year old with a large “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY TODAY” sticker affixed to her chest.
I’m seriously thinking of having “It’s my birthday today” stitched into every article of clothing I own. The Pope didn’t get as much attention during his recent visit as my daughter got on April 29th. The flight attendant on Southwest announced her birthday over the loudspeaker and lead THE ENTIRE PLANE in singing Happy Birthday. When she got off the plane, they handed her a bag full of snacks, games and a poster signed by the entire crew.
I got six peanuts and a thimble full of Diet Coke.
When we got to the hotel, the royal treatment continued. The front desk clerk handed her a picture; a gift shop employee gave her a Rice Krispie treat shaped like mouse ears. Just walked up and GAVE it to her. I quickly checked our bill to see if a three dollar charge had been subtly added. It had not.
We ate dinner that night at something called “Mickey’s Magical Buffet” in the Contemporary Hotel. I never considered chicken nuggets magical but I don’t name the restaurants at Disney World. All I know is that the ENTIRE RESTAURANT sang “Happy Birthday” to my daughter and Donald Duck came to our table and danced with her.
It took me four trips to Disney World before I even saw Donald Duck.
The next morning we made our first visit to the Magic Kingdom. I say “first” because a Schwem trip to Disney World always involves multiple visits to the Magic Kingdom. It’s like a math problem: You’re at Disney World and you plan to spend the entire day at Epcot, which closes at 7 p.m. However, the Magic Kingdom closes at nine. Calculate how fast the monorail must travel to get you over to the Magic Kingdom in time to ride Space Mountain at least five more times.
We strolled through the gates at 9:30 a.m. I had four hours before I had to catch a taxi to the airport. Four hours to get just one Disney employee visibly annoyed.
The first group we encountered were performers on Main Street, singing “Clang Clang Went The Trolley”
“What’s a trolley?” my youngest asked as we stopped to view the show.
No, these people were having the time of their lives, dressed in wool costumes on an 80 degree day. No way could I upset them.
We journeyed over to ride “It’s a Small World.” In my book, this ride takes the top three spots on the list of most annoying Disney music. Surely the employees there would be surly, right?
Wrong! Upon getting in line, a perky 50 something woman named Barb
approached us. “Where are you from?” she asked merrily.
“Chicago,” I replied just as merrily.
“Well you’re in luck,” she said. How would you four like to be my cruise
directors for the ride?”
“Sure,” I replied even though I had no idea what she was talking about.
We were immediately whisked up a flight of stairs where another employee was
operating the ride. As cruise directors we got to stand next to the controls and wave to everybody as their boats passed under us. What fun! Certainly not the time to say something like, “Can’t we at least be guest conductors on Space Mountain? This ride sucks!”
It occurred to me that my dream was not going to happen. It just didn’t seem right to try and be a pest at the vacation destination dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Compounding matters further was the fact that Disney World was about as uncrowded as I had ever seen it. We literally walked on every attraction. I’ve been to Disney World where it took an hour just to get on the monorail.
It was nearly time for me to leave. My wife spied Snow White and Dopey taking pictures with guests. She wanted a family shot. We got in line and I thought, “now here is a challenge. Maybe I can get Snow White to break character. That would be a story to tell!
When it was our turn, Snow White, to her credit, stayed true to form. She instructed us to say “gooseberry” when the cameraman clicked his shutter, she told us the prince would be arriving shortly and she warned us not to eat any poison apples on the way out.
I wanted to grab her by her yellow dress, shake her and say, “I realize you live in a castle but DO YOU KNOW WHAT A GALLON OF GAS COSTS RIGHT NOW?”
But I kept my mouth shut. Face it, our screwed up world needs a fantasy land like Disney World where people can escape their troubles, pretend that princesses are real and believe that a boy named Peter Pan really can fly.
I’m still not a big fan of Disney World as a vacation destination but I’ll tag along if it means spending quality time with my family.
But I think they’d like the rodeo too!