After a grueling six-month search, my boyfriend Zachary had finally landed a great job on the East Coast, about 45 minutes from where I work. That was a welcome change from the three-thousand-mile distance between us during our two years after college, when he attended grad school in California and I started my career in Massachusetts.
To celebrate our reunion, we planned a last-minute trip before Zachary started work in two weeks. We decided to experience Walt Disney World in all of its splendor. Neither of us had visited as children, even though we had seen every Disney movie countless times. It would be a great last-hurrah to our childhoods and a good launching point into our now-fully-adult working lives.
Since we only had five days before our desired departure date, we needed to move quickly on trip planning. We brought out our type-A planning skills and easily put together a vacation package through the Walt Disney World website.
Because Disney makes planning a trip so effortless, we had the freedom to plan experiences, not logistics. The only thing left to do was scour travel guides and pack our 5 days and 4 nights to maximum capacity. Our rallying cry became, “To infinity…and beyond!” from Toy Story, my all-time favorite Disney movie. How many rides, meals, and experiences could we cram into this trip? We were aiming for infinity.
To achieve this goal, we made heavy use of “touring plans” at the back of our heavily-thumbed-and-annotated Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Using data collected from years of research in the parks, touring plans are itineraries that maximize the time spent experiencing rides and attractions while minimizing waiting times. Our engineering hearts simply drooled at the possibilities held in these heavily-optimized schedules.
However, our best-laid plans were foiled half-way through our first morning as we careened off Big Thunder Mountain (stop number nine on our “Magic Kingdom in a Day” touring plan). We rounded a corner and suddenly spotted Woody and Jessie from the Toy Story movies, in a rare pop-up character stop in this tucked-away corner of Magic Kingdom.
Here they were, the loyal Woody and the spunky Jessie, my favorite Disney characters and childhood role models come to life…and without even thinking, I said goodbye to our plans and our timelines, spun around to face Zachary and blurted, “I NEED TO SAY ‘HI,’ TO JESSIE AND WOODY NOW.”
As we waited in the ubiquitous Disney World line, I couldn’t stand still. I checked the settings on my DSLR for the tenth time, making sure I was ready to capture the big moment. What has gotten into me? I wondered. The clock was ticking — every minute we spent in line was another minute we weren’t on a ride or meeting our lunch reservations. But I didn’t care. All that mattered to me was that I meet two of my childhood heroes.
As the line moved forward, I watched the children take their turns meeting Woody and Jessie. While some were a bit shy, most interacted as they would when meeting an old friend — big excited eyes, a huge smile on their faces, and arms outstretched to welcome these life-sized characters. They weren’t worrying about the return time on their Fastpass for Space Mountain or their 1:05pm lunch reservations. They were totally in the moment, free to make this memory as good as it could be.
Seeing the children made me realize that I was trying to experience Disney World through an adult’s eye, with plans and expectations for our experiences. But I think Walt Disney wanted all visitors, young and old, to see his world through a child’s eye. On the surface, it seems like Disney World is everything but spontaneous and unstructured, but Zachary and I found that the structure actually freed us from worrying about the logistics. We were as free as kids to discover the magic around the next corner.
After our meeting with Jessie and Woody, Zachary and I still stuck to our touring plans. But instead of adhering to them religiously, we saw them more as outlines for our experience. Our plans were a freeing structure that supported soaking up all the magic of Disney World, even if that meant missing a ride or two. That’s why, when we ran into Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland later in the day, we didn’t hesitate to stop and say, “Hi.”
“To infinity…and beyond!” indeed.
About the Author: Leslie Gerhat is an engineer, reader, writer, and explorer. She shares her thoughts and ideas with the world on her site, Explorer Leslie.