By Binnie Betten
Catching his first glimpse of the long white stretch limousine that would transport us from Orlando International Airport to our hotel, Ricky shrieked an excited “Yeah! Baby,” – thereby proving that he did indeed pay attention when his father spoke.
As the proud grandmother and founder of an online Disney informational web site, I had an undeniable obligation to accompany each of my four grandchildren on their inaugural visit to Walt Disney World Resort. Our visit in the summer of 2003 was five-year-old Ricky’s first trip, and his mom, dad, and sister were along to share in his adventure.
The DVD player, rows of twinkling interior lights, and selection of free sodas housed within our rolling entertainment center were enough to keep Ricky amused until we arrived at the sprawling Animal Kingdom Lodge, located deep within the wilds of Walt Disney World.
As we disembarked from our ride, building a sizeable luggage pyramid in the middle of the resort’s driveway in the process, Ricky eyed the approaching cast member with uncertainty. The large dark-skinned man wearing a safari outfit greeted us with a toothy grin and a booming, “Jambo,” Swahili for hello.
“Do you like motorcycles?” the bellman asked, admiring Ricky’s coordinated outfit, which made him look rather like a walking billboard endorsement for his favorite Motocross star, Jeremy McGraff.
Ricky gave an affirmative nodded, ever so cautiously.
Entering the six-story Animal Kingdom Lodge lobby, my family got their first brief glimpse of its grandiose splendor. Awash in African culture, we were surrounded by rich colors, fabrics, African artifacts, masks and hand carved wooden furniture. Exotic aromas wafted past our noses and the soft rhythmic beating of distant drums filled our ears. The adults in our party were clearly impressed, even if Ricky remained uninterested.
Our bellman quickly escorted us through the lobby to the keyed-access elevator that would allow us to bypass the normal check-in lines and go directly to our room on the concierge level.
It wasn’t long before even Ricky found something to be inspired about. As he now routinely explains to anyone with the good sense to ask his opinion, the absolute best thing about staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is the small crust-free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served in the resort’s concierge lounge. He and his sister, Alisha, helped themselves to these and other treats from the afternoon snack buffet as the adults in our party worked with the concierge staff to finalize plans for the week. Next, it was off to unpack and then hop the resort transportation to the Magic Kingdom.
Young Ricky delighted in most of the rides and attractions in the park that afternoon; but, his young male interests in trains, speed, laser guns, and video games ensured that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Buzz Lightyear’s Ranger Spin would be his unrivaled favorites.
He was not quite so enthusiastic about the Haunted Mansion. Leery from the beginning, he hesitantly agreed to try the ride. “Once!” Having already survived the stretching room and the narrator’s warning of “no escape,” things seemed to be going pretty well as long as we were making forward progress toward the ride’s conclusion. When our Doom Buggies were “unavoidably delayed” in the room with 999 haunting ghosts, however, the prolonged shrieking was more than Ricky could bear. The expression that overtook his face was one of wide-eyed terror as he fought to hold back tears. He crumbled in his seat when an uninvited visitor boarded the car during the last few seconds of the ride. We would discover on another day, after riding the Tower of Terror, that spooks and phantoms of any kind were something that Ricky did not consider as either fun or entertaining.
With a table at Chef Mickey’s reserved for dinner our first evening, we were all anxious to see how Ricky would interact with the characters. Being “all boy,” he made no secret that Mickey Mouse was for sissies and would never measure up to the likes of Batman, Superman, and certainly not, The Hulk.
Ricky greeted Mickey, Goofy, Chip and Dale with polite aloofness during our meal, but underwent a complete and total change in attitude when Minnie visited our table. After patting Ricky on the head and blowing him a kiss, Minnie covered her mouth in a shy silent giggle that left Ricky totally entranced. To our amazement, our superhero worshipping, girl-phobic lad proposed to Minnie on the spot. Yep! He up and asked her to marry him. After a proper show of embarrassment, Minnie nodded her consent and held up all of the fingers on both of her hands, indicating that she would be his as soon as he turned the mature age of ten. She then pointed to Mickey and placed her finger to her lips in a silent, “Ssshhh,” warning him that it would be best to keep the whole affair a secret from the head Mouse.
The following morning, I was the second to awake, only to find my grandson perched on the balcony of our room admiring “his animals.” A stern explanation from Ricky’s mom, however, clarified that Mickey did not allow anyone to get out of bed in the morning until he received an “Up and at ’em” wakeup call on the telephone.
During our trip, Ricky never tired of gazing out over the savanna from our balcony in search of gazelles, giraffes, and zebras. There was no more poignant moment as when he was forced to say goodbye to “his room” and cherished retreat from our busy park touring days.
By our third day at Walt Disney World, Ricky was feeling quite at home, conducting informational seminars on the busses that shuttled us to and from the parks each day.
“Did you know that Mickey owns four theme parks, two water parks and a bunch of hotels?” he inquired of the woman with two twin girls sitting seated directly behind him. “He owns this bus and the monorail too!”
“Have you been on Mickey’s Test Track ride?” he quizzed the burly bike-rider-looking dude with the Mickey tattoo on his forearm sitting in front of him. “You have to ride Test Track! It’s awesome.”
I realized that Mickey had gained quite a bit of respect over the past few days (in a Donald Trump sort of way) as Ricky asked me, “Does he really own all of this?”
Day five of our Walt Disney World adventure found us at the Grand Floridian Resort having dinner with Cinderella, Prince Charming and other characters from the child’s fairy tale. Strangely, while Minnie had no trouble finding her way into Ricky’s heart, face characters such as Cinderella totally intimidated him. He followed Cindy around the room with his eyes and immediately dove under the table when she headed in his direction. It was only after Prince Charming explained that Cinderella was “his” girlfriend and Ricky was no danger of being kissed that he agreed to crawl out and have his picture taken with her.
Fantasmic at MGM Studios was the final attraction on the last day of Ricky’s first Disney park visit. A slight drizzle fell as our little group sat huddled amidst a sea of plastic yellow rain ponchos. Ricky was too enthralled to notice, though, as Mickey battled giant serpents, witches, dragons and a whole slue of Disney villains. With lasers flashing, fireballs zinging, and walls of water crashing out toward the audience, a large soft pretzel slowly melted undetected, a pile of mush in his hand. I watched only him; his jaw dropping in amazement during the finale as Sorcerer Mickey magically appeared at the top of a mountain, fireworks shooting from his fingertips.
What happened next marked the defining moment of Ricky’s transformation. He turned, looked me in the eyes, and excitedly exclaimed, “Do you think Mickey can take The Hulk? I think he can take him!”
Boarding the US Air flight bound for Pittsburgh, PA the following morning, I could only smile as the airline hostess gave a puzzled glance at the strangely dressed young boy flashing her his monorail pilot license. To Ricky, his outfit made perfect fashion sense: All well-rounded superhero fans accessorized their matching Spiderman shoes, shorts and tee shirt with monogrammed Mickey ears, didn’t they?
Of course they do!