Greetings from the Gulf: Thank you Walt, from a ways away but forever close to my heart

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By John Morton

Walt Disney World’s over-the-top 50th anniversary continues to be all the rage, and I must tell you that Mickey & Co.  have meant a lot to my life. I really should pay homage this holiday season with a return visit.

Yes, the lines will be endless. Yes, I’ll drop a small fortune.

And yes, such an idea is downright Dopey.

So, my tribute will instead come in the form of this column.

The Florida park opened in 1971, and my parents were kind enough to take the family in the spring of 1972 during our first visit to Siesta Key. There I was, almost 8, and finally coming to terms with the idea that the lifestyle I saw on The Jetson’s wasn’t likely in our near future.

Then I was shown a brochure of the Contemporary Resort and how a monorail went right through the lobby. That blew my mind.

As nifty as that was, my father thought a few nights at the Polynesian Resort was also in order. Apparently, the hula girls at the nightly luau could move even more impressively, or so I was told.

The Haunted Mansion was off the charts, the Hall of Presidents was mesmerizing, and the Carousel of Progress was enchanting. It’s by far my favorite attraction, despite being a man accused of being stuck in 1979.

Yours truly (left), with a lifetime buddy, circa 1977.

As for It’s a Small World, I was too little to understand how a two-hour wait for that ride was quite the contradiction.

Anyway, Disney must have been giggling when it brought that same attraction to Tokyo.

A subsequent visit to Disney in 1976 — the year my family bought our place on Siesta Key — introduced me to a whole new eye-popper, heart-stopper: Space Mountain.

I had never ridden a roller coaster, and pardon the spoiler alert but much of the hours-long wait for Space Mountain is spent inside the attraction in the pitch black, watching the neon flashes of the space-age missiles roar above you, complete with the endless screams of their passengers.

Were they screams of delight? Screams of terror? I wasn’t sure, and I decided I didn’t want to know. So, literally as it was finally my turn to step on in, I did an about-face and rode a nearby escalator down to safety.

I no longer heard screams. Just boos and laughs.

And when I reached the sunlight, there was Snow White to greet me.

To console me? No, she instead told me in a snarky tone that an eighth dwarf named Wimpy had just been born.

OK, I made up that last part. Anyway, I have never stepped foot on a roller coaster since, and never will.

Unless, of course, you count the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The last time I was at Disney was in 2003, feeling obligated to bring my three kids just like my parents had done for me and my sisters.

Since then, I’ve missed three presidents in that hallowed hall — and I’m so fine with that. As for the latest chapter in the carousel, I presume it’s a family sitting around with their cell phones in their face.

Now that I’ve declared that the theme park itself is forever in my rearview mirror, I want to make it clear that, for me, Disney is nonetheless divine. The very word transcends what you find in the Magic Kingdom. It’s a slice of Americana that is without equal.

The incredible movies. The unforgettable songs. The beloved characters.

And Annette Funicello. Ooh la la.

Further, as those of you who grew up as Baby Boomers will likely attest, there was something warm and fuzzy we felt every Sunday night as The Wonderful World of Disney shined upon our TVs.

 When Tinkerbell’s wand did its thing above the Cinderella Castle in the opening scene, our topsy-turvy world suddenly seemed innocent and peaceful for at least an hour or two. It was a nice way to mentally regroup for the horrors of Monday.

Years later, Disney would come to my rescue in an even more profound way. And it came in the form of one word: Pixar.

It was the fall of 1995, my first born was a year old, and I was frazzled. Hair on end.

Then, I heard about something called Toy Story, had the VHS tape of it in my hand the second it was released, and forever kicked to the curb the mind-numbing likes of the Wiggles, Barney, and the Teletubbies.

Two more kids would follow, conceived in the comfort of me knowing I had astronomical animation to get us all through it.

Meanwhile, only Disney could pull off the superb Super Bowl spot it pitched to the NFL back in 1987. You know, the “What are you going to do next?” bit where the game’s MVP responds with the shout of “I’m going to Disney World!”

Of course, it was the least the NFL could do for a company that brought us Gus — the movie about a field-goal-kicking mule.

During my former life as a sports writer, it was in the old Tampa Stadium press box during the 1991 Super Bowl when I first got to vote on this. You may recall that night — the late Whitney Houston brought down the house with her rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The game hadn’t even started, and she had my vote. Who could top that performance?

As for Whitney’s stirring anthem, turns out it was prerecorded.

That was the first wave of the “Houston, we have a problem” headlines for folks like me.

Anyway, another life lesson for this naive boy from Wisconsin.

(Rest assured, I’ve since become properly jaded!)

But don’t go all Milli Vanilli on Whitney, as it was the NFL’s decision to play a tape.

Hey, this just hit me: I wonder if the Buffalo Bills were for some reason banned from Disney World?

Had something gone terribly wrong in the Tiki Room?

Had they heckled the Country Bear Jamboree?

All I know is, something has to explain four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

A few Super Bowls later, in New Orleans, it was clear that Packers kick-return specialist Desmond Howard deserved the game’s MVP. Always with the Disney angle a little bit in mind when I voted, I realized the exuberant, big-smile nature of Howard would be perfect for the next-day Disney parade. So, I chose him, as did most, and off to Lake Buena Vista he went.

However, Brett Favre also had a big game — and oh my, how I wanted to see a good ol’ boy like him on Main Street U.S.A.

I envisioned a post-parade press conference where our honoree unloaded some clever lines — like how only he could handle a ball better than Cinderella, or how Mary Poppins had one nice chim chim cher-ee.

When he’d mention his bare necessities, they’d have to cut him off.

Hey, it wouldn’t have been any worse than what happened after the 1994 Winter Olympics. For those who may not remember, Google “Nancy Kerrigan, Disney World parade” and enjoy the ride. Too bad she didn’t.

That day, she bashed Mickey like a figure skater’s knee.

So, there you have it. My history with Disney.

Now it’s back to work. And yes, Walt, don’t worry. I am whistling.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand).

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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