At the tender age of two years, six months and four days, my daughter Briani recently joined a long family tradition: she became an official first time visitor to Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park in Orlando.
Normally this isn’t a big deal for most people who like me, grew up in Miami. I’ve been to Disney more than 40 times personally and if you think that’s much my 70-something year-old aunts Millin and Mercedez have easily been there more than 150 times EACH. The Magic Kingdom is a major but common family destination for us South Floridians.
The reason Briani’s visit was so special was not only because it was the first time all three of my kids, wife and I visited the Magic Kingdom together but also because this theme park in particular has been the only place in the world where I’ve made memories with nearly every generation of my family and friends.
As Briani crossed the gates, I thought about how much this place has changed since my late grandparents Manolo and Margarita first brought me there together with my mom, brother and sister at the age of seven. The Magic Kingdom is easily twice as large today (excluding Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, which did not even exist back then) than it was when I first came in 1977 but some things never change. As my little one took her historic first tour, I privately treasured how the present and the past came together:
- At Main Street, the entrance to the park, Briani met Snow White, the first Disney character she greeted there. Throughout the day it seemed like hit or miss on whether she would be afraid of certain characters. She loved Snow White, perhaps because she was human and because Briani plays princess with her older sister Elena, but Eeyore and even Winnie the Pooh terrified her.
- Over at It’s a Small World, Briani was aglow in wonder. Always the second easiest ride to get on, It’s a Small World is the one ride that I know I have ridden with EVERYONE. As simple and low tech as it will always be, this ride never ceases to put everyone in awe with its simple message of peace, love and multicultural unity. (A funny thing about us Cuban-Americans is that whenever a Cuban from the island arrives in Miami we swiftly whisk them to the Magic Kingdom and specifically to this ride. It always brings tears to their eyes).
- The Pirates of the Caribbean ride is another classic and is by my estimation the first or second fastest ride to get on at the Magic Kingdom. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized that this ride is actually more suggestively edgy than it always appeared to me as a child. The weirdest thing about Pirates of the Caribbean for me is that whenever I think about it, I always remember the hairy-legged pirate that appears overhead towards the end of the boat ride.
- Over in Tomorrowland are two of the rides that everybody loves most: Buzz Lightyear and Space Mountain. The Buzz Lightyear ride is a family favorite because it’s easy to get on, interactive and pits you in a digital, moving shooting range with your fellow passengers. Unfortunately it was built over the same spot of my favorite, most nostalgic Disney ride of all time: If You Had Wings. This now extinct ride, sponsored by the equally defunct Eastern Airlines, used to take riders on a slow moving “airplane” that glided over projected scenes of life and destinations across the globe. If You Had Wings probably did more to inspire people to fly and travel than anything else in the planet and I sorely wish it still existed.
Briani’s too small to ride the Space Mountain but it was cool to begin sharing this ride with my 10-year-old son Jonathan and my daughter Elena. This is THE ride that towards the end of the park’s closing my teen friends and I rode over and over while most people exited. It’s aged well and is another classic I look forward to introducing to Briani in the future.
- Briani capped her first Magic Kingdom experience with a nighttime photo shoot with Mickey and Minnie near Space Mountain followed by a visit to the Haunted Mansion, another Disney mainstay and one that you should only see at night.
When the time came to leave the Magic Kingdom, we left utterly exhausted and right as the park closed, just as my late father, grandparents, aunts and friends’ chaperone moms did with me when I was growing up. I’ve been to many theme parks in my life, even to the original Disneyland in California, but nothing compares to the Magic Kingdom, the one place on earth where my past, present and future family generations continue to mingle.
P.S. A couple hours after I wrote this post I happen to catch a rerun of America’s Funniest Videos with this classically hilarious Mickey Mouse Club song video.
DISCLOSURE: The Walt Disney Company provided my family with tickets and hotel stay but this story came from my heart