The Mountains and Plains of Walt Disney World Resort

Space Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

Earth’s natural mountains were formed and shaped around two billion B.C. from powerful geologic forces and erosion. The most visited mountain was constructed in Florida on sandy soil by homo sapiens between 1972 and 1975 A.D. for tourists and vacationers and actually had no resemblance to Earth’s surface or its mountains.

It was called Space Mountain, the first indoor roller coaster, and was the first of several man-made mountains to enhance the plains of Central Florida thanks to Walt Disney establishing his Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando. You may have heard of it. You may be among the more than 250 million people that have rode it since it opened.

I hadn’t planned on bringing Natalie, Wunderkind, or Schnickelfritz there. We had a list of reasons (or objections) rooted in our values. We were capitalists like Walt but we preferred using our travel money and time related to hiking, bicycling, making s’mores, and our own wood-fired pizzas. Then the kids’ grandpa had a burning need to take them on a milestone American trip.

He offered his grandchildren one of two choices: A trip to Mount Rushmore or Disney World. Everyone should see both, in his opinion. To his daughter, Natalie, she, like me, couldn’t figure out why Mount Rushmore was being offered at all. To me, we were being offered either a man-carved mountain or a set of constructed mountains.

Natalie and I had once discussed whether we were going to ever bring the kids to Disney World. Now that this trip was being offered on a silver platter, the choice between this or taking all four of us South Dakota, it was more a worry that grandad would be disappointed and complain to us about the accommodations. A hot dog for lunch wouldn’t be a problem, but at least in Disney World he could find decent oysters on the dinner menu. Disney World had become a foregone conclusion. Once the pandemic restrictions lifted sufficiently to enjoy the destination freely, we’d be there.

I didn’t want to go, for all the reasons Natalie and I discussed before. I floated the idea of staying home and working for half the week, but Natalie said we were all expected to be there, so I was committed for the week. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do there; I didn’t like fast, jerking rides. Not for motion sickness, but I tense up, and then immediately afterward feel ashamed, with a bruised ego, for not shouting “Wee” at the top of my lungs with my arms outstretched. So I knew I would be relagated to Sherpa dad, carrying water bottles, stuffed animals, souvenirs, light sabers, and a tube of sunblock. I would be constantly in search of iced water, shade, food, and the next great ride with the shortest line.

I tried to find something about the trip that would interest me. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios was the obvious one, but that was just one objective for a whole week. The other was the food, especially at the sit-down restaurants, so we made reservations, but it didn’t seem truly enticing. Golf was an option; but I decided the courses didn’t seem to justify the greens fee and it was going to feel like the peak of summer during a heatwave at home when I don’t play, so that was out. I really thought the resort complex would have a neat climbing gym or fitness center with a bouldering wall. Perhaps I would be hanging off a hold in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s iconic head. But it doesn’t. Orlando has gyms, but all were impossible to reach with the Disney bus and monorail system.

We sought advice from friends and family, though only a minority of which had real experience with Disney World. Two made a strong case for us to stay at the Wilderness Lodge hotel. It’s modeled after the grand Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Well, if we weren’t going to Yellowstone, let’s bring Yellowstone to us.

When we arrived, the background theme music began. It was a steady stream in whatever public setting you visited. We checked in the great lobby with balconies and balconies of log cabin railings. There were taxidermy bison heads and beaded Native American art, which seemed true to Yellowstone, and then there were enormous totems, which have no relationship to Yellowstone. And, of course, there was a man-made geyser outside near the pool. The design was a hodge podge of white Western heritage, an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts, and inauthenticity.

Our room was the final straw: It was too small for the four of us and couldn’t fit the rollaway bed we requested. They could have told us that six months ago, but instead we looked for alternatives. In the end we moved to The Contemporary next to Magic Kingdom. It’s so fanciful and tried to be futuristic in the 1970s that it was what it was and in that was more authentic and functional than the Wilderness Lodge. I preferred it.

Forbidden Mountain, Disney Range (All rights reserved)

The background theme music resumed, albeit with a new theme, at every park we visited. My mind started to dull. The parks, from Magic Kingdom to Hollywood Studios, were like watching television; I didn’t have to challenge myself. Well, other than the quest for iced water, shade, and the next great ride. I downloaded a Robert MacFarlane audiobook to listen to in snippets while I waited for the family. Except even with the sound turned up, the theme music and chatter from everyone wearing Mickey ears drowned out anything read outloud.

Animal Kingdom was the one park that engaged the mind not just the senses. The safari was the fastest-paced by-vehicle zoo tour I ever experienced, it was the most interesting activity. I wasn’t merely in awe of nature, I learned about baobab trees and how important hippopotamuses are to Africa’s ecosystem.

Animal Kingdom also hosts an area called the Annapurna Sanctuary, and includes a river rapids ride and a roller coaster with a theme of a Himalayan myth. Expedition Everest is a coaster ride answering the question of whether the Yeti is real. (Of course, you can just ask Don Whillians.) I have never been to the Himalaya or the Karakoram so I don’t have a real world experience to judge it by, but I felt like I stepped into the scenes of a Patagonia catalog.

Disney World’s Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom’s Annapurna Sancuary (All rights reserved)

Expedition Everest is a roller coaster that is both indoors and out and it rolls around Forbidden Mountain (the larger peak in the photo,) and a man-made Everest is visible in the distance. I enjoyed sitting and wondering here and admiring the detail as much as taking in the geeky nuances of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge at Hollywood Studios. That said, the background theme music was incessant at the Annapurna Sanctuary. But at Galaxy’s Edge, it was all sound effects of space vehicles landing and taking off, as if you’re at a spaceport.

When I returned to work, my colleagues asked me how my vacation was. It wasn’t a vacation, it was a trip, I replied. On a vacation, I pursue something I enjoy and ususally return to work feeling renewed. I was tired and I looked forward to coming back to the office. Disney was a novelty. My wife and kids definitely enjoyed it a great deal. The grandparents made a lot of memories with the grandkids.

Well, there was one moment that surprised me and touched me and reminded me of my childhood. Again, we were in Animal Kingdom, and the pontoon with the live drummers making the theme music sailed past. Earlier in the day we saw Mickey and Minnie wearing khaki explorers clothes. Mickey, notably, was not wearing a pith hat, as old drawings of him did. He wore a bucket-style cap instead; which distanced himself from colonial symbolism. At this special moment, there was a broad shouldered duck in a leather jacket and leather hat and goggles. It was Launchpad McQuack from Duck Tales. Launchpad was the pilot that only landed by crashing but took his boss, Scrooge McDuck, on some amazing adventures. No one seems to remember him. My kids didn’t know who he was and were completely unfamiliar with the television series. But I made eye contact with Launchpad and he waved more vigorously. Perhaps he was grateful to connect with a knowing fan too. I felt like Disney reached out to me that once.

At the end of the day, the destination was good. I was glad my kids experienced things their grandparents cared about. It prompted some good conversations about some American pop culture. But the place didn’t replace my desire, or my wife’s and kids’ desire, for the outdoors, whether it’s our trip to New England’s mountains or even Assateague National Seahore. Disney was an authentic amusement park, but it didn’t replace our interest in authentic nature and adventure.

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