It has been two decades since I last visited Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My most recent memories of the park are colored by both the blessings and curses of childhood perception. In our early years, we experience time a bit differently, a bit more slowly. The anticipation of the night before a trip was palpable; waiting and wanting it to begin so badly I could physically feel it as I counted minutes and stared at the clock on the wall. What I know now to be an hour’s drive to Disney felt excruciatingly long and arduous. My family was trekking the Oregon Trail, and we would be lucky if we didn’t lose a few members on the immense journey we had undertaken (I now feel an intense sympathy for the majority of families who have an entire vacation to plan for the experience). Then the payoff: a sprawling cityscape built on grand adventure, with vibrant colors and long brick roads that all lead to a culmination of childhood wonderment. To explore this place would surely take weeks, luckily this day would stretch on as long as it took to make sure my memory bag was stuffed full. With childhood comes magic, and Disney deals in magic. What I had to ask myself going back in was simple; does that magic still exist for me? If so, what does it feel like? I am no longer a child, and I have no children to live vicariously through. I see through the eyes of a 35-year-old single man. What will a Magic Kingdom experience be like for me? Will the limited resource of nostalgia run out too quickly, leaving me bored and exhausted? Will my appreciation grow and my perceptions change as I look upon the park with a more experienced perspective? The answer to those questions is the subject of this article, and more to follow, as I revisit my favorite childhood attractions to find out whether twenty years of cynicism and responsibility have cut me off from the magic I experienced as a child. First on the list: Pirates of the Caribbean!
A few evenings before my first childhood excursion to The Magic Kingdom I had a nightmare. I was sailing on a vast dark ocean in a miniature pirate ship. The skies were crackling with lightning, the bluish spears back-lighting the silhouette of a massive galleon with cannons bursting and its crew shouting over the crashing thunder. As my tiny ship approached, the ocean dropped off; straight down for a quarter mile. It looked like I was sailing off the end of the world. This terrified me, and I remembered that dream every time I went on Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe the ride was described to me at some point and my imagination ran wild with it. It’s hard to say. Whatever the case, that was the first thing that came to mind upon my recent arrival to the entrance of the ride.
I still love everything about the line for Pirates of the Caribbean. I love theming in all of its forms. I will go to a terrible restaurant with subpar cuisine if the tacky stuff decorating its walls are all consistent with some hokey idea, or better yet, if its walls simulate a cave, castle, or spaceship. Extending this to a queue is genius. I would gladly suffer through the excruciatingly long wait at the DMV if the bureaucratic slog was pirate themed. My wait time for Pirates was short, yet I enjoyed every second of strolling between stone walls past wrought-iron relics of the pirate’s trade. The running water from the ride combines with the dark passageways to really convey a feeling of descent into a dank cavern; making me forget about the oppressive Florida sun and helping me transition to the deep midnight setting of the buccaneer township. By the time my boat arrives, my thoughts have already embarked on their voyage, sailing swiftly away from the shores of reality and responsibility.
As I float through treacherous caverns on my way to the pirate village I take a moment to acknowledge something important. I am legitimately having fun. Waves of nostalgia crash against my ship, but even in calmer waters, I know I would find excitement here. Sure, childhood memories are increasing the experience. I expected them to. There is something deeper here though. Disney’s idealized version of the buccaneer lifestyle is the culmination of countless storybook pirate tales that we are read as children. I love history, finding the truth behind story and legend. I live in Florida and it is but a quick drive to find actual evidence of the culture of piracy. Sometimes it is nice to remind myself why I care about history though; it’s the story. The legends bring me in and pique my interest. The fun brings me in.
It’s the storybook adventure aesthetic of Pirates of the Caribbean that managed to get me to sit through movies with plot and characters I did not enjoy. This ride’s prevalence of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp’s character in the movies, for that one guy who doesn’t know) is the only complaint I have. I will remind myself that most first-time riders have seen and enjoyed the movies, and are probably looking forward to this. I will not speak of those movies, or Johnny Depp again.
The animatronics and backdrops are extraordinarily well done, and I find a familiar urge resurfacing. When I was a child, I desperately wanted to hop out of my boat and spend time in the imagined pirate paradise. I pondered what life would be like if I could live behind the windows of those waterfront dwellings. Oddly enough, my adult-self had the same idea. The only difference being that I have adult responsibilities to add in to the mix. I would wake up at night (it’s always night) and start the coffee maker. I would read news articles on my phone until the pot was full, then head out for some fresh air. I would greet my robot neighbors as I strolled out on to the bridge, my feet dangling down as I typed up my next article on my laptop, guests passing below me on boats the entire time. Ah, the pirate life is still for me.
Sadly, I could not dwell in swashbuckler splendor for eternity. The ride was over and I was forced to leave. I could have tried to defend myself and extend my stay, my swordsmanship skills are passable, but I had no cutlass to swing. Oh wait, that problem has an easy remedy. When I was young I never left the Pirates of the Caribbean without a sword, whose sturdy plastic was always broken bravely in a duel with the neighborhood kids within two days of purchase. Was I too old to continue this tradition? Would I fear judgement from my peers at being a grown man wielding a simulated saber? No, pirates fear nothing, and for the past thirty minutes I have lived my life as a proud pretend pirate.
So did I find any latent magic dwelling inside me during my voyage into the known-yet-forgotten seas? I believe so. If all I experienced was passing nostalgia, I would not be looking forward to a return trip as much as I am. I do look at this ride through a new set of eyes, from a slightly taller vantage point. One thing I take for granted about adult responsibility is that it is just the flip side of the coin of adult independence. I have the ability to seek out the things that make me happy and experience them as often as I choose. Isn’t independence what being a pirate is all about? I will set sail again soon, and those who stand in my way do so at the point of a plastic sword!