No one likes origin stories anymore.
Every time that dreaded phrase “reboot” gets uttered in a studio boardroom, you can guarantee one of the first comments will be a complaint about having to hear how that character’s story started. Maybe it’s the lingering stain of the Star Wars prequels, or perhaps that we’ve seen the backstories of Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker several times already, but few people seem to care for the back story.
But in this case, I think at least a little background is vital to understanding why I’m typing out several thousands words to recap our “Disneymoon” this past September. It goes beyond being a burgeoning Disney fanatic, beyond my love of sharing stories through the written word, and beyond even a crazy love story that has now spanned literally from coast to coast.
It starts with a video game.
It’s hard to believe that the sight of a little gray box can illicit nostalgia, passion and sometimes even anger. But to children who grew up in the 80s, it’s not just a little gray box. It’s a portal to worlds filled with fire breathing turtle kings, enchanted lands where it’s dangerous to go alone and the far flung future, where a household robot quite literally took up arms to quell a robotic revolution. Those worlds and hundreds more spring to vivid life in our memories just by saying three letters: NES.
I first saw a Nintendo Entertainment System during a trip to Texas for a family reunion,
where I took up a controller and played Rush’n Attack for the first time. I have vague memories of seeing R.O.B., the Nintendo accessory now best known as a hard to find Amiibo, in our local Sears. In due course, a Nintendo found its way under our Christmas tree, along with a game called Legendary Wings, released by a company named Capcom.
Some time later, my parents planned an evening out for their anniversary. To tide us over, my dad stopped by the local video rental store and picked a game for my brother and I. It was another Capcom game: Mega Man 2. It arrived without an instruction manual, so at first we thought we were selecting which character we wanted to play as. The game mechanics sorted themselves out rather quickly, and the Blue Bomber supplanted the plumbers and swordsmen to become my favorite video game character. I tracked down the original game(a more difficult feat than you might have expected), pestered the staff at Blockbuster Video on an almost daily basis to get my hands on Mega Man 3 when it came out, and played every release without fail. I also probably spent enough of my dad’s money on the second game to have bought it several times over.1
Fast forward to college, and yours truly continued the noble fight against growing up. The NES begat the SNES, and with it newer, more advanced Mega Man games. At the same time, 300 baud modems gave way to 56k, and this curious new development called the world wide web arrived on the scene. I won’t say that school took a backseat to designing one of the first Mega Man fan pages online, but I will admit I remember far more about HTML coding than anything I read in my English Lit class.
With the web pages came a growing fan community. I never met anyone at school who shared my passion for Mega Man games, as they were more concerned with things like sports, academics, getting drunk and maintaining a “normal” social life. In my defense, my time at the University of Oklahoma coincided with the coaching tenure of Howard Schnellenberger. To make a nerd comparison, Coach Schnellenberger is about as fondly remembered as Jar Jar Binks. I think this would make the John Blake era the equivalent of Anakin’s “I hate sand” speech… not quite as infamous, but possibly more harmful in the long run.
Anyway, the beauty of the internet was that it connected fans of obscure series across the country. Previously, you could only hope the comic book or video game magazine letters pages would list addresses for pen pals. Strangely enough, I distinctly remember seeing a cool piece of Mega Man fan art in the back issue of an old issue of Gamepro and thinking it would be cool to know artists like that.
As fate would have it, I did end up meeting that very artist one day in a Mega Man chatroom(yes, really). Over time, I was fortunate enough to become friends with that artist. And then, for some strange reason that still defies explanation, that artist decided she liked me as more than just a friend. With half a country between us and relying more often than not on hand written letters and text based chat rooms, we entered into a relationship.
A year and a half later, I packed up two suitcases, jumped on a plane to the west coast and landed without a job prospect or a place to live, both of us determined to make it work.
Given you’re reading a post about a Disney based honeymoon, I won’t belabor the point too much further. As a kid, my dad picked a random video game up so I wouldn’t get into too much trouble while he and my mom went out for their anniversary dinner. That choice led to me finding the love of my life and moving halfway across the country to Orange County.
Right in the shadow of Disneyland. And outside of a few trips to Downtown Disney, in the ten years we lived there, we only went once. It wasn’t just a financial decision, either. There was history with Disney as well, and decades later it still hurt.
While some people might be surprised with my growing Disney obsession, people who knew my family instead be surprised it took so long. For years, my brother and I knew if we were at a loss for a gift for my father, we just needed to find something with Mickey on it. Magazines and books about Disney could easily be found in our house. We had a fondly remembered cutout of The Fab Five caroling in front of our house every Christmas.
In spite of all that, we only ventured to Orlando once as a family. Mom, Dad, me, my older brother Kevin… and my younger brother Scotty.
Sometimes the memories are fractured for me, pieces disjointed or misremembered, because I was so young when it all happened. Other parts remain vivid even after the passage of time. I remember Mom coming home with him on Christmas Day. I can still recall playing with Star Wars figures on the floor of the doctor’s office we found ourselves in so frequently, unable to comprehend the seriousness of it all. Even when we drove from Lawton to Oklahoma City and back again multiple times, or when I got sick and stayed overnight in the motor home outside, I never fully understood what was happening.
Then one day our parents gathered us in the living room, and I heard one of the most fearsome words in the English language. Cancer. I was still too young to grasp the gravity of the situation. When we learned that a charity would be letting our family travel to Walt Disney World, I don’t think I completely understood why.
We visited Walt Disney World in the early days of Epcot, no long after Horizons opened. The memories again came in stops and starts, with much of the connective tissue lost over the years. I’d been looking forward to seeing The Haunted Mansion, but it was closed during our visit. I remember Pirates of the Caribbean fondly. I tried pineapple for the first time on that trip, developed a love for oranges courtesy of the Citrus Swirl and had cake for breakfast one morning. Above everything else, I remember falling in love with Journey into Imagination, and loved Figment so much I insisted on getting a Figment hat.
A picture of Scotty hangs in my brother’s house, taken in Walt Disney World. Almost every time I thought about Disney in the following years, I thought of that picture. Memories of Disney were inexorably tied to my memories of Scotty. Many were happy, but others were painful.
I remember Disney World. I remember a private screening of Return of the Jedi. I remember getting into the van with my parents after we’d stayed the night with my aunt. I will never forget thinking to myself, “I want to bake Scotty a cake” and just a few seconds later, getting the terrible news. Then a parade of family, friends, teachers, even strangers offering their condolences. I remember the funeral. I remember going into his room, staring at his race car bed, crying and asking why.
Discovering the original Transformers is literally the first happy memory I have after we lost Scotty. The Gobots came first, and I still have in a case in my office Crasher and Spay-C. The race car was mine, the space shuttle Scotty’s, and they are perhaps my most cherished possessions. I still collect Transformers to this day, largely because of what they represent.
As fate would have it, one of the first things my future wife and I did together in California? Attend a Transformers fan convention. There, she bought me a G1 Ravage figure. It remains in the case with the two Gobots, every bit as precious. Even the most skeptical person in the world could be forgiven for seeing just a little hint of destiny in that.
Yet, we only visited Disneyland once, when my brother came for a visit. We enjoyed our time there, but I kept the park at a safe emotional distance. Deep down, it hurt far too much to give my heart to it completely.
As so often happens, things changed. I’d started back to college in Orange County, eventually graduating from Saddleback College and the opportunity to attend Northern Arizona presented itself. We packed up and moved east. While I loved the school, our quality of life suffered and fate conspired to make a return to Oklahoma an attractive option. Good times and bad came our way, and it only made the bond between the two of us stronger.
After dealing with several years of pretty serious health problems, I was given a clean bill of health and at the end of 2015, we started to look at the possibility of buying a home together. And that, in turn, brought up the inevitable subject of marriage. Even though I proposed while we were in Arizona, we never set a date, one thing or another holding things up.
Truth was, ever since I first found myself in the ER several years ago and faced the prospect of emergency surgery, I wanted to make things official. For too long, I felt like I’d been putting things off, and I felt the sting of that choice in many different ways. Shortly after I’d recovered, my mother’s health started to fail, and I knew she’d be unable to attend our wedding. I didn’t want anyone else to miss the ceremony.
After a bit of discussion, we agreed that we would set a date to coincide with our original anniversary date. Among all the details that buying a house and planning a wedding entail, the honeymoon felt like the easiest choice. I’d always wanted to go to Hawaii, and it appealed to my future wife just as much.
We told our parents in February, with a planned wedding date in September. We found a house, and closed on it on March 6th. That evening, while working to pack our apartment, my father and brother came by unannounced, with unthinkable news.
My mother had passed away.
I couldn’t find the words to express how I felt then, and they elude me to this day. In the course of twenty four hours, I’d gone from one of the most joyous moments of our lives together to perhaps some of the worst pain I’d ever experienced in my life. Ultimately, I threw myself relentlessly into packing, moving and setting up the new house. Work on the house transitioned to planning the wedding, and once again it allowed me to cope by focusing on other things.
In the midst of it all, the subject of our honeymoon came up again. About this same time, one of the podcasts I regularly listened to talked about Walt Disney World. With the loss of my mother fresh in my mind, I found myself talking a little more about those memories. My wife’s best friend lived in the area as well, so a discussion on the way to work turned into a suggestion. Why not spend our honeymoon in Orlando?
At first, I balked at the idea. I wasn’t sure I could deal with it.
However, a formidable tag team was formed over the next few weeks. The expense of a Hawaii trip, coupled with an increasing nostalgic lure to Florida. If they were a tag team, my father served as the gaudily dressed manager outside the ring(anyone reading this who knows my father will laugh at that idea), handing the steel chair to his charges to seal the deal, except instead of a chair he produced a guide book. Universal Studios, the Kennedy Space Center with Atlantis, Margaritaville and the proximity to the ocean were the lumberjacks making sure we couldn’t escape the ring. Florida it was.
I scoured the web for Walt Disney World podcasts, picked up several more guides and created a spreadsheet to organize the trip, prioritizing which attractions we most wanted to visit. I bought a new wide angle lens for my camera, listened to tips on Disney photography and looked at some of the best photos online to prepare myself. We wasted no time picking our resort, settling on Port Orleans French Quarter for most of the stay, and All Star Movies for the last few days, then on to Cabana Bay on Universal property.
The entire time, a DVD-R sat on my desk. I’d found it shortly after we booked our rooms, but even as I went through countless Disney resources, I was scared to put it into the drive. I didn’t know how I’d react, and for a while I doubted I would even look at it before we departed.
An episode of WDW Radio that focused on Journey into Imagination changed everything. It had been decades since I heard the song, but I recognized it from the first note.
One little spark of inspiration, is at the heart of all creation.
It didn’t happen right away, but a few days later I’d finished working out a few trip details, and I finally pulled the disk out of its slip cover. I stared at the text written on the bottom of it. 1984 Trip to Walt Disney World.
It went into the drive, and the videos started to play. I saw images of our family together, walking through the park and meeting characters, riding on the attractions. Then, halfway through, I saw it. A ride video of Journey into Imagination. I remembered a lot about it, things like Figment appearing outside the Dream Machine, or dressed as an astronaut, trying to hitchhike. And having just listened to a recap of ride, I knew what I’d see at the end. And it was there, grainy but unmistakable.
A picture of all five of us, in the ride car together.
It hasn’t been easy to write all of this out. In a lot of ways, I’ve still not come to terms with what happened over a year ago and the truth is, I probably never will. But I think all of this is vital to understanding just how much this return to Walt Disney World meant to me. In talking about visits to Disneyland, many fans talk of following in Walt’s footsteps. They say you can feel the history in the park, a lingering magic that you can get a sense of as you walk through the castle and around the various lands, knowing that the man who created it all once stood in those same spots.
Last year, my wife and I officially became a family, and celebrated by walking in the footsteps of my family. We both visited the places I’d walked in my youth and made new memories we’ll cherish for decades to come. I like to think there’s magic in Walt Disney World, and on this trip there was just a little bit more than usual.
It’s not enough to tell you we rode Star Tours or Transformers in Universal Studios three times, I want you to understand why those moments meant so much. I want you to understand why, months after our trip and with our next visit at least a year away, I listen to multiple Disney podcasts every week. And maybe in the end, you’ll see why it felt like more than visiting a theme park destination in Orlando.
In many ways, it felt like I’d finally come home.
1 – A funny aside about the Mega Man cartridge, or perhaps the hand of fate looming over things in strange ways. We rented Mega Man 2 from Video Corral, which went out of business shortly after the dawn of Blockbuster. Years later, a video store down the street from our house called Paradise Video sold their copy of Mega Man 2, and I bought it without hesitation. For some reason, I felt it important to put a tiny mark on the label of Mega Man 2. Imagine my surprise when I got it home and found that mark! I asked the owner and, sure enough, he’d bought stock from Video Corral, so I ended up owning that very copy of the game.