Having just returned from a visit to Walt Disney World, I started thinking about our first few family visits, some 13 or 14 years ago, and how they were the genesis of what has become a shared family passion. My wife and I had always been Disney fans—we loved the films, agreed that Walt was an unparalleled visionary and even took a pre-parenthood, “second honeymoon” Disney vacation.
When our two daughters were born, we introduced as much Disney into their lives as we could manage. Cynical friends called it “brainwashing,” but we considered it proper parental guidance. I’m sure our efforts helped, but what really made them fans in their own right were unforgettable chance encounters with their favorite princesses when they were very young.
We have been able to take frequent Disney trips over the years, the first in 1997 when Lauren, my oldest, was nearly 5 and Monica, just a few months past her first birthday. It was during Walt Disney World’s 25th Anniversary celebration when Cinderella Castle was “decorated” as a monstrous pink, plastic birthday cake.
The 1997 trip took place during a typically warm Orlando spring. By the last day, Monica was beginning to tire from both the heat and nonstop stimulation caused by our unsophisticated touring strategies. We were visiting the Magic Kingdom that afternoon when Monica fell asleep in her stroller.
We always encouraged Monica to sleep when she was even the least bit tired (even today, a sleep-deprived Monica is a force to be feared). My wife looked for a quiet place to hide so that Monica could rest while Lauren and I visited a few more attractions.
We walked from Liberty Square toward the central hub and headed toward a grove of trees near the Adventureland Bridge. The trees surrounded a small, tranquil park, empty but for the young lady sitting quietly on a small stone stage near one end. Lauren recognized her instantly. “Belle!” she shouted as she ran straight for her favorite princess.
Much of what happened after that is a blur. I remember Lauren sitting on Belle’s lap while Belle whispered still unrevealed secrets in her ear. They complimented each other’s wardrobe and hairstyles, and then gave each other “butterfly kisses.” I was nearly as star struck as Lauren. After a time, other guests appeared and Lauren begrudgingly shared Belle’s attention. Regaining my composure, I sat on the ground next to Lauren and listened as Belle read Peter Pan to her adoring fans.
A year or two later, a more mature Monica had her own private moment with her favorite princess, Cinderella. By then, we had become more adept at touring with young children. Naps were taken in air conditioning on a comfortable resort bed rather than on a hard Disney stroller in the Florida humidity.
We were last in line for a Cinderella and Prince Charming “Meet-and-Greet” inside Cinderella Castle. Monica could hardly contain herself as we waited our turn. When it was time, she ran toward the royal couple and grasped Cinderella tightly around her legs. Sensing that Monica would not willingly let go, Cinderella and Charming knelt down to talk. My wife and I were a few feet away frantically working several cameras and could hear only the faint sound of Cinderella’s soft voice as she held Monica’s hand and gently stroked her arm. Prince Charming smiled, eager to add something, but Monica wasn’t interested. After a while, when Monica seemed satisfied, they stood up to leave. As Cinderella blew goodbye kisses, Monica hopped back toward us with a smile that took our breath away.
Now, years later, Disney has become part of the fabric of our life and it began with those princess encounters from long ago. My daughters were destined to become fans—we were going to see to that. But those intimate moments made Disney come to life for them. Belle and Cinderella were no longer just characters from movies, they were real living and breathing people. Soon, every Disney character became real and every story possible. Disney was no longer just entertainment, but a way of life.
I smile, now, when I am in the Magic Kingdom and see a little girl with her favorite princess. I know that, as magical as that moment is today, it is just the beginning of a lifetime of special Disney moments.