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This past Thanksgiving weekend was wonderful on so many levels. In fact, due to a series of unrelated events, that elusive holiday feeling permeated our family gatherings as well as our busy preparations for the upcoming Christmas season. Sadly, there have been holidays that, well, didn’t exactly live up to our expectations. At times, the stressors of the holidays outweigh the joys.


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And that made me think of the parallels between holidays and holidays, the word my British friends use to mean vacations.  

There’s an old Christmas album at my parents’ house entitled That Christmas Feeling; for many of us who visit the Vacation Kingdom of the World, there could probably be a soundtrack entitled That Disney Feeling as well.

And so, I’m offering, a simple list—for kids from one to ninety-two—of lessons learned this Thanksgiving and during our most recent visit to Walt Disney World. I hope keeping these lessons in mind will enhance our Christmas holidays as well as our Disney holidays later this year.

The Joy of Anticipation

While anticipating is really nothing more than a fancy way of saying waiting, this joy of waiting is something I learned during visits to Walt Disney World. I was reminded of this at mass today; Father’s sermon examined the joyfulness of waiting during the Advent season. Just like anticipating the holidays, much of the fun of vacationing is in the planning, the plotting, and the waiting. When it comes down to it, there’s an equal amount of joy in the anticipating, the experiencing, and the comfortable reminiscing once home.

In the years before Fastpass, early entry, Extra Magic Hours, or interactive queues, there was the simple pleasure of just being at Walt Disney World. While I’m not suggesting a return to long, long lines and hours of valuable vacation time spent waiting, I am advocating for an honest attempt to make the most of any vacation time. Strike up a conversation with a stranger, take in the beauty of the surroundings, talk to your traveling companions, be they family or friends. Remember: many of life’s most worthwhile pursuits—friendship, expertise, love—require time.

Random Interactions

Another joy of Walt Disney World is what I like to call random interactions. These can come in the most unexpected places and occur at the most unlikely times. Last summer, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was down for repairs on our very last day. The kids were so disappointed, but a young cast member named Daniel saved the day. He gave the kids high-fives, congratulated them on riding Big Thunder on our first day at the Magic Kingdom, and suggested we go to Pirates of the Caribbean instead. Another cast member, Sally at Sir Mickey’s, took the extra time to call a shop at Epcot to find a Peter Pan hat for one of my sons. A little boy who sat by us during Illuminations: Reflections of Earth struck up a conversation with my sons; hearing the three of them share their vacation memories was priceless, one of the true highlights of the entire trip.

This past weekend, we encountered a college age “kid” at Toys R Us who good-naturedly thanked us for picking up a pile of toys we’d bumped into with our cart. A simple “I really appreciate that,” accompanied with a genuine smile, was most wonderful. A clerk at Best Buy called three fellow workers to help find a copy of the Frozen soundtrack for us. He could have simply said they were all sold out. Several people let my little guys stand in front of them at our town’s Santa parade.

Appreciating these “little wonders” and taking the time to make similar kind gestures for others really takes me back to Walt Disney World and that super-friendly, always positive atmosphere that Walt promoted at his first park, Disneyland.

Smiling

Several years ago, a colleague and I took twenty-five students to Europe for an extended summer visit. We instilled in our students the need for decorum, the proper way to dress, and appropriate behaviors for visitors to major international cities and historic sites. Despite our desire to blend in, locals seemed to know that we were American visitors. (Granted, this might have been due to the fact that there were twenty-seven of us, but even when we adults were alone, locals pegged us as American.) We asked our British tour guide about this, and he replied, “Actually, you look and act appropriately. You just smile so much. That is very American.”

This made me think. While I certainly prefer a sincere countenance to a counterfeit smile, there is something to be said about greeting others—even strangers—with a pleasant expression. This idea of polite interactions with strangers again brings me back to that Disney state of mind. Cast Members, of course, are required to be friendly, but that forced friendliness typically evolves into sincere desire to make positive connections. The fact that this attitude is contagious, that even guests tend to act more politely to each other while at Walt Disney World, reminds me of the “smiles from people you don’t even know” feeling that typifies the holidays.

Appreciating the Details

The holiday season is an assault on the senses. The little details of Christmases past are often those that we treasure the most. Colors, lights, and decorations are all part of the holiday tradition; these design elements are, of course, part of the Disney experience as well, all year through, not just during the traditional holiday season. The designers at Walt Disney Imagineering are artists of the highest degree, and their choice of color, texture, lighting, and detail are not haphazard. The tastefulness of the Disney details is a tradition that goes back to the very beginning of themed entertainment at Disneyland. During the holidays, I seem to be acutely aware of the detailed wonders around – this is true during Disney vacations as well. It would be nice if this attentiveness lasted for more than a few weeks.

Music seems to be everyone during this time of year – happy, jolly little songs as well as hymns of profound meaning. At Walt Disney World, music is literally everywhere. From attractions and shows to subtle background music at the resorts, Disney’s world is a musical one. Like Christmas music, Disney music runs the gamut from the silly (The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room comes to mind) to the profoundly meaningful(When You Wish Upon a Star during Wishes or Golden Dream at the finale of The American Adventure). Taking to time to appreciate—or at the very least notice—the plethora of music at Walt Disney World adds to the experience, just as listening to favorite songs by Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Julie Andrews, and Karen Carpenter enhance our celebration of Christmas.

The Magic of Nighttime

There’s nothing like the glow of decorative lights to warm a cold winter evening. Even ordinary places seem to sparkle at Christmas. At Walt Disney World, the magic of nighttime reigns every night. From delicate white lights on Main Street U.S.A. to dramatic spotlights in Future World, nobody does nighttime lighting like Disney. The next time you are at the Magic Kingdom (or World Showcase, for that matter), take a look—a really deliberate look—at the light fixtures. Each is unique to its themed area, each adds a special glow, and each adds a layer of sophisticated authenticity to the experience.

Conclusion

While decorating the house this past weekend, we listened to many, many favorite albums from the past. One song on a Julie Andrews compilation offered an appropriate sentiment to conclude my column today. As we approach this holiday season, I hope to keep the following lines from The Secret of Christmas in mind: “So may I suggest, the spirit of Christmas—is not the things you do at Christmastime, but the Christmas things you do all year through.

And as you approach your next Walt Disney World vacation, “May I suggest, the spirit of Walt Disney—is not the things you do at vacation time, but the Disney things you do all year through.”



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(Send an email to Tom Richards)

Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.