My Disney Top 5 - Memories of My Dad in Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5
Writing for MousePlanet has been one of the great joys in my life. April 25, 2023 will mark 15 years since my very first MousePlanet article. I began this long strange trip back then by writing a column called Disney Stuff, a celebration of how we Disney fans collect and accumulate all sorts of Disney memorabilia and collectibles and just how important that stuff was to all of us. The Top 5 column came along soon thereafter and it helped me dive deeper into all things Disney in so many different ways. Through it all, however, I always tried to make each piece personal. My experiences as a Disney fan, after all, are some of the most personal experiences of my life, and collecting those thoughts here on the site and sharing them with this wonderful online community has always been very important to me.
Over the years, I've essentially documented milestones in my life and wrote about them through the magical lens of Disney. If you've paid attention, and I thank you if you have, you should have noticed that most of my articles, despite being about Walt Disney World, have typically have been fairly personal and, at times, very emotional. Our trips to Walt Disney World have always been about escaping with the family. My Top 5's just about always involved not just Disney, but my family and Disney or my friends and Disney. I've written about my kids and Disney. I've written about losing one of my best friends and our mutual love of all things Disney. I've written about the glorious rebirth of our marriage which happened to have some magically strong ties to a certain rose garden in front of a certain castle. My point is that all of my work here on MousePlanet has often been extremely cathartic for me, whether I was simply just missing Walt Disney World, or lamenting a significant loss or rejoicing and celebrating the ways that Disney has happily and magically influenced my life.
And so, once again, I find myself, late at night, in front of the laptop alone with my thoughts, deadline fast approaching and I need to conjure up some of that Disney magic to help me through a tough time. Just about a month ago, on March 23rd to be exact, my dad, Michael Barry, passed away after many years of battling many different illnesses. He was 83 years old and for the last 63 of those years he was married to my mom. He leaves her behind as well as my brother and I, our wives, his three grand kids and a large group of extended family and friends. It's been a long, tough road for all of us the last month or so, but, for me, the time is right to sit down and pore through some thoughts and, once again, search for some catharsis and for some magical lens to view this all through.
My mom and dad didn't take us to Walt Disney World when we were kids. My parents moved to Central Florida in 1960 with my brother when he was just a baby. Things were pretty quiet in the early 60s in that part of the state. It was pre-Disney World and their experience down there wasn't all that magical. They didn't last a year and couldn't wait to get back to New York. After that, Florida was sort of on their no-fly list. They were in no rush to go back and I don't think they set foot in the Sunshine State until the 1990s or so. Once I started going to Walt Disney World with my wife and kids, they wanted in, and we got them down there on a trip with us. All in all, I only took two Disney trips with my dad in tow, but as you might imagine, I have some truly wonderful memories associated with my dad and the most magical place on Earth. So, please indulge me as I, once again, use these pages to work through my grief and fondly remember my top 5 memories of my dad at Walt Disney World. Suffice it to say that these are not really in any kind of order. They are all significant to me in many ways and there are others, but when I think of Dad and Disney World, these are the memories that come to mind right away from our trips down there together.
5 - The Disney Mountains
I've always been fond of saying that my dad never threw a ball with me out in the backyard or played catch. And that was just fine, because what he did do was take me bike riding, skiing, boating, sailing and yes, he took me on my first roller coasters. In Queens, we were fortunate enough to have Coney Island to the south of us and Rye Playland just to the north. I have many fond memories of heading to those parks with Dad and screaming my little head off on the Cyclone in Brooklyn and The Dragon Coaster up in Westchester. I can also remember being at Six Flags in nearby New Jersey with him and riding the classic Rolling Thunder. Dad seemed to love coasters and it rubbed off. To this day, there's nothing I love more than a good roller coaster.
I knew exactly where to take my dad once he finally made it to Walt Disney World. I repaid him the favor of introducing me to roller coasters with a spin around Big Thunder Mountain. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
Once we were at Disney together for the first time, I knew he needed to go on Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain at The Magic Kingdom and they did not disappoint. At times my dad had a more quiet and gruff way about him, but he could also giggle and laugh like a silly old fool when he wanted to. Quite honestly, I'll never forget the sound of his laughter on both of these Disney classics and it only got better when we went over to Animal Kingdom to ride my all time favorite roller coaster, Expedition Everest. It instantly became his favorite as well and I'm thrilled that we got to share a few hysterical rides together down there, laughing and hooting and hollering like two little kids having a blast.
4 - Epcot's World Showcase
I've long stated here on MousePlanet that there's simply nothing else like Epcot anywhere on Earth. It is its own unique thing. One of the things that makes it so unique, of course, is World Showcase. My dad was a world traveler. He's been just about everywhere on the globe traveling for business and/or pleasure and, because of that, I couldn't wait for him to see World Showcase. It was a pretty unusual thing to experience with him because the simple fact of the matter was that he had actually been to all eleven host nations represented in Epcot's World Showcase. I've only been to three.
I don't think I've ever walked around that place with anyone else that can say that. He loved it from the very first moment we arrived and why not? What's not to love? The food, the drinks, the music, the architecture, the cultures all combine for such an unforgettable experience. He'd spent so much of his life seeing these actual places and reading travel magazines and travel related books and novels that once he was in Epcot, he felt kind of at home in World Showcase. It was a real joy being there with him.
3 - Happily Ever After on my 50th Birthday
For years, I knew that I wanted to turn 50 at Walt Disney World. In my eyes, I couldn't think of a better place to reach the half century mark. I opened the trip up to family and friends and before I knew it we had a crew of 27 headed down there for a week of fun, magic and celebration. I also knew that, on my actual birthday, I wanted to dine at my then favorite Disney restaurant–Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge–with the whole brood. After a magnificent meal, we'd all hop a boat over to the Magic Kingdom, gather on the bridge to Tomorrowland and watch the Happily Ever After fireworks explode in the sky. I'm a sucker for fireworks and I'm a real sucker for Happily Ever After. It's the perfect mix of heart and spectacle, one of Disney's finest experiences. At this point of my dad's life, he needed a wheelchair or a scooter to get around the parks. There was this brief moment during Happily Ever After, where I tuned away from the castle to look around at my family and friends and I spotted my mom sitting on Dad's lap in the wheelchair watching the show.
My guess is that, if you took the wheelchair and the grey hair out of the picture, they probably looked just like that, back in the 50s, on the Fourth of July down on the beach when they were teenagers dating and watching some local fireworks show. It was a uniquely sweet and tender moment that I'll always cherish from that very special trip.
2 - Being Out on the Water
My dad was born and raised in Queens, as was I. Queens, despite what tons of people say, is actually part of Long Island. Yes, Queens and Brooklyn are physically on Long Island. And just like the name says, it is an island, completely surrounded by water. Some people live their whole lives here and, shockingly, not spend that much time out on the water. That was not the way that we lived. We spent all of our summers on the eastern end of Long Island where things were a bit more rural and boating, sailing, fishing and swimming were an everyday part of life. When you think of Florida, you think of the coastline and the beaches. When you think of Orlando, you probably don't think of water, because it is, in fact, landlocked. That is until you go to Walt Disney World for the first time and you realize that there are lakes and lagoons and waterways, both natural and man-made, pretty much everywhere you look. It surprised me the first time I went there and I know it surprised my dad too. As a lifelong sailor and boater, he was right in his element out on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake by the Magic Kingdom or Crescent Lake over by Epcot. Staying at Port Orleans Riverside, we enjoyed the boat ride down the Sassagoula River to then Downtown Disney and when we upgraded for my 50th and booked rooms over at the Yacht Club, well…the man was in his glory.
It's one of the beautiful surprises that Walt Disney World has in store for you. Take a boat ride from the Magic Kingdom over to the Wilderness Lodge and you will never feel like you're landlocked. Watching my dad on a boat was like watching The Old Man and The Sea come to life right in front of you and watching him on a boat out on Bay Lake in my favorite place in the world always seemed to make sense. I was in my element and so was he.
1 - True Disney Magic
Now this top entry is the most unusual, because it doesn't refer to a time when my dad was actually at Walt Disney World. It refers to us being there when he passed away. As strange as that may sound, this was where some heavy-duty Disney magic truly came into play. As I've been mentioning here in my most recent articles, our twin boys have been down at Disney in the College Program for the last 6-8 months or so. My wife and I had planned a quick getaway weekend to see them last month. So we thought, why not bring my mom with us, so she could get away and see the grand kids? She has been so wrapped up in taking care of my dad these last three years she needed a break, and what better break could there be than Walt Disney World with the grand kids? Regrettably, my dad could no longer travel but seemed stable enough to leave with my brother and my dad's full-time aide that had been taking care of him for the last several years. Plus, he insisted that we go and that we take her with us.
Of course, as fate would have it, on our second day down there, my brother called me and broke the unbearable news that dad had passed away. We were in France when the call came through. At that exact moment, thank goodness, my mom was not in front of me. She was taking a restroom break. I bluffed and came up with some sort of excuse to go back to the resort. I could not tell her right there in Epcot surrounded by thousands of people. We made it back to the Contemporary where we were staying and, obviously, the next few hours were incredibly difficult. We knew we had to get home as soon as possible, but the flights to New York were all full until the following morning. After an hour or two of phone calls and tears, my amazing wife then kicked into savior mode. Her suggestion was to get out of the hotel and let's do something to honor him. We couldn't go home. We were together. "Let's do something that he would have loved to do." were her exact words. The obvious thing was to get ourselves out onto the water. We took the monorail over to the Magic Kingdom and got ourselves onto the first boat that was headed out onto the Seven Seas Lagoon on it's way to The Wilderness Lodge.
The sun was just hitting the water in that perfect late afternoon type of way and it truly felt like we were in the right place. We walked the grounds of the Wilderness Lodge and gazed out on beautiful Bay Lake. The last time we were all there together was 5 years ago on my 50th birthday, with my dad. Once again, much like being out there on the water, we were in the right place.
As we sat quietly in the beautiful lobby, we started to piece a few things together and the Disney magic started to really shine. That morning in Epcot, my wife and the boys and I had a reservation for Guardians of the Galaxy. My 81-year-old mom certainly wasn't going with us. So the plan was to leave her to herself in one of her favorite places, Italy in World Showcase.
My mom is 100% Italian and this was her element. About 40 minutes later, we found her sitting outside in one of those chairs on the piazza, having a little food, watching some performers. She was basking in her Italy moment and seemed completely at peace. This was why we brought her down here, to have a few moments like this after the incredibly challenging few years she had been going through with my dad and his health issues. Turns out that while she was sitting there, in her element, at peace, was the exact moment that my dad passed away quietly back in New York. He was insistent that she should go on this trip and that he would be alright. I'm not a religious man, but I can be pretty spiritual. And there's no doubt in my mind that he wanted her to leave and have her peaceful moment and once she was having that moment, he knew it was OK for him to leave and that's just what he did.
Later on that evening, back at the Contemporary, we decided to keep our dinner reservations over at the Kona Cafe. We needed to eat and dining out was a big thing for my dad, especially when he was traveling. As we were getting ready to head out, I opened the blinds and looked out over the Seven Seas Lagoon and saw the most remarkable sunset gazing back at us. Once again, the sun was shining on the water, and we were right where we needed to be.
It may sound corny, but Disney was working its magic for us at every turn that day. I called a good friend, and he said to me, "Chris, what are the odds that this would happen while you were all there? Your mom was supposed to be there with you, your wife and your boys. You were not supposed to be up here for this. He didn't want you here. He didn't want your mother here. She hasn't been away in years and the first time she goes away, this happens and you guys are all there together to get her through it? These things don't just happen." I think he was right. Disney has become such an important facet of my life. I was exactly where I was supposed to be and so was my mom. Walt Disney World embraced us and took care of us and it was probably the ultimate dose of Disney magic that anyone could have asked for. The Disney spirits were in our corner for sure. And I have to say that the cast members that helped us out went above and beyond. Whether it was helping us rearrange our room plans or providing us with Mears vouchers, setting up our ride to the airport, rebooking our remaining park days or just being incredibly genuine and sympathetic towards all of us, the Disney cast, especially at the Contemporary made us feel like they were taking care of their own extended families. They were truly amazing. Like I said, Walt Disney World truly embraced us and helped us get through such a difficult time.
Obviously, I'll never forget that day down there, but I'll also never let go of the other memories that I talked about above. Listening to the world traveler tell his stories as we strolled around World Showcase. Hearing his silly chuckle as we whipped around the bends of Big Thunder Mountain. Watching the hopeless romantic holding onto his girl while they enjoyed the fireworks. Watching him squint as the sun reflected off the water on that boat ride across Crescent Lake. They're just a few of the hundreds of other memories that I have of my dad. These few just happen to have that extra little bit of Disney magic attached to them and will forever hold a special place in my consciousness that will always keep him alive in my mind and in my heart.
That's all for this time. As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you next time with more of that wonderful Disney magic that we all love so much.