That Disney Something

by Steve Russo, staff writer

I should know better.

The inspiration for this column comes from my daughter Michelle. A short while ago, Michelle sent me an email detailing a conversation she had with a friend. Her friend had recently returned from a Walt Disney World vacation and found she was “already missing it."

Michelle asked “what exactly is it about Disney World that makes us feel this way?” She talked about her many vacations which have been amazingly well-rounded: a Caribbean island; hiking/camping in the Rockies; ocean beaches and resorts; and the “big city” vacation, to name just a few. She went on to state that “while I love these trips and spending time with my family, I don’t get the same feeling that I do when we’re going to Disney World. I almost feel like crying when we’re leaving to come home. Have you ever written an article about this? I am curious to see what other people have to say.”

Have I ever written an article about this? Sort of. I have a chapter in my book dedicated to “Why We Go Back” and attempted to discuss the same topic for MousePlanet (Why We Go Back). But those attempts focused mainly on the tangibles: the resorts, theme parks, attractions, restaurants, etc. I think those are some of the reasons we keep returning to Walt Disney World but I think Michelle is alluding to something else—something more intangible. It’s more the feeling we have when we’re there; the emotions that stir up when we’re planning or readying ourselves for that next vacation. When I began writing this column, I called it the “Disney Feeling”—but that’s not quite right. It’s sort of a feeling, but somehow… not really.

I exhausted the thesaurus. I searched on “feeling” and it gave me: activity, awareness, consciousness, enjoyment, excitability, excitation, excitement, feel, innervation, motility, motor response, pain, perceiving, perception, pleasure, reaction, receptivity, reflex, responsiveness, sense, sensibility, sensitivity, sensuality, tactility, tangibility and titillation. Some of those are good but none really nail it.

Let me state again that I should know better. This is not the easiest concept to convey. Many have tried with varying degrees of success. Let’s begin by conceding that the Disney “feeling” just doesn’t do it justice. For the purposes of this article, let’s just say that it’s a Disney something. While it’s almost impossible to define, like pornography to the Supreme Court, I’ll know it when I see it—or, more accurately, when I feel it.

You see, it’s not something readily identifiable. It’s not a binary switch that’s either on or off. I think of it more like a meter—a dial with a needle. That needle will float up and down or spike and plunge quickly based on my own perceptions. OK, I can see I’m losing you now. Let me try to explain.

I think back to our most recent visit in late January. I know there’s a certain amount of pleasure for me in the planning process. The simple acts of reviewing menus, setting up a parks schedule and making dining reservations starts me on that vacation path—basically it brings the Disney Something into existence for me. My internal dial kicks up a notch as the trip gets closer. A few days before departure, my spirits may lift while doing something as silly as ironing a few pairs of shorts—of course this is done while gazing out at my snow-covered yard in sub-freezing temperatures.

The last minute packing and getting things ready on the evening before a trip can also bring a bit of a lift to that meter: readying the suitcases and loading them in the car; making sure all the different last minute details are covered; then setting the alarm for dark-thirty and trying, usually in vain, for a decent night’s sleep.

The actual travel does nothing for the Disney Something in me at all. I tolerate the travel but don’t really enjoy any part of it. Heck, what’s to enjoy about a cold, dark, 5:00 a.m. drive to the airport, checking luggage and enduring the cavity search from the TSA agents? Then I sit around a gate before being herded into a smallish tube to take a seat with precious little leg room while exchanging DNA with 120 of my closest friends. What’s not to enjoy? The needle on my internal dial flatlines until…

… we finally touch down in Orlando. It’s always sunny and warm with a clear blue sky when we land. Yes—I’ve landed in thunderstorms before, but give me this one. It’s almost always clear and warm. Once the plane’s wheels hit tarmac, I begin vacation mode. That’s where that Disney Something sparks deep inside me. I can begin to sense my own anticipation of what’s to come.

The needle rises as I step off the plane and I notice other passengers in shorts and t-shirts. Remember I just left Upstate New York when it was below freezing. I make my way to the tram that will take me to the Orlando International Airport’s main terminal building. I know this vehicle is technically not a monorail but I don’t care—I’m calling it a monorail and it’s my first monorail ride of the trip. I sense an uptick in the meter.

The needle inches further up the dial as I make my way to Disney’s Magical Express area and check in with a cast member. If I’m lucky, I may see one or two wearing their large white Mickey gloves and get a “high four."

The video on the bus may help a bit but the meter ticks up several notches when I see my first purple road signs and we pass under the arch that welcomes me to Walt Disney World.

The needle starts moving upward. Photo by Steve Russo.

The next uptick is when we reach our resort and are mercifully allowed to exit the bus and head inside for check-in. It’s there when I hear my first “Welcome home” and the meter jumps rather significantly.

Let me describe something from our last trip that may strike a chord with some of you. After arrival and check-in, we walked from the Boardwalk to Epcot, via the International Gateway. I first had to stop at Guest Services to take care of upgrading passes, and then we were quickly into the park and walking the World Showcase promenade toward the United Kingdom. All at once it hit me: the ubiquitous music that you often barely notice, the beautiful landscaping, the small crowd watching the World Showcase Players, a Friendship boat making its way across the lagoon… Almost simultaneously, my wife and I looked at each other, let out a deep sigh, and said “It’s great to be back!”

Ahhhh, Epcot. Photo by Steve Russo.

That was our Disney Something moment. Yours may come on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom; or the first time you see Spaceship Earth; or in a hammock on the Polynesian beach; or seeing the oversized icons at the All Stars resorts—it really doesn’t matter where. That Something will stay with me for the rest of the vacation. Oh, it may dip a bit here and there when I witness a Stupid Guest Trick or two but it typically climbs back up quickly. As I’ve stated in the other articles, there’s a lot to love about the tangibles: the restaurants, the resorts, the attractions. But it’s the intangibles that really do it for me: the smile on the little girl in the princess dress as she scurries up to embrace Cinderella; exchanging “Good mornings” with complete strangers in the hotel hallway; walking under the train station and seeing Cinderella’s castle for the first time—again; hearing “We Go On” during Illuminations; I could go on and on.

Like Michelle, I’ve vacationed in a variety of locations. Some I’ve enjoyed immensely; others not so much. But there has not been a place that gives me the same sense of enjoyment as Walt Disney World does. No other place so completely relieves me of the stress of everyday life and allows me a brief but welcome stay in my own little Utopia. Nowhere else can deliver that Disney Something.

I should have known better but there it is… my attempt to capture just what it is about the place that keeps me coming back, again and again. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Now on to your email…

Last month’s column was my first after returning to MousePlanet’s pages on a regular basis. Let me say “thanks” to all of you that welcomed me back with such kind words. It’s appreciated.

That column dealt with what I termed “iPlanning”, the new technological tools useful in the vacation planning process.

John writes:

“Check out WDW Tour if you do touring plans in the parks. It doesn't offer specific touring plans, but instead lets you put in your own, then step through it as you go through the park.

And it doesn't need a net connection, so it works just as well on an iPod Touch as on an iPhone.”

Thanks for the tip, John. It sounds like a useful tool and I’ll check it out.

Judy writes:

“Hey Steve!! I missed you! Happy to hear from you again. I will be the anti-Steve for the next few paragraphs. Yeah, I'm still using a flip style cell phone. Our kids have all the latest phones/apps/whatever as soon as it rolls out for sale.

I think if our family were first time travelers to WDW I would be AFRAID. I say, take a step back. Take a deep breath. Relax. This isn't Rocket Science, it's a vacation. Our first family trip there in 1996 brings back memories of a 22 hour non-stop drive, our daughter throwing up (car sickness) as we drove through the immense Disney property, desperately trying to find Port Orleans. You know what happened next? We found it (nine lights back). We had no fancy dinner reservations, no itinerary. We had the time of our lives. Six days of living a dream.

Looking back, some thirty plus trips & DVC members since then, we experienced more joy and wonderment that first trip then any since. Which is not to say we wish we were Disney-ignorant again. It sure is nice to save time and know where to find the magic that our family cherishes. And Disney still surprises us with some precious moment every time. But that newness, that wonderment, that shock when you are actually standing in front of the castle, the awe in which Disney looks brand new and fresh and immaculate and beautiful has an initial effect on you that no other trip can duplicate. It is a spell.....a spell that keeps you coming back for anything new, anything you might have missed, or a chance to relive perfect memories.

So, to everyone in the hippest technological realm to those who still have a phone with a cord, GO! Go unprepared; go super-prepared (but not as prepared as Steve!) Just go. I bet you'll be baaccckkk! Just like Steve.”

Thanks, Judy. I couldn’t have said it better.

Maria writes:

“I have followed all the same steps you mention here with my infallible spreadsheet. Does this make me OCD too? Thank you for your new millennium tips!!! I am happy you are baaaaaaaack!”

Thanks, Maria. Yes, I’ll welcome you to the ranks of the “OCD Planners”. That doesn’t make you a bad person, just well prepared.

Pat writes:

“So, which WDW Dining app are you using? I just did a search & there were several . . . (I'm using an iPhone, so should have access to what you use on the iPad). And welcome back! You've been missed!”

Thanks, Pat. The app I use is called “Disney World Dining”. Here’s a screen shot:

Lastly, Todd writes:

“Love the columns and all the advice. As a CA resident and mildly frequent visitor to Disneyland, I was wondering if there was a version of "you" that covered Disneyland and all that traveling there entails?”

Todd, I hadn’t thought about that before. First, my wife would say you should be thankful there’s not another version of “me” out there.

There’s a ton of Disneyland expertise within the staff at MousePlanet but there doesn’t seem to be a column that deals with the resort specifically—excepting the weekly Disneyland Resort Update, of course. A very quick and unofficial review of my columns (and those of the other staff writers) indicates that many (such as the one above) are not park specific. However, and there’s no doubt here, when I do write about a resort it’s specific to Walt Disney World. Unfortunately, I have no specific Disneyland expertise to draw on—something I’d love to rectify.

If you or anyone else out there would like to take on the challenge of writing specifically about Disneyland, MousePlanet is always looking for new, quality content.

Until next month… thanks for reading.



  1. By averagecuppajoe

    I've been planning my annual trip of taking my kids to Disneyland for Spring Break, for months. I can't wait to check in to the Sheraton on Saturday. I'm divorced from their mom and it's "our" thing. I always look forward to it. My first trip to DL was when I was a kid and it was a dream come true. I can't count the times I've been back since my two times as a kid. In the old days, we'd scrape up just enough money to get in the park and buy a meal for the day. Sleeping in the back of a pick-up truck along the seven hour journey because we couldn't even afford a hotel.

    Disneyland marks the important moments of my life and helps me have perspective of where I started and how much we've both grown, (DL and I). Always something new at DL, always something new in my life. The year DCA (2002) opened and I couldn't go because I had a new daughter. The year (2003) my daughter was 18 months and I spent a week at DL with my best mate from my Marine Corps days that I hadn't seen in twenty years. The time my new girlfriend and I snuck rum in our cokes ('87) and rode the old rocket rides. What a flight! The year ('93) my 3rd cousin came out to visit from the east coast and we saw Japanese tourists yelling "Toy-o-ta!" in the former DL parking lot, for over forty minutes, over and over again. We thought, "Omigod, they're calling their car!". I laughed til I was sick. I have dozens of these times. This is how I tend to earmark my life and it all started with that first wish coming true when I was eleven. I'm not sure what year this is, yet. I know it will be something memorable.

    Additionaly, the folks who run the park do such an amazing job keeping things family friendly and keeping the parks safe. If you've ever stood in line with thugs at Magic Mountain, or in line with some of the line-cutting teens that seem to appear in every other type of amusement park out there, you realize your hard earned dollars go towards the policing that allows you to believe you're in a magical world when you're really in an amusement park next to the Santa Ana Freeway. I haven't been to Florida, although I've been to the Tokyo and Paris parks, and DL is that special place I always go back to that represents the better part of my childhood. The part of my childhood that I like to remember. The part of my children's childhood that is far better and like the one I always imagined for myself. A place where indeed, "Wishes come true!".

  2. By Silvercat

    Well thanks Steve for making me quietly blub while at work!

    I guess most folks who keep going back have their 'Disney moments' and that's what keeps us going back. We definitely get our 'moment' every time we go, and it always seems to be different each visit! Probably my most memorable was a few years ago, when my daughter was about 7 or 8 years old. We queued for around an hour to meet Mickey, not so she could get his autograph or so we could take her photo with him, but just because, in her words, "he looks like he needs me to hug him". My darling daughter is now 29 years old, and this memory still makes me tear up.

    Thank you for trying to put the 'moments' into words; I guess we Mousepadders understand, even if no-one else does!

  3. By danyoung

    Excellent reading, Steve. This is indeed of of life's great intangibles - why we all love WDW so much and keep going back so often. It's a tough one to convey to co-workers, who will always voice the inevitable "Again? You JUST WENT THERE!". I always try to say in a few words that it's not just the rides - it's the food, it's the scenery, it's the atmosphere, it's the shows. It's just "something" that is very hard to make folks understand.

    Part of it is, in the words of John Travolta - you always need something to look forward to. I just about HAVE to have that next WDW or DL trip in the planning stages, and have at least a mental countdown in the works. And while I take a rental car from the airport instead of the DME bus, I do the same as you - as soon as I cross that threshold between "not WDW" and "WDW" the heart starts to beat a little faster, and I just CAN'T WAIT till that first sight of a monorail! I've always said my life has two phases - inside a Disney park, and outside a Disney park. And on each trip, the first time I click through that Epcot turnstile and realize that the waiting and planning and traveling is over and I'm finally HERE - well, it's one of those magical moments that just can't be experienced anywhere else.

    Next trip - 4 weeks and 2 days (not that I'm counting or anything . . .).

  4. By DisneyGator

    My "that's it" moment comes at two parks. And so I always start my trip at either Epcot or DHS. At Epcot, it's when I see SSE and hear the entrance music. At DHS, it's when I step around the first Mickey Globe tower and see the Sorcerer's Hat at the end of Hollywood Blvd. I think that's my personal fav, but the Epcot moment feels great, too.

    The only other place that makes me feel this way is Yosemite National Park. It's just 2 hours away, so I get to visit a couple of times a year. And every moment went I round the bend on the 120 and see Half Dome. It's just like seeing anything at WDW. But that's the only place I feel this way. Disneyland, Hawaii, SnakeRiver Canyon, Yellowstone, Monterey, Corpus Christi...none of them have the "it" factor like WDW.

  5. By srusso100

    Thanks all. It's interesting reading about the different moments that provide that "something".

  6. By Dan the Light Man

    Such a great article! You are so right, how does anyone describe the Disney "Feeling"?!?!?

  7. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by Dan the Light Man View Post
    Such a great article! You are so right, how does anyone describe the Disney "Feeling"?!?!?

    Thanks, Dan.

  8. By LtPowers

    I thought it was called Disney "Magic". =)

    Powers &8^]

  9. By bochnikm

    Hey Steve, excellent article! Glad you are back writing.

    You’re right – it’s hard to put into words for “That Disney Something”. For me it might be that subconscious sense of a near utopian place. The weather is better, the little details are taken care of, there‘s something entertaining around every corner, the cast members are helpful and friendly and even the crowds are friendlier than anywhere else on the planet. Even the efficiency of everything plays a part. (We all wish that everything was that way in our day to day lives like the DMV, malls, public transportation ….)

    It’s almost as if you’re in a Twilight Zone episode, where everything is perfect – but there is a catch. The great thing about WDW is there is no catch! Yes there are hiccups now and then. Other wise it would be truly utopian and we would never leave.

    I also think that’s why many of us like to plan. Disney did their part, now it’s up to us to make our vacation as utopian as possible. Then when we get there and that moment hits - all we have to do is enjoy.

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