If you are alone in Disney World, you’ll never forget it. Even if you can ignore all of the families that surround you, even if you manage to miss the couples walking hand-in-hand through the park, you will always be aware of your singledom because you are constantly compelled to disclose it to the state authorities of the Magic Kingdom. On every ride, at every mechanical attraction, your status is interrogated before you sit down. And when the operator asks how many are in your party, you have to say—out loud—one.
There is only one of you. Again and again, one. No matter how many times you say it, there is nothing to add. Just one. One lone, 36-year-old man riding in the front row of a “Hunny Pot”-shaped car in a Winnie the Pooh-themed ride. One.
“How many, guys?” asked the woman who directed me to my flume on Splash Mountain one 80-degree March day in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Reflexively, she assumed she was asking a group of people and not just one person. Didn’t I blow her mind this time?
“Just one?” said the guy who was filling up the cars of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. His eyebrows were arched so high, it was as though he were unfamiliar with the very concept of one. Here’s a guy who starts counting at two and never looks back.
“Single,” retorted the guy who helped me at Pirates of Caribbean. Well, no, actually, and furthermore I chose to come here alone today, thank you very much, but I guess for your purposes I am as alone right now as I inevitably will be at the moment of death. Fine.
I was in the Magic Kingdom alone because I’d spent the last few days with a traveling companion eating our way through the international restaurants at Epcot. That was the only park on our itinerary, but leaving Orlando without having visited Disney World’s crown jewel felt incomplete, like taking a trip to New York City and only setting foot in Queens. Beyond my FOMO, the four days that preceded had involved the kind of constant companionship that defines the average Disney experience. A change, I thought, might be refreshing.
It would also be different from Disney visits that have dotted my life. Starting when I was 7, my family would visit the Florida parks every few years, around the time when each of my four younger siblings were conscious enough to enjoy it. We went when the oldest of my younger sisters (twins) were three (in 1985) and then again when the sister after them turned three (in 1989, and that time with my aunt, cousin, and a few of my father’s friends), and then again when my youngest sister was five (in 1995).
That last time was a bit of a downer as trips to Disney go—I was an angsty teen (I’m not smiling in any of the stack of photos we have from that trip) and my mother didn’t come with us because she and my father were separated by then. They had gone to Disney World on their honeymoon. My mother did, though, come with us the most recent time we all went down, in 2012, because she and my father have found a way to get along and be around each other for extended periods of time in their divorce.
So Disney to me has always been primarily about familial bonding. The thing I most remember from the 2012 trip is my father yelling at me and my two youngest sisters outside of the Hall of Presidents because the three of us (and their boyfriends) arrived to the park late that day and he felt like we weren’t committed enough to this group-building exercise. He went into the Hall with another one of my sisters who’d been punctual that day. He came out in a much better mood.
What I encountered during my first solo trip to Disney World wasn’t exactly meditative solitude. Mere minutes into my most recent journey through the enchanted fiefdom a suspicion was confirmed: There’s so much stimulation in every cubic square foot that you simply do not need a companion to have an enriching experience. Without another person to consider, I was free to enjoy the park exactly as I wanted. I could move as quickly as humanly possible through the Magic Kingdom, and then on a whim slow down to ponder the attractions, treating them as the works of art that they are. My day wasn’t about losing myself in fantasy; it was about using my focus to appreciate reality.
Our culture usually considers having fun to be a group activity. But I’ve now been to the Magic Kingdom half a dozen times in my life, and I’ve never had a better time there than when I went on my own.
Walt Disney devised his resorts as places for adults and children to enjoy together. And so they do. Look around at any Disney park and find yourself awash in togetherness: Families, couples, companions, people talking to people dressed as cartoons, people talking to park workers in slightly lighter costuming, people talking to pin pals. People who, in short, need people, in addition to animatronic approximations of them.
What you don’t see are many single people. Mascots walk around by themselves, but it’s rare to catch them not surrounded by children and parents with cameras in hand. Every ride, shop, and stand has at least two workers manning it. In life as in the Magic Kingdom, true companionship may be hard to find, but there are plenty of space-fillers with which to exchange pleasantries and small talk along the way.
After entering the park gate at 9:28 a.m., I made a beeline for The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. There I sat, one lone, 36-year-old man riding in a giant plastic shell on a Little Mermaid-themed ride that is made to be enjoyed by toddlers.
I was dazzled by everything I saw.
The “Under the Sea” section had the energy of a party, but one unlike any I’d ever experienced. Everything from fish to crustacean to disco ball shimmered and swirled in a giant room that I never wanted to leave. Elsewhere, villain Ursula heaved to a snippet of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in a manner so lifelike it was disconcerting.
That day, I entered the park with a particular interest in “dark rides”—slow-moving, animatronic-heavy trips through giant rooms—like Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Though dark rides have been around since the 19th century and you can be carted through a haunted house at virtually every local fair around the country, the idea of telling a narrative (with a beginning, middle, and end) through space is, to my knowledge, unique to Disney parks.
I realized that day that rides like Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, though, do not tell a story through space so much as they retell a story through space. Truncating an 82-minute movie into a six-minute ride requires the imagineers (Disney’s word for the engineers who create the rides) to take so many plot liberties that riders need to enter knowing the story to follow along. The alternative for the uninitiated is to experience the ride as one big colorful blur of images, like a carefully curated but nonetheless intense hallucination. That’s fun, too, I imagine, but not quite the point.
At Disney World, you are bombarded with messaging regarding your time spent in the park. These, like the park’s brief 3D renderings of cartoon scenes, are triggers for emotional connections. “Vacations you never outgrow,” read a sign on a bus I was behind on my way into Magic Kingdom that day. “Let the memories begin,” read a napkin at the Rose and Crown in Epcot’s England. “Gifts make great memories,” said a sign in an Epcot gift shop. “The Place Where Dreams Come True,” is a slogan that rides high on the official website of Disney Parks. All of these attempt to make the ephemeral tangible. They make explicit the implicit reason for going on vacation: Experience is valuable. What you’re doing is worthwhile. Your money is going to good use. You may not be able to hold it in your hands, but you will carry your time at Disney World with you for years to come.
Disney World makes mental processing a snap on macro and micro levels. Its dark rides explicate Disney cartoon-viewing in addition to providing an even richer, invasive vacation experience: They imagine for you. They tell your brain, “Take a break, we got this.” They render in three dimensions a bolder, brasher, more realistic fantasy than one you’ve ever experienced, and guide you through it. The Magic Kingdom’s dark rides succeed where Epcot’s largely fail, because at the Kingdom there is no pretense of social awareness, education, or real explanation for that matter. They transport you to mini worlds of pure imagination. If that isn’t art, I’m not sure what is.
Disney parks also house quintessential kitsch, so effective that the synthesized exceeds its source material openly and with jubilance. So magic is this place that it has the ability to shift ideals of realness held virtually everywhere outside the theme park. Umberto Eco gushed about Disneyland in Travels in Hyper Reality in this way:
When there is a fake—hippopotamus, dinosaur, sea serpent—it is not so much because it wouldn’t be possible to have the real equivalent but because the public is meant to admire the perfection of the fake and its obedience to the program. In this sense Disneyland not only produces illusion, but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands.
...The pleasure of imitation, as ancients knew, is one of the most innate in the human spirit; but here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.
That’s a lot of layers to unpack and/or revel in. Layers that you probably couldn’t discuss with a child, layers that even an adult companion might not be interested in picking through. In my experience, conversations following amusements tend to be simple and emotion based. (Me: “That a was fun. I liked the fish.” Companion: “That was fun. Ariel’s face was so lifelike.”) Without the interruption of an outside opinion or the obligation to deliver my own, instantly, I thought long and hard about what I looked at. Instead of just existing as a conduit for the joy that Disney attempted to place in my heart, I ruminated on the joy’s source. I didn’t live in the moment all by myself; I admired the moment at a remove.
At the end of Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, after watching Ariel’s sea friends joyously wave to her as she stood on newly obtained perma-legs next to the human she just married, Prince Eric, I found myself thinking: The Little Mermaid works shockingly well as a trans allegory. I’ve known for a while that mermaids are iconic to some trans kids, but only then did I truly understand why. Mermaid Ariel yearns to be what she feels inside that her body does not reflect (a human), she undergoes a physical transformation to get rid of the part that she does not want (her tail), and, in the story’s most progressive development, she takes on that new form permanently and everyone is so happy for her. This includes her father, King Triton, who after initial reluctance ends up accepting her by reconciling the person he thought his daughter was with the person she actually is. At the end of Disney’s version of that fairy tale, Ariel has become her true self. It is a triumph that she becomes who she is, not a tragedy.
The self-imposed sense of duty I felt at the park that day reminded me of that which I feel during Christmastime, another of one of my favorite slices of hyperreality. I urgently speed-walked from ride to ride, on a loose schedule of my own doing.
I arrived at the Haunted Mansion at 9:57 to enjoy its brilliantly creepy and witty journey; by 10:13, I arrived at Splash Mountain and was sitting in a flume by 10:26, after spending much of my time in line listening to a man in Tommy Bahama who insisted on standing next to me and turning around to talk to his friend about some other friend whose hat once fell off on a roller coaster.
Vastly more engaging than the man’s story is Splash Mountain itself, one of Disney World’s most popular attractions but based on the movie Disney is most ashamed of, 1946’s Song of the South. It’s pretty insane that Disney built a must-ride attraction out of a movie it has gone out of its way to draw attention away from. Song of the South has never been released on home video in the U.S. in its entirety, owing to widespread criticism of racism—Uncle Remus, a black man who frolics with cartoons, has been accused of conjuring the happy-slave trope. (Nonetheless, James Baskett’s honorary Oscar for the role made him the first black man ever to be honored by the Academy.)
Nobody seems to care about the story behind the ride’s story too much because Splash Mountain makes you not care. It features four drops, including one in the dark and a climactic, stomach-tickling 50 plunge into a “briar patch.” The ride always leaves me as delirious as the guffawing Song of the South characters that you see during the ride’s slow-moving sections. Splash Mountain is equal parts thrill ride and dark ride. If it is an embarrassment, it is one of riches. It entertained me so much that I forgot to feel awkward about the fact that I was riding it alone.
At the gift store attached to the ride, there is no official Song of the South merchandise available—the closest it comes is a barrel of Thumpers from Bambi (Song of the South’s key animated player is Br’er Rabbit so…close enough?).
After I took that picture and jotted down an accompanying thought in my notebook, I heard a child ask her mother what I was doing. “He’s taking inventory,” was the reply. Indeed, I was. Not in the way that mom thought, but I could hardly fault her for assuming I worked there. That would make a lot more sense than me being a lone man in a theme park writing things down and taking pictures of a giant vat of stuffed bunnies. And yet, there I was.
Song of the South is just one card in Disney’s full house of racial insensitivity. It’s hard to figure out what the trump is: Aunt Jemima Pancake House, which operated in Disneyland from 1955 to 1970? That in almost 80 years of cartoon-making, the company has managed to deliver only one black Disney Princess (and one or two other non-white ones)? The spear-chucking natives depicted in Disney World’s Jungle Cruise? Maybe the dearth of black “cast members” (the blanket term for Disney workers) except for in custodial positions? At least I saw actual non-white families enjoying Disney World—they were virtually absent at Epcot.
After Mount Problematic, I rushed to Pirates of the Caribbean. I arrived at 10:44. None of the ride’s attempted thrills—a bunch of drunken audio-animatronics yammering and ten or so robotic recreations of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow—were a match for the glee I felt at being allowed in the FastPass+* entrance four minutes after my one-hour window had expired. (I’m not sure anything could.)
I arrived the tunnel of tropes known as It’s a Small World at 11:05 to a supposed ten-minute wait. Ahead of me was a seemingly hetero group of teen boys in all-Volcom everything. At one point, I arched my neck to photobomb one in a green striped tank top because I had literally nothing better to do. As enlightening as my solitude was proving to be, I guess I was a little jealous of the group’s easy banter and how it helped them pass the time.
Also ahead of me in line, I noticed as it started to snake around and morph toward the ride’s entrance, was a white woman with a frosted perm and, from what I could tell, perpetual wet look. She talked to her companion about all the people she knew who were born in October. It sounded like dozens, including a whole family—a mother, father, and two kids. I ended up next to this woman in the front of the boat that took me through the attraction. After moving over somewhat begrudgingly, she looked at my notebook and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was writing about my experience. She started chattering about hers—it was her first time at Disney World and so far, it was as magical as promised. “I’m in awe of everything here,” she said. “It’s just wow.”
She told me that she and her husband, who was sitting on the other side of her, live an hour away from Disneyland in California. She goes once a week. She referred to that park as “ours,” and to the one she was currently in as “theirs.” She reminded me of a sports fan.
“In ours, the water is only in the middle,” she said of It’s a Small World’s track. “It makes it more special.”
“At ours, we have a Mexican restaurant called the Blue Bayou.”
“At ours, there’s a Disney character in every country featured in It’s a Small World.”
She spoke for the duration of the ride in a husky, Courtney-Love-in-a-decade croak. That could have been annoying were I invested in hearing the iterations of “It’s a Small World” that plays during the ride in various languages (I wasn’t) or if there was a plot to follow. As it is, It’s a Small World is kind of just 3D Eurovision, a broad and absurd blur of dolls in quasi-traditional garb that eye fuck you at every turn. It’s an uncanny valley, after all.
“Theirs is prettier on the inside,” she finally conceded at the end of the ride. Honestly, it was just nice to have a conversation.
“One of the dwarveses are here!” I heard a woman yell while beckoning her family on the outskirts of Cinderella’s Castle as I bolted to Space Mountain. I entered the line at 11:36 and was in my makeshift spaceship by 11:43—a cast member whisked me past the anemic FastPass+ line since I was by myself.
Regardless of all of the technological advancements in roller coasters that have been made since Space Mountain opened 40 years ago, it remains the picture of everything a roller coaster should be. In fact, I can’t believe more parks haven’t attempted to replicate this simple indoor, sense-depriving ride. It’s exhilarating no matter how large your group, although riding on a roller coaster alone is stifling if you’re at all self-conscious. Screaming and waving your hands in the air may be a reflexive reaction to some, but in my experience it mostly works as primal communication to those you are sharing the experience with, especially those with whom you’ve boarded the ride. Take companionship out of the equation and you are (or, in this case, I am) a 36-year-old man screaming and waving my hands in the air on a roller coaster by myself. Even though Space Mountain is dark, I still worried about people thinking I was crazy (even more worrisome: What if they’re right?). And so, I smiled broadly and silently.
I kept charging through rides and attractions—Stitch’s Great Escape (the old Alien Adventure refitted to include Stitch, a character that is both mogwai and gremlin in addition to representing everything Figment wishes he was but doesn’t have the balls to be), the Tomorrowland Speedway (the family ahead of me drove so slowly on a track that makes passing impossible, giving me road rage), and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (converted from the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which was superior in every way, though Pooh’s heffalumps and woozles section is trippy enough to satisfy any high school kid experiencing Disney on acid—but then, so is everything). I had lunch at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café. I wolfed my food even faster than usual—being alone at Disney is one thing, but eating alone in public is a far sadder thing.
At this point, I thought I might be able to get on every single ride at Disney (except for the spinny ones like the Mad Tea Party, which I used to love, but in my old age only serve to nauseate me like a long night of hard drinking). And then I noticed that the relatively new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which had been closed for most of the day, had reopened. My sister Kate, whom I’d been updating throughout the day via text and had visited Disney World last year, implored me to ride it. There was a 90-minute wait time posted, but throughout my time there I’d been shown that those wait times were inflated, sometimes by as much as double. I had plenty of time to waste so I went for it.
How alone was I if I had my cell phone? Still quite alone, actually. Before my plane to Florida took off earlier that week, I deleted Twitter from my phone. After the initial urge to tweet about what I had just done subsided, I found that I didn’t miss it at all. I reinstalled it as soon as I was back in New York and have thought about deleting it just about everyday since. I didn’t have Grindr or any app like that on my phone (been there, done that). I wasn’t paying much attention to email (it just about frightens me how easily I’m able to disconnect from daily communication bombardment when on vacation).
I texted my boyfriend a few times because I missed him and I kept my sister Kate abreast of my trek through the park because that’s just what we do when one of us is in Disney without the other. It’s our thing. Disney is a bond we share that reaches back to all those times we visited as kids, and all those VHS tapes we watched in various rooms throughout the house in which we grew up. No exercise in solitude was compelling enough to break our routine. I’m generally terse when it comes to phone communication, anyway, so I probably spent three minutes sending and receiving messages from her in total.
About ten minutes into my wait on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train line, an announcement came over the speakers placed along the queue informing us that the dwarfs had encountered a bushel of poisoned apples and thus their mine train was experiencing delays. That was the extent of the explanation we received, and we’d hear it play at least a dozen more times. Nearby a child who couldn’t have been more than four babbled what sounded like, “FastPass! FastPass!” to his parents repeatedly. Yeah, I wish, man, I thought. We all did. A large group of ten or so people pushed their way through the line. Maybe they were heading for an exit that was just down the path a bit, maybe they were cutting and relying on the overall passivity of the Disney clientele to allow them to get away with it. Here’s a good lifehack: Be confident in your self-entitlement.
Soon, the line just stopped moving. I read a book via the Kindle app on my iPhone, which I probably would have figured was too rude of a thing to do if I were with a companion. My reading material that day was Married to the Mouse, the very dry account of the Disney’s ability to strong arm Florida into allowing the company essentially govern itself on the obscene amount of land it obtained to build Disney World. (John Jeremiah Sullivan has a great breakdown of Disney’s self-government in his 2011 New York Times Magazine article “A Rough Guide to Disney World.”)
Because Richard E. Foglesong’s book reads more like an academic paper, it barely held my attention longer than a page at a time. I did a lot of looking—looking at people who were just staring blankly into space. Yes, they were all in groups or with companions, as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t see any bonding taking place. It was just a bunch of people, facing the unsolvable problem of a slow-moving line for a roller coaster while refusing to look at each other. Waiting has a numbing effect—at theme parks, we become spiritual sharks. Our souls die if we stop moving.
Knowing that didn’t thwart my contempt for a child that I guessed was around 9, who kept pacing, back and forth, in line, for two hours, parting the crowd every time with his whims. Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt because the child could not stand still. I hated him.
Who needs a companion, anyway? People suck.
I thought about the woman who made me wait to park as she assembled her stroller in the parking spot the lot attendants had directed me to pull into when I arrived at the park that day.
I thought about the woman who waited at the line for the Monorail, set and on her mark so that she could race to a car that smelled like a reptile house.
On that stomach turning ride-before-the-rides, that vehicular amuse bouche, parents talked over their kids screaming over other families shouting over the nonstop prerecorded monorail announcer’s yammering.
I thought about the child ahead of me in line for Pirates of the Caribbean who whined at her father, “I’m tired of hugging random people that I don’t know!”
People inconvenience other people and then feel put out when they are inconvenienced. Society is a big pile of egos with people underneath attempting to move theirs to the top. Expensive vacations, like ones spent at Disney, have a way of further enhancing the egocentrism that people rely on for survival. The park is run efficiently enough to make a visitor feel coddled, and then betrayed the moment something doesn’t go his or her or their way. How fortunate I was that day to be able to bypass other people’s self interests on the way to pursuing my own. To be free of other people’s bullshit is to be truly free, and unless you are independently wealthy or have resigned yourself to a life of poverty, the only real way to experience this is in brief flashes. The seven hours I spent at the Magic Kingdom that day, comprised one of my life’s brightest brief flashes.
And then, I thought about the father that sat across from me on the bus headed from Epcot back to my resort the night before. He pulled his two kids—young girls around age 5 who might have been twins—onto his legs, and within seconds they fell asleep, nuzzling his torso with their heads. By witnessing this dimly lit, glowing portrait of paternal love and its reciprocation, I felt like I was stealing a memory that actually should belong to that father but couldn’t because he was unable to see just how lovely the entire scene looked from his vantage point. People don’t suck at all. People are effortlessly beautiful.
After standing around the mine section of the queue—that which houses the actual ride—for about 20 minutes, some people behind me started doing the wave, shouting, “Whoa!” and then howling in self-approval. Over and over and over again. Some people suck, but so does life sometimes. It’s complicated.
After two full hours of waiting, I got on the roller coaster that lasted less than four minutes and elicited nary a tingle in my stomach. It’s that tame. Afterward, my most prominent observation was, “Well, that part of my life is over.” And that was that.
The last ride I boarded was the Jungle Cruise, a boat ride safari in which all of the animals are mechanical. Eco praises the Disneyland incarnation of this ride, but I thought it was dumb as hell. That said, I was never less alone that day than when on this ride—you board in groups of 20 or so and sit around the perimeter of an African Queen replica, looking at each other when you aren’t craning your neck to see the generally immobile animals your safari encounters. All the while a cast member “guide” talks nonstop over the boat’s PA. Here, companionship was a hinderance.
The guides who narrate these cruises apparently cannot deviate from their groaningly pun-filled scripts—the pseudo hippos malfunctioned and failed to surface during our tour, but my guide shot at them anyway. When the river became congested and we stopped to join the line of boats that was piling up, she improvised by asking if anyone was celebrating anything and where we were all from. It felt very much like we were listening to a standup comedian that was bombing. I guess in a sense we were. Jungle Cruise is goofy, not at all thrilling, and has been trumped at this point by Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, which features real animals that never malfunction. (But on the downside, real animals also die.)
It was downhill from my two-hour wait for the Mine Train, but I still felt accomplished. Just the fact that my feet were throbbing was enough to me feel like I had done something with my day. As I started to make my way out of the park around 4:30, there was a brief play happening on the steps to Cinderella’s Castle. I had seen it last time I was at the park with my family in 2012 and it didn’t seem to deviate much from that performance. In it, Sleeping Beauty’s witch antagonist Maleficent holds a bunch of characters hostage, which causes Mickey to implore the crowd to chant, “Dreams come true! Dreams come true!” That ends up defeating her, restoring order to the Magic Kingdom by way of this hazy idea of happiness.
“When you find the dream inside your heart, anything is possible,” Mickey tells the crowd before ending the brief show. Aside from that being factually incorrect, the average human’s dreams are ill-conceived and pale in comparison to those Disney offers. Disney does the work for you in waking dreams that are vivid, dreams that have meaning, dreams that are tangible, dreams that you don’t have to work for or look anywhere beyond your nose to see. Disney takes your brain by the hand and holds it tightly, not letting go until you do. It’s a highly personal experience shared by more than 50,000 people per day.