I liked Disney World as a kid, but by my second trip, I was over it. Grunge had taken over my childhood and augmented attitude. I didn't care about those animated characters. The film-based adventures such as Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park were interesting enough, but my mom was pregnant, it was hot and the lines were long. I was over it.
The only exciting part of the second trip might've been when—as we stood in yet another queue, fanning ourselves with guide maps—cops escorted two people inside, their heads down. It was Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin, entering the show to serve as the performance's special guests. Birds, snakes and other animals used their bodies as props.
I didn't think I'd ever return, but earlier this year, my son, Oliver, earned the chance to choose an adventure through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His 4-year-old interests are wide open—pirates and magicians, space and sharks, cats and cupcakes. Picking just one proved difficult. But after many discussions with Make-a-Wish, Oliver decided he could experience most of his hobbies at Disney World. Peter Pan, Harry Potter and the rockets of Tomorrowland would all be there, so why not the Gant family, too?
While Oliver was in treatment for his cancer, he watched any Pixar and Disney movie he could find. He's even seen the "old-school" Mickey stuff, including Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy. After watching Harry Potter with his cousin recently, he developed an interest in wizards and potions. Oliver was ready for wish fulfillment.
When we arrived at the Orlando airport, a passenger struck up a conversation with Oliver and handed him a Mickey pin from her purse. Give Kids the World, the village where the Wish children stay, gave Oliver a Mickey doll, and Mickey himself soon showed up, signing the foot of his stuffed version. Oliver's eyes lit up; the joy of meeting the real "Steamboat Willie" seemed too much for him to handle. We ventured to Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios, rode roller coasters and careened down the gigantic drop of Splash Mountain. The curves of the Harry Potter coaster thrilled a 4-year-old who had barely met the 44-inch height restriction.
But after only a few hours, Oliver was exhausted. He seemed so tired that we assumed he had a virus. When it didn't let up, a second trip to the doctor discovered pneumonia. We found ourselves back in the hospital, with Oliver stuck in a room with contact precautions. This isn't how I'd pictured my son's Wish, of course; after my own lackluster relationship with Disney World—and more important, after all he'd been through in his short life—I'd hoped that this trip would have been memorable, and not because of the cancer-ward memories it dredged up.
After his eventual release, we rested for the remainder of the week—no more Mickey, no more coasters. On our last night in Orlando, we took Oliver to Medieval Times. He grinned for the entire performance, his energy and excitement returning just in time.
Back in Raleigh, I flipped through the photos we'd taken in Florida and came across one snapped by the hidden "action cam" at Splash Mountain. Oliver and I sat in the front seat. I had one arm in the air, the other around his shoulder. Behind us, my wife, Stacy, and my mother looked excited if scared. Maybe I did, too. But Oliver's face was all excitement, no fear. That's when I realized that, even at 4, my son had become one of my own heroes, meeting the roller coaster and the hospital room with all enthusiasm and little trepidation.
I didn't need to go to Florida to learn that, but sometimes, life's most obvious lessons do require a quick fall from a long cliff.