How I Ended Up at Disney World Alone
The browser tab that holds the record for being open the longest without me taking any action on it is How to Keep Your Family Safe in the Next Quake, which I opened in the non-aftermath of a very minor earthquake in 2015 and proceeded to ignore until I left California in 2017.
The browser tab that holds second place is the purchase page for tickets to the Orlando live show of the podcast Podcast: The Ride, which I opened the day the show was announced. Every time I’d see that tab, I’d think, “There’s no way I’m going to Disney World without my family to see three childless men in their thirties talk about the pros and cons of removing your shoes on Splash Mountain.” And yet, like Homer’s views on Clown College, the idea grew in my subconscious. The image of walking down Main Street, USA without anyone’s agenda but my own was too alluring. And the opportunity to meet people who could delight in my FastPass+ war stories and share a common set of inside jokes seemed well worth the trip.
I don’t remember exactly how I discovered Podcast: The Ride, but it was in an era where I was churning through different podcasts because what would be charming and refreshing one day would turn annoying and vapid a week later. What continues to make Podcast: The Ride appealing to me is the personalities, banter, and deferential sarcasm of the hosts. But what really makes it transcend weekly content to actually be a force of good in my life is the memories it has unlocked.
My sister Jodi, who passed away in 2009, loved theme parks as much as I do. Some time in the 90’s, our mom was sent to a conference at Disney World, and we got to stay on property, a rarity for us. I remembered practically nothing from that trip until episodes of Podcast: The Ride lit up parts of my brain that were filed under “To Be Deleted”. We were in the park around the time Splash Mountain opened and were allowed to park hop — just the two of us — navigating Disney World on our own.
Many years later, I was at Disney World with my wife. My sister (who was living in Fort Lauderdale) and my brother-in-law were going to join us for the last two days our vacation. Unfortunately, a perfect storm of bad Florida drivers created a 7 hour backup on the Florida Turnpike and they arrived at Disney World with only one day left at the parks. “No problem,” I said, “We’ll do all four parks in one day.” Running from one end of the park to the other grabbing paper FastPasses for them while they held spots in standby queues was arguably more fun than the rides themselves.
Much of the appeal of Podcast: The Ride is the minutiae they get into. It’s consistent with a phenomenon I’ve realized in recent theme park trips with my family — I arguably get more joy out of the planning than the actual vacation. Hearing the backstory of Botanicus, E.T.’s teacher from the ride at Universal, reminds me of pouring over the glossy maps of the parks with Jodi before one of our Disney World trips and planning our routes. I get a thrill out of snagging a rare Be Our Guest dinner reservation because I reloaded the page at just the right time… and then I cancel the reservation later anyway because my kids don’t have sufficient table manners to dine with royalty. Theme parks are all about details, which is why a Disney cruise and a Royal Caribbean cruise don’t even feel like the same category of thing. That’s what Podcast: The Ride gets — we want to know about the differences between Space Mountain in Florida versus California. We want to know about rides that no longer exist and the mild theming of the parking garages in Anaheim.
What finally got me to purchase tickets the live show was, not atypically, a deal I saw on airfare. Like most airfare deals, it was so restrictive that it didn’t actually end up applying to me. But I really just needed an excuse. And then, in perhaps the most selfish thing I’ve ever done, I was planning a trip to Disney World without my family. Almost as a way to feel less guilty, I booked a room at the worst budget Disney property (All Star Movies). The plan was to fly in on Thursday, work from my hotel room, go to the live show on Thursday night, and spend two awkward days in the parks alone before coming home Sunday morning.
A tip if you ever try the “I’m working from Disney World today stunt” — don’t ask your coworkers “Guess where I am?” during a videoconference, turning the camera out the window toward a giant Donald Duck. They will not be as happy for you as you want them to be.
Thanks to the “Podcast: The Ride” Facebook group, I connected with some other people going to the show and we met at the worst budget Disney hotel before the show for dinner. Our group included two real life Disney cast members — part of the college program — and a professional writer. As we agreed beforehand, we partook in the one perk of the worst budget Disney property — the “secret menu” housed in a briefcase and visible only via View Master. My cheeseburger-on-a-waffle, or whatever the fuck it was, was gross. But the conversation quickly advanced from awkward to nerdy as we took an Uber to the pre-show party and I pelted my new Jungle Cruise Skipper friend with questions about the ride.
Someone on the Facebook group had arranged the pre-show party at a Halloween themed bar in Orlando, so we met a whole bunch more theme park nerds before heading to the show. The show was great, and hearing the traditional pre-show/ride warning message and intro music as the Boys from Podcast: The Ride took the stage almost brought a tear to my eye.
The day after the show is really where my solo adventure started as I got up before 6 and headed to the bus loop in the dark to be one of the first people at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where I’d see Galaxy’s Edge for the first time. To be clear, I’m referring to my trip to Black Spire Outpost, on the planet Batuu within Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge. Or, just, you know, “Star Wars Land”. My plan was to eschew the Single Rider Line for Smuggler’s Run because we all know that the line itself is the “pre-show” and I didn’t want to miss it. While slightly underwhelming as a ride, the fact that I was assigned the Pilot role in the Millennium Falcon indicated to me that I was off to a good start.
Next, I got a Breakfast Ronto Wrap and the magic just kept happening because when I picked it up, they asked if I wanted to try a Tatooine Sunset. At first, I thought it was a pretty hard upsell but then I realized they were offering me a free drink — unheard of at Disney World. You see, people? There is magic on every Disney trip. You just have to adjust your definition of “magic”.
A tip if you ever go to Disney World alone — everything will happen much faster than you think it will. Without any travel companions to take bathroom breaks or force me to go on dumb rides with singing dolls, I did everything I wanted to do in Hollywood Studios by 11am. I had to be back by 7pm for my reservation at Oga’s Cantina but you can only watch MuppetVision 3-D so many times, so I grabbed the Skyliner over to Epcot. After FastPassing the Frozen ride, I monorailed over to Magic Kingdom (because why not?) and quickly realized I had done most of what I wanted to do and it was only the middle of my first day.
By the time I got back for my Oga’s reservation, I was exhausted. I had an awkward conversation with some strangers whom I could barely hear, and opted for a quick non-alcoholic drink before heading back to the worst budget Disney hotel to sleep. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided that the next day, I’d sleep in and instead of going Turbo, I’d leisurely walk through the parks just taking in the atmosphere.
The next morning, I got up at 6am again but true to my pledge to take it easy, I only hopped between three parks that day. Magic Kingdom was almost empty when I arrived. I enjoyed a leisurely cruise on the Liberty Square Riverboat and an almost private showing of the Country Bear Jamboree. For an hour or so, it felt like the rest of the world had stopped and I had the whole place to myself.
The rest of the day was filled with repeatedly answering “Just one” to “How many are in your party?” and bouts of boredom as I wandered Animal Kingdom killing time before my FastPass on Flight of Passage. Then it was a half night’s sleep before I called an Uber at 3am to take me to the airport and, ultimately, back to real life.
As self-indulgent breaks from reality go, I think a solo trip to Disney World is a pretty good idea. When I tell people that I went there alone, I get reactions ranging from pity to bemusement to judgy curiosity. But it’s reassuring to know that there’s a Facebook group based on a podcast where nobody thinks it’s abnormal to go to Disney World alone, unless you go to there to eat at Pizzerizzo. It’s a long story.