Someone recently asked me what my all-time favorite Disney moments had been. Having been going to the Disney theme parks all of my life and having numerous major life milestones occur there, that’s a difficult question to answer. Not only that, but favorite is somewhat of a moving target. Moments that seem significant today may fade with time, while other, seemingly less-memorable experiences can grow over time. Still, I thought it would be a fun topic to take on, and while these are all personal enough to just me that they really won’t help you plan your trips in any way, I thought it would be fun to share my top 10 moments.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to visit the Disney theme parks often (that’s my mom and me next to Minnie Mouse in that above photo, by the way!), and have had some great experiences and made some great memories along the way. There are a lot of experiences that were really amazing that didn’t make it on the list. Things like our first visit to Hong Kong Disneyland (for those who have asked–this trip report is still coming soon!), dining at Club 33, touring the Cinderella Castle Suite, and photographing the sunrises in almost every Disney theme park in the world, among other experiences, all are incredibly fond memories of mine, but all miss the list.
Here’s what did make the top 10…
“Again” might be a bit of an overstatement, since I never recall seeing Country Bear Christmas in the first place. However, I saw it on a couple of occasions as a young child, and had vicarious memories fueled by family photos and stories told to me about the attraction. Over the years, I developed a sort of second-hand nostalgia for it, and when we made our first Walt Disney World Christmas trip as adults in 2007, I was a bit crushed to find that it had been removed. I held out hope that it would return, and Country Bear Christmas’ soundtrack became one of our most-played Christmas tracks, adding fuel to the fire for me. As soon as I learned that the show still existed in Tokyo, I convinced Sarah that we should make our first visit to Tokyo Disney Resort during Christmas 2012.
That plan eventually fell through, but we made it to Tokyo during the 2013 Christmas season. I got goosebumps as soon as we stepped into the theater, and despite half the show being in Japanese, I was absolutely entranced (I know the US version of the show by heart, so the language barrier wasn’t an issue). My eyes were leaking during the finale, but I didn’t care. We ended up watching Country Bear Christmas over 10 times during the trip, and it never got old.
If there is one “first visit” experience where I’d love a mulligan, it would be Disneyland. Our first visit to Disneyland came at the end of a tough couple of months for me (studying for the Bar Exam) and a day after Sarah had a death in the family. It wasn’t even a dedicated Disneyland trip, just a diversion from a wedding we were attending in Huntington Beach. Suffice to say, it was a stressful time for us, and while Disneyland was a great reprieve from that, if I could do it over again, I’d want a proper sense of anticipation and excitement for the visit.
Still, visiting Disneyland for the first time makes the list because it was enough of a positive experience to change the way we looked at Disney. Prior to this, we were staunch “Walt Disney World people,” and this changed that. It probably wasn’t until our next visit to Disneyland that we fell in love with the place, but that first visit got us hooked on expanding our horizons when it came to Disney. In that regard alone, it was a critical “moment.”
At the end of the last day of Destination D, Richard Sherman performed a concert. At the end of this concert, the lights turned on. Just like that, there they were, in the flesh, together again, Dreamfinder and Figment. The term “magical” often gets thrown around recklessly when discussing Disney, mostly through marketing, but when Dreamfinder and Figment came out, there was truly magic in the air.
The crowd erupted so loudly that I’m sure some people didn’t even hear part of his dialogue or song, and the magic was palpable. I think the moment probably set a Guinness Book of World Records record for “most people to simultaneously cry upon seeing a bearded man and purple dragon.” The characters sang and engaged in tongue-in-cheek banter that reminded everyone there of why we missed these characters so much (yes, I realize Figment still exists, but not in his original form–it’s as if the current version of the character has been given a lobotomy). They embodied and personified imagination. The entire time they were on stage was pure magic (read the full report of their concert and see more of my photos) and transported me back to my childhood visits to Walt Disney World. To me, it was a wonderfully nostalgic experience, and proved that you can go home again. I only hope that someday, Figment and Dreamfinder can go home again, too.
In Fall 2009, Sarah and I headed down to Walt Disney World to meet up with Joe Penniston, Jeff Bergman, Matt Pasant, Don Sullivan, and Susan E, Disney fan-photographers I had met through Flickr. These folks were (and are) some of the most talented photographers in the Disney community, and just being around them elevated my game and taught me a lot about photography.
This Flickr-photography trip is definitely one that has grown over time. It was the first time we had done anything at Walt Disney World with a group, and while I’m definitely not always a group person, this opened me up to the idea. More importantly, I really grew as a photographer because of it. These photographers were all more experienced than me, and just talking with them got me thinking outside of my box and made me think about aspects and elements of photography I hadn’t otherwise considered.
No no no, not that–get your mind out of the gutter! The first night of our honeymoon at Walt Disney World was special because it was the end of a marathon day-plus that was perfect in just about every way, including its conclusion.
On the night of our wedding, we only got 2 hours of sleep before going to the airport to start the honeymoon. To start our “Disneymoon,” we arrived at BoardWalk Inn and took a half hour “nap” and then immediately headed to the parks. It was an Evening Extra Magic Hour night at the Magic Kingdom, and we stayed late (our usual M.O.). It was apparent that we were the last ones at the Magic Kingdom (by both observation and security telling us so), but they did not “encourage” us to leave. Instead, they told us to take as many pictures as we wanted, and we had a field day getting honeymoon photos of ourselves in a completely empty Magic Kingdom. When we got on the bus shortly after 4 a.m., Sarah fell asleep. I quietly set up the tripod and grabbed a few shots of her sleeping (she’s actually asleep here–this isn’t posed). To date, this remains one of my favorite photos of her, asleep on that bus, as it perfectly encapsulates that night.
My first trip to Walt Disney World with Sarah was rather unceremonious. A friend of ours was doing the College Program and was able to get us a great discount at All Star Sports and was also able to get us into the parks for free, so we went. We split double cheeseburgers at counter service restaurants (back in the days of $.35 extra buns!) and I’m convinced we probably only spent a total of $500 on the entire trip. Still, being back at Walt Disney World for the first time in several years was like seeing an old friend at a wedding–you pick up like the last time you saw one another was yesterday.
This “experience” actually spans two years, as we returned the following summer, that time taking advantage of a 60% off hotel plus $20/night Disney Dining Plan promotion at Saratoga Springs. My passion for Disney might have been rekindled the previous year, but that trip was like having gasoline doused on the fire. I still distinctly remember leaving an amazing dinner at California Grill on the monorail on our first night of the trip. At that point, I was (we both were!) completely hooked.
While we had both traveled internationally prior to visiting Disneyland Paris, our visit to France was the first time either of us had gone anywhere where English was not the predominant language. Suffice to say, it was a little intimidating navigating from Charles De Gaulle airport to Marne-la-Vallee, but that just made the reward all that much better. The whole trip had a feel of “exploration” to it, and in a way, gave us new perspective on the world.
Visiting Disneyland Paris was, essentially, that “mulligan” I discussed above in the Disneyland first visit section. This time, we were excited for visiting another park, it was the focus of the trip, and we had months of anticipation. Walking into Disneyland Paris for the first time was how that first visit to Disneyland should have been, and was incredibly exciting. It was like discovering uncharted “Disney territory,” marveling at things that aren’t even remotely familiar, yet have a familiar sense to them. It doesn’t hurt that Disneyland Paris has Disney’s most beautiful Main Street and Castle, making those first steps on Main Street especially memorable.
For a long time, I viewed Tokyo DisneySea as the holy grail of Disney theme parks. Japan seemed so far away, expensive, and…well…foreign. Still, it was a goal I wanted to achieve as soon as possible. The perfect once in a lifetime trip. My expectations were so high that I was a bit concerned that I was setting myself up for a letdown. Despite my sky-high expectations, it was in no way a letdown.
In our Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Report, I described my first couple of hours in Tokyo DisneySea as something like a lucid dream. I can think of few times when my level of anticipation matched what I had for Tokyo DisneySea, and I could barely contain my excitement upon entering the park. (In fact, I didn’t…I saw a beautiful sunset and basically ran off from the rest of the group!) In general, I think “lucid dream” is a pretty apt way to describe Tokyo DisneySea. It feels like something out of a dream. It’s hard to fathom the undertaking that went into this theme park, and it truly doesn’t feel like something that can exist in reality. When walking through Tokyo DisneySea, I feel like I imagine guests in 1982 at EPCOT Center felt–part of something special and in a place that’s truly grander than just an “ordinary” theme park.
First ride on Journey into Imagination that I remember is the more accurate title for this one. My family went to Walt Disney World almost every year while I was a child, so I know I had been on the attraction before then, but the first trip I really remember at all was in 1989. My most vivid memory from that trip is Journey into Imagination. In fact, while I remember bits and pieces of various childhood trips and attractions, the only one I can still vividly recall in full detail today is Journey into Imagination. My recollection of it is like no other attraction from that era, as everything else is pretty much foggy or supplemented by photos and video I’ve seen since. From the opening scene with Dreamfinder that seemed to last forever to the scene of Figment with a bucket and a rainbow (my favorite scene), standing at a pond with white scenery that was just begging to be be painted with the brush of his imagination, I remember it all.
This ranks so highly because it was this attraction that first sparked my passion for Disney. As a child I’d play with my Figment toys and become build anticipation for our next trip back. While I eventually went through the “too cool for Disney” teenage years, a big part of the reason why Disney so quickly resonated with me when we returned as adults was because of the “bond” (for lack of a better term) that I had formed with this character as a child. From there, I started a Figment collection, joined forums and social media with a ‘Figment’ moniker, and the rest is history. It’s probably not possible to form an emotional connection with a theme park character, but that’s exactly what I felt I had with Figment (and Dreamfinder) as a child. I am fairly certain that were it not for Figment and Dreamfinder, this blog would not exist. That’s why this first-ride experience is #2 on my list.
At the end of our second trip to Walt Disney World together in Summer 2007, I was convinced that it was a special place for Sarah and I, and where I should propose to her. I didn’t particularly want to wait a full year until a potential Summer 2008 trip, so I convinced her that we should return for Christmas. And by “convinced,” I mean that I said, “what would you think about going back for Christmas?” to which she emphatically responded along the lines of “oh yes, we absolutely need to.” So it’s not exactly as if I twisted her arm. I was only hopeful that her response to my proposal would be so emphatic…
Many of you have probably read the story of our Disney engagement in agonizing detail, so I won’t regurgitate the details here, but suffice to say (SPOILER ALERT) she said “yes.” Not quite as emphatically as the “yes” to the Christmas trip, but a yes is a yes, right?! I think the reason why this is #1 on this list should be fairly obvious. Walt Disney World was already a special place, but the engagement there solidified the Disney theme parks as being a significant place in our lives at one of the most important real-world moments of our lives. The parks have since gone on to be places we can go to together to escape the chaos of everyday life and spend time together alone with one another (well, “alone” with tens of thousands of our closest friends, but I think you get the idea).
That covers my top 10 Disney experiences so far. Some of these, like #1, are going to be tough to top. At least, until we have kids. Same with all of the “first time” ones. Really though, my entire time as a Disney fan and member of the fan community has been a great experience. Sure, not everything/everyone has been perfect, but overall I have had some wonderful experiences and made a lot of lifelong friends. I guess it’s a good thing my parents took me on Journey into Imagination back in 1989!
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What are your favorite Disney experiences (feel free to name 10, or just a few)? What do you think of my list? Share your thoughts or any questions in the comments!