Walt Disney World – Vacation Kingdom or Home Away from Home?

The Disney Park Bench
The Disney Park Bench
Published on July 17, 2023

𝔄 year-and-a-half ago, my family and I arrived at Walt Disney World for my 40th birthday. I documented our experience in a blog at the time, suffice to say that I had a great time, despite several shortcomings. My wife, on the other hand, was underwhelmed by the whole experience, to the point that she doesn’t think she wants to return anytime soon. She can’t understand why I’m so insistent on returning to a place that costs so much for such diminishing returns.

Town Square at the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA

The answer is one I always have trouble articulating. There’s something about the place that’s irresistible, even when everything feels off; when the prices rise and the money has run out, when the rides don’t work, and the workers don’t smile, and the family is tired, cranky, and miserable, why do I still long to return? Why does every chance to return seem too far away?

It’s an age-old argument that has become more prevalent over the past decade or so, as an increasing number of publications have taken to criticize adults, particularly childless adults, for taking Disney World and Disneyland vacations. The belief among the uninitiated is that Disney Parks are for kids and any adult who enjoys spending time there without them is both ill and inconvenient.

But they don’t understand, do they?

Disney World is more than just for children’s dreams and family vacations, it’s an escape from the concerns of reality. It’s a comfort zone. It’s a world of laughter, that’s free from fear. It’s a world of hope and a world of cheer.

Last year, when we spent a little over a week at Disney World to celebrate my 40th birthday (along with the resort’s 50th), my wife felt like a lot of the magic from previous visits had diminished; and while I had a great time, I can’t entirely disagree. We’ve talked about other places we’d like to go for family vacations, like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Washington D.C., but when I suggest another trip to Disney, she loses interest.

Niagra Falls on the New York-Ontario border is only about 230 miles from our home, or about a 3½-hour car ride; much shorter and cheaper than a trip to Disney World — image source: Wikipedia

For the life of me, I can’t understand why she wouldn’t want to return to Disney World regularly. Doesn’t she miss it? Doesn’t she get anxious when she’s been away for too long?

Is it just a me thing?

It can’t be. I’ve known and encountered many adults who make annual, or even semiannual pilgrimages to The Vacation Kingdom of the World. YouTube is filled with channels of people who move to the swampy, buggy, prohibitively expensive central Florida area just to be closer to The Most Magical Place on Earth. I even have a few friends who have relocated to the Orlando area after just one visit to Walt Disney World.

I’ve mentioned my brother, who spent a year in Disney World working on the Career Start Program in the 1990s after taking a couple of family vacations there in his teens. I also joined the Walt Disney World College Program in 2001 so I could be fully immersed in the magic I remembered from a handful of trips since I was 7. Then, in 2005, I moved there myself until a death in the family in 2008 made me start to feel too far away from my loved ones and I returned home to Central New York.

“Home”… That’s a loaded word.

What is home? Home should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable, where you’re surrounded by friends and loved ones, where you long to return after you’ve been away for too long. I definitely have that here in New York, with my wife and kids, our cat and dog, in our house full of our decorations and memories, with our parents just a short drive away, and where we can see our siblings and cousins at least once every year, and our friends as often as our busy adult lives allow. This, right here, is home.

But when I’m home, I often feel like something is missing. I turn on music and videos from my favorite Disney lands and attractions. I read books, blogs, and wikis about Disney Parks and Resorts in my spare time. I dress in T-shirts, hoodies, and jackets with Disney World park and attraction logos emblazoned on them. When I’m home, where I have everything I could ever want or need, and everyone I love, I often feel like some part of me is missing somehow.

I find my missing piece when I relive my experiences in Walt Disney World, either vicariously through social media, or in person during our vacations, when I’m walking down Main Street USA, riding the TTA PeopleMover, exploring the nooks and crannies of the World Showcase, getting lost in the winding paths of Discovery Island, or just sitting on a bench at a park or resort, taking in all the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations.

Walt Disney World is my home.

Not my only home, nor even my primary home, but home nonetheless. I don’t have to ride the rides, eat in the restaurants, see the parades or fireworks, or do anything special when I’m in Disney World to feel at home. I just have to be there. Some of my favorite memories involve just walking around the parks and resorts, doing nothing in particular, and thinking nothing in particular.

During our trip in 2022, I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done since I was a cast member: hang around the parks all by myself. My wife, kids, and mother-in-law would often tire before I would, and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the new nighttime shows in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, so they permitted me to stay without them the last couple of nights. I wandered freely, occasionally jumping on a ride or watching a show, but mostly just taking everything in, and taking as many photos as possible (which I plan to share on this site when I find the time to edit and upload them). I left with a feeling of calmness and comfort I hadn’t felt in over a decade.

In addition, have always volunteered to be the family go-fer during all of our stays, partially because I know the Disney World parks and resorts so well that it’s quick and easy for me to get around, but also because it gives me an excuse to walk around like I own the place.

“Don’t worry, honey. I know exactly where to go and whom to talk to! Need a snack, medicine, or toiletry? I’ll run down to the resort gift shop and pick up exactly what you need like I’m running to the village general store.”

I know I’m not alone, so what is it about Walt Disney World that feels like “home” to so many people, myself included?

image source: Tenor

After all, Walt Disney World is just a resort — a collection of theme parks, water parks, hotels, shops, and various other activities and amenities. There are many places on Earth like it, at least on paper; maybe not so much in the multiple parks aspect, but there are countless cities, resorts, and other vacation destinations with similar options. Some of these locations are even preferred by vacationers. But they don’t seem to have the emotional attachment to those locations that Disney World manages to illicit in its repeat visitors.

It’s easy to condense these intangible qualities into marketing terms like “the Magic”, or “the Disney Touch”; but what are those things, really? How do we define such nebulous concepts? Is it the size? Age? Staff? Cleanliness? Attention to detail? All of these? Some of these? What about these qualities makes Disney World feel like “home”?

As someone who is on the neurodivergence spectrum, I occasionally have trouble with overstimulation. Too much cacophonous sensory stimuli at one time can make me irrational and unable to function. Yet, for some reason, this seldom happens to me at Disney World. All the sights, sounds, smells, colors, movements, and yes, even the hot, humid air combine into a strange feeling of comfort.

When I’m away from Disney World, it often feels like I’m going through withdrawal and I start looking for my next fix. Since I can’t afford to visit more than once every couple of years or so, I typically fulfill my cravings via YouTube. Watching video recordings of my favorite attractions provides a taste of what I’ve been missing. Watching old TV specials and souvenir videos helps me cope with the loss of things that are there no more.

A few years ago, my family got a Quest VR headset. Originally its primary purpose was gaming, but more recently I have discovered high-resolution 360º and 3D 180º videos of Disney attractions that make me feel even more at home. (Although, low-light technology for VR cameras leaves a lot to be desired at this point. Watching a VR ride-through of The Haunted Mansion may as well be a spatial 3D audio recording.)

This sort of behavior probably sounds insane to non-Disneyphiles. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a mentality that adults who visit and obsess over Disney and Disney Parks for any reason other than their children’s interests are somehow mentally ill. I vehemently disagree with this assessment.

It seems illogical that the same adults who devote significant portions of their time and money to sports and sporting events, books, movies, woodworking, fishing, gardening, and other mostly superficial interests can’t understand why other adults may choose Disney as theirs. What tangible benefits do watching the Super Bowl provide that an annual ride on Pirates of the Caribbean does not? Nothing, I say. It’s all just forms of stress relief. And if you can relieve your stress in a way that does no harm to others, what’s wrong with that?

So Walt Disney World will continue to be my home away from home. I will always long to return when I’m gone for too long. I will always feel safe and comfortable when I’m there. It’s like the Matrix. I know it’s not real. I know that staying is just allowing Disney to exploit me further. But I’m happier there, and I don’t want to be freed from it.

I wish more people could understand.

I wish I could understand.

source: The Matrix Reloaded, ©2002 Warner Bros.

But comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.

If Disney is the world that has been pulled over my eyes to blind me from the truth, then I will happily take that blue pill.

source: The Matrix, ©1999 Warner Bros.
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