I recently returned to Walt Disney World for vacation, 20 years after I was a cast member there. While at the parks, I discovered new foods, learned a lot about technology, and deployed some great parenting hacks. But there’s also something important that I didn’t manage to find while I was there: the satisfaction of revisiting my old haunt the way I remembered it.
Why? Because I would have needed about six months to do so, and I gave myself six days.
Some context: I moved to Orlando in 2004 for the Walt Disney World College Program, a semester-long program in which you work at the resort while also participating in Disney-led coursework. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I look back on with complete fondness and admiration.
When I “lived in Disney World,” which is how I’ve always referred to that period in my life, I enjoyed the perks that cast members have, which include free admission to the theme parks and discounts on food. Although I was paid, it wasn’t a ton, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to the parks or eat much theme park food if I hadn’t had those perks. So while I had them, I spent a lot of time enjoying them.
Back then, EPCOT was my favorite place in the World (Disney World, that is). In fact, maybe it became one of my places in the world world, too.
I’m sure there’s plenty of astute criticism out there about the existence of miniature theme-park versions of actual countries around the world, including, bafflingly, these United States. But for me, it felt genuinely special. I could meet cast members who were actually from the represented nations; I could sample international food; I could get a tiny taste of what a trip to these places might be like. A lot of the magic of Disney exists in the details, and EPCOT’s countries are full of them.
As I planned for my recent trip, I imagined EPCOT the way I used to think of it: as a global employee food court. Perhaps we’d pop into Germany for a beer, stop for crepes in France, grab a taco in Mexico. My daughter could browse the whole of the sprawling market in Japan, picking out different candies and foods to try. It was to be a culinary tour of the world, and it was at our fingertips.
Except it wasn’t.
What I’ve come to realize is that in planning my 2022 EPCOT excursion, I made the mistake of conflating six months’ worth of small day-to-day moments into a single massive vacation itinerary, one that is not actually attainable on the ground. I have had all those experiences—the beer, the crepes, the tacos—but I didn’t have them all on one day. In my memory, Disney World was a place you have all the time in the world to wader and explore, because at one time in my life, I had expansive amounts of time to spend there. But as a vacationer, time doesn’t expand. It seems only to evaporate.
Once I arrived at EPCOT with my family, the day immediately began slipping through my fingers. Though I managed to stop in Norway’s bakery, and my daughter and I did make it to that market in Japan, I wasn’t hungry enough for all of the food, nor was there time to spend lingering in every shop. I didn’t stop and listen to the sounds, smell all the smells. There didn’t seem to be any time to sit down and take it all in. I kept walking, I kept moving. And instead of experiencing it all, I left feeling like I hardly experienced anything.
As it turns out, the version of myself who got to experience Disney World most deeply was the version of myself who couldn’t technically afford to do any of it; I’d merely been provided free entry and just enough money by Disney itself in order to form those fond memories. Because I’m a “grown up” now, I thought that having money to spend on the World Showcase was going to open new doors for me. Instead, I tried to do too much and, in the process, lost touch with the way I remember Disney World: a place I once had the luxury of lingering in.
Next time, I’m going to visit EPCOT like that old, penniless version of me would have. By which I mean, I’m not going to do as much.
I’m going to pick a country, maybe two, maybe even three, and really dig into them. Go down every little detour. Walk through every open door. Maybe it’ll lead to a shop, maybe a garden, maybe an eatery. I’m going to sit down and eat inside the restaurants. I’m going to have a drink. Rest. Listen to the ambient music and smell the smells. Ah, the food smells in EPCOT.
I’m going to go slow. This is the antithesis of the FOMO-fighting energy I usually throw at vacations. Theme parks especially make me feel like I have to see it all, do it all, and do it fast! But having been on both sides of it in EPCOT specifically, I can promise you, it’s the slow, boring stuff—the stuff that makes you feel like you’re “not doing enough”—that ends up sticking around in your memory. That’s the stuff I was chasing and missed this time. And that’s the stuff I’ll be looking for when I go back.