I have the fondest and most distinct memories of traveling to Walt Disney World growing up, almost as vivid if not more so than actually experiencing the parks.
My family went on two vacations a year: one over President's Day weekend in February and one during late summer, usually in mid-August. We generally took our vacation to Walt Disney World during the winter holiday, and growing up in Michigan, we usually flew to our winter destination.
I remember waking up early, some years as early as three or four o'clock, piling into a windbreaker and windpants, and falling asleep in the car as the highway lights flashed by overhead on the way across town to Gerald R. Ford International Airport. We would walk through the concourse, past a fake waterfall under which was a small coffee shop, and into the room to wait for our plane.
Upon arriving at Orlando International three hours later, we would get on the airport's monorail, which was a special taste of the magic prior to the Magic. We would roll or carry our bags past the Disney Store in the center of the airport before renting a car or taxi to our resort.
Some years we would get to our resort so late at night that the lobby would be empty. I have distinct memories of arriving at the All-Star Sports and Wilderness Lodge in the middle of the night, my parents leaving us by the television sets to watch the latest Mickey Mouse cartoons or animated Disney film while they checked in to our room. After ten minutes or so, they'd come collect us and we would trudge to the back of the resort and collapse onto our beds.
I remember another time when we traveled to Walt Disney World right after 9/11, during the 100 Years of Magic Celebration. We arrived at Orlando International to find the airport almost empty. After our vacation was done, as we journeyed home, I remember standing in hours-long lines for security to get on the plane, National Guardsmen and police officers surveying the crowds with guns drawn.
After arriving to the Magic Kingdom area, we would hop aboard the Highway in the Sky, which I was convinced was called the "Mother Whale." We would ride from the Ticket and Transportation Center to the Magic Kingdom, passing by topiaries shaped like hippos and elephants balancing on balls. This journey helped to set up the magic and charm we were about to experience in the 1990s Magic Kingdom. After passing through the turnstiles, we would wander into the entrance plaza, located just outside the Main Street train station tunnels into the park. Disney characters would be standing in front of the large Mickey flower arrangement, waiting for guests to pose for pictures: this was an era before hours-long lines for photos and autographs.
After a long day at the parks, we would end up waiting in the queues for the Disney busses to bring us back to our resorts. I distinctly remember standing below the green busports outside the Magic Kingdom, waiting in the heat for the Disney bus ride, sitting in the pitch dark while hushed adult voices, muffled by the head of a small child lying on their chests or laps. I was always too excited to allow myself to sleep on the busses, staring out the windows for a glimpse of the purple nighttime Spaceship Earth, the tall capped Earful Tower or menacing Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (after 1994). I also vividly remember seeing searchlights from Disney-MGM Studios panning across the sky and being convinced they were angels.
Maybe that's why I consider Walt Disney World to be heaven on earth.