"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A (Almost) Teen In The Kingdom

Tomorrow my son John becomes a teen. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one, though he has been counting down for weeks now. Thanks, John, that helps :)  John is our only child so I imagine we feel the sense of him changing forever each and every day more acutely than we would if he had a younger sibling. Tomorrow, there will no longer be a pre-teen in this house. He's "Moving Forward" as Walt liked to say. He is truly opening new doors all the time, he is exploring new things because he is truly and wonderfully curious.I know intellectually that tomorrow he will only be one day older than he is today, that 13 is only a number and an arbitrary milestone at best. But it serves emotionally and very practically to put a sort of time stamp on the changes that have been coming to John faster and faster the last few years and especially the last six months or so. I've watched him becoming less a subset of Lisa and I and more an individual with his own opinions and goals and interests. I thoroughly enjoyed John's childhood up to this point and I suppose there's a part of me that will always miss him as a child, but the person he is growing into is so absolutely and incredibly wonderful that he tips the bitter/sweet nostalgia scales almost all the way to the sweet side.

The early teen years are a big transition time, and this trip to Disney put the very best of that transition on vibrant display. John was able to enjoy the parks as a child who thrilled at driving his own go cart around the Tomorrowland Speedway, but he also started looking at Disney World with an adult's appreciation for what went into creating the Magic. For me, it was one of the best Dad experiences of my life. I got to have the best of both worlds, playing with my kid and teaching my son about one of the things I really love. John made me so incredibly proud because he gets it, he understands on a basic level that Disney is special for a reason and he was actively trying to understand it.
John and the snowman

I wasn't surprised that John was interested in what went into the Magic, the kid loves watching "How It's Made" on the Science Channel after all and even as a toddler, he was watching the ride mechanism while going around on the little firetrucks or cars or motorcycles at the fair. He completely ate up my stories of what the Imagineers had done and how and why. I was truly impressed and a bit surprised with the way he went about internalizing what I told him and actively seeking out examples himself. Before our trip, I read a lot of books about all the detail the Imagineers put into the building of everything they do. John and I had a ball looking for examples ourselves and I think John spotted one of the greatest in Hollywood Studios. Right next to Mama Melrose's restaurant, there is a little Christmas shop on the corner. Naturally, being Disney, it's winter all year round on that corner. There are Christmas decorations like you'd find on a city street and there is snow on the ground, drifted up against the corner of the building. Someone has even built a snowman. All this is cool, but after so many years of Disney parks, it's not all that uncommon to find some pretty consistent "themeing" at parks outside of Walt's world. But John discovered how the Imagineers went the extra mile, and why they are still the best. Outside the window of the Christmas shop were some footprints in the snow drift. If you followed them by putting your own feet in the outlines, you saw that they were "left" by a person walking up to the store to do a little window shopping. I was impressed by that little touch, but John found one even better. Around the corner the shop ends and before the next building begins there is a little transition. It's a set of wooden garage doors with the name of the local fire department written on them. It was "Engine Co. #"something, but I can't remember what exactly. The snow drift starts to peter out here, it's not very deep, but it does extend in front of one of these garage doors for the fire company. And right there in the snow, just where a fire truck would be leaving the garage, is a set of tire tracks in the snow. John and I wondered to each other what kind of mind thinks of that. I explained that it came from basing everything around a story, much more like the play we worked on than normal architecture where you build for a purpose. We were walking in a giant set. All of Walt Disney World is a show, one you actively participate in, but a show all the same. John totally got it, because he'd seen a show come to life from start to finish, he could totally relate to the Imagineers. The doors he opened this summer helped him open more doors, and my hope is that will continue to be a pattern throughout his life. I think he's on the right track.

Firetruck tracks
John noticed other things, such as the smell of cookies always coming from the Main Street bakery. I explained that they did that on purpose, they actually pumped out the smell of cookies all day and night to draw people into the shop. John noticed it again this time with coffee at the Starring Rolls Cafe in Hollywood Studios and couldn't wait to tell his Mom how the smell was blown out of the store as an Imagineering trick.We also amused ourselves looking for and pointing out "weineies" to each other. A "weinie" was what Walt called the big set pieces that caught a guest's eye and drove them to come towards a new area. The Cinderella Castle is a huge example, but there are weinies large and small all over the parks. I love the story of how the term came into being, and John did as well. Seems Walt loved hot dogs, weinies, and was attracted to the smell of them without fail. So he equated anything that attracted a person, that drew them in, with the smell of wienies in his own experience. Walt was a genius, pure and simple, but he was a normal everyday guy as well. That's why he was, and is, so successful. I tried to impress upon John that it was great to be the smartest guy in the room, but if you didn't know people and know how to relate to them, your genius could be completely wasted.

Walt Disney was inspired to build his first theme park, Disneyland, because he wasn't satisfied with the playgrounds and amusement parks he had seen. He found plenty of places to take his young daughters and watch them play, and he did often, but he wanted a place where parents and children could have fun together, explore together and learn together. Well, Walt, you did it. Thank you. Thank you for dreaming big and making it real, thank you for a place I can watch my son grow and learn and laugh and discover as he moves from childhood to teenager.

I dream too. I dream that these lessons never stop, that John keeps being curious and that it leads him to open knew doors for the rest of his life. No, I'm not sad that John's Moving Forward, I celebrate it. Keep moving, John. Keep moving.

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