In the dozen years since we moved to Florida, I have had the good fortune to meet and befriend any number of amazing Disney cast members. I have, of course, met several Friends of Snow White. I hang out with the original Belle from the stage production of Beauty and the Beast at the Hollywood Studios (nee Disney MGM Studios) from back in The Day. And most importantly, relevent to this story, I have gotten to know the legendary Billy Flanigan. He has been a fixture among the performers at Walt Disney World for more than three decades now, doing everything from Broadway at the Top to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review. If you got your picture taken with Ken back in the 90's, it was probably Billy. These days he is in the cast of Finding Nemo: The Musical, and back in April he invited Ben to come and see the show, and to meet the cast afterwards.
It was such I kind offer, I could hardly refuse. The trick was that, in the past ten years I could count on one hand the number of times that I had successfully gotten Ben to willingly enter the Animal Kingdom. Come to think of it, I could be involved in a horrible industrial accident, lose two fingers and a thumb, and still count the number of times on one hand. So I was a little bit nervous about convincing Ben to get out of the car and go into the park.
We started prepping Ben for the visit several days in advance. Both his mom and I talked to him a lot about Nemo, and about going to the show and then meeting Nemo and the rest of the cast afterwards. We reassured him that we wouldn't force him to stay if he didn't like it, but that we really wanted him to try at least for a little bit. He was skeptical, but with plenty of encouragement he seemed to be willing to give it a shot.
When the day came, we had a good lunch so he would have a full belly and then we took off to the park. I wouldn't say he was enthusiastic about it, but it didn't take much work to get him out of the car and walking into the park. I tried to time it so that there would be a minimal amount of waiting. It was pretty much a straight walk through the turnstiles and then over to the theater for the show. Ben was anxious, but he had is iPod full of his music and that kept him fairly calm. Upon arriving at the theater, Billy had arranged for special seating for Ben right up front.
Right away, I was on Red Alert. For anyone else, the seating would have been awesome. Unfortunately, Ben was getting overwhelmed being in those seats, and with so many other people packed around him. I started plotting exit routes in case things went south, and was watching Ben like a hawk to be sure he didn't stress out and start hitting or kicking the people around him. The show wasn't starting for another ten minutes, and I was already imagining the whole thing going down in flames.
Just then, a wonderful wonderfal Cast Member saw how anxious Ben was and how stressed I was about it, and asked if maybe Ben might be less anxious if he sat in one of the wheelchair viewing areas. There were no wheelchair users present for the performance, and although they are still great seats right near the front they also have the advantage of being railed off into their own separate spaces. I gratefully accepted, and Ben and I moved to our new seats.
It is safe to say that Ben was very pleased with this development. Just a wee bit. Here, take a look:
Before long the show started, and Ben was deleriously happy. He was smiling, laughing, and even took several pictures with both is iPod and his camera. He loved all of the singing and dancing, and all the costumes. There are a few points where cast members come out into the audience, and during one of those times Billy saw us and waved as he ran by in his blue costume. Somewhere near the big finish there is a point where bubbles come raining down from the rafters, and Ben was simply delerious with joy. It was just SO MUCH FUN!
After the show, we were escorted out a side entrance and taken for a private meet-and-greet with the cast, where Ben had his photo taken with Marlin, Dori, and the rest.
It's hard to see it in that photo, but he really did enjoy it.
After thanking everyone profusely, we left the theater area. Ben made it very clear that, although it had been great fun, he was "all done!" We left the park, and had a lovely rest of the day. And that, I thought, was the end of the story.
Fast forward several months to mid-June. I had been collecting all of the custom Starbucks coffee mugs for each of the parks, and I heard that the location inside Animal Kingdom had finally opened. That was the last cup I needed, and for a variety of reasons it wound up being on Sunday, June 21st when I decided to dash into the park to get that cup. I had Ben with me that day, and I knew he really didn't like Animal Kingdom, so I asked him to just please come into the park with me for a little bit. I promised I wouldn't make him go on any rides, I just wanted to go in to one store and then we could leave. He looked at me suspiciously, and then reluctantly consented to walk into the Animal Kingdom.
Initially it went exactly as I expected, with Ben being not-excited to be there and kind of dragging his feet. We found the Starbucks, I got my mug, and I took him by the hand to start leading him out of the park.
That is when he completely surprised me. He refused to go back in the direction of the exit, and instead pulled me towards Africa like he was on a mission. I quickly relented, saying "Ok, show me..." He marched through the park, looking left and right, and was clearly looking for some specific thing. In the other parks he knows his way around perfectly, but he had been to Animal Kindom so rarely that he really didn't know how to get where he wanted to go. I asked him several times what he was looking for, and finally he stopped, turned to me, and said very clearly, "Nemo...."
Ding! The light went on. "Oh," I smiled, "That's over this way!"
He was practically skipping as I led him past Everest and over to the Nemo theater. Unfortunately, we had only just missed a show and it was too late to get in. The next performance wouldn't be for another 90 minutes. I explained it to him, but he didn't really understand. I reassured him that, yes, we would go see Nemo, but we had to go do something else for a little while. It took some convincing, but he finally agreed to be led away. I could see him paying special attention, though, so that he would know how to find his way back.
We actually wound up going to see the Festival of the Lion King show, which was a first for him. He liked it, but it wasn't the kind of rapturous joy he had experienced with Nemo. When Lion King ended he practically lept out of his seat, grabbed my hand, and then exclaimed emphatically, "NEMO!"
At which point he led me directly back to the Nemo theater like a heat-seeking missile. We got there in plenty of time to get in for the next performance, and to get pretty decent seats. We weren't in the wheeldchair well, but he didn't seem to need that kind of separation that time. He sat down on one of the regular bleacher seats, pulled out his iPod and camera, and started taking pictures.
The show started, and as it wore on I really started to pay attention to it for the first time. I mean, I know the movie. I have seen it umpteen-bajillion times, and I have seen the live musical show several other times. I am more than passingly familiar with the story.
But as I sat there, with Ben enraptured by my side and holding my hand, I suddently realized that it was actually Father's Day. Again, I had been abstractly aware of that fact, but let's face it: Ben isn't going out to get me a card and a tie for Father's Day. Without school in session, there are no classroom art projects to send home like there are for Mother's Day. I'm not complaining, it just is what it is. My own dad is long gone, and I just don't put much thought into that particular day.
But on June 21st of 2015, Ben managed to give me the absolute best Father's Day present ever. There on stage, Marlin and Nemo were having there joyous reunion, and here was Ben sitting beside me and reveling in sharing the experience of the show with me. I gotta say, I actually cried. Just a bit, and in a very manly way of course, but I teared up and then I gave Ben a big hug and thanked him.
In the past forty-odd years I can't think of any other Father's Day that sticks out in my mind, but this year? It's gonna hang around forever.