Before I start the actual story, I need to specifically thank three people who made this all happen. Carl Bond is the Area Manager for Entertainment at Epcot, and it was his initial involvement that got the ball rolling. Without his help none of this would have ever happened. Scott Cook is Carl's counterpart at the Magic Kingdom, and he jumped into action as soon as Carl contacted him. Finally, David Storm is one of the lead Dream Team members at the Magic Kingdom. He really took this story to heart, and created an event that so far exceeded our wildest imagination that I cannot even begin to thank him enough. All three of them will be getting personal letters of thanks from us this week, both directly and to their supervisors so that they can get the recognition they deserve. Yesterday was simply an amazing day all around, a piece of magic that neither Ben nor the rest of our family will ever forget.
The first notable thing that happened when we got to the Magic Kingdom yesterday was when a cast member at the Ticket & Transportation Center gave Ben an "Honorary Citizen" button after hearing about what was going to happen that day. Ben wore that button proudly all day. David Storm met us on Main Street just to meet Ben and to make sure all of the plans were in order for the day. David was exceptionally nice, said he would see us at 3:30 in front of City Hall, and told us that he had something spectacular planned for the 2,000th ride later that afternoon.
From there Ben made a bee line to the Snow White ride for his first three rides of the day, bringing his total to 1993. Next was a walk over to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh for a quick ride, and then time for a snack at the Village Fry Shoppe. At this point I have to note that, much in the spirit of Pooh, it was a very blustery day. Ben sat down with his fries at a table out in the courtyard, but before he could even touch his first fry a gust of wind came along and sent the whole thing flying. The poor people at the next table found themselves on the receiving end of a fry storm, and Ben was distraught. It was like it was happening in slow motion, with Ben screaming, "Noooooooooooooo!" as his fries went sailing away. Fortunately, the people at the fry shop were kind enough to replace his fries, and then we found a more sheltered spot for Ben to sit and enjoy his snack.
Following the flying french fry episode it was time for another set of rides on Snow White, bringing his total to 1996. Next up was a visit to Pirates of the Caribbean, which has lately become popular with him. For years he refused to go anywhere near the ride (or any other water-based ride for that matter), but a few months ago he rediscovered Pirates and has wanted to go on it at least once every visit.
Coming back from Pirates there was a minor crisis because the candy store was apparently all out of Nerds. After three successive shops it became apparent that there was some kind of global shortage of Nerds at the Magic Kingdom, and Ben was on the verge of tears. Fortunately he settled for different candy, and a complete meltdown was averted. Three more trips on Snow White, and he was up to 1,999.
The timing was perfect, we left Fantasyland and got ahead of the 3:00 parade. We made it to City Hall just before the parade reached that point, and for the first time in his life Ben actually sat and watched the entire parade. Ben's mom met us there, as well as Ben's grandparents, and we had a great time watching the parade go by. Once it was over, we went into City Hall and let them know we were there. I expected David to come out to greet us, but instead we were greeted by an entire phalanx of Dream Team cast members. Ben seemed flattered by all the attention, and we stood around and socialized for a few minutes. Finally yet another Dream Team member came out to tell us they were ready. We were all escorted behind the counter and into the VIP room.
I had been told in advance that Ben was getting a private meet and greet with Snow White. What I didn't expect was Snow White, all seven dwarfs, Prince Charming, the Wicked Queen, plus a professional photographer and numerous other cast members. Ben was completely gob smacked. He waded into the crowd of characters, and was bewildered at all of them. There was a perfect moment when Snow White herself leaned down and kissed him on the cheek, leaving big read lipstick marks. Ben got a little bashful, then he took a step forward and had a huge grin on his face. He touched several of the dwarfs, and just generally soaked it all in.
When the meet and greet was over, it was time to walk over for the 2,000th ride. I expected David to walk us over, which he did, but he was also joined by an army of other cast members. He called ahead to let the folks at the ride know that we were coming, and when we were about to walk around the corner. The cast members cut a path for us, and Ben was escorted directly onto the ride. He sat in the front row with his mom, Kris and I sat behind them, and his grandparents sat in the back row. A photographer was there taking pictures as we got into the
mine cart and as we started the ride.
The ride itself was pretty much like it had been for the last 1,999 times. Seriously, there just aren't any surprises left in there for me, but Ben seems to love it just as much every single time he goes on it. Of course the photographer was there to get pictures of us as the mine cart was coming out of the ride at the very end. I thought the whole thing was pretty cool, and I was pleased with what Disney had done for us. I had no idea what was about to happen.
As soon as we got off the ride, we saw that a huge crowd had formed. At the center was a giant sign commemorating Ben's 2,000th ride, signed by Snow White and all seven dwarfs. There was also a cast member holding a display with a beautiful custom framed picture of Snow White and the dwarfs, also autographed by all of them, plus some collector's pins, a Snow White cup, another picture frame, and a pile of jewels. The photographer continued to take pictures as David announced to the entire crowd what Ben had just achieved, and the whole crowd cheered. Ben came forward, and they put on his head a pair of Micky Mouse Club mouse ears with his name embroidered on them. He wore that hat for the rest of the day, not taking it off until he crawled into bed. For a kid that never, ever wears hats that was pretty exceptional. We were all completely overwhelmed by the whole thing.
Of course, once all the hoopla was over (well, actually, *before* all the hoopla was over), Ben turned around and went back to the ride. It was just Ben and me on that 2,001st ride, and the whole time through he had a big smile. Now that he was in his quiet space, with just me and his favorite ride, he relaxed enough to show just how much he had enjoyed the whole thing.
All total yesterday he went on Snow White 14 times, and aside from the other rides I already mentioned he also went on the Haunted Mansion. He wore those mouse hears and kept that lipstick mark on his cheek all day long. When we finally made it home, he had some dinner and then collapsed in to bed by 8:30pm. He slept like a rock, and even now he still has the lipstick on his face. He has looked at the pictures from yesterday, and is very happy. All in all it was a completely amazing and magical experience.
One other thing worth noting - not long after the big ride I got a phone call from the photographer. He wanted to get my address so that they could mail out a photo CD with all of the pictures they took that day. Between the value of all of those pictures, all of the gifts they gave Ben, and all of the time and labor that Disney put in to making the event happen, Disney put in hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars into making one autistic boy feel special for a day. That is not something that I will soon forget. Disney often has a reputation for being some kind of evil, money-grubbing empire. And maybe some of that reputation is well deserved. But every time I walk into that park with Ben, not just yesterday but on *every* *single* *visit*, I am struck by just how much Disney has done for my son. His first recognizable words where when he started to sing along with me to "The Bear Necessities" when he was six years old. For years he carried a plush Sorcerer Mickey doll with him everywhere he went. The thing that most helps keep him calm when the world gets overwhelming is his iPod filled with Disney music. People like Carl Bond, Scott Cook and David Storm have had a direct and lasting positive impact on his life. Virtually every cast member that works in Fantasyland has at one time or another stopped and done a little something for Ben to make his day a little more magical. Walt Disney himself, who passed away decades before Ben was born, has seemed to reach across time all the way from 1937 in order to bring Ben a never ending source of happiness. I don't know what is in store for Ben in the future. I worry about what will happen when he is an adult, what will happen when I am no longer here to take care of him, but for this weekend at least I am content with my son's well being. I owe an important part of that to Disney and all that they have collectively done, and for that I am eternally grateful.