This is the second in a series of six blog posts about my son and his experience on the last night of operation for Snow White's Scary Adventures at Walt Disney World. To read the entire series from the beginning, start with SWSA Final Night - Prelude. Thank you for reading.
I remember vividly the day, a couple of years ago, that the Fantasyland Expansion was announced at D23. Ben and I were in the park when the news broke, in fact we were standing in the alternate/wheelchair entrance for Snow White's Scary Adventures. I had known the announcement was coming, it was a very poorly kept secret, but the real question was what exactly the expansion would entail. I was so relieved when the detailed announcement did not include any changes to SWSA - I figured that if Disney was spending that much money in Fantasyland and not touching Ben's ride, then she would be safe for at least a decade. I remember having a conversation with the area manager for Fantasyland that afternoon, talking about the big plans and what a relief it was that SWSA was safe. You can imagine my family's distress when, several months later, the expansion plans were radically modified. The space that was going to contain a big Princess meet & greet was scrapped and replaced with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride, and SWSA was going to be gutted and turned into a smaller scale Princess meet & greet instead. There were other changes, but that was the only one I cared about. We didn't have a closing date (and wouldn't have one for over a year), but we knew that the end was coming. Ben was losing his favorite place on Earth, the place for which our family had moved cross-country from Seattle to Orlando back in '03.
It was not until just two months ago that we finally learned that the final day of operation would be on Thursday, May 31st, 2012. We began preparing Ben as best we could for the closure, without any idea if he understood at all. We didn't how the end would go, the only certain thing was that we needed to be there for the last night of operation to give Ben the opportunity to say goodbye. We actually discussed it with his doctor / autism specialist, and she agreed that the best thing for him would be to make a kind of ceremony out of it to help him to process the event. And so we made our plans for this past Thursday night; I would get Ben from school and bring him to the park, his mom would meet us there as soon as she was done with work, and we would stay until the bitter end. Knowing how emotionally and physically draining it would be, we let his teachers know that he would not be in school on Friday. I arranged my schedule to keep him home on Friday so that he could decompress. For better or worse, it was the beginning of the end.
Ben and I arrived at the park at about 5pm on Thursday. He was in a very good mood, excited about being at the Magic Kingdom on a weekday evening. He spent a little bit of time walking through the big gift shop on Main Street, cut through Casey's Corner across towards Adventureland, and then took the bridge over to the Christmas shop in Liberty Square. He currently has a bit of a crush on Tinkerbell, and they have an entire wall of Tink ornaments there. After several minutes of looking he finally decided on a new ornament. Once it was safely wrapped and boxed, he looked at me and said, "Daddy... I want... Snow White... please!"
In nine years of constant visits, I have never seen a line for SWSA like the one we encountered that night. Under normal circumstances you might occasionally see the alternate entrance backed up to the swinging door. At 5:30pm on Thursday the line for the handicap entrance was backed up out the door and all the way back around to where the regular line starts. The main line was full all the way out to the stroller parking, and it seemed like everyone was taking pictures and talking about wanting to get in one last ride before it went away forever. We got in line, and before long we were in the mine cart for Ben's 3,452nd ride on SWSA. Earlier in the year we had thought maybe Ben would reach 3,500 rides before it closed, but I had long since concluded that just wasn't going to happen. I figured we would let Ben ride as many times as he wanted that night, and would finish up somewhere in the 60's or 70's.
During the fourth ride of the evening there was one pretty memorable incident. The mine cart ahead of us had a woman riding in it who had transferred from a wheelchair. She had a great deal of trouble getting into the cart, and I knew that she would have some difficulty getting back out. As it turns out, when her cart reached the unloading zone at the end of the ride she was quite literally stuck. Ben and I were one stop back, sitting in the Happily Ever After section, and I could see exactly what was going on. I felt so awful for that poor woman, she was completely stuck and her companions were struggling to help get her free. After about a minute the entire ride was stopped and the house lights came up. For several minutes the cast members were assisting the stuck rider, and I have no doubt that she felt like hundreds of eyes were staring at her and her struggles. I can only imagine her distress. Meanwhile, as the minutes rolled on I began to worry that Ben would get stressed out by the delay. As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. You see, Ben has a camera that he has been carrying with him for a few years now. He loves taking photos, and has tried to take pictures on his ride but of course they never turn out. In particular he has tried and tried to get a picture of the Prince waking Snow White with Love's First Kiss. Sitting there in the back row of the mine cart, I saw Ben's eyes light up when he realized that the lights were on, the cart wasn't moving, and he had his camera. He very carefully turned around and held out the camera, taking exquisite care to line up the perfect shot. He snapped two or three pictures, and was extremely satisfied with the results on the camera's screen. Shortly after that the cart in front of us was finally cleared. As near as I can tell, the woman was uninjured and was able to carry on with her companions enjoying the park. I truly hope that experience did not ruin her visit. In any case, this was my first inkling that this was truly going to be an exceptional night. What should have been a crisis point that would tip Ben into a full-on meltdown instead became the happiest of accidents for him. Everything was breaking his way, and he was smiling ear to ear with that infectious grin of his.
As we exited the mine cart from that ride, we saw that Ben's mom had arrived. Benjamin greeted her with a smile, and then took her hand and led her back into line for the next ride. I left the two of them to catch up and have some Mama time while I went to get a couple bottles of red Powerade for Ben and a cold drink for myself. As Ben and his mom continued doing laps on the ride (slowly, that line just wasn't letting up), I could see cast members gathering nearby. Stacey, the CM who had taken ownership of creating a special moment for Ben, arrived on the scene and let us know that at 7pm she had a surprise for Ben if we didn't mind joining her then. At 7:01pm Ben went on his 3,458th ride with his mother beside him and with me in the seat right behind. Three minutes later we exited the ride to find Stacey waiting for us with a big smile on her face, inviting us to come for a short walk with her. Ben was about to have a truly Magical Moment.
Next up: SWSA Final Night, Part 2 - The Fairest One of All