This is the fifth 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.
The crowd was still cheering as Stacey led our group away from Snow White's Scary Adventures following the official last ride. Just like a few hours earlier, we were taken to a spot in front of The Friar's Nook in order to wait. We watched as Disney security helped guide the remaining guests out of Fantasyland, and as the park quickly emptied out we learned that Stacy had another gift for Ben - a photo CD with more than 80 pictures taken during Snow White's visit with Ben along with four prints of some of the best shots. Ben particularly liked the one from inside the ride with Snow White. I particularly liked the one showing Ben laughing and happy.
Ben describes his day in precisely 1,000 words
As we waited, Ben's grandpa said his goodbyes and left for work. Our remaining group consisted of Ben, his mom, videographer Robert Lughai, Finnish Snow White afficianado Kenneth Sundberg, and me. After a few minutes Stacey came back and said that the park guests were all clear, and that we could go back and finish the rides to get Ben up to 3,500. I really want you to take that in for a second -- Walt Disney World was keeping the ride open for an additional 25 minutes exclusively for Ben
. It was already nearing 11pm, and I have to imagine that workers were standing by to begin decommisioning the ride and putting up the construction walls that had to be in place before park opening the next day, and here they were letting my family and friends back on the ride for no other reason than to actually finish with a milestone number. That's not "above and beyond", it's just a whole new dimension of amazing.
The atmosphere as the five of us loaded into the mine cart was completely different from earlier. Where earlier it was a huge event with hundreds of strangers, this had become an intimate affair shared among just a handful of trusted compatriots. We had the entire ride to ourselves, and our interactions became downright surreal. Ben was still giddy with joy, and with no other guests to bother we felt free to have full-voiced conversations throughout the ride pointing out little detail bits that we loved. On one of the early laps, Ben's mom mentioned that she had always wanted to touch the wishing well but had never tried because the CM operating the ride is right there and she didn't want to get kicked out of the park. So of course on the next lap I looked her straight in the eyes and reached out to touch the well as we spun around. She couldn't reach it all from her seat, and so on the next go-around she traded places and finally had her wish fulfilled.
I think it was after the second lap, at ride number 3,495, that we realized that we didn't need to be lugging around all of our backpacks and such. (Spending hours in the park with a special needs child requires a variety of supplies, and I had been lugging around that backpack all night). With no other guests to worry about, we just piled up our belongings next to the unload station and carried on. After each lap we would have to exit the cart, and then walk around to get back into the very same cart again. During each transition the cast members would count out the next ride number - like the slowest New Year's Eve countdown ever. Around the 3,498th ride Ben's mom looked at me and said, "I think he should go on the last ride all by himself."
My heart nearly stopped at the notion. In eighteen years, Benjamin had never been truly alone. Sure, he might be alone in another room in the house -- places that were absolutely safe, and quickly accessible by a guardian if anything should happen. But he had never, ever been somewhere completely unsupervised, completely unobserved and unobservable. I almost said "no" immediately. But in my heart I realized that his mother was right. Ben is legally an adult. There was a lap bar to prevent him from exiting the ride vehicle. He would be fine. Almost certainly. If ever there was an opportunity to try letting him go on a ride on his own, this was it. And it was a way to make the final ride really and truly special. By the 3,499th ride we were in agreement, although my stomach was still twisting in knots at the idea.
And then it was the moment of truth. We all exited the cart. Ken stood off at a respectable distance, allowing us to have this moment as a family. Robert collected his camera and set up to film Ben's last ride. We led Ben over to the loading zone, gave him a big hug, and then told him to go ahead. He looked a little confused at first, and then smiled in disbelief. With his iPod in one hand, a single earbud in his left ear, and with his camera in the other hand he embarked on the very last ride. We waved and blew him kisses as he rounded the wishing well, and then he was through the doors and completely gone.
I turned to Stacey and said, "There are cameras in there, right? There's somebody in a security room somewhere that can see everything that is happening?"
"Nope!" she replied cheerfully, "but there are intrusion matts everywhere, and in any case the lap bar will keep him in the cart."
I looked at my watch, and then looked at the exit doors. Empty cart after empty cart paraded by, and I had visions of those doors opening to a cart empty but for an iPod and a camera perched on the front seat. The headlines the next day would read "Autistic Boy Disappears from Disney Ride". I imagined a vigniette several decades in the future, a grizzled old maintenance worker saying in hushed tones to a new employee, "...and to this day you can hear his ghost moaning in this building, mourning the loss of his favorite ride..."
Surely it had been three minutes by now, and still those doors steadfastly refused to open. I realized that I was holding my breath, as I noticed abstractly that Robert had set up his camera shot to get the perfect view of Ben's exit. Finally, after what seemed like hours, those doors swung open and there was my happy young man still clutching his iPod and his camera. We all let out a cheer as the mine cart rolled to a halt, and then Benjamin got big hugs all around.
And that is how it was that Benjamin's actual last ride was a huge milestone. Not because of the big round number, and not because he was the last guest to ever go on the ride, but because that final ride was the first step on a terrifying and exhilerating new adventure. All alone in that mine cart, Benjamin took his first giant step towards independence. Three minutes alone on a dark ride may seem like a small thing, but for our family it was a tremendously magnificent feat. Of everything else that happened on that remakable night, that is the thing that will be burned into my memory forever.
Music and Lyrics Copyright ©2012 Lokheed Enterprises
If the above player does not work, you can listen to the song here: Benjamin's Lullaby (a.k.a. All Is Well)
- Benjamin's Lullaby (A.K.A. All Is Well)
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Next Up: SWSA Final Night - Epilogue