Ever since Snow White's Scary Adventures (SWSA) closed and the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (SDMT) was announced, one of the most common questions that I have had from people is whether or not I thought Ben would enjoy the new ride as a replacement. For more than two years we watched the New Fantasyland expansion play out, with SDMT as the final piece to be completed. Month after month, visit after visit, we saw the different pieces fall into place and then the new mountain slowly rise and take shape. For the first half of 2014 the ride was surrounded by construction walls, and Ben would occasionally walk by and look at the paintings to see what the ride was about. Once the walls started coming down and Ben got his first good look at parts of the ride exterior, he looked... nervous. Particularly once they started cycling the empty mine carts, he viewed the ride with more trepidation than excitement. Finally, finally, on May 24th of 2014 the attraction was open to the public and Ben took his first ride.
Ben's mom and I had planned it so that his first ride would be on a day that we both could be there.As it so happens, that week Robert Lughai (the documentary filmmaker who was here for the closing night of SWSA) was in town, so he was present to film as well. We were all nervous about how it would go. We had seen ride-though videos by that point, and I was certain that Ben would absolutely love the big show scene that makes up the middle of the ride. I also thought that he would like the very ending, with Snow White and Dopey dancing in the Dwarfs' cottage. The huge question was how Ben would react to the roller-coaster part of the attraction.
As you may know, Ben had spent most of the previous year (or more) seriously ill with pancreatic issues. Those issues culminated in a major surgery back in January in which half of his pancreas was removed, along with the gallbladder, duodenum, portions of his bowel, and a few other things. It stands to reason that his resistance to coaster-type rides in the past may very well have been due to them being physically painful. I can only imagine that if he had significant ongoing pain in his gut, riding a roller-coaster would be extremely unpleasant. In fact, it had probably been that way for several years and he just had no way to tell us. The surgery should have removed that source of pain, though, and by this point he was mostly recovered from the after-effects of that procedure. The wild card, therefore, was whether Ben would translate “pain free” into “more adventurous” or whether the pain had so fully integrated into his personality that he would still want to avoid those kinds of experiences.
Our plan for the big day was to arrive early, before the ride opened. Basically let Ben get comfortable in the park, and then take him over and get in line as early as possible before it turned into a complete zoo. Robert was already at the park (the night before had been a 24 hour event at the park and he had gone in early to interview some well-known Disney bloggers). Ben and I arrived together, and Ben’s mom came separately and met us in Fantasyland. By 9:30am we had all converged on the new ride and were standing in line waiting for the 10am open. Ben was very cheerful, all smiles and laughs, although whenever the line was in sight of the coaster tracks he became apprehensive. Still, he was very happy to wait in line and look at all of the details the Imagineers had built into the scenery. Plus, he had his iPod filled with Disney music to keep him entertained and distracted. It was a good wait, not too long and not too hot yet that early in the day.
Promptly at ten o’clock the ride opened and the line surged forward to fill the actual queue. Ben showed surprisingly little interest in the interactive portions of the queue. I had been sure that he would especially like the musical water spigots, but when I showed them to him he was not impressed. Ditto with the gem sorting station (an interactive video game table where it looks like gems are floating down a trough and you are supposed to sort them by type and color). It seemed like only a few minutes before we had arrived at the actual loading station, and the big moment had arrived.
Ben boarded in the front row of a mine cart with his mom right next to him, while Robert and I filed into the seat behind. Both Robert and I had small action cameras focused on Ben to document his reactions, while mom reassured him in the front seat. Very quickly the loading was complete and the mine cart surged forward.
Wow. When I say surged, I really mean it. This was built and marketed as a family-friendly coaster attraction, but I have to tell you it really does pack a wallop. Sure, it’s not a top-end thrill ride like the Rock n’ Roller Coaster at the Hollywood Studios, but it is certainly much faster and has much bigger drops and tighter curves than the Goofy coaster nearby.
Ben did not enjoy it, not even a little bit. Immediately he had a hand clamped down over one ear, his other ear pressed down against his shoulder, and his free hand grasping onto his mother’s hand for dear life. The mine cart bucked and turned, and Ben stoically tried to shut it all out. He was clearly not happy, and the sooner it was over the better. Mercifully, after about thirty seconds the train slowed to a crawl as it entered the mine for the big show scene.
If you haven’t seen it, the animatronics for the middle sequence of the ride are breathtaking. They really are a step above any others that I have ever seen Disney produce, and as we entered the dark ride portion of the attraction I could see Ben perk up a little bit. He really wanted to enjoy this part, but he was just too tense to appreciate it. He still kept both ears covered and never loosened the grip on his mother’s hand even a little bit. He kind of looked around as much as he could in that position, but he was clearly afraid that the mine cart would start moving too fast again (and justifiably so). Much too quickly we passed by all of the dwarfs, and then we were on the back half of the ride.
Just how violent are the twists and turns? Violent enough that my small camera was jarred loose from its flexible tripod mount as we swept around the first big turn on the drop coming out of the mountain. Fortunately it did not hit anybody, it just sailed off into the scenery. As a side note, I made a report to Disney’s Lost and Found office later that morning describing the camera and exactly where on the ride I lost it, and the next day it was safely returned to me after it had been recovered by the overnight maintenance crews. The camera still works just fine, although the impact from when it hit the ground destroyed the video file that was being recorded at the time so I have no footage from that morning.
In any case, the ride finally ended with Ben steadfastly ignoring the cottage scene featuring Snow White dancing with Dopey. All Ben wanted was to get out of that ride vehicle and away from the area. I have to say, though, that I am very proud of how he behaved at that point. I would have expected a full meltdown with hitting, kicking, and screaming. Instead, he remained very composed and calm (if shell-shocked). He led us away from the ride and over to Tomorrowland, where he asked for some popcorn and then proceeded to sit quietly on a bench underneath the People Mover and he decompressed. He sat practically motionless for nearly a half hour, doing nothing more than listening to his iPod and carefully eating his popcorn.
Eventually he had calmed down completely, and we walked out of the Magic Kingdom entirely. By the time we were leaving Ben was smiling and happy, so we at least left on a positive note. He received nothing but gentle reassurances from all of us, that we were very proud of how brave he had been and that he never had to go on that ride again if he didn't want to. Needless to say, we were all very disappointed with how things had turned out regarding the ride itself. Still, on the whole it was a surprisingly positive experience given how maturely Ben had dealt with the stress of the situation.
It has been nearly three months since that visit, and Ben has been back to the Magic Kingdom many, many times since then. When he goes he still wants to visit his favorite familiar spots, but he gives the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train a wide berth whenever he is in that neighborhood. I swear on the first time back in the park he glared over in that direction with a look that said “you’re dead to me!”
I just feel so awful for him. All those years spent in the park, all that joy surrounding Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and now there is nothing that even comes close to that experience for him. He still likes to go to Disney, but it is mostly to just walk around and visit some favorite spots. He will go on a ride if we lead him there, but none of them capture his imagination like Snow White did. An era truly ended back in May of 2012, and nothing will ever be the same.