If You Had Wings: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Imagine. We volunteered to ride through what was essentially a commercial.

Not only do I dream in color, but I also seem to provide myself with a soundtrack. I woke up on the morning of this writing hearing the fading, hypnotic song “If You Had Wings” rattling around in my sleep-fogged brain. It was the theme song of a Disney World ride of the same name which had the reputation of being Disney’s most boring ride from 1972 to 1989. I hadn’t thought of it in decades.

Living in Central Florida, I eventually wound up going to Disney World 18 times. Of course, the first visit was the most special. I sold houseplants for about a year when I was 10 years old in order to save up the $20 I would need to get me, my sister, and my mother into that theme park for the first time, and that money would also make a big dent in our lunch bill. (My mother was willing to pay the balance, as well as the gas and parking.) I was so excited all that first visit that I threw up in the parking lot afterward, attracting a crowd of onlookers.

According to the Disney website, a 10-year-old today would have to come up with $327 dollars to pay for 3 people for one day. And that doesn’t even include food. That’s a lot of houseplants. (Yep. I’m old.)

After that initial visit, every time a relative visited from Connecticut we would go to Disney. Once, we went there on a school trip, and I was shocked to find out that half my junior high class had been shoplifting in the Magic Kingdom all day, because when it was time for us to go, a police officer climbed into our school bus, and jewelry, hats and candy started flying out the windows. It had never occurred to me until that moment that I was surrounded by a bunch of petty criminals.

A decade later, I had a summer job that included transporting Latin American tour groups to various theme parks, and explaining to them in Spanish how to navigate the ticket system. I would also answer questions about the various attractions, and explain how to contact me afterward (by pay phone in this pre-cellphone era) to come with the van and return them to their hotels.

By that point, Disney no longer excited me. But in the beginning, it really did feel like a magic kingdom. From 1956 to 1982 what you got at the admissions gate was a ticket book. By the time I came along, that book contained various quantities of A, B, C, D, and E tickets. You spent the day desperately clutching the ticket book in your sweaty hands, worried you’d lose it. Once you ran out of those tickets, you were out of luck.

Nobody ever ran out of A tickets. They were for lame things like the merry-go-round and the omnibus. Usually you couldn’t even give those away. Often you’d find them lying on the ground. But as you made your way through the alphabet, the tickets were for increasingly exciting rides. D tickets got you into cool things like the Mission to Mars and the Skyway, which was rather a big deal back then.

But E tickets, omigod, they were like gold. You could never get enough E tickets. Each one of those got you into a choice of one of the following: Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Country Bear Jamboree, the Haunted Mansion, the Hall of Presidents, It’s a Small World, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Space Mountain. All around you, you could hear family arguments about which of those E ticket attractions they were willing to skip, because, like I said, there were never enough E tickets.

It was a huge relief when Disney finally went to a general admissions system, which reduced paper as well as ticket takers, and allowed the length of the lines to curtail the number of people going through their pricier attractions. That way, you weren’t blaming Disney for not letting you on the ride. You just gave up in frustration because the ride was too popular, and you didn’t feel like waiting 45 minutes in a cattle chute.

I tell you all this because it will give you a true sense of how dull If You Had Wings was. It didn’t require any ticket at all. It didn’t even make the A ticket list. That’s kind of sad.

Still, the first time I rode that ride, I did love it. I live for travel, and If You Had Wings was sponsored by Eastern Airlines. Imagine. We volunteered to ride through what was essentially a commercial. It was designed to tempt you to fly to various locations that, coincidentally, Eastern flew to. At the end there was even a reservations desk where you could book flights. That desk was manned with less frequency as the years went by. People spending their hard-earned money to take the kiddies to Disney World weren’t in the mood to think about their next financial splurge.

The ride lasted 4 ½ minutes, and there was almost never a line. Many people simply rode it for the air conditioning and the opportunity to get off their aching feet. You’d hop on a slow-moving two-seater car made of thinly padded teal blue plastic. It would take you down a track, and your seat would move sideways or even angle you upward, depending on what Eastern Airlines wanted you to look at in that particular moment. There was even a simulated airplane takeoff.

It was really fun to find this video on Youtube. It appears to be a home movie from that era, and it takes you through the entire ride. It was like being on a time machine. There were rear projection screens everywhere, giving you a distorted vision of various activities, such as stereotypical Mexican folkloric dancers cavorting on an arched balcony, a traffic cop in the Bahamas directing a flock of flamingos, people waving bon voyage from a cruise ship, and others climbing a waterfall in Jamaica. At the end, you went through a room that had floor to ceiling reflected images of snow-capped mountains, and you’d feel a blast of cold air. Ooooh… And all the while, you are hearing the song. “If you had wings… had wings… had wings…” It kind of made you feel as though you were in a trance.

As you came to the end of the ride, near the reservations desk, you could hear the disembodied voice of Orson Welles saying, “You do have wings. You can do all these things. You can widen your world…” and for one brief, shining moment, this impoverished little Connecticut transplant, who was not thriving in the heat of Florida and who had a very dim view of her future prospects, allowed herself to believe it.

I wish I could go back and tell that coltish girl that things would get better someday, and that, in fact, she would eventually see 22 countries. That might have made all the sh** she had to slog through in order to get to that point a lot easier to take. She might have been more patient and less terrified and impulsive had she known that.

Eastern Airlines stopped sponsoring the ride in 1987, and they themselves went belly up in 1991. Ironically, just before that, Eastern Airlines flew me first class down to Miami for an interview with them, and I was devastated when I didn’t get the job. Now I’m glad I didn’t, because when they went out of business I’d have been stranded in Miami before I had even gotten a chance to get my financial feet up under me, and I’d probably be living a much different life now.

The ride was modified various times after Eastern Airlines let go of it. Delta Airlines took it on from 1989 to 1996, and it limped along for two years after that before finally closing down in 1998. Now, according to Wikipedia, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin occupies that space, and it uses the original track and floor plan. From the looks of it, it has much fancier padded seats, and you get to shoot at stuff with a laser cannon, and at the end you get a score.

Ten-year-old me would have thought that the current ride was pretty cool, but what are these kids learning? How to aim a laser cannon? How life scores you at every turn? At least I was being told that I could “widen my world.” With actual experiences.

Kids today (a phrase which further reveals my age) rarely even leave their rooms, often don’t own bikes, and have probably never felt the sweaty joy of playing kickball in the street. They may have extensive virtual lives, but their actual lives are a lot more narrow than mine was. Most neighborhood streets are devoid of life these days. But having known nothing else, these kids wouldn’t understand how weird that will always feel to a baby boomer.

What a shame. They don’t know what they’re missing.

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Michael Iceberg

If you’ve never heard of this guy, you haven’t lived.

If that name rings a bell, you probably visited Disney in the ‘70’s or ‘80’s. If you’ve never heard of this guy, you haven’t lived. Michael Iceberg was my introduction to synthesizers, and he left a lasting impression on me.

Iceberg was a consummate showman. He and his iceberg machine would rise up from below the stage, spouting dry ice and colorful strobe lights. His performances were often accompanied by videos. He played multiple keyboards simultaneously, all while manipulating hundreds of knobs and less sophisticated items that he often scavenged from junk yards. You knew this to be true because his machine was surrounded by mirrors. He seemed superhuman to me when I was a child.

Michael Iceberg was the highlight of my many Disney visits. He symbolized possibility for me. He demonstrated that whatever you dreamed of could be made even more grand and magical, if you let your imagination run wild. He made me hopeful for the future.

Yes, synthesizers have become a lot more sophisticated than they were in the days of Michael Iceberg at Disney. Looking at his videos now, I do think that a modern performer could achieve the same results with a lot less effort and space. And a lot less talent. That person wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining, and he or she definitely wouldn’t be as memorable.

Thanks, Michael Iceberg, for being such a big part of my childhood that I still remember you, fondly, 45 years later.


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I Don’t Want the Fairytale

Here’s a story that Disney is never going to animate. A young girl decides that not only does she not want some man to come to the rescue, but also she doesn’t necessarily want a man at all. Or children, for that matter. And she’s quite content with the fact that she’s not skinny and blonde. She has a job that she loves, some really great friends, and a dog, and she lives happily ever after.

Here’s the question: Why is that not worthy of animation? By its very absence, we were taught growing up that there are certain lifestyles that are unacceptable, wrong, never to be discussed.

In order to be “right” you have to find a partner, worry about your appearance, and wear shoes that aren’t sensible. You have to seek your solutions outside of yourself instead of from within. Someone has to approve of you.

As more and more of us fail to fit into that neat little box, I am increasingly aware of how punked I have been by Hollywood, and it makes me angry. I was force fed this white male republican standard of living that I could never achieve, and because of that I used to feel bad about who I was. It’s sickening.

The fact is, glass slippers would be quite dangerous to wear. The first time you stubbed your toe, your feet would be surrounded by jagged shards. And even if you managed not to break them, they wouldn’t allow your feet to breathe properly and you’d probably get a nasty foot fungus. So I’ll just stick with my Chuck Taylors, thank you very much.


[Image credit: fashionablyfrost.com]

Siamese If You Please

Ugh! I’ve got a song in my head, and this one is embarrassing. As a child I loved the Disney animated movie Lady and the Tramp. For some reason one of the songs from that film, We Are Siamese If You Please, is on this feedback loop in my brain and nothing seems to be able to dislodge it.

The problem with that is that from an adult, twenty-first century perspective, this song is racist as hell. I feel as though I should apologize to the people of Thailand for humming it under my breath. If you watch the video below, you’ll see what I mean. It portrays Asians (in this case, Asian singing cats, but hey, it’s a cartoon) as dangerous, devious, cruel, and deadly. If they don’t kill you, they’ll rob you blind. Those slanty-eyed beasts simply cannot be trusted. Poor Lady, the all American dog, runs around desperately trying to keep her family and property safe from these evil creatures.

And as the film goes on, poor Lady becomes disenfranchised because of Si and Am, after their owner tries to muzzle her. She feels the need to run away. It’s all the cats’ fault, of course.

This film came out in 1955, two short years after the end of the Korean War, and you know, all those countries are exactly the same, right? That was the perspective at the time, anyway. But what disturbs me most about this is that it was a film directed at children like myself, who didn’t know any better. It was basically racist propaganda for the next generation.

So if you pass me on the street and hear me humming this diabolical tune, please don’t slap me upside the head. I’m already doing that to myself. Thanks, Disney, for such a wholesome earworm.

Jacksonville, Florida: America’s Best Kept Secret

Since we all seem to have survived the Mayan Apocalypse, it’s time to climb out of our bomb shelters and live a little. Get on the road. See the sights. For those of you who are in the mood for a road trip, Jacksonville is that big city that you drive through on Interstate 95 on your way to Disney World. Very few people bother stopping here. It’s like we’re the world’s biggest small town.

In fact, the greater Jacksonville area is home to well over a million people, and yet it seems like no one has ever heard of it, unless they follow the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over 800 square miles, It’s also the largest city in land mass in the United States. When you land at the Jacksonville airport you don’t even SEE our skyscrapers, because the runways are so far north of downtown. That has to be disconcerting if you’re a first time visitor.

Some fun facts about Jacksonville:

  • Elvis Presley did his first indoor performance here, at the Florida Theater. The show was monitored by a judge to make sure his hips didn’t get out of hand, so to speak.
  • Florida Theater also used to show movies, and it was the first theater in the world to serve popcorn.
  • Jacksonville used to have a huge movie industry. There were more than 30 studios here. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed here. Which tells you all you need to know about the health of our waterways.
  • We have contributed to the world of music in many ways. Pat Boone was from Jacksonville, as were the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special and Limp Bizkit (are you getting the impression that we have issues with spelling?) and the disk Jockey Rick Dees. We also host the second largest jazz festival in the country, and one of the oldest and largest blues festivals.
  • In fact, Lynyrd Skynyrd took its name from a teacher who gave them a hard time, the late Leonard Skinner. He was a teacher at Lee High School, and was also, briefly, a bridgetender at one of the bridges that I work on.
  • We were put on the map briefly in 1988 due to the Morning Glory Funeral Home scandal. 36 decomposing bodies were discovered in the funeral home, most of which were stuffed in a closet, and some had been there for over 10 years. Later they found multiple bodies buried in single caskets in the local paupers cemetery. The funeral director was convicted for taking money for funerals that were never performed, and the regulations on Florida funeral homes became much stricter after that.
  • For 11 years, Jacksonville was the murder capital of Florida, but crime has gone down of late, probably due in part to the closing of one Navy base, and the fact that the other two are practically ghost towns now, due to wars overseas.
  • The first Burger King was located in Jacksonville.
  • The St. Johns River cuts through town and empties into the Atlantic Ocean here. The river runs north, just like the Nile.
  • We are home to the largest concrete cable-supported bridge in the world.
  • Professional golfers Mark McCumber, Fred Funk, Vijay Singh, and David Duval are from here.
  • The list of NFL players from Jacksonville is so long that naming them here would be tedious.

There are plenty of things to see and do in Jacksonville, but if you’re reading this blog then I’m sure you know how to Google, too, so we won’t get into that here. Just know that if you drive through on the way to Disney, it might be worth stopping after all.