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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