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Disney on Fear
I recently got back from a family vacation at Disney World. Family vacations are great. I got to spend quality time with two teenage children, who love and respect me. (I rented them. My own kids wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near me. At the Animal Kingdom I overheard them plotting to push me out of the halftrack in the hopes I would be trampled by a gnu.)
Obviously, I have decided to write about my vacation at Disney World—at great personal risk, since the radio show I do on ESPN is part of the Disney empire. So in a way I am biting the hand that feeds me.
And in the case of the “character breakfasts” at Disney World—where people dressed up as lovable Disney characters, like Chip and Dale, come up to your table and paw you incessantly while you eat—I considered literally doing that.
In fact, at one breakfast when Goofy began sucking on my head as I was eating my scrambled eggs, I flirted with the idea of whipping out a Zippo and setting him on fire.
How many years on a psychiatrist’s couch do you think the average five-year-old would have needed after seeing a Goofy flambé?
(Hey, I’m joking. I wouldn’t actually set Goofy on fire. The Little Mermaid, maybe.)
I’ve got nothing against Disney characters, but what explains their powerful attraction for me? Do I look like such a dork that I’d want to have a photo taken with a grown adult wearing a Styrofoam chipmunk head? Plus, the breakfast is crawling with kids, whose idea of a buffet is to grab anything with sugar and glaze on top—and drown it in syrup. These kids are stickier than Monica Lewinsky’s closet. And then they run to Chip and Dale, and rub their gooey hands and faces on them. And I’m supposed to snuggle up to these oozing fur balls? I’d rather be locked in a room with Roberto Benigni.
After breakfast we headed for the theme parks and the rides. At the entrance to each ride there’s a sign that tells you how long a wait you have before you ride. You get on a line and walk through a complex, serpentine system of ropes until you either: (1) reach the ride, or (2) your bladder is the size of the Hindenburg.
I probably picked a bad week to go to Disney World, it being spring break. I don’t want to say the place was crowded, but as we walked out the door of the hotel I saw this sign: from this point you are 8 hours from any ride. in this heat and humidity, by the time you get there you’ll be sprouting moss like a chia pet.
I should confess that I am not an “action ride” guy.
Tower of Terror, for example, isn’t for me. You’re sitting in a bucket, it’s pitch-black dark, and suddenly you drop thirteen stories in less time than it takes to say Slovakian Milosavitch, er, Slobodan Rostopovich, er, Jackie Chan. I would rather be trampled by gnus.
I don’t like anything that moves fast or goes upside down or scares me in any way. And I’m easily scared—seeing Madeleine Albright early Sunday mornings on Meet the Press terrifies me.
I like gentle rides. I want to go to an “assisted living” amusement park.
I love the Pirates of the Caribbean ride because it moves slowly and it’s underground, so it’s cool. There is nothing even vaguely exciting about this ride, which may account for why there was no waiting line. I rode in a boat with three women just slightly older than the Inca mummies.
Somehow, I let my daughter prevail upon me to join her on the Extra-Terrestrial ride, in which you are strapped into a chair in pitch-black darkness, and cautioned that something has gone terribly wrong in a scientific experiment, and a carnivore that has been transported through time and space is about to rip out your pancreas. At this point your seat drops with a thud, everyone around you shrieks—like they’ve just seen Linda Tripp nude—and something wet and cold (that you hope is water) sprays the back of your neck.
I don’t remember much after that because I passed out. But I must have done okay, because my daughter said that now we had to go to the Star Wars ride. So we walked over, and by then I was feeling pretty good about myself, so I didn’t pay as much attention to the warning sign in front of the Star Wars ride as I should have.
The sign advised that because the ride had “dramatic visual effects simulating changes in altitudes,” and had “sudden movements” and made “rocking motions,” that certain persons should not ride. As I recall, these included “pregnant women,” “people who suffer motion sickness,” “people with heart problems,” “people, people who need people,” and “Pat Buchanan supporters.” Inexplicably, I missed the line that said “fifty-year-old bald, white men who are afraid of airplanes and scared of the dark should not ride. This means you, Tony Kornheiser.”
So I followed my daughter on. I strapped in. The room went pitch-black. (What is with this pitch-black darkness on every ride? Who designs these things, an opossum?)
And then, suddenly, a field of stars came up on a cyber screen, the seat felt like it was whooshing forward—and we hurtled into deep space, bucking around like that cow in Twister.
I was terrified. I tried to sing a familiar tune to calm myself down. Sadly, all I could think of was “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Every pore opened and leaked enough water to float the Sixth Fleet. By the time the ride ended I was sitting in a pool of sweat. I looked like I had come from the log flume ride. People stared at me, wondering how come I was so wet and they weren’t. They felt cheated.
My daughter did what teenage girls do when their fathers embarrass them: She pointed at me and laughed.
I stood up, soaked, thinking: Where the heck are Chip and Dale when you need them?
Experiments in Terror
Each of us has a certain phrase that makes us cringe the moment we hear it. For many folks, it’s “Oh, look, Al Gore is doing the macarena!”
For me, it’s “science fair.”
I can still see the smug smiles on my classmates’ faces as they brought in their fussy science fair projects—which their NASA scientist fathers spent weeks working on in the basement. (God, how I hated the kids who rolled their projects in on dollies!) I came in carrying pathetic scraps of colored paper in a cigar box. And my teacher snickered, “What’s your project supposed to prove, Tony?”
“Um, that I should consider a career in the lucrative field of pizza delivery?”
I know nothing about science. I don’t associate with people who know anything about science. My friend Andy, for example, once did a science fair project on erosion. Talk about sophisticated: Andy fastened sod on one side of a poster board and plopped dirt on the other side. He ran a hose on the thing. The dirt turned to mud and spilled on the floor.
When his teacher asked the point of his project, Andy chirped, “We need grass to prevent erosion.” I’m surprised MIT didn’t send a limo for him. Rest easy, America, our agricultural system is safe. Andy is now a sports-radio announcer.
Regrettably, my son Michael’s eighth-grade class wasn’t permitted to make mud at their science fair last weekend. They were assigned a Rube Goldberg project: Build an elaborate contraption with pulleys, levers, fulcrums, slides, and weights that eventually causes toothpaste to be squished from a tube and fall onto a toothbrush. (And you wonder how America keeps its edge in the new technology.)
Do you want to know why life is unfair? Because schools always have a science fair and not a newspaper column fair or a comedy fair. If every kid had to do a five-minute stand-up, I’d be a gold mine. My kid would crush! “Hey, teach, is that your real nose, or did a boa constrictor get loose from the National Zoo?”
Anyway, Michael and his partner, Maria, spent the previous two weeks building their project in our den. No parental help. (Usually losers yelp, “His father built it!” I went to high school with the nephew of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific genius behind the building of the A-bomb. The teachers lived in terror of him coming in with a thing in a briefcase and announcing, “My uncle built it.”)
When Michael and Maria were done, their project was the size of a Toyota 4Runner and had more moving parts than Jenni- fer Lopez. Your teeth could rot by the time the toothpaste got squeezed.
They tested it five times. It worked once, possibly by accident. I got nervous. What if it didn’t work in front of the judges?
“Don’t worry, Dad,” Michael said. “Maria can cry on demand.”
I like that kid. Cute as a button and plays to win.
I wandered around the science fair looking at projects. About half actually worked. There was one stunner. At the last sec- ond, the toothbrush slid under the toothpaste just as it began to flow! The execution was so professional that I was tempted to scream, “His dentist did it!”
I was crestfallen when I turned back to Michael and Maria. (Crest-fallen, get it?)
By luck, the science teacher and the judges converged on Michael and Maria simultaneously—meaning their project had to work only this one time.
Theoretically, a toy VW Beetle went down a ramp into a basket that caused a button to be pushed, that set a golf ball in motion, that resulted in toothpaste liftoff. Michael and Maria had practiced enough times that a long strand of stale toothpaste was already dangling out of the tube.
Mr. Peterson, their science teacher, asked Maria, “Do you want to wipe that off?”
“Why? That’s how it always looks in our house.”
Okay. Show time!
Michael sent the Beetle down the ramp.
It went left and wedged into the side of the ramp.
He tried again.
Same result. Wedged.
Two more times. Wedged. Wedged.
The kids were mortified. We parents were, um, laughing. But in a good way. Really.
“Michael, use the Porsche,” Maria said.
(The secret to life, I thought.)
Their backup car was a Porsche. Alas, since it was smaller and lighter than the Beetle, it overshot the basket. Oops.
With the teacher and judges watching, Maria took matters into her own hands. She hit the button herself.
And things proceeded as smoothly as the Bradley campaign. The button failed. The golf ball didn’t move. The toothpaste stayed in the tube.
The judges smiled politely and said they’d be back later.
Yeah, sure. When, Y3K?
Trying to lighten the mood, I said to Maria’s parents, “This is good because now we can scratch off all the colleges with engineering programs. Don’t worry about us. Michael intends to be a superstar professional golfer. He’ll be so rich, he’ll hire people to squeeze his toothpaste for him.”
I consoled the kids, saying, “You did great. And remember, utter failure is actually a blessing. It gives you a better story to tell when you get older—or if they ever have a humor fair.” Then I got out of Dodge.
From the Hardcover edition.