My 70-year-old sister Denise has a goal, late in life, to visit all of the world’s Disney parks.
I know Disney’s tagline is “The Happiest Place On Earth” but I thought it was for the young — and not the “young at heart.”
While amusement parks aren’t on my own travel bucket list, I see now how adults like my sister find happiness there.
Me, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I have great memories of taking my own kids, when they were young, to Disneyland in California and once did a press trip with my now adult daughter to Disney World in Florida, but I figured the next time I returned, it would be with grandchildren in tow.
But Denise is determined, and, with or without children, she plans on getting to all of Disney’s locations, even if it means dragging me along whenever I travel with her to a country where Disney has a park nearby.
Take, for example, one of our last big trips together (before COVID hit) — an organized tour of China where we got to visit amazing sites such as the Great Wall of China, the grand canal in Suzhou, the UNESCO world heritage city of Hangzhou, and the culturally rich city of Wuxi. But with only one day off from our hectic travel schedule, any guesses where we went? Shanghai Disney Resort, of course.
Recently, my sister and I found ourselves in Florida, less than an hour’s drive from Orlando, and her desire to tick off another Disney location on her bucket list was within reach. Besides Shanghai, so far, she has been to California Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. But she has yet to get to Tokyo Disneyland and Hong Kong Disney.
Although the three youngest in my family of origin did a road trip to Florida’s Disney World in 1972, Denise missed out because she had moved away from home and wasn’t around for the epic road trip, from our home in Ontario to Orlando.
I was 12 years old when I got to see the very beginnings of Disney World after founder Walt Disney purchased 27,000 acres of barren swampland and drained it to create what became one of the most popular amusement parks in the world. (Anaheim’s Disneyland was the first Disney park to open in 1955. Disney, who died in 1966, never got to see his Florida dream realized, when it opened in 1971.)
Today, Disney World has four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT and Disney Hollywood Studios) spread out over those many acres Disney first bought and the company developed.
What this means for visitors is it takes a while to get around, and with limited time in Florida, my sister had to choose carefully where she wanted to spend it.
The two theme parks selected were Magic Kingdom (of course) and Animal Kingdom, which are about a 30-minute drive from one another.
Like me, Denise shares childhood memories of our family getting together every Sunday evening to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, with its introduction by the founder himself and Tinker Bell waving her wand to light up the Magic Castle.
Perhaps those childhood memories contributed to my sister’s current Disney infatuation.
“That’s probably part of the reason,” she explains. “I’d watch Disney World, then Bonanza and Ed Sullivan. Those three shows in a row, but Disney was the big one when I was a kid. It’s ingrained in you as a child that it’s the Happiest Place on Earth.”
She adds that visiting them as an adult now, it’s interesting to see how Disney differs from location to location.
“It’s basic Disney but slight variations according to culture. For instance, in China Mulan is a big thing and in Paris, with its emphasis on cuisine, I found the food was better.”
And when it comes to Disneys in the United States, the one constant, my sister noticed, was how little girls like to dress up as princesses. They did that in Shanghai but dressing up wasn’t limited to the very young.
“Many of the young adult girls were dressed up in Disney outfits,” she says.
According to Jeff van Langeveld, Disney Destinations vice-president of international marketing and sales, young adults in the Asian market were the quickest to return to Disney immediately after COVID, so part of Disney’s expansion plan is to target more young adults and adults in general.
He adds there’s much that would appeal to adults, from Walt Disney Resort’s EPCOT Park, which has been reimagined for Disney’s 100th anniversary this year, to Disney Cruise Line’s “Silver Anniversary at Sea” celebrating its 25th anniversary.
At a previous job marketing Disney cruises, van Langeveld says, he was told by his boss he had to experience a two-night Disney cruise in order to market it.
“I remember calling family and friends and saying I’m going to be the only adult without kids, but I was blown away by the experience. You can get as much Disney as you want, or as little. There are pool areas, the gym areas, the spa area and on Castaway Cay, the private island, there’s an adult area. I had a fantastic time,” he says.
Disney isn’t the only amusement park that appeals to adults. Any fan of Harry Potter would be remiss not to stop into Universal Studios Orlando, which opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in 2010.
So immediately after our Disney adventure, we headed to Universal Studios.
While my sister isn’t obsessed with Harry Potter, she was interested in experiencing the magic of Hogwarts. The theme park area consists of two immersive lands based on the Harry Potter books. The Dragon Alley is located in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade is located in Islands of Adventure.
The two theme parks are connected by the train, Hogwarts Express, which you reach from the King’s Cross Station in the London area of Universal Studios. But before you hop aboard the steam train, be sure to first explore Diagon Alley, beginning with riding the roller coaster called Escape from Gringott’s, where you’ll be amazed by the animatronic troll tellers on your way to the ride itself.
At the entrance to the ride, listen for rumbling, because next will come pyrotechnics when Gringott’s dragon above breathes fire over the crowd below.
The second Harry Potter theme park features the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the events of the Goblet of Fire. Unfortunately, our visit was cut short that day because the park had been reserved for a city-wide high-school graduation party, proving once again that young adults are a key marketing target when it comes to amusement parks. Most likely, a few will grow up to have all the world’s Disney locations on their own travel bucket lists.
Kim Pemberton can be followed on Instagram at @kimstravelogue.