I was always the child who wanted to grow up—who dreamed of having boyfriends and SAT books, of walking through pristinely green Ivy League lawns, of looking important and wearing heels while taking on a bustling city. Hardly did I ever find time to slow down, as busy as I was with making small-time fame at my Orlando elementary school. Every spelling test, every art contest, every math equation existed to prepare me for the future that, I was convinced, shone brightly ahead of me. I tried to be a super-kid. But I was still a kid—one who cried out in happiness whenever my family went to Disney World on the weekends. There, I did not have to impress anyone, not even myself. There, it was as though the seconds I willed my clock to tick away suddenly stopped.
It was our last night ever at Disney. We were moving in a few months, to Virginia, away from Orlando. I was happy about it then—Virginia had better high schools. It saddens me to think about now, though.
The park extended its hours on certain days, and we decided to stay at the Magic Kingdom until it closed. I remember standing in line for my favorite ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, bathed underneath pink and blue and orange light that made everything in the night sparkle—my mom’s eyes, my sister’s tennis shoes, the princess pins on the rose-colored lanyard around my neck. It was ten-thirty, and hardly anyone else was waiting to hop on one of the big purple ships to Neverland. It was just us, and Peter Pan watching us with a twinkle in his smile from the sign above.
The cheery instrumental of “You Can Fly” played in high, carnival-sounding notes from above our heads. I filled in the lyrics in my mind:
“Think of all the joy you’ll find/When you leave the world behind”
To this day I still have dreams about waiting in that line—the sky a sleepy black outside, the lights dizzying and cotton-candy-colored inside, my head full of pixie dust and visions of my animated childhood crush flying to my window and taking me to a fantasy land.
We got in our ship and flew to Neverland. My belly went cold every time we dropped in chase of Peter’s wayward shadow, but seconds later the ship would soar again, up toward the sparkling artificial stars, leaving a gray and miniature-sized London further and further behind.
When I stepped back into the black night I wished I could return to the ride, zoom past the mermaid lagoon again, defeat Hook a second time, extend my hand out toward the red-rimmed volcano that had been just out of reach below me, the chill of the ride sweeping forward as though I actually were in a flying ship. But there were other places I wanted to go one last time.
We left the Magic Kingdom and took the monorail to the Grand Floridian hotel, a stately palace flooded with chandelier light and smelling of cleanliness and magic. I have always liked to imagine what it would be like to stay there—not just to visit its lobby and shops. Seeing the large, gold-handled doors that led to deluxe suites made me think of wealth, success—the things I wanted to have in my future. But we bypassed the inside of the hotel tonight.
We snuck into the concierge lounge and surreptitiously took the soda and desserts they were giving to hotel guests. With a Sprite and a beautiful mini fruit tart in my hands, I felt like I was truly a guest at the Grand Floridian. We walked out, past the gushing fountains, spray hitting my face and sparkling like crystals in the night. I could smell the magic in the water, as though each droplet had just been made by a fairy.
We reached the dock that extended over the lake facing the Magic Kingdom and sat with our legs dangling over the water below. There, we ate our pastries and drank our sodas while we watched the fireworks over Cinderella’s castle. Reds, greens, golds—bursting in the sky with the symmetry of snowflakes, the timing of a musical maestro. The lights reflected in my eyes, washed over my wonderstruck face.
“Think of all the joy you’ll find/When you leave the world behind”
With the fireworks show’s grand orchestral music still ringing in my ears, I followed my family onto the Friendship, a steamboat sitting in the lake in front of the hotel. The water was black under the night sky, save for the moon’s reflection, lapping lazily in the waves. The lights strung on the sides of the boat and hanging from the ceiling gave the vessel a dream-like glow. In my memories, it drifts though the lake just as peacefully as the pirate ship in Peter Pan drifted through the sky, taking Wendy back home to London. At the time, it was my transportation to the parking lot, where I would leave Disney World—my Neverland—for the very last time.
Since that night, I grew up as quickly as I had wished. My childhood slipped from between my fingers like a handful of pixie dust. Never did I return to Disney; instead, I spent my weekends writing and pouring over homework and books. I still do. But if Peter Pan were to show up at my window in a big purple ship, his eyes gleaming and his hand outstretched, I wouldn’t hesitate to follow him back to Neverland.
Turns out my final night in Neverland wasn’t my final night in Neverland.
I went back to Walt Disney World last August with my parents—a trip to let me feel my childhood once more before I left for Princeton. I was seventeen, but felt happier at the resort than I had when I was seven. Seeing Cinderella’s Castle before me still gave me a flicker of excitement. I wanted to ride all the rides—plus some that I had been too scared to before. I wanted to eat all the Mickey-shaped food items I could, to trade my old Disney pins for new, exciting ones—preferably of Peter Pan. There was not one day where I took my sparkly Minnie Mouse ears off my head.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say I was literally raised in Disney World. But it took going back to the resort as an (almost) adult to see how much of a mark it made on me. The little things brought back years’ worth of nostalgia—the signs that lead up to the parks, the clean smell of the water in the rides, the background music that had played over and over again in my dreams once I moved away. It’s hard to articulate, but going back to Disney stirred something within me. In the mornings, when I would lie down in a hammock underneath the palm trees and intensely blue Florida sky, knowing I had a full day of magic ahead of me brought me absolute bliss.
That summer I was propped up between the medals and cords I had worn at high school graduation and the black and orange that marked my next four years at Princeton. But I didn’t care about any of that. At Disney, I’ll always be the happy kid who just wants to catch a glimpse of Mickey Mouse before hopping into FastPass line for Jungle Cruise.
Oh, and I still think Peter Pan and I are meant to be.