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Home: The Toast

epcot day

From before I can remember to the beginning of my high school years, it was my family’s tradition to go to Disney World for the week of Thanksgiving. It was the only vacation we took for the better part of my childhood, and we prided ourselves on our special insider knowledge as regular, annual visitors to Disney World. The crown jewel in our treasury of underloved “secret” attractions was Maelstrom: A High Seas Adventure. Located in the Norway pavilion of EPCOT, the Disney World theme park conceived of as a “permanent world’s fair,” Maelstrom was better known to my family and many others simply as the Norway ride. On October 5th, this little piece of my childhood died before I even got the chance to travel from my new Texas home to Florida to say goodbye, shut down forever in order for Disney World to erect a more modern, crowd-drawing attraction in its place; in this case, a Frozen-themed ride taking place in Arendelle, the fictional land inspired by Norway itself. While I’m sure current and future generations of children will be satisfied with the singing and dancing of forest-dwelling PUA trolls that lack appropriate boundaries, I intend to cling curmudgeonly to my memories of the Norway ride as it stood for the past 26 years.

I’ll admit that a large part of the ride’s appeal was its delightfully abandoned feeling: my cousin and I, raised almost as siblings with the rivalry to prove it, would pause in our constant bickering to relish running through the lobby, racing each other around empty barriers meant to impose order on a crowd of hundreds, screeching over the recorded Norwegian-accented greetings like the godless heathens our parents insisted we weren’t. But the ride itself was just as magical, a campy mixture of the bastardized myth-telling Disney trots out for foreign cultures, and the overwrought celebration of contemporary industrial prowess it reserves for white ones. (Norwegians: they’re just like you, but they talk funny and eat a lot of fish!) Even as kids, we recognized the dubious frisson of excitement generated by loving something kitschy and uncomfortably dated.

Maelstrom_entrance_sign

Those who know and love the Norway ride well will remember how it goes. You get into a boat that’s a little bit damp, sprinkled but not soaked in boat-ride water with its special odor of recycled sweat, promising a drop that’s always more thrilling in memory than in actual execution. Once inside, you sail through the lobby, straight into a dark, steeply upward-sloping tunnel. Suddenly, there’s a bright, piercing light: the all-seeing eye of Odin has opened, illuminating a florescent, bearded Odin-face that warns you of the danger ahead, a spooky Nordic adventure that a snot-nosed kid from suburban South Florida may or may not be able to handle.

You float through a room or two of yellow-bearded robots blowing horns in the mist. You wonder where the trolls are, because you were promised trolls. And then suddenly you see them, above you on a cliff, and poking out of the water beside you. They don’t like you, and they mean business, judging by the swirling spiral of sparkles that has appeared overhead. They begin chanting, a spell so simple, so deeply embedded in my consciousness and those of frequent Norway-riders, that my Florida friends and I still sometimes giddily recite it whenever somebody we really can’t stand to be around shows up at the bar or social gathering we’re at: DIS-AP-PEAR! DIS-AP-PEAR! BACK! BACK! O-VER THE FALLS!

And back you go: in a pretty edgy move for a vaguely historically-themed boat ride, your little Viking craft is pulled backwards down a hill, past some glow-in-the-dark landscapes and some very menacing, eerily thin polar bears, into a room that looks like it was plucked whole from the Dark Crystal soundstage, all ferns and ivy and convincing rock outcroppings bathed in a synthetic golden-hour glow. Now comes the best part. As one of the trolls from earlier rises from the boggy ground and wiggles its eyes at you judgmentally, your boat teeters over the edge of a waterfall, open to the outside, where you can see people milling around and pointing in the Norway pavilion square if you look over your shoulder. For a few seconds, no matter how many times you’ve ridden it, or just watched from out in the square below as the boats appear over the edge and then disappear safely back on track, it feels like you might actually tumble over the faux rocks. But then the boat ambles down another hill — forwards, this time — you feel a couple little drops of water splash over you, and you are safely transported to a dark room populated only by an oil rig, a lightning storm, and a moving painting of another oil rig.

The narrator is conspicuously silent as you move through this room, and the painted oil rig appears to be on fire. This is never explained. My personal theory, after years of analysis, is that the scary underfed polar bears are actually superior magicians to the trolls, and are casting a dark, destructive spell on the rig in a last ditch effort to save their home. I suspect that your quiet passage through this room is intended as the bears’ warning against further human meddling.

The moment passes and you wind up in a little replica fishing village that might be charming if it wasn’t always in the shadow of an artificial nighttime, where all the houses are boarded up, and disembodied voices are commanding you to get out of your boat and leave. You are ushered into a dark theater to watch a film that everyone skips to get to the souvenir troll store faster. There’s not much to the film — it’s comprised exclusively of white people laughing conspiratorially over how delightful it is to be blonde and good at standing on boats and not ever freezing to death — but if you stay to watch the whole thing you are rewarded with brief glimpses of a sexy male schoolteacher herding children around a museum, and a striking woman in a lab coat walking confidently through an industrial setting where science undoubtedly occurs. Congratulations! Norway is a real place where humans live and you now officially know enough about it to pretend that you’ve been there.

My most treasured memory of the Norway ride is from 1996, the year that my dad, amicably divorced from my mom since I was a toddler, came along for our annual Thanksgiving trip. For the three years previous, it had always been just the four of us — my mom, my aunt, my cousin, and myself. My mom and her sister both became single parents within two years of one another, and had been estranged from their own parents since they were of age to leave home. On our first Thanksgiving Day since my mom and dad had separated, she and I were T-boned in her car on our way home from our holiday dinner at a friend’s house, resulting in a wreck so bad that the response team had to lift me, surprisingly unharmed, out of the car through the roof. She decided then that she never wanted to spend another Thanksgiving in Miami, and she and Tía both didn’t want their children to feel like kids with a broken family when just the four of us were gathered around the dinner table every year. They wanted to start a family tradition with just the four of us that we could look forward to and be proud of every year; thus, the annual Thanksgiving trip to Disney World was born.

Despite the divorce, my mom and dad had always made it a priority to raise me as a team, relying on one another in tough times between paychecks, and never disagreeing in front of me. My dad was as present in my daily life as his undesirable schedules working as a corrections officer, then a police officer, would physically allow, and so it felt totally natural when my he joined us for the celebration that year. It was hot, as Florida tends to be even in late November, but my cousin and I were resolved to pretend otherwise, he in his red flannel shirt and I in a violently yellow turtleneck. We were optimistically dressed in a deluded anticipation of colder weather, both in real life (Orlando, four hours north of our home, had been expected to experience a cold front with exotically cold temperatures as low as 60° Fahrenheit), and in the artificial fjord that we were hoping to ride and re-ride through at least three times. But when we arrived at the Norway pavilion, our plans were put on hold. The doors to the ride were closed, and there were a couple of employees regretfully informing barely-interested patrons that it had briefly malfunctioned and was being repaired. This, too, was part of the Norway ride’s charm: a Disney World ride that doesn’t stop and start for a few minutes at a time (sometimes when you are still on it, maybe at the crest of a roller coaster climb in complete darkness, or in the middle of a scene of Rome burning, complete with faux smoke that always smells like burnt bacon), is a ride that is too new, too thrilling, and not to be trusted. Anyway, we knew the drill. We told the Norwegians – actual Norwegians, because in EPCOT the employees of each of the eleven World Showcase pavilions are always from that particular country, a fact that is as nebulously uncomfortable as it sounds – that we would stay while the ride was being repaired. They seemed genuinely surprised that we would wait around any amount of time for such an unpopular attraction to re-open, but like us, expected that the wait wouldn’t be very long.

Fifteen minutes turned into thirty, and then forty-five. My mom wandered over to next-door Mexico and back for a beer. My cousin got rid of his flannel in favor of the t-shirt underneath, while I whined jealously about my inability to do anything about my turtleneck. One of the employees manning the entrance, a pretty young blond woman, came to apologize for the wait and to again express her surprise at our patience. My aunt took this as an opportunity to explain proudly that we came to Disney World every year, and that the Norway ride was one of our very favorites; my dad, who’d been casually sampling the international beverage options in each country’s pavilion so far, took it as his cue to make small talk with a pretty young blond woman by asking her if she’d ever heard the song Norwegian Wood by the Beatles. (To his credit, she hadn’t.) I wouldn’t understand this was flirting until my mom and aunt started teasing him mercilessly about it a couple hours later, and every waking moment thereafter for the rest of his life. If you are reading this, my mom and my aunt are still making fun of my dad, right now. I just checked. He’s taking it pretty well.

I’ll never know whether it was my aunt’s earnest praise, our oddball family story, or my dad, a six-foot-three vision of secure masculinity in a t-shirt that bore a cross-armed Woody from Toy Story and the catchphrase, “DON’T YANK MY STRING,” that won the young woman over. Either way, after a few minutes of conversation with my folks, she walked off, promising to come back shortly with a surprise. Once she was out of sight, I loudly voiced my hope that it was something good to eat. My mom and Tía sniggered over my dad’s gracious offer to our new friend of trading in his Irish heritage to become Norwegian for the day. When Ms. Norway finally did come back, it was with a couple more employees, and no visible offering of food, but some rolled up scrolls tied in ribbon instead. She led us onto a small stage near the front of the pavilion, and turned on a microphone that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“Hello, Disney World guests, please gather ’round! I have an announcement to make,” she said, as we all stood on the tiny dais, sweating. The filterless, noisy energy I usually exhibited around family and friends turned to the anxious silence and fixed downward stares that manifested under the attention of untested strangers. The majority of the nearby tourists strolled right past us in their unwavering tour of 5.6% of the world’s countries, but a handful of puzzled or deeply bored folks obeyed, probably hoping to see one of the surprise performances that tend to happen once or twice a day at EPCOT and other Disney theme parks. If so, they would have been disappointed — Ms. Norway proceeded to regale the smattering of gathered folks with a short, oddly heartfelt story of our heroic patience in waiting for our favorite attraction to be fixed. She handed each of us – me, my parents, my aunt and my cousin – a scroll, which, when unrolled, revealed a printing of Cinderella’s castle dressed up as a birthday cake, topped with a gold foil “25” — 1996 was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World — and the words, “WALT DISNEY WORLD FAMILY OF THE DAY.”

Roughly three people clapped. My aunt beamed with excitement, and my dad may have made a hammy thank-you speech. I shyly hugged the young blonde lady. We shuffled off the stage, and soon the ride opened back up, and we were the first ones let inside, running wildly down the aisles of the lobby, and into a miniature Viking ship, like the weird little barn-raised wolf adoptees we all were.

RIP, Norway Ride. You may not have had the proper sendoff to Valhalla that you deserved, but you’ll live on forever in the feasting halls of my heart.

Ashley Gallagher has no opinions and never has public confrontations with men. She experiences no anxiety over sharing her writing with you on the internet, and certainly never overshares on Twitter.

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