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The Gift of the Manatee

I sit down to write this column a week after a seven day “Land & Sea” vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida.  That’s three days in the theme parks, four days on a Disney cruise to the Caribbean.  This is the second such trip my wife and I have taken in as many years.  The first was the honeymoon we never had and, at age 30, her first ever visit to Disney World.  Our next trip there, seven days this fall to the parks only, will be more along the lines of a first pilgrimage than another in a series of vacations because, for us, Walt Disney World is truly a magical place.

I have the stuff to prove it.

One of the hallmarks of any vacation, especially a themed one such as ours to Disney, is souvenirs.  We buy things to remind us of our trip.  We buy things to give to others so they can enjoy a bit of where we’ve been.  We buy things usually without thought to cost or practicality because, if you’re vacationing correctly, there is no world outside of where you are.  Mostly, it seems to me, souvenirs are about remembering.

So what the hell was I doing buying what I did last year?

On our first trip to Disney, I bought a couple generic astronaut action figures outside Space Mountain, I bought two of the inaugural Universal Monsters Legacy DVD sets at the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Disney and I bought a fifty-dollar leather fedora at Disney-MGM Studios because it DIDN’T look like Indiana Jones’s. 

What the…?  The guy went to Disney.  Where’s the Disney stuff?

Luckily, there was some.  I got a Star Tours’s Captain Rex figure, I got a Caretaker figure from The Haunted Mansion and, in the best bit of buying we did, I got three die-cast vehicles commemorating three our favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom; The Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.

Although, if I’m honest, Jungle Cruise only made the cut because there was no die-cast vehicle for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

In any event, those die-cast were the key purchase of our trip because they tied-in directly to our specific experience at the Magic Kingdom.  When I look at them now, they remind me more of the honeymoon we never had than anything else we bought; certainly more than my Frankenstein DVDs do.  So, when planning this year’s Disney vacation, I resolved to make purchases only to commemorate my favorite aspects of the trip.  I also thought it would be cool to keep those purchases within a certain…milieu, if you will, as we had with the die-cast.  But what to buy?

Plush, baby.  Plush.

I was one of those kids who loved stuffed animals.  I know that might not be the most masculine aspect of my childhood to celebrate, but it’s the truth.  I had a ton of, mostly generic, stuffed animals who saw adventures second to none in my toy-playing career.  The star and leader of these odysseys was always Baby Bear, a small beanbag teddy my mother bought me at Woolworth’s for about four bucks.  There were others, Sunny the rabbit, Jasper the raccoon, I even had some Ziggys, a Garfield, an Odie and a Curious George, but Baby Bear was always number one.

My father, who is a natural genius at such things, made me a wooden hockey table game when I was about five or six.  We used it for hockey, certainly, but the game found its best destiny as a boat for Baby Bear and company to embark on voyages into the unknown.  The carpeting was land, the bare floors were sea, and the sky was the limit for adventure my stuffed crew could find in our two-bedroom apartment.  Baby Bear’s personality emerged during these many voyages.  He was the smallest stuffed animal I had, but always the brave, spunky leader of the expedition.  I’m not sure how that personality came to be, I don’t remember creating it for him, it’s just who Baby Bear was.

I can’t remember having more fun with any toys than I did with my plush ones.  Even at that young age, it wasn’t the coolest thing on earth for a boy to have as many stuffed animals as I did or to love them as much as I did mine, but I didn’t care.  As an only child for the first ten years of my life, Baby Bear and crew were as much my friends as any human, and I never felt alone or out of place in their company.

Remind me someday to tell you about “Indiana Bear and the Lost Ark.”  It was quite a production that I actually recorded on audiotape. 

We’ll wait until I have no dignity left for that one.

And so, my childhood love of stuffed animals coupled with Disney’s gargantuan plush industry made it an easy decision to mark my favorite parts of our second vacation with things Baby Bear would have been glad to call friend.

I stuck to my plan; you can see the fruits below…

Working from right to left, I got:

-Mickey’s Philharmagic Donald Duck: Philharmagic is a wonderful 3-D movie in the Magic Kingdom wherein Donald gets hold of Mickey’s sorcerer’s hat, hoping to use it to conduct a symphony of enchanted instruments.  Needless to say, chaos ensues as Donald tumbles from one world to the next, aided by several characters from Disney’s animated features.  We actually saw Philharmagic last year but, as a huge Donald fan, I felt remiss in not purchasing the Donald in sorcerer’s hat plush, so I got it this year.  As much as I loved Philharmagic on its own merits, I’ll always remember the reaction of the little girl next to me to the 3-D effects.  It was pure wonder and amazement.  I suspect it’ll be awesome watching my own child try to touch the screen someday.

-Jedi Mickey: Pretty self explanatory, the one Mickey no Star Wars nerd should be without.  Picked him up in the Star Wars shop outside Star Tours, which is always a favorite.  I already have a Captain Rex figure, as you know, so Jedi Mickey’s appeal was more about two juggernauts of marketing merging (cutely, I think) in one item.

-Haunted Mansion Mickey: Mickey dressed in the same costume worm by cast members who work inside The Haunted Mansion.  Interestingly, this Mickey (and a Haunted Mansion Minnie) was available on a small cart in Liberty Square and nowhere else in all of Walt Disney World, not even in Downtown Disney’s massive World of Disney, the largest Disney store in the world.

I know, that was a lot of “Disney”s in one sentence.  I’ll allow you non-devotees a chance to catch your breath.

By the way, if you’re as much a Haunted Mansion junkie as we are, go to www.doombuggies.com.  You will not be sorry.

Continuing left…

Security Guard Mickey: Just what the name implies, Mickey as a Walt Disney World security guard.  I’ve always thought it was a cool, somewhat incongruous thing Disney World has its own uniformed police force of sorts, so this Mickey was too quirky and obscure to pass up.

Brer Rabbit: OK, now this one is special to me. 

In my two childhood trips to Disney World, I never went on Space Mountain.  I was much too terrified.  The closest I got was going through the base of the ride on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority.  The screams of anguish from Space Mountain’s hapless riders were more than enough to keep me away.  Last year my wife, something of a thrill ride junky, pulled me onto Space Mountain when there was no line and no time for me to dread.  I enjoyed the ride, but it was no Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  So, 20 years later, I conquered Space Mountain but, even last year, I refused to ride Splash Mountain.

This year we rode it four times.

My wife got me the same way she did with Space.  Splash Mountain had no line, we had just FastPassed Big Thunder Mountain, so it was onto Splash Mountain we went.  I loved it.  Nowhere in any of Disney World’s four theme parks do you get a wonderful audio-animatronics character experience, terrific songs, and a heart-in-your-throat thrill all on one ride like you do on Splash Mountain.  It is easily my new favorite ride at WDW and, naturally, I had to have a Brer Rabbit plush.

So that’s the story from right to left.  Every plush represents a favorite facet of my Disney World experience and, as a result, I enjoyed the theme park part of our vacation even more than I did last year.

I know what you’re thinking.  He covered the row of Mickey’s and such, but what’s that in front of them?

That, my friends, is Manatee.

I got Manatee at The Living Seas in Epcot, as it is by far my favorite exhibit/pavilion there.  So, in that way, buying Manatee was all part of my plush master plan.  But, there’s another reason Manatee came home with us, and that is this…

He looks worried.  And more than a bit concerned.

You see, although Manatee is official Disney plush as evidenced by his The Living Seas patch, and although I like real life manatees a great deal, Manatee is mine because he is something none of the other plush I bought can be.  He’s a generic animal with personality.

Just like Baby Bear.

Manatee quickly became a star for the rest of our trip with my wife and I both giving him a voice and contributing to his concerned, yet caring personality at several points throughout the vacation.  Manatee rode Spaceship Earth with us and had to see everything.  There’s even a picture of me watching a movie on the cruise ship with Manatee in the crook of my arm, but I’ll spare you. 

The point is, Manatee reminded me, and will remind me, not just of The Living Seas and my Disney vacation at large, but of a time, before the advent of action figures and after, when the best time I could have was with a group of stuffed toys whose names, personalities and adventures were something very special, and very private, between me and them.

You might wonder what Baby Bear would think of his old friend’s new friend.  Would Manatee have fit in as a member of the wooden hockey table crew all those years ago?  I wondered that too…

And so I asked him.

To the right is a picture of Baby Bear and Manatee together.  I know I’ve spoken of him in the past tense, but Baby Bear has never left me.  He is the one item from my childhood I never gave up.  All the action figures and all the other stuffed animals are long gone.  It’s been a few years since I’ve seen him but, twenty-six years after I brought him home from Woolworth’s, I took BB from his comfortable retirement in a drawer to meet his 2005 counterpart. 

They got along quite well, although Baby Bear wondered what Manatee was so worried about.

We do things and go places in life expecting one thing, and often get another.  I wanted to make my second trip to Walt Disney World as an adult more special by using my collector’s sensibility to make the experience last through bonds to tangible plush toys.  I did that, but I also got something I wasn’t expecting; a new friend who reminded me of the way things used to be, and gave me the chance to see a very old friend one more time. 

And that’s something intangible.

Thanks, Manatee.


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