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I Faced My Worst Fear: Disney World

As a kid with a sensory processing disorder, a lot of things that were meant to be fun were actually terrifying. As an adult, I'm making up for the experiences I missed out on.

Narratively
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Illustration by Haejin Park

I stare up at Cinderella Castle. The glittery blue and gray monolith doesn’t look as imposing as it once did — it’s been nearly 20 years since I last saw Walt Disney World’s most iconic structure in person. But even though it doesn’t elicit the fear it used to, my heart is still pounding and my palms are sweaty, the byproduct of a childhood association few experience. It’s not the reaction Disney World garners from most adults, but then again, I’m not most adults. I’ve spent decades living with severe sensory and anxiety disorders.

Sensory processing disorder manifests in different ways, but at its core the condition is essentially the same: The brain has trouble processing and responding to information received through any of the senses. In my case, that means I’m easily overwhelmed by sound, especially new and loud sounds. For instance, as a child, the popping of a balloon at a birthday party could send me to seek refuge in the bathroom, clinging to the stall for upward of 20 minutes before I could calm down. I’ve worked hard to overcome my proclivity to panic in most ordinary situations — be it crowded city streets or a summer thunderstorm. Disney, however, is anything but ordinary.

To many, Disney World is “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” a well-deserved nickname when you think about how much joy the brand has brought to millions of people for nearly a century. This was the place Super Bowl–winning football players aspired to go! I was the apparent outlier. At 8 years old, it was my worst nightmare — a candy-coated sensory overload that left me dizzier and more terrified than Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole.

Seven-year-old me, on the right, with my sister and Mikey at Disney World.Photos courtesy of the author.

During my first trip to the supposed Magic Kingdom 20 years ago, the shadow of the castle loomed inauspiciously as my family arrived at the park. It might as well have been the Haunted Mansion, given the fear it inspired. The clicks of the turnstiles, the carnival barks of concession stand vendors hawking giant Mickey Mouse–shaped lollipops, the whiz of the spinning teacups, the roar of Thunder Mountain — an all-out sonic assault rallied against me. I stared blankly at a Sleeping Beauty impersonator off in the distance in hopes that my parents wouldn’t notice the moisture forming in my eyes. Mustering a facade of bravery, I desperately wanted to prove that I was normal. I still do.

After years of therapy, various medications and doctor visits, I am determined to reclaim the childhood moments my fear denied me. I owe it to the kid I never was and the person I am now. Through the difficult but shockingly effective use of exposure therapy methods, I’ve worked up the nerve to sit through previously unfathomable circumstances. With a combination of deep-breathing techniques and a prescription for a variety of benzodiazepines, I’ve attended major league sporting events in stadiums packed with thousands, and watched fireworks displays (albeit at safe indoor distances, like from a car or hotel window, sometimes with my therapist by my side). Elementary school accomplishments like learning to ride a bike or enjoying myself at an arena-sized concert have become my most bragworthy. It might sound trivial, but it remains a marvel that I am able to not only navigate these leisurely pursuits but actually enjoy them. Disney is the final goal.

As a child, I nervously huddled in the gift shop next to Splash Mountain with Mom, recovering from the cannonball blast of Pirates of the Caribbean that still rattled me 20 minutes after our ride. As my 5-year-old sister, Katherine, rode all of the roller coasters with my dad, Mom hoped the shelves of souvenirs would provide ample distraction until they came back. And for a while they did. Considering I have the most common name for girls born in 1985, there was tons of merch with my name on it. Pencils and key chains and magnets for the millions of Jessicas who would actually want a physical reminder of their trip.

When my dad and sister returned, she wasted no time sharing her excitement. “Can we go on it again?” she beamed, still soaked to the bone from the log flume’s precipitous 50-foot drop.

“Maybe later,” mom replied. “Let’s go on something your sister likes first.”

That something would be probably be slow and steady, perhaps It’s a Small World or Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the kiddiest of kiddie rides. I was nervous enough without the added shock of speed and splashes.

“Oh, OK,” she said with considerable patience.

By this time my sister was accustomed to me steering the direction of family activities and my needs overshadowing her desires. I still think about all of the Fourth of July barbecues she never attended throughout elementary school. I monopolized parental attention, requiring constant soothing and reassurance, at her expense. She was content to remain quiet, in the shadows of my outbursts, or at least to appear content, perhaps as a coping mechanism or perhaps because she was used to it.

But we never did find out what ride I might like, because that’s when gunfire broke out.

Three men in cowboy hats emerged out of nowhere and commenced a terrifying showdown right in front of the Country Bear Jamboree.

“Hey, we gotta rob that there bank,” one cowboy declared. His glistening pistol, hovering in its holster, immediately caught my attention.

“But there’s that ugly lawman standing over there,” replied one of the others.

I clutched my mom’s hand even tighter as we slowly tried to back away from the scene, only to let go when we had trouble fleeing. By this point a crowd had gathered to see what this commotion was all about. I could barely process what was happening. Who were these strange men with guns? And why were they wreaking havoc in this supposedly magical place?

“Well, we gotta shoot him!” the first cowboy declared, and a barrage of fake gunshots rang out. I bolted, weaving in and out of mobs of people in an attempt to seek refuge in the castle, while my family scrambled after me. The violent noise not only hurt my ears but also rattled my core. I was overwhelmed and physically shaken by the sudden booms. The unexpected loudness registered as a threat, one that didn’t belong in what I believed to be a fairy-tale kingdom.

I need to immediately escape.

My parents and sister finally caught up to me, trembling under the castle arch. My heart was still pounding as the distant thuds of the gun-slinging actors failed to relent. The stunt show endured for another 10 minutes, each faux-bullet an eternity.

This violent disruption, it turns out, was a Wild West stunt show that ran daily from 1986 to 1994. Decades later, a video of the show emerged on YouTube, so I can relive this source of panic whenever I want. As an adult, it’s incredibly corny, but as a child it was incredibly frightening — the ultimate stressor on what was already a very trying trip.

One look at my tear-stained cheeks was all it took. My parents shared a knowing glance, and without me even saying a word, they knew we had to leave. They embraced me tightly, soothing me as I shook. My sister was behind them, in the shadows as usual, following our lead as we walked the long walk down Main Street, U.S.A., toward the shuttle to our hotel. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Belle waving to a row of eager children. I was not among them.

While I couldn’t quite articulate it as an 8-year-old, I felt I let Belle down. After all, she too was trapped. Boxed in, first by the outdated societal norms of a quaint French town, and later held captive in a cursed castle. And she escaped both, fighting off wolves and the oafish Gaston in the process. I couldn’t even withstand the world’s hokiest Wild West showdown without a full-blown panic attack. I not only felt physically shaken but also deeply ashamed, as park visitors clearly younger than me (my sister, for instance) were able to revel in the gun-slinging glory. Not being able to enjoy something tailor-made for childlike enjoyment made me feel beyond broken.

***

Twenty years later, I’m back to redeem myself and prove how far I’ve come in my recovery. My future husband, Bill, is with me. He is aware of my troubled history with this legendary place, and he is also the most patient and understanding partner one could hope for in a situation as unconventional as this. He has more faith in me than I have in myself. At this point in our relationship, he’s stayed by my side on more than one Fourth of July. During those noisy holidays, we’d spend the day huddled inside. His smile alone provides a respite from the clamor of the world outside. But on this trip, he intends to help me navigate a previously traumatic space, not shelter me from it.

Me and Bill at Disney World.

As I plunk down the $98 for the ticket, I remain painfully aware of how easily Disney can trigger a panic attack, not just for a sensitive child with sensory issues but even for a well-adjusted adult. As of 2014, an estimated 52,964 people visit the Magic Kingdom each day, making it the most attended theme park in the world. Logistically, navigating crowds of people that massive is difficult for anyone, regardless of your propensity for anxiety. Even for the least sensory-averse person, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when everything’s buzzing and blinking and whirring away.

One of the most important skills I’ve acquired during my years of recovery is learning how to prepare, rather than avoid. This means doing research. I’m thankfully now in a position where I can assess triggers in advance and learn to adapt to my surroundings more nimbly, especially when anticipatory anxiety takes its hold. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I practically memorized the Magic Kingdom website. I can rattle off the time and location of every performance and parade route parkwide. Nothing, not even the most innocuous Mickey Mouse appearance, could catch me off guard. Being armed with this information allows me to navigate the park with greater ease. I feel more in control of my surroundings, or at least I know what to expect for the duration of my visit.

“Let’s go on the teacups,” Bill suggests. He is convinced he can fill my day with delightful distractions, pleasures previously unknown.

The comforting teacup ride.

The teacups are the closest ride in sight, and there’s no line, so I can’t second-guess my choice after I agree. We enter the spinning ride, and around and around we go, lost in a sea of pastel cups and saucers. Everything becomes a dizzying blur. Without even realizing it, I let out a laugh. A sigh of liberation and bafflement. Despite the disorienting swirls, I know that I will be all right. The joy I experience is completely foreign, as it’s so antithetical to all I’ve ever known in this context. That a single kiddie ride can provide relief so enormous and instantaneous is as miraculous as it is triumphant. My recovery efforts have actually paid off. That’s not to say the burden of my childhood shame is completely eradicated, but it is massively mitigated by this newfound victory. As soon as the ride comes to a halt, I jump back in line, insistent on feeling such joy again.

I feel shockingly at ease on several other rides too — the tranquil sway of Dumbo and the majesty of the London skyline in the Peter Pan ride. Bill introduces them to me one by one, with infectious joy in his voice. Throughout the day, I am in awe of the animatronic tableaus that unfurl in my presence, the waving of dwarves and mermaids that surround every dip and sway of a trolley cart. Even the holographic ghosts of the Haunted Mansion are friendly, as if forgiving my past misgivings. As we enter Fantasyland, I audibly gasp at Belle as she strolls down the promenade, shocked at how far I’ve come since our last encounter. I’m flooded with a swell of emotions, a mixture of joy and relief.

Me next to a cartoon firework display.

Roller coasters are still out of the question though. I avoid the handful of tall, fast rides that pepper the park, at least on this visit. Most of the roller coasters at Disney World are so tame, even a 6-year-old can legally ride them. There are no upside-down loops or massive drops to be found. And yet I can’t stomach the 50-foot plunge of Splash Mountain. My heart is racing fast enough already, fresh off the teacup high, and I can’t stomach additional adrenaline. I tell Bill he can ride them alone while I wait, but he never leaves my side.

Then I hear an inexplicable boom in the late afternoon. A cavalcade of glittery light bursts forth from the castle tower just as we’re walking underneath it. Perhaps it’s a test pyrotechnic for a show later that night or part of a parade that’s ending nearby? Despite all of my research and planning, there is nothing I’m aware of that can account for this noise, and terror interrupts my newfound joy. It’s not just the sound that triggers my fear but also the spontaneity of it. It reminds me of my lack of control — that perceived threats can come from anywhere at anytime.

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Me in front of the Cinderella’s castle.

Before I can run off, I feel a tug on my arm, as Bill, with his catlike reflexes, whisks me into a nearby gift shop. With every deep breath, the Frontierland Stunt Show of my childhood echoes in my ears and my mind, as if it’s a ghost that cannot be exorcised. That’s the tricky thing about trauma: You’re always tethered to it. Time may stretch further and further away from the inciting incident, but like a rubber band, it can snap back at any moment. I breathe and pace and wait, clutching the bottle of Klonopin in my pocket. Mentally, I try to relish the little joys of the day. I hold tight to the whirls of the teacups, the taste of pineapple custard on my lips. I will always be prone to feeling overwhelmed by sudden stimuli, but at least now I can better control my reaction to it.

I decide to wait it out, and I’m thankful that I do. After 15 minutes of pacing along shelves of T-shirts, we go back on the teacups. The source of my initial joy becomes my newfound safe space. My mind has cleared and my medication has kicked in. But most importantly, I try to show myself some compassion and not internalize this minor incident as a major failing. Recovering from any trauma rarely occurs in a linear direction, but as long as I accept this moment of panic as a part of the process, I know I’m moving in the right direction.

We stick around a few hours longer. I still make sure we leave well before the 9 p.m. fireworks show. It’s a self-imposed curfew I can’t afford to disobey. I am pleased with the progress I’ve made, and much like Cinderella at the ball I don’t want to risk reverting back to my panicked self. But I don’t feel ashamed for not being able to stay the full night. Any progress, no matter how small, is still progress. I’m no longer a kid crying for dear life in a castle built for magical family outings. Instead of fleeing, I leave in control, and that’s a victory in and of itself — a testament to my personal growth and the newfound freedom that comes with it. That I could come and go so calmly anywhere, let alone at Disney World, is downright revelatory.

Jessica Gentile is an associate editor at Chowhound. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Pitchfork, Yes!, Cosmopolitan and other publications.