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What I Learned Growing Up in the Shadow of Disney World

It's possible that the closer you are to something, the less magical and mysterious it seems.


In 2015 alone, 20.4 million people visited Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Sydney Cooper, who grew up in Casselberry, Florida, just miles outside of monolithic theme park, was not one of them. And she’s never been one of them. Her parents never took her there, probably because of the price. But also because Sydney says she was never very interested. At some point, she recognized a Floridian going to Disney World was like a New Yorker hanging out at the Statue of Liberty or in Times Square.

There was also something else: Disney was never magic to her; It was a business. She had known too many people who worked as Princesses, or in administration. It was too close and too familiar to be the fantasy getaway that it represented for young kids in Ohio or Illinois.

Sydney might be jaded, but she’s not mad about it. She talked to Fatherly about her life in Casselberry, and she’d much prefer going to Bali than the Great Wall of China. She can thank Disney for that.

My parents claim that they took me to Disney World when I was 4 or 5, but I have no memory of that. Unless you were a big Disney fanatic and your family were huge Disney people, it wasn’t necessarily in your blood to love Disney just because you grew up near it. Part of the reason we didn’t go a lot was because it’s so expensive. Even today, it’s just so expensive. It’s a rather big event whether or not you live close, as far as expenses for parents. 

We knew a ton of people who worked there. My godfather worked at Disney until he retired. A lot of my direct friends were cast members. When I went to college at the University of Central Florida, I had friends that worked as Disney Princesses, which was the coolest job ever. But it takes away from the magic of it all because you have a direct connection to what actually goes on.

The last time I remember going, I was probably 18. I went to Animal Kingdom and Epcot. I did the “It’s a Small World” ride and it was very, very spooky. That’s what I remember most: Why does anyone enjoy this?

Growing up in Orlando, so close to a theme park, you were always asked, “Oh, where are you from?” You never assumed people were from here. The diversity was a wonderful thing to grow up with, especially if you work in an environment like that before going to college. Being exposed to different cultures and languages helped my communication skills a lot.

It’s not relaxing to go to Disney World, especially because it’s my hometown. If I’m going to go to Orlando, I’m going to hang out with my family and do things around my old hometown that I don’t get to do anymore.

Now, I live in New York. I moved from one tourist capital to another. I still don’t like to do touristy things. If you grow up around the allure of Disney World, coming to New York City isn’t as magical as somebody who is probably from a smaller town. I think it’s always going to be underwhelming because the accessibility was there. I moved to NYC and didn’t feel overwhelmed. Obviously, it’s a much bigger place than Orlando, but I wasn’t going to get sucked into the crazy parts in New York from being shell-shocked. A lot of people move here and will party really hard, and spend a lot of money because they want to see everything in the first two months.

I don’t want to sound cynical or anything. These are natural and manmade wonders of the world. But I have more interest in going to an island no one has heard of than go to Paris or see the Great Wall of China. I just didn’t need to do those things right away. I assumed I would be underwhelmed by the Statue of Liberty.

 — As Told To Lizzy Francis