Not even the mid-80’s, early 90’s temperatures of central Florida could put a damper on what took place inside of the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride at Disney Hollywood Studios. As part of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge section of the park, it is a Star Wars fan’s dream.
Upon leaving the cool confines of the amusement space where the twisting and turning ride took place it was easy to remember my family and I were in the midst of a Florida spring, but for a few moments, it was equally as easy to pretend we were on a planet far, far away as the 10-minute mission through a mock Resistance space ship under attack by the First Order hadn’t thrust us into an episode of one of the favorite movies of my childhood.
The experience was overwhelming and invigorating. It was inclusive and exclusive. It was a Disney World that I did not believe existed for a Black family like mine. Boy, was I wrong.
Something for everyone
Walt Disney World invited assorted members of the media, including reporters from the Jacksonville Free Press, one of Florida’s oldest and longest-running Black newspapers, and Travel Noire, a well regarded Black travel site, to the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa for a weekend of exploring the various Disney World parks; Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Disney Springs, the later more of a shopping and eating destination similar to Atlanta’s Atlantic Station.
In all, it would be a trip of discovery, and for my family, wife Chia, step-daughter Kayla, 16, and son Chase, 6, a first visit to the park as a family.
Truth be told I don’t believe I would have recommended a family vacation to Disney World because I never thought Disney World or for that matter Disneyland, Disney On Ice, the Disney Store, Disney anything catered towards Black families like ours and like that of our Black coworkers, friends, and family.
Call it ignorance, call it inexperience (Full disclosure: Chia took Kayla to Magic Kingdom 13 years ago, but it was just the two of them and took them close to a decade and a half to return) but I never thought it was for us. Boy was I wrong.
One of the reasons I felt this way was the lack of representation of Black culture in the Disney universe. Growing up in a strong Black household with working parents, a middle-class lifestyle, and the means to go to Catholic school all the way through high school, I still never thought Disney World was for us. Disney characters did not look like us and their stories didn’t sound like the ones my father told me and my brother at night before bed.
Times have changed and my children’s lives are in a way similar to mine but in other ways much more privileged. They each have their own rooms, with cable tv and all the amenities of children of a certain financial demographic.
And with Chia and my financial stability, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the fact that I felt weird walking the grounds with my family.
Another reason I feel like Black families ease on by the Disney experience when planning vacations is the price. According to a number of websites I used to reference a Disney vacation –magicguide.com, trivago.com, thepointsguys.com, and DisneyWorld.com the average price of a vacation package for a family of four (two adults, two kids) is between $4,000-4,5000.
The average price of a single daily theme park ticket is $109. So even if you decide to drive up and just stay for a day it’s still close to $436 per family of four to enjoy a single park. Planning a Disney World vacation is a financial commitment for any family, but with the statewide average family income at $61,980 (2019), just over $5,000 per month, Georgia families have to be even more strategic when they look to go on vacation.
That said, following the experience I believe it is well worth the financial sacrifice and commitment.
More why nots than whys
1 – Your children will never forget this experience. My wife and I have a teenager and an adolescent child. A girl and a boy. The Disney World experience found a way to entertain them both the entire time we were there. Kayla described the trip as “memorable” and added, “It was much more than I expected it to be.”
2 – You will never forget this experience. As a 43-year old father, husband, and journalist I hadn’t stopped to understand how bad I needed a vacation. A trip to Disney World could not have come at a better time. Asking my wife how the experience went for her she said, “I thought it was excellent. It was everything I would have wanted for our children to experience.”
3 – The Disney World experience, somehow, somehow taught my kids how to stick to a schedule. They were great about getting up and ready for school, but after a year and a half of virtual classes, I was worried they would not want to get up early and get in line at amusement parks. For example, the lines at Splash Mountain were long and ultimately too long for us to have Chase waiting on but overall the waits weren’t bad at all and my kids handled it with class. Your kids might surprise you too.
4 – There are rare times in our busy lives that we get to enjoy an experience as a family. This trip allowed my family to be together so often in so many fun and exciting settings. It’s worth the effort -whether financial or physical- if that is going to be the end result.
The first day was spent at Epcot where we got to meet Mike Davie, the Executive Project manager and Karla Baker, the General Manager of Epcot merchandise.
Both Black, both looking every bit the professionals behind the Disney brand, I was proud to have my family see that we were well represented at Disney World. Admittedly, I did not think that was possible.
Davie, a Chicago native, has 20-year old and 13-year old daughters, is in charge of amusements like the Guardians of the Galaxy experience.
“For Epcot in particular, from a family standpoint there are a lot of things that stand out to me,” he said. “There are moments throughout the park that allow families to experience things together. I remember climbing Splash Mountain with my dad. For African American families we know we have to engage that part of our audience.”
“Disney is a family-friendly environment, there’s something for everyone here,” added Baker.
Epcot has model destinations within the park that also represent the greater world around us. Places like Paris, Japan, China, and North American cities like Canada and Mexico.
The second day of the trip brought us to Disney Hollywood Studios and introduced us to Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad ride, a twisting and turning ride through a series of cartoon scenes that the entire family enjoyed.
There we had an opportunity to meet Kenny Person, a 32-year veteran of the Disney World company and the general manager for park operations at Hollywood Studios.
Yet another example of a Black man making what happens within the park work as well as it does was good to see. Person described the park as a “very immersive storytelling experience. And added, “I try to get the word out to everyone to come out and enjoy it. [Disney World] is a very versatile vacation option, it’s not a one size fits all experience.”
Chase and Kayla got to build their own droids at the Droid Depot and that alone would be worth it to have your kids take a piece of their vacation home with them. Instead of a t-shirt or Mickey Mouse ears, it’s a droid they built with their own hands.
Dinner that night was at Disney Springs where I was blessed to get an opportunity to see the restaurant’s first Black executive chef at The Edison, Deaundra “Dee” Rolle. A native of the Bahamas, Rolle fought her way to the top job after job through the Disney company and others.
Finally, at the top of her profession, she had this advice for anyone working to achieve a goal. “It’s going to be worth it, every hour of lost sleep will be worth it in the end,” she said. “Don’t give up.”
The salmon, dry rub BBQ ribs, and beef short rib dishes were first class. Rolle recommended them, and then followed up that recommendation by coming to our table to check on us during dinner.
Her dedication to her craft is something I wanted Kayla to see, even if she doesn’t totally understand now, she will.
About the times she was told no to promotions en route to becoming the executive chef of a hugely popular restaurant Rolle said, “Their no was God’s yes.”
Day three of the trip found the media and our families at Animal Kingdom. The Avatar: Flight of Passage ride is for fans of the movie franchise and non-fans alike.
That alone was worth a trip to Animal Kingdom in my opinion. We all got the opportunity to ride motorcycle-like simulators that transported us on top of Ikrans, the dragon-like birds in the Avatar movies. Words can’t properly explain how much fun that was for my entire family.
Later that morning we got to meet Chef David Njoroge, the executive chef at Tiffins, the park’s multicultural restaurant.
A native of Nairobi, Kenya, Njoroge brings an international flavor to the menu that I’m almost certain my family wouldn’t get an opportunity to enjoy during our regular vacations to Savannah, Tybee Island, and Tampa, Florida.
“It’s really a discovery that encompasses everyone,” said Njoroge of the menu at Tiffins. “I think there’s so much culture that relates to Black families. About Animal Kingdom he added, “There’s a lot for both young and old, that I think will fill a family’s day.”
The celebration of the Festival of the Lion King live show, which we all got to witness after breakfast at Tiffins, was spectacular.
The music, the dancing, Timon and Pumbaa, all of it was wonderful. The 30-minute show is a much-needed break from walking the park and riding the rides and of course, waiting in the long lines.
If live shows aren’t your thing then the Kilimanjaro Safari might just be what you are looking for. Having the chance to see lions, tigers, giraffes, and rhinos in more natural settings than in a common zoo was fun and educational.
The best part about visiting Animal Kingdom is there is no need for advance tickets to either the Lion King show or the safari, both are included in the price of your advanced ticket to the park.
On our final day of our Disney World vacation, we visited Magic Kingdom and found ourselves with a couple of hours to spend at the park before our evening flight back to Atlanta. One of the last things we did before we left town was take part in the “It’s a Small World After All” ride.
The objective of the trip through a number of miniature models of continents from Africa to Asia to South America is to teach children that we are all citizens of the same small world despite our physical and spiritual differences. Asked if he enjoyed it, Chase said, “I liked it because it didn’t spin around like the other rides.”
He didn’t even recognize the significance of the ride, and in a way that’s the whole point. He was just a 6-year old enjoying himself. I too enjoyed myself, as did my wife and step-daughter.
The Disney World experience was a success in that regard. What was in it for the Suggs family? A Black family from south Atlanta, Clayton County, Georgia? That’s easy, a lifetime of experiences none of us will ever forget.