Earl’s thick arms and muscular chest are the result of years of hard manual labor. He grew up working on a farm in a rural community outside Reading, Pennsylvania and was able to save enough to start his own small machining company. He raised four children and sent them all to college. Retired now, Earl admits to secretly financing some of the adventures and misadventures of his many grandchildren.
I met Earl while standing in my favorite Illuminations viewing spot, directly across from the Off Kilter stage at the Canada Pavilion in World Showcase. As we watched the band perform and readied ourselves for the show, Earl told me his life story. He was visiting Epcot with his bride of more than 50 years (Regrettably, I did not get Earl’s wife’s name. He did not offer, and it felt rude to ask). It was not their first visit to Walt Disney World.
“We were here in ’71 or ‘72, right after the first park opened,” Earl explained. “I brought my whole family, all 6 of us. We stayed at the Polynesian and the whole trip: room, food, admission, everything cost me about $1,000.”
I looked around for one of Earl’s grandchildren. Surely Earl and his wife were not visiting alone.
“We drove down from South Carolina the other day. We spent a week there and a week down here.” Earl and his wife were, indeed, alone.
Although Earl enjoys his retirement from a home in Pennsylvania, he splits his vacation time between Walt Disney World and other, more exotic locations. “We’ve been to Hawaii and Mexico and we really like South Carolina. For our 50th anniversary, we spent a month in Australia.”
And yet he keeps returning to Orlando.
“We love to travel, to see different things, but we always come back here.” Earl gestured with the pride of a homeowner showing his house to a first-time visitor. He paused a minute, clearly trying to make sense of the combination of Celtic rock music and the kilt-wearing men from which it came.
As night fell, families began jockeying for position along the fence bordering the World Showcase Lagoon. They reminded Earl of past family vacations with his own children. “I love meeting people who are here with their families…like we used to do,” Earl said with a hint of melancholy. He glanced over my shoulder to where my wife and daughters were standing. I felt grateful for the gift of the present.
“I brought my family down here as much as I could,” Earl continued. “But, when they grew up and had kids of their own, I couldn’t afford it anymore. So, I saved and saved and a few years ago, I brought everyone down, the whole crew! It cost me $31,000. ” Earl’s smile widened as he remembered the details of what must have been an incredible vacation. To Earl, sharing his love of Disney with his children and grandchildren was one of the greatest gifts he could give.
“We stayed at the Polynesian, just like the first time.” Earl said excitedly. “We tried to do some of the same things we did the first time we were here.”
As the time for Illuminations drew near, our conversation became more sporadic. Earl turned toward the Lagoon and put his burly arm around his wife’s shoulder. Although Earl was fed by the memories of his past family vacations, he continued making new memories with his wife.
“I’d like to bring everybody back here someday…if I live long enough.” Earl’s voice trailed off.
Illuminations began, but Earl had made a significant impression on me. I took a step closer toward my family, consciously trying to preserve the moment for when I, like Earl, would need it most.
Just then, Earl leaned into me, pointed to the incredibly moving spectacle unfolding before us and whispered, “This is why I keep coming back.”
Contributed by: John Marchese (NDD#172) John is the DDL Media Relations Blogger.