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click to enlarge "Kiss Goodnight" vigil at Walt Disney World

Photo by Seth Kubersky

"Kiss Goodnight" vigil at Walt Disney World

Orlando’s theme parks offer cathartic escapism and comforting stability in a world “After Pulse” 

On June 11, I left Orlando for a seven-night Disney cruise with my family. On June 18, I returned to an entirely different universe, one that superficially looked like the home I'd left behind, but was actually from a far sadder, scarier alternate dimension. When singer Christina Grimmie was gunned down in a murder-suicide on the eve of my departure mere blocks from my house, I naively assumed that was the worst thing that could happen at home that week. Then I awoke on Sunday in the middle of the Western Caribbean to the BBC News (one of the few Mickey-free stations Disney's ship staterooms receive) and learned an entirely new definition of "worst week ever."

As grateful I was to be safe and with my family, I felt equally impotent being isolated by the ocean from my friends and neighbors dealing with the fallout from the Pulse nightclub attack. I wrestled with the ship's sluggish internet (at $90 a gigabyte) in a frustrating effort to stay informed and grieve vicariously via social media, while my inner journalist ached at being unable to help my colleagues cover what could be the biggest story of their careers. Ultimately, I ended up stuck in a surreal seaborne limbo, unable to separate from what was happening at home, yet disconnected from those experiencing it in person.

As a theater critic and founding producer of Orlando's long-running Rocky Horror Picture Show troupe, I've spent more time than the average white hetero cis male inside gay clubs and wearing fishnets, but I can't claim to comprehend the pain and fear felt by my GLBTQ and Latino neighbors. And though I have personal opinions, I'm not the person to pontificate on politics, gun control and the bitter fruits of hateful right-wing rhetoric, be it from ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church. But one aspect of this tragedy I do feel expert enough to add my two cents on is the theme parks, and the role they can play in helping our extended Orlando family recover.

I particularly applaud the powers that be at Universal Orlando and Comcast for their response to the murder of team member Luis Vielma, who was memorialized by author J.K. Rowling in a tearful tweet: They closed the Harry Potter area where he worked so co-workers could mourn and put together an employee-only memorial that was streamed to Universal's resorts worldwide.

Disney, like Universal, donated $1 million to Mayor Dyer's OneOrlando fund, but Mickey's reaction was more of a mixed bag. Inside the Disney boat's pixie-dusted bubble, there was nary an official acknowledgment of the atrocity, which was probably preferred by the majority of guests but agonizing for the large percentage of staff and guests who were from Central Florida. Disney's social media cluelessly chirped amid the chaos, and even Tuesday's deadly gator attack couldn't draw Iger home from Shanghai Disneyland's debut.

Snarky and cynical as I can sound sometimes, I firmly believe Orlando's theme parks are much more than just mercenary Machiavellian mousetraps, or even tacky time-wasters that we accept as necessary evils that economically underwrite our area's artists. Rather, theme parks are one of the few uniquely American art forms that is intimately associated worldwide with a particular U.S. city, alongside Hollywood films, Manhattan musicals and Detroit automobiles. Since I've lived here, our parks have provided cathartic escapism for guests and comforting stability for locals after hurricanes and terrorist attacks, and they have played a part in the globally admired strength the city now displays in defiance of hatred.

That's why once I finally came ashore on the seventh day A.P. (After Pulse), almost my first stop was the theme parks, first to ride Islands of Adventure's in-rehearsal Skull Island: Reign of Kong (more on the monkey soon), and then to join more than 1,000 others at an after-hours vigil in the Magic Kingdom. Disney managers assisted the unofficial Facebook-organized memorial by silencing the omnipresent background music after the nightly "Kiss Goodnight" farewell at Cinderella Castle, creating the eeriest moment of silence I've ever experienced in the park, and passed out free rainbow and heart pins.

Finally, being among the 55,000 who gathered at Lake Eola on Sunday night was a beautiful, inspiring experience, but so was sharing Epcot earlier in the day with approximately the same number of people, as I enjoyed my first flight on Soarin' Around the World. Everything you adored about the original Soarin' – gentle thrills, gorgeous vistas, Jerry Goldsmith's theme, even Patrick Warburton – has been retained and refined. And everything you despised – California-centric geography, jarring transitions, glacial standby waits – has been remedied, thanks to globetrotting laser IMAX projections and 50 percent additional capacity. I miss the fake orange scent (though eau de Africa is growing on me) and could do with fewer CGI animals, but when you're gliding a mile high you can't glimpse any grief below. I think that's a perspective many people could appreciate right now.

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