By Heather Grossmann
Mickey Mouse ears and divorce. Probably not an association the relentlessly family-friendly Disney would appreciate, but — with apologies to Walt — one that was cemented for me during a summer years ago and resurfaced recently, when my dad unearthed some architectural drawings of the prenatal Epcot Center.
My complicated relationship with Epcot — well, to the extent that a geodesic sphere and a 5-year-old girl can engage in a “relationship” — began in the early ‘80s. Epcot was a pretty young thing on the eve of its international debut, a stunning 160-foot diameter dome hovering 14 feet in the air in Orlando, Florida. I was a cute pre-K kid on a post-divorce junket, a little thing awash in dreams of pirate boat rides and spinning teacups, 3,000 miles from my hometown of Oakland, California.
I had only just joined the ever-growing ranks of the “children of divorce.” This was the trendiest club in town at a time when the U.S. divorce rate hit its all-time high. But in an age when many parents followed up their separation announcements with a balm of Cabbage Patch dolls and Barbie playhouses, I had something going for me the other members of my not-so-exclusive fellowship did not: My father was the project architect on Epcot.
When my parents sat me down at our kitchen table in the summer of 1982 to say that their marriage was over, there was major upside to the news — the next day, I was going to the Magic Kingdom. I knew something “bad” was happening, but a trip to Disney World? Come on! What could be better than that?
As it turns out, a lot.
For starters, this vacation was my father’s business trip, and, in the months before Epcot’s public debut that October, he was a busy man.
I spent our first day in Florida in some drop-off daycare center on the outskirts of Orlando. I was too timid to ask where the bathroom was, and after looping through a few seemingly interminable corridors, I gave up the search and peed in my pants, then tied a sweater around my waist to hide the transgression. I had no idea where in the world I was and worried, as I sat forlorn under a lone palm tree, that no one I knew would ever find me. When my dad picked me up at the end of the day, I cried with relief.
The next disappointment came after we finally made it through the gates of Disney World. Seeing nothing of the magical amusements I had anticipated, I turned to my father five minutes into our stroll down Main Street USA and asked, “Why are there so many more stores than rides?”
He answered something like, “good point,” nodding appreciatively at the insight, clearly mistaking my childish annoyance for a precocious disgust with capitalism. But a few moments later, showing my true American girl colors — and in the process, no doubt disappointing my father — I dragged him into one of said shops where we bought a little stuffed dog for my sister and a beige canvas bag with a picture of Minnie on it for me. I also got a small magnet for my mom, one that still lives on her fridge today and features Minnie and Mickey leaning in for a PG-rated kiss with hearts between them. Perhaps it was a Hail Mary message of some sort, urging reconciliation? I have a very dim memory of periodically glowering at the magnet over the years, assumedly jealous of the happy nuclear home life it represented.
I recall being very relieved to board the plane home, but then things fade to black for a good long while. I don’t remember my father moving out or the experience of having my world suddenly shifted. There was only before Epcot, when he lived at home, and then afterward, when I was just another kid in the Bay Area with divorced parents, shuttling matter-of-factly back and forth between homes with my sister every other Tuesday, every Friday, and every other weekend.
When my father, in the course of moving his architecture firm into a new office space this year, discovered his old Epcot drawings, I was curious anew about this memory on which I seemed to have subconsciously hung an emotional hat.
I realized that at some point long ago the recollection of my trip to see that magical metallic buckyball had become a shortcut to intimacy for me; surely we were close if you’d heard the story of how I learned my parents were divorcing — no need for any further personal investigation, please.
When more forthcoming friends or boyfriends would unload their personal stories of emotional upheaval, I would roll out the ol’ post-divorce trip to Epcot yarn and — boom — the obligation to bare my soul was fulfilled. But how close to the truth was this glib, I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours version of the memory?
I had never asked my father about the trip before, but the emergence of the drawings finally gave me cause. It was more of an informational conversation than anything else; he is not a man prone to heart-to-hearts, and I am not overly fond of them myself.
I was stunned to learn in that brief exchange that I had misremembered an essential part of the experience — the part that drew the story back from the realm of totally 100-percent bleak and delivered it, at least one part of it, into the light. In my memory, I was one of the first — if not the first — kids in the world to behold the magic of Epcot. I had gazed, transfixed, upon the gleaming sphere, starstruck by its magnificence, transported by its beauty and promise of endless, better tomorrows.
But apparently that never happened. At that stage, my father told me, Epcot was still a construction site and its crowning glory had barely an exoskeleton to call its own. My dad had not even brought me to the grounds of Future World; it was still hard-hat territory then. At some point, a photo glimpsed somewhere must have formed the basis for this false memory.
Newly aware that I had never seen Epcot in its actual aluminum flesh, I did some nominal research that turned up an article my father and a colleague had written in a trade magazine with this quote from one of Epcot’s designers: “We wanted to create an atmosphere for our guests that raises their spirit and kindles an excitement for the human experience in the future…We knew that having the entire sphere raised above the ground would cause substantial engineering problems but the psychological uplift for our guests would be worth it.”
Although the reality turned out to be different, my revisionist memory of seeing the structure itself had supported that beautiful sentiment. Perhaps as a way to survive that messy post-divorce period, perhaps unable to resist the tantalizing temptation of a good story even then, my 5-year-old self insisted upon the memory of gazing at the fierce impenetrability of that sphere and absorbing some elemental truths about strength, and struggle, and joy, and a beautiful future. My own personal creation myth.
Though it has served me well, maybe it’s time at long last to retire the dream. Epcot turns 35 this year, and I hope that even now, it is as bright and sparkly in real life as it is in my imagination, where I will keep it. Thanks for the memories, Epcot.
Heather Grossmann is a professional editor and writer living in Brooklyn (because of course). When she’s not imbibing the news of the day, she’s an avid reader of memoirs and all kinds of fiction.