Helium Dreams

Every now and then I’ll run across something straight out of the haunted past of Disney World, before it was overrun with FastPasses, princesses, and those awful parade performance stops.  I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences.  Maybe not with Disney World, but other things from childhood.  Like a familiar smell that triggers a memory of the school locker room, or grandpa’s pipe, or that substitute teacher who lived on nothing but beans and onions.
Yesterday I had such an experience at Champion Stadium over at ESPN Wide World of Sports.  I was watching a little Braves spring training, enjoying a nice summer day, and suddenly I get a whiff of beans and onions.  I can hardly believe it!  My substitute teacher is batting cleanup for the Astros!
Thinking how weird it was, since she has to be in her 80s by now, I start looking around for other hints from the universe as to what this could all mean, and I spot it.  High in the sky, drifting out over the parking lot, is a Mickey balloon.
It was so profound, I snapped a picture.  Lesson learned:  Mickey balloons do not photograph very well from a mile away.
For an instant, this seemed very natural to me.  Then it struck me just how rare a sight it was these days.  I’m not so old that I can’t taunt an 80-year-old woman when she grounds out to first, but neither am I so young that I don’t remember a time when the skies were full of lost balloons.
You younger readers rarely get to experience this, but for years, balloons were adept at escaping from the Magic Kingdom.  Disney simply lived with it.  It’s not like the balloons cost very much.  What were they, maybe a dollar?  Almost pure profit for Disney.
And they were simple things back then.  Just a standard rubber balloon that happened to have mouse ears, with the Disney World logo stamped on the side.  Now there are foil balloons, embedded inside clear shell balloons, surrounded by edible hologram balloons, filled with confetti and tiny battery-powered strobe lights.  They sing happy birthday to you and have a GPS system and can combine with other balloons to form a Devastator balloon.
These white blood cell balloons used to be available at Wonders of Life.
But back then, they were just helium filled rubber, with a string tied to it.  And the funny thing about kids is that they sometimes let go of things.  Toddlers were forever losing the blasted things.  You reach into your pocket for some animal crackers, or maybe to check the latest stock prices, and boom!  There goes your hard-earned balloon.
At any one time during the day, there were liable to be at least 2 or 3 balloons loose above Main Street, floating past the castle and on out of sight.  Sometimes the sky would be full of them, like a fleet of German zeppelins ready to lay siege to the Enchanted Tiki Room.
Sometimes the balloons also contained kids whose parents needed attention really really bad.
Parkeologists used to write long-winded blog posts about how balloons destroyed the theming of the attractions by breaking loose in mid-ride.  These articles were never published, because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, but you were bound to see at least one stubborn balloon drifting around the ceiling inside Pirates, Small World, or Universe of Energy.  I used to wonder how they got those things out of there overnight.  Did they simply wait for the helium to leak out, or did they have BB guns?
At some point, probably in the early 90s, some bright young scientist discovered that a helium-filled balloon was not an aberrant force of nature, but rather a simple slave to physics.  In a stunning scientific breakthrough, it was learned that the balloon could be weighed down through the use of a cheap plastic chip that counteracted the lightness of the helium.
The red balloon has been plotting his escape for months, using only a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth.
Contrary to popular belief, this had nothing to do with environmental friendliness, since lost balloons are well known to be biodegradable, and rubber is a great source of fiber for forest animals.
I’m curious how many of you have this memory.  I know it still happens on occasion, but I was shocked to suddenly realize how infrequent it is.  What other memories have simply disappeared without us even knowing they’re gone?
How about our cherished memories of this classic Disney live-action movie about a balloon?  Admit it, you totally forgot about it.
It seems just a little sad that kids today will never know the wonder of looking up at the Magic Kingdom sky as some balloon breaks free from its child-master and goes soaring into the air like Icarus, out to touch the sun.
Some images courtesy of the fine folks at flickr:

Comments (13)

  1. @Shane – Unfortunately, I don’t remember how long it took to decompose. I know it was over a year, though.

  2. @Phil, I had no idea that refilling the balloons was even possible to attempt! I imagine it is not as easy as going to a service station that offers “Free Air”.

    @Melissa, I’m curious how long it took to disintegrate. it seems this would be a great argument for biodegradable balloons! 😉

  3. @Teevtee, you know I can’t find anything the archives since we abandoned the Dewey Decimal system. Plus, I think James is secretly plotting to kill me with an old Pleasure Island guide book.

  4. I saved my old-style pink mouse-ears balloon from 1983 for years until it finally disintegrated.

  5. Is there an even eviler scheme afoot with these new balloons? After 3 failed refilling attempts and as many techniques, they tear and explode into a muddled mass that looks like, well a hidden image of Jafar.
    So the clear plastic armor may not only be there to deter the satisfaction of re-inflation, but protects the inferior mil thickness of the “improved” balloon. Parkology- to the lab for testing on those alpha samples.

  6. Shane:

    Did you not check the map archives at the office?
    I think James (for those of you who do not know he is our map valet) pulled them for me as I was considering using them in an upcoming post. But rest assured, Parkeology not only has photos of them, we have the real deal!

  7. Oh, and tanibaby, I have seen that special too! It’s been a long time, but I have vague memories of it, now that you mention it. It might even have subconsciously fueled some of the nostalgia I feel whenever a balloon breaks loose. It’s really not a bad idea for a Disney theme park story plot. Much better than that Kingdom Keepers stuff.

  8. I’m sure Dan’s right that the inclusion of the old balloons in the new concept art was for simplicity, but as Julia pointed out, it is interesting that they went with the old style balloon. The Imagineers must recognize the profound sense of nostalgia those things generate.

  9. Dan: I know you are right… but a girl can dream can’t she? It was at least nice to SEE even if nothing was meant or comes of it….sniff…. I miss so much from the past…..

  10. This reminded me of my favorite Disney video as a kid. It was called “A Day at Disneyland.” It was basically a promotional special (that my dad had probably taped off of TV, lol) showing all the wonders of Disneyland. For part of the special we followed a lost yellow Mickey balloon as it had adventures. As a kid, I always thought it was magical to lose a balloon, because the maybe MY balloon would have adventures too!

  11. Julia: While I also prefer the cocoon-less old style baloons, I think the artwork includes them for neither of those reasons. I think it was for simplicity’s sake. It would be somewhat difficult to draw the balloons with the clear shell and still have it look, well, pretty. Since the balloons are just in the shot to add atmosphere, I think they felt free to use a little creative license–but I don’t think it was an intentional shout-out or hint of things to come.

    What I would like to know is why the balloons have the added cocoon at all. Is it a stronger material? Does it simply make the package look like more, thus Disney can charge more? Did Disney make an unfortunate deal with the Rubber Mafia and now has to use twice as much rubber on every baloon?

    Brer Dan

  12. Have you seen the art work for the new Town Theater at the Magic Kingdom? REAL MICKEY BALLOONS! wonder if they are going to make a comeback or if it was just a nice ‘shout out’ to the old crowd?

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