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: