Archive for June, 2015

Growing up in Orlando with cerebral palsy, you didn’t have a lot to do besides go to the theme parks. Like most kids, I loved Disney (still do, in fact) and I would go to Disney World every single weekend with my dad. But, surprisingly, the thing that I gravitated to the most were  not the rides, but the characters. I can’t tell you why but for some reason I connected with them. The idea that you could interact with the fictional people that you only saw on TV or in the movies was amazing to me. I would go so often, that I became friends with them even. Then I got older ( the ripe old age of six or seven) and my dad and I decided it was time for me to take a step up to the next level of theme parks, Universal Studios. 

This was before Islands of Adventure, Citywalk, and the hotels were built. This was the age of the parking lot in the hot Florida sun, the silver globe, and the one giant arch-way as the entrance to the park. I don’t remember anything else from that day except The Blues Brothers show and that was the thing that changed my life forever. Something about the energy of the performers, the music, the way they dressed, everything made me want to be a part of it even though I was too young to do so. My interactions with the characters turned into something so much more. I wanted to be those characters. After that day, my parents and I quickly bought a suit jacket my size, a black tie, a pair of sunglasses, and an Indiana Jones hat. When I came back, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the stage and danced along with Jake and Elwood. After awhile, I got the dance moves down and included the right hat and a harmonica to my “act.” I would even “tattoo” my name on knuckles with a marker like they would. Sunday after Sunday I would do this and, like my days at Disney, I became friends with them. But this was different. This seemed closer somehow.

Another character that I would dress up as was The Phantom in Beetlejuice’s Rock ‘N Roll Graveyard Revue. I would wear my mask, vest, fedora (the same one that I would use as a Blues Brother), and cape into the show. I wouldn’t interact with it since this one was much bigger than the Blues Brothers. But I would still sit in the third isle, showing support for my favorite monster. Again, like with Blues Brothers, I became friends with the characters of that show.

One of the many rituals that my dad I had had at the park was to see the motorcade. This involved us sitting on a green bench directly across from the gates between the Horror Make-Up Show and La Bamba restaurant. Every afternoon, the gates would open and a caravan of characters would roll their way out. The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, the Ghostbusters, the Flinstones, Lucy & Ricky, just to name a few. This allowed me to interact with these characters even more than attending their shows. Most kids would spend their time with their friends playing baseball. This is true for me, except I played baseball with the Marx Brothers and had ice cream with Marilyn Monroe. I would wear a fisherman’s vest and Beetlejuice cap decked out with autographs and buttons. A Ghostbuster actually gave me one of her patches from her suit.

The characters weren’t just the only thing that I loved there. The rides were the best. Not just because of how thrilling they were, but because of what they taught me. Back To The Future, E.T., Jaws, Terminator 2, King Kong, Ghostbusters, the Universal Monsters, Psycho, the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera, all of these things were something that I had to see after riding them. I had to learn more about their history, about how they were made, about the medium of film itself.

I would nervously try to peek through construction walls just to get a glimpse of something scary for Halloween Horror Nights. I would eagerly await to visit The Grinch in his lair during Grinchmas. I would reach out my hands to the sky just to get a beaded necklace from a parade float during Mardi Gras. Halloween, Christmas, and spring just aren’t the same without these things in my life anymore.

When Islands of Adventure opened, I found it to be more immersive than Universal was. Instead of being in a film studio, you were actually in the fictional places itself. Being fed on the pop culture diet that the first park gave me, IOA was a buffet of fiction. Now I could be friends with super heroes, cartoons, Dr.Seuss characters, and mythological beings. I could actually walk through Jurassic Park, roam the same streets that the X-Men patrolled, and see the lost eighth voyage of Sinbad. I didn’t dress up there as much as I did at Universal. During the stage show, Cartoon Circus, I dressed up as Snidely K. Whiplash and sit in the front row. When the show closed, the cast gave me a portrait of Whiplash and I waiting for a train.

Looking this over, this essay might be misconstrued as me bragging about my childhood. But I assure it’s not. The reason why I went into so much detail about my time at the parks is to tell you that every single piece of it influenced my life in some way. If Disney World was the spark that lit the flame of my imagination, than Universal  poured gasoline on it. Since then, I have acted in theatre and film, written plays, directed movies, and wrote three books. Someone who is disabled, someone who went through countless surgeries and physical therapy sessions, someone who was told by doctors that he wouldn’t live to the age of ten is now a twenty-something actor, writer, director, and playwright. All because of a theme park.

When I was eleven, a chest X-ray reveled that I had developed gaul stones. After the surgery removing my entire gaul bladder, I slowly opened by eyes and saw my room filled with familiar faces. Even though my vision was cloudy from the morphine (not to mention that I’m legally blind in my left eye), I could still tell that my fictional friends had come to visit me in the hospital. I’ve been through a lot of things that most kids probably should’t have to go through, but how many kids can tell that story? Those people were my first friends I ever made and are like a second family to me. Even though I don’t live in Florida anymore, I still make an annual trip out there. Just to remind myself where it all started. Even though it has changed somewhat since I was a kid, walking those same streets is like coming home again.

That’s  why I love the things that I love and do the things that I do. So the next time someone tries to tell you that Universal Orlando is just a theme park and that it’s  something trivial and that people should be into more “serious” and “real world” things, tell them that they’re wrong. Tell them that it can save lives.

-A.B.