After 27 Years, I Finally Discovered the Secret Behind Disney Magic

POPSUGAR Photography | Sarah Wasilak
POPSUGAR Photography | Sarah Wasilak

After I took this picture with my sister Rachel walking down Main Street at Walt Disney World, I quickly thought up a caption and uploaded it to Instagram. Soon after, I realized I didn't want it to be just another post on my feed — I wanted to be able to look at it every day. So I set it as the background on my phone, and I've never considered changing it. Every time I catch a glimpse of the photo, I can smell the sugary scent that travels out of the Confectionery when you walk by and I hear the music that plays seemingly out of nowhere, changing tune as you walk through the lands of Magic Kingdom, but not loudly enough or abruptly enough for anyone to notice. It's like a soundtrack for a day that simply couldn't go wrong. And the smells are a nudge in the right direction, letting you know what you're hungry for.

When I look at this photo I get a sense of all of those things. I guess you could sum it up to say I feel the "Disney magic" — but the magic doesn't come from the food I can practically taste, the sensations I know the rides will make me feel, or the words to the songs I've memorized, the ones the characters sing as they roll by in the parade. It comes from my sister. If there's one thing I have learned over the past 27 years on my trips to Disney, it's that the magic doesn't come from the place — it comes from the people you go there with.

Let me explain . . .

— Additional reporting by Haley Lyndes

My sister is not the only one who conjures the magic. My parents are what you'd call Disney freaks too. When my dad proposed to my mom, he slipped Pluto the ring, then grabbed the camera and filmed as she caught on to the whole thing. When I was little, my dad would plop me on one of the couch cushions and lift me up over his head for a magic carpet ride, singing "I can show you the world." When I was Bat Mitzvahed, the party was, of course, Disney themed, but my dad crafted centerpieces and character murals out of paint, wood, and his memory. There was minimal tracing involved, if any.

While I'm 27, I've been to Disney far more times than that, since we often visit twice a year. I'm not trying to sound super extra or boastful about this Disney obsession of ours, because the truth is, our family vacations are very different than a lot of other people's. There's nothing new about the way we plan our trips. We've been to every park, every restaurant, and almost every hotel before. There's nothing extraordinary about how we secure our FastPasses or run around the parks to make sure we hit every spot.

Rachel and my dad will take a nap in Tomorrowland's Carousel of Progress, just like last time. I will make everyone stand in line for 40 minutes just so I can take a picture with Ariel in her grotto, and we all will witness the bizarre and questionable obscurity that is Stitch's Great Escape, cracking up throughout the entire 10-minute ride or show or whatever the heck it is. (Trust me, you'll be just as confused as I am about it upon entry.) There are no exciting first-time excursions to embark on, unless a new ride has been built since our last visit.

Full disclosure: there are many times when we decide to go back and I'm going through the motion of customizing my magic band — which I'll wear to access my hotel room, gain entry into the park, and charge for all the essentials from peanut butter chocolate chip candy apples to those monorail socks I saw Rachel eyeing at the Emporium on Main Street . . . and then again at Mouse Gear in Epcot — that I feel unsure. Should we try a Caribbean resort instead? If we have the luxury of going on vacation, should we be exploring new places and learning about different cultures? Maybe we should hop the pond to Europe? (They have Disney parks there too!) But I always end up shrugging off the idea.

For the past few years, my family has brought Mary to Disney with us. She's my sister's best friend, but she's become more than that to us. Mary is our sister too, and my parents' third daughter. I don't think I began to feel this way until we took her to Disney World. It was there that I watched Mary fixate on Tinkerbell as she flew across the sky before the fireworks, completely mesmerized. I watched Mary enjoy every bite of her first Mickey waffle in complete disbelief, because who knew there was food out there that tasted so good? She watched me cry as I looked up at the fireworks and remembered my 5-year-old self saying, "Daddy, up?" only to be lifted onto his shoulders for the best view in the house. In Disney World, Mary became my sister.

If you haven't figured it out by now, it's in Disney World that I make the best memories with my family. It's there that I'm reminded about the very meaning of family. It's a special place, don't get me wrong, but the people I go there with are what make it special. Oh, and the caption on that photo I posted to Instagram — the one of me and my sister — it was, "I'd walk with her anywhere, but Main Street's always my first choice." It's true, you know, that more than smelling the candy apples in the Confectionery or hearing the distant sound of the carousel bells in Fantasyland as soon as I enter the park, I can still feel Rachel squeezing my hand.