In the last 20 years, I have taken nine trips to Walt Disney World with my mother.
The first few times to the Magic Kingdom I was a sullen, sarcastic, this-is-sooo-lame teenager. I didn’t understand why my mother had chosen Disney as her favorite vacation destination. She was an attorney. She read Joyce and Locke for fun. She had been to Paris, Rome. She knew there were better spots out there, yet for some reason, Orlando, F-L-A was the center of her holiday universe.
When I went away to Boston for college, my relationship with my mom went from bad to worse. So when yet another invite came to go with her to Disney, I was reluctant. But I was broke, needed the sun and we had to at least pretend our relationship was somewhat normal.
Still, I was fully prepared to grumble and grouse the whole time about the garish décor, the psychotically friendly staff (known as cast members, ugh), and, most offensive of all, the abysmal dining options. As a card-carrying “foodie” and an aspiring restaurant critic, I loathed the bland burger-and-pizza fare that dominated Disney’s menus. But then something, well, magical happened. On our first evening we visited Jiko, the African-themed restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. “They probably throw ground ostrich meat on some lettuce and call it ‘Safari Caesar Salad,’ ” I predicted. Not quite. The menu was packed with vibrant, imaginative entrees like Nigerian prawns with saffron rice and guinea hen with Tanzanian grits. Even more intriguing was the wine list, which offered a varietal I had never heard of: Pinotage.
That night my mom developed a new love for mango atjar, and I discovered I really, really liked Pinotage. We were laughing, and toasting and swapping tasting notes. And then it hit me: My mother and I were actually having fun. And bonding. At Disney. The place I had always mentioned with an eye roll.
Since then, mom and I have returned several times to explore Disney’s ever-improving culinary offerings. We’ve watched summertime fireworks from the balcony of the California Grill with flutes of Roederer Brut after a late supper of mussels and pumpkin ravioli. We’ve eaten salmon off a cedar plank and sampled flight after flight of Pacific Northwest wines at Artist Point. And at the EPCOT Food & Wine festival, she declared she would be okay with drinking only glühwein the rest her life, as I named beef rendang my new favorite dish. This year, I will turn 32, and will go to Disney World for the tenth time with my mother.
I can’t believe how much I’m looking forward to it.
Joanna O’Leary is pursuing her PhD in Literature at Rice University. When not working on her dissertation, she writes about food and travel.