ORLANDO, Fla. — The huge hidden magnets latched onto our RV's bumper somewhere up by Pensacola.
I'd longed to stay on the Gulf Coast, where we'd been lazing along, stopping whenever the whim hit to swim in the warm currents or sample the shrimp and crab dragged ashore in idiosyncratic little fishing ports.
But then the magnets planted beneath the asphalt of every Florida roadway started pulling us south and inland relentlessly. And the secret radio signals started getting through to my kids' fillings, causing them to chant robotically:
"Disney. Disney. Disney."
My wife, Pam, and I put Walt Disney World on our itinerary because it seemed essential to our summer-long exploration of what the American family is up to these days.
We had no idea, though, how hard it would be to resist the mass brainwashing that seeks to turn every American family into a Disney American family.
We are finally sucked into the conglomerate's massive Orlando force field after midnight, and spend the next two hours on a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of U-turns through construction zones and look-alike neighborhoods. "I hate this city!" I sputter as we pay our 2,000th toll. Then, miraculously, we are there.
Having studied cults, I know the strategy: Create unbearable despair, and the subsequent release seems so sweet that a prospective acolyte will weep with gratitude and loyalty.
Even armed with that knowledge, though, I have a hard time suppressing my joy as I leave Pam waiting in the rented RV with our three sleeping kids and I step into the log cabin-style lobby of Disney's Fort Wilderness Campground.
It is 3 in the morning, but a hearth-mounted television blazes with a Chip 'n' Dale cartoon. I ring a perfectly polished desk bell. Before my finger descends a second time, a blond woman with an accent purged of all regional offense appears, more cheerful and welcoming than any Angeleno has been since they trucked in all those lobotomized shills from Orange County for the 1984 Olympics.
The motif here is "wilderness": RVs are Conestoga wagons, visitors are pioneers settlin' in for a spell "in one of the richest, most abundant sources of pure relaxation found anywhere."
As I grapple with this illusion (according to the Fort Wilderness Gazette, the "most commonly asked question in the wilderness" is: "Where can I rent a golf cart?"), my greeter pokes at a computer and pulls out maps and charts and fliers.
Never breaking eye contact for more than four seconds, she scribbles circles and arrows for the boat to Disney World, buses to Epcot, and our cable-ready campsite. (Did I hear right? Will Dumbo really swoop down and pick up our laundry for just $500?)
Finally, my new best friend hands me five plastic cards with magnetic swipe stripes. The cards--each emblazoned faintly with a smiling blue genie--are for transportation within the park. Pam's and mine, she adds, also have automatic $2,500 credit limits that can be extended easily should we exceed it.
"So don't be afraid to shop till you drop," she says.
Not long after daybreak, we set off to explore our new frontier campground, with its playgrounds, tennis courts and (literally) steam-cleaned sidewalks.
We eavesdrop as self-described mouse freaks trade esoteric tips for milking the most fun from every Mickey moment. We meet families who never vacation anywhere non-Disney. We learn of couples who get married here and ride in Cinderella's coach.
With resolve that is nothing short of heroic, I fight the mind control.
When the kids and I have lunch at the Trail's End Buffeteria, for instance, I pointedly focus on the negative. Ignoring the bounty of fried chicken, ribs and spaghetti and the gushing courtesy of the wait staff, I note that the dessert bar does not include ice cream, which is peddled aggressively throughout the complex.
This restaurant (like the restrooms, like the laundry) pipes in a barely audible medley of Disney tunes. As we step back outside, I reach deep into my reservoir of resistance and produce a little deprogramming ditty, sung to the tune of the song being played:
A whole new world!
A world of zombie fam-i-lies
who do just what they're told
to fit the mold
and make sure they please
Guru Walt Disney.
Emily, 10, and Robert, 7, ignore me. Ashley, who is 12, sings along for a moment, but then we're back on our bikes pedaling along happily amid vast swarms of other smiling clans.
As we ride, it rains. But it is warm Florida rain and soon we're all sloshing and whooping, a band of fearless marauders who strike fear into the hearts of the innocent pioneers as we shout back and forth. At midnight, we ride over to one of the campground's two sprawling pools. Like the human drones in H.G. Wells' "Time Machine," mothers and fathers and children are spilling out of the forest and into the well lighted commons.
Plunging into the expanse of shimmering blue, we stack ourselves two and three high and chicken-fight. We cannonball.