ORLANDO, FLA. — Deep inside the mouse's lair a line of humanity winds in front of us through a dimly lit room and beyond.
Waiting is the game here at Walt Disney World, the self-proclaimed "happiest place on earth." And we - my wife, daughter, and I - are among several hundred mostly happy campers waiting to shake Mickey Mouse's white-gloved hand at his home in Toon Town. Today the line is about 20-minutes long.
I'm a little grumpy about that - and thirsty - as we shuffle along. I refused on principle (hey, it was only my first day at Disney World) to shell out $2 for a small soda. But my six-year-old daughter is in bliss at the expectation of hugging this theme park's jug-eared major domo.
"There he is!" she squeals, bringing me back to a sort of reality - with Mickey's round ears poking up ahead of us. At last our daughter gets what she came for: a big, fat, silent squeeze from the "big cheese" himself.
Then it's our turn. My wife and I sidle up and put our arms around padded mouse shoulders. Meanwhile, a practiced attendant snaps a picture of us all.
Less than a minute after we meet Mickey, we are ushered to an exit, scooting out into the bright Magic Kingdom sunshine.
As a newly minted veteran of Disney World, I understand now that not ante-ing up for a soda or grousing about a 20-minute wait is ridiculous. The Magic Kingdom alone (not counting Disney's three other parks) draws roughly 17 million visitors annually. Summer lines can be an hour or more. So I should be grateful for a mere 20-minute wait. And I am - now that I've had a chance to think about it.
Many reading this will already have visited Disney World. But for the rest of you, I want to offer a few tips -especially to those people who may go to Disney World against their will, because their families want to, and are tempted to resist.
My main piece of advice is: Don't - resist that is. Enjoying yourself the Disney way is easy if you follow a few simple suggestions.
First, pay whatever it is Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman and chief executive officer, wants you to pay for a hot dog, soda, or hamburger. If you attempt to scrimp you will still not save much and you'll make yourself and your family miserable.
Remember, too, this is a pleasant place to visit no matter how calculated it may be. Every worker we came in contact with was unfailingly courteous - from ride attendants to waiters to cashiers.
Also, in all its vastness, you will undoubtedly find something you like. I did. After dragging my feet a day or so, I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of being smacked by the big waves at the Typhoon Lagoon wave pool. Unleashed, I exulted in what a brochure called the "minor attraction" of the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House - a feat of engineering that easily dwarfed my own backyard building effort.
Finally, Disney World is probably the best groomed and cleanest place on the planet. Grass is edged along every walk and bushes are clipped, profound order that can either reinforce a sense of relaxation or create deep unease.
At first I found myself looking for cracks in the sidewalk, litter, or a grimace on a tired worker's face - anything that might betray that Disney World is a real place with human beings running it.
One evening I did spot a flaw as we were lumbering exhausted back to our room at one of the Disney resorts: a candy wrapper, wedged under a bush in a flower bed. It might be overlooked, I reasoned. So I made a mental note to see if it was there in the morning.
Walking to breakfast the next day I saw it had been removed. Then I divulged my evil experiment to my wife. She looked at me as though I were a crazy man.
"We're at Disney World, honey," she said. "Relax."