LAKE BUENA VISTA
For all the murderous brides, deathly elevators and lost-in-space coasters, nothing at Disney World has ever terrified me more than an old rubber witch.
Bulging eyes. Gnarled fingers. Smoker's-cough cackle. She lurks in Snow White's Scary Adventures, a herky-jerky kiddie ride that starts innocently — until your car crashes through a wall into the black-light darkness. Before your eyes can adjust, she makes her move. I was 5 when I first went face-to-face with that woman. I sobbed. And like millions of others, I've never forgotten her.
On May 31, Snow White's Scary Adventures will close forever, making way for a sparkly meet-and-greet experience called Princess Fairytale Hall. That doesn't sound very frightening at all, and some might say that's a good thing. A terrifying old lady will be replaced with young, chatty gals Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
Me? I'll miss the witch.
For 41 years, the Snow White ride has been a Sunshine State rite of passage. Both of my daughters unleashed big fat tears on the ride. They exited red-eyed, stunned, hitting me with the same what-just-happened look I no doubt flashed my parents: betrayal, anger and, beneath all that, a tingling pride at joining the club.
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In July, the first wave of the Magic Kingdom's $425 million 26-acre Fantasyland expansion will open. It includes a second Flying Dumbo ride, a Casey Jr. waterpark (Casey's the train in Dumbo, for those who've forgotten) and a rejiggered version of Goofy's Barnstormer coaster. Around the holidays, the ride Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid will be unveiled, as will chances to mingle with Belle, including at the Be Our Guest restaurant in Beast's castle.
In 2014, the revamped Fantasyland will open its centerpiece attraction: a steel-railed indoor-outdoor roller coaster called the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. On a poster, the attraction is described as "a merry, musical family adventure," with state-of-the-art ride vehicles that swing back and forth. There's no mention of a witch.
(Disney, which prefers to talk about openings rather than closings, declined to memorialize the Snow White ride for this story.)
Sooner rather than later, the building that houses Snow White's Scary Adventures will be turned into Princess Fairytale Hall. Artists' renderings of the future attraction show a cheery, well-lit place. The awnings are purple; the sky above is a happy-ending blue. In the sketch, kids approach with big smiles. One little girl is literally sprinting toward a building that, for 41 years, usually caused those same little girls to sprint away from it.
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Disney World has closed popular rides before. That's not new. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Body Wars, If You Had Wings, Horizons, to name a beloved few. And yet Snow White is unlike any other ride in the park's history: a scary ride specifically built for young children.
The first Snow White ride actually opened in Disneyland in 1955. It was a "dark ride" — that is, your vehicle maneuvered through a darkened, special-effects-laden landscape — in which the heroine appeared throughout. The witch was hardly a threat. It was tame.
That would change.
In 1971, for the Florida version of the ride, Snow White was erased from the ride altogether. You were Snow White now. The witch showed up seven times. Imagineers, the creative team behind the ride, went out of their way to scare the snot out of the intended audience of tykes and preteens. Lights flashed, lightning crashed. The first scare was a doozy: the Evil Queen spinning away from her traitorous mirror and, through the magic of Disney Imagineering, morphing into the witch, who descended on the ride cars.
Enhancing the sheer awfulness/awesomeness of it all, a safety sign posted in the queue — SMALLER GUESTS ENTER FIRST — made sure kids were seated on the side of the car with no opening. No escape. And that just happens to be the very side the witch attacks first.
At first, the ride was called Snow White's Adventures; after years of tears and hysterics, Disney honchos later added the cautionary "Scary," officially admitting that a ride specifically built for wee ones was also built to give them serious nightmares.
"I was there less than three weeks after the Magic Kingdom opened," says Lou Mongello, 43, a Disney historian and the host of WDW Radio, an Internet podcast that gets a million downloads a month. "I'm assuming I cried on Snow White, because every kid cries the first time they ride it. But it wasn't the whole attraction that was scary; it was just that first moment, when the witch turns around. That's when the kids are freaking out."
In 1994, designers added Snow White's visage to the Magic Kingdom version, eliminating one witch appearance in the process. Effects were tamed down; sections were brightened. The ride ended with Dopey's floppy ears waving goodbye and a sunny shot of Snow White and her hunky suitor feeling all happily ever after.
Despite the changes, though, the ride retained bite: skeletons, monstrous trees, alligators, buzzards, a rock slide. If it was still only slightly more sophisticated than a midway funhouse, Snow White's Scary Adventures continued to make 'em weep.
"I took my 3-year-old son on it," says Mongello, laughing. "He did not dig it. He was like, 'Get me out of here!' He has no desire to go back on it. But it's not like it scarred him for life. At least, I don't think it did."
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Her siblings would make her sit in the front row, while they tormented her in back. Karen Axelrod was "5 or 6 years old, back in 1977, '78. I remember being terrified of the Snow White ride. But at the same time, I also remember loving it." That was probably because her brother loved it, too. "That was our ride, together."
Axelrod is 41 now. She lives in a suburb of Dallas. She homeschools her two daughters. She spends whatever free time she has on the Web under her moniker "the Diz Diva," a social-networking Disney nut with thousands of like-minded followers. She and her family visit Disney World three times a year. She always makes sure to bring her girls on Snow White's Scary Adventures. "Their jaws drop, but they don't cry. We try to scare them!" she laughs. "But they're little thrill seekers."
Axelrod is a Disney apologist, and has full confidence that the new Fantasyland will far exceed the old one. And yet: "I'm very sad they're closing Snow White. When they close a ride I love, I feel like part of my childhood is closing." Her brother, for so long her co-pilot, died of cancer years ago. Keeping "the Disney light alive," she says, keeps him alive. "It's sad to see these little things I shared with my brother disappear."
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A few weeks ago, I rode Snow White's Scary Adventures four times in a row, a goodbye blitz. On one trip I was with a Michigan mother and her 5-year-old son. The kid was stone-faced, stunned, even when his mom tried to laugh at the old rubber witch: "Oh, boo!" No tears shed, but when the ride was over, the little guy vaulted over his mother to scramble out of the ride car. Smaller guests may enter first, but if need arises, they'll exit first, too.
On my final trip on Snow White's Scary Adventures, I squeezed in with a family from Long Island. The oldest girl had just graduated high school. She wanted Disney World as a graduation gift, and she wanted the Snow White ride to be her first stop — even though it totally made her cry when she was 6. Her mother smiled and sighed: "It's fun to come back when you're not afraid anymore."
With that, her daughter crawled into the car, ready to face the witch one last time.
Good luck, princess.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.