When I was 8, my father inadvertently whipped me in the eyeball with a red-and-white cloth napkin. It was a stinger for sure. The physical pain, however, was outweighed by the emotional shock of where this eye-gouging happened: Walt Disney World, specifically the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-sing hootenanny chock-full of corn pone humor in the resort's Fort Wilderness campground.
Bad things just weren't supposed to happen here.
Unaware of my pain, my dad, along with my mom and a few hundred other revelers, continued twirling those napkins in wahoo celebration; I continued to cry. It was dark in the Wild West-y showroom, all bearskins and buffalo heads; it was loud, too, with banjo plucks and stomping feet and warbling and lousy puns.
I'd never forget it.
Fast-forward decades: In September, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, one of the longest-running dinner shows in America, celebrated its 40th anniversary. I decided to check it out again along with my daughters, Ava and Maya, who, it should be noted with foreshadowing intended, CRY ALL THE TIME. I went, fully aware that the Hoop-Dee-Doo wasn't done with the Dalys.
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Tradition is always in jeopardy at Disney World. No matter how much something is beloved (goodbye Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and Snow White's Scary Adventures), it's in danger of being replaced by a more modern moneymaker (hello Winnie-the-Pooh ride and Disney princesses).
The theme park wars are cutthroat these days, especially in Orlando. And Disney pushes the pack in innovation and change. In the near future, the Maelstrom in Epcot's Norway pavilion will be retooled as a ride dedicated to the $1.3-billion-grossing flick Frozen. Traditionalists will moan, but it won't matter: Scandinavian sibs Anna and Elsa are mondo bank these days.
And yet the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, taking up valuable real estate in Pioneer Hall in Fort Wilderness since 1974, persists. The singing-cowboy show has remained "largely unchanged, 90 minutes of simple, wholesome, family friendly entertainment," according to Disney historian Lou Mongello, who hosts the WDW Radio podcast. "It doesn't feature Mickey Mouse, Anna, Elsa or any other Disney characters." Nevertheless, Hoop-Dee-Doo has survived.
There are no special effects, no dazzling moments. Maybe that's why it has prevailed. Pioneer Hall, a re-creation of a Northwest Territory lodge built via 1,283 hand-fitted logs, looks like the Country Bear Jamboree sans the animatronic critters. Sans any modernity at all, to be honest. (I couldn't even get cellphone reception in there.) Six actors and singers, with names such as Six Bits Slocum and Johnny Ringo, work the crowd and dole out groaners with a well-practiced but likable Will Rogers verve; they've done this before (and before, and before), but they're having fun anyway.
There are silly songs (Take Back Your Heart, I Ordered Liver); there are patriotic sing-alongs (This Land Is Your Land). The script was originally written by Disney Imagineer Ron Miziker, who also created the Main Street Electrical Parade, another long-standing tradition. Hoop-Dee-Doo banter doesn't stray far from the kind of "So where ya from?" audience shtick that Wayne Newton has been doling out for just as long in Las Vegas.
As all that G-rated ham goes down on stage, servers deliberately clank giant metallic buckets of fried chicken (delicious) and ribs (did I mention the fried chicken?) on your table. Perhaps my father's wayward napkin was caused by the fact that beer and wine are - and this was my favorite part - unlimited with admission. Ticket prices are steep, as much as $70 for the best table, but you won't leave hungry or thirsty, that's for sure.
It was weird being back, surreal even, especially since nothing had changed. Well, except for me. I was no longer a child; now I had children. I kept one eye (fully healed, by the way) on the stage and one on my girls. Ava is 10 and absolutely fearless when it comes to audience participation. Maya, however, is 6 and routinely tries to hide behind me when someone - say Hoop-Dee-Doo's sassy character Dolly Drew - approaches her and tries to pull her onto a bright stage in front of hundreds of people.
Which is exactly what happened.
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Maya never made it on stage. Instead, she shook her head shyly and hunched down and refused to make eye contact with Dolly Drew. My kid shot me a teary look that I interpreted as something akin to: This will haunt me for the rest of my days, and I'm fairly certain you brought me here for some sort of twisted pass-it-down childhood catharsis all because you leaned into a napkin at the wrong time. I'll never forgive you for this, Daddy. I don't know. I might have misread her.
Dolly, the show's brassy Annie Oakley type, made a sad face, said "Sorry" and immediately found her backup kid, some greasy-faced hotshot, who simply had to pretend he was firing a gun during the finale's salute to Davy Crockett. It was a cake part. Maya gave me a sorrowful glance when she saw what she passed up. Ava rolled her eyes and muttered, "Should have picked me."
Now it would be extremely convenient at this juncture to tie everything up with a "Circle of Life" Lion King reference, a deep-thoughts revelation that being brokenhearted at Disney is a child's first glimpse of reality. But here's the thing: In the end, the girls loved the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. When it came time for the infamous napkin twirl, my daughters taunted me as I leaned back and timidly waved mine. Even Maya, despite chickening out, bounded joyfully from Pioneer Hall at night's end.
The next day, with the three of us at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Maya waited until her sister was out of range and told me, "I wish I had gone on stage last night." I was about to recount my eyeball story again, tell her how I've never forgotten it, that sometimes you have to live with crummy memories.
But I never got around to it. My 6-year-old daughter took my hand and, without saying anything, pulled me in the direction of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a free fall drop that makes even my knees knock. Maya never had the courage to ride it before. But she did today. And you better believe she'll remember that, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.
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IF YOU GO
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, which includes an all-you-can-eat buffet (fried chicken, ribs, corn bread), has three shows daily at Pioneer Hall, on the campgrounds of Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness, 4510 Fort Wilderness Trail, Lake Buena Vista. $27.99-$69.99. Reservations are required. (407) 824-2803.