When I was seven years old, my family rented a van and, alongside our next neighbors, piled in and made the nineteen hour drive to Orlando, Florida. In all, there were four adults and five children. We stopped in West Virginia on the first night, then made the second leg of the trip the next day.
It was interminable. At seven years old, nineteen hours represents .03% of your entire life thus far. I owned a Game Boy, but it didn’t have a backlight. I couldn’t read, because I got carsick. We had to play car games—magnetic checkers if we could find it, I Spy if we couldn’t.
Palm trees start in the Carolinas, marking the last third of the trip. That’s when we started to get excited, when we began to realize that our prison on wheels was heading somewhere—it was taking us to the land of our dreams.
Here’s what I remember of Disney World: the guy who played Jafar signed my autograph book on my head; my dad dragged me onto the Tower of Terror kicking and screaming; and people were walking around with enormous turkey drumsticks. But more than anything at the park itself, I remember the hotel we stayed in—Wilson’s World.
It might have been the first time I’d ever been in a hotel, and I was mesmerized. The clean, carpeted hallways, ordered rooms, and ice machines—but above all, the smell of chlorine in the lobby. There was a pool, but it wasn’t the kind of pool we had back home at the rec center. It was an organic, rounded shape, not meant for athletics—it was a feature constructed purely for leisure. And it was topped off by a three-step waterfall that contained a little cavern where it met the water.
Forced into tight quarters, pressured by the kids and stressing over the costs of the trip, my family inevitably squabbled. After dinner one night, my dad called me a cynic, explaining that it referred to a person who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. I don’t remember why.
None of that could spoil it for me. Something about the luxury mixed with decay—even then, in its glory days, the once-pristine rooms couldn’t weather the endless parade of tourists—resonated. More than the Cinderella’s Castle, it felt magical. It was a strange little temporary home with an arcade, magician, and karaoke where I was strong armed into performing “Tomorrow” from Annie. And it was a space where the normal standards of behavior were somewhat slackened, if only because the adults were on vacation too and couldn’t be bothered to enforce the rules of home.
It took me years, but I finally found images of that hotel. It was bought by Ramada sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, who maintained everything I remember about the space. Comments on the video fondly remember the Wilson World’s era of the 80s and 90s, while noting the abysmal state of the hotel in the early 2010s. Some commenters believe the hotel has been shut down, but it maintains a website and as of this writing seems to be operational.
I still love hotels, and these kinds more than anything. I’ve since stayed in famous ones like the Carlyle, and even it can’t compare to a grimy waterfall, worn carpets, and faux-beachside bar. Even as a kid, I recognized the power of places like these—they let you shake off the everyday a little, try being someone else. And none of the magic of the Disney films of my childhood can compete with that.