When I recently wrote a story about people who move to Florida to be close to Disney, together with a follow up story on a few specific people who made the move, the response was huge. A few people weren’t interested in such a move, but many were.
In the comments, one reader told me about one family that moved to Disney World. This was no ordinary family. It was a family with a boy who had autism. They moved not just to enjoy Disney parks for fun. They moved because the Magic Kingdom, and specifically the now-defunct attraction called Snow White’s Scary Adventures, seemed to have an amazing ability to help their son.
This is the story Ron Miles and his son Benjamin.
Ron was kind enough to personally answer some questions about his journey and the magical impact Disney has had on his family:
Question – Before we get to your Disney connection, can you tell us a bit about your family?
My family consists of me, my wife Kristine, and my son Benjamin who was diagnosed at a very young age with autism. My mom lives nearby, and although her health is failing she is still able to live independently. It seems like I spend most of my time either taking my son to doctor’s appointments, or taking my mom to doctor’s appointments. Somewhere in there I also find time to work as a software developer for a luxury travel consortium, and when I am not writing code I am writing prose. Life is good.
Question – Will you tell us about your first visit to Disney World?
Well, the salesman side of me feels compelled to mention that you can read all about my first Walt Disney World trip in my book “3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten Year Romance with Snow White”, available now in print and digital at both Amazon.com and Smashwords.com. But the short version is this: In the spring of 2002 my ex-wife and I decided to bring our son Benjamin to Disney World, because he had always been fascinated by Disney videos. His mother (my ex-wife) grew up in South Florida, and so she had very fond memories of taking family trips to Disney. I had only ever been to Disneyland in California. My first impression when we arrived was just how *big* it was. Disneyland is like a little postage stamp chunk of land surrounded by hotels and surface streets, just all crammed in together. By contrast, it felt like just our hotel property at WDW could easily hold all of Disneyland with some space to spare.
The impact of the now-defunct Snow White Scary’s Adventure was profound.
More importantly, that very first morning at the Magic Kingdom is where we saw our son come alive. He had been confused by the entire travel experience, didn’t understand the hotel rooms at all (we had adjoining rooms), and was stressed out by the bus ride from the resort to the Magic Kingdom. But as we walked through the turnstiles, underneath the train station, and onto Main Street USA, suddenly Ben came to life. It was honestly like flipping on a light switch. He stood in the Hub looking up the street to Cinderella Castle, and he absolutely knew where he was. He had somehow magically been transported into one of his Sing-A-Long videos, and he could not have been happier. But rather than going crazy with frantic energy, he became absolutely focused and present in a way we had never seen before. He seemed to be taking in every tiny detail, soaking in all of the sights and sounds, and he achieved a kind of zen-like state of peacefulness and purpose. This was his world, and his mother and I were just visitors tagging along for the ride.
For me personally, I experienced the entire trip through my son’s eyes. I think the only “me” moment I had was when I went on the Alien Encounter in Tomorrowland while Ben and his mom went for a spin on the People Mover. I got to experience the ride completely fresh, having read absolutely nothing about it ahead of time, and it was easily my favorite experience that week that did not involve my son. I miss that ride a lot, it was a terrific attraction that did some really scary and inventive things. The current version with Stitch just pales in comparison.
Question – Will you tell us about your move to Florida?
After seeing how Disney affected our son, his mother and I talked quite a bit about whether or not we should move there. We had never seen anything else have that kind of impact on Ben, and after a second visit in the spring of 2003 where we saw the exact same transformation, we decided to take the leap. Logistically it took quite a bit of planning. We had two households to move to the opposite corner of the country, Ben’s mom needed to find a new job, and I needed to convince my current job that I could write software from anywhere with an internet connection.
Complicating the move was the fact that somewhere between the decision to move and the actuality, I went and fell in love with my current wife. So there turned out to be *three* households to move. And then my mother’s health began declining, and I was uncomfortable having her on the opposite end of the country where I couldn’t look after her, so there was a *fourth* household to move a few months later. So yeah, there was more than a little craziness involved in the move.
The capper was that we decided to move in the summer so that Ben could finish the school year in Seattle and then begin a new year in Orlando. I’m a Seattle boy, born and raised, and I was not fully equipped to make the climate jump from the very temperate Pacific Northwest to the sweltering inferno of Central Florida in August. I thought I knew all about rain, growing up in Seattle, until I experienced my first Florida thunder storm on my second day in Orlando. Wow!
But we survived the move; my best friend and I survived driving two cars all the way across the country while Ben and his mom flew; we survived the climate change and the jobs change, and we ended up in our new home.
Question – How did Disney make an impact on your life and the life of your family?
Here’s the bottom line: my son speaks because of Disney. He learned how to patiently stand in lines because of Disney. He has learned how to handle money and how to handle sales transactions, again because of Disney. He is by no means “cured”, but we have used Walt Disney World as a giant therapy session for Ben, and we have seen the results because of it. It is like having the largest carrot in the world to dangle in front of him, and to reward him for his successes. In the last decade our lives have been touched by so many cast members in ways both large and small. Everything from the spectacular farewell they gave him for the closing of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, down to the smallest little smile or high five on a day when he really needed a boost.
Ben’s first spoken words were singing along with The Bare Necessities. His first successful use of the potty (at age ten, by the way) was in a bathroom in Fantasyland. The only times he ever successfully enjoyed trick-or-treating at Halloween were at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. We have seen so much growth and improvement in him, and while much of that stems from the hard work of his teachers at Princeton House Charter School and Access Charter School (and of course our own hard work with him at home), all of it seems to circle around the special connection he has with Disney.
For that matter, I proposed to my wife at Walt Disney World in front of the Haunted Mansion, and we were later married by the Wishing Well on the pathway to Cinderella Castle. Disney is entwined into the very fabric of our lives, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Question – Can you tell us about the closing of the Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction from your perspective?
It was heartbreaking when we heard the news that the ride was closing permanently. Particularly so, because just a few months prior to that it seemed like it had been spared. Of everything at Walt Disney World, Snow White’s Scary Adventures was Ben’s favorite place. In the end he rode it 3,500 times, and I am sure that I personally rode it well over 2,000 times. Beyond my own family’s connection to the ride, I still think it is a great loss because it was one of the few classic dark rides left at Walt Disney World. Disneyland still has all of the original dark rides that Walt Disney himself helped create, but at WDW we have lost almost all of them. We still have Peter Pan’s Flight, and that’s a true classic. We have Haunted Mansion, but it is not quite as good as the Disneyland version. We have Pirates Of The Caribbean, but Florida’s version is a pale ghost compared to the real ride in California. I know that Walt Disney himself envisioned the parks as constantly evolving and changing, but I can’t help but feel like we have lost some real history with the closing of SWSA. It is made all the worse by the fact that it is being replaced with a Meet & Greet location. I understand the reasons from a business perspective, but it still seems like a net loss to me.
As for my family’s experience on the last night of operation, I’ll just have to point you back to my book. I wrote about that night in great detail, and it is filled with twists and turns and a surprise ending that I would hate to spoil here. The most I can say is, get your hankies ready because you will probably shed a few tears before the end. I know we did.
Question – How is your family doing now?
As expected, it has been a hard transition for Ben. The first few months were particularly difficult, but more than a year later he still shows me pictures from the ride and gives me a very hopeful look as he asks, “More Snow White, please?” It breaks my heart every time he asks that. With that being said, I do look at it as a net positive. As much as he loved the ride, there comes a time where the fixation itself becomes a problem. We had set rules for him limiting how many times he could go on the ride before going to experience something else, and over time we saw him expanding his range to enjoying the entire park, but the sheer repetition was still a problem. He does like the new Little Mermaid ride, and I am hopeful that he will like the new Princess Fairytale Hall when that opens. But he is always going to wish for just one more ride on Snow White’s Scary Adventures.
I do hope to take him to Disneyland next summer, and beyond that I would love to eventually take him to visit every remaining operating version of Snow White’s Scary Adventures in the world. As you can imagine, both the finances and the logistics for that undertaking are a bit daunting. But I can still dream.
Question – Why did you decide to write a book?
In the week following the closure of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, I wrote a series of six blog posts describing that night in detail. That series got a fair bit of attention, with about a hundred thousand unique visitors to my blog that June. Through a random series of circumstances I also happen to know more than a few published authors. After having several of them tell me I should write a book about the whole Snow White experience, I eventually came to the conclusion that they must know what they are talking about.
I spent much of the fall of 2012 combing through my personal journals and blog posts to try to find a story arc that would be interesting to readers outside of my immediate family, and by the end of October I had a framework that I thought made sense. I sat down in November and began writing in earnest, and just after Thanksgiving and 52,000 words later I had my first draft. I lost count of how many drafts there were after that, but by the end of January I had a final manuscript that I was happy with.
I wanted to present a light and engaging story about how one boy with autism had his life changed by a Disney princess. I would expose a little bit of the dark side of raising a special needs child, and pull back the curtain for a peek at some of the difficult moments along the way, but I did not want to drag down the reader with a heavy dose of “oh woe is me”. It is a quick and entertaining read, and with more than 150 reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.6 out of 5, it seems like I struck the right balance.
Question – What else would you like to share?
The most important thing to know about this book is that every single penny of revenue goes directly into Benjamin’s Special Needs Trust. None of it passes through my hands at all. Ben will almost certainly never be able to live independently or hold down a traditional job, and so I feel like sharing his story is the best chance he has to support himself. I don’t think he really understands what the book is, but I can tell you he definitely enjoys signing copies of the book. People are generally kind of ambivalent about getting my signature on a book, but they seem to get really excited if Ben has also signed it. Ben is positively thrilled to fulfill that request.
You can find more information about the book on my website at http://Shmoolok.com/Book including how to order a signed copy, and the book is also available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.com and in a variety of other digital formats at Smashwords.com.
If you are interested in buying a copy of Ron’s book and supporting Benjamin’s Trust, you can do so from Amazon here:
What do you think about Benjamin’s story?