Always Believe, Love Santa by Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

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the great movie ride at disney sign in lights

I quit my job of ten years after seeing the third Night at the Museum movie because I once met Santa Claus and Robin Williams on the same day at Disney World.

Shortly before Christmas, I took my friend and his four-year-old son to an advanced screening of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. The young boy didn’t sit still for a second. Watching him pop in and out of his seat, eyes shining as he turned to giggle with his dad, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d gotten that excited about a movie. Or, about anything. Near the end, Robin Williams, in full regalia as President Theodore Roosevelt has a heartfelt moment with Ben Stiller’s character, Larry Daley. Moving on after many years at the same job, Larry says to him in wonder, “I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow.”

The camera zooms in on Teddy’s face and as Robin Williams’ dancing blue eyes command the screen he exclaims, “How exciting!”

The next day, I went into my boss’s office and gave notice. I had been working for the College Board for almost a decade and in the Advanced Placement (AP) department for the last seven years. A lapsed actor and struggling writer, when I accepted my original position I was 28 years old. It was my first full-time job, and for a long time I loved working there. I grew close with my co-workers and, as more and more of my friends got married and had kids while I still lived alone, my work friends became my family too. So, long after I burned out on my job producing operational materials that support the annual AP exam administration in schools, I stayed. For my friends and, let’s face it, for the 15 percent 401K match and 25 vacation days a year. However, after seven cycles of updating the same materials we produced the year before, and having lost hope for a promotion, I often spent Sunday night on the floor crying because I dreaded going to work the next day.

I’d talked to my friends about leaving for months, and to myself for years, but I hadn’t had the courage to pull the trigger. How could I ever tell my Irish cop of a father that I’d walked away from a steady paycheck? Then, sitting there in the dark, feeling as if Robin Williams was once again speaking directly to me, I was the one who could barely sit still from excitement.

Did you know the working title of The Great Movie Ride in Disney’s Hollywood Studios was Great Moments at the Movies? Unless you spent your college days sweating your ass off working at Disney World like I did, I can’t imagine why you would. For those unfamiliar with this attraction, The Great Movie Ride is a twenty-two minute magical journey straight into the greatest films of all time. The slow-moving trams that circle endlessly around the ride’s track are manned by a fleet of young tour guides running around a loading dock that is a replica of a 1930s-era Hollywood soundstage. Back then, the park was called Disney’s MGM Studios. At 19, I was full-energy and my long brown hair was full-frizz as I donned my red pageboy cap and packed my tram full of park guests.

“Is everybody ready?” I’d shout, raising my microphone-free hand in the air to encourage their jubilant cries of YEAH!

Putting the tram in gear, we’d glide underneath the large neon theater marquee toward a pyramid of lovely chorus girls from Busby Burkeley’s Footlight Parade as bubbles floated down around our heads. I’d guide us past the audio-animatronic figures of Gene Kelly, Julie Andrews, and James Cagney. If our car wasn’t kidnaped in Gangster land, it was on to the Western scene where we’d be greeted by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Park guests cowered together when the dripping creature from Alien popped out of the ceiling, chuckled as Tarzan swung by on his vine, and sighed as Bogey told Bergman, “If you don’t get in that plane you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

Fun fact: We’d often have to hold at the Casablanca scene for the trams ahead of us to clear out of Munchkinland, so we’d vamp by telling guests the airplane in the ride was the actual plane seen during the memorable conclusion of the movie.

Real fact: This isn’t true at all because when Casablanca was filmed they used a miniature model plane. The one in The Movie Ride is a real airplane, but due to limited space it was chopped in half. The back half can be seen on the Jungle Cruise, right before the hippo pool.

As I drove round and round, telling guests how Gene Kelly was actually singing in the milk because it showed up better on film and getting yelled at by the Wicked Witch of the West who’d been programmed to mistake me for Dorothy, all of these great movie moments turned into landmarks indicating when to shift speeds or how long it was until lunch. Sometimes, in my sleep, I still hear John Wayne’s slow drawl sayin’,

Well, that’s a mighty tough territory you’re headin’ into, pilgrim. I’d think about turnin’ back if I were you.

No matter how tired (or hungover) I was, I’d slap on a smile and give the guests a good show. As my father would say, “If you are going to do something, do it right.” After my eighth or ninth time around the track however, I’d pray the large bale of hay balanced precariously above the Western show doors would fall on me as I drove underneath.

Along with reminding people to “Keep their arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times,” part of my job that first summer was working crowd control for the daily Toy Story parade. For park guests, this parade was a fantastical event with Woody and Buzz towering on top of massive floats, dancing Green Army Men, and a larger-than-life Slinky Dog. For me, it was Tuesday.

I was taping down the parade route in front of the Movie Ride, located inside of a perfect recreation of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theatre, when I spotted him. A short, round man with white hair and bushy beard, in green- and white-checked golf pants that were held up by red suspenders over a short-sleeved white shirt. Elbowing a fellow Movie Rider, I said, “Look over there, it’s Santa on vacation.”

We laughed and then resumed our work laying down the thick white masking tape I’d soon be reminding people, repeatedly, to stand behind. Sweating profusely in my polyester uniform, I’d forgotten all about summer Santa when I felt a tap my shoulder.

“Pardon me,” he said, “I was wondering if I could trouble you for some assistance.” Santa’s manners were impeccable.

“Certainly,” I chirped. I’d been brainwashed to cheerily help even the most obnoxious of tourists, let alone Jolly Old Saint Nick.

“Where would it be best to stand during the parade? As you may imagine, the characters often approach me, and my wife likes to take pictures.”

It was one of those rare moments when you imagine exactly what is going to happen next and then it does. Turning around, there was Mrs. Claus on holiday. A tall, thin woman with a poof of fuzzy white hair, she smiled and held up her camera.

“Come with me,” I said. Leading them to the front of the ride, I strategically placed Santa where the parade route stops in front of the Chinese Theater before turning and heading down Hollywood Boulevard. Across from him, I taped down a V.I.P. box where Mrs. Claus could stand and take pictures. It was a complete abuse of my masking tape authority, but it was for a good cause.

As he predicted, during the parade the Toy Story characters spotted Santa immediately. I marveled as the bouncing man hugged Little Bo Peep, petted Slinky Dog, and posed for pictures with various monkeys who’d been liberated from their barrel.

Fun fact: If you yell “Andy’s coming!” in front of the Toy Story characters they’ll automatically drop to the floor just like in the movies.

Real fact: Not going to happen. Collapsing to the ground might damage the multi-thousand dollar costumes and it’s unsafe for cast members and the guests around them. Plus, some of the costumes are so heavy they might not even be able to get back up.

I knew the people shoved inside those suits were hot and dehydrated. I was dating one of them, so I also knew how bad they smelled. But on that Tuesday, as I watched Santa Claus frolic with the over-sized toys from Toy Story, I was filled with a magical certainty that I had earned my place on the “Nice List” for life.

After the parade, I set about my Sisyphean task of pulling up all of the white tape I’d just laid down when I felt another tap on my shoulder.

“Thank you kindly for your marvelous assistance,” Santa beamed, “My wife was able to get many wonderful pictures.” Mrs. Claus raised her camera and gave it a loving tap. Then, Santa took my hand in both of his. When he let go, there was a wallet-sized photo in the center of my hand. Santa had palmed me the picture as smoothly as one would pay off the maitre d’ of a fancy restaurant. The glossy 3×5 was of him in full Santa Claus regalia: red suit and hat, winking with one finger aside his nose. Despite the heat, I shivered with a childish thrill. The kind that comes from thinking you’ve heard the clip-clop of reindeer on the roof. Flipping over the photo, the inscription on the back read,

Dear Kelly Jean, Always Believe! Love, Santa.

Looking up, Santa and Mrs. Claus hadn’t suddenly disappeared in a puff of mystery but were ambling away hand-in-hand. They’d nearly blended-in with the crowd when I remembered I’d forgotten my name badge at home that morning. Looking down, the one I’d grabbed out of the box of extras bore the name, Bridget. How had Santa known my real name? Did he hear one of my fellow Movie Riders say it? Probably, but maybe…

At the end of my shift, I was walking with my friend and fellow movie rider, David,  taking the lost and found items to the front of the park when he grabbed my arm and motioned over to where Robin Williams was standing. Alone.

“Let’s go say hi!” David grinned, teeth bucking with certainty. His round freckled face, which was perpetually flushed, was even redder from excitement.

“What? No,” I sputtered, “We’re not supposed to.”

“Why not?” he asked, “He’s by himself. We’re backstage so we won’t get him mobbed.”

David confidently strode over to Mr. Williams. I scuttled after him with the lost and found box. Soon the two men were joking and laughing. It wasn’t surprising they hit it off. David went on to become a Disney animator and was crazy in the way most of them are. Knowing The Little Mermaid is my favorite Disney movie, he’d once drawn a caricature of me as Ariel, complete with mermaid body and a smiling Sebastian at my fin. Only, with my massive head of stripper hair and devilishly cocked eyebrow, not to mention my quite well-endowed seashells, I found the picture horrifying. It would take many more years for me (and my breasts) to develop into the bold, sexy creature David depicted.

Back then, I pretended to be oblivious of his infatuation with me. However, if weren’t for David, I would have just walked by Robin Williams that day, stealing a quick peek at him as we passed.

Instead, there I stood, mute and nervously gripping the lost and found box. The Great Movie Ride ends with the trams pulling up in front of a massive film screen for an epic three-minute movie montage. At two minutes and 15 seconds, Robin Williams calls out,

“Gooooooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!” Now, here he was.

Maybe Robin Williams viewed my stunned silence as a challenge because, rifling through the box, he put on an impromptu comedy show with the items inside. First, he donned a black Mickey beanie hat, the kind with the ears, and then playfully tried on a pair of glasses from the Muppets Vision 3-D show. He asked where we worked and when David told him The Great Movie Ride he said,

“My family and I rode that one today. What a shit show, my Lord, have you noticed how the Munchkins are on their last legs?”

I blushed, embarrassed because he was right. We’d all complained to our managers about how the bobbing Munchkins were noticeably off-time with the music lately.

“You can’t say anything, I get it,” he continued, “but you know what I’m talking about.” Then, unbelievably, Robin Williams burst into song. His voice high-pitched and warbling as he purposefully moved his jaw out of sync with the words:

We represent the Lollypop Guild,

The Lollypop Guild,

The Lollypop Guild

And in the name of the Lollypop Guild,

We wish to welcome you to Munchkinland.

Finally, I laughed. Pausing his performance, Robin Williams locked his dancing blue eyes on mine, commanding my field of vision. It was my turn to speak. To say something, anything. But what do you say to a larger-than-life person who suddenly becomes real and is standing right in front of you? OMG, my sister and I LOVED watching Mork & Mindy! It’s not like I could actually tell Robin Williams how the year before, shortly after my friend was killed in a drunk driving accident, I spent my 18th birthday curled in a ball watching Dead Poets Society over and over to keep from going completely numb. That if there was a desk right here, right now, I would stand on it.

Instead, pulling the wallet-sized photo out of my pocket, I spoke this solitary sentence to Robin Williams. “I met Santa Claus today, and he gave me this.”

Taking the picture from me, Robin Williams flipped it over and in a booming voice read,

“Dear Kelly Jean! Always Believe, Love Santa.”

Fun fact: I quit my job because I once met Santa Claus and Robin Williams on the same day at Disney World and seeing Night at the Museum reminded me to Always Believe.

Real fact: I am so lost, I didn’t know what else do to. I’ve watched the people around me get married, start families, move away, make partner, change careers, even get divorced and then married again. Meanwhile, I’m still going around and around. I stopped caring, stopped doing my job right, so I jumped off the track. I quit because Always Believe is all I’ve ever had and I’m terrified of what’s going to happen to me when it’s gone.

Here’s what the movies don’t teach you about big dramatic moments, in real life they are absolutely terrifying. Like, ice cream and wine for dinner for a week, terrifying. There is no fade to black followed by a guaranteed one year later epilogue where everything has magically worked out for the main character. Larry Daley will inevitably go on to bigger and better things, forever changed by his transcendent experience at the museum. I, meanwhile, may be truly fucked.

When you are 19 and in love for the first time, it is so much easier to Always Believe. Santa doesn’t tell you how scary it is being single and paying rent in New York City. Or, trying to figure out if you should sign-up for Obamacare or go for Cobra. For the first time in almost a decade, I have no idea what I am going to do tomorrow. How exciting?

Kelly Jean FitzsimmonsKelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Her work has appeared in the Newtown Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, Liars’ League NYC, Serving House Journal, Hypertext Magazine, and HiLoBrow. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University and combined her love for theater and writing to create No, YOU Tell It!, a hybrid story incubator slash performance series that supports storytellers as they strengthen their true-life tale on the page and experience someone else’s story on stage. More info and weekly podcast at: Follow her on Twitter: @NoYouTellIt.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Rachel K

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