I turned 33 today. I survived another year, and after the year I just had, that's no small feat. But that's another story for another time. Instead, I am reminded of another birthday, a birthday filed with wonder, excitement, and sheer terror. It was June 20, 1978. I was turning 6, a birthday that remains the most terrifying day of my life. For it was on that day, in a magical kingdom known as Disney World, that I experienced true horror, the likes of which I had never seen before.
A horror known only as MR. TOAD'S WILD RIDE.
On the surface, it seemed harmless enough. Deep in the heart of Fantasyland, flashing lights, loud music, and animatronic animals beckon to all who wander near, like some candy coated sirens' call. Step right up! Don't miss! The amazing magical joyride through the loveable world of Mr. Toad! See Mr. Toad sing! See Mr. Toad dance! See Mr. Toad having all sorts of Mr. Toad adventures! It's great for the kids! How can you go wrong with a pitch like that? And so there I was, dragging my uncle through the line, hopped up on my seventh $3 coke in the collectable Mickey Mouse squeeze bottle. After what seemed an eternity, we found ourselves at the head of the line, ready to board our Mr. Toad jalopy to set out on our Mr. Toad Wild Ride! The jalopy was a faithful recreation of the open-top, 1920's car that was so popular with talking woodland creatures circa 1978. My uncle picked me up and set my right behind the jalopy's enormous steering wheel and said, "You know what, it's your birthday, you get to drive." Then he gave me a wink and moved to the back of the jalopy. And before I could say anything, the jalopy took off without warning.
I was off on my wild ride with Mr. Toad.
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is nothing more than a brisk journey through a funhouse full of singing animatronic animals dancing to cheesy music and cheap smoke effects. The jalopy winds its way along a track on the floor, all while avoiding the Mr. Toad characters that jump out at you, then deposits you on the other side of the funhouse, dropping you off at a conveniently located gift shop selling Mr. Toad shirts, dolls, and $3 cokes in collectable Mr. Toad squeeze bottles.
So you're probably asking yourself, "What's so scary about that?" Well, when my uncle lifted me up and stuck me behind the wheel of the car, I thought I was REALLY DRIVING. In my 6 year old mind, I was suddenly responsible for every move our jalopy made. If I steered left, the jalopy would go left. If I steered right, the jalopy would go right. And if I didn't do a good job and steer clear of Mr. Toad and his friends, not only could I crash into them, but I could also crash into the back wall of the funhouse, possibly killing me, my uncle, and any other poor soul unlucky enough to cross my path!
In other words, I was now responsible for the safety and well-being of myself and everyone else having a Wild Ride!
The jalopy rode along the track just like it always did, hundreds of times a day, thousands of times a year, each time narrowly avoiding hitting Mr. Toad, the wall of the funhouse, or anything else. But to the 6 year old boy behind the wheel of the jalopy, the boy with no concept of tracks, automated systems, or animatronics, this was a ride straight into hell. My small fingers gripped the oversized wheel in front of me with every once of strength I had. I frantically steered left, narrowly avoiding a head on collision with a hedgehog. But there was a giant mole coming at me! I steered right, speeding past the over-eager underground dweller. No time to catch my breath as another creature sprang up in our path! Sweat poured down my face as I turned the wheel. My uncle just smiled and waved at me, laughing at the Wild Ride we were on. What was he laughing for? Didn't he realize he put a 6 year old boy behind the wheel of a speeding car? Faster and faster we went through the funhouse, zipping past every kind of talking critter you can imagine, each one more determined than the last to leap out in the path of our speeing jalopy. And the jalopy had no foot pedals! I was behind the wheel of a speeding car with NO BRAKES! There was no way to slow us down! We were out of control!
The jalopy finally slowed down and stopped. Everyone got out. And while the other kids were laughing and clamoring for their parents to buy them something, I was shaking and trembling. I gripped the stair rail with white knuckles as I walked up to my parents waiting at the end of the line. They kept saying, "That looked like fun! Do you want to ride it again?" Hell, no, I don't want to ride it again! What are you people, nuts? You almost killed me! On my birthday! With a hedgehog!
It was right then and there I swore I would never take a wild ride with Mr. Toad ever again.
At least not until I was 7 and could handle the pressure better.