Travel

The True Confessions of a Disney Adult

Inside the enduring appeal of the Most Magical Place on Earth

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Walt Disney once said, “Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever.” It’s a heartstring-tugging sentiment I’ve come to live by throughout many of my travels, but no place embodies the statement quite like Walt Disney World. Cliches be damned, this colossal theme park complex more than lives up to its majestic moniker of the Most Magical Place on Earth, all while sparking my laughter, imagination, and dreams. It’s no wonder I’ve been in the throes of a Disney obsession for about five years.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m a 35-year-old gay man with no kids, who not only frequents the parks alone, but fully leans into the G-rated euphoria of it all by posing with characters alone, eating Mickey-shaped waffles alone, and riding Frozen Ever After, an EPCOT water attraction whose primary audience is young girls clad in Elsa merchandise-you guessed it-totally alone. And despite the resting bitch face you might see in my on-ride photos, Disney World is my happy place.

Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac

As a native East Coaster, I grew up visiting Disney World on family vacations, and they’ve always been some of my most treasured travel memories. But my adult obsession with Disney World locked in like a vice grip in 2018, when I was briefly living in Florida. I decided to buy an annual pass and put my Disney adoration to the test; at the end of my three-month stay, I’d either be permanently put off, or forever a Disney Adult. I proceeded to spend almost every day of that months-long span in the parks, usually alone, and resurfaced with a profound understanding of Disney’s magic. To me, it’s a place of sheer perfection, where meticulous craftsmanship and cutting-edge innovations ensure some of the best rides on Earth, where the themed lands are so immersive and enchanting you feel worlds away from your own, and where the omnipresent happiness thaws even the Grinchiest of hearts.Clearly, kids love Disney World, and many of the attractions, rides, restaurants, and experiences cater to children and families, but I refuse to let social norms stop me from having the time of my life on the Frozen ride or posing arm-in-arm for photos with Sleeping Beauty. The idea that Disney has a lot to offer adults is truly nothing novel. Just look at its portfolio of Pixar movies, which use whimsical animation to explore themes like losing a spouse or aging out of childhood wonder. Couple this with attractions like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a ride so jarring it leaves grown men shaking, and it’s clear that Disney sometimes has an older crowd in mind. But the thing that draws me back multiple times a year, as a continued Annual Passholder, is that timeless joy that Walt opined about-something that not only transcends age, but gets stronger with it.

Flickr/Joe Penniston
Flickr/Joe Penniston
Flickr/Joe Penniston

As much as I loved traipsing around the Magic Kingdom as a kid, I now have a heightened appreciation for the intricate nuances that go into the Disney machine and make it such a glossy nirvana. Rest assured I go on all those same kiddie rides of my youth, but riding Peter Pan’s Flight, Soarin’, and Kilimanjaro Safaris as an adult allows me to experience them through a more refined lens, awe-struck by the elaborate detail and planning that went into every component, as well as the careful efforts to uphold them for future generations.

It’s not just the parks or the rides, either. As an adult, I’m happy to simply observe Disney’s multi-faceted range from any vantage point, unhassled by a childish sense of urgency to be constantly on rides. I’ll take in Disney’s BoardWalk, with all its kitschy, Atlantic City-style ambience, or make a pilgrimage to the restaurant-and entertainment-filled splendour of Disney Springs. I’ll even hang out in the lobbies of hotels I can’t afford, admiring the majesty of Disney’s Grand Floridian or the tropical artistry of the Polynesian.

Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World

There are some things that I wouldn’t recommend doing as a solo adult at Disney, like riding the Magic Kingdom carousel, but luckily I can do something else that more than makes up for it: Drink. Some of the best cocktails I’ve had anywhere have been consumed at Disney World’s restaurants and bars-think The Polite Pig, The Hollywood Brown Derby, and Enchanted Rose. And kids are great, but it’s utterly refreshing to be a lone adult with a cocktail while countless harried parents struggle with restless children licking handrails in line.

Disney Springs
Disney Springs
Disney Springs

Over the years, I’ve established some personal traditions and mainstays that make me feel a sense of home at Disney, which adds to the enduring warmth of it all. I like to see movies at Disney Springs’ colossal AMC theatre, pair a pitch-perfect Manhattan with a Cobb salad at The Hollywood Brown Derby, and ride Frozen Ever After at least three times within the span of a week. But lately, nothing makes me happier than a newer tradition: Visiting with my soon-to-be husband Nathan.

Last year, I took Nathan there for his first-ever trip to Disney World, and I practically combusted with glee. Sharing this supremely nostalgic place with him and witnessing it through the eyes of a first-timer unlocked a whole new level of magic-and proved a great way to get to know each other better.

Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac

Together, we rode Splash Mountain, where I learned that his fear of heights is not to be taken lightly (no matter how many derpy animatronics are involved), and explored Tom Sawyer Island while I told him how I used to be terrified of the dark caves as a kid. I also had the opportunity to show him everything I love about Disney, from the Imagineering feats of rides like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, to watching Daisy Duck wordlessly flirt with my man right in front of me.

All this stuff, these cherished memories and magical moments, only gets more enchanting with age. I just renewed my annual pass for the fifth time, and whether I’m there alone or riding Frozen Ever After hand-in-hand with my person, I look forward to many more years of ageless imagination and timeless joy.

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Matt Kirouac is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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