Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Race of a Lifetime

“The first member of the 2008 Disneyland Resort Ambassador Team is...”

Drum roll.

My heart pounded.

There I was, standing on a stage in front of Cinderella’s Castle.  Hundreds and hundreds of eyes staring at me.  The Disneyland Band just behind me getting ready to burst into a celebratory song.  The president of the Disneyland Resort, Ed Grier, was about to announce the first of only two names chosen to represent the Resort to the world.

I breathed in as he ripped the envelope open.  My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“Liz Hetzel!”

There was silence for just a second as I realized that my name was just called, and then I was overwhelmed by cheers and screams as my friends jumped to their feet in congratulations.  The current ambassador walked over to me and attached my ambassador pin to my lapel.  I could feel the weight of this role as the pin hung there glimmering gold and beautiful.

In 1965 Walt Disney just had too much to do.  There was the Mary Poppins premiere, and the tenth anniversary of Disneyland, and the World’s Fair, and it goes on and on.  So, he hired one Cast Member to represent the Park when he couldn’t be there.  The Ambassador would appear on TV with him and travel the world in style, telling everyone about Disneyland.  And now, that was me.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.

My year was filled with unbelievable moments - hard experiences, tears, and an abundance of joy.  I wouldn’t change this year for anything.  My days spent with Julie Andrews, making families' dreams come true, or celebrating children who had made a difference in the world will always be with me.  But there was one day that still stops me in my tracks when I think about it.

One of my assignments was to travel around the country with Mickey Mouse visiting children in hospitals.  This was life changing.  We would walk into these sterile beige rooms, and the parent’s faces showed the sadness, the exhaustion, and the concern filling their minds.  They always tried to hide it from their children, but I could see it.

There was always one moment with every family where we would turn the corner into the room and Mickey’s face would make them forget where they were.  For half a second everyone in the room would forget about the sickness, forget about the needles and the beeping of the machines.  They would forget their troubles.

The memory of watching Mickey’s silhouette enter a child’s hospital room still gets me choked up.
One day in Seattle, Mickey and I were moving room to room.  Some rooms we could only walk into.  Some rooms were quarantined so we would just stand in the doorway.  And some rooms are sealed shut.  Mickey and I would just stand at the window and wave excitedly.  Sometimes the kids would run up to the glass door and put their little hands on the glass.  Mickey would put his huge glove up to their hand.  Oh, how their little faces would light up!  I loved it so much.

We arrived in one room that had no quarantine, but as we were about to step into the room, the mother stopped us.  Through a quivering voice she told us that her son was very sick and was probably too tired to have us visit.  We stepped back and gave her a little Mickey doll for the boy.  Just as we were walking to the next room I saw the little boy open his eyes just slightly.

Mickey and I were in a room two doors down, and I glanced back down the hall toward that little boy’s room, and there he was.  Still inside of his room, but shyly peeking his head out into the hall to get a glimpse of the Mouse.  I motioned to Mickey and whispered, “Come peek your head out here.”

Mickey very slowly peeked his head out the door, but of course the first thing that the child can see is the corner of Mickey’s huge ear.  As his ear got bigger and bigger, the child’s eyes got bigger and bigger.  And when Mickey finally peeked out the child jerked his head back into his room with a little giggle.  Mickey just stayed there, peeking out into the hall and when the little boy slowly peeked out the door, Mickey jerked his head back into the room.

And with that, this little frail sick boy laughed and stepped out into the hallway.  Mickey did the same.  The little boy's mother gasped.  There they were, standing there, staring at each other and as if Mickey were a magnet, the little boy mindlessly started walking toward him.  The only problem is that he was attached to an IV pole.  So, a nurse ran into the room and grabbed the IV pole that the little boy was attached to and quickly followed him.

That hug.  That hug will always be with me.  That little guy hugged Mickey like he was being reunited with his long lost best friend.  The mother started crying and I walked over and put my hand on her back.  Her hand was over her mouth in amazement.  Her eyes filled with tears, and she whispered through her fingers, “He hasn’t been out of his room in weeks.”

I thought the boy would never let go.  After a minute or so, Mickey pulled away and put up one finger asking the boy to wait for a second.  The boy stood patiently as Mickey disappeared behind a wall only to reappear with two little tricycles in tow.

Mickey put them down next to each other and got on one.  His huge yellow shoes on those tiny pedals.  His knees to the side of the tiny handlebars wrapped in huge white gloves.  The seat vanished under his huge red pants.  The entire family and nursing staff laughed with joy.  Mickey covered his mouth and giggled with them.

The little boy hesitantly got on the other trike.

Then, Mickey leaned forward toward the handlebars and looked to me for the cue to start the race.  The little boy leaned forward and looked to me.  I look at the nurse, unsure if this is a good idea.  And she says, “Any exercise is good at this point.”

I look down at the two of them.




And with that, I watched as that little boy disappeared from the hospital.  The walls morphed from beige and boring to the lights and colors of Main Street.  I could smell the vanilla in the air from the candy shop.  I could hear the whistle of the train entering the station.

He laughed and laughed as he made his way down this small hallway with his pal Mickey at his side (and a nurse jogging behind with his IV pole).  When he got to the end of the hall, he closed his eyes and put his head back.  He threw his hands up in the air in freedom and laughed.  This was the race of a lifetime.  He opened his eyes and looked over at Mickey who high-fived him in congratulations.

Slowly, I watch the boy return to the hospital.  He was breathing hard from his first attempt at exercise in weeks.  The walls turned back to beige, and the sterile smell returned.  The little boy dismounted his tricycle and walked it back to the room by the handlebars.  He looked like a little old man with a walker.  The only difference between him and a little old man was the huge smile of a young boy.

He left the tricycle in the hall and headed back into the room.  Mickey followed.  The boy crawled into bed and Mickey tucked him in, nice and tight.  His little legs disappeared under the thin blankets.  Mickey placed the little Mickey doll next to him and offered a high five.  With the little energy he had left, the boy high-fived him and whispered,

“Thanks, Mickey.”

The only two words spoken between these two good friends.

As we left the room, the boy closed his eyes again to rest and the mother thanked us over and over and over again.

I wish I could have explained to her that her little boy just gave me something I will hold onto forever.  That sometimes when things are just as bad as they can possibly be, you will be given the one thing you need to go on, to try again, to keep moving forward.  Her little boy will forever be an inspiration to me, reminding me that no matter how hard it is, get out of bed and don’t let a moment pass you by.