Former Taliban Hostage Survives Disney
War correspondent Sean Langan’s made it through his latest challenge: Disney World with his two boys, aged 5 and 6
When I told friends about my holiday plans, they reacted as though I was heading to a labour camp. “Disney World in Florida? Just you and the kids? Are you insane?” Others thought that I was committing some kind of social crime: “What about the queues?” they wailed, “and the hordes of chavs?”
Even the PR woman from Disney seemed a little unconvinced. “Walt Disney World in Florida is vast,” she explained, in a sales pitch that sounded more like a health warning. “It’s the size of Greater Manchester. I seriously recommend you plan your itinerary in advance, otherwise you’ll end up exhausted and miss some of the attractions.” My ex-wife thought I was making a big mistake – our two boys are only 6 and 5 – and even questioned whether I would survive such a physical ordeal. “It’s up to you,” she finally relented. “But it sounds like my worst nightmare.”
Ten days in Disney didn’t sound too bad to me, though, and I was confident I could survive the physical ordeal of staying in a four-star hotel. Having lived through my own worst nightmare on my last trip abroad – I was locked in a dark cell, threatened with death and suffered regular bouts of fever and dysentery – I thought: how bad can a holiday in Disney World really be? For the past ten years I have worked in some of the world’s worst conflict zones, making television documentaries about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. I’d been shot at, blown up, attacked by mobs and in summer last year, while filming in Afghanistan, I was kidnapped by the Taleban and held hostage for three months. Meeting Goofy at the breakfast buffet might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s better than being woken up by masked gunmen each morning. So, all things considered, a holiday in the Sunshine State of Florida seemed easy. What could possibly go wrong?
On our arrival at Orlando, the boys and I concurred that it would be a sensible idea to junk our cheapo-economy car, and upgrade to a top-of-the-range convertible. We set off along the highway singing “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Disney we go…” and then it hit me: the unbearable heat and intense humidity. It was like driving into Baghdad. And that was before we heard the sound of gunfire and artillery.
“Daddy, are we driving into a hurricane?” Suddenly the skies were filled with the shock and awe of rolling thunder and lightning strikes. Without pausing to think, I pressed the button to activate the roof and watched in horror as the wind ripped it clean off the car. My boys cowered in the back seat, staring at me in disbelief. It was like the time I met a US Marine in Helmand, southern Afghanistan. As the mortar bombs rained down on us, he looked at me cowering in fear and laughed: “Welcome to Hell, man!” It seemed like the right attitude to adopt, so I laughed as the rain poured down on our heads and shouted: “Welcome to Florida, boys.”
As winter approaches, Florida is a dream destination and now would be an ideal time to go to Disney World. But I went in August, during the school holidays. I expected crowds, but none of the brochures mentioned that Florida is swept by storms in August, presaging the start of the hurricane season. It made for a heady combination: heat, humidity, crowds and an expanse of demanding terrain. It’s what they call a “Hostile Environment” on BBC training courses, and I’m glad that I was paying attention. Because by the end of Day 1 I realised that Disney World in summer is more intense than many of the war zones I had worked in.
My jet-lagged children woke at 5am and by midday they were wilting. The family next door was less fortunate; the children had woken at 1am. We all met up at the hotel pool to recover, but were ordered out when a storm warning was announced over the Tannoy. I retired to our room in the Yacht Club, a wonderfully Disneyfied version of a posh hotel in the Hamptons, which became our oasis and base camp. In war zones preparation is all, and those who are not prepared die. With that approach in mind, I sat down and drew up a plan. Like a soldier off to battle, I checked my kit: water bottles, sun cream, hats, a fistful of dollars and entrance tickets. Check. And, like any soldier, remember that you march on your feet and your stomach. So wear good walking shoes and stock up at the breakfast buffet. Having done all that, I set off with my boys and took the bus to the Animal Kingdom. And guess what? Despite the crowds and occasional thunderstorm, we had a blast. Having mapped out our route, and with fast-passes to hand, we went directly to the best rides: Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids.
What all the whiners and snobs (most of whom have never been to Disney) forget is that seen through a child’s eye it’s an incredible and magical place. When I took my children to Disneyland Paris they genuinely believed that Tinkerbell made the beds and stood spellbound when Captain Hook leant over them at breakfast and leered. And in Florida, on our expedition up Mount Everest, my boys were sure they met the real yeti.
My ex-wife often says that I “over–excite” our children. But that’s the point. Like all single dads – perhaps through guilt or simple longing – I like to overcompensate and make our time together special. Especially when we go on our “boys'” holidays. We’ve done Center Parcs, Playmobil Land in Germany, holidays in the Algarve at their grandmother’s house, and plenty of mini-adventures, including treasure-hunting weekends with metal detectors. When they are older I plan to take them on more outdoor adventure-type holidays, and we’re planning our first “Indiana Jones” safari to Africa. But at such a young age Disney is ideal. Nothing makes up for lost time quite like Disney, and our holiday left an imprint as big as a yeti’s.
Disney does what Thorpe Park and all the others will never be able to copy: create a world of make-believe. As we were strapped into our command-module seats in Space Mission, Gabriel and Luke asked me how dangerous it was to travel in space and whether we would make it back alive. I looked at my sons, and in my best impression of a US Marine, I said: “I don’t know, sons. I hope so.” And with that we felt the rocket lift off. “Yee-haa!”
In between our expeditions we would return to the Yacht Club for some R&R. Special Forces soldiers always sleep between special ops, and I made sure that my boys did the same. That way we managed to do two kingdoms a day, one in the morning and one at night. With planning and preparation we not only survived but thrived.
Note – This article was first published in The Times, 28th November 2009.