The Hydrolators. A row of specially designed, retro-futuristic elevators ready to take guests under the ocean to visit Seabase Alpha. I held my father’s hand and waited for my family’s turn to board. I tapped my feet, eyes darting over the crowd of sunscreen-scented tourists, cameras at the ready. They went inside the Hydrolators, the doors closed, and a minute later, another group would board.
I was ten years old, and I wouldn’t put my head underwater in a pool unless suitably bribed. During the swimming lessons my mother insisted I take at the YMCA, I clung to whatever flotation device I was offered. That pool, with its dim, sickly green lighting, appeared bottomless. The instructor said I could float on my own if I just laid back and trusted the water to hold me.
But I knew things could sink. Water swallows them up. I kept my white knuckle grip on the kickboard.
My parents and I entered The Living Seas pavilion mostly knowing what to expect. There was a short movie about the ocean and a ride that took you around a coral reef. Yes, water and I didn’t get along, but there was a fight going on inside me.
I was the kid who told his preschool teacher that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and then had to explain what that was to his classmates). I was the kid who checked out every Isaac Asimov branded book about space from my elementary school’s library, one by one. I was the kid who wanted to spend a big chunk of our trip to Disney World going to as many of the attractions at Epcot as we possibly could.
That was the battle: Science is cool! vs. Your watery death is an inevitability.
The crowd thinned out and we waited to move up. I started sniffling. Impatient twitching turned into fearful trembling.
I knew that Body Wars didn’t really shrink my family down and inject us into somebody’s body to swoop around inside their capillaries. I knew that when Pluto snuck up behind me at breakfast and put his gigantic mouth on top of my head, it was just a person in a suit.
But an elevator? Those are real.
One of the Disney World employees saw me and came over to talk. She asked what I was scared of and I told her that I was afraid of going down so deep.
She could have taken us to an exit. She could have said it was alright to pass on something you were scared of and left it at that.
Instead, she showed me a door. She lead my family off to the side of the Hydrolators to a door marked for staff use only and pushed it open for me to look through.
I saw the other side of the Hydrolators. They didn’t go anywhere.
The Epcot employee explained to me that there were a lot of effects that happened in the Hydrolators to make it feel like you were moving, but it was just for show. Something they did to make the ride feel more special. And then the doors on the other side would open.
She asked if I still wanted to go on the ride, and I nodded. She pointed to the line of people getting ready to get into the cars that would take us all around the reef and said we could head right over.
But I wanted to go back and see the Hydrolators. I wanted to see the bubbles. I wanted to feel the shaking. I wanted to see the rock walls moving behind the elevator glass to simulate sinking deep into the ocean.
I wanted to learn how this whole exhibit had made me ignore all the obvious red flags that a science-minded kid should have recognized (Such as “How would they build an undersea base in Orlando, which is in the middle of Florida’s peninsula?”). I wanted to laugh at myself for being afraid of this magic trick.
Peering through that door opened up worlds to me. That moment carried greater resonance when I got around to reading Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard. The memory was sitting in the background as I watched Jurassic Park and thought about how maybe paleontology wasn’t for me, but there might be something to storytelling and film. I still think about that moment in a more literal sense, like when my wife and I went to Universal Studios, and I spent time on the rides looking for the tricks. Trying to spot the seams of the illusions. That moment even crept up during my first encounters with Buddhism.
But maybe the most important part of that moment for me to remember is the compassion of the employee, and how she did more than just try to calm me down and keep the ride going. She showed me that there could be joy both in being tricked and in discovering how it had happened; that skepticism and wonder don’t need to be mutually exclusive.