A Ride on the Lilly Belle

Life’s treasured moments arrive unexpected

I spent Sunday morning planning my funeral. It had been a typical lazy Sunday when I had a “moment.” I created a list of my ten favorite pictures; I wanted to make sure my wife (Clair) would know the ones I want shown when I’m laid to rest. This was not a morbid moment, it was joyful.

Inside the Disneyland Railroad's Lilly Belle

Hundreds of family pictures play through a slideshow on our living room television when it’s not actively being used. I was doing something on my laptop when the slideshow played in my peripheral vision. One picture in particular from a family vacation in 2009 caught my attention and sent me down the path. It was an unplanned, everyday moment. Driving home from that vacation, we decided to grab lunch at Joe’s Crab Shack. While the situation was ordinary, the moment captured in that picture was not. The joy radiates through. Though it was our lunch stop at Joe’s that got me started, it was the second picture on my funeral list that inspired this post.

In December of 2015 we took a family trip to Los Angeles which included two full days at Disneyland. Two full days for the rest of the family, that is. I missed the majority of the first day because of two major events that went down back at the office shortly before we left for vacation. One of these necessitated ninety minutes of conference calls and the other required me to attend a three-hour video conference. To see my family off as they left for Day One at Disneyland while I remained tethered to my laptop was a disappointment for all of us.

This cloud did contain a silver lining. Because we knew a short time before leaving home about the trip interruptions, the owners of the company agreed to whatever I wanted – within reason – to make up for the half-day my family would be spending at Disneyland without me.

It’s difficult to overstate how much of a Walt Disney fan I am (though I readily acknowledge that professionally I’m much more of a Roy than a Walt). As such, I knew a way existed to make one day at Disneyland feel like two – the VIP tour. The tour includes concierge planning, priority access to just about everything (we got on most rides by walking in through the exit route – very frowned upon without a “vested” VIP host), reserved seating for the fireworks and parades, and just about any perk you could imagine. This is how Tom Brady and Gisele take their family to Disneyland.

With my company’s blessing, Clair booked the VIP tour for the second day and requested someone with a lot of knowledge about Walt Disney. A few calls later and we learned that Rebecca would be our tour guide. Not to jump too far ahead in the story, but in the year 2016, the most uttered phrase by any member of the Devers Family was “I wish Rebecca was here.”

Any disappointment I felt on missing the majority of day one was overcome exponentially by the VIP Tour on day two. The friendliness and helpfulness of Disney cast members is legendary, and Rebecca took that to another level. She treated us like true VIPs, arranged for all meals, would hold tables for us while we ordered counter-service food and snacks, and made sure we got to do everything we wanted in the park at least once (including a memorable second ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure where we didn’t even have to get out of the jeep – Rebecca raised her hand, waved it in a circle, and the attendants sent us on again). She wasn’t allowed to share any specific names, but we received the same treatment from her as A-list Hollywood celebrities receive.

On Walt knowledge, Rebecca was top-notch. Literally. She confessed early in the day that Disney had given a Walt quiz to several of the tour guides and paired her with us when she scored the top grade. I knew a lot about Walt and the park already, but she told me stories and facts I’d never heard before. She was able to list several current park employees who worked at Disneyland back in the days when Walt strolled the park greeting guests, posing for pictures, and picking up trash. Many times during the day the kids grew restless waiting for me to stop peppering Rebecca with questions so we could get on a ride. Which brings us to the Lilly Belle.

At the very beginning of the day, Rebecca asked us for our list of must-do’s. Besides “everything,” we specifically named seeing the new Star Wars area, meeting Chewbacca (Clair’s request), and riding the Lilly Belle.

In today’s world of one-upsmanship and extreme rides, the Lilly Belle is an antiquated experience, by design. It’s a special railroad car that acts as the caboose on only one of Disneyland Railroad’s four trains. A Victorian parlor car, the Lilly Belle was designed together by the Disney Imagineers and Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife. The car acted as her own private club at Disneyland where she entertained her friends and special visitors, as well as a refuge for her to escape to and rest.

The Lilly Belle isn’t always in service, and even when in service it’s only available to VIP guests, so we were lucky to be there on a day when she was available. The ride itself lasted less than twenty minutes at a maximum speed of 10mph, and wouldn’t be considered by many park-goers as “thrilling.” Still, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the most significant 20 minutes of 2015 for me. It was probably three months later when the significance of that moment struck me.

That’s how life is. Moments of true significance arrive unexpected. They sneak up on us, sometimes not revealing themselves until long after the moment has passed. A game of catch, an unplanned lunch stop, an injury soothed by the loving care of a parent, or a mile-long train ride encircling an area where the magic is supposed to happen.

For me, that one picture can wipe away days, weeks, even months of difficulty. It’s just one of exactly 292 Clair took that day, and while they are all fondly remembered, there is magic in that particular one that captures the entire day. It’s the one that overwhelms my heart, reminds me of how truly blessed I am, and let’s me know that heaven for me are those treasured moments spent with the four people on earth who mean more to me than anything else in this life.

Grab these moments. Hold on to them for dear life. They act as a reservoir of joy, a savings account we can dip into on those days that are less than magical. Days when we struggle. Days that challenge us. Days when we wonder if it’s worth the trouble. It is. It always is.

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