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Cinderella and me

Emily Wood
Emily Wood, 2, of Winter Garden, Fla., sleeps in one of the three bedrooms of the Cinderella Suite at Disney's Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, Fla. Disney randomly picked Emily's family for a night in its new Cinderella Suite. The family also served as Grand Marshals at the parade, were given best seats at the Cinderella Royal Dinner and were allowed to watch the nightly fireworks from the park's castle. Travis Reed / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

I am in hundreds of strangers' vacation pictures - the bewildered guy in the sputtering truck at the front of the Walt Disney World parade. I'm sitting next to Daisy Duck and wearing mouse ears embroidered with my name, waving like an idiot and smiling like I just won a toaster.

That's the first place they put you when you've won an overnight stay in the three-room suite inside the Cinderella Castle. It's the crown jewel in Walt Disney Co.'s "Year of a Million Dreams" sweepstakes, the squeal-inducing fantasy of millions of little girls - and my home for the next 17 hours.

Each day, Disney randomly chooses one family to spend the night in its new Cinderella Suite, but I got to stay there thanks to an exclusive invitation from Disney to The Associated Press. (Families stay there for free, and the suite cannot be rented, but The AP paid $587 for my stay, which was the estimated value for the overnight.) Staying in the suite also means I'm also grand marshal of the parade, the honorary guest in an event called the "Dreams Come True Dinner," created by Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, and the front-of-the-line guy at anything I want to ride.

I am a tattooed 27-year-old guy with Buddy Holly glasses and no children. But I'm just not that into princesses. So to enhance my appreciation, I've adopted a family with two little girls (ages 5 and 2) to stay with me.

I am tired of smiling and waving when the parade ends, and I wonder how the full-grown adults dressed up like Goofy and Minnie do it every single day. Besides that, what will become of all those pictures when they make it back to Iowa or Idaho or Kalamazoo?

The Magic Kingdom is designed so you can see the castle from just about anywhere, and the walk to our suite seems longer than it should. We are led up a far pathway, past a side door and into a small room with stone walls.

Our guide, dressed as a 17th century castle guy, swipes a card to call our elevator and takes us four stories up. The suite is brand new. The elevator is not, and moves eerily a few inches up and down when it's boarded or stopping.

Each of us is given a swipe key with our name and "Cinderella Suite" written on it, and before long there are bite marks all over 2-year-old Emily's. Her sister Hannah has the honor of opening our door the first time.

In this photo provided by Walt Disney World, Associated Press reporter Travis Reed, center, waves from the Grand Marshall float in the World Disney World parade Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007. (AP Photo/Walt Disney World, Charles Stovall) ** NO SALES **Charles Stovall / WALT DISNEY WORLD

There are golden flecks in the floor and ornate squares on the ceiling, making the whole room feel gilded. The desk in the corner is a 17th century Dutch antique with velvet-lined shelves that Disney has retrofitted with a high-speed Internet hookup. There are two queen beds with headboards and a canopy and a fireplace that can't burn anything, but holds a fiberoptic display of flame and pixie dust.

The television in the sitting room is a mirror that converts at the touch of a button, while the "royal bedchamber" TV changes from a framed electronic portrait of Cinderella. There is a television with at least five channels in foreign languages, an array of DVDs (all Disney, of course) and free calls to anywhere on an antique-looking phone.

I get wild ideas about that last part until I remember I don't know anyone in Paris or Tokyo anyway.

Perhaps most impressive is the bathroom, which features a 4-foot square Jacuzzi jet tub with a waterfall faucet, a separate shower that could comfortably fit three and a square toilet. Over the tub are three sparkling mosaics made of hand-cut Italian glass.

All of these things I like - especially the mirror that turns into a TV. But I am disappointed in the minibar. It has juice boxes but no Jack Daniels.

Much of the royal family's day - like the parade and dinner reservations - is preset, so there isn't a lot of time for rides. Emily isn't tall enough for the roller coasters, which basically leaves the other category - the ones where you sit in a car, ride along a track and watch animatronic pirates or fish or jungle people sing and dance.

But because we're staying inside the park and Disney provides us a front-of-the-line escort, we've got to ride something. We end up on Peter Pan's Flight and then the ride whose name Disney refuses to capitalize, it's a small world. When it's over, the girls' father and I are yawning. It's only 5:30 p.m. but we've been on the go nonstop since the parade at 2 p.m.

We have dinner reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table, a place where the Fairy Godmother and other Disney characters weave between diners performing songs. It is expensive, but we aren't paying because it's included in our stay.

Before dinner we finally meet Cinderella. In blond wig, powdered cheeks and lilting voice, she is convincing, and poses for pictures with us. She embraces my arm; I do not tell her I will later be naked in her bathtub.

The restaurant serves everything from hot dogs to prime rib, but they also do not have booze. I found out the hard way after asking for a Sam Adams when I thought our waiter said they have "great beer." Root beer, it turns out, but there is no alcohol at the Magic Kingdom.

I guess that explains our minibar.

Godmother identifies our table as the lucky suite winners during dinner, and the rest of the restaurant offers rousing applause. Later, a woman stops by to ask us where we were when we found out when we won. I feel like a jerk telling her we didn't win anything, it's just that I'm a reporter.

Our Disney escort is waiting sharply when we're done with dinner, which is starting to become a pattern. It almost feels like we're being watched. The pretty girl dressed like a stewardess who guides us around reports into a hand radio whenever "The Royal Family" is on the move. Who is she talking to? I have no idea but it's kind of creepy.

Disney has left princess wands, crowns and Minnie Mouse dolls for the girls back at the suite. They have also turned back the covers on our beds, put out a tray of cookies and traded our barely used bathroom soap for an unopened bar. All of those are hotel luxuries I have never before experienced.

We watch the fireworks show that closes the park through the suite's stained-glass windows, and everyone tries out the Jacuzzi. Separately.

I haven't taken a bath since my mother was holding the wash rag, but I can't resist this thing. I turn on the jets for 20 minutes, thinking there's no way I'll be there longer than 10. They have all kinds of fancy soaps lining the side, and I use some shampoo that smells like weird plants and expensive salons. I finally pry myself out after 16 minutes, feeling like I'm hogging the bathroom.

At about 9:30 p.m. I press 0 for the concierge and ask for an after-hours look outside the castle. You can't really leave the suite without asking, but it somehow doesn't feel like you're trapped. Someone is posted round-the-clock just to handle our requests.

I do literally have the park to myself, but there's not much to do in it because the rides are closed. Everything remains lit up as if it were packed, and piped-in Disney music fills the air. Most striking is the number of trash cans I see - dozens within a few feet of one another - that I never recognized before. They blend in seamlessly when the whole place is cluttered with people.

Back at the suite, Hannah has fallen asleep clutching her Minnie doll but little Emily somehow outlasts her usual 8 p.m. bedtime. She's wearing her tiara upside-down, spinning and banging her wand on the ground in between pleas for more cookies.

She finally crashes at 10:30 in her parents' bed, and the grown-ups follow shortly thereafter. The bed and comforter are soft and thick, and I don't stay up long.

I'm awakened by a 7:35 a.m. call I didn't ask for, to prepare for 9 a.m. breakfast reservations Disney made for us. I spend the next hour trying futilely to go back to sleep as dad plays with the girls in the sitting room.

They don't want to leave the suite, and frankly neither do I.

It's foggy outside when we emerge from the castle, and the park is already full of families just starting their day. I feel strangely like I don't belong - like I've stayed out all night and am watching people go to work the next morning.

I already dread the lines I'll be waiting in. The mouse ears I can do without.