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Scene feature: Junior takes Disney trip on research grant

Tae Andrews | Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Every kid, college or otherwise, has the same: to go to Disney World. Junior Andrew Nesi did just that this semester, but his dream trip took on a fairy tale twist different than most people making the trip to the Mecca of magic.

He did it for free.

Two of Nesi’s classes this semester – U.S. Environmental History and Disney in Film and American culture – required long final papers. The first required an analysis of nature in an American source and the second called for a research paper on anything Disney-related. So naturally, Nesi, who writes a biweekly column for The Observer, did what any resourceful college kid would – he decided to kill two literary birds with one stone and combine the papers with a trip to Orlando to do research on Disney World and nature.

Nesi spent five days in Orlando from Nov. 1 through Nov. 5. A Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) grant paid for his airfare, hotel, rental car, park tickets and meals during the trip. Nesi footed the bill for souvenirs and a picture of himself on Splash Mountain. He spent the first day reading local newspaper clippings from the 1970s in the Orlando Public Library, researching the beginnings of Disney World and the initial plans for the park. Nesi then spent three days in Disney World. That included a behind-the-scenes tour of the Animal Kingdom on the first day, a trip to EPCOT visit to “Future World,” an obligatory trip to the Magic Kingdom for fireworks, a nighttime ride on Splash Mountain, a Jungle Cruise, quality time spent in Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland and a stay at the high-end Animal Kingdom Lodge.

After talking with Disney experts about nature, Nesi learned that park officials have to reconcile their wish to keep the park a “natural” environment while still making it appealing to children. Originally, park officials didn’t want to have Disney characters strewn about the place, but high demand forced them to accede to the wishes of their customers. Even so, they continue to try and keep animated animals away from the real ones. As Nesi put it: “The monkeys will never see Balloo.” (Fun fact: the Animal Kingdom uses biodegradable paper straws, which Nesi describes as “weird to use” but are supposedly better for the environment)

“Like EPCOT, I think the Magic Kingdom focuses on nature as a tool of progress,” he said. “[It’s] not something to be conserved for its own sake.”

Of course, Nesi had to do his homework before going out to play. After writing a five-page grant proposal, obtaining a letter of recommendation and drafting a budget proposal, he applied for a grant through UROP.

The rest, as they say, is history – although Nesi wasn’t sure his proposal would be taken seriously. “I was worried that they wouldn’t believe me that it was a legitimate project,” he said, “so I had to do pretty substantial research before I proposed the idea to demonstrate that I was serious about this and I wasn’t just in it for the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle.”

“Going to Disney alone was fun because it let me move at my own pace and ride whatever I wanted whenever I wanted,” he said, noting that lines are much shorter for singles than for groups. “But you also feel sort of creepy sometimes walking around alone, standing in line behind little kids and taking extensive notes.”

Like many other young people who have visited Disney, Nesi said his only regret was that he had to return home. He lamented the change in climate in particular, mentioning that on his last day in Florida it was 85 degress. When he got home, “it was flurrying.”

To answer the obligatory question: Nesi did see Mickey Mouse during his time in Orlando, three times in all, dressed once as a Park Ranger, once for a parade and once to meet kids in his house in the Animal Kingdom.

“He’s a pretty versatile guy,” Nesi said. “I even took a picture of him.”

He went on to say that he has three favorite Disney rides from the trip, one from each park. “In the Animal Kingdom, it was definitely Kilimanjaro Safari,” he said. The ride takes thrill seekers on a no-boundaries tour complete with lions, giraffes and elephants. Nesi said his EPCOT favorite was a new ride called “Soarin,'” which takes riders on a mock flyover of California complete with the smell of fresh oranges. “It was a great ride,” he said. Finally, Nesi said his favorite Magic Kingdom ride was, and has always been, Splash Mountain, having ridden it seven times during his most recent visit. “The drop always gets me, even if the rest of the ride can be kind of annoying,” he said.

To wit, Nesi rates “The Lion King” his favorite Disney film, but cites “Beauty and the Beast” as a “close second.”

“The Lion King has it all,” he said. “The animation is great, and the music is even better. But the best scene in any Disney movie has to be in Beauty and the Beast. When they’re dancing in the ballroom, the animation takes you up to the ceiling and swoops down through the chandelier to them dancing. It’s the best animation I’ve seen all semester in my Disney in Film and American Culture class.”

Having conquered the Magic Kingom, Nesi has since contemplated setting his sights on new research opportunities. “I loved the research experience,” he said. “I’m also considering applying for other grants to work in Beijing on another paper this summer on American Media Coverage of the Olympics.” He also hasn’t ruled out a second trip, this time to California’s Disneyland, to build on his current research.

“When you tell people you’re going on a research trip to Disney World, or that you’re taking a class that requires you to watch the ‘Little Mermaid,’ they tend to laugh,” Nesi said. “But this was a serious project. Obviously, it was a lot of fun, too, but it was research first and foremost.”

Nesi plans to spend time during the Thanksgiving break in the Hesburgh Library to write his paper.

“What’s great about funding grants like this,” he said, “is that it encourages kids to think big – and creatively – about the possibilities for what they can do with their time here.”