Once upon a time (exactly 25 years ago in fact), 12,000 young, enthusiastic and adventurous people descended on a mysterious location one hour east of Paris. And all these youngsters were magically transformed into ‘cast members’ by passing through a special little school called Disney University. We came out smiling and laughing, excited about a wondrous new place about to open called EuroDisney. We were immortal.
And lots of us were given jobs like room-cleaning, popcorn-selling and heating up french fries. Some of us got super lucky and landed once-in-a-lifetime jobs like driving a steam train, playing a famous character and dancing in parades, performing as real live cowboy, or looking after VIPs and celebrities.
I landed that last job. I genuinely did have a wonderful other-worldly experience in the company of the likes of Gloria Estefan, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Eva Gabor. And Michael Jackson. Here’s me front left in a garish blue uniform, and MJ hiding at the back after we mobbed him with dozens of characters and a marching band.
Also in the picture is the best Mary Poppins I ever met. She was played by Ali Flavell, cheeky and in character enough to turn to Michael Jackson and ask earnestly, “And who might you be young man?” He loved it…
We were having a whale of a time. Or so we thought.
Ali (aka a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Mary Poppins) was about to be diagnosed with a brain tumour, whilst I was showing the first, mild signs of multiple sclerosis. Ali underwent some seriously aggressive treatment back in the UK, and made a pretty good recovery after six months of rehab. Meanwhile. I blundered on, oblivious to the ticking time bomb in my brain and spine, the protective sheath around my central nervous system being quietly chipped away by my own immune system.
I wasn’t diagnosed with MS until 15 years later, Ali started getting unsteady on her feet over time as the ravages of her radiotherapy treatment kicked in. Both of us are now in wheelchairs.
12th April 2017, Ali and I met again at the 25th anniversary celebrations of EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris.) Here we are, neither of us any good on our feet, but both happy as Larry. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m the one on the left, and she’s the pretty one on the right.
Life goes on. Both of us are married, both of us are parents to two boys. I live a happy, if very different life to the one I imagined. And in times of doubt, I fear very much for what my future holds. I can’t talk directly for Ali, but every single pic I see her in, she has a beaming smile. And when I talked to her last week, she was full of plans for the future. And just like 25 years ago, she remains blessed with an enormous sense of fun.
I came away elated from bumping into Mary Poppins again, and more determined than ever to live life to the full. Who knows what’s around the corner? We’re both rather better off than Michael Jackson after all…