That time we took a Peruvian to Disney World

Pluto, Minh, Pepe, Justin and Goofy at Animal Kingdom

In 2009, Justin volunteered with a Scottish charity for two weeks to provide, by boat, the communities along the Peruvian Amazon River with dental care. That was when he met a then 12-year-old boy named Jose (Pepe) in his tiny village of San Francisco. Although they only hung out for an afternoon, they quickly developed a brotherly bond that would bring Justin back to Peru to visit him and his family year after year. Flash forward to 2014, Pepe is now 18 and legally able to leave home on his own for the first time.

Keep in mind our country’s immigration policies and you’ll understand why getting a visa for an 18-year-old, single, Latin American male to visit the U.S. is not a slam dunk case. It required extensive paperwork, a letter of support and multiple interviews with the American embassy in Lima, but with Justin’s step-by-step help, Pepe was able to jump through all the hoops in order to meet up with us at the place of every child’s dream: Disney World. We were back in the U.S. from Europe for a week and picked Pepe up when we all arrived at the Orlando International Airport.

Justin has experienced many of Pepe’s “firsts,” including his first car ride, his first plane ride… even his first elevator ride! At the beginning, it was hard to gauge what was on Pepe’s mind because he was very quiet, as if to silently digest his new surroundings. To pluck a boy out of the jungles of a third-world country, who doesn’t speak English and drop him in the richest, most spoiled nation in the world must have been overwhelming, but it didn’t take too long for Pepe to warm up to everything.

Justin and Jose at Chick Fil-A

Pepe’s first taste of American fast food

Pepe's first pick for breakfast cereal at Target

Pepe’s first pick for breakfast cereal at Target

Pepe certainly had never experienced anything remotely similar to his time with us before. It was a treat to share with him our love of Disney and to experience it through his eyes, someone with no expectations or sense of entitlement. We took him on all the best rides and shows in all four parks like professional tour guides—Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. The surprising and best part, though, was halfway through the trip seeing how his face lit up when he got the opportunity to meet Mickey and Minnie.

Meeting Mickey and Minnie at Animal Kingdom

Meeting Mickey and Minnie at Animal Kingdom

Who knew this 18-year-old would love and prefer meeting all the Disney characters over classic attractions, like Space Mountain? With an autograph book and Sharpie now in hand, we devoted the remaining days to seeking out every princess and creature we could find. Thanks to the new My Disney Experience mobile app, it was easier than ever to track their meeting times and locations. In the end, we filled his book with 33 signatures and all the pictures to remember his first (but hopefully not last) visit to The Most Magical Place on Earth*.

*For Disney geeks, the tagline The Happiest Place on Earth belongs to Disneyland in California.