The Happiest Places on Earth

Two Ithaca College couples find their utopias

By David McKay Wilson

Places can captivate our dreams and inspire our lives. Places draw people from near and far. Millions of immigrants were drawn to America by tales of streets paved with gold. Ithaca College economist Elia Kacapyr found that a person’s native country may determine how satisfied he or she is with life.

But can a change in location increase one’s happiness? Can a change in latitude really effect a change in attitude, as that Jimmy Buffet song goes?

Two IC couples knew that place would play a role in their journey to happiness. One couple found happiness in Orlando, Florida, home of Walt Disney World, while another found it on Cape Cod, at their 40-acre summer camp. Both are living proof that we can create our own utopia, wherever that may be.

Nancy and Dave Rowitt favor the warm weather and the 20th-century community that has grown around the theme parks built by The Walt Disney Company just outside Orlando, Florida. That’s where the Rowitts raised their two children, who both work at Walt Disney World Resort as part of the creative team that makes the Orlando area the nation’s leading tourist destination.

“It’s a magical place,” says Nancy Rowitt ’74, who plays fife in the Spirit of America Fife & Drum Corps at Disney’s Epcot theme park. “You just feel happy to walk around. There’s always something different to do and see. And you can’t beat the weather.”

The Rowitts were both raised in the New Jersey suburbs, far from sunny Florida. Dave Rowitt ’78 grew up in Clifton while Nancy was just 10 miles away in Wayne.

Nancy had gone to Disneyland as a teenager and loved it. When she was in graduate school at the University of Miami, she took a trip with the marching band to the University of Florida for a football game, and the band made a stop at Walt Disney World.

Dave had also visited Disneyland with his family several times and loved it. His high school band also performed at the Magic Kingdom in the early ’70s.

“When we met years later, he accepted my love for the mouse and gladly agreed to move to Orlando,” says Nancy. “He enjoys it just as much as I do. We just love going to a park and walking around. It is always so beautiful with all the wonderful flowers and nice weather. There is always something new to see or do. And with four theme parks, we have trouble seeing it all!”

Nancy and Dave actually met briefly in 1973, when Dave and his father came to Ithaca College for a tour, and Nancy led the group of aspiring IC students around campus. Dave applied to Ithaca and was accepted, but he didn’t see Nancy again until 1982 when his stepmom set him up on a blind date with her coteacher, who turned out to be that cute Ithaca College tour guide who’d led him around nine years earlier.

Their romance led to marriage a year later, and they soon found a place in Washington Township, another suburban community not far from their roots. Nancy, a music major at Ithaca, taught music in the public schools while Dave, who majored in business, worked at Thomas J. Lipton, supporting sales through the information technology department at the giant tea company.

When their daughter, Lori, was born, Nancy’s mother gave the baby a Mickey Mouse plush doll, and she was hooked.

“Her first word was ‘Mickey,’ not ‘Mommy,’” Nancy says. “But I can live with that. Since then her Disney doll collection has grown to more than 700 dolls.”

In 1990, they decided to pick up and move to Orlando with Lori and their son, Jason.

“We just thought it would be much less of a rat race than in the New York metropolitan area,” Nancy says. “We wanted a slower pace.”

They found that slower pace, and a fuller life. Dave worked in information technology for 18 years and retired two years ago, at age 53, after a downsizing left him without a job. With this dramatic change in circumstances, Dave realized that he’d squirreled away enough to enjoy an early retirement. For the past four years, the Rowitts have endowed a class at Ithaca College on personal finance so that future generations of IC students can plan for retirement the same way they did. Dave says he started saving “early and often” since his post-Ithaca days.

“I followed my own advice,” says Dave, who gardens, works on his family’s genealogy with his second cousin Donna Eskwitt Rosenblum ’78, and gets back to New Jersey to watch the New York Giants play in MetLife Stadium where he’s a season-ticket holder. “I like it down here [in Florida]. I also like to go to Disney World and enjoy being there. It’s a fun, upbeat, happy place.”

He’s the only one of the four Rowitts who doesn’t work there. Lori, now 27, performs in a Disney troupe at shows and parades, including the Christmas Day extravaganza that aired on Disney’s ABC network. Jason, now 25, is part of the marketing team at Walt Disney World, and Nancy occasionally substitutes in the Fife & Drum Corps.

Nancy began performing with the corps in 2008 while working part-time for Disney in other roles. For the majority of her 17 years with the company, she has been an educator. She taught a variety of groups including students from school bands who had come to perform, learn a little, and experience the theme park on a school day. She helped students explore the world of physics at Magic Kingdom in a class that incorporated lessons on such topics as gravity and how it propels those thrilling roller coasters. She also led a program called Backstage Magic, a seven-hour, behind-the-scenes tour for adult guests that offers an inside look at the heritage, daily operation, and cast member roles that create the magic throughout Walt Disney Resort.

As a musician with the Fife & Drum Corps, Nancy dons a red coat, beige knickers, white socks, black buckle shoes, and a tri-corner hat. The quartet, with two fifes, a snare drum, and bass drum, along with a flag bearer, marches along Epcot’s World Showcase Promenade playing seven 20-minute sets at the American Adventure Pavilion at Epcot. Their repertoire features such patriotic standards as “Yankee Doodle,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

“I just love performing,” says Nancy. “Our salute to the armed forces set is my favorite. It’s moving to hear the audience singing along or to have a veteran just back from Afghanistan tell us he appreciates that we’re paying tribute to them.”

All things Disney have found a home in the Rowitts’ home as well. Mickey Mouse predominates in one bathroom with a Mickey rug, a Mickey mirror, and a cabinet with handles that are Mickey’s hands and feet. Over the Rowitts’ bed hangs a Disney print from a band concert in the park. Their daughter Lori’s room has five shelves brimming with hundreds of Disney dolls.

For their annual Christmas card, the Rowitts pose before a Disney attraction each year to let friends and family know that all is well in the magical land they call home.

Recipients of this year’s card found the family smiling in front of Cinderella Castle. Nancy used the image as the background for a more elaborate creation made on foam-core that looked like an iPad. It had make-believe apps for each family member that revealed their passions—Lori dancing in the park, Jason running a marathon, Dave digging into, and Nancy piping on her fife.

“We always get a Disney picture and start there,” says Nancy. “Everyone knows us as the Disney family—and we are.”

For the Rowitts, Disney World truly is the happiest place on earth.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” Nancy says. “There is just so much magic here!” 

Summer camp holds a special place in the hearts of Will and Sandy Rubenstein ’95. Will Rubenstein ’94 spent his childhood and teenage summers at Camp Wigwam in western Maine and later served as the camp’s assistant director. His camp buddies form his core group of lifelong friends.

Sandy Rubenstein went to sleep-away camp summer after summer at Camp Kweebec in Pennsylvania’s Perkiomen Valley. She returned each year to reconnect with friends and experience what surprises the camp director had concocted that year. She later worked there as a counselor.

Since 2004, it has been camp all year round for the Rubensteins. That’s when they bought Camp Wingate*Kirkland on 40 acres in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. They built a home there and have gone about the business of creating memorable experiences for 180 youngsters each summer.

“I love that we live in this private oasis in the middle of a neighborhood,” says Sandy Rubenstein. “It’s down a little dirt road, with a wooden plaque with W*K on it. People don’t even know we are here.”

With most summer camps, the directors live elsewhere and then relocate in time for the kids to arrive. The Rubensteins, however, dreamed of owning a camp they could settle into for the duration and raise a family. Sandy was pregnant with their daughter Mia when they tendered an offer for Wingate*Kirkland. Mia, 7, now has a sister, Sarah, age 1.

“I didn’t want to be at home, finishing up with the kids at school, while Will was opening it up,” says Sandy. “I didn’t want to live in two communities.”

Will and Sandy became friends as student leaders at Ithaca College—Will wrote and edited for the Ithacan while Sandy worked for the Bureau of Concerts. Their love affair ignited one May while volunteering at Senior Week. They became engaged in 1996, and Will was so proud of his wife-to-be that he took her to that summer’s annual reunion at Camp Wigwam.

“I was a camper, so I understood,” recalls Sandy.

That understanding remained strong as Labor Day weekend neared in 2010. Their second daughter was due any day, and Camp Wigwam was celebrating its 100th anniversary that weekend. Will didn’t want to miss the celebration. With Sandy’s blessing, he drove to the mountains of western Maine for the festivities. He returned Sunday night with a few hours to spare before driving Sandy to the hospital early the next morning to give birth to Sarah.

“That’s how important camp is to me,” says Will. “That tells you pretty much all you need to know about Sandy. That’s as generous a gift as anyone could receive.”

Sandy recalls their initial tour of Wingate*Kirkland in the winter of 2004. It was her first visit to Cape Cod, and it came on a January weekend, in the deep of winter. Four inches of fresh snow carpeted the woods and rimmed Elisha’s Pond, the camp’s waterfront playground, as gray clouds hung low, portending more bad weather.

“When you walk through a camp in the winter, you have to close your eyes and [imagine hearing] the kids,” she says.

“We’d been to other camps, and we didn’t get a good feeling—they felt so sterile. But as we tromped around, it just felt right. We knew we could live here.”

Seven years later, the Rubensteins continue to develop Wingate*Kirkland, which became a coed camp in 1985 with the merger of the Wingate camp for girls and the Kirkland camp for boys. It’s a year-round endeavor for the Rubensteins, who need to recruit their summer staff of about 70, maintain the camp buildings, and drive enrollment for the upcoming sessions.

The camp is part of a New England tradition that dates back to the camping movement’s founding in the late 19th century, as educators turned to the outdoors to create character-building experiences. Campers today hone their athletic skills on the playing fields, explore creativity on stage and in the art studio, and get in tune with life in the natural world, away from the electronic gadgets that infuse the lives of today’s young people.

“Overnight summer camp fosters lots of personal growth,” says Will. “It’s not just archery and singing ‘Kumbaya’. Kids have to communicate and find common ground with each other. That’s even more important today because kids don’t communicate face-to-face as much. We are like a laboratory for interpersonal living and interpersonal growth.”

Wingate*Kirkland has its own culture, playing down the competition that predominates at some New England summer camps. While the campers engage in sports like soccer and lacrosse that have winners and losers, the camp staff does not pit one group in the camp against the other in summer-long clashes. The aim is for the campers to develop independent minds, caring hearts, and lifelong friendships.

Campers quickly learn the new rules when they arrive in late June. Cell phones are banned at Wingate*Kirkland. If campers show up with a phone, it is taken away upon registration and given back at summer’s end. The only calls they can make are at mealtime on three pay phones near the dining hall, which were installed 55 years ago at the camp’s founding.

Will and Sandy make it all work by dividing up the tasks. Sandy is in charge of the dining hall, camp maintenance, and summer programming. Will hires staff, recruits new campers, and encourages campers to return. He also organizes alumni events to build a multigenerational network, encouraging former campers to send their kids to Wingate*Kirkland.

Building maintenance has posed significant challenges for the Rubensteins. In the summer of 2007, an infestation of bedbugs had Sandy scrambling for ways to exterminate the bothersome critters without disrupting camp with toxic chemicals.

She discovered a process that uses heat to kill the bugs and their eggs. The success she achieved in getting rid of the bugs at camp spawned her own business, called Pure Heat, which now has crews working throughout New England. (Their conquest of the Wingate*Kirkland bugs was featured on the February 10 episode of the Animal Planet show Infestation.)

“It’s a seven-ring circus around here, with two businesses, two dogs, a pig, nine chickens, and two kids, one of whom competes in gymnastics,” says Sandy. “But we keep it all going. Today I’m sitting here, looking out on the pond on a beautiful day on Cape Cod. I like it here in our wooded paradise.”

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