(Photo: JD Hancock, Flickr.com, Illustration: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight.com)
If you asked me to describe my worst vacation scenario, it would go something like this: The destination is perpetually crowded, it’s hot and noisy, the accommodations are bland at best, the food is unhealthy and unappetizing, I must wait in line to do anything, and I have to pay a sizable sum of money to have the crap scared out of me several times a day.
Sound like fun to you? Then you must be a fan of Disney World. As you might have guessed, I am not. But it’s not Disney’s fault. On the contrary, I believe that for those who are so inclined, the place is top-notch. I don’t get the appeal, but I know that even grown-ups without children visit the park regularly. Some couples even honeymoon with Goofy. And for those people, Disney definitely hits the spot.
You might assume I have shunned The Mouse’s kingdom, refusing to set foot near a single spinning teacup. But you would be wrong. For not only have I stomped my boots at the Country Bear Jamboree and stowed away with the Pirates of the Caribbean, I have done so on multiple occasions. In fact, my family and I were among the first wave of visitors to storm the park soon after it opened in 1971.
My mom and dad are long gone, so I can’t ask how this trip came to be. But I’m mystified since the only person who might have hated the experience more than I do would be my father. So why did we go? Perhaps my parents got caught up in the hype of what was touted to be a experience that combined “recreation, family entertainment and relaxation all together for the first time… a whole new vacation way of life.”
You have to admit, that’s pretty compelling marketing.
You might assume I have shunned The Mouse’s kingdom, refusing to set foot near a single spinning teacup. But you would be wrong.
But most likely, my parents walked into the Magic Kingdom all those years ago for the same reason I’ve been there twice since: They did it for the kids. How else can I explain my cranky dad agreeing to wedge his large body into a small boat and subject himself to an endless loop of It’s a Small World After All? Or sweat through a Jungle River Cruise followed by a Polynesian luau? This was a man who preferred not to leave his recliner. If I didn’t have photographic evidence that proved my father was there, I would think that I imagined his presence.
My memories of that trip have grown fuzzy over time, but I recall being weirded out by an animatronic Abe Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents. I remember grappling with my brother to snag the front seat on the monorail. And I remember being hot – really hot – and really tired. What I don’t recall is any fun.
Twenty years later, I embarked on my second Disney World visit, this time with my husband and our three-year-old son, Nick, in tow. I left my six-month old son, Peter, with Grandma, though I brought along my breast pump so I could keep my milk supply strong during our three-day Disney stay.
This time around, I was no longer an angsty tween dragging behind my grumpy dad. I was now a parent myself, so I imagined enjoying the park through my preschooler’s eyes and delighting in his glee as he greeted Mickey and friends. Right? Not so much.
Disney Lesson #1: Three-year-olds are too young for Disney World. When you’re knee-high, you’re too short for most rides and you find giant, furry creatures with enormous ears and hands frightening.
Disney Lesson #2: Theme parks are no fun in the rain. Ever.
Disney Lesson #3: It’s essential to bring all of the pieces for your breast pump or you’ll end up with a clogged milk duct that’ll turn into a nasty infection that’ll compel you to hand-express milk onto the floor in a bathroom stall behind Space Mountain. We headed home a day early as I lay feverish and shivering in the backseat. Again, I don’t recall any fun.
When my sons were seven and nine and in the sweet spot of loving all things Disney, we headed south once more. My husband approached the planning as one would a military invasion. He was all about strategies and efficiencies, researching whether to stand in the line on the left or the the right at each attraction, depending on weather and time of day. (Yes, it matters.) He knew the exact order in which to ride the rides to minimize wait times. As our departure approached, he babbled in his sleep about Fast Tracks and Park Hopper Passes.
On arrival day, my family queued up at the gate like racehorses awaiting the starter’s pistol. At the opening bell, we started to make our way through the turnstiles when I heard a clunk followed by a wail. The turnstile had thwacked pint-sized Peter in the back of the head and sent him down like a brick. We had not yet made it three yards into the park. Was this a sign to turn and run? Fortunately, within seconds a pretty park attendant appeared and presented my sniffling child with a stuffed Donald Duck. The tears ceased. We proceeded.
This time the kids were gleeful. They scampered, they screamed, they slept, and then they did it all again the next day. As for me, I found the attractions as boring as ever and even the mildest rides made my stomach churn. Those giant turkey legs on which everyone was gnawing made me queasy, even from afar. Sure, I took pleasure in my children’s obvious enthusiasm, but that wasn’t enough to make a convert of me. I was still sweaty and tired and ready to exit Disney the first chance I got.
It turns out my best Disney trip was the one I didn’t take. This spring, my husband and I were thrilled to be able to underwrite a trip for a family we know. With my husband’s planning wisdom, they jetted off to Orlando and had the time of their lives. I received joyous text messages detailing breakfast with Snow White and the fireworks spectacular over Cinderella’s Castle. The weather was perfect. No one was overheated or grumpy. And as happy as they were to be there, I was happier to be home in New York City, enjoying my final theme park visit from far, far away.