The Happiest Place On Earth

December 17, 2008

When I was seven years old, my family went to Disneyland. My father took a few weeks’ holiday from work, and we set off in a camper van down the Pacific coast from Vancouver, stopping to see attractions like the Grand Coulee Dam (‘the Eighth Wonder of the World!’ exclaimed my mother, reading from a promotional pamphlet. ‘Bigger than the pyramids!’) and making detours into Nevada and Arizona to visit Death Valley and the Petrified Forest. We stayed at state parks and KOA Kampgrounds. It was awesome, at least until I got mumps on the way back and had to sit, fat-faced and forlorn and bundled in a blanket at the side of the campground pool while my sister and parents splashed and enjoyed the last days of our holiday.

Disneyland was the highlight of the trip, but in truth I remember very little of it. I remember the most notable attractions – Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion and the Peter Pan ride and the Country Bears Jamboree – and I remember making a wish in Snow White’s wishing well, although for the life of me I can’t remember what I wished for. I also remember some ride that made you think that you had been shrunk to smaller than a snowflake, and remember that my sister, then four, emerged from the ride in tears, devastated because, she imagined, her lollipop had shrunk along with the rest of us. Mostly, though, I remember my mother’s childlike delight as we explored the park.

The rides amazed and thrilled her; she insisted that we visit the Pirates of the Caribbean again and again, exclaiming every time our little boat navigated its way between the battling pirate ships – cannons! exploding! – that it was so exciting! So real! The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with its spinning teacups made her dizzy, but the Haunted Mansion delighted her (ghosts! right there in the car with us!) and she clapped and cheered her heart out at the Country Bears Jamboree. I was, at seven years old, convinced that my thirty-something mother was having a much better time than I was, and I was almost certainly correct.

My mother insisted for years that the wonders of Disneyland were as potent for adults as they were for children, but I always doubted her. One of my mother’s signature personality traits has always been her childlike enthusiasm for anything fantastical, and it seemed to me that Disneyland was very probably as close to a spiritual homeland for her as any other place in the world. So I was always doubtful when she insisted that Disneyland was as magical a place for grown-ups – even sensible, non-silly grown-ups, like the kind that I knew I would grow up to become – as it was for kids.

I was right to be doubtful. But, also, I was wrong.

My children and I spent this past weekend at Disney World. We could have gone anywhere in the US (thanks, Motorola), but I chose Disney World. I chose Disney World – against all of my pre-parenthood commitments to myself to do parenthood differently, to make unconventional choices in parenting, to not fall back on the convenience of sparkle and glitz and licensed characters – because it was just going to be me and the girl and the baby and that – combined with the fact that I don’t drive – was just too much parenting to be managed anywhere where there weren’t ample distractions ready-at-hand. Disney World, it seemed to me, was one big handy distraction. And if what my mother had said was true, then I would enjoy it too. It would be a vacation for my children, and for me. Win-win.

It wasn’t, as it turned out, so much of a vacation for me. It was hard, hard work. Herding a jacked-up three-year old in a Buzz Lightyear costume with a baby strapped to one’s chest from dawn ’til dusk at the Happiest Place On Earth is less conducive to happy-making than one might think. I didn’t get enough sleep, I didn’t eat enough food, and I spent at least one thirty-minute period locked, with the children sleeping in the double stroller, in a wheelchair-accessible restroom in Fantasyland fighting off an anxiety attack. The rides were, for the most part, exactly how I remembered them from Disneyland, but without the unfailing suspension of disbelief possessed by small children and my mother, and, also, with the strain of carrying a 22 lb baby on my chest, they were a touch less magical than memory served. (There were exceptions, of course: I found the Winnie-the-Pooh ride with its trippy voyage through Pooh’s honey-soaked dreams completely fascinating. Also, the Escher stairs in the Haunted Mansion.) (Yes, I took the three-year old and the baby into the Haunted Mansion. She insisted. What of it?)

And yet, and yet… there was still magic to be found, and I found much of it. Emilia was delighted beyond measure. Not amazed, not dazzled – it seemed to her that of course there would be places like Disney World, where all the characters from her favorite movies live and where small children are given stickers and sparkles and smiles at every corner and allowed to race around without restriction, and so, really, what’s the big deal? – just delighted. And I, of course, was delighted at her delight. Her delight filled my heart and made it swell to bursting and because it was just so full, so bouyant, it was impossible for me to not have a spring in my step, even with the jumbo baby strapped to my chest and the bag-laden stroller in front of me. I was uplifted.

(Don’t even get me started on Sea World. DON’T. I will cry. I was completely and totally seduced by the heart-tuggy schmaltz that is the Shamu spectacle and I cried like a baby through the whole thing. Emilia now thinks that all swimming pools should have giant whales, and that we should all be allowed to play with them. We’ll discuss Free Willy when she’s a little older.)

Emilia would, of course, have been delighted with any number of holiday experiences. She would have been delighted if we had rented a camper van and parked ourselves by a beach and set her loose with a bucket. And we’ll totally do that. But it was fun, this time, to indulge in a cheesy commercial fantasy, to let her romp in a world constructed entirely for children, one that makes no apologies for childishness and cheesiness and glitz, one that is specially designed to provoke giggles and squeals of delight.

So what if I could see the wires behind the animatronic Captain Hook, or see the creases in Cinderella’s make-up? This vacation wasn’t for me. It was for her.

And I loved every minute of it.

(Many, many thanks to Fidget, for coming to visit us at our hotel – which lacked a restaurant, and therefore room service, which meant that I might have starved Thursday night had she not brought hummus and crackers and – mercy, mercy – wine, and to Miss Britt and her delightful, delightful family, who spent the afternoon and evening with us at the park on Saturday.) (You can see Emilia and her daughter Emma driving a race car in the video that she put together of the weekend – her son’s birthday weekend – here. Really, they were so awesome.)

Quick – what’s your happiest family-vacation place on earth? I’m already plotting and lobbying the husband for a family vacation for the four of us next year. I’m thinking road trip. Should we retrace the path of my family’s Disneyland trek? Or what? Where are some good places on the continent to go? Where would you go?

I have not yet figured out how I am going to pay this trip forward, but I’m going to try. Ideas are welcome, but they need to be richer in spirit than in dollars, because, you know: recession. Leave your thoughts below; whoever leaves the idea that I choose gets a Scrabble Diamond Anniversary Edition game…

UPDATE: Loonstruck came up with the pay-it-forward idea that I’m going to run with – offer my home to another blogger who wants to see this part of Canada. There are going to be some cool bloggy events here this year, and I will happily play host to someone who wants to attend. Stay tuned. (And as requested, the Scrabble game went to the library – youth section – where it was much appreciated!)

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    verybadcat December 18, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I kind of can’t believe I’m the first person to go here, but what about some sort of support for the Make A Wish foundation? Just seemed too appropriate, what with the childhood wonder Wonderbaby experienced.

    If a donation is a little counter-intuitive because of, you know, money and all, you could do something else, like:

    Offering a place to stay if you are close to a child’s wish.

    Using any bloggy type connections to get a wish fulfilled.

    Or a button maybe, that blog readers with a few spare cents could donate straight to?

    My other thought was donating some Disney DVDs to a group home for children. There’s one right by my office, and they do so much for kids with problems, and they do it with so very little…..

    Shannon December 19, 2008 at 1:03 am

    Ack! You were in Orlando?!? But, but, I’m in Daytona Beach – I could have brought you food, and two more children to increase the chaos! But, I could have held the baby…. Sorry I missed you….

    egm December 19, 2008 at 11:38 am

    My brother, Jonathan, treated six of us to a trip to Disney World a few years ago, and even though it was exhausting (he had severe physical disabilities and required all kinds of treatments at various intervals throughout the day, and my daughter was a very active three-year-old), that trip gave us so many good memories. Jonathan died 18 months later, and whenever I really miss him, I drag out that Mickey Mouse album and look at pictures of him and my daughter watching the daily parades with her perched in his lap in his wheelchair. I have my issues with Disney, but they do know how to bring a little light into many difficult lives.

    My only suggestion for a pay it forward is to give someone a family membership to a local children’s museum or any place that allows children to be children and adults to glory in the wonder of young imaginations. The best part about a membership is that you can go again and again without worrying about leaving after ten minutes in the event of a meltdown.

    Bitchilla The Hun December 19, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    What about giving some Disney toys to Toys for Tots or an adopt a family thing?

    Jena December 19, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Best vacation my family ever took? easy! 2 weeks to Kauai, Hawaii (I was 12; my youngest sister was 8). We went for Thanksgiving & my dad justified the trip because a dear friend lived there and we spent a lot of time visiting with him and his wife.

    But that's really expensive. Closer to home for you: Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. The whole of my mom's side of the family used to go for Father's Day (that was: 2 grandparents, five sets of parents, and 11 kids). I think I probably really started appreciating it when I was about 8–tall enough to ride some of the rides outside the kid area. And when I was tall enough to ride all the roller coasters–oh, happy day!

    As for paying it forward, what about volunteering to help a kid who's struggling learn to read? It only takes a couple hours a week (which I know can seem like a lot), but I can't think of a better gift. Maybe your local library or school has a program.

    Naomi December 20, 2008 at 12:45 am

    I would love to take a train across the country one of these days. I suspect the trans-Canada would be prettier, too.

    mannequin December 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    I would suffer and swelter if my child could visit Disney but I don’t know exactly why…Is it because everyone else does? I truly don’t know but I know it almost seems like an unfulfilled childhood if one is never taken there.

    Pay it forward by volunteering at the local theater group. Kids can audition and/or do stage construction or a number of things. I am horrified at the thought that some children *have never seen* a play.

    ANTM December 23, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Best family vacation ever? Age 20. My parents rented a mini van and we toured the Wild, Wild, West. South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Disney was WAY more magical but this vacation really brought us together as a family. Perhaps it was the endless hours in the car together? ;)

    Pay it Forward: Hmmm…what about donating gently used toys to the Salvation Army but having Emilia help choose the toys. Or selling them back to a resale shop so less fortunate families can purchase them at a discounted price. Then taking the resale money and donating it to a charity of your choice. Kinda like helping out two different “classes” at once… Does that count as double pay it forward then?

    Bubba's Mom December 27, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    Love the pictures! My 7yo is totally in love with your daughter for wearing that costume! Hope your holiday season goes well.

    Reeky January 6, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    My family and I were at Disney the same time as your family. We did see the magic.

    My kids are 4 and 9 so we had a totally different experience. It’s hard when your children are so young.

    I invite you to read about our experience over at my blog.

    Oh yeah, one thing that did blow us away about Disney was the incredible ammount of overweight people.

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