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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    columbia thorndale December 17, 2008 at 2:13 am

    My favorite family vacation was always camping. Even in your own backyard it is a adventure. Plus you and your new baby can sneak back in for sleep while hubby and your daughter deal with the outdoors. Summer time fun.

    Backpacking Dad December 17, 2008 at 3:32 am

    I bought my wife’s engagement ring at Disneyland. Proposed to her on the compass in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Honeymooned at Disneyworld. Gone to Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Tokyo (and the amazing DisneySea Tokyo) and I won a free Disney Cruise at Disney’s California Adventure playing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

    Erin has already been to Disneyland three times, and we’re going again on Christmas Day.

    I only hope she doesn’t grow up to hate it, because I, poor little Canadian army brat/rez kid that I am, am totally enamoured. I ignore the marketing of it, the manipulation, and stroll around to appreciate the human effort and the divine imagination.

    Elizabeth December 17, 2008 at 4:09 am

    You’ve just about convinced me that I should take my kids to Disneyland more often (we live in Los Angeles). For family vacations, I suggest Yosemite — and stay at the impossibly wonderful, shabby, family friendly Wawona Inn. It’s all so beautiful and my two young boys adore it. Lots of beautiful nature, hiking (easy and tough), cold, clear water to wade in. Adirondack chairs at night and lots of starts. The kids run around with light sticks and it’s really just perfect. And there’s enough kitsch to satisfy any child as well…

    kittenpie December 17, 2008 at 4:42 am

    I love aquariums. I remember a trip to Boston including their aquarium and a children’s museum complete with mega lego building section being pretty exciting. I was amazed at how small a town it feels when I went back a few years ago.

    J from Ireland December 17, 2008 at 6:19 am

    We went to DisneyWorld just this October with our 5 kids ages 18,13, 11,9, and 1, plus 35 and 38 year old parents. We had the most amazing time, I cried at the Dreams Come True show, I cried when I saw the castle, I cried when I looked at my kids faces and as for Seaworld, I too sobbed. We are all still on a high from the best holiday ever, Spain will be shit from now on.

    geeklady December 17, 2008 at 7:42 am

    This will sound completely nerdy, but it’s Rocky Mountain National Park (the Estes Park side). It was the first camping trip we went on as a family (I was 10, youngest sister was 5). And it was awesome.

    I took my husband (who had never gone on a real vacation before he married me) there two summers ago and he loved the hiking part, could have left the camping. We went all the way up to Andrew’s Glacier, something my dad tried with us once and had to turn back because of a storm.

    Best hike IMO is up to Emerald Lake, it’s short (3.6 miles round trip) and downhill on the way back.

    We couldn’t go anywhere this year, since I was 8 months pregnant (OB said NO!) but next year we’re taking GeekBaby to Arches if I can get enough time off.

    Stacy December 17, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Did you make use of the family areas at each Disney park that provide private rooms for nursing? and cribs for nap taking and all the baby/little kid oriented stuff you could ever want? Even a play area for older ones so while little ones are nursed/napped/diaper changed. We live jsut 1 1/2 hours from Disney and we love it every single time. Just this weekend we were at Universal’s Island of Adventure and my 2 1/2 yr old LOVED IT!! He was finally able to ride some rides and had agreat time.

    KLS December 17, 2008 at 8:35 am

    I hope you checked out the Baby Centers there. The one at Animal Kingdom is great – it was my saving grace when we took my 10 month old this JULY. Hot, cranky baby and mommy got to enjoy a private air-conditioned little room with a glider to nurse in, and even dimmable lights! Disney is exhausting. I hope you get some rest.

    fidget December 17, 2008 at 9:28 am

    it was great getting to meet you! My favorite vacation ever was Yellowstone but that’s best with older kids who can hike.

    LD December 17, 2008 at 9:31 am

    I LOVE Disney World.
    We went in the summer and I kind of felt like you did. But, then I went. And fell in love because of the magic of it all.
    And, by the time we met Cinderella I was enchanted.
    But, totally exhausting, and I had my husband in tow.
    We’re going back in a few months, but staying at a hotel on the monorail and taking it much easier.
    Matt also loved the Buzz Lightyear stuff. The only character he cared to meet was Buzz.

    Catherine December 17, 2008 at 9:50 am

    This last summer we took the kids to San Diego. We were there a week but only made plans for three of the days … two days at the zoo and one day at Sea World. All the other days were playing in the sand and splashing in the water. It was 7 months ago and my 3 yo still talks about it. She tells me about the baby panda that we saw, the koalas, and shamu! It was an awesome vacation for us. We stayed in a condo 1/2 block from the beach which had a kitchen, so we didn’t have to venture out to restaurants three meals/day.

    Avalon December 17, 2008 at 9:53 am

    My Mom and her best girlfriend drove us to Disney World for my 10th birthday. My Mom’s friend wanted to take a long road trip when she got a brand new Camaro. Our car would never have made it, and a plane trip was out of the question. They drove from Connecticut to Florida in 36 hours. I slept in the backseat. The only problem…….the Camaro had a big hump between the back seats. I arrived in Florida with a permanent backache.

    It was the very best memory of my childhood because it was the only time in my life, even if only for 5 days, when budget didn’t matter.

    Cat December 17, 2008 at 10:29 am

    I still find Disneyland magical and fun, though I’ve been so many times I no longer need a map. It reminds me of my childhood, days spent with my mostly-cross-country father, excitement and splurging on ludicrously expensive food items. It’s exhausting, yes. I can’t imagine multiple days in the Magic Kingdom. Glad you’re back safe!

    Anonymous December 17, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Yikes! Testing out a phone that’s already on the market? One would think that Motorola would have done that before product release. A previous post decrying the commercialism of the Disney brand is not too far removed in hypocrisy from Mommy bloggers lauding the virtues of new products under the guise of test driving. It was a little painful to read your ads, oops I mean posts, when we know you’re not really contributing to product development but being exploited for having enough daily hits to offset the cost of whatever event or activity we want to send you to after which you’ll extol the product. Product placement in movies is to be expected- on mommy blods it’s a bit over the top. But enjoy nonetheless.

    BlondeMomBlog (Jamie) December 17, 2008 at 11:27 am

    I have never been to Disney World but we’re planning on taking our girls in 2010. I know they will be completely agog at the magic that is Disney.

    My favorite family vacation spot is Navarre Beach, Florida. We stay at my dad’s condo and it’s in a great, not too commercial part of the Florida panhandle. We eat breakfast at a pagoda beach hut place that makes the best breakfast EVER, we play on the beach, we swim, we get a little too much sun, we sip on wine at night while the girls smell of sunshine and salt water and chlorine and our towels dry on the patio. Love it. We go every year to “Papa’s Beach.”

    p.s. I love love the photo of your girl in front of the castle…sweet! Childhood is all about the magic.

    Backpacking Dad December 17, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Yikes! Testing out a movie that’s already been released? One would think the studio would have done that before the film release. It’s a little painful to read movie reviews when we know that the critics aren’t really contributing to film development but being exploited for having enough daily readers to offset the cost of admission after which they give their two thumbs up.

    Amy @ Milk Breath and Margaritas December 17, 2008 at 11:35 am

    I love camping and hiking so anything involving that I’m happy with. My son LOVES adores and worships Sea World. He’s been to the one in San Diego and the one in Orlando. San Antonio is on our list!

    Our Disney vacation was last Christmas. Didn’t go so well –

    But the pictures are funny!

    (Sorry I don’t know how to make that a link.)

    geeklady December 17, 2008 at 11:38 am

    @Anonymous: I think getting product placement perks are a fair trade for dealing with anonymous comment trolls.

    Seriously, people review products after release all the time, what’s put the bee up your butt about this particular instance?

    Lady M December 17, 2008 at 11:41 am

    You brave, awesome lady to take two wee ones to Disney on your own. I still think twice before going to the supermarket.

    Heather December 17, 2008 at 11:50 am

    I know what you mean about the distractions. Sometimes it’s easier to have all the kids when I’m at a place like that (although much smaller scale). I’ve taken my 3 to the zoo by myself a few times and it’s been pretty good most of the time.

    Someday I hope to take the kids to Disneyworld, although with their Dad too.

    Anonymous December 17, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    The beach. Specifically New Smyrna, Florida because my grandparents were there and we went every summer and the white sand squeaks when you walk on it and you can buy snow cones and giant pickles from the beach vendor and swim at sun up in the pool until lunchtime and then crash for a nap while the afternoon thunderstorm passes and go back down to build sandcastles or write your name in the sand and go body surfing in the waves. It’s my favorite childhood place.

    pkzcass December 17, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    We’ve been to Disney World twice, and both times were magical, but I really, really loved a place called Lincoln Park in Seattle. We stayed with a family friend, and she took us there for an evening. The boys loved hiking through the park and playing on the rocky beach at Puget Sound. All the while my friend and I sat and watched a beautiful sunset.

    Steph December 17, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Did I read that right? You took the kids ALONE? No other grown up to help carry and herd? YOU ARE WONDER WOMAN!!!

    Anyway… I’m trying to talk my husband into 2 vacations… Sequoia and Grand Canyon. He’s more of a big city vacation guy.

    Shonda Little December 17, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Does Disney serve alcohol? They are going to need to before I drag my two hooligans there.
    Love the photo of the dancing girl, too cute.

    ewe are here December 17, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I practically grew up at Disneyland, going every year starting around age 4 for years!

    I can’t wait to take my own wee ones someday.

    Mommy Melee December 17, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    I’m a Floridian but I’m a still enchanted by pretty beaches. I think a lovely family vacation would involve a super kid-friendly beachside resort and a lot of sunscreen.

    Also I’m in the Tampa Bay area so if you end up near here I’ll bring my boy to meet your girl. And hopefully she’ll whip him into shape.

    I’m really impressed at your adventurous awesomness. And I’m so glad you had fun. I haven’t been to Disney in over a decade and I can’t wait to go with my husband and my boys when the older one is old enough to appreciate it. (Soon.)

    (I cry like a weeping child at Shamu. I did twice this summer, the pregnancy hormones didn’t help.)

    Issas Crazy World December 17, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I’m one of those people who has always loved Disney, but I’ve never been to Disneyworld. We’re hoping to go in the fall.

    Best vacation ever with kids was either a two week driving trip through the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and eventually Denver; which we did two summers ago…or a trip to Hawaii when Morgan was about 18 months. She just thought the whole thing was so much fun. In general, 18 months is a fun age, but in a place like that, where babies are seen as treasures and given just about everything they want, she was a joy to watch.

    Issas Crazy World December 17, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Anon at 10:22: Dude just admit you are jealous and move on.

    LAVANDULA December 17, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    what an adorable picture of wonderbaby! you are brave going on vacation with little ones alone!

    EarthyMama December 17, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    I have to plug NYC. There’s something for everyone in The City, and woods and beaches are a short drive or train ride away.

    Gina December 17, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    For me, it’s Disney World. I loved it as a child and I love it more as an adult with children (I might possibly love it even more than the children do). As soon as I get onto WDW property, everything else goes away.

    No Mother Earth December 17, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    I dunno, we had a great time in PEI. But I’m itching to show the boys Italy. I’ve always wanted to see Europe through the eyes of a child. It’s not an experience that many kids get.

    Lydia December 17, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    We took Jake whn he had just turned 3 and I was pg (3 months). It was an exhausting vacation, but wonderful!
    and fyi–Jake went thru the Haunted Mansion 5 TIMES.

    Her Bad Mother December 17, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Stacy – I didn’t find the Baby Center until the last day. But it *was* awesome.

    tracy December 17, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    I still fight with myself over whether or not a visit to Disneyland is a MUST on the list of raising children. I went, my husband went, but my children have never been. And we’re running out of time.

    As if we don’t judge ourselves ENOUGH regarding child rearing!

    Redneck Mommy December 17, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    I’d totally let your Anonymous Scrooge have it but I’m thinking Backpacking Dad did a fairly competent job of troll smacking.

    Just know that for you, I’d put on a Goofy costume and dance like a cracked out dog ANYWHERE in the WORLD to see you smile.


    Anonymous December 17, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Disney World has absolutely been my favorite so far. My Grand Cayman honeymoon was kickin', but I would go back to Disney again and again.
    Hubby and I took the daughters, 8 & 10, my parents, and 1 of my aunts. 6 days full of fun!
    I left with blisters on the bottoms of my toes & a sunburn, but I'm already saving for another trip.
    Despite the incident where my girls got on a bus via the back (exit) door and it almost drove off with them before Mom & Dad got aboard (hubs and I were at Victoria and Albert's at the time), the parents had a great time, too.
    Next time, I will leave an entire day free to hang around the resort. The Beach Club Villas have the best pool I've ever been to.

    zandor December 17, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    My favorite place is Disneyworld and Disneyland. The first time I went to one of those I was like 3ish I think. My parents love it there and have taken me a bunch of times. We went to Florida a few years ago and at first I was happy about going someplace besides Disney (in Florida), but afterwards I was kind of upset about not going to Disney. Even though I turned 21 this past april and went to Las Vegas in May Disney is still my favorite place to go to.

    Haley-O December 17, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    That picture of Emilia is so adorable! I took the Monkey to Disney World when she was 2…. She forgets it all. Can’t wait to take her again!

    Gibby December 18, 2008 at 12:25 am

    We took the kids to Disney last year, and you are right. It was a REALLY hard vacation, and took a ton of work. But man, was it fun. Sure, there was arguing and bickering, lots of bathroom runs and snack stops. (It was also 94 degrees everyday, so there was a lot of sweat.) However, it was the BEST vacation we ever went on. The kids loved it, and I couldn’t believe how much fun I had just watching them. I would go back in a heart beat.

    mothergoosemouse December 18, 2008 at 12:39 am

    That utter delight? That’s why we’ll make the Disney trek. Someday. Like when I’ve finally recovered from this past summer’s travel events.

    Barbara K. December 18, 2008 at 8:28 am

    I took a road trip with my family to PEI, NB and NS when I was six years old and loved it (we lived in Ontario at the time). Now I’m in the US, but we drove up there two years ago with our two kids and I fell in love all over again. It’s beautiful, there’s beaches to play at and wonderful coastal drives. We spent five nights in PEI so my husband and I were able to relax a little, too.

    Glad you had fun At DisneyWorld. Love the photos and the Buzz costume.

    K December 18, 2008 at 9:15 am

    My husband and I went to Disneyland before we become parents – just the two of us and it was awesome. (He has family near there).

    I want to take the kid someday, but I’ll wait until he’s older.

    Growing up the happiest place on earth for my family was the campground. We went camping every summer and it was the best thing ever.

    twelvekindsofcrazy December 18, 2008 at 11:59 am

    I can’t wait to take my baby to Disney. My boyfriend and I have never been there either. This post just renewed my drive to save, save, save for mickey.
    I’m so boring but my best family vacation memories from when I was a child were simply spent at the Jersey shore. I think all kids really need to have fun is the beach and their parents being happy and relaxed. We would vacation with my cousins so that made it all the more fun for us.

    Her Bad Mother December 18, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Barbara K – ah, the maritimes! the shore, the lobster! A kind of theme park in itself ;)

    Momo Fali December 18, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    My kids are happy anywhere there’s a pool, so anyplace we vacation is always a winner. They’re easy to please.

    Loonstruck December 18, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    We have some land and a cabin on a lake in Minnesota. My poor husband had to agree that that would be our priority for vacations for the duration of our life together. My kid is 5th generation to grow up there every summer.

    As for paying your trip forward, maybe you could host a trusted blogger friend that wants to come see your part of Canada. It’s nice not having to worry about check in times and meals and stuff like that.

    Alternatively, you could do the research on the best buys as far as vacationing in your fair city go. Pass that information on. It’s lots of work but someone would appreciate it.

    As for the game, I love your pay it forward attitude… Pass it on to your local library for me. I’m sure they have game nights or are in need of prizes.

    gururkarm (@karma_musings) December 18, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Oh snap. I see Loonstruck already stole my pay-it-forward idea (not having read any of the others :-) ) – that you host someone to see fair Toronto. It’s a very beautiful place – do they still do the Mariposa Folk Festival? (if not, I’m probably terribly dating myself!) – oh, and before I show myself to be even stupider, it IS Toronto, nore or less, right? where you are?

    OK. hugs to you!

    courtney December 18, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    I have never been to Disney World, but I have been to Disney Land and I do still find it absolutely magical. Commercial, yeah, but still, such an amazing place. I can’t wait to take my daughter there. In fact, will probably go in 2010 when she’s only 2 and not even really old enough to appreciate it, but don’t care! Going anyway!

    As far as other vacation ideas, what about something like Hawaii where you can hike Diamondback, take surfing lessons, rent bikes and go riding through the islands, go to a luau… there’s lots to do for not a lot of money (aside from the flight and hotel of course) and it’s not nearly so gaudy as Disney.

    Momily December 18, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I have not read all the comments so am sorry if this was suggested already . . .here’s my idea!
    I keep meaning to sign up for one of those “Adopt a grandparent” program where one basically “adopts” an older person who is without grandkids or far away from their grandkids. Alternately, just signing up to visit old folks. I think i would be more comfortable with the kids in someone’s home than an old age home, but the whole things sounds like a rewarding and kind thing to do.

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