Doing Disney with the Kids

So. We just got back from our first family vacation to Disney World, in Florida. OK, it was our first family vacation, full stop (at least, our first that didn’t involve visiting family members), so it was portentous in more than one aspect. But for sure, hitting Disney at this stage of the boys’ lives was, and is, huge. Huge.

Family vacationing is not a lot of things, such as relaxing and rejuvenating. But it is one major thing, and that’s illuminating. Silly as this might sound, I know my boys better now than I did before we left, and I watched them, even if just a teeny bit, grow in the 6 days/5 nights we were away. They became a smidge more worldly-wise, and also a large measure more deeply themselves. Really, if when we as adults go away to a place we’ve never seen or experienced, we etch more grooves into our personalities, why wouldn’t the same be true of  our children? Being in a new — and overwhelming, overtaxing, exhilarating — environment brought out what’s uniquely James about James (his intellectual approach to things like fear), and uniquely Daniel about Daniel (his devotion to facts and detail).

You just can’t underestimate the power of the Mouse. Even this natural-born cynic fell under the spell of old Walt’s magic. Or should I say, Magic (this being the most-often used word in the 43 square miles of Disney universe). You turn a corner, and there’s a band! Or a parade! You stand still for 5 seconds and a staffer (excuse me, “cast member”) comes up to your child and asks for a high-five and an accounting of their day. Before you know it,they’re chatting about the best way to rack up points on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, or debating favorite characters. And they’re all so bloody nice. You do a lot of waving. A lot.

But I have a couple of observations. Which you might expect I would.

One: Innocence rules. A lot of parents who go to Disney World lament the fact that there’s merchandise wherever you turn, and it’s true. It’s an empire, and empires have to sell stuff to make it all profitable–and to increase the sort of intense (insane?) loyalty that keeps people coming back for more. Take those ubiquitous Disney princesses, which some smart Disney marketer decided, a few years back, to group  together into a sort of irresistible-to-little-girls cabal. They’re all there, from the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty of my youth to the 80’s and 90’s and early 2000’s gals like Mulan, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine. The force of their allure is so strong it began to appear odd to see a little girl dressed in her regular clothes. The place was crawling with princesses, decked out in polyester gowns and glittering tiaras. Your kid sees the movies, aches for the merch, and then to visit them in “person,” and then you’re dumped right into a store post-ride and you buy some more. It’s a cycle, and you could call it vicious. I prefer instead to just skirt around it. Literally. We went in plenty of stores (mommy needed regular doses of air conditioning, for one thing). But we didn’t buy much at all.

Both boys brought their own wallets with their own stash of dollar bills they could use. James bought: a lollipop, a postcard, a Donald Duck keychain and a Woody Kooky Pen. And I bought him a Mickey t-shirt. Daniel got: a lollipop, a book of postcards, a pen, a Donald keychain and a Goofy Kooky Pen. And a t-shirt from me. This plan worked so well that, in one store James and I browsed while Daniel and his dad hit a ride Jamie was too chicken to try (Splash Mountain), he tried on a Mickey-ear hat done up like Lightening McQueen, as well as a Goofy hat (both of which were adorable, see):

without once asking if he could have them. As he put the McQueen hat back on the rack, he even volunteered, to another mother nearby, “we’re not buying anything. We’re just shopping.” Good boy.

When I say innocence rules, I mean this: My kids know who the characters are, but in a similar way that I did as child. These were quasi-real beings to hopefully get a glimpse of, not an experience to buy into. That’s literally all they see; the rest — the autograph books you can obsessively fill with character signatures; the pins you can buy and trade with others, the princess and pirate garb — is all just eye candy. They have only a dim idea of how huge the whole thing can be, and that’s by design — mine. I don’t deceive myself into thinking they’ll never ask for more and/or buy into it further, but neither do I urge, push, or encourage them to see, do and want more. Which, believe me, plenty of parents do. I saw it.

Two: Diapers and Disney are an odd mix. The first time I went to Disney World, it was quite literally a different era. It was 1976. We drove down in our fake-wood-paneled station wagon, just my parents and sister and me. I was 10, my sister 13. My brother, at 3? He stayed at home with my aunt. (Before you get all boo-hoo about baby bro, by the time he was of age, and my sister and I were in college/on our own, he got trips aplenty that we never imagined, speaking of different eras). But anyway. I don’t recall having seen strollers. Today? There are thousands of strollers, thousands. (Which you can also rent, and which parents rent for kids as old as my sons, too). Here’s just one of the many designated stroller parking areas:

Acres of them, I tell you. Acres.

I don’t disparage wanting to go when your kids are small (and I’m talking not of parents with older kids, but those with only tiny ones); I just don’t understand it, personally. My question is a simple, plaintive, why? Disney’s not going anywhere; it’ll still be pouring out the pixie dust when those kids are out of diapers and ambulatory. I saw many hot, miserable  parents with strollers and sippy cups and diapers and princess tiaras. I saw one family with two girls who had to both be under four, sparkled up to the nth degree as pretty princesses, with a defeated-looking dad and a hugely pregnant mother (bear in mind this is August in Orlando). I saw tiny, flushed toddlers passed out in strollers, and big, flushed parents waiting in line for Dumbo with infants in their arms.

In 1976 it didn’t occur to my parents to figure out how to tote a three year old (who still needed naps, I’m sure). These days, it somehow appeals to to parents to haul three kids under four around for several days. The Magic Kingdom’s added on a new section aimed specifically at the under-kindergarten set, called Mickey’s Toontown Fair. It’s awfully cute, with cartoonish, fanciful buildings and a sprinkler park area filled with tots in swim diapers and parents seeking spots of shade while they watch. Couldn’t they have saved a couple thou and stayed home with the sprinkler, and come back with a splash when their kids were old enough to remember? One thing they seem to be accomplishing (besides lining the pockets of the booming stroller-rental trade) is to be creating Disney-philes earlier and earlier.

Three: The pace can kill you (if you’re not careful). Did I mention the part where Disney is 43 square miles? Old Walt Disney, having shoehorned his original Anaheim, CA park into already-developed land, probably felt a rush of exhilaration (and saw dollar signs, no doubt) when he first toured the swampy center of then empty Florida. And it keeps going. In 1976, it was just the Magic Kingdom. I went back to Disney in my 20s, when EPCOT had joined the group. Now there’s Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Downtown Disney East and West, Pleasure Island, and two mega waterparks. And you can tour them all! We met and talked to families who were on 12 day trips. Personally, I can’t eat substandard food for that long; Disney does a fairly decent job of feeding the masses (and though there’s a lot of junk food, there are also a good amount of healthy choices), but I was out of patience with feeding myself and my kids from the same range of options over and over. (A food aside: One of the biggest selling “snacks” at all the parks is a giant smoked turkey leg. Yes, you too can walk around in 90-degree heat looking like Henry VIII in short shorts and a sweaty Mickey t-shirt!). We paced ourselves pretty carefully — no late-night “magic hours” for us (on any given night, a park might stay open till 2am!) — and we generally got out of Dodge and back to our hotel for a swim by evening. Plus, we skipped Hollywood Studios (see Innocence Rules, above; if my kids have no idea about the Tower of Terror, should I be the one to drag them there before they ask?) and the water parks (ditto). And though my original plan called for two days at EPCOT, we kept that to one in favor of a third at Magic Kingdom. Why? The kids loved the tea cup ride:

Daniel, spinning Madly. My favorite photo of him from the trip.

...and here's James, also gettin' dizzy with it

…and so did we. I’d rather hang around and do a handful of favorite rides four times over, than drag tired kids from one end of the property to another to “see” it “all.”

So, that was our trip! Any questions?