When I told my friend Scott recently that my in-laws were taking my family on a trip to Disney World a few weeks back, he looked surprised.
"Who are you?" he asked with a bemused smile.
Scott asked this because the Susan (err Sue) he worked with years ago would not have been excited about a road trip to Disney World. At least not outwardly so.
I liked to play the cynic. A kind of ranting, self-righteous skeptic of idealism and fairy tales. Because someone who likes the stuff of Disney was not someone who could be taken seriously– especially not in a newsroom– proving grounds for rumpled misanthropes who want to make the world a better place, but don't want anybody to know about it.
And I desperately wanted to be taken seriously. I desperately wanted to be respected.
So then, it seemed best not to mention about my love of Disney movies and unfulfilled wishes of going to Disney World.
How I can remember the first time I saw "The Little Mermaid" (my Dad brought it home on VHS - I watched it from the hardwood floor in the room he built in the house I grew up in) and the first time I saw "Beauty and the Beast" (while babysitting Melissa and Eric– the kids down the street) and the first time I saw "Aladdin" (summer break at the movie theater in Fairfax City near the Jo-Ann fabrics -- one of the rare occasions Mom took us to the movies) and the first time I saw "The Lion King" (the movie theater by Fair Oaks Mall with a group of friends that included one of my first crushes. We sat next to each other and held hands ... until I started bawling because Mufasa died.)
My sister and I always looked forward to the Magical World of Disney on Sunday nights– we'd watch "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "Swiss Family Robinson," "The Parent Trap" and "Escape From Witch Mountain."
How even in high school my best friend and I had standing dates to see whatever the latest animated release was.
These were the stories of my childhood (well, some of the stories of my childhood anyway). While I'd been to Disney Land when I was 3 or 4 and again in high school, I'd never been to Disney World (not that I didn't persistently beg my parents to take us there for years and years and years).
Instead, our family vacations usually involved long, long road trips to New England or out West. Camping was often involved. Hiking was almost always part of the itinerary. Stopping at scenic vistas for photos of state and national parks was also part of the day's activities. The most amusement park-esque diversions on these trips was a visit to the hotel pool or eating ice cream before dinner.
At the point in adolescence that I recognized my parents as actual sentient humans with entire lives separate from serving the whims of their six children, it dawned on me that I couldn't even really picture either of them in Disney World. Walking around, waving at people dressed up as giant mice and bears and chipmunks. Fawning over princesses. Spinning around in tea cups.
I gave up the dream.
And despite how beloved Disney was for decades, by the time I reached college, it no longer seemed cool or smart to mention them.
Of course, when you have children life comes full circle. I've introduced Lily and Jovie to many of the movies from my childhood and am happy to have an excuse to watch the next generation of Disney. The expression on Lily's face when I told her years ago that the castle on the back of the "Lion King" DVD box was a real place was one of pure wonder and glee.
"Maybe someday we'll go there," I told her. Not actually believing it would ever actually happen. People don't just go to Disney World, just like people don't just go to Mars.
But then a couple years ago Brad's parents mentioned the possibility of a family vacation to Disney World while the girls were still in Disney Princess Mode.
It still seemed like an intangible thing back then. An idea of something fun to do at an unspecified point in the future.
But then we were picking dates. Picking a hotel. Picking the colors for our Magic Bands (what the hell are Magic Bands? I wondered) Checking out rides we'd want Fast Passes for (Kind of elitist, I thought). Announcing the trip to the girls via elaborate video productions (They're going to lose their shit, I thought). Giving the girls virtual tours of their "Finding Nemo"-themed hotel room (Lily spent days coming up with her plan of action for exploring the room). Packing various Disney-themed clothing, bathing suits and sunglasses (Is it weird to wear Disney outfits to Disney? Like wearing the T-shirt for the band you're seeing in concert? Turns out, Disney gear is practically a state uniform for Orlando). Driving and driving and driving and then, in a bizarro world fever dream (at least for me) entering Disney World.
"I can't believe this is actually happening," I told Brad as we drove to the resort. "It's really weird."
More like I was really weird. Because people go to Disney World all the time. It's a thing. My neighbors just went a couple months ago. My niece plans to honeymoon there. A former boss visited almost every year. Our financial adviser had advice on where to stay. Seemingly everyone has opinions on where to eat, what to ride, what footwear to have on hand and how to schedule your days.
Over the decades of not going to Disney World, I'd kind of decided that I'd just never go. And that I didn't actually want to go. Because it would all be too much. Too big. Too expensive. Too far away.
I mean, grown people, wearing matching mouse T-shirts getting excited about hidden Mickeys and spotting other grown people dressed up as Tinkerbell.
We humans can be pretty judgmental of the mentally ill and others who don't seem to have a strong grasp on reality, but after watching hordes of seemingly sane adults at Disney World, I'd say we're just jealous.
To be clear, it is ridiculous.
All of it.
- There's glitter everywhere. Like, I'm pretty sure they intentionally infuse all sidewalks and surfaces with glitter. Everything sparkled.
- All girls are referred to as "princess." Everywhere. It's all "Good morning, princess" or "Enjoy the ride, princess" or to Jovie, "Happy Birthday, princess!" When the girls dressed up as Princess Anna and Princess Elena, grown men dressed in their own costumes actually bowed to my children. Bowed to them. See. Ridiculous.
- There are no bugs. Disney World is located, I think, in the middle of a Floridian swamp and I saw maybe one fly. One bee. The entire week.
- There are no bad smells. Even in Animal Kingdom, which is full of potentially odiferous animals, my nose was rarely offended. In my experience, amusement parks can have notoriously stinky bathrooms. But Disney's were immaculate and stink-free. I swear the resort pumped in smell-scapes in the lobby, which frequently smelled like peaches.
- The employees (excuse me, cast mates) are all so friendly and courteous. From the security guards checking your bags to the people serving your food to the people cleaning the bathrooms. So many smiles. So much genuine warmth. Disney should provide hospitality training to the rest of the world.
- From the second you walk into any of the parks you feel as if you're being transported to another world. The walk down Main Street is like entering the "Truman Show"- this elaborate stage production designed to make you feel like Utopia could be an actual thing. Animal Kingdom was this lush, shaded jungle with blooming orchids growing in the trees, snowy white cranes resting on man-made shorelines and geckos scampering across oversized leaves. In Epcot, there are actually Norwegians manning the shops in Norway, actual Mexicans serving food in the faux Mesoamerican pyramid. I swear Disney paid this pair of young, attractive people to pose romantically on a rustic staircase in Italy. The queues for lines– whether it was to meet a character or go on a ride– were so richly decorated, you felt like you wanted to spend time studying the "artifacts" like you would at a museum. Nothing felt cheap or chintzy or cheesy. It felt intentional and real. And paradoxically, Magical.
As we fought traffic on I-4 in Orlando, I told Brad we'd officially left the Disney Bubble. I said this both cynically and wistfully.
Disney has masterminded the world's largest, most elaborate stage production. Of course, you can't help but falling in love with it. While there, you are immersed in the most romanticized version of reality. An endless rom-com. A fairytale.
Grownups are allowed (in fact encouraged) to be the silliest most spontaneous versions of themselves:
- Animal Kingdom is hosting a street party in Africa? Sure, I'll go dance in public with strangers.
- The line to meet Joy and Sadness from "Inside Out" is only 20 minutes long? Heck yes I'm going to get a selfie with them knowing full well they're not actually the voices in my head, but humans just like me hamming it up for the camera just for my benefit.
- Spot a "Mary Poppins"-era suffragette on Main Street? It only makes sense to shout "Votes for Women!" and fist pump as she yells back, "Any day now, girl!"
- Lily wants to ride "It's a Small World" again? Sure I'll suffer through that again, just to see that smile on her face, that sparkle in her eyes.
- There's a strange kid sitting next to me on the shuttle to the park or in line for Big Thunder Mountain? You know I'm going to chat with him or her while we wait. That overtired baby? Guess who I'm playing peek-a-boo with.
- Drink a couple mojitos and hop on Expedition Everest (twice) while toting a box of chicken fried rice? Why not?
Disney World knocks down our walls. Dissolves our personal boundaries. Forces us into these weird temporary communities of overtired, over-sugared, ridiculously happy people.
And the girls? Well, as expected, the girls soaked it all up. They offered shy smiles to the various princesses they were collecting autographs from. They were awestruck by Cinderella's castle, of course, but equally as smitten by the ducklings swimming in front of the castle and the wild lizards they spotted throughout Animal Kingdom. It was just as fun watching the girls try on a giant sombrero and Jovie dance around with maracas as it was seeing Lily hug Minnie Mouse and Jovie throw her hands up on the roller coasters.
It was magic. A dream.
But like all dreams, it couldn't last forever.
And that was fine with me. For as fun as it all was, I found myself missing the real world. Everything there felt so scripted and neat. There was no shrub unpruned. No spilled ice cream. No moment left to chance, really.
And I had guilt, too. Disney World is a place of enormous privilege. The cost of entry is prohibitive for so many people– people who would probably benefit from the chance to escape. It's set these expectations for my girls, too. The day we left they wanted to talk about the day we'd come back next. As if transforming into a princess will be a regular part of their future along with enormous swimming pools and resorts featuring statuary from their favorite movies.
And I imagine we'll go back again one day. But I also want them to find magic in all the places we go. Whether it's a walk in the woods or visit to the shore. We are all so lucky to live in this big beautiful world– whether it's a theme park or a national park.
Grandma and Grandpa sent us home with a copy of "Moana."
We watched it with them at home after returning from Florida. And just as the Disney movies of my childhood, I found myself getting swept up in beautiful artwork, the music and the story– a story Disney and others have probably told a thousand times in a thousand different ways. The one where the protagonist feels called to a life beyond the one they're living, where they follow the call to uncover their destiny facing obstacles along the way. The standard heroes journey.
It speaks to the desire each of us have within us to find our purpose in this life and leave our mark on this world in some meaningful way, large or small.
Moana's destiny, it turned out was to be a voyager. She knew that in her heart since she was a toddler.
My long-awaited, full-on Disney immersion reaffirmed the destiny I'd known since I was a child. I'm a storyteller.
I guess now that I've outed myself as more of a romantic idealist than a calloused cynic, maybe I won't be taken as seriously. Maybe there's less to respect.
I don't know.
Whether you quote Shakespeare ("To think own self be true") or the Genie:
It's all the same to me. I am who I am.