When G suggested to me that we take a first-ever family vacation to Disneyworld this summer, my first (unenthusiastic) reaction was: “Er. Really?”
For the past six years, we’ve taken our summer vacation on the North Fork of Long Island, which I love, love, love. This year, because of the damage from Hurricane Sandy, we couldn’t stay in our normal spot, so we were considering a different vacation destination. I was near tears at the thought of replacing our relaxing week in the North Fork with a few days in Disneyworld. It did not sound appealing.
I had never been to Disneyworld, and frankly, I didn’t think it would be for me: too expensive, too far away, too crowded, too…Disney. My experience with Disney during my daughter’s childhood has been through books, movies and TV shows which offer such facile platitudes as “Just believe, and all your wishes will come true.” Every time we heard something like that from a Disney character, I would rebut it with a critique: “Now, do you think all you have to do is wish for something and it will come true? If I wrote a song, it would say, ‘Set a goal, believe in yourself and commit to doing some good hard work towards that goal, and over the course of your life, perhaps your wishes will stand a better chance of coming true.'” Hmm, not quite as catchy.
Anyway, I wasn’t keen on the idea of Disneyworld, but like multitudes of American parents I am a sucker at the thought of my 5-year-old daughter meeting A REAL LIVE PRINCESS, maybe even Ariel!!! So I relented, and we booked our trip.
Last week we made the journey to Florida. We flew to Ft. Lauderdale, where we stayed for a couple of days to enjoy the beach — then mustered our courage and drove to the outskirts of Orlando for our 3-day, 2-night Magical Disney Tour.
We arrived at Disney’s Polynesian Resort on Tuesday around noon. Immediately, we were immersed in what the Disney puppeteers behind the curtain must call “The Total Disney Experience.” Every single staffperson is a member of the Disney “cast,” and they are always putting on a show for you. Even the hotel janitor had to smile and cheerily say “Aloha!!” to us.
One could remain skeptical for a little while in such a place, but soon the cheery friendly vibe puts you at ease. I’m not usually wordy with strangers, but during our stay I chatted freely with several of the “cast members” — knowing that they could not possibly do anything as un-Disney-like as be rude to A Disney Guest.
Once we had checked in, we lost no time in jumping on the monorail to The Magic Kingdom. It was a short ride and a quick entry, and soon we were standing on Main Street, U.S.A., looking up at Cinderella’s Castle.
Of course it was hot, we were starting the trip a little grumpy and tired and we hadn’t yet gotten into Our Disney Groove. We stood in a (thankfully air-conditioned) line to ride Under the Sea: Journey of The Little Mermaid. (It was a bit of a wait so FASTPASS worked well here.) However, N quickly pronounced the ride “terrible”; she found Ursula frightening, and was disappointed that the other characters in the ride were mechanical figures instead of real. Then we waited in line again to meet the real Ariel, and N was so shy that we didn’t even get a proper picture. (I sneakily got a blurry shot of the two of them, although N is cowering behind her dad about 10 feet away from the princess.)
That first afternoon we also did Enchanted Tales with Belle. N didn’t participate in the story, which was acted out by the kids in the audience, but she did meet Belle, once I agreed to stand with her in the picture. (Note to moms: it’s not a bad idea to groom yourself before The Total Disney Experience, in case you happen to appear in any photographs with your kid who will hang onto these pictures forever in their Disney Photo Autograph Book, which will also contain the signatures of all the princesses, fairies, Mickey Mouses and other assorted characters that they meet along the way. And take along your makeup for freshening up on a hot sweaty day.)
I really enjoyed It’s a Small World, though G said of course I liked it because it is a mom-ride. “But it has so many cute little dancing dolls!” I exclaimed. He looked at me as if to say, “My point exactly.”
It was impossible for us to escape the first day at Disney without buying something, so N got that darned Ariel wig she had been so worked up about before we left home. She put on the flaming red hair over her stringy brown locks (she has been adamant about washing and styling her own hair lately), so it looked pretty crazy — especially next to some of those little girls whose parents had booked appointments at the “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique” at Cinderella’s Castle, where the little girls had their hair whipped into curly up-dos, shellacked into place and glitter-fied before meeting all those real princesses.
I never made an appointment for N at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. It seemed absolutely ludicrous and about five steps too far into The Frightening Disney Vortex of Perfect Princess-hood. I will admit to a few moments of weakness, when I looked at the birds’ nest of messy tangled hair atop my girl’s head, complete with a crooked Ariel wig on top of that. But as nice as it would have been to have her hair shampooed and detangled by someone other than me, I decided to instead be proud of N’s independence and self-reliance in fixing her own hair, birds’ nest or not.
The next morning, we awoke early and arrived at the entrance to The Magic Kingdom in time for the morning welcome performance, at which Mickey and Friends arrive at the gates to The Magic Kingdom on the train and sing “Good morning!” to the crowd. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I actually teared up. This was really The Magic Kingdom! That was really Mickey Mouse! They were really singing “Good morning!” to us! And my daughters are really 5 and 2, and to them, it’s all 100% real.
N was afraid of Ariel and the other princesses too, but she was delighted by The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, both of which we went through twice. We rode The Magic Carpets of Aladdin and met Jasmine and Aladdin, and we walked up through the treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson. We met Tinkerbell, and were thrilled by Peter Pan’s Flight (I kept exclaiming, “We’re flying! We’re really flying!” to which N repeatedly replied, “No, Mom, we’re on a ride.” “No, we are really flying!” I insisted.)
As for shows, N, G and I loved the musical 3D-cartoon, Mickey’s PhilharMagic. I thought S would love it too, but she didn’t understand the concept of 3D and started to cry every time a character popped out of the screen towards her.
The one experience I cannot recommend is Country Bear Jamboree, featuring backwoods bears with a southern accent singing such shocking lines as “Mama, don’t whup lil’ Buford, / you should just shoot him instead.” There is more surprisingly eyebrow-raising material, probably written in the 1970s, but I will leave it there.
As far as dining, we ate at a few of the fast-food stops along the way. We enjoyed the Be Our Guest Restaurant at the Beast’s Castle, for which we made reservations in advance. But the absolute best dining experience — and perhaps the best experience of our trip — was brunch at Cinderella’s Castle (also with reservations in advance). We met Cinderella at the entrance, and a whole troupe of princesses visited all the tables: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine and (hallelujah!) Ariel.
Wouldn’t you know it, N had to take a rather lengthy potty break in the middle of brunch. When we returned, I saw G from across the room holding up his hands, gesturing that all the princesses had left already. I was crestfallen, until one of the waitresses told me that the princesses were waiting for my daughter to return to her table!! They all made their way around to her and she got her picture taken with each of them. She was clutching my hand in every shot until she saw Ariel — then she got up her courage and took the picture with the princess by herself.
Who says Disney isn’t magical??
While on the subject of a potty break, I’d be remiss not to mention that every single Disney Bathroom is immaculate. Seriously, if that is not a mom’s definition of the happiest place on earth, I do not know what is.
We didn’t always have magical happy moments, though. N was hot, tired, cranky and a little bratty at times. Once, we stopped to get ice cream and she threw a loud hissy fit that it wasn’t the right flavor. Horrified, I thought, “Oh my god, we are THOSE PEOPLE who go to Disneyworld and our ungrateful daughter throws a tantrum over something she can’t have!!” I told her point-blank that she was acting like a brat, something I never say to her but it certainly seemed accurate at the time. Thankfully, she quickly calmed down and even ate her ice cream.
I think the sheer overwhelming nature of The Magic Kingdom can get to kids and to their parents. At one point, I exclaimed in exasperation to the mom behind us in line — who was clearly experiencing similar bad-behavior issues — “Whoever said Disney is the happiest place on earth didn’t bring kids!!” to which the woman replied, “You said it!!”
The double stroller saved us — it was totally worth the rental fee to have both kids off their feet and out of our arms, in their own seats. Still, by the end of each day N was exhausted. She had been excitedly anticipating the fireworks at Cinderella’s Castle, so one night close to 10:00pm (way past her normal bedtime), I took N down to the water’s edge at the resort to watch the display. We found a nice little spot on a sandy beach where she could sit in my lap. Almost as soon as the show began, she fell asleep in my arms.
On the way back to our room, I gazed at the lighted silhouette of Cinderella’s Castle — that iconic symbol of everything Disney — and it hit home that I never had this experience as a kid. I never even asked to come to Disney, because I knew what my dad would say: it’s too expensive, too far away, too crowded, too Disney. And I knew he would always say no.
But even though G and I both agree with his criticisms of Disney, we came to a different conclusion. We decided to bring our kids to this ridiculously-over-the-top place that was really built for them, where the magic does not come from a ride or a show or a trinket, but from being immersed in a place where a child can see her imagination reflected back to her — a place where everyone is kind, where fairies and princesses are real, where a little girl can go wherever her fancy takes her. It was worth it all just to have that experience.
We probably won’t return to Disney every year, given the expense, but we’d love to go back in a few years when the girls are a little older and hopefully we’re a little wiser. Until then, I’ll be reliving the happy moments from this trip, and maybe wishing upon a star that I will remember many little details of this magical time of childhood innocence.