Disney’s Magic Kingdom wasn’t Christopher Bundy’s first choice destination for a family vacation.
“Meeska, Mooska, Mickey Mouse!” I sing as we walk down Main Street, USA, colossal turkey leg in one hand, Mickey Mouse lollipop in the other, Official! Goofy Pirates of the Caribbean ears hat on my head, an “I’m Grumpy! Deal With It” sweatshirt over my shoulders, a bounce in my step, and a smile cleaving my grease and sugar-splattered face. Cinderella Castle looms before me. Dodge and weave—in some cases dash as if running for a humanitarian aid food drop—my way from Snow White’s Scary Adventure in Fantasyland to Tom Sawyer Island in Frontierland. And love every second of it as I hum the unforgettable counterpointed choral loop of “It’s a Small World.” If it were only so.
When our grand Thanksgiving escape to Munich—Bavarian beer, Weisswurst, the Christmas market, and, as concession, a trip to Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle—had to be cancelled, my wife, scratching a permanent itch to get away, organized a last-minute trip to Disney World. We needed to do something, she reasoned. With a trip to Disney—a day in the Florida sun, family time, and a “great deal” on a hotel—we’d swap the disappointment of our cancelled trip. She also believed that Americans liked their turkey and football far too much to stray from the couch on Thanksgiving. The Magic Kingdom would be ours for the day.
I read recently that Cinderella Castle, that architectural marvel at the apex of Main Street, seen from miles away and dreamt of by little princesses everywhere, is partly an illusion. Forced perspective, in which the proportions of its most distinguishing features—towers, spires, turrets—get smaller as they become taller, creates the illusions of distance and height. Cinderella Castle is not as towering as it appears. And, as we learned on a previous trip: you can’t go inside, unless you are the lucky chosen family selected to spend an evening in the Dream Suite.
My daughter, Harper, like many six-year-old girls, worshipped Disney, largely because of the princesses: Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Jasmine, the whole gang. She had a closet filled with official Disney princess costumes that she routinely wore around the house, to the grocery store, and to the playground. Tell her she resembled Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, et al. and she beamed satisfaction. You held the key to her heart. She’d seen every princess movie at least a dozen times, The Little Mermaid and Cinderella more likely several dozen times. She had Princess dolls, sticker sets, Christmas ornaments, castle play set, coloring books, diary, pens, pencils and pencil case, figurines, large and small, key chains, backpack, vitamins, lollipops, mechanical toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss, lunch box and matching thermos, hooded sweatshirt, pajamas, and, my favorite, a Princess spinning lighted toy, whose purpose remains a mystery to me.
For Harper, Disney World was where princesses lived, where at Mickey’s Princess and Pirate Party, she could dress up as her favorite princess (it changed weekly), including a trip to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for a princess make-over—Castle Package (Crown Package plus Imaging Package) $189.95 plus tax, and shimmer through a day and a night’s worth of Disney sparkle. On her first trip at age four, she couldn’t contain her glee. “Disney!” she shouted at every street corner, at every familiar character, at every themed ride. She tugged at my hand, eager to look at and touch each attraction. I had no choice but to smile and join her, to entertain her constant pleas for whatever new gadget, confection, and costume accessory snared her attention.
During that spring visit to Disney we had fun, despite the crowds, our aching feet, and the rain that poured through the entire Princess and Pirate Party. That evening, as we all snuggled into the king-sized hotel bed, Harper fell asleep before she finished a final wave of her wand and declared, “Bibbidi Bobbidi… zzzz.” I kissed my little princess goodnight and sighed: I’d survived our first trip to Disney World.
I was happy because my wife was happy because my daughter was happy and we’d come away with a minimum of Disney products. Though I remain both disturbed and amused by images of my wife obsessively, and ferociously, sorting and selecting accessories from the My Little Pony display at the Disney Store in order to fit as many of the tiny plastic pieces into a large plastic cup as she could. I’d survived and figured I had a reprieve of at least a few years before we returned. But then our fall trip to Munich was postponed.
I sat stonily silent on the flight to Orlando. Brightly colored tourists in the Orlando airport hurried for rental cars and hotel shuttles. Hotel employees, a good thirty seconds after we arrived, tried to lure us into a presentation on vacation packages by offering my daughter a Kid’s Welcome Bag consisting mostly of the cheap plastic toys designed to amuse until they broke, which they did, upon first use.
Once at the park, a line of people just to get to the trains to take us from the buses to the park entrance waited before us. Obese visitors spilled out of their motorized power chairs. Teenagers weaseled their way around us in line. A family of six took over the small train car we were meant to share. Unadulterated hunger blossomed across everyone’s faces as they prepared to enter the Magical Kingdom.
I alone, it seemed, was impervious to the Disney sparkle, that thirty-nine square miles of singing, shining, spinning hooey. We should’ve been introducing her to the great outdoors, where rocks were not made of fiber-cement and rafting trips didn’t end with a mechanized jolt, where forests were dense with towering redwoods not squat, picturesque plastic trees of no recognizable genus and the night sky was truly three dimensional and star-filled and not that way because we wore oversized glasses. Yet, there we were again.
The park was packed, so much so that walking was out of the question. We bumped and bounced our way to one snaking line after another and waited to board the tiny cars for our three minutes of Disney fun. At six, Harper had no interest in roller coasters and haunted houses. We saw a few shows, staked out a curbside seat for the parade, and sampled the slower themed rides.
The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, complete with some of the worst Arabic stereotypes, was slow and familiar enough that she wanted to ride. I worried that the cramped, spinning carpet would be our undoing, our bellies full of corn dogs, fries, popcorn, and slushies. The three of us inched our way through a long, twisting line until we reached the gate and boarded our magic carpet. In the air Harper took the controls, steering the carpet up and down as we soared over Agrabah and circled the Genie’s golden lamp. Her eyes shining, she took us higher, dropped us quickly then returned us to the sky as she maneuvered us closer to the spitting camel. As an arc of water hit me in the face. She laughed. My wife laughed. I laughed. And we prepared for another pass. Then the carpet slowed, the ride finished, over too soon.
We escaped Disney that day with only a set of Princess Christmas ornaments (some broken before we left Orlando), a Princess pen and diary set, and a Princess sleeping gown. Some of the sparkle seemed to have faded with familiarity and exhaustion, but Harper held her new Princess diary close as she twirled before the mirror in our hotel room, gleeful as her Aurora gown fanned outward.
There is a photograph from our first trip to Disney that I cherish: my wife and daughter in front of Cinderella’s Rose Garden, the castle barely visible in the background. It’s dark, raining, and chilly. My wife, in a wilting paper tiara, smiles like the trooper she always is, forever ready to prop up our fun. And Harper—in a hooded jacket over her Cinderella costume and “treasure” beads around her neck. Her hair lies limply on her shoulders. She maintains a tight smile, likely shivering from the wet cold. And the killer detail, the one that stops me. She holds her dress carefully by the sides like she’d seen Cinderella do earlier in the day, like a real princess.
When I look at this photograph, I see that smile as one not of fatigue or cold, or even of delight, but of weary contentment, the dreams of a four-year-old come true. Because four-year-old girls see only the illusion, the towers and spires, the grandly costumed characters, the Disney “sparkle,” and the chance, if only for a day, to become a princess themselves. They don’t know or need to know that behind the façade is a well-oiled machine pumping out fantasies for little girls and boys so that their parents will offer up hard-earned paychecks in exchange for happily-ever-after. So, I’ll take the photograph of my wet and weary but satisfied wife and daughter and a three-minute family ride on Aladdin’s Magic Carpet over the reality I pooh-pooh any day. I’ll even take the spinning lighted Disney Princess toy. And I’ll whistle “It’s a small world (after all)” all the way home.
Image credits: Feature image courtesy of d4rr3ll/Flickr; Jennie and Harper at Magic Kingdom courtesy of the author