Is Disney really the apex of the father-child experience? Or does lots of love and innovation work just as well?
Its summer, and the Facebook posts are pouring in with images of happy families at Disney.
Happy families with Mickey, happy families in line for the Magic Mountain, happy families riding the Pirates of The Caribbean, happy families smiling for photos at fancy, overpriced, we-will-extort-money-from-you-because-you-can’t-leave-the-park restaurants, happy families looking exuberantly at the camera and waving in front of palm trees, castles, and dwarfs. It’s depressing.
I haven’t taken my family to Disney and I’m not sure I ever will. Have I failed as a man? Money is always tight in the summer. Conducting anti-bullying school assemblies that address cyberbullying, racism, cutting, gossip, online safety, hazing and suicide is rewarding, impactful, life-changing and valuable. It is not lucrative. Every summer my wife, Julia, and I get out the calculator and crunch the numbers and every summer Disney lies just out of reach, beckoning like a siren.
We look at each other and imagine, project, and make vague rationalizations on why we should go: “Soon the kids (we have three) will be too old to enjoy it.” Can you age out of Disney? “We might not have time next year.” And “we’ll put them in therapy if we don’t go to Disney.” But then we realize that we have to spend our money on other ancillary, frivolous things like food, shelter, clothing and transportation.
It’s not that I’m ungrateful for what we have: a home, wonderful children, a good (I think, maybe I should check with Julia) marriage, living in America, bacon, health, clean sheets, classic rock and roll, deep friendships, and central air conditioning. It’s just that Disney is annoying because society has deemed it mandatory. The pictures of happy families from the Grand Canyon, Yellow Stone, and the top of Everest don’t seem to bother me as much. But a dad is supposed to deliver on Disney.
We do other things. Several summers ago I got one of those “pools in a box” from Walmart with an air ring tube around the circumference to hold the sides up. We had a blast with it. At the end of each summer we would pile all the kids into the pool on floats and then stand about three feet apart outside the pool. On the count of three Julia and I would push the air ring all the way down to the ground. The water would cascade out the opening with a roar and the kids would get sucked out with it screaming and yelling in delight. They would wash down the hill in our backyard in a mass of water, arms, legs, and floats. It was our own Disney log flume ride.
We are now on our third “pool in a box”. This one is as close to a real pool as we have gotten. It has steel poles that hold it up instead of the problematic air tube. We are temporary pool aristocracy. I’ve made up a variety of games to play in this one like “Battle Bots” where the goal is to tip people out of inflatable tubes. The rougher the better! It is perfectly legal in this game for the youngest child to jump on you from the top of the ladder. It is terrifying to suddenly look up from battle and see him descending upon you with a triumphant scream.
We can also make a tremendous whirlpool in our little round pool by running around the sides and creating a circular current. One time, my youngest got sucked down. Once we determine the water has reached terminal velocity, we pull our legs up and spin around the pool on the current we created. Wheee….
Not all the summer games I invent are a success or have a long run. One summer I invented “bicycle tag.” The kids and I and a visiting cousin (I’m always surprised my brother in law lets her stay overnight) rode around the back yard whacking each other on the head with those ubiquitous Styrofoam pool noodles. There was something insanely hysterical about this game. Perhaps it was the element of danger. We would laugh cartoon villain cackles and whack each other on the head as we flew past on our bikes like joisting knights. Julia came out on the back deck, “Is this a good idea?” she asked. “They’re wearing helmets,” I replied as I whacked a passing cyclist on the head with a noodle (three points). On day two of bicycle tag my oldest, Sawyer, got rammed and went down. He was a little scratched up and there was blood, but more importantly, the back rim of his bike was mangled. It was a sixty dollar repair. I reluctantly shut down “bicycle tag”.
One summer, when the children were younger, I was watering the vegetable garden and left the hose running in one place too long. It created a muddy pit. I sensed opportunity and called the kids over. Being kids they immediately jumped into the pit. I realized this might get me in trouble with Julia, so, being a responsible dad, I had them take off their clothes and kept on adding water. They cavorted nakedly around in the mud for hours.
Every summer I try to discover a new destination, game, or adventure. State parks are inexpensive and sometimes even free. They are great for our mountain biking or hiking adventures. One of our favorite parks has a waterfall that splashes onto a large flat rock you can slide down, landing in a shallow pool. It’s our version of a waterslide. This year we discovered a small state park in the foothills of Virginia. This park has an incredibly exciting attraction: a concrete platform anchored in the middle of the lake with a large diving board protruding from it. A diving board! You can’t find these anywhere. I guess they aren’t politically correct or perhaps it has something to do with insurance liability.
It gets even better, the staff at the park are kind of old school. There aren’t a lot of rules. Like, at most pools or lakes you have to submit your kids to the swim test. They have to swim a certain distance and get a stupid wristband before they can swim in the deep end or go off the board (if they have one.) Even if they can go off the board (if they have one) flips are illegal.
Not at this park. At this park the fifty yard swim out to the concrete dive platform is the swim test! If you drown on the way out, you don’t get to go off the board. You can do flips, jump off in groups or land on your father. Chicken fights are also legal. After our first visit to this park, I actually received a “That was one of the best days ever!” exclamation from my 15 year-old, too-cool-for-anything son. Cost for my family to swim at the lake: $8.00, compliment from my cocky teenager: priceless.
If it’s free, we do it, if it’s cheap, we do it, if we have never done it before, we do it, if it’s adventurous, we do it, if we are dubious about doing it, we do it, if you have to pack a first aid kit and a map, we do it, if it’s risky and someone could get lost or injured, we do it.