“Have a magical day,” was what you hear from cashiers in the hotel gift shop, ticket booth clerks at the various parks, and ride monitors as they check children’s height. It’s difficult not to at least lean toward obedience after 72 hours or so.
My family’s six magical days at Disney World were indeed so, but in the end I was drawn to the magic that has always been free, what has been internal or intra-personal, and what is to come, rather than what is costly, external and visible, and what is rapidly passing away.
In the days leading up to the boys’ spring break from 5th, 3rd, and 1st grades, I was a bit restless—selfishly and snobbily—that we had not planned a more…refined, or cultured, getaway. If not refined, then at least one where we would experience Life Unscripted together. Yet, with Teak at 7, he could enjoy most of what this small world had to offer, and at 11, Carter is in the child-bubble a little longer before his current exposure in middle school will render him too cool to wave at Mickey and Cinderella, which he in fact did on our penultimate night. Bennett, 9, would do what Carter liked to do, and there is a hidden innocence beneath his rugged exterior anyway that adheres to a world in which boats with shellacked benches take you from lodge to Magic Kingdom dock, streets are free of garbage, and even ice cream stains from diurnal pressure-washing, and in which fireworks close each night. If we were going to do Disney, scripted days or not, this was the year.
At first, there was an “It” I wanted to pass along to the kids. Getting past my cynicism—for it was Karen’s first visit as well and for her it was magical in an adult way—there was a normal parental urge to have my kids experience what I did in 1975, when younger brother Jim and I went for a day to the Magic Kingdom, the only one of the four current parks then open, and we rode everything from the Pirates of the Caribbean to Space Mountain, from the Haunted House to Splash Mountain. Our kids rode all of these and more, yet inadvertently and perhaps providentially, we spared them of “It’s a Small World,” so that they—at 46—will not be thinking of those lyrics and melody as they type out the attraction name in a blog. There was content that I wanted to not just pass along, so that we’d have shared memories. It did not, however, extend to something more fundamental, and even insidious, like allowing them to consider Disney World in any way preferable, normative, future-looking.
For as my father once told me about our summer beach community of Point O’ Woods, Fire Island—an exclusive and precious-to-me home-away-from-home where crime was not, and non-WASPs were not—that it was “not the real world,” so is Disney not, nor what it stands for. I was angry with Dad. I argued that I had made friends for life at Point O’ Woods, and “wasn’t that real life?!” That was not his point and, in fact, it is the very point I am less succinctly and eloquently making here. The point was that the place itself, its underlying assumptions, its pace and culture, and even its long-term effects on a person, did not enable one to live in the real world. I did not want the boys to think that “if you wish upon a star” that this resulted in your heart’s desires being realized. There is a difference between manufactured magic and ineffability, and I want my sons to know it. I didn’t want the kids to fall in love with Disney World. I found, on about the third day, that I wanted our family to fall deeper in love with each other and with the God who would make the world more like a magical kingdom than Walt Disney ever could dream.
This happened from a combination of an exchange with a Disney employee and, later, seeing another family on a Disney inter-park/lodge bus that we took multiple times each day.
She stood before me outside the “Fantasmic” show at the Hollywood Studios park, which—for the uninitiated—is the one show to see at Disney if you see no other, like “Wicked” in NYC. Here was this woman, only five feet tall, if that, but dominant. I had walked Teak in by the hand to join Karen, where she was saving seats in between the aisles marked by headshots of Scar and Buzz. (Nobody is allowed to save seats at any Disney attraction, and apparently there is a place in Dante’s 5th circle of hell for those who do, in between those who were greedy in life and those who were ungodly landowners.) Meanwhile, Carter and Bennett waited outside the entrance at the adjacent “Tower of Terror” free-fall ride. Moments earlier I had had all three boys, and we were approaching the entrance to the attraction.
Teak mumbled, “This looks boring,” as he bent his neck backward to gaze up at the 13 story-ride edifice, whose neon “Hollywood Hotel” sign’s first “O” letter flickered on and off like a Norman Bates-owned property. His mouth was ajar in his “You’re-wasting-my-time” look.
I took Teak aside and asked privately, “Is it that this looks a little scary?” He stuck his right thumb in his mouth and I could see his blonde bangs bobbing slightly as he stared past me at waist level. This was of course not discernible to his two older brothers, who were distracted by the increasing “Stand By” line that was for those, like us, without the Fast Pass that allows you to skip most of the wait by showing up within an hourly “appointment” you are given. I told the older boys to stay put while I brought Teak to Karen.
Having situated the 7-year-old in the large amphitheater, which gets to capacity at least 30 minutes prior to each show, I started to walk quickly back to the other boys, but first came to a Disney monitor, who handed me a 2×4-inch blue card that would allow me re-entry once the theater was full.
“I have two sons coming back with me, so that we can join my wife and other son who are inside.” Failing to mention the saving-seats-5th-circle-of-Disney-hell thing.
She was, as I said, five foot tall, if. Chinese. Authoritative. Not taking crap from a white boy who once thought an exclusive beach enclave without her race was the City of God.
“I see one person. I give one ticket,” she said in a practiced way. [Disney Employee Handbook, Page 352: Insert adjectival number before each noun. Remember to wish guest a “magical day” at end of concluding sentence.]
“But there are five of us, and we’ll be back just after this ride. Couldn’t you give me two more tickets so the three of us can get in?”
“If I see your one ticket, I let you in. Nobody else.”
She turned to deal with another anarchist, while I decided to take my chances later and moved past her. She did not wish me a magical day, a nice day, or even a “good day to you, Sir.” She will likely one day run Disney as CEO and produce fat dividends. I considered buying 1000 shares of the company before reporting her name to her supervisor. (I did neither.)
And yet, a little while later, I recalled the exchange as curiously refreshing. She reminded me of New Yorkers, and I got homesick.
Two days later, I watched another family of five seated across from us on a Disney Transport bus, which operate between the resorts, one of which we stayed at, and the four parks plus Downtown Disney, Blizzard Beach, and Typhoon Lagoon. At the end of any given day, one would always see multiple children in a family with their heads on parents’ laps and their sandaled feet drawn up onto the seat next to them. Their Midwest-pale faces and flamingo pink legs contrasted against the ubiquitous purple seats. Their eyes might be closed or they might be open slightly, staring across the bus aisle at you but not focusing. Likely letting the days’ events slowly recede into their expanding memories, where one day at Disney equals four-score the adventures of a day around the neighborhood and where—if you don your First Time Visitor button at a park—you are told, “Well, anything can happen at Disney.”
This couple had three girls, about the ages of our three boys, and while I don’t recall the conversation as vividly as that with Disney’s next CEO, it struck me at the time that all week I had been seeing families having a great time together. Sure, there were fights and there was discipline to be done and I saw not a few parents hauling off little ones by the triceps, no doubt leaving white marks on the tikes’ sunburns, to give them a talking-to. But I saw families from North America, the UK, France, Italy, and others, who were simply enjoying having fun together. Long lines afforded everyone a chance to talk about the ride one had just gone on, or wanted to go on next, or to plan a route around the park and which Fast Pass to get when in order to maximize the time spent on rides together. Perhaps that was it: it was hard not to be together at Disney. The evidence was brimming over. And that’s what, in fact, made it magical to me.
I had planned two date nights with Karen, thinking that six nights and seven days with the kids would surely require that we have two evenings of 2.5 hours each alone. Bare minimum.
Though we spent roughly 15 to 17 waking hours together every day, we never tired of being with each other. Were this time spent in our apartment, it surely would have turned to cannibalism. Yet it was Disney, so at 11 p.m., I would lift Teak onto my shoulders and we’d walk past sleeping Korean pre-schoolers on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom who’d stayed awake long enough to see the fireworks and then collapsed with their heads on the copious bags of Disney paraphernalia that we parents all reluctantly yet laughingly acquired each day. Karen and I agreed to cancel our date nights and instead have all five of us do something together. One of the nights entailed a Concierge at our hotel—a blonde woman based out of the University of Michigan—to cancel our reservation at the hotel’s “Cub’s Den” (their child care area, which I never named aloud around our children for fear that they would dig in their heels and not go) claiming a “serious family illness.” (This was her call, not mine, and I was surprised to find a Disney employee dissembling this way. The Disney Handbook surely has a red-letter section on dissembling and there also might be another hell circle for that kind of warped thinking.)
I arrived at Disney and expected to be assaulted with appeals to look at the “It”—at the content of the place—all week long. Certainly, those appeals were there. Yet, I found that we all looked at each other much more than we ever had.
On Friday, our travel day home, and because our flight didn’t leave until 9 p.m., it afforded essentially an extra day at the parks. Bennett and I decided to go to Typhoon Lagoon, while Karen and the other boys spent one last morning at the Magic Kingdom. Later, through photos and retelling, I learned that Carter, my rapidly maturing Middle Schooler, went on a “mission” with an 8-inch white plastic Mickey Mouse doll, to get autographs from as many Disney characters as he could. Pinocchio, Minnie, Mickey, Donald Duck, Buzz Lightyear and a couple others each signed the doll, which Carter carried around the 107-acre park by himself with little to no parental supervision. Crime at Disney is virtually non-existent. We had a Free-Range Child.
On the other side of the vast Disney real estate southwest of downtown Orlando, Bennett and I bobbed in 4-foot waves crashing in the wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon. He grabbed onto my neck from behind and I felt his cheek against mine. He braced himself with his knees against my rib cage, not unlike some of the primate offspring did at Animal Kingdom but doing so from their mothers’ bellies. Four nights earlier, Bennett and his brothers had danced at the Biergarten, one of the restaurants at Epcot Center’s Germany area. A four-piece brass blasorchester played while Karen and I ate and watched from our table one level up from the floor. The boys formed their own troupe among some dozen other children, all dancing in pairs and threes and fours. Bennett decided that German polkas did not restrict him from doing his one serious dance move, The Worm, which he promptly performed across the wooden dance floor, much to the astonishment of two women who shared a ringside table and one of whom nearly spit out her würst laughing. My Bennett, the boy who never looked like a baby but rather always looked like a handsome little man when he was born and likewise as an infant and toddler, who at 5 years old at church would pretend to trot on a horse on his way up the aisle to receive the Eucharist—this boy now bobbed in clear blue water and smiled at me when I looked back, our faces inches apart, and as his foggy goggles allowed enough of his sparkly eyes to show through, I knew that his time at Typhoon Lagoon, though replete with body and raft slides, would be remembered perhaps primarily as the first time either of us had spent six hours alone together.
As I write, it is Easter. I couldn’t sleep and started writing this post at 4:15. I had planned to write it since before returning and knew basically what I was going to say but not how or to what ultimate conclusion. I find myself considering several facts and feeling several emotions.
First, thank you, Mr. Disney, for creating a clean perfection with realistic storefronts that from behind reveal corrugated metal and guy wires and which points us to a perfection that is yet to come. This temporary perfection affords families from all over the world to experience togetherness while excusing ourselves beforehand and even during that it’s about roller coasters, water parks, and life-sized Disney characters dancing on immaculate streets. It’s not about discovering Disney; we find it’s about discovering who we are to each other.
Second, I am truly astounded that our family shared 119 hours or so together and left Florida wanting more. Yesterday, there was no sense that we had “had enough” of each other and needed our space. Had it been a trip anywhere for longer, say a month, even to someplace that was in my own dreams, it might have been another story. It may have become too familiar, too all-the-same, too much “like home.” We might have turned on each other in our new comfort, our shortcomings having become all the more obvious as the surroundings became commonplace and less distracting.
But third, thank you, Jesus. You showed the apostle John and us a kingdom in which the streets are cleaner than any Disney street. You showed us a world that—at 1400 miles by 1400 miles by 1400 miles—is actually a fairly “small, small world after all.” You showed us a world in which peace and prosperity are everywhere and enjoyed by people of every tribe, tongue and nation. A place where our true home can actually be more inviting and desirable that any vacation we can possibly imagine. You showed us this after leaving it for a time, setting up a tent among us in what my father called “the real world,” which in fact is a world that is passing away, and letting your very servants command your fate. Instead of presenting perfection in human terms and coming first in strength, you lived perfection on your own perfect terms and presented weakness in human terms, being executed like a common criminal. We esteemed you not. Hanging on the cross, you were the epitome of ugliness and disfigurement. We turned our eyes from you.
But today you live. The only reason the Magic Kingdom appears to have any magic at all is because it hints at Who you are. Were this not so, those who leave Disney would soon become depressed, realizing that the world as we know it would never be like Disney. Yet many who aren’t conscious of this must feel it gnaw at them, beckon them, entreat them. Thank you for the family on the bus, who pointed me more toward my family. Thank you for the Chinese ticket taker, who reminded me how much I love my own city, with all its foibles and imperfect people, people who don’t always follow the rulebook but do so endearingly. Thank you for causing me to value my true home as where my family is. The magic was not what we saw while in Florida. It was what was happening inside of us and which we left with. You made this happen. This trip was a gift; thank you, Lord.
You are making all things new.
Come, Lord Jesus.
photo: Phillipp Klinger