Sunday, April 01, 2012

"I'm So Happy!": Some Thoughts On A Family Vacation

Last Friday, the family bundled itself into my Kia Spectra and drove from our little home out here on the prairie to the bustle and crowd of a Disney Resort Hotel - Pop Century - for six days at Disney World Parks. We arrived on Saturday, March 24 amid sunshine and temperatures in the mid-80's, surrounded by lush vegetation, various local birds like ibis's and egrets, even those little lizards that crawl over everything, and immersed ourselves in the Disney Corporation's vision of what a vacation should be.

For the second year in a row, I can honestly say I can't believe what a marvelous time the four of us had.

The trip itself is enjoyable, even if this year, I must admit, I personally was far more focused on getting there than enjoying the drive. One thing that detracted from the drive south was the weather on our first day. Much of the drive, south through Indiana and Kentucky on I-65, then east from Nashville on I-24, was spent in driving rain. Particularly in Kentucky, it became blinding. From Nashville to Chattanooga, TN, we switched from bad weather to bad traffic. Bumper-to-bumper for over 120 miles, averaging around 40 miles an hour, it was, to say the least, frustrating. At least it was sunny. When we finally arrive at our hotel, on the southeast side of Chattanooga, having picked up I-75 and sitting smack dab on the Georgia border, the weather was sunny and warm, the city green and alive with spring flowers, the dogwood and redbud trees in full bloom. Chattanooga is a beautiful city, one it would be enjoyable in which to spend time; the drive from Nashville goes through the beautiful mountains of central Tennessee, including a drive right over Mont Eagle, with its downslope dotted by truck run-out lanes should a big rig lose its brakes.

The drive through Georgia takes a driver through the foothills of the southern end of the Appalachians through Atlanta, a vibrant, busy city that, like Chattanooga, seems inviting to curious tourists. My wife spent time there training as a US-2 and had nothing but happy memories that included spending the night in a homeless shelter, having been given nothing more than enough money to get some soup and coffee. The red clay of the soil bursts through further south; beyond Macon, the landscape flattens out until, when you hit northern Florida, it resembles a tree-lined version of the prairies that run past the horizon here at home. One thing I can honestly say, I had no idea there were so many cattle ranches in Florida, a land an outsider like me links more to orange and other citrus groves.

The Disney experience is, should one pay attention, one of total immersion. From the moment one passes underneath the sign welcoming one to Disney's resorts, you are enveloped in a not-quite-stifling, benevolent paternalism that offers respite from the world to which one is used. Mickey Mouse is omnipresent, overseeing your experience in way that offers the reassurance that reality is plastic; here, it seems, a simple line drawing by a struggling movie producer from the late 1920's suddenly becomes the beneficent god of Vacations and Family Entertainment. Everything and everyone smiles. The grounds of the tens of thousands of acres are kept immaculate; the sight of litter is rare enough that you remark upon it, and it disappears soon enough. The employees at the resort are friendly and helpful; even in the hustle of the dining area, which are crowded each morning with thousands of tourists wanting only their free coffee, and maybe a quick bite to eat before heading off to one of the parks, can seem harried at times, but are also helpful, smile, and always remind us to "have a great day".

A great day. A magical day, even. That is the tag line you get at the parks. Magical. It was Walt Disney's intent to transfer to visitors his own experience that it is possible to retain in to adulthood the wonder and enjoyment of an imagination not hindered by experience that views the world through a thick haze of skepticism. While one can and does spend part of the first day pointing out the creakiness of the very old animatronic parts of various rides, the quaintness and even dated quality of so many of the rides and attractions, the ominpresence of the demand visitors let go and have a little child-like fun without looking for the monster's zipper - to suspend disbelief, in other words - soon overcomes this tendency. Whether one is in the Magic Kingdom, with its nostalgia-tinged Main Street USA, its quaint and outdated vision of "Tomorrowland", and the sheer over-the-top pressure from every square inch to sit back and enjoy oneself, it becomes impossible not to suspend disbelief. Standing in line for one or another ride - pick a park, any park; pick a ride, any ride - one finds oneself immersed not in a line for a thrill ride, but preparations for entering in to an alternate reality, a few minutes when the excitement of the ride combines with the overall atmosphere to transport the rider from whatever mundane realities in which one finds oneself to the world created by Disney Corporation. For the Pirates of the Caribbean, you move through the beautiful upstairs of an island villa through the dungeon where pirates have been housed, including a pair of skeletons who died playing chess in their prison cell until you find yourself riding through the film version of the old ride, complete with Barbossa shelling the fort at Port Royal, while various miscreants search for an animatronic Captain Jack Sparrow in an equally animatronic Tortuga where we are presented with a harmless, even funny, view of life spent killing, destroying, raping, and otherwise living outside the law in the 18th century.

Multiply this by tens, and include even the places you walk through to get from one spot to another, and this is the Disney Experience. The attention to every possible detail is a wonder. Walking down the glossy rebuild of Sunset Boulevard from a California tourist board photo shoot from the mid-1940's, all art deco and shiny with chrome, through the long gangway that leads to Space Mountain, with its various images and once-upon-a-time marvelous panels that pull one in to the world of the ride through the fake Safari park - the real Safari park at Animal Kingdom, I learned, is as large as all of the Magic Kingdom, a bit of information that took my breath away - the entire experience has been created in order to give the waiting park visitor the chance to escape, to let one's imagination's run wild, to enjoy not just a momentary ride but an entire experience where imagination, not the mundane rules of the world outside the parks, governs what is and is not true.

If one is willing to let go, take Mickey by his over-large gloved hand, and let him lead, it is impossible not to enjoy yourself. Even in the press of tens of thousands of people, the heat and humidity, the lines that can create nearly two hour waits for some attractions, if you relax and give yourself over, the whole experience becomes exactly what Walt, in creating his first amusement park in the mid-1950's, wanted - a place where the whole family can come and enjoy some time in a place where dreams really do come true.

Not everyone is so willing, however. The number of people walking through the parks, their ears or eyes glued to their cell phones as they chat or text with people outside the parks is amazing. Parents, harried by the long waits, children not taught to look around and see the world, let their children play their games on their iPods and phones, chat with friends back home, or even give themselves over to our contemporary version of distraction, rather than trust Walt Disney and those who inherited his vision to provide us with entertainment.

A word of advice. If you are a parent with small children, younger than eight or nine or so, please think twice or even three times before traveling to Disney for a vacation. The overwhelming nature of the thing caused more small children to experience meltdowns than I can count. It's hot. The sun, in late March, has the feel and look of July (at least to this child of the northern climes). There are tens of thousands of people walking, talking, singing, pressing against you, cutting in front of you, bumping in to you. The experience very often is one of hurry-up-and-wait, trying the patience of adults and children alike. Most of all, between the sounds from the parks and the thousands of people talking, laughing, and occasionally screaming, its very, very loud. After my second day, I wondered why my voice was so hoarse. Until, that is, I arrived at the park and realized I spent most of the day talking VERY LOUD in order to be heard above the din. A day in the park is exhausting, an assault on the senses that, provided one manages these things well, merely wears on you. Small children, even with the best parents, are hard-pressed to manage the overwhelming nature, and quickly express themselves through tantrums designed to coerce their parents to remove them to someplace quiet and cool, a spot away from the too much that the parks represent.

Pay attention to your children. One long-line became an hour-long experience in frustration as a man, on his own, ignored the five children around him who variously climbed on this or that part of the surrounding attractions, touched everything instead of just looking, and spread themselves out in order to create a zone of comfort in the press of people in line. Instead of walking along staring at a spot in space, only speaking when spoken to, gather your children around you, point out how the whole line has been constructed to create the illusion one is someplace else, someplace where dreams can come true half a world away, a place that no longer exists if it ever did outside the fever dreams of imperial powers or disdainful foreign officials (this latter is the case for the Jungle River Trek, the Kali River Rapids, and the Safari Ride, which are filled with what appears to be renderings from the perspective of invading whites rather than locals who might well offer a completely different view of the experience one is about to have).

Finally, don't argue with the folks at the park. If you have a Fast Pass for a ride, don't demand to be let in before the time on the ticket. Don't continue to argue after you've been shunted out of line. If your party's been broken up, that is not the park's fault; my family managed to wait five extra minutes for entry to a couple rides because our Fast Passes had different times on them. No amount of argument is going to give you special privileges; there are just way too many people to start providing exceptions. Also, it shows one is not, in the end, surrendering to the benevolent authoritarianism of the park. Here, everyone is special so, as Syndrome in The Incredibles says, no one is.

For some reason, the presence of so many families with small children became a distraction at times. At one ride, a woman holding a child that, as my wife pointed out, could not be more than a month old, was escorted out of line, complaining the whole time, because her infant was too small to ride. One wonders what people like that are thinking, carrying a small infant on a ride that will be loud, presents dangers the ride's designers clearly sought to mitigate by limiting it to people of a certain height and therefore physical maturity to endure. There were a few others who also played on our combined nerves, insisting in this or that small way they be privileged in some way the park just couldn't accommodate.

On Thursday, our last full day, we spent the day at the poorly named Magic Kingdom. Wandering through the press of people, the sun beating down on our sunburned skin, one would have thought the four of us, on our sixth day in a Disney Park, would be exhausted, overwhelmed, cranky with one another and the people around us. Instead, we were wide-eyed with wonder and excitement. My older daughter took picture after picture, in particular of Cinderella's castle. We made our way first to the poorly named "Tomorrowland", which presents a quaint and largely moot "vision" of the future from forty years ago that, in its aluminum and chrome dressing, can appear overwhelmingly drab and cold. I was surprised that Moriah, at fourteen the epitome of the cool contemporary teenager, insisted we wait half an hour to ride the hokiest of Disney rides, the "Astro-Orbiter". Because Miriam insisted on riding with her mother, Moriah rode with me. Sitting in front of me, she had control of the handle that gave riders the ability to raise or lower the car as it spun its circle around the post. Yanking back on the wheel as the ride began, she shouted the title of this post with so much joy it made me cry even as I laughed at the wonder I felt. Which gave me pause to think that even the simplest, even what I consider "hokiest", of Disney attractions, offers people the opportunity to let go the pressures from the outside world and just be happy.

For that moment, I was thankful. I was thankful for all we had endured - the long drive through crappy weather; the days and weeks of anticipation as the day for our departure crept closer; even the long line for this particular ride - because in my daughter's unmediated expression of wonder and joy, I understood that all of us had, indeed, given ourselves over to the parks, and were, for a few hours more, letting Disney dictate reality for us. That single moment made everything else worthwhile. And everything else, as St. Thomas said of a different experience in his own life, is straw.

Virtual Tin Cup

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