Disney World was not fun. I cannot recall whether it was for my sister’s birthday or for the discounted airline tickets, but for whatever reason, my parents decided that January was the ideal time to provide their children with The Disney Experience they’d hoped and dreamed of.
On dreams: Disney was childhood. No matter how many chapters of Little Women or Lower Hudson Valley productions of A Midsummer’s Night Dream parents drag their children to, kids love Disney. Much like the way a sugar-encrusted pop song seems carefully engineered to hit all the right neurons, Disney movies captivate the minds of young children with carefully measured colors, songs, glitter, and facial symmetry. Disney World, then, is a physical manifestation of nine-odd princesses, talking animals, magical powers, and, of course, the ever-ubiquitous Happy Ending.
But it was January, and Orlando was fucking freezing. Well, 49 degrees. But six-year-old me had not envisioned a winter coat in her ideal Disney experience. All the water parks were closed, the sky loomed gray, and waiting on line made me all the crankier. My prepubescent self measured around 4 feet, and even with the clunkiest Payless wedges I was only eligible to ride on Splash Mountain. Which, in January, was not about to happen.
Expectations for Disney World are clearly hyperbolized. Beginning with its tagline, The Happiest Place on Earth, and spanning to the regularity of parades and fireworks, happiness at Disney World is calculated. It is as if engineers swooped in and attempted to formulate Joy from Concentrate. Food there, primarily high in fats, salts, and sugars, is of the fast food variety that provides consumers with a type of ‘high.’ G-forces are maximized as the body is whipped every which way, and characters, embedded in memory since early childhood, come to life with plush costumes and warm hugs. The body goes staggering from one endorphin-inducing activity to the next, each magnified to provide the consumer with a sense of euphoria greater than the last. Even in my largely disappointing Disney experience, I distinctly remember sitting in a restaurant, sipping a sugary soft drink through a long crazy straw shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. I was mesmerized. This was not just a crazy straw; this was the most insane straw I had ever laid my eyes upon.
Aside from the temperature and the bodily limitations, I was easily spooked as a child, a confounding factor that warped some classically Disney experiences for me. One of these was an event called Character Dining, a program through which kids can sit down to eat with stars of their favorite films. Upon arriving in the restaurant, however, I noticed something was off. There were no sweeping pastel dresses filling the dining room, no Sleeping Beauty or Mulan or good old Cindy, but rather the dreaded black/jewel tone color palette: villains. I clutched my mother’s arm, wondering what the hell kind of avant-garde dining experience they were going for. (I most likely did not use the term avant-garde, but you get the picture.) I was dragged to my table, and not five minutes later the Queen of Hearts stopped by to say hello. I screamed and ran to the bathroom, where I had the six-year-old version of a nervous breakdown one of the stalls. Her Majesty Queen of Hearts was a villain. A monarch. A veritable slave-owner, attempted murderer, not to mention someone with a disproportionate wealth-to-taste ratio. I hid out in the restroom, a terrified ball of short breaths, tears, and snot, until my mother managed to assure me that the woman had left.
There was one other family that stuck in our collective minds long after the trip. We encountered them on the tram, an aboveground trolley designed to move people between the hotel section of the resort and Disney World proper. As rode the tram back to the hotel after a long day at the park, we observed the two children of this family playing wildly, pushing each other and laughing raucously. Their volume level grew and grew until it got to the point that the mother grabbed one of boy’s wrists and began to chastise them loudly, caustically. It was the harshest, most draconian scolding we had ever witnessed. The louder the parents grew, the quieter we became. Our eyes widened in horror, and we shrunk closer together in the back of the tram. The family became a legacy in our household. Don’t like the new shirt grandma got you? Not too gung ho about what’s for dinner? We’ll send you to the Disney Family’s house, my mother would threaten jokingly. That’ll teach you.
There’s something off-putting about having your worst family vacation at a place designed to be the very best. In a way it has served as a bonding experience for all of us, a point of pride regarding our persistence as a family unit. We could be miserable anywhere. My sister’s and my disappointment at The Disney Experience protected us from growing so loud and overcome with joy as to create a happiness schism between our parents and us. In accepting our woe, we resisted the divisive efforts of designed happiness and designated the park as a World outside of our own.
The trip left me with an eerie feeling that would accompany me to any land built for the sole purpose of what is deemed Amusement. These places, though meticulously constructed, are chock-full of divides: rider/ride operator, litterer/litter cleaner, child/adult…it seems as if everything made in China convenes into one supersaturated world. One that, quite frankly, freaks me out.