The whole Disney World experience reminds me of the process of taking the family photo for Christmas cards: the end result is beautiful-- full of pleasant, smiling faces and brushed hair. But what you don't see are the fifty unusable pictures of closed eyes, slouching shoulders, pouting faces. Nor can you hear the parents shouting, "If I have to tell you to stand up straight one more time, I'm telling Santa!"
Everyone who has been to Disney World has that perfect picture of their children standing in front of the iconic Castle-- but where's the fun in that? Instead, I'm going to show you what happens before that perfect picture is snapped and posted on Facebook.
We spent two full days in Magic Kingdom, where I swear to you a loud parade marched past me every five minutes-- no matter where I was standing--to the point where I started to think I was hallucinating. We were over-stimulated, slightly bonkers and running on fumes, but Uncle Matt and Aunt Kelli were arriving the next day- reinforcements! We were like Matt Damon in "The Martian," waiting on Mars for help to arrive; just keep holding on and eating your potatoes, man-- help is on the way!
We went on the first roller coaster of the day, the Dinosaur ride in Animal Kingdom (where there are no parades, yay!). The kids were super excited, we were all having fun, everything was great. (That's how you know something is about to go terribly wrong, isn't it?) In this case, it was the ride. It stopped and got stuck in the midst of a dinosaur-filled jungle.
There was a sudden jerking motion, we stopped and lights came up halfway, so we could see just enough to really know how the sausage gets made. We could see the cold cement blocks of the enormous warehouse the ride was built in, all the electrical wires and the cables running the ride. My kids were like, seriously, this is what we were screaming about? These fake dinosaurs, fake trees and fake vines?
We were strapped into our seats and strapped in tight. None of us could budge. Can you imagine if you had claustrophobia? Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. My five-year old told the older lady sitting next to her that she could count to 100: "1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100!" The grandmother-type woman laughed and laughed. So my daughter repeated it about 1,982 more times. We were literally her captive audience.
Thirty (30!) minutes later, some Disney folks finally arrived with flashlights, stepladders and most importantly, keys to unlock our belts. We had to get off the ride, climb down the ladder and walk through a dark tunnel out of the ride. At Disney World! Where we were dropping a small fortune to be! And all they did was refund the FastPass we had used to go on the ride in the first place.
After our daring escape from the jingle, our kids wanted to immediately hop on a spinning ride but my husband and I didn't feel like projectile vomiting so early in the morning, so instead we sat and waited while they rode it alone.
And then I saw it, like a mirage in a desert: across the park, there was a man with both arms covered in tattoo sleeves and he was holding a beer. Oh, my gosh, after two days in the Magic No Beer Kingdom, this was a very, very big deal.
"I'll be right back," I told my husband.
I accosted Tattoo Man. "Excuse me, but where did you get that?" I asked, pointing to his cup.
He pointed me to a little cart a stone's throw away. I nearly ran and came back with two Old Styles, which normally I would only ever drink during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field. Yes, it was before lunch but I am telling you, after being held captive by fake dinosaurs, this was the best beer I'd ever had in my life. I took pictures of it, so I would remember it forever. My husband and I toasted one another as we watched our children spin their brains out above us.
We noticed that these rides made us feel like we were a hundred years old. I think something happens to your vestibular system when you turn 40 and going on these rides is borderline traumatic for your central nervous system. And my kids wanted to ride the crazy rides twice in a row, which meant my brain stem was weeping and I was disoriented to the point of leaving my purse in the little mesh baskets because I couldn't see straight.
But here's the thing I noticed after I retrieved my purse from lost and found after someone turned it in, untouched: for every dark side at Disney, there was an almost immediate bright side. For everything that went wrong, there was a happy ending. For every moment that I wished I were anywhere, anywhere but there, there was a joyous moment right around the corner. In Disney World, you can go from horror to joy in under five minutes.
Finally, the next day, Uncle Matt and Aunt Kelli arrived and we could stop eating potatoes. I was trying to make this trip as "Fancy Uncle Friendly" as I possibly could, which meant scoring reservations (six months in advance!) to the best restaurants at Disney World. That first night, we were going to California Grill, which sounds like a cheesy hamburger joint that puts avocados on everything, but is actually an expensive restaurant that specializes in sushi.
California Grill has a dress code, so we were all dressed up a bit when we ran to Magic Kingdom so the kids could show their Aunt and Uncle their favorite ride before dinner. We were all laughing when we got off the ride, except for my youngest son, who looked really, really worried.
"Mom?" He asked. "What is...that?" He pointed to me.
I was confused and asked him what he meant. I looked up and saw everyone- four children and three adults- standing around me in a semi-circle, staring at me with their mouths hanging open. Staring at my white jeans.
I still didn't get it until my husband said quietly and sweetly, "Oh, honey."
I looked down and it was "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and I'm In Disney World." I gasped, horrified. HORRIFIED. I grabbed my daughter's sweatshirt and quickly tied it around my waist and wished for an animatronic dinosaur to lumber over and swallow me whole.
What on earth do you say or do during a situation like this??
"I know you're only eight years old, but let's use this horrible Disney moment to learn about the birds and the bees."
Or how about,
"See children? This is how God punishes you for wearing white jeans before Labor Day. Even if you're in Florida and it's 85 degrees, Fashion Rules are rules and must be obeyed or there will be consequences!'
Instead, my angel of a sister-in-law took my hand and led me into a gift shop. She helped me find black Disney sweatpants ("No, really, they're cute!"), ripped the tag off, pushed me and the sweats into a changing room and took the tags up to the counter to pay. (In fact, it's only now that I'm typing this that I realize that she paid for those sweatpants and in my PTSD, I never paid her back. I owe you big time, girl.)
I came out of the souvenir shop in my high fashion black sweats which very subtly had "DISNEY WORLD 2016!" emblazoned down the leg in hot pink and my brother-in-law put his arm around me and said, "let's go get you some wine." And off to dinner we went, me in clear violation of the dress code but looking so wild-eyed and traumatized, no one was going to say a word.
And that was the best glass of sauvignon blanc I'd ever had in my entire life. Dinner was delicious, we laughed our butts off and the kids ate their weight in sushi. Our waiter forgot to bring my sister-in-law's entree and we didn't really care, in fact we just assumed he had gotten his period, too, and was busy changing into Disney sweatpants. In fact, I'm going to just assume that about anyone, anytime, forever, whenever something goes wrong. You never really know, people.
But Disney World is really about the children, so let's get back to them, shall we?
Whenever we're around friends or family who do not have young children, we sometimes get self-conscious about our kids' behavior. This has nothing to do with the other people: it is all about us, not wanting other people to think (find out?) that our kids can sometimes, on occasion, not be perfect little angels.
The good news about this Disney trip with Uncle Matt and Aunt Kelli is that our kids blew any of that nervousness right out of the water, immediately, by acting like cartoon versions of themselves: every nuance and personality trait over-emphasized and exaggerated.
At first, we thought they were just so excited to have their favorite Uncle and Aunt there, they were showing off and would calm down soon. Haha, no.
My youngest took this Disney trip as a special occasion to return to her roots: that of an abandoned, feral, half-wolf changeling, who had seemingly never set foot in civilization before.
At first we fought it- insisting on proper manners, proper protocol, the same behavior we use at home. About halfway through our trip, I turned to my husband, grabbed him by his big muscles and looked right into his eyes: it was time to activate our emergency 'Whatever It Takes' parenting method (WIT).
This means exactly what it sounds like: you employ whatever means necessary in order to get through whatever fresh hell has just befallen you. It's like when you see those little boxes with fire alarms or extinguishers inside with "In Case Of Emergency Break Glass" written on them? This is the parenting version of that: you break that freaking glass.
"Whatever It Takes" meant letting our wolf-child go to bed in her dirty rollercoaster clothes when she refused to change into her clean pajamas. That triggered every single OCD response in my fragile psyche, but we had to start picking our battles and fast.
It meant letting her walk around Disney looking like a street urchin out of a Dickens novel instead of physically restraining her in order to brush her long, curly hair
It meant letting her pick out her own clothes, none of which matched, all of which looked awful, instead of insisting she wear the cute outfits I had packed for her.
It was survival.
And then, my oldest decided to test out the Teen Waters. Namely, "what would happen if one day, for no reason, I got really sullen all of a sudden and decided everything and everyone was against me and out to ruin my life?" That happened in Hollywood Studios.
He had formed an unnatural bond with his hoodie, slumping in it and only speaking in grunts. My brother-in-law the doctor tried to explain to me, in medical terms, exactly what happens to the brain during the teen years as it ferments in a hormonal stew. "I remember this is how Mike was-- he barely spoke, only grunted, for years!" Oh, goody!
Our two other children were someplace in between the bookends of bad behavior. One decided now was a good time to get nervous about everything: "It's raining a little. Do you think there's going to be a tornado?" Or, "Has anyone died on these rides at Disney?" (Which, by the way, do NOT google that while you're in Disney World.)
The other child took advantage of us in our weakened state, like a lion spotting limping gazelles, and stealthily attacked: he quietly, always out of earshot, teased his other siblings, till they were all shouting his name and we couldn't figure out why. He kept saying, "What?? I didn't do anything!"
Right about then I imagine my brother-and-sister-in-law were rethinking that whole legal-guardian-in-case-of-emergency thing that they had agreed to in our Wills.
We all walked, sullen and sodden in the rain, to another six-months-in-advance reservation I had scored at the 50's Prime Time Café. It was like taking the Unabomber, a drunk and belligerent Shirley Temple, a nervous Nellie and someone kicking all three of them in the shins under the table out to lunch.
I swear to you, I am not much of a drinker. But here at Disney World, it was medicinal: we ordered margaritas at the bar before even sitting at our table. We were in the middle of apologizing to Matt and Kelli for our children's atrocious behaviors, when the waitress showed up and, in character as a 1950's Mom, told our kids to sit up straight, get their elbows off the table and then handed us all the best margaritas I'd ever had outside of Frontera Grill in Chicago. Oh, thank you, God.
Our kids were so shocked by the waitress that they did as they were told. Well, all except for Drunk and Belligerent Shirley Temple, who just lay down, stretched out on the booth and passed out. We let her be.
Everyone ate, drank and got scolded by our waitress while we waited for the rain to stop. Wouldn't you know it, that lunch turned into one of my favorite memories of the whole trip. The kids perked up (except for Shirley Temple who was long gone) and somehow, despite my children's behavior ("Too much Disney Magic!" is the diagnosis our waitress gave us), I heard my husband talking to his brother and making big plans for us all to go skiing next year. I don't know if it was just the margaritas talking, but they agreed. Finally, the Disney Magic worked in our favor.