So you think you have it in you to take your little kid to Disney World? You might want to think again based on the lessons I learned earlier this month. Here they are, in no particular order.
Two year olds are too young for the Magic Kingdom. People warned us, but we didn't listen. There's a reason why anyone under three gets in the joint free, they said. Hogwash! we thought but didn't say. Our two year old is different! She's so verbal, so rough and tumble, so up for anything. Of course she'll love Disney World -- are you kidding?
But, sadly, the naysayers were correct. Eve was full of trepidation and wonder as we rode the tram from the parking lot. All smiles as we boarded the Monorail bound for the park. All giggles and delight as we sailed through the front gate and made our way up Main Street. But as soon as we got to the base of the huge, Mormon temple-like castle and came upon every one of the Disney characters -- and I mean every single one -- performing an elaborate dance number together, Eve suddenly looked stunned, and not in a good way.
Maybe in her mind, Minnie and Mickey were not supposed to mix with Cinderella and Snow White. Or maybe seeing them all live and leaping under the central Florida sun instead of remaining restricted to a book or TV screen just spooked her out. Whatever it was, it stayed with her, and our boisterous and outgoing imp grew quiet, withdrawn, borderline sullen. Two hours later, she passed out cold in her stroller, eons ahead of schedule. I believe she saw that as her only way to escape.
When Eve finally awoke and we trudged on, in the heat and the crowds, her happiest Magic Kingdom moments seemed to come when sliding down very simple slides in the very simple playgrounds hidden among the rides. Playgrounds no more elaborate than what's at our local mall. Granted, she smiled a bit during It's a Small World, the Mad Teacups and the Astral Orbiter, but didn't dig them nearly as much as those slides. Heavy sigh.
You should prepare for your Magic Kingdom experience as if you are prepping for a marathon. Six hours during the day then three more hours in the evening doesn't sound too harrowing on paper. But somehow if you add in the booming noise that always surrounds you there, and the thick, sweaty crowds that grow more thick and sweaty by the hour, and shepherding a small tot through the morass, man, it's just grueling. Oh and then when you make the mistake of leaving the park just as the fireworks show ends, and the lines to get on the Monorail and then the tram are each about 45 minutes long, and your 30-lb. kid has fallen asleep in your arms and is dead weight for the last two hours of the evening and you have to keep passing her back and forth because your backs are shot? That is bad. The stuff Advil commercials are made of.
The next day, we had planned to get up and go back for more. Instead, we all slept as heavy as raging drunks, waking up late and just staring blankly at the wall. I felt hungover, and like I'd been in a car wreck. My eyes were completely bloodshot. Disney, my god!
"Eve, do you just want to splash around in the kiddie pool today then go home?" I wheezed, all emphasymic. "Yeah," she squeaked. She spoke for all of us.
Don't buy tickets for more than one day because maybe you can't hack more than one day. See above. Had we bought two days' worth at the gate, like the lady was prodding us to, we'd have been crap out of another $159. Instead, we were able to spend that on overpriced gift items at Downtown Disney and a mediocre meal at the Rainforest Cafe, where mechanical elephants shrieked at us every 15 minutes and the waiter up sold us on an icee the size of a fire extinguisher.
Don't bother with grand plans about what time you will come and go and stuff. Yeah. Because our plan was to get there when the park opened at 8, stay till precisely 1 pm., take Eve to the hotel where we would all take naps, then carbo-load and electrolyte-replace, maybe splash around in the pool, then head back to the Magic Kingdom from 6 to 10.
A pretty solid plan. Alas, none of it came to pass. We got there an hour and a half past opening (hey, it's hard to get out the door with a two year old), and then after three rides, Eve went unconscious -- two hours early. Booming parades and wailing kids were coming at us hard from every angle, but it didn't matter; the child remained unrousable. Our big plan was crumbling in our hands and falling to the scorching trolley tracks. Ah but we decided to go all que sera sera about it. Marty sat on the ground next to the inert child and ate a hot dog while I shopped. And we fell into a happy denial. This nap doesn't change anything. She'll sleep again when we get back to the room and so will we, we assured ourselves.
What idiots. Turns out the enthusiasm and verve we were expecting from Eve in the Magic Kingdom didn't emerge until we were out of the Magic Kingdom, drawing the curtains for our naps. Having determined that she was finally a safe distance from the Winnie the Pooh and Tigger impersonators, Eve commenced to jumping on the bed singing about them with searing joy.
Naps? Nope. And when we schlepped ourselves back to the Magic Kingdom that night, legs like lead, Eve soldiered through three rides then gave up the ghost again, this time in our arms, heavy as that anvil that's always hanging over Wily Coyote's head. Whoops -- wait. That wasn't a Disney cartoon; it was an inadvertent Looney Toons/Warner Bros. reference. Sorry.
Visit the secret sensory-deprivation chamber early and often. They hide it by calling it the Baby Center, but really, it's a big, quiet, cool apartment just off Main Street where you can go to regain your wits. This comes in very handy when you've had all you can stand of the nearly constant parades and people rubbing up against you with their naked, wet legs. Just go there and sit and fugue out. If you are not with a baby, pretend you're related to one in the next room.
Watch out: JonBenets abound. "Oh! Do you need to borrow a princess dress for the Magic Kingdom!?" said a mom friend when I told her we were planning to take Eve to Disney World. I had no idea why we'd need a princess dress for the park itself, but 20 minutes into our day, I figured it out. Apparently, the new thing -- well, new since the 1980s, when I was last there -- is for little girls to show up wearing flouncy character dresses and then go to a kid salon in Cinderella's castle (Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique it's called) to have their hair, nails and make up done. Make overs for tiny children start at $50 and go up to $189, if you throw in a new dress, accessories and photo session. Holy crap is really all I find myself able to say regarding that.
The first JonBenet I laid eyes on struck me as cute, but the more I saw, the more warped it seemed. Four year olds with high and tight up-dos pulling their ears and foreheads northward, their faces slathered in glitter and perspiration, their little bodies covered in overpriced, full-length polyester frocks that don't breathe. It's an unnecessarily early lesson in suffering for fashion and locked-in gender expectations. How did this trend start? And why? And is it the moms pushing for it, or the kids? Every time I saw one of the tiny, uncomfortable-looking beauty queens, I'd try to divert Eve's attention. "Hey, look! It's Winnie the Pooh!" Thank the goddesses it worked. This time.
As an adult you will be torn between liking the park as it is and wanting it to modern up a little bit. If you went there much as a kid, there is tremendous comfort in coming back to the Magic Kingdom and finding things utterly unchanged. I held my breath as we got in line for the Haunted Mansion -- my favorite ride back in the day -- hoping against hope that they hadn't altered it to perhaps better reflect today's tastes in horror and disgust. Because what deep and damaging disappointment would rock my foundation if they had changed it to, say, incorporate the slinging of blood?
Relief was mine, though, when I saw that they'd left it completely alone. The stretching parlor with bwa-ha-ha-ing narrator? Check. Unreasonably thick cobwebs on everything? Check. The séance lady's head hovering in mid air while she delivers her emphatic and damning messages? Check. My sense of well-being? Firmly intact.
And yet, in Tomorrowland, I felt the opposite. Tomorrowland, when I was little, seemed spectacularly modern and astral. Now it comes off like a parody, a joke about how the people of 1970 thought the year 2000 would look. All chrome and round with space-age fonts everywhere, random things orbiting other things, dogs made of mechanical parts, and overly robot-y voices telling you to mind the moving walkway lest you and your old time-y legs give way to old-time-y gravity. I was embarrassed. Come on Disney, can't you spend the money to upgrade to 2009's vision of, say, 2040? And then keep going?
And this: on Main Street, next to the candy store, there remains a large shop devoted to tiny crystal representations of everything in the park and then some. Cinderella's carriage for $250. Little Mickey and Minnies and magic wands. I stood there stunned, having suddenly strode into a retail time-warp. I remember a period in the '70s (or was it the '80s?) when this stuff was wildly popular. Everybody had to have a crystal elephant the size of a house key. But now? Who cares? Does anyone buy that stuff now besides the unstable?
The store was empty, so I'm guessing not. Staring at the $150 galloping crystal horse, I could see youthful businessmen pounding the board room table with their fists. Chairman! We've got to use that space for an iPhone store or we'll hemorrhage all over Main Street! And the older men with 1940s accents holding back the tide of now, look down and uttering, No, boys. Don't you see? The park cannot change. (Cue sound of pocket watch falling dramatically to the marble floor).
But, yet, will I be dismayed if the next time I go back, Disney has upgraded Tommorrowland and 86-ed the crystal store? Probably. See? Poor Disney executives. They just can't win.
Rug-covered teenagers take on celebrity status, thus scrambling the adult brain. People dressed as Goofy are to little kids in the Magic Kingdom exactly what plastic beads are to drunk college girls at Mardi Gras: suddenly, and within that specific space and time (a day at Disney World/a night in the French Quarter), coveted with every single cell in one's being and one will do what one must to have them.
It's disorienting for a parent to watch their kid fall into a trance and drop that ice cream cone they just waited a long time in line for if Eeyore ambles by. Part of your brain thinks: don't they see that's just a dude who's probably in there cursing his ass off? While the other part must accept that no, in fact, somehow they don't.
Disney knows this. And they work it; the only way you will get any quality time with any of the loping facsimiles is to make reservations to have an overpriced and bland meal with one. We did not do this. Not on principle; it was more about wanting to keep our daughter. As fascinated as she was by looking at the live characters from a distance, had we signed her up for a meal with one, she'd have thrown a clot, or torn my esophagus out to get to the door, or both.
Do not promise your child any glimpses of or interaction with these characters, lest you never actually see them. In trying to wean Eve off night-time pacifiers, we had hyped the concept of bringing all her binkies to Disney World and passing them off to Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse or Donald Duck in a grand and ceremonious display of big girl-ness. Sure the sweaty guy in the suit would be confused, but so what? He could just give them to a handler to dump in the garbage and that would be the end of that.
The problem, though? There were no Mickeys, Minnies or Dons wandering around. Nor any Cinderellas, who I had also talked up something fierce. None. At least not outside of the show at the base of the castle, and there was no accosting them there. We had a problem on our hands on the pacifier front. Eve, that evening sensing our failure, just grabbed a binkie and popped it into her mouth, giving us a bold look. Our response to that? "Um...."
Luckily, my Florida-dwelling mom jumped in with a quick fix a few days later. "Give me the binkies, and I'll give them to Mickey when I see him," she said to Eve, and Eve bought in, handing them over. Whew. Those moms, they know some stuff.
At the end of our stay in Orlando, I asked Eve what her favorite part had been.
"The pool!" she answered, without having to really think about it at all.
Yeah, the naysayers had called that one too. But you know what? I'm still a sucker and will therefore be returning to the Magic Kingdom with Eve as much as my husband can stomach, which I'm wagering will be roughly every two years. Eve will grow, becoming less likely to try to escape it all, and more likely to lead the charge toward the rides. I hope she doesn't mind, though, if I just stay in the Baby Center.