Our Florida Project
Because we are very brave and very foolish, we took our kids to Disney.
My girlfriend and I sat on a Disney World bus as we shuttled between parks on a hot and meaningless day. As two childless adults in our late twenties, we were happy to sit and wait, stress-free without schedule or baggage.
That wasn’t the picture of the next party to board: a family with two small girls princessified in glitter and hairspray, swimming in tulle skirts, glowing wands aloft and swinging.
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Their parents struggled with the stroller and backpacks. They sat down across from us, heaped beneath their gear and the bus rolled on. At some point, the dad looked at me and said simply, “It’ll happen to you.”
I paused, then answered, “I don’t think so.”
His wife didn’t miss a beat: “That’s what they all say.”
That was roughly a decade ago.
I can now report that they were right. It took a while, but as of this month, their prophecy has been fulfilled.
Kim and I have been married for years, we have two small kids ourselves. And we’ve just returned from our first family trip to Disney as parents. It happened.
My first job out of grad school was for a pretty interesting international business software firm. It was a small but scrappy shop with offices in Chicago, Riyadh, and Bangalore. I spent a not insignificant portion of that time on the road, attending conferences and trade shows, manning booths as often as not.
I was young and skeptical, needed the money and the experience, and I took what I thought-of as an “anthropological” approach to the whole enterprise. I studied it at a remove. I read it like a magazine article. It was a good experience even though it rarely felt like one.
During part of this time, Kim took an internship she very much wanted at Walt Disney World. I stayed in Chicago, she moved for what we always knew would be a limited term. It never truly felt like a long distance relationship because I was spending a lot of time in Orlando anyway for work conferences.
So, Kim and I built a strange but positive parallel life in the alternative reality of Central Florida.
From my perspective, it may as well have been Louisville or Lima, it was a totally arbitrary location, selected as much by luck as by choice.
Orlando, of course, is very mockable: America’s Wal-Mart, Incel Las Vegas, etc. But there we found ourselves, and we made the best of it, which turned out to be not that difficult. We have friends there, there’s great food, pleasant weather. It’s not just t-shirt shops (but, you know, there are a lot of t-shirt shops).
Kim, also, is a lifelong Disneyphile. I’m not, I wasn’t, but again, I could take that anthropological approach: I could observe with calm curiosity from within the experience itself.
We went to all the parks on weekends, ate at all the restaurants, got drunk in weird places. It was fun. And I watched those families haul their kids and gear through the heavy heat and long lines. I witnessed their immersion.
Sticking the Landing
Pulling off our first Disney trip with kids is definitely an accomplishment for us. I actually feel that. We have two prototypical Covid-kids. They know far too well what it is to spend a winter in the house with their parents. Getting them out for their first name-brand vacation was a win.
I’ll try to resist the urge to make fun of the usual stuff I think of when I think of Disney. (The whole thing surfs on a steady undercurrent of schlockiness; I don’t deny it, I’ll acknowledge it now and move on.)
But here’s the thing, and maybe this is obvious to anyone of average intelligence—What’s it like up there, by the way?—A trip like this isn’t designed for the parents. This was a gift, a reward, a thanks-for-your-patience to our kids. It was a graduation gift. A cautious welcoming to a, maybe, more standard childhood.
And it all kind of worked. It was tiring, expensive and—by any measure—successful.
Now that we’re home and, as a family, sleeping off the shock of sustained over-stimulation, what occurs to me is that these stupid, unimaginative dips into artificial happiness are only that if you insist they are.
To a four-year-old who loves Woody and Buzz, it was—I hope—a signal that the world is his, that play and fun are worthy, and that his hapless parents will try to suffer any number of stroller jams, bus rides and price hikes to reify that for him.
A couple of stray thoughts:
Did you know about RunDisney? I didn’t. They host annual marathons and runs of other distances. We were there during their Spring event and I ran their 10-miler.
Disney knows how to run a run. Five minutes in, I took my headphones out so I could better experience the DJ booths, live bands, character appearances, and other sideshow attractions awaiting us every hundred feet.
Pirates of the Caribbean has been my favorite ride since childhood and introducing it to my kids was an authentically happy moment. The ride begins with a short waterfall drop in the dark. And, if you’re a small kid and you don’t know it’s coming, sure, it is legitimately scary.
Both children gripped us both during that moment of simulated peril but neither cried and they quickly shook it off. Our son, four, turned to me as we passed into the second or third scene and asked, “Are there any more drops?” “No, pal, that was the only one. I promise.” He got a pirate Mickey in the gift shop afterward.
This was new to me: We had a character breakfast at the Riviera Resort. Afterward, I sat in the Voyager Lounge—a very calming study next to a coffee shop. If there’s one place I would have a writing session in Disney World, this would be it. If you’re on Substack, you would probably appreciate a room like this.