Traveling to Disney appealed to me about as much as child birth: Both experiences seemed unpleasant, but necessary. The great pilgrimage to Mouse Country has become a parental rite of passage. Perhaps Disneyland was the most photographed place on Instagram in 2017 because much like getting your passport stamped, you sometimes need proof you made the trek.
If it feels like everyone you know is going to or has just returned from Disney, your intuition is correct, more than 35 million people traveled to Disneyland and Disney World in 2017, according to unofficial estimates, which is roughly 10 percent of the population of the United States.
For years, I’d listened as friends gushed over their Disney vacations, but I just didn’t get it. For the cost of 4-5 days at Disney I could go to Italy for a week. Was there any chance Disney could be as great as Italy? I doubted it. Then there was the debate over whether Disney World or Disneyland was better.
“You have different clientele at both parks,” said Kelly Wheeler, a concierge travel agent for families in the Boston suburbs. “I consider Disney World to be my home resort. It’s easier to fly to Florida than it is across the country and I know it like the back of my hand. I love Disneyland Park and I think they’ve done a fabulous job with California Adventure as well. Disneyland has the history, the nostalgia of Walt’s Park, where he actually walked down the street. It’s a bit more crammed and definitely smaller, but the positive is it’s more personal and everything is walkable.”
Wheeler says the choice often comes down to a personal connection.
“When I’m at Disney World and walk down Main Street, I feel like a kid again,” Wheeler said. “There’s a big emotional draw to the first park that you went to as a child.”
Wheeler’s assessment fit with my choice to take my children to Disneyland — it was the first property I went to. Two weeks before our departure, it became clear my husband, who enjoys work like most of us enjoy vacation, was firm in his resolve that he was needed at home.
For months, I’d spewed threats at my children about needing to refine their manners, be better listeners, and find peaceful resolutions to conflicts, because one cannot travel to California if they aren’t able to master these things first. Like preparing soldiers for war, I needed to know that when the ice cream cones inevitably fell on the dirty pavement and churros and cotton candy — that I wasn’t going to buy — lined the streets, we’d survive to make it on another ride. After dropping $6,000 on this trip I was going to get my money’s worth.
Canceling wasn’t an option. I’d bring a babysitter to help. We’d post lots of pictures for all those back East to envy.
I felt relieved that we were going to the older, smaller park, the more manageable option where we could walk straight out of the hotel and into either park. You enter the Grand Californian Hotel through two gigantic stained-glass doors depicting the California wilderness, which open to an enormous, dark, wooden lobby with ceilings that reach the sky. The dark interior feels like a chalet or hunting lodge with a front desk made of carved wood. Everywhere I looked, there were smiling employees offering to help.
Built in 2001 and remodeled in 2017, the Grand Californian derives its inspiration from the California Arts and Crafts movement with an architectural style that seamlessly blends massive open spaces with details like high-backed chairs and low lighting, creating intimate alcoves within the vastness. On each floor, by the elevators are bird statues, which are accurately positioned based on how high the featured bird can fly. The first floor has a penguin while the top floor has an eagle. Mouse details are carved into the wood and hidden in the William Morris-style carpets, making for endless games of I Spy.
Details and planning are important to most Disney goers, too.
“If you want to go on the more popular rides you have to book the passes two months in advance,” said Kerri Mercier, about her efforts on a recent April trip to Disney World. Mercier has been to the Magic Kingdom more than 15 times and Disneyland once. Her best advice is: “be really organized and plan in advance! I set reminders in my calendar and I even set alarms to get up early in the morning six months in advance to book meals.”
I didn’t have time to color code our Disney schedule or make reservations months in advance. I’d bought four day passes good at either park — but not both — and one day we’d use a hopper — allowing us to go back and forth between parks — I purchased two days of Max-passes, which allow you to skip lines. Standing in the lobby, watching the other families I became a little worried that The Mouse was going annihilate my laissez-faire travel style.
We moseyed into Disneyland by way of Downtown Disney, in hopes of getting a full view of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. My attempt at a viral Instagram shot of us holding hands and jumping in unison with Disney ablaze behind us failed miserably, both kids were experiencing the crash that comes when anticipation meets reality. It had been a long travel day and we were all tired.
Walking down Main Street USA I was struck by how many people were sporting Disney flare. I started counting. Ten out of 10, 20 out of 21, the numbers were staggering. In line for the Peter Pan ride, I asked a man in his forties, donning a few dozen pins on a lanyard, if he’d been a lifelong pin collector. “Oh, no, I just got these today,” he said. I wondered how much his Disney bling had cost.
We happened by the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a place that turns little girls into princesses — hair, makeup, and costume sold to your little royal. My 4-year-old daughter was entranced.
She’s a huge Disney fan, but she’s more the Descendants variety than Cinderella. She’d pick Moana over Snow White any day and the once adored sisters of Arendelle have been replaced with bad asses like Black Widow and Batgirl. Her costumes expose this bias, a tattered make-shift Wonder Woman dress is always favored over the pristine poufy gowns still donning price tags in the dress-up pile. Given this, I assumed she was star struck, but that we’d be safe to move on without too much of a fuss.
When we turned the corner, we were informed that “the princesses” were prepping for meet-and-greets, if we were interested we should get in line. This time she didn’t look at me for approval, rushing over to claim her spot in princess lineup.
As fellow preschool-age girls arrived in full ball regalia, she grew angrier and angrier. I looked at the parents with their perfect princess daughters and I started to get mad, too. This is what I was worried about, you pay all this money to go and then you have to pay more and make reservations and it’s never enough. I wanted to cry, but she was already crying and climbing on the railing, so she could get a better view of the costumes she wasn’t wearing.
“Mom, they’re not the real princesses, right?” my 6-year-old son asked.
“Right, they’re actresses,” I said.
“No! You’re wrong! They’re real. They are real!” my daughter yelled.
This was a disaster.
When we finally got inside the chapel-like space, she locked eyes on Snow White. Her tiny clasped hands and nervous smile made me realize this was a much bigger deal than I’d appreciated.
The kids were exhausted, but I coaxed them into a few roller-coaster rides, explaining that we had to get our money’s worth, no ride would be un-rode.
As we walked back to the hotel, looking for a dinner spot that didn’t require reservations, it struck me, there was a frustration that seemed omnipresent among the parents. Adults yelling things like, “Don’t talk to me in that voice,” louder and meaner than the child could have ever sounded. Yet, the older people, presumably grandparents, seemed to be laughing and having a great time with the children they were accompanying. What did the grandparents know that we parents didn’t know?
After dinner, we admired the pins on a cart outside the restaurant. I let each kid pick a mystery pack of three and lanyard. Sure, I’d said one treat at the end of the trip if everyone behaved, but I felt like we needed some Disneyland flare.
Day two we went to California Adventure. We’re fans of the Cars trilogy and I’d heard the re-creation of Radiator Springs was a highlight not to miss. On the way over, we stopped to buy some water. The woman in front of us was buying her grandson cotton candy. It was 9 a.m.
After riding Mater and Luigi, we went to Flo’s Diner for lunch. Parents were yelling at children to sit down, to eat and to behave. Grandparents were laughing and pointing as cars whizzed past on the Radiator Springs Racers outside.
It hit me. The grandparents were following the children’s lead. They weren’t organizing, orchestrating, or enforcing. If little Jimmy wanted cotton candy for breakfast, he could have it. We, the parents, had it all wrong. At Disney, everyone is a kid.
Put your parenting pants away, slap on those mouse ears, and plan to eat crap all day, because what’s magical about Disney isn’t what you feel entitled to, it’s the experience of being together in a place where time seems to be still. Grandparents understand the value of time better than the rest of us and they’re not about to waste a Disney trip fighting about how much sugar Sally has had today.
I am living through a stage of life where my kids want to be with me. They want to hold my hand and split an ice cream. They would prefer to snuggle tight in the hotel’s double bed with me than get a good night’s rest in a bed alone. This is a time that I know I will miss terribly. It will pass sooner than I’m ready for, yet in our day-to-day lives I have a hard time being in the moment with them.
I’d had it all wrong, this vacation wasn’t about having to take my children to Disney. It was about the fluidity of time and the sacredness of childhood. It was a reminder that joy can’t be measured in output or cost-benefit analysis.
For the rest of our trip, I let the kids decide what rides we’d go on, what we’d eat and when we’d go back to the hotel. They set a better schedule than I could have ever planned. When it was hot in the afternoon we went for a swim. They opted to take naps and hit the park late at night. The famous fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle and the World of Color started hours after their bedtimes and I’m so grateful they insisted on staying up for late for those shows.
I never made it on a bunch of rides, but my son and I rode Space Mountain together, just as my Dad and I had 35 years earlier. My daughter decided not to go back to princess charm school, opting instead for a pair of Black Widow gloves. After our third time on the Star Tours ride, we made our own lightsabers and found a pair of Stormtrooper socks to bring home to Dad. I gained 5 pounds in five days and have never been happier about it.
I didn’t post any pictures while we were away. I was too busy being a kid and holding my children’s hands to bother. Next year, I think we’ll check out Disney World.
Emily Kumler Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.