I caught the first sign of it standing in a queue at the Disney hotel, awaiting the shuttlebus for the Magic Kingdom. A kid, maybe 5, was grumpy and whiny and not in the mood for a theme park. Her father looked at her desperately — then said, through clenched teeth, “You’re going to have fun!”
I recognized that wild-eyed look and the calculation behind it: The months of saving to stay at this Value Resort with a guitar-shaped swimming pool; the meticulous advance planning; the image of blissful children, awash in a dream vacation.
It's a particular sort of pressure at Disney World, where we happened to be last week for a long-anticipated family trip. But the thought process is really the same for any parent who has planned a birthday party or a bowling excursion or a trip to the aquarium. We did this for you! Be happy!
Or, as I overheard another grownup say to another grumpy child at Disney World, "You are not being grateful!"
This is the season for gratefulness, for recognizing the value and fragility of what you have, and being at Disney while the larger world is going to hell makes for a particular mental escape. Be grateful for this weird, wondrous self-contained universe, set apart from time and space and current events, so that the cobblestoned plaza of Epcot's "France" contains no trace of the drama in France.
Be grateful for art direction so complete — and customer service training so extensive — that the shop clerk on Main Street USA, wearing a ginormous baker's suit with a hat the size of a wind sock, still manages to keep smiling.
Be grateful for the miracles of Disney tech, wherein, lo, your customized Magic Band bracelet emits a radio signal that will open your hotel room door, usher you through the park entrance, and allow for seamless purchases at the food court. Be grateful for the app that tells you wait times for every ride, and for that glorious "suckers!" feeling when your Fast Pass Plus lets you skip the line for Splash Mountain.
Be grateful for the '60s-era innocence of "It's A Small World." Things might be different if we all were Minion-sized, with the same bland taste in music.
Be grateful that tired feet and a blistering sun can't erase the tiny, unexpected moments — like that miniature thrill in the Haunted Mansion, when your moving chair suddenly tilts backward and you involuntarily give the kid beside you a squeeze, and you get one back.
Those moments happen — truly — but by the end of the day, everyone frays. At various points, our kids declared that they wanted to (a) go home and play with the cat or (b) just watch TV. One evening, as the sun set over the Cinderella Castle, we stood near a woman who clearly had hit her limit. She was leaning into a stroller, pointing a finger at the child inside, saying, "MAKE A DECISION OR WE'RE GOING TO MISS THE FIREWORKS."
I wanted to put my arm around her and tell her I understood — and then gently suggest that maybe she should make the decision, and then wheel the person strapped into the stroller to the destination of her choosing, and hope for the best, and roll with it either way.
In a place where you have the illusion of control — where perfection seems within reach — it's easy to lose your grip. In the outside world, where there are fewer and fewer such illusions, togetherness is often bliss enough.