DISNEY WORLD APOLOGISM: Reclaiming an Imaginary Childhood at the Happiest Place on Earth

Some folks go to church to renew their faith in the inherent good of the world, and to gather the strength to carry on. I go to the Magic Kingdom.

Dec 9, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Whenever I tell people I’m soon to go on vacation, as I often do this time of year, the conversation goes something like this:

Acquaintance: “AW SWEET, where are you going?”

Me: “Mumble mumble.”

Acquaintance: “Where?”

Me: “Mumble World.”

Acquaintance: “WHERE?”

Me: “DISNEY WORLD OKAY? I AM GOING TO DISNEY WORLD.”

Longtime friends know about this, and don’t even ask where we’re going; they know. When it comes up with people who are unfamiliar with my Disney World obsession, I have tried to get over my impulse to explain, apologize or be mildly embarrassed by it, but that’s hard to do when the people I’m talking to usually react with surprise. 

The surprise comes for a few reasons. For one, my husband and I have no kids. I would even go so far as to say that we are not especially fond of kids in a general way, although there are occasional exceptions to this rule on a kid-by-kid basis. Going to Disney World without kids seems incomprehensible; indeed, one of my husband’s sisters recently commented that she thought it was strange for adults to go to Disney World without children, whether their own or other people’s.

This is not an unusual reaction, and as such I don’t hold it against my sister-in-law in the least: Disney World is very much culturally understood to be a place for children. 

Another reason people are surprised is because anyone who knows me as a political creature is aware of my sharp criticism of media that reinforces gender norms and, well, racism, to an extent. And Disney is sort of infamously guilty of both, historically at least. I know lots of folks -- many of them parents -- with a strict no-Disney policy, and I support their right to make that choice.

I make a different one.

Growing up in South Florida is not like growing up anywhere else. I didn’t fully realize this until I moved away; I had always thought of myself as having been brought up in “the suburbs” but truly, I never even saw a real suburb until I was in my 20s. South Florida is a sprawling semi-urban landscape of the chronically new, it is both cosmopolitan and diverse in ways that would astonish a lot of Americans. For years now I’ve affectionately referred to it as my home planet, which even people who have never been there seem to find amusing, but they don’t know the half of it.

South Florida has a feeling of impermanence; old buildings do not stand, either they are eventually damaged by hurricanes, or by the culture that life in the path of hurricanes fosters, which is one in which Floridians don’t get too attached to physical structures. In South Florida, an “old” building was built in the 1970s, and it often feels as though everyone -- full-time residents included -- is on vacation, a sensation helped along by the vast numbers of transplants from New York and New England.

Today I can call it a magical place, as I have lived away from it for long enough that I’ve come to appreciate it in a way a never could as a sullen teenager. One of the privileges of growing up there that I did appreciate -- even as a sullen teenager -- was its proximity to Disney World, only three-and-a-half hours’ drive north. 

As a result, trips to Disney World were pretty common in my youth; I took it for granted, I’m embarrassed to say, that everyone went to Disney World as a kid. My childhood memories of Disney World are some of the most vivid memories I have, and not all of them are of the big attractions and rides most people associate with the Disney parks. Instead I remember being twelve years old and standing on one of the many paths through a Disney resort one night, knowing in a vague way that the atmospheric music I was hearing must be coming from some hidden speaker in the landscaping, but resisting that knowledge because although I have always been an insufferable know-it-all, there was something wonderful about just letting the origins of that music remain an intact mystery.

Disney World is the analog predecessor of virtual reality; the parks were built like a series of facades on a film set, and the employees are not customer service reps, but “cast members” thoroughly trained in the critical importance of maintaining a good show. Visiting the Disney Parks is like stepping inside the idealized fantasy worlds of children, a dream made real. The expectations, of course, are very high.

Early on in our dating relationship, I took my husband to Disney World for a weekend, as an introduction. In retrospect, I planed this impulsive trip badly. We went in May, which is easily one of the most crowded months, and can also be quite hot. As if normal Florida weather weren’t enough, on this particular weekend there was a heat wave so thick that it could easily kill the enthusiasm of even the most excited child; for my husband, who was entirely new to this and didn’t fully understand why he was there in the first place, it was impossible.

One afternoon we returned to our resort room, drained by the extreme heat and humidity, and my husband threw himself exhaustedly on the bed, saying, “I don’t get it. This place sucks. It’s hot, it’s crowded, there are lines for everything, and there’s nothing all that fun to do.”

I was devastated. Indeed, I think I may have burst into tears. I knee-jerkily began to reconsider whether this relationship was going to work out at all.

Fortunately we took out next trip in the winter off-season, and my husband warmed to the place without the endless queuing and the oppressive heat. Today, over a decade of regular trips later, he is nearly as fond of Disney World as I am (actually I may have created a monster, in that he never wants to go anywhere else for vacation).

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I have a picture of us from the Magic Kingdom in 2009, with Winnie the Pooh. I love this picture for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is the look on my husband's face. My husband doesn't smile in photographs, and as a result nearly all the pictures I have are of him making a calculatedly blank-faced expression which, ironically, looks nothing like him. In this picture, though, his eyes and close-lipped smile betray barely restrained joy. That this place could bring that expression out of him -- there is no word for it but magical.

Who cares about a mortgage or a work deadline or any of the sad and stressful thoughts that bog us down on a regular basis when you've got Winnie the Pooh touching your shoulder? You can just surrender to it, to that dream of a beautiful childhood none of us experienced, because childhood, like adulthood, is messy and complicated and influenced by a multitude of factors outside our control. Moreso, even, when you’re a kid, and you are at the mercy of the choices of the adults looking out for you -- adults who are, at the end of the day, human, and prone to mistakes, even when they are loving ones.

The escapism of it is not for everyone. And I know that these days very few can justify spending money on a real vacation. But I value my trips to Disney World because they have the power to revive a part of us that we repress daily -- the carefree, enthusiastic kid we learn, out of social necessity, to ignore.

This is why people bring children to Disney World; it’s not just for the children, it is for the permission for adults to be silly and joyous and unburdened and lost in the simple wonder of it all. It’s difficult for adults to let go, and to appreciate Disney World, you must be a person who is comfortable letting go. It is better still if you are a person who is entirely comfortable with looking like a total dork in public, without a shred of shame. Remember what it was like to go about your life without shame? Me neither, but kids do it, and we can learn something from them about that.

The emotional release of Disney World functions for me as I imagine church functions for other people -- it brings me to a place in which I can believe the absolute best about the world and the people in it. This is how I prefer to live, but often everyday life makes it terribly difficult. 

And it is an emotional release, no doubt: I have a crying problem at Disney World. I cry at certain songs, I cry at fireworks. Some Disney park fans cry simply at the sight of the castle in Magic Kingdom. Some cry when they meet costumed characters. I cry at the stripping away of the worries and stresses of everyday life, and I cry at the reclamation of that idealized childhood, which is really just code for the relief of only focusing on the things around me that are are wonderful and beautiful and happymaking. 

There may be other ways to reawaken that feeling of unbearable joy at simply existing; if only I were more disciplined in meditation, or if I were more committed to being a kind and loving person first and foremost in all my relationships. But until I can make those things happen, I will continue going to Disney World and believing in its magic, and ignoring the speakers in the landscaping.