I once scoffed at the tackiness of it all but what I found was a wild freedom to let loose and feel pure bliss.
I had rolled my eyes at Disney World. If family vacations were sneakers, Disney was a pair of those sparkly light-up high tops with wheels. Shrug, smile, do it for the kids. That’s what I thought.
Fast forward to the end of our first day at the Magic Kingdom, and you’ll see a photo of me with my hands in the air, disembarking Space Mountain with all the ecstasy of a toddler on his third Mickey Mouse-shaped chocolate ice cream — this is Disney World, anything goes — with sore arms from gripping roller coaster bars, lifting children for better views of the parade, and pointing out characters around the grounds as if I’d spotted Harry Styles. Good God, there’s Donald Duck!
Once scoffing at the hordes in their custom family T-shirts and signature big-eared headbands, I found myself whistling down Main Street, eyeing a set of Beauty and the Beast-themed drinkware with seriousness, as if I might return home and sip rosé from Gaston’s goblet. Who had I become?
When you commit to a trip to Disney World, the ante is up. This is the mothership, peak childhood, core memories, magic. We wanted to do it once, and do it well. So we went hard, with four children and five parks, in the heat of August.
The most exciting rollercoaster was, of course, that of my own emotions. There was unbridled joy at that first sight of Cinderella’s Castle, and horror in the moment my three-year-old stabbed a stranger in the crotch with his new Jack Sparrow sword. There was heart-pounding giddiness waiting to board the Jungle Cruise, followed immediately by an unreasonable fury toward slow walkers. There was not, gentle reader, emotional stability.
What we found instead was a wild freedom in the reckless abandon of routine.
I can’t always let my children stay up to watch fireworks with their candy-stained mouths hanging open, at hours when I have certainly judged people for still being awake with kids.
I can’t always let them survive on chicken fingers, getting up from restaurant tables to dance and sing, sleeping with new lightsabers in their beds.
I can’t always hop off the Toy Story ride and, on an endorphin high, say yes! to my five-year-old who is holding up a $37 Buzz Lightyear figurine that would cost $5 at any reasonable store and that will almost certainly be broken before we get back to the hotel. I can’t always be that person, but it’s not lost on me what a privilege it is to be able to be that person here.
But my heavens, the look on his face when I say yes. I can’t always be that person, but I can here.
While I know assuredly that we will not be the matching-shirt family or the season-pass family, we’ll be back. Sure, the Small World song is its own little form of torture, and my seven-year-old might be talking about the Haunted Mansion ride with his therapist in twenty years. But when I watched an elderly woman board Splash Mountain with her oxygen tank and a look of pure bliss, I thought man, that is living. So here I am, risen from the chaos and exhaustion, thinking I really should have sprung for that drinkware set now that I am, without apology, a Disney person.
Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.