My oldest daughter just turned sweet sixteen, and since she's such an easygoing girl with simple tastes, who understands the limits of our disposable income. She didn't ask for a huge party with ice sculptures and guest appearances from Beyonce or J Cole; instead, she just wanted to spend the day at Disney World with her best friend. I couldn't turn her down, in good conscience, especially when I kind of wanted to go myself.
If you live in Florida, pretty much anywhere in Florida, Disney World is close enough that any three-day weekend can turn into a Mickey Mouse vacation. Plus, with the resident discounts, it's pretty affordable, even with the recent price hikes. On top of that, if you have kids, it sort of becomes an imperative, at least once or twice.
The thing is, the last time we went was over a year ago, at the beginning of summer time, and I swore that I wasn't coming back until the youngest was at least five years old. We had gotten in free, because we knew someone who worked in the parks, which is also probably a thing if you live in Florida, so the cost wasn't an issue. The problem was that there are two Magic Kingdom parks.
In the off season months - October, November, sometimes February - Disney World is a place of friendly spirit, familial love, and just sheer childlike wonder, no matter what age you are. Everyone smiles at you and shows you kindness, whether they work there or not. The weather is great, and just a light jacket will get you through the worst of it. There are lines for some of the rides, but none of them really unbearable. Some of my fondest memories of Disney World are during these times. My most precious memory of dating my wife was the day we spent park-hopping, just the two of us, carrying on like teenagers without having to defer our fun to any kids. This trip was a lot like that.
Summer Disney World, on the other hand, is a soul crushing experience. The park seems to relocate to the light side of Mercury, where the ground crackles and softens under the intense heat of the sun, and its brightness blinds you no matter where you look. You get into line outside the Small World ride, thinking it's going to be about forty minutes, only to find out you're standing at the end of the line for Aladdin's Flying Carpets, across the park, and the wait time is 735 minutes. And you either wait it out or decide that you're okay with the idea that you traveled four hours by car to visit the park and you're going to do exactly nothing while you're in it. Patrons are rude, pushing and cheating their way into lines and generally using their bodies like missiles or bumper cars. Might as well - it's the closest thing to a ride you'll be on today anyway. The cast members are as polite and helpful as always, but they have a weary, tortured look in their eyes that betrays their friendly attitudes, and God bless the young person in that Winnie the Pooh costume.
So, with the memory of that last fateful trip to summer Disney World still burned into my psyche, I planned this trip, mostly out of love for my daughter and a desire to make her birthday special, but hoping that October Disney World would be as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed. It really felt like coming home in a lot of ways. The fun was back, and experiencing it with our precocious three-year-old, with all the suspension of disbelief that she brings to the experience, took be back thirteen years ago when the big ones were little ones, and, honestly, even forty years ago, when this big one was a little one.
We used the new Fastpass system, but instead of rides, we booked all the princess experiences, since those would probably be more memorable and picture-worthy. Our little girl got to play the part of the horse in Belle's story time, and at a time in her life when she has just discovered Beauty and the Beast, and wants to watch the movie at least twice a day. She'll settle for just scrubbing it back twenty times to watch the ending, though. She got to sit next to Ariel in her grotto and talk to her, pretending she was under the sea. She got to meet Rapunzel, whom she knows nothing about, and Tiana, whom she adores. In fact, she almost passed Rapunzel right by to try to get to Tiana before she realized that the lady in the pink dress with long hair was calling her over. The poor baby seemed as if she was trying to mask her annoyance with a fake smile. I actually felt a little badly for the woman playing Rapunzel, because she put her whole heart into her script, but she delivered all of it to the back of our little girl's head, because she was looking across the room at Tiana the entire time.
Tiana was especially kind to our little one. The baby has the lightest skin out of all of us, except me, has blue eyes and definitely would pass for white, if she didn't also have her mother's super kinky curly hair. She usually goes around looking like a white, blue-eyed child with a brown, six inch afro, unless we put it up in puffs or braids, which are the only possible styles for it. As soon as she walked, or more like skipped, over to Tiana, the actress went off script as said, in a perfect Louisiana girl accent, "Why, look at your hair. My Momma used to do my hair just like that when I was your age." I don't know how the baby actually took it, but she smiled so big that I have to believe she at least got a piece of it. God bless that woman. It did my heart good to see this beautiful Black woman dressed up and coiffed like a princess to tell my little girl that her parents used to have a hard time with her hair, too. Especially because at that point in the Magic Kingdom, after hours of walking around and several rides, plus a nap in the stroller, the afro puffs were starting to look more like cheese puffs. In fact, I wasn't even sure if the actress was in character or not at that moment until she mentioned something about borrowing Lottie's hair ribbons. Actually, she said a lot of things, but I was a little distracted and mesmerized, for more than one reason.
That wasn't even the only affirming thing about the trip. Everywhere we went, we saw different types of mixed couples and families, some younger or older than us, some of them mixed in different ways, but several of them, with or without kids. We have a code that we use when that happens - swirl week. As in, "It must be swirl week at Disney World," or "Did you hear anything about this being swirl week?" It's an uplifting thing for us, because living in such a multicultural city like Miami, we get used to the acceptance, but when we travel, sometimes we get more stares, depending on where we are, and not all of them are admiring. I think especially when we are all five together, some people play a game called "Who Belongs to Whom?"
The major difference was that my oldest daughter didn't spend the day with us, choosing instead to walk around with her bestie all day, and meet up with us for dinner. It was kind of a bittersweet thing for me - sweet because I think she enjoyed her birthday much more without having to include a three-year-old in all her activities, but bitter because it serves as another reminder of how old I'm getting. She sent us pictures every hour on the hour, as a sort of safety measure, and it looked like she was having fun, even though her smile got less intense and her eyes started showing signs of weariness after about two in the afternoon. The beauty of it is that we got multi-day passes that let us come back three more times. This time, I'm a lot more excited to go than I was before, coming off of a bad trip, but we're definitely planning the next trip on off days. I just hope Tiana is still there.