When the kids were babies, I was still gung-ho about showing them the world. "Once Leo learns to walk, we'll take him to Egypt to climb the Great Pyramid," I'd fantasize. "Okay, Josie's eating solids. Let's fly to Mumbai so she can try chicken vindaloo." The goal of family travel, I formerly believed, was to expand our children's cultural horizons. The goal of family travel, I currently believe, is to avoid stowing the kids in the overhead compartments until we have begun our final descent.
I mention this stuff to let you know why my wife and I selected the exotic land of Disney for our first family vacation. At the time, Leo was 5 and Josie was 2. Disneyland's claim to be "the happiest place on Earth" was very compelling. We never imagined depleting our frequent-flier miles so our kids could experience the birthplace of consumer branding, but I'll tell you what: We also never imagined letting them eat a bag of cheese puffs for breakfast. Can you guess what they had this morning?
Maybe you too are inching closer to your own expedition to the Magic Kingdom. And maybe you are saying, "Dan, you are a man who has strapped on a pair of mouse ears. Please, share with me your many secrets so that I may follow in your footsteps without becoming a danger to myself and others."
Or maybe not. In any case, you are merely one sentence away from: Dan's Disneyland Dossier (in convenient FAQ format).
The most important thing to take is my younger brother Richie, who is a licensed social worker specializing in early-childhood development. Growing up, Richie was always the most patient Zevin. To this day, I have never seen him lose his temper. Sometimes I think he doesn't even have a temper. Then I remind myself that he just doesn't have kids. When he does, he will presumably find his temper. Until then, I cannot recommend him highly enough.
With Uncle Richie around, you won't waste your precious Disney days listening to everything your kids want and telling them everything they can't have. Relinquish your parental duties to him, and you will watch in wonder as they walk straight past five (5) souvenir stores in a single afternoon. Unlike his elder brother, Uncle Richie never uses time-outs as a threat. He doesn't even say "time-out." He says, "take some space of your own," and he says it like they're about to get a prize instead of a punishment. "Leo," Uncle Richie says, "How about if you take some space of your own to think up something fun for us to do instead of flinging that chocolate volcano at your sister?"
A chocolate volcano is what they serve you for dessert at the Rainforest Caf?, one of numerous theme restaurants we sampled during our stay. The theme of this particular venue was to scare our daughter.
There we all were, happily enjoying our nightly intake of chicken fingers, tenders, strips, and/or nuggets, surrounded by smiling stuffed elephants, toy gorillas, and chirping tropical birds. Suddenly, the place goes pitch black, a roar of thunder rips through the room, and a simulated lightning storm sends the taxidermy into a shrieking frenzy.
Once the lights came back, we were grateful to be dining with a pediatric social worker who could provide early intervention for Josie's future post-traumatic stress disorder. Uncle Richie classified her as "totally freaked out." He prescribed the chocolate volcano as a short-term remedy. Little did he know this remedy would be dispensed by a team of actor/waiters who stampede around your table screaming, "Vol-can-o! Vol-can-o! Vol-can-o!"
After that, Josie was so inconsolable that Megan had to rush her back to the hotel room with Uncle Richie. Leo and I stayed behind to pay the bill and eat the volcano. Which, speaking as your travel advisor, I would describe as the single most outstanding food I have ever tasted.
It brings me shame to confess that my wife and I didn't provide our children with a solid foundation in the characters. "We're going to Disney!" we announced a couple weeks before we left. "You'll get to meet Donald Duck! And Goofy! And that other dog!" They stared back blankly, as if we'd just said we're taking them to Slovakia to meet Ivan Gašparovic.
And thus commenced our pre-Disney indoctrination program. It was encouraging that Josie at least recognized Minnie Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. This was only because Minnie was on her diapers and Winnie was on her potty seat. She called him Winnie the Poop. I never corrected her because I thought it was cute. Meanwhile, Leo and I spent intensive indoor time studying toontown.com and immersing ourselves in Peter Pan (two-disc platinum edition).
It was clear that our crash course paid off from the moment we checked into our hotel. There, smack in the center of the lobby, stood a towering plastic statue of a silly dog wearing a yellow hat and floppy shoes.
"Goofy! Goofy!" Leo hollered, sprinting laps around it in a gratifying display of character retention. Josie froze, awestruck. Something surged through her 21/2-year-old veins in that moment, something like the first rush of estrogen. Slowly, she approached Goofy Statue and embraced it tenderly. She placed her hand in Goofy Statue's hand. Fifteen minutes later, Josie and Goofy Statue were still hand in hand. It was heartbreaking, but she needed the truth.
"That is not real Goofy," I whispered to my little girl. "But I promise you this: By the end of the week, I will find him for you."
It wasn't easy, I'll tell you that. I don't know about you, but, back in my day Goofy and the gang were just everyday people -- or everyday whatever they are -- who walked around giving high fives and riding the Monorail like the rest of us.
But when I returned with my own kids, they were all of a sudden these fancy stars who didn't go out in public. Real Goofy was not to be found hanging out in Frontierland. He was not to be found in Adventure-, Fantasy-, nor Tomorrowland either, and he was definitely not at Mickey's House, which I thought would be a sure thing since the two of them always seemed pretty tight to me. After 35 minutes of waiting in line inside, we were finally admitted into Mickey's private "movie studio." Can you believe he has a movie studio? In his house? This is where the now reclusive rodent receives his fans for a 90-second photo op. We purchased our autographed 8"?10" glossy and were promptly escorted out through the back door.
Because I'm incapable of interpersonal communication until lunch. But when Megan pointed out that the characters are mute, it sounded doable. Josie would get to meet Real Goofy and we would get a picture to e-mail to the grandparents.
My wish (I mean, Josie's wish) came true by the waffle station. There he was, hobnobbing with characters I didn't recognize. I overheard a kid say they were Lilo and Stitch. They were nice when I asked them to move so Josie could pose with Real Goofy. And the waffles weren't half-bad either.
Because our kids are getting older. By next year, we'll finally be ready to take them somewhere to expand their cultural horizons.
© 2012 Dan Zevin. From Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad, by Dan Zevin, to be published by Scribner (May 2012).
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.