I’ll admit it. I was wrong about Disney.
As a childless, city-dwelling, 20-something professional, I viewed Disney as a perpetrator of mass consumerism, sexism and middle-class mediocrity. Calling a girl a princess meant telling her she was incomplete and weak on her own and needed saving by a man. My vision of Disney World: herds of shuffling, unsophisticated Americans pushing their sugar-filled, snot nosed stroller kids from one fake land to another. It turns out I was kind of a snob.
I didn’t start out that way. I first visited Disneyland on a family vacation at age 6, during the park’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. I loved everything about it, from the red-eyed yeti in the Matterhorn to the singing bears in the Country Jamboree to the Small World animatronics. We flew on Dumbo’s back, spun in Alice’s teacups, listened to Abraham Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address and shrieked at the Haunted House ghosts.
As the years went on, and the memories faded, snarky cynicism settled in. And then, at age 36, I became a mom. As every parent learns, it’s a humbling experience. Your body changes, your priorities shift, and you become a lot less judgmental of other people with kids. Not that giving birth transformed me into a Disneyphile, but as our daughter grew into a toddler, I softened up enough to let her watch Disney Jr. I loved seeing her break into a smile as Mickey came over the hill during the opening song of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
When our little sweetie was about 18 months old, we joined my parents and my sister’s family for a trip to Orlando. We knew she wouldn’t remember it later, but we wanted to spend time with the family.
We arrived at Magic Kingdom on a crowded afternoon shortly before Thanksgiving. My husband and I paused to get our bearings in front of Cinderella’s castle, only to look up and see our brother in law, a Naval officer who we lovingly call “Commando Rob”, marching off, one tot on his shoulders, another in the BOB jog stroller. “Where’s he going?” I asked. “We’re going to Pirates of the Caribbean.” We are? A ride that celebrates thieves, murderers and rapists? Ugh. But by some miracle, winding through the queue to the repeated strains of “yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!” worked to pull the stick out of my booty. I laughed, sang, and couldn’t help but notice that Disney had toned down the violence from earlier versions of the ride.
Next we visited the Enchanted Tiki Room, a childhood favorite. Who doesn’t love joke-telling macaws and an island beat? It’s so kitschy, it’s almost cool. We rode a few more rides, but dinner at an over-priced, over-crowded buffet brought out my anti-Disney grumpiness.
Until we saw it. Cinderella’s castle lit up in its glistening holiday glory. I actually caught my breath. The hushed crowd jostled for position to snap photos. We squeezed in and stared. I can’t explain it, but Disney magic is for real.
During the next several days we happily safaried through Animal Kingdom, globetrotted through Epcot, and relived favorite movie memories at Hollywood Studios (although I still can’t stomach The Little Mermaid’s story of a girl who gives up her voice to be with a man). We loved seeing our daughter’s face light up when she spotted Mickey Mouse and watching her laugh with her cousins.
I’ve also learned to admire the man behind the mouse, Walt Disney. Imperfect like all of us, Disney fought criticism that his cartoons promoted cultural stereotypes. But as an innovator and entrepreneur, Disney’s accomplishments are hard to deny. He built an empire by overcoming setbacks and celebrating creativity. “If you can dream it, you can do it” became Disney’s motto. He dreamed of a place people could have fun with their families. “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” I respect Disney’s imagination, vision and the courage it took to build a happy place in a cynical world.
And soon, we’re taking our daughter, now age 5, back to Disney World for a trip that she’ll remember. I think I’m just as excited as she is.