What Disneyland Taught Me About Childhood

Because of happy circumstance, California grandparents and our inability to save money when IT COULD BE SPENT SOMEWHERE ON SOMETHING, Riley, the girls and I have been to Disneyland six or eight times over the past year. (Oh man. Just writing that feels so excessive. I mean, there are hungry children in the world and we have become honorary members of the Disney do or die club? Where are our priorities, you ask. I can tell you. They are drunk on Dole Whip and Disney Dollars.)

The first time we went to Disneyland, I was woefully unprepared. The snack situation was egregious, just a few Ritz crackers and fruit snacks. Of course, we brought the Sit and Stand stroller. Everyone knows that you should only show up to a day like that with the Sleeper Stroller 3000 fully equipped with Wi-Fi and hot and ready Mcdonald’s french fries. Finally, to add insult to injury, we started the girls out on the Snow White ride, which is basically a three minute fright fest through the dusty mind of one of Disney’s more terrifying villians. Look, Honey! There is rotting skeleton! Isn’t Disneyland magical?

Thankfully, Riley’s mom is a magician. When the snacks ran out, she made it rain m&ms. When the kids got tired, she lifted their spirits on a cloud of grandmother love. And the spot she saved two hours before the parade began more than made up for the magic destroying Snow White ride. Thank goodness for grandparents.

The next time we went to Disneyland I was prepared. Enough water and snacks for days, my most comfortable shoes and nerves that seemed to stand up outside of my skin. Riley noticed my, ahem, finely tuned state of mind and asked me what was wrong.

“Nothing. I am just gearing up for the day. You know, this kind of thing is like a marathon. You are tired and aching throughout but by the time it is over, you are so glad you did it.”

He looked dumbfounded.

“If Disneyland is a marathon, what does that mean for the rest of our lives? Gosh. Relax, have fun.”

The kids didn’t go hungry that day and you better believe we hit every ride in the right order. But in my intensity, I missed many of their smiles. (I also sprained my ankle trying to sprint the stroller to the best place for the parade. But that is neither here nor there.)

On the long drive home from California, I thought about Disneyland. That place of firework and confection that lures and conquers. Sure, it is commercial and paint that peels. But it is also one of the best metaphors for childhood I have found in my brief moment as a mother.

Disneyland is a candy coated concept that is so much more complex than the marketing and memories that surround it. There are crowds and tantrums and the occasional line hugger (you know, the guy that stands just a little too close to you while you wait to get on Splash Mountain. And you are like, is any water based log ride worth this kind of invasion of personal space? And then the answer is yes and you wonder what that says about you). The place is filled with one dimensional fairy tales brought to life, commercialism as sentiment and long lines for empty spaces filled with paper and plastic as form. It would be very easy to be cynical about Disneyland. A playground for the simple minded and unaware.

But then, but then there is something more. The magic of seeing a child watch fireworks for the first time. There is the wonder and great equalizer of shared experience, sitting in one of those silly rides and feeling the same thing my four year old feels. There are so few opportunities to share open mouthed joy together like that. And finally, and perhaps most importantly to someone like me, there is the feeling of a moment frozen and sealed away. As if the bad guys will always be vanquished in a trail of song  and dance. As if it never gets harder than deciding between one scoop of ice cream or two.  As if our lives will always be on a twinkle light filled Main Street.

I’ve approached my children’s childhood in the two ways I first tried to approach the happiest place on earth. (Side note: Everyone knows the happiest place on earth is really a cheese cave in Paris. Right? RIGHT?) I’ve come to their lives unprepared and unconcerned. With the real life equivalent of a few crackers and fruit snacks. I am aware of the opportunities I’ve missed when I haven’t taken the potential of childhood seriously. But I’ve also been the mom with set eyes and determined chin. The one that swore she wouldn’t miss a damn thing and then missed every smile in my agitated need to provide them.

I hope over the last year I have come closer to the mother my girls need me to be. The one that knows it is okay to sprint towards dreams of princesses in comfortable shoes. The one that allows for magic while also empowering through practicalities. The kind of mom that remembers to twirl and smile and sprinkle glitter on things that need a bit more shine.

At the end of day, childhood is filled to the brim with long lines, tantrums and the empty filled with silliness as form. But there is also the theater of dreams, hope as sweet as a rainbow lollipop and a kind of graceful belief in good that is more potent than any fairytale. It is such a beautiful, star shined thing. And then, most likely just as we’ve learned to enjoy it and long before you or I will ever be ready, it will be closing time. And the gates will shut and the lights will go dark.

And all we’ll have left to remember it are a few pictures and the taste of ice cream that take us back to a time we once called home.