Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
I like to think of my family as eccentric rather than weird, thank you very much. I mean, our obsession with Disney World is just a fun little quirk, right?
Well, I'm not sure "fun" is the best word to describe it, considering that I often get strange looks when I tell people that I have been to Disney World 14 times in my 17-year lifespan. And I don't mean 14 individual days either. I mean 14 separate vacations. Fourteen years of It's A Small World, princess autographs and Mickey Mouse shaped ice-cream bars.
Growing up, I was living the dream. My friends' eyes would pop when I told them I'd be ditching the February slush for Disney World once again. "You're going back this year?" they'd exclaim, jaws down to the floor. "You're so lucky." I would shrug like it was no big deal.
The funny part is it's not like my brother or I were the ones begging to go every year. I was only two years old the first time I went, an innocent toddler who could have been kept in the dark until at least kindergarten. And my brother wasn't even born.
Oh no, it's my parents – the supposed adults of the family – who are responsible for turning us into Disney junkies.
My parents dream about Disney World all year, I swear, and as our annual pilgrimage draws nearer, they go into frenzy mode. My mom even buys my brother and me advent calendars when they go on sale after Christmas, so we can count down the days until Florida. She also borrows Orlando travel videos from the library even though we could realistically make and market our own.
My dad's love for Disney World borders more on addiction. He has the Disney World app on his phone and checks the ride wait times year round. I wish I could say that, "Hey, only a five-minute wait for Haunted Mansion!" was a rare outburst at our dinner table.
My parents' giddiness, however ridiculous, was contagious. Every year, as the number of chocolates in my countdown calendar dwindled, my excitement would grow along with my overstuffed Ariel suitcase. The night before our flight, I was always wide awake, checking the clock by my bed every few minutes and willing time to go by faster. And when we finally stepped out of the airport … Mmm, nothing could compare to that first whiff of Florida air.
Once in the park, our day was a non-stop marathon. No time to rest! Too much to do! We had our routine down to a science, strategically getting Fastpass tickets for the busiest rides and enjoying the air-conditioned shows during the hottest hours. At the end of the day, year after year, I would nestle between my parents, my heart bursting like the fireworks above me and thinking, "Wow, what a lovely dose of déjà vu."
But then one year, something changed. Surrounded by the lights and music and sappy Disney idealism that always filled me with such euphoria, I felt empty inside. Cold. Was Disney World always filled with so many crying children? What was so great about a dumb parade anyway? And had Minnie's voice always been so obnoxiously high?
I glanced at my parents and brother beside me, grinning and waving at all the characters going by, and felt miles away. Mickey Mouse wasn't Mickey Mouse to me any more, but a yawning stranger in a sweaty costume. Everything felt fake and childish. And if I heard one more person proclaim, "Dreams DO come true!" I vowed right then and there to stab myself with the nearest toy lightsaber.
That night, I cried myself to sleep. I mourned the death of my childhood innocence, my dreams of ever being a Disney princess, my faith in talking mice. The Disney magic was broken, and I believed I could never get it back.
When my family started getting all excited about the next year's trip, their merriment annoyed me. When my dad blasted the Disney CD in the car, I rolled my eyes and turned it off. When my mom tried to get me pumped, I shut her down. No, mom, don't pack my Mickey Mouse hair clips. No, I do not want to buy matching princess sweatshirts. I didn't want to be "the girl who goes to Disney World" any more – the reputation repulsed me.
I still tagged along on our Disney trips. But I was always a little ambivalent, reminding myself of my role as martyr, boldly enduring the unparalleled embarrassment that is one's 10th trip to Disney World at age 13.
And so it continued: the jolly Golden family oozing with Disney spirit and one jaded teen in tow.
But then … a Disney miracle? By the time I was 16, I felt a distantly familiar desire grow within me. Jiminy Cricket! Could it be? I actually wanted to go to Disney World. I craved the hustle and bustle of Main Street, USA, the smell of overpriced candy floss, the stuffy embrace of Donald Duck.
That winter, I actually had more fun than I'd had in years. I simply tossed my inhibitions over my shoulder and shrugged off that "too old for Disney World" attitude. This time, I appreciated it all from a different, more grown-up perspective. Not only did I wave to the parade floats going by and pose for pictures with Peter Pan and Wendy, but I did so with a gusto so genuine, it surprised me. Did I believe they could actually fly and stay young forever? Well, no, but I did admire Wendy's impeccable accent and how light Peter was on his feet, as if he might soar into the air at any moment.
That year, I gained a profound piece of wisdom. While my days of dancing down the Disney sidewalks were gone, I wasn't doomed forever. I understood all it takes is a few blinks to clear your vision and tap into that kid within. I know it sounds horribly cliché (blame extended Disney exposure for that), but it's true, nonetheless. The wonder of imagination isn't something you outgrow, it's there as long as you want to find it. It's paved in those Fantasyland streets you twirled down, and it's woven into the memories that make your heart swell most.