We didn’t tell the children they’d be spending the weekend preceding the boy’s 6th birthday at one of the 4 Disney theme parks. I unassumingly signed up for a legal conference covering veterans disability claims to be held in Orlando, booked a room at the Shades of Green resort, and then went about delegating the tasks associated with planning trips to these four parks to my bride (after talking to a couple friends who’d made the trips within the past year to seek advice and, of course, buying the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disneyworld 2015 book and touring plans app) several months before time to go. We did, however, guide the babies’ streaming Netflix viewing toward some of its several Disney offerings.
The night before we’d planned to check them out of school at 2pm to head down, I told them at dinner. There were smiles and shrieks of excitement. We told them not to gloat too much when they told their friends why they were missing 3.5 days of school.
Candidly, I was fairly excited but also dreading it a bit. I heard going to Disney as a parent was a rite of passage of sorts that we all must trudge through in order to avoid having children who look upon their youth as one full of deprivation, disappointment, and envy. It was an event to endure. A box to check. Luckily, I was wrong.
Going to the Disney theme parks in September was as close to a perfect family vacation as I’ve ever experienced, as a child or an adult. The only dread I found myself having each day was over the time I needed to spend at my conference. The lines were short. Our children were well-behaved and happy. The weather was…okay (warm, but not hot; rainy at times).
We spent the first day–Wednesday–at the Magic Kingdom, and the 3 children’s first roller coaster was a runaway mine car surrounded by the 7 Dwarfs (we’d measured the youngest before leaving to make sure she’d meet the 40” height requirement for some of the more exciting rides). They loved it, even if it scared the younger 2 a good bit. From there, we proceeded to ride every single ride and see every single attraction we could possibly hope to experience, and without rushing. They even rode the Big Thunder Mountain railroad, which was my favorite ride at Disneyland when I went as a child, and again, it scared them a pretty good bit, but they loved it.
At one point in the afternoon, we went to a Beauty and the Beast thing we’d Fastpassed. The participants got to see Belle and act out her meeting the Beast, and children from the audience were selected to participate. My oldest was picked to play Beast, which meant dancing with Belle and growling at her (at first), and she was great at it.
After the little play, all the characters got to have their pictures taken with the Belle actress.
At the end of the day, I wanted to hit Space Mountain; I expected to ride alone. My boy (who, again, had yet to turn 6) volunteered to go with me, while his sisters and mother headed for Buzz Lightyear for a repeat ride from that morning.
Me: “Are you sure? You seemed pretty scared after the Thunder Mountain ride…this one is even faster, and it’s in the dark.”
Him: “Yes, Daddy. I want to go with you.”
There wasn’t a soul in line (as the electric parade thing was going on simultaneously), but we walked slowly through the line to enjoy all the space-related displays. When we got to our car, I realize we couldn’t sit together, as each seat is for an individual with a lap bar.
Me: “You sure you want to ride? I can’t sit with you, but I’ll be right in front of you.”
Him: “Sure. I can’t wait to ride!”
After we hurled and twisted through the darkness at exorbitant speeds and came thundering back into the lit station, I looked behind me. He was clutching the lap bar with his right arm over it and his left arm under it; his hands were clasped together. His body was pushed into one corner of his seat. His eyes were the size of tea cups.
Me: “You okay, buddy?”
Him: “Yeah…that was really scary.”
I felt like a giant asshole. We walked away and enjoyed, once again, the many displays that surrounded us on our trip back into Tomorrowland. When we met up with the girls a few minutes later, his account of the ride had changed to “exciting!” and “fast!” I couldn’t help but respect the little guy’s courage (and feel like less of an asshole). After a dance party with the Incredibles, we headed to the hotel.
The next day, I had to spend most of the day at my conference, but the rest of the gang went to Epcot. I sneaked away to meet them for lunch with several princesses, which the girls (and the boy) absolutely loved.
I met them at the end of the day and rode Soarin’ with them (their 2nd time) and had dinner at the German biergarten, which I loved.
The next day, we went to the Animal Kingdom, a park I’d never visited. We loved it. So much more than just a zoo, the entire park is arranged such that you, the visitor, feel you are visiting different continents and get to see the animals and sights appropriate for that location. I skipped the water ride (since I was planning to drop into my conference for a bit that afternoon), but we all did the safari ride, and the two oldest even rode the Expedition Everest ride, which was somewhat terrifying (even featuring a portion of the ride that goes backwards).
We ate lunch at a location that allowed for seeing Mickey, Donald, Minnie, and other characters dressed in safari gear.
We returned to Epcot that evening (since Animal Kingdom closes early) to ride some things we missed the first time (including Maelstrom, which is closing soon) and eat near the water where the laser show was to be performed.
The fourth day (Saturday) was to be Hollywood Studios. I had to join late after hitting some conference sessions, but I made it over just in time for the events I was anticipating more than any other on the trip–Jedi training and Star Tours.
When the music from the awards ceremony at the end of Episode IV started playing, just as the children walked out in their little Padawan robes to begin their Jedi training, I may have teared up. I wanted to them at that moment, but since I couldn’t go back in time 30 years in that instant, I had to settle for empathy from 15′ away. They paid attention to their training, and when Darth Vader appeared unexpectedly and pleaded with the group of Jedi trainees to come with him and join the Dark Side, the most emphatic Padawan to shake her head “no” and clutch her lightsaber defensively was none other than my 8-year-old girl. Her parents beamed.
A fight ensued, and Darth Vader + Darth Maul left defeated.
We rode “Star Tours” a couple times, and the youngest was the rebel spy whose picture Darth Vader showed our screen to accuse us of smuggling a spy. The youngest 2 crafted (and I purchased) lightsabers. I realized my lifelong dream of visiting Endor.
And now I realize why so many adults bring their children to Disney theme parks time and time again: because it truly is magical. We’ll be back.
The next morning (Sunday), we enjoyed the hotel pool, stopped by Gainesville to visit the pastor who officiated our wedding 9 years ago, and continued up to Atlanta. The next day, our only son turned 6. He got a magic set and a weekend full of fresh, wonderful memories.