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January 05, 2006

Why Writers Love Mickey Mouse (Or Not)

by Nancy

Over Christmas, I went to Go to fullsize image

Florida, the amusement park capital of the world,

with my husband and my daughter Sarah. We've been there before, of course.  We took our kids when they were little.  Several times.  Between Sarah and me, the plan this time was to see if we could stamp out my husband’s love of Disney World once and for all.

It’s my observation that the only person really having fun in the




is Dad, so maybe our mission was wrong-minded from the get-go.  The men are having a wonderful time, and why spoil that?

The teenagers, on the other hand, are mortified at being seen in public with their blood relatives.  Small children are either delirious happy or weeping with exhaustion. The honeymooners are busy necking in public.  (Why didn't they just get a room and stay there?) And the elderly folks are drag racing their motorized scooters to get into lines faster.  (Somebody should give speeding tickets.) And Mom?  Well, she’s too busy facilitating everyone else’s good time to enjoy much of anything except maybe going to sleep on that comfy mattress at the Marriott at the end of a long day.

But Dad—he’s in heaven.  Where else can a middle-aged man indulge in unlimited fast food and mindless entertainment all while wearing his most comfortable shorts and a t-shirt from the year he coached the kids’ Little League team, plus he can hide behind his sunglasses while looking at pretty young women in skimpy outfits, too?  Once he surrenders his credit card—and maybe that’s the extreme break with reality necessary to truly propel him into Fantasyland--he’s free to enjoy himself.  It’s actually heartening to see the American Male completely content---grabbing a hot pretzel as he bounds out of one thrill ride and heads for another roller coaster with the kids pounding on his heels like he’s truly Peter Pan.

Toward the end of our 14-hour Disney marathon (we covered 3 parks in one day, and I have blisters to prove it) I sent Jeff and Sarah off by themselves to enjoy the NASCAR speedway while I sat down at a table with a bowl—I kid you not—of chicken noodle soup. (I was desperately in need of some comfort food.)  After slurping my soup, I sat back to observe the noise, the smells, the kaleidoscopic world around me.  I had nabbed one of 6 small tables located in a kind of amusement park vortex between the Mad Hatter teacup ride full of shrieking toddlers and the eardrum-endangering roar of the NASCAR Experience.  Around me at the other tables sat various middle-aged dads—sans family who were probably all standing in the line for the bathroom under Mom’s care or maybe upchucking on Mickey’s shoes in whatever that neon hellhole across the sidewalk was.  To a man, the guys around me were talking on their cell phones.  Maybe making last minute stock purchases, you ask?  Nope.  The man next to me was talking to his mother.  Telling her about what a fantastic day he’d had. 

It was maybe the most adorable thing I’d seen all day.

Other random vacation observations:

1.  You can wear anything in public today and nobody objects.  ANYTHING.  Unless you put on a pair of white ankle socks with your sneakers.  Then your 24-year-old daughter reacts as if you’ve proposed entering the




stark naked.  “OMIGOD MOTHER, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WEAR THOSE, ARE YOU?”  Go to fullsize image Well . . . I guess not.  She lent me a pair of socks that disappear down into your sneakers, thereby causing the aforesaid blisters but saving us both from a fate worse than death--public wardrobe humiliation.

2.  Shirts printed with clever phrases are nearly always worn by people who are wishful thinkers.  Examples:  The 50-something white guy wearing the “Sean John Jeans” t-shirt in the airport security line obviously wished he was not a candidate for gastric bypass surgery who wore orthopedic shoes and a fanny pack, I’m not kidding. “Give Blood, Play Rugby” was worn by a doughy 20-something kid whose sport of choice was surely not rugby but Dungeons and Dragons or whatever is popular on the X Box right now. “Play Hard, Hit Hard or Go Home,” was sported by an 80 pound 12-year old girl who also wore a Minnie Mouse tiara.   “Kissable” was the shirt of choice for a girl who wasn’t going to be kissed by anybody as long as she had all that hardware pierced through her face, and she definitely needed some guidance on hygiene, too. And “Princess” was the shirt of a woman older, larger and even more self-deluded than yours truly.

My favorite was perhaps the shirt worn by a skinny 8-year old Ritalin-needy girl who dashed ahead of her family, knocking aside an elderly woman with a cane and screaming, “MOMMY COME SEE THIS!” every 15 seconds.  Her shirt said, “Home Schooled and Loven (sic) It.”  Which just sums up so much for me, the former public school teacher who firmly believes that one of the primary lessons to be learned in a public school is Good Citizenry. Not to mention spelling. If we’d spent another half hour in that kid’s proximity, she was going to learn an unforgettable lesson about mob rule, too.

4. The girls named Britney who stood behind us at the Muppet show and actually smelled like bubblegum (is there a perfume?  Because surely it’s not possible to chew enough gum to smell so thoroughly of it!) should have their mouths washed out with soap.  Okay, I’ve been known to cuss in moments of duress, but adorable girls who are 13 and wear shiny lipstick, sparkly crucifixes around their necks and t-shirts that advertise their church, but who talk like felons should be locked up and given 150 books to read before they’re released.  I don’t care what the books are, except nothing by that Narnia guy. They need to throw away their copies of Marie Claire and learn something for godsake.

5. Popcorn always smells wonderful.

6.I definitely live in a white bread world.  And it’s time all of us learned some Spanish if for no other reason than it’s just good manners for when we leave our own comfortable neighborhoods.

7.  No matter what the theme restaurant is---


, Tom Sawyer, Moroccan, or whatever---all people really want to eat is some form of chicken finger. With a really gooey sauce, of course. 

8. Amusement parks are great American institutions.  They should make you proud enough to salute the red, white and blue, in fact.  There’s so much junk that’s being consumed there.  So many egos demanding to be fed.  If you’re smart enough, you can use the




system to avoid standing in long lines.  If you’re wealthy--or self-involved--enough, you can pay to ride in the fancy cars at the beginning of the Disney parades—with your names printed on placards carried by strolling harem girls and you and your loved ones sitting up on the back seat waving like World Series winners. In amusement parks, you can wear the name of your city printed across your chest so complete strangers can rush up to you and behave like they’re your neighbors at a block party. Amusement parks are microcosms of these

United States

.  If there’s a way to experience it better than everyone else, somebody will think of it and be proud of the accomplishment, too. I did see a few genuine family moments, though. Even among my own family members. It's enforced togetherness, a time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your loved ones. It's amazing to recognize what your daughter has learned when you weren't looking.

9. You can check your brain at the gate.  Honestly, the Disney “Imagineers” have brilliantly conceived the whole experience so that you don’t need to engage your own imagination in the slightest. (Or travel anywhere else. I was astonished at the set design of the


part of Animal Kingdom. It was fantastic.  Surely I never need to go to


.) In the


exhibit, we piled into safari-like trucks to see an amazing array of animals, which would have been an astounding experience in itself.  But the park creators felt the need to include a hokey story about chasing animal poachers and rescuing a baby elephant (the mother was shot and presumably killed.—Hey, it’s Disney, remember?) rather than allowing us to absorb the wonder of giraffes just a couple of yards away from the truck.

People love it, though.  My husband was so taken with the Men in Black shoot-em-up fun at Universal Studios that he wanted to do it a third time.  It was exactly the same sequence of events, but he wanted to do it again and again and again.  People want to repeat those entertaining experiences.  Which I’m not complaining about because I write a series in which the same characters do pretty much the same thing in every book, and people keep coming back for more. Readers beg me to write faster.  So it’s a human need, maybe.  To repeat what we enjoy. It's a lesson I must remind myself of constantly. Do it again, Nancy!

10. There are actually people who talk on cell phones on roller coasters.  During the Jaws boat ride--which includes explosions loud enough to rattle your fillings--one guy was going over the closing costs of his new mortgage. Do you think he sleeps with his cell phone?  Takes it into the shower with him?  There was a man checking his email on a Palm Pilot in line at the



Mansion, too

. And only for ten seconds did I wish I could do the same thing. Okay, maybe thirty seconds.

My conclusion?  Oh, hell, if my husband loves Disney World for no other reason than it lets him spend a day completely forgetting about making a living, paying tuitions and gas bills without complaint, not to mention coping with a somewhat eccentric, forgetful, half-blind wife who might have gotten wrong the time of our departing flight by just a couple or three hours, that’s okay by me.  A responsible, middle-aged dad deserves a break now and then.

After a stimulating and surprisingly relaxing vacation, I’m back in my office and ready to write. That's what vacations are for, correct?  But I definitely need some ideas for next year.  Because I've had enough Disney Magic.  I want to make some of our own.


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I'm secretly jealous, Nancy, as my husband has refused to go to Disney World. Having been there so long ago, maybe thirty years, I know my kids would love it, especially since it's changed. Then again, I'm not sure I could stomach rich folks driving by in cars with placards of their names on them.
Three to four hours? Geesh. What did you do?
As for vacation recommendations, how about the Turks and Caicos. Gorgeous blue water, incredible snorkling/diving and only a three hour flight from P'burg.

True Story: In 1994, my wife had a conference just outside of Disney World, and she took me and our 3 1/2 year-old-son along. While she was at some meetings or something, maybe even on a panel, I took my son to the Magic Kingdom. At the end of the day, I sleepily and contentedly told her (a mistake, as it turns out) that "Today was the best day of my life." For some reason, she resented that and brings it up from time to time. (There is no statute of limitations in a marriage.) Apparently, she felt that our wedding day or the day my son (or later, daughter) was born are supposed to be "the best day of my life." She told me that. She wasn't willing to hear my explanation, and I'm sure no one here would want to hear it, either. I mean, really, what could I say? It was a wonderful day, and I didn't have to deal with parents present or absent, as at my wedding, or afterbirth or blue babies, as at, well, you know.

My daughter and I hit Disney World a few years ago. We were in Orlando for a women's martial arts camp and she had just graduated high school, so it seemed like a logical thing to do. Except it was July. In Florida. At Disney. It was insane. We did manage to have some fun (the Cirque de Soleil was awesome), but somehow the park seemed to lack the magic of the Disney Land I remember from my own childhood (and early adulthood, for that matter). Maybe it was the sheer size and, yes, the lack of scope for the imagination. Whatever the cause, the effect was that I never captured that sense of being a carefree kid again that, to me, is the essence of a good theme park experience.

I'll take London, thanks :)

Kerry, when my daughter Cassie graduated from high school we figured it might be our last vacation together. (Ha!) So we took the family to London. And it was enough like an amusement park---excellent public transportation, great hotels, amazing sites to be seen (we spent nearly six hours at St. Paul's and hadn't covered nearly enough) plus---it's real!---to appeal to my husband's vacation sensibility. It's the perfect place to take kids--and husbands!

Josh, I am shaking my head. But you're right---there's no statute of limitations in marriage!

It was only 3 hours, Sarah. We read books. And there's a neat store at the Orlando airport that sells stuff that Fisher scuba-diving guy has found in shipwrecks, so that took up some time. I am not to be trusted anymore. I am actually nervous about my book tour because I'm so blind and can't read the time, addresses or street signs anymore. I may end up in Alaska. Just home there are plenty of bookstores there.

I'm with your husband, Nancy, I love Disney World. It's definitely a psychological thing; when I was a kid, my family vacations were always in Florida and when Disney opened, we were there. My happiest memories of childhood/teenhood were at Disney, and my husband and I have taken our daughter there three times already in her almost 9 years. All that piped in music just adds to the magic, and you're right, you don't have to have any imagination, they do everything for you. This is making me realize it's been almost three years since we were there last...time to start planning...

Glad your hubby enjoyed Disney, and you gained so much amusing insight to the human (dare I say American?) condition.

As for the home schooled kid, I can't say I can generalize, but I was listening to "What Do You Know?" on NPR one day, and a very righteous home schooler from Michigan was on there. Never mind the kid didn't know where the heck Saskatewan and Manitoba were. Yikes! Let's hope Mickey was able to teach the Ritalin-needy 12-year-old something.

Cate - also a former school teacher

My dad once said that he was opposed to homeschooling because the function of school was as much to teach parents some humility about their kid's abilities as it was to improve said children's abilities. This was in the aftermath of the only homeschoolers in our extended family splitting up. She bolted across the country with another man, leaving behind several daughters who had never had to function outside of the family home. Very sad. They seem OK now.

Disney - love it. Fond memories of high school trips. Last time I went was as the guest of an employee, and I'm afraid it probably spoiled me for going back again. (No more sending friend "backstage" to grab employee-discount sodas and chow!)

Oh, God, I just found a Rubbermaid container of Christmas cookies in the back of the freezer! Somebody give me the strength to throw it away unopened! They're Peanut Butter Blossoms, too---my favorite!!! HELLLLLLP!!

Don't put the cookies away, Nancy, save them in your freezer for when company drops in and you have nothing to serve.

As for Disney World, my family heads out on Sunday for a week. At least this time we're doing the land/cruise combo, so I'll have three days with some semblance of relaxation. I have already been to Disney World three times (once as a kid and twice with my own kids) which is way more than any person should experience. The problem is my in-laws are Disneyphiles and take the whole clan every other year and there's no way our kids are letting us back out. Even though I'm not a Disneyphile, I'm compulsive about vacation planning, so I'm obsessing over which rides will be closed for refurbishment while we're there and what time we should drag ourselves out of bed to avoid lines.

Of course, the main thing I should be concerned about is that in three days my pale white skin and soft from the holidays body now protected in layers of winter clothing will be on display in shorts or, even worse, a bathing suit!


Someday, I will make it to Disney World. Growing up in CA, Disneyland was always closer. And, now that I live in Southern CA, I go every year. I wish I could go more. I love all things Disney.

I'm sorry to hear so many of you have had bad experiences with home schoolers. I hope I can change your minds that all home schooled kids are horrid people who can't spel or function in the outside world.


So now I'm thinking of how I can get my kids down to DW. Is there a better time of year? People say don't go during school vacations but, hello?

Meryl, I'm as fair as you are, but I never tan. Plus I'm basically allergic to the sun. So I slather 2 layers of 45 SPF and carry an umbrella everywhere, much to my family's humiliation. The joke is that my legs look like those of a Holly Farms Chicken.

Sarah, we took our kids out of school when they were the ages of your children. Missing a couple of days made for extra homework and some panic over a re-scheduled test or two, but it worked out fine. Because--ahem---school isn't just about learning information, is it?? Being a former teacher, I always made them do some kind of project that involved reading and writing something connected to a theme of the trip, and we often enrolled them in a kids' marine program at the golf resort where my parents lived, or sent them on the backstage tours at Disney to learn something besides "always choose the line on the left because it's shorter." We wanted the girls to recognize they weren't missing school just to goof off on the less-crowded days at amusement parks. And the cultural lessons to be learned by rubbing elbows with so many and varied people had a lot more impact than three days of polishing up their multiplication tables.

Go in late February before college breaks start.

Sarah, just don't be cynical like me when you are there. The last time I was at Disney World, all I could think of was Yul Brynner in "Westworld." It sort of tempered the Imagineering experience.

Early March works, and so does the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Dorney Park, on the other hand, is good just before Memorial Day, so long as you don't mind not going to the waterworld or whatever it is called. It is much closer, cheaper, and lower key than Disney World, at least for me. It is owned by the folks who own Cedar Point, which I'm sure your husband knows. And, to top it off, Bubbles probably took Jane there, assuming that Bubbles is not a fictional character. Or Jane.

Disney World is one of the best places to go for my family. We have been there 10 times since 1997, and just can't seem to get enough. For us, it's the kind of place that lets you forget about the real world for a week or so. Yes, there are things about it that get on your nerves, like the heat and humidity, long lines (if you don't use the FASTPASS), people who just don't understand that standing on my heels is not going to get them on the ride any faster, expensive food, and, did I mention the heat and humidity? But, it allows you to go to places that you have never been and may never get to go (the different countries at World Showcase), travel through time, go on a ride through an island town being raided by pirates, and, since they are Disney pirates, they're not dangerous or smell bad! I disagree about not having to use your imagination. I know of people who have no imagination whatsoever, so the Disney magic wouldn't help them anyway. But, for people like my husband, daughter, and myself, we love the ability to let our imaginations take us on adventures that you can't find out there in the real world. We don't look at it as an amusement park, but a portal to anywhere we want to go (plus, it's cleaner and safer than the real thing sometimes).

I don't know, maybe it's just that coming from a dull, boring, and isolating place like Nebraska, we are easily impressed.

Julie, try London! Okay, it may smell in places, but there's no heat or humidity. And it's real!

Nancy, believe it or not, we are going there this summer! After all I said about Disney World, we are giving it a rest this year (don't think for a minute that we still don't sit around thinking about how we wish we were there right now), but it was time to venture out to some place different. Besides, going to England has been my dream for many, many, years and I'm finally getting to go.

As someone who once spent a week in London in August, I'm going to have to dispute the 'no heat or humidity' thing, but I'd still reccommend it. The thing about going to a real place is it's unpredictable- you may wander into a bad part of town or a wonderful little pub, you may meet interesting people who lend you books or get your money stolen by a couple of Austrian girls who are sharing your room in the hostel- but, well, it's real. Not that I dislike amusement parks, but I do remember being kind of irritated when Disneyland opened their California theme park, located in actual California, which you can see for free (most days).

Oh, and Nancy, if you're looking for somewhere to go where they speak English and London is so last year, I heartily reccommend Edinburgh. Beautiful medieval city, fantastic countryside and some surprisingly tasty food.

Send me those Peanut Butter Blossoms. I must have them. Don't thaw, just FedEx them as is.

OK, so what are the chances of getting the recipe for Peanut Butter Blossoms?

London rules and Daisy is right about Edinburgh, too. I took my daughter both places (park your big suitcase at the hotel, take a carry-on, and hop the train; it's only a 4-hour ride, and the scenery is pretty cool. If you're lucky, just north of York you can see the Kilburn white horse). The wonders of that trip were many-fold, and one of the biggies was that we did it the summer before she took her high school European History course. Her teacher jokingly said she got a little tired of hearing about it: "Oh -- the Magna Carta? Yep -- saw it. James VI? Yeah, I was in the room where he was born. Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn, everyone who was anyone? Uh huh -- Tower of London. Cool place." :)

Seriously, they both made a wonderful impression on her. Plus, when you're in Scotland? They talk like Sean Connery!! How cool is that?

I've only been to both places twice, so I'm no expert, but if anyone wants a list of my favorite things/places, drop me a line. Two more years and I'm there again . . .

I went to school in Scotland! In high school, I had a semester at University of Dundee, with lots of trip to Edinburgh. (Plus horseback riding in some really beautiful countryside.) My daughter & son-in-law went this summer during the Fringe festival (and the Tattoo!) which is an excellent time to go.

Anybody been to Prague? I hear it's really accessible, too. (Can you tell I'm looking for places where my husband would feel comfortable?) I saw a good piece on TV about the Dalmatian coast, too. (Maybe it was Matt Lauer? I forget.)

I love Disney World. Our first trip (I was a mere child) was in the early '70s when EPCOT wasn't even finished yet. Only two hotels, and everything connected via the Monorail. I still have my Mickey Mouse backscratcher from that trip, and every person in my family still has the 8x10 we took at the front gate hanging somewhere in their home.

I realize it's all commercial, and the people are just a bit too perky, and everything is a bit too clean, but hell, it's a vacation, not a documentary for National Geographic.

Peanut Blossoms must never, NEVER be discarded. Woe to she who invites the curse. Those things are like gold! Either FedEx them to Harley or bring them to the Mystery Lovers for that brainstorming session at the end of the month. I can make them disappear just like magic!

I've been to Prague. Though it was right after the fall of Communism. Kind of freaky.
Thinking of sending my darling daughter to Bosnia with a singing group this summmer. Too risky?

I don't think that Bosnia is too risky if she is with a group. Ten years ago, I would have felt differently. You trust her, after all.

I just know that if my 15-year old-called me from Kuwait, I would tell him he could find his way back himself, only not in such nice terms. I might wonder, though, where he had been the past two days--did those parents report the kid missing?

Josh - exactly.

And who the heck is going to pay for the military escort and safekeeping services needed to get the kid out? Hope someone is getting an invoice on this; the kid will proably write a crappy book that a bunch of idiots will buy.

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