Friday, August 29, 2014

Disney World: Around the World in EPCOT

            Twenty-nine years ago, my parents took me to EPCOT for the first time and I fell in love with the concept of world travel. Entering the world pavilions, my parents bought me a Disney passport and the future course of my life snapped into place. Getting the passport stamped, as we walked from one country to another, was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. At ten, I had never traveled internationally, so EPCOT was my first taste of the exotic – worlds and cultures different than my own.  Though the pavilions themselves were small, they connected me to an international community I barely knew existed. I remember watching the movie about China and being enthralled – wanting someday to see the splendor revealed on the screen. We entered Italy and Germany, the countries of my ancestors and as my parents bought me flags from each of those countries, I decided then and there that some day I’d have to visit my ancestral lands for real. The buildings in Japan were so different than any in my own country that I knew someday I’d have to go and see if all of Japan looked the same as Disney Japan.  At night, exhausted, as we headed back to our hotel, I remember looking at my passport cluttered with stamps and thinking, someday I’m going to have a real passport and when I do, that too will be cluttered with stamps of all the countries I’m going to see. A dream, perhaps – the farcical scheme of a mere child. But dreams really do come true, if you believe in them and pursue them relentlessly. 

            When I graduated college, I applied for my first real passport, headed off to Korea for a year to teach English and at the end of just sixteen months I had stamps from seven countries in my passport.  But I didn’t stop there. True to my childhood dream, I traveled so much on that first passport that I eventually had to have pages added to it. At thirty-nine, I knew the world and stepping into the world pavilion section of EPCOT, I was struck by how small it seemed. I remembered the countries being bigger, but time is often guilty of altering one’s memories.  Glancing down at the EPCOT map in my hands, I counted the countries – an inventory of which ones Disney included. As I tallied them up, I realized that I kept good on the promise my ten-year-old self had made. Of the eleven countries in EPCOT, I had traveled to ten of them – some for as little as a few days, others for a long as a month. Norway, alone remains unvisited, a reminder that I’m not yet done, that though I haven’t been able to travel in the last five years the world still beckons, imploring me to venture beyond the boarders of my home, seeking adventures elsewhere - everywhere. 

            EPCOT had made such a lasting impact on my life, that when my parents decided to take my son to Disney this summer, I couldn’t wait to walk through the pavilions with him. Even though he is only four, I had hoped that all the international folktales I have read to him would have laid a foundation for an interest in exploring the world on a miniature stage, but as usual, my mother was right.  Four is just too young.  Where I had found inspiration, my son encountered boredom.

As soon as we arrived, my parents bought my son a Disney passport.  Though they are different now, including stickers as well as stamps, I was as excited seeing him with his as I had been with my own oh so long ago.  Since my son loves stickers, we were off to an impressively strong start.  Enthusiastically, he affixed the stickers for Mexico, our first stop.  Mexico – the ride - made an awesome impression on my son.  He loves Donald Duck, and the video that played throughout the duration of the ride held his interest, kept him laughing and left him demanding another trip.  We rode the ride a second time, and then headed off to Norway where his excitement rapidly began to dwindle.  There the ride frightened him.  Next came China, and within the first three minutes of the movie he demanded to leave.  A virtual trip through the country held no interest for him.  After China, we breezed through the rest of the countries, stopping only long enough to snap a few photos and stamp the passport.  For my son, EPCOT was not much more than a place to walk through, a place to be endured.  At least until it was time to leave.  A storm had passed over while we were eating dinner, but it didn’t last very long.  When we stepped back outside, the ground was soaked but lingering in the sky was a rainbow.  For months my son had been saying he wanted to see a real rainbow and now, thanks to the magic of Disney (or Mother Nature, if you prefer) he finally did. 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Disney World: Boys with Boys

Having two moms but no dad, my son has developed an especially close relationship with my dad – his grandfather.  At two-years-old, whenever I or anyone else read a book to him that had a father in it, he’d insist on calling the character Ba’bap – his way of relating to a world that didn’t exactly mirror his own.  Last year in pre-school, one of his classmates asked him if his Daddy was at work.  Without a moment’s delay, my son responded, “I have a Granddaddy and he lives in New York.” 

            When my son finally gave up diapers and started using public restrooms, he was ecstatic when his grandfather was around because it meant he could use the men’s room – the room in which he belonged – instead of the women’s room.  It was over the use of the bathroom, that a special sort of gender bonding began between grandfather and grandson. 

Recently, on our way to Disney World, while we were at the airport waiting for our flight to Orlando, my son needed to go to the bathroom.  When I offered to take him, he curtly cut me off, pointing to his grandfather as he spoke, “No, Grandpa!  Boys with boys.”  He smiled in his dismissal of me but I just chuckled, thinking to myself, “Well, that will make life easier in Disney.  The lines in the men’s rooms are always shorter than in the women’s rooms.”

During our first day which we spent in the Animal Kingdom, the trend continued.  My son would have to pee, and before I could speak, he’d raise a finger, aim it at Grandpa, and declare, “Boys with boys.”  By the second day, now in the Magic Kingdom, the mantra expanded.  No longer applying simply to bathroom runs, it carried over to who my son wished to sit with on the rides.  Getting ready to board the Peter Pan ride, I asked my son, “Who would you like to sit with?”  He looked at Grandpa, did a little dance, wiggling his hips side to side, as he pointed – with both pointer fingers - to both his Grandfather and himself, “Boys with boys.”  Then redirecting his fingers, he jabbed them at me and his grandmother, adding, “Girls with girls.” 

For the duration of the trip he employed his little phrase, “Boys with boys; girls with girls” repeatedly.  And my dad, basking in this very special role that his grandson had assigned, found himself doing things he swore for years he’d never do.  Rollercoasters have never been my dad’s favorite ride.  In fact, he generally opts not to go on them.  But Disney is Disney and, for that reason alone, certain life rules must be broken at least on occasion.  And so, my dad, like the rest of us, got on line to ride the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train.  As fate would have it, my son got a seat at the very front – the best seat on any rollercoaster.  Again I asked him, hoping he’d choose me, “Who would you like to sit with?” But alas, with an answer I expected, he left me feeling slightly disappointed, “Boys with boys.”  But Dad in the front row of a rollercoaster? Never! However, to say no would have been to disappoint his grandson, and so he did what no one ever thought he’d willingly do.  He happily took a seat in the front, and with his arm around his grandson for the duration of the ride, he enjoyed every moment of it.

For the entire week, Grandpa was my son’s main man.  “Boys with boys,” ruled the entire trip, but as in life, there are always exceptions, and fear proved to be the exception here.  Whenever we descended into darkness, or my son thought a ride might be scary, he dove into my arms, buried his head in my lap and wanted to ride with me.  As we were getting ready to go on the Haunted Mansion Ride, my mother asked him, “Why do you want to ride with Mama?” With his head pressed against my shoulder, he looked up at her and answered, “Because Mama always protects me.”  Yes, we all knew Grandpa would protect him too. We all would protect him. But it made me happy to know that sometimes, “Boys with girls,” can be just as good as “Boys with boys.”


Monday, August 25, 2014

Disney: The Painful Parting

The end of vacation has always plunged me into sadness; sorrow like a heavy woolen veil shrouds my entire being, emptiness fills my soul.  Leaving has never been easy, returning to everyday life a challenge.  I wonder, always, if it was somehow my fault that time passed swiftly, that the hours slipped through our fingers so rapidly.  What, I question, could I have done differently to hold onto the minutes, the moments so saturated with fun and excitement.  Sometimes it seems the harder I try to hold on to an experience, pin it down in time, the more fragile it becomes, crumbling in my grasp until it is ash and I watch as the wind carries it away.  Perhaps that is why I feel compelled to write, a deliberate act of remembering. Putting pen to paper conjures up the past, images I long to hold, moments too precious to let go are written down to be revisited.  Memory alone is sketchy, unreliable and far too intangible.  Words, however, engraved on paper, are concrete, substantial, something to which you can anchor yourself when feeling sorrowful or lost. I write so that the past is preserved; happiness restored.   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Disney World: The Walking Stuffed Animals

            Four is a special age, the perfect age, it seems, to visit Walt Disney World. No doubt people of all ages have fallen in love with Disney.  It doesn’t matter how old you are when you first go, you are certain to experience the splendor, the magic that is Disney. But at four, one is still defined by their innocence.  At four, one believes in magic, one believes that cartoons are real and that the characters within those cartoons really exist.  The line between fact and fantasy is blurred, practically non-existent.  Just as easily as a four-year-old believes in Santa, he can believe that Mickey Mouse is real person, that Goofy can be his friend and that Doc McStuffins wants nothing more than to make his acquaintance.  Yes, four is the ideal age and thanks to my son’s grandparents he got to experience the magic this summer.

            It was my mother who initially understood, much more than I, the importance of my son meeting the Disney characters.  I was older – ten – when I first went to Disney, and by then, already well aware that the characters were nothing more than regular people in sweaty suits, some of the magic was lost.  Yes, I enjoyed meeting the occasional character as we walked around, but my trip was not defined by them.  There were other aspects of Disney World that made it special, memorial and a place to which I’d long to return.  I loved the history, the nostalgia of Frontierland. I enjoyed feeling as though I had stepped back in time and for an afternoon could pretend that I did not live in the present.  I also enjoyed Adventureland where my imagination came alive and I could, for a few hours, pretend that I was out and about in the great world living one great adventure after another.  I loved the rides.  Remembering my own first visit, I forgot to factor in the age difference, the fact that my son loves cartoons, and most importantly, the fact that four-year-old doesn’t need to conquer an entire theme park to find happiness.

            Our first day in the Magic Kingdom my parents made reservations for breakfast in the Crystal Palace.  There my son would get to eat with the characters of Winnie-the-Pooh.  He had never been a huge fan of Winnie-the-Pooh, but it didn’t matter.  The moment he walked into the restaurant and saw Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger, his eyes opened wide and a smile stretched broadly across his face, a face glowing with excitement and anticipation.  While we ate, one by one the characters came to our table.  With each visit, my son’s smile grew wider.  He greeted each character with a high five and could not wait to have his picture taken.  A little boy who gets frustrated and annoyed with me for taking too many pictures, could not pose enough with the characters.  And in each picture, his smile remained genuine, never flagging, even as the rest of us took turns jumping into the frame and handing off cameras to take more pictures.

            In the park, he waited on line to see other friends – Donald, Goofy, Daisy and Minnie – and the time on line didn’t upset him.  I think he’d have waited an eternity if necessary, he was that excited to meet every one.  When it was his turn to meet Goofy, his excitement bubbled over because I was wearing a Goofy shirt and he couldn’t wait to point that out to Goofy.  Throughout Disney, every time he came to a souvenir penny machine he asked my Dad for two quarters and a penny. With his pockets jingling with souvenir pennies, he approached Daisy and Minnie. Reaching into his pocket, holding out his hand, he gleefully showed off his prizes.  The characters were always gracious, acting excited to see what he had to show.  And with yet another radient smile, my son would turn to the camera.

            In Epcot, my parents took us to the Garden Grill where my son had the pleasure of meeting Chip and Dale, Pluto and Mickey.  Grandpa loves the chipmunks, so when they came to say hello, he was just as eager and excited to have his picture taken as my son was.  Together the boys – grandpa and grandson – smiled for the cameras.  When the characters first approach the table, they often do so with their arms extended.  Watching other tables, I noticed that children often run into their arms, greeting them with hugs.  Not my son.  Instead, sighting their arms, he would turn his back into their embrace, and while their arms hugged his shoulders, he would press his body into theirs.  In this pose he would smile, look at me, and be happy that I had a camera to record the moment. What I love best about his little encounters with the characters is that he called them “walking stuffed animals,” which I thought a cute and clever way of referring to them.

            Our last character meal was at Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios.  Eating breakfast with Sophia I, Jake, Handy Manny and Doc McStuffins was like eating breakfast in heaven.  My son’s favorite cartoons had come to life just for him and he could not have been more pleased. 

            As much as my son loved the characters, he wanted no part of them if they looked like regular people.  In Epcot, he and his grandmother waited to meet Mulan, but Mulan – to him- was just a woman wearing traditional Chinese clothes.  He did not or could not, identify her with the movie – a movie he likes. Instead of being excited, he acted shy, covering his face with his hands and demanding that I stay with him for the picture.  And when he saw Elsa and Ana in the Mainstreet parade, he expressed not a glimmer of enthusiasm.  They didn’t look right.  Yes, their dresses were identical to the ones in the movie he adores, but their faces were different, wrong, and therefore, nothing too exhilarating.  

            On our final day in Disney, as we were walking through Frontierland, my son saw Chip and Dale.  Even though he had already met them, he wanted to see them again and the thought of standing in the blazing hot sun did not deter him. With sweat forming on his brow and dampening his hair, he and his grandfather once again stood smiling for the cameras.          

After dinner that last night, before heading back to the hotel, we made one last character stop to see Mickey in his studio on Mainstreet.  Again, the line did not bother my son, he waited patiently, knowing the reward would far outweigh the tediousness of standing. When we were finally invited into Mickey’s dressing room, and my son heard Mickey speak, his entire face lit up as he turned to his grandmother, “Mickey talks.”  Yes, just when you thought the novelty had to be wearing off, Mickey talked and the experience was fresh, new and exciting once again.  

When I asked my son what he liked most about Disney, he responded with a sparkle in his eyes, “The walking stuffed animals.”

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Day at the Up-Down Beach

            My son calls the ocean the up-down beach. He does this to distinguish it from the bay which he affectionately refers to as Nonna and Ba’bap’s beach.  Up-downs are the waves.  My son dubbed them this a couple of years ago when we were at the bay on a windy day.  The wind kicked up the water forming tiny swells, which in the eyes of a two year old where big and fun, an exciting variation from the placid waters he was accustomed to.  Holding him tightly so that he felt secure, Nonna rose and fell following the rhythm of the water.  As she stood tall to lift my son over the wave she said, “Up,” and as the wave gently dropped them she exclaimed, “Down.”  This she repeated multiple times, so that the words became ingrained in my son’s head.  The first time we took him to the ocean after he started talking, he called the waves, “up-downs,” and the words stuck.  Even now, though he knows the proper term is “wave,” he refuses to use it.  And so now, in our vocabulary, the ocean is no longer the ocean; it is the up-down beach.

            This summer, despite being busy and spending much time at Nonna and Ba’bap’s beach, my son had been asking to go to the up-down beach.  We refuse to go on the weekends.  The traffic on the parkway is horrific, and none of us would patiently sit through it, moving at a snail’s pace or slower.  And the parking, who wants to spend an hour or more driving around in search of a place to park?  To avoid the chaos, we go during the week.  However, this summer my spouse is working mornings and the early part of the afternoons which means an early start is not possible.  But a late start is better than no start at all.  So while my spouse was at work on Wednesday, I packed dinner, towels, buckets and anything else we might need at the beach.  We arrived just after three, the most pleasant time to be at the beach.  The sun has passed its zenith and so it isn’t as hot and the crowds have begun to disperse as people head home or back to their hotel to have dinner.  A sense of peace descends upon the beach and I find myself able to enjoy it much more.

            Despite his eagerness to get to the up-down beach, my son adamantly swore that he was not going to go into the water.  Last year, I was holding him out beyond where the waves break and one wave was too high.  I knew no matter how hard I jumped, I’d never make it over and so I told my son to hold his breath and we went under.  I held him tightly the entire time we were under.  There was no reason for him to be afraid; I’d never let him drown.  But at the time he hated getting his face wet and the experience completely spooked him.  And so this year, when we arrived, he refused to even get his toes wet.  Instead, he brought his buckets and shovels down to the high tide line to play in the wet sand.  

            He played for only a short time before the lure of the water conquered his resolve to stay dry.  Inching down to the water’s edge he waited for a wave to crash, and when it did and the water rushed forward, my son sprinted away from it. Again and again, he followed the water as it receded, stopping just before his toes would make contact.  And when another wave crashed, he turned, his little legs pumping fast as he ran towards the shore.  With each retreat he grew bolder, until his bravado exploded into a hail of taunting words. “You can’t get me,” he goaded the sea, waving his arms and daring it to do just that.  And it did.  A wave crashed, and as the water rushed forward it entangled itself in my son’s legs.  He was now wet from the waist down, but he didn’t seem to care, if anything, he was even more excited, laughing as the water nearly tripped him.  And when he finally pulled himself free, a smile clinging to his face, igniting his eyes, he turned around, faced the water and resumed his taunting.  This time when wave won, crashing and splashing on his face, he exclaimed, “This is the awesomest day ever!”

            After awhile, my spouse picked him up and carried him into the water, nearly to the point where the waves were breaking.  Dipping him into the foamy water, he laughed and as the water washed over him.  I watched, enjoying laughter, until my spouse handed him to me, declaring it was my turn.  I asked him if he wanted to go out further, and he said, “Yes, but I don’t want to go under water.”  And since that was something I could not guarantee, we stayed where we were.  As the waves approached I lifted him as high as I could, and once the waves broke I dropped him, still holding his torso, careful not to let his head go under.  When I plucked him out of the swirling water, he clung to me, his arms wrapped tightly around my neck and his legs locked around my waist.  “Mama,” he declared as I lifted him again, his body silhouetted against the sun, “This is the best day of my life.”