Something about the music video for the Cold Play Paradise touched my heart at once. The elephant woman escapes her personal dungeon, where no one understands her, and searches for something she knows not what. She rides her bicycle here and there, up streets and down, right out of town. Finally, she finds her tribe, her community, and they all make beautiful music together.
And here I was, entering Disneyland. Going along with the family plan, tagging on the heels of my husband, our children, and my husband’s parents. And feeling like an alien. Trying to stay at the back of the pack, wanting to scribble in my notebook (though I had purposely not brought it) my groans and queries, not wanting to seem morose or melancholy, but still unable to put on a Disney face. Hoping no one would ask, “What do you think?” or “Are you having fun?” I was just there to provide a symbol of unity in the memories of my family of this special trip.
I don’t think anyone in my family would feel betrayed by my saying that I had no real desire to go to Disneyland, no sense of anticipation to make that all-American pilgrimage. I was just a family thing, and it seemed the right window of opportunity, before the oldest went off to college and the youngest would still have fun. It had to be done, my husband (and the sources he consulted) believed this–it was not debatable, not even possible to substitute a trip to a major American natural landmark such as the Grand Canyon.
“You’ll have fun,” others assured me, “You’ll see. It’s such a happy place.” When I admitted to my mother-in-law that I wasn’t really into Disneyland myself, she looked puzzled. I decided not to articulate; she already knows I have some different views. I was quietly cynical. And with some experience to my name–I’d visited Disney World in college, Canadians on spring break, goofy and sarcastic and feeling like outsiders there to pshaw it all and have fun at the same time. It struck me as a fake, pasty world, and not just because of the primitive special effects. On the list of important American cultural landmarks, I felt it should be low priority.
The light was exquisite the first day in the park–clear, bright air, late afternoon sun angling between a scattering of cumulus, enhancing every curve and angle of landscape and architecture. But I let my camera hang unused across my shoulder. Why create further removal from the truth? There were already enough Disney photos in the world. Still, I was drawn to the sight of new types of trees I had not seen, the sparrows pouncing on crumbs and chirping from the signposts, and even a small plot of soil containing highly sculpted rosemary, Swiss chard, peppers and thyme in neat rows. And the people–couples, families, buddies, all colors, shapes, sizes. I looked for signs of their thoughts. There was a universal, bland approval of all, it seemed to me, and I found no sign of fellowship there. Was it a matter of the emperor having no clothes? Something no one wanted to mention? I paid two hundred dollars for this? I don’t need it, and neither do my children.
My older children understood. One daughter fell back as we walked and told me she knew this wasn’t my thing and felt sorry for me, but could see that I was making the best (or a mediocrity) of it so they could enjoy their day. My husband carried the torch of enthusiasm for them (though privately admitting to me that he was somewhat disillusioned when faced with the Disney reality as compared to his childhood memories).
A few evenings later in the hotel I had a good chat with my oldest son. He asked me what I thought of the place, the question I’d been hoping to avoid answering, for now. He was not surprised when I laid it out: It’s a fake world. It’s full of stereotypes; it’s expensive, materialistic, wasteful, shallow and focused on Disney profit. He said he had the same thoughts, except he could step back and enjoy it anyway, as an experience, just that, not judging or analyzing just then. I appreciated his understanding and sympathy. Glad for his lack of negativity. I said I didn’t want to explain to the family why I didn’t enjoy Disneyland and rain on other people’s parade, but that I did like to feel understood. And he agreed that we should do more of the kind of family trip that went along with our shared values: hikes, gardening, camping, and so on. Yes, I thought, that would be closer to Paradise.