3.28.2017

Happiness Is Resistance: Disneyland Version

We're still trying to visit Disneyland every year: Leo remains a huge fan, and making him happy usually means universal family happiness. And also because, given the current administration's dog-in-the-manger attempts to make everyone who is not a lock-step loyalist miserable, choosing to do things that make us happy is a form of resistance.

[image: J, a white tween girl,
sitting and reading at a table
outside in Tomorrowland.]
And we were happy at Disneyland, mostly. Our family dynamics are getting increasingly complicated: Leo and Mali are teens with their own interests and agendas, so they don't always want to spend time with each other—nor are they shy about making their sibling disinterest clear. (To be fair, this is exactly how I felt about my older brothers when I was twelve, and probably how they felt about me, too.) Next trip, ensuring that we actually are in The Happiest Place on Earth will mean bringing a companion for the youngest and/or another adult who enjoys hanging with my kids—ideally, my spouse. Though thankfully our youngest is now old enough that if she declines to go on Leo-preferred rides, I can plant her on a shady bench with a e-book and her phone, take Leo on the ride, and everybody wins.

More things that made us happy: We got to have dinner with beloved friends on our first night, complete with many not-quite-negronis for the adults, and nerdy balloon sword fights for the kids. One of the adults, a children's book author, told us an amusing story about dedicating one of her books to Mali: Her co-author brother was actually *in* Mali, giving a presentation, and all the kids in the audience were so thrilled that the book was dedicated to their country! The brother had to explain that in this case only, Mali was a little girl.

Sidebar: Now Mali is a much bigger girl. And is insisting on going by her middle name, sob (I have wanted to have a girl named Mali since I was Mali's age). So, alas but with respect: from now on, Mali will be J. in these pages.

About to go on "Nemo"
[image: Selfie of Leo and me. I have
on a Disneyland "Vaccinated" pin.]
Back to Disneyland: I proudly wore my Disneyland "Vaccinated pin," which you can sort of see in the photo to the left. Many thanks to my friend Matt for the gift! Or, I did wear it until Leo had me take it off. Park staff who noticed the pin smirked and thought it was great.

The root of Disneyland happiness is that it has become a place of soothing predictability and routine, where we can mostly relax because we know what we want to do, and how to do it. It is also nerd-friendly: A welcoming place for people who like to cite movie lines, as we did all day both days by paraphrasing Finding Dory, "I like Leo. Leo is squishy; "I like benches. Benches are squishy." It is also totally fine to sing Disney songs out loud—like the entire Moana Soundtrack. (We only saw an official Moana cast member once, which was disappointing.)

Strangely, even though we visited on a non-Summer, non-Holiday, non-Spring Break weekday, the park was still fairly crowded, at least for our peripheral space needs. And it was mostly full of little kids, teeming with tiny Elsas and Elenas of Avalor, and holy hell so many strollers parked everywhere, narrowing all walkways and often making it hard to get by.

Possibly this disproportionate use of space by loud tiny people and their gear even though the park was technically not busy according to the Disneyland Crowd Tracker was why we didn't see many people like Leo. I mean, I saw lots of kids in the lines at the disability access pass kiosks, and several adult friends wearing headphones, but no one as ... exuberant as my son.

Is it because the park is such a sensory assault zone? It can be really, really overwhelming. Leo is learning to self-regulate while visiting, usually with a sit-on-the-bench request. But I do know many families who just don't go to Disney parks, because they know that their kid would lose it amidst the noise and chaos and crowds (I have heard this about autistic kids of all support levels, mind you), or because the parents themselves share some of their kids' sensory sensitivities and, just, no. No.

Ladybugs Ride!
[image: Leo sitting in a red car in the spinning Ladybug Ride.]
There are some rides that Leo will not ride, due to sensory issues, like the too-jerky-for-his-taste loop-de-loop rollercoaster. Which is why I was surprised at how upset he was over the unavailability of an ride that throws its riders around even harder, the Tower of Terror. It has been closed, and is being converted into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. We confirmed the ToT's unavailability with at least four walk-bys and constant reassurances that Yes, it is Closed. Still. (It had better be fricking awesome when it reopens, transformed.) Thank goodness the "Sully and Mike ride" and the "Ladybugs ride" were both still open, fulfilling our dude's happiness quotient for that area of the park.

Keeping the happiness alive also meant sincere dedication to going with the flow. Leo wanted many rides on the "Nemo" submarine and Star Tours rides, and we followed suit (not exactly a hardship). And after years of encouraging Leo to try to play the shoot-em-up games during the "Toy Story" ride, I've stopped prodding him. He's really not interested. It doesn't matter if it's a fine motor skill or inclination issue: He enjoys the ride, doesn't care about participating, and that is that.

We also were able to verify the rides he doesn't like or finds dull, and which we can cross off our list for now: Indiana Jones (the line is a nightmare for him, even with the disability pass), and the Jungle Cruise. I have to admit, I agree with him. Meh to both.

Tiki Room!
[image: Photo of Leo smiling
in Disney's Tiki Room.]
And then ... Leo discovered that the Tiki Room is a real place at Disneyland, and not just a song he listens to every day. Watching the pure joy of his epiphany was very sweet to witness.

However, the Tiki Room was also an example of the park's jaw-dropping cultural disconnections. How is it that, in 2017, the shlocky camp of the Tiki Room not only still exists, but exemplifies the icky disrespect to Polynesian culture that the careful, deferential creators of Disney's Moana tried so hard to avoid? How is it that, in this era of podcasts like the Stories-from-Hawaii Offshore, race/culture-exploders like CodeSwitch, and the unapologetically arch indigenous criticism/geekery of M├ętis in Space, we still have It's a Small World's USA representatives as vaguely 19th century white cowboys and farmers, occasionally paired with smiling Native Americans? How is The Jungle Cruise still featured wide-eyed "locals" getting their butts poked by rhinos, African "natives" dancing in bushes, and "head hunters"—with wares? How on earth do Splash Mountain's critter scenes, based on the no-longer-available-for-good-reason movie Song of the South, even exist? Choosing happiness doesn't exclude discussions with the kids about cultural insensitivity, and probably never will.

Star Tours! Star Tours!
[image: Leo wearing 3D
glasses on Star Tours ride]
The park employees ("cast members") had their own part in keeping our happiness going: they were so kind, and so many of them greeted Leo's expressed enthusiasms with big sincere "hello"s. When I was visibly having a tough time, an ice cream kiosk dude yelled from across Main Street to ask if I was OK, then gave me the information I needed. We had a long and pleasant conversation with the disability pass kiosk worker, about when was best time to use the pass and on which rides (morning is the worst, mid-day/mid-afternoon best)—and then, noticing that we were ending our ability to hold it together, gave us a pass to enter the last ride Leo wanted to go on immediately, which I guess they have discretion to do under urgent circumstances such as people really needing to leave the park early but also were unable to leave the park until they go on a certain ride. (The most delightful cast member by far, however, was the guy messing with the park's stringent dress/grooming code by wearing a wig with Princess Leia buns.)

And personally, I love staying at the on-site hotel, and being able to retreat as needed—despite the guilt associated with such indulgence. I adored the ease of being able to walk back into the hotel directly from California Adventure, when the kids needed a break. I appreciated getting that early "Magic Hour" of extra-low attendance park access. And I was grateful for the super-chill, cozy, kid-friendly bar/restaurant (with legitimate, and reasonably-priced, negronis) in the lobby. For some reason the hotel rooms no longer come with eponymous stationery or robe, which is too bad as I like to write letters and J. likes to lounge in the robes, but maybe that's just policy now.

It was a happy time, this latest trip to Disneyland. I learned a lot about how to make it even happier, next time.
Our Three Mouseketeers
[image: Selfie of happy Leo, me, and goofy J.]

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