After the year we’ve all had, and after the long-awaited vaccine, I looked for a holiday spot to help my family (well, mostly me) emerge from the collective coma the world has just experienced. To do this, we needed a dose of magic. We went to Disney World.
To me, Disney has strangely embodied what many of us went through in the past year. On March 12, 2020, a day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the multibillion-dollar company said it planned to close its doors at all its theme parks around the world, from Shanghai to Paris to Orlando. The magic was switched off that weekend like a voltage converter, with a rising death toll and shuttered workspaces and schools across the country, matched by previously unimaginable lines for toilet paper. Mickey and Minnie were told to shelter in place; at least the furloughed cast members playing them were.
Yet Disney was also one of the first American businesses to reopen, in July 2020, under straitened pandemic conditions, at a few of its theme park locations. Sure, this meant fewer rides, a lot more hand sanitizer, and branded face masks. But it was also an experiment in cautious, wary social gathering in America — in precisely the one place where one’s inner child is meant to run wild.
And so, earlier this month, my family took a trip to Florida. We packed pretty much the same things we did pre-pandemic, except with an added weeklong supply of masks and sanitizer. My sons, both under 10 and luckily still young enough to be dragged around to places by their parents, were excited, but I felt the need to prepare them for a very different Disney experience since the last time they visited in 2019.
The first thing you notice is that getting into the parks is not as simple as getting tickets. After or prior to purchasing them, you need to feverishly refresh the Disney website to find a reservation for a given day. This comes with fast and furiously repeating COVID-19 disclaimers.
The second thing you notice is that Disney has stopped its Fast Pass program, which previously offered guests a way to skip the long ride lines. Now there is one “Slow Pass for All” — a long line for every ride. Why? No one seems to know. Cast members, now happily (I think) liberated from lockdown, have no answer.
The third thing you notice is how the food and beverage service has changed — and not for the better. This had once been Disney’s main attraction for adults, a place to sit down and enjoy a space of quiet and comfort as your kids’ mouths are too full to whine or scream. Some places in the Magic Kingdom now only accept reservations, not walk-ins. You could wait three hours or more for a slice of reheated pizza. The only universally and instantly available thing to eat is ice cream, which, hey, you deserve for breakfast, lunch, and dinner after the year you’ve had.
Having done enough homework to realize this trip was going to be more Kafka than Goofy, I made no promises to my children that they’d get to do Splash Mountain, or the Haunted Mansion, or Kilimanjaro Safaris, or the Na’vi River Journey in the World of Avatar, or Frozen Ever After with Elsa, Anna, and Olaf. Instead, I told them to expect the unexpected. And since they weren’t vaccinated, they had to wear masks indoors at all times and outdoors in crowded areas. (This week, Disney removed the mask mandate for vaccinated visitors, in time for temperatures in the high 90s). Our Memory Maker photos are filled with covered faces that could be anybody’s.
It didn’t matter, though, because the kids didn’t care.
They didn’t complain about masks (neither did other children), and they didn’t complain that they didn’t get to see Mickey at his mouse house. Kids everywhere laughed, joked, and cried over melted ice cream. They had fun. We all did.
We slowly slipped back to life, worrying less about being around so many people for the first time in over a year. Eventually, the constant reminders to socially distance and kill whatever invisible microbes had invaded your palms became less and less obtrusive. Slowly, the magic returned.
So, too, did my kids’ childhood. This was the first time since 2020 that my kids went entire days without screen time. And they didn’t even notice it. And the best part? (Well, OK, the second-best part after my kids’ restored childhood.) My Mommy Guilt for relying on technology to keep them preoccupied or entertained slowly drifted away, just like the balloon that slipped from the hand of my sobbing son, who paused in awe at the spectacle of its floating up in the sky. I couldn’t have been happier.
*Neither Newlines nor Disney paid for the author’s visit to Disney.