We were headed to California anyway: there was this conference in San Francisco. And it happened a lot like it does in the commercials: There was one night where one of us said “come look at this,” and the other one said “that’s not too bad…we can do that” and then there was a lot of sorting through websites and looking at plans and discounts and things like that. And the long and the short of it was: we were going to Disneyland with nearly-five-year-old Cups and one-year-old Cap’n. In mid-November. Which, editorially, is quite possibly the best time to go. Ever.
It has been recommended to me that when one is traveling with children to make sure there is “cushion” time on both ends of the flight – time for the little ones to adjust and recuperate. It is probably not recommended to board a plane at 6 AM EST, get off the plane at 9:30 AM Disneyland time, and be in the park for a full day one hour later. For the record, Cap’n slept on the plane and both kids were model citizens.
We arrived at our hotel at about 10 AM or so Disneyland time. Cups, whose planned highlight of the California trip was a visit to see Pierre the Penguin at the California Academy of Sciences, had been telling everyone along the way all about the story of Pierre (look it up, it’s pretty awesome). So when we got out of the taxi and unloaded our stuff, I turned to her and asked her “Do you want to go to Disneyland?”
We depend on Amazon Prime and Netflix for our TV entertainment, and it was at that moment that it dawned on me that she might not know about the commercials. “Do you know what Disneyland is?" I asked her, curiously. She shook her head.
“Nope.” Then she thought about it for a few minutes. “Is that,” she asked, “where all the Disney people live?” I assured her it was, and then the magic happened. Her eyes got big and the wheels started turning, and minutes later she was counting down until we got into Disneyland itself.
Many many things have been said about Disneyland and the man behind the empire. Many many things have been said about the characters – particularly the female characters – and I agree with a lot of them. I would rather my child not model her life after Aurora or Ariel or Snow White or Cinderella; I would rather she be her own person: and opinionate and willful and trying as she can be, she definitely is her own personality. But I am coming to grips with her desire for sparkly shoes and fluffy dresses; her insistence that pink is the “best color ever”; she insists that she can “run faster” in a skirt than jeans, wore the toes out of her black Mary Janes in the park, and does not discriminate between tulle and denim as far as climbing gear goes.
We went to see the princesses, but only after we rode Space Mountain, and the rocket ride, and shot up some aliens with Buzz Lightyear. We stood in line – the longest lines, I will note, in all three days at the park were for the princesses, the fairies, and Rapunzel – in front of a faux-medieval wall with a bunch of little girls (I didn’t see any brothers, besides Cap’n, and precious few dads) dressed up in their sparkly best with their pink sparkly autograph books. Some of them had princess dresses on. Some of them had princess wigs, most of which were rather hilariously askew and looked as if they were on at least their second day of wear.
Cups was offered a selection of shirts that morning and chose her Self-Rescuing Princess one, which I thought particularly apropos. It gathered comment from several mothers of girls in wigs and tulle skirts, and at least one “where did you get that awesome shirt?”, so I am judging it went over well. We made friends with everyone in line near us (kids will do that) while waiting, and then it was our turn to be escorted around a turn into the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire.
I feel for the women who play princesses in the Faire. They have nothing to do but stand and mimic the mannerisms of animated women while talking to excited little girls all day long. I also admire them: when Cap’n didn’t want to give up his autograph book (ours were plain black sketchbooks decorated with the kids’ names) because he had found out how much fun it was to chew on, nobody lost their cool. There were still smiles and cheerful voices the whole time, and the photographers had their cameras going to catch the magic while we herded the kids.
And there was magic: all three princesses (Ariel, Snow White, and Cinderella) had to hear about how, after Disneyland, we were going to go to the California Academy of Sciences to meet Pierre. At the fairy grotto, Tinkerbelle asked what sort of things Cups rescued herself from, and got a little shrug. “I don’t know. Stuff.”
We made it the entire day, with a break for early dinner and Cap’n passing out on the table, and were back for accidental character breakfasts in the morning. We did go to the Jedi Academy, but Cups refused to volunteer for training (“I don’t want to be a Jedi”), although she was interested in watching. There may or may not have been an argument between Cups and Mommy, who wanted her to get her moment of fame, but in the end the stronger will prevailed and we all sat and watched instead.
Somewhere in there, we stopped by the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to do a little shopping, and discovered the source of the tulle and the princess wigs: it appears that you can pay to have your little girl (ages 3-12) primped and powdered and, depending on the package (they start at $50 and end upwards of $200), begemmed, bewigged, bemanicured, and begowned to look just precisely like her favorite Disney Princess, complete with photographic documentation of the process. Reservations are recommended. Oh, and on the very bottom of the brochure in tiny print it mentions they do have knight makeovers too. We left the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique with a solid-feeling shortsword and shield combo, as well as a Mickey Mouse-themed gem bracelet, all hand-selected by Cups.
I spent the rest of the time feeling faintly creeped out whenever I saw one of these little girls in the $200 fantasy outfits, and wondering privately if anyone ever actually got a knight makeover. Did that include hairstyling, shimmering makeup, body jewels, a manicure and optional costume? (Answer: according to the WDW page the Knight package includes hairstyling and a sword and shield for $14.95 plus tax: it is surprisingly inexpensive to achieve knighthood). And what does it say about my ability to suspend disbelief that I couldn’t just roll it into the whole magical experience?
Disneyland itself is a suspension of disbelief: the place is scrupulously clean, stunningly themed, and filled with cast members who have been solidly trained in the art of being pleasant and happy no matter what. If you stay at the resort hotels (we didn’t), then there’s no spending money in the park – just use your room key. We skipped the ATM surcharges and bought Disney Dollars with our debit card to keep within budget, but it felt like playing with fantasy money. The whole thing is set up from the moment you walk in to leave an impression that you’ve entered another world. Thursday morning on our Magic Morning early passes we were escorted in stage by stage, revealing the park one postcard view at a time, until it opened out and there was room to avoid a potential bottleneck. It is all choreographed and all thought out in advance. There is magic promised, and magic delivered: changeouts of characters are handled with grace (“I’m sorry, Alice and I have to have tea! With the Queen!”), and the attention to detail is everywhere. Even the greetings my children received were part of the show: Cups was almost universally greeted as “Princess”, while Cap’n was “Prince”, or “M’lord”. But I couldn’t turn my brain off: we met only one prince (Rapunzel was accompanied by Flynn Rider) despite a host of princesses and fairy godmothers. I saw little girls in princess dresses everywhere. And the rides…
Angel points out that there are all sorts of movie-themed adventure rides and storybook rides – Dumbo, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Mr. Toad, Buzz Lightyear, et cetera – and yet the only princess-themed ride is Snow White’s Scary Adventures (and, if you stretch, Alice in Wonderland, which we did not ride). Everything else that has to do with princesses involves standing in line to meet them and get their autographs (a passive activity) or walking through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle looking at pictures (Cups: “Is that the whole castle?”) . It’s a little thing, but it seems to support back to the idea that there are things for kids to do and then there are things for girls to do. (One counter-example: in Toontown, the kids’ coaster is Gadget’s Go Coaster, named after a female supporting character).
I have to admit that I was gratified when Cups elected to close her trip to Disneyland with the Matterhorn, Buzz Lightyear, and back-to-back trips through Space Mountain. It’s exhilarating to hear my daughter cheering for another ride on one of my favorite roller coasters ever. It’s also a learning experience for me – a tomboy at heart, most comfortable in jeans and work boots and baggy shirts – to let her pick out her own mouse ears (pink princess crown) and her own trading pins (Ariel and Tinkerbelle). It’s hard to remember sometimes that although I may want her to be tough and independent, there’s no reason she can’t do that in tulle.