There’s an old video my parents recorded in the backyard of our Southern California home that I’ve watched so many times it’s seared in my memory. I am four and wearing a sailor suit dress and braids. My brother, a new two year old, is wearing gingham short overalls. We are rocking on his birthday gift—a Fisher Price plastic seesaw—underneath the big climbing tree of my childhood home. My Mickey hat, the one with the name embroidered on the back, is still strapped around my pudgy face as Dad, behind the camera, asks questions about our day at Disneyland. All these years later I realize my mother’s voice is not part of the background noise. She is nine months pregnant with my sister and has taken her two young children to an amusement park for the day. And now, I am certain, she is inside making a birthday dinner when she really deserved to take a nap.
It is the summer of 2003 and I am 21 years old. I convince my then-boyfriend to take me to Disneyland for the day. Because we’re working full-time summer jobs to save for our senior year, we have to visit on a Saturday. It just happens to be very (VERY) hot and very (VERY) crowded so we spend the day holding sweaty hands in monstrous lines. The cooling misters are shooting full blast, and children are crying on every park bench, and it all costs so much money. We kiss and flirt and ride the big Ferris Wheel. It’s fun, but not that fun. We admit it’s not the Disneyland we remember as kids.
“I think we’ve gotten too old,” I say, mostly meaning it.
“I’d be happy to never go back,” he says, with certainty in his voice.
Ten years later I casually, tentatively, bring up Disneyland. I’m not sure what prompts the idea, other than the fact that when you have babies you want nothing more than to give them all the good things of your own childhood. Plus it’s Christmas time, and everyone knows that Disneyland in December is extra special. Our firstborn is now 2.5—the perfect age, really, where she can enjoy a lot of the rides but still gets in for free. We analyze the situation: It will be one of the busiest days of the year to visit, I will be wearing her five-month-old brother in an Ergo carrier, and we don’t even like Disneyland all that much.
But the image of a little girl wearing Mickey Mouse ears won’t leave my mind.
So we buy tickets.
Instead of riding Space Mountain or India Jones, I spend a lot of the day nursing in the mother’s room on Main Street. The park is so packed we can barely get our stroller to move and the restaurants offer no seating during the lunch hour. We park our cranky two year old in the shade to wait for the parade; an activity I’ve usually shunned in favor of rides, rides and more rides. But then the music starts, and the characters make their debut, and our toddler’s eyes light up in anticipation. Anna is wearing her new set of Mouse ears and a Minnie Mouse t-shirt, eagerly craning her neck for the arrival of each new float. I catch her face when the real Minnie Mouse debuts. She points at the Minnie on her shirt. She points at the Minnie on the float. She waves, mesmerized. To her, the Mouse is living, breathing and real.
It is all, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, magical.
I’d like to say that we’ve returned to the park many times after that trip but it was another few years before we went back. We live a few hours north of Disneyland, just far enough that a trip takes planning, and the traditional side of me thinks that such expensive tickets should be limited to special occasions.
I was explaining this all to a friend recently—my rediscovered enchantment for all things Disney—and my reservations in visiting too frequently.
“You know, they only really believe in the magic for a few short years,” she said. “Trust me. I’ve seen it. You have a year or two left, tops, until she knows all the characters aren’t real. If I were you, I’d try to go again while she’s still little.”
Normally, I hate these sorts of warnings. I try to be the type of mom who enjoys the present moment without fear of the future. The “enjoy this time, dear” sentiment can imply there isn’t much to look forward to in the next stages of parenting, and I won’t buy it, especially when there are a lot of things that happen on any given day that I’d prefer to do less of—things like wiping goopy snot off the baby’s upper lip before he swallows it with his rice cereal, or mopping the floor with a wet wash cloth every time he finishes eating, or listening to our kindergartener take a full minute to sound out the phrase Hop on Pop.
We took Anna back to Disneyland this year, as an almost six year old. I planned the day around a specific princess performance, but when the hour came near she admitted she’d rather stick to the rides. Her face glowed with excitement all day as she begged for ice cream and a bubble wand, and nothing brought her more joy than screaming on the roller coasters with me, but the wonder in her face that I saw as a two-year old wasn’t the same anymore. This is a lovely, long awaited chapter of mothering her—a chapter where we get to start enjoying some of the same activities—but I’ll admit that I’m sad how quickly her little years are flying by. There were so few years before she realized the Mouse is just a small adult in a very elaborate costume.
And I guess this is motherhood: finding myself in a constant state of mourning the passing of time, and trying to rewind the past, while wholeheartedly embracing the next stage. A few years ago, I got to believe in Minnie Mouse again, and now, I’m riding roller coasters.
I think about my friend’s warning—that we only believe in the magic for so long—and I realize that she’s both right and wrong.
Because all these years later, I still believe in the magic. Now it just looks a little different.