May 17, 2006

I Was a Middle-Age Disney-Rage Dad

How did it happen? For years I would shake my head at the parents who would drag their unwilling children around DisneyWorld and cram "Family Fun" down their throats. Didn't they get it? This place was about letting go of stress and reality. Then halfway through my own vacation with my wife and son, I realized the horrible truth: I had become one of them.

Matthew was a stubborn child from the very first, because he needed to be. From the first glimpse we saw of him on the sonogram, the OB/GYN told us that the little guy probably wouldn't survive to the next few weeks. In his first act of defiance, Matthew held strong. He continued to overcome many obstacles and came out healthy, despite a few careful days in the NICU.

The modern term is "strong-willed", though we parents have many other words for it that we use under our breath. He does everything on his own terms. Everything from feeding to potty training was met with resistance, much to our frustration. This last bit was actually the reason for our vacation; Melissa promised Matthew that if he started using the toilet, we would take him to DisneyWorld. Two weeks later, he was totally off diapers.

Of course, we would have gone to Disney anyways. We've gone at least once a year since we've been married, and never at full price. Between Mel's discounts from working at The Disney Store, favors from friends and her careful scouring of internet boards, she always finds a deal. But as a reward for a truly staggering accomplishment and a real relief for us, we decided to go for "The Full Mickey": The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney MGM Studios. We'd also slip in a visit my grandpa, aunt and uncle, who live in central Florida.

The kid is amazingly tolerant of car trips. He just loves riding in the car, even for the 8 hours from Atlanta to Orlando. It was actually 11 hours down to Sarasota to visit Aunt Sandy & Uncle Allan, and he was predictably excitable when he was unstrapped from the car seat. He happily played with their dog for hours and shook with anticipation when I told him we'd take a swim in their pool after dinner. He can't swim yet, so this is more about me carrying him across the pool, and catching him as he jumps in. We both love the arrangement.

Matthew and 'Grandpa the Pirate'On the way back North to Orlando, we have lunch with my hermit-like grandfather, Neil. A nice enough fellow, but he likes his privacy and his routine, so a couple of hours at lunch is perfectly fine. Matthew, as always, was eager to tell him about what happened in a recent Scooby Doo cartoon. Neil got a big kick out of seeing his only great-grandson. Matthew gets a kick out of grandpa's black eye-patch. He calls Neil "Pirate Grandpa."

Once we get to the parks, there's a bit more stubbornness. I figured that he'd actually behave better in DisneyWorld, since he's getting what he wants. But with strong-willed children, it's more about HOW they want to do things. Meltdowns happened, and I realize that I actually helped cause them. This trip was a wake-up call to some bad parenting I was doing. (I'm typing this out mostly for my own benefit, so forgive me.)

I wouldn't consider myself Type-A controlling, but every father has certain things hard-wired into his brain from his upbringing, and when their own child crosses those lines, things can get ugly. For example, talking back to Mom. My dad flash-baked the idea of absolutely ZERO back-talk to mom into my mind, and I have a similar zero-tolerance policy with Matthew. But each rule has to be taken into context. He's four, he will get upset and not want to do things our way all the time. I have to learn not to immediately get harsh, but to threaten to do so if he continues.

The name of the game is Creative Parenting, or "head-ology" as Terry Pratchett calls it. Pick your battles, and for the ones you pick, don't go for the frontal assault. Strong-willed kids are always ready to meet a frontal assault head-on. Parenting, like magic tricks, are all about MISDIRECTION. If there's an issue, try to turn attention to something else. Case and point: He was happily playing on the playground with some other kids when it was time to go to leave and go to the pool. Wow, I've never SEEN legs kick that fast except Dash from The Incredibles. He was pitching a fit, scrambling to be let go. My instinct was to just hold him and walk out of the playground, but Melissa knew better. She simply said "Hey Matthew, don't you WANT to go to the pool?" He stopped instantly, said "The Pool? All right, let's go!" and took off towards the playground exit. As usual, Melissa knew better. Like most mothers, she's a better parent than she gives herself credit for.

So I'm learning more and more to trust her when she suggests thing. While it may upset me that he runs off every three seconds in a new direction, forcing him to hold my hand 100% of the time does nothing but piss the kid off, practically ENSURING a confrontation. I've got to think of it more like a Shepherd and less like a chain-gang enforcer. There I was, pulling Matthew along at my long-legged pace through Epcot, and he wasn't happy being yanked around. Melissa told me to cool it, and she was right.

I had become those people I despised: The Goal-Oriented vacationing Parents who had to mark everything off their list of things to do. I had to shift gears and think less about getting EVERYTHING done, and more in terms of having positive, quality experiences with a few things that Matthew could enjoy with us. Also, We figured out that he absolutely NEEDS to go back to the room and take a nap. We though he was over them, but I guess it's a growth spurt thing. And it also helps my mood if I take one as well.

Things did get bad, but there was a mid-trip decision NOT to abandon hope and head home. I had a very "Clark W. Griswold" moment of clarity and announced the following:
"This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun, and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much f*#%in' fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles!"
Melissa agreed, and we are so very happy that we did because the next two days were nearly perfect all-around. (We also decided to get a couple of "Marty Moose" T-Shirts for the next trip.)

I jumped ahead a little bit to the mid-trip epiphany to get the unpleasant parts out of the way. So let's talk about the good parts now.

Day One - MGM Studios:
Lights, Motors, Action! DriversTorrential Rain was the first thing we saw, and the reports called for it all day. I doubted it, and sure enough it stopped 2 hours later. Those Mickey Ponchos we bought are the best way to PREVENT rain at the parks!. They have a great new car stunt show called "Lights, Motors, Action!" that was INCREDIBLE. Matthew was jumping up and down and squealing with delight, even though the heat got to him in the end. Mel is always looking out for me: Since she can't ride the Rollercoasters with me anymore (migraines), she took Matthew to see a show while I hit the Rock & Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror. Matthew saw his first 3D movie with the Muppets, and loved it. He was reaching out to touch the bubbles and everything. We left mid-day for a nap, and didn't have much to do when we came back. The fast, cold wind and looming clouds were enough of a warning not to stay for the "Fantasmic" show.

Day Two - Epcot:
They're redoing the Living Seas to a "Finding Nemo" theme, which beats out the retro "Sealab 2025" thing they had before, and the interactive "Crush the Turtle" segment was really fun. Matthew also loves the "Soarin'" ride, which is like a suspended hang glider simulator with a wrap-around IMAX screen. We liked walking around the World Showcase, but Matthew didn't really get it.

To show how preoccupied with the kid we were, halfway across France, Melissa remembered something: "Crap! You know what today is? Our anniversary!" We'd planned our trip around it, and yet we forgot when the actual day arrived. I told her it was all right, and that I'd bought us two tickets to see Poison and Cinderella at Earthlink Live.

We were all a bit snippy, but after a Nap-Trip back to the room, Matthew was 100% better, and finally got to enjoy the fireworks show without hiding behind one of us from the loud noises. He really got into the show and was jumping around. Totally worth it.

Day Three - Day Off:
Slept in, had lunch at Beaches & Cream, with some huge ice cream sundaes for dessert. Tried going to Downtown Disney to shop, but he had a meltdown at every shop we went to, So, Nap-Trip #3. Took him "Swimming" in the pool and he loved it. He even accepted the fact that it was time to go in when it got dark.

Day Four - Animal Kingdom:
Goofy All AroundWe had a late night from the "Clark W. Griswold" decision, so we got to the park a little late, but in plenty of time to catch the Safari, the Flights of Wonder Show, the Festival of the Lion King (his favorite), and get a lot of character Meet & Greets in. Matthew was good all day, and we were getting a better idea of how to handle the little issues by now. Instead of grabbing him by the hand when he wouldn't come and let us put on his sunscreen, I backed up, sat in the shade and started putting mine on, making it look fun. Sure enough, he walked over, sat next to me and let me put his on. (YESSSSSSSSS!)

At nap time, Melissa took little man back to the room while I went on "Expedition Everest" twice via FastPass. VERY cool. I won't spoil the surprise, but I'll just echo one riders sentiment: "It does things that a coaster shouldn't be able to do." On the way out, I couldn't pass up the kitschy "Primeval Whirl" with only a 5-minute wait. But I shouldn't have pushed my luck... I lost my hat on that ride. But no biggie, we went back to Downtown Disney that night for dinner at RainForest Cafe, and I bought another one.

Day Five - Magic Kingdom:
This was the big one. The weather was perfect. Cloudless, 70 degrees and light breezes. Even the people in the fur costumes seemed comfortable. I thought that we'd start with the Speedway, since it's the WORST later in the day, when the Karts have been running. (Fully-exposed to the sun in the line, and the fumes give everyone a headache.) Good plan! Matthew got to drive, and thought he was king of the world. After that, it was a strange day of luck with all the rides: The most we waited for anything was 10 minutes on "It's a Small World"! Don't ask me how, maybe Allah thought we were due a break or two, given the rough start we had a few days back. Call it Karma, but it was amazing. We did nearly EVERYTHING in the park!

On Goofy's BarnStormerWe accidentally stole someone else's rental stroller, but returned it for our own. (I just hope they found theirs again!) Melissa even got some great pictures of Matthew and I riding the Coasters (yes, he's big enough for most of them now). I sat with a Napping Matthew while Mel took in the Haunted Mansion. I thought I'd surprise Mel with a ride on the Carousel of Progress (which was closed earlier in the day), but halfway there, BAM! She popped out a FastPass for Space Mountain that was valid right then! God, I love this woman.

At the Parade and fireworks, he was hopping up and down in excitement on my shoulders. (Let me see if I can add a few MORE prepositional phrases to that... "In front of hundreds of people, under the stars, around 9:30 PM, above Main Street USA...") IN any case, a great end to the trip.

On the morning we departed, Matthew informed us that we didn't NEED to go home, that the hotel was now our home, and we needed to bring down the cats, Grandma & Grandpa, and his friend Phillip down as well, to keep him company. This trip was a learning experience for all. It had it's down moments, but in the end it was so wonderful.

And one last thing: If you're ever traveling in South Georgia on I-75... NEVER stop in the "town" of Cecil. It looked like it had been deserted for 20 years. We tried to stop for a bathroom break at a gas station, across from the "Family Time" motel that probably went under due to renovation costs back in the Nixon administration. The Station was the ONE building that looked to have the new-fangled electricity, and it housed a graveyard of 26(!) broken-down cars with "For-Sale" signs in their windows. It had a neon "OPEN" sign, but upon further inspection, it had a hand-written sign that read "Back in 5 Minits." We couldn't get out of there fast enough.

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