A Disney fan may ask, “How many times do I get to go to Walt Disney World?” For a Disney aficionado, the theme parks are a treat to be indulged in as often as possible. But for Disney-neutral or, gasp, Disney-averse folks, the question they might more reasonably pose is, “How many times do I have to go to Walt Disney World?”
I’ll get the ball rolling by saying, yes, barring major financial constraint, you do have to visit Disney World or Disneyland at least once. Why? Because experiencing a Disney theme park is the American cultural imperative akin to no other.
In a time when common cultural experience has eroded to the point of oblivion, a Disney parks visit is of the few remaining touchstone experiences; it’s a true American rite of passage (possibly also for other nationalities, but I’m speaking to the US for this one). A trip to a Disney theme park will put you on the fast track to pop cultural literacy, elucidating references in sources ranging from Mad Men to Modern Family.
The Washington Mall, the Grand Canyon, the Vegas strip, and Times Square are contenders, but there’s really no other locale that will give you as much cultural comprehension as a visit to a Disney theme park. To understand America, in all its guts and glory, you’ve got to pay a call at our mouse-infested mecca, even if only for the travel equivalent of hate-watching.
And it’s not just my opinion that the Disney parks are an obligatory cultural experience. Manchester University professor Robert Pettit wrote, “Disney does such a wonderful job of representing American culture, they’re almost synonymous with America.” Historian Mike Wallace calls the Disney parks, “The premier interpreter of the American experience.” Throw a rock at any university American Studies program and you’ll inevitably hit a grad student who’s written his dissertation as a variation on this theme.
While one Disney parks trip is the minimum requirement, I believe it actually takes more than one visit to fully understand the Disney parks archetype. Multiple trips are necessary because your ability to process the nuances of the experience vary greatly depending on your focus. In my opinion, these are the essential Disney trips:
- The Childhood Visit, ideally between ages 5-9. This is your trip with unfiltered emotion. You’re not editing your reactions. You don’t know or care how much this costs. All the joyful, scary, silly, sad, overwhelming feelings are processed at face value. This is where, with a pure heart, you either drink the Kool-Aid or subconsciously decide that you’re a non-believer. Mom and Dad may paint a watercolor wash on your perceptions with stern warnings about behavior or an overprotective grip on your hand during the fireworks, but you’re still young enough to have sentiment win the day. You ate with a princess in a castle and goshdarnit, it was the best day EVER! This is childhood in America.
- The Teen or Young Adult Visit. This might be your high school band trip, a spring break getaway, or first vacation from your first job. While, in the case of a school trip, there might be a nominal chaperone, this is your first real trip on your own. The venue is safe, but there’s a frisson of excitement at being largely on your own with your buddies. You’re stretching your wings. Here’s where you learn boundaries and responsibility. Can you say “no” when crazy Billy wants to ride Mission Space for the fifth time in a row? Will you say “yes” to the turkey leg, even though you just ate, so that you can take the perfect fun photo? There’s a hint of danger about doing something “wrong,” but negligible chance of a real misstep. Here too, the trip is about you and your emotions: fear, freedom, excitement, and so on, with the added twist that these feelings are indelible. The impressions from childhood may become hazy, but these will endure.
- The Young Parent Visit, ideally when your first child is between ages 4-7. This is where it gets real. You have an adult’s critical eye now. Those pancakes in the castle cost how much?! You’re annoyed by the dripping faucet in your hotel room. Your back hurts from carrying your kid around, even though he promised he would walk the entire day. But despite being cranky and jaded, you can’t help but shed a tear when little Susie hugs Elsa like she’s a real princess, even though you know intellectually she’s just some college kid. It’s real to your child, so it’s real to you too. Seeing the park through your child’s eyes brings back the feelings of wonder you had during your own youth. This is a valuable lesson in the power of paradox. Both knowing and not knowing are equally valid lenses with which to view an experience.
- The More Experienced Parent Visit(s), when your subsequent child(ren) are between ages 4-7. This is where it gets really, really real. This will be your least fun, hardest working vacation. The rose-colored glasses are off. You’ve seen the man behind the curtain and you’re fully aware that he’s ticked off because he’s dying go backstage to grab a smoke but his break isn’t for half an hour. Your critical eye tells you that it’s all artifice and profiteering. You think if you were a better parent you’d have the clan at the Grand Canyon or something, but who even knows if they have chicken nuggets at the rest stop and that’s all junior will eat this month. Disillusionment is one of the five stages of Disney. If this is your only trip to a Disney park, you may never cycle out of the Grinch phase. But if this is one of many trips, embrace the disappointment and ride through it.
- The Grandparent Visit, when your first grandchild is between ages 4-7, subsequent visits with subsequent grandchildren as budgets allow. Now you’re circling back to the Young Parent Visit, but with a grandparent’s flair for indulgence. You’re happy to take part in the ritual, despite the warts. The child’s joy is your joy, and that’s enough.
So there you have it. In my opinion, to truly understand the definitive American vacation, you have to visit a Disney theme park at least five times over the course of your lifetime. Each stage gives you a different perspective, all of which are needed to completely grasp the experience. Personally, I’ve far exceeded quota as, I’m guessing, have many Touring Plans blog readers. But even a Disney-phobe should make the pilgrimage at least once or twice, if only to be able to watch National Lampoon’s Vacation with a knowing eye.
Do you think a trip to a Disney park is a cultural imperative? Is more than one trip necessary? At which stages of life do you think it’s important to visit? Let us know in the comments below.