Monday, March 21, 2011

The Hardest Part

Jack, who typically asks"are we there yet?" every
five minutes, fell in line at the Magic Kingdom.
I hate to rip-off Tom Petty, but when you go to a theme park—especially Disney—the waiting is a big part of the experiences, and it can be, yes, very difficult. "Get ready to stand in line to empty your bank account," warned friends and family. So I ventured into the vortex of Orlando family fun with my iPhone and Jack's Nintendo DSi fully charged, prepared for the long, interminable lines queued for the trademark rides. But I could not fully appreciate the mega-big-box-super-happy-fun-see-how-many-people-you-can-possibly-jam-into-one-finite-space-without-inciting-a-riot experience that is Disney's Magic Kingdom—until I entered the park.
   Lest you think I'm a complete cynic, let me say this: The magic of Disney is real. Where else in the world can you convince thousands of people to shell out $80+ per person per day in the middle of a recession? That's some major spell, but I resisted the urge to take Jack for a good many years before handing myself over to this powerful elixir, which some believe to be nothing less than the draught from the Fountain of Youth. With my tax refund in hand, I took a deep breath and plunged in, determined not to flinch even once as I handed over fist-fulls of my hard-earned cash. And yes, it was worth it to have this adventure with Jack at a time in his life when his belief in magic is still alive and well and living in his heart.
  So we went forth, as so many moms and sons have done before us, to discover the wonders of the Magic Kingdom. What I found was something quite extraordinary, if not quite magical. Here in this world of make-believe, where one can wish upon a star to make dreams come true, where Prince Charmings are in abundance and where good always, always undoes evil, people—even Americans—wait patiently for the longed-for prize. If not magic, it was nothing short of amazing. Thousands stood on line, trudging slowly ever-forward, without a whimper—much less a grumble or curse—to edge up to the gondola, or car, or boat, or space shuttle that would ferry them into approximately five minutes of fantasy and/or thrills. We were there for almost 12 hours with thousands of people, waiting in line as they talked to their families and friends, and only once did I experience a nasty person who begrudged my spot in line for the new-and-improved, now with life-like Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean excursion. (She must have been having a really bad day.) Honestly, I've seen people get more upset waiting five minutes in the Walmart check-out lane than they did waiting 60-minutes to climb aboard Space Mountain.
   Of course we are all accustomed to waiting. It's what we do for a great part of our lives. We wait for the phone to ring with good news or bad, for graduation from high school, and then from college. We wait anxiously to get married, and then, for our children to be born. We count down the days until our vacations, Christmases, birthdays, edging closer to each milestone with heightened anticipation, but rarely using that time in limbo to its fullest. And after you get to that longed-for spot and climb into the gondola, or car, or boat or space shuttle, the ride itself only lasts a few moments. It's amazing and thrilling and awe-inspiring...until it's over. And then, you're on to the Next Big Thing. Exit in an orderly fashion, please. Then you queue up to...wait, again. It seems Disney, Universal and every other successful theme park have just taken a cue from real-life and replicated our favorite pass-time: waiting aimlessly.
   Yet, even now, just a few days after leaving the Magic Kingdom, it's not the lines I remember (though I won't soon forget that one hateful woman), or even the thrill of plummeting through the dark, screaming my lungs out, but the conversations I had with Jack as we waited. For example, while winding through the maze of tunnels en route to Splash Mountain, Jack's initial bravado about plunging 40-feet head-long into the waters surrounding Brer Rabbit's briar patch gave way to sweaty-palm fear. In truth, having never before been on so much as tiny fair roller coaster at the State fair, I was a little nervous, too, but I screwed up my best Mom says everything will be okay voice. "You know, Jack, this ride is perfectly safe or I wouldn't let you ride it. Splash Mountain's been here a long time, and lots of kids ride it everyday. I assure you, the scariest part is right now. The scariest part is just thinking about what's going to happen. Once you're on the ride, you're just gonna have fun." I realized as I said it, that this could be a good lesson (and good Buddhist practice) for Jack about overcoming his anxieties since so much of what we fear in life is trumped up in our heads.
   Jack considered my advice as we plodded along closer to the front of the line. Every now and then he asked if there was an exit nearby in case he changed his mind, and I reassured him that the ride would be fun and the fear was just the anticipation building up in his head. Of course, in the end, Jack did go on Splash Mountain and after we survived the 40-foot drop, he turned to me and said, "That was SO awesome!" And he wanted to get back in line and go again.
  The Wait, it seems, is the hardest part in theme parks, just as it is in life, with long seeming-endless stretches of languishing until the five-minute payoff. But do the folks at Disney and Universal know what important life lessons are imparted while visitors stand in line? Probably not, or the price of admission would go up substantially. Shhh! Don't tell them!

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