I didn’t know much before I had children. But I knew this: no way, no how, would I ever take my children to Disney World. I would not be spending that kind of money to stand in lines all day while my children whined at my feet.
As a mother, I’d been okay with wiping their bottoms, showing them general affection, and even saving for their college.
But I wouldn’t do Disney. And every time they brought it up, I happily shot their dreams to shreds. I was unmovable.
So anyway, a few months back we took our children to Disney World.
It was more expensive than I could have imagined, the lines were longer than my worst nightmares, and the whining was worse than I had anticipated. Though, to be fair, the whining was usually coming from me, and it was almost always about the cost and lines.
However, it was also more magical than any ad in the algorithm promised me. And the experience was, hands down, the best trip I’ve ever taken. And my kids were there! Do you understand what I’m saying? It was that good.
But aside from the magic of Disney—a trip so flawless it could have been its own commercial—the best part of the trip happened when, in its final hours, it completely fell apart.
You see, we went the week before Christmas. And we were set to return the day before Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, my entire family was coming to stay with us for the holidays. This meant that I not only had to plan and pack for a trip I had vowed I would never take, but I also had to have the entire house, presents, and food ready before we left because there would be no time when we returned.
Planning for the trip, then, began in August. I reached out to the woman who helped us plan our Disney cruise three years ago (which at the time was my massive concession to never doing Disney; I’ll get on a boat with free childcare, but I will never do Disney World!). We started planning the trip, where to stay, which parks to visit and on which days, and selecting restaurants at which to make reservations (Disney enthusiasts know this is a ridiculous endeavor that involves 5am logins exactly 60 days before your arrival; these shenanigans are why I will never do Disney World!).
“Okay,” I said to Jim when the trip was booked. “This is all gonna work out.”
From there came four solid months of preparation for this trip and the holidays (don’t forget Halloween and Thanksgiving are mixed in there, just for added logistics). And let me tell you, I was phenomenal. I was tracking weather patterns in Orlando for the past decade to calibrate the clothes everyone would need to pack. I was deep cleaning parts of our house that had gone unnoticed for years. I was ordering, assembling, and wrapping presents; I was decorating the house; I was packing the fridge; I was doling out holiday cards. Real peak performance.
“Okay,” I said to Jim as we loaded into the car to go to the airport. “This is all gonna work out.”
“Of course it will!” he said, with the purity and optimism of someone who hadn’t given a single thought to the thickness of underwear needed to avoid getting cold during the nighttime fireworks display at Magic Kingdom.
As we took off on our first flight, I began to relax. All my months of planning—done to mitigate all the terribleness of Disney World I didn’t want to deal with and to ensure a Merry Christmas for my entire family—were paying off. I had snacks in my carryon. I packed Band-Aids. I had both girls’ favorite stuffed animal. Nothing was going to go wrong.
And nothing did.
There was a weird chemistry about the trip. Trains we just made. Lines that were oddly short when we walked up. Characters we just happened to bump into. A downpour right as we were sitting down for lunch and clearing right as we were done. It felt like we owned the parks. The girls were thrilled, Jim and I were relaxed, Goofy was just that, and all was well.
Then, on our last day we awoke to several texts from my family.
Is your flight on time?
Okay, but have you double-checked?
I was confused. Flights were good. Not a cloud in the sky in Florida. I checked the weather app and tracked our flight path. Not a storm to be seen for any of the states we were flying over.
But, as you may remember, the week before Christmas was an arctic blizzard that swept the U.S., leaving hundreds of thousands cold and without power and wreaking havoc on the airlines. But we had been in the middle of Disney World and actually had no clue what the entire nation was struggling with (which might tell you something about how Florida plays out in election cycles).
We loaded onto our shuttle to the airport when I received a text from the airline:
Eager to see you for your upcoming flight!
Then another a minute later:
Your flight is on time!
Then another, merely 30 seconds later:
Your flight has been canceled.
Why airlines don’t give you a few texts to build up to a cancelation is beyond me.
Hey. Heads up. Things are nuts here.
Okay, we're a mess so you might make some calls.
We’re so sorry. We are a deeply dysfunctional industry that cares very little about how you perceive us.
Okay, your flight has been canceled.
I show Jim the text. “Can we book another flight?” he asks.
“Oh, probably,” I say, with the same innocence as when we go to the zoo on the first nice day in weeks and expect to find a parking spot.
But when I logged into the app, it showed that no flights would be available for another 24 hours. Christmas Eve.
I stared at the screen. This wasn’t happening. I had planned this trip for months. I scheduled everything down to our bowel movements, and I wasn’t about to mess up my family’s Christmas Eve traditions because airlines can’t manage to fly in sunny weather (my ignorance about how and why planes get delayed may be inexcusable, but I am who I am).
I booked us on a flight that would have us leaving the next evening. Yet I could see a single flight still available for that day, just a few hours delayed, but the app said I’d have to see someone at the ticket counter. I used the remaining 40-minute drive to the airport to panic and cry.
When we got to the airport, I learned that we were not the only ones with delayed flights. We were not the only ones working hard to get home for the holidays. We were not the only ones traveling with tired kids. But in my mind, we were the only ones. We stood in line for the ticket counter for more than an hour. When we finally reached it, the lady behind it let out a yawn.
She blinked twice at us. I stammered through our dilemma—which was unlike anyone else’s!—and she blinked at me again before turning her attention to the screen. She was deeply unbothered by my anxiety. She was practically asleep. Lady! Do you have any idea how much planning I did? I want to see my mother marvel at my organized and packed fridge! I want my niece to see how I color coordinated the wrapping on her presents. My dad must hear the playlist I put together. Dammit, this is an emergency!
But instead of matching my energy, she simply turned her screen around toward me. On it, I saw what looked like the dot matrix system.
“See that?” she said, pointing to the screen.
“The dots and dashes?” I asked.
“Yep. That means there are no flights.”
“How can you tell that? Why is this airline using HTML to book flights? Are your planes safe?!”
She insisted the morse code was clear—we weren’t getting out of the airport until the next day. Which meant a whole new set of planning was needed.
For one, we needed a place to stay. I looked on Google Maps and found a hotel 800 feet away.
“Jim…I think there’s a hotel in this airport.”
We walked a few steps and there it was, in the center of terminal B, between Chick-Fil-A and Sbarro’s, a towering hotel that charged $6,000 a night if you promised not to use the sheets or towels.
“I’m hungry,” Lowery said, seemingly unaffected by how stressed Jim and I were.
“I don’t feel great,” London said. And when I looked down at her I realized her eyes were glassy and her cheeks were red. I touched her forehead. It was fire.
“Okay,” I said, turning to Jim. “Track down Children’s Motrin and some food. I’m going to go check into the hotel.
From there, we checked in and gave London medicine (fun fact: there was a national shortage on children’s medicine, so she had to take a triple dose of infant Tylenol—we just gave her the full bottle like a shot glass). Eventually, London’s fever dissipated, and chicken nuggets gave them both the energy to want to swim at the hotel pool. Jim and I sat on the patio and watched them splash around, still enjoying their vacation, while we frantically rearranged family plans and obsessively read everything we could about the mess that was U.S. air travel.
That evening, we all settled into bed and watched Home Alone. We talked about the highlights of our time in the parks. We slept the sleep of the stressed and sick.
I awoke at 4 am to a text from the airline:
Your connecting flight to Tulsa has been delayed 5 hours. We hate you.
This meant we’d be getting in on Christmas Eve around 8 o’clock in the evening.
I curled up in bed and cried silently. Why wasn’t this working out? I had planned everything so well. Now London was likely sick, our flight was delayed and would likely get canceled, I was exhausted from the trip, and mother of god is Jim snoring?
When everyone awoke, we discovered London’s fever was back with a vengeance, now with a cough and a runny nose. Our first flight was still on time, but we’d be at our layover destination for several hours. None of this ideal for tired and sick children.
We shuffled out of bed, repacked our luggage yet again and headed down to the gate. As they called for our group number to board, the feeling of relief was starting to climb to my chest. But as we inched our way toward the counter, a man came on the loudspeaker to inform us that they had to stop loading the plane as there wasn’t a crew.
This still baffles me. Again, I get that pilots time out, and I get that we were in the middle of an arctic weather front, and I get that all planes were in a logistical mess. But this was happening to me. Therefore, I preferred to stay selfishly obtuse.
And because of that, here’s something I was failing to see. Our second flight had been delayed. So, while we had to wait a long time as the desk clerk ran up and down the airport asking if anyone knew how to fly a plane, it didn’t put us at risk for missing our connecting flight.
Eventually, hours later, they informed us they had found a crew by calling the hotel where pilots and flight attendants stay and rounding up a crew who hopped in taxis and came to the airport. Can you imagine that? Truly, I do not understand how airlines work. And I’d venture to guess they don’t either.
Regardless, the crew—which I’m going to hope wasn’t three drinks in at the bar when they got the call—heroically came back, and the gate agent breathlessly announced that we were going to make it to our destination.
For 24 hours we’d been running around trying to save our plans. We’d been fighting to keep London feeling okay and the girls entertained and the panic low and our family back home calm. And no matter how hard we planned, things just weren’t working out. So, it didn’t occur to me when we got our overhead luggage stored. Nor did it when we got the girls buckled in. It honestly should have hit me when we reached cruising altitude, but still, no. It didn’t register to me until I looked down at poor, glassy-eyed, fever-ridden London, who grabbed my hand and whispered, “I'm so excited to see everyone for Christmas.”
Something caught in my chest. Not quite a sob, not quite a sigh of relief. Something in between. It had finally registered to me.
This was things working out.
I just couldn’t see it through the panic, through the cancelations and delays, through the fever, the crying, the unfazed ticket lady, the gross airport food, the insane hotel cost, the heartless airline texts. Because everything felt like it was falling apart, I failed to see how beautifully it was being put back together.
How many times had I been frustrated that my meticulous plans weren’t panning out? How many times had I been angered by delays in whatever it was I was trying to get—pregnant, a job, a book deal, a parking spot at the zoo—and declared that nothing was working out? When, in reality, I was just unable to see that that is exactly what was happening.
We got home in time to greet my family late on Christmas Eve (before quickly excusing ourselves to go to bed). After we opened presents Christmas morning the family wanted to hear all about our trip to Disney World.
“Oh!” Lowery started in. “You want to know what the best part of the whole trip was?”
“Of course!” my family replied.
“Staying at the hotel inside the airport!”
And that, my friends, is why you should never do Disney.