Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Our Disney Cruise: Important Life Lessons and an Ungodly Amount of Frozen Yogurt

I was bitten by the travel bug young. In my late teens and early twenties I spent my summers finding excuses to travel the world. I spent one summer teaching English to school children in rural Nepal, another holding babies in a Romanian orphanage. In college I spent a semester abroad, running all over Europe and painting a lot of naked people. Hashtag long story.

Most of my journeys were missions-related, focused on helping others or a cultural exchange of sorts. Of course, it's probably safe to assume that no life was changed as much as my own. I was a travel junkie chasing the high of self-discovery. No books or classes or teachers taught me more than what I learned stepping outside my comfort zone into a world of new customs and possibilities.

Still there comes a point in every journey, no matter how enthralling, in which you stop and very loudly ask yourself “WHY DID I THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA??” Maybe things are not quite going according to plan or you’re just a little homesick. Maybe you got head lice from a Chinese airplane or you just miss ice cubes because why are Americans the only people in the world who don’t drink things at room temperature??

But time tends to erase the unpleasantries from your mind until you're mostly left with a picture-perfect-postcard impression of your journey and a longing to return to that idyllic space.

When my youngest was born I had a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a newborn and it was so hard that I wanted to run away except I would have missed all the little stinkers too much. I longed for an escape to all those exotic places. Instead, for whatever reason, I decided that 3 was surely the magic age at which having children becomes easier and that when Elise turned 3, life would stop being so crazy and we would take a fabulous trip to celebrate our survival of the baby years. (I would like to suggest that when one is surviving on 2 hours of sleep a night, one’s loftiest goal should be to get oneself dressed by noon, not construct universal truths based on zero scientific evidence.)

So I researched and planned and finally booked a Caribbean cruise for our family, a Disney cruise to be exact, because the Disney cruise commercials promise the children will be completely entertained and the parents will be entirely relaxed. I knew cruising wasn’t exactly the “real, authentic” travel I fell in love with, but who cares about cultural exchange? I was just looking for a nap.

Finally, after weeks, heck, years of anticipation and preparation we sailed on the Disney Dream in March. We were excited. Like, really excited. I couldn't wait to island hop and to share the wonder of new experiences with my kids. I was especially excited to spend the mornings on the adult-only pool deck while the children were sequestered to the Disneyriffic Kids' Club. 

It only took about 10 minutes after checking in for us to very loudly ask ourselves WHY DID WE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?? Harsh reality smacked us across the face in the form of our 4-year-old flinging his tiny body on the floor of the main deck during Mickey's Bon Voyage party. 

"Sweetie, don't you want to see Mickey dancing with all his friends?"


"Would you like to wear this flower necklace and look at the ocean?"


The ship was fabulous. The service was impeccable. The food was all-you-can-eat. We did, however, overlook one tiny detail as we planned this dream vacation: we still had to be parents and our kids were still going to act like kids. In the midst of all the excitement, we had somehow forgotten everything we had ever learned about traveling with kids.

A tantrum at home? That's normal. A tantrum on a cruise? We had barely entertained the possibility. It was as if we were expecting our children to be so grateful for this opportunity that they would come to us bearing gifts saying, "Mother, Father, you are the best parents in the world and we promise to mind our manners the entire trip! And we especially promise not to growl at crew members or do anything else that causes you to die of embarrassment."

You will be shocked to discover that our kids gave us no such guarantee. In fact, our middle child decided that this trip would be the perfect time to announce that he hates water. On a boat. With 18 pools. Surrounded by ocean.

When we went ashore at Cozumel to see the fascinating, educational Mayan ruins, our oldest complained that there was nothing exciting about some old rocks and is it time to eat tacos yet? How about now? Is it time now? When are we having tacos? (Also, it turns out the tacos were "ok, but not as good as real, American tacos.")

Perhaps most crushing of all was our children's reaction to Kids' Club. The Oceaneer's Club, more commonly referred to as Kids' Club, is Disney's answer to in-house childcare and this particular kids' club included everything from Tinkerbell's tree house to a Monster's Inc. factory playground to life-sized replicas of Toy Story toys in Andy's Room. All kids love Kids' Club. All kids want to spend hours in Kids' Club while their parents sip Pina Coladas poolside. All kids except our kids. Our kids just wanted to be with us the entire trip. I mean, I can't blame them, we are pretty cool, but it would have been nice to sunbathe without a wet body laying across my chest.

On the bright side, their dislike of Kids' Club was a useful threat when they started to act up. Several times a day we would find ourselves yelling, "If you don't shape up, we're sending you to KIDS' CLUB!!"

"Noooooo, not Kids' Club!!"

Of course, it wasn't all meltdowns and sibling spats. We were enthralled by the nightly entertainment, particularly Aladdin the musical. "Star Wars Day" is one we won't quickly forget, especially Jack who was selected for Jedi training and had the opportunity to dual with Darth Vader himself.

The kids still talk about the dolphins and sea turtles we were able to touch at the conservatory on Grand Cayman.

And their very favorite thing of all? It wasn't playing in the surf at Castaway Cay. It was not the late night dance party or Pirate Night or even the fireworks display.

My children will tell you that their most favorite thing of all was the poolside frozen yogurt machine.

This particular machine consisted of chocolate, strawberry, vanilla and banana yogurt and it opened around 10:30 each morning, so starting at 6:30am we spent the first 4 hours of our day telling our children it was not yet 10:30. At the beginning of the week John and I tried to be good parents and practice restraint by limiting our kids to one cone or so an hour. By the end of the week our attitude was more along the lines of "just whatever, eat until you barf."

By some miracle not one child barfed the entire trip, a fact made even more miraculous when you consider Henry's diet the entire week consisted solely of frozen yogurt and butter packets.

So what I'm saying is, if you want to experience the magic of a Disney Cruise without actually going on a Disney Cruise, all you need to do is buy a frozen yogurt machine, set it up by a baby pool in the backyard and continuously stream Finding Nemo on your iPad. You're welcome.

I suppose as the months and years roll by, the unpleasantries of this trip (a.k.a. our whiny weirdo kids) will also fade as the sweet memories take up a more permanent residence. I don't mean to give the impression that this vacation was a disappointment - it wasn't - but it was a learning experience, and that is one thing travel always is.

I miss the kind of traveling I used to do, or perhaps I miss my 20-year-old self, wide open, ready to change the world, braced to discover myself in the process. Even if I could abandon my responsibilities to trek the African continent, something tells me it wouldn't be the same. That 20-year-old traveler is fourteen years long gone.

Traveling revealed my weaknesses, but also showed me how much I was capable of, which gave me confidence. Traveling left me inspired, full of wonder and oddly content to embrace my smallness in the world.

One night on the cruise, as I lay in bed, feeling the sway of the ocean and listening to my children giggling to each other, I had an epiphany of sorts: the same things I miss about travel, I've found in my kids.

I've got three amazing adventures right here at home with me. I don't need to leave my doorstep to be pushed and challenged, to learn and grow. I try to teach and guide them when all the while I am the one changing, stretching.

 All I need to do to embrace mystery, to be in awe of creation is to peek in the bedroom across the hall. When I do, I feel oddly content to embrace my smallness in the world.

I didn't find exactly what I was looking for on this trip. Instead, this trip taught me that everything I was hoping to recapture, I already have.