To understand how Jessica managed to wrap me around her little finger and convince me that we should travel to Italy, you first have to understand how much she loves Disney World. That began because she loves Disney movies, which begat an unfortunate fascination with Disney princesses (“Sweetie, I’ve just been asked to work on a book called Princess Recovery. Do you think we could like American Girl dolls for a little while?” “No.”)
And it is Disney princesses she loves, not Barbie dressed up like a princess or any other fakers: Disney princesses in crowns. Princess Jasmine in a crown, to be absolutely precise, but any of the others will do in a pinch, whether from the major arcana (Cinderella, Aurora, Tiana) or the minor (Pocahontas, Mulan).
She likes princes, too, but to a lesser extent and they seem to be accessories, sort of like a handbag or a pair of shoes; a thing a princess happens to come with. The princes usually get tucked on a shelf somewhere. It is the princesses who go on adventures (“I let the princesses out of the castle! And now they are free!”) and return safely home each day (“because the castle is very nice”). They share her messenger bag when she goes anywhere, and sleep on the other pillow.
In the fall that Jessica turned twelve, a colleague invited me to participate in a writers’ conference that was taking place on a cruise, and told me to bring Jess along. Since Jess and I hadn’t had a vacation in several years, I agreed. And then it occurred to me that Disney World is not that far from the port, and I asked the travel agent how expensive it would be to add a few days there to the end of the trip. And said travel agent happened to mention that you could actually have breakfast with the princesses, the real Disney princesses, including Jasmine, and I knew I would have to dig all the change out of the sofa in order to make this happen for Jessica.
And so I did, and it was everything it was supposed to be: magical, and relaxing, and with princesses, and also crowns. In fact, it was such a spectacular hit that it became our default destination whenever we had some time and money. It is easy: once you get on your plane and check your bags, you pretty much don’t have to do anything else. Someone picks you up from the airport and brings you to your hotel and delivers your bags. Busses and monorails and boats whisk you from your hotel to the theme parks. Someone else makes dinner and cleans the room. And you can have breakfast with the princesses in the castle, and have them sign an autograph book, and you can get your picture with them. And throughout the day you can also stand in line and meet the princesses who aren’t currently having breakfast in the castle. So mostly when we go to Disney we meet princesses. This makes Jessica deliriously happy, and there is sometimes so little light in her life that I will do almost anything to see her smile like that.
Spending my vacation days standing in line to meet princesses is fine with me. I don’t ask for my time off to be anything other than an opportunity to stop working for five minutes. And at Disney World, the cast members are well-trained in connecting with children like Jessica, and most people are good-natured when we stand in the line and Jessica asks them their names and where they are from and what is their favorite princess.
And then we made the terrible mistake of going to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday last year. This is Walt’s park, and it came first, and of course we should give it a try at least once. And it was a total, unmitigated disaster. Everything was complicated. There was certainly no one there to pick you up from the airport and help you juggle the anxious kid and the two suitcases. There was no simple way to get from the hotel to the park. Cast members acted like they’d never heard of making a dining reservation or giving a direction for how to get somewhere. Everything was broken and dirty. I put up with surly and impatient workers, but then a cast member was an insulting jackass to Jessica (and me) – and when I say “insulting jackass” I mean ranting and raving, the kind of thing you wouldn’t do to your ex-husband, let alone a harmless kid and her middle-aged mom trying to have a vacation. So that was it. I threw our remaining tickets away and took Jessica to Catalina Island.
I was so shaken and upset over this that I swore I would never go back to any Disney property – not even harmless Disney World, which had never done anything wrong – and I discarded the outline of my book on how to bring children with challenges to Disney. I would never want any parent or child to be treated the way we were, and if anyone asks, I will always tell them that they may enjoy Disney World but they sure as hell need to skip Disneyland.
And that is how we ended up talking about Italy. When Jessica asked if we could go somewhere for Christmas, I was still smarting over the nastiness at Disney and refused to bring her there. But I had no alternative in mind at all. Everything seemed so much harder – and we’d be doing it overseas! Where I didn’t speak the language. It seemed like just another disaster waiting to happen.