by Julia Steiny
My husband and I were supposed to transfer planes on January 5th, just after a storm and before the super-freeze — a fatefully bad day for travel. The Orlando airport teemed with children, which is not surprising since it's the put-in for Disney World, Universal Studios and, as we subsequently found out, about a thousand other theme parks and "attractions." Even with mouse ears on kids and adults alike, the tense gloom was palpable. Big ads on the walls showed super-happy families on some ride or other, "making memories," as Disney says.
Some memory. People packed the waiting rooms and hallways, killing time because of delayed flights. For our plane home, there was a first three-hour delay, and then another, and yet another. We'd been in the airport for 12 hours already, when, at 3:30a.m., airline personnel announced that while we had a plane, we had no pilot. New FAA regulations limit how long a pilot can fly in a day.
A groan rumbled through the crowd at our gate, eventually pierced by a kid whining, "But Mommie, I want to go home."
Trust me, Honey, Mommie wants to be home even worse than you do.
Anyone can get caught in travel snarls. But in Orlando an upsettingly high proportion of the stressed, miserable people were children. This being the new post-civil America, many adults got belligerent, behaving far worse than the kids. I so wanted them to calm down, since I too was freaked about losing control of my life.
For many, the grand adventure of making fun family memories had turned traumatic.
The three women in front of me at the re-booking terminal were in tears, worried about losing their shop-clerk jobs at a CVS pharmacy. The soonest available reservations were three days hence, and those were going fast. The airline guy was reassuring about how employers are understanding about such eventualities, but no, airlines no longer provide hotel rooms under such circumstances. On those women's salaries, God knows how long it had taken them to save up for this trip. More nights in hotel rooms? Get real. Their plight drove home my relative wealth, allowing us to be reasonably comfortable. But if their finances are so frail, why blow big bucks answering the lure of corporate-enriching past-times?
Amusement park marketing not only pitches fun, but intimacy and togetherness. Throughout the airport, huge pictures show two-child families having a blast on roller coasters, sealing family bonds. Were the many newly-weds we saw really hoping to establish the beginnings of a life-long relationship? Did the women from CVS get so tight with one another that they could be kind and loving through a 3-day ordeal?
In fact, aren't the rides, shopping for souvenir junk, and gawking at the bizarre environments just huge distractions from paying attention to one another? I realize people have fun at these places. But no one bonds with anyone except by sharing excellent, consistent attention. The kids get so over-stimulated, it's a wonder they can stand school the following week. Poor teachers, who have to compete for kids' attention with such a standard of amusement.
On my first trip to Disneyland, as a little girl growing up in L.A., I was so intrigued by following a marching band, I got separated from my parents. Seared in my memory is running up and down Main Street calling for them hysterically. After what seemed like an aeon, Park personnel reunited us, but all I remember from that trip are minute details of the separation. Being terrorized by the Matterhorn is all that's left of another trip. Decades later, when we took my twin first-graders to Disneyland, they were terrified by some rocket ride whose name I don't remember. I do remember them being furious at me, but not a lot of family bonding going on.
Contrast that corporate-sponsored effort at closeness with a recent scene at a hospice facility where my friend's mother was dying. The disease had come on fast, but her kids all managed to come, many with kids of their own. So, surrounded by her husband, children and grandchildren, she listened as a daughter-in-law played her favorite Christmas carols on a violin. I lost it just hearing my friend describe the scene. More importantly, it was a seminal moment for everyone there. I could never wish such grief on anyone, but death does come, and when handled well, it can cement families together in adversity. That's a memory worth making.
So as I stood in endless lines in the wee hours on that awful night, I kept thinking that if those women had spent their hard-earned vacation dollars visiting their brother, their home town, or a high school friend who'd moved to some interesting place, at least they might be able to turn around and get friends or family to help them. But the Magic Kingdom is home to no one. It's an adventure in distraction that is actually pretty shaky when it comes to guaranteeing fun memories.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.