I’ve always had mixed feelings toward the “amusement park.”
It was a prominent part of my childhood summers – Wonderland, Marineland, Ontario Place, even small-scaled Centre Island. And of course, the amusement park that kills all other amusement parks, Disneyworld. For me, it was an escape into a fantasy world where it was the only place you could get cotton candy and that feeling in your stomach when you were on a dip on a roller coaster. It was on Space Mountain, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, where I fell in love with the “thrill ride.”
When you’re young, you are self-contained in your own perceptions – your eye level views. I remember entering the park, grabbing a map, running from ride to ride, occasionally stopping for a bite of funnel cake, until it was time to leave and I would most likely pass out in the car on the ride home. Only when I became a parent, did my perception widen and I realized how far I had fallen out of love with the theme park.
When #1 was little, I remember agonizing over taking her to the public washrooms and cringed at the food choices. And as a parent, all you do is wait. Wait until they get on a particular ride, wait until the ride is over, wait for them to be hungry, just waiting until you can finally go home.
You can imagine my own physical discomfort because for the last 6 years, I have been pregnant or nursing an infant during most of my trips to amusement parks. I’m uncertain if it was due to swollen feet or the rise in ticket prices, but I soon became disgusted with the commercialization that surrounded the experience at the park. (Yes, Disney was magical, but it better be the happiest place on Earth for $75/ticket.) While the kids went on the rides, I would squirm on the bench in the heat and try to meditate, repeating in my head, “This is for the kids. This is for the kids…”
This year, the end of school was fast approaching and I knew it was time for our annual trip to Wonderland with the kids and their cousins. We go on a weekday during the last week of school to avoid lineups and before the severe heat and humidity of the summer actually kicks in. The kids were excited and couldn’t sleep – planning their ride itinerary and #2 obsessing over Tiny Tom Donuts: “Are you sure they’re still there?” “When can we have them? After lunch? Or before we leave?” “What flavours are there again?” On the other hand, I was dreading the outing. I had just checked the weather and it was going to be the hottest and grossly humid day of the year and lately, I had been getting tension headaches from tight shoulders and neck. I figured that an 8 hour walk around an amusement park was only going to result in intense back pain, tired feet, and a headache of some sort. The night before, Ever-Patient and I too could not sleep. We both started to collectively whine about our day ahead: “Why do we do this?” “This is going to kill us.” “I can’t do it…I’m already sweating!” The one silver lining was that The Saviour would be joining us on our little adventure. I never understood why my father still loved these amusement park outings; never a complaint as he pushed around the stroller filled with various paraphernalia like sweaters, water bottles, and found objects; and he always had a smile on his face as he dashed off to a ride where he was needed to go on. Being in my current state, rides were pretty much out of the question so my father was definitely needed for extra support especially if a child falls asleep in the stroller and needs supervision.
A few of my cousins and some of my cousins’ children also joined us and we all met up at Wonderland. As I braced myself for the onslaught of ride requests and anxious inquiries about Tiny Tom Donuts, I become overwhelmed by the sweltering heat and humidity. At this moment, I already wanted to cry. But I pushed on. We arrived at the kiddie area and I immediately took shelter underneath a small patch of shade and I waved serenely at Ever-Patient who was now cursing me with his eyes as he waited in line for the character merry-go-round with #3 and #4. #1 and her appetite for the thrill rides, the scarier the better (something that she inherits from both her parents), had already taken off with my teenage cousins who I trusted would watch her like a hawk, and of course, with the advent of the cell phone, I knew they could be reached anytime. I sat and waited as per usual. I witnessed the inevitable tantrum, the consumption of questionable food, and my feet slowly expand two sizes. All of sudden, in the distance, I saw #2 running toward me with her hand up. She was grinning from ear to ear shouting something. As she grew closer, I noticed something funny with her grin. It looked different. She yelled, “Mom! Mom! My tooth fell out on Ghoster Coaster!” She had her tooth in her hand and wiggled her tongue through the gap that formerly housed said tooth. My dad, who had braved the coaster with her, was beaming as well. She couldn’t wait to show her sisters, her cousins, her aunts and uncles, and ran to show her daddy as soon as he stepped off the merry-go-round. #3 couldn’t wait to go on the next ride with her big sis – #4 was still deficient in the height requirement. Hand-in-hand, they skipped to the next ride and waited in line. While in line, #2 spoke with great animation (as animated as #2 can get) to #3 and after a swooping like gesture with her arm which clearly mimicked a downward dip of a coaster, I could only guess that she was recounting her harrowing tale of catching her tooth in her hand while bracing her tummy for the subsequent flip it would make. #3 was looking up at #2 in total awe and admiration as if her big sis had just climbed Everest or walked on the moon. Ever-Patient was waiting by the railing, waving to the kids to reassure them that he was there and would help them in and out of the ride if need be. I decided to join him and waved excitedly at the kids as they hopped on the ride. They waved back, happy to see that I was simply there to watch.
From that moment on, my attitude changed. I decided that I no longer wanted to be the passive observer on the sidelines. I wanted to be fully engaged in every moment with the kids. I wanted to be present as they enjoyed these magical instances of childhood. I felt a sudden shift in perspective: “Ok, Wonderland, I have a feeling that there’s more to you than cavities waiting to happen and overpriced souvenirs.”
I began to notice things that I had previously overlooked because I was so preoccupied in wallowing in my own discomfort and selfish needs. I noticed how ecstatic the kids were when they realized that they had grown taller because they could now go on rides they couldn’t go on last year (especially #3 who took full advantage and went on EVERY ride she could possibly go on). I noticed how #3 held #4’s hand on rides where they were alone together saying things like, “It’s ok baby, I’m here.” Last year it was #2 holding #3 and before that it was #1 holding #2. I noticed how #2 went on rides this year that she was too afraid to go on last year and the triumph on her face when she got off them. I asked her, “Do you want to go on it again?” She shook her head and said, “Maybe next year. I’m good.” I noticed how #4 LOVED riding on the “shark” character on the merry-go-round, the same character I LOVED to ride on 25 years ago. I noticed how the most memorable experiences occurred during the 30-35 minute wait in the lineup versus the 2 minute ride – the kids would have conversations anticipating what the ride would feel like, reassuring one another, playing word games to pass the time, or recount funny memories from past trips. I noticed the evolution of their emotions as they went on a ride: the fear, the uncertainty, the thrill, the excitement, and the pride and confidence in themselves when it’s over. I noticed that even amidst the crazy and crowded chaos, Ever-Patient and I still loved to hang out together, just people watching especially laughing hysterically at the two grown men, dressed in nightclub attire, posing in front of the manmade mountain. I noticed how waiting in line can be an exercise in diplomacy for my children as other kids try to “bud” or cause trouble and I couldn’t help but feel proud of their reactions that needed no intervention from myself or Ever-Patient. I noticed how much my family cares for each other as #3 had ran down a hill and face planted on concrete, developing a large goose egg on her forehead and after a trip to the nurse’s station and a lengthy application of ice, she was met with a concerned crowd who offered her recently-bought treats to feel better. I noticed how fearless #4 is and how disappointed she was when she wasn’t tall enough for a ride (somehow I think she held hands with #3 for #3’s sake rather than her own). I noticed #1 absolutely euphoric…not sure if it was just from the extreme thrill rides or just being the youngest with her older aunts and uncles. I noticed my dad watching my kids and felt a pang of nostalgia as I recognized that same expression when I was young. Only now did I understand what he must be feeling and why he’s always enjoyed these outings all these years.
We stayed until the park closed and all the kids fell asleep in the van on the way home. Ever-Patient and I lingered in our driveway before hauling the kids in and did a quick post-mortem of the day. Why had we been so negative before? When did we get old and lose our energy and our child-like tendencies? How come we couldn’t see that the amusement park could offer opportunities for camaraderie, risk-taking in a safe and controlled environment, responsibility (where the older kids feel the inherent need to take care of the younger ones even if it is just for the duration of the ride), forging and strengthening existing relationships? Our perception had changed. Yes, we were still going to bring our own healthy meals/snacks and avoid spending any money on games and souvenirs. But it wasn’t about lineups and the rides anymore. It was how we approached every experience – from the everyday to the unique. We promised ourselves that with every outing, event, commitment, and seemingly routine moment, we would open ourselves to whatever lesson or magical moment it had to offer. “Living in the moment” was not some catch-phrase or some abstract philosophy anymore, it was a choice we decided to make.
#3 and #4...courtesy of my dad and his iPhone.
The children slept well that night and the following morning, #3 comes to my room and says, “I can’t wait for Marineland!” I start to sweat a little and my heart skips a beat but then I take a deep breath, and remember the vow…
…and I also remember that I have my dad’s number on speed dial.