Before the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, parents were doing the usual: congregating on the sidelines at sports events and birthday parties, telling over-repeated stories, reciting mundanities and receiving or giving advice.
Before I locked the doors of our New York home and Clorox-wiped the keys to the outside world, most of my conversations at these gatherings were about Disney World.
At sports practice, a mother told me, “You’ve gotta use my guy.” For a premium, her guy would book my family’s Disney trip, secure FastPasses and arrange everything from character breakfasts to transportation.
At a birthday party, one father said he had spent a thousand bucks each day on the trip. “Even if you just stay at the hotel and do nothing,” he warned me, wiping his hands clean of imaginary dough, “it costs a grand.”
My wife wants to do Disney in style, like that sideline soccer mom, but even when times were less dire I couldn’t justify spending half a year of daycare fees in a week at a theme park.
I suggested we put it off for a few years.
“We can’t put off Disney World,” my wife said. After all, our eldest daughter will soon be trading her princess obsession for preteen cynicism. (My daughter now yells at me when I belt lines from "Let It Go" because I’m stealing her thunder. Soon she’ll holler because I’m an embarrassment to her social status, assuming we practice social nearing again.)
Like many American families, Disney is a part of our lives. We watch the films. My daughters and I also role-play princess stories in the basement. I select roles such as the Genie — but trapped in the lamp, unable to be summoned — or the Beast’s 18th hire, who, postcurse, happens to be a comfortable pillow, or the elephant corpse that Simba and Nala visit. I always position myself on the couch, stage left.
Well before the pandemic, I began researching our Disney family trip, which came with as much unsolicited advice from other parents as when my wife and I were expecting our first child.
It was easy to write off guidance from fathers who made Disney World a yearly destination. And I dismissed mothers who told me that the character breakfast they attended had “delicious food.”
But no matter whom I spoke to, Disney World sounded like squandered savings, forever lines, mass crowds, manufactured magic and endless planning, but my kids would love it. Still, in economic terms, the cost of even a half-week trip to Disney World was a month’s worth of some other jettisoned yet epic adventure.
Then, unexpectedly, at a travel show, a vendor approached me with a timeshare offer that sounded too good to be true. I tried to escape his lure, like a mermaid on land trying to flop to safety. He said, convincingly, “Come back. Come back.”
I listened to his spiel. If I signed up now, I could receive a trip for four to Disney World, including four airline tickets, four park passes and three nights in an Orlando, Fla., hotel. I had to pay $50, but that would be refunded if I attended a 90-minute timeshare presentation in Pennsylvania's Poconos with my spouse. It sounded too good to be true. I walked away again.
“I’ll throw in something else,” he blurted.
Besides the Orlando trip, he added meal vouchers for a restaurant and adventure passes for attractions in the Poconos, as well as a mini-vacation to another U.S. city. I floundered.
“What if I add four NHL or NBA tickets?” He flashed me Islanders hockey and Nets basketball tickets.
Worst-case scenario I’d pay $50 for hockey tickets with a face value three times as much. Best-case scenario, I’d take the family on an all-expenses-paid Disney trip. I handed the sea witch my credit card and, a few weeks later, drove to the Poconos for the presentation.
Sitting in on a timeshare talk with one’s spouse is not an enjoyable task, considering precedent. In the six-plus years before matrimony, we broke up only once — right after a timeshare presentation. Back then, all it took to reel me into some abstruse sales pitch was the offer of free ski lift tickets and a hotel room.
On that trip, the skiing was fine, for me at least; my then newish girlfriend chose to sit in the lodge. It was no glorious Aspen lodge, mind you, where you can sip hot toddies and enjoy slope-side panoramas. This was a sweaty New England lodge, where a guy named Todd ate hot chili and got slope-side pancreatitis.
To make matters worse, we had to spend the night at a chain motel, a brand inferior to any dirty ski lodge. It also happened to be New Year’s Eve, and my girlfriend did not appreciate the room's broken door locks, its questionable mattress and the condom wrapper left under the bed by a previous guest.
So a decade and a half later, on our way to this second timeshare crucible, whenever my wife said, “Is this presentation really going to bring us to D_____?” I always braced myself for that last word, never certain if the D would be followed by isney or ivorce.
Luckily, we made it through the sales pitch, although it was twice as long as the promised 90 minutes. After receiving the vouchers (and taking advantage of the terrible meal and the awful ski-hill tubing coupons), we drove home exhausted.
As wiser, more dubious folks have probably guessed, nothing about the voucher was as promised. The fine print made cashing in the Disney coupon unfeasible. Three nights were really just two full days. Travelers had to fly into Orlando in late evening — killing day one — and fly home at the crack of dawn on what could’ve been day four.
Dozens of other caveats soured the deal. For instance, you could begin a trip only on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. And you could select only two date ranges for travel. Sundays were never available. Neither were any of my requested trip dates. And for the supposedly free family trip, there were more than $600 in initial costs.
Of course, the timeshare company invited me to pay upgrades to make flight times more flexible or to bump us up to a less seedy hotel. But going that route was pointless. I could have booked the same flights and hotels on my own for less money and more flexibility. And I could have done it all without having to sit in on a three-hour timeshare presentation.
I’m back to square one, having abandoned the so-called prize. Actually, like Rapunzel in the film "Tangled," who's prophetically quarantined in a tower and banned from the kingdom of Corona, it feels as though I’ve been pulled from the game board.
With Disney World closed and air travel, personal finances and everyone's well-being uncertain, I miss that planning for Disney World was once a possibility. I miss those moms and dads on the sidelines. Like every other parent now, I’m anxious and confined and trying to do right by my kids. Like the Magic Kingdom, a lot of life just got put on hold. A lot of life became a small world after all.
But that’s OK because I’m going to cherish the time I have with my princesses (even as the days get longer and harder). We’re watching a bit more Disney+ with our time, but we’re also inventing our own little magic kingdom in the basement.
This week we’ll run scenes from "Moana," and I’ll smile from the couch as the girls sing to the horizon line that they won’t see for a while. And me, I’m playing the role of a fallen palm tree.
Noah Lederman is the author of the memoir “A World Erased.”