“I just want to check that box.” That’s how John put his desire to go to Disneyland. He’d gone as a kid and believed it to be a sort of childhood rite of passage, something everyone should experience before growing up. It didn’t necessarily seem like his own memories of being there were particularly idyllic, but he clearly felt like it was our duty as parents to take the boys before they got too much older.

I didn’t have the same perspective, although I remember being delighted by Disney World about a million years ago when I went with my mom. My thinking was that my own kids didn’t really grow up on Disney the way I did, so the charm would largely be lost on them. They’re scared of most big rides, John hates waiting in lines, and I have a deep-seated dislike of anything mascot-related. Plus, why would we choose a wildly expensive and crowded crapshoot of a venue when we could save our vacation dollars for a trip to somewhere I know we love, like Hawaii?

He got me convinced, though, or at least willing to see if that box was in fact worth checking, and so we made our plans for spring break. I booked a hotel (the Hyatt House), I bought the tickets (3-day park hoppers with Max Pass), I delved into blogs and websites and crowdsourced suggestions and spent entirely too many days dithering over what sort of bag I should wear (Large or small? Backpack or cross-shoulder? I ended up with this one, which was quite comfortable and held what I needed).

The night before we were scheduled to leave, I was in the backyard with Riley when I noticed he was shivering from head to toe. “It’s freezing out here,” he said through chattering teeth. “Why is it so COLD all of a sudden?”

I narrowed my eyes. 60 degrees and the kid who refused to wear a coat when we got a foot of snow in February is too chilly? Hmmmm.

Of course it turned out that he had influenza, so our trip was delayed while he recovered and all four of us tossed back hastily-procured blister packs of Tamiflu and crossed our fingers, but eventually, after many hours of driving through the dreamy Windows XP wallpaper scenery of southern California, we arrived.

On our first morning I took the advice of many and rousted us out of bed distressingly early in order to get to bag check security a full hour before opening (which was a plan we mostly followed the whole time and I wholeheartedly recommend). We goggled at the throngs and aimed ourselves at Space Mountain and nearly crowdsurfed the surge once the music filled the air and the rope dropped.

Oh, the crowds! Intense even early in the morning, multiplied into staggering numbers by the afternoon. Great colorful swells of people, rippling along in patterns like murmurations, surprisingly never hugely frustrating except when a stroller would collide with the back of my Achilles. So many children, so many families. Many wearing Instagram-ready Disney-themed outfits with red-and-white polka dot manicures, others in delightfully dorky matching t-shirts.

(I’m not sure how to say this without sounding as if I am the kind of privileged who is obnoxiously oblivious of their privilege, but I’m going to forge ahead: I found there to be something profoundly reassuring about being immersed in humanity this way. Now, I get that Disneyland, by its very nature, is limited to those who can get there, pay for the experience, and physically maneuver an exhausting amount of shlepping around — but it IS a crowd of, what, over 40,000 people each day? And I’m sure there is plenty of bad behavior, but what I saw were a whole shitload of folks who were happy to be there, or at least grinning and bearing it, and it was a reminder that we aren’t always at odds with one another. We are living in some pretty sad and difficult times and maybe I just need to strike up more conversations with my fellow line-dwellers to feel a tiny bit more hopeful.)

We started with Space Mountain, as we did every day after that. During the first day the kids were initially nervous about most rides and it required every bit of courage on their part to get on the Incredicoaster, but as soon as things got underway we were collectively blown away. Disneyland rides are so good, you guys. Some of them are thrilling, some are immersive, some are simply deeply insane and endless in length and should be experienced exactly once so we can all turn to each other at some point in our lives and say, “So … It’s a Small World. THAT was fucked up.”

Our favorites were the Indiana Jones ride and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which we rode multiple times. Incredicoaster has the worst line of all but we still endured it three times, because it’s legit worth it. Dylan disliked the Matterhorn because of the presence of an animatronic Yeti, and both kids were so traumatized by the huge Ferris wheel with the sliding cars I almost had to stop laughing at them long enough to make sure they were okay.

The rides were absolutely worth the price of entry, but what I really loved about this vacation was how much time we spent together. Walking, waiting, hunched over cinnamon-dusted churros: we were in such good spirits. Even during some of the more tedious line-standing moments, we did so much laughing and talking.

We made constant use of the FastPass system, which I highly recommend even though it was kind of annoying: I felt like we had to keep looking at the app and fighting against the occasional glitch where it wouldn’t load properly. The whole FastPass thing is what our schedule revolved around, we’d get a pass for a popular ride then fill the time beforehand with a smaller ride.

There were the moments of frustration that come with any family trip, but my memory is already glossing right over the bumpy parts to the magic. In my mind, Disneyland is forever lit by late-afternoon California sunlight, a melting golden glow filled with bubbles from children’s wands. It’s happy shrieks and full-bodied laughter, delicious sugary treats and friendly smiles, giddy anticipation and the ahhhh of taking off your shoes at the end of the night.

I do not know what sorcery keeps Disney so clean, except of course plenty of well-trained employees, but the place is spotless. Even the bathrooms. Every cast member was incredibly nice and appeared out of nowhere whenever I was trying to take a family picture so I could be included in the shot.

There truly is something magical about it. I know a giant theme park isn’t for everyone, but boy, I’m a full-on believer now.

On our last night, we were waiting for an evening show to get underway. Everyone was huddled on the pavement, tired kids leaning against parents. Behind us, two little girls were skipping back and forth with their bubble wands. The air was filled with these iridescent spheres, color and lights dancing across the delicate surfaces, and the girls were laughing and dancing. They became silhouettes in the approaching darkness and it was just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

In the end, I am so grateful to John for championing this trip. The box has been checked, and it came with a million wonderful memories and countless reminders of how much I love our family. We had the very best time, and I think we chose the ideal age for our kids. I hope we go back sometime, but even if we don’t, it was enough.

Honestly, it was perfect.

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I got diagnosed with shingles recently, which started out as a tiny cluster of red bumps on my lower back that John confidently described as the result of “some sort of bug that got you while you were sleeping” (why that specific scenario, which is basically custom designed to induce anxious thoughts of a wee-hour descension of, what, fire ants? Here I was hoping for a quick dismissal of my rash-related concern, but no, now I have to imagine the trail of ants marching to my unsuspecting snoring body then lining up, one by one, to take a bite, like the lady-slapping scene in Airplane) then rapidly expanded and crept around one side of my torso until I reluctantly went to the walk-in clinic where a way-too-excitable doctor took one look at my hiked-up shirt and said “Classic shingles. Just classic,” which initially made me weirdly proud (CLASSIC!) then I was like, wait, aren’t shingles supposed to be bad? What I knew about shingles was pretty much limited to seeing those HEY OLD PEOPLE, GET YER SHINGLES VACCINE signs outside of drugstores combined with a vague association with roofing materials but I am now deeply informed about the matter: you can get shingles after you have the chicken pox, because the chicken pox virus lays dormant in your system for thousands of years until a Mysterious Event triggers it to re-animate as the greyscale skin disease from Game of Thrones.

Okay, I might not have that 100% right — to be honest I found the explanation baffling and kind of got distracted by the fact that it’s also known as herpes zoster, which would be the worst stripper name ever — but I can tell you that shingles is pretty damn uncomfortable, although I never had the kind of crippling agony you hear about so either I have an impressive tolerance for pain (unlikely, I’m not sure I am known for my stoic endurance) (cross-reference: literally seventeen years of complaining via blog post) or I got lucky with a mild case.

I did get prescribed a round of antivirals which I took for maybe three and a half days before deciding the side effects weren’t worth it. Probably you’re not supposed to, like, just stop taking stuff, but let’s be honest, I don’t exactly have a great history with following the rules regarding self-administering medication BUT ANYWAY I feel much better now and all the rashy business has morphed into fading scabs (CLASSIC!) and there’s your PSA of the day: you can be only kind of old and still get shingles, which I will thank you not to refer to as “back herpes.”

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