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04.09.10

My Disney Cruise from Hell

Ever try traveling with four kids? In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday?, Project Runway star Laura Bennett shares her hilarious story of what happened she tried to take a vacation with her family.

Here’s one thing you should know about the Disney Cruise: The culture of Disney is insidious. Mousack is piped into every nook and cranny of the damn ship: the elevators, the restaurants, the hallways. If you submerge yourself in the mouse-shaped pool, you will hear the haunting theme from The Little Mermaid, as though she were down there, somewhere, singing. You can’t escape it by going to the Lido deck, or even, God forbid, your own room. Every single time you leave your cabin, some sort of switch is triggered so that upon reentry the radio is back on, blaring “Small World.” I thought the Geneva Convention had banned that song. If they want to find Bin Laden so badly, the government should just turn Afghanistan over to Disney and the company can pipe some of its greatest hits into the terrorists’ caves. Before you know it, every last one of them will crawl out and confess to something, anything, to make it stop.

Disney is a worthy opponent, with many ways of indoctrinating malleable minds into the cult. They use such techniques as tanned crew members in crispy uniforms, with overwrought, laminated smiles and enthusiastic voices, two-finger pointing you along the way to fun.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we could even set foot on the good ship Disney, I had to find a way to get the three Mouseketeers to the launching pad down in Florida. I had assumed this would be one flight, but no, it was two, and the last thing you want to do when traveling with the smallest of children is have to switch planes in Atlanta. I was tempted to fly Cleo up from Texas just to help me ease the pain, but I decided I could do this, and I could even love doing it.

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Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday?: A Mother’s Guide to Sanity in Stilettos. By Laura Bennett. 224 pages. Ballantine Books. $24. ()

Things began to unravel at La Guardia Airport, where I was informed that you could no longer check bags at the curb because the airlines had decided to charge a new fee for any checked baggage. Which meant we had to get into a long snaking line in order to turn over our unwieldy luggage. Have you done this with a toddler? Well, have you done it with a toddler, a special-needs kid, and a pushy 6-year-old? Pierson tried to help by manning the stroller, meaning he decided to ram it into the backs of my legs every time the fellow in front of us moved so much as an inch. I prefer to let a little space open up before I have to shoulder all the bags and precariously tip the oversize wheelie forward. Pierson, on the other hand, is incrementally driven.

“Mom, move up,” he’d say. Ram.

“Chill out.” I’d try not to curse at him. “I’m trying to figure out where Larson is.”

“He’s up there, pretending to be with those people.”

And he was. Clearly embarrassed by our steerage situation, Larson had found a young couple in the first-class express line who looked vaguely like him. He was loitering just out of their peripheral vision, lightly stroking their YSL luggage. I think he might have ended up in a much grander locale, if I’d let him.

We made it through security OK, even with the task of having to remove all our shoes and get them back on again, and waiting at the gate to board was fine, especially as it was the first time the boys had access to my carefully packed activity bag. They were enthralled by the new dot-to-dots and fresh crayons. Even Finn seemed as though he might be ready for his mid-morning nap by the time we got on the plane. No such luck. The minute we boarded, all hell broke loose. Along with “Never admit fatigue,” “Fight over the window seat” is one of the two cardinal rules of childhood, and Pierson and Larson immediately obeyed it. Sleepy little pre- boarding Finn turned into a cute version of that animated creature Gollum from Lord of the Rings: standing on armrests, dancing on tray tables, and just generally trying to scramble over other people and suitcases and into the aisle, a demented gleam in his eye.

I opened a bag of Cheetos, hoping it would work its usual magic. He grabbed it and flung them everywhere at once. Larson and Pierson stopped squabbling long enough to laugh at me picking orange bits out of my hair and then went after the rest of the contents of the activity bag, spilling the Model Magic wrappers and fuzzy colored pipe cleaners from a “Make Your Own Bug” Kit. The big, brightly painted wooden beads provided for the bodies went rolling off to a faraway row. Gollum stood up on my lap and played peek-a-boo with the elderly couple behind us. I felt sorry for them. A smiling 2-year-old is adorable for exactly three “I see yous”; after that, you tend to want your space back. I would have gotten him his own seat, but how could I when I needed to have a hand on the other two?

Across the aisle, a couple in their late thirties sat down, clutching the same Disney Cruise Line travel packet as I had. It was just the two of them, no children. I had to ask.

“Why? Why are you going on a Disney Cruise without children? Young at heart? What the hell?”

“Not by choice,” the man answered, good-naturedly. “My sister is getting remarried and wants her children to have fun at the wedding.”

“Oh, thank God,” I said, pitying them but comforted to hear a valid excuse. Just then the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign binged on and we started to taxi, eliciting from Pierson the now-predictable wail “ I have to pee! ” I had asked him seven billion times, but no, this was when he decided he would definitely die if his bladder wasn’t emptied immediately. I tried to soothe him for the excruciating five minutes it took to reach get-up-and-walk-around altitude, but by then he had decided he didn’t have to pee after all and would instead wait until the drink carts were blocking the aisles in either direction and the passengers in the row in front of us had unanimously decided that 10 a.m. was the best time to snooze, and so had reclined right into my personal space.

I really have to pee!” Pierson shouted from the window seat, grasping his crotch and doing a little dance in the three inches of space allotted him. I assessed the drink cart traffic jam.

“You’re going to have to wait,” I said, shushing him. Finn had finally exhausted himself and was asleep across my lap. Any sudden movements by others or me would surely result in another round of Hobbit-chasing.

“Let me just pee in a cup, then,” he whispered, which sent Larson into fits of laughter. Mercifully, the drink cart cleared at that moment. Pierson walked from armrest to armrest over us all and into the aisle, racing to the back of the plane and disappearing into the john. Larson gave me an impish look and scooted over to the window, pushing his brother’s crap into the middle seat.

Thank God Cleo was there in Orlando to help us get on to the shuttle, because by then I was ready to turn around and fly home, solo. The guides packed us on to the Disney-fied bus and immersed us in the culture: a soaking that wouldn’t stop for the next three days. I sensed danger and gave my boys one last bit of advice: If anyone offers you something called Kool-Aid, don’t drink it. Disney is a worthy opponent, with many ways of indoctrinating malleable minds into the cult. They use such techniques as tanned crew members in crispy uniforms, with overwrought, laminated smiles and enthusiastic voices, two-finger pointing you along the way to fun.

On board, it was all Disney, all the time. Cleo was strangely but cautiously enchanted at first, sucked in by the cleverly executed sculptures of the Little Mermaid, Belle, Cinderella, and the other Disney princesses scattered around the hallways. Getting to our room was no small feat: Every couple of steps, some creature in a towering costume would pop out of the woodwork, frightening my young boys. Finn was clinging to me like a monkey, face tucked firmly into my dress. Larson stayed behind me, while Pierson would occasionally check in with me, dubious.

“Mom, did you see that duck?” he’d ask.

“You mean Donald?” I’d say.

“He has a name? Donald? That’s stupid.”

“Well, he was named back around the Depression, when Donald wasn’t such a stupid name as it is today. You know what’s worse? His middle name is Fauntleroy.”

“What about that tall guy with the long ears? What’s his name?”

“Goofy.”

“Seriously, Mom. Goofy? Is that supposed to be funny?”

“You know, Mom,” Cleo interjected, “you could let them watch age-appropriate cartoons now and then.”

“Trust me,” I said, “If we were on the Family Guy cruise, they’d know everyone here.”

“Is Petah heah?” Larson yelled from his shelter, having caught only the salient points of the conversation and jumping up and down with the most joy he had shown thus far.

“Wheah, wheah? And Stewie?”

“See,” I said, opening the door to our cabin. It was clean, tidy, and creepy. Done up in faux-deco black and white, it used the Mousetif everywhere: curtains with brass Mickey tieback pegs, Minnie-shaped soaps in the loo, a kid’s table in the familiar trisphered shape; even tiny little mouse heads worked into the very woof and weave of the carpet under our feet! The place was infested with mice. Shimmery little satiny mouse heads were brocaded onto the duvets—and, most insidious of all, a collection of framed “family” photos adorned the tiny desk. At first glance I thought maybe the cruise people had pulled images of us off the Web—that would have been freaky enough. But no, these were pictures of Walt and family: on his wedding day, at the opening of Disneyland in California, on the deck of a similar-looking ship. It brought to mind the closing shot of The Shining, when the camera focuses in on the black-and-white photo of Jack Nicholson, who has joined the many dead of the old resort hotel, and you see that he’s grinning because he’s so happy to have been sucked into their world. At least I could comfort myself with the thought that the mom and kid got out of that hellhole alive.

For a moment I flashed on an image of Peter, Peik, and Truman, saddling up horses and riding out into the wilderness, with no mice for miles. Or at least, no mice wearing shoes. I could almost smell the pot of beans simmering over the open campfire. Ah, simplicity. Oh, food.

Food is absolutely everywhere. You can’t take a mouse-kastep without running into a restaurant of some kind. Care to visit Goofy’s Galley? Maybe Pluto’s Dog House? (Who would eat the food in a doghouse, I ask you?) Or perhaps Pinocchio’s Pizzeria? The pool deck is surrounded by mini themed food stands. My kids, who are normally not big eaters, were instantly overwhelmed by the lure of “free food.”

“You mean we can have anything on the menu, for free?”

Pierson grinned. He was mesmerized by the variety and the ease with which everything appeared. You just walked up to the counter and asked. No negotiations, no exchange of money. The pancakes, naturally, were mouse-shaped. The French toast was seared with the brand of Mickey. Even the ketchup was rendered onto the plate in three round squirts: one big, two smaller on top. Mouse.

On day two, the novelty had not yet worn off. I watched Larson pull himself out of the ear part of the pool, skitter over to a fake grass hut, order a burger with fries, and deliver it to our poolside table, giggling deliriously. He had no intention of eating it; he’d gotten it just because he could. No parental involvement necessary. Ten minutes later, he went back and ordered a hot dog, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Nearby, the lure of self-serve soft-serve ice cream nearly undid Pierson, who by the end of the afternoon had stood in line countless times to concoct yet another version of Freudian Fantasia. Not to be outdone by himself, he also managed to mix about 15 different “all new” soda flavors from the easy-access nozzles. How about a Pink Lemonade/Fruit Punch/Cola with a dash of Sprite this time? He brought each to me the way a cat brings a dead mouse to the door—with pride and insistence that I acknowledge how precious my son’s ability to jerk soda had become. So much for “Drop your kids off and have some quiet time by the pool.” I was only ever able to drop Finn anywhere, as Larson and Pierson required my attentive response to each and every new discovery. At least I got some quality time with Cleo, bonding with her over the absurdity of her little brothers.

“Why do they do that?” I asked her, after one of the boys almost fell into the pool while trying to avoid some costumed character. Other kids went up to Cinderella or Snow White as if approaching celebrities, holding out little books to collect all the various autographs.

“Two reasons,” Cleo observed. “One, they are boys. They have never seen any of the girl movies, and Disney these days is mostly for girls, except for Nemo, and it would freak a kid out to see a full-size Nemo, out of water. Second, you have nothing but disdain for sugar-coated fantasy. You have created them in your own image.”

"That is not true,” I said, but Cleo was right. I like my fantasy dark and brooding, draped in cobwebs and with skeletons popping up out of it. So do my boys. Without trying to, I had trained them to mistrust good and to embrace the darker side of things. Was that so bad? “I’ll prove it to you, I’m going to take them on this ‘Private Island’ tour—see?” I pointed to a very Jim Jones–ish stop on the cruise, where you are actually let off the ship and encouraged to explore palm trees and a fiberglass pirate vessel anchored offshore.

“They will love this.”

Cleo rolled her eyes.

“I will love this,” I retorted.

I hated it. But I tried not to show it. I strapped on my lowest-heel espadrilles and gamely herded the boys off the boat and onto the shore, overriding their lazy complaints about how they just wanted to stay by the pool and make more ice cream and sodas—maybe even ice cream floats! What might chocolate and Sprite taste like together? They had to know! Luckily, there was more free food on the beach, and even an actual bar with actual booze so I could wrap a warm fuzzy blanket of alcohol around my mouse-numbed brain.

The last day I did try to get all the kids to go to mousetivities, but by the afternoon we were all back by the pool, once again being regaled with looping Disney cartoons on the JumboTron (or was that DumboTron? It honestly might have been) overhead. Children with lesser fortitude might have caved, but after three days mine had had enough magic and dreams come true. “Mom, I want to go home,” Pierson said, drawing a tear of pride from my eye. Once off the ship at 8a.m., we were all raring to get those two plane trips out of the way and be back home in time for an early dinner and a couple of episodes of The Simpsons.

Excerpted from Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday? by Laura Bennett. © 2010 by Laura Bennett. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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Laura Bennett was trained as an architect but has since established her career as a fashion designer by becoming a finalist on Season 3 of Bravo's Project Runway. Bennett lives amid complete chaos in New York City with her husband and too many children. She explains it all in her book, Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday? A Mother’s Guide To Sanity In Stilettos.