From Cynic to Convert: How Disney Won Me Over

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Hi Disney. It’s me, Aaron. Can we talk?

Look, I know in the past we said some things that were…unfortunate. OK fine. I said the things. It’s just, you know, sometimes you can be a little overwhelming. The crowds, the price tag, the movies that (until fairly recently) never seem to give a crap about dads, the unyielding amount of merchandising, your SUPER devoted fans who tend to border on overzealous maniacal obsession — it all seemed just a bit, well, MUCH!

So yeah, some things were said in the heat of the moment. Some promises of never bending to your will or succumbing to your charm. Some pointed remarks to Disney-loving friends and family members about how brainwashed they are. And bold assurances that despite not having set foot on Disney property in 30 years, I was never going back.

Sooooo…yeah. I’m sorry about that.

I was recently invited to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, an invite-only social media conference at Disney World.  I went with my wife and three kids to stay at the Disney Beach Club Resort, mere steps from Epcot, and partake in trips to Disney World’s three other parks — Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.

And it was awesome. Like, freaking wonderful. I thought about pretending otherwise so I wouldn’t have to publicly admit how wrong I was, but brutal honesty is my brand. And if I’m being honest, I really loved Disney.

I could talk about a lot of things pertaining to the conference that helped make it great. Things like getting a sneak peek at the first half hour of Finding Dory, getting to watch Alice Through the Looking Glass three weeks before its release, hearing from Disney executives and film producers who gave us peeks behind the curtain as to the inner workings of the park and the movies we love, and the heavily discounted park rates we received as conference attendees.

But that’s not how you won me over, Disney. Wanna know what the turning point was?

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The look on Sam’s face when he saw Mickey Mouse in real life was something that will be gloriously imprinted in my memory until my life fades to black.

Other parents repeatedly told me it was magical, but I ignored them with a sarcastic roll of the eyes. But even if I had believed them, it still wouldn’t have fully prepared me to be in that exact moment. To see his eyes go wide, the realization set in, and watch as he gleefully careened into his favorite character’s arms for a gargantuan hug was a moment for which I was ill-prepared — especially since it was during registration and I had no idea Mickey would even be there. Everyone always prattles on about “Disney Magic,” but let me tell you — it’s real. That moment pictured above? That’s real, tangible magic. It got a little dusty and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little choked up.

Yes, I was a fairly ardent Disney cynic. But I’m also a dad, and the fastest way to my heart is through my kids. You make them deliriously happy, you’re A-OK in my book.

Except for you Rapunzel. You’re suspect.

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Lest you think I’m just caving because I was offered hotel and park discounts, some free products, and behind-the-scenes experiences, there were things I didn’t care for.

The name of the conference, Disney Social Media Moms, is really unfortunate. There were a half dozen or so dads in attendance, and sponsors were generally pretty good about including the fathers (Hanes brought us boxers in addition to bras for the lady folk). But why not just change the name of the conference?

“Disney Social Media Parents Conference” would be perfect. It’s one little word, but the shift toward inclusion from an esteemed organization like Disney would be a HUGE step for involved fatherhood. Amazon just changed the name of its parenting program from “Amazon Mom” to “Amazon Family,” and I’d love to see Disney follow suit.

And as someone with a definite fear of crowds, I did have a hard time navigating the packed Disney parks. Combine that with pushing a double stroller while simultaneously dodging the plethora of people using motorized scooters, and it’s safe to say I was pretty frazzled at the end of each day.

But all of that was outweighed by the good.

The Beach Club Resort was absolutely beautiful, a 5-minute walk from Epcot, and featured a lagoon-like pool the kids could’ve stayed in all damn day.

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Meeting the characters (except for princesses, who Sam seemed to fear like they were the stuff of fiendish nightmares) was phenomenal and even Will (8) was staring at them in wonder and excitement.

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Also, my kids love animals. A lot. Especially Sam, who calls all the animals at the zoo his friends. So imagine his delight when we went on the Kilimanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom, and saw rhinos, giraffes, and hippos!

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Notice the baby elephant nursing!

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And managing to catch heartwarming moments like this one, in which Sam thought his MagicBand (the FitBit-esque wristband you wear at Disney that gets you into your hotel room, onto the rides, etc) was a walkie-talkie that connected him directly to Mickey Mouse.

Yet for a brief idiotic moment, I actually cringed while on this dream vacation specifically because I knew I had been wrong and would have to admit it. I repeat, I was momentarily upset because I was having too good a time.

Being steadfast is generally a good thing, as sticking to your principles is an admirable quality. However, Disney reminded me there’s a marked difference between steadfast and simply stubborn. My stubbornness was preventing me and my family from having a good time, and missing out on some truly remarkable memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives.

Disney isn’t perfect. Nothing is. But I get it now. I understand the “magic” is in watching the looks on your kids’ faces when their minds are blown by meeting their favorite character they’ve only ever seen on TV. And while I’m still not one of those “OMG DISNEY IS THE BEST EVARRRRR!!!!” folks, I understand the draw now.

Part of the magic is the escape Disney provides.

I heard from people who were different growing up and had some pretty hard times, but their brief Disney vacations provided moments of acceptance and true happiness. And for someone like me who talks about gun violence, domestic violence, child negligence, politics, and other controversial and important issues on a daily basis, I realized there’s room for the lighter stuff too. It’s not a cop-out to enjoy a little Disney respite, it’s actually good for the soul. The world’s problems are still there waiting to be tackled, but reconnecting with my family in the “happiest place on Earth” left me refreshed and gave me a severely needed break.

Long story short, sometimes it’s good to be wrong. Especially when wrong is as cute as this.

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I’m sorry, Disney. We cool?

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The In-Between

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Will is 8. Sam is 2. They don’t share very much in common and the things that do overlap seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

The 8-year-old is proving to be the toughest to gauge right now. I watch with a mixture of amusement, admiration, pity, and sadness as he fluctuates between little kid and young adult. He wants so badly to be grown up some days, but at the same time he’s only 8. He is in that No Man’s Land of wanting more responsibility, but immediately reverting back to being a little kid when it proves too much for him to handle. He rushes boldly out into the land of big kids, only to retreat to shelter of childhood when that older world leaves him longing for the innocence back where he came from.

All of that means it’s been an especially rough time trying to get Will to play nice with Sam.

Will is too cool to play with “babies” most days. He wants to ride his motor scooter, his bike, and practice his Taekwondo. When we ask him to play with his little brother we’re most often met with eye rolls I thought wouldn’t start until he was a tween, and sarcastic remarks that sound disturbingly familiar (the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in that regard).

I know the age difference (5.5 years) is going to make that kind of thing inevitable, but I also want my kids to find more common ground. So how do we accomplish that?

By watching TV.

I know that’s not the new age, popular answer. I know I’m suppose to preach screen-free child-rearing and start opining on how technology and electronics are ruining our kids and blah blah blah. Well I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.

Our Netflix sessions routinely bridge the gap between Will and Sam right now. Obviously I can’t watch The Avengers with Sam like I can with Will, but thanks to the broad array of programming on Netflix I am able to find things we can all watch as a family.

If you have kids with a fairly big age gap, consider these titles to satisfy both of them.

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Will stumbled on this kooky cartoon a few years ago and he still loves it. Even better, he’s passed that love on to Sam, who also can’t get enough of Oscar, Harchi, Buck, and Popy. It’s a nonverbal cartoon and I can hear the hysterical laughter from upstairs as they happily watch it together.

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All kids love animals no matter their age, and my kids are no exception. Martin and Chris Kratt, the two zoologists featured in this show, have taught my children an AMAZING amount about animals. We went to the zoo recently and I was reading from one of the signs near the exhibit, and Will said, “Dad, I know this already. It was on Wild Kratts.”

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Yeah yeah, I know. Some of you think the Princess Bride is too inappropriate for my 8-year-old, nevermind my 2-year-old. Well you know what? Pipe down and keep your judgment to yourself. This is one of my favorite movies and it is awesome for everyone. It’s fun, adventurous, filled with memorable lines, and hasn’t stopped being entertaining after all these years. It also keeps both of my boys entertained at the same time, even if we do have to skip by the ROUS (Rodent of Unusual Size). So yes, I will have fun storming the castle thankyouverymuch.

What movies/shows do you use to bridge the gap between your kids?

StreamTeamBadgeI was compensated by Netflix for writing this post. Although I did not receive monetary compensation, I received free Netflix for a year and an smart TV. However, as always, my opinions are 100% my own. Check out Netflix on Facebook.

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Spring Break, Rhode Island Style

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The country’s smallest state is too often underestimated in a big way.

Everyone thinks because I live in eastern Massachusetts that automatically means Boston, but I’m actually much closer to Rhode Island (20 minutes). In fact, my brother worked in downtown Providence for years, I sang in a professional choir at Grace Episcopal Church on Westminster Street, and MJ and I got engaged at the Capital Grille in Providence 11 years ago.

So yeah, it’s safe to say Rhode Island holds a special place in my heart. That’s why I was thrilled to be invited to #RISpringBreak — a short, family tour of three great attractions the Ocean State offers.

We started out with a bang at the Biomes Marine Biology Center — a place I can’t believe I’d never heard of, but won’t soon forget.

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If you’ve got kids, you’ve got little people who LOVE animals. Will, my 8-year-old, is a devoted Wild Kratts fan, and knows the names of all the species he encounters. That’s why traveling to New England’s only private marine education facility and getting to do things like pet sharks was beyond exciting for all of us.

This place is amazing, and its history even more so.

In 1978, 14-year-old Mark Hall began catching local marine life and selling them for educational purposes to schools across the country. After college he still collected specimens, but put them together in a traveling marine road show in which he would go to local destinations to teach people about marine life in Narragansett Bay. A decade later he set up shop in a building, and now Biomes houses the largest collection of local marine life in the world, with more than 120 species under one roof.

Also, Pufferfish are awesome.

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After that bit of awesomeness, it was time to head to Roger Williams Park Zoo. I won’t lie, this one didn’t really excite me at first, mainly because we’re already members there and we’re pretty familiar with how fantastic it is.

But then I found out they were giving us passes to Birds Down Under!

Picture a bunch of extremely cool, colorful birds native to Australia. Then imagine they’re set free in a large enclosure. Now think what it would be like if you were given a popsicle stick with bird food on it, and allowed to stroll around while birds land on you to feast.

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Yeah. It really is that amazing.

You just walk around among more than 500 birds, including grass parakeets, cockatiels and various species of parrots. After kids get over the initial freakout of “OMG THERE ARE BIRDS LIKE 2 INCHES FROM ME RIGHT NOW!!!” they’ll also get to learn about conservation challenges these birds are facing in their natural habitats.

Oh yeah, did I mention it’s only $3 per person (in addition to regular admission to the zoo) and toddlers go for free?

And finally, we ended the day the way all days visiting Rhode Island should end: with a trip to McCoy Stadium.

I’m a huge Boston sports fan, and all Boston sports fans have traveled at least once to Pawtucket, RI to see the great prospects play for the Pawtucket Red Sox (the “PawSox’), which is the AAA minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.

I love baseball, and it’s really cool to be in the place where so many great careers took off. Before you saw them on SportsCenter, fans in Pawtucket knew them for years and followed them before they were a blip on the radar of most fans. In fact, two Hall of Famers — Jim Rice and Wade Boggs — came up with the PawSox, along with countless other notable and beloved players such as Nomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, and my personal favorite, Trot Nixon.

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But as much as I love baseball, I have a newfound appreciation for what McCoy Stadium at the PawSox offer now that I’m a parent.

Unlike a trip to Fenway Park, you can afford to take your family to McCoy. Not only that, you can actually buy a hotdog, some popcorn, and the ever popular ice cream in a helmet without taking out a line of credit. Everyone from the ushers to the ticket-takers are incredibly friendly and helpful, and the young stars of tomorrow on both teams are willing and eager to sign autographs and give souvenir baseballs to kids.

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So don’t overlook Rhode Island. Head to the Ocean State and enjoy all it has to offer. You won’t regret it and you’ll never forget it.

Disclaimer: I received no monetary compensation for this post, but I did get free admission to each site I visited. All opinions are 100% my own.

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Fat Guy Running

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“KEEP RUNNING, YOU FAT FUCK!”

I was about four miles into a 6-mile run when the distinguished passenger in the beat-up sedan rolled down his window, leaned out, and shouted his unorthodox greeting at me. Even with my headphones blasting and over the sound of my labored breathing, I heard him. Loud and clear.

He was a kid. Just a dumb kid. I was that dumb kid once, so it’s hard to get too upset. The kid shouting awful things that seem funny to 17-year-olds everywhere, but will cause you to cringe with the passage of time and the gaining of wisdom. A kid who hasn’t yet realized impressing your friends by insulting strangers isn’t funny, and real friends don’t need to be impressed by tearing other people down.

I understand the folly of youth which is why I never even looked back. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get to me.

Yes, I’m fat. He wasn’t wrong about that. And while fat people make for easy targets under normal circumstances, fat people running is fish in a barrel. Our red faces, heavy breathing, and bouncing parts that shouldn’t bounce create more than fertile ground for hate-filled passersby looking to score a cheap laugh. I get it, and it is what it is.

But I think there are a few things that kid should know about the guy he decided to ridicule.

I’m fat, but not as fat as I used to be. I’m working hard to be less fat and more healthy, and the main way I’m doing that is by running.

I ran a half marathon 6 weeks ago. My fifth one in four years. So while I’m sure I look disgusting and lethargic to you, I actually work my ass off and my endurance is probably better than yours. How humiliating would it be to lose a race to Fatty McFatterson?

Sometimes I run with my sons. In fact, I’ve started a really nice tradition with my oldest where he joins me at the finish line of my half-marathons. Would you have screamed that at me with them there? Are you comfortable with an 8-year-old hearing his father rudely cut down by a stranger? How would you feel if someone made fun of your father’s appearance? I bet you wouldn’t like it.

I was in the middle of a 6-mile run. You were riding in the comfort of a car. Now which one of us is lazy?

As you so eloquently pointed out, running does not come easy to me. I’m not built like most runners, and I’m always going to struggle. But I’m out there getting it done anyway, despite knowing there are people like yourself out there ready and willing to take cheap shots.

And finally, why yell at the person actively trying to change? Granted, you shouldn’t demean anyone like that, but to publicly shame the person who had the intestinal fortitude to improve his lot, get out there, and put in the sweat equity to change and improve? That’s low. And your lack of class is far worse than my fat ass struggling to run.

So here’s to all the people out there with a few extra pounds. The people who are far outside of their comfort zones and pushing themselves to limits they didn’t think they could reach. Here’s to the folks running away from health problems and toward a future with their families that isn’t cut short by complications from diabetes or cardiac arrest.

Here’s to all the men and women who might not look the part, but are out there getting it done and putting in the work. The people who will never come in first, but work twice as hard just to finish.

To the immature little punk tearing other people down to make himself feel better, please know this fat fuck will indeed keep running. I can always get slimmer and faster, but you’ll probably always be an asshole.

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LEGO, Parenting, and Monsters

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I’ve never liked LEGO very much. Probably because building something from scratch is terribly difficult, and it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Much like parenting young children. Especially Sam.

If you don’t know, he’s the one on the left. The one whose picture is eternally blurry because he never stops moving. The one who is currently torturing me with a combination of sleep deprivation, a refusal to listen, and a fundamental commitment to being as difficult as humanly possible.

Recently, Sam become a bedtime terrorist. For about a week, he completely regressed in his sleeping habits and began torturing us to the point of absurdity.

One day he simply refused to go to bed. The antics would start about half an hour before his bedtime, which is when I get home from work. Lucky me. I’d walk in the door and my presence would serve as an internal alarm that he goes to bed soon, meaning he began to equate my presence with misery and impending doom.

He screamed. He threw things. He hit people. He bit people. All this while we’re trying to get the baby to sleep and oh yeah, I forgot to mention, he shares a room with his older brother. That means letting him scream means no one else gets sleep either, which isn’t fair. He soon realized this and held us hostage.

He requires three stories — one involving a castle, one involving a cheetah, and the final one involving his brothers, a cheetah, and a castle. Then he needs three songs — Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, Down by the Old Mill Stream, and Share the Darkness by the Saw Doctors.

And his newest addition is a fear of monsters, which required some creative maneuvering on our part.

I came up with magic monster dust which is kept hidden in his closet, and is an invisible dust coated over the entire room that keeps monsters at bay. But that wasn’t enough protection for him. So MJ concocted a Monster Spray (lavender, water, and sparkly stars in a spray bottle) we spray throughout the room before we leave.

If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Also, none of it really worked.

After a week of screaming, banging the door, kicking the walls, and keeping us all up all hours of the night, I lost it. I hit that dangerous breaking point all parents know and fear. The one where your patience, kindness, logic, sanity, and reason instantly evaporate, leaving you only with desperation and white hot rage.

It was in this state I burst through Sam’s door, picked him up, put him on the bed, and read him the riot act. I told him he was slowly killing us, I screamed that I couldn’t stand him anymore, and I roared at him that he was a horrible child. It all just came pouring out in an ill-advised instant of insane sleep deprivation and frustration, in which I lost my self-control and did something I’m ashamed of.

Sam, with his lip trembling, looked shocked as he recoiled. He tearfully reached for something on his dresser and then hit me right in the heart.

“Dada, you monster,” he said, as he sprayed me with the water bottle.

I cried and hugged him and apologized. I hate getting that mad at my kids, and even though I know it happens to all of us it still sucks. And I’m going to try my best not to get to that point again.

I’m going to try to take a lesson from LEGO, and be a builder instead of someone who just tears down when frustrated. I’m going to heed the lessons Sam learns when watching LEGO Friends on Netflix — friendship, teamwork, camaraderie instead of selfishness and divisiveness. I’m going to be like the characters Will loves from LEGO Bionicle, who band together to protect Okoto Island.

Parenting is all about trying to succeed more than you fail, while building kids up from scratch with little to no directions. And while we all occasionally lose our minds when we step on unseen LEGO pieces with bare feet, it’s all about doing your best to have more wins than losses.

It’s time to focus on building.

Check out these two great shows on Netflix:

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StreamTeamBadge*As part of the Netflix Stream Team, I receive free Netflix and other products.

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