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From Cynic to Convert: How Disney Won Me Over

mouse ears

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?

sam mickey

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.


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.


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.




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!

Notice the baby elephant nursing!


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.



I’m sorry, Disney. We cool?

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That Time When


I do it all for the stories.

I love stories. I love collecting them and mentally filing them away so I can marinate in them whenever I want. I love telling stories, both via the written word and through old fashioned word of mouth. And I like retelling them years later, even to those who have already heard them and know them by heart.

Stories are my currency, my stock-in-trade, and they become our historical record long after we shuffle off this mortal coil. They are the thread that weaves together generations and the wind that gently carries whispers of the past. They are the closest any of us will come to immortality.

But before our stories can be told, they have to be lived.

It is amazing to me how the entire concept of vacation has changed since becoming a parent. If you’re like us, you have one family vacation per year. Assuming you take family vacations up until your kids are 18 — and factoring in most kids don’t remember much before the age of 5 — that leaves a measly 14 vacations. Fourteen chances to create lasting memories that give your children Kodak Moment level goosebumps. Just more than a baker’s dozen opportunities to make and collect your stories.

For me, it’s all about “That Time When.”

I think back to family vacations when I was young and there was that time when we went to my aunt’s beach house on Cape Cod but ended up playing a billion games of Ping Pong in the basement because none of us liked the beach. Or that time we went to Six Flags and I instantly overcame my fear of rollercoasters because a 13-year-old girl in a bikini asked me to ride with her. And who can forget that time when we went to Amish Country and ended up fighting with a buggy driver after I called him a hypocrite for being against the consumption of tobacco for moral reasons, yet having no issue profiting off the smoking industry.

But now I’m a dad. A working dad. A working dad who knows my countdown from 14 has begun, and desperately wants to create some “That Time When” moments for his own family.

With some help from HomeAway, I was able to do just that. Instead of staying at a hotel, we used HomeAway to find an absolutely perfect, pet-friendly lakefront cabin in Vermont. We had a kitchen to cook our meals instead of paying for room service, a beautiful pond for swimming and fishing instead of a hotel pool, and we saved money by not having to board our dog. All that for roughly $150 a night. Cheaper than a hotel and better than a hotel.

Now, here are our moments.

Continue reading That Time When

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When In Doubt, Change Your Perspective

will_sunset“Dad, you’ve gotta come up here.”

My 6-year-old beckons from atop a lifeguard stand on a Harwichport beach. It’s after sunset and we have the expanse of sand entirely to ourselves, save the cormorants dawdling by the ocean’s edge. My initial reaction is to refuse, since climbing the lifeguard stand smacks of effort and I’m totally exhausted from the frenzy of a day with kids on Cape Cod. Plus, I loathe the beach, and my first thought is not to extend my time there. But 6-year-olds are nothing if not persistent, so up I went.

Then he asked me questions. Why is the sky black on one side, but orange on the other? Why is the water salty? Where does all the sand come from? How come the ocean meets the sky way far out, and does that mean we can touch the sky if we sail far enough? Some I answered, some I didn’t know, and others I simply left up to childhood imagination.

“You know what I like best, Dad?” he asked me, head cocked to one side.
“No pal, what do you like best?”
“I like that it’s all the same stuff we’ve been looking at, but different. Because we’re high up.”

I always thought I hated the beach (and the subsequent beach experience that goes along with it) for simple reasons. I hate the heat, I burn easily, I don’t like swimming, I loathe taking my shirt off in public, sand is annoying, and beaches are usually crowded. Fairly straightforward, summertime, fat guy laments. But after my most recent beach trip with my son, I’m thinking I had it all wrong.

Will made me stand with him in the surf to let the waves tickle our toes. I hate that feeling. It’s not the fact that I’m wet that bothers me, it’s the feeling of being off balance. As the waves break on shore and the water sweeps past, I feel like the Earth is giving out beneath me, taking away my solid ground. Or at least the illusion that I was on solid ground to begin with.

And looking out at the horizon has always made me uncomfortable, because nothing is scarier to me than uncertainty. I’m someone who has never had a passport because I’ve never left the United States (except for Canada). I prefer familiarity to the great unknown, which is probably why I’m partial to the mountains over the ocean. I can almost always see the top of the mountain, and with a lot of effort I know I could eventually get to the top. But even though I’m aware a long ocean journey would eventually find land, the never-ending nature of the sea overwhelms me. As does losing sight of the shore.

The strains of U2’s “Beautiful Day” drift toward us from a wedding reception farther up the beach. Will walks ahead of me now, holding his shoes in one hand and scanning the sea-swept ground for shells (and Great White Sharks, naturally). From my angle, it looks like if he kept walking along the shore he’d eventually curve off into the horizon where the sea touches the sky.

Part of me wants him to charge into the unknown with reckless abandon and total confidence, going places I would never dare. But another part of me wants to carry him out of the surf and away from the tides completely, to be safely on the shore. As if the shore — with its shifting sands and seismic inconsistencies– is really any safer.

The beach during a crowded, 90-degree day is still my version of hell. But for me to continue saying “I hate the beach” just isn’t accurate. The beach at night is nice. After sunset, walking on cool sand, and sitting atop a lifeguard chair with my son — this version of the beach was nice and it was all ours for a little while.

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Working Parents Squeeze In Their Moments


The canoe glides along silently, save the “plunk/whoosh” sound of the paddle slicing through the water’s surface. The gargantuan clouds are puffy and impossibly white, but not foreboding — no rain checks needed today. A summer zephyr gently prods us along toward a cove spotted with lily pads, as the oldest and I look to add to our summer bass total.

“Dad, this is very calm. And peaceful,” he says from the front of the canoe.

But all I can do is look down into the clear water to see the milfoil just below the surface. Thick, green submerged weeds like fuzzy fingers reaching up from the depths. I can’t help but feel this invasive species is reaching for me, trying to rob me of time like it’s suffocating the water quality in the pond.

I’m only on Day #3 of my vacation, but already my window is closing and one thought is flashing in my mind like a neon sign — DO MORE!

This is the curse of working parents.

I work two jobs (three if you count the blog) and I struggle to provide as a breadwinner and a father. Rent, bills, and canoes aren’t cheap, which makes the hours at work numerous and quality time scarce. I get three weeks of vacation every year, but I use one for conferences and the other around Christmas when things are crazy. That leaves one week. One week solely for my kids. One week to do everything.

Lately I’ve been envying my wife for being a stay-at-home mom, which is ironic since I’m not even sure I could do her job. Or that I’d want to do it, if we’re being honest. I know her role is filled with damn hard work and days she questions her sanity when our youngest won’t nap because his 1-year molars are coming in and he’s drooling blood in a fit of rage. I know sometimes she feels like she wishes she could trade places with me.

But stay-at-home parents have the thing I’m most envious of — the knowledge that they’re doing the most important thing in raising quality human beings.

They are in the trenches and doing the grunt work. Sure they’re unappreciated now when the kids are young, but in 25 years they’re going to realize my wife was always there. The reliable one. The go-to parent. And they’ll have a bond with her that will be deeper and stronger than one can imagine.

Me? I’m the guy working on the computer. Answering one last email and sending one final freelance pitch. So on vacation, I really pour it on.

“Let’s go the museum!”
“Hey, how bout a baseball game?”
“Want some ice cream?”
“Time for fishing!”

Where MJ is a fire that burns slowly and steadily, I flash hot and bright and then fade back into the office. She’s steady as the tides, I’m a tsunami. I’m an annual meteor shower and she’s the moon.

Working parents don’t witness milestones, they’re told they occurred. The phone call at the office that he got his first tooth. The video she sends you of his first steps, and hey — at least we saw it before all of Facebook. So there’s that. It’s enough to make us feel like spectators, or subscribers to the newsletter of our own lives.

Which is why when vacation hits, I get a little desperate.

We tried to get Will to ride his bike without training wheels last year. It went horribly. He wasn’t ready or physically able, and it ended with lots of crying, pouting, and frustration. Will was also pretty upset.

But this year, I vowed to make sure Will could ride his bike by the end of the summer. And I was going to see it, dammit.

When we went at the beginning of vacation a week ago, it was…rough. I was too hard on him and placed way too much pressure on the poor kid, and his performance reflected that. I was trying to force it so I didn’t miss it, and in the process I damn near ruined everything.

Yesterday was my last day of vacation. After we went fishing, I nonchalantly asked if he’d like to try bike riding one more time. This time, I took an entirely different tack. I told him it didn’t matter if he did it, only that he improve from last time. I had him sit down first and envision a successful ride, and then try to emulate in real life what he mentally pictured. I smiled and told him stories of my learning-to-ride failures as a precocious kid.

He fell. A lot. But then, well…he didn’t.

Once my attitude was positive, so was his. He refused to accept my help because he wanted to do it on his own, and he constantly repeated affirming messages to himself throughout the whole thing. “Just keep trying, Will” and “Will, remember to pedal, steer, and not panic.” 

And then off he went, pedaling furiously away from me as I jogged to catch up. As apt a metaphor for parenting as there ever will be. But this one — learning how to ride a bike — this one is ours. Will’s and mine. I needed a win, badly, and my wife saw that and graciously let me have it. Because she’s awesome and far too good for me.

Back on the pond, the interesting thing about milfoil weeds is there are no known biological controls to fight them off or slow them down. In time, and like time, they come whether we like it or not and eventually they change the existing habitat. Armed with that knowledge, my vacations in coming years have taken on a whole new meaning and level of importance.

If you only have a week, you’d better make it count.

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A Sinking Feeling

In case you missed Part I of my camping saga, you can read it here.

Last Saturday, after completing our hike up Mt. Cutler in Maine, MJ and I were on top of the world.

We were sore and our muscles ached, but we were proud. For the first time in a long time we felt victorious. Like conquering heroes. And the best part was we completely reconnected and plugged back in—to each other. We ate a delicious lunch at a cool little dive place on the way back to camp, and spent most of the meal smiling and just grinning at each other across the table like newlyweds.

I was deliriously happy. And the only thing that could make me happier was the thought of a refreshing swim in gorgeous, spring-fed Granger Pond.

MJ and I changed into our bathing suits, grabbed some towels and hopped in the car to get to the lake. Yup, that’s right. We needed the car because the road to the lake is INCREDIBLY steep. We found that out the first night when we ignored recommendations and walked to the lake. At first it was cool because it was a full moon and there’s some kind of mineral in the gravel road that sparkles. The end result was us feeling like we were walking on a diamond-encrusted road in the moonlight. But eventually we started to wonder if we were on the right road.

Then, all of a sudden, the lake just opens up in front of you and it’s stunningly gorgeous. The walk back up that hill? Not nearly as much fun.

So anyways, we drive our car down to the lake and I’m so excited. I’m hot, sweaty, tired and oh-so-ready for a cool dip in a Maine pond. I took off my shirt, threw my towel on the beach and waded in to what might’ve been the most refreshing dip of my life. The water was on the colder side with just the slightest shock after you submerge yourself. But after our hike it was exactly what I needed. I eagerly dove in and started swimming out towards the middle where there was a floating dock.

Like an excited little kid I proceeded to do cannonballs and dives off the floating dock, feeling absolutely glorious in the process. I was alternately swimming around, floating on my back and splashing MJ (who was slightly pissed because the water was too cold for her). When she wanted to get out I pouted like Will when we cut playtime short.

As I exited the water I smiled broadly. Absolutely exhausted but simultaneously refreshed, I was just looking around at our pristine surroundings and taking it all in. I grabbed my towel, dried off, put my sandals on and began walking towards the car in complete bliss. Until…

Suddenly a dark realization descended upon me with the force of an F-5 tornado. The color drained from my face and my heart sank into my toes. My entire body seemed to freeze and enter into a full-blown panic all at the same time. As my right hand desperately patted my right thigh, a sinking feeling set in and I knew, in that instant, I was sunk.

I had gone swimming with MJ’s car keys in my pocket. And now they were gone.

Unless you’ve ever lost your wife’s keys while four hours from home in the deep woods of Maine with no spare set, I’m not sure you can understand how idiotic I felt. Not to mention scared because I had to tell MJ. Except when I told her, she didn’t believe me. Which actually makes everything 100 times worse because I had to repeatedly persuade and convince her that I’m that inept.

“Baby, your keys are gone. I’m so, SO sorry.”

“Bullshit. You’re kidding. The keys are in the car right?”

“Honey, I know I screw around with you but I’m serious. I lost the keys. We’re totally screwed.”

“No, no, no. You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding.”

“I’m not kidding, I swear. Why do you think I’m kidding?”

“Because if you’re not kidding, you’re fucking dead!”

I immediately began looking for the keys in the water. But when I couldn’t find them in the shallows I looked despondently out towards the dock off of which I jumped, that sinking feeling growing exponentially. I asked Paul, the owner of the camp, how deep the water was out by the dock. The look on his face told me all I needed to know.

“Well, it’s about 40 feet deep out there. But that’s the least of your problems. A few years ago we sunk a radiator and tied the cable to it so we could hold the dock in place. When the cable broke we hired a guy with SCUBA gear to reattach it. But when he swam down there, he couldn’t find the radiator because the bottom is so soft.”

Great. The lake swallowed an entire radiator. There was no way I was getting my keys back. The only silver lining was the help we received from the TREMENDOUSLY nice people at the campground.

Frank took us up the hill in his golf cart to call AAA, but not before the other campers and their kids began scouring the pond for us. Triple A tried to call a locksmith, but couldn’t find one who would come out. Surprise, surprise seeing as we were in an area where the moose out-populate the people. When we searched on our own, we were told it wasn’t possible to make a new key because MJ’s car key has a fancified double-sided thingamabob component that couldn’t be duplicated.

That left us no other choice, and I had to make the phone calls I was dreading.

And so it goes that my unbelievably nice mother-in-law had to go to our house, find the spare key and drive it 40 minutes up to my dad. From there, my saint of a father drove 3.5 hours up to Maine to drop it off. And then he declined our invitation to stay in the tent while we slept in the car, and drove 3.5 hours back to his house.

Now those are great parents!

I’m such an idiot. Only I can turn a great weekend into a drama-fest. We had this amazing time on the mountain and then I lose my keys to a radiator-swallowing lake, which not only murders our Saturday, but also the Saturdays of my in-laws and my parents. And I wasn’t done there.

The only stroke of luck we had was that MJ had left the passenger side window down so we could retrieve our things. Clothes, food, gear…all inside the car. Except I had turned the alarm on before I lost the keys. So when I opened the door, the serene Maine woods was suddenly polluted with a jarring horn blasting away repeatedly, wrecking the experience for dozens of people trying to enjoy their weekend.

Frank was nice enough to drive me up and down in his golfcart to the car, which was parked down the huge hill. But in my tradition of screwing up, I had forgotten a few things. And since I had bothered everyone enough, I decided to walk back down to the car.

When I made it down there, I couldn’t bear the thought of setting off the car alarm again. So I decided to go through the window.  Faced with the problem of having to get my 265-pound body through the window, I did what every red-blooded American male would do.

I decided to go Dukes of Hazzard all over that bitch.

As you can imagine, it did not go well. I took a running start and jumped as high as I could. Halfway up I realized I was nowhere near the level of Bo and Luke, and ended up doing this weird half-jump, half-dropkick thing as I thudded against the car door. With my career as a TV stuntman dashed, I decided to go in head-first. It only went a little better than my Dukes attempt. But I did manage to get everything I needed out of the car. Except myself.

To exit the car, first I tried go feet first. Didn’t work. So I went out head-first. I managed to wiggle my fat ass to the point my hands were on the ground but I was stuck halfway out. Completely upside-down doing a handstand with half my body in the car and half out, I flailed wildly and ended up kicking the steering wheel and laying on the horn in the process. Then, just for good measure, I suffered the indignity of my shirt falling down exposing my gut. Finally I wriggled my way to freedom, collapsing in an overweight heap next to the car.

As I stood up, it was just in time to see a teenage girl—frozen in place and staring at me in horror—while on her way down to the waterfront.

“Car trouble,” was all I could think to mutter. She quickly walked away. I don’t blame her, I would’ve too.

So I owe my mother-in-law and my dad big time. Not to mention MJ, who was (for the most part) very understanding about the whole thing. I still think I was helped immensely that there were witnesses so she couldn’t kill me right then and there. And I think I just need to resign myself to the fact that I will never have a normal…well, anything. Stories are great and weird stuff is wonderful for blog fodder, but I’ve had my fill. Just one normal weekend is all I ask.

So remember, practice safe-swimming everybody. And keep your keys on shore.

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