Role Play

We’re outside in a queue, my family and I, about twenty people ahead of us, along an ancient rod-iron fence protecting one of those perfectly manicured Disneyland garden beds. Behind us come the occasional screams from the Matterhorn, a perfunctory sound that’s been added to my memory after the fact, like a laugh track on an I Love Lucy episode. Every few minutes the monorail punctuates the sky overhead: Disneyland’s inherent nostalgia has protected its own public transportation from being overtaken by Uber or Lyft, at least for now. We’re all in line to meet Mary Poppins, or at least a Mary Poppins, one of a few Marys we see throughout the day. By now, we’ve already met a half-dozen princesses, one villain, and a cartoon dog, and it’s only eleven a.m.

On any given day, there are people who are going to Disneyland (around 50,000 of them) and then there are people who go to Disneyland. Living in Southern California, you become keenly aware of the annual passholder type, much the way you become aware of someone who was just vaping a second ago. It’s a look and possibly a smell. For the passholders, it’s a difference in enthusiasm, but also a difference in how you see yourself and the world around you. A trip to Disneyland is either something you vaguely suffer through for your children’s sake, or something you relish, like a hobby or even an identity.

These days it’s normal to see pop culture behemoths taking the place of religion or group identity. Star Wars and Harry Potter get their own theme parks, temples of worship for an annual pilgrimage of their adherents. Comic book movies now require intricate knowledge of a made-up mythology that spans a dozen interconnected films and television shows each year. Real religious rituals have nothing on Tony Stark and Christopher Nolan. It’s all the same hero’s journey, but Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling just seem to offer a much fresher take than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At least the special effects are better.

As someone who grew up loving the literary world-building of Tolkien and Lewis, I’m always waiting to see if that next thing I loved as a child is going be given the Transformers treatment. Though if someone could make an honest Tolkien-inspired theme park, one where we mostly smoke pipeweed and listen to trees tell stories in poetic verse, I would get the annual pass.

Speaking of authenticity, I should take a moment to note the mind-boggling professionalism of these character actors in Disneyland. Even when saddled with a stunned two-year-old, their verbal diarrhea of princess-sounding jabber, replete with references to movie scenes and other characters, is astoundingly effective. They ask a few questions along the way, mostly to pause for air, but when faced with a frozen smile instead of a response, they gladly forge ahead as if to ensure that the child wouldn’t later be worried about having made such a social faux pas as standing with their jaw agape. To see them please child after child, an assembly line of successful acting, is to see a performance as captivating and mentally excruciating as Leo wrestling the bear.

As we’re standing in line for Ms. Poppins, we can’t help but watch each group ahead of us. Most are like us, exhausted parents with their overexcited children, stroller full of packaged snacks in tow. But you catch a few glimpses of the others, the I Go to Disneyland people. I notice one such group, a husband and wife in their fifties or sixties, no children, no excuses for taking up precious space in the already too-long line. We get used to seeing this throughout the day- people without children standing in line to meet a Disney character- and it’s unnerving every single time. The older they are, the more unusual it feels, as if proximity to death is in negative correlation to how much fun you should be allowed to have.

And yet it’s in these moments that we see mere role play move into complete role reversal. Mary Poppins, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty years old, is play acting that infamous adult, her fake British accent dropping references to spoonfuls of sugar or offering to fly a kite in the park. And standing on either side of her is that older couple, smiling like children, posing for a photograph. I just want to shake them and ask them: Who is the photograph for? What will you do with it? Will the husband bring it back to the office to show his coworkers? Will he frame it and put it on his desk? Will the wife post it on Facebook? Will it be part of their Christmas letter they send out every December? What is the picture FOR?

Yet Mary Poppins’ acting is so successful that for just this moment, she’s brought them into her altered reality, she’s made them feel like kids again. She’s brought them back to the childhood moment when they first watched Mary Poppins on the big screen. And I don’t think it’s that embarrassing of a metaphor to say the Mary Poppins must’ve been something like the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets of its time.

It’s hard to write this down without appearing, without actually feeling, like I’m judging these people. There’s a part of me that wants to pull them aside, let them know that this is all meant for children. That since they haven’t any with them, they shouldn’t be holding up the line because those of us with kids have eighteen more princess-meetings to go before the end of the day. It’s easy to see fun and pretend as the realm of children, and children alone.

What’s worse is that by the end of the day I myself was having fun, a different, though similarly sinister form of fun. I was having the fun that a parent has when living vicariously through their child. Like a dance mom standing in the wings of a stage, mouthing the names of the movements to herself, I was watching my daughters faces light up, and breathing in their excitement as my own.

It’s a reminder of how narrow my lens is, because I’m at a point in my life where most of my time is bound up with my children. The quality of my time is often subject to the quality of theirs. But as they grow older and eventually move on, my wife and I will be alone. Without our kids demanding so much of our time and attention, what will we do with ourselves? We’ll suddenly be so free to do anything. I guess then we could go to Disneyland without the stroller and the snacks and the three-month old baby. I guess that does sound kind of nice.

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