A few weeks back we – Sarah, the kids and I – spent five days at Disneyland for Evie’s birthday. We were hoping to stay at the Disneyland Hotel but due to some kind of pool refurbishment we ended up at the Paradise Pier, the lowest budget of the three major Disney hotels.
I’m glad we did. Because staying at the Paradise Pier confirmed my suspicion that, at every price point, Disney has hotels down.
If you’ve read any of my books (and if you haven’t, I forgive you), you’ll know that I grew up in hotels. As the child of hoteliers, I spent many of my early years living in and around hotels. I learned to ride a bike on the flat roof of a city-center hotel; I ate my first solid food in a hotel. Before I spoke my first word, I dialed nine for an outside line. Then, as an adult, I spent five years travelling the world, living only in hotels: an adventure I documented in The Upgrade.
I couldn’t tell you how many hotels I’ve stayed at in my life. Hundreds, certainly. A thousand, very possibly. So believe me when I say this: Nobody in the world understands hospitality like Disney.
Which is not to say that Disney has the nicest hotels. They most assuredly do not. Nor is the service the best I’ve ever experienced – the Connaught has them comfortably beat, as do countless family owned places in countless tiny towns.
When I say Disney has hotels down, I mean that the Walt Disney corporation, more than anyone else on earth, has perfected the machinery of hospitality. That it has figured out, better than any corporation on the planet, how to extract the maximum possible number of dollars from the most possible guests, while simultaneously making them feel delighted about it.
From the moment we checked in, the service at Paradise Pier wasn’t just perfect, it was perfectly on brand. Our room on arrival was decorated with Evie and Eli’s favorite Pixar characters: pillows, stuffed toys, candy, even a banner strung across the window. Every staff member – from the receptionist at check in, to the lifeguards in the pool, greeted us with a perfect Disney smile, and a ‘happy birthday’ for Evie.
On our last day we went to “Princess Breakfast” at the Grand California hotel where the kids got to meet Pocahontas, Aurora, Mulan, Tiana (above) and Rapunzel. For about half an hour – even after the other kids had left – Pocahontas and Mulan stuck around to play with Evie and Eli, teaching them “warrior poses” and showing them the strawberries growing behind the restaurant. I’ve never seen those – or any – kids look happier, and their imagination made more real.
Then there was the park itself: The twice daily parades and lightshows and Maxpasses which meant they didn’t have to line up for more than a few minutes even for the most in demand rides. Since our last visit to Disneyland, the Disney app has become much, much better: We were able to order and pay for food in advance, check ride queue times, and even download photos taken as we plunged over Splash Mountain.
Of course every single one of those incredibly perfect experiences cost us an absolute fortune. The magic of Disney is making that fortune seem like a bargain.
They call Vegas adult Disneyland, but that’s not true. Yes, Vegas has the same sieve like ability to allow people to pass through but leave their money behind. Yes, the Las Vegas has incredible crowd-handling skills – wrangling millions of toddlers/drunks without any of them dying or going missing. But nobody has ever left Las Vegas feeling like they got value for their money. Nobody ever leaves Vegas felling happier than when they arrived.
Vegas is the hospitality capital of the world, but nobody – nobody – knows the hospitality business like Disney.
By day five of our trip, I was ready to come home. I couldn’t walk another step and my Amex card was screaming for mercy. Sarah felt the same way and, Eli’s tears notwithstanding, the kids were both absolutely wiped out.
It was on that fifth day that I thought back – with absolute disbelief – to the very first time I visited a Disney park. It was 1994. I was 14 and my younger brother was 7, and we travelled from the UK to Orlando for a three week vacation to all the Disney Parks, plus Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center and just about every other kid-friendly attraction the Sunshine State has to offer.
Earlier this month, as we trudged, exhausted, onto the plane at LAX, I was baffled: How the hell did my parents take my brother and me to Disney World for three fucking weeks? Never mind how did they possibly afford it… how did they not die from exhaustion or kill each other, or kill us?
I actually asked them about this last time I visited them. My dad shrugged at the question and said he wasn’t quite sure how we survived it either. But one thing he was certain of: He remembered it as the best holiday we ever had. My mom did too.
Which means either my parents are somehow superhuman, or they’ve forgotten all the expensive and exhausting parts of the trip and remembered only the happiness. In which case, I’ve done the same: That vacation is one of my happiest childhood memories.
How will Eli and Evie remember their trip to Disneyland with Mom and Apple? In twenty years will they look back with the same happiness with which I remember my trip to Orlando?
Will it take them more than 20 years to truly appreciate how much Sarah planned for them, and how hard she worked to arranged the princess breakfast and make sure they got to see all their favorite characters? Will they marvel at how we could possible have afforded it all while trying to build a startup, never mind while living in insanely expensive San Francisco? (Note to future Evie and Eli: We couldn’t.)
Maybe. But first I hope they remember the joy they felt on walking into that hotel room and seeing all the Pixar characters strewn across the bed. I hope Eli remembers how captivated he was even as he rode It’s a Small World for the hundredth time, or Evie’s smile when she got to swap haircare tips with Rapunzel. I hope Eli remembers eating M&Ms for breakfast with Goofy and Minnie Mouse, and Evie never forgets the price she felt after she was brave enough to ride the Matterhorn.
Because, more than anything else, vacations like this are an investment: A trade of time and effort now for children’s memories later.
Note I didn’t include money in that trade. Memories don’t have to be expensive. Other happy childhood memories include visiting my dad at work and being able to play on the typewriters in the accounts office – and even send a TELEX. I remember the hours my mum spent ferrying me back and forth to magic conventions and competitions (I haven’t yet written about my previous life as a magician, but I will I promise), never once complaining about the time it took, or the miles.
The common factor of those memories, and my childhood trip to Disney World, is not money, but time. Children remember the time you spend with them. Maybe they don’t appreciate it straight away, or even for two decades afterwards, but they always remember it.
Childhood passes quickly, and that once it’s gone, so is the chance to make those memories. So call this my extra resolution for 2019: To give as much of my time as possible to Eli and Evie; to get more memories in the bank in the hope that they’ll look back on their childhood, as I do to mine, with happiness and gratitude.