I had a $2500 bonus burning a hole in my pocket. Thank goodness because the house needed to be painted; our red Windstar minivan was burning oil like a Bourbon Street palm reader; and the dishwasher sounded like a dub step remix of mating calls from the Bronx zoo.
My wife and I sat at the kitchen table to discuss our newfound, soon to be squandered, largesse.
“I think we should go to Disney World,” I declared.
“No way,” said my wife. “There are too many other things right now. We really need to paint the house. I’m getting bids next week.”
I knew I had to act quickly and decisively.
“Let’s ask the kids,” I said.
Before my wife could object we were all gathered together- my son Stephen was thirteen and my daughters Sophie and Hallie were eleven and seven. They knew something important was about to go down. I went right to work.
“Kids, daddy earned some extra money by doing such a great job at work. It’s really daddy’s money but daddy wants to share it with the whole family.”
“Even mommy?” asked Hallie.
“Yes sweetheart. Even Mommy.” My wife rolled her eyes because she knew it was probably over but she wasn’t going down without a fight.
She started in: “We need to be responsible with our money. Let’s list our priorities and learn a lesson in spending wisely.”
“Great idea. The first priority for any family is to bond and grow closer. There’s no better place to bond than vacation. How about a trip to….I don’t know…..DISNEY WORLD?!?”
“Yayyy,” screamed the kids.
“The commercial says it’s the happiest place on earth,” said Sophie.
My wife continued to put her spin on things.
“If we want a bonding trip I think we should take the kids somewhere completely different. A place where we will encounter strangers who speak an unfamiliar language. An odd place where our instincts of survival will be challenged.”
“Oh okay. That’s a good idea too. So let’s vote. Kids we can either go to Home Depot….or….Disney World!!!”
“Dis-ney World! Dis-ney World!” they chanted in unison.
A few weeks later we were loaded and ready to drive the 1093.2 miles from our front door to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. The first 240 miles were a breeze. But when I tried to start the van after filling up with gas in Minden, Louisiana, there was an ominous grinding noise. It was the unmistakeable sound of disaster. We weren’t going anywhere for awhile.
We had the minivan towed to a nearby mechanic who promptly identified the problem as a blown transmission. He could have it fixed and ready to roll in three days and for $700.
So much for the happiest place on earth. Exhausted and exasperated, we decided to do something a little different. We let the kids take over. We gave them a list of nearby attractions (a Civil War graveyard and a putt putt golf course) and restaurants and they made the plans. We swam in the motel pool, played games, watched movies, ordered strange things for each other off the menu, and scared one another with some novelty rattlesnake eggs.
The car was ready on Tuesday as promised. Determined to finish the trip, we found ourselves at the entrance to Main Street USA on Thursday. Funny but it bore a striking resemblance to Main Street Minden USA.
It turned out to be the same Disney experience that millions of people have had, with the notable exception that a bird pooped on my head as I waited in line for Space Mountain. To this very day, all of my kids have two vivid memories of the entire trip and my $2500 bonus- rattlesnake eggs and bird droppings.
Of course, that’s the point. The best bonding trips are improvised and unplanned. And the happiest place on earth? It’s not a place.
(The above post was written for New York Parents Magazine in connection with the release of “50 Rules for Sons.”)