There was a castle here once.
If you look closely, you can still see remnants of its foundation here in These Stunning Ruins, a line of stones left in the grass.
Perhaps this is the most ruined part of this metaphorical space, and it is one I do not care to visit often. I have no interest in trying to rebuild it. It is largely ignored, forgotten, and altogether despised. What’s left is subject to the overgrowth of the earth with bitterness at its roots.
But I remember when this place was an empire, and the castle was at the center – what I used to believe was “the heart” of these ruins. I remember the children who played here – the prince and the princess – who were kind but foolish, and naïve in a way that was both admirable and pitiable. With a wave of their shiny plastic scepters, they thought they controlled the weather with each passing day full of sunshine and rainbows.
Little did they know they were powerless to stop the eventual destruction of their beloved home, and the resulting flood that would wash away their plastic beliefs and dreams, so that both the castle and the couple who lived there were unrecognizable.
But I remember them, because they were us.
Once upon a time, I was a princess.
I grew up during the Disney Renaissance – that period of the 90s when Disney’s animated films were celebrated works of art. In addition, my parents made the pilgrimage to what has been described as a modern-day “Mecca” and a rite of passage for every little boy and girl in the United States: Walt Disney World. I used to tell people that this was my “home,” and the place I “grew up,” but there is no growing up there at all. It is the real Neverland, and for all its commercialism and propaganda, it truly had the power to transform its tourists from bitter Mr. Darlings to playful Peter Pans.
I had no interest in ever growing up, and this was an ideal I clung to through adolescence and into early adulthood. My long-suffering boyfriend was aware of this childish belief and love of mine, and decided to indulge me.
Since we knew the inevitable was coming – that he would probably ask to marry me someday and these pilgrimages would become a thing of the past – my parents and I took one last trip to Disney World. Meanwhile, I had no idea they and my boyfriend were scheming and plotting a marriage proposal that would rival the ones you see on those bloated wedding cable TV shows, with the help of the staff at Disney. To their credit, they planned an elaborate show at no expense of ours. They even waived the entrance fee for my boyfriend. They took him out to lunch, making absolutely sure we wouldn’t run into each other, since this was supposed to be the surprise of the century.
They paraded my parents and I through the Magic Kingdom as the Grand Marshals. I remember being giddy and delirious, thinking this was the perfect way to end things, at the height of it all. “It doesn’t get better than this,” I thought.
At the end of the parade route, near the entrance to the park, we stepped down from our antique parade vehicles and into the spotlight. They had there waiting for me the barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, surrounded by an eager crowd waiting for the parade. But first, they were to receive a surprise show. The quartet sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” to me as I stood in wonder and shock, asking myself over and over again the question why. “Why are they doing this? What is this about?”
“She’s a wonderful Disney princess,” they said after they finished. “If she only had a prince.”
Suddenly there was a little mad searching, asking if there was a prince to be found anywhere nearby.
“She has a prince,” cried a voice.
Wearing a black top hat adorned with Mickey ears.
“And he’s right here,” he added.
Then he got down on one knee and my brain exploded.
I guess I said yes, but I didn’t hear the word come out of my mouth. I was left breathless. Speechless. Dumbfounded. Caught up in the disbelief that my boyfriend was supposed to be at home, and instead he was here with me in my happy place, the Happiest Place on Earth, and there was a ring on my finger, and after five years of dating, now we were engaged.
I think I cried.
I remember thinking that this was it. This moment. This was the happy ending I was waiting for. The little girl who grew up at Disney World had found her prince. And now we could live Happily Ever After.
Looking back, I now remember we were not the only ones celebrating that day. There were two other grand marshals that day, a couple on their honeymoon. I wonder if they felt like they were being overshadowed. Outdone. Forgotten. They stood off to the side like everyone else, watching the fairy tale unfold that was not theirs. I wonder what ever happened to them, and if the Happily Ever After was truly theirs, because it certainly would not turn out to be ours.
Still in the months that passed, we planned a Disney-themed wedding. My wedding dress was a ball gown and I wore a tiara in my hair. A miniature castle with a light inside was our cake topper. We were the real-life version of a fairy tale. I’m surprised someone didn’t set off fireworks as we left the reception. But I guess we couldn’t have everything. Could we.
We went back to Disney World for our honeymoon a few months after the wedding, but it was hardly magical. I was sick for the majority of it. I remember shivering with fever in 90-degree heat while eating a bowl of chicken soup at the Magic Kingdom, my long-suffering husband sighing and trying to make the most of it. He said he had a good time. I didn’t believe him.
Nevertheless, a year later we went back, this time with both sets of parents and our 10-year-old niece. We returned for the last time a year after that, visiting the Magic Kingdom for a day before we went on a Disney Cruise. My husband, the reluctant follower, was now a full-fledged convert. We had the happiest day there, running around Tom Sawyer Island like two big kids. I have a picture of him sitting on the little wooden bleachers at Casey’s, eating a hot dog while watching old Goofy cartoons. He looks like a giant 10-year-old.
We kissed under the flickering colors of fireworks, absolutely in love with each other and ourselves. We were invincible. We were as timeless and as classic as Cinderella and Prince Charming. Someday, we said. Someday we will bring our kids here and continue the long-held tradition.
Two years later, we were burying our first child.
The empire we had built was now a stunning site of ruins. The castle was destroyed, the prince and princess stripped of their plastic scepters and dreams. And in no time at all, the rest was washed away in a great flood of tears with the reality we had lost another child when I had a miscarriage.
Now the fairy tale ideals we cherished were not only naïve, they felt like deceptions. Syrupy propaganda. Unrealities. A screen behind which lay the truth – that life was no fairy tale, that our lives were sad, that we would never be happy again, and to tell us that there was still a Happiest Place on Earth where children laugh and play while ours lay buried in the ground could drive us to the brink of going mad with grief and bitterness.
I hated it all. Every vestige of that place, every memory I had, every moment I grew up believing my life would be a chorus of singing cartoon animals and pixie dust.
I would be sitting in a movie theater and a trailer for some insipid animated cartoon would appear, bearing the twinkling castle of the Walt Disney Pictures logo, and my skin would crawl. Then I had the sudden urge to give it the bird. “How dare you,” I thought. “How dare you mock my pain with your fake happiness.”
I even hated the way my husband proposed to me.
“Someone asked me if we were going to Disney World this year,” I said during one of our late-night conversations. “I wanted to punch them in the face. Why would we EVER go back there? Do people have no common sense?”
“Oh, god,” he said. “Yeah. I guess not.”
“I hate it. I hate it all.”
“I hate that I have any connection to that crap.”
And then I just put it out there.
“I hate the way you proposed to me.”
I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I was worried that deep down, I might have. So when I looked over at him, searching his face for a flinch or any sign of pain, I was surprised to see understanding instead.
“Oh, thank god. So do I.” And we both sighed with relief.
Once upon a time, I was a princess.
But you won’t find any pixie dust or singing cartoon animals in these ruins. What you will find, however, is a couple of resilient souls bent on survival. We are no longer naïve children clinging to unrealistic ideals, waving plastic scepters thinking we control the weather. We know better than that, and we can’t help but feel bitter about our past. And although you may still find piece of a glass slipper or half of a rodent’s ear lying amidst the piles of broken dreams that failed to be swept away with the rest, make no mistake: we don’t really care about those things anymore. Perhaps someday we will put them in a museum for future generations to remember the people we used to be. But our emotional attachment to them is forever lost.
You may perhaps find this story to be sad. You may feel sorry for us, and sorry for those people who were part of the illusion. I am sorry, too. I miss those naïve kids. I miss the delirious, giddy joy I experienced when I would walk through the gates to the Magic Kingdom and leave reality behind. No one needs to leave it behind more than me. But it follows me everywhere, and it removes the twinkling façade of fairy tales until they are nothing but twisted lies.
But although I am no longer the Disney princess they proclaimed me to be, the eager boy in the mouse ears holding the ring is still a prince amongst men.
We don’t follow the formula of Happily Ever After. But in spite of everything – all the grief and tears and destruction of this empire – we have lived this simple truth:
Love. Conquers. All.