Family Style: A Thanksgiving Vacation to Remember

How to make sure your child really appreciates a trip to Disney World? Wait until they’re older.
by CC Parker | illustration by David Stanley

“We’ll be going to Disney for Thanksgiving,” my father announced in my last year of high school. It seemed like he wanted to maximize our time before I departed for college — one last Bailey family adventure. 

It later occurred to me that he was also avoiding his in-laws for their annual visit, and that, if we’re being honest, he’s never cared for turkey or the tradition. Whatever his reasons for going, I objected because I had plans.

The plans themselves were a little hazy. Maybe my friends and I would go to the State game and gawk at the fraternity boys. Maybe we’d go to Crabtree and try perfume samples at Belk and eat in the food court. Or maybe we’d be in Marty’s basement practicing our “Thriller” dance. Either way, I definitely did not want to go. Not only would I be missing out, I’d be stuck in Hell: an amusement park with my family.

To be clear, Disney World had been at the top of my list in my younger days. Holidays would roll by and my vacationing Joyner classmates would return with their Mickey ears and matching autograph books, with tales of ginormous waterslides and volcanoes and princesses at every turn. The Magic Kingdom was a city paved in gold, but Dad was unimpressed: “They’re too young, they won’t remember the trip. It’s a better investment to go when your kids will actually remember it.” And we moved on — or so I thought.

My mom and sister were gung-ho for the Thanksgiving adventure. My younger sister, always the favorite anyway, was glad for yet another opportunity to prove she was a team player. (Faker.) And my mother, who’d never been to Disney World, said she’d always wanted to take the “It’s a Small World” ride. Plus, she could avoid both visiting family and polishing silver. So it was settled.

These being the last days of my tenure at home, Dad had a few life skills he was anxious to impart on me. Namely, “character-building” and “appreciating the value of a dollar” — both of which he used in booking our travel. (While my father does appreciate the finer things, everyone knows that character can only be built in discomfort.) I also suspect he waited until the very last minute to book the trip, so there weren’t many options. 

Oh my, the unending lines at the airport. It seemed we weren’t the only family in search of Thanksgiving magic. We squeezed into our four tiny seats in the way back of a Midway Airlines flight and then we were off.

Once we landed, the rental car agency was a 45-minute drive from the airport — and the hotel was an hour in the other direction. We’d apparently booked the last room, one with a double bed for our parents and a pullout sofa for my sister and me. (She got some serious elbow jabbing as soon as the lights went out later that night in retribution for her part in all this.)

After a night of sofabed wrestling muffled by a grating, barely functional window A/C unit, we headed for the fabled Magic Kingdom. As we parked in the overflow lot in the next county, we were overcome by the sheer number of people. There were lines everywhere: for parking, for trams, for tickets, for rides, for top-dollar food. We had to stay focused. Stop #1: It’s a Small World. The line was around the block and consisted of ancient people, very young children… and me. My sister was happy as a clam in her new Mickey Mouse ears, purchased with her saved allowance. (Goody-goody.)

By departure time, three days later, we were not speaking. Or, rather, the rest of them were talking to each other, but I was not. On our way back to the airport, we stopped at Waffle House for breakfast. I opted to read my book in the car — until overcome by heat, hunger or boredom, I finally joined them. Dad, who’d barely glanced at me for days, asked me to hand over the keys, which, it turns out, I had locked in the car. 

We called the rental car agency, but they didn’t have a second set of keys. We were speechless. My mother started to pray out loud. (Was she praying for a flight delay or my life, I wonder?) Suddenly a good Samaritan emerged from the Waffle House with a wire coat hanger. The car was unlocked in minutes, but we still missed our flight.

At the airport, the gate agent informed us it would be three days until we could get a confirmed flight home. We were welcome to try to go standby, she said, but with two minors who couldn’t fly unaccompanied, it might be a fruitless wait. It was, after all, the most traveled day of the year.

 No one wanted to go back to the hotel. No one wanted to go back to the park. How could this have happened? 

 It seemed like the right time for me to point out to Dad that this is what happens when you rent from the cheapest car rental place. (As someone who’s now a mother of three young adults, I shudder to recall that I said this.) For Dad’s part, there were no words. My sister discreetly vanished in her Mickey Mouse ears. Mom started to pray out loud, again.

We waited through seven outbound flights, moving from gate to gate, watching Midway load and unload passengers, all of us now praying for four measly seats. Eight hours later we were ushered onto the plane — and the last four seats were in first class! And, almost as important, they were not together! My mother and sister were seated next to each other (of course). My father got a window seat, and immediately ordered a (free!) mimosa. And I was front row center, kicked back with my Walkman, Seventeen magazine and a Coke enjoying some alone time. 

In high spirits from this happy ending I finally agreed with Dad: visiting Disney as an older child was certainly more memorable. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.