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Wednesday 10th April 2024

These days I approach a lot of my parenting activities with the vague mantra:

"This might be fun.. It will probably be stressful, and I will overuse the phrase ‘stop fighting!'  But therefore any fun we have is a bonus."

It's a pretty sloppy mantra. But I'm a pretty sloppy parent. (Depending on who you compare me to). But as we all know, comparison is the theft of joy. So let's just say I'm fine at this.

Anyway. I was excited to take my children (now aged six and nine) to Disneyland Paris. Apart from the odd teacups ride etc at a fairground, we had only ever been to one theme park before (Legoland) several years ago, and the little one wasn't even tall enough for most of the rides.

And I say excited, but given my slightly jaded mantra, what I really mean is cautiously optimistic with just the tiniest hint of foreboding. But you know, excited. For a parent.

So I was not expecting to have such an emotional reaction to walking into Disneyland.

Why was I unable to stop grinning and slightly tearing up? I'm not this guy. It's just the land where dreams come true. What's the big deal? It's just THE LAND WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE.

At Disneyland so many little children are having the absolute best day of their lives. It's incredibly infectious.

Suddenly we were at the bottom of a grand staircase, where a bunch of three year olds - dressed impeccably as their favourite princesses, complete with tiaras - were taking it in turns to walk down said stair case, so their parents could film and photograph them being REAL PRINCESSES.

There is something quite overwhelming about being surrounded by so much earnest joy.

And it wasn't just the children. Maybe because Disneyland is so expensive, but no one really seemed to be there ironically. No one was snarking, rolling their eyes or just there for the lols.

So all the adults were also free to wear mouse ears and various costumes and merch without any fear of reprisal. This is the place you go to escape that, and unashamedly live your truth (if your truth is wearing mouse ears) in a slightly camp wonderland with a 1920's meets 1960's vibe.

You can't walk around the park without seeing beloved characters from your own childhood. They are everywhere: waving, hugging, posing for photos and represented on the various rides.

It's disarmingly fun and charming. Who among us would not shout, ‘Look! There's Tigger!' under the same circumstances.

It was quite confronting how much fun it was to interact with people pretending to be Disney characters. You know they are acting. And yet. You can't be the one to break the spell. So you sort of end up as some unwarranted improv extra trying to make your kids' experience even more magical.

We ate at this one restaurant where every twenty minutes or so, a different Prince and Princess would come round the tables, greeting their subjects, asking the children about their favourite rides and posing for photos. My nine year old seemed politely above this, but my six year old was the perfect age to enjoy extra attention from Disney royalty.

If you have a creative job, and you make stuff, especially if you make comedy, sometimes people will send you messages or come up to you after a gig to tell you they like your work. Or that you cheered them up, or got them through a hard time. It's always lovely to hear. And one of the ways I justify not doing something more worthy: I may not be an NHS nurse, but I have helped cheer up some of the people who are. (So yay for me).

I said to my husband it must be so weird doing this Princess gig because you are getting that kind of praise that comedians sometimes get after a gig, but it's not really you. No one can say to Belle, "I love your work. You were absolutely right about Gaston. I love how you backed yourself and it paid off because now you have that massive library and you love books."

When Ariel and Prince Eric started making the rounds, I told my husband that The Little Mermaid had been my favourite Disney film growing up. I joked to him, ‘imagine if I said to her, "you are my favourite Princess. You got me through some hard times when I was ten. I used to draw you all the time. It's so great to meet you." And she'd be like, "um great, I'm an actress." '

But THEN, when I was half way through posing for a photo with them and my children, my husband told her that she was my favourite princess. And I already looked like a mad fan, because I was happily posing and joining in. (Eric took my arm actually, total gentleman).

But actress Ariel seemed unexpectedly and genuinely thrilled that she was my favourite princess. Her eyes lit up, it was like she'd been vindicated. So then I got to pose with just her, and have my photo taken by my laughing husband.

So, there is definite nostalgia for the adults, but I think that's only part of the power of Disneyland.

My other theory is this: Nature abhors a vacuum and I think Disney has taken up a lot of the space for STORIES left by our fragmented modern society.

Humans need stories. Stories are how we learn, bond, understand the world, work out who we are, where we came from, what we're a part of, community, order, love, loss, redemption, what we could or should do. Stories are everything.

They used to be told around a fire after the hunt and work of the day was done, signalling it was time to relax and reflect. Then passed down through oral storytelling traditions, then books and now films. (Yes, this is my brief overview of 40,000 years. What).

But now we live in a more transient, individualistic, isolating world, and where so many people travel so much, a shared sense of community, or any community-based identity can be harder to find.

None of my grandparents were born in the country I live in. I am from here really. But a tiny part of me is a bit from the other places. I am one quarter Norwegian, but I've only been there once. I don't know the authentic Norwegian stories. I am not really from there. I am a tourist there.

But I am from Disney. I am from seeing Bambi at the cinema when I was four, and crying when his mother got shot. I am from running inside because Mary Poppins was on TV, and I needed to learn how to be redeemed by flying a kite.

I am from over-watching the Dumbo we taped off the TV in the 1980's and crying at the cruelty with which he is mocked and separated from his mother, and rejoicing as he miraculously turns the thing that is supposedly wrong with him into a superpower.

I am from watching The Lion King on DVD in the 1990's and being shocked they let his dad die, even though I had already seen Bambi and Dumbo and really should have known by now, that a lot of Disney films are death and pain.

And because Disney is so massive and so successful, everyone else knows these stories too.

So even though I may not have very much in common with what at one time might have been considered ‘my people' I am instead bonded to the global community that has shared these same storytelling experiences. We have all cried and rejoiced together over Scar's greed and comeuppance. In this way Disney fills a profound human need.

(Yeah sure Catie, it's a profound human need. Not just that you cried a bit at Disneyland and now you're trying to justify it).

Sure, on the one hand, it may sound like I'm trying to justify why I nearly cried at Disneyland. But I think we can actually all agree that it's also because of a profound human need.

I don't buy into the idea that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. AT ALL. BUT. I do think it has been successfully and convincingly designed to try to make people (especially children) as happy as possible. And none of the rest of the world is designed that way.

So much of childhood (and life) feels like constantly being told to shut up. Especially when you're a kid, it's just a series of things happening, that you don't control, and that will mainly result in you somehow being in trouble for not reacting to whatever the thing is better.

But this little oasis is for you. And I think that's empowering for children, to have that feeling, this is for me.

So anyway, I think that's why I felt unexpectedly emotional upon entering Disneyland.

But I did still overuse the phrase, ‘stop fighting!'

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