I learned that my grandmother had died just after exiting the Soarin’ ride at Epcot. In true 21st century fashion, I got the news on my iPhone in a Facebook message from my mother.
Disney is a surreal place, so—in some weird way—it all seemed appropriate to get the news here, and in that way.
I had already been planning a blog post on my Disney experience. I knew I wouldn’t be the first—or the last—to comment on the artificiality and the consumer culture run amok. The four Disney parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) are paeans to an America that never was, idols to the cult of capitalism, monuments to sexism and patriarchy, and cultural Imperial Storm Troopers, who will co-opt anything that will make the Walt Disney “brand” a buck (or a million).
They also have kick-ass roller coasters, which is not an insignificant point in their favor.
What struck me as I stood there, staring at the message that my grandmother—my rock, my role model, my champion—was gone, was how much I wanted that Disney version of the world to be true. Disney bills itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and—on some level—that may well be true. The place is overrun with little kids who are delirious with joy. The employees are invariably friendly and helpful. Everything is spotlessly clean.
And there is no death here.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Disney “does” death, of course. But the only Disney characters who die seem to be those in the background (mothers, mostly) and those who “deserve” it: the witch in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, and Shan Yu (and his army) in Mulan, to name a few. All the main characters—the “good people”—get to live happily ever after.
There is no room for the messiness of death and grief in the Magic Kingdom. You have paid a ridiculous amount of money to be here and to be happy, and—by God—you have no excuse and only yourself to blame if you aren’t.
But tell that to an 11-year-old, who weeps for the loss of her “best friend” and who keeps asking me “Why did Ammama have to go away?” She has never known a life without my grandmother—for whom she is named. They have been friends and confidantes, and my daughter—in true Disney fashion—had convinced herself that my grandmother would not…could not…die and leave her with no chance for “happily ever after.”
This is a hard lesson to learn in the Happiest Place on Earth. For both of us—I wanted that to be true as much as she did.
We are riding the roller coaster of grief now. There is no line for that one. There is no Fast Pass that will get us through the waiting and the pain and the just-plain-tedium of death and its aftermath.
There is no end to that ride. It will just keep going and going, until—eventually—it will run out of steam and we will be allowed to exit. But we will be instructed to watch our step and to take our baggage with us as we leave. And "happily ever after" will never look quite the same again....