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The Happiest Place On Earth Isn’t Worth the Risk This Year

Skipping the family vacation means a hard conversation needs to be had

Cara Harbstreet (She/Her)
Jul 5 · 6 min read

Growing up, I divided my friends into “Vacation Families” and “No Vacation Families.” Some of them took off for the beaches, the mountains, or anywhere in between at a frequency that boggled my young mind. I remember my family taking exactly two trips between the ages of birth and 18 years that didn’t involve family, sports tournaments or track meets, or something work- or farm-related.

Those were “trips” and as I got older and began traveling for my own work-related reasons, I quickly learned the difference. A trip is something you take out of responsibility or obligation, like going to a conference or visiting family to help them downsize. A vacation, on the other hand, was all about fun.

So when I was invited to tag along with my partner’s family vacation to Walt Disney World for Thanksgiving, I hesitated. How much fun could a vacation to Florida truly be in 2020?

I’m prepared to have the tough conversation explaining why I’m bowing out but it doesn’t mean I don’t wish things were different.

Disney isn’t really my thing

As a kid, I was never super into Disney the way some kids are into Disney. I wasn’t begging to dress as my favorite princess for Halloween. I wasn’t reenacting the movies or looping the songs on repeat — at least, I don’t recall doing that, but you’d have to ask my mother to confirm. I was certainly not pleading with my parents to take me to Walt Disney World.

It just wasn’t my thing, although it’s totally cool if it’s your thing.

And I don’t know the proper label for “my partner’s mother” but Disney is kind of her thing. She goes, on average, once a year or so and that lands them firmly in the “Vacation Family” column. During our last visit, she gave us the catalog of the various parks, lodging options, amenities, meal plans, restaurants, along with a recap of her recommendations based on past visits.

It was, to say the least, a little overwhelming. I felt disoriented trying to follow along with her excited chatter and, not wanting to rain on her parade, I opted to nod and smile and feign the enthusiasm I wasn’t feeling. Not only did I not know what she was talking about, but I also didn’t really care.

If I were to travel anywhere this year (which is looking more and more unlikely as the weeks tick by), I would really like it to be to a place I’m genuinely excited to see.

I was already about to cancel Disney

Plans for this vacation were forged months ago and announced during the Christmas holidays. But even before then I was pretty content with my Disney-less existence. Between longstanding racist stereotypes in their films, a lack of diversity and inclusion, and problematic labor practices, I was hard-pressed to find a reason to celebrate Disney.

I’m speculating here but my guess is your personal affinity towards animated characters is much stronger when they look like you. Mulan was released in 1998. I was nine years old. And I thought she was a total badass.

But Mulan is not without its issues and is just another link in Disney’s long chain of whitewashing and problematic tropes based on racialized stereotypes. And I suppose I can be alright with that. What other choice do I have? As Christian Kim wrote, “That is the unpleasant side of problematic minority representation in film: it’s all we have so it’s the only thing we can claim as our own despite its issues.”

A lack of accurate and humanizing representation aside, Disney as a brand represents a lot of what I don’t agree with. Primarily: profits over people. When I saw the costs of some of the experiences at the parks and resorts, it just didn’t sit right with me. I knew families squirreled away money to participate, but how much of that actually goes back to the park employees?

And I’m not an overly materialistic person, but even if I was, I fail to see how the branded merchandise and obligatory photo ops would enhance my happiness in a meaningful way. The cost of it all just seems absurd for what you get out of it. Coming from a “No Vacation Family” I never felt like I missed out on childhood experiences or lacked the opportunity to make happy memories.

With a limited budget, I’m much more inclined to invest my money in something that provides a little better bang for my buck.

Florida is a COVID-19 hotspot

Here’s where the rubber really meets the road for me. If this was last year, I’d go along with the plan, enjoy it as much as possible, and feel grateful for the opportunity to experience something new. I didn’t travel with my ex and his family, so I’d welcome the chance to spend some quality time together. It’s a gracious thing to do, inviting me along, especially given the relatively short amount of time we’ve been together.

But it’s not 2019. It’s 2020 and we’re staring down a long, uphill battle with a pandemic we’ve yet to get a grip on. And to borrow a phrase from my “No Vacation Family” patriarch, that scares the living daylights out of me.

I’m self-employed. I don’t have a team who can pick up the slack if I have to miss work. And as such, I pay for my own health insurance which leaves me in a perpetual state of feeling barely comfortable with living my regular life. As one of the millions of underinsured people in this country, all it would take is a single devastating illness or injury to seriously jeopardize my financial future. Not to mention, Florida is on the list of states requiring a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for travelers.

I can’t do it.

On Saturday, July 4, Florida announced 11,458 new cases of COVID-19. My immediate reaction to hearing that was, “Excuse me, WTF?!” I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all, one of the trainers at my gym recently vacationed in Miami only to return home and test positive a few days later. I watch acquaintances attend beachside weddings and bachelorette parties via social media and question the logic of hopping on a plane to travel to a place with more positive cases than anywhere else in the country right now.

This tally for positive cases from Florida followed an announcement from the White House intended to provide clarity following months of mixed messages: “We need to live with it.” For me to “live with it” I’m going to need to stay far, far away from hotspots, COVID-19 deniers, and anyone foolish enough to think they’re invincible against this virus.

The experience won’t deliver what it used to

I’ll be surprised if some unforeseen development doesn’t force the closing of Disney parks and resorts before November. But then again, I thought I couldn’t be surprised about other things only to be struck incredulous at the absurdity of reality.

Here’s what I will say. Even if the parks and resorts can remain open, should they? What kind of experience is there to be had? Long lines will only grow longer if social distancing is enforced. It’s miserable wearing my mask for an hour to run errands — how will it feel to wear one around the clock in a hot, humid climate? And my partner’s mother already got a notification that restaurants aren’t accepting the standard requests for reservations because they’re not sure what their capacity limit will be. I’m not sure what will be open, how crowded it will be, how long it will take to navigate around the resorts. There are so many unknowns that I simply can’t justify the risk right now.

For all she’s hoping for this trip to be, I need to tell her why I can’t be a part of it. It sucks to back out of such a generous offer. To be welcomed into their family like this feels good and I want to be able to fully enjoy it.

But at the same time, I don’t think Walt Disney World can claim the title of the happiest place on Earth anymore. Maybe that will change in the future and it’ll be safe to travel again. For now, when I think about what really makes me happy, it all hinges on whether I’m alive and well to experience it at all.


This piece is a response to the Know Yourself Writing Prompt #53: What conversation do you need to have today, and with whom?

Learn more about Know Yourself and how to submit.

Know Yourself

A writing prompts publication brought to you by Assemblage.

Cara Harbstreet (She/Her)

Written by

Lover of carbs and puns, call me Cara Carbstreet | Anxious Millennial | Coffee Enthusiast | Non-diet Dietitian

Know Yourself

A writing prompts publication brought to you by Assemblage to present a range of questions to help us to understand ourselves better.

Cara Harbstreet (She/Her)

Written by

Lover of carbs and puns, call me Cara Carbstreet | Anxious Millennial | Coffee Enthusiast | Non-diet Dietitian

Know Yourself

A writing prompts publication brought to you by Assemblage to present a range of questions to help us to understand ourselves better.

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