Want our island-hopping columnist's recipe for a blissful family vacation? Mix one mouse with a pinch of Tamiflu and a tiara or two...on second thought, just put it in cruise control.
Allow me to paint an idyllic little picture for everybody: The father (sort of rumpled, sort of sexy) holds branch-skewered marshmallows over an open fire as his two sleepy children nestle in their mother's (aerobically fit) lap. They've spent a sunshiny day swimming in an azure blue lake. They've picked wild blackberries and climbed apple trees. They've torn up stale hot dog buns and tossed them to the ducks. They've taken turns burying each other up to their necks in the warm, sugary sand. Look...I know you don't find sand at a lake, but for God's sake, work with me here.
I'm trying to say something about the proverbial summer getaway, about tire swings and drive-in movies, hot August nights and motels with an ice maker and soda machine down the hall. I'm giving you the secret to achieving the perfect family vacation, which is really just a simple matter of (spoiler alert: don't read on if you don't want to know) making yourself part of the perfect family.
It turns out there's a shockingly long waiting list to get into the perfect family; apparently there are only seven perfect families currently residing in the U.S. and they rarely have any openings. In other words, if you haven't already filled out the paperwork and gone through the interview process, you're pretty much doomed to a lifetime of trips chock-full of tick bites and sunburns. Unless...
"Johannes," I call, in a futile effort to wake the love of my life, the father of my child, the man who strongly believes that the world has become entirely too commercial, "we're going to Disney World!"
"Huh? What time is it?" he murmurs, rubbing his eyes and burrowing deeper into the quilt.
"We'll see Space Mountain and get Goofy's autograph and—"
"Wait, why would we go to—"
"Of course you're right, my love! Why would we go to Disney World when we can go on a whole Disney cruise? You really are a genius, darling. I totally agree. A cruise it is!"
"Honey, it's really late, you've just got to let me get some sleep now."
The poor bastard never knew what hit him.
Johannes, Julia, and I board the Disney Magic in Cape Canaveral, Florida. We also bring Lidra, the Wonder Nanny, along. Some (and by "some" I mean every friend who has ever taken a Disney cruise) assure us that the boat's childcare facilities and staff are top-notch, but I can't shake the following thought: "What the hell does Disney know about children?" Johannes suggests that it's possible I have some trust issues, given that I've had this exact same thought about our pediatrician, our nursery school, and the cast of Sesame Street. Well, excuse me for questioning Grover's people skills....
The ship is massive. Nine hundred and fifty crew members from more than 50 nations are sailing with us. Supposedly, that's one crew member for every three guests—but it becomes very clear very quickly that all 950 are actually here for the sole purpose of making Julia happy.
Our daughter cannot believe her good fortune. For nearly six years she has been forced to endure life among the peasants—no drawbridge, limited tiara use, and seldom do her royal decrees actually stick. Now, at long last, she is surrounded by people who see fit to address her by her proper title: Princess. She hobnobs with Belle and Cinderella. She attends a pajama party and bakes chocolate chip cookies at the Oceaneer Club. She watches movies on a giant outdoor screen while floating in the pool. She is photographed with Mickey & Minnie, Chip & Dale, Lilo & Stitch. Alice and the Mad Hatter invite her onstage for tea. Pillows are fluffed, towels are folded into origami animals, and, thanks to Sam and Richard—the two servers who've been assigned to wait on us at every meal as we rotate between restaurants—she seems to have almost round-the-clock access to chicken fingers.
Jules is not the only one receiving the royal treatment. Johannes has made his way to Quiet Cove, a surprisingly sophisticated "adults only" section of the ship that houses pool, café, lovely Italian restaurant (an abundance of lobster, an absence of kids), and the Vista Spa & Salon, where the two of us are massaged in an intimate "spa villa" suite connected to a secluded outdoor veranda complete with open-air shower and mint tea that we sip while soaking in our own private hot tub.
All choice has been removed from the equation; the only thing to decide is whether we feel like a picnic on the beach or a bike ride along the coast in St. Thomas, whether we'd rather snorkel or shop in St. Maarten, whether we'd prefer to lounge in a hammock or head for the barbecue at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. Lidra is tan, Johannes is rested, Julia is happy, I am pedicured, and life is sweet.
We've done it...or rather, Walt Disney has done it! Our long national nightmare has come to an end and the Kogan family vacation curse has officially been broken! Nobody has lost their luggage, their temper, or their way. "My God," I say one evening as I watch Sam cut Julia's meat while Richard places a napkin in her lap. "We have actually stumbled upon the perfect family vacation." Read that sentence again, my friends. Take a good long look at it, commit it to memory. Because that sentence is what is known as the kiss of death.
The man at the next table tells his wife to "shut the hell up." He hisses that he hates her as the woman's eyes fill with tears, their child stares at her plate, and Lidra, Johannes, and I do our best to distract Julia from the ugliness.
For the next two nights, the father and daughter eat in silence and the mother is nowhere to be found, though I do spot her staring up at the stars when I go for my nightly walk around the deck, and I've got a pretty good idea what she's wishing for. It is on one of those walks that I start to cough. Before long, my throat is sore, my muscles ache, and my temperature climbs high enough that when I find myself in an elevator with Pluto, I worry I'm starting to hallucinate. Johannes is the next to feel it: chills, fever, a Donald Duck sighting. The ship's exceptionally kind doctor puts us on drugs and chicken soup while Lidra and Julia go line dancing with Snow White.
So a mean man and a flu bug did manage to rock the boat. But as all but those seven perfect families have discovered, there's no such thing as smooth sailing. We left that boat hand in hand and, much to my surprise, so did the fighting family from dinner. Who knows, maybe when you wish upon a star, anything your heart desires really will come to you...just like Jiminy Cricket promised.