I was never a fan of theme parks. Never was, never will be. But it’s a fact I’ve been slow to accept.
For as long as I can remember theme parks and fairs turned me off. At my friend Christy’s 3rd grade birthday celebration at Knotts Berry Farm, where a handful of lucky nine year olds crammed into the backseat of mom’s new suburban with slick matching ponytails anticipating a full day of rollercostering, I spend the afternoon parked on a bench beside her 85 year old Grandma. Dodging adrenaline and talking in depth about the future of the the royal family. Betty, got me. And I got Betty. And together we avoided all the lines, heat, and roller costers.
In 6th grade I went to Raging Waters for Jess’s dads work party and all I remember was stressing about the levels of urine we were likely swimming in, and drowning liabilities. I counted the life guards and the exit signs then got talked into going down one semi risky water slide where I swore I experienced my very first NDE “near death experience” which none of my friends were interested in hearing about at the hot dog luncheon later that day.
In high school on Senior night at Disneyland I called my mom begging her to pick me up because the bus full of raging graduates I arrived with were all high on acid laced gummy bears “tripping” so hard they kept losing each other in Alice in Wonderland and I couldn’t read a park map, was cold sober, and more miserable then I was prepared to be.
As a mother my aversion to these places came attached to a special (unexpected) guilt. It’s too easy to find new things all the time as a new mom to feel guilty about. So I tried again and again to be the kind of parent who embraces “Fun!” We went to all the pumpkin patches and Fall carnivals. Spent hard earned money on crap games and hideous stuffed animals. I did my best to talk myself away from the dark narrative I was born with that gets stuck on grim statistics about limbs lost and roller coster decapitations and just smile and pat their heads like all the other parents when they come running back from a metal death trap that two stoned teenagers were hired to operate. In photobooth strips I even perfected an almost “careless” expression. Instead of sharing any hint of the anxiety induced state my whole being is leaning towards.
Yesterday though, on a rare Carnival indulgence I accepted that I will never enjoy the experience the way, say, my friend Denise does. If you follow her on IG, you see her continually (willingly) hanging around Disneyland with genuine joy. And every time it gives me fresh anxiety. I will never get excited about fried pig legs, or frozen fruit drinks in ugly plastic cups. Or grimy clown mazes and balloon shooting game booths. In the thrilling land of striped tents, buzzing lights and cotton candy induced excitement, I will always be a fish outside water. I will always resent how it makes me feel like some kind of elitist because I detest long lines and general Fair aesthetics. And I will forever resort to the rare horrors I keep filed away of the 5:00 news stories about the guy who stood up up on the log ride, or suffered a failed harness and had his head come down a few minutes after him. I’ll always see rot in the salsa dishes. Or acid reflux in the fried food selections. And as much as I can appreciate the nostalgia behind a warm funnel cake on a paper plate, I always have a hard time justifying actually spending $12 on it. By all means, take me to a Fall carnival, and watch me become a somber buzzkill.
The thing is, after all these years I still can’t bring myself to fully avoid it. Because yesterday, when I begrudgingly dropped 75$ on four strips of tickets and Rex came barreling out of a flashing alien spinner asking to go “one more time” – a turn I already know will land him in bed two hours later on the verge of vomit – he’s still deliriously happy when I say yes. And when Leon is too nice to actually ram anyone in the bumper cars, he still walks out of it feeling like one wild & reckless guy. And when Arlo thinks he’s too cool to hang with us, but we’re headed to the local Fair, he still will. And Hayes, who is finally tall enough to get one of the rides that his brother’s been raving about, which probably has a 0.8 chance of dismembering one of them, he’s so excited he looks like his whole body might burst. Then on the ride home, when I find real relief in watching the ferris wheel shrinking in the rearview mirror, and the whole car smells like sweaty feet and cotton candy, they are all filthy and buzzing with gratitude.
“That was so fun, mom!” they say. And I smile. On a good day, I even pretend to agree.