The Happiest Place on Earth

April 22, 2010

Thanks to summer jobs, I haven’t been able to join my family on many of our recent summer vacations. At first I didn’t really mind—skipping family trips meant having the house to myself for a week to live as slovenly as I desire (which is quite slovenly, if I do say so myself).

After the initial euphoria of living alone for a week wears off, though—usually after about 12 hours, when I notice that no one has washed my dirty plates—I always come to the same conclusion. As grating as being in a confined space with my family can be after seven or eight days, most of my best stories actually come from family vacations. It is the sort of thing that I really miss now that I have fewer and fewer opportunities to make new stories.

Perhaps my favorite occurred when I was in kindergarten. My parents decided that it was time for my younger sister and me to visit Disney World—that glorious, plastic tribute to commercialism and consumerism rising up out of the Florida swampland. 

Instead of flying, however, my parents decided that it would be more cost-efficient to drive 24 hours straight from New York to Orlando. Who needs the luxuries of air travel when we could pile into our Dodge Minivan with a handful of Capri Suns and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cooler, and some homemade mix tapes in the cassette deck?

I don’t know what made them think that they could drive for 24 straight hours with nothing more than the occasional gas break. Perhaps it was a feat that they were able to achieve in their pre-parenting days when they were young and carefree, but with two young children in the car, it seemed a bit more like madness.

We made good time for most of the trip. Barreling down I-95 South, my father rarely lifted his leaden foot off the gas. It wasn’t until we reached hour 15 or 16 that things began to take a turn for the worse. 

My parents were both exhausted and, having already traded driving duties several times, there was only a slim chance that we would make it to our destination without a pit stop. Just past the Florida border—only five or six hours from our destination—they finally gave in and decided to stop at the next hotel.

“Hotel” is a very generous word for the place we ended up staying that night. I can think of no better description for it than Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of Mos Eisley Spaceport, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The building was a squat two stories, with maybe 15 or 20 units total. Paint was peeling off of nearly every surface. The “hotel” was squeezed between a motorcycle bar to one side—a place where it looked like every patron knew the proper way to break the bottom of a glass bottle to make the most dangerous weapon possible—and a strip mall that looked like it hadn’t seen a customer since the Ford Administration. 

My mother went to the office and checked us into a room while my father waited in the car with me and my sister, likely to try to stave off the seemingly inevitable car theft for as long as possible. My mother came back to the car with the room key and we all piled out ready to confront the room before us.

My father, with our bags over his shoulder, opened the sickly pastel green door with the silhouette of a number seven that had long since gone missing. The room reeked of mildew and cigarette smoke with a hint of industrial-strength bleach, clearly meant to reassure the guests that someone had actually attempted to clean the room.

As much as my parents may have thought that we were not going to make it through the night without a junkie breaking into the room or our car being stolen, we somehow did. However, it turned out that the rest of the hotel guests had not been so lucky.

When we went back out to the car the next day, it was impossible not to notice the police cars filling most of the parking lot. One of the officers came over and spoke to my mother and father, asking if they had heard anything strange in the night. Given the tenants of the hotel, it was difficult to tell what the officer meant by “strange”—but it likely had to do with the drug deal gone wrong that led to the murder of a man, two doors down from our room in the middle of the night. My parents said that they hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary.

We loaded the car back up and pulled out of the parking lot on the last leg of our trip to Disney World. We eventually made it there. Besides one or two generic Disney-manufactured moments, I really have next to no memories of Disney World, but the trip did give me a great story about how I once slept in a seedy motel room, two doors down from a blown drug deal. Maybe not the most appropriate memory for a 6-year-old, but I just hope that one day my kids grow up with similar stories of their own.

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