[Editor’s Note: Romantic Disney is a column whose focus is on couplehood at the family-friendliest place on Earth. From knowing how, where, and when to seize your romantic moments, to conquering unexpected adversity, this series will explore how a mutual love of Disney can be key to building a long, strong and ultimately happy relationship.]
Recognize the symptoms before it’s too late!
In a perfect world, which Disney comes so close to achieving, there’d be no crowd larger than a clump, no queue that folds in on itself, and the weather would be set to constant cruise control. Unfortunately, though, even Disney’s vast reserves of pixie dust can only affect these factors so much, and at times, even the most tolerant can find themselves challenged to their limits and approaching burnout, which can not only take down the day, but possibly even your Disney vacation!
In reality, the Disney experience can be elevated to perfection or downgraded to a grind simply by one’s ability—or lack thereof—to adapt to the unexpected. Most of the time, we adapt with expert ease, always striving to rise above whatever obstacles are thrown in our path in order to maintain the ideal level of happiness, which is, after all, the ideal—and the prime directive.
Still, with all our experience going with the flow, rolling with the waves, and converting disappointment into adventure, there are times when the elements compound, adversities collude and the tolerance tank starts to run dry. This phenomenon is known as “burnout,” and the symptoms often go undetected until it’s too late. Know what to look for and disaster can be averted.
Let’s start with the red-flag factors:
- Heat and humidity
- High Attendance
- Long wait times
Individually, each of these factors can undermine the best laid plans and the best of attitudes, but when they occur concurrently, watch out! Your brain will feel broadsided by a linebacker in a Tigger suit and you won’t know whether to laugh or cry until you realize you’re doing both and there’s even a long line for the restroom. If logic is the tool you rely on in a developing crisis situation, you’ll find yourself at a loss as your enfeebled brain struggles to make sense of what’s crippling you: Yes, it’s more crowded than you anticipated, but hey, you’ve had to deal with that before, so why is it such a problem now? And, okay, it’s a hot day, but you’ve been hydrating pretty well, kinda-sorta-mostly, so that can’t be it. The lines are so long, maybe that’s really at the crux. If you could just get on a big water ride that would solve everything, but the lines are so long! Maybe what you really need is a snack. But it has to be the right snack. What’s the right snack? Where is the right snack? You’re going to have to go in search of it, and if you have to take one more wasted step in search of something you’re not going to find… YOU MAY DIE!
This was our turning point, and the lesson we learned the hard way that changed our Disney lives for the better:
The “You’re trying to kill me!” example
It was Day 5 of our Walt Disney World trip and we were off to Animal Kingdom.
The weather was hot and humid, but so were the last five days, so no new information there. What we weren’t expecting was how crowded everything was after experiencing a near-empty park only three days prior. We decided to veer from our plan of making a bee-line to Everest and instead take a meandering path through Africa, do the Safari, and then head to Everest. Only, the milling crowd we’d forged our way past was actually the line for the ride! So, we kept going. DinoLand was more crowded still, so we kept going. Past blimp-sized men sweating through their t-shirts and yelling at their kids, past screaming kids begging for churros, past bedraggled mothers hunched from pushing strollers filled with diaper bags and souvenir cups, past animals smart enough to lay still in the shade and watch the herd of migrating tourists, we just kept going. It was only when we passed the middle-aged couple wearing their Anniversary Celebration badges and looking so angry and miserable that we didn’t dare interrupt to wish them a Happy Anniversary that we knew we had to take action to save ourselves.
Luckily, I had a plan: “Remember that beautiful path that led to the Zen koi pond with the big shaded seating area?”
“Yes,” my weary spouse answered, “do you remember how we got there?”
I was instantly disappointed. Usually, we rely on his sense of direction, but not this time. He was done, and was even starting to question whether our Shangri-La really existed. “I think it’s this way,” I took the lead.
Many unrequited steps later, we found ourselves back where we’d started and my beloved wasn’t amused. He was even less amused when I led us up the same path that culminated in a dead end—again. “Let’s just sit and regroup,” he suggested. But most of the seating was already being sat in, and the only two available seats were next to a displeased guardian and her uncontrollable 7-year-old. I wanted to sit and regroup elsewhere, but my usually better half had had it, so we sat.
Once more for good measure, I described what we were looking for in an attempt to reestablish the credibility of our shared goal. But instead, my usually tolerant spouse barked, “You can describe it all you want, but I don’t remember how to get there!”
“How ’bout I get a map!” I tried to stay positive and focused. We were sitting right next to an info station where maps were a’plenty, and I was sure my map-loving husband would rise to the challenge. “Look,” I unfolded the map, “all we have to do is find Everest, figure out what’s directly across the river from it that’s near a place that serves pork and a designated smoking area, and then figure out how to get there from where we are now.”
Yet my pluck and map enticement were falling flat. “Babe, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t see it on the map, I don’t see it in my mind, and I’m telling you honestly that I’m done trying to find it. I think we should get a drink, have a snack, cool off, and decide where we want to go from here.”
At that moment I honestly wanted to burst into tears and kick him. Maps were his thing, how could he just quit? I felt abandoned and betrayed, and that was on top of being frustrated and angry. “Fine,” I sputtered, barely able to look at him, “but get an energy drink, not a soda,” I demanded in such a way that even I found offensive. I sounded just like a shrew-wife treating my husband like a dolt. That was a bad sign. A very bad sign. This just wasn’t who we are!
I sat there miserably, next to the kid turning all the stools at the table upside down as his overseer scolded, and watched the love of my life disappear into a horde of drenched people who’d just gotten off the wettest ride in the park, and I found myself momentarily grateful for the break. Another bad sign. I scoured the map, desperately trying to find the treasure we sought as if it would suddenly be marked with a big red “X.” But nothing had changed.
What felt like one long sweaty uncomfortable hour later (when it fact it was only about 10 minutes), my clearly bedraggled partner emerged from the whorl of faceless faces holding a bottle of something red and I was instantly infuriated. By time he got to the table I was poised to pounce. “Why did you get that?!”
“Whadaya mean,” innocent ignorant husband was caught off-guard, “I got an energy drink.”
“Yeah! Hello-ooo! You got the one thing we should never have—taurine! You got the VitaminWater with taurine!”
“So, it’s got taurine.”
I glared with toxic fury, “Are you trying to kill me?” I was taking the situation so desperately seriously I was almost sobbing. It was as if he didn’t know me at all after 30 years of utterly blissful marriage!
[NB: Taurine has not, in fact, been proven to cause harmful side-effects. Rather, it’s been shown to have several health benefits. Sadly, my overreaction was based purely on the Red Bull scare, which was thought to be linked to several deaths in which the high amount of taurine contained in the product was suspect. Unfortunately—and regrettably—I did not know this at the time.]
With sweat dripping down his neck and fatigue blistering behind his eyes, he defended his position: “It was that or the orange one you hate. Everything else was soda. If you wanna return it and get something else, be my guest.” And with that he put the receipt on the table and placed the deadly bottle of taurine water on top of it.
“Fine, whatever,” I muttered. I hadn’t even noticed the bag of trail mix he’d bought, which quickly became life-saving sustenance. For the next five minutes, we ate our nuts and fruit bits like starving monkeys, washing it down with taurine elixir until finally our blind hostility was replaced with sanity.
Replenish, then regroup
My love of loves was breathing again, and my brain-to-mouth relationship had been restored to the extent I could speak calmly and rationally: “Okay, but I just have to know where that spot is on this map, otherwise I’m going to leave thinking we really were in the Twilight Zone and the place doesn’t really exist. Do you mind if I go ask?”
Propelled by the approval, I tromped off to the nearest cast member and described our quest: “My husband and I have been going crazy trying to find this beautiful, secluded spot with a koi pond, stone statues and a view of Everest that we stumbled on the other day and now we can’t find for the life of us!” And just for good measure, I added my olfactory recollection: “I remember smelling barbecued pork and cigarettes.”
The castmember was already nodding with recognition, “Yes, I know exactly the spot you’re talking about,” she instantly reassured, “let me show you.” And indeed, it was right behind the Flame Tree Barbecue and a designated smoking area.
I was positively giddy just for having my credibility validated, and I wanted to hug my savior with bourgeoning gratitude. Instead, I thanked her profusely and went bouncing back to the table where my my spouse was waiting patiently, the tension drained from his body.
“It does exist! It does exist!” I was joyous, and showed him where we’d missed it on the map. In truth, he had never doubted the place existed, he just lost all desire to need to find it.
“Next time.” He proclaimed. Just because we now knew where the spot was, it didn’t mean we had to go there. It was, after all, far from where we were sitting and not on the way out of the park.
With Everest still too crowded to bear the queue, we called it a day and caught the bus back to the hotel for a refreshing swim and a revised game plan.
So, what did we learn?
Were you able to spot the moment it was clear we were going down? The clues can be subtle at first: irritability, fatigue, discomfort—all things you believe you can push through in order to get to that destination. But when you’re running on less than empty and melting down fast—as we were—it’s easy to push yourself that one step too far and wind up spiraling out of control—as we did. The lesson we learned is the value of catching ourselves before we go down in flames by recognizing those first symptoms of burnout.
Bottom line: When you ignore all the danger signs just to get to that next ride, restaurant, or rest stop, and you begin snapping at each other instead of pulling together, it’s time to stop. Just stop. We all want to conquer the park, but when you realize it’s the park that’s conquering you, that’s a good time to save your relationship and change gears. You’ll like each other so much more for making the right decision, rather than acting on what you’ll later chalk up as “a good idea at the time.” In retrospect, it will be anything but.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Avoiding Burnout on Your Disney Vacation: What comes after “Just stop.”