Just the Two of Us: Solo Parenting Travel

Friday, February 29, 2008

I’ve just booked a trip to Walt Disney World for one of the Star Wars Weekends, towards the end of June so we can also hit Toy Story Mania. It’ll be just my son and myself, and I’ve cobbled the trip together with baling wire and bubble gum, otherwise known as frequent flier miles and hotel points. It’s made me think back to 2003, when we took our first mom-and-son trip to WDW, and the changes this brought in our relationship, and my confidence as a parent.

I travel for business somewhat frequently, and 2002/2003 was a busy couple years. By December of 2003 I’d racked up a bunch of frequent flier miles, and a whole lotta homesickness, especially for my six-year-old son. I was desperate for some time to seriously reconnect with him. And since my husband has no interest (or even tolerance) for theme parks, I’d only need enough frequent flier miles for two.

I kept finding myself thinking about the day that he and I had spent at Tokyo Disneyland the summer of 2002. We were vacationing in Japan for two weeks, our nuclear family of three plus my parents, and my son and I spent the final day running around Tokyo Disneyland. I’d kept it a secret from him the whole time, and will never forget the shocked, delighted look on his face when I asked him over breakfast that morning, “Would you like to go to Disneyland? Today?” He’d been eating pancakes, and the fork froze on the way to his mouth. I swear he would’ve started screaming had we not been dining in the fancy, polite Ginza Tobu Hotel.

Turns out he’d been seeing the posters for Tokyo Disneyland all over town. On the subways, in the streets, maybe even on the Japanese television we loved to watch (Sumo, yay!). He figured he shouldn’t even both asking, he’d just be disappointed when his parents told him it was just another theme park. Little did he know how much I already loved Disney Parks, and the obsession that would ultimately be unleashed that evening, whizzing around Astro Orbiter watching the fireworks.

So, in December of 2003 I kept looking at that frequent flier account and thinking, and wishing. And I figured I shouldn’t even voice these hopes aloud, surely we couldn’t really afford the trip, surely I couldn’t handle vacationing solo with a six-year-old. In retrospect it was crazy . . . that Fall, I’d scored a major professional coup, managing a successful and ambitious global event, but the thought of a few days alone out of state with a six year old seemed daunting, beyond my parenting skills. I felt like my son on the Tokyo subway, looking at the Disneyland poster and thinking, “I shouldn’t even ask, it can’t really happen.”

Somehow though, I cashed in those miles. My husband and I told him about the trip on his way home from school that day, and it was like Ginza Tobu Hotel all over again, except that he could scream all he wanted.

I wasn’t yet obsessed with Disney trip planning, so it didn’t even occur to me that I was doing something bold, rash, against conventional Disneyphile wisdom. I was planning a trip for the week before Christmas, with less than two week’s notice.  I pricelined a hotel for $50, and lucked out with the Wyndham in the World. I rented a car, ordered some Park Hoppers from an online discounter, and didn’t book any Priority Seatings (truly, we couldn’t afford the Disney sit-down restaurants right then, not even the Sci Fi Dine In).

The one Disneyphile source I’d picked up was the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World (ding!), so I did have a few tricks up my sleeve. I bought a lumbar pack and two water bottles, plus I knew we needed an afternoon break every day. Both were excellent advice, but especially the afternoon break: I needed an hour each day for a good cry on the hotel balcony, or a phone call home, or both. It is, in fact, hard to travel alone with a six-year-old, and while he may have napped in the afternoons, I think I’m the one who needed the breaks more. Maybe a single parent would have had the skills for this, but I didn’t. Not yet.

Our mom-and-son trips have become a tradition. Since 2003, he and I have made five trips to Disney World (one with my husband, who skipped the theme parks but loved Kennedy Space Center), one trip to Disneyland Paris (a side trip from an extended family vacation to Paris), and two trips to Disneyland (one with my husband actually setting foot inside the berms, just for a day). He’s eleven now, and the logistics have become a whole lot easier. He’s grown up a lot, and so have I. The lumbar pack remains, but the balcony crying jags have reduced to a minimum (good thing too . . . there’s no balcony at Scopa Towers). Our next trip is in the works, and it’s just the two of us again, headed for a Star Wars Weekend. I haven’t told him about the trip yet, but given his love of Star Wars I think another Ginza Tobu moment is coming.

I did reconnect with my son during that first mom-and-son trip in 2003, but better still I reconnected with a part of myself. We were both sitting on the Tokyo subway longing for a spin around Dumbo. I’m glad that I didn’t know you “shouldn’t” head to Disney with so little planning, and so little knowledge . . . but also glad I had my lumbar pack and afternoon naps. I only wish we could stop in for breakfast at the Ginza Tobu Hotel on our way to Star Wars Weekend.