I was walking hand-in-hand with my daughter Brontë through the streets of Disneyland when suddenly she froze. Her little hand began to quiver as she stared ahead, whispering, “Cinderella?”
Several feet in front of us, a woman in a Cinderella costume was signing autographs for a gaggle of kids. Decked out in a blue and white ballgown, her beatific smile floated over the adoring hearts of her tiny fans.
Well, to me, it was a woman in costume, but to my toddler, it was The Goddess Incarnate.
It’s difficult to overestimate the wondrous magic of a three-year-old’s universe. Not only is most the world an uncharted mystery, but the line between fantasy and reality barely exists. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and storybook castles are real. Animals wear clothes and live in woodsy houses.
Disneyland may still be fun for adults, but for my daughter, it was the mystical kingdom of legend, where animals finally talk to you and gripping tales come to life.
And at the very top of Brontë’s magical pantheon sits Minnie Mouse, Tinkerbell, and Disney princesses: the shining stars of goodness and perfection in her three-year-old imagination.
Brontë had been astounded to learn we’d been saving up to visit Disneyland and would be there for three entire days. Every evening, she helped me cross out a box on our makeshift countdown calendar with growing anticipation, until we were finally packing our suitcases and piling into the car.
Scrambling into her carseat, she whispered, “We go see the Mouse?,” almost afraid the dream would vanish if spoken aloud.
“Yes,” I told her, as she grinned in astonishment before facing our eight-hour car trip to southern California.
Eight hours is an eternity to a three-year-old. It’s rough enough for adults, so I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to a tiny child, squirming in a cramped carseat as she inches closer and closer to toddler paradise over the course of a sweaty day.
Brontë tried her best to be patient during our endless pilgrimage, bravely attempting conversations about mice and castles from one rest stop to the next. And now, finally, her patience had been rewarded. She found herself facing the Blue Goddess of Disney dreams. In the flesh.
Standing right in front of her.
She could hardly believe it.
“You want to go talk to her?” I asked.
Brontë nodded quickly, squeezing my hand in excitement. Heart pounding, she started shaking as we approached Cinderella.
Cinderella glanced over at us and Brontë froze, paralyzed with awe.
Just then, a hand flew up a couple feet in front of my face as the bitchy voice of Cinderella’s handler rang out, “Cinderella is DONE here,” he barked, his over-plucked eyebrows locked in irritation. “If you want to see her, you have to go to California Adventure Park this evening.”
Then he flipped his back to us and swished away.
What was THAT? Maybe he was exhausted by the crowds, but that was hardly our fault. We weren’t being pushy, so why not simply tell us about the princess’s next shift instead of yelling it in our faces? Clearly, that man was drunk on Royal Power.
Looking back, I keep kicking myself for not tossing off a good retort, but at the time, all I could think about was Brontë. I looked over at her as she stood for a moment, stunned and white-knuckled, before collapsing on the ground in tears.
Her princess had seen and rejected her. Cinderella had looked her straight in the eyes and had apparently found her wanting. My daughter’s tiny shoulders heaved in deep sobs of confusion as she held my legs and cried.
Looking up, Brontë suddenly noticed Snow White walking toward a cast exit. “Snow White?” she asked.
“Yes, Snow White,” I said, “You want to go meet her?”
Brontë nodded as we held hands and ran toward the woman in a Snow White costume. But we were too late. Snow White disappeared behind the cast door.
“Another time,” I said, as my daughter stared painfully into the distance.
“Snow White is sad,” Brontë said, wiping a tear, “She sad because Cinderella was mean to her. Cinderella hurt Snow White. She make her cry.”
Brontë kept expressing her hurt feelings, using Snow White as a proxy, until finally moving on. We rode the Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland and her eyes danced in simple contentment as we walked through fairy-lit streets.
“At least children are resilient,” I thought. Brontë had forgotten all about Cinderella in the wondrous spell of our Disneyland evening.
The next morning, we scheduled a “Princess Breakfast” at Disney California Adventure. You eat brunch while overlooking the water as Disney princesses walk from table to table, entertaining the kids.
It was really fun: pleasant for adults, but truly mind-blowing for young children, who believe they are really meeting their idols face-to-face. The kids from various tables endlessly beamed and giggled as Rapunzel, Jasmine, Princess Tiana and Cinderella made their rounds.
Brontë was ecstatic when a very gracious Princess Tiana came up to our table and shook her hand. Shyly smiling, my daughter squeaked out a quiet “hi!” after Princess Tiana, in her beautiful green dress, reached out her slender, gloved fingers to shake Brontë’s tiny hand.
Starstruck, Brontë watched in awe as Princess Tiana floated past her to the next table.
Just then, Cinderella walked up.
I don’t know if this Cinderella was even the same Cinderella we met yesterday or a different cast member, but it was THE Cinderella to Brontë. Brontë stared at her, frozen, as Cinderella introduced herself and tried to make light conversation.
But Brontë was too stunned to answer her questions, too stunned to even speak, so eventually Cinderella shrugged and moved on to the next table. Brontë watched her for a moment, her blonde bun shaking with her dancing laughter as her blue gown swept across the floor.
Then Brontë’s eyes narrowed.
Her tiny hands squeezed into little fists as she said, slowly and carefully, “I like Princess Tiana.”
She said it a few times, a little louder with every refrain.
She glanced over at Cinderella, who apparently hadn’t heard her, before scrambling to standing on top of her chair.Thrusting herself upwards, as tall and proud as 38 inches made possible, Brontë shot her arms out sideways, threw back her head, and yelled, “I…
Cinderella didn’t budge.
Brontë was gaining steam as her eyebrows arched in her best angry toddler “V.” She smiled in deep, soul-quenching relief as she threw her head back again, drew in a deep breath and screamed:
“PRINCESS TIANA IS THE BEST, BEST PRINCESS EVER!
PRINCESS TIANA IS THE MOST PRETTY PRINCESS AND THE BEST PRINCESS AND SHE IS MY FAVORITE, FAVORITE PRINCESS!
Cinderella flinched as Brontë collapsed back into her chair, grabbed a biscuit, and started chewing with deep satisfaction.
Brontë hadn’t forgotten the slight at all, but she had faced the goddess bravely and said her peace.
No, Brontë had not forgotten Cinderella’s machinations, and she had unmasked her for all to see.
It was a victory for little girls everywhere, cruelly cast aside by their deities. Cinderella wasn’t a princess at all, just an arrogant harpy who humiliated little girls and made Snow White run away in tears.
Princess Tiana was the true princess, who graciously shakes your hand and kindly smiles in appreciation of her miniature fans.
And Brontë was ready to declare her public support for any potential Princess Tiana coup. To this day, she will happily explain:
“Cinderella is mean,” Brontë will explain. “And Princess Tiana Frog is a princess.”
Take THAT, Cinderella.