On the third day of our family vacation, I awoke to the bizarre sensation of artificial cheese crunching in my teeth as I struggled to breathe.
Opening my eyes, I found my daughter, Brontë, straddling my chest with a bag of goldfish crackers. She was petting my face with one hand and stuffing goldfish into my mouth with the other.
As disorienting as a processed cracker forced-feeding was, it’s probably the nicest method my three-year-old could think of to wake someone up. Noticing my eyes were open, she asked me, in the sweetest voice she could muster, “Mouse time?”
Adorable. Nothing prepared us, however, for the saga awaiting us on the third and final day of our trip.
It had been raining off and on in buckets throughout the morning, but we were determined to enjoy our final day in the park. My parents, my husband and our two daughters were sore from days of walking, but tried to rally our spirits to squeeze the last drops of fun out of our vacation before preparing for the long haul back to Northern California.
Hungry, tired and chilly in California Adventure Park, everyone wanted to get some breakfast, but I get a bright idea instead: “We have to go on the Mickey Fun Wheel first! Let’s get on the rocking cars before breakfast because there’s NO LINE!”
After days of endless lines, I was excited to see a clear path to Mickey’s Fun Wheel. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I figured we could pop right through before the place got crowded, then have a nice breakfast before sallying forth.
My mother doesn’t like heights and finds scary rides intimidating. She wasn’t about to ride a giant ferris wheel, so she offered to look after baby Bridget while souvenir shopping until our return.
My father, husband John and I, on the other hand, LOVE scary rides. Space Mountain is a piece of cake for us, the Tower of Terror is mildly exhilarating and we could ride California Screaming all day long. We figured a ferris wheel would hardly be daunting, but would give us a nice view of the park before settling into the day.
But what about a three-year-old? We decided to take Brontë with us after noticing that Mickey’s Fun Wheel ride has no height restrictions. Even Star Tours, which is pretty tame, has a height requirement. So Mickey’s Fun Wheel should be no problem. How bad could a ride be if you can take infants on it?
Approaching the ride, we saw that you can either choose to go on the stationary cars or the “rocking” cars. Well, the stationary cars had a line in front of them, whereas the “rocking” cars were completely open. So John, my dad, Brontë, and I piled into one of the rocking cars. We were sure it wouldn’t be any problem. There weren’t even any seat belts, so it must be pretty gentle.
Dad and John sat on one side of the car and Brontë and I took the other. Looking back, I have to wonder what we were thinking, because this seating arrangement created about a 200-pound difference between the two sides of a pivoting car that responds to leaning…
But we clearly hadn’t thought of that, so when our ridiculously-weighted car flipped 90 degrees to the left over the water the moment the ride started moving, everyone gasped.
The ride stopped again, so Disney employees could fill additional cars with more people, so our cart started rocking to the right in a freakishly slow, tilt-a-whirl style. Everyone went quiet as we started working out the physics of our situation in our heads.
Then the ride starts again and our massive weight difference whips us to a 90 degree angle over the water below. You know how the high dive looks so much higher from the diving board than from the ground? Well, staring through our cage straight at the lake below us had a similar effect, except with the added sensation of knowing a fall like this would probably break all of our bones.
Sure, we were technically in a cage, but without seatbelts or even a handle to brace ourselves, it was hard to feel like we weren’t plummeting to our deaths. Something about staring hundreds of feet straight down into water with no sense of containment sets of your inner panic alarm, even when you’re a seasoned rollercoaster rider… You can’t help wondering what if, umm, this thing doesn’t hold?
Just then, the wind whips up and rain starts pounding. Raindrops are pelting our faces diagonally then sideways. I look over to see John and my dad, who have both completed tours in the Navy, blanching stark white in rigid silence. Our car just keeps getting higher and higher while slowly tilting from one side to the other as other cars are reloaded with people.
As we reached the apex, the wind picks up even harder and we shoot sideways again at the very top of the park. Rain starts pounding us like a hale of ice bullets as the “fun” in Mickey’s “Fun” Wheel takes a sinister turn.
Dad tries to brace himself with his feet as John declares this the “worst moment of his entire life,” and both look as though they’re fighting to contain their bowels as I start feeling horribly responsible for our predicament.
“Oh sure,” I think, as my inner voice sarcastically berates me, “Let’s just hop on this ride in the pounding rain instead of sitting in a nice warm room and eating breakfast… Cause there’s no line. Maybe you should have thought about why there’s no line instead of leading your family into MICKEY’S GIANT CAGE OF DEATH.”
I’m petrified, but can’t get a word in edgewise because my inner Great Santini won’t shut the hell up: “Scared? Because you’re frozen and staring hundreds of feet down into the water in a revolving car? Well SUCK IT UP, grown-up, so your terrified three-year-old kid doesn’t see you panic, because if mama is scared, she’s going to absolutely FREAK OUT, and TRY not to vomit while you’re at it!”
I swallow hard, steady my face and prepare to reassure my toddler by pretending this is all a happy fun time when I look over and notice that Brontë is standing on the wall of the cage. She is able to do this, of course, because our current, 90 degree angle, turned the wall into the floor.
And as she is crawling up the wall, it’s rolling the car even further, which is freaking all the adults out even more.
Brontë, however, is oblivious to all this, because she is too busy having the time of her life pointing out the seagulls hundreds of feet beneath us. “Birds!” she squeals, delighted and giggling. “Mmm hmm… that’s neat, baby,” I respond in a half whimper.
Trapped in our rain-soaked torture cages about fifteen minutes before escaping, John yells, “Thank GOD, that’s over” as we all step onto solid ground. Immediately agreeing to “never, ever do that again” we adults trotted away from Mickey’s Fun Wheel with deep relief as Brontë threw her arms in the air, demanding, “MORE!!!!!”
We had a nice breakfast and enjoyed the rest of our final day, apart from Brontë’s disappointment at being two inches too short to ride Cars. Turns out, that 40-inch height restriction is a hard rule. Apparently, employees won’t let you sneak your kid on it, even if you find her sneakers with two-inch soles and tease the crap out of her hair to fluff up some height.
And we had a final chuckle before leaving the park. As the crowds jostled together while scrambling toward the park exit, we overheard a father sternly tell his little girl, “Well, that’s what happens when you stuff money in your underwear.”
Funny how you can be overhearing the incoherent mess of auditory noise from hundreds of people, yet a phrase like that somehow stands out, clear as a bell. You can’t help but stop and think, “Hmm, what happens when you stuff money in your underwear?”
Turns out, John had a better vantage point to figure out what prompted this advice. Apparently, a little girl who was wearing white tights and rain boots had casually stuffed some change in her underwear (I guess that makes sense, because most kids don’t have wallets).
Well, she was complaining because a bunch of coins had worked their way down between her toes. I’m guessing her parents were too spent by this point to help her work change back up her tights as they jostled against thousands of people, so they opted instead to make her walk back with pennies in her toes. Hence, the lesson about not stuffing money into one’s underwear.
It was a wonderful trip and we look forward to returning one day, when Brontë is two inches taller.
But I doubt we will ever ride Mickey’s Fun Wheel again.