Last year, my husband Chris and I gave in to the cultural pressure to do what many couples do when they have kids—at some point, if it’s an option, you have to take them to Disney World, right? I felt a pit in the bottom of my stomach the minute the conversation began. “I think we have to go, right?” Chris said with a sigh, as we discussed vacation plans over our morning coffee, both clearly wrestling over our lack of desire to spend an arm and a leg on a crowded theme park. Chris’s company was generously offering to cover the flights for our entire family, and a family friend of a friend of a friend got us a substantial discount on park tickets.

“What kind of parents would we be, though, if we never took our kids to Disney World?” Chris joked, and we laughed at the obvious absurdity of the question, while also feeling that we “should” probably take advantage of the opportunity, right? There’s that “should” again. Everyone else loves Disney World. We “should” too. Everyone else’s Instagram photos confirm that surely it must be the happiest place on earth.

So we gave in. You only live once, we thought. Now, before I go on, please let me take a moment and speak to all the Disney-loving readers out there. Listen: We love you, we have nothing at all against the Magic Kingdom, or Dole Whip, or life-size cartoon characters. We are simply sharing an example of what fits and does not fit us as a couple and a family. If theme parks are your theme, that is awesome! Please feel completely free to enjoy the heck out of it.

Live it up. Savor each bite of the Mickey Mouse pancakes, sing your heart out at your favorite Disney sing-a-longs, stroll through Cinderella’s castle. To each his own. For us, however, it was not a world of laughter—it was a world of tears.

We spent an entire February day, from morning to nightfall, running around this overly crowded, freezing theme park, trying our best to make darn sure everyone had as much fun as we spent on this crazy place—feasting ourselves on “nutritious” theme-park food, standing in line after line for rides and shows and activities. By the end of the day, all I could think about was getting the heck out of there.

As we made our way to the exit—make that the line for the tram to the shuttle to the exit— along with the quarter-million other park visitors that day, I noticed something in the faces of some of the other parents we passed. They looked completely miserable.

I watched as some of them tried their best to balance a kid or two hanging off each arm, wailing and flailing from utter exhaustion, from too much candy, too many spins on the teacups, and simply too much overstimulation. One parent actually said out loud to us as we passed each other on the exit ramp, “How much did we pay for this?” Many of us seemed to be asking ourselves the same question.

No one looked particularly refreshed and rejuvenated, filled with gratitude and wonder at the golden moments they’d enjoyed as a family. Our family was ready to drop, dreaming of our nice warm beds and cozy blankets. We weren’t feeling the kind of tired-but-full you hope to feel after a day together in a magical place. We felt empty and exhausted.

After we traveled the many miles back to our hotel room, got the kids all tucked in tight, and finally collapsed in the beds we’d been dreaming of all day, Chris and I looked at each other and said, with weary eyes half open, “Let’s never do that again, okay?” Some lessons you have to learn the hard way.

We thought of all the other incredible things we could have possibly done with the money we spent on that day. Breathtaking mountains and rivers we could have enjoyed. Refreshing time spent splashing in the ocean, fishing at the lake, or camping out together, underneath the majestic stars. How different would we have felt after time spent where we truly wanted to be?

But we did receive a valuable gift that day. We found the misery and made a rule. And it has informed every trip we’ve planned ever since. We are not theme-park people, and that is okay. We feel no need to prove otherwise. We now try our best to intentionally choose activities and places that will speak to who we are as a family, to vacations we actually enjoy, not the ones the world tells us we should enjoy.

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