by Natalie Tsay
The castle was so much smaller than I remembered.
My pulse quickened as we approached the front gates and joined the impossibly long line leading to them. I had already waited months for the trip, and yet as I stared at all the families in front of us, all the stuffed, colorful backpacks to go until we reached the entrance, I thought another fifteen minutes would kill me.
Finally, when we had our tickets scanned and we passed through the arched tunnel and came out on the other side, I let out a breath I’d been holding all morning.
Everything was just the same as it had been five years before during my first trip to Disneyland. Mickey and Minnie stood in front of the Town Hall, taking pictures with little girls dressed up like princesses. The shops on Main Street seemed as if they’d been plucked right from another era, as did the 1950s style Crystal Arcade and the ice cream parlor. A horse-drawn trolley passed in front of us and the conductor, sounding a bell, tipped his cap with a flourish.
In my many daydreams about the place, I got all the details right. The picture I’d had in my mind for so long was suddenly right in front of me, larger than life. Except the castle.
At first I thought it was just another shop — it appeared to be the same height as the rest of Main Street, even shorter from our perspective. With all of the people walking in front of us, I could hardly see it at all. But then the shape became clear and the short building I was staring at was, without a doubt, Sleeping Beauty’s rosy castle.
How could I have been so wrong? I wondered. I could’ve sworn it towered above everything else, its bright blue turrets reaching into wispy clouds. I felt something in me shrink when I realized the castle wasn’t nearly as massive and imposing as I thought.
“Well, Phoebs, is it everything you’ve been dreaming of?” my dad asked.
For years I’d begged him for another trip, and the answer was always “Maybe next year” because of the high cost of plane tickets and the high cost of a hotel room and the extra high cost of the park tickets. But I kept asking, even when my brother (half-brother, to be specific) Jacob started calling me a baby. I didn’t care what he said — I loved Disneyland more than I had ever loved any place before.
When my parents told us we were going again, I smiled for a whole week straight. Nothing could bring me down. Even when I found out Tommy Fisher didn’t like me back, I only felt a little hurt. I was going to the Happiest Place on Earth. What did I have to be sad about?
And even though I felt I couldn’t get over the castle, I decided I would try.
I looked at my parents’ hopeful faces and said, “It’s even better.”
What I remembered most of all from that first trip were the fireworks. My parents, Jacob, and I sat right in front of the castle and watched the explosions illuminate the sky, fading slowly as they fell. I thought the big gold ones looked like pixie dust and imagined the shimmering specks landing on me. Maybe then I could fly, I thought, as I followed Tinkerbell gliding in the air, zig-zagging across the castle.
It felt like I was under a real spell during the show. There were only the brilliant bursts of light, the grand, swelling melodies, the pops and cracks that reverberated in my chest, tugging at my heart with a firm jerk. It was the closest thing to magic I could think of.
In the hotel room, I put on the Minnie ears I’d bought on our first trip. They had been big on me then, so they fit well enough. Before we left, Mom checked the weather and said there would be rain in the afternoon.
“It’s only a forty percent chance,” Dad said, looking over her shoulder. “I bet it’ll go away.”
“We should bring umbrellas just in case,” she said.
“What does it say about tonight?” I asked. My stomach dropped. “What if they can’t do the fireworks?”
Dad squeezed my shoulders. “Don’t worry, kiddo, your mom’s just being paranoid.”
His voice was light and playful, but it didn’t sound like a joke. I saw Mom glare at Dad as he walked back to the pull out couch and straightened the sheets. He had insisted that Jacob take one bed while Mom and I shared the other, because Jacob was a teenager and needed his own space. Though I held my tongue, I wanted to remind him that I was almost a teenager too.
The sky was a pale grey color, so the pictures I took as we walked down Main Street came out muted. But that was fine — we had just learned how to use Photoshop in my digital media class and I thought maybe I could edit the pictures when we got home.
“So the biggest coasters here are Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Matterhorn,” Jacob said. He sounded like an expert, presenting his research. “If baby Phoebs can handle the yeti.”
I had forgotten all about the yeti until then. The huge, furry white beast that roared and raised its claws right as the car whipped by. In fact, there were two of them. When we climbed out of the ride, I was crying so hard I could barely breathe.
“I was seven years old,” I said.
“You’re still a baby,” Jacob said. His brown eyes had a glint in them. It was the look he gave me when he wanted it to seem like he knew something I didn’t, something only grown-ups would understand.
I socked him on the shoulder, but he didn’t even flinch.
“It’s pretty lame that there are only three roller coasters here,” he said. “Yumi said she’d take me to Cedar Point this summer. They have a shit ton.”
That year Jacob had started visiting his biological mom, Yumi. I’d never met her, but Jacob showed me a picture once. Her headshot on the website of the ballet company she’d joined in Germany. All the dancers looked so serious, so pretty with their bare, bony shoulders. But Yumi was especially stunning with long, silky black hair and flawless skin.
Jacob liked to talk about her casually, as if she were a friend and not the person who gave birth to him and then left him. It annoyed me whenever he got all starry-eyed about her.
A huge wall of Mickey and Minnie ears in one of the shops caught my eye, so we made a quick stop. I went straight for the ones with sequins and a bow — I was going through an obsession with sparkles.
As I tried them on, Mom grabbed one of the simple, classic hats and slipped it over her short dark hair, tugging the elastic strap under her chin.
“I used to have one like this when I was your age. With my name stitched on the back,” Mom said. In the briefest flash, I thought she looked like a kid. She examined herself in the round mirror jutting out from the wall and I wondered if she could see it on her face, all the ways she’d changed since then.
I found another mirror and stared, trying to guess what I would look like when I was Mom’s age. Would my dirty blonde hair get darker? Would I grow better cheekbones? Would I get those crinkles at the edges of my eyes, like hers? I couldn’t see it.
The sparkly ears shimmered with every move I made and I loved them. I showed Mom, then Dad and Jacob as they walked up next to us. “Can I get these?” I asked.
Dad plucked an identical headband off the wall and hunted for the price tag. He squinted when he found it, like he wasn’t sure he’d read it right. “Why is everything so damn expensive here?” he said.
Jacob took it from his hands and whistled. “That’s a fucking scam.”
“Language,” Mom mumbled. She took her hat off and put it back on the wall, careful to line it up with the others. “Come on, we should splurge a little. We’re on vacation!”
“Phoebe, you already have a pair,” Dad said, ignoring her. “You’re wearing them now. Why do you need a new one?”
“These are different,” Mom said. “Can’t you see?”
“They look similar enough.”
I heard a familiar roughness in their voices and immediately regretted asking. “It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t need them.”
Mom looked at me as if she was startled I was still there. “Are you sure, honey? I’ll buy them for you. They’re very cute.” Dad’s brow dropped, making the face he usually reserved for slow drivers or back talking. The things he really couldn’t stand.
“I’m sure. Really,” I said. I smiled so she’d believe me and so Dad would stop staring at her like that. “Let’s just go.”
We went right to Space Mountain, before the line could get too long. Jacob and I went in front, letting our parents follow us. Part of the queue was on an outdoor deck, and from there we could see the top of the Matterhorn.
“Let’s go on that one next,” I said. Through a cutout in the side of the mountain, we could see the coaster cars zoom by.
Jacob laughed once. “Yeah, right. Ten bucks the yeti makes you cry again.”
In the room where they loaded the cars, neon lights glowed in blue, red, and purple. The music was the kind they used in all the movies about space, filled with beeping and bopping. When we got to the loading area, Jacob asked if we could sit in the back.
“Why not the front?” Mom asked.
“The back goes the fastest,” Jacob said. He made it sound like we should’ve known that already.
In the pitch black, we were yanked around corners and pulled up steep inclines, weightless when we flew back down. The beats of the soundtrack mirrored the dips and turns we couldn’t see. It felt windy even though I knew we were indoors. At the end a white-hot flash blinded us and though it seemed like we were being pulled backwards, the neon lights of the entrance gradually filled our vision and it was clear we were still moving forward.
“That’s so trippy,” Jacob said.
On the way out, we looked at the picture taken right when the light flashed. It caught every one of us mid-scream. Dad and I had our eyes closed and noses scrunched up, which made Mom laugh.
I waited for Jacob to say something about how lame the ride was. After all, none of the drops were very big. We didn’t go upside down. But when I snuck a look, he actually seemed pleased.
“Matterhorn next?” I said.
“After last time?” Dad said.
“I can handle the yeti.”
Mom and Jacob exchanged a knowing look, like I wasn’t fooling them. When Dad caught it too, they all started laughing. It was nice to see them joking around, even if I was the punch line.
“I was seven years old,” I said again, only pretending to be offended.
We managed to hit all three major roller coasters in the morning. Since it was mid-January, Dad said there weren’t as many people as there would’ve been in the summer or over the holidays, so the lines weren’t too crazy.
We grabbed lunch from a two-story outdoor food court. The smell of oil hung in the air, not unpleasant. At the table we found, Jacob declared that we’d done all the rides worth doing in Disneyland.
“I wanna go to California Adventure now,” he said, popping an orange curly fry into his mouth. He chewed with his mouth slightly ajar until Mom nudged him and he pressed his lips together.
“We’re doing that park tomorrow, remember?” she said. She glanced at Dad, seeming to expect support, but he didn’t look up from his plate of nachos.
“It’s so boring here,” Jacob said. “There’s nothing left except all the baby rides.”
“We can’t skip Fantasyland,” I said. I remembered Jacob dragging me to the teacups again and again as our parents took videos from the railing, and how he loved the view from the top of Dumbo. I knew he cared about the big rides the most, but just then I wondered if he really did think he was too old for the rest.
Jacob shrugged. “I can. I’ll go by myself and meet up with you guys later.”
I could tell his suggestion was only half-serious. He’d been testing Mom ever since he’d started visiting Yumi, who didn’t care when he cursed or chewed with his mouth open. He was comparing them, his mothers, and I knew he thought Yumi was so much cooler.
Somehow Jacob didn’t resent Yumi for leaving, and Dad even seemed happy when she moved to Chicago and asked to see Jacob every once in a while. It was like they’d both forgotten that she abandoned them. Whenever Jacob announced that Dad was taking him into the city to see Yumi, Mom acted like it was no different than him staying late at school for football or going to a friend’s house for dinner. But she always seemed quieter while he was gone.
Mom failed Jacob’s test. “Absolutely not,” she said. “We’ll spend all day in the other park tomorrow, okay? Like we planned.”
Jacob rolled his eyes and Dad looked over, an apology in his pale eyes. It was meant to be covert, from father to son, but Mom noticed. She never missed a thing.
On the walk over to Fantasyland, my parents stayed a few paces behind Jacob and me. The separation didn’t stop us from hearing them.
“You have to loosen up,” Dad said.
“He shouldn’t go off by himself.”
“Jacob’s fifteen, he can handle it.”
“I don’t care if he can handle it,” Mom said. “We’re on a family vacation, we should spend it together.”
“Just let him do his own thing sometimes. He’s growing up. You can’t coddle him forever.”
Jacob and I walked in silence. I could tell he was listening to them too. Right as we neared the beginning of Fantasyland, Jacob swiveled around.
“You can’t make me stay with you guys,” he said to Mom.
She sighed. “Jacob, we talked about this. You’re not going by yourself.”
“But Dad’s right, you can’t coddle me forever!”
Mom’s nostrils flared, but the best of her body remained still, as if she were willing herself not to react. “You’re just parroting him,” she said. “We’ve already made a decision. Stop being such a pain in the ass.”
“Hey, don’t talk to him like that!” Dad said.
“I’ll talk to him however I want, he’s my son!”
All my life, my mom had been Jacob’s mom, even though they shared no blood. She’d raised him from when he was three, the year I was born. When I was old enough to work out the timing, I wondered if my parents had only gotten married because Mom got pregnant. I asked her one day and she said I shouldn’t think that. She told me she and Dad loved each other very much, and she’d always dreamed of having a family like ours, a husband, a daughter, and a son.
But now that Jacob was spending time with his “real” mom, the words sounded different. Like when you hear the live version of a song with a recording you know by heart, and the notes are exactly the same but something is off. As the four of us stood there facing each other, I wondered if Jacob and Dad thought it was true anymore, that he was her son.
“I’m not wasting my time here,” Jacob finally said. He and Dad never let things go until they got their way and, not for the first time, I hated him for it.
“Look, I’ll go with Jacob,” Dad said. “You guys do whatever. We’ll meet up later for the fireworks.”
I couldn’t believe them. Last time we’d had so much fun in Fantasyland, even on the slow rides. Jacob and I sat in the front of the car, my parents in the back, and we saw all the characters from the movies. We ran around the carousel until we found the perfect horse, grinning as the fairytale world around us blurred. Then again, I’d been wrong about the castle. What else had I messed up?
“Fine,” Mom said. Dad gave us a time and place to meet, then walked with Jacob down Main Street, back toward the entrance gates. I only watched them for a minute before they were swallowed up by the crowd.
The cheerful music from the teacup ride permeated every inch of Fantasyland, dotted with high-pitched squeals and toddler giggles. I couldn’t bring myself to act like everything was fine and it seemed like Mom couldn’t either, so we mostly didn’t talk.
We started at Alice in Wonderland, which I liked a lot the first time, but it was kind of sad to have just Mom and me in a caterpillar car built for four. And I noticed things I hadn’t the last time, the trick mirrors, the smell of grease and rubber. I didn’t feel like going on the other dark rides after that.
“Can we do ‘Small World’?” I asked.
Mom and Dad sometimes joked about the “Small World” song. They said it was the mother of all earworms, impossible to get out of your head.
Mom didn’t protest, though. She didn’t even say anything about the music. She just said, “Sure,” and we walked over.
While we waited, Mom asked about my friends and school. Maybe I would’ve told her about Tommy Fisher or the big project we had coming up in Social Studies, but I could tell she was distracted. Every time she pulled out her phone, she stared at the screen for a minute before putting it away again. She never seemed to see what she wanted to.
It started drizzling just after we finished the ride. We whipped out the umbrellas from Mom’s backpack and kept walking. Soon it came down more steadily and then it was pouring, so we ducked into a souvenir shop for cover.
“I thought it never rained in Southern California,” Mom joked with one of the ladies working. I was about to remind her that she was the one who read the forecast that morning, then I remembered it was some song she liked.
The sky was still overcast when it stopped.
“Do you think they’ll be able to do the fireworks?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “I guess we’ll see.” It wasn’t a very encouraging answer.
We were both getting kind of hungry, so Mom bought us churros. Because all the benches were still wet, we ate them standing up and watched families go by with parents and kids, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I thought everyone looked so happy.
The churro was as warm and sweet as I remembered, but it didn’t really taste the same.
“Phoebs, we have to ride California Screamin’ tomorrow; it’s awesome. No chickening out, okay?”
I’d never been on a roller coaster that went upside down before, so I was mildly terrified. But I wouldn’t let Jacob call me a baby. “I’m not scared,” I said.
“And Tower of Terror, too. Dad and I went twice while it was raining.”
The two of us sat wedged between our parents in the stone hub before the castle, a prime viewing spot for the fireworks. Since Dad and Jacob had come back, Mom and Dad had hardly said a word. They both stared at their phones instead, blank-faced.
Though the sky was black, it didn’t feel dark at all because of the flashing lights lining Main Street and the twinkling lights strung up in the trees and the floating lights inside clusters of balloons. Carefree chatter and ragtime music drifted from every direction. The buttery scent of popcorn nearby had me salivating, but to buy a box would mean leaving our spot.
“I wish we had popcorn right now,” I said.
Jacob craned his neck around, searching until he found the cart closest to us. “I’ll get it,” he said.
“There’s no way you’ll be able to get back here,” I said. But Jacob always loved a challenge, so he jumped up and ran off before anyone could stop him.
Twenty minutes went by and I started to worry. Then I spotted Jacob’s dark head, darting from space to space between families sitting huddled together. He handed me the red-and-white striped box, warm to the touch.
“Thanks,” I said. He nodded like it was no big deal. As I popped a handful of salty pieces into my mouth, I wondered if Jacob had done it because he was sorry he’d left me earlier. Something he’d never say outright.
There were a few fake outs as show time came closer. A booming voice kept sounding from the speakers, telling us that the show would start in fifteen, or ten, or five minutes, and though Jacob grumbled, I was just grateful that the fireworks were still happening.
Finally, all of the lights around us shut off at once and even the castle went dark. A few people whooped and whistled. When the sweeping soundtrack began, I looked up and waited for that first luminous burst in the sky.
And then they started. And they were even more beautiful than I remembered.
I sat transfixed by the dazzling gold, red, green, and purple sparks thrust into the air only to burn, burn, burn, and fade back into nothing. For a moment, I forgot what a let down the day had been.
It would be weeks before I learned the real reason for our family trip to Disneyland, months before the divorce was finalized. It would be two years before Jacob went to college and Mom moved us, just her and me, to Albuquerque, where I made friends who knew how to get alcohol and weed. It would be a couple more years before I learned how to tell real friends from fake ones and that there were more ways a boy could hurt me than by not liking me back. It would be a while until I could look at my dad without feeling angry because he let Mom and me go, and it would take even longer for me to understand that they married out of hope, not love. It would be a very long time before I realized that being content is not the same as being happy and that you lose as much as you gain growing up.
But in that moment, as I watched the fireworks glimmer above the castle, there was no pain, only white-hot embers burning just for me. As I thought of pixie dust, I was unburdened by the weight of everything going wrong for reasons I couldn’t yet name. I felt wonder.
All that mattered were the sparks in the sky, and they were magnificent.
Natalie Tsay received her BA from Cornell University and began her career doing publicity for romance books with punny titles. She currently lives in Pittsburgh and does PR for a tech company. Her work has appeared in Zone 3.