How Mickey Helped Me Feel the Magic of Turning 40

If you think Disney is just for your kids, think again.

Francesca Castagnoli
Photograph: Disney Newscom

At the end of August I was out with my girlfriends for a so-long-to-summer ladies’ night. We clinked our glasses of Prosecco and lamented about how quickly school would start, how the leaves would change, how we’d be wearing coats again.

“Does anyone have an escape plan?” asked Erin, who had just started a late summer vacation and, since the nights were already cooler, felt the season was passing her by. 

“Francesca, aren’t you turning 40?” Amanda asked.

“You should definitely go away,” said Monica, who had taken off for Antigua for her 40th birthday.

“Oh, she’s got a great plan,” said Danielle, one of my closest friends, in whom I had confided my secret birthday scheme.

I rolled my eyes and gave her a please-shut-up smile.

“Go ahead—tell them your big plan,” she said with a smirk.

My friends leaned in, full of expectation. I felt on the spot, like the time I was considering naming my first child Cricket and my extremely practical friend Kate pressured me into revealing the name when we were hanging out at a playground with her 2-year-old daughter, Minna. I whispered the name, and she didn’t laugh; she just hollered, “Cricket, come on, it’s time to go!” I cringed hearing the name out loud and realized that I my kid would be a embarrassed every time he’d have to introduce himself. Surrounded now by my friends, I knew I’d have to share my 40th-birthday extravaganza plans soon enough, so I blurted out, “I want to go to Disney World and stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and ride roller-coasters and scream my head off.”

They all burst out laughing.

“You’re joking, right?” said Erin.

“But that’s for the kids,” Amanda said.

Monica turned and put her hand on my arm. “This is your birthday. Go to Paris with David, walk the streets at night, make love, go to the flea market.”

I nodded. I knew what they were saying. I’d thought about Paris. I had even found us this little chic hotel that was decked out in Pierre Deux fabrics. It would be beautiful and elegant and as predictable as an International Coffee commercial. But Disney, in contrast, felt very exciting and a little reckless: I dared to squander my 40th on the greatest amusement park in the world. It was absurd, and the perfect time for us to go. My boys, Conrad, 6, and Dashiell, 4, would be dazzled by the spectacle without being too sophisticated to notice the marketing behind it all. And I’d get to ride a roller-coaster.

My friends just shook their heads. I knew what they were really thinking: I was so wrapped up in my role as a mother that the line between what made me happy and what made my kids happy was blurred. But they were wrong.

This trip to Disney was for me. I wanted to be turning 40 and feeling my stomach flutter in midair, anticipating the steep reach of a roller-coaster’s incline; I wanted to be terrified as we tipped over the edge. I wanted to be spinning around in a teacup where the centrifugal force would push me so hard against my kids that I’d have to apologize for smushing their heads together. I wanted to be able to watch giraffes and zebras while having breakfast on our hotel balcony. I wanted to be in Disney World.

We booked our trip and our friends stopped laughing.

Alighting in Africa—well, almost
When we arrived at the Animal Kingdom’s Kidani Village Lodge, it was one o’clock in the morning and 98 degrees. The air smelled of straw and bougainvillea, and I wondered if bougainvillea really grew in Africa. We followed the bellhop to our room, each of us carrying a child asleep in our arms. We tucked them in and headed to the balcony. There, no more than 40 feet away, were Ankole-Watusi cattle with huge horns, tails swishing their backsides. I rushed back into the boys’ room to wake Conrad up, but there was no rousing him. David whispered urgently for me to come back out. When I returned, a giraffe glided right by our balcony in silence. Even a room with a view of the Eiffel Tower could not have lived up to seeing the silky-smooth coat of a giraffe in the middle of the night.

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