If I ever kill anyone, I will kill them on a cruise ship.
A cruise ship is a country unto itself, in which there are few laws besides “have fun” and “don’t fall overboard.” Even that last rule is more of a suggestion. Once you mime your way through the emergency procedures, then no more mention is made of reality and the boat casts off into open seas, where you are free to float and sunbathe and drink sugary drinks in a place of legal dissonance.
The prevailing agreement on a cruise ships is that the laws that apply are the laws of the country where that boat is registered. The Bahamas, where most cruise ships are registered, doesn’t have HB-1 visa laws, which is why cruise staffs look like Benetton ads. US labor laws don’t apply either, which is at least part of the reason Laurie Dishman was raped by a security guard on a Royal Caribbean Cruise and nothing happened to her attacker. (In a statement to Congress, Dishman said the ship’s investigation was haphazard. By the time, Dishman arrived on shore and reported the case to the FBI, they told her it was a he-said-she-said.) In 2011, Rebecca Coriam disappeared from the Disney Wonder and was never found. An article in The Guardian by Jon Ronson about Coriam hinted at a cover-up—that Disney had whisked away a darker story with its patented magic.
Coriam is just one of 273 people who have disappeared from cruise ships in the last 20 years. The investigations that followed have been complicated, to say the least, by murky international laws, competing jurisdictions, and the floating, jubilant crime scenes. You’d never know how few protections a person has on these boats when you’re lying there on a deck chair, watching your kids splash in a Mickey pool. You aren’t supposed to know. You don’t have to know anything. All the dishes are whisked out of sight, quickly. Your room is cleaned twice a day. Even when someone’s kid shits in the Mickey pool and the staff shuts it down, no one talks about it.
I didn’t know about Rebecca Coriam when I booked a trip aboard the Disney Wonder with my husband for our tenth anniversary. We were just looking for a vacation we could take with our family, where we wouldn’t have to worry. Where things would be easy. Everyone we asked agreed, and every Google search confirmed—if you want magic, you go Disney. And after over five years of wiping up kid shit, we wanted the escape. We packed up our swimsuits and our kids. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law joined us.
“Did someone poop in the pool again?” I asked the staff member on our second day at sea on the Disney Wonder. She was rinsing out the right ear of the Mickey pool, which itself was larger than three Walmart-special kiddie pools stuck together; the ears were separate from the large circumference of Mickey’s face, and babies liked to play in the ears best. The Mickey pool as a whole was frequently closed for mysterious reasons. The staff member frowned and shook her head. I sat down near another mom who was waiting, drink in hand. “Was it poop?” I asked. The mom shrugged. It was her second cruise on the boat, she told me. “I never know why they shut down the pool. We just go with it.”
Even kid shit, the most pervasive of all a child’s bodily functions, is hidden when you are on board the Disney Wonder. And if it’s as Milan Kundera writes—that kitsch is the denial of shit—then the Disney Wonder is the epitome of kitsch. That’s the point of a cruise vacation: denying the shit. In this small floating island of wealth and comfort, Disney has created a fantasy land. It makes sense that they’d branch out into cruises; the inescapable and quietly menacing fantasy is exactly what they do.
As any lady with a sunburn and two kids can tell you, cruising with Disney is an unrivaled experience. Every detail is attended to. At some point, Disney discovered I was a writer and sent chocolates and nuts to my room every day. The cruise ship even offered us a scuba package when we landed on Castaway Cay, which is Disney’s own island in the Bahamas; they offered us a dinner out in the boat’s fanciest restaurant, Palo.
The restaurant sits on the upper deck, near the adult pool, gym and spa—a place that is suddenly child-free in a way you barely even notice, as if all the children have been magically disappeared. They are somewhere on the boat, surely, ensconced in the magical Kids Club, and there’s an on-board phone the staff will use to contact you if your kid needs something, so you don’t even feel bad forgetting them for a moment. Your kid begged to leave you for Mickey-shaped ice cream bar and a 20-year-old dressed as Captain Hook.
We didn’t use the scuba package, but we did go out for the dinner. The restaurant was all muted colors and sparkling glass and waiters who make you feel charming when you drop tuna carpaccio on the bright white tablecloth. The cuisine was not just Italian, but Northern Italian: a distinction that subtly made it even more classy. Drinking my limoncello cocktail, I felt like some classier version of the parent I was. Maybe my underwear wasn’t all from Target. Maybe I was important. I thought about how most people in my neighborhood and a few relatives don’t even know I’m a writer. But Disney did. Disney cares. Another woman I spoke to in the adults-only hot tub one night said that this was her fifth cruise on this same boat. “They remember me,” she said. “It always feels special.”
She was from Georgia and worked in an office. She said she got chocolates in her room too. Realistically, she and I were sunburnt nobodies in a boat of the same: she was just another woman from Georgia, me just another Midwestern mom with a blog. But on the Disney Wonder we were suddenly transformed into something special. Like a wand had been raised and my cheap clearance-rack swimsuit cover up (chosen because it hid the inner tube of skin on my waist, a remnant from two babies in three years) transformed into a beautiful gown that immediately declared, she is special.
But it wasn’t just me or this lady from Georgia, or the hundreds of other parents on the boat, who felt attended to. For example, the level of the boat where the “kids club” (it’s daycare, but more fun!) is located has a lower ceiling, and a tour guide explained that this is to ensure that the children feel confident in their space. Conversely, in the adult spaces, the ceiling is raised and made to look taller. The columns taper upward. This, according to the same tour guide, is to help adults feel more childlike. Somewhere between the faux-adult children and the childish parents and the shit-hiding and the incredibly diligent staff is where the magic happens.
On the first night on the ship, just in case we were confused about our purpose here, the show on the mainstage laid out clearly exactly how we would all have fun. Onstage were two parents, a bossy mom and a bumbling dad, pulled along by their anxious boy (played by an adolescent-looking 20 year old). The boy was determined to become a sea captain, a goal we knew he would achieve because he “believed” in it. The tale was peppered with appearances by Mickey and Minnie and the cruise director, who all came onstage at regular intervals and outlined exactly how to have fun—we should tell our crew members to accommodate our needs; we should go to Cozumel and enjoy the shopping and the hiking and the dolphins. Shortly after, the boy was transformed into the ship’s captain, because, the crew sang, he believed in magic. At the end of the show the cruise director joked that Disney would soon be able to control the weather.
The overall message of the presentation wasn’t a suggestion, it was a dictate: We were to enjoy ourselves. And as a parent of two small children, one of whom seems constantly determined to destroy us or himself, whichever comes first, I took that mandate seriously. Why wouldn’t I? I was tired. And having thoughtless fun doesn’t fit well with parenting. I remember those first fraught months, walking around holding my infant daughter, imagining all the ways she could die at my hands—I could fall and drop her, I could get into a car accident. What if the cabinet locks don’t work and she drinks shampoo? What if she falls down the stairs?
Parenting is a territory marked out by the illusion of safe zones. In pregnancy, you breathe a sigh of relief when you are out of the miscarriage zone. When your baby is born, you look forward to your child being out of the SIDS zone. Then there is sleep training, potty training, kindergarten. Each milestone marks the exit from one danger zone, hopefully into a safer zone. But the grim reality eventually becomes apparent: the safe zone you’re looking for does not exist. Babies roll over in their sleep; they crawl over to light sockets; they grab for the bleach. They make friends with the kid who’ll get arrested on prom night; they get phones that open them to worlds you cannot control. They start texting. They start driving. There is always a threat.
The death of a gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo after a four-year-old climbed into the enclosure prompted the resurgence of this same debate. Should a parent herself try to be her child’s safe zone? How well, how totally, can she be expected to succeed? Some demand that the mother of the child be investigated for neglecting her child. Others recounted the manifold times their children slipped away from them and fell out of trees, down stairs, into the woods only to be found later with a mouthful of poisoned berries. I thought about how my husband’s grandmother, who lost two of her adult children to cancer, once patted my arm and gently told me, “Once you are a parent, you are never safe.”
Disney has always offered an escape from these dangers. In Disney movies, the good guys always win. Death always happens off screen, and even when Bambi’s mom bites it, or Simba’s father falls to his death, there is always vengeance, justice, new life. By the end of the movie, the illusion of safety feels total again.
On the Disney Wonder, I luxuriated in it. The illusion worked. It’s an amazing feat to make a parent of two children feel safe on what is basically a trussed up pot of giardia stewing in an ocean of sharks. But every night I fell asleep—and early, even; what a world!—in a large comfortable bed, with the sound of the ship’s engine in the background. I felt ensconced in a safe and happy womb, and so did my kids. My four-year-old daughter skipped about the boat like she owned the place, begging to go to the kid’s club and eating multiple ice cream cones a day. My two-year-old toddled along the deck, his mouth stained with chocolate. The staff walked around him patting his head indulgently. All of this only yards away from where a woman disappeared. But how would we know? Whatever was being cleaned off of the sides of the pool or being washed off the deck, we’d never know what it actually was—popsicles or blood.
The rules of Disney magic rely on some fundamental denials. At Disney World they hide the trash and there are underground tunnels so you can’t see Olaf take off his snowman head. The movies function on denials too—make Pocahontas a 20-year-old to give her the ability to consent to John Smith’s advances (although in real life she was kidnapped at 17 and later married John Rolfe). In the book, Mary Poppins is an ass, but in the Disney version of the movie they literally sing about how she’s so lovely. And the real Ariel dies and is turned into the sea foam. But there are larger denials that Disney relies on. The denial of cost. (Magic is for everyone, Disney declares on a boat that we paid thousands of dollars to step aboard.) The denial of shit. (Why was the Mickey Pool closed so often?) The denial of shadows. (Where is Rebecca Coriam?) The denial of danger.
At the center of this is a larger denial, one that parents love to perpetuate themselves. Childhood is magic, says Disney, and we look at our precocious children, about whom we’ve learned to tell such charming stories, and we agree. We wonder at their simple hearts and clear heads. We mythologize their belief in magic. We forget that it’s easier to believe in magic when the world seems so beyond your control. When you have little choice or say about what happens to you.
It’s still very dangerous to be a child, though less baldly than it used to be in the days before modern medicine, when it was normal for children to die all the time. Early cemeteries contain headstone after headstone that mark the same year for birth and death. Often there is no name. Death before vaccines was a simple fact of life. If an infant survived into childhood, scenes of death and violence awaited him outside his door; diseases and wars wiped out entire communities. It was impossible to hide death from children, so instead of Disney, kids fell asleep to more macabre stories.
In the popular antebellum children’s book The Tragi-Comic History of the Burial of Cock Robin, Jenny Wren arranges a funeral for Cock Robin. The book teaches children about death, funeral rites and the etiquette of grief. A Sunday school tract titled “Heaven” published in the 1850s prepared children for death by depicting a conversation between a mother and son. “Is it not dreadful to die?” asks the boy. “Is it not dreadful to such as love God and do all they can to serve and please him?” answers the mother.
It’s more fun, as Disney knows, to hide from all of this. It’s easier as a parent to tell your kid to marvel at the princesses without mentioning or explaining the fact that the same actress has been playing Tiana, Pocahontas, and Jasmine this whole time. The modern version of fun involves some mixture of luck, money and denial; innocence is like that, and safety, too.
But luck is particularly capricious. A friend of mine lost her son just a month before his first birthday. The death was deemed SIDS, which didn’t feel like an answer. I told a friend recently how I brought my daughter and son to the funeral. “I’d never take my children to a funeral,” she said. Another time, a friend asked me not to talk about the death in front of her children, “I don’t want them to know about things like that,” she said.
Disney is pulling back from the brink a little lately. There was Zootopia, which still had a happy ending, and Inside Out, a movie that flirts frequently with the bleak. My daughter chose Inside Out for her birthday party theme this year. The only movie-themed cake I could find said “Life is full of emotions, happy birthday” and I picked up some green balloons for her favorite character, Disgust. I joked that next year her birthday theme would be Freud: we’d have a phallic cake and the party game would be talking about our childhoods. For her seventh birthday, it would be nihilism, and there would be no cake or party, only a black hole.
Why not? My daughter already knows about death, anyway. After the funeral of our friend, she had cried to me, worried that my father and I would leave her too. But death is a part of life, too. Darkness and shadows make the lightness lighter. It may be easier in some ways to try to maintain the illusion of magic, but it’s so expensive to do so. It requires so much denial, so many half-truths, to keep cleaning the Mickey pool of your kid’s life, pretending there’s never going to be any shit. This is kitsch as an approach to parenting. It works for about the length of a Disney cruise.
Lyz Lenz has written for The Hairpin, The Toast, The New York Time Motherlode, and other various and sundry internet entities. Find her on twitter @lyzl.