Burnout at Disney

In a perfect world, which Disney comes so close to achieving, there’d be no crowd larger than a clump, no queue that folds in on itself, and the weather would be set to constant cruise control. Unfortunately, though, even Disney’s vast reserves of pixie dust can only affect these factors so much, and at times, even the most tolerant can find themselves challenged to their limits and approaching burnout.

In reality, the Disney experience can be elevated to perfection or downgraded to a grind simply by one’s ability—or lack thereof—to adapt to the unexpected. Most of the time, we adapt with expert ease, always striving to rise above whatever obstacles are thrown in our path in order to maintain the ideal level of happiness, which is, after all, the ideal—and the prime directive. Even Amy, whose patience and tolerance levels fall far beneath Mark’s saintly settings, finds great satisfaction in overcoming what might be considered “negative distractions” and, let’s face it: there are many if you’re tuned in to that frequency. Mark isn’t. Amy can find it blindfolded. And yet, as soon as she’s on “Disney soil,” Amy’s focus shifts to the positive, blurring the negative as best she can.

Still, with all their experience going with the flow, rolling with the waves, and converting disappointment into adventure, there are times when the elements compound, adversities collude and the tolerance tank starts to run dry. This phenomenon is known as “burnout,” and the symptoms often go undetected until it’s too late. Know what to look for, and disaster can be averted.

Let’s start with the red-flag factors:

  1. Heat and humidity
  2. High attendance
  3. Long wait times
  4. Fatigue

Individually, each of these factors can undermine best laid plans and the best of attitudes, but when they occur concurrently, watch out. Your brain will feel broadsided by a linebacker in a Tigger suit and you won’t know whether to laugh or cry until you realize you’re doing both and there’s even a line to get into the restroom. If logic is the tool you rely on in a developing crisis situation, you’ll find yourself at a loss as your enfeebled brain struggles to make sense of what’s crippling you: Yes, it’s more crowded than you anticipated, but hey, you’ve had to deal with that before, so why is it such a problem now? And, okay, it’s a hot day, but you’ve been hydrating pretty well, kinda-sorta-mostly, so that can’t be it. The lines are so long, maybe that’s really at the crux. If you could just get on a big water ride that would solve everything, but the lines are so long! Maybe what you really need is a snack. But it has to be the right snack. What’s the right snack? Where is the right snack? You’re going to have to go in search of it, and if you have to take one more wasted step in search of something you’re not going to find… YOU MAY DIE!

The “You’re trying to kill me!” Example

It was Day 5 of our trip and we were off to the Animal Kingdom.

The weather was hot and humid, but so were the last five days, so no new information there. What we weren’t expecting was how crowded the place was after experiencing a near-empty park only three days prior. We decided to veer from our plan of making a bee-line to Everest and instead take a meandering path through Africa, do the Safari, and then head to Everest. Only, the milling crowd we’d forged our way past was actually the line for the ride! So, we kept going. DinoLand was more crowded still, so we kept going, past blimp-sized men sweating through their t-shirts and yelling at their kids, past screaming kids begging for churros, past bedgraggled mothers hunched from pushing strollers filled with diaper bags and souvenir cups, past animals smart enough to lay still in the shade and watch the herd of migrating tourists. None of this was helping, and when we passed the middle-aged couple wearing Anniversary badges and looking so angry and miserable that we didn’t dare interrupt to wish them a Happy Anniversary, we knew we had to take action to save ourselves.

Amy had a plan. “Remember that beautiful path that led to the Zen coy pond with the big shaded seating area?”

“Yes. Do you remember how we got there?”

“I was hoping you remembered,” Amy was disappointed, but her pluck was gung-ho. “But maybe I do!” she tried to use enthusiasm to rally the troops. Only, Mark was skeptical. Us usually relied on Mark’s sense of direction to get us from one place to another, but this time, he wasn’t quite picturing how we’d managed to stumble upon Shangri-La in the first place. “I think it’s this way,” Amy took the lead.

Many unrequited steps later, we found ourselves back where we’d started and Mark wasn’t laughing. He didn’t laugh even more when Amy led them up the same path that culminated in a dead end—again. The third time was the charm and Mark had had it. “Let’s just sit down and regroup,” he suggested; but most of the seating was already being sat in, and the only two available seats were next to a displeased guardian and her mentally disabled and misbehaving son. Amy wanted to sit and regroup elsewhere, but Mark was done. So we sat.

Once more for good measure, Amy described what they were looking for, as if Mark would finally see with his inner directional sensibility how to get there from where we were. Instead, he barked, “You can describe it all you want, but I don’t remember how to get there!”

A crowded day Animal Kingdom

Uh-oh. It’s a hot and crowded day at Animal Kingdom.

On the rare occasion Mark has run out of patience, Amy has always risen to compensate, which was exactly what she did here: “How ’bout I get a map!” Mark was too tired to roll his eyes, but the implication was obvious and Amy was determined to ignore it. Luckily, we were sitting right near an info station where maps were a’plenty. She was sure Mark would respond positively to the visuals. “So look,” she unfolded the map, “all we have to do is find Everest, figure out what’s directly across the river from it that’s near a pulled-pork place and a designated smoking area, and then figure out how to get there from where we are now.”

Normally, Mark would be amused by Amy’s boundless determination, but he was anything but. “Babe, I know what you’re saying, I know what you’re trying to find, I remember being there, too, but I don’t see it on the map, I don’t see it in my mind, and I’m telling you honestly that I’m done trying to find it. I think we should get a drink, have a snack, cool off, and decide where we want to go from here.”

Amy wanted to burst into tears and kick him. Maps were Mark’s thing, and at that moment, she didn’t understand how he could just quit. She felt abandoned and betrayed, and that was in addition to being frustrated and angry. “Fine,” she could barely look at him, “but get an energy drink, not a soda,” she demanded in such a way that even she found offensive. She sounded just like a shrew-wife treating her husband like a dolt. That was a bad sign. A very bad sign. She watched Mark disappear into a horde of drenched people who’d just gotten off the wettest ride in the park, and was momentarily grateful for the break. Another bad sign. She scoured the map, desperately trying to find the treasure we sought as if it would suddenly be marked with a big red “X.” But nothing had changed.

What felt like one long sweaty uncomfortable hour later (in fact, it was only about 10 minutes), Mark emerged from the whorl of faceless faces holding a bottle of something red and Amy was instantly infuriated. By time he got to the table she was poised to pounce. “Why did you get that?!

“Whadaya mean,” innocent ignorant husband was caught off-guard, “I got an energy drink.

Anything but Taurine!“Yeah! Hello-ooo! What’s the one thing I said we should never have—taurine! You got the VitaminWater with taurine!”
“So, it’s got taurine.

Are you trying to kill me?” Amy implored, taking the situation so desperately seriously she almost sobbed.

[NB:Taurine has not, in fact, been proven to cause harmful side-effects. Rather, it’s been shown to have several health benefits. Sadly, my overreaction was based purely on the Red Bull scare, which was thought to be linked to several deaths in which the high amount of taurine contained in the product was suspect. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this at the time.]

At this point, had we each taken a vote, we would’ve unanimously chosen to shoot Amy where she sat.

With sweat dripping down his neck and fatigue blistering behind his eyes, he defended his position: “It was that or the orange one you hate. Everything else was soda. If you wanna return it and get something else, be my guest,” and with that he put the receipt on the table and placed the deadly bottle of taurine water on top of it.

“Fine, whatever,” Amy conceded. She hadn’t even noticed the bag of trail mix he’d bought, which quickly became life-sustaining solace, and we ate our nuts and fruit bits like starving monkeys, washing it down with taurine elixir until finally our blind hostility was replaced with sanity.

Replenish, then regroup

Breathing again, Mark re-introduced the concept of regrouping.

“Okay, look,” Amy had regained control of her brain-to-mouth relationship, “I just have to know where that spot is on this map, otherwise I’ll really believe we were in the Twilight Zone and the place doesn’t really exist. Do you mind?”

The Secluded Spot

The Secluded Spot

Propelled by Mark’s approval, Amy tromped off to the nearest cast member and quickly described the quest: “My husband and I have been going crazy trying to find this beautiful, secluded spot with coy and statues that we stumbled upon the other day when we were here and now we can’t find it again for the life of us!” It was encouraging that the woman seemed to be nodding her head in recognition. Amy then added the data from her olfactory memory: “I remember smelling pork and cigarettes.”

“Yes, I know exactly the spot you’re talking about,” the cast member assuaged her fear, “let me show you.” And indeed, it was right behind the Flame Tree Barbecue and a designated smoking area.

Amy was positively giddy just for having her credibility validated. She nearly hugged her savior with bourgeoning gratitude, but instead merely thanked her profusely and went bouncing back to the table where Mark sat patiently, the tension drained from his body.

“It does exist! It does exist,” Amy squealed joyously, and she showed Mark where we’d missed it.

“Ah,” Mark’s head bobbled affirmatively.

“Yeah,” Amy grinned triumphantly, for she never lost faith that it was somewhere, and her blind-person skills were none-too-shabby, either. In truth, Mark never doubted the place existed, he just lost all desire to need to find it.

“Next time.” Mark proclaimed, making it clear that just because we now knew where the spot was it didn’t mean we had to go there.

With Everest still too crowded to bear the line, we called it a day and caught the bus back to the hotel for a refreshing swim and a revised game plan.

So, what did we learn from this experience?

Were you able to spot the exact moment it was clear we were going down? It’s subtle, and requires knowing your partner so well as to anticipate any given response with accuracy (which doesn’t make the relationship boring, fyi!). In this case, the first sign of danger was when Mark let Amy take lead without verifying that Amy had any clue where she was going. Mark’s not that kind of adventurer, and Amy knows it. The telling moment, however, was when Mark was miffed instead of amused that Amy managed to take us in a full circle. That’s what Amy does, and Mark knows it. Normally, we’d be laughing at how predictable our behavior is, and then laughing even harder when we live up to it. But we weren’t laughing. Not at all. We were letting desperation guide our actions, and that never works out well. Ergo…

When a self-made objective—i.e., “Find that perfect spot at any expense!”—dominates all reason and behavior to the extent that you as a couple begin drifting away from each other instead of pulling together, it’s time to stop. Just stop. It’s not worth sacrificing your friendship, much less your Disney happiness, for what you’ll later chalk up to “a good idea at the time.” In retrospect, it will be anything but.

Continue to Part 2, What comes after “Just stop”?