But everything changed a few years ago, during a Disneyland trip for our oldest son's third birthday. Benjamin's wide-eyed delight in seeing the characters and flying on Dumbo brought back so much of my own stardust that I realized, for all its capitalist subversiveness, Disney made children really happy by appealing to the best in their imaginations.
Even with minimal exposure to Disney entertainment, our second son, Jacob, also caught the Mickey Mouse bug early. For his third birthday, in the fall of last year, we told him we had a really great surprise. He responded with a Cheshire cat grin, "Are we going to Disneyland?"
Jacob had to settle for a Power Rangers scooter at the time, but by spring, we had saved enough for a two-day vacation to visit Disneyland and California Adventure. On the morning of our departure, Jacob buckled himself into the minivan while we were still loading - a full half-hour before we left.
When we finally arrived at the animated Valhalla, I shelled out close to $200 bucks for my family of four-plus-a-baby. "That should leave us enough cash for us to ration a hamburger for the next two days," I cracked to my wife.
"Be nice," she said. "Just look at Jacob skipping toward the gates." Inside the park, with the throngs of other families pouring into Main Street, U.S.A., like settlers scrambling to stake their claim in the New West, Wendy became a cavalry general. "We're hitting Tomorrowland first. You do the Star Wars experience with Benjamin and I'll take Jacob on the spaceships." That left stroller-bound Ari. Wendy had that planned too, as her mom, Cindi, had come along to care for him.
From then on, we romped all over the park, driving crazily through Autopia, spinning dervishly on the Mad Tea Party, and sailing sinisterly on the Pirates of the Caribbean (still my all-time favorite).
Wendy organized all the scary rides with Fastpass reservations (providing free access to quicker lines) so Benjamin could test his newfound fearlessness. On the last Disneyland visit, he barely opened his eyes for the Alice in Wonderland trip. This time, he whooped and hollered through the Matterhorn and Indiana Jones adventure -- twice!
It was hard for Jacob to watch his brother go on more mature attractions. "I'm a big boy too!" he wailed as he tried to look taller for the height-requirement sign.
Lucky for him, we still had another park day to go. Following a painful night in a hotel with Ari crying every hour, we shuttled over to California Adventure.
Things did not start off well there as a number of attractions were closed. With my children already disappointed, we ran after the woman dressed up in the JoJo (from JoJo's Circus) costume, only to be turned away by her bodyguard who told us, "JoJo will be back after a brief break."
"Since when did characters act like prima donnas?" I wondered aloud, some of my Disney cynicism creeping back in. I was about to tackle the big-headed clown when JoJo relented and signed the autograph book.
Everything got brighter as we gathered more autographs (and a family picture with The Incredibles) and saw shows such as the Playhouse Disney extravaganza (Jacob got to a small part in the production). Benjamin even took me on the Tower of Terror ride, which uses a Twilight Zone scenario that features an elevator that falls several times and, at one point, has you plunging in zero gravity. Benjamin laughed like a madman during the whole thing while saying, "Don't worry, Daddy, you're safe with me."
As the sun set, Jacob - who had spent almost the entire two days running around without asking to be held - finally requested a lift. He was exhausted, but still fighting it a little. "I don't want Disneyland to end," he said. I spotted one last interactive exhibit, featuring characters from Brother Bear, where we climbed rope bridges till they practically threw us out for closing time.
This year was Jacob's turn at fulfilling the reachable dream of "living at Disneyland" for two days. In a few years, Ari will be of the age when the Magic Kingdom will be fresh and new and completely wondrous (just like the magic of Mommy and Daddy's money coming out of the ATM every time there's souvenir to buy). But for all time, Disneyland will hold a special place in my life, as the source of many happy memories of my youth and those of the little people who are more magical than anything old Walt every sketched - my children.
Gregory Keeris a syndicated columnist, teacher, and on-air expert on fatherhood. His Family Man column appears in publications across the country, including L.A. Parent, Boston Parents' Paper, Metro Augusta Parent, and Sydney's Child in Australia. He and his wife are the proud parents of three sons.