A winter break cheat code for old dads like me

I want my kid to know the magic I didn't have. But the happiest place on earth is one that's easiest on my knees

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 2, 2022 9:00AM (EST)

Calendar displaying December and days marked off for holiday (Getty Images/Richard Drury)
Calendar displaying December and days marked off for holiday (Getty Images/Richard Drury)

I love my wife and daughter more than anything. But hard living, along with being the only person in my original friend group to wait until I was AARP-mail-years-old to start a family, has kicked my ass clear across the whole of 2022. So I consider it my responsibility to help my fellow old dads out by sharing what I've learned this year. If you're a geriatric father of a little kid — I have a two-year-old — I'm going to share with you the secret to providing fun and excitement over the holiday break for your little one without destroying your already crumbling knees

Maybe your knees are great. Maybe they aren't crumbling at all. Maybe it's your back. Maybe the heels of your feet burn inside your oversized HOKAs from sciatica. Or maybe you are one of the lucky people in perfect health who jogs, only drinks one glass of white wine per week, and has cut out red meat. Honestly, your health condition doesn't matter, because if you want to maintain the condition you are in, or even get better, then pay close attention to my first recommendation: Avoid major theme parks at all costs, especially during a major holiday season. I made that mistake over summer vacation, and for this geriatric father, it was insufferable. 

It wasn't my idea. Earlier in the year, as my wife Caron stood over the sink, vigorously scrubbing a pot, she proposed a vacation. "We have to take the baby somewhere fun. We have been working too much. She deserves something special!"

"I mean, she's only two. What did she accomplish?" I responded while getting ready for work. "Can she walk backwards now?"

"Don't do her like that," she said. "I'm serious." 

"The baby loves the pool so much," I said. "I think we should take her to the nicest water park we can find." 

That's my secret: The answer is always water parks. Theme parks, no; water parks, yes. Always go to the water park. 

I thought we were settled, but then later, Caron called. "Remember that trip I purchased for us right before COVID hit? We are allowed to use any of the condos on the list and they have a location in Orlando!"

Why would I care about going to Orlando? I thought, but she seemed very excited. Maybe that's a side effect of working too much, I thought. 

She spelled it out for me: "We are going to Disney World!" 

"So no water park?" 

"It's Disney," Caron said. 'The greatest place on Earth!" 

I wouldn't know. Poor Black kids don't really get to go to Disney World. Some of my friends got to visit the Magic Kingdom via weirdo church programs that would never take a bad kid like me anywhere, and some got a free ride off a well-off family member, but those were rare occasions. The idea of going to Disney World never really excited me. Who needed Goofy and Mickey when we had Wild World, Hershey Park, and — my favorite — Kings Dominion, all of them only one to three hours away by car? Those parks had roller coasters, funnel cake, swimming pools, and 88-ounce cups of soda for us to slurp on all day. I didn't need that elitist Mickey with his fancy castle. My parks were good enough. 

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It's not like we didn't have a Mickey, too. Kind of. One of my favorite photos from childhood is of me, two years old, with my mother, and we're sitting on the lap of Project Mickey. Project Mickey is like Mickey Mouse, except his office was in Old Town Mall, right in the center of a collection of housing projects in east Baltimore. I remember a dude named Hawk once kicked Project Mickey's ass for scaring the kids by walking through the neighborhood while carrying the Mickey mask. I also remember Project Mickey getting his ass kicked by some other kids for smoking crack with his Mickey suit on. Project Mickey had to be the hardest job in America.

Project Mickey is like Mickey Mouse, except his office was in Old Town Mall, right in the center of a collection of housing projects in east Baltimore.

When friends would flip through the photo album, they'd spot the Project Mickey picture and ask if I had been to Disney World. "I dunno, maybe, but I don't remember because I was too young," I'd say. But as I got older, people who had really been to the Magic Kingdom knew Project Mickey wasn't the real Mickey. They would bust out laughing after examining the fraudulent photo, and I would join in because honestly, I had no other choice. You could tell the difference. Project Mickey had a nonexistent forehead and ears pushed back as if he had tried to tie them up in a bun. A dude in holey shoes posted up with Project Mickey near the alley, flicking Polaroids of him with happy kids like me in the same kind of wicker chair Huey Newton used to sit in.

Young D. Watkins and his motherYoung D. Watkins and his mother (Photo courtesy of the author)

Project Mickey is a highly specific character. Mickey Mouse is part of the mainstream American experience, like the big theme parks in California and Florida that draw international crowds. Just like apple pie and systemic racism, you can't truly be a part of this country until you've experienced those major theme parks. And so we went.

Parks inside of parks, rules on top of rules, crowded trains that take you from park to park, the longest lines, America, the real America, more walking than I've ever done in my life — that was my experience in Orlando this past summer. We hit up four theme parks in four days — two Disney parks, SeaWorld, and a water park. And every night as I crawled back to my hotel room, my feet, ankles, back and especially my knees were screaming until I swallowed enough ibuprofen to sedate an elephant. The pain always subsided, for one reason and one reason only­­: the smiles of my wife and two-year-old. Seeing her see the real Mickey Mouse, her face beaming, was like imagining myself at 10 trading jump shots with Michael Jordan. The pain of my crumbling knees felt worth it after that, because I love my family.

But on the plane ride home, I thought about the dolphin show at SeaWorld and wondered what the orcas did at night. I also thought about the way a pair of scientifically cushioned Triple-E ortho New Balances would've probably taken some of the pressure off my knees. Why did I become a father at 40? I mean, a healthy 40 — one of those guys who jogs, drinks smoothies, and owns a Bowflex — could for sure have babies at 45, 50, maybe even 60. But I'm new to health. I spent too many years smoking Black & Milds and drinking cheap liquor, not to mention all the other illegal activities in a city. That weighs heavy on the bones. 

While our daughter dozed, Caron asked me which park I liked the best. 

I thought about the dolphin show at SeaWorld and wondered what the orcas did at night.

"Oh, that's easy," I said, without even thinking. "The water park." Water parks are made for us old dads. My wife and I have taken this little baby to packed beaches, pumpkin patches, Sesame Place (a terrible experience), indoor trampoline play centers and all those Orlando theme worlds. And the answer is always water parks.

At the water park, you can be lazy without being judged. You can hang out by the pool for two hours and your kid won't even know because they'll be having too much fun seeing how long they can hold their head underwater, splashing your face or playing Marco Polo with someone else's kids. You can even share a drink and cheesy dad jokes with those other kids' parents. 

Good news for your old bones: The buoyancy of the water takes the pressure off your knees, so geriatric you can bounce around just like your two-year-old. Some of these places will even serve you food while you are still in the water. My wife will always want us all to stand in the ridiculously long lines for the water rides, but those lines aren't that bad compared to the lines at theme parks. They move quickly, and unlike with rollercoasters or the teacups, you actually get a reward at the end: falling, slipping, rafting or sliding into a cool pool, which is so much better than pounding concrete and waiting hours to strap yourself to a machine whose only purpose is to make you dizzy. 

So imagine the beads of sweat that formed across my forehead when Caron recently proposed we take the baby to a theme park over our winter break. Earlier in the week, we had been to one of those indoor trampoline escape room kinds of places where I pulled a muscle in my back, and we had gone roller skating, where I fell loud and hard — theatrically so — multiple times. 

"We did a lot this week," I replied, feeling my knees begin to throb in anticipation. "Maybe we should chill." 

"I found this indoor water park," she said. 

We loaded up the car — my wife, daughter, oldest niece and me — and drove to an indoor water park resort about four hours away. It was marvelous, especially if you are lazy with bad knees. Everything is within a reasonable walking distance. All five lodges led to a huge indoor water park with rides, fast lines, a spacious pool and seemingly unlimited places for me to rest my aging bones. It doubled as a kind of kiddy resort with an arcade, a bowling alley for toddlers, laser tag, arts and crafts, and corny kid-oriented dance parties. The only downside was the food sucked. But even that negative turned out to be a positive. Taking a break from eating so well meant my overworked knees actually thanked me for a change.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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