Stan, the Man

If I give it a bit of thought, I realize Stan Lee was likely the greatest influence on my creative ventures, more than anyone. There are other influences, sure. Robert Jordan and C.S. Lewis and Carolyn Keene and my own mother, as well as all of the authors of my beloved Choose Your Own Adventure books from childhood. But Lee, he created the universe I would spend my lifetime with. He set up an entire age that would capture me for decades. More than anyone, he inspired my awe.

I’ve learned a lot about Stan Lee’s life over the years, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on his creative endeavors, the one that impacted me the most. For years, the comic book industry had been dominated by super heroes, ones who transcended all of the romance and cowboy and war and monster books that filled every shelf in America through the 40s and 50s. Superman and Batman are the most widely remembered. The stories were simple and short on substance. Super hero keeps his identity secret from his friends and foils plot by fill-in-the-blank villain, be they mad scientist, alien warlord, or misunderstood monster.

But then, in 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together the Fantastic Four, and they changed the industry completely. They made their heroes flawed. They were fallible, they made mistakes. They overcame overwhelming odds in order to triumph over villains. And the villains suddenly became relatable, with variable motives and intentions. The lines blurred, and suddenly everything felt more human.

Stan Lee gave us the Thing, a man who hated being transformed into a lumpy orange monster, and one who took his rage out on the world even while being as lovable as can be. He gave us Spider-Man, a young man who dedicated himself to good after one of his own mistakes resulted in the death of his Uncle Ben. A line-up of X-Men, who were hated by the world for being different. Daredevil, who was a blind attorney by day, a hero who could jump off rooftops by night. The Hulk, a scientific Dr. Jekyll with a secret Mr. Hyde he was ashamed over. Iron Man, a selfish playboy billionaire with shrapnel near his heart. Thor, an arrogant God of Thunder who must learn humility at all cost. Stan Lee was an idea machine, giving the world more and more heroes to wonder over. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Dr. Strange. The Silver Surfer. Magneto. Green Goblin. Dr. Doom. Dr. Octopus. The Human Torch. The Inhumans. The Black Panther. Captain Marvel. The Skrulls. Loki. He brought back Captain America, and then he grouped up random heroes into the Avengers. And it was later he added more characters that he loved, ones who hadn’t had titles of their own: Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Quicksilver, Black Widow.

It’s been over 60 years, and these character names still headline comic books, multi-million dollar movies, toys and clothing lines, and cartoons. They’ve become household names, some gaining more notoriety than ever in just the last few years.

Now granted, reading these old 60s comic books from the year 2018 can be a bit uncomfortable. The heroes are overwhelmingly white and male. When girls did show up, they were often given passive powers and, when not fussing over their hair or outfit, were generally relegated to the kidnapped and tied-up damsel. And characters of other races, including Asian and Black, were generally characters. But over the years, that would evolve, as the comics addressed more relevant issues.

I didn’t start reading comic books until the mid-1990s. By then, many of these series were numbering in the hundreds, an impressive feat when you consider most books produced about 12 comic books per year. Picking up Amazing Spider-Man #300 meant the book had been running for 30 years. Stan Lee wasn’t really writing anymore by then, a man near 70 years old. The company had changed. Some characters had surged in popularity and added entire franchises. Characters died and came back. Storylines became complex, frequently saturated with complex and intricate plot devices. Was Spider-Man the clone or was his clone the clone? Cable was the product of Cyclops marrying the clone of his love, Jean Grey, and bearing a child, and sending that child to the far future to be raised, and then that child coming back to the present followed by a clone of his own. There were alternate dimensions and timelines, time travelers, shape-shifters, and teleports to save any character from seeming death. There were secret shadow organizations, and characters still alive from World War II who should have been dead decades ago. Marvel invented a sliding time scale, basically stating that although the characters debuted in the 60s, you could just presume that they had been around for ten years or so before you picked up the book. And as long as you didn’t mind the decades of history, the suspension of disbelief, the occasional continuity gaff, and the fact that you couldn’t possibly afford every book on the shelf, well, you had a whole world you could get lost in.

And that was exactly what I needed at the time. Things were getting tough at home. My step-dad was lashing out with anger more frequently, and it was getting more difficult to hide the fact that I was gay and pretending to be straight. I desperately needed an escape. And so, one weekday, I bought an X-Force comic book off the grocery store shelf. And it was amazing. Within a few years, I was working at a local comic book store by special arrangement: they paid me in comic books. And by the time I left on my Mormon mission at the age of 19, I’d collected thousands of them, meticulously preserved in bags and lined up alphabetically and numerically in dozens of cardboard boxes that lined the walls of my room.

And on that mission, for two years, reading comic books was my secret sin. I could buy them when no one was looking, hide them under my mattress at the apartment, read them when my companion was sleeping. Again, I could escape. All through college, I raided back issue bins in comic book shops, carefully scanning for every issue that I didn’t have. And always the hardest to come by was the original Stan Lee stuff, the primordial works from which an entire universe developed.

Even now, comic books are a part of my life. Everything for me is digital nowadays. I don’t keep my books in boxes, instead I keep them on hard drives. Every week, dozens of new Marvel books come out, still charting the stories of these classic characters and their extended families. The heroes from the 60s should be elderly, or dead and gone, but we readers just pretend they are perhaps in their late 20s or early 30s. I still love the X-Men, although their school has blown up 35 times by now, and every one of their members has died and come back from the dead at least twice. I’m still captivated by these classic characters. I sip my coffee and click through my pages with love and excitement. My brain auto-plays the sound effects of Thwip and Snit, and the classic phrases still leap off the page at me. Flame on! Hulk Smash! With great power comes great responsibility! It’s clobbering time! By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! By Odin’s beard! Oh my stars and garters!

Everyone who followed, all the other big names that have also become something, they only succeeded because of the platform Stan Lee created. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. Wolverine. Punisher. Moon Knight. Cable. Elektra. Ghost Rider. Deadpool. The universe got a lot darker for a long time, then it got lighter again. And in the new comics, the world looks a lot different. There are gay characters running around everywhere now. Women play a much more prominent role. Many of my favorite titles star characters that Stan Lee must have been proud of. Moon Girl (a 9-year old black girl, the smartest person on the planet) and Devil Dinosaur (her big red T-Rex). Ms. Marvel (a Pakistani-American teenage girl, a Muslim). Squirrel Girl (a plucky computer nerd with a squirrel tail). I sit down with my children now and read these stories, sharing with them the joy of these characters, ones who make us laugh and smile.

I got the news today that Stan Lee died at the age of 95. I haven’t given him much thought in recent years, except to smile whenever he’s made a cameo in a Marvel movie or show that I love. Before I got that news, just this morning, I read the latest Spider-Man, and just last week I looked at the last episode of Daredevil on Netflix. And it dawns on me how much he transformed my life.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, for giving me another world to escape to. It was a complicated world, a rich one that expanded far beyond your original concepts, but then again, you started it all. You built a civilization under the ocean, and another beneath the surface of the Earth. You made up entire countries, some that floated in the clouds, some that nestled between existing borders. You gave men and women powers from a myriad of sources: alien experiments, exploding chemicals, radioactive spiders, godly interventions, magical training, Gamma bomb explosions, radioactivity, or just an accident of birth. You made me believe anything was possible, and that, no matter how complex and flawed the world might be, that good always triumphed and there was always another adventure beckoning.

Thank you, Mr. Lee, and Rest in Peace. Excelsior! 95 was a good long time, and your universe lives on.

Stan

 

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Animal Kingdom

animal

As I child, I poured through the pages of encyclopedias for fun. I was endlessly fascinated with words themselves, with their variable origins and meanings. Crisp letters here and silent, hidden letters there. Synonyms and homonyms, syllables and participles. I was amazed by the very structure of them. Even as a young child, I had an incredible sense of understanding that not only would I never know all of the words in my own language, but that there were hundreds of other languages out there, each with words that could never translate into mine. This realization left me awestruck.

I remember being similarly overwhelmed by the vast kingdom of animals out there. As animals evolved in different environments, they adapted with skills and shifts in their very biological chemistries in order to survive. A spot, a ruffle, a horn, a tuft, or a pouch generally meant a completely different species. Turtles could be painted, box, or snapping; trout could be rainbow, brown, or brook; owls could be white-plumed, tiny and burrowing, or fierce and screeching. In every biosphere, there were creatures that dug deep into earth and trees, those that flew above and stretched their wings to the sky, those that nibbled on the green growing grass, and those that fed on all. The circle of life, from bottom feeder to great predator, in every realm from desert to ocean to cave. And it all adapted around water, and sun. I could flip through a book full of butterflies and look at the hundreds of wing pattern variations, and wonder for days at how they all happened that way and where they came from.

When I first became aware of the super powers animals contained, my brain was arrested with the sheer possibility of it all. Chameleons camouflaged, monarch butterflies flew the length of the world in a span of generations, and cicadas slept for years at a time. Squirrels foraged using cheek pouches to carry extra, spider monkeys had tails that could be used liked hands, and camels could go for days without water. And the more obscure the animal, the more I was fascinated by them. There were sword-billed hummingbirds, binturongs that smelled like buttered popcorn, and bizarre red-lipped batfish that lurked on the ocean floor.

My love for heroes began shortly after that. Not surprisingly, the majority of them seemed to be based on animals and their abilities. Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman. Spider-Man and Ant-Man. Wolverine. Ninja Turtles. Black Panther, Cheetah, Killer Croc. And, as always, the more obscure the character, the more I rejoiced in them: the Beetle, the Vulture, Kangaroo, Leap-Frog, Puma, Squirrel Girl, the Mandrill, the White Rabbit, the Owl, and the Walrus. From there, I found myself creating my own heroes and villains, with their own animal powers. It was so easy, as there were so many to choose from. The electric eel, the angler-fish, the goblin shark, the monitor, the ocelot, the maned wolf, the mosquito, the starfish, the capybara, the ibex. It was as if the possibilities were endless. My ideas filled entire notebooks.

Since having children of my own, my love of animals has been reawakened. My sons J (9) and A (6) are endlessly asking questions about animals. We pick up educational videos on them and talk about the special skills of each. We discuss endangered species, habitats, and species diversity. They make me think and learn even more. A year or so ago, we started playing a game initially called Farm, then Farm and Zoo, then Farm and Zoo and Aquarium. Now we just call it the Animal Kingdom. We began collecting animal toys, little plastic figurines, realistic in their detail, and we began arranging them by habitat. It started with the obvious, pigs, cows, and horses, then diversified into black bears, Siberian tigers, and timberwolves. We have adventures with the creatures, and the human characters who come to visit them with nefarious plots.

Lately, though, the game has turned more complex, as the denizens of the Animal Kingdom continue to grow. The boyfriend and I have been giving the boys new animals every other weekend or so, creatures to add to the ranks, and it’s almost as we are having a contest to see who can go the most obscure. We don’t just hand the boys the animals, we take time to learn about the creatures together, we draw pictures, and we have active conversations. Three weekends ago, I gave the boys a wombat and a wallaby; the next weekend, Mike gave them a reticulated giraffe and a gharial; I followed that up with a cassowary and a rhinocerous hornbill. We fully admit that it is we, the adults, who are the most obsessed at this point, but I find myself planning out how I can teach the boys about the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant anteater, the pangolin, and the kudu in the following few months, and it fills me with joy.

This weekend, I took a solo trip to New Mexico. With a few hours to kill between the landing of the plane and the check-in time for my hotel, I took myself to the zoo. I wandered, a grown man in love with animals again, and I watched with fascination, still amazed at the variance and complexity. The baby chimpanzee wrapped itself in a blanket and turned somersaults for several minutes while its win sibling cuddled tightly with a grandmother chimp in the corner. The polar bear danced back and forth in a repeated rhythm, taking a measured number of steps, sticking out its tongue, turning around to march back to the front, then repeating all over again. The baby American alligators huddled on top of each other in a pile at the corner of the pool. The warthog inhaled its pile of vegetables with its great hinged jaws, reminding me of a muppet. The peacock startled me with its loud guffaw of a song, shouting across the zoo for all to hear.

Inspired, I left the zoo, sat down at my computer to blog about animals, and promptly logged into Amazon to mail order more creatures for the Animal Kingdom. The orders were for my kids, I told myself again. But, frankly, they were more for me, and for the little boy version of myself that flipped through encyclopedias to take notes.

Captain Comics

CaptainComics

“Excuse me, Corbin?”

He looked up from behind the glass counter, where he was sorting through new packs of Magic: the Gathering cards. “Hey, Chad, what’s up?” I had always found Corbin handsome, but I could never say that. I was only 16, and still firmly in denial about being gay.

“Hey, I was wondering–” My heart was pounding. I shouldn’t be this nervous over something so simple.

“Are you here to empty your comic box? I put an alternate cover for the new Uncanny X-Men for you, plus your regular copy. It’s good art, could be a collector’s item if you want it.”

“Oh, no, I’ll probably just take the regular. I don’t think I could afford the alternate cover.” I smiled, awkward, and stepped to the side as a kid came up to the counter, carrying a stack of Gen13 comics, all of them featuring covers with girls who had enormous bowling-ball-size breasts in tight T-shirts. Those were bad, but not nearly as risqué as the Vampirella comics, where the girls were basically wearing strings. I hated this trend in comics in the mid 1990s, where so many artists seemed to make girls’ breasts bigger than their heads.

I waited for a moment, practicing my speech in my brain again, as the customer tried convincing Corbin to sell the comic books at half the price. Captain Comics was a tiny store, a small storefront in Idaho Falls, Idaho, nestled next to a Little Caesers and some cell phone shop on the other side. There were bins full of back issues, a wall of new comics, and sections for trading cards, card games, and comic book memorabilia. With a small back room, and a long glass counter, it had become a place of refuge for me over the past year, a place I frequented once per week at least, so I could pick up some new comics with money I had saved up.

I’d become obsessed with Marvel Comics over the past few years. I’d first fallen in love with comics in the sixth grade, when Archie Comics was printing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I later fell in love with the X-Men, and soon found myself wanting to buy everything put out. But I also wanted to start collecting everything that had been printed before, seeking to understand the deep and rich histories of Captain America and Thor and Ghost Rider and Spider-Man and everyone else, not an easy feat in the pre-digital age, when tens of thousands of comics had been printed over the decades before me. I had a special fondness for discontinued titles like the Defenders. If I wasn’t careful, I could easily blow entire paychecks at the store, and instead had to watch for sales, bargain bins, and occasional online auctions of comics over E-bay.

I kept my comics so carefully, bagged, boarded, and in alphabetical order, lined and stacked in cardboard boxes at home in my bedroom. As my collection expanded, the space in my room shrank, more comics lining the desk, the closet, the floor against the wall. They had become my greatest obsession, my greatest love.

And in ways, my greatest escape.

Corbin was free again as the customer huffed out in frustration. He turned back to me. “So what was it you wanted to ask me?”

I lowered my eyes, embarrassed and a bit ashamed of myself. “I, um, haven’t ever told you much about me. I’m Mormon. I work after school and everything, but I’ve been saving up money for my mission that I’ll go on in a few years, and also I’m saving up for my senior trip. And I love comics. They are, like, one of the best things in my life right now. But I can’t keep affording to buy them because–”

Corbin tilted his head, sympathetically. “Do you need me to put a hold on your box for a while?”

I looked up, surprised. “No–no, that’s not what I’m saying. I–look, my parents got divorced a few years ago and my mom married this guy, my step-dad, and he’s kind of a huge jerk, like he yells and hits and stuff, and I don’t really have a dad around. I’m not sure why I’m telling you that. What I’m getting at is, I was wondering if maybe I could work in your shop on Saturdays or something, or maybe on Tuesday nights when you get your new comics shipments in. I could work just like a few hours a week, and you don’t have to make me an employee. Maybe you could just let me work off the amount I would owe for the new comics I’m ordering? I would work hard, and that would let me keep getting comics so I could keep saving up for my mission and everything.”

My heart was pounding out of my chest as I waited for Corbin to respond. He looked at me intently, curious and wanting to ask a million things, I’m sure, but he just stayed there silent for a small eternity. Finally he spoke.

“Chad, you’re a good kid. I’ve always liked you. And you seem trustworthy.” He paused again and I waited for him to break the bad news. But then he surprised me. “You know what, let’s try it out. Five dollars an hour, a few hours per week. And you can be paid in comic books. That’s two-and-a-half standard books an hour, five books for a two-hour shift. Two hours a week on Tuesday nights work for you?”

“Yes! Yes, absolutely!” I gripped his hand in a hearty handshake, shaking hard. “You won’t regret this, sir. I’ll work really hard.” I felt like I had just made the deal of the century.

The next Tuesday I worked my first short shift. Within a few months, I was working Saturdays, and in time, even running the store for afternoons or evenings on my own. I would continue working at Captain Comics throughout my high school experience, right up until I left on my mission, for a total of three years. And the entire time, I was being paid in comic books. My collection at home expanded into around ten thousand before I was all done, and I’d move the boxes with me through most of my adult life.

Reflecting back on this story now, at the time of writing, at age 39, I think of how much comics saved me, especially during my difficult adolescence. My love of comics also led to me working for Marvel Comics for a few years, and even writing my own line of comics.

So from both 15 year old Chad, and 39 year old Chad, thank you, Corbin of Captain Comics, wherever you are, for giving a young man a chance when he most needed it.

Pokemon Shaming

Poke Ball

“Your son is a beautiful child. He’s just so emotionally young, the youngest in his class by far.”

Mrs. Barnes pulled out a folder A, my 6 year old son, had made, and placed it on the table. It was full of his artwork and assignments.

“We instructed each child to draw a cover for their personal folders. Many children drew their families or farm animals or a picture of Earth. But look at what your son drew here.”

I looked at the cover and saw a huge green dragon, covered in spike, breathing fire. The dragon had a fierce expression on its face and its wings were spread wide. A had drawn it in crayon.

“It’s a dragon!” I said, with a hint of excitement in my voice. “One of his best, I’d say. He’s practiced hard.”

Mrs. Barnes nodded. “Well, yes, but we don’t really do dragons in this school. We try to stick to realism. All of the children are asked not to wear cartoons on their shirts and to not have screen time during the week, no television or video games. I know you are doing your best to abide by that, but everything for A must be an adventure, an epic quest. Everything is story-telling to him.”

I nodded, struggling to understand the concerns. “A is my storyteller. He’s brilliant. He remembers details and puts together elaborate adventures. He loves when small creatures save the day, Lord of the Rings style. He is also a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter in that he has particular affection for the most ferocious of creatures. I do understand that he is emotionally young. He hates transitioning from one thing to the next, he hates eating vegetables, he hates coloring within the lines. But he only turned 6 in July, and school started in September. Many of the kids in his classroom turned six several months or even almost a full year before him. He’s the smallest guy in the classroom, and he’s obsessed with everything being fair and balanced.”

Mrs. Barnes smiled, nodding and taking a few notes. “You certainly know your child well. Here at the charter school, we try many activities that focus on the five senses, healthy play, and physical movement, while putting them through the education. It is a wonderful method of learning. Here, the children plant plants in gardens, they learn about animals and mythology, language skills, hand-eye coordination, plants and culture.”

“I love your methods here. I have loved it for my sons and they love it also,” I said honestly.

“But A is really struggling. He takes a longer time to adapt than the other kids. Particularly in the afternoons, and especially during transitions. It takes a long time to get him to focus on tasks that he isn’t already good at. He takes a lot more attention than the other kids. And that’s okay, because we want to individualize the educational process for each child. But that is why we called this meeting, so we could strategize ways to help your child succeed.”

An older woman sat to the left of Mrs. Barnes, likely in her mid-60s. She was thin and wore a blue skirt and a dark blue top, both of which fit her well but were somehow billowy at the same time. Her hair was gray. She had discerning eyes and had been listening to every word carefully.

“Chad, I’m Meadow,” she said, extending a hand. “I haven’t actually met your son, but I’m one of the founders of this school.” Over the next several minutes, she analyzed A’s artwork, showing me how he was struggling with complex concepts. If he was shown a coloring technique, like say making a tree trunk with a broad stroke using a chalk-like crayon, he would instead take a regular crayon and draw the outline of the tree, then shade it in. She reviewed many of these concepts, and talked about methods in the classroom to help him, and ways we could practice techniques at home to reinforce expectations.

“He is a beautiful child, like all children are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about these adventures A loves? Where does he get these concepts?”

I proceeded to tell her about a typical afternoon with my sons. “They will choose to be some kind of animal or creature, and we go on epic quests all around the park, or swimming pool, or neighborhood. They have to collect pine cones on the hill, solve riddles to pass the old witch, find a little girl hiding in a park, dig for rocks, and create potions to save the world. A is very focused on fights, like Batman or Spider-Man style, so I always try to incorporate physical activity. He loves pretending to have super powers, so instead of laser eyes or giant fists, I try to give him powers to change colors or grow plants or see through things, and help him use his reasoning skills to get through the quests. He adapts well. It gives us a lot of ground to work from, and it is fun quality time with him. We do things like this often.”

Meadow clicked her tongue. “So he gets his story-telling from you and your interactions?”

“I’d say so.” I was smiling.

“And yet he is obsessed with adventures.”

“Well, growing up, he has had a healthy diet of kids’ cartoons. He loves super heroes. He loves Pokemon.”

“See? That.” Meadow had a disappointed look on her face. “Pokemon. He needs less Pokemon and more time outdoors. Children his age need to milk cows and slop pigs. They need to count sticks and smell pine trees and dip their toes in the water. They need to jump over rocks and learn how to catch themselves if they fall. They need what children in previous generations had.”

I was nodding, enthusiastic. “I love all of these ideas. And I’m definitely open to them.”

Prairie looked me right in the eyes. “And yet someone introduced him to Pokemon in the first place.”

There was a heavy silence in the room, filled with awkward tension, and I felt she had just told me that I’m abusing my child. She kept eye contact with me as I felt ashamed briefly. My brow furrowed in confusion. Suddenly, I was angry, but I kept it tightly contained. What kind of name was Meadow anyway?

The meeting continued and we discussed strategies to keep A invested in the classroom, to practice skill-sets at home, and particularly to help him with transition times in the classroom.

Mrs. Barnes turned toward me just at the end of the meeting. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. A isn’t eating the school lunches. I’ve tried but we just can’t get him to eat. He just kind of picks at his food. I meant to send you an Email weeks ago, but I’ve been busy with work and family. Maybe you should pack him a lunch from now on.”

And then I was furious. “He’s been telling me that he’s been eating. But if he isn’t eating, no wonder he is struggling! When he doesn’t eat, he acts more like a young 4 year old than a child his age.  His cheeks get red and he can’t focus! He needs food! He’s been super hungry when he gets home but I thought that was normal!”

Mrs. Barnes placated me. “Yes, well, let’s have you pack a lunch for him from now on and see if that makes a difference. Pick foods that he likes that can sustain him.”

I walked away from the meeting, a mixture of determination, embarrassment, gratitude, and rage. A woman who had never met my child clearly had very strong feelings about Pokemon, and another who knew him well had failed to mention that my child wasn’t eating, and failed to connect that to his struggles.

The next day, I packed A a lunch, and when I picked him up from school, Mrs. Barnes commended him on how well he had done with transitions that day. Then A and I went home and played. We jumped in the backyard, we smelled leaves, we gathered sticks, we climbed a hill, we watched the sun and clouds.

Then we went home and watched Pokemon.

Universal

universal-studios-orlando-review

One day, an executive for a company sat down and thought, Hmm, people love the movies. And people love parks. What if we made a movie park. Disneyland did it with Snow White and Cinderella and all that. They have rides and castles and people in costumes. What if we did that for beloved movies?

And so that executive pitched the idea, and it was accepted, and a giant plot of land was purchased, and worlds collided as giant rides and structures, food stations and shops were built around common themes. Jurassic Park, King Kong, the Simpsons, Marvel Super Heroes, and the newest crowd draw, Harry Potter. They built the parks, and they came up with marketing strategies, and they opened the doors, charging hundreds of dollars per person to come inside. And soon, billions were pouring.

On our first day in Universal Studios, all 30 members of my family wore matching shirts, black and white striped prisoner of Azkaban shirts emblazoned with our names and prisoner numbers, and the employees gushed at our creativity. We waited in a long line to park, walked a long distance to the park entrance, and waited in line to enter. Friendly employees scanned our tickets (my two sons and I cost nearly $700 for park tickets for two days, not including parking, lodging, airfare, or food), and then we started to walk. And walk. And walk.

The large family group had agreed to meet for a photograph on the bridge in front of Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter section of the park, and it took us a full hour for everyone to assemble. We smiled for our photos, then moved into Hogwarts itself, where we stood in line for an hour to go on an incredible motion ride with Harry Potter and his friends. Hungry, we moved to a nearby food line, where we waited for 40 minutes to order, and the kids fell asleep on the bench while eating, already exhausted. We browsed the shops, displays, and decorations, then waited in line to enter the wand shop to see a magical display.

The kids were troopers, standing still and staying good-natured and staying quiet during the long line waits, but we were all a bit worn down already and the day wasn’t even a third over. Over the next 7 hours, we found dinosaurs peeking through trees, avoided some long lines while standing in others, purchased snacks, splashed in Dr. Seuss structures, rode the Hogwarts Express to the other side, snapped photos of SpongeBob Squarepants, and eventually trundled back to our cars and back to the hotels, where we soaked in the hot tub for a few minutes before passing out.

A second day in the park seemed daunting, especially as a few family arguments erupted and one of the kids seemed to be having tummy troubles. As we parked again, there was tension in the air and we waited in the long line to enter the park again. I kept a giant smile on my face, telling the kids how excited I was for King Kong and Shrek and the Minions and they stayed smiling. We walked through the park quickly, knowing the lines would be mounting, and I had to do some quick calculations.

As a conservative estimate, I guessed there were 10,000 people at the parks on any given day, who each paid about $150 for admission, that was $1,500,000 per day, before the cost of food, parking, and souvenirs. I don’t have a great business brain, but I calculated that many of these rides and structures had been running for several decades, and I was flummoxed by the amount of money rolling in at this place.

We rushed to King Kong just after the ride opened and stood in line for over an hour to ride it, then another 90 minutes later for the Spider-Man ride, and another 45 later for the 3-D Shrek film. I pictured people back home, blaring on their horns over a few extra seconds at a stoplight, or haggling over the nickel cost increase on their box of cereal now here maxing out there credit cards for an $8 cup of root beer and a 90 minute wait for a 3 minute decades-old ride.

We left the park early the second day, our feet and backs tired, ready for a good night’s sleep. And then we lost our car in the parking lot, unable to remember where we had parked in the tension of the morning. 45 minutes later, we finally drove out of there, our souvenirs clutched in our hands and our stomachs full of heavy foods.

I sat down with the boys that night and recounted our favorite parts of the last few days as we had tried to get our money’s worth in the busy parks. Added all up, we had a great time, but it cost a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to vacation, I thought, and I wasn’t sure this was my favorite way.