Thursday, February 19, 2015

It's Just Ambiance: A Tale of Disneyland and Teaching My Nephew a Freakishly Big Word

The jungle presses in around me, the pounding sun held at bay by its thick canopy.

Wood creaks.

Scratchy music from an old-time radio filters through the air.

Crumbling stone is underfoot. Fading statues stand sentries of a glorious era long passed.

The temple is nearly excavated, but as I duck inside the cool building I see the wooden scaffolds barring precarious sections, planks holding up unstable pieces. Deeper in, lights are strung up, flickering and dimming with the cough and sputter of an unreliable generator.

Colorful paintings of archaic splendor soar across the domed ceiling, in the half-light and dancing shadows still mysterious and grand. 

Ancient booby traps have been triggered, then stabilized with lengths of bamboo. It's a dangerous place -evidenced by the skeletons of the less fortunate- but safe for us to pass, thanks to the ingenious excavators.

Bats scratch and squeak in a cavern. We keep our voices low, praying they won't swarm. Signs of 'DANGER!', 'DON'T TOUCH!', and 'KEEP QUIET' line our passing, but most of our crowd ignores them, pointing and chatting and snapping photographs. In a corridor lined with six-foot spikes, a reckless teenager yanks at the bamboo pole holding the trap's trigger at bay. A crash. The rumbling of moving stone. Someone screams as the ceiling sinks down...

But don't worry. This isn't some archaeological site or the beginning of a horror movie. It's just ambiance.

Ambiance = The character and atmosphere of a place

Disneyland is one of my favorite vacation places, for many reasons. But one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the Happiest Place on Earth is the incredible attention to detail. As soon as you step into the queue for the Indiana Jones ride, you suddenly feel transported into a 1940s expedition site in the heart of a tropic jungle.

"This never gets old," I tell my dad, who appreciates Disneyland just as much as me. "There's so much ambiance!"

I feel a tugging on my hand. My nephew looks up at me, nose scrunched. "Aunt Manda-Panda," he says, using only the most awesome nickname ever bestowed upon an aunt, "What's ambi- ambu- ...what's that word you just used?"

Yikes. I've stepped in it now. My nephew is five, and I stare back at him with a look of such intense contemplation he giggles at me. How in the world do I explain a word like 'ambiance' to a five-year-old?

By example, I realize. After all, what better place to explain such a concept than Disneyland, which steps into the lands of Tomorrow, Yesterday, and Fantasy?

"Ambiance is the feel of a place," I tell him. "Right now, don't you feel like you're in an actual jungle?"

He nods.

"That's ambiance!" I'm excited now. This is an aunty thing to do. Not only an aunty thing, but an Aunt Manda-Panda thing. I point at the flickering lights, the tents, the old jeep, the speakers warbling out the jazzy music. "See all this stuff? It makes it seem like we're in an old campsite, right? Sounds, smells, feels -that's all ambiance, and here, they manipulate the ambiance to make you feel like you're in a different place. Like you're really there. That's part of why Disneyland is so fun!"

Okay, maybe I'm over-excited. Half of that probably went over his head, but he nods. "Oh. Okay." And that's that. We get on the ride, we have a blast, we get off, we move on.

A day later, we have a 60-minute wait time at Tower of Terror. The kids are getting antsy and we've finally stepped into the hotel's lobby, so the running around thing that worked outside won't do here. Again, I'm struck with the incredible attention to detail (not an uncommon occurrence for me). Fake dust and giant cobwebs coat everything. Sections of the walls are damaged and peeling, revealing the brick and woodwork beyond. The fixtures flicker, the furniture is faded, and the ride attendants are in bellhop uniforms. It often irks me how many people ignore the incredible work and effort of the setting in favor of their cell phones so, with my nephew in one hand, and my niece in the other, I point to a dusty table.

"Look at that! Somebody was in the middle of a card game and...they just left it."

Their hands tighten around mine and I realize, Right. Tone back the creepy. I turn to my niece, who has been easily frightened by some of the rides, and assure her, "It's not real. Everything in here just matches up with the story the ride tells."

A tug on my other hand. "Aunt Manda-Panda, is this all ambiance, too?"

I swear to high heaven an astronaut could have seen my proud glow. "This is ambiance exactly!"

This is the floor inside the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique,
made to look like wooden boards with wildflowers
growing in between.
Who says a five-year-old can't use 'ambiance' in casual conversation? (He used it at least three times that week. *squee!*) Who says kids aren't smart? By george, not me! This was my single proudest moment as an aunt, to date, and I'm going to teach my niblings all the big words I can muster.

Is this presumptuous? Probably. Ridiculous? Most definitely. Do I honestly expect these kids to drop words like 'ubiquitous' or 'prepossessing' on the playground? Of course not.

On the other hand, where else will they learn these things if not from their big-word-loving Aunt Manda-Panda?

You can hear more about my trip in my vlog post:

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