Expect the unexpected

I went to surprise my daughter and she surprised me instead

You'd think after nine years I would know my daughter pretty well.

But every once in a while I learn something new about her that takes me completely by surprise.

It all started with a plan to make her birthday something to remember. Our family is crazy about Walt Disney World. I'm a full-fledged Mousejunkie, and my daughter has inherited my Disney gene.

She loves going there, and is already an expert on the vacation Mecca. She's always wanted to be at the Magic Kingdom on her birthday, but her birthday falls near the beginning of the school year. To our way of thinking it's much too early to pull her out for a week to go on vacation. So we always told her it just couldn't happen. Sorry, kid.

Only this year my wife and I decided to do something unexpected. We planned to take a long weekend and travel to Walt Disney World for our daughter's ninth birthday. She wouldn't miss much school at all, and she'd finally be able to hang with Mickey on the special day.

We opted to keep it a surprise and not tell her until we were on our way to the airport. I spent the summer surreptitiously making plans, booking the trip and making dining reservations. And at least four times that I can remember, I slipped in front of her and started talking about the trip. Luckily I help others travel to Walt Disney World, so it's not uncommon for her to hear me making reservations for others. We were super careful not to tip her off.

The day finally arrived when we were to pick her up from school and head straight for the airport. With a cover story ready, I went into school, got her and then headed for the car. She got buckled-in and my wife handed her a birthday card. She read it and smiled. Then she unfolded the paper inside. It said: “Happy birthday! We're going to Walt Disney World RIGHT NOW!”

I had the video camera trained right on her, ready to capture the big reaction. I had visions of her being used in Disney commercials and being featured on “America's Funniest Home Videos” or something.
She looked at the paper, looked at us, looked back at the paper, looked up and said, “Really?”

“Yes!” we assured her.

Then there was silence. She smiled, but I could tell something was wrong. I shut the video camera off.

“But… I have violin tomorrow,” she said. “And a spelling test.”

I was in full confusion mode now. That happens pretty frequently anyway, but it's not usually associated with my daughter's behavior. She wasn't being spoiled or rude at all, but I could see she was having a difficult time processing what was going on. We had completely interrupted her life with a bunker-buster-sized surprise.

Then the tears started.

“Are you happy?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “And sad.”

 It wasn't exactly the reaction we anticipated. She spent the 20-minute ride to the airport processing what we were about to do and how it would fit into her routine – which she was just adjusting to anyway. By the time we were on the escalator up to the terminal, she was actually quite happy. When she saw her cousins waiting for us at the gate to join us on the surprise trip, she was ecstatic.

In retrospect I saw that it took her a few minutes to understand what was happening and get used to the idea that we were skipping out on all our responsibilities and heading to Florida. And how, against all expectations, big surprises leave her a little shaken.

As we flew toward our destination I asked her, “Are you happy?”

She assured me she was. And added this piece of parenting advice: “Next time you plan to blow my mind, can you tell me first?”

Bill Burke is a writer and hopeless Walt Disney World addict who lives in southern N.H. with his wife and daughter – who, as we learned, gets a little overwhelmed by big surprises.

Categories: Dad on Board