free time stresses me out, or how i learned to stop worrying & ride the movies

I hail from a family of theme park people. If given the opportunity to spend a week in any place on the planet, I feel confident that my clan and I would still end up in Orlando every single time. My dad worked in the amusement park business when my little brother and I were growing up, so most of my fondest memories of childhood smell of chlorine, funnel cakes, and hot, baking asphalt.

Amusement parks are super fun because of roller coasters and silly musical revues held in blissfully air conditioned theatres and an abundance of churros. Amongst the noise and chaos and sugar, though, I also can’t imagine a more relaxing place to spend a free summer day. When I first walk into an amusement park, I am handed a map and a schedule. I know where to go, what I will find there, and exactly when and how I can experience all the fun being offered.

Amusement parks provide a framework of spontaneity, which I find immensely comforting. I am always the keeper of the map and schedule when my family visits a theme park. I obsessively unfold it, double check the show schedule, re-fold it, and cram it into my back pocket in between every ride. After about an hour of being inside the park, I have the layout memorized. I know the rules and the expectations, and clear rules and expectations make things more fun to me. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is safety.

I have a lot of down time right now, and it is killing me. When I’m really busy and overwhelmed, which is a lot of the time, I long for a day off. A day wherein I can do absolutely anything I want. That day comes, and inevitably I panic after about an hour of being awake. The endless choices of free time make me worry that I’ll end up making the wrong choice, and that I’ll have wasted the precious day off.

Sometimes free time makes me feel guilty, because, as I’ve written before, I could always be working on something. I can always be making myself better. But even when I truly allow myself the opportunity to goof off, my anxiety holds everything up. Maybe I’ll never get to goof off again, so my brain goes into overdrive, considering every fun thing we could possibly do: marathon something on Netflix, go try a new yoga class, get on the bus and go to the movies, bake some cookies, call a friend to come hang out, go read a book at a nice coffee shop, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. This assault of options freaks me out, and so I usually end up taking a nap, and then feeling miserable at the end of the day.

I need limitations imposed on my fun options. I need a map and a schedule. I need a plan. I need to sit on the bed of the hotel room, with the Food Network going in the back ground and a can of sweet, sweet vending machine ginger ale by my side, and go over and over my precious map. When my family and I do Orlando all out, it means multiple days at either Disney or Universal. I get my map on day one, and then I have every night back in the hotel room to learn about the park we’re visiting the next day.

“Where should we eat here in the Jurassic Park section?” my family wonders.

“Clearly, at Burger Digs,” I say with the confidence of a park employee.

“What time is the Fantasmic fireworks show?”

“Why, it’s a 9pm. Thanks for asking.”

“Gosh, I’m a little tired. I’d like to sit down and have a snack.”

“Okay, if we head back to Marvel Superhero Island, there’s going to be a bench outside of the arcade attached to the Fantastic Four-themed pizza place. Across the way a little to the right, there’s a stand that sells soda and popcorn and churros. There’s just a fifteen minute wait for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man right now, which I’d love to ride while you guys chill out, and I can probably get through even faster if I take the single-rider line.”

“Dani, how can we ever repay you?”

“Gosh, I’d love an ice cream treat in the shape of a licensed character’s head, if you please.”

Okay, so only that Burger Digs exchange actually happen, but dammit if those weren’t some fine theme park French fries.

In reality, the rest of my family is generally more content to play amusement park life by ear, which sometimes results in a completely different flavor of anxiety for me. Overall, though, amusement parks make me feel really happy and peaceful. My anxiety melts a little in the Florida sun. At parks like Disney and Universal, I can completely immerse myself in the worlds of my favorite film franchises, I can feel the wind and sunshine whip across my face on a roller coaster, and I can know how to do everything after just a night of intense hotel room studying. Amusement parks are absolutely my anxious-nerd happiest places on Earth.

So, maybe I’ll draw and color my own little map of my neighborhood and all my favorite hometown places to go. I can make myself a proposed schedule of when to watch The Great British Baking Show and when to work on a blog post. I’ll pretend that my kitchen is a little snack cart just outside of an awesome ride, and I’ll list out all the best treats being offered. I’ll impose my own limitations on fun, and see if that helps me enjoy my days off.

And sometimes I’ll spend that down time completely geeking out, and I’ll watch ride along videos on YouTube; pretending that I’m helping out E.T. himself on the E.T. Adventure or escaping hungry dinos on the Jurassic Park River Adventure.

So many of my favorite rides have “adventure” in their titles. Within an amusement park setting, I can experience the best of both of my geek worlds. I can be the anxious, obsessive nerd that I really am, but I still get to be swept up in an epic adventure with my favorite heroes, confident that my feet will safely touch the ground again and that a churro will be just around the corner.

And so, with my face covered in hot cinnamon sugar, I retrieve the crumpled map from my back pocket, and consider all of my next adventure options.

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