What is a Disneyland Dad?

Posted on Oct 1, 2021 by Katie Carter


I keep seeing the phrase “Disneyland Dad” pop up. For a long time, we’ve referred to this phenomenon as “Super Dad” but I think that “Disneyland Dad” is even better.

In fact, as a child, I saw this in action. My uncle Mark and his wife had gone through a nasty divorce, which meant that he barely had any time to see my cousins. Twice, I remember going on ‘family reunion’ type vacations where my mom would get together with as many of her six brothers and sisters as could come – and on those occasions, my uncle brought his two daughters along.

I was with my boring, married parents, and my younger brother and sister. Going on vacation was pretty exciting for us, but I couldn’t help but get a little jealous when I saw my cousins. Everywhere they went, my uncle bought them stuff. It was completely impulsive and he literally would buy anything that either girl expressed any interest in.

I vividly remember standing there, positively pea green with eight year old envy, as my cousin was fitted for the coolest roller blades I had ever seen. My parents said no.

In fact, I remember my mom pulling me aside to explain that Mark had to shower those girls with as much love as he could in a short time, because he had so little time. She said I was lucky, even though I did not feel at all lucky in the moment. My parents DID NOT just go out and buy me roller blades because I saw them and liked them! Ever! Not one single time.

As we’ve all grown up, I’ve talked to my cousins about the divorce. When we were kids, their mother really kept us all away. She would return Christmas presents we got the girls, unopened. She’d send back even the letters that I painstakingly wrote to them about how much I missed them since the family reunion. I remember the ‘return to sender’ scrawled across the envelope.

I didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t she want me to talk to my cousin? What damage could I do? I kept sending the letters, though, convinced that she’d soften because my cousins desperately wanted to hear from me. Because I was a nice girl! Because, well, I couldn’t imagine a world where an aunt (even an ex-aunt) would keep two cousins apart for no reason.

But she did. It wasn’t until I was an adult that one of my cousins and I grew close, and we talked about the experience of it. I was shocked to hear that there were things that I knew – like, that my uncle had gone to court to try to get custody or more time or anything he could – that she didn’t. She said to me, point blank, that her dad hadn’t tried to get custody. She says, now, that her whole childhood is a muddle because she doesn’t know which of her memories are true and which are false, because both of her parents put her directly in the middle.

A Disneyland Dad is like that, but that’s not all it is. It’s not bad, of course, that he’d use his time to try to shower the children with as much love and affection as he could manage.

It’s more insidious than that. In most cases, it’s an attempt to manipulate – both the children and the child’s other parent – by being better or more fun.
The reason dads get a reputation for being the Disneyland parents – though it could easily be a mother – is because, in a lot of cases, dads were the ones who were less involved at the beginning of the divorce and custody case.

Once they realize that the relationship is over, that a parenting plan is being negotiated, and that (if I’m being cynical) shared custody will mean that they have to pay less in child support, they step up. Sometimes, it’s because they want to have a relationship with their children; in other cases, its because they can’t stomach paying the full amount of child support.

Hey, I said I was being cynical.

Then, sometimes, it’s also a matter of parental alienation. Making the other parent be the less cool one. The homework parent. While they try to dazzle with fun and excitement, no rules or responsibilities.

How do you work against a Disneyland Dad?

It’s hard. Everything about coparenting is hard. But I don’t think that it’s ever a good plan to stoop to the other parent’s level, if they’re not bringing their A-game where the children are concerned. Because it’s not about roller blades and trips to Disneyland. It’s about building a relationship, helping your children become the people they’re meant to be, giving them safe spaces to be themselves – maybe that’s boring, but that’s what kids need.

It’s not about ‘winning’ a custody case, it’s about being the kind of parent that kids NEED, not just the one that they think they want. Stability, standards, rules, and safety may sound boring, but it’s important not to let the tit for tat of a custody case get in the way of your being the best parent you can possibly be.
It’s a good idea, too, to talk to an attorney as your case progresses, just to make sure that you’re putting yourself in the best possible position when your case goes in front of the judge. Important, too, that you’re as informed as possible so that you can participate meaningfully in the creation of the parenting plan that will govern your case.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.