Book Review: Disneylanders by Kate Abbott

Title Disneylanders
Author Kate Abbott
Pages 242 Pages
Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
Publication Date December 5th 2013 by Orchard Hill Press
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book DepositoryBarnes & NobleIndieBound

Casey (short for Acacia, but don’t call her that) is spending a few summer days with her parents at Disneyland. Just like they do every summer.

Except this summer is different.

Casey’s best friend has dumped her. She starts high school in the fall, and she’s tired of following her parents’ rigid schedule and putting up with their embarrassing behavior. She’s miserable. Even Disneyland can’t make her happy.

Then, standing in line for the Indiana Jones Adventure, she bumps into Bert. A year older. Tall. Brown eyes. Nice. But Bert’s parents are mysteriously absent. And he wears an old, broken Mickey Mouse watch. Bert has secrets.

When Casey ditches her parents to run off with Bert, those secrets are revealed in the darkness of a Haunted Mansion Doom Buggy, aboard a rocket ship hurtling through Space Mountain, and in the cramped confines of a Matterhorn bobsled.

Is Bert really as cool as he seems? Could he become Casey’s first…boyfriend?

To make matters worse, Casey must also fight off her parents’ attempts to ruin her relationship with Bert and fend off a pack of selfish, rowdy girls — the “Bra Strap Girls” — who seem intent on sabotaging her vacation and stealing Bert.

Casey can’t stay in Disneyland forever. When she leaves, with or without Bert, she’ll have left behind her childhood and learned some important lessons about what it means to grow up.

“I concentrated only on the lyrics to ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ and looked for the next sign. Los Angeles was 175 miles away, and Anaheim wouldn’t be much farther. Even with my dad’s under-the-speed-limit driving, soon I’d be able to escape all my problems in Disneyland, my actual Happiest Place on Earth. I would feel like myself again there.”
“It would be better when I was in Disneyland. Everyone was happy in Disneyland. I just had to get there.”

Thirteen-year-old Acacia “Casey” Allison needs to get away. Away from the best friend who abandoned her, the parents who are smothering her, and perhaps most importantly of all, away from the prospect of her freshman year of high school, which she is set to begin a mere two months from now. Desperately searching for a sense of familiarity and stability in the wake of all the recent changes in her life, there seems no better place to find this than on her family’s annual trip to Disneyland. But when her parent’s attention becomes too much to bear and they begin asking questions about everything she is desperate to forget, it seems as though not even the Happiest Place of Earth will be enough to distract from Casey’s troubles. All that changes, however, when a chance encounter while waiting in line to board a ride introduces Casey to Margaret and her elder brother, fifteen-year-old Robert (“Bert”, for short). Intrigued by the mysterious boy with the vintage Mickey Mouse watch and unwilling to say goodbye to the first opportunity she has had to forget, even momentarily, all she left behind at home and the seemingly impossible challenges she has yet to face, Casey screws up the courage to invite Bert to spend the day with her, never knowing that this is only the beginning of their journey together. Set against the magical backdrop of haunted mansions, runaway railroad cars and enchanted tiki rooms, the two slowly begin to open up to one another and share their innermost secrets and fears, consoled by their relative anonymity and the comforting nostalgia of their surroundings. As the two continue to grow closer, however, both Bert and Casey will be forced to face the unavoidable truths about their relationship, all while Casey attempts to avoid the attentions of the dreaded ‘Bra-Strap Girls’, navigates an increasingly strained relationship with her parents, and perhaps most importantly of all, struggles to redefine herself as she prepares to embark on an entirely new chapter in her life.

“Disneyland was a still life. It was always the same. It wouldn’t ditch me or look at me like I wasn’t good enough to hang out with.”

That’s it, I’m convinced: Kate Abbott is a magician. Or, at the very least, a really wonderful storyteller. Not only did Ms. Abbott’s debut novel delight and impress me with its evocative ability to magically conjure the spirit and genuine feeling associated with the parks themselves, it also saved me from a rather discouraging two-week reading slump from which I never thought I’d emerge. It isn’t often that I read middle grade fiction, primarily because I find I lack the ability to identify with the issues explored within the genre in the same way as I would with those in young adult or adult fiction. That said, as any self-respecting Disney enthusiast will tell you, I feel an obligation to read any and all publications on the subject and knew I had to read Kate Abbott’s Disneylanders the instant I first heard of it. Despite having purchased a copy soon after its publication, however, it wasn’t until my fellow Disney-obsessed blogger and friend, Estelle of Rather Be Reading, recommended it to me that I finally took the time to read it. I’m so thankful she did! Kate Abbott’s debut novel is a short, sweet, coming of age story that certainly packs a punch. Set in one of the happiest and most magical places on Earth, Disneylanders is the perfect choice for Disney aficionados of all ages.

“You can say that you’re scared, Case, you don’t have to make gumbo excuses.” Bert nudged me and grinned. He was teasing me. The jingly boardwalk music bounded around my ears. No way am I going to miss spending every second possible with Bert. Even if it means possibly throwing up on him. And then he’d feel bad for teasing me.”

Thirteen-year-old Acacia ‘Casey’ Allison is a girl whose life is in a state of transition. Having recently graduated from middle school, Casey is a mere two months away from entering high school. Nervous about this difficult transition, Casey is also left without the help and support of her best friend, Kiley, to guide her, after Kiley chose to cut ties with Casey in order to become more popular. Still stinging from her friend’s rejection, Casey is eager to keep the truth about the demise of their friendship from her parents, who are increasingly curious about Kiley’s absence on their trip. Stifled by her parent’s well-meaning but often overbearing behaviour and embarrassed by her father’s seemingly endless Disney trivia and her mother’s tendency to treat her like a child, Casey is trapped in the familiar and awkward transitional period in our lives when one yearns for more freedom and independence from their parents but lacks any real means of achieving it. For better or worse, Abbott perfectly captures the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, and as trying as Casey’s behaviour could often be, I can’t fault the author for realism. Casey is awkward, unsure, and undeniably real. She refuses to confide in her parents despite the wisdom their age and experience might be able to provide her, and as feasible as this was given Casey’s age, I couldn’t help but grow increasingly frustrated by the lack of communication between them. It’s clear that her parents are doing the best they can, and are confused and concerned about the sudden change in their daughter’s attitude. Perhaps because of my own age, I found myself sympathizing more with Casey’s parents, and less with the protagonist herself. Her behaviour often bordered on rude, selfish and inconsiderate, and this prevented me from ever truly forming an attachment to her. As irritating as Casey could be, however, there were a number of things I appreciated about her character, not the least of which was her passion for photography. I’ve always valued a protagonist who exhibits a passion for an outside interest or hobby, and Casey’s was one that was particularly close to my heart. As someone who is also interested in the art of photography, I liked hearing about how Casey chose to capture each moment at Disneyland, using various effects and filters depending upon the moment or subject in question. This added an additional dimension to her character that allowed me to care more deeply about her, even when I struggled to condone her frustrating or otherwise objectionable behaviour.

“I couldn’t make him understand how afraid I was that I would lose him, and who I was when I was with him, after we left. When I went home again – without Bert around – wouldn’t I be the same pathetic, friendless girl I was a couple of days ago?”

As I briefly mentioned above, I did encounter a number of issues with Casey’s character, most notable of which was her antipathy toward other girls. While I rationalized this as stemming primarily from her best friend, Kiley’s, rejection, as well as a general feeling of intimidation and fear, I would have preferred a more positive, or at the very least a more balanced, rendition of Casey’s experience with other women in this story. In fact, I can’t recall a single incident over the course of the novel in which Casey had a positive interaction with another female character, apart from Bert’s younger sister Margaret, who is not a threat to Bert’s affections and is therefore portrayed as harmless and adorable. The primary antagonists in this story, apart from Casey’s own parents, are a group of high-school-age girls Casey dubs the ‘Bra-Strap Girls’. Casey’s immediate dislike of these girls simply because of the way they dress and their demonstrative affection for the boys in their group seemed petty and childish and did little to endear me to her character. In Disneylanders, women are presented as nothing more than romantic rivals, two of the girls in the aforementioned group being so brazen as to proposition Bert right in front of Casey. Given the age group and impressionable minds at which this novel is aimed, I desperately wish Abbott had provided a more balanced account or at least one positive example of female friendship to counteract the misogyny that often underscored the text. While I have little doubt that older readers will be able to understand the impetus behind Casey’s feelings based on her prior experiences, I worry that some of the more subtle nuances will be lost on the middle grade readers at which this novel is aimed and will therefore be taken purely at face value. All that said, I have no doubt that many readers will be able to intimately identify with Casey’s feelings of alienation and uncertainty, even if they might struggle, as I did, to reconcile themselves to how these feelings manifested themselves in her behavior.

“I was sure his cheekbones would stand out in a photograph, and I wanted to grab my camera, but of course, I could not do that in front of this guy. I realized I could barely breathe in front of him. He was like a sculpture, handsome and athletic, but wearing a silly baseball cap. I wanted to hug him, I wanted to run away from him. I kept still.”

Aside from reminding me of the affable and nimble-footed chimney sweep who stole my heart and swept me off my feet in Disney’s beloved classic, Mary Poppins, fifteen-year-old Robert, or “Bert”, as he preferred to be called, was the type of boy any girl would be lucky to spend time with. Kind, considerate, patient, and a good listener, Bert also had the most important quality of all in a man: A love of Disney! In all seriousness though, I appreciated the fact that Bert was unapologetic and unembarrassed about his love of Disneyland and that he never took himself too seriously. I’ve always found a sense of humour attractive and Bert was a character I easily fell in love with. While I found the synopsis’ mention of Bert’s ‘secrets’ more than a little misleading, Bert, like Casey, is also grappling with his own set of problems. Suffering from feelings of hurt, neglect and rejection based on his parent’s apparent lack of interest in his life, Bert yearns for what Casey so easily casts aside: A set of active, caring parents. In their absence, Bert struggles to recapture the magic of Disneyland for both himself and his little sister, but can’t help but dwell on the two people who were ‘too busy’ to join them. While I would have preferred a greater sense of closure in regard to this storyline as we’re given little indication as to how Bert intends to approach this situation in the future, his story is of secondary concern and therefore the failure to provide any real semblance of finality is not a make-or-break consideration as to one’s overall enjoyment of the novel. I will say that I did appreciate the dichotomy Abbott drew between Casey and Bert’s situations. Casey’s flagrant disregard for her parent’s feelings angers Bert because she takes what he so desperately wants for granted. This was a moving component to the story that I had not expected and greatly appreciated.

“Bert had the lights of his favourite place – and mine – shining on his face, but we both looked sad now. Maybe it was leaving the park, although I knew I’d be back the next day, but I thought that maybe it was knowing that some things can’t last, whether it was in a cheap, disposable, paper-covered camera or a digital camera or a camera phone or even in my borrow fancy Nikon. I didn’t know for sure what this feeling was between us, but I didn’t think my camera could figure it out, either.”

The setting. Oh, the setting! While I ordinarily don’t spend much time discussing the setting or world-building in the novels I read as it’s largely of little importance to me when compared to other considerations such as character development, I feel duty-bound to make an exception in this case. It’s Disneyland – How could I not!? While the writing itself is rather simplistic because of the age group at which this novel is geared, the setting alone is enough cause for me to recommend this novel to Disney enthusiasts of all ages. Abbott made good use of the various attractions as the inspiration for both plot and character development. She does this so well, in fact, that Disneyland becomes another living, breathing character in the story. Kate Abbott’s reconstruction of both Disneyland and California Adventure is spot on, barring a few anachronisms as the parks have continued to grow and change since the publication of this novel (i.e. I can’t remember the last time the McDonalds’ fry cart made an appearence in the parks). The author brings all the familiar sights, sounds, and smells to life in such a way that I found myself able to vividly recall my own personal memories of the parks. Transported to a world where it’s not unusual to take a Jungle Cruise one moment and a tour through a Haunted Mansion the next, Abbott’s descriptions of Disneyland are so rich and well rendered that they will enchant even those personally unfamiliar with the parks themselves. Abbott’s various references to points of interest throughout the park never felt shoehorned in and only served to remind me of my own wonderful memories and experiences. I had to laugh in regards to many of Casey’s reflections on the parks themselves – I can remember my own initial reservations about Disney’s California Adventure park because I disliked how it changed the Disney landscape I knew and loved. While a lot of Disney’s changes and upgrades over the years have been for the better, it’s often difficult not to become deeply invested in something that has grown right alongside you. One of the things I most appreciated about Disneylanders was the author’s inclusion of iconic Disney phrases from Disneyland attractions as chapter headings. It was a lot of fun to try and guess where each one originated, and Abbott was kind enough to provide a complete glossary at the conclusion of the novel outlining the history of each line.

“But even as I was convincing my parents of my very responsible plan, I wasn’t fooling myself. I turned a whole new shade of crimson as I realize the enormity of what I’d done: I’d asked a guy on my first date ever, and in front of my parents, too. There aren’t any magazine quizzes to help me handle this, I thought, as my parents traded cell phone numbers with Bert.”

While it’s rather difficult to accept that two parents would allow their thirteen-year-old daughter to tour the parks with a boy two years her senior who she has only just met, there’s nothing unrealistic or inauthentic about the depth of emotion or the import of the themes that Kate Abbott explores in this touching coming of age tale. Whether it was a discussion about body discomfort, puberty, dating, or parent-child relationships, Abbott explores it all with a realism and sensitivity which younger readers will be able to relate to and take comfort from. The transitional period from our early to late teens is a difficult time for many and one which is often marked by a seemingly overwhelming amount of insecurity and self-doubt. As Casey herself laments, it can often feel as though the rest of the world has been given a handbook as to how to behave while one is left to their own devices, stumbling around in the dark and following other people’s lead so as not to stick out or deviate from the norm. Disneyland provides Casey with the perfect opportunity to take her first steps toward adulthood as she struggles to redefine both herself and her relationship with her parents in a safe and familiar environment. As she does so, Casey also attempts to reconcile her advancing age with her love for something that is often associated, however incorrectly, with childhood. There’s a common misconception that Disney is ‘just for kids’ (an idea that Abbott directly addresses at one point in the novel), when in reality the beauty of Disneyland is that it allow visitors of all ages to recapture the sense of innocence and imagination that we often, sadly, lose sight of along the way.

“Bert’s eyes mirrored the sparkle of the boardwalk’s lights, the gold on his watch gleamed, and the glow beneath us illuminated his face. Far in the distance behind him, I could see the Matterhorn’s craggy top and the sleek peaks of Space Mountain, both a clean, bright white against the darkening sky.
It was all dazzling for a couple of seconds at 55 miles per hour. No, I’m definitely not going to let myself forget this, either, I vowed, as we careened up and down the last dips, grinning and screaming until our throats hurt.”

Don’t have the time or financial means to take a trip to Disneyland right now? No problem! In Disneylanders, Kate Abbott brings the sights, sounds, smells and magic of the park to life with an obvious passion and admiration that few will fail to appreciate. At only $3.98 for the Kindle edition, Abbott’s debut novel is a veritable steal and one I would highly recommend to any self-respecting Disney devotee. Even if the Middle Grade genre isn’t ordinarily your cup of tea, Disneylanders is the perfect choice if you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced, entertaining read that you can share with your children or enjoy on your own. Trust me when I tell you that it won’t be long before you’re donning Mickey ears and singing along to “Grim, Grinning Ghosts” right alongside Casey! While I had a difficult time growing to like the protagonist of the story, the inclusion of Bert and a sweet, gentle romance coupled with an extraordinary, larger-than-life setting that held a great deal of personal importance to me meant that this was an enjoyable, if not altogether perfect, read. Whether you’re twelve or twenty-five, Disneylanders is a universal coming of age story that will delight and enchant readers of all ages. It’s A Small World, after all!

7 Responses

  1. Okay, this sounds adorable! And I was surprised that she was allowed to say “Disney,” but I guess Disney owns this particular imprint?

    I love books set at theme parks. Sarah Strohmeyer’s book was so crazy fun! And I’ve been looking for more books with this sort of setting. I think I found my next one. 🙂
    Katie recently posted…What I’ve Been Reading (And Collecting)My Profile

    1. It really was adorable, and it had a strong emotional resonance to the story which I never expected but greatly appreciated! 😀

      I’m really looking forward to reading How Zoe Made Her Dreams (Mostly) Come True! I’ve owned a copy ever since it was first released and have still yet to read it 🙁 Maybe I should make a point of reading it soon given how much fun I had with Disneylanders!
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: Disneylanders by Kate AbbottMy Profile

    1. Disneylanders was a lot of fun! I think it would be the perfect choice if you’re looking for a relatively quick read to boost your overall total for the year or searching for a couple of hours of fun 😀 And I can definitely sympathize about the problem of having a continually growing to-be-read pile! I’m my own worst enemy in this regard – For every book I do read, I tend to buy five or six more 😆
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: Disneylanders by Kate AbbottMy Profile

  2. So glad that this book worked you out of your book slump! I’m happy to hear it. I loved the DL setting too, even though I’ve only been there once. I felt just as attached (even though WDW is more of my home park).

    I see what you mean about the female friendship, but I think because they were on vacation adding that in would have been unrealistic and messed with the world. I know when I’m on trips, I took it as a time to reflect on things that have happened and I have very little influence from the outside world. Especially when I was a kid traveling with my parents.

    I am hoping that Kate writes a follow up to this book. I think she really has a great thing going, and I know many adults who have read this and enjoyed it so much. It reminds them of their own trips, and connection to the park. Especially that age-old question: are we ever too old? 🙂
    Estelle recently posted…Estelle: So Tough to Tame by Victoria DahlMy Profile

    1. Like you, I have relatively limited experience with Disneyland – I’ve visited only three or four times over the course of my life as opposed to Walt Disney World, which I make a point of visiting every other year when possible. I will say I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of New Orleans Square, which was always a highlight during my visits to Disneyland. I only wish it could somehow have been incorporated into Walt Disney World as well! I also loved the scene set in the Blue Bayou, where I had a wonderful meal on my last visit. That restaurant is so special and I love the atmosphere there!

      You make an excellent point regarding Casey’s relationship with other female characters in the story! Perhaps my expectations were a little unrealistic in that regard, particularly given the scope of the novel, but I will say I wish that they women that were included in the story already (i.e. The ‘Bra-Strap Girls’) were portrayed in a more subtle, nuanced manner. As it stands, the girls are stereotypical villains, and I only wish at least one of them had been portrayed as somewhat sympathetic, likeable, or even human. While I understand that their primary role was to create conflict in the novel, I wish that even one of the girls would have exhibited some semblance of individuality or approached Casey in a way that wasn’t purely antagonistic. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a middle grade novel, but I don’t believe that the writing should suffer simply because it’s aimed at a younger age group.

      I would happily read a sequel to Disneylanders! I think it would be particularly cute to pick up Casey and Bert’s story a year from now on their next annual trip, as I would love to learn more about the status of Bert’s relationship with his parents and see how Casey fared during her first year of high school 😀
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: Disneylanders by Kate AbbottMy Profile

  3. I am disappointed the the portrayal of women was so imbalanced, especially considering, as you mentioned, the age group this is catered for. I do like that you provided a reasonable suggestion for this though. Casey has experienced a major fall-out from her female friend, and maybe it gives her ‘justification’ for having such a revolting opinion – though we know that should not be so.

    I am not a Disneyland enthusiast, but that will probably change since I have moved to Tampa and live nearby. Admittedly, Disneylanders is in a category I do not read. It does sound like a book I would like. I am glad Abbot portrayed deeper themes, and I find it very creative that she used Disneyland as a stepping stone in Casey’s adulthood. It is not often that I think of an amusement park being any sort of threshold to that stage in life. Excellent review, Jen! You really go in depth – I love it!
    Christine @ Oh, Chrys! recently posted…Book Review: The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie WisemanMy Profile

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Jen is a thirty-something Canadian book blogger and bibliophile currently residing in the wilds of suburbia. Aside from a penchant for older men, particularly those with the surnames Firth, Elba and Norton, Jen is also passionately interested in running, Mad Men, and Marilyn Monroe. In addition to being a voracious reader and self-proclaimed television addict, Jen is also an aspiring children and youth services librarian who would like to pursue a MLIS and better help readers find the perfect book for them.