SixWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Since December 2006, Rainbow Valley has been a family oasis and tradition. Nestled in the Sears court at Aventura Mall in South Florida, Rainbow Valley is about the size of a suburban backyard. It looks like an anime dream of a marshmallow world; every hill and slide and cave is made of soft, yielding foam. Babies crawl, toddlers toddle and shoeless kids run and jump on the bright green and blue surfaces while parents sit or play along and an attendant guards the only exit. White clouds with smiling faces are suspended from the ceiling, overlooking the play area like benevolent sentinels.
Our twice-yearly visits to Aventura to visit family almost always include a walk through the seemingly endless Aventura Mall, which during the holidays features a wonderland of Christmas trains, trees and a Santa Claus who remembers our sons every year and adds to the season’s magic.
Evan, who is now 6, and Sean, who is now 4, celebrate their mid-June birthdays within a few days of each other; Sean was born on the same date as my brother Mark, my only sibling. So June visits to Aventura, just south of Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale, revolve around birthday parties and the inevitable spoiling that loving uncles like Mark and Jack orchestrate.
The boys love walking through the air-conditioned Aventura Mall, with its gigantic Disney Store, a LEGO store with open workbenches and piles of LEGOs and the whirring escalators. Rainbow Valley, not coincidentally, is located next to an It’Sugar store that boasts enough candy and sweets to give Willy Wonka a toothache.
One of our rituals at the mall is to visit Rainbow Valley, where everyone takes off their shoes, places them in a cubicle and then runs and plays, ideally helping the kids expend energy but in reality draining the adults while the kids grow exponentially stronger. They slide, climb into the mountain fort to look through the periscope, slide down hills and chase each other in circles, laughing and laughing until someone falls or climbs too high.
Our annual file of photographs from Aventura includes six years of Evan and Sean at Rainbow Valley, chronicling their growth against the unmoving background of the plastic hills and slides.
During our visit the week of June 11, we visited the mall and let the boys play with LEGOs and marvel at the Disney Store (which, due to its corporate parent’s continuing efforts to own every brand of entertainment, features Snow White and Buzz Lightyear next to the Iron Man, Miss Piggy and Perry the Platypus) before finding our way to Rainbow Valley.
We were with our family friend Julie and her little boy, Ben, another Rainbow Valley veteran. We approached the playground and watched the three boys take off their shoes and scurry to the entrance gate. Ben and Sean were inside, running and exploring within seconds. But the attendant stopped Evan and motioned for me to come over.
“He’s too tall to come in,” she said, with the air of someone who has delivered this particular piece of bad news before and is ready for the protest. She guided Evan to the fixed ruler on the gate, which, like the doomed One Ring of Mordor, was inscribed with a message: “Children who are taller than 42 inches may not use the play area.”
I do not know how she sized Evan up so quickly, but I was confident she was wrong. We had just been here in November and he sailed through. There was no way Evan was now 3-and-a-half-feet tall.
But when he stood against the ruler, the top of Evan’s head was a clear two inches above the cutoff line.
“I’m sorry, Evan,” I said, and walked him back to his shoes. I was as confused and thrown off as he was, but while I was fighting what my eyes had seen, Evan showed excitement.
“Hey, I’m too big for the playground,” he said, with a mixture of pride and wonder.
“Looks like it,” I said, proud of his reaction to being denied a treat he had enjoyed twice a year for his entire life.
Hey, I’m too big for the playground,” he repeated, and this time I could hear the understanding and disappointment I was already mired in.
We walked around and watched the other kids play for a while, then left them in their mothers’ care and walked back to the LEGO store for a half-hour.
There are days when it feels like I just brought my sons home from the hospital, but those moments are fading as traditions like Rainbow Valley are felled by the arrows of growth and maturation.
As we played with LEGOs, Evan and I had a conversation about his just-completed year of kindergarten. He was confident he knew everything he needed to know and figured he wouldn’t need to spend any time this summer preparing for first grade.
“You think you know it all, huh?” I asked him.
“Yep,” Evan replied. “Ask me something.”
“OK, professor,” I said. “What’s the meaning of life?”
Evan looked at me like I had asked him for an elementary answer, like his name.
“Family,” he said.
I smiled and nodded.
My 6-year-old son thus proved himself not only too grown for Rainbow Valley, but, on this one question, wise enough to silence his father.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.