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The nightmare at Dreams, a family’s misadventures on the Mayan Riviera


The road to Tulum (Photo by: Folwell Dunbar)

“It’s all about the kids,” my father reminded me for the 83rd time. “I want to make sure my grandchildren have a good time. I need for you to be their camp counselor.”

“I know dad,” I said. “I’ve got it covered.”

My father was taking us on a family vacation. He wanted my brother and I to “bond” with our niece, Hali James, and our nephew, Dunbar, aka, Gator. They lived with my sister and her husband in Colorado at the time, and we hadn’t seen them in almost a year.


Mayan Riviera Sunset (Photo by: Folwell Dunbar)

My sister was given the task of finding the “perfect” destination. After extensive research, she settled on Dreams, an all-inclusive, kid-friendly resort just north of the Mayan ruins of Tulum. It had a water slide, parasailing, a jump house, a life-size chess set, a climbing wall and several kiddie pools. There was even an “Explorer’s Club” for kids. Add to that the five all-you-can-eat theme-based buffets and “exciting planned activities for the entire family.” It was basically a landlocked Disney cruise ship, i.e., purgatory for anyone older than 12.

The night before the trip, as if taking laxatives for a colonoscopy, my wife and I reluctantly and hastily packed for an early morning departure. Somehow, in our reluctance and haste, we failed to pack our passports, a revelation we wouldn’t have until we reached Louis Armstrong International Airport an hour and a half before our flight.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I screamed.

“No,” my wife said, “I think they’re on the kitchen table.”

She jumped out of the car; I cursed, pounded the steering wheel and turned around. There was at least an outside chance I could make it back in time…

Driving like a New Orleans driver, I zigzagged in and out of traffic, blew past police cars and ambulances, sailed through stop signs and red lights, and Knieveled over cavernous potholes and miscellaneous road debris.

Returning to the airport in record time, I pulled into the short-term parking lot like a NASCAR pit stop. Grabbing my ticket, I suddenly noticed an orange light flashing, “Full!” I cursed, pounded the steering wheel, shifted into reverse, stepped on the gas and … slammed into an embankment. It ripped off my side view mirror, bumper and right front tire. I cursed, pounded the already battered steering wheel, and then rode the rim, painfully slowly, toward long-term parking.

I found the last spot on the top floor, and took off like OJ Simpson in a 1970’s Hertz commercial (not to be confused with his infamous Bronco run from the law 30 years later). I raced across the airport, hurdling bags, dodging passengers and pushing aside old ladies and small children. When I arrived at security, out of breath and, apparently, time, my wife just shrugged and shook her head.

“You’ve got to be kidding me?” I said.

“No,” she replied. “They just closed the gate.”

I then turned around and saw my brother and his girlfriend walking in through the door. “What the &%$!” I yelled.

“We over-slept,” my brother casually confessed.

“You’ve GOT to be kidding me?!” I barked.

“No,” he said, “we were really tired.”

At that exact moment, my cell phone rang. When I answered, I could feel tears gurgling up from the earpiece. “My passport expired!” my sister wailed. “They won’t let us on the plane.”


“No,” she cried. “It’s gonna take days to get a new one. We can’t go to Mexico!”

Like a scene from a Spaghetti Western, I looked at my brother, my brother looked at my wife, my wife looked at his girlfriend, and she looked at me. Then, we all stared at the floor in disbelief. “Holy crap!” I said, we’re the &Ωϑ$ing Griswolds!”

DCF 1.0

Grandpa and his grandchildren (Photo provided by: Folwell Dunbar)

Somewhere over the Atchafalaya swamp in a Boeing 737, my dad was craning his neck to see where we were. His wife, a bit more suspicious, just scowled.

We immediately put ourselves on the standby list for the next overbooked flight to Houston. But our prospects looked grim.

Then, unexpectedly, Fortuna smiled on our little confederacy of dunces. It was the day after Mardi Gras and a number of passengers, obviously hungover, missed the flight. We, miraculously, just barely made the cut.

Pushed by an unusual tailwind, we arrived in Houston 10 minutes early and made our connection with only seconds to spare.

We didn’t tell my dad what had happened because we were too embarrassed; he didn’t ask because he was too proud. His wife shot us a knowing glance and then buried her disgust in a crossword puzzle from the New York Times.

We also didn’t tell my father about the passport fiasco in Colorado. My sister, who was supposed to arrive later that day, would have to deliver that time bomb herself…

In Cancun, we picked up a large van with two child seats and drove toward Dreams.

When we passed a sign for “Cenotes,” natural freshwater pools, my dad said, “Ya know, Gator and Hali James are gonna love swimming in cenotes!”

When we passed a sign for “Stingray Alley,” he said, “Ya know, Gator and Hali James are gonna love swimming with stingrays…”

Signs for zip-lines, the ancient ruins of Coba, and an assortment of unpronounceable Mayan diversions starting with “X” were all followed by similar pronouncements.

After each one, we all squirmed in awkward silence.

At Dreams, my father finally received the dreaded call from my sister. From that moment forward, crestfallen yet stoic, my father replaced the future tense with the conditional perfect: “Gator and Hali James would have really enjoyed parasailing. Gator and Hali James would have loved the water slide…”


Surviving Dreams (Photo by: Folwell Dunbar)

For the next five days, my dad and his wife read books on the beach, trying desperately to ignore the peals of laughter from other people’s grandchildren. As for us, we escaped the Disney compound whenever we could, and we took tremendous solace in the resort’s all-you-can-drink frozen mojito machine.

Our time in Tulum would forever be remembered as, “The Nightmare at Dreams.”

Note: Whenever my sister criticizes me for doing something wrong, I simply remind her of Dreams.

Note 2: This summer, our family is finally attempting another trip. It’s been years since the train wreck in Tulum, but the PTSD still lingers…

Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and survivor of family vacations. He can be reached at



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