Thursday, July 31, 2008

Disney day 7: Say Goodbye to Hollywood

As we all got out of bed on Day 7 and put on our matching lime green Disney shirt (we didn't want anyone to get lost here at the end), it was bittersweet. On one hand, it was our last day, but on the other hand . . . we were going to Hollywood studios to do some of the kids' favorite rides and shows. After figuring out the auto-picture feature on our camera, Shealynn and I loaded everything into our car. With checkout at 11:00 am, we would be leaving our room for the last time when we walked out that morning. The plan was to stay at the park until 2:30pm, head back to the resort, jump directly into the loaded car, and be on the road headed toward Fort Walton Beach, Florida by 3:00pm.

After taking a few more photographs of the room as I walked out (sniff, sniff), we waited and waited and waited longer than we ever had that week for our bus. It was an auspicious start to the day. Finally, what seemed like 5 minutes (my gosh), we were seated in a clump of lime green near the front of the bus. We arrived just minutes after the park had opened (if only the shuttle had been on time . . .) The first thing the kids wanted to do again was the new Toy Story ride, so we used our previous knowledge of the park's layout and found the quickest, shortest route there. Holey Moley! The line was already way out the door. The "45 minute wait line from here" sign was still several switchbacks ahead. "X" that out of the plan for the morning. It turns out that the ride was actually BROKEN, and the people were just standing in line waiting for it to be fixed. It WAS a fun ride, but not THAT fun. As we were just about to leave the Toy Story area, Woody came out suddenly from a secret door. We jumped to the front of the line which was quickly drawing people from the broken ride line. For a toy, he was so tall, and like a true cowboy, he saved the day in Toytown. My kids weren't so disappointed anymore.

The flexible Woody and his two favorite buckaroos

Next on our list of things to do before the crowds got too big: The "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" play area. Earlier in the week, we had a hard time getting the kids to leave this area, especially out of the elevated ropes and nets called the "Spider's Web." As we approached the entrance, we noticed no one was inside. Great! we'll have the "giant roll of film slides" to ourselves. The time was 9:35. The play area didn't open until 10:00. With 25 minutes to waste, we wandered around the Back Lot area of the park, the part of the park with few rides, mostly shows that didn't start for a few more hours. Much like the night we returned in the rain to that park, we felt like we were the only ones there. For the first time at Disney, we felt like there was nothing to do and no one to do it with.

We sat on a porch stoop that was set up to look like the set of the Cosby Show and tried to keep Tate and J's faces lifted. As soon as 10am came, we ran inside the play area. Jenna ran right to the back part where the entrance to "The Web" was. There was an employee standing there with a giant leave blocking the way. Because the web is made up of ropes, and the morning dew was still noticeable there in the shade, the ropes were deemed too wet and too slippery to use safely. I expected her to pull out a giant hair dryer and take take of the problem, but she was better able to withstand the twisted lip, sad face of my daughter better than I could. Instead, she was going to wait until the sun to dry the ropes out. Judging from the height of the surrounding buildings creating the shade and the current position of the sun in the sky, I figured it would be at leas 1.5 hours before the ropes felt the sun, and then another 20 minutes to dry them out. We were starting to feel like out last day in the park should have been yesterday.

"The Web" was right next to this slide, but oooh so far away

One of the main reasons we came back to this park was to catch the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. With lines too long the first time, and being rained out the second time, we were hoping our luck would change quickly, and quickly it would. The show started in 30 minutes. With "The Web" still drying, we pulled the kids off the giant ant and headed towards the show. The stadium had already filled up along the typical "T" pattern, up the middle and along the top sides. There was a great front-row spot along the peripheral that we quickly moved to. The kids were excited to finally get a chance to watch their new favorite action hero (they had named each of their 4 kitties back home after the 4 heroins from the Indy Movie sagas.)

Captivated by the Indy Stunt show and the famous "look out for the propeller" scene

The show was great, and we had built quite an appetite with all our waiting around that morning, so we headed to one of the most anticipated sit-down dinners we were to have at Disney: reservations for lunch at the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater Diner--woo hoo! The place was true to form, we were taken to our "car" inside a very dark building with twinkling stars on the ceiling. Ahead of us in the "parking lot" was a giant screen playing trailers from classic sci-fi films of a bygone era, with an occasional Disney short animated classic thrown in. If it weren't for the comfortable air-conditioned atmosphere and the fact that there wasn't a friend of ours hiding in the trunk, I would have thought we were actually sitting in car with tabletops for dashboards in the middle of a vacant lot. I think our waiter must have been using night-scope vision goggles, because not only was it very difficult for us to see HIM in the dark, he got our executed our order perfectly, without once bumping into the car's fender. I can't tell you how our dinner looked, but it tasted wonderful, taste-wise, the best food we'd had that week.

Hangin' out at the Drive-in Diner

As we left the dinner theater, we knew our time was drawing to an end. We had just used the last of our meals on the Disney dining plan, but we still had 12 "snacks" we had to use up. On our way to the last show on our agenda, the Beauty and the Beast musical extravaganza, we stopped at every snack kiosk along the way and, although we had just eaten, loaded up on french fries, carrot sticks, ice cream, and soda pop. We did manage to get several pieces of fruit that we could take with us and eat later. Just being able to exhaust our pre-paid food account made the day feel like a successful one, even though I was now walking around with 4 apples, three oranges, and a large fries in my hands.

The last show did not disappoint. The kids sang along with all the songs, cheered for the Beast, and booed Gaston. I believe Belle even blew me one last kiss as if to say, "thanks for coming to Disney, don't stay gone too long." It was the perfect send off. As we walked toward the exit for the last time, we talked about what our favorite part of the week was and savored the sights and sounds one last time. We especially noticed many families who were obviously on their first day. We felt excited for them, and hoped that their time was as great as ours was.

By the time we got back to the resort, the children were noticeably worn out from a full week of park hopping. They had been troopers and had forced themselves to garner the required energy to do more walking and physical activity than they were used to, right up to the end. But now, as they had been given the green light to relax now that the trip was over, they were ready to go home. We went straight to our loaded car and left the Disney property, waving by to the big Mouse as we drove through the giant overhead sign. It was 3:30pm. We had about 7 hours worth of driving to reach our stopping point near Destin, Florida, but withing 5 minutes of leaving the park, both kids were fast asleep in the back seat.

The recovery, and the long trip back home, begins

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Disney day 6: Magic Kingdom Redux

The Magic Kingdom is simply that. With so much to do there, it is definitely the most "kid friendly" park, with "kid" being anyone between the ages of zero and two-hundred years. Our first time in the park, we battled heat and Tate's illness. Now 6 days into our trip, the heat was still there, but Tate finally started showing the signs of someone who was fixin' to start to think about getting better. We realized at this point that his affliction was likely viral, and that the antibiotics, although difficult to swallow because of their horrendous "cherry-like" flavor, thereby building character in having to swallow it, were doing no good. The virus had to run its course.

And while IT did, we ran our own course, traipsing around the Magic Kingdom with the air that we had "done this before." We were now experience veterans that could navigate the immense channels and alcoves of fun and entertainment much more efficiently. Besides, we had Shealynn's laminated cards, which told us exactly where we needed to be at every given minute . . . and waterproof to boot!

The first thing we planned on doing was NOT a ride, but to make a B-line to "C," "D" talk of the s-"E," . . . Ariel!!!! The (not so) Little Mermaid. This was something J wanted to do the first time around, but the line was so long to see the amazing red head that we decided to pass. Believe it or not, we were the first patrons of the day to visit her dedicated cove in Fantasy land. We dutifully winded our way through the switchbacks of stanchions, finally reaching the grotto where an apparent 20-year-old "Ariel" was perched. She was delighted that J was carrying her favorite, newly-purchased Ariel "baby" doll, and took her up readily. Because there was no one behind us, she interacted quite a bit with my reluctant, star-struck daughter, and patiently listened to the extravagant tales my son told her. I gave her my phone number and thanked her for enjoying my children.

Tate, J, & Ariel

As we left, we high-fived each other with our "flippers" and high-finned it to the Peter Pan ride. With no one in line, we boarded quickly: kids in the front flying (screaming) boat, Shealynn and I in the back (photographing) boat. That ride didn't last as long as I was hoping, but we surely made up for it on the next ride, the ride we had successfully avoided on the first go-'round. A ride a had bad memories of: "It's A Small World!"

On "It's A Small World (and one long, creepy)" ride

The ride ended up being not to bad, and shorter than I remember. I saw a Hawaiian animatronic dude surfing a wave, and I thought about tangent lines to a curve from calculus. Too bad I didn't get a picture in time. Needless to say, I was glad to say "good bye" in all the different languages as we finished the ride. So what can follow such a long, monotonic, creepy, indoor ride? DUMBO, of course. We hit the ride again, a favorite among my kids, and then we did that darned Caroussel once more . . . make that twice more . . . make that a third time. It's a good thing most of the early-goers were there to do something other than character lines and kiddie rides.
On the famous caroussel
After getting dizzy on the caroussel, we hit a streak of great rides in a row, taking advantage of the dearth of denizens: Goofy's Barnstormer, Minnie and Mickey's house, and a small play area for built for infants, with shallow slides, low climbing areas, and diaper changing stations. At this point, I felt we needed to move along down Shealynn's laminated card. The next on the list was "Tom Sawyer's Island," which was on the other side of the park. We got on the Disney train and sat near the back. Tate and Jenna sat in a small chair near the "caboose-man," and were lucky enough to inaugurate the trans-park ride with an "All Abooooo-ard" into the speaker system.

"All Aboard!"

At Tom Sawyer's Island, we had to wait for a large raft, crafted like a gargantuan version of the one Huck and Tom took down the Mississip' in the book. While waiting, a giant steam stern-wheeler came by us, not unlike the ones Samuel Clemens navigated down the river in his day. It wasn't long until we were on the island, exploring caves and grist mills in the spirit of Tom and Huck. We crossed barrel bridges, shot BB guns from a make-shift outpost, and fled the fort through an underground "esKape tuNel" that led to a drink stand, imagine that. It was great fun. I imagined having so many cool nooks and crannies in my own backyard.

In a dark cave on Tom Sawyer's Island--very cool!

The island wore us out, and it was now close to lunchtime. We found a nice restaurant with a Western theme. The cast of Toy Story II was dancing out front, and J enjoyed watching "Jesse" dance with "Woody." I was just ready to sit down in the cool shade. With my neck bothering me at an all-time high, wearing a new Mickey Mouse shirt with an irritating tag at the back, AND with the hot, humid moisture causing my shirt to stick to me, I didn't really care about Jesse or Woody, or food. I found a large table in the dimly-lit dining area of Frontier land. Shealynn ordered for all of us, as she was akin to do, and found Tate, J, and me by recognizing the top of our heads as we "hung" in their with every ounce of energy we had left.

We ate our food, then relaxed a while longer in the sanctuary of the dining hall before heading back out into the cauldron of the Disney entertainment area. As we left, we stepped through the building in which we ate to discover that we had immediately left the wild west for Arabia, the land of Aladdin. We boarded the Magic Carpet ride (see "Dumbo" and "Flying Triceratops" rides) and took in the vista from up high. Upon exiting, we easily flowed into the "Enchanted Tiki Room" show. We weren't sure exactly what it was. It wasn't on our itinerary, but the sky was beginning to turn stormy, and the the line to get in was short. We'd press our luck with this one. It turned out to be a remarkable show about parrots and other tropical birds, all done with animatronics. As it stormed outside, we listened to the synthetic lightning and thunder created by the amazing Disney Imagineers.

Hanging out at the Enchanted Tiki Room

I didn't need an excuse to leave the park and get back to our room, but the ominous weather and biting tag from my new Mickey shirt certainly made fleeing the park seem like a no-brainer. After making our way to the front of the park by weaving through connected catacombs of gift shops, we decided to take the shuttle bus to a different resort that Shealynn and I had stayed at several years ago: the Wilderness Lodge. Having actually stayed at the original lodge in Montana after which the Disney Lodge was modeled, I can not only say that Disney's take on "roughing it" has many more amenities and incorporates so much more synthetic timber that will never rot. Leave it to Disney to improve upon Mother Nature.

The kids enjoyed touring the complex, and we were able to find the elusive Lime Green "Disney 2008" shirts in adult larges that we had been looking for in the parks (we really wanted to be matching on the last day . . . and forever more.) After the nostalgia wore off, we hopped back on the shuttle and headed to our resort at Coronado Springs, where we changed clothes and rested up for our afternoon return trip to the park.

As we got back to the park around 4 pm, we wandered around a bit and enjoyed the flower beds around Cinderella's castle. The rain had stopped and the sun was out again. All that flower sniffing made us hungry, so we found some grub and the Noodle cafe, a Chinese food counter-service restaurant with a covered outdoor eating area overlooking the castle. We took turns eating sesame chicken and beef and broccoli out of boxes with chopsticks. It was the most relaxing dinner I think I had had up to that point.

A Peaceful, Relaxing, Chinese feast

With our new energy, we hustled to catch the Monsters Inc. Laugh Factory show, an amazing animated interactive stand-up comedy routine. Much like "Turtle Talk with Crush" from finding Nemo, a cartoon creature moves and talks in real time with the audience, using information suggested by the audience to come up with some pretty quick, witty responses. Although I thought MY joke were funnier than some of the monsters on the stage, they were some pretty good ones used, not unlike the ones I used on my "Algebra 2!" show last year.

Making faces in line at the Laugh Factory

After the comic routine, the sun began to slowly set. We knew we were running out of daylight, but we still had so much to do. With a quick hike up and back down the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, we knew we had time for one more ride at best, so we fell into the famous "Jungle Cruise" line. The ride itself was impressive, as the boat weaved in an out of what appeared to be an authentic Amazon jungle, complete with animatronics of hippos, elephants, and angry headhunters, but that wasn't the best part about the ride. Our boat guide was so witty, part of the script no doubt, that I had a difficult time catching all of her puns and one liners. It was if I myself were giving the tour.

After the cruise, we decided to let Tate finally try his hand at the coin-operated remote controlled boats. At two dollars for a couple of minutes, and visibility increasingly poor because of nightfall, we let Jenna just THINK she was controlling her own boat on the steering wheel next to Tate's. From the joyful expression on her face, you'd never suspect she wasn't controlling a thing.

Driving a boat (singular)

Anyway, we were back at the Magic Kingdom to watch the nighttime parade and fireworks display. We purchased some blinking headbands for the kids and some outrageously delicious pineapple ice cream and found ourselves a tiny spot along the crowded main street. Visibility was poor for Tate, who wasn't on my shoulders, and who had tall inconsiderate people in front of him who came late and blocked his view. Both kids were also starting to complain and grow tired. The thrill of the parade no longer exceeded the pain of our efforts to keep the kids happy, in clear view of the parade, and awake. Without staying to watch the fireworks at the castle, much to Shealynn's disappointment, we fled back to the room with sleeping Jenna on my shoulders and a barely-conscience Tate in tow. Tomorrow would be our last day, and we'd need every bit of rest we could get.

The best soft-serve ice cream ever: Pineapple flavored

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Disney day 5: Re-Epcot and Re-Hollywood

The final three days of Disney involved heading back to the Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, and Disney Studios to try to do all the things we wanted to do but hadn't done yet. I'll tell you right now that we did not succeed. Looking at the property maps of all 4 parks when we arrived back to New Braunfelsland, we realized that, as much as we DID do, there were still entire sections of each park that we never set foot on. At least we have a reason to go back, huh?

The first of our "bonus" days, day 5, we returned to Epcot to finish touring the countries surrounding the World Showcase Lagoon. But first we took advantage of the small, early morning crowds and took pictures with Mickey, Minnie, Chip & Dale, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy in a character "ride." It was here where a nice Disney employee simply gave a Disney pin in the shape of a cherry to Jenna because she valued all of hers too much to trade. From here, we bolted over to the "Soarin'" flying simulator ride, where Jenna and I enjoyed "kicking" the heads of all the people and boats below our feet as we soared high overhead (it was all I could do to keep her from screaming and crying.) From there we did a "Figment of Imagination" ride, whereby we experienced a ride that stimulated each of the senses individually, after which, we had a chance to use our own imagination to transform our own physiognomies into alien likenesses.

Dad and J with a little Figment of the Imagination thrown in

After that, we raced over to another popular ride, the "Test Track." The ride puts you into an open car and takes you through several tests that every car must endure on the proving ground before hitting the market (all but the "insult test.") We had to literally drag the kids to this. They feared the ride, even after I assured them that their mother's driving was far more to fear than what they would soon experience. The 45 minute build up as we waited in line took quite a toll on Tate, as he imagined how horrible it was going to be. On board, Jenna was a good sport, putting her hands high in the air as we went through the corrosion test, the hot/cold test, and the ABS vs. no ABS test. Tate was clinging to his mother the whole time. I thought I heard him whimpering, "You're a better driver, you're a better driver . . . " It wasn't until we left the building for a lap outside around the building that the BOTH kids began screaming in terror. We never reached more than 65 mph, but the tight turn along the bank easily made it feel like we were traveling at 67 mph. At the gift shop upon exiting, Tate got a commemorative collector's pin.
Our Test Track experience caught by a candid camera. Notice the location of each of the kids' hands

After taking in the front part of Epcot, we decided to finish taking in the back part: the World Showcase. To increase the experience for the kids, we took the boat to Morocco, our third time to be there. We quickly hot-footed it to America, the halfway point through the countries. It was lunchtime, so we at hamburgers in America, then hung around to watch "The American Experience," a show hosted by Ben Franklin and Mark Twain life-like robots that tells the tale of how America was founded. While we waited for the show, a choir dressed in colonial garb entertained us in the rotunda. They were honestly the best live choir I've ever heard. Disney hires nothing but the best talent. The best part of America, for me, was walking through the museum after the show and laying eyes upon an actual top hat actually worn by Abraham Lincoln when he visited Gen. McClellan at Antietam in 1862. I've seen the pictures hundreds of times, but now I was staring at the actual hat, never mind the fact that it now had mouse ears attached to the peripherals (JK.)

My boy Abe, and his hat from the photo 146 years later

To make a long story short, the rest of that day, we went through the other countries the rest of the afternoon, getting stamps and autographs in each. Traveling through America, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and finally Mexico, we saw Mushu and Mulan in China, and from "The Deadliest Catch, we saw the crew from the Northwestern fishing boat.

Mushu, Mulan, and Captain Sig Hansen and his crew of brothers

Later that night, we returned to Hollywood Studios to watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, a show the kids were eagerly anticipating since that had taken in the original trilogy prior to heading out on vacation. As we boarded the shuttle bus to head to the park, the rain started coming down, not uncommon in Orlando. To our dissapointment, the show was cancelled because of the weather. It appeared that the bad weather had driven most of the spectators away as well. The park seemed empty as we walked around in our "pre-purchased for one dollar rather than purchase them for eight dollars each" parkas (thanks Shealynn.)

Rushing to get to the Indiana Jones show in our rain ponchos. "Quick! I want a front-row seat at the 'closed' sign!"

We ended up walking right up to the front of the Star Wars Star Tours ride, a simulator ride that Jenna did NOT want to ride, especially after "Soarin'." We forced her on, and I held her head in my lap during the 10-minute bumpy ride. We still managed to save the galaxy, even without Jenna's cooperation.

J and Yoda, in no particular order

As we walked around the empty park after that, many of the kiosks, shops, and rides were closed. We ended up heading back to one of the gift shops that I enjoyed but felt rushed at earlier in the week, the Back Lot tour gift shop. Here, we browsed the goods as we shivered in damp clothes in the air-conditioned store. Night was falling outside. With the Star Wars ride behind us, and because our kids had also watched all 6 movies prior to our vacation, Tate and J were fully aware of the relation between Luke and Leah. It just so happened that for the very low price of $49.95, the store would put my kids' likenesses into a photo of the two galactic siblings. With the picture now hanging on our wall, I have to say it was money very well spent. Besides, what else were we going to do on such a cold, dark, empty night in the land of Disney? At least I know what my kids will look like in the future, should they decide to grow their hair out and wear bedsheets for clothes. I think the galaxy is in good hands.

Luke and Leah

After Queen Amidala and I, Anakin Skywalker, proudly watched our children pose, we hurried off to the hallmark event of the park: Fantasmic. We quickly realized that we were NOT the only ones in the park after all. Apparently, everyone took refuge from the rain in the huge outdoor studio where the grand evening finale would take place. A typically polite guide directed us toward the front row on the far left of the pavilion. I was carrying Jenna and Shealynn was dragging Tate. I felt we had the best seats in the house, as we had a prime view of all the characters on the boats as they entered or exited the half-circle waterway that spanned the theater.

Watching "Fantasmic"

The show itself was amazing, with its creative use of water theatrics, and thin water vapor curtains which were used as canvases for animation projections. Of all the amazing closings in each of the parks, this by far was my favorite. Coming in late meant that we had the farthest distance to travel when the show was over. After what felt like an eternity shuffling feet while carrying Jenna with my bad back and neck, dripping in sweat and more sweat, we finally reached the shuttle bus depot, and then our room, anxious for what day 6 would bring.

Jenna and I on the shuttle back to the resort. Who's sweating more?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Disney day 4: Animal Kingdom

Day 4 meant Animal Kingdom, where we once again helped Mickey and gang open the park in grand symbolic fashion. Once the park officially opened, the throngs of people rapidly made their way to the back of the park, in selfish haste, through the narrow streets towards one of the hallmark rides of the park: The Harambe Safari tour. We decided to meander toward the ride, taking time to admire the amazing landscaping, taking photos of ourselves acting as animals in front of the Tree of Life, the park's icon, and with Turk, the playful ape-let from Tarzan. As I watched the crowd slowly move forward with the sounds of anticipation escaping from everyone's mouths, I was reminded of the start of the Austin Marathon last February. Today was going to be a marathon of a day.

Tate, J, and Turk in no hurry to see the Safari. Tate's the hairy one.

Many boarded the safari ahead of us, but our wait was both short and not unenjoyable. The safari itself was a great experience. With so much diversity in wildlife and a tour guide who plays the role right down to a simulated crossing of a rickety bridge and imploring our help to catch some ivory poachers, the "ride" felt every bit authentic. The kids enjoyed taking in all the animals, and they especially enjoyed taking numerous photos, some of which even turned out. Jenna DID, however, come to tears at one point along the ride. No, it wasn't because a Rhino charged the vehicle. No, it wasn't because she saw a lion feasting on a new-fallen antelope. No, it wasn't because she wanted to drive. It was because she wanted to take a picture with the digital camera, and couldn't time it correctly to snap pictures of the elusive male baboon, resting Wildabeasts, or capture the perfect shot of the baby Giraffe. She also didn't care much for the "rickety" bridge . . . or the poachers . . . . or the heat and humidity . . . or the bumpy roads. Other than that, the day was off to a splendid start.

J unable to figure out the digital-press button delay-thing

At the exit of the ride, there's a self-guided tour of more wildlife exhibits including birds, creepy-crawlies, apes, ape skulls, and ape poop. It was the longest exit I've ever been encouraged to walk through. The staff members along the way were typical Disney super-nice and helpful. One member intercepted my children and lead them on a wildlife mystery hunt, whereby, they learned how to track an animal by its prints, patterns left on eaten vegetation, and, of course, POOP. Did YOU know a White Rhino takes wide bites, while a Black Rhino (which LOOKS white) takes sharp, bird-like bites? Now we ALL know!

Looking at large Rhino poop through a telescope . . . Why? . . . everything's bigger at Disney.

There was only one way to top the super school of skat, and that was . . . DINOLAND, an interactive area primarily prehistoric, filled with rides, play areas, and heat and humidity that could viably cause the extinction of all patrons visiting its grounds. It was here, after several warm ups on the "Flying Triceratops" ride (you learn something new all the time at Disney), a ride that closely resembles both the "Flying Dumbo" and the "Aladdin's Flying Carpet" rides, Tate was ready for his first-ever real, big-person coaster, a ride that has its ups and downs, backs and forths, and spins all the while. He came through it like a real reluctant champ.

Having gotten all the spinning thrills out of the way, we headed to the Tusker House for our Lunch reservations. This place was AMAZING. It was an all-you-can eat table-service restaurant in Africa, in Animal Kingdom, in Disney World, in Orlando, in Florida, in the United States, but it felt every bit like an upscale African all-you-can eat restaurant. The menu consisted of many beef and pork entrees seasoned in authentic African style. There was also plenty of mac and cheese for the kids. After stuffing myself with seasoned game, and joking with our wonderful waitress Robin, I hit the desserts. Two words describe this sensory-overloading, savory experience: Bread Pudding. It was the best I've ever had, complete with hot, banana-based warm glaze. Eating a bowl or two or three of this fine blend of spices and textures was enough to make this entire trip worth it. Make sure you try it if you're ever there. Tell them I sent you. If they don't remember me, just say "the creepy guy that was eating right out of the serving line," to jog their memory.

At Tuskers. No straws in the kiddie-cups. The felt like they were drinking coffee at the local African Starbucks.

A restaurant like that needs and "All-you-can-nap-after-you-eat-all-you-can" room, but since they had none, I resorted to walking around again in the heat with a full stomach, a grin on my face, and one eye closed.

Our wonderful waitress Robin and her wonderful customer Tate.

Wandering around the park, we passed anther children's play area in Dinoland called the "Boneyard", a funny-shaped mirror that made us all look skinnier again, and several gift shops with air conditioning (and more Disney collector pins) until we ended up at Pocahontas's outdoor show. I asked the friendly attendant if they could move the show indoors, but she politely told me that it wasn't good for the animals in the show. I told her I had NO intention of being in the show. She laughed and showed me back to my seat. But at this point, with the Tusker House menu digesting in my belly, sitting was good enough. As soon as Pocahontas emerged, I thought about the bread pudding again. Pocahontas had just passed Princess Aurora on my list of favorite Disney Princesses, even if she had a painted-on Native American skin color.

By then, I wasn't the only one swooning. Tate's illness and the Florida climate (you think Disney would have that fixed by now) were getting to him, and he looked like he was about to melt right there in the sun. Because of this, and because we had a HUGE evening planned at "Mickey's (all-you-can-eat again) Backyard Barbecue," AND because we are caring, rational parents, we hurried out of the park and headed back to the resort room for a quick recovery, but not before standing in a long line near the exit where another, BETTER Pocahontas was signing autographs. Although Tate really wasn't up to standing in a long line, he ignored the comments of "that boy behind us is really a wimp" by the kids in front of us, and mustered one final, giant grin, almost as big as mine, as he posed with his li'l sis and Pocahontas. I owe him one for that one. On the way to catch the shuttle, he told me the kid's comments didn't bother him because they "didn't know how sick he was," and because Pocahontas told him "that he must have got his great looks from his father" . . . or at least that's what I heard.

Pocahontas with some kids. I know I have the camera, but notice she's still staring at ME!!

After another trip to the resort pool, this time WITH Tate and Mom, for now Tate was allowed to get his eyes and ears wet, we got ready for the most anticipated entertainment and dinner reservation of the entire trip: Mickey's Backyard Barbecue. Open only to the first 300 or so reserved guests, we drove out to Disney's Wilderness area for all-you-can-eat barbecue, and a live concert with a Dance Hall that can rival the proudest of Texas Honky-Tonks. The best part of the entire event was the free beer. That's FREE beer. Liberated from the standard price of $6.95 per 12oz watered-down draft (which I refuse to pay), on this night, all the watered-down beer I could drink was included in the pricey (but TOTALLY worth it) fee. At this point in the trip, my neck was out, and I was in constant pain so the Bud-water helped my muscles relax. I drank my share of medicine that night, but not enough to cover my pain from the fact that my son had seemed to hit an all-time low for the trip. Not only was Jenna exhausted (in fact she slept on a picnic table in the hot, hot sun while we waited for the event to begin), but Tate seemed to be on his last leg.

Einstein's Theory of Relative Comfort on display

His head was down while we waited, and once inside, another amazing Disney Cast Member (that's what they call ALL their employees) noticed him and brought him a couple of cold, water-soaked towels to comfort him (he didn't want any free beer.) I felt so horrible for my little Cowboy, but at least Jenna was awake now and enjoying the music and the hula hoops.

Tate's having a good time . . . like when he fell into hot grease

I decided to grab my shy little girl out on the dance floor where all the Disney characters were dancing to the amazing live music will all the patrons. Jenna wanted nothing more than to see Minnie Mouse. We got within inches of her, but my Jenna was so bashful and star-struck, that she just stood there frozen while I cut a rug with Minnie, Jenna's hand in mine.

Much to my surprise, because of the hospitality of the Disney staff and perhaps because of the Motrin he forced down earlier, Tate made it out to the dance floor to dance with his favorite character . . . Chip, from Chip and Dale . . . I never would have guessed! He actually got right up their with that cheerful chipmunk and shook his hips a while. My heart swelled with so much pride, that I had to celebrate with another free beer when we got back to the table. My kids were enjoying their free ice cream and taking pictures with all the characters as they came around the tables. I shared a joyful, silent smile with Shealynn across the table as the night came to a close. One can get used to the Magic of Disney. At this point, I was addicted.

Tate and J cutting a rug with their heroes

We walked the white sands beaches of Fort Wilderness in the dark before we headed home, making pictures of Mickey and Minnie in the sand. It was a moment I won't soon forget. We then wandered into a gift store which felt more like a lodge, really. We bought a few T-shirts (Tate got a "Chip & Dale" shirt, I a "Goofy") and headed back to the resort, hand in hand.

This is what it is all about. Tate and J at the end of a long, beautiful day

With a day filled with Excitement, Entertainment, Excrement, Free Beer, and having visited now all four of the amazing parks, our trip felt complete. But there were still THREE MORE DAYS AT DISNEY!!!!! Tomorrow we'd head back to Epcot and finish our journey around the World Showcase Lagoon, visiting the rest of the countries, where I would, hopefully, meet Mulan.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Disney day 3: Magic Kingdom

After a day like day 2, our third day at Disney was destined to be better, and there was no better way to start in out than breakfast with all the Disney princesses inside Cinderella's castle, the icon of not only the Magic Kingdom, but of everything Disney. After helping to open the park, along with the other 2 thousand people crowding at the opening gates watching the elaborate show that officially opens the park each morning, my my daughter donning her beautiful "Belle" gown and the rest of us a great big smile (none bigger than mine), we were treated to an all-you-can eat gourmet breakfast fit for a king, queen, prince, and princess.

Me enjoying the food and the princesses

During the meal, I took just as many bites of the eggs, sausage, bacon, and pastries as I took photographs of all the beautiful women all around me. Not only did we get to personally spend time talking and taking photos with Cinderella herself, but Snow White, Belle, Jasmine, and Princess Aurora (the wide-awake name of Sleeping Beauty) each came by our table and chatted it up with us. Each of the princesses practiced professional self-restraint in paying little attention to me and more on our children, but Princess mom being there, it was probably for the best. Just between you and me, though, Snow White was the least amicable of the bunch. I guess Grumpy is beginning to rub off on her a bit.

Belle, Prince Charming, and Grumpy

After making a special wish with the magic sword and wand given to the kids, the royal servants delicately encouraged us to finish up and leave so that the next group of families could experience what we just had. I thought about hiding behind the draperies thinking the castle could use another servant, but that would just make the rest of our family trip rather awkward, with me being thrown into the local dungeon.

After changing Jenna into more park-friendly clothes, we hit all the children's rides immediately around the castle in "Fantasyland." Because the lines weren't very long yet, we were able to get on several rides, including Cinderella's Golden Carrousel, Peter Pan's Flight, Cinderella's Golden Carrousel (again), Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Cinderella's Golden Carrousel (yet again), Winnie the Pooh, the Carrousel thing again, and perhaps the main reason my kids wanted to come to Disney to begin with . . . The Tea Cups, properly known as the Mad Tea Party. After another go on that damned Carrousel, we did the Tea Cups a few more times. I think it's safe to say that my kids enjoy things that spin, including watching mine spin in frustration . . ."you want to ride THAT again?!"

A giant, spinning, sweet tea

At this point I had to get out of this dated, spinning part of the park, so we decided to head over to Tomorrowland where we rode the Indy Speedway race cars, you know the ones . . . the ones that reach a top speed of 5.3 mph while straddling a guide track so that the kids can drive it left and right and left and right while giving their parents whiplash. We next skipped all the rides I actually might have enjoyed, including the Astro Orbiter, Stitch's Escape, and Space Mountain, opting instead to mount the Transit Authority "ride" which is really a slow-moving cart that travels a long loop along a very flat, elevated surface that gives you a nice, slow view of the grandeur of Tommorowland. All the old people on the thing were giving us mean looks like we were commandeering THEIR ride, but at least the kid's liked it, and it didn't jostle like those Speedway cars, so I didn't complain too much.

Riding the Transit Autho . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Getting off the Transit Authority ride, we spied Buzz Lightyear and promptly lined up for a picture and autograph, then we ducked into a small cove that looked like an outdoor theater. The sign said, "Belle's Story Time." We took a seat near the front of the stage and waited in the hot humidity to see Belle for the second time that day. Having performed with Tate in the local theater production of "Beauty and the Beast" a few years ago, we were excited to hear Belle's story of her entire ordeal with the Beast. Her first volunteer to help her tell her story was plucked right out of the audience, someone to play her father, the inventor. She chose Tate. I was so hoping he wouldn't tell Belle in front of the live theater how sick he was. Luckily, she did all of the talking, and Tate just quietly acted out the role of Maurice. Jenna shyly turned down the chance to be "Chip" the broken tea cup, but she applauded her brother confidently from the safety of her seat on my lap. Tate being chose to work with Belle (oddly enough, a different, taller, prettier Belle than the "breakfast" Belle) more than compensated for the rough afternoon we had the previous day.

Maurice and what I guess would be my granddaughter Belle

Then it was off to Toontown, where we went inside Mickey and Minnie's house. They weren't home, but the doors were open and the air conditioning was running, so we went in with the hundreds of other "criminals." We then did a little shopping in a giant store. Several stuffed dolls (including a Baby Belle doll), collectible pins, and miscellaneous things later, we moved onward to the long line to see Pluto, Donald, and Goofy. Getting pictures with and autographs from as many characters as possible was a high priority for me, almost as important with buying too many expensive collectible pins for my kids' lanyards (which quickly became too heavy and uncomfortable for them to wear.) If mom's mission was to make sure we had dinner reservations at mealtime and that we didn't get dehydrated, MY mission was to get enough photographic evidence that we were actually AT DisneyWorld and not some cheap, Knock-Off park down the street from our house.

At this point, Tate was starting to lose his endurance in the hot son. His eye was now redder and more swollen shut than ever before. He still smiled for the camera, though. Since it was getting close to lunch time, and the grand parade down Main Street was about 1.5 hours away on the other side of the park, we rode the Disney Railroad Express back to the main entrance. While Shealynn went to get food for us, Tate, J, and I found ourselves a great spot to catch the parade. It was elevated and under cover, but unfortunately NOT air-conditioned. The parade was still almost an hour away.

All Aboard

We passed the time until the parade eating, watching the other tourists below, talking with each other, and trying to justify if it was worth sitting there that long just to watch the parade. Tate began to act like a pat of butter on a hot summer sidewalk. His face was beet red, he was moaning constantly, and his head was usually in his mother's lap. The throngs of people crowding in around us began to trap the heat in our area, and I began to get a little irritated myself. "This had better be a damned good parade," I said.

I hope Tate makes it. He doesn't look good.

What seemed like an hour later, the first two cars of the parade drove by, then nothing else behind them for almost another 30 minutes!!! You'd think Disney would have that whole spacing-between-floats down by now. Once the next float finally arrived, the show turned immediately spectacular. From our high vantage point, we were practically eye to synthetic eye with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and all the others as they drove by, waving at us and us at them.

When the parade was over, we got the heck out of the park and headed back to the room at our resort for some much needed recovery time. While Shealynn and Tate rested in the room, Jenna and I went swimming at the totally huge, totally awesome Spanish-themed swimming pool, complete with giant Mayan pyramid and body slide. The water felt so good.

Later that evening, we went to the "Downtown Disney" area to get a cheap bite to eat at the McDonald's there and to do some more Disney shopping. Tate had found his second wind as the sun set and day became night. He even started acting a little bit like . . .his Dad . . . Goofy.

Goof, Goofy and Goofyer

We didn't get back to the room until very late that night, but Tate was still awake when we arrived. I had been holding a sleeping Jenna for quite a while by then. It was the end of a very eventful, very busy day. We knew it would have to be a very special day at Animal Kingdom tomorrow to top the day we had today. We had no doubt it would be.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Disney day 2: Hollywood Studios

After a good night's sleep, we all got up for our second day at a DisneyWorld park, and our first FULL day enjoying one. On the laminated card for the day: Disney's Hollywood Studios, the sister studio to Disney's main movie studio in California. Not only is this park a working movie studio, but there are numerous rides and shows to enjoy. Mega-rides like the "Tower of Terror" and "Aerosmith's Rockin' Roller Coaster" are two such rides that we DID not have plans to get on. As we entered the park around 9am, we traveled down the main street toward the icon of this park, the giant Mickey wizard hat from Fantasia. The kids were excited about the day, and Tate seemed to be feeling much better.

The first show we took in was a live version of Clubhouse Mickey. The kids sang along while Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Daisy, with the help of "Handy Manny" and the "Little Einsteins" gang planned a surprise birthday party for Minnie. She did SO not see it coming. She was genuinely surprised. After that we proceeded to roam the park, ducking into theaters here, shopping at kiosks there, releasing and replenishing our fluids. Then we decided to stand in the long line for a brand new ride recently opened: Toy Story. It's amazing how entertaining Disney makes the boring, usually uncomfortable, task of standing in line. Not only are all their lines indoors with plenty of cool AC, but there are such clever thing to look at on the walls, floors, ceilings, handrails, etc. For this ride, there was a giant Mr. Potato head that interacted with people as they weaved their way through the stiles in the "giant playroom."

Tate and J waiting with Mr. Potato Head

The ride itself came soon enough and was well worth the wait. With a series of Midway shooting games, all members of our family got to compete while we shot our car-mounted gun at the cartoon targets while we watched our scores increase on the display in front of us. I was proud to say that I kicked my 5-year-old daughter's butt (although my score was just half of what the posted high score for the day was.) I badly wanted to get back into the line to try to beat the high score, but devoting another 45 minutes to going through the line again was not a popular idea with the family, so I had to settle with being the best virtual sharpshooter in my own family.

As we exited the ride, we ran into Mr. Green Army Man from Toy Story. He didn't have much to say, but he did give us all a definitive "thumbs up." I could tell at this point that Tate was really forcing his usually natural smile for his photo with the character. The temperatures were rising, the humidity was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and the streets were getting increasingly crowded.

Mr. Army Man was the consummate professional

We decided to take a ride on the movie "Back Lot" tour, where we could at least sit down and enjoy the breeze as we were taken through the working movie studio. At the conclusion of the ride, immediately upon exiting, we came across an encased Darth Vader suit actually used in the movie. While everyone from the tour was squeezing in close, anxious to get a good view and photo of it, I saw Tate cuddled up in the fetal position on the carpet at the base of the costume. It was then that I (as well as everyone else on the tour) knew that something was seriously wrong with this kid. We decided to break for lunch under a giant shaded pavilion.

You can see Tate's hat as he begins to rise above the dark side of the floor

During lunch, Tate was more content with laying his head down at the table, and he only picked at his food when I urged him to "lift his head and eat." His mother asked me if I thought his forehead felt warm, a very silly question, I thought, in light of the current temperature and humidity, but indeed it did seem un-Disneyly warm. And so there he sat while I finished up his (and his sister's) leftover food, something I'm quite accustomed to doing.

Behind the dining pavilion, there was a children's play area that was giant both literally and figuratively. It was the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" area, and my two "shrunken" kids immediately got "lost" amidst the huge blades of grass. My daughter ran up and down the huge "spider web" (see picture below) that rose 30 feet into the air in between getting lost inside the cavernous catacombs of the giant stick in the middle of the area. Tate did a few things, but had little sustained energy and interest. His mother and I became quite concerned as his condition seemed to worsen. It seemed so unfair for such a beaming, energetic boy to be having such a miserable time at one of the most exciting, wonderful places in the world.

Caught with a smile in the Spider Web. Notice the huge blade of grass behind us

As we left the play area, we walked by the Star Wars "Star Tours" simulator ride. The line seemed rather short, but we forwent the experience so that Tate wouldn't have to endure any more line standing that hot and humid day. In that same area, an outdoor "Jedi training" show was just beginning, and I knew that there was a good chance Tate could be one of a dozen children who could be selected as part of the show. After only a couple of minutes though, with my daughter on my shoulders so that she could see above the crowd and with Tate's face buried into his mother's shirt, as the sun beat mercilessly down on us, we abandoned the show and decided to head back to our room at the resort and look into where we could take Tate for a physician's checkup. We did manage one last smile out of Tate as he sat on a Star Wars speeder with his little sis before we fled to the park's exit.

Tate wished he could have ridden this thing to a speedy recovery

Back in the room, we all enjoyed the sanctuary from the heat and the readily available cool drinks we had stored in our refrigerator, but no one in our family enjoyed it more than Tate, who immediately hit the mattress with his grimaced face and soft moans. After a short while on the phone, my wife had the name and address of an urgent care center just off the Disney property. As unfortunate as it was that we were about to take our son to see a doctor on our Disney trip, we were grateful that we had our own car to get us there and that we'd all be going together.

As we drove down the long, manicured Disney highways past the other parks, it began to rain heavily. Perfect! We weren't missing anything outdoors at the park we had just left, but it sure made it difficult to navigate through unknown streets. We soon found the facility and entered the crowded waiting room. We were told it would be a very long wait. Too bad we couldn't "Fast Pass" this one. The chairs were uncomfortable and the room was cramped. As bad as I began to feel with my bad back and neck, with my daughter sitting on my lap, watching back-to-back-to back-to back episodes of "Reba," Tate was feeling much worse. I felt horrible for him.

After what seemed like only 5 hours (3 actually), a nurse appeared from the "magical door to the back" and called out my son's name. I stayed in the waiting room with my daughter while my wife and son disappeared into the back. Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock went the clock. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha went the laugh track on the television. I took my sleeping daughter and went to lay down in our car in the parking lot, where I figured we'd both be more comfortable. After about an hour, my cell phone rang. My wife was getting some antibiotic medicine at the small pharmacy behind the clinic. I drove around to pick them up.

I turns out that Tate had the infection Trifecta: an infected eye, and infected throat, and an infected ear. The pharmacy did not accept insurance, so we had to pay $300 cash for the liquid antibiotic, but at this point, it mattered not. I knew that the medicine meant that Tate would be starting to feel better soon, and that we'd be able to thoroughly enjoy our remaining 4 days in the parks. Tomorrow would be a new day!

I didn't realize at the time that I was only half right: tomorrow WOULD be a new day, but it would be a while, and a long ordeal, before Tate began feeling better.

This picture is worth a thousand words (and $300+ dollars)

We went back to the room and decided to just get a late dinner there at the resort. I stayed at the dinner table while my wife went to the buffet to get the her food. While she was away, my son threw up his first dose of medicine all over the dinner table. Luckily for me, I was able to quickly scoop most of it into my empty tea glass and wipe up the rest with napkins before anyone at the adjacent tables really had a chance to know what had just happened. As for me, I had lost my appetite. We soon finished "eating" and went back to the room for showers and clean clothes. We all went to sleep that night ready to leave that afternoon behind us.

Tomorrow was to be the biggest day for our kids: The Magic Kingdom. At this point, we could have used a little magic.