Friday, July 23, 2010

Back from Paradise: Two Weeks in the Sunshine State

The Kelly kids breakfast with
Mickey at the Animal Kingdom
Family vacations have always been very important to me. When I was a kid, my parents always took us somewhere in the summer. We never had much money, so it was mostly day-trips... Rock City in Chattanooga, the zoo in Memphis, or Beech Bend Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Later, when I reached my teen years, we went to Florida a few times. Nothing major, but we always had a great time just being together and exploring new places.
That love of vacations carried over into my adult life. My wife, Joyce, loves to travel as much as I do. Shortly after we wed in 1991, we frequented Opryland in Nashville (before they tore it down and turned it into a super outlet mall... sheesh, don't get me thinking about that atrocity!) and we took trips to Disney World in '92 and '94. Now that my kids -- Reilly (12), Makenna (5), and Ryan (2) -- are part of the big picture, we try to visit the Land of Mouse every two or three years. Like myself, I want my children to look back when they are grown and fondly remember that their folks loved them enough to go the extra mile and take them places that were exciting and full of wonder and magic.
For several years now, Joyce and I have had this dream; to take two weeks off and spend the whole time in Florida, doing whatever we want to. Usually our money situation or vacation time at work just didn't cooperate enough for us to pull it off. But, finally, this June, things neatly fell into place. We both set aside two weeks of our vacation time and saved enough money -- due to pinching pennies and my writing earnings -- to live out our dream. On the second week of June, we traveled to the Sunshine State, spending nine days at Disney World and the rest of the time at the beach.
Before the journey, our preparations for the trip spanned a year's time (we're sort of anal when it comes our Disney trips). We even had our bags packed and ready, four or five months ahead of time. When the date of departure arrived, we rented a van -- a brand new Town & Country with roof racks and stow-and-go -- which is necessary when you're traveling with three kids. We headed out at midnight on a Sunday morning and arrived in Orlando around two o'clock that afternoon. Thankfully, the kids slept during half of the trip and there was a minimal amount of tantrums, requests for bathroom stops, or maddening mantras of "Are we there yet?" or "Daddy, Ryan's touching me!" We drove through the Disney World gates around two-thirty and arrived at our on-property resort, the All-Star Music Resort. Having used the on-line early check-in ten days before, we had no wait whatsoever. Joyce and I have been using the economic All-Star resorts for years, but since the rooms are the size of Cracker Jack boxes, it was becoming a little too cramped as our family grew. Not to worry this year. The All-Star Music just finished adding several hundred "family suites", which consist of a main living room with a chair, ottoman, and couch that fold out into three seperate beds, a seperate bedroom for the parents, two bathrooms (a pure blessing!) and a small kitchenette with a refrigerator, sink, and microwave. It was like dwelling in the lap of luxury, enjoying such spacious accommodations after suffering through claustrophobic confinement during previous visits.
During the next eight days, we divided our time between the four parks; the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney Hollywood Studios (previously Disney-MGM), and the Animal Kingdom. The heat was sweltering with a heat index of around 100 degrees daily and the parks were horribly crowded, but we made the best of it, pacing ourselves and keeping cool with plenty of bottled water and portable fans. One day there were 6,500 red-shirted Pampered Chef folks in the Magic Kingdom, causing the lines to be even more long and tedious. We made good use of the Fast Pass feature when the masses were heavy, which gave you a pre-determined time to arrive back at a particular ride for fast and easy boarding. Also, Joyce and I have made so many trips to the World, that we pretty much know all the shortcuts and slow ride times. We practically breezed through the parks, rather than wandering around, dazed and overwhelmed, like most of the first-time novices. I'd say we could pretty much sit down and write a comprehensive Disney guide, if we had a mind to (which isn't a bad idea.)

Ryan exposes himself to a Little Einstein

The kids handled the heat and crowds well. Ryan, being in the midst of the Terrible Twos, had his shining moments of freaking-out hysteria and bouts of whining that would make fingernails on a blackboard sound like a soothing lullaby. He also developed what we soon came to call "The Sneaky Dance". He would begin to tip-toe slowly in the direction of a forbidden area, cut his eyes slyly at us, then laughingly run toward it like the Road Runner on speed. Restraining rails or ropes, or doors with EMPLOYEES ONLY had a maddening appeal to him for some odd reason and I found myself racing to catch him before disaster struck on more than one occassion (which isn't an easy feat for a fella who just turned 50 last November!) Once, a man in line snidely commented "You need to put that boy on a leash." I kinda gave him a dirty look, but, like a true Southern gentleman, held my tongue. I've always hated those child restraint leashes and will never subject my kids to such a thing. In Epcot I spotted a man leading three young'uns around on long leashes like a pack of baying bloodhounds.

Hanging out with Woody and Buzz at
Disney Hollywood Studios
After nine days of Disney, we were due for a little rest. So we packed up the van and headed for the beach. We avoided the western coast of Florida with it gelatinous globs of congealed petroleum that was washing up on the beaches in Pensacola and Destin. Instead, we drove to the Atlantic side toward St. Augustine, where my folks had taken me and my brother when we were young'uns. We rented a condo at Crescent Beach, a nice, quiet seashore community, and stayed right there on the beach, our balcony overlooking the ocean. This was the first time the kids had ever been to the beach, so they ate it up! We spent alot of time searching for seashells after the early tide, building sand castles, and playing in the ocean. After the hustle and bustle of the World, it was nice to unwind and take it easy. The beach was uncrowded -- no more than twelve or fifteen people on the sand at one time -- and the ocean breeze counteracted the oppressive heat, making it downright pleasant.

Looking for shells on the beach at daybreak

A couple of days, we drove the ten miles to St. Augustine and saw the sights there. We toured Castillo de San Marcos. a star-shaped fort the Spanish occupied when the city was first settled over 350 years ago. We also took a scienic cruise around the bay (but didn't see any dolphins, like they promised, dang it!). I also took the kids to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, which hadn't changed very much at all since thirty-five years ago, when I lasted visited it. Makenna and Reilly were mesmerized and disgusted by the alligator feedings (the park rangers chucked huge two-toned rats at the reptile's toothy maws!) and Ryan seemed particularly taken with the albino alligators, which had been discovered in a particular backwater bayou in southern Louisiana twenty years ago.

These things don't really bite... do they?

One of mine and Reilly's favorite attractions was Potter's Wax Museum in the heart of St. Augustine. I had wanted to tour the museum when I was a kid, but my mother always claimed it was too expensive (I reckon ten bucks a head was a mite pricey back in the '70's). George L. Potter established the collection of over 160 wax figures in 1948, which is claimed to be the first honest-to-goodness wax museum in the United States. Among historical and fictional figures, Potter's have some eerily realistic figures of horror icons such as Frankenstein, the Mummy, Alien, and Freddy Kruger. One of my favorites was Herman Munster, so was in his wide-mouthed laughing pose.

Reilly shares a nightmare with Freddy
at Potter's Wax Museum
But, alas, all good things must come to an end and, by Friday of the second week, we had the van packed once again and was on the road homeward. It was nice living the life of vagabonds for a short while, unconcerned about bills and bosses and the day-to-day worries of the "real" world. But as we crossed the Tennessee border and grew nearer to home, the kids' voices rang out with "Are we there yet?" and I couldn't help but smile. Our two-week vacation was a trip of a lifetime for Reilly, Makenna, and Ryan, but it was nice to see them anxious to be home again, back in their own rooms, among their own stuff, where they belonged.
We're already planning our next trip to Florida; one week at the beach this time. And me and Joyce are even planning our own trip to Disney World... without the kids. Cruel, you may ask?
No, we've already discussed it with the young'uns and they seem to understand. Joyce and I have been married for nearly twenty years now and haven't been away alone for twelve long years. I think we deserve a second honeymoon. It's just finding someone who is willing to keep three Tasmanian devils for an entire week that will be the big trick....

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