Monday, May 25, 2009

On Our Magical Experience

In some of my recent posts, I have alluded to an upcoming trip, a “magical adventure” if you will. The adventure has now come and gone, but we will have the memories of it for a long time to come. (Warning: This post is really long!)

On Saturday

We arose at an hour that would be considered normal during the work week, only this day’s routine involved packing the final few items (like out toothbrushes) and getting in the van not for the short ride to daycare, but for a much longer ride to the magical place. There were portions of the drive that I have not taken before, so we made a couple of stops along the way. The drive along I-95 was not nearly has stressful or heavily-trafficked as I had been told it would be, so other than the increased time it took to get to our destination, it was a rather pleasant drive. I did encounter more than my fair share of jerks in traffic (like this line-hugger), but I managed to keep my road-rage to a minimum.

We also got to see the ocean from two new states, with very different results.

We arrived two hours late to meet some friends for dinner, but they were understanding and unexpectedly took care of the entire bill, which was more than generous, especially after having waited so long for us to arrive.

After a long day, we passed through the gates and found our way to the resort/hotel that would be our home for the next three days.

Thus began my daughter’s first visit to Disney World.

On Sunday

This entire trip came about as a result of some very dear friends of mine from college. I have mentioned them briefly in posts past, primarily by mentioning the fact that they are the one set of friends I have with whom things have truly not changed over the past two-plus years. He and I were friends (and for two semesters roommates) in college and are very much alike in both our personalities and our outlook on life. His wife and mine were ironically very alike in the same ways. He and his wife were high school sweethearts who married fourteen months before my wife and I did. We stood in each others’ weddings. We had the privilege of visiting them in the hospital following the births of their two daughters, even though they still live close to where I grew up, 800 miles away. They have spent a week with us most summers since we moved here, both prior to and since my wife’s passing. They are true friends in every sense of the word.

Still, it somehow caught me off-guard that they would invite us along on their family vacation to Disney World. When we first started planning this, he worked for a company that had connections to discounted tickets and hotel rooms, which is how this trip became so easily affordable for me (he has since changed jobs). The planning just sort of worked itself out. Including the fact that this is the only time we could have gone during the school year, since my daughter (the oldest of our three combined children) will start school next year and I would not likely pull her out for something like this.

They flew in late Saturday night from the Midwest, so we did not see them until Sunday morning, when we met to go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the friends we ate dinner with Saturday night were friends from high school who live in Florida now). We took what should have been a short walk to their adjacent resort/hotel and met them out front where the buses arrive and depart.

A note to anyone considering a trip to Disney: If you can possibly afford it, stay on the Disney property. The biggest travel concern we had once we arrived was having to take the bus to the monorail to get to dinner one night. It took all of the stress out of traveling! (And on another note, consider the meal plan. We did not and now I kind of wish we had.)

We hopped on the bus during what would turn out to be the only sunny day of our stay. The first characters we met upon arrival were Lilo and Stitch, of which my daughter is a big fan, and thus began our three days of frustration. Almost every time we would approach a character for an autograph and photo-op, they would suddenly have to go on a short break. These breaks normally lasted only 2-5 minutes, but it was still inconvenient to have to wait, sometimes in the Florida sun, while they did this. What was even more irritating is that they gave a verbal warning, then randomly cut off the line. There was no point that allowed you to know whether you would see the character before or after their break until their break actually began (for us, it was always after). My disappointment with Lilo and Stitch was that the park had only been open for thirty minutes and Lilo had to go “run an errand” for her sister and would not be back til later in the afternoon, so my daughter only got to meet Stitch (initially. We stood in line again later so she could meet Lilo too).

I will not bore you with a complete list of the characters we were able to see that day, but I will tell you that we missed nearly as many as we saw due to these “breaks”.

The Animal Kingdom is a beautiful, well-shaded park, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Disney long enough to see more than one park (assuming you have small children and the Magic Kingdom has to be at the top of your list). Again, I won’t bore you with a list of the rides we rode and the shows we saw, but I will tell you one of each that are simply must-see/do.

If given the chance, ride the African safari ride. I don’t recall the actual name of it, but you’ll know it when you hear it. It played out much like I believe a real safari would, only the animals were much closer and easier to view than I imagine it would be on a real safari ride (plus it beats the plane fare to Africa and I got to sleep in a resort/hotel that night). The only caution is not to sit in the back seat or two. The terrain is fairly rugged, and the four of us in the back seat were bounced around a bit too much for my daughter’s safety-meter.
The Lion King show there is also must-see. It is what I believe is called a “theatre in the round” format, so there is action from every side and a bit of audience participation thrown in as well. And my daughter got to meet Timone afterward, which was a bonus for her.

The Animal Kingdom closes at five (at least on Sundays), so we made plans for that to be the day we went to eat dinner with a princess. There is a multiple-princess dinner at the Magic Kingdom, but it is hard to get into and the kids apparently don’t actually get much face-time with the princesses, so we instead opted for the Cinderella dinner at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Magic Kingdom property (this was the dinner that required riding both the bus and the monorail). Once we were seated, it was nothing short of wonderful. Seating was the problem of the day, it seemed.

When we arrived for our previously reserved time, we were told the computers were down and were handed a buzzer and little to no assurance that we would be seated in a timely fashion. Knowing that this dinner was buffet-style, we had eaten a light lunch earlier in the day. It had started to rain, so the computer problem seemed legitimate enough. But we continued to wait. And wait. And wait. After about forty minutes, I convinced my friend that we should go back and remind them that we were still waiting with three hungry girls (and three equally hungry adults). We did. The troubling thing about it was that no one could seem to give us any answers other than “our computers are down. We’ll seat you when we can”. Now, it’s been fourteen years since my last trip to Disney, but I know that above all else, Disney is a well-oiled machine. So the fact that a computer problem could create such havoc with their reservation system is still quite lost on me. I think there was something else going on (like being short-staffed perhaps) and they were content to blame it on the computer problems. All told, we waited over an hour for what was supposed to have been a reserved time slot.

But as I mentioned before, the dinner was nothing short of wonderful. We ended up with a table in the center of the room and were greeted first by Prince Charming, who instantly had my five-year-old swooning. He even made a proposition to the two older girls (the youngest would have nothing to do with the characters, even if they looked like real people), which he made good on later in the evening. His visit was followed by Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters and Cinderella herself. And in the midst of all of that, we finally managed to partake of the wonderful buffet we had heard so much about.

The Prince’s proposition had been that he would like to ask the girls to dance, which he did toward the end of dinner, on the dance floor which happened to be next to our table. Cinderella came too and the girls were able to dance with each of them.

I think if the vacation had ended there, I would have come home with one happy little girl.

We took our separate buses back to the hotel and I carried my sleeping daughter across the vast expanse of the property to our room in a lightly falling rain.

On Monday

We met our friends at their room this time, which proved to be much closer than meeting them at the front of their hotel. Each resort property had ten or eleven separate buildings on it, and ours were both near the back of our respective properties. It allowed us to see their hotel and was a much shorter walk from ours. It was cloudy, but the rain had not officially started falling at this point.

We rode the bus again, only this time our destination was one we had chosen more for the adults in the party – Disney’s Hollywood Studios. For those of you old-schoolers like me, it used to be called MGM, but has undergone a name change sometime in the last fourteen years. None of us had ever been to that park either (it was the same with Animal Kingdom), but of the three, it was quickly deemed my favorite. There were plenty of great characters to meet (including two of my favorites from the Toy Story movies), as well as more rides and shows.

Again, I won’t bore you with the lists, but the Beauty and the Beast show was excellent. I rather enjoy musicals anyway, but for an amusement park, this one was top notch. Plus it got us out of the rain for half an hour. I really enjoyed the Toy Story ride, which puts you into a video game scenario and actually tabulates your points at the end (I didn’t know this and was consequently beaten by the other adults in my party). The ride itself is a bit jerky, but well-worth it. Other things I enjoyed were the Muppets 3-D Vision show and the Hollywood back lot tour, though the latter proved to be a little too realistic for my five-year-old and was thus a bit frightening.

Oh, and I can’t remember what the place was called, but if you get a chance find the place where they discuss animation and take a look around. My mother’s artistic ability all seems to have gone to my younger brother, but I still managed to draw this there:

While at Hollywood Studios we also enjoyed our second of two character meals (if you get the meal plan, I’d schedule as many of these as possible as they count as one regular meal), this time with some characters from Playhouse Disney. These were not characters from shows my daughter has ever really watched, but we knew she would have fun anyway, and the other girls are into the shows. My daughter, polite as ever, actually said as much to a character from Little Einsteins. As the character hugged her, she leaned in and said “I don’t really watch your show, but I like your dancing”.

Another benefit to staying on the Disney property is that certain parks are open late on certain days for resort guest only. This week it happened that Hollywood Studios was open late on Monday, so we enjoyed an extra three hours of time that night with about a third of the crowd. Since I hate crowds and during this trip added “stupid tourists” to my list of jerks (which also includes people who cut me off in traffic, people who abuse others, and people who have an absurd number of children and subsequently flaunt them on reality tv), this was also a highlight of my day.

My daughter managed to stay awake on the bus ride home, which was nice as she was able to hold her own (kid-sized) umbrella on the walk back to our room.

On Tuesday

The morning began with an unpleasant work-related call, about which I had been given warning during out visit to Hollywood Studios the day before. It was no reflection on my work whatsoever, but rather was regarding a decision being handed down from the higher ups that affects all people in my position. But I was able to put it in the back of my mind and face the cold and rain for our third and final day’s destination – the Magic Kingdom.

Our friends were actually staying through the end of the week, so this was the mid-week climax of the trip for their girls, whereas it was more of a grand finale for mine. (Hindsight and the morning’s phone call told me I should have stayed the rest of the week, but that would have cost a lot more). This time they met us at our hotel as they wanted to check out our room too, and we boarded the bus from there. The Magic Kingdom was the furthest of the three parks from our hotels, but the kids had grown accustomed to the rides and actually seemed to enjoy them.

Today the rain beat down relentlessly, so we sought out as many indoor activities as was humanly possible. The one exception was the Dumbo ride, which was the only ride all three girls had asked to ride. We were all cold and wet when it was over, but it as worth it.

Ah, the things we do for our children.

This was the day my daughter got to meet three of the other princesses, so that was at this point, the icing on the cake for her. The line to meet them was half as long as the line to meet the fairies (they’re side-by-side), so we only met the princesses that morning. We also rode the Peter Pan and Pooh rides, both of which were big hits with the kids.

At this point, it might be important to mention that my friend’s wife had had matching outfits made for all three girls to wear to the Magic Kingdom. We had received more than our fair share of stares at the other two parks, but the matching outfits really threw people for a loop. I’m used to people sometimes giving me a second glance with the “poor divorced dad” look. I’m pretty certain people don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that I’m a full-time single dad, and definitely not due to being widowed. At the very least, I figured on this trip people might think I was the single uncle who had tagged along and that all three girls were my friends’. Whatever people thought, it did not stop them from staring. In fact, one young woman did so repeatedly and unabashedly while we waited in a character line so much so that I was tempted to say “I’m with him” just to really throw her off (I didn’t).

It amazes me that in this day and age, people still want to know what people’s “situations” are for no other reason than the pure gossip-factor it might bring. (I’ve had this happen before only the other time I was with a same sex couple. That really threw people off! They all wanted to know which of us was my daughter’s daddy.) We decided next time we vacationed together we’d get shirts to help the process. Our two favorite ideas were as follows: “I’m with him” on the front of the shirt, “I’m with her” on the back or one that says “We’re just as confused as you are” (my personal favorite). If you’re still reading at this point, feel free to send other ideas!

Of the three parks, the Magic Kingdom was my least favorite, but the kids all really enjoyed it. We did go to the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor, which was an interactive show and fun for the whole family. It kept us dry, but I’d recommend it anyway. And we did get back to see the fairies that afternoon as the rain was really coming down at that point. It turned out to be worth our wait. For anyone with little girls, they were by far the most interactive of all the characters we met. My daughter is not really into them, but she was captivated during the brief time we actually got to see them (though this was the line of the staring “situation analyzer” I mentioned before and even the fairies themselves seemed a bit confused, referring to all three of the girl as “sisters”).

That night, my friend found us the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. Cinderella’s castle sat directly in front of us down Main Street and our “spot” kept us sheltered from the continuing rain. Despite the rain, they managed to put on a spectacular display, and it was a great way to end the trip.

When we headed to our respective bus stops, our friends realized that this was “it” for us and seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I have often said that the sign of a good trip (anywhere) is that you are not quite ready to go when the time comes. And so it was with this trip. We exchanged hugs and the night ended once again with me holding my sleeping daughter under an umbrella against the pouring rain.

On Wednesday

As this post has already waxed long, I will keep the remainder brief. I dreamed about the situation at work and woke up thinking about it that morning. I guess I was making up for all the time I had spent not thinking about it the day before. It was pouring rain, so we picked up a quick breakfast and some last minute gifts as we checked out of the hotel, then headed for home.

The torrential downpour continued across Florida and into Georgia. Within twenty miles of crossing the Georgia border, the rain dissipated and we barely saw a trace of it the remainder of the drive home. The trip home proved to be a bit faster than the trip there, though we did stop for a few minutes in one southern city I had never visited. I think I was a bit more confident with the route, though the traffic on I-95 still did not bother me, even in the rain.

The fact that I had now completed this trip my wife and I had dreamed of taking our daughter on since before we knew she was our daughter, also did not bother me as much as I thought it would during the trip, although it has in the days since. Perhaps it is another sign that I am finally healing.

Neither of us were quite ready to leave Disney World, but we were both very glad to be home. It will be a few years before we return there, but we’re already looking forward to our next installment of the Magic of Disney.


  1. instead of t-shirts, wear what you want and if someone gets nosey and asks hand them a business card that has: "does it really matter? the children are loved" printed on it.

    such a wonderful trip and i'm glad to read that you were not bothered by too many memories of "what might have been" or "should have been." your daughter now has lovely memories .

    thank you for what you left as a comment on what i think of as my falling apart crisis of faith blog. i'm just having a very rough time right now. i guess the shock is finally truly wearing off and the anguish is setting in of what life will be like. i keep turning to look for him and i get that metaphysical slap in the face. but you comment put a pinprick of light in the night for me. thank you.

    and i hope one of the characters you got to meet was Figment. when my children were young and i took them to Disney World, he was their favorite. not a famous character, never been in a film, but he was fey and very good with the children.

  2. It's great that you could make this trip with friends, and yet hard to be there on your own.

    So many people just don't realise how difficult these steps can be. Those moments when identities are worked out and connections made are painful, and just being somewhere you had planned to visit together one day isn't easy either.

    All I can say is that it's character-building stuff. Not because I'd ever remotely recommend it, but because you have to be enormously strong to get through it all alone.

    In the long run, it makes you as hard as steel and as tough as nails, because you have to be to survive. Perhaps strength really does come from a thousand tricky moments, negotiated uncertainly at every stage.

    Spirits up, and best wishes to you from London.

  3. WomanNshadows - I love the idea about the business card. I guess it just caught me off-guard that it would matter so much to other people.

    As always, grief has reared it's ugly head in the days since our trip. It's something I've come to anticipate, but am glad that it didn't spoil the actual event for either one of us.

    We did not get to meet Figment, but I am glad he holds such a wonderful place in your memories.

    Roads - After two-plus years, I am so used to parenting alone that even tackling Disney didn't phase me. But my daughter was sick yesterday and I found that there are still circumstances when doing this alone freaks me out. Fortunately those moments are few and far between, but it's disconcerting that they exist at all.

    I really liked what you said about strength coming from a thousand tricky moments. I may quote that in the future if it would be alright with you.