Monday, July 25, 2005

Florida: Day Five

There's nothing like a day at the Magic Kingdom to wear you (and your kids) out. We didn't stir from our bed until 10:00 am. It was fantastic to sleep in that late - it certainly helped to make our daughters exhausted yesterday. We breakfasted on granola bars and Pop-tarts. We packed up our belongings and checked out of the Marriott - next time we come to Orlando as a family, we'll definitely stay closer to all the attractions.

I wanted to eat lunch at my favorite place in Orlando - Cafe Tu Tu Tango. We dined on roasted pears on pecan crisps topped with Spanish bleu cheese and a balsamic reduction served with arugula, Cuban grilled steak skewers with lime steak sauce, and pan-fried chicken and shrimp potstickers. Their food is incredible, and the place was featured on Food Network's "$40 a Day." For dessert we had the crazy bananas (two scoops of banana walnut gelato topped with our homemade caramel sauce, flavored with Scotch and drambuie, surrounded by fresh sliced bananas and sopapilla chips) and the stacks of cookies & cream ( oatmeal cookie wafers layered with vanilla heath bar ice cream and chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream, topped with hot fudge). We had to drive down to just south of downtown Orlando to eat there since it is on International Drive, but it was worth it.

We headed north on SR-27 and out of Orlando. We turned onto I-75N and drove on to Ocala, where we resumed driving on SR-27. We passed by several horse farms - who knew that Florida could horse country. We drove through Williston, Bronson, and Chiefland, and we passed by close to the Manatee Springs State Park. We drove around the panhandle to SR-98. When we reached Panacea, The Sweet One was able to see the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.

We drove along the boondocks of the Apalachicola National Forest. The pine trees were very dense on both sides of the road, and we passed by only a few cars. We saw a few deer, and fortunately they didn't feel inclined to wander the road in front of us. He didn't appear, but I wouldn't have been surprised if we had seen this guy. We were amazed at the large amount of debris still on the coastline from Hurricane Ivan last year. Many houses appeared to be intact, but a good number were still damaged - and a few looked as if they had been abandoned.

Darkness had settled in by the time we reached Apalachicola. The town seemed very quaint with its beautiful homes, art galleries and shoppes. We saw several people sitting outside a steakhouse - they appeared to be having a good time. I learned later that Apalachicola is known for this, but the area hasn't done well this year because of Ivan's destructiveness. I tried to call my brother-in-law Ken from a pay-phone - I could hear him, but he couldn't hear me. The Wife's cell-phone was out of service. I picked up a home buyer's guide for the area - many homes are priced to $1 million and higher.

We finally reached my sister Brenda's house in Panama City at 9:30 PM. Ken and Brenda were happy to see us. Lillie was a little unsure about being around them, but she eventually warmed to them. My neice Leah and her husband Dustin (they are living with Brenda) came home, and we talked with all of them for about an hour. They gave us the keys for my sister Joy's vacation home (she lives in West Chester, OH, but they bought a home in Panama City last year). We hauled our stuff into the home, then crashed for the night.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Florida: Day Four

The long awaited day had arrived ... the day we've been waiting for ... the day The Sweet has talked about ever since we told her about what we would do when she turned five years old .... the day to go to the Magic Kindom!

The girls didn't wake us up until 9:00 AM. The park opens daily at 9:00 AM. Ahhhh! We missed being there right when it opened. What happened to our girls' internal alarm clarks that always seem to go off at 6:30? Ah, well... I had to remind myself that we were here for The Sweet and she would love being there no matter what time we arrived. (I had to re-remind myself of this several times throughout the day, especially when we didn't go on a ride I really wanted to!) Since it was a Sunday morning, traffic was very light.

Before we entered the park, we needed to get fuel for our bodies. We had a gift card to use at a Panera Bread, and we found one in what is probably the best mall in Orlando (outside the outlet malls, of course). The stores were just starting to open, so there were only a few people walking around. We munched on pepperbleu steaks and Fuji apple chicken salads before taking our journey to the Magic Kingdom.

We arrived at the parking lot just after 1:00 PM. I changed into my Mickey shirt (which I had to exchange at the Disney store - the one I bought last night was too snug), and we grabbed The Cute's stroller and bag. We waited only a few minutes for the shuttle to arrive.

We were taken up to the gate to purchase our tickets. It was only natural that when we were in line to be the next to purchase tickets, the people at the window had some big problem that had to involve two ticketworkers andtheir supervisor. We stood in line for what seemed like hours (ok, maybe more like tens of minutes) when we were finally able to purchase our tickets.

Then we stood in line (such a common thing to do at DisneyWorld) to ride the ferry. This was The Cute's first official boat ride, so I had to take a picture of her. One of The Wife's coworkers told her that the ferry would take us to the park faster, and he was right. We didn't wait long for the ferry, and it crossed the lake in less than ten minutes.

We finally made it to the park just after 2:00 PM. The Wife said that she wanted to have the girls' silhouttes drawn right away - while they were still fresh and in an un-whiny mood. We quickly found a guy who sounded Russian to do the silhouttes on Main Street U.S.A. Both girls were done by the time the parade come by at 3:00.

Following the parade we walked on to Fantasyland. We rode Cinderella's Golden Carousel, the Mad Tea Party teacups (one of The Wife's favorites), and Mickey's Philharmagic. The Cute was able to ride the carousel with us, although she sat with me in a carriage that didn't go up-and-down. The Sweet enjoyed the teacups so much that we rode them again later in the evening - Lillie joined us for that ride. During our adventures, we stopped at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe for some french fries - this proved to be our only trek into Tomorrowland.

We went to Liberty Square to see the Hall of Presidents, a very stirring and patriotic presentation (which I suspect Democrats wouldn't like very much because Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush are primarily featured). April stopped in Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe to buy some Christmas ornaments. We munched on fish and chicken for dinner in the Columbia Harbor House.

After we had eaten our fill and The Wife had lifted several napkins because they featured pictures of Mickey Mouse, I took Katie to one of the must-see's of the park - the Haunted Mansion. I did what every good parent must do when they have a small child with them - I dragged her inside kicking and screaming. Well, okay, she didn't kick, but she did scream, "I want Mommy!" She mostly huddled into me and covered her eyes, but she peeked out a few times to see the ghosts dining and dancing, the clock with the turning finger, and the ghost that appeared to be in the coffin with us. When we exited the mansion, she told The Wife in no uncertain times that she would never ride this again. (I remember saying something quite similar when I was taken on the ride by my siblings, and I think I was The Sweet's age at the time)

We returned to Fantasyland so that we could ride another The Wife's favorite (and her must-visit attraction for this trip) - "It's a small world." The Sweet enjoyed this ride immensely. This ride has never been one of my favorites, primarily because the song sticks in my head for hours afterward, but it was fun to ride with April and the girls. The Cute seemed to enjoy it as well - her eyes were wide-open the entire time. We bought a princess hat with Minnie ears attached for The Sweet.

Darkness was creeping upon us, and we still had no signatures from any characters to put in The Wife's scrapbook. We went to Mickey's Toontown Fair, which hadn't existed when The Wife and I were last here (December 1988 - we were both in Orlando at about the same time but we didn't know each other then, of course). We walked through both Mickey's and Minnie's country houses - The Sweet liked Minnie's house better, naturally.

The best stop was in the Toontown Hall of Fame, which also houses the County Bounty merchandise shop. The Wife was able to take pictures with and get signatures of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, Belle, and Snow White. We bought a Minnie ear hat for The Cute and she looked very cute, naturally.

We were close to Main Street U.S.A. and the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey when the fireworks display began at 10:00 PM. As we had expected, the fireworks were spectacular. (We had missed seeing any on July 4th, so it was great to see them here.) We bought some fudge and waited for almost an hour before we made our way out of the park. We arrived back in the Marriott after midnight, but very happy that we had a full and exciting day!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Florida: Day Three

We finally arrived at our hotel - another Courtyard by Marriott - just after 1:00 AM. We were staying on the north side of Orlando, about 5-10 minutes from downtown. April didn't have enough points to stay at a Marriott close to Disney, which would have put us on Orlando's southern side. We drove through a rough-looking neighborhood, which changed drastically after we entered the business park where the hotel is located. Several people were in the pool, but we were too tired to join them. After settling in, we got some much needed sleep.

When we awoke, Katie and I went down to the pool for a swim. April and Lillie decided to relax in the room. Several families were swimming with us, and Katie elected to make friends with a little girl a year younger than her. We were in the pool for nearly an hour, then we returned to the room to get ready for dinner.

We went to the Grand Floridian Resort at Disney for our dinner. On our way there, April and Katie stopped at this place to buy her a Cinderella outfit that she could wear. April paid more than she wanted to, but we figured that Katie will only want to do this once in her life - I don't see her wanting to dress up when we come for Lillie's 5th birthday. We ate dinner in one of the restaurants at the resort, called 1900 Park Fare. Katie was able to meet and take pictures with Cinderella, Prince Charming, Fairy Godmother, and two of the mice. We strolled around the resort grounds after dinner and marvelled at the amount of people who could afford to stay here. A bridesmaid posed for pictures inside the main room (can you say "enormous?" I knew you could). Two gay guys bickered while waiting for the valet to bring up their car.

We returned to Downtown Disney to walk off our dinner - too much seafood isn't really a good thing. We stopped in the Disney store and sipped on a shake from Ghirardelli. We bought some T-shirts to wear tomorrow on our trip to the Kingdom. We watched some teenagers shake it on stage to the Village People's "YMCA."

We retired to our hotel around 10:00. Tomorrow will be a HUGE day.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Florida: Day Two

We arrived at our hotel just around 12:30 AM. April checked us in, I lugged our suitcases out of the van, and we were in our room. Not suprisingly, both girls were awake - we had to get The Sweet up so she could walk to the room, and The Cute is a very light sleeper (just like her mother). The room was very nice and clean - aspects that are always great no matter where you stay. There were two queen-sized beds in our room - The Cute slept in bed with her mom, and The Sweet was with me.

We woke up around 9:00 - it would have been nice to sleep a little longer, but kids don't always let that happen. The Sweet wanted desperately to swim in the pool, so we had to tell her, "Just wait - we'll go swimming in Florida. Maybe tonight." We ate Pop-tarts and granola bars for breakfast. We left soon after waking and traveled on I-24, seeing many billboards for this American classic.

We stopped for lunch at a rest area just north of Chattanooga. It was nice to eat our sandwiches and chips by the Tennessee River. When we stopped, all the tables were taken except for one table with a covering and a sign that said it was for the handicapped. We had no choice but to take the "handicapped table." Several people left while we were eating. A family with a woman in a wheelchair arrived and took a table that was further away from the parking away - and therefore was not "handicapped." They said nothing to The Wife when she saw that their license plate was from Indiana and commented about it. I don't know if they were upset or not that we had taken a "handicapped table," but what were we to do?

Once we were through Chattanooga, we turned onto I-75 and into Georgia. We had hoped to be through Atlanta before rush hour hit, but we had no such luck. We were in the middle of downtown Atlanta at 4:00 PM, and we were in trouble. The road had been fairly smooth until just south of downtown and then we hit it - Bumper-to-Bumper Land. Our speed averaged around 12 mph, I think. We saw several accidents, including a car that appeared to be incinerated and a boat that had rammed into the back of the SUV pulling it. There are apparently some drivers in Georgia that need to return to driving school.

We finally entered Florida around 9:00 PM. The welcome station was closed, so we could not get a drink of the famous Florida orange juice. We stopped at some forgettable fast-food joint and continued on our way. Shortly before midnight we were still not at our destination. The Wife called the hotel to tell them we'd be in very late.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Florida: Day One

Why is it that you can never leave when you plan to? You can have most everything packed and the van loaded and ready to go, you can have a hotel room booked in a city you can reach in reasonable time (seven hours), and you still leave much later than you want to...... Such was the case with our family vacation, something we haven't taken in quite a while. April and I have made some side trips to Florida here and there, mostly for her to do some work and me to have a bit of fun (especially here), but this was the first trip to Florida as a family. My five-year-old daughter Katie is going to DisneyWorld for her first time - it will be my nine-month-old daughter Lillie's first time as well, but she will not remember it.

In a perfect world we would have left our house at 3:00, arrived in Chattanooga, TN around 10:00, eaten a nice dinner somewhere along the way (Cracker Barrel is a favorite roadstop - we have them here in Indy, but I think they are superior in the South), taken an evening dip in the hotel pool, and retired at a somewhat reasonable hour. But families with young and very-young children do not live in a perfect world, and my family is no exception.

We left the house just after 6:00. We had to stop at Andy & Jen's home (Jen watches the girls while April works and I sleep) to drop off Jen's payment - we talked to them about 15 minutes before leaving. We pulled into Steak N Shake to order some greasy burgers and fattening shakes. Just after 7:00, we were finally driving down the highway and on our way.

When we made a pit stop in Louisville (these can be frequent with 5-year-olds), we realized that the sky was growing darker and we still had a long road before hitting Chattanooga. April had reserved a room in a Courtyard Marriott for us, and we'd stay for free by using her Marriott points. Since we didn't really feel like arriving at our hotel at 2:00 AM, April was able to switch to a room in Nashville for us. We would stay at a Courtyard Marriott just down the road from a much grander hotel.

Driving through Kentucky on I-65 is vastly different than driving through Indiana. Hills, hills ... hills everywhere! Katie commented on the plethora of "big walls" alongside the highway. We also noticed a lot of strange "attractions" - the National Corvette Museum, Dinosaur World, and Granny's Quilts to name just a few.

We still hadn't arrived by nearly midnight, so we would be driving to our very first stop on Day 2 of our trip.