Forty for Forty – #3. Cruisin’

On July 1, 2009 – I woke without a job. A few days later, Andi was a newly minted employee – taking a waitress stint at a local restaurant. That’s my wife. Always making sure our nest is feathered. So despite the rigors of the daily house keep, she grabbed gainful employment to insure we could weather the days that stretched beyond the end of my severance – should it come to that.

And it did – but fortunately, not for long.

Our plan was to bank everything she made – all the while the severance kept us afloat. If I was reemployed and we hadn’t completely sapped her savings, then we would use those funds on a nice, well-deserved vacation. Well, my severance did give out and we did tap into that reserve fund but fortunately it wasn’t for long. And when I filed off for Day 1 of my new gig – almost a year to this very day- we decided the time was right to plan our long-awaited Disney Vacation. It would cap a trying year and would make for a great reward for all of the hard work spent looking for a new job and keeping our house in order.

Collaborating with my old college buddy Justin and his wife Jen, we settled on a 10 day trip – divided between the Disney World Parks and a 4 night Disney Cruise to the Carribean on their new flagship, the Disney Dream. Justin and Jen have two children – the same ages as ours – so we had a good mix. In fact, this combined family trip was practically predestined.

After all, Justin and Jen married 2 weeks before Andi and I. They had their first born daughter a month before Colin and their son was born 2 years later – just ahead of Aria’s arrival. To further this parallel plot, Justin shares the exact same birthday (day and date) with Andi. I’ve told Justin that the second I hear he’s kicked the bucket (hopefully many moons from now), I’m skipping plans to attend the funeral. Not with a mere two weeks left to live for myself. As they said in our shared favorite flick, The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Anyway – Jen and Andi conspired on the details – and Jen took the reins in pulling together an amazing itinerary, including booking our full group (which also included her Mom, Dad, sis and her hubby) into many destination meals and dinners on the Disney property. Without reservations at some of these character Meet & Greets and Grand Gathering feasts, you’re stuck with the quick service fare – which is fine for a quick bite but equally deficient in valued nutrients and treasured memories.

Jen kept us on task with the countdown – sending friendly little reminders that the trip was coming soon. All was going swimmingly until my insides hit Code Red three weeks ahead of departure. Fortunately, I had that pesky appendix out with plenty of time to heal – and a few days ahead of the flight was cleared for all rides and rum.

At 4 a.m. EST Sunday June 26th, Andi and I rose from our slumber and quickly roused our kids’ sleepy heads. With the car parked, we grabbed our boarding pass and pointed our collective beak towards CT’s Bradley International Airport but not before I hit Facebook for one last Status Update ahead of 10 days of radio silence.

With the words “And Away We Go” – off we went.

Now, I’m not going to give you the full 10 day blow-by-blow account. Who has that kind of time? Hopefully the handful of pics here (and the albums on Facebook) coupled with a smattering of anecdotes will do the trip justice. One that may have carried a steep ticket price but was worth every precious memory.

After landing in Orlando and dropping our luggage off at the on-site resort (Disney’s Pop Century) we joined the rest of the group at the Magic Kingdom. While I enjoy the other parks a little more – this is the crown jewel that needs to be mined, especially now that we have fresh young hearts and minds alongside us – eager to explore every corner.

To get it out of the way – Yes, it was crowded but not unbearably so. The same goes for the temps. It was very warm but not unbearably so. In fact, no different than anything we get up here in late June. I don’t think I heard one complaint about the weather or the lines from anyone in our party, during the entire trip – and with stealthy use of the Fast Pass system – the most we waited in a line was maybe 25 minutes. Sure, there were a few rides that we sacrificed for the next inevitable trip – but on the whole, we saw every marquee attraction and took in all the Must-See shows. 5 Days in Disney in late June with 4 kids all in their single digits and no complaints of heat or lines is something of a Disney Miracle all on its own. I guess there’s something to that pixie dust.

Within 45 minutes of stepping foot on Main Street, I had “It’s a Small World” tattooed on my brain. Yup, that was one of the first rides we hit. Sure – it’s one of the oldest too but to my kids, it was new to them. And now with it out of the way, I don’t think I’ll ever have to travel that globe again. Fortunately, Splash Mountain swamped that tune with its own ongoing chorus of ‘Zippie-Doo-Dah’ so in the end, it WAS a wonderful day.

The big event of Day One came at the very end. While Justin and his brood decided to hang at the Magic Kingdom and catch the Electric Light Parade – Andi and I chose to head back to the hotel with the kids to get settled into our rooms and let them splash in the pool. After all – we had been going since 4 a.m. and hadn’t had a chance to decompress since that early morning takeoff. So, following a character dinner at the Crystal Palace, we headed back to the resort.

A short while later, Andi and I were enjoying a drink poolside as the kids played mere feet away. Finally they coaxed me in and under that warm Florida night, we felt ourselves slip into that sublime vacation stream. Which is why, it took me ten minutes of traveling across every inch of that mammoth pool, dodging the 60-or so other swimmers, before I noticed my wedding ring was gone. With Andi still on the sidelines, I decided to hunt for “my precious” in the big blue made several hues deeper by the darkening sunset before she caught on. A fool’s errand made more treacherous by the tempestuous fury kicked up by 30 kids hopped up on their all-day Disney High.

As I trawled the bottom of the pool, scouting every inch of the liner and searching, to no avail, for a diving mask, Andi finally caught wise to my dilemma. “Did you lose your ring?” came the grand inquisition. “What makes you think that?” was my reply. “You’ve been walking back and forth, over every inch of that pool with your head bent forward for the last 15 minutes. That was my first clue.” she offered. “Plus – Aria told me.”

Betrayed by my Little Princess.

And then – before I could think up an excuse – there it was. Mere inches from my feet. Somehow, in that bubbling cauldron of chlorine, I’d located the tiny, gold band. I pressed my foot down on it, confirmed it was a ring, and dove deep. Within moments it was back on my hand.

And then it was gone again.

Secreted away to Andi’s hand. She had already turned and was headed to the room – determined to lock it up in the hotel safe until I was safely back on dry ground.

And with that, “The Relocater” was born. The guy who could find a needle in a haystack of needles. Sure, it’s no Mentalist but I just know CBS would give me a 10-year deal to tell the tale of the guy who can relocate anything. Hey, this is the same network that gave Kevin James steady work – they’ll air anything.

Before the week was out – and Caruso was inked to play the part of me – The Relocater would be pressed into service again. Stay tuned!!!
Tuesday was Epcot Day. Having secured knowledge from my good buddy Mookie that ‘Soarin’ was the top-flight attraction at Epcot, we inked a plan for our fleet-footed fellow travelers (Justin and his bro-in-law Tim) to grab everyone’s Key to the World tickets and high-tail it to “The Land” to grab those duckets. We were in the park at 10:00 a.m. and by the time they returned 5 minutes later, we had Soarin’ tix for 2:00 p.m. By 2:00 p.m. the day’s supply of Fast Passes were exhausted. This would become our modus operandi for the remainder of the week. Each day I would pick the prestige attraction and dispatch my good little foot soldiers to do my bidding.

Epcot was a great day eclipsed by my second favorite meal of the Disney part of the trip. For lunch, we had reservations at the Japanese restaurant – Tappan Edo. While the kids bristled at the lack of a children’s menu – any misgivings immediately melted when our table-side chef formed an onion volcano before their very eyes and poured a mix of vinegar and olive oil within – which billowed steam moments later. In a blink, he bellowed “NO MORE VOLCANO” and brought a cleaver down hard – splitting the thing in two even halves. They squealed with delight – enjoying every minute of their “dinner theater”.

At Epcot we also ran into friends of ours from Dudley, whom Andi knew would be there on the tail-end of their vacation. Their son was in Colin’s preschool class and we (and they) have been friends ever since. We kept that a surprise from the kids so it was a huge burst of excitement when we headed to dinner (at the rotating Garden Grill) and Colin came face-to-face with Teddy. We inked plans to meet at the World Pavilion for the evening Illuminations laser and fireworks spectacular and then took in the organic foods at the Grill.

Tuesday found us at Hollywood Studios where following a trek through the revamped Star Tours;  Andi headed off for her authentic American Idol audition. This attraction allows park guests to audition for the daily show – recorded live 3 times that day – in a bid to be one of the five finalist positions in the climactic evening edition. Winners of that Final Round earn a coveted ticket sending them to the head of the line in any real American Idol audition city. While Andi is outside of the coveted AI demo, she wanted to try her hand at the process so she headed off for her audition. Just for the fun of it.

Refusing to lie about her age, the talent scout told her that she could audition but he couldn’t select her even if she was the best. Then she sang and he replied “This really breaks my heart. That was the best performance I’ll hear all day but I can’t pass you on.” But she didn’t care in the least. She wanted a few seconds of that American Idol Experience. We all go to Disney to fulfill our fantasy and Andi grabbed a handful of hers.

The evening was capped with a return to the American Idol Experience to watch the Finale. The winner was the typical AI pop tart. Following that we ended the night with the fantastic Fantasmic show.

And after a few short hours of rest, we were back to the Magic Kingdom for a full day on Wednesday – allowing the kids to chase down some of the attractions they missed the first day around. It was on this day, that Colin fell hard for Stitch – a character whom he had never seen before. I think it was the combo of his mischievous antics and that Gizmo-esque voice – but he was determined to track down everything Stitch was branded on.

We closed that day by splitting along gender lines at dinner time. The girls headed for their dinner with the Disney Princesses in the Enchanted Castle while the guys had a traditional Thanksgiving Feast at the Liberty tavern – one missing one crucial ingredient. What’s Turkey Day without beer? Ale? Mead? Grog? Anything?!?!? Well – that sweet nectar may flow in every other port of Disney but not on the dry campus of the Magic Kingdom. No bother – we’d skip dessert, head back to the hotel to let Colin and Cameron play in the pool – and grab a beer or two from the poolside cabana.

And once again we were rebuffed. A line of thunderstorms that had raced in then settled for a spell earlier that day had closed the pool and cabana. The pool later reopened but the bar never did. Fortunately the food court that abutted that area had their share of suds on sale – and all of us – short of the two shorties tipped back a celebratory pint. Our trip was just hitting its stride.

Thursday was Animal Kingdom. Of all the days, this was my favorite. My pre-trip research taught me that the Everest ride was the coveted Fast Pass so Justin and I beat our feet to grab those tickets. It was just the two of us as everyone else chickened out. They heard roller coaster and decided it wasn’t their speed. The thing about Animal Kingdom is everyone makes a bee-line for the Safari, so when we went the other way and headed to Asia instead of Africa, we found an empty continent ripe for exploration. With a Grand Gathering planned for later that evening (private safari followed by dinner) I figured that was one ride (and line) I could skip.

Just after we grabbed our Fast Passes, we turned and discovered the Everest standby line was only 15 minutes long. Knowing the rest of our party was deeply entrenched in the Safari line, we hopped in this one  – getting a head start on our future expedition. It wasn’t bad – but not that scary either. In true Disney tradition, the ride was all about the journey. It brings you up pretty high atop a massive mountain, before letting you down a bit gently. Then it sends you hurtling through that mountain backwards. While you felt the tug at your abdomen (and for me – you hold tight to those tiny incisions) there were no jaw-dropping declines. The best description is it was as if Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain had a baby – this would be that ride.

With more time to kill, Justin and I jumped in the Kali River Rapids line – which promised a mere 10 minute wait. We could have done it 2 more times. Where was everybody?

Finally we decided to seek out the rest of our party and that’s when we found everyone else. Africa was a madhouse. The air felt 20 degrees warmer. Those Disney Imagineers – they think of everything. It was a sea of humanity with everyone still jostling for the Safari – a full two hours after the park opened. Knowing Andi had suffered through these crowds and wanting to turn her day around – I sweet-talked Andi and Aria into taking our Everest Fast Passes. I gave them the same description I gave you above.

They say I lie.

They say the ride was not the moderate coaster I advertised.

I say To-MAY-to. To-MAH-To.

Either way, they did it and grabbed the ‘end-of-ride’ pic to prove it. And Aria purchased a cute little stuffed Yeti as souvenir to her bravery. A Yeti that quickly became her favorite character and her rallying cry. A high falsetto “YETIYETIYETI!!!” replaced all those other little ditties Disney World had downloaded into my head.

Just before we headed off for our Grand Gathering Safari and Dinner, the group splintered. Exhaustion had brought some mild complaining from Colin earlier in the day until we stumbled upon his favorite ride. He loved getting soaked in the Kali River Rapids. So as the rest of the group headed off to see the Lion King show, I decided he and I could take in one more ride down the rapids.

One became four and that coupled with a mid-stream ten minute monsoon brought me from dry to no more. I was soaked to the very bone – and with darkness descending – I actually felt a chill. Never saw that coming at Disney in late June.

I trooped it out during our outdoor Safari but the second we entered the air conditioned interior of our authentic African restaurant, I took leave to hunt down a brand new souvenir shirt. I didn’t care about color or design. My only requirement was that it be DRY!!!

With that on, I settled down for my favorite dining experience of the trip. Featuring African-inspired cuisine (spiced chicken and meats – fruits and veggies), a couple Savanna ales, and the rhythmic thumping of our house band – it was a phenomenal experience. At one point, I brought the kids up to the dance floor and we all let the rhythm take control – dancing wildly all over the place – expending the last ounces of stored energy. After 5 days and an average of 33+ miles walked per person, it was amazing we had anything left in the tank – but we did. And we had a blast to cap off our last night in the parks.

And yet – we were only halfway through.

Friday morning we woke and got our bags packed. After breakfast our coach arrived and transported us to Port Canaveral – where the whole group embarked upon the Disney Dream – their newest cruise ship which just set sail for the first time in January 2011. Featuring over 1,000 state rooms, a full Broadway style theater as well as a mammoth 3D movie theater – several pubs, lounges and restaurants (including three choice dining halls each with their own unique Disney-inspired theme), a full working water-slide attraction that runs the length and width of the ship and actually takes you out over the ocean (14 stories up) – this thing was as advertised. A dream come true.

I’ve never been on a cruise before. After this experience, I can’t imagine ever wanting to go on a non-Disney cruise again. When docked on our first full day in Nassau – we were perched between two mammoth cruise ships. They paled in comparison to the Dream. They were barnacles on its sides. A suite at the Park Plaza situated between Cell Blocks A & Gulag C.

The cruise was the marriage of all possible, perfect worlds. It had plenty of activities for adults alone – or adults with kids – or teens – or kids – or combos of all types and shapes of people. With over 4,000 people vacationing aboard this thing and over 1,000 people making the magic happen, I never once felt crowded or cramped. I don’t know how they do it but they do it.

Even during the breakfast buffet, when your path is most likely to cross with other fellow travelers and it’s come along and eat what and when you want – I never really waited in line for anything. And the food kept coming. And it hit all appetites – with an abundance of fresh fruit and veggies mixing it up with the fried fare and the fine cuisine. Something for everyone.

Although, the Relocater was needed once more when Andi left her purse in the main buffet area. She made a sweep through and couldn’t find it – lost in a sea of humanity. Then the Relocater was tapped. I waltzed – took one quick survey – and found it in 1 minute flat. You hear that CBS!!!

We had the greatest Stateroom host ever. I’m sure everyone feels the same way but the only one I know is mine and this guy made a mark. He was phenomenal. While he introduced himself as O’Dell from Jamaica – he told us to call him the “What’s Up” Man. And every time we saw him, he’d answer our “What’s Up” with a jubilant “Hey-Hey-Hey!!!” response that sent Colin and Aria into a fit of giggles. The first night, returning from dinner, we were surprised by his immaculate and playful turn-down service. Sometime, as we had been noshing and laughing with our fellow travelers, O’Dell snuck in and gave the room his makeover – leaving as a crowning touch – a dog made of towels on the master bed. The second night we returned and found an elephant. Then a towel monkey hanging from the ceiling. And finally a cobra. And on that last day, we attended a 30-minute workshop where we learned how to make these critters ourselves. Sure, my baby dinosaur folded immediately but the memory of it all left its imprint.

While the days were crammed full of more activities than we could ever possibly do or see (you just pick and choose what fancies you and hope to take another cruise to see some more), the evenings had a little more structure and routine. Dinner was separated into two sessions. Those with early dinner, dine at 5:45 p.m. and then catch the 8:15 p.m. show. We were the other way around, meaning we caught the 6:15 show and ate dinner at 8:15. We had requested the former but in retrospect, we’d actually aim for the late dinner again. Seeing the show – enjoying a couple cocktails in between – and then heading to our designated table for a leisurely dinner, dessert and night cap was heavenly.

On board the ship is a full section devoted to kids. Basically a fun day care-esque play center called the Oceaneer’s Club that features games and activities and character appearances (all state of the art facilities) and a fleet of youth “camp counselors” on hand to play with the kids. Children wear a GPS wristband locator which they use to sign in to the center. They cannot leave without a parent checking them out. Every state room has two ‘Wave Phones’ which you carry with you – enabling you to call any person or department on the ship. So when your child is ready to go, they have you paged and you go pick them up. We thought we’d be called the second we left. We were prying the kids away each time they used the place – except for the one night when they co-conspired to get us to come get them so we could take them swimming (At 10:30 p.m. EST!!!) When we didn’t do it – and instead returned to our rooms for bed, Colin said – “That’s the last time I decide to leave that place.”

Often times, during the hour between the show and dinner, we would drop the kids off at the club for a spell as we grabbed a pre-dinner drink or wandered the ship. WIN-WIN for all parties. Then, before dinner, one of us would go pick them up, and we would head to whichever of the three restaurants we were scheduled for that evening – meeting up with our awesome designated waiter Pogi (from Hungary), his assistant Peter (from Jamaica) and the gracious Head Waiter, Ali.

Like the rest of the ship, the restaurants were a perfect marriage of fine dining and Disney Magic. The accommodations were spacious and lovely. The food – amazing. And yet, there was a full children’s menu and activities for the kids. You could go cruise casual but the restaurants easily accommodate dressing up. Whatever you fancy.

And the shows, all different – were lavish spectacles – each one hugely entertaining. Walking out of the theater, night after night, I expected the door to open up onto Broadway. That’s how large the auditorium was.

I could go on and on about the ship. By the second night we were already talking about planning our next cruise – leaving out Disney World and extending the cruise stay to 5 or 7 nights. Its top on my to-do list as soon as I can get the funds replenished.

Before shutting the book on this, I’d be remiss if I skipped my dolphin experience. The way the 4-night trip works is you depart Port Canaveral around 4 p.m. on Day 1.  By the time you wake the next day, you’re in Nassau for the day. The following day, it’s Disney’s private island – Castaway Cay. Then a day at sea. Then you’re back to Florida.

Castaway Cay is loaded with beach front activities including snorkeling, swimming, a waterslide complex that you swim out to and many more things – plus all the food and drink you can swallow. At Nassau, you’re on your own so some people opt to shop while others will book an excursion for the day.

We chose the Dolphin Experience at Atlantis  – a massive resort that features huge casinos, private beaches, shopping, aquariums and its own water park. It also houses the dolphin area – and it’s there that we came nose to beak with Jill – a 47-year old Atlantic bottle nose dolphin that was rescued by this resort in the aftermath of Katrina.

When the storm surge hit Louisiana, it swept a number of dolphins out to sea from the coastal marine park. Jill and 7 other dolphins found themselves strangers in a strange land – having been in captivity for so long. Jill had a fin up on the rest – as she was originally born in the great blue sea while the others were raised squarely at the aquarium. So, she herded the pod together and became their de facto leader – teaching them all how to hunt in the wild.

Most dolphins in the wild live 15-20 years. Jill is 47, newly pregnant – and is the first dolphin I’ve ever met. Not a bad catch for your first kiss.
The vacation was pricy – sure. Hell, the whole trip has staggering sticker shock but the memories forged make it all worth it. And after a year that saw us struggle through the sucker punch of unemployment followed by Aria’s broken wing, my busted belly and the loss of our precious pup Chatham– to finally cool our jets and just lay back and soak in all that Southern calm – well, in the end – all was right with the world.

And I can’t wait to get out there and do it all over again.

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