With two years in the rear view mirror since our adventure to Walt Disney World, I thought it was a good time to revisit some of the excitement that was our vacation. I stand by my statement that I won’t return for ten years despite my wife’s opinions to the contrary. Needless to say, we have quite differing recollections of the week, but I think a lot of it can be summed up in one statement – don’t go to Disney for a week right before moving!
It all started down a bad road the day before we left for our trip. My wife and I were heading to Orlando for a seven-day fun-filled vacation to Disney with our three boys, my wife’s parents, and her sister. I was out at the store, making a few last-minute purchases, and as I approached my car in the parking lot, I noticed puffs of smoke easing out from under my car hood, followed by a sudden POP that burst from the engine area like a gunshot. Not a good sign. I fearfully opened the hood to see what was going on. Everything looked normal, despite the earlier noise and smoke, so I held my breath and willed the car over to the dealership to for a checkup while we were gone.
My car trouble set our family’s trip departure back a couple of hours and our loaded minivan didn’t arrive at the beautiful Newark Airport Hilton until close to 10PM. In what felt like just minutes later, the alarm went off at 5:15AM and we herded the boys out the door and to the shuttle bus with what seemed like at least fifty bags in tow. Sharing that single hotel room together with the family and attempting to get some sleep gave me a frightening premonition of the week ahead.
Thankfully, only half of the State of New Jersey showed up at the airport security check point that morning, making it especially fun times with the entire family. We had our youngest wearing a bear backpack with one of those little leashes on it to keep him from scampering off, but even that only works so well in a tight security line. His Ba-Boom-Ma (blanky) may very well have contracted unspeakable germs from constant dragging along the airport floor. We checked two big suitcases that were right at the fifty pound limit, yet curiously we still needed eight additional carry-on bags. Count them – eight. How is that possible?
Six months prior to our trip, we had made the inspired decision to save 250 dollars for our (quick) three-hour flight to Orlando, and have our not-quite two-year-old sit on our lap rather than buy him his own seat. After 40 minutes of sitting on the plane and still not leaving the tarmac, any savings we’d gained wasn’t worth it. The woman’s seat in front of our son was rocking back and forth from his kicks so wildly that she must have thought the amusement park rides had begun early. Thankfully, Continental decided to grace us with individual Direct TV screens on the back of each seat, so with three quick swipes of my credit card (the first of many), we deemed it dollars well spent as a distraction to keep the boys quiet.
When we arrived in Orlando, we were lucky enough to have reservations at an “on site” Disney hotel. This provided us with mountains of benefits such as the free meal plan, buses to the parks, and the “pinch me I must be dreaming” Disney Magic Express bus. We couldn’t wait to be whisked directly from the airport to our hotel without a care. Unfortunately, there was a 30 minute line waiting for the bus, most of which time our youngest spend lying on the floor trying to sleep. Our other son waited until just before our bus pulled up to share that he desperately needed a bathroom stop.
Fortunately, when we got to our hotel, we met up with my wife’s parents, Nana and Pop Pop, and our two adjoining rooms were ready. Unfortunately, the Magical bleeping Express wouldn’t deliver our checked bags for several hours, and we were left unable to change into our shorts or swimsuits. At long last, the bags did arrive, and we went for what was truly a fun swim in the pool.
Realizing it was getting late, we hurried down to the bus stop for the shuttle that takes guests between the different Disney properties and headed off to Epcot for our inaugural “table service” dinner. After a long wait and extra time spent hauling the monster (best in class!) double stroller on and off the bus and through park security, it was pretty late, dark, and we’d missed our dinner reservation. Tired and ravenous, our group scrambled to find the closest food available, quickly ate and then turned around and went home to get some sleep. By 9:30, we were all out cold.
I’ll be honest. I was more than a bit worried. If getting there is half the fun, then this vacation was in trouble.
With our long Thursday of travel to Orlando behind us, we spent a very full Friday at the Magic Kingdom, hitting the majority of the park’s big rides. We sailed with Captain Jack on the Pirates of the Caribbean, braved the ghosts of the Haunted Mansion, and conquered all the Mountains: Big Thunder, Splash, and Space. I realized it had been 29 years since I’d first ridden Space Mountain – my lasting memory being crazy green lights shooting through the dark and sitting in front of my father who laughed hysterically the entire time. I’m not sure which encounter left me more scared, although this one certainly left me more humbled after my kindergartener nudged me shouting, “Dude, put your hands up, be brave!”
Late in the afternoon we headed home, only to venture back out in the evening for dinner, taking a boat from our hotel at Port Orleans Riverside over to Downtown Disney. All of us nearly froze, but we made it onto dry ground alive and had a good dinner over at Wolfgang Puck Express (it’s on the meal plan of course). We wised up and boarded the Disney bus after dinner, and once it made all 349 stops through the endless Downtown Disney parking lots, we headed back to our hotel. I stood on the overcrowded bus, bent over and clutching the cursed double stroller which refused to fully fold as it banged against my shins. Truly, I’ve had significantly more enjoyable rides on a New York City MTA bus, but maybe it was just me. I was so tired that I couldn’t imagine how any of us would have the strength to venture a step further, and we’d only just finished our first full day.
The next day was Animal Kingdom, which by all accounts was pretty cool. We all loved the Expedition Everest Rollercoaster with the Yeti (somehow it seemed smoother to me than Space Mountain). I thought Dinosaurs was cool, although it freaked the kids out a bit. The River Rapids ride was fun but put me in a bad mood after I was drenched by a passing waterfall spray. (Some advice, don’t go on the River Rapids in the morning unless equipped with a poncho or on a really hot day). We were halfway through the jungle walk when right on cue, my son urgently announced that he had to go to the bathroom. A ten-minute dash back through Africa got us there just in time, and then we weaved our way back through the crowds just as our family was leaving the gorillas for the exit.
We were heading to lunch, just after we braved the Yeti on the Everest rollercoaster, when things started heading south. My seven-year-old was getting increasingly tired and sluggish. We noticed that his breathing had become very labored and wheezy, and he seemed feverish. He’d had a barking cough the last couple of days, so we decided to take him to the first aid building around the corner. The nurse gave him some Tylenol, but his breathing concerned us the most since he’d never had Asthma or any similar issues before. After consulting with a couple of EMTs who acted more like Goofy and Pluto than actual medical professionals, I decided to take him to the local health clinic. We bid the rest of our family goodbye as they headed for the guided Safari tour and we waited for the shuttle van. The doctor at the clinic declared that my son must just have a cold or allergies and that nothing was wrong with his lungs or his breathing. Some Claritin should clear it right up. I was skeptical, but felt better that we’d taken him to the doctor so we headed back to the hotel.
Later that night, I received an urgent cell phone call from my father-in-law from the hotel room while I was up at the lobby. He said my son had woken up crying, so I jogged back to the room to calm him down, but I wasn’t prepared for what I walked into. I found him hysterical and bent over on the bed, gasping for breath. This was not a scene that any parent wants to walk into, as he really seemed not to be able to breathe. I carried him into the bathroom and flipped on the hot water in the shower full blast while clutching him tight in my arms. It was scary to see him so panicked. I started to cry when he asked me in a trembling little voice whether he was going to die.
Mommy soon also arrived back at the room and we decided that we should call 911. It was a helpless feeling to be in a strange place and without a car when our son was in need. The steam from the shower seemed to help, and in a bit, the paramedics arrived. I can’t tell you how great they were. They quickly sat him on a stretcher and gave him a steroid breathing tube that immediately helped his air flow. My son was so brave the whole time. He didn’t get scared as they worked with him and we wheeled down the sidewalk at Disney into the ambulance.
As the cars parted to the side of the roadway in front of us and the sirens wailed overhead, I wondered how our vacation had veered so far off course in only two days. I nervously glanced through the window into the back of the ambulance where my son lay with the paramedic and Mommy and I silently prayed that he’d be alright. It occurred to me that I’d always said it was amazing that we’d made it this far with three boys without a visit to the emergency room. That streak was now over. This was certainly one Disney ride that I hadn’t expected. (Note to Florida drivers – if an ambulance carrying my son is on your bumper with lights and siren, YES, you need to pull off the road…)
Once we raced across town and arrived at the hospital, they hooked him up to an IV for some more drugs and monitoring, and we spend the next few hours making sure he was OK. He finally drifted off to sleep just before midnight in his bed, and for a couple of hours Mommy and I caught a bit of sleep on and off in our small chairs and heads leaning against the cinderblock wall. Thankfully, my son’s situation turned out to be non-life-threatening, but it was scary for him and for us. We headed home around 2AM, each of us drained and tired, but glad that things looked to be OK. We’d barely been in Orlando for 48 hours and it already felt like at least a week.
While it’s true that there was an awful lot of drama that came from traveling with the kids, unexpected illnesses and trips to the hospital, cramped quarters and extra stress due to an upcoming move to Virginia, we still had a lot of fun.
One of the coolest things we did in Florida was at Hollywood Studios where the older boys signed up for Star Wars Jedi Training. This was part of the bigger Star Wars ride, which unfortunately was closed for reopening this summer, but happily the training was still open. My kindergartener in particular got a real kick out of training with a Jedi master on a light saber and battling with Darth Vader and Storm troopers. He even had his face painted like Darth Maul (which instantly became his younger brother’s favorite word to say).
We also really enjoyed watching the Indiana Jones Stunt Show. I think it’s been at Hollywood Studios for a while, but I was impressed with the size and scale of it all. It’s held in a several-hundred-seat outdoor covered amphitheater with rotating sets, explosions, fire and excitement that had the boys on the edge of their seats. I had broken down a couple of months back and allowed our oldest two boys to watch the majority of the first Indiana Jones movie. (minus the scenes where the guy gets chopped up in the airplane propeller, snakes in the tomb, and when the bad guys’ faces melt – I didn’t feel like waking up in the middle of the night to deal with those nightmares…) It was fun seeing them really enjoy the movie since I can very clearly remember watching it as a boy too. It’s probably not as groundbreaking as it was back then with all the special effects in movies today, but still exciting.
Three of the other rides and activities that we really enjoyed with the boys were at the Magic Kingdom. We rode the jungle boat cruise ride, which seemed like it would be pretty slow but our boat tour guide was the funniest guy the whole week. I should have gotten his name because I think he might be appearing on Comedy Central doing stand up in a few years.
We also liked the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. We’d watched that Disney movie last year so they knew a bit about it, so it was fun to climb up the steps and see a re-creation from the movie set. When we got back home, we read the abridged classics version of Swiss Family Robinson at bedtime, which kept them very entertained.
Tom Sawyer’s Island was the other area that was surprisingly fun. The boys didn’t know much about Tom Sawyer when we were there, but after riding the raft to the island, exploring through Injun Joe’s Cave and climbing through the rope bridges and the Fort, they came home asking all about it, leading us to read the abridged Mark Twain classic at bedtime after we finished with the Robinsons. These old adventure stories are great for the boys and really gets their imagination going. I plan to buy several more in this Classic Starts series at the bookstore soon – if you haven’t tried them, Barnes & Noble sells the 100-page versions in hardcover for about five dollars.
Of course we went on probably fifty other rides and attractions in our week at Disney that I haven’t mentioned. I’m sure the trip is something that the kids will always remember. I certainly remember my trip there as an eight-year-old nearly thirty years ago. It’s a tough balance as a parent to find the time, money and energy that’s required to create those kind of travel memories with the kids outside of the normal every day. It’s important though, I think, to get out of the routine and cement things in their memories in a different way. Nonetheless, it is an even bigger challenge to help your kids paint memories and grow in experience and learning in their everyday lives. To open their eyes and enjoy each moment – something that’s hard to teach when struggling to do it yourself. Seizing the day. An idea that makes me think about how fun it will be to someday show them one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society. But that’s probably at least a good five years away. For now, I think we’ll keep being Jedi.