Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 6: Revolution!

Everyone slept in on Tuesday morning, which was a nice change of pace for us. It's always a treat when the boys let us sleep past 7 o'clock! As a side note, it was a really nice surprise that sleeping 5 to a room was an uneventful and, for the most part, painless process. The only concession that we had to make was allowing Little Bear time by himself to fall asleep, and then doing The Boy's bedtime stuff outside in the living room. That wasn't so much of an issue, mostly because The Boy was dragged sleeping from the car to the bedroom on three occasions. But, I digress.

We did make a quick stop at the ice cream palace before breakfast, mostly on the general principle that we never have the opportunity to eat ice cream for breakfast at home. This was the third time in the week that we did that; I'm sure it played holy havoc with our digestive systems, but that was a price that I was willing to pay. I think I was intelligent enough to monitor portion sizes, so the kids only had a small scoop, but it was significantly more ice cream than they usually have.

After breakfast, The Boy had a moment of true revolution. We were planning on heading to Hollywood Studios, formerly known as MGM Studios, in DisneyWorld. He threw a legitimate fit at that point, saying, "Daddy, I don't want to go to DisneyWorld. I want to stay here and play!" We tried to convince him, to no avail. Now, in our defense, The Boy will frequently choose to do nothing and to stay home, if given the opportunity. He's very much a creature of momentum: if he's at rest, he'll stay at rest, and if he's in motion, he wants to stay in motion. There's a difference in a fit caused by the desire to maintain momentum; this wasn't it. He really, authentically was parked out and wanted to explore the resort and play. It was a good thing we did. Diego was at the resort for pictures right after breakfast, which was a treat. Diego was graceful enough to be happy and surprised that The Boy had Diego shoes on his feet, and The Boy was delighted with the interaction. The characters were all truly wonderful to see, and they were very, very patient with The Boy and Little Bear. They allowed him to be a small child and didn't rush him into a picture for the next child. That little bit of time allowed my small children to become comfortable with the large, oversize character figures. Mickey and Minnie on Monday were incredible, and the Mary Poppins lady actually talked with the kids and told little stories about Jane and Michael Banks. Diego on Tuesday was similarly wonderful. I suppose Dora might have been more enthusiastically received, but Diego is still pretty cool.

After Diego, we had a special treat: the football players from the Florida State and Notre Dame teams came to the resort and played with the kids. I'm pleased to report that the players were very patient, kind, and gentle with my children, and they all tried their best to engage the boys in fun activities all morning! The Boy played blocks with three of the men for about 20 minutes, and he culminated the activity by spelling (from a nearby poster) "Go Noles" for them!

They were really entertained by that, and The Boy became the momentary focus of positive attention by about fifteen or twenty of the players. The remainder of the morning was spent running around (literally) the resort, exploring the miniature golf course and palling around with the football players. We did swim for a little while, and returned to the villa for a nap.

The pool deserves some special mention. The resort brings handicapped accessibility to an entirely new level. The pool does not get deeper than 4 feet, and it has a large zero-entry section. The water starts at no depth and gradually increases to the aforementioned 4 feet. They actually have PVC wheelchairs available poolside, that the more involved students can use to swim! They also have a large spray park, although that was off on Tuesday.

After the nap, everyone was a little more rested and a little more ready to play. Grandma and Grandpa were again generous with their time and took care of The Baby, while The Wife and I took the boys to Hollywood Studios. We had a wonderful time, but it is interesting to remember that, with small children, you really don't get to do very much at parks like this. Between the crowds and the travel time, kids just get exhausted quickly. There's an awful lot of stimulation for them, and all of the walking around and standing in line and excitement wears them out quickly.

Tuesday night, we walked through Hollywood Studios to get to our focus for the night: Toy Story Mania! Waiting for this ride, you hang out in Andy's Room: a huge, huge child's room with lots of people-sized toys. You get to see Andy's room from the perspective of Buzz and Woody! The ride is a 3D ride, and you have a gun that you use to shoot darts at balloons, throw eggs at targets, that sort of thing. Little Bear enjoyed the ride, but was kind of indifferent about the game aspect. The Boy loved it, and he did a fairly decent job of shooting things!

After the ride, we walked over to the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater Restaurant. It's a really cool restaurant that has tables shaped like cars, with decor like an outdoor theater and an oversized screen playing 1950's cartoons, advertisements, and trailers for drive-in movies.

We had normal kid's food, I had a pretty decent burger, and The Wife had a chicken dish. Afterwards, we went back to the Toy Story Mania ride, then packed the kids into the car and went home. They were done.

Special note: the Osbourne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is unbelievable to see. Click the link. It is literally millions and millions of Christmas lights, covering every single inch of space of buildings on an entire city block. The boys liked it as much as we did.

We got home, put the boys to bed, and packed our bags. Our flight required us to leave the resort at around 7 AM. I'm the designated packer of the family, as a misspent youth playing too much Tetris as well as my years as a high school marching band director (learning how to compress lots of kids and instruments into small places and move them to other places) prepared me for that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Day 5: Sea World

When we got the package for Make A Wish, the Sea World seemed like a curious addition. It was one day, and it was mentioned quickly without much conversation. Kind of like the utility infielder thrown into a big baseball trade - a AA veteran that will never actually see playing time in the major leagues. That was the day that The Wife was thinking about skipping, staying home with the baby and letting me take boy or boys.

As it turned out, I think this was the best day of the entire trip. It was probably because we came into it with the least expectations, but, still.

The park was the closest of all of them - a quick 20 minutes, with preferred parking that meant a hundred yard walk from the car to the front gate. We went in, got another complementary stroller, and started exploring. The strollers, by the way, might have been the most useful thing that were provided to us. It wasn't so much that The Boy needed to be carried around; he is old enough and big enough to walk on his own. For me, it was the security of having both boys seated in front of me in the enormous crowds. I have nightmares of the boys wandering off into the tens of thousands of people and not being able to find us! We stopped at the stingray tank and looked at the rays. I touched one, Little Bear touched one, and The Wife touched one. The Boy wanted nothing to do with it. From there, we went to the dolphin tank and watched them play for a little while. The boys liked that well enough, but only for about five or six minutes. From there, we went towards the Shamuu Stadium, where the big whale show takes place. Along the way, we found a person sized snow globe, and we used our Make A Wish pass and took some pictures inside.

Along the way, we found Shamu's Happy Harbour, which was a Kiddieland inside of the park. It was awesome, and it made the day wonderful! They had a The Boy-sized roller coaster, slides, train ride, spinny thing, and an amazing hundred-feet high net climb! We did the little roller coaster and one of the spinny things before the whale show, and it was a chore to drag the children away.

The whale show is amazing, if you've never seen it. The animals are beautiful creatures, and they do amazing tricks. Check out the "Whale Done" books about teaching and child raising; it has many of the Love and Logic principles that I use daily, as well as tips and stories about training the whales. It makes sense; you're not going to force a dozen ton killer whale to do anything that he doesn't want to do. The boys were somewhat interested, for the first twenty minutes. We left slightly early, figuring discretion was the better part of valor. We went back to the Happy Harbour. The kids played there for another couple of hours, book ending lunchtime. Both boys climbed up to the very top of the net latter, which meant that Mom and Daddy did, also.

Worst part? Getting down, you have to climb to the stairs through an intricate series of plastic tubes. 37-year old knees are not meant to do these things. I made it (thankfully, I'm in pretty darn good shape), and the rest of playtime proceeded without incident.

On the way out of the park, we got caught in Disney traffic on the highway. It turned a 20 minute trip into. 50-minute trip, which was hairy because we were trying to keep the kids from falling asleep in the car and ruining nap time. No issues, there; we got back to the villa and napped as a family.

It wAs a pleasant surprise, all week, to be able to sleep with the five of us in the room. We were not concerned about The Boy and The Baby; neither one of them has any issues with sharing the bed. We were trifled about Little Bear, who only grudgingly shares a room. We needn't have worried. We were carefully with how we timed everything, so that he wasn't trying to fall asleep with other things happening in the room, but we didn't have an issue.

Little Bear snores.

The morning before the park, Mickey and Minnie came to the resort, along with Mary Poppins and Pluto. It was pretty cool. The boys actually got about ten minutes with them, to talk a little bit and to interact with the characters, which they never would have gotten in the park.

At night, we did our wishing star and got our wishing pillows. The star is really cute. You do a gold star, write the child's name on it or draw a picture or something like that, and you go over to the magic fairy box. You put the star in the box, call out the fairy's name, and the fairy flies from the tv screen, bumps her way up the box, and takes the star and flies away with it. By the next morning, the star is hanging on the ceiling along with the others. Every child who has stayed at the resort has done a star. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking thing, to see the thousands and thousands of stars hanging on the ceiling.

Political statement of the day: imagine if 1% of the money spent to bailout greedy and stupid banks and businesses, if 1% of the taxes that corporations do not pay, was put towards research on some of these diseases. Every one of those stars is a child whose family's life was disrupted or destroyed. Many, many of those children are no longer with us

The wishing pillows are also neat. There's an owl living inside of a tree inside the castle, and The Boy had to us the special knocker to wake him up. The owl asks a couple of questions, and then the child puts their hand on the tree's heart and thinks about the people they love best. ("I'm thinking about Daddy!" That's my buddy.) the tree shakes, and the pillows magically appear in a nearby stump. The Boy got a Lightning McQueen pillow, Little Bear got Spongebob, and The Baby got robots.

It was an early night after that. We did get more ice cream - yes, we had ice cream for breakfast and dinner. And, I did pick up some Starbucks on the way to Seaworld, which was frustrating because I was stuck behind a family of people from the Deep South who had to have the entire Starbucks menu explained to them. Sigh. Just let me get my venti Pike's with room and get out, thank you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Day 4: Animal Kingdom

We woke up nice and early on Day 3, as one would expect considering the relatively early bedtimes of the previous night. We had a quick breakfast at the Gingerbread House and left for Animal Kingdom around 9. Grandma and Grandpa again graciously agreed to take care of The Baby, so it was the four of us at Animal Kingdom. Best early part of Animal Kingdom: you don't have to take a team from your car to a monorail station to get to the park. Just the tram.

Animal Kingdom is nice! The rides are different than an amusement park's rides, which is a generalization of most of Disney. The rides at the various Disney parks are not like the rides at Kennywood or Six Flags. The rides aren't necessarily deigned to be "throw your body around until you feel ill," if you will. The rides are designed around the principle of advancing a Disney character or advancing a philosophical concept.

In Animal Kingdom's case, for instance, most of the rides are based around the concept of learning something about some of the animals and their environment.

The first ride we did was the Bug's Life show - a 3D show with little nozzles mounted into the seat near you that spray you with water and smoke and things like that as the show progresses, to give a full illusion of interactivity. It's marvelous!

We used our Make A Wish badge to ditch the line to see Pooh and Tigger and Eeyore, then we found a neat dinosaur carnival on the Dinosaur Island. It's a wonderful re-creation of a parking lot carnival centered arund dinosaurs. In true Disney fashion it has all of the details correct: the dinosaur themed games, the rickety-seeming rides, the "cracks" in the "pavement" complete with "tar" sealing them. The tar was actually rubber strips fit into carved cracks, which was really, really cool to see. They had a spinning ride where you could ride a triceratops and move him up or down or tilt it forwards or backwards.

The Maharaja Jungle trek is a walking zoo, with parts that represent different "lands" in Asia. From there, we walked around for a bit then ate lunch outside the Rainforest Cafe and went home to rest.

Only regret? They had a cool play area with slides and climbing things and such, and we did not go there. It would have been nice for the kids. It sounds like we didn't do much, and that is kind of correct. I didn't mention the neat dinosaur time travel ride that we went on, which was a little scary for The Boy but still fun. Animal Kingdom just had such great stuff to see and to play with, that we didn't really do that much in terms of rides. Environment and geography were important things in this park, for obvious reasons.

Back at the villa, Little Bear did not rest. He fell asleep in the car, was woken to use the potty when we got back, then woke himself up by pooping after he was put to bed. No dice. I walked around with him and played for a little while, then rested for a little bit before dinner. Little Bear played with the trains at the Amberville Train Station: they have an amazing train layout with little buttons that trigger some of the electronics, turning on lights or music or making things move. They also have a little train ride on which to ride, which we did. They were training some new volunteers on how to run the train, which was interesting for me to see. He and I also had ice cream.

The Wife and I took The Boy back to the Magic Kingdom, and we splurged for a fancy dinner for the three of us.

The Liberty Tree Tavern had great salad, a traditional Christmas dinner with turkey and mashed potatoes (we didn't get the pork for obvious reasons), and a delicious dessert cake and ice cream.

We only went on two rides: the Jungle Trek and the Haunted Mansion before we were done for the night. We were all exhausted. The dinner took a long time; it was a nice, leisurely meal that allowed us lots of time to talk and to be with each other, which is what I required for a Christmas dinner.

Back at the villa, The Boy went directly to bed. That's okay. The next day - today - was busy enough for all of us.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 3: Universal Studios and the resort

This morning, we didn't all quite sleep as late as we did the previous morning, but it was late enough for The Boy and me. Upon rising, I went for a morning jog around the resort. It's nice to do some roadwork outside of the normal Pittsburgh crap weather. Granted, I've jogged outside about five times in the last year, so it's not like I'm trying to train like Rocky in Rocky IV. While I was jogging, The Wife took the boys to go for a pony ride next door to our villa. That didn't go over particularly well, as The Boy was terrified of the horses and managed to convince Little Bear that he was scared as well. So, we went to breakfast instead. Quick carousel ride after breakfast: After breakfast, The Boy, Grandpa, and I went to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. What I liked about it: from the car to the park was a quick, efficient ten minutes; the Seuss Landing Island was pretty amazing for The Boy; and it's always awesome to see a place dedicated to Marvel Comics Super Heroes, which I've been following since I was a small child; very, very helpful and friendly staff on the popular rides, helping us through the Make a Wish handicapped lines. What I didn't like: the 20 minute delay at the gate before anybody realized that the groups of tickets that we received were divided into Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure groups and exchanged our tickets; the general loudness of the piped-in music; the crassness of the over-commercialization; the lack of detail in crafting a perfect guest stay. We went to the super hero island first, and we wandered a bit. We went on the Spider Man ride, which was lots of fun. They took us right through the gate and up to be immediately seated. Only problem? They forgot to give us the 3D glasses, which meant a blurry visual experience all the way through. It was a neat ride still, with lots of fun Spider Man action. It was a little too much for The Boy, who was subdued for a bit while working through being scared after the ride. We poked around for a little bit, then we had lunch in the Fantastic Four Cafe. Since The Boy was wearing his new Buzz Lightyear shirt, I took his shirt off and he ate lunch without: After lunch, we went through the arcade and played for a little while. That's always fun for him and worth spending $2 on tokens. We took one of those computer pictures that put his head on Spider Man's body, and he enjoyed that. Super hero island was a bit old for him, so we went over to Dr. Seuss, which was a great idea. Dr. Seuss is perfect for his age. They had a Cat in the Hat ride, which we did twice. You sit in a rotating cart, and it takes you through the story of the book with animatronic figures and animation and funny sound effects and the like. Really, really neat! We did a carousel that had critters from multiple stories, and he didn't want to ride an up-and-down creature, so he sat on one of the carriages with Grandpa. We did a people mover ride around Seuss Landing, which culminated in passing through a candy store with cool chocolate marshmallows. They had a fun take on the round and round flying elephants: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, which had little water jets that hit you from whatever altitude at various times. The highlight of the day was the "If I Ran The Zoo" exhibit, which was a playground with places to climb, Seussian machines to operate,some slides, bouncy things, and a spray park. We didn't do the spray park, except right at the end, when I dipped his lower half in the water for fun. Playgrounds like this are crack for my children, who will gleefully run around and climb and crawl and slide for hours if allowed. It was beautiful to see and exhausting to follow, because he expects me to do everything with him, except for the relatively rare occasions when he finds a new friend and runs around with them. I'm glad I'm in shape - a 37-year old man has no business crawling through tunnels meant for five year olds, much less going down those slides. I'm glad I'm immature. The Boy was also excited to meet the real, live Cat in the Hat: Down parts? Very little. The biggest differences between this place and Disney are the little things. For instance, nothing at Disney looked broken or run down. Three items in the Zoo exhibit didn't work. Not a big deal - particularly when you consider the thousands of people that have been through there - but still noteworthy. Also, I wasn't thrilled with the vast number of chain restaurants that you have to walk around to get to the park. I have nothing against chains - it is sometimes comforting to know exactly what you're eating when you travel - but it was excessive, and each restaurant was blaring music at a high volume as we were passing. Just annoying. It's not that Disney is quiet - far from it - but it never felt like the advertisements we interfering with your conversations. Minor quibbles, to be sure. We hit a couple of crap stores on our way out and bought some toys, cups, mugs, and t shirts. I never would buy that stuff normally, but I felt like we could get away with it on this trip! The biggest splurge of the day was on a new coffee mug for me, a Seuss cup and some little toys for The Boy, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 socks to go along with a "Mommy of All Things" t shirt for The Wife. We got home uneventfully (besides a quick trip back inside to ride the Cat in the Hat one more time) and napped for a couple of hours. After nap, we went to the gorgeous playground here in the resort, and we played for an hour before dinner. We had ice cream for an appetizer, chicken and Mac and cheese and corn for dinner, and cake for dessert. Nutritious, for sure! After dinner was the weekly surprise birthday party for Mayor Clayton. The kids ate the cake, decorated a My Little Piny with some markers (they are clean white ponies with no decoration specifically for coloring), ate some cotton candy, then began to throw fits. We came back to the villa and settled in for the night. Baths, tickle time, crazy baby time, and bed for one child after another. I'm next; I want to get to bed before 1am at some point! Tomorrow, we are going to spend Christmas Day at Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom.