Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Florida Dreamin'

If you are looking for a frugal way to make it through life, having a large family is not found high on the Parsimonious List. But I have to tip my hat to my parents. Though they had seven children, they were generous with us. If we were on a road trip, and Dad was suddenly overcome with a hankering for a chocolate shake, he knew he was not going to get away with buying him a chocolate shake and eating it in front of us, alone. Nay, I cannot think of a quicker way to start a mutiny. So he had to consider if he was really in the mood for a $30 shake. But you know what, sometimes he was. And I adore him for it.

My point, and I may have one somewhere here, is that despite the costs of being a large family, we were not deprived of adventure or excitement. Stylish clothing, yes, but not adventure or excitement. We were all encouraged to play sports and develop hobbies; and when we traveled, we traveled as a family and took actual, real, non-tent-in-the-back-yard vacations or trips to lakes, beaches, amusement parks, etc.

That trait is dominant in me, and I have recently felt a burning desire to take my family on a fun-filled vacation to somewhere out of our element. I know what you’re thinking, and sure, Iraq is nice this time of year. But with all the bombings and insurgents, there really aren’t the roller coaster rides that there used to be. Plus we don’t have any friends or relatives we could stay with. So we decided on Orlando, Florida.

If you don’t mind the mess, and if you want to see your kids so excited that their heads physically pop off, may I suggest Disney World? May I also suggest you have kind, loving, giving, generous friends from whom you are shamelessly comfortable in accepting their charitable contributions and unparalleled openhandedness, and without whom a trip of this caliber would be inherently impossible? Because you’ll need both elements to make it work.

With a big “a-thank you” to the Dowdys and Becky, we just returned from what the brochures would call A Fabulous Florida Vacation! The trip was effortless and we felt extraordinarily pampered.

It all began with the plane ride from Las Vegas. I don’t know if you saw the Fear Factor episode (that I just made up) where the unsuspecting couple had to take an airplane all the way across the continental United States with 5.5 children in tow (the food challenge was simply eating the in-flight meal – HA!), but needless to say, that couple threw themselves from the plane at 12,500 feet and didn’t win. But we did! We traveled with 5.5 of the most saintly children who read, chatted, snacked and slept their way across the country. They even laughed and whistled their way through the demeaning airport security checks. (Truth be known, some of my children don’t have a problem undressing in public. In fact, I really didn’t need federal encouragement to validate the exact behavior I have been trying to curb, lo these many months.)

The Dowdys, beloved friends from college, were there to greet us at the airport and help make the trek to their home. Their home, P.S., is on 14 acres of green, tree-populated, Florida landscape. I knew Katie loved me, but it wasn’t until we were on the plane ride back to Vegas that I was completely confident she was really coming home with me. She spent every moment outside, come rain, come shine, come undomesticated alligator.

Once we reached the gates to Disney World, I heard a collective scream from all children that made my soul smile and my ears bleed. Propelled by adrenaline and a determination to squeeze every moment of joy out of our trip, we ran these kids ragged, covering three parks in three days: Magic Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.

My Favorite Moments at Disney World:
• Our friend Becky is a voice character for the new Monsters, Inc. "Laugh Floor," an interactive animation show at Magic Kingdom. (That’s all I’m allowed to say about it, unless I want people in black suites with Mickey ears to show up at my door and make me dead. That, and I’m also nervous Becky would lose her job.) And when it comes to the part in the show when her character interacts with the audience, she interviewed Abbie (age 10) and Garren (age 8), forever solidifying in their minds the magic that is Disney, and creating a memory that I wager they will be sharing with their own children one day.

• When the older kids went on a roller coaster and I took Roxanna (age 4) and Tanner (age 2) on the Winnie the Pooh ride. I have always wondered how our society, and the world at large, has widely accepted this bear’s name. But snicker if you will, riding with my two youngest on this ride was magically poohlicious.
• Watching Abbie being trained to be a Jedi, and then fighting Darth Vader. I’m not going to lie to you, she kicked his trash.

• Riding Star Tours with Garren and Connor, riding Tower of Terror with Abbie, riding Expedition Everest with a five-month pregnant Katie, and watching three kids pile into the Dumbo ride with Katie.
• Being mistaken by a Disney employee as a TV celebrity.
• That feeling you get when you first walk into the park, and you’re standing on Main Street, and there’s music and characters and food and Disney paraphernalia and you just try to breathe it all in and decide if you should run for a ride or immediately buy a caramel covered apple.

My Top Weird Moments at Disney World:
• Walking into a bathroom to find a dad who’s five year old had clearly wet his pants. The dad had just finished scrubbing the pants out in the sink, and was putting the soaking wet pants back on his freezing, apprehensive, uncomfortable son.
• Standing at the counter in the gift shop outside of Pirates of the Caribbean when the couple behind me heard the clerk ask if I liked living in Las Vegas. “We’re from Vegas too!” they said. And three sentences later, we discovered we live in the same area. In fact, on the same street. In fact, about six houses apart. It really is a Small World after all.

We leisurely toured a few of Orlando’s other sites as well, including a wildlife preserve, the coast, and Cape Canaveral. My main reservation about living in Florida is, you guessed it, the shark attacks. (You can find my feelings about sharks in this blog.) But only secondary is my feelings about alligators.

The Florida warning is that as a safety measure, you should expect to find an alligator in any body of water. That’s a little disconcerting to me. “Dad, can we go play in the pool?” “Of course, but don’t forget our family rule: check for alligators first.” Or what if an alligator gets lost? And you’re sitting in your hammock in your backyard…minding your own business, listening to Air Supply on your iPod, and you’re lost in love, and your arm is casually hanging off the side of the hammock…and then suddenly, your nickname is “Lefty.” How does Florida, as a state, allow these merciless predators to run free? Did you know these reptiles can run up to 35 mph? Thirty-five! That’s faster than most of those retired folks who so heavily populate the state even drive! Think of it – not being able to outpace an alligator in your car! Call me old fashioned, but that’s just dangerous. Of course once you’ve flown across the country – twice! – with 5.5 children, you aren’t that easily flustered.