When we decided to do this trip, we scheduled these dates since we expected it to still be quite wintry here -- and we were right -- and Derrick had at least one day of school. Waiting until spring break again would have been harder since it falls on Easter this year, and I was expecting, and will be, working at the church.
We got up before the crack of dawn on Friday -- about 2:30 or 3:00 -- so that we could get to the parking garage in time to get to the airport by 5:15 for our 7:15 flight. This was made a bit more difficult by my inability to fall asleep Thursday night (aggravated, perhaps, by my taking a shower then instead of waiting until Friday morning), and by the couple of inches of snow that fell overnight.
However, we got to the garage, and on the shuttle to O'Hare without issue. On the shuttle, another family who figured out we were on the same flight to Orlando gave us the gate, which was appreciated since American wasn't sending me my usual messages.
We got our bags checked and through security without incident. We worked our way back to the food court, and found only McDonald's and Dunkin Doughnuts opened, so we hit up McDonalds for breakfast sandwiches and burritos. I opted for a diet coke and a fruit and yogurt instead of orange juice simply because I didn't want the extra points (not that I tracked over the whole weekend).
We got to our gate, and the plane loaded and took off on time. The flight was smooth and otherwise uneventful. After arrival, we got our bags. Tara and Derrick took them upstairs -- the Orlando airport doesn't allow passenger cars to load on the level with the baggage claim or the one below it -- while I retrieved the car. I got briefly lost trying to find the Avis preferred counter, but once I found it I was able to get my keys and GPS, and change the account on the car to my personal AMEX.
When making reservations for a rental car this year, I managed to get a couple of toys to play with. When looking at the rental list, I found that one of the "fun cars" that Avis has available in Orlando is a Prius, so I paid a bit more than I would have for a similarly sized car, and requested one. I also requested a GPS navigation system because I wanted to play with one as well. Both were fun, but very practical, toys, and I could see me getting something similar to either in the future.
The Pius was very nice to drive -- once I got used to starting it. I had a bit of difficulty at first because I misunderstood the directions and tried pushing the power button once, and pressing on the brake twice. Once I resolved that, it worked OK. My only other problem was that I have become very used to -- probably too used to -- automatic headlights. I kept leaving the lights on, which wasn't a big deal since everything, including the lights, shuts off when powered down. But I kept having trouble reading gages in the day, and once forgot to put them back on at night.
Since we got to Orlando about 10:40, and were ready to leave the airport before noon, but couldn't check into the hotel until after 4:00, our plan was to head to the Magic Kingdom for the afternoon. However, we wanted to eat lunch before getting there. Having chosen to not eat at the airport, we left through the south exit and headed towards the Magic Kingdom (without the GPS which I hadn't gotten set up yet). Realizing that we needed to get off the expressway to find food, I exited at International Drive, and drove nearly to the hotel (as I later discovered), and found a strip center with a Publix in it. However, the only restaurant was a Subway, but I spotted another center just a bit further on. Much later I realized that this was the far end of the Premium Outlets. At the end where we first entered, I saw a Quizno's and a place next door called "Nacho's Cuban and Mexican grill." We went in, and I was expecting more of a take out place. However, we ordered three Cuban dishes -- including a Cuban sandwich -- to share. After taking a bit longer, and eating a bit more, than originally planned, we got back on the road.
I set up the GPS and had it locate the Magic Kingdom, and was able to confirm that it would do the job effectively. We soon reached the parking lot for the "ticket and transportation center" where we boarded a monorail and headed into the Magic Kingdom.
Once inside, we grabbed a train, which was delayed slightly by people trying to come in through the out door, and took it to the next stop at Frontierland. There, we made a quick pit stop, and discovered that we could get Fast Pass tickets for Splash Mountain -- my primary choice for things to do there -- for about 20 minutes later. We grabbed our passes and then went to Tara's choice, Pirates of the Caribbean.
Pirates was fun, but I'd seen most of it over the years on various specials. the additions from the movies -- which I've yet to see -- felt a bit tacked on to me, but weren't too bad.
We then went back to Splash Mountain. Derrick was a bit worried about getting wet since it was a cool day -- poor Orlando had had a low of 42 degrees that morning, while we were in the teens in Chicago when we left. But we got on. Derrick ended up sitting with me, and left Tara alone in the back. Unfortunately for her, this back seat was already pretty wet, and without a partner it just kept getting wetter. On the big drop -- where I predictably ducked and hid -- I probably got more of the water then Derrick who I covered -- but Derrick got more chilled by the experience.
After that we decided that the wait, and fast pass times, for Big Thunder Mountain were too long, so we started to head for other parts of the park to kill another hour or so. We ended up having to dodge around the parade and ended up in Tomorowland. However, most of the rides we'd have been interested in were similarly going to keep us too late. We did end up in trying the Carousel of Progress -- which was fun, even if the last segment was a bit dated (predicting 2000 from about a 1993 perspective). I'd heard that they had put it back to the original from 1964 (or 1969?), but it doesn't seem to have been.
After that we headed back to the car, and to the hotel. We got settled, and Derrick lay down for a short nap. Instead of running out to get fruit as I'd originally intended (a trip that didn't happen until Sunday night) I also rested.
About six, we left to head to Epcot and our 7:30 reservation at Marakesh in the Morocco pavilion. We got to the park, parked, and walked back to Morocco arriving about 7:10. We looked around there for a while, including taking a sneak peek at the menu and pictures, and then headed in just before 7:30. We were seated fairly quickly. Derrick refused to try anything other than the "morocco pasta" which was slightly differently seasoned spaghetti (we cheated and let them think he was 9 or younger, since both his looks and appetite, often can pass for that age). Tara got a lamb dish, and I got the vegetable Coos coos. We all enjoyed our dinner, and the belly dancing. We then ordered a couple of deserts, which Derrick didn't enjoy, and left with about twenty minutes to look around before the fireworks started.
The fireworks were impressive, but slightly marred because we had some trees between us and the centerpiece globe. After that, we headed back out, stopping briefly in the Tea Shop in the England pavilion for some tea for me to brew in the mornings.
As we were leaving, I figured that I could find my way back, but then got confused by the exits and kept heading for the wrong road. Finally when I realized that we'd left Disney by a back or side entrance, and weren't anywhere near where we needed to be, I pulled out the GPS and it got us to the hotel.
We got moving pretty early on Saturday, and drove out to the Kennedy Space Center. The GPS wasn't finding Kennedy when I tried to search, but it knew where it was once I did a map search. It gave us the same route as any other map I'd seen (and the Kennedy website).
It took us a bit more than an hour to get out there, and we weren't quite there at opening. However, we got inside quickly and got on a tour bus without too much delay.
While I would have preferred the in-depth tour, we just had the basic tour. The first stop was the observation area for two launch pads at area 39. Discovery was already on pad 39-A for the launch scheduled for early next week. We got a good look at the shuttle, and spent a bit of time looking at the other exhibits and the gift shop before boarding a bus to the next stop.
This was my favorite part of Kennedy, the Saturn-Apolo center. Despite having watched the launch and landings (on TV, alas) of the first few shuttle missions, and having mourned greatly after Challenger and Columbia, and having been less than a year old for Apollo one, and only three for Apollo 11, Apollo and Skylab still are "real" space exploration, were the shuttle is very exciting day to day science and commerce. I had a great time admiring the Saturn V, and was impressed with the size of the thing -- both how big it was, and how small the command module and landers were.
We ended up getting lunch there, and then headed off to the space station area where we walked through some mock ups and then saw a real section that is currently being put together in the clean room.
After that, we rode back to the main visitor center, and took a ride on their new Shuttle Launch Experience. I'll have to take word of the design consultants -- all shuttle astronauts -- from their comments on the taped interviews played over the waiting line, that this was a very realistic portrayal of the launch experience. It was intense and in its way enjoyable.
We finished out the day at Kennedy by visiting the gift shop and the show and tour about the robotic space probes.
After leaving Kennedy, we headed to Cocoa Beach to briefly visit a beach. We got to the town and found the surf shop that Tara thought was near the beach, stopped there to use the bathroom briefly and then headed the few blocks to the beach itself. Had I known that there was parking just off the beach, I'd have driven there. After that we headed back and looked around the shop. I picked up a new swim suit that should be a bit less loose on me, and then we headed off for a needed dinner. My first choice for places to get dinner, turned out to be mostly bars, so I asked the GPS and found a "family" diner. The food was good, but basic, but it was not crowded (although the overworked waitress could use the help they were advertising for), and not filled with rowdy drunks or wannabe drunks.
On Sunday we slept in a bit, and then headed out to try the Sunday breakfast at Sweet Tomatoes. We were very happy with our overly large breakfast, although I'd have preferred it if they had put out more fresh fruit in lieu of some of their traditional salad fixings. The breakfast extras were well done, and we were all quite full -- although it took a bit to get Derrick to eat enough and we still were afraid he'd be hungry well before Tara or me.
After breakfast, we headed to Sea World. I've been to Sea World in San Diego in 1984, 1998 or 1999 and in 2000, and enjoyed each visit. This wasn't quite the same. The biggest problem we had, beside the crowds, was the fact that they don't seem to take seriously their own smoking rules outside of the show arenas. People were smoking anywhere and everywhere, and it got to all of us. When you add in that we were all a bit tired, this was our lowest day.
The current shows are very good, although they have taken must of the learning out of the whale show, and all of it out of the dolphin show. We didn't make it to the sea lion show, or the non-amimal show, but the show staring a lot of rescued pets was very good. I was surprised at the number of cats they had performing, since cats are often hard to train and control.
Tara rode The Kraken roller coaster, and we passed on the water ride due to the lines and no way to bypass them. We finished fairly early, and hadn't needed any food yet. So we left and had a second large buffet meal at a Cici's Pizza. I semi-randomly chose one of the locations on the coupon we had, since none of the locations in the GPS matched the locations on the coupon. I probably chose badly since the location was at the end of International Drive past the convention center, where the shops aren't nearly as nice, and the traffic is horrible. There was another that would have been about the same distance, and probably in a nicer area.
Monday didn't get started as early as I would have liked. I wasn't able to extract us from the sales presentation as quickly as I'd have liked, and we didn't get to Epcot at 9:00, but closer to 10:45.
We didn't buy a timeshare -- but did agree to an "explorer" package which may be enough to both see if we could work their program, and to get the paperwork that tell us clearly the key fact that the sales people kept leaving out.
We got to Epcot and headed over towards Mission Space, and found that we could get a Fast Pass with a fairly soon time. We got throes, and looked around the gift shop and games area. We then flew our second Mars mission of the year (the last one being later in March last year), and headed for the World Showcase. Derrick complained that we were bypassing the test track, but we explained that neither Tara nor I were that impressed with it last year to want to wait around or wait in line for it.
We then headed into the World Showcase, which starts near the Test Track. Our first stop was Mexico. We ended up spending at least a bit of time in each country this year, since Tara and Derrick were looking for all of the "Kidcot" stations. In Mexico we looked briefly at the Oxician carvings being made and painted, found the Kidcot station, and then got on the ride -- one of only two in the world showcase. This ride was a tour through Mexico with videos playing of Donald Duck doing silly things while the other two of The Three Cabieros chased after him.
We then went into the Norway pavilion, and got our lunch. As with last year, we couldn't quite find a light lunch to split, so I got my own sandwich and Tara and Derrick split a second. We then split an order of lefsa, which the person selling us assured Tara wouldn't be as good as her mother's. We also rode The Maelstrom again.
Our next stop was China, where we looked at the shop and at the, I think, reproductions, of the terra cotta warriors before moving on.
After China, and a brief stop at the small shopping area that is marginally subsaharan Africa (Malawi I think), we ended up in Germany, where we looked around the toy shop, glanced at the menu for the bakeri, and got the Kidcot stuff before moving on to the US for drinks and Kidcot.
In Italy, while Tara and Derrick got their Kidcot stuff, I watched a street performer -- Tara and Derrick joined me shortly -- and observed that at the end of his performance, his hat remained firmly on the top of his head, where I'm sure it would have been in front of the prop box he was packing if he was still working a plaza in Italy.
After Italy, we went to Japan where we spent a fair amount of time shopping. Both Tara and I found kimonos we would think about buying, but held off.
Our next stop was in Morocco where I got a light snack, that ended up a bit heavier than I expected since I didn't see olives on the initial tray, and asked for a side order. We'd pretty much exhausted Morocco the night before, so we worked our way to France.
In France we looked around a bit, and I confirmed that the restaurant had wine pairings with each of the entrees. We crossed over to England (appropriately over a channel) and did a bit of shopping, but no buying. From there we ended our visit to the World Showcase in Canada. In Canada we looked at the very nicely imagineeered falls, drooled over a couple of selections at the fancy steakhouse (Salmon over a butternut squash risotto), and returned to the front part of Epcot.
We decided to hit up the Kidcot stops there as well, and soon found the first one inside The Land pavilion. The Sorin' ride was going to take too long to get to, but we did take the Living with the Land boat tour, which took us through the active research greenhouses and fish farms -- including the pumpkin patch where they mold pumpkins to have ears.
After that we spent some time in the Sea pavilion, but didn't take the ride. Made quick stops at both Inoventions. It was getting late, so I decided to pass on the film that would lead to an opportunity to ride a Segway. We then worked our way over to the last Kidcot station, at the Test Track.
On the way we stopped at the main gift store. I briefly looked at a couple of ties and almost bought one that has various Disney characters wearing ties. I passed thinking that I wasn't planning on wearing a tie for my upcoming interview. After leaving, I remembered that it was my suit I wasn't going to wear -- the employer's website lets people know that "A suit won't impress us," so I'm figuring I'll wear a tie to dress up one notch from what I expect to wear in the office (and I might find most people are in jeans and T-shirts, which would be fine too).
I did get a book and a video that cover a lot of the park design -- I keep applying for jobs with Disney in that area as part of my search, and I wouldn't mind joining that team.
By then the line was reporting as only 20 minutes, so I relented and told Derrick that I'd ride it with him. The line was less than the posted 20 minutes, and we quickly worked our way onto the ride, which wasn't as bad as I remembered, but I still didn't enjoy the ride and environment testing parts. The last run is still pretty exciting, but not up to Mission Space standards.
We didn't have to rush out, since our flight left Orlando after 11. We had a relaxed morning and finished packing. We left for the airport, and got there with the minimum of trouble. I was able to confirm that we drove 273 miles on about half a tank (which I finally confirmed is 11.9 gallons, so we got about 45 MPG, not bad -- but I'm sure with a bit of practice I could do better).
I did notice that my United Premier Executive privileges extended to my traveling companions, so Tara and Derrick boarded with me in the first group on both flights. My American Gold didn't work this way. The flight to Washington was fine, but a bit bumpy at times.
We arrived about 20 minutes early, and still didn't have much time to wait at the gate since our next flight was on a widebody, and it needed extra time to load. I was getting extra hungry, and more than a bit grumpy, which made finding food harder. (When I get grumpy about being hungry, often I have trouble finding something that I want to eat). I finally grabbed a 12" sandwich at Subway, which wasn't too bad, and we split it on the plane.
At O'Hare we had to wait a bit for our bags, and then for the shuttle to the parking lot. We got home about 5:30 -- I'm still amazed that it can take two hours from arrival to home when we travel. We were tired, but also rested.
This was another good trip. I'm looking forward to going back, but we'll have to schedule carefully. Before that I'll have to do some serious number crunching and be fully armed with data before facing the sales people again to tell them that either their plan won't work for us, of that this is the exact plan that we are going to use, and they aren't getting another dollar from us beyond that level.
On the other hand, I think I'd like our next trip to be a bit longer and have more time to spend at the parks. I'd like to get to all 4 Disney parks for a good day or so, and have a couple of days to spend at Kennedy and at least a good part of the day at the coast. Of course a lot of this depends on how jobs and location changes, and how vacation time and other budgets work out.