Alan Taylor -- October 2004 -- Walt Disney World (WL, Offsite)
The trip was all booked, and then I had to sit back helplessly as one hurricane after another pounded the state. It was almost surreal as they kept coming, and scientists had trouble keeping up with them. History will record that there were 4 major hurricanes to hit Florida in the fall of 2004.
The irony is that I chose Florida over a trip to Japan, because I wanted an "easier, more comfortable" trip this time around. (And the second irony is that Japan then had their own typhoon.)
Well the trip is booked, I'm curious as all get out, to see what's up down there, they certainly can use the tourism dollars, and so the trip is on.
The journey will start in the Palm Beach area. The back story here is that my grandparents used to own a home there, and it was the site of many highly enjoyable childhood visits. Those trips first formed my idyllic impression of Florida. My grandparents are gone, and this is my first trip back there. Two days in the beach community should serve as a nice introduction to the Florida vacation lifestyle, before heading up to the hardcore experience that is Walt Disney World.
Then it will be up to Disney by bus, and finally driving over to Sanibel Island, off the west coast, one of the hardest-hit areas by the hurricanes. Getting reliable information about the state of that island was murder; I can't wait to get down there and see for myself.
Sunday, October 10
Night before the trip, I felt like a kid the night before Christmas. Consequently, couldn't sleep a lick. Eventually I managed some, and woke up before the alarm.
Monday, October 11
Packing - you've no doubt heard the advice: set out what you want to bring; then bring half of it.
Okay, forget that - you do that, and you'll be spending your whole vacation doing laundry.
Hey how was your vacation?
- Great, I had a particularly nice spin cycle in Tampa.
Not for me. If you need to bring more stuff, bring more or larger bags. Think like Joan Collins in Dynasty.
Okay - I nominate wheeled luggage, with the pull-out handle, as the INVENTION OF THE DECADE - Whatever decade they came from.
Actually I managed with the one wheeled piece and a sports bag. Gotta keep fairly mobile, as I don't have all those manservants that Joan Collins has.
On the subway to the bus to the plane, I'm thinkin, okay, what did I forget?
Strikes me it might be the money belt, as I don't remember packing it. No disciple of Rick Steves leaves home without the money belt. Gonna have to wait until destination to check. Can't open luggage, as it may explode like a jack-in-the-box. Maybe should've just worn the dang belt.
My only gripe with Jet Blue is the lack of substantial food on board. Took care of that with a decent cheeseburger and fries at a bar and grill inside the terminal.
On board, I sat back in my seat and enjoyed the in-flight TV.
Lately, I've adopted the attitude that flying is gonna be fun. Try to get that "fly me to the moon" mood they captured so well in "Catch Me if You Can." To that end, I even enjoyed a cocktail - a screwdriver with the appropriately named Skyy vodka. The stewardesses excuse me, flight attendants, should really have been dancing in the aisles, to complete the picture, and their relative seriousness kept the mood from really going all the way -
But ... at least there was that in-flight TV. Really a great deal that makes the whole trip just zoom. One offering was the movie "9 to 5," the perfect movie when you're gloating that you don't have to work for 2 weeks.
For a while there I was still in New York City multi-task mode - reading a Newsweek while browsing the TV channels, and occasionally looking out the window. I actually caught myself and said whoa, slow down. And just closed my eyes and relaxed for a while.
We landed in West Palm Beach, and I took a shuttle bus (only passenger) to my hotel, the Marriott Ocean Pointe in Palm Beach Shores. Well, to get to the shore you drive through a rather run-down stretch of housing. Sadly, the signs of hurricanes (who even cares what they were named anymore?) are all around, in the seriously damaged trees.
Some palm trees have about half the usual number of fronds, and they point in highly unnatural directions.
Some look like the palms were just cut off like a barber gave them a crewcut.
Some trees, maybe 30 - 40%, were basically intact but maybe a little ragged looking. Some others, particularly non-palm trees, were clearly pruned by human hands, as if you just went sideways with a chain saw and lopped off the green part on top - evidently because they were too damaged to leave that way.
So you just have to view them as abstract sculptures. They're just wood, no leaves right now.
You do get the feeling a lot of this will grow back, and in chatting with the van driver, he concurs.
Overall impression: too bad, really too bad. It also was gray with about half a drizzle. The area just doesn't look like a fun holiday place. Thankfully, this is really only a traveling day.
Buildings are for the most part intact - however some have various degrees of roof tiles missing, and others have still-boarded-over windows.
Anyway - this was largely as expected, and I was determined to press on, and make the most of it.
Arriving in Palm Beach Shores was like a breath of fresh air. Properties were considerably better kept up. Tree damage was still much evident, though.
Shuttle driver was a nice guy, an ex-New Yorker. He wished me a "great time", similar greetings at the front desk. Okay, I'll go along with the program.
The mood I perceive is "We're gonna be okay, aren't we? Aren't we?" The smiles are a little tight.
It all depends on the future. If this year was an aberration, the area will recover - I experienced NYC's renewal after 9/11 and it was as much psychological as physical, though the physical was definitely necessary for the psychological to be possible. And above all, it took time; time without further incidents, and thank God we had that.
We shall see . . .
I love walking into a new hotel room and, bit by bit, making it my home for the next few days. My stuff gets spread out in a system only I could comprehend, and the place becomes mine. The Marriott room was well equipped with a microwave, fridge, plates and silverware, a big screen TV (about 30 inches), ironing board, and, well, you could say ocean view - though it was a bit of a sideways glance.
It turned out my money belt was there, but my toothpaste and deodorant weren't.
Anyway, we're here, we're 2 blocks from Grandma and Grandpa's house, and we're actually pretty beat, trying to adjust to a day schedule whereas I normally work an evening shift. So, a shower and nap are in order - and the nap was VERY VERY relaxing. Room is quiet, bed is soft, I have no pressures on me for 2 weeks; maybe I can make this work.
Not really sleep, just kind of a quiet buzz.
I arise from the nap and go for a stroll around the neighborhood. (It's about 5:30 pm). And here is where that old saying that "You can't go home again" comes back to me.
For one thing, everything is so much SMALLER than I remember. What I remembered as a 20-minute walk to the inlet, I just now covered in about 5 minutes. The house itself seemed smaller and plainer; and of course, there was the giant void with the 2 people missing.
But if you ever want to trigger up all those memories, this'll do the trick. As my grandfather would say, "That's the ticket." You stand there and it just FLOODS back.
As I stand in front of the house, I can see myself there with my 2 brothers, all of us about 12 years old, grabbing bikes and getting ready to zip around the neighborhood, or looking at all the geckos playing against the side of the house.
Or sitting in the study, leafing thru National Geographics and inhaling the heady fragrance of my grandfather's cigars.
You want another nice fragrance? How about the gardenias in the bedroom.
Or we could be settling in for the first night of a trip, just after the flight. We'd drink fresh-squeezed orange juice (an exotic treat back then; you couldn't buy it at a million delis). We'd eat Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers.
And what I realize now, as I look at the house which is pretty much shuttered, seemingly sealed against the elements until the owners are back in town or - is it possible it's not even occupied?
Well, there are some positive clues, too. There are some nice red flowers in the front yard. The mailbox has cheery starfish and dolphin hand-drawn decorations.
At any rate, the place is clearly not occupied at the moment, dashing any possible consideration of attempting a quick visit.
I'd been debating the wisdom of approaching the new owners with something like that anyway, as from their point of view it could be pretty much "Myrtle, get the shotgun."
Well, as I stand in the street, and the whole neighborhood seems subdued, almost deserted - it occurs to me how much my grandparents brought to those visits - how much sheer EFFORT they went to, to make sure we had a magical time and couldn't bear to leave.
Because, in walking around the island - and bear in mind this is still during hurricane recovery mode and off-season - the place seems pretty sleepy. I visit the Grator Gator, the local supermarket, and am amazed again at how small it is, scarcely more than a 7-Eleven.
And yet, back in the day, those visits - well. It really seemed like paradise. And we always had activities - we went to an Ice Capades show one year, or to the movies, or the Burt Reynolds dinner theater, or toured the big Spanish-style mansions in the ritzier parts of Palm Beach, and then most of all, of course, came back to that wonderful house, so stylish and so homey, and gathered around and shared the experience.
Now my family experience wasn't perfect. I don't want to sugar-coat it. We had our issues. And yet, the power of those memories, of the GOOD aspects of those family visits, was really very moving for me. The sense of what's been lost over time.
... I take a break from watching Monday Night Football to step out onto the balcony. There are still plenty of palm trees, they're blowing in the gentle breeze, and yes, the magic of those dancing palm fronds still works. Something about palm trees blowing in the night breeze. Off in the distance I'm curious about the ocean view - and it turns out there's a cruise ship out there, all lit up against the inky black.
I catch a good portion of the movie "A League of Their Own" on TV, and its mix of unabashed sentimentality, heart, a great cast, and terrific period details, really gets to me.
What an emotional day. And Superman passed away today.
Tuesday, October 12
First real vacation day: Woke to a gray drizzle - upset because, with only 2 days to enjoy this area, really can't afford a washout.
Fortunately, after my shower, the clouds opened up a bit and the day became merely overcast.
Short periods of rain and shine alternated that day, but mostly it was dry enough to do some activities.
At about 2 pm the full bright Florida sun made its debut appearance of this trip, and I enjoyed a very nice float in the ocean. Good-sized foamy waves, warm clean water, maybe a half-dozen other swimmers, a reminder again that no pool can touch the ocean.
Walked around the nabe a bit - and was struck by how many homes seemed unoccupied. The whole place has a strong off-season feel to it, and come to think of it, all my prior visits were over winter or near Spring Break season.
Many of the homes are presumably seasonal second homes for their owners, and the buildings are basically closed up with metal shutters.
And here's where I break with a lot of travelers, and a lot of Disney fans, who seem to desire a place "all to themselves" or "no crowds" or whatever.
To me, having other people around in the vacation mood, helps make the whole experience more festive.
Well, again, I try to make the most of it. Beach walk, stroll over to a marina. Nice takeout dinner (mussels, state-of-the-art key lime pie) from Italian restaurant in town (Portofino grill). Proprietor seems overly friendly and appreciative of the business, a pattern that occurs often on the trip.
Here's an item from the local paper: school officials are concerned about the days missed during the hurricanes, and are considering using Saturday and holiday classes to make up the time.
I rush off to church (which church, I don't care. Any church will do) - and hold a prayer vigil for the little tykes - that would be pretty brutal.
Wednesday, October 13
I debated going on a museum tour (Flagler) which included a boat ride - the kinda thing that can inject a little variety into your beach vacation - BUT, with only 2 days in the area, I wanted another full day in the immediate vicinity.
So I stayed put, and largely did the same stuff as yesterday. Weather was perfect - sunny all day! Many more people hit the beaches. Paradoxically, the ocean was less interesting - just lazy rolling wavelets, almost a Caribbean effect. Gotta say I'm impressed by the cleanness of the water here - almost a Caribbean look at times.
But if yesterday's waves were Kali River Rapids, today’s were Jungle Cruise. Still beats any pool.
(And the Marriott's pool is a doozy, winding all around. The whole property is first-rate.)
Walked all the way down to the end of the beach, as far as you could see from my hotel and back; about an hour and a quarter in each direction. Had some fun on the way back, watching some little birds (sandpipers or something) scooting along at water's edge. As soon as the wave came in to shore, they would run just out of reach of the water, as the water chased them. And once in a while they'd sense the wave was coming on too strong, and they'd fly a few feet to get clear.
Look, this isn't South Beach, Miami, these are the diversions.
Had a blissful moment upon arriving back in front of the hotel, as the sun had that "late light" and I just stood and let the waves come in and crash at my ankles, over and over. That feels so cool.
And I wasn't the only one either. There were maybe a dozen of us, standing there, or wading, practically until the last flicker of sun went to its sleeping place. One girl, maybe 10, with hair braided like Bo Derek, was slipping on and off her float, playing in the waves, and wasn't about to leave the ocean until her parents physically dragged her out.
Headline in local paper: Schools Abandon Weekend Proposal.
Dinner - first I should back up and tell a little story from the olden days. Our grandparents came in and announced they were taking us out to dinner. We were excited, and discussed privately what treats no doubt awaited us. I announced confidently to my brothers that I would have "Fish a la French."
Well, it turned out that we went to a fancy hot dog place. This was about as good a hot dog place as you could find - they were marinated in beer, or something.
Still, there was no Fish a la French on the menu, and I was a little disappointed.
Anyway, this night I headed over to the Sailfish Marina, a marina / charter fishing trip arranger / fancy bait and tackle shop / fancy resort-wear shop / resort / restaurant complex. I spied an item on the menu for takeout - Dolphin Florentine. Even though I'm a graduate of public schools, I knew this would be the fish dolphin, not the mammal Flipper.
Actually, ethically I don't know if there's any difference - but come on, I mean, Flipper has his own song.
Anyway - they can call it Dolphin Florentine if they want, but I think you know what I call it. Along with garlic mashed potatoes, a garnish of asparagus, and a frozen pina colada from the Marriott's pool bar, this was maybe one of the top 10 meals of my life.
Thursday, October 14
Moving day - Planes, Trains and Automobiles (just about). First a quick workout in the fitness room (very attractive due to its glass walls, allowing you to look out on the tropical landscaped grounds). The atmosphere in there was so good and serious - everyone (mostly seniors, in fact) getting all healthy, everyone doing a completely different workout, and everyone intently focused. My workout is from the stone-age - I barely touch the machines. A set of dumbbells up to about 25 pounds suits me fine.
Then came the mad dash to cram everything into my luggage (which was more of a workout). Check out, and rush 6 blocks away to catch my boat. I really love that wheeled luggage now.
The vessel was a water taxi, looking something like the boat in African Queen, to downtown West Palm Beach, leaving from the aforementioned Sailfish Marina (sorry, I left "water taxi depot" out of the description yesterday). Actually, it was a guided tour of waterfront mansions, which happens to stop at West Palm. You may have taken this type of tour sometime, somewhere in Florida - "That's the estate of the Pleknuk family, of Pleknuk Sugar fame; valued at $18 million. They recently built a new addition to the garage, for a cool 1.5 million."
Just once, in one of these spiels, I want to hear about a Pleknuk industrial titan who willed his home to one of his favorite employees.
The spiel was delivered in high style with plenty of humor by Captain Ron, a man who clearly enjoys giving his well-rehearsed speech. Actually, he got to vary the patter today, by pointing out some of the yachts we saw dotting the waterfront. Some of them had survived the storms; some hadn't.
We arrived at West Palm Beach, on the other side of which was my destination, the Greyhound terminal. Here I was faced with about an 8-block walk (or possible taxi ride) with luggage, and several of the boat passengers were aghast that I would think of doing the walk.
They don't know I work out with free weights.
And maybe they're unaware of the miracle of rolling luggage with a pull-out handle. By the time I reached the end of a long uphill portion, I was ready to name my firstborn after the inventor of these things.
Anyway, I set out walking, with an eye to maybe grabbing a cab partway. Turns out cabs are pretty scarce, so I keep walking and check out the various food options (for sort of a brunch).
It's a nice little town (White Plains with palm trees, if that means anything to you). And it does seem to have some interesting-looking restaurants (sort of Cuban bistro grill, if that makes any sense) - but not really the kind of fast food I wanted.
So ... kept walking, and eventually got to a downhill stretch - could've rode my luggage if I'da been about 14.
Anyway, after the arduous trek (it really wasn't, even in the Florida heat) I spied the Greyhound terminal/train station, and ended up having a decent chili dog and fries there.
Got on the bus, and personally I think Greyhound is really cool. Conceivably I could've stayed on that thing and wound up in Cleveland. Or the bus before, I could've taken to San Antonio.
Fella on my bus was going to transfer at Orlando, en route to Dallas.
Ride was super-comfortable, with a food/restroom stop about an hour and a quarter in. Scenery was pretty interesting, up the gut of Florida: tree farms, cattle farms, horse farms, and orange groves (though pretty scarce on the oranges nowadays). Something about a long bus ride, though, or train ride for that matter - it can be really sleep-inducing.
I napped on and off for about half the trip - and lo and behold, we eventually reached Kissimmee. Now, why Kissimmee instead of Orlando? Well, as every schoolboy knows, when you step off Disney property, you're in Kissimmee, not Orlando.
I inquired, in my research, which stop would in fact be better - though God knows why I limited myself to AOL message boards. Anyway the answer was "about the same."
In retrospect, having done it, I think Orlando might've been better, cost-wise anyway, because you do a cab to the airport, then Mears van - probably $25 total.
Whereas my cab ride from the Kissimmee Greyhound stop, strategically located about as far from Disney as possible still within Kissimmee limits, was $40 - and that was with some haggling. So the cab was more than the Greyhound!
Okay, live and learn. It was still a pleasant little trip along a stretch of 192 I hadn't seen before (I'm a bit of a 192 geek, having only stayed offsite before). Some of the themed hotels looked kinda fun. My driver was a genial Turkish fellow with a Barbie doll on the dashboard, and I daresay you'd have a hard time finding THAT in New York.
The driver spoke English okay, but was uncertain of his ability to read all the signs. So he asked me to help navigate the Disney compound. I complied, but believe me the Barbie doll was distracting.
Now - here was one of the highlights of the trip, and the highlight so far of my hotel-going life.
Because the Wilderness Lodge just beats offsite by a Paul Bunyan mile! Words cannot describe the feeling of driving up Timberline Road and getting out at that grand entrance, and walking into that astounding lobby, so I ain't gonna try. Suffice it to say that the designers of this place deserve a standing ovation. Every detail is designed to charm you into believing you're in a National Parks lodge in the Pacific Northwest. And the Disney cleverness is just everywhere.
So - I pick up my jaw and head to my room; which, despite the "woods view" moniker, is actually right above the lobby.
All right, technically from my window, I can see woods - but not really what I had in mind. And, as I gingerly started unpacking, it became painfully clear that I was just in time for the Shouting Contest down at Whispering Canyon (who named that place?!). Although, I have a hunch no great precision is required to accomplish this piece of timing!
Okay - it's all part of the fun, I understand that - and the place, even more than other Disney hotel masterpieces I've visited, had a notable energy level among the visitors; just not right below my room, m'kay?
So I was faced with 2 choices: try to deal with it as best I could, at least for one night - or straight off request another room (it was about 6 pm).
First I tried various locations IN the room - it was much quieter as you moved away from the door. I even tried jamming some towels along the bottom of the door (to be safe, I opened the sliding glass door by the balcony a little).
Now I was getting road noise - the view included the drive up to the entrance of the hotel, along with the trees.
Well to make a long story slightly less long, I heeded the advice of a self-help book I read awhile back. If you have to do an unpleasant task to solve a problem, you're better off doing it right away, rather than procrastinating. Because, either way, you suffer; but you have a choice of suffering for 10 minutes versus suffering for 3 days.
So let's put the legendary Disney customer service to the test.
I called the lobby; they put me on hold for about 5 minutes, and then told me yes they did have another room! And I should just bring my key card back and exchange.
Great! Now I suffered through another 5 minutes of re-packing, inspecting the room to make sure it was reasonably move-in-able, then a hike back to the front desk and over to my new room.
Which was - spectacular. Overlooking a pond, the Contemporary visible through trees. And quiet, quiet, quiet. Score one for Disney customer service.
Now between all this unpacking, repacking, and unpacking again, plus finally taking a shower, I'm pushing right up against my Priority Seating at Artist Pointe. This sucks. I had booked this dinner 2 months ago, spent a lot of time looking forward to it, and now was it going to be ruined by me being tired after all this traveling, with no time to nap?
I lay down for literally 2 minutes, and headed down to the restaurant. The restaurant is "smart casual," so I was sure to wear my glasses. At least I could look smart.
Okay you think that line is silly. Just try not laughing when you book the place and they tell you its smart casual.
For starters, my drink order answered my 2 needs: a rum and coke. The rum was helping me celebrate, though it might be a little too relaxing; the coke was hopefully going to keep me awake. That's a funny drink, when you think about it. I apologized to my brain for giving it such mixed messages.
Okay, Artist Pointe has a Signature Dish, a special kind of salmon they fly in from the Pacific Northwest. I'd long ago decided to try this, and indeed avoided eating any salmon for a week beforehand, to keep my salmon taste buds fresh.
They recommend that you get this dish "medium rare." Well if you're getting the Signature Dish, you might as well get the Signature Cooking Recommendation, so I complied (I'm pretty trusting about things like this).
It turns out to be pretty close to Signature Raw in the middle - and as I commented to the friendly waiter, I wouldn't have thought to order fish that way - but it really worked. The dish was Signature Delicious!
The appetizer was similarly well executed, delicious mussels in broth. The broth got a nice workout from some dipping bread.
The food was delicious, and the room was beautiful - a big airy room with huge outdoorsy paintings. And they'd helpfully seated me by a window (I find Disney is pretty good about this for solo diners). Besides, I had a book, so even without a live dining companion, I had Charles Dickens.
Everything about the restaurant, the service, the presentation of the food, everything was just top-notch. Only dessert awaited.
Here I went for, I think they call this their Signature Dessert, I don't really remember. Anyway it's an odd dish they persist in calling a berry cobbler when in fact it's a berry shortcake. The waiter warned me it was rather large, and I asked if I could get a smaller portion. He replied that the shortcake, I mean cobbler, only came in one size. I decided to go along with the Signature Size of the Signature Dessert.
Well, this thing, which is bigger than Space Mountain, has if I remember correctly, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, huckleberries, Halle Berry, Chuck Berry, Ray Bradbury, and then ice cream and whipped cream on top of the huge shortcake. As advertised, it was indeed delicious - but I truly think it would have been a better dish at half the size.
I'm going to pretend it WAS half the size, and say this was another meal in my all-time top ten.
One of the things I noticed about the Wilderness Lodge that night, as I roamed the grounds, was how much fun everyone was having. The place is dynamic; everywhere you look something's happening. The pool, for instance, was being actively used, something I've not noticed much at the Disney resorts. At about 10:30, kids were jumping in and out of the pool and having a grand time. Bedtimes were being shattered, as surely as their parents' diets were being obliterated by those berry cobblers.
Friday, October 15
Due to the excitement of being here, I didn't really sleep so great. So that will affect the day somewhat.
My plan for the parks is to follow the historical order, pretty much. So today was Magic Kingdom. I got my first experience with an afternoon break at the hotel - in my opinion the biggest advantage of staying onsite.
The day started with a short trip over to the Poly for breakfast at Kona Cafe. This would be my first experience with the much-discussed Tonga Toast. I also drank plenty of coffee. Tonga Toast ... well, for me it was one of those experiences you're glad you did, but are in no hurry to repeat it. My mouth enjoyed it; my stomach wasn't so happy later, especially with my first 2 rides being Big Thunder and Splash.
My description of the dish would be "donuts dipped in warm syrup, then rolled around in sugar." One of those "only at Disney" kind of foods. Just not what my stomach is used to digesting, and on top of that berry shortcake last night, I'm really becoming convinced it's better not to stuff your face, to keep eating just because it's there. Eating isn't about impressing someone that you can finish it. I'm vowing to keep to a lighter approach at Chefs de France tomorrow night.
The weather started out fine, and then turned a little rainy, so much so that they were threatening to shut down Big Thunder. Every time they announced this, the last part of the speech was "for now, we'll keep operating" - and a cheer would go up.
So you're about to ride Big Thunder, and you know the history, at least in California, and rain is threatening the safety, and maybe the enjoyability too. What do you do?
You mainly pray the rain will let up - I trust Disney to ensure the ride is safe, so mainly it's just an issue of "Is it even worth it, or should I catch it later?"
Fortunately, the rain did slow to a tiny drizzle as my group boarded - though the exiting passengers were soaked.
Ride was good as usual, the rain stopped completely soon after, and so began another tour through the "greatest hits" of MK. Splash was a highlight, and I did Transit Authority twice (once in the dark). Left a few rides for another day.
It was a nice long day at MK, till 11 pm, really 11:30 with the second Spectro showing. Caught the first show, then Wishes, then, surprisingly, stayed for the second Spectro. I mean you're right there; it's kinda hard to leave.
I did enjoy SpectroMagic a lot in fact - the music starts to get into your system after a while - kinda waltzy, and you sway to the music. Mike Scopa would probably say you're zoning.
At times today I felt lonely - it is in fact odd being at a Disney park by oneself. Occasionally there are moments where the entertainment is strong enough to pull you out of that - and Spectro was one such.
Also enjoyed Wishes, my first viewing of that. Nice subtleties, far better than the old MK fireworks show I remember.
Also was wowed by PhilharMagic - a total slam-dunk hit, a huge addition to Fantasyland, and probably the overall highlight of the day. I'm starting to get bugged at people who refuse to move all the way down. It just screws it up for everyone.
Now - we all know the game. If you position yourself after a certain number of people in the pre-boarding area, then you'll be in the middle of the theater. This is a fair game to play. BUT - if you failed to do that maneuvering, then in my opinion you lost it - you can't now just stop in the middle. Try again next time buddy, and play by the rules.
Through much jockeying, I did manage a seat towards the middle - presumably that's a little better for 3D shows. Still I want to test this, by going again and deliberately sitting all the way at the end. That should be easy enough!
Lowlight of the day was that at about 3:45 I just hit the wall. How tired was I? My taco stopped moving halfway up to my mouth. I knew it was time to finish my grub and get the heck out of there and take a nap.
What a joy to take the boat over to the Wilderness Lodge, shower and take a 2-hour nap! I emerged a new man.
Temp had dropped now to about 60, tops, so I grabbed some extra clothes and headed back to MK for the lights and nighttime entertainment.
My first experience with that "stay onsite - take afternoon break - head back to park" and it was definitely worth the money spent on the WL.
Will I ever go back to offsite? Yeah, sure, I'm going back in 2 days, to cut the overall cost of the trip a bit.
As I'm about to get in bed, I go to the sliding glass doors and look out over the balcony. Through the trees I can see the Contemporary lit up, the castle I think, and a Monorail making its way left. This by itself almost makes the whole trip a success.
Saturday, October 16
The day started with a swim in the phantasmagorical pool. The air temp was a bit cool, but the water was deliciously warm. It's not one of those things of "dive in, and in a while your body will adjust" - it's "get in the water, and immediately you're warm."
It meant a lot to me, after years of swimming in motels' boxy rectangular pools, with chain-link fences around them, to be swimming in a large free-form pool that started out as a spring in the lobby of the hotel, became a stream then a waterfall then a stream again, then a pool, then emptying out as a stream yet again. A real "I'm finally here" moment. At that hour (8:30), the only other swimmer was a duck.
Then I headed over to the health club for my stone-age workout. A little better facilities here than at the Marriott; a bit more formal too (you have to sign a waiver, etc.)
Finally it was breakfast from Roaring Forks, the counter-service place. Witnessed some irritating parenting, the kind of thing that eventually makes me want to leave Disney and return to the normal real world. This mother was giving her son a hard time, for basically being a curious kid. Steven was about 5; everything he did, as his mother watched from another table, it was "Steven! STOP! Steven! NO!"
What crime was he committing? He was sort of floating his hand out over the table, in a circular motion.
I moved to get away from the racket, and found some peace by the pool. Later I realized I should have said "Parent! STOP! Parent! NO!"
The park today was EPCOT. The place has slipped some for me. To be fair, in order for them to restore the glory of the mid-80s, they'd basically have to come up with about 20 brand-new attractions all at once - pretty much an impossible thing to expect.
Anyway - started off, as per tradition, with the golf ball and I'm gonna say something surprising and a change from my earlier views: the wand really seems okay to me now. I mean it's just ornamentation, not something to have a coronary over. Plus when you see it up-close, you realize it's quite an imposing piece of construction. It's not like they're going to send one CM out to just flick it off, it would be a major construction project.
I always enjoy that ride, though unfortunately it was marred by 2 stop-and-waits.
Further technical difficulties hit Test Track (down for most of the day - I have it as a high priority on my "to do" list for the next 2 days). Also Energy went down just after the pre-show started.
I'm currently wary of Mission: Space, because so many people have had motion problems with it. I have a little motion sickness sometimes, plus off-and-on back trouble, plus some gingerness due to surgery a few years ago. So I pick and choose my thrill rides carefully, and I don't think Space is going to make the cut.
So that left me with 2 new attractions: China, which is an example of how to do an update, and Journey into Imagination, which is an example of how not to.
The good first: China's new film is of equivalent quality to the old one, yet with all new images. It feels fresh and current and satisfying.
Now, as for Imagination, I think most other reviewers have been too kind. Couldn't see what the designers were going for here at all; it seems to be the theme song for an attraction but without the attraction.
People that never rode the original (that's version 1; this is number 3) have NO idea what you're missing, because it was one of the early classic EPCOT attractions, one which left you with a feeling of awe. This one doesn't even leave you with a feeling of aw - it's just like there's almost nothing to it. It's as if they built based on a preliminary sketch, and never really developed it.
It almost plays out like a joke. I have no quibble with the ride system. It floats and dips and curves along okay. Now just put something in front of us that's meaningful.
Really a surprise.
Okay, let's give them the benefit of the doubt - maybe that ride plants some kind of subliminal message in our minds, and we'll all go out inventing stuff. We shall see...
Meanwhile, one attraction that still provokes awe is France - that film needs no update at all. It really makes you want to book a trip to France.
Today was my first experience with the Food and Wine Festival. In addition to some reserved-seating events such as wine seminars, there are lots of booths around World Showcase, selling sampler plates in the neighborhood of $3.50. I had a very nice paella from Valencia, Spain.
Trouble is, World Showcase was packed. To get any given item meant a 15-minute wait - so it's hard to do a LOT of sampling. Very nice convivial, European-type atmosphere though.
Dinner at Chefs de France was salmon tartare (a bit like French sushi), a salad, and baked cod in potato with a lobsterish sauce. All quite good but didn't really hit a home run the way several meals on this trip have. The presentation of the fish was good, but why cod in the middle? A rather bland fish. And overall, the menu both here and in the Bistro upstairs seems pretty limited. Dessert was profiteroles - again, good, not exceptional. I avoided that overly-stuffed feeling, at least.
Weather was just about ideal in my book. There was nary a cloud; high maybe 87 or so. Heard some grumbling about that high, but understand, my last trip to WDW was severely hampered by rain. So sunshine is golden, as far as I'm concerned. BTW, hurricane damage really seems to be minimal throughout the complex. You have some trees down in the forests, as if King Kong went through and randomly pushed certain trees over. Otherwise, it's really not a factor at all.
(This is contrasted with the drive over from Kissimmee, where a lot of houses still have blue tarps plugging up their roofs.)
Some of the stone-bottom pools in Future World were drained. I asked a CM if this was hurricane-related, and she said she didn't know, but thought it had something to do with cleaning them.
Illuminations was a little less fun than usual, because I was late getting out of dinner, and spent the first 5 minutes of the show walking around to get in position. I'll try to catch it again later from the start.
And the trip back from EPCOT hit a snag, with a longish wait at Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC) for that short bus ride to the lodge. Frustrating because it really ought to be walkable. They just don't really encourage that though, nor make it easy in terms of sidewalks / directions. If that was a 20-minute wait, that must be in the metric system or something.
Once home, it really was enjoyable to stroll around the pool area. Down on the little beach, looking out over the darkened lake, then up at the lodge, you feel uncannily like you're in Wisconsin or something. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking; already tomorrow I have to check out. These 3-nite bookings are murder. What genius booked me into this place, only for 3 nights? Oh yeah, it was me.
Well, I gotta get the cost down a little, so it'll be 2 more nights offsite.
Just a little longer lingering here, if you please. Don't drag me in just yet. As you look around, there's activity - in all sorts of directions. Looking around at the building itself, around the courtyard, there are a surprising number of surfaces, and variety where you don't expect it. I just can't say enough about this hotel. It does what great architecture can: it elevates the spirit.
One small quibble about the room: the wooden bedframes have a way of finding my knees as I walk around the room. I suppose they extend a little farther out than you'd expect. Each time it happens, I swear it's the last time. Each time I swear that.
Okay, only once today, let's try for none tomorrow. Anyway, gotta get to sleep, I have a killer day tomorrow.
Sunday, October 17
I woke up with the music from the French film going thru my head ... looked out from the balcony and saw an otter frolicking in the pond.
Today is a logistical nightmare. I'm going for a swim, and then I have to check out of this amazing hotel. (Total knee-knockers today: three. Jeez, I'm going backwards). I'll be leaving my bags at Bell Services, to retrieve after 1) Animal Kingdom, 2) MGM, and 3) Pleasure Island.
(If you know what PI is like on a Sunday, don't blurt it out and spoil it for everyone. We'll get to that in due course.)
What really makes it a nightmare is my attempt to clean up some before the nightclubs, having only my backpack as a closet.
In today's swim I'm joined by two ducks and a few other humans. Something remarkable seems to happen with this pool - I go into it with bloodshot eyes from something or other, and emerge with clear eyes.
Tough to fit in this swim, but ... gotta get some mileage out of this baby.
Entering the hotel, I'm still pretty wet, and some guy says to me, "Soaked already?" I didn't understand what entitled him to the snarky chuckle he said this with. Big deal, I went swimming and got wet. It takes all kinds...
Then it was on to Animal Kingdom. I think this park fits beautifully into a Park Hopper mentality. It's tough to justify a $50 layout for a day at the zoo - but as a partial day to get that unique AK mood and then move on to a park with more excitement, works great.
I disagree some with people who call it a half-day park; sure, that's about how long it holds my interest. But I doubt people who say they did it all in that time, especially the way the shows are scheduled.
I was there 3 1/2 hours, and these were the things I missed: All of DinoLand except Tarzan Rocks; Tough to be a Bug; Lion King Show; Tiger Walk; Tree of Life walkaround; Pocahontas show.
The safari was quite good, with a healthy selection of animals out, even at about 2 o'clock. I had to rush over there and cut out of Tarzan Rocks ten minutes from the end, in order to leave time to catch the 3 o'clock show of Flights of Wonder (see what I mean about the show schedules?).
I enjoyed the Tarzan show as a high-energy diversion and contrast to the low-key nature of most of the park. Speaking of which, Expedition Everest is proceeding nicely and you can kinda see the track layout emerging. This was a popular sightseeing stop for Disney geeks.
Then the overwhelming highlight of the day (so far) was Flights of Wonder, a first for me. The birds are beautiful and you see them do real natural behaviors, rather than riding bicycles and such. Nice hokey Disney-type script to the show too.
Then it was on to MGM and wouldntcha know it? I missed the bus by about 10 seconds. Could those buses BE any further from the park entrance?
Fortunately the next one arrived shortly.
I arrived in MGM just as the parade was going by. I'm liking this park more and more. It's just a beautifully themed little gem, with 3 killer attractions and a number of decent ones.
The big event for me was going to be a test of wills. In fact, my stomach was giving me the willies just thinking about it. Rock n Roller Coaster, last time, had been the only ride where I ever used the "chicken exit." It was awful; people threw rotten eggs at me and chanted "wimp," "loser."
Not really; I just felt an inner sense of shame and disappointment. I had motion issues related to recent surgery, and when I witnessed the launch it just did me in.
By now the surgery site has solidified, so I felt up to trying all the thrill rides except Mission: Space.
This time I really enjoyed the build up, because I knew totally that I'd be riding with those 5 speakers of blasting Aerosmith in that really fast car.
I took delight in the upside-down car at the entrance to the area, and just paced around listening to the music with a big grin on my face.
Went in, enjoyed the great pre-show, saw (and heard) the other people launching, and the words out of my mouth were "Holy F___!"
More out of excited anticipation than fear.
They strapped us all in, and then ... we waited ... for traffic clearance.
All the highway messages flash, and you're thinking ... all right already, let's go. Let's go!
Finally we took off, and it was all I'd expected and more! It was about 2/3 through that first long straightaway that I remembered to take a breath. Then I thoroughly enjoyed all the loops, dips and turns, and the sights and sounds, just laughing and grinning all the way.
So much so that, upon emerging, I actually bought the ride photo (a first for me). I paid the $17, and NOW I understood that line about getting soaked.
The ride was smooth; much more so than Space Mountain the last time, and really just better. A remarkable piece of Imagineering all round.
Still on cloud nine, I ambled over to the food court and had a celebratory meal of pizza and a coke. Then I caught the Beauty and the Beast show, which was surprisingly good, given that it's obviously a very truncated version of the story.
They hit all the necessary beats I suppose, the cast was excellent, and the show was a reminder of how much great music Disney has in their vaults by now, and also how important live performances are to getting the full WDW experience.
After that I went on the Great Movie Ride, and then headed over to One Man's Dream, which for a minute I couldn't find on the map - it's listed in the W's.
This is becoming a tradition, a must-see because it puts everything in perspective. Disney himself was just a once-in-a-lifetime character.
After the film, I proceeded to do my cleanup routine.
Putting in contact lenses is difficult at Disney. I'm not one of those people who can pop their lenses in, basically, while skiing. I need a flat surface at about chest level, a mirror, and preferably direct light going into the mirror.
The closest thing to that is the "changing tables" in the men's room. They're not called changing tables because people change their minds there, if you know what I mean.
So how many layers of paper towels do you think I laid out on the table before setting up my equipment? They had to send out to Central Supplies for some more.
I took the approach of basically, relax and get 'em in the first time, because otherwise it's gonna be a disaster. And actually, it worked fine.
(I don't simply wear them all day because contacts and sunscreen do NOT mix.)
Once that was accomplished, it was easy street to change shirts and shoes, and pretend the shirt wasn't much wrinkled. I don't know if the shoes were all that necessary, but it did justify having them in my luggage for the whole trip.
I then proceeded to run around sweating for the next hour or so, due to a series of mishaps involving a malfunctioning locker at Wilderness Lodge. Or maybe, being unable to read well in my lenses, I couldn't really make out the instructions. I ended up just adding my backpack to my stowed luggage with Bell Services.
I then got to the bus stop (a 2-3 minute walk) and realized I'd forgotten to go to the ATM in the lobby. And here's the part about Disney that's very un-relaxing. You're constantly rushing to catch a bus because you know if you miss it, it's a 20-minute wait. And that wait is basically "dead time" because there's so much going on that you'd rather be doing.
So I ran back up to the lodge, waited nervously as another person did her banking, got my cash, then ran back out to the bus stop. By now I was drenched in sweat, so I used the water fountain to tidy up a little.
Caught a bus soon after, and thus began my first journey to Pleasure Island and Downtown Disney since the old days, when it was called Disney Village and mainly sold beige-colored clothing.
Well, it sure is different nowadays! All lit up and almost Vegas-y, it's quite the showplace - and the distances are much greater than I'd expected.
Initial impression was favorable. There was a lot of energy in the air. I'm not really a club-goer, but I figured this was my best shot at female company on the trip. In fact a woman buying a ticket was quite attractive, and she really knew how to move her hips, she couldn't wait to start dancing. Unfortunately she was clearly with another guy. He barely moved his hips at all while buying tickets.
I then walked in to the first dance club, Mannequins, and found: zero people on the dance floor. None - and only one other patron in the club, a guy. The music throbbed; strobes strobed. Just nobody dancing. It was a weird sight.
It dawned on me that maybe Sunday was the slow night. The bartender confirmed this with a "Sorry."
Well it was about 9:30, maybe it would pick up a little later. Trouble was, I really only had until 11:30; then I had to return to W. Lodge for my luggage and cab ride to Howard Johnson. I wanted to be in bed near midnight, to leave me fresh for tomorrow's last day of touring.
Next I tried 8-Trax, a dance club with a 70s/80s music theme. Here there were about a dozen dancers - however, they mostly were people already in couples, or foursomes who had arrived together, and largely it was an older crowd, as dance clubs go. A bit like you went to your Aunt's house and she was having a disco night. So after a few Cyndi Lauper and Village People tunes, I left and headed for my ace in the hole - the one club for sure I thought would be fun, just as entertainment - the Adventurers Club.
Here you will find a handful of hard-working, talented entertainers who worship hard at the church of Charles Nelson Reilly. They performed a skit that involved a lot of split-second timing as well as improvisation. It might have been even funnier if I'd stayed longer and kept drinking.
The design of the club was very good - something along the lines of Tower of Terror or Haunted Mansion, though a little more "odd" than "scary." And it had a warm clubby feel to it, enhanced by the full audience.
So, overall, Pleasure Island for me was a disappointment. Then again, I could see how it could be fun with a better crowd and more time to hang out there. The idea is you can carry your drink from club to club. Adults just show their ID once and get a wristband which allows you to go in and drink at any club. Youngsters just show their fake ID once and get their wristband.
Good concept, bad night, time for me to go sleep.
Monday, October 18
Attractions, attractions, and more attractions. Today is for mop-up and maybe revisiting some favorites. There are some rides I've been saving for the last day on purpose. Interestingly, the one day I'm coming in from offsite, is the one day I make rope drop. We have an early start and we're hitting on all cylinders.
(I'm gonna lapse into the editorial "we" occasionally, sick of writing I, I, I.)
We start in EPCOT.
Turns out we had the same shuttle driver as last time, Giovanni from Italy. He has pulled off the neat trick of looking younger, two and a half years later. Some people were born to work in the customer relations or tourism field, and Giovanni is one of them.
We had a hotel pickup at 8:15; drop off in TTC, then a Monorail over to EPCOT.
People count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! then everyone rushes for Mission: Space and Test Track, me included. TT will start the day - an interesting ride for me, because I skipped it last time due to motion concerns, after being told it was as rough as Space Mountain.
In the queue, I am "adopted" for the ride by a friendly family of five. By adopted I mean, not only did they invite me to join them, but they went down the line and introduced themselves.
-You don't know how hard it is to write a trip report while waves are going on all around you at Fantasmic, but I'll try-
The father (grandfather?) in particular of this clan was very nice, and I got the feeling he took pity on me and wanted to include me in his family's fun. Nice sentiment but ... I felt awkward about the situation.
-These waves are pretty weak; most people are just using their arms-
I wasn't sure if this family wanted me to tag along with them, but anyway I had very specific things planned and really wanted to be solo today. Don't mess with me on mop-up day!
I remember a trip to Disneyland with a group of 9 people - we eventually split in 9 directions, because we were sick of compromising on ride choices.
So, after the ride, I gave them a wave, and a goodbye, and they seemed okay with it.
If that family is reading this, they're going "That fool thinks we wanted him to hang out with us all day? Jeez, take a few aspirin and take down that swelling of your head, mister."
As for the ride itself, 1) it's not that rough, pretty tame compared to Tower of Terror, Space Mountain and the like. Quality? I'd say it's a "D ticket." The fast stuff at the end is fun; otherwise more of an interesting experience than a thrilling one.
So, anyway, after yesterday's exhilaration with RnR Coaster, I was leaning very strongly toward doing Mission: Space after all.
Still hadn't had any breakfast except coffee, so now seemed like a good time to do the ride; took just a few minutes wandering over by Energy to kinda cleanse the palate experience-wise.
Then I embarked on one of the real highlights of the trip. WOW! Space is genius, on a level with Tower of Terror or Splash.
Very very clever. They give you LOTS of warnings about spinning. The four of us in our mission joked that each time they mention it you start thinking maybe you should back out. Then when the ride starts, it turns out (as others have reported) you really don't feel any spinning sensation during the ride. It's just a total rush, an indescribable physical sensation, and all the familiar Disney details, in terms of the story they plant you in, are there in abundance. The Imagineers brought their "A" game on this one.
How did I feel physically afterwards? A little off, true. I sat for a while, to get my bearings. And I didn't eat for about 10-15 minutes, and then only lightly.
All in all, I was more affected by that Tonga Toast the other day.
Then it was over to Energy, a fun time with the dinosaurs. Re-did Spaceship Earth, and was frustrated by 4 or 5 stop-and-waits. Music did start to get under my skin, though, in a good way. I guess if you're constantly just sitting there ... Now time was running short, as I planned a trip to Magic Kingdom and then on to MGM to finish with the big show.
Still in EPCOT, I headed around for the noon show of American Adventure and had some paella from the Spain cart; then over to Canada for the Circle-Vision movie and a stroll through the "rocky river" area - very pretty. In fact EPCOT was very pretty all day, and the crowds were much lighter than on Saturday.
Coming out of Canada, I smelled a nice fish smell, and followed my nose to a salmon sampler plate from the Canadian stand - maple syrup glaze, pecans, delicious.
The original plan was to leave for MK at this point. Then I noticed Off Kilter had some shows, the first one starting in about 45 minutes. Other trip reports have raved about this band, and the past few days have convinced me how important live performances are to the true Disney feel. So, after some internal debate, I stayed - killing time with a search for more food (which ended up being another paella).
The band was good, high-energy and with a very positive vibe. Their music is largely instrumental, a plus with me. I'm not in the fanatic category about them. Most of their groupies indeed appear to be women; I think it has something to do with the kilts the guys in the group wear. Worth staying for? Yeah, definitely - they were live, and they were new to me.
Highlights of the show were covers of Johnny B. Goode and Danny Boy. In fact, that Danny Boy was running through my head for several days after.
So - MK was a very quick trip, just the train ride half way round, then Haunted Mansion (35 min. wait, the longest of trip). To skip Haunted Mansion would be unthinkable; way back when, it was the first ride that convinced me that Disney's rides are in a totally different class. MK was surprisingly crowded (50 min. wait for Splash, so no re-visit there). Anyway, after the happy haunts I did that "last walk thru Magic Kingdom"; always stopping to turn around for the last look at the castle, about 3 times - then the ferry and bus to MGM.
Well - everything was cut short today from Canada onwards. So MGM was only Tower of Terror and Fantasmic. I keep giving this park the short shrift. One day I have to change that; I'm growing quite fond of the place.
Both attractions were first-rate. ToT is still a high-water mark for Disney Attractions. I don't know if Mission: Space will have the same kind of repeatability. Both rides give you that great kinesthetic experience, as well as great visual themeing. You can put Rock ‘n’ Roller in the same category. Come to think of it, Space can certainly be reprogrammed to give different missions, so maybe that's where they'll get the repeat factor. Maybe even let you choose. Maybe even let you choose a trip past orange groves.
The drop sequence in the Tower was very playful, as if the computer knew its audience and gave us just what we wanted.
And then of course the big show, even better this time (my second). The view was a little more head-on to our screen, and that helps. I don't think there are bad seats in that theater; just some are a little better. Still can't get over the chutzpah of putting together a show like that. And it's becoming my traditional last event, because it's such a great summing-up.
The amphitheater filled up rather quickly - I got in safely with 55 minutes to go, and you maybe could have squeezed in with about 20 minutes to go, but I wouldn't chance it. Cast members tend to be no help at all in estimating when it will "sell out," so you're probably wise to follow their party line that you should head in now.
If you have any susceptibility to what Mike Scopa calls the Disney Zone, this show will surely hit you in the tear ducts, and then leave you in awe.
You can't follow that, you CAN'T, except I tried because, hey, it's my last night, might as well head over to EPCOT for Illuminations. It's a shorter show anyway, so let's just call it an encore.
Sometimes I just can't do something the easy way. I got on the boat, and was, to be honest, frustrated that we sat there for about 17 minutes with a 90% full boat. When we eventually got under way, I vowed to get off at the first stop, thinking I could get there faster by walking.
Wrong. I got totally lost around the huge Swan-Dolphin complex, and somehow wound up on a beach. Weirdly, there was no view of the golf ball at all or any other icon within EPCOT from there. I ran into the hotel and asked directions, which set me out on another run all the way around to the Boardwalk and past that whole area. Gotta say it was way pretty that night, all lit up - much more impressive than my previous daytime visits. Anyway, I'm running and running, carrying my backpack, and by the time I get to EPCOT, I still have to get all the way around to Mexico for my traditional frozen margarita. That park is BIG when you're in a hurry! Do you think I was sweaty at the end of that? Charles Barkley, in a third overtime, wasn't as sweaty.
I get to the stand JUST as they're serving their last customer. Now I really don't understand why they aren't open for another half hour or so; but what can you do? No Disney trip is going to be perfect; some things aren't going to break your way, and you have to just look at the big picture.
Again I missed a little of the start of the show, although a bigger factor was that my eventual view just wasn't that great - blocked by some trees, some lightposts, and some fathers rocking babies. And here is where I have to scoff at all those Disneyland snobs who insist that their Fantasmic is way better than WDW's. How can it be better to have to stand with a limited view, than to have your focused attention in a comfortable sit-down theater? Stop fixating on the frigging boats.
Well - that's it for the Disney portion of the trip. Some conclusions about onsite versus offsite:
1. You can definitely have a great time either way.
2. The one killer advantage to being onsite is the afternoon nap option. Interestingly enough, though, because of that option, and the option to start your day with a swim and/or leisurely breakfast, workout, etc., you tend to take things at a much more leisurely pace. For me anyway, it meant less time in the parks. On Saturday at EPCOT I only did 6 attractions.
3. At a great onsite hotel like Wilderness Lodge, the hotel almost overwhelms the park experience. You find it competing for your time, and you don't get as intense a park experience.
4. Staying offsite, the parks are a little more special, because they're such a step up from where you're staying. If you can muster the energy to keep going and have quality time all day, you're likely to have a more intense experience. Good substitutes for the afternoon hotel break are a Monorail / boat / bus ride between parks, or a dark place such as the Hall of Naps.
5. I didn't really feel more "magic" being onsite. The hotel was run very professionally, and it was a wonderful place to come back to. But magic? No, that wouldn't be the right word, just a very high class experience. I did notice, when checking into the HoJo at 12:30 am, that it was dark and a little desolate around the hotel, and security-conscious travelers are certainly embraced by a more comforting feeling of safety at the onsite places. The HoJo is nevertheless still my go-to place for affordable offsite accommodations, with a good shuttle and all the basics. Interestingly, the HoJo had a mini-kitchen; the $250 WL did not.
And some observations about Disney touring in general:
1. I'm finding that my first day is kind of blah, and the excitement really picks up around the 3rd and 4th days. I think it's because of the sense of urgency.
2. I'm finding park-hopping days more fun than staying in one park all day. Sure you lose some time - but the ability to experience several moods in the same day trumps that time loss.
3. Newness is important. The real standout attractions for me were PhilharMagic, Splash Mountain, Impressions de France, Rock ‘n’ Roller, Space Mountain, Tower of Terror, and Fantasmic. Maybe throw in SpectroMagic. And, really, the Wilderness Lodge. Okay, that's 4 new and 5 repeats. So, maybe newness isn't so essential; still nice to have, though. Keep those new attractions coming!
Tuesday, October 19
If it's Tuesday, this must be Sanibel.
First task is to head over to the Dollar Rent a Car office in Lake Buena Vista, and pick up my Dodge Neon or similar.
Now here's one of those weird twists that happen on a trip. The prior night, while strolling 192 on a snack run, I'd noticed that right next door to HoJo is, in fact, a Dollar office!
So now, I went in and inquired whether they could switch my reservation. With some juggling, they did and in fact gave me a free upgrade to a Chrysler Sebring or similar, not having any compacts on the lot. Phew!
Breakfast at International House of Pancakes (IHOP) was delicious and service was great, and here is what I like about Route 192. Everything you need is there. Access to pharmaceuticals, for instance, is much better than on Disney property.
Snacks / Rent a Car / IHOP and gas station were all within a Tinkerbell's flight from my hotel.
So - off we go, and we toss the Yahoo directions, with approximately 82 steps, out the window (metaphorically speaking) and try this route instead: 192 a few blocks to 4; Route 4 West to Tampa, Route 75 South to Ft. Myers/Naples.
Actually there is more to do then to get to Sanibel Island, starting with the Daniels Turnpike exit just past all the Ft. Myers ones. Still, nice and simple, a good thing because simple is my middle name when it comes to driving. No night driving, no driving in the rain if I can help it, and most of all no parallel parking. I only drive on vacation, so easy does it.
(Ended up breaking all three rules.)
On the freeway it all comes back to me: right lane for slow pokes, middle lane for folks like me who are right about at the speed limit and left lane for people who never heard of the speed limit.
Actually, a little farther along it occurs to me that NO ONE on Florida's highways has heard of a speed limit; people only vary in their degrees of speeding.
Traffic seems quite heavy - everything moves all right, it's just congested and you constantly have to jockey around if, like me, you follow the archaic notion of having some space between you and the other cars. Merge areas push the situation into the E ticket range in terms of excitement, without the fun.
-You don't know how hard it is to write a trip report while sitting outside the laundry room swatting away the occasional mosquito, but I will try-
Eventually the 75 junction comes up, and the transition is easy as can be. Traffic is more of the same, though occasionally it lightens up for a stretch.
With that IHOP breakfast in my belly, I'm hoping to make at least Sarasota with just a Snickers bar for food. (Turns out to last the whole way)
I take advantage of several rest stops because they are just found treasure. Sitting on the shoulder instead is heart attack city; being an infrequent driver, I'm reluctant to do actual exits for fear of taking forever to find my way back on. The rest stops are perfect.
After a while, it becomes apparent that one fellow motorist behind me is a house. And this house is going way too fast, and is way too wide, for comfort. I'm not sure if I should slow down and let it pass; I'm not sure it COULD pass me; I'm mystified why he's driving so close to the speed limit (70). And why is he riding up just behind me? Of all the motorists to have road rage, the last thing you want is a house! For a good half hour or so, it's impossible to put any distance between us.
And when I finally lose him, ANOTHER even bigger house is right behind him!
So this apparently is one of the hurricane effects in Florida now: the highways will include prefab houses on trailers ... When this second house exited the freeway, believe me I let out a cheer like someone who was on a pennant winning baseball team!
The last part of this drive is great because you turn onto Summerlin Road and then it's just straight - the road will become the causeway taking you onto Sanibel Island. You can't go wrong now. What a relief to be here!
Then the drive onto the island is slow, 30 mph - which after the highway speeds, feels like you're not moving. It's okay, I'm in no hurry.
Onto the island, and what a relief to see the hurricane damage doesn't seem too bad. Here's the blessing of time, because, although Sanibel was hit badly, it was hit first. The place is in quite a bit better shape than the Palm Beach area at first glance.
Again, some trees were trimmed across the top. Most of the palms look quite normal though.
I'm about to enter the driveway of my hotel, the Holiday Inn, when an ugly incident of road rage occurs. I'm at a 4-way stop. There's another car (if I'm at 6 o'clock, he's at 3 o'clock) also stopped.
And then there's Bozo, the mental defective, behind me, leaning on the horn. Believe it or not, the trip all the way on those highways, with all the crowding, still had no honking.
Now here, in Paradise, there's some nutcase. Well what can you do? After I parked, I got out and walked back to the intersection, and did the approach again, on foot, so I could have my moment.
Arriving here meant a lot to me. I'd carefully chosen the hotel based on glowing internet reviews. Sanibel is tricky - there are not a lot of traditional hotels, which are my preference over guest houses and condos. (Condos force you to book for too long; guest house owners tend to be a little nosy.)
Then I had to endure the hurricanes and lack of information about the island's status. This hotel only reopened about 10 days before my trip.
The place is in immaculate shape except for a few trees. It's an attractive 2-story reddish-orange building with a tropical, Caribbean tone, and lush landscaping. This is the most fragrant of my stops on this tour of Florida. Some of the palms still have coconuts, a rarity. A sign by one of the lagoons advises people "Do Not Feed the Alligator."
I'd known about this in advance, and, true story, I was thrilled to have a resident alligator at my hotel. Now as I look around the lagoon, sadly I don't see him. I shall have to ask after him at the front desk.
Meanwhile, there are numerous geckos skittering about the walkways. Geckos make me happy. There are a lot of bird noises. A stroll on the beach reveals many, many seabirds, including several white stork-like birds of the type I saw just yesterday in the Magic Kingdom.
Here it's more impressive, though, because it's not as though Imagineering has planted them there.
The sea has a strong oceanic smell, too. I really like that. There are a handful of people out there, looking for shells. The specimens are indeed numerous, though most around here are either small or broken.
The place has a very unspoiled feel, typical of the Gulf side of Florida. The buildings are another story.
Several of the establishments on either side of the HI are boarded up on the ocean side.
One roof is being actively repaired. Many of the places seem deserted. So I guess you could say the island is coming back in stages.
Fortunately the Holiday Inn is set back a good 30 yards farther from the ocean than a lot of the other places. It's right on the beach, but back a comfortable distance, and seems in fine shape.
Inside, the seashell theme is in evidence. Plenty of amenities (fridge, microwave, ironing board), but once again I have to figure out how the shower works - this is one thing I hate about hotel-hopping.
After my beach walk, I take the opportunity to do my one laundry of the trip. And, as it gets dark, this is the only time on the whole trip that bugs are a problem. I eventually stand up and pace, to provide a moving target. Ultimately I bought some OFF, and only used it once.
Then I finally take a much-needed shower and a little nap before dinner. This was a nap I had SO wanted my first night at the Wilderness Lodge, and been unable to take. Blasted PSs!
Now, to my surprise, the restaurant next door was closed (at 8:55) - however, the manager recommended a nearby place, The Jacaranda - so I headed over there, within walking distance. The place was fantastic. I dined on chilled oysters, a really good salad, and blackened Mahi Mahi with shrimp on top. Crème brulee for dessert, with berries on top. And I finally had my frozen margarita from last night!
My one gripe is the place was rather dark. I don't really "get" dim lighting in restaurants. Is it supposed to be romantic? How romantic is it if you can't see your companion. "Honey? Honey? Are you there?" You have to send out a search party.
You could be having a great conversation, and then find out you weren't even sitting with the person you thought you were!
I could have asked for a slightly brighter area if intending serious reading, but as I only had a sightseeing pamphlet, I made do by moving the candle closer.
If I go back, I'll have to get the lighter booth or do takeout.
One of the things Sanibel is renowned for is great restaurants with terrific fresh seafood, so that is definitely on my itinerary.
Incidentally, from all that walking at Disney, I so far have lost a good inch of waistline this trip. And that's even with the Tonga Toast.
I'm so grateful to have this part of the trip - AND the Disney portion. They're so different, and equally important to the moods I'm trying to create on this vacation.
Wednesday, October 20
This is the first full day in Sanibel.
Much of today was driving around getting oriented. The island is about 7 miles by 2 miles, in a crescent shape. The roads are mostly 30 mph, and there are few if any stop lights; instead there are a lot of stop signs, and the community is counting on the politeness of drivers to get along at the intersections. Mostly it works. It occurred to me after a while that one advantage of no stop lights, is that nobody is ever waiting unnecessarily.
I headed out to the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, to take the 4 pm tram tour.
Unfortunately I was the only one, so they wouldn't go out. Instead I drove through the Refuge, making plans to try again for tomorrow's 10 am tour.
The drive takes you through mangrove swampland that is amazingly remote from civilization - you feel as though you're looking out at land that's as pure as it was hundreds of years ago. And there are lots of birds at this low-tide hour - mostly white crane-like things, also some pink ones. I'd borrowed binoculars from the orientation building, so I could get a nice close-up view of the birds. Unfortunately, I didn't know which bird was which, which was why the guided tram tour was desirable.
Finishing the drive, I headed back for a shower and rest before dinner - takeout from a place called Island Cow. Pretty good, but not really distinctive like the other night. Found out it's illegal to do raw shellfish as takeout food, so had to skip my planned appetizer.
Then realized halfway thru waiting for my entree, I could've had some clams or oysters THEN. By the time I realized this though, the moment had passed. Just figured I'll get them tomorrow.
Thursday, October 21
Got up, had a quick breakfast, and hustled over for the 10 am tour. Mixed news from the gatekeeper - one other couple has signed up; but they've not arrived yet.
Eventually, they did show up, and off we went. The curious thing is that they try to encourage people to use the tram ($10) but most people insist on driving themselves ($5) or biking ($1).
Having done both, it's clear to me that the tram is the better option, to do at least once. You're free to lookout continuously, and the driver is more than willing to stop if you spot something. And the narration clarifies a lot of things. It turns out the white and pink birds were great egrets and roseate spoonbills, respectively. The latter is quite striking. The guide pointed out little crabs crawling on branches, etc.
We saw the very tail end (literally, the tail) of a raccoon as he scampered into the vegetation.
We were hoping to see some alligators or otters, as after awhile the birds seem a little common and repetitious. We were just about at the end of the tour when indeed we got a great sighting of an alligator.
At first he was lying in the shallow water, face towards us, lying completely still. We stopped the tram and converged on one side where we could get a closer look (maybe 20 feet away). The critter was about 6 feet long.
As we took our photos, we thought this was great! He then slowly started to move towards us, moving at about the speed of a fat lazy cat. This was nice because we could see his outstretched legs and claws. We joked that he wanted to take the tour!
He then lay down in the roadway and flattened himself out on the pavement, ready for some sunning. By now he was maybe 8 feet from the tram. The 4 of us were reasonably fearless, especially since the guide pointed out that wild alligators are rarely aggressive towards us unless we initiate it. Plus our tram was about 2 feet above ground.
Sure, you could see an animal like this in a zoo or gator park; but it's different when you see one in the wild, I tells ya. And, in their own way, they're beautiful creatures with those jagged edges on their tough hide.
Eventually the gator started walking again, and strolled around and directly in front of the tram as easily as you please. He then slithered into the water on the other side of the roadway, and recommenced his alligator life.
Definitely the highlight of Sanibel so far and a reminder of what I like about Disney: relaxation is nice, but excitement is better.
We ended the tour and I thanked that couple for coming, because otherwise I'd probably still be waiting for someone to show up.
Came back to the beach (actually, checked out a public beach first, and found it no better than the one right in front of the Holiday Inn, so came home), strolled around. Incidentally yesterday I went for a swim - the water is so calm and shallow you don't get that real ocean feeling you can get on the East Coast.
Still pleasant enough, though and very warm. Today I mostly walked along the water's edge, trying to avoid the sharper shell fragments. There are tons of shells which mostly are grouped in bands on the beach, so you can avoid them and walk in that crunchy white sand instead if you prefer. And there are just an unbelievable number of birds.
If you want to do the "relax" part of a vacation, this is a pretty good place to do it. And I have a strong recommendation for the Holiday Inn - one of the most attractive buildings on the island, nicely designed inside and out, good service, restaurants nearby.
The desk clerk had informed me that the resident alligator is still in residence; he just comes and goes. Today I spotted him in one of the lagoons, and compared to the sighting in the Refuge, this one was just a baby, maybe 3 feet long, hardly ferocious. He looked like the kind of animal you could hold in your lap and pet him. And he'd look up at you and smile. Well, not really smile, because with the structure of his jaw and snout, alligators don't really smile. But in his reptile eyes, he'd be sort of trying to smile. Reptiles must FEEL a smile sometimes? I've always liked reptiles and amphibians. Oh-My-God, there was a frog in Animal Kingdom the size of Omaha.
Dinner was takeout from The Jacaranda. Tonight I had a drink and oysters in the bar, then brought home grilled grouper with vegetables and potatoes, cheesecake for dessert. Food seems to lose something in the translation to takeout. At the very least, you have much less good plates. Certainly the oysters are best eaten onsite, with the full presentation of the chipped ice on the big plate and the dipping sauce in the middle.
Friday, October 22 (last full day)
Having suffered severe restaurant fatigue, I will try today to eat like a normal person. That's the strength of having a fridge and microwave in the room. In this room the micro is atop the fridge, so right there in that sleek stack you basically have your food life.
Breakfast was yogurt in the room and a Danish, banana and coffee out on the road.
After dropping off some film for processing, I checked out the Tarpon Bay area. They run various sightseeing options, and the one that looks best to me is a boat from which you can hopefully see dolphins and manatees. One was pulling out just as I arrived - it looks like either of 2 voyages tomorrow will suit me, provided 3 other people show up. It would be nice to have something active to do on my last day, not merely wait around for the airport run.
Then the centerpiece of today was renting a bike and tooling around the island. This turned out to be a great idea.
Sanibel is very bicycle-friendly. All the main roads have parallel bike lanes, most with a grassy divider separating them from motor traffic. And as I found out, you see things so much better from a bike than a car, plus you are much more connected to nature.
I've noticed, while driving on this trip, that the post in front of your left shoulder severely obstructs the driver's view, and has a significant psychological impact. An interesting invention would be a car with a clear post or no post there.
(Oh that Imagination ride, look, it's working its magic!)
Anyway, bikers can zip around the island and, for the most part, you have some nice foliage around you (although it was undoubtedly better before the hurricanes).
In case I've painted an overly nice picture of how Sanibel survived the hurricane, I should mention that the public areas are not in the same shape as the private properties. Unfortunately, the pine trees along the main road, Periwinkle Way, were pretty much obliterated. I've noticed that every time I drove or biked along it, because they are now just stumps. While doing research on the web, I noticed that the town has put the rebuilding project up for bids. This is the difference between a municipality and a "Kingdom" such as Disney. At the latter, it would be like, "We have a Code 14 on Buena Vista Drive," and a crew would be out the next morning.
For a town it's a much more dragged-out process; understandable that they have to do it that way though. To sum up, East Coast versus West Coast: both are spotty. You have pristine areas right next to areas that were simply wrecked. I'd say the palm trees are in better shape on the West Coast. The only thing for sure is that, absent more storms, they will gradually get better and better. Some of the stumps over here, for instance, now have some leaves and mini-branches growing out of them.
Anyway - biking, I felt a real sense of freedom; stopping and going again was much simpler without having to be so conscious of car security the way you have to.
I traveled a portion of the island previously unseen by me, the eastern part out towards the lighthouse. Along the way it became apparent that this was the nicer residential part of the island, and clearly property owners had gone to a lot of trouble to re-plant and landscape so things would look spiffy.
Incidentally I never have seen a place with more tennis courts that weren't being used. (I believe Jimmy Connors used to have a home here.) Then again it really is quite hot for tennis most of the day.
I also biked over through a relatively wild-nature part of the island toward the Casa Ybel resort. Birds soared gracefully overhead. This resort is beloved by its regulars; it has an "olde Florida" / Victorian look to it. I rode around the public areas a bit.
Returning home, I realized that biking Sanibel is an essential activity if you want to get a feeling for life here. This raises the question: Could you vacation here without a car? (The bike rentals are about $12 a day.) Well, you kinda could, though I wouldn't recommend it.
Night riding is pretty dicey, with very limited street lighting, so your restaurant options would be pretty limited.
You could theoretically bike to the Wildlife Reserve (maybe 20 mins. by car, 40 mins. by bike), then do the tram tour or even continue biking through, etc. There were some folks doing that.
It would be a bit of a "roughing it" trip. One nice thing about the car is it serves as a changing room at the public beaches.
There are several outfits that rent bikes, and in fact the HI has some right here. These bikes are unlikely to win any awards, a rarity on an island where everything, especially the restaurants, seems to be claiming some award or other, even if only "Best Napkins 2000, 2001, 2002". You wonder what happened in 2003. The bikes are functional, loaded up with the mountain-bike-type tires you need for the occasional sandy terrain, and they'll get you there with a certain amount of pedal power. If you're like me, you'll feel it in your calves the next day. And if you're like me, you'll enjoy that feeling.
Lunch was a nice casual stop at Dairy Queen, while biking.
I picked up the pictures - they turned out pretty decently, especially the alligator pix from yesterday. I've been using disposable cameras, my choice for vacation photos because you don't have to worry about them.
They really are very clever in terms of focus and exposure, and I find you can get passable 8 x 12's from them, albeit a little pointillistic.
These cameras, with their 35mm lenses, take nice scenic shots, especially if you can get someone in the foreground to give a sense of depth. If you want to do serious bird photography though, you need a longer lens.
I did another beach walk as the sun was setting. I went way down in one direction, then back to the hotel - only I missed seeing the hotel, probably distracted by some ocean birds. Good thing, because about a mile past the hotel someone had built 7 or 8 amazing sand castles. These were about 2 1/2 feet high each, and colored with food coloring or something. They looked to be made out of sand "bricks" and actually resembled medieval castles, churches and other real multi-colored buildings. Must be the great-grandkids of Frank Lloyd Wright were staying at that resort.
These were serious sandcastles - I could see Disney trying to turn them into a resort.
Dinner was from the rather excellent Jerry's supermarket. Also courtesy of the House of Stouffer, total cost for 3 dishes $7.67.
Saturday, October 23 (last day)
Pretty relaxed here, as I have a schedule which should work out very comfortably: through with breakfast next door at 9:20, planning to finish packing and sun-lotioning by 10 (I make 10:10). Then outside for one last quick look-see at the HI beach. (Had wanted more like 20 minutes to really walk around, but was running late. No matter, there's more beach time scheduled for the afternoon).
I head over for the 11 am Tarpon Bay boat ride, and - yikes - the cops have closed off a big portion of the main artery, Periwinkle Way. Was getting really comfortable with the island, but don't tell me I have to improvise! And I'm running late getting over there, I think there's only about 10 minutes left till the boat. So I head way down around by the bottom of the island, follow my island sense as best as possible, and eventually end up in the right place. And it turns out there are already 4 or 5 other folks signed up, so we're going.
Several parties are couples with children, from England and Germany respectively, and the two 5-year old girls from different families, amazingly are soon fast friends, despite the fact that one doesn't speak English.
The presentation starts out with scientist Bill leading us over to the "touch tank." He pulls out various critters and explains the life cycle they go through, then passes them around. I'm a little confused now, because at one point he explained that those ornate spiraling shells you see, the animal basically spent its whole life building it. Another time, he explained that sometimes the animal outgrows his current shell, so he takes off and starts on a new one (thus, don't assume the ones you see on the beach mean the animal has passed away). One theme that emerges is that these little bivalves and whatnot lead surprisingly active (and competitive) lives; it's a dog-eat-dog world out there in the sea. Comparatively, we humans get along pretty well, except for the road rage part.
Then scientist Bill puts on his skipper's hat and takes us out on the boat. Really the boat ride itself is the best part of this. It's similar in size to the launches from Magic Kingdom to Wilderness Lodge, maybe a little smaller. We are on, not a lake exactly, though it largely resembles one you might see in the Adirondacks or the Finger Lakes or something. It's a salt-water estuary, and is apparently only about 4 feet deep. Captain Bill has a pretty good line about, "If the boat tips over, for your safety I'll ask you all to ... stand up."
We mostly see birds, the most interesting of which was a whole colony of pelicans on a small island. And eventually yes we do see the stars of the show ... some manatees and, off in the distance, some dolphins. The manatees are sort of large lumbering dolphin-like creatures, and unfortunately they only very briefly make surface. Then they're gone. Not very cooperative models for picture-taking.
But the cool part was that whenever we'd sight one (or in one case 3 of them together), Bill would shut off the boat's motor, and we'd glide quietly, all intently staring at the water's surface for the mystery manatees to resurface.
Heading back to shore, we can see a bunch of kayakers heading out on their trail. It occurs to me that I'd like to do this, and could maybe just barely squeeze it in ... but it gets voted down in favor of some beach time on my last day. I drive over to the Lighthouse public beach, largely for location reasons (it's closest to the causeway). It turns out to be a lot of fun, ultimately the best water time in Sanibel. For whatever geological reasons, the water is a lot clearer than the other beaches I've seen. And there's a major sandbar about 30 yards out from shore, it's really cool, lots of people are walking on water.
There was even a bunch of guys playing football on that sandbar.
And you could walk around, with clear water about a foot deep, and you had basically the world's largest touch tank. Truly the best time on a beach I had on the island (I suspect some of that again had to do with the urgency issue).
Those 2 hours went WAY too fast, and now I had to high-tail it over to the Ft. Myers airport, return the rent-a-car, go through security (Ugh), basically a lot of work. And I knew what was ahead, so really savored those last few moments on the beach. I did a ceremonial "last walk out of the ocean" at least 3 times.
Once on the plane, the flight was amazingly fast. Surprised that Jet Blue, with their simple menu, nonetheless joins other airlines in being completely unable or unwilling to serve snacks and drinks at the same time.
And the onboard TV, nice as it is, could use a little fine-tuning. We had access to Celebrity Blackjack, but the World Series game was nowhere to be found.
Back in New York, my first thought was, "Ooh, they cranked up the A.C."
A bus and a subway and home.
And making plans to buy an Aerosmith greatest hits CD.
* * *
Florida after the hurricanes - still worth a visit, mostly intact, just not as pretty as it was. Disney is in better shape than the coasts, and on the coasts private property is in better shape than public lands. For everyone's sake I pray the worst is over, and they get a nice uninterrupted spell of good weather. And again I can't say enough about the weather these two weeks - barely enough rain to notice, and just warm sunshine and more warm sunshine.
Not once anywhere did I hear anyone grumbling about "What a gyp" "We should have gone elsewhere" or anything remotely like that. We were all in this together, making the most of it, resigned to the fact that it was a freaky Act of God that nobody could control. And obviously there was a TON of effort put in by a lot of folks to clean everything up and get it as functional as it was.
Palm Beach area - well it had special meaning for me; it's harder to make a strong recommendation to the general public, as there are areas that are either more lively or have more wildlife or whatever. It has a good solid east coast beach. You will get some nice waves there at times.
Sanibel - a special place if you're in the right mood for it’s kind of pace. Very laid back and easy-going, but not a lot of excitement unless you can make it yourself, or just get excited by the wildness of the wildlife. The bike lanes are a lot of fun, and the size of the island is just right. I think, fingers crossed, it'll be really pretty again in 2 or 3 springs. Right now it's hard for me to really evaluate because I never saw it in its pristine state. But imagining where those tree stumps were towering pines, and knowing the calming effect that pine trees have, with that mix of pines and palms it must have been something.
Disney onsite versus offsite - either way works. You get a purer park experience staying offsite; onsite allows you the afternoon break, and you can consider the hotel one more giant attraction.
Highlights of the trip: driving up to the Wilderness Lodge; walking into it; checking in; and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster, Mission: Space, Splash Mountain, SpectroMagic, PhilharMagic, and Fantasmic.
Lowlight was probably the empty dance floor at Mannequins, symbolic of my love life.
What's next? In Florida my wish list includes Key West, Miami Beach, and maybe Clearwater.
Then there's also Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Thailand, Bali, Tahiti, Amsterdam, Scandinavia, Japan...Alan Taylor