Florida Trip, January 2000

Day One, the Flight Down

In August 1999 we won a free vacation to Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida, from the St. Louis Galleria. We chose to take it from 12 January to 18 January 2000. We chose this week because the kids got Monday the seventeeth off (Martin Luther King day), and because they also got Friday off (some Teachers' Institute deal or something). Thus the kids missed only Thursday and Tuesday from school.

I took Wednesday (12 Jan) off from work, spending the morning doing final get ready stuff. We got the kids out of school at 2:00 PM, heading to the airport to catch a 3:40 plane. Perhaps we were a bit late. Anyway, after parking in Long Term Parking we got to the Baggage Check counter one hour in advance of our flight time. However, there was a very long line. It moved fairly fast, however, and we soon were at the gate, trying to get a seat assignment. This proved to be a problem. The gate attendant told us he'd call when he had seats for us. "You mean, we don't have them already?" "Oh, you have confirmed reservations. You'll have seats. But I don't have them now." Hardly reassuring, especially when I overheard him telling a couple of standby passengers that "They [it's always "they" for bad news, and "we" for good news, even though it's TWA that is responsible in either case] overbooked the flight. I don't think we'll be able to seat you." Anyway, we waited while the rest of the passengers boarded. Finally, they called our names. They had four seats for us, but spread throughout the plane. However, once on the plane, we were able to shuffle things with other passengers. I ended up seated alone, but Mary Ann and the kids had a row to themselves.

The flight was indeed full. However, it was pleasant enough. I finished Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, and started Kurt Roth and Gordie Meyer's hybrid magazine/original anthology Quantum. The Bear novel is interesting, full of wild speculation about evolution, which I found implausible but which Bear insists is, if not likely true, at least reasonable. The weakness to the novel is the overwrought and not wholly believable thriller plot tacked on to it.

We arrived in Orlando at perhaps 7:30, then waited for our bags. Some screwup had resulted in the bags from another flight being loaded onto our plane. I'm still not sure whether those bags were for Orlando passengers or not. I suspect they were, and no more trouble than finding a place to store them 'til the passengers caught up was caused. At any rate, after they unloaded those bags, and puzzled for a bit why the carousel was full but no one had picked up any luggage, they piled the misplaced bags between carousels and our flight's bags finally started showing up. On to the Alamo rental desk, where another long line needed to be endured. At last we were on our way to the hotel.

We got to the Delta Orlando at 9:30 or so. Our room was on the second floor. Quite a small room, two double beds, pointless tiny balcony, no coffee pot (!), however it did have a very nice bathroom for a hotel. We were hungry but in no mood to go out again, so we opted for the "Bistro Buffet" off the hotel lobby. This turned out to be a mistake. It featured a dreadful buffet, which I skipped in favor of an adequate hamburger. Between the four of us, with hidden gratuity added in (only 5%, though, since it was a buffet, not a full service restaurant), the bill came to an absurd $43. Live and learn, I guess. And so to bed.

Day 2, Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure

I said live and learn at the close of yesterday's trip report, but I proved to my bitter disappointment that I had not learned Thursday morning. After a reasonable night's sleep, we thought we should have a quick breakfast so as to get to the "theme park o' the day" first thing. The dreaded "Bistro Buffet" had a breakfast buffet, a bit cheaper than the dinner buffet. A quick glance showed that it featured a reasonable-looking mix of items: french toast, sausage, bacon, pancakes, hash browns. "How bad can it be?", I thought. I found out. Thoroughly dreadful. I ate nothing but some fresh fruit (pineapples and watermelon, as I am not found of the most common breakfast fruits, such as honeydew and cantaloupe.) Then when I paid I found that my coffee was not included in the breakfast buffet price. My gawsh! This time we really had learned. Definitely no more "Bistro Buffet".

The Delta Orlando is within reasonable but not trivial walking distance of Universal Studios, but they also provide a free shuttle service. Lazy sorts that we are, we took the shuttle. To the kids' delight, the shuttle parking lot gave onto an elevated walkway leading to Orlando's "City Walk" area, and to the Universal Studios theme parks. The delightful part was the moving slidewalks. The kids can (on rare occasion!) be easy to please. Upon arriving at the theme parks, we decided to go to the Islands of Adventure park on this first day. (Our free trip included vouchers for two days at the Universal Studios parks, with it being our choice which parks to go to on which days.) Islands of Adventure is pretty much a pure ride-oriented theme park, kind of a bigger "Six Flags". The day was very pleasant, with clear skies and temperatures in the 70s.

We began by heading to the kid-oriented area, which has a Dr. Seuss theme. The area is called Seuss Landing. As you might expect, this was dominated by younger kid-safe rides, such as a carousel and one of those rides with planes where you can control the altitude of your "plane" while they spin around. This ride was called "Red Fish, Blue Fish", and the "planes" were actually, natch, red and blue fish modelled after the Dr. Seuss drawings. There was also a little walk through area with things for the kids to do like make water squirt out of Seuss-like animals. And there was merchandise featuring Horton the elephant, which of course we had to sample, as well as statues of Horton for us to take pictures next to. Though I don't think our pictures came out. We bought Horton pens for our kids' teachers. When Geoff gave his to his teacher, she said "Thanks for the Dumbo pen." Aaaargh! Melissa's teacher got the little joke right away. The best attraction in Seuss Landing is a Cat in the Hat ride. You get in a little car, which swoops and turns and goes up and down a little bit like a roller coaster, while passing scenes (with narration) from The Cat in the Hat. Not a bad area, though I think pitched to kids slightly younger than ours.

The next area we entered was called "The Lost Continent", the "theme" of which is sort of a fantasy area, with Dragons and such. First attraction was a faux-Temple sort of thing. We walked in, kind of expecting a ride. Instead it was a "presentation". These attractions, which I hadn't seen before, were present at all three theme parks we attended. You go in, and a roomful of people are assembled. In this case, you begin in one room, where an actor dressed as a shabby old sailor comes out and tells a story about the age-old battle between Zeus (the good guy) and Poseidon (the bad guy). Poseidon has long been banished beneath the sea, with Atlantis, but it seems he's making waves again (heh-heh). Everyone is ushered into the next room, where some further folderol about a mysterious door goes on, then the door opens and we pass into the main room, displaying Atlantis. Then there is a fairly neat light show, with narration representing it as a battle between Poseidon, trying to kidnap us to be his minions or something, and Zeus, trying to save us. There are lots of cool 3D effects, and some real flame, and noise and wind and stuff. Zeus wins. Then you leave. OK to see one time.

The main ride of the "Lost Continent" area is a roller-coaster called Duelling Dragons. It's a legs-suspended coaster, like the Batman ride at Six Flags in St. Louis. Its special gimmick is that there are two coasters, set up so that at a few points in the ride the cars of each coaster seem to be rushing directly at the other coaster's cars, only to turn away at the last moment. My wife doesn't like these more modern roller coasters, because twisty parts make her sick to the stomach. My kids are hopeless wimps, and won't in general go on roller coasters at all. So I was the only one to go on this one. You enter into a Castle sort of thing, and it's quite a walk to get to the loading area. I went on both coasters (the exits from each have an option whereby you can sneak directly to the line for the other coaster). They are pretty good modern style roller coasters, fast with lots of turns The effect of rushing at the people on the other coaster is well done. I liked them.

There wasn't much more of interest in the Lost Continent area, so we proceeded to the Jurassic Park area. Here there was an extensive "play area" for the kids consisting of rope tunnels and slides and towers to climb into and the like, as well as a couple of places with water guns where you could shoot at people in the other place. Unfortunately when I stepped up to a water gun I couldn't figure out how to make it work and the teenager across from me drenched me good without me responding at all. There was a simple ride called Pteranodon Flyer or something, with open swings looping around the play area. It looked fairly tame, but both kids were again too chicken to ride it. After getting the kids out of the play area we walked through a Jurassic Park presentation, set up to look like the movie, with an animatronic Triceratops in a barn, and a "keeper" letting kids pet the thing, and taking its temperature, and making jokes about it suddenly urinating, etc. etc. There is also a semi-educational building with games about dinosaurs, and a "fossil wall" with fake "neutrino analyzers" or something such that you can "find" the fossils in the wall. We ate at a restaurant in the area, actually not too bad foodwise, and only reasonably outrageous pricewise. And finally, there is the park's log flume equivalent. In this case it's a ride through a "river" at Jurassic Park. It's called Jurassic Park River Adventure. The gimmick is that an animatronic hadrosaur bumps your boat off course, and you end up in the "raptor confinement area". You twist and turn through the area, with animatronic raptors and video effects. It's pretty well done, and right at the end an animatronic Tyrannosaur attacks the boat. Just as his jaws seem to be ready to chomp, the boat goes down the ending slide. That comes as a surprise, and it's very effective. One of the best "log flume" style rides I've been on.

From there it was on to Toon Lagoon, built around cartoon characters like Dudley Do-Right and Popeye. The main ride in that area is another water ride, called Ripsaw Falls, one of the type with round boats which wind through a riverine course, where the odds are you'll get pretty wet. The day was tending to the chilly, so no one particularly wanted to get wet, and we gave the ride a miss. The kids did spend some time on Me Ship, the Olive; another play area. This one featured more water guns, which you could use to spray jets of water on the poor defenseless folks on Ripsaw Falls.

We were following a counterclockwise path through the park, and leaving Toon Lagoon the last area remaining before we returned to the entrance was Marvel Superhero Island. This features three of the most impressive rides in the park. We all tried The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. This is a newish attraction featuring 3D effects. You ride in a little car on a track, somewhat similar to the Cat in the Hat ride I mentioned earlier. You wear 3D glasses. The car loops and twists through a number of scenes featuring Spiderman and some villains. The 3D effects are very successful, and the illusion of motion is very good as well. In particular, at one point it seems as if you are falling from a tall building, only to be caught by Spidey's web. I thought it was an excellent ride, as did my wife and daughter. My son originally complained that he was scared, but after a while he started declaring that it was really cool. The other two thrill rides in the Marvel area are Dr. Doom's Fearfall, and a roller coaster called The Incredible Hulk. The Fearfall ride is a bit of much ado about not very much. A number of seats are attached to a tower, and after a lot of preparation and silly narration about Dr. Doom's plan to extract all the fear from us, you are shot into the air some 150 feet, then you fall. It's a shock at the moment you shoot up, but after that there's nothing much to it. I was the only one to try this ride, and also the only one to try the Incredible Hulk. This last is a very fine roller coaster in the modern steel track style. Its neatest feature is that just prior to the end of the initial climb, the cars are accelerated suddenly. That is quite exciting. There are many loops and twists, and at one place you descend almost into the water, the cars passing through spray. The roller coaster is fast enough that there is a slight braking stretch in the middle. I liked it quite a bit, and went through twice.

The kids were kind of tired by this time, about 3:30, so instead of heading back to go through any of the rides again, we decided to go home. I should note that the lines were very short all day, the longest being perhaps 20 minutes. For many rides, you could walk right on. I'm sure this was due to it being a Thursday in January. I found it very pleasant: I have little or no tolerance for lines.

Upon getting back to the hotel, we went to the hotel pool. This is a rather large pool, in the shape of a four-leafed clover. One "leaf" was the deep end, the other three were 3' deep. The pool was heated, and swimming was pleasant, while getting out wasn't too bad. Temperatures were perhaps in the high 60s.

When we got out of the pool we decided to visit a mall and go shopping. (Mary Ann had seen it on the drive from the airport ...) This mall is called the Florida Mall, at Orange Blossom Road and Sand Lake, not too far from the airport but a decent hike from our hotel. We were trying to eat cheap, so we just ate at the food court. The Mall itself is quite large, though only one story, but otherwise wholly unremarkable. On the way back we saw a Mongolian Buffet. This is called China Jade Buffet, on Orange Blossom Road just north of Sand Lake. I was bitterly disappointed not to have noticed it on the way there, as I would certainly have insisted on trying it. Getting back to the hotel, we made a quiet evening of it.

Trip Report, Day 3, Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Friday morning we decided to go to Magic Kingdom. We had all along planned on going to Disneyworld one day, paying our own way, on the grounds that it would be a shame to miss it as long as we were in Orlando. We figured that Disney would likely be less crowded on Friday than on Saturday: I suspect we were right. The kids and my wife pretty much figured if we were going to go just one day's worth Magic Kingdom was the park to visit. We skipped breakfast, figuring we'd find something in the park. Our hotel didn't provide a shuttle to the Disney area, though a commercial one made a stop. They were charging $10 per person. Gasp! is all I can say. Naturally we drove, and gladly paid the parking fee ($6 or $7 per car). Then we decided to take the boat over to the park. Well, I decided: even though it was cold I thought we should take the boat one way, and the monorail the other way, and it was likely to be colder at 7 or whenever we left.

We quickly made our way to Main Street, after leaving the bag Mary Ann had prudently but as it turned out unnecessarily brought (containing shorts and short-sleeved shirts, in case it got too warm (!)) in a locker. We found a Bakery place, and had a decent breakfast of muffins and danish and the like. Much cheaper than the Bistro Buffet, and lots better, too. Plus I got some caffeine inside me. (Darn hotel room without a coffee pot!) Having eaten, we figured we'd go to Tomorrowland first thing.

Our first ride was Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. We were (only just) able to convince the kids to go on this one. They were happy we did. It's one of those new-fangled ones, a bit like the Spiderman ride at Islands of Adventure, though without the 3-D. You get in little Space Ranger vessels, two person thingies. There are two laser pointer type guns, and one joystick with which the riders can spin the thing around. You follow a path through the attraction, with occasional jerks and swooshes and neat visual effects making it reasonably exciting, but the real fun thing is that you can shoot at targets as you go into each of several rooms. The targets are marked with Z's (I believe because they have to do with the Evil Emperor Zurg), and you get scored on how many you hit, and how difficult the ones you hit were. (I.e., more for faraway ones, or at any rate that's what I thought. I may be wrong.) We ended up going on this ride three times (throughout the day), and I got fairly good at the shooting, even with the handicap that my son insisted on controlling the car, and he loved to just randomly spin it fairly often. (I went with my daughter once, as well, and I think I had my highest score that time.) Definitely a hit.

For me, Space Mountain came next. We all went in and walked through the line, which wasn't very long at first. (20 minutes. The longer waits were later.) Disney generally does a decent job at making its lines interesting, with little displays and such. We kept trying to persuade the kids to go on the coaster, with no luck. So when we got to the top we did a pass through. I loved Space Mountain: it's really neat being mostly in the dark, and it's a good fast coaster to boot. My wife decided in the end not to go on it, because she was worried she'd get motion sickness (she is more and more prone to this: not from sudden drops but from tight fast horizontal loops).

After Space Mountain, we went to the Indy 500 car track. Geoff really wanted to go, but Melissa and Mary Ann decided to skip the line, which was about 30 minutes. They went on the little train thing that loops around the top of Tomorrowland and goes through Space Mountain. (Astro Orbiter, I guess it's called.) Our car ride was fine. Geoff tried to handle the accelerator but he wasn't quite tall enough, so I did that while he "steered". (I'm glad it's 9 years until he can drive.) When we were done, we met the women and decided to do the Astro Orbiter again.

Mary Ann had got the notion that there was an ET ride at Magic Kingdom. Turns out there isn't (it's at Universal Studios), but she saw the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter attraction and (missing the TERROR) thought that might be it. We all went in. It features an alien corporation, ready to help the savage earthlings with their advanced products like teleportation (the spiel had lots of thudding anti-corporate jokes, a bit hypocritical from a company like Disney, I thought). Then on to a teleportation demo, featuring a cute alien getting accidentally fried, then into a main "demo room". In this room the alien salesguy promised to teleport himself right to our demo room to show how safe the product was, but by mistake they teleported a vicious alien monster with wings and claws and all, and did things like blow air and mist on us (with screams and "Don't eat me - ULP" sound effects). The kids hated it and were furious at us, and we were quite upset that this wasn't accompanied with appropriate warnings. Later we talked to a 14 year old friend of ours (well, daughter of friends of ours) who gushed about how fun it was and how she went 4 times and all. Target audience, obviously.

After calming the kids down we went by Cinderella's Castle, where we saw the end of a musical/dance presentation called Disneymania, a medley of songs from various movies. Then on to Liberty Square, where we went into the Hall of Presidents and watched the animatronic display of all the presidents, complete with Maya Angelou narrating a short historical piece. This was fairly interesting, especially the selection of reproductions of official presidential portraits.

Then to Adventureland. We climbed through the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse (OK, nothing extra special), and went on the Jungle Cruise (OK, again), and then on Pirates of the Caribbean (very lame, I thought). We didn't see much of interest in Frontierland, and we went on into Fantasyland. Melissa decided she wanted to see Ariel, so we stood in line for some time after which she got to go get her picture taken with an actress in a mermaid suit. Oh well. The kids did have fun playing with the step fountains in the area where Ariel's "cave" was. Peter Pan's Flight is another of those loop-through rides, like Cat in the Hat more than anything: you get in a flying "ship" and kind of swoop through the "air", passing scenes from Peter Pan. Not too bad. Then we did the classic kids' rides: Cinderella's Carousel, the Dumbo ride (elephants spinning around, you control them going up and down), and of course the Mad Tea Party, where Melissa and I (this definitely isn't for Mary Ann with her motion sickness!) got in "tea cups" which revolved/rotated eccentrically and which could be spun at our command. All this was pretty fun. Along the way Mary Ann got very cold and happened onto a sweatshirt on sale, which she bought and immediately put on.

That pretty much summarizes our day. I've compressed a few loopbacks and false starts. Lines were again mercifully short. The chilly weather was something of a turnoff, but we still had fun. We gathered our stuff at about 6:30 and took the monorail back to the parking area. The fireworks went off while we were on the monorail.

Everyone was pretty beat, but we did want a real restaurant meal. During the previous day's wandering we had noted a Roadhouse Grill, with Ribs and Steaks, not too far from the hotel, so we decided to head straight there, figuring that if we went back to the hotel first we'd just crash. The Roadhouse Grill proved to be rather loud, but fun. They serve peanuts at the tables, and encourage you to throw the shells on the floor (like the old Ground Round restaurants, if anyone is familiar with them). I had Ribs with a small Filet (couldn't decide, you know), quite decent though not special. We all liked dinner, and Geoff announced to the waiter "This is my kind of restaurant, where I can make a mess" while throwing peanut shells ostentatiously to the floor.

Trip Report, Day 4, Universal Studios Florida

Saturday was our last "official" day in Florida. (That is, Saturday night was the last night our hotel was paid for.) We had one more free day at Universal Studios, and it made sense to go to the other Universal theme park, Universal Studios Florida. We decided to have a quote real unquote breakfast, and so we went to Mango's, the "nice" restaurant at the Delta hotel. Breakfast was adequate but not special.

At Universal Studios we first went to the Nickelodeon studios, where they produce a lot of the kids' shows. No shows were in production on this day, though some post-production shooting was going on. There is an organized tour, which goes by a couple of actual studios, a prop room, and a wardrobe room. They let one of the kids (not ours) taste the Slime and Gak that many Nick shows feature. The tour ended up with the group forming the audience for a mock game show of the Double Dare type. Our kids were too shy to raise their hands when they looked for contestants. The tour was OK, moderately interesting.

Next door was the Hanna Barbera attraction, The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera. People were herded into an intro room, where a short movie featuring Messrs Hanna and Barbera briefly discussed animation, then set up a scenario where Dick Dastardly kidnaps Elroy Jetson, and Yogi Bear and Boo Boo get into a spaceship to try to rescue Elroy. Then it's into another room, where you sit down in something a bit like a roller coaster seat, four seats to a little platform, in front of a movie screen. You are accompanying Yogi and Boo Boo. The little platforms move up and down and back and forth, and that, along with visual and sound effects, gives the illusion of actually following Dick Dastardly in your little spaceship. It's surprisingly effective, and great fun. The spaceship goes through several "space warps" which take you to different cartoon "universes": first the Flinstones' Bedrock, then a scary graveyard and haunted castle with Scooby Doo, then into the Jetsons' futuristic world. There are lots of swerves and sudden stops and falls and climbs. Naturally, Elroy is rescued and Dick Dastardly and Muttley are brought to justice. Much more fun than I had expected, this ride was my favourite of the day.

Much of the rest of the day was spent in movie-oriented attractions with similar formats. First, a room with a little presentation with the actors describing a bit about the special effects, then into another room where a more involved demonstration cum ride was made. For instance, the Twister attraction had us standing on a rickety seeming platform while they blew wind on us and sprinkled water on us, as we watched a stage where props were blown over and fires started and so on. I was a bit underwhelmed. The kids were afraid (they never recovered from that Alien thing at Disney) and we did a pass-through again. The Kongfrontation ride was a bit different, set up more like a roller coaster, with a long winding entranceway (to accommodate extensive lines, but lines were quite short on this day) supposedly looking like New York's bus terminals, leading to a ride consisting of a "bus" on which some 20 or 30 people could get, which circles around the attraction's building, encountering King Kong and getting shaken around a bit. Melissa finally got up the courage to go on it, and she liked it, but Geoff was still too afraid. I was again somewhat underwhelmed. The Earthquake attraction first has a little film with Charlton Heston explaining the somewhat out of date (I would think) special effects from Earthquake, then a demonstration with audience volunteers, including a joke where a kid is led up the steps to a "collapsing" building, then they go "Oops", and a dummy dressed like the kid is thrown down through the hole in the floor. Geoff said "That was a dummy, right?" Finally into the main "ride" part, a subway car which is moved and stopped, then shaken around a bit, with effects like fire starting and water rushing out of mains. We managed to get Geoff to ride it, but he didn't like it. It was Melissa's favourite attraction, though. I was still underwhelmed.

Foolishly, though also because of time constraints, longish lines, and because the kids and Mary Ann really didn't want to go, and because of a certain "Theme Park Fatigue" feeling, I skipped the Terminator 2 and Back to the Future attractions. I wish I had done at least the latter. The Mummy attraction was really just a display with fake mummies. This Geoff liked. We took his picture being "attacked" by a risen Mummy.

There is also a kids' area called Fievel's Playland. This had a water slide which Melissa enjoyed, and a climbing area with rope ladders and tunnels and all. The kids did this for a while, liking it a lot I think. Just next to this is a kid-sized roller coaster on a Woody Woodpecker theme. With some prodding, we persuaded Geoff to accompany Melissa on this roller coaster. For a smallish kids' coaster, it's pretty good. Geoff and Melissa both liked it immensely. We also watched the Animal Actors show, with trainers showing off some animals doing stunts. Somewhat enjoyable.

It turns out that the ET attraction Mary Ann was thinking about was supposed to be here at Universal Studios, but it was closed from Jan 2 to May 1 of 2000, for "ride enhancements". Which is too bad.

Anyway, we were getting a bit tired of all the theme park stuff, and it was still coldish, so after one more time through the Hanna Barbera thing, we decided to leave. This was our least favourite of the three theme parks we visited. Part of this was temperature, part of this was that (probably because it was Saturday) lines were longer, often 35 minutes or so, (which isn't too bad, but I guess we'd been spoiled), and partly this is, I think, because the park is just less ride-oriented (no roller coasters, for example) and I like rides. I will say that it's set up nicely, in that you walk through various "neighbourhoods" like '30s New York or '06 San Francisco or whatever while you're going from attraction to attraction.

On leaving the park, we decided to stay in the City Walk area and eat at one of the restaurants there. We chose Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. The food was fairly decent (I just had a hamburger), though quite pricey. ($8 hamburgers, for instance.) I had two large margaritas (no driving to be done, after all), both "special" recipes, slightly different, and both quite good. I also was able to loiter in the bar a bit and watch the exciting conclusion to the Tampa Bay vs. Washington playoff football game. (Tampa Bay won, which pleased me (little did I know!), though they were somewhat lucky, needing a bad snap by the Redskins on a last minute field goal to survive.)

After eating, it was back to the shuttle bus. The shuttle was late, and as we waited in line, we noticed a huge crowd gathering. When the bus showed up, there was some unpleasantness, as there were too many people to fit, and as some people tried line-jumping. All was sorted out semi-satisfactorily. We had the kids sit on our laps to make a bit more room. We did regret, however, not having just walked back to the hotel.

Trip Report, Day 5, Drive to Port Charlotte

Sunday was time to check out of the hotel. We managed to do so quite smartly, and we were in the car by about 8:30. Our goal was to reach my parents' winter condo in Port Charlotte by 12:30 to watch the St. Louis Rams' playoff game. They told us it would take 3 hours, so we figured we had some slack. Thus we ate at a nearby Denny's. It says something about the quality of the breakfasts we had that this was the best breakfast we ate on the trip.

The trip to Port Charlotte was pleasant and fast. It only took about 2.5 hours: I wasn't surprised, because I know I drive faster than my Dad. You take I-4 West from Orlando to Tampa, then I-75 South to the Charlotte Harbor area. Charlotte Harbor is a very large enclosed bay sort of thing that is apparently fresh water. It's just south of Sarasota and just north of Fort Myers. The barrier islands that enclose the harbor include Gasparilla, Captiva, and Sanibel. My parents live in a retirement-oriented condominium complex a bit inland. It's quite pleasant, their condo is a very nice 2-bedroom place. We had warned them that I really wanted to watch the Rams, so when I got there we took the quick tour, then Mary Ann and I sat and watched the Rams. The kids and grandparents spent some time at the swimming pool. The Rams gave us some anxious moments in the first half, but then their offense kicked in and they brushed away the Vikings with no trouble.

After the game was over we headed to "downtown" Port Charlotte, actually to the harborfront. They have a little shopping/restaurant area next to a marina sort of place. We went on a "sunset cruise", piloted by an old Air Force vet who claimed to have been involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. We tooled around the harbor a bit, while he pointed out points of interest, such as the $10 million yacht parked not too far from his (very impressive looking indeed), and the various birds flying about the harbor. He mentioned the two rivers which feed the harbor, the Peace River and the Myakka River, but his voice was a bit indistinct over the microphone and I thought he said the second river was the "Viagra", which I thought appropriate. The cruise was fairly fun and interesting.

After that it was back home to Mom and Dad's place, for some homemade chili (pretty good, my Mom has a pretty good recipe), and a quiet night.

Trip Report, Day 6, Alligators, etc.

Monday morning we had a breakfast at home. All I had was grapefruit, which was very good: fresh Florida grapefruit really is excellent. Then we headed up I-75 in the direction of Sarasota, destination the Myakka River State Park. On the way for some reason I got astonishingly hungry, I really can't understand why. I've usually been able to skip meals with impunity. Anyway, on getting to the park I bought a Mounds bar, which briefly assuaged the pangs.

The Myakka River State Park is a very nature-oriented park. Our objective was to take one of their airboat cruises. They put about 50 people on a rather homemade looking thing, that draws about 18 inches, and then they tool out over the Upper Myakka lake, a very shallow wide spot in the river. Basically, the guide looks for alligators and cruises by them. We probably saw about ten alligators, which was fun. The birds are probably even more interesting. We saw egrets and herons and terns, and a very neat bird called an "anhinga", or snakebird. The anhinga dives into the water and swims after its prey. Its long curvy neck looks a lot like a snake in the water. Oddly, it lacks the oil on its feathers of many waterbirds, so when it's done swimming, it can't fly. It steps ashore and spreads its wings to dry, and you can see them quite often, perched like statues. There were also quite a few vultures. And some interesting plant life: various types of trees, including many with burn marks where forest fires (controlled, in this area, I think) had reached them, and Spanish Moss and Mistletoe in the trees. I found this whole thing quite fun and interesting. On getting back we tramped around the area a bit, feeling the Spanish Moss, which is soft and springy enough that I can believe what the tour guide said, that Ford used to use it to stuff car seat cushions.

From there we headed back south, looking for a place to eat lunch. My parents had a spot in mind, Mad Sam's. Unfortunately, it was closed, and we settled for a KFC. I was ravenously hungry again, and I took the precaution of getting a chicken sandwich to take with us in case my hunger recurred that afternoon. It didn't though, and my daughter ended up eating most of the sandwich.

We then headed out onto the barrier islands, looking for public beaches. Particularly we went to Gasparilla island, and the town of Boca Grande. We found a nice beach right on the gulf, and spent some time there looking for shells and wading in the surf. It was far too cold for real swimming: in the 60s again, and very very windy. We then headed to the tip of Gasparilla island, which features a lighthouse and another beach, this one placed right at the boundary of the harbor and the Gulf. This beach wasn't as nice, but there was some sort of huge boat being pushed by a tug into a nearby pier, and a guy fishing who caught a ray. Then it was time to head back "home", though not before we drove down a street with trees that had grown together over the top to make an archway. I can't recall at this moment the names of those trees. Entry to Gasparilla island is over a drawbridge which is raised and lowered on a timer, something like 10 minutes up, 10 minutes down. We barely beat the thing off the island. (No we didn't jump the gap like in THE BLUES BROTHERS.)

After getting back to my parents' house we had one last activity: we went over to one of their friends (somebody who was in Korea with my Dad, though actually they hadn't met until a 40 year reunion visit to Korea a few years ago) to pick oranges from his tree. We picked quite a few oranges, very juicy. This guy lived on a little canal-like thing, with a dock right off his back yard, though he no longer had a boat. Most of his neighbors did. We drove through a ritzy neighborhood, and saw an empty lot with a sign on it "Lot for Sale - $350,000". By contrast we also drove through several different neighborhoods which had been semideveloped and then abandoned, in some cases with just a few houses built - my goodness those must be lonely - and in other cases with nothing but streets and the occasional half-prepared lot (to build there you start out by dumping sand in a pile several feet deep).

Then it was dinner time. My parents had chosen an all-you-can-eat Pizza buffet place. I must confess this is not to my personal taste at all. I will say that it was very inexpensive ($2.99 per person), and that the kids seemed to like it. It was also very crowded, and very very loud. Oddly we had been talking earlier in the day about my Grandpa's disdain for buffets and restaurant with EAT on a sign in front and the like. This is a disdain I have definitely inherited from him, and my wife mentioned that. (My mother said she thought her dad's real reason was that he liked restaurants which serve liquor: to which my response would be, "So?") Oh well, I really shouldn't complain. It's true though, that for a variety of reasons we really didn't eat very well on this vacation.

After eating, we headed back to Mom and Dad's house.

Trip Report, Day 7, Manatees, the Flight Home

Our flight back was scheduled for 5:30 PM. This gave us the opportunity for a leisurely travel day. Considering the difficulty we had had finding seats on the way down, we thought we would be well-advised to reach the airport by 4:00 PM, thus the rental car agency by 3:30 or so. Backing off 3 hours for the drive, that meant leaving by 12:30. However, we hoped to make a side trip to see manatees at the Tampa Electric Company discharge reservoir in Apollo Beach. That would had maybe an hour to the trip. What with everything, we decided to leave at 11 or so. That meant we could sleep in, which we did, and get ready in peace.

Upon leaving, we decided to visit my Aunt Joan, my mother's sister, who has a condo only a couple of miles from my parents' condo. Joan and her husband Jim live near Detroit (where my Mom is from), and winter in Florida. They also have a nice little place, though I think I preferred my parents'. It was nice to see Joan and talk to her.

Then we hit the road. On the way we listened to some Tampa sports radio. We were amused by the abject terror they seemed to feel at the prospect of playing the Rams in the NFC championship game. As it turns out, of course, Tampa Bay's defense acquitted itself very well against the Rams, though the Rams were clearly the better team and did squeak out a win.

Near Tampa, we took the Apollo Beach exit and headed to the Manatee viewing center. This is right on an arm of Tampa Bay. There is a pool that must be quite warm because of the power plant discharge, and on this day there were perhaps 20 or more manatees congregating there. It was definitely an interesting sight. Very noticeable on many of the manatees were scar patterns and chewed up fins and the like, from encounters with propellers.

Then it was back on the road to Orlando. The trip went very smoothly, and we got to Alamo Rent-a-car in good time. However, I was very annoyed by the bill. We were supposedly only liable for the tax. Unfortunately, Florida has lots of taxes, under various names. Most of which apply only to tourists, who don't get a vote. The "Tax" item came to maybe just $10, but there were three or four other surcharges which brought the bill to $50 or so, plus a $21 charge for "additional driver". That really made me mad: they had asked how many drivers we had, so I mentioned Mary Ann, but they hadn't mentioned an extra charge for extra drivers. I complained about that, and they reluctantly took it off. I suppose I really shouldn't complain about the rest: $50 for a week's use of a car isn't bad at all.

At the airport, the TWA check-in line was very short, and it turned out we already had seat assignments. So we had plenty of time to grab a snack and shop a bit. One thing we wanted was some gum, in particular for Melissa, whose ears are quite sensitive to pressure changes. We looked and looked, and nobody had any. We hadn't been able to find any at Lambert in St. Louis either, though we hadn't had time to look exhaustively in that case. Finally I asked the cashier at one of the little stores. "Oh, we aren't allowed to carry gum," she said. "The gum gets on the carpets and makes them messy." What is the world coming to? Sure some messy people get gum on carpets, and that's regrettable. But that can happen anywhere. It's something you deal with. But no, having pristine (as if, even without the gum!) carpets is more important than selling people a popular item, especially for use on airplanes. Sigh.

The flight back was crowded but not quite packed. I sat next to Geoff, and Mary Ann sat next to Melissa, all in the same row. It was an uneventful flight. I was amused, though, when we got to the airport and took the shuttle bus back to long-term parking, when another family with a girl about Melissa's age noticed our luggage tags. "You came from Orlando? Did you go to Disney, too?" We said, yes, and started talking about it, and before long Melissa and their girl were talking about one ride: the ExtraTERRORestrial thing, and how "freaky" it was, and how much they hated it.

Then finally the drive home, and the relief of getting in our own beds again. But it was a very good vacation.

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