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2015 Sep

Magic & Memories

I knew it was coming: the obligatory trip to Disney World. It’s part of the job description for parents—listed under Responsibilities: “As part of your job as a parent, you must be willing and able to drive down boring interstate highways; stand in long lines under the hot sun for hours; deal with cranky kids who don’t appreciate what you do for them; accompany said kids on thrilling rides that give you vertigo; spend enormous of money to show how much you love your family; and, last but not least, try to enjoy yourself.”

Peter and I had already taken our older sons, Scott and Jasper, to Disney World some years ago. We knew eight-year-old Ross’ turn would come, but neither of us was looking forward to it—not that we’d had a bad experience or anything. It’s just that theme parks aren’t high on our list of favorite destinations. I tend to get claustrophobic in crowds, and Peter really does have vertigo, which means the residual effect of those thrilling theme parks rides can cause him anguish for months.

Nevertheless, the day finally came when Ross decided he wanted to “discover the magic” at Disney World. So during spring break, Ross, his big brother Scott, and I—along with swarms of other tourists—headed south to Florida seeking magic and memories. Our plan was to explore the Disney parks, then head over to Florida’s Space Coast, where we could enjoy a more laid-back environment and a visit to the Kennedy Space Center.

VERY ORLANDO
“Very Orlando,” my Florida friend Chelle said when she heard my sons and I were staying at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Conference Center in Kissimmee. Chelle was right. The Gaylord Palms is over the top, a gorgeous property featuring a 4 1/2-acre climate-controlled atrium, 1,400 guest rooms, three signature restaurants, two sparkling pools, and, thanks to the resort’s separate themed areas, a cozy ambience that belies its huge size.

Our suite was in the Everglades area, overlooking a swampy scene with wooden walkways, an eerie fog rising up from the marshes, and the sounds of croaking frogs and tropical birdcalls. St. Augustine, another themed area, features a replica of a Spanish fort. Our favorite area was Key West, home of the S.S. Gaylord, a 60-foot schooner and a 161,000-gallon Key West Lagoon, inhabited by native marine species such as Mangrove Snapper, redfish, Snook, stingrays, and tarpon.

The boys and I built in an extra day just for relaxing and enjoying Gaylord Palms’ magnificent pools—just what we needed before descending upon Disney World.

ZIG-ZAGGING
Disney during spring break? What was I thinking? Scott, Ross, and I spent most of our time there dodging strollers and wheelchairs and swimming through crowds of people, spreading like hot lava in our path. Believe it or not, we picked Easter Sunday to visit the parks, guessing a lot of folks would be in church. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea.

We made the best of it, however, and managed to enjoy a few rides, especially after we figured out how to use the Fast Pass, a system designed to reduce the time you spend in line. Basically, you get an advance pass that tells you to when to return to the ride without a long wait—thanks to a separate Fast Pass line.

Disney Hollywood Studios was the least crowded of the three WDW parks we visited. (We ran out of time and energy and had to skip Disney’s Animal Kingdom.) A popular ride at Hollywood Studios is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. You enter what looks and feels like an elevator, and then after rising slowly to the top of the shaft, the elevator abruptly drops down again, then up again, then down again, until you’re not sure whether you left your eyeballs on the floor or the ceiling. The boys loved it. I was glad to return to solid ground. We also enjoyed the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, a show that tells the behind-the-scenes secrets of special effects and making action films. Don’t miss a ride on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster featuring the music of Aerosmith.

After Hollywood Studios, we headed over to Epcot, where the crowds really began to thicken. We decided to come back later, so we picked up Fast Passes for Test Track Presented by Chevrolet and Mission Space and then took the monorail to Magic Kingdom, where I hoped we’d find a little bit of magic. Lucky for us, just as we walked onto Main Street, a parade rounded the corner and headed straight toward us. Ross’ eyes shone with excitement as Mickey, Tigger, Cinderella, and a multitude of other Disney characters danced by.

LOW-TECH FUN
After the parade, we decided to scope things out. What we found was disappointing to say the least. Lines for even the tamest rides—for which Fast Passes aren’t even offered—were long. It’s a Small World, Peter Pan’s Flight, Mad Tea Party, even Cinderella’s Carousel—all had waits of twenty minutes or more. Of course, twenty minutes isn’t a long time, but my boys decided if they were going to wait, they’d rather stand in line for something with a little more sizzle.

Surprisingly, Ross and Scott both enjoyed visiting the decidedly low-tech Tom Sawyer’s Island. Together the boys explored caves, jumped across the suspension bridge, and ran in and out and around the wooden fort. Thunder Mountain Railroad was also a big hit, and I was excited to see that Pirates of the Caribbean now has a Johnny Depp robot.

Of course, any visit to Disney World wouldn’t be complete without a thunderstorm or two. Back at Epcot, while the boys stood in line for Test Track and I browsed in the gift store, a monsoon hit: buckets of rain, fierce winds, and there I was without any rain gear. Three Mickey Mouse ponchos later, I braved the storm to go find the boys inside the Test Track, which had been temporarily shut down due to the weather. After eating a mediocre Mexican dinner, we watched a fireworks show over the lake and headed back to our hotel, where we collapsed into our beds.

Sure, Disney World is a magical place, and every child should go at least once. Maybe I’ll find my way back there again, but you can be sure I won’t go during spring break and definitely not on Easter Sunday!

A DOSE OF NATURE
Florida’s Space Coast, which runs from Titusville to Melbourne, provided a refreshing change of scenery and atmosphere after Orlando’s “wild ride.” We decided we needed a dose of nature, so after checking into our hotel, we headed up to Titusville and took a pontoon boat tour of the Indian River Lagoon. The lagoon sits next to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and offers excellent opportunities for seeing wildlife up close. In fact, over 300 types of birds can be found in the area, as well as dolphins, manatee, and even an alligator or two.

Merritt Island is also home to the Kennedy Space Center, and the captain said he takes out special tours to view shuttle and rocket launches. While we weren’t fortunate to see such a spectacle during our tour, we did learn a lot about the lagoon’s flora and fauna, thanks to Erika, the onboard naturalist.  Scott and Ross were especially interested in hearing about Spider Island, which sits in the middle of the lagoon. According to Erika, it’s full of black widow spiders, and no one’s quite sure how they got there. Luckily, visiting Spider Island was not part of the tour.

Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge offers plenty of hiking opportunities. We took a short hike by the visitor’s center and spied an alligator in the pond out back. He was a sizable specimen and pretty active, so even though I knew it was unlikely, I kept waiting for him to come crashing through the bushes with his jaws open wide. Needless to say, our hike was a brief one. Next to Merritt Island is Cape Canaveral National Seashore, which, according to my friend Chelle, has some of Florida’s best beaches.

Another nature preserve we discovered was the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, also in the Titusville area. What’s unique about this park is it offers visitors the chance to experience the five distinct habitat types found in Brevard County: oak scrub, mesic and hydric hammock, wet prairie, and pine flatwood. The education center features creative, hands-on activities for children, which both Scott and Ross enjoyed.

OUTER SPACE
A visit to the Space Coast wouldn’t be complete without exploring the Kennedy Space Center and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Be forewarned, however, that these two attractions take a full day to see. My boys and I didn’t budget enough time at the Kennedy Space Center and barely got to view all of its exhibits. That’s because part of your admission ticket includes a two-hour tour throughout the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, and once you get on the bus, you’re there for the duration.

The first stop is the LC-39 Observation Gantry, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of the launch pads and the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building. Next the bus takes you to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where a 363-foot moon rocket is displayed.

Back at the Visitor Complex, a variety of exhibits await. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for Journey to Mars, an interactive exhibit popular among kids. A highlight was a close-up look at the Shuttle Atlantis. Outside the Astronaut Memorial is a lovely tribute to those heroes whose lives have been lost.

You can learn much more about the men and women who conquered outer space at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which also features interactive exhibits. Scott and Ross jumped at the chance to step into the 3D motion simulator to experience a “Mission to Mars.” Next the three of us practiced landing a space shuttle using a simulator.

The storms that drenched us at Disney World followed us to Cocoa Beach, so I never got to relax and work on my tan. During a brief respite in the weather, I managed to get a run in while Scott and Ross enjoyed the pool at our hotel. That evening we dined on tangy BBQ and Caribbean wings at Mambo’s, a Caribbean-themed restaurant in Cocoa Beach. While we were eating, the clouds parted to reveal the sun setting in a cantaloupe-colored sky. It was a magical ending to a memorable family vacation.

• DisneyWorld - www.disneyworld.disney.go.com or call 407-939-1936.

• Gaylord Palms Resort & Conference Center – www.gaylordpalms.com

• Florida’s Space Coast - www.space-coast.com or call 877-57-BEACH.

• Four Points by Sheraton Cocoa Beach - www.fourpointscocoabeach.com

• Enchanted Forest Sanctuary – www.eelbrevard.com or call 321-264-5185.

• Kennedy Space Center/U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame - www.kennedyspacecenter.com or call 866-737-5235.

• Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island or call 321-861-0667

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com