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Walt Disney World—Part I
Volume 54: Fri March 4, 2005
It's been awhile since I've done anything noteworthy enough to merit a new adventure, but at long last, things are happening! =)
Amanda found herself with time off from work and suggested we go to Disney World, a place I'd heard of—as you can imagine—though never managed to visit. So she booked us a flight out to Tampa where her dad and stepmom reside (to be called George and Suzi respectively in the rest of this adventure, since those are the names they go by).
We took a red-eye flight from Seattle to Charlotte. All the stores were still closed when we arrived in Charlotte, but Jamba Juice opened at seven so Amanda sent me off to get breakfast while she hung out at the gate.
We caught up to Amanda's sister, Alisa, and the three of us caught the next flight to Tampa.
Tampa we had another wait since George and Suzi were supposed to pick us up on their lunch break, but alas, it wasn't lunchtime yet. Alisa started collecting carts to return and managed to score a couple of quarters like Tom Hanks did in The Terminal. I briefly considered a career in cart collecting before sanity won out and decided against it. =)
George and Suzi arrived in separate cars. The handed one off to us and left to go back to work in the other. A quick drive to St. Petersburg and we had arrived at our base of operations.
We generally took it easy the rest of the day. Went out for lunch where Amanda and Alisa ate seafood, and being the true American that I am—I got a hamburger. Probably raised in Texas, if I had to guess. Actually, they say that more cattle are raised in Florida than Texas, though I cannot and will not vouch for such an unsubstantiated claim. But it tasted like a Texas cow to me.
We watched some old movie on TV with Bob Hope and somebody else whose name I forgot—very funny, though, with talking camels and everything.
Alisa had to leave early the next morning, and Amanda and I decided to make a day trip out to Myakka State Park. Rumors had it there were alligators and a million other ways to die out there, and we were feeling lucky. =)
We paid the entrance fee, they gave us a map, and we started our hunt for four letterboxes known to be in the park. After driving around a bit we quickly learned that the map they gave us at the entrance was pretty worthless—it didn't show trails! Just a road map of the park—even more remarkable when you consider that there's only one major road that cuts through the park. Hard to get lost driving out there, but they give you a friggin' road map for what it's worth.
We stopped and picked up a trail map, then started hoofing it to the letterboxes. Oh, we could have died. We bumped into ferocious alligators. For a couple of precarious moments we found ourselves between a large, angry looking wild boar and several of her children, though fortunately nothing came of it.
The couple of mosquitoes flying about could have carried malaria or yellow fever, I suspect, but we got lucky there as well. And a gaggle of raccoons—another mom out for a stroll with the youngins—could have demanded food, but they largely avoided us.
One armadillo tried to jump me from behind, but I don't think he'll be trying that again anytime soon.
No, our biggest surprise—and by surprise, I mean regret—was finding our first letterbox at the park and seeing Wanda and Pete had beat us to it just a few days before. And to make matter even worse, they taunted us with a message in the box about planting a letterbox on that very trail! Alas, it was a letterbox whose clue we did not have available since, presumably, Wanda and Pete had not gotten a chance to post it by that time.
Amanda was determined to find it and checked several promising spots along our route, but to no avail. We would have to come back another day if we wanted to find the Wanda and Pete box.
We also tried to guess if they were still in the area or where they would be heading to after Myakka. We would continue following them around Florida letterboxes for the rest of the week, eventually catching up at a letterboxing gathering before we left the state.
Ultimately, we left Myakka SP—a beautiful and enchanting place that no Florida visit should be without—with four more found letterboxes and, I for one, with a greater appreciation of Florida wildlife.
The next day Amanda and I lounged around for much of the day, but it was that evening when things started to get interesting. We were planning to meet a couple of letterboxers known as the Devonpeters. We left the house in the afternoon and drove out to the other side of Tampa.
Which, in itself, was one of the more exciting moments of the trip—and by exciting I mean scary and possibly could have resulted in death. Florida, I learned, has some scary drivers. You'd think they drive slow with the state having the highest median age in the country, but nooo... Instead, they drive like they might keel over at any minute and have to reach their destination before that happens.
I first noticed this phenomena when we were traveling a pretty good speed on I-275, then bumped into a traffic jam. Many travelers started driving on the shoulder of the road instead. Even in Central America I'd never seen anyone dare to drive down the highway's shoulder—though I suspect they would if their highways had shoulders.
No, the biggest shock was when I noticed a vehicle racing down the shoulder at a high rate of speed catching up to a second vehicle moving along on the shoulder at a more moderate speed then PASS the slower moving vehicle on the shoulder!
Inconceivable! It was like there were two separate highway systems running parallel to each other. The Bizarro Highway. Where you pass people on the right without lines painted on the road.
Seeing as the shoulder of the road was moving more swiftly than the actual freeway, Amanda pulled over onto the shoulder as well and burned the proverbial rubber. Fortunately, she had the sense not to try passing people also driving on the shoulder.
Amanda was about to take the next exit and use surface streets that presumably would be moving faster, until we noticed a cop car trying to get onto the freeway from an on ramp.
We theorized there must have been an accident—which the cop was responding to. And we theorized that the accident would have happened somewhere between the exit it got on and the next on ramp—if it had happened further than that down the highway, the cop would have gotten on the NEXT on ramp and not the one we just saw him get onto.
Which means once we got past the accident, traffic would pick up and return to more normal speeds. So we stayed on the freeway, and sure enough, just around the next bend in the road, we saw a mini van that had definitely seen better times.
The back wheels were completely shredded off and left a good gash in the road where the rims skidded across. All but one lane of traffic was blocked, though the shoulder turned into an improvised second lane.
We passed and were quickly on our way again.
We made it to the other side of Tampa with little else to comment on—except that these Floridians drive about 20 miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit at all times. Except, of course, in school zones where they slow down to about 50 mph.
Having made it to our pre-arranged meeting place with the Devonpeters early, Amanda and I went off to find a few letterboxes in the area. Nabbed four near the University of South Florida—which I quizzed Amanda on since Tampa, by my map, seems to be a part of Central Florida rather than Southern Florida.
She snapped at my "stupid" questions so I shut up after that. =)
Then we headed to Bennigan's where we met with the Devonpeters, a nice couple. We had dinner and chatted about all things letterboxing.
The highlight of the evening, though, was that they invited us to a midnight canoe ride on the Hillsborough River—an alligator infested river where the alligators have been trained to swarm at the first hint of a tipped over canoe. Or so I assumed. How often does an alligator get such a tasty opportunity?
So we drove over to the starting point, picked our canoes, and launched out. Glow sticks were attached to the front of the canoes so we could see each other in the dark. Amanda and I got in one canoe—I took the back position since I had more canoeing experience than Amanda did and could steer the craft better. The Devonpeters took another canoe.
It was a dark and moonless night. We starting paddling up the river—though the river was so slow and calm it felt more like a lake. When told we could only go up river from our starting point, I had to ask which direction was up river!
And we started looking for alligators. They were fairly easy to find—you just point flashlights around near the shore and their eyes will glow liked possessed demons looking for fresh blood.
If you paddled too close, however, they'd sink under the water and out of view. For all we knew, they could have swam under our canoe waiting and hoping that we would tip over.
We didn't actually SEE many alligators—a few, perhaps—but we HEARD tons of them. I never knew what an alligator sounded like before, and I don't think I could describe it adequately. It sounded something like a cross between "Mmmm, dinnertime!" and a sinister purring. That could have just been my imagination playing tricks on me, however.
Our tour of duty over, we headed back to the cars and called it a night. The midnight canoe ride (which actually ended at 11:00pm) was plenty of fun. Thanks again to the Devonpeters!
Then it was off to Disney World. That was our primary reason for going to Florida in the first place—I'd never been to Disney World before and Amanda wanted to dazzle me with how large and impressive the place was. The way she talked, you'd think Florida was just a small part of Disney rather than the other way around. Of course, Disney is the largest private employer in the state, so it might have even been true. =)
Florida is a dangerous place—at least if you believe the signs at the rest areas warning of venomous snakes. We stopped at the Cracker Barrel restaurant for lunch where we met a couple of other letterboxers going by the name Kilroy.
We ate, we laughed, though fortunately nobody cried and continued on our way to Disney World. We got into Orlando in the mid-afternoon, and walked around a lake near the downtown area picking up a few letterboxes (and seeing more evidence of Wanda and Pete!) before heading to the hotel—a luxurious score at about $28 per night near the convention center.
We considered going to the putt-putt nearby, but laziness and the fact that it cost money held us back and we watched cable TV instead. (We watched Medium, if you must know.)
We woke early the next morning to ensure we'd be at the front of the line when the park opened. That day, we'd be visiting Epcot. The crowds were fierce. There were probably a dozen cars lined up to get in when we arrived but we ultimately nabbed a parking spot not quite in the front row closest to the park's entrance.
We purchased our tickets, then found ourselves with nearly an hour to kill before the park opened. I took out our chicks—it was their first time to Disney World as well—and we snapped some shots of them trying to get through security.
Many people stared at us like we were crazy, but it worked to our advantage since they gave us plenty of room. =)
As the opening time approached, we secured our place in line. They allowed us through security. Fortunately, no strip searches were involved, but they made me open up all of the pockets of my backpack and took a good, long look at the chicks before deciding they were not a threat and let us through.
The turnstile took our fingerprints—a feature I found particularly disturbing since I couldn't think of a good reason they would need our fingerprints. Perhaps so if we got kicked out and told to never come back, they'd flag our fingerprints and we'd be arrested if we tried to enter again. Being the smart guy that I am, I was already working out ideas to thwart such a system. If worst came to worst, I decided, I'd use the prints from my other hand to get by. HA! I bet they didn't think of that!
The park still wasn't open yet, however. A rope line kept us in a 'waiting area', I guess you could call it, and a guy on a Segway yelled at us through a bullhorn trying to pump up the excitement. Amanda and I didn't feel especially pumped, but then we couldn't hear him very well either.
I pointed out to Amanda how much I loved this part. Everyone was so happy. Disney World, everyone knows, is the happiest place on earth, and everyone certainly looked happy. Everyone was happy. Life was good. All their problems from the real world had been left behind at home, at work, or in their cars. Nothing could ruin this day!
Epcot finally opened with a countdown from the crowd—probably a hundred of us by that time—10... 9... 8...
In hindsight, it really seems hokey. An old streetcar with Mickey and friends drove up for the big opening—Pluto, Amanda and I were pleased to learn, was still alive and well. We had heard he died last year when a parade float rolled over him or something, but it seems they were able to repair the costume and find someone else to risk their life in it.
Four.... Three... Two.... One.... Hurray! The doors to the happiest place on earth had opened.
Amanda and I started walking briskly—under the left side of the big white golf ball, veered left, and straight to Mission: Space—the latest and greatest Disney attraction.
The night before, we had already planned our itinerary through the park making sure to hit all of the big attractions. Mission: Space, we learned, would be a popular attraction and had to be hit before a crowd formed. It was, we also learned, the only ride on Disney property that had barf bags installed. Not a good sign....
We got in with the very first group—no wait involved. The ride spun in circles using centrifugal force to simulate a ride in a rocketship from launch to a brutal crash landing on the planet Mars. They didn't forget about the asteroid belt between the two either.
I was commander. Or maybe it was the navigator. I don't really remember what position I held—just that when I was told to press the red, blinking button, push it. Our safety and lives, we were told, depended on our actions and following directions.
Our group consisted of two other people besides myself and Amanda, and I wished them luck on our mission. After all, if they died, it probably meant we would too. I didn't want anything bad to happen to them.
We entered the rocket, strapped ourselves in safely, then waited for launch. The barf bags, I noticed were out of reach near our two other companions. I hoped Amanda and I wouldn't need them, because it might get messy otherwise. There was, we learned, no eject button.
The rocket lifted off and the weight of gravity increased dramatically. I could feel the flesh on my face pushing back like it was jelly. Was that what it would feel like when I got older?
The red button in front of me started to blink and a voice told me to press it—it was vitally important to press that button.
I tried to lift my arm, but it felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. I could barely even blink my eyes, but somehow I managed to get my arm up and pushed that button. My job was done... for now.
Once we managed to get out of Earth's pull, things started to go wrong. We sling-shoted past the moon and into the asteroid belt where we had a few close encounters. I found myself getting very sick. Please don't throw up, I thought. This can't last forever.
As we approached the red planet, another red button on my control panel started to blink with another warning that we would meet terrible disaster if that button was not pressed. I struggled to breathe under my tremendous weight, and they wanted me to push a stupid little button?
I put on a brave face and tried to lift my arm. It wasn't easy, but I pushed that button and saved the day for a second time.
Our ship crash-landed on Mars—you'd expect that from a Disney ride, I suppose—and I prayed we would not have to endure the journey back to earth. I was very close to hurling at this point, and I wouldn't be able to handle a journey back to Earth.
We had stopped at the end of a cliff. The ride stopped. Thank God! We were done! Oh, no.... The edge of the cliff cracked and our spaceship began to tilt over that abyss—then fell with sickening speed over the cliff.
The craft yanked back and forth rapidly as it hit rocks and debris along the way. I closed my eyes and could feel the bile coming up my throat. And kept repeating to myself, do not throw up, do not throw up, you will not throw up....
And you know what? I didn't! Once again the ship came to a rest and the doors opened. The ride was over! Thank God!
We stumbled out, saying nothing, and took a seat at some benches outside of the ride.
Don't throw up, don't throw up. I tried to look macho in front of Amanda—not like I was about to hurl, at least.
Amanda was having a tough time of it too. We sat for several minutes trying to get our stomachs settled, neither of us feeling especially talkative.
Next on our itinerary was the Test Track ride, but we decided that another fast, high-powered ride wasn't a good idea. Instead, we went on some kiddy rides—which wasn't exactly settling either, but were tame enough not to make our stomachs worse.
Then we went to Planet Ocean to visit the aquarium stuff. No rides to worry about at this place!
The elevator was disorienting, and was not a pleasant experience. We took some more chick pictures with Finding Nemo characters when we heard over the intercom system that it was feeding time for the fish.
So Amanda and I trudged up the stairs to the viewing platform for the aquarium—which was absolutely fascinating to watch. It was like I was scuba diving in Central America with hundreds of colorful fish swimming about, plus a few sharks and rays to keep things interesting. A couple of scuba divers were swimming around the water feeding these aquatic creatures and I watched entranced.
I sat down to watch. I figured sitting down for a bit would help my stomach, and I had something interesting to watch during the process.
I watched for about five or ten minutes, but my stomach wasn't feeling any better. In fact, it was even starting to feel worse. Then I realized—it was the aquarium. The water and glass was very disorienting and it was upsetting my already temperamental stomach. I had to leave it—immediately.
I got up and told Amanda we were leaving. We walked down the stairs back to the bank of elevators—then told Amanda not yet. I couldn't handle the elevators yet. My stomach had to settle some more first.
I sat down against a wall near the gift shop and told myself not to throw up.
I finally threw up.
However, I didn't spew everywhere—a fact that I'm sure all employees were thankful for. I had the presence of mind to hold it in my mouth, cheeks bulging, trying to sign to Amanda for something to spit out in.
I don't think she understood me, so I got up and started following signs to the restrooms where I took a stall and let it out.
Then I spit a few times, trying to clean out my mouth. I waited for half a minute to make sure nothing else wanted to follow, then flushed the toilet and went to the sink where I washed my mouth out with water several times.
I couldn't have been gone for more than a couple of minutes, but a remarkable thing happened—I felt GREAT! Not even the least sense of nausea. I exited the restroom feeling better than I had at any time since getting off of Mission: Space.
Amanda and I left through the pseudo elevators—we had figured out they weren't real elevators but jiggled around to make it seem like they were—and I felt great.
Amanda was still queasy, though, so the hard-core rides would have to wait. While passing another set of restrooms, I suggested to Amanda she give throwing up a try, because darn, after I did, I felt like a new man! She didn't much care for the suggestion, however, and passed on it.
We headed to the World Showcase area of Epcot—which I was looking most forward to since it seemed so interesting and foreign to all of the other theme parks I've been to. A bunch of buildings themed to various countries from around the world with mostly shopping and eating establishments rather than rides? The best comparison I could make in my head was Las Vegas of all places with each casino having its own theme. Though the Disney version didn't have the slot machines, of course. =) There's even an Eiffel Tower in the French section, just like in Las Vegas! (Though, as Vegas tends to do, they made their version much larger than Disney's version.)
Our first destination was to the small, African outpost where, rumor had it, a letterbox was lurking! On the way we heard a mom scolding her child saying in short, clipped words, "Do you want to go home right now? Because I'll take you home now if I have to."
I smiled and pointed the scene out to Amanda, "See, that's what I love about this place. It's the Happiest Place on Earth. You can feel happiness all around." She seemed confused by my observation, so I explained, "As much as that kid is hating his mom right now, that's a threat he took seriously. There's nowhere else in the world that kid wants to be. And you know the mom doesn't really want to leave either. It's not a serious threat. We both know she'd just lock him in the family car then come right back. It's the happiest place on earth, and neither of them would want to be anywhere else!"
Amanda rolled her eyes, and we continued on to find the letterbox. We took a brief look in Mexico and Norway before stopping at the Outpost, a relatively secluded spot. The letterbox was supposed to be hidden in the driver's seat of an old, broken down truck left as part of the décor. Trying to find the box without looking suspicious had us perplexed, but the chicks came to the rescue. They were ALL OVER that truck! On the hood! Behind the steering wheel! Honk! Honk! Whoops! A chick fell off the steering wheel—perhaps had a little too much to drink, we think—right onto the floor at the driver's side seat.
I surreptitiously ducked in to pick up the chick and look for the letterbox at the same time, but alas, we didn't find it. Those meticulous Disney cleaners must have beat us to them.
Foiled in our letterboxing endeavor—but happy the Disney police didn't come out to arrest us—we walked back to ride the little Viking ship through Norway. Oh, how I liked that ride. The ride attendant was a really cute girl. The lines were clearly getting longer, though, since we found ourselves standing in line with three people in front of us.
We got into the Viking ship that seemed like an innocent kid ride, but it soon turned dark and scary. Trolls danced around with possible death right around the next corner. The Viking ship got turned backwards—that was good, I though, since you shouldn't be able to see death coming while at the happiest place on earth—then the ship turned forward again.
Just before the end of the ride, the ship floated past oilrigs, which seemed kind of odd to me.
We finished and continued our tour of the other nations: China, Germany, Italy, and even the good old U S of A. The chicks loved it—they wanted their pictures taken at all the locations! Japan, Morocco, France. Stopping at every two-bit ride and show we could find along the way. We then crossed the English Channel into the land of the British and on to Canada, and finally back into the land of the real rides. The whole way I complained to Amanda about the heat and the crowds—Florida is miserably hot. At least that's what she always tells me. It was mostly overcast and probably in the 60s during our visit, and the park was practically empty of people. They probably thought it was going to rain or something, I guess.
By now, Amanda's stomach was starting to feel better, so we decided to go back to the Test Track ride and give it a whirl. They have a nice setup so you can learn all about how they use dummies in crash tests and test the various parts of a car. Our guidebook told us that the crash dummies actually had real people in them, and if you weren't careful they'd be more than happy to scare the crap out of you when you approached. We didn't see any fake crash dummies, though. And I was fascinated by all the stuff to read and admire in the non-existent line, so I took my time going from one display to the next. Others who didn't much care for the décor passed us by. Amanda looked like she wanted to join them. But I just loved looking at all those torn up cars.
Finally we made it to the start of the ride where a staggering dozen or so people were in front of us. In fact, there were so many people, we had to wait for the second test car since the first one filled up! In the briefing room we were warned that Test Track was the longest, fastest Disney ride—ever! Those with weak hearts, arthritis, or were dead should not venture onto such a formidable ride—the usually safety precautions in order to keep the happiest place on earth, well, the happiest place on earth. =)
We got in our test car, buckled our seatbelts, and started zooming around the Test Track. I was heartened not to see any barf bags provided, and hoped it would be a good omen. Our car zoomed over bumpy roads, through a heat test, a cold test, testing the breaking systems and acceleration of our car. And before you knew it, we were done. And it was fun! =) Much better than that stupid Mission: Space ride.
But now, it was late afternoon and Amanda and I were feeling hungry. We had finished doing everything we wanted to do at Epcot except watch the IllumiNations at closing time—scheduled quite a number of hours away—so we decided to ride the monorail because, well, it was something to do.
We left the park, had our hands stamped, and walked up to the monorail station—but, alas, I shall tell you about that adventure another day. We don't want you suffering from eye-strain or other calamities that might befall you if these adventures get too long!
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