Friday, March 29, 2013

Day 1 - Animal Kingdom (Part 1)

Tuesday March 12, 2013

We awoke to the sound of pouring rain - not promising for what was to be our first day at Disney.  Though we wanted to get an early start as it would take us a couple of hours to get there from Bradenton there was no point in getting soaked trying to do it.  So we hunkered down and had some coffee while we waited for a break in the weather.

We arrived at Disney's All-Star Music Resort where we were staying and headed to the desk to check in.  The woman who checked us in was very friendly (as expected) and she was originally from the Netherlands so we ended up chatting about family, our upcoming trip, the summer I spent there and so on.  She mentioned that since it was still early morning we were too early for check in which wasn't until later in the afternoon.  But she said she would see if she could find us something.  And she did.  She also gave us some buttons that would play into our experience later.

We stayed in the Country Fair section at the back of the resort.  We were straight back from the main building past the two pools (one shaped like a piano, the other like a guitar) situated two doors down from giant cowboy boots and right behind a giant banjo.

We had been chatting about searching for Hidden Mickeys and  Daniel picked out the ones in the boots right away.  And on the manhole covers.  And in the railings along the second and third floor walkways at the resort.  And the one that served as the entrance to the bird houses we saw hanging about at Animal Kingdom.  It turns out he has a pretty sharp eye for detail.

Anyway, we dropped our belongings, grabbed what we needed for the park and headed off to catch a bus to Animal Kingdom, the first park on our list.

One of the things we learned during our stay was just how good Disney is at making the customer experience seemless, simple and pleasant.  Their transportation system is excellent.  We literally parked our SUV on Tuesday and didn't drive it again until Saturday when we left.  Everywhere we went was by bus and there was always a bus when we needed one.  Our longest wait was this first bus - every other time we either walked right up and climbed onto one that was waiting or we lined up for five minutes.  It really was no hardship at all.  And although there were certainly a few time when we were packed in, standing in the aisle, everyone was pleasant.  I mean really, you're on a bus on the way to Disney World - where's the problem, right?

Although we had heard that Animal Kingdom was a park that didn't necessarily warrant an entire day (indeed my guide book to Disney would have had us relaxing by the resort pool by mid-afternoon) our late arrival meant that we would need to be smart if we wanted to make the most of our day.

This is where I would like to pause and pass on a couple of tips.  Number one is to plan.  I know it is your vacation and you're just looking for some fun, but I can only say that in my experience, planning was what made the trip for us.  We didn't get crazy about it.  And we were certainly flexible.  You have to be willing to modify as you go.  But I have no doubt that if the first time you look at a map of the park is when you grab it as you walk in the front gates, you are missing out.  Being familiar with the park, at least on paper helps to organize how you're going to spend your time which allows you to be efficient.  It also allows you to focus on the things that are important to you and skip the things that aren't.

Second, use Fast Passes.  It stuns me that for four days we were able to go on the most popular attractions without waiting more than fifteen or twenty minutes (and often five or less) while other people stood in line for an hour or more.  Again, this requires a little planning, but it is so worth it.

Third, skip the Extra Magic.  Disney extends the hours of the parks by opening early some days and closing later.  These Extra Magic hours are to allow Disney Resort guests additional time in the parks.  It sounds like a worthwhile idea but I read a suggestion in Disney World:-Beat the Crowds that was at first counter-intuitive.  The author suggested that you skip the parks that are offering Extra Magic hours, opting instead for one of the other parks on those days.  The logic is that Extra Magic equates to Extra Busy as well.  Everyone is trying to squeeze as much out of their park time as possible and so on the days when a park is offering Extra Magic hours, more people attend that park.  By choosing a different park you are more than likely choosing a park that will be less busy too.  Now I can't be certain that this was a factor for us because we didn't go to any parks on the Extra Magic hours days so we can't compare.  But what we can say is although the parks were all busy we never felt the oppressive crush of the crowd that often comes with amusement parks.

More on the actual day at Animal Kingdom in Part 2.

The Beach

Monday March 11, 2013


We couldn't go to Florida and not hit the beach so Monday was Beach Day.  We headed down to Holmes Beach which was close by and completely packed.  We headed a few blocks down the road and found a side street with beach access and headed down.  The beach was beautiful and the day was warm, though a touch breezy.  The boys got good and wet, playing in the surf, searching for shells and    sand dollars.  The water was cold, certainly too cold for swimming and even walking along the shoreline left my feet achy.  But still.  It's Florida and it's the beach.

Daniel was up to his same tricks again, harassing the waterfowl.  He would chase off the groups that congregated nearby in the sand.  But he got a bit of the same back from the birds at one point when some of the snacks we had brought with us spilled out of the bag.  With salty snacks on the line our feathery friends become significantly more bold and this time it was Daniel that was scurrying off.

We also got a fun little show.  Down the beach a few hundred yards there was a young girl with a couple of hula hoops.  She was doing something like this: Hula Dance.  It was pretty cool.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Brief Interlude

Two very quick points, mostly as placeholders for me so that I don't forget about them:

1) I do intend to finish up the posts on the Florida trip with a day-by-day summary including pictures as well as a final wrap up post about our thoughts on the trip itself, Disney, etc.

2) Just received an email link to an article on things to do in Italy for free.  Haven't looked it over yet but I expect there might be some good ideas we might want to consider.

More later.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Of Geckos, Geese & Gatherings around the Pool

Sunday March 10, 2013

The Great Gecko Hunt Begins
After a good night's sleep we were up and at it.  The day was beautiful - sunny and hot with a breeze.  The boys were on the hunt for geckos right out of the chute.  One of the neighbours provided a couple of butterfly nets and they were off, running around, looking in bushes and lurking behind trees, looking for opportunities to pounce.  Many sightings.  None captured.

We also spent some time at the pool, swimming and sunning.  The boys used the occasion to charm the residents.  They finagled some snacks as well as a gecko egg (sans gecko).  And they got lots of laughs and compliments.  It was really nice to get into the water; I hadn't realized how much I missed swimming until I got into the pool.  The water was fantastic and for the first hour or so we had the entire pool area almost entirely to ourselves.  Even later in the afternoon as people began to drift in it was still never what you would call busy.  There were never more than about fifteen people hanging around at any time.  And everyone was really friendly and it led to a good visit.

We rounded out the day with a walk down by the lake where a variety of geese and ducks make their home.  Daniel spent his time stalking a group of Muscovy Ducks.  He got to within about five  feet of the final bird before it finally tired of his presence and flew off into the night.  The noise from the beating of its wings was substantial and sent Dan-Dan scurrying in the opposite direction.
Everyone should sleep well tonight.  Except maybe the geese.

Tomorrow we plan to hit the beach.  It is supposed to be another sunny day so it should be a good day for it.  Again, the neighbours were good to the boys - someone dropped by at dinner time to lend them some toys for at the beach.  Tomorrow will be about shells, surf, buckets and shovels.  It should be another good day.

Beckley to Bradenton

Saturday March 9, 2013 - it's gonna be a long one...

Checking out.
Driving through the Appalachians by daylight is much more pleasant than at night.  The sun shines across them, leaving interesting shadows and highlighting other areas in pools of light.  Clouds hover in the valleys waiting for the heat of the day to burn them off.  The Blue Ridge Mountains loom ahead of us, true to their name and stark against an azure backdrop.  This is why we don't take I-75.

The hours and the miles pile up.  We pass through two mountain tunnels - fun facts available here: Big Walker Mountain Tunnel and East River Mountain Tunnel.  I learn that by using the numbers from my postal code and adding two zeros at the end I can use my credit card at gas pumps that require a zip code for verification.  Who knew?  Probably lots of people, but not me.  We play a game called Spot It! that has us looking for signs, bumper stickers and various vehicles on the highway as we drive.
Eventually we make it to the Florida state line and stop for our obligatory cup of fresh-squeezed OJ at the Welcome Centre.  Though we still have almost 5 hours to travel, it feels like we've arrived.  The temperature has climbed some since we left Beckley and although it is mild, we welcome it.  There is some debate about how much longer we have to go and the route for the final stretch, but eventually the navigator(s) decide on the route and we're off on the final leg of the journey.  Our GPS actually does most of the thinking for us in this regard which leads us to a scenic, if not quick, tour of some of the state's countryside.  We see some fantastic landscape including swamps, small towns and horse farms.  Giant horse farms. Apparently some of the best horse ranches around.

Let's cut across on 8 to the 301 then we can shoot down and pick up I-75 ...
Oh, and one other thing.  We finally spilled the beans about Disney to the boys.  They knew we were going to Florida and that we were going to see Bumpa & Beppa (grandpa & grandma).  But they didn't know about the mouse.  We were anticipating wild peals of laughing delight.  Not so much. They're happy and they're looking forward to it, but the news was received with less enthusiasm than we expected and was somewhat anticlimactic for us.  Figures right?  We were more geared up for it than they were.  Of course we both have experience with Disney and we've been planning it for awhile so we've had some time to build it up.  The upside is that we were able to keep the secret (with a number of near misses) until now. Now that we can finally speak openly about it we've been able to begin planning the Disney portion of the trip with the boys.  Getting them involved got them more excited but I still expect it won't be until we actually get there and they take it in for the first time that it will really hit them.  I'm looking forward to that moment.

Getting There

We headed out, packed with everything we thought we might need.  The new SUV is a bit more spacious than the Caravan was so everyone has a bit more elbow room.  Our first adventure, before even leaving Burlington was a trip to replace the DVD player I had picked up for the journey.  The power plug for in the vehicle was broken; rather than just swap out the part we had to swap out the entire unit.  That meant we had to set up the whole thing again - straps to attach the screens to headrests, plastic wrap removed, etc.  And then we almost departed with TMNT (that would be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) still in the old player.  Signs of things to come?  Naw.

 The drive on Friday night was mostly uneventful.  As always we reminded the boys of the significance of the New River Gorge Bridge as we crossed it.  (For the uninitiated, the Judi and Rob mythology first  began on a rafting trip that took us under this same bridge.)  The plan was to push forward as far as possible, knowing we would wrap it up somewhere between Pittsburgh and Charlotte.  We finally settled on Beckley, WV as a place to stop for the night as it was 11pm, I was too tired to take another driving shift and Daniel, wide-awake, was "Are-we-there-yet?"-ing Judi ceaselessly.  It was time to saw it off and call it a night.  It also isn't a tonne of fun to drive through the hills of West Virginia in the dark.   During the day is another matter entirely.

Florida or Bust

So we're in the final throes of preparing for a week in Florida with the kids; bags are packed, newspaper is cancelled, tires are topped up to the proper kpa.  Now we just have to drive for 20 hours.  Both ways.  We've got plenty to keep us distracted (movies, books, music, games, snacks) and we've done it a few times already so it should be fine.  But still.  20 hours.

I'm hijacking the euro2013 blog to write a bit about  this trip.  It will be good practice, will give me an easy way to update anyone who is interested on how this trip is going, and well, it's my blog, so I'll do with it as I please.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Planning Continues

So while we are still many months away, the trip is nonetheless drawing closer.  Planning is still somewhat loose, but we were able to nail a few things down.  We've now limited our Italian stretch of the trip to Rome and parts south.  Tuscany, Venice (if it doesn't sink), Florence and Milan will have to wait for another time.  We've all agreed that Rome is a priority as well as the coast.

We're still working on the best approach for our little group - a package through an agent versus sourcing flights and accommodations ourselves.  I think we're starting to lean towards some sort of hybrid of the two but there really is nothing firm yet.

We also know that we want to do a canal cruise in Amsterdam, possibly in the evening for added effect.  And the cheese market in Alkmaar is a must; it will be the trifecta for me, having been there on both of my previous visits but I'm good with that - it's such a part of the experience that I wouldn't want anyone to miss out on it.  And I love me some cheese.

I also picked up a couple of guide books to help us both before and during the trip.  Not sure how they rate among the various travel guides out there but they met two important criteria: 1) they are both relatively small and so good for carrying along while we're travelling and 2) they weren't overly expensive.  We also purchased some new luggage; we have 2 carry on size bags that also have hideaway backpack straps that could prove useful.  We've agreed we're going to try to travel light, although I know that will be easier said than done.

And I bought a murse.  Or a man-bag.  Or messenger bag.  Call it what you will - it's a purse.  It's a biggish one, that will fit my netbook to allow me to do some writing on the go.  And it's high-tech too.  It's built specifically for travel so it has zippers that lock, wire woven throughout including in the strap to prevent thieves from slicing it and getting your contents.  Since I'll be in Europe anyway I imagine I'll be less self-conscious about it (until my wife asks me for a tissue and I pull one out of my purse for her).  My bigger concern is that after two weeks of carrying it around with me I'm going to feel dependent on it upon my return.  Maybe I'll have to do like the kids do and start carrying a backpack with me everywhere I go.  Of course then I won't be allowed into HMV.

Key ingredient for Netherly 2013 planning.