Return to Home Base

Our final vacation day was a whirlwind. We did much of the packing the night before so we could get up early and enjoy the pool before we had to check out of the hotel. Our final swim felt a bit bittersweet. I was really loving the climate in Florida, and was so pleasantly surprised that I didn’t find it too hot. I’d really miss all of the beautiful vegetation, and would certainly miss having daily access to the pool and the lounge chairs.

The kids were really good-natured about not protesting too much when it was time too leave. I was moodier than they were, in fact. We checked out, grabbed a bite, and then headed to the airport where we had a lot of time to kill. Mama S and I indulged ourselves with some foot massages. My masseuse was a pregnant lady who talked incessantly about her own pregnancy and her two young sons. Not so relaxing. 

Daddy had some fun with the girls by giving them all of our American change and having them spend it by themselves in the gift/snack shop across from where we were sitting (where we could see them of course.) Thank goodness the cashier was patient! After a late lunch, we were finally ready to board our plane.

The flight home felt fast, and because I requested that the Mamas sit together and Daddy sit with the girls, I even got a good nap in. The trip home from Buffalo airport felt so epic though. It didn’t help that we realized that we’d left Daddy’s handicapped parking permit in our rental car. In Florida. After stopping for late dinner, dealing with border traffic, and the long drive home it became a very late night and we were all exhausted. It was really good to be home.

What an amazing experience to spend an extended time together, enjoying being a family and exploring new parts of the world! All five of us were together in very close quarters and we all survived! I think it’s essential to invest time each year in each others company without the distractions of our work lives and adult responsibilities. It was really amazing to just focus totally on the kids and try to enjoy living in the moment (a real challenge for me at times). I have a little fantasy about an extended cottage rental where grandparents and friends can come and stay. I feel so inspired after this amazing trip, that I want to start planning for next year!  If anyone has any leads on great cottage rentals for the month of August, let me know!

 

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Day Six: Discovery Cove

Our last full day in Orlando was an early start. We were all really excited about exploring Discovery Cove, which would have never made our radar without the help of one of the moms from school who tipped us off. This particular park is an all-inclusive day resort that is a man-made lagoon, beach, and salt water pool. We’d be snorkeling and floating, and swimming with sea creatures and otters. Pretty exciting stuff!

Unfortunately, Mama S couldn’t really snap many photos at this particular place, so you’ll have to rely on my descriptions and some images I lifted from the Internet.

The entrance to the place looked like a tropical paradise. The vegetation in Florida is so unlike anything we have here. It was easy to fantasize about the kind of awesome garden we’d have in such a place. Bamboo grew tall, palm trees and cyprus made a lush canopy, and there were brilliantly-coloured blooms to behold everywhere.

After we made our way through a very warm and friendly registration, we had breakfast. The food was cafeteria-style and we quickly realized that it would only serve as fuel for us. It was palatable, but nothing to write about. With full tummies, we moved from the breakfast place to the tropical aviary.

The aviary hosted a beautiful assortment of birds, many of whom were quite used to people feeding them with the little cups of diced fruit and seed available. They had no qualms about landing on your head or arms, and the friendliest birds were about the size of our pigeons and seagulls. It was pretty amusing to watch the kids react in both delight and fear in response to all of their new friends, and we all managed to avoid getting pooped on.

After a little tour through the aviary, we found some lockers and gathered our swimming/snorkeling gear. We were advised to use wet suits because the water in the salt water pool was quite cool (for the creatures that live there) and because all guests had to have a wetsuit or a vest on, but of course nobody makes maternity wet suits. Daddy and I opted for the vests, which were pleasantly stretchy. Wandering around looking for the entrance to the salt water pool in the blazing heat wearing wet suits really made us look forward to that extra cool water.

I’m not the strongest swimmer, and my big belly was definitely making me less buoyant, so I grabbed a life jacket for myself and A. The girls splashed into the water ahead of us, and quickly began shrieking with the cold. Then A stopped in her tracks. There were creatures everywhere! The rays that they stocked the pool with were much, much bigger than what we saw at SeaWorld. In fact, I think once the stingrays get too big for the SeaWorld pool they graduate to Discovery Cove. Some of the rays were about four feet wide. A was a bit terrified I think – both of the deep water, and all of the creatures in the pool. Swimming with the animals is one thing in theory and something quite different in practice. Even I was just a little bit nervous, and had insisted on a mission to find water shoes at the local Walmart lest I step on anything icky or painful. A objected violently (and loudly) to Daddy’s attempts at convincing her to swim with him, but Mama S was able to be the voice of reason. It took nearly half an hour of convincing, while the rest of us snorkeled about, but soon A joined our party secure on Mama’s back.

Snorkeling with a life jacket and a large pregnant belly is possibly the most ungraceful thing I’ve ever attempted. Also, I think everyone else in the pool was getting used to snorkeling because they kept crashing into me. It felt quite crowded in the pool, despite the fact that the park only allows 1,000 people per day. I took my time though, and took lots of breaks. The underwater world is such a marvel. It felt so peaceful and serene, and it was quite humbling to take in all of the colour and beauty that nature yields.

After a bit of solo exploration, we all decided to go on a little adventure together. We snorkeled about the cove, A clinging tightly to Mama S, and we approached an area under a bridge where as I got closer, I could see about 30 sharks hanging around near the sandy bottom. Sharks! I popped my head out of the water and grabbed Daddy, who had arrived at this spot moments before me and was now laughing his head off at me. He took my hand and placed it against the thick and very clear glass wall separating us from them as he continued to laugh. Of course they wouldn’t let people swim with sharks. Holy liability suit! It did scare the bejesus out of me for a moment though.

After we’d had our fill (read children with blue lips) in the saltwater pool, we headed to the fresh water for a tour on the lazy river. My quest was to find the otters that were reputed to be frolicking there. The lazy river was so long, and lovely. The current wasn’t very strong, so I really had to work (even with the use of a floating noodle) to stay with the group at certain points, but the scenery was lovely. The river even wound through the aviary, and we still escaped the poop. No otters were discovered on our lazy river experience, but we were directed to a separate lagoon by a handsome lifeguard. I was disappointed to find that they too were kept behind glass. I had real fantasies of petting them and playing with them, but maybe they are more vicious than they look. The otters, not the lifeguards. I’m also not sure I can safely describe them as ‘frolicking’. They seemed a little listless to me, perhaps because they were sad that the humans were kept behind glass.

Lunch time was next. Again, the food was mostly fuel, certainly not our greatest culinary experience. The kids picked away, but didn’t eat much because the lure of the water was too great. After lunch, we returned to the salt water, but hit the opposite side of the pool. I really love snorkeling, and these man-made experiences are all I get because I have a bit of a phobia about swimming in the ocean. Please don’t tell my kids. We got to enjoy the stingray feeding, which had us surrounded by stingrays. They are so gentle and beautiful. The park staff told me about how difficult it is for them to keep people from hurting the animals in their excitement/fear and the marine park guilt started to creep in again. I saw at least two grown men new to the pool scream like old ladies at the sight of the first big ray, and honestly there wasn’t any preparation at all for guests about what to expect in the pool or how to behave. I found that a bit irresponsible. They did offer these fun laminated cards with samples of all of the marine life and their names which unfortunately we discovered as we were leaving the pool for the last time. It would have made for a fun family treasure hunt.

We planned to return to the lazy river, but learned that it was closed due to nearby lightning. A very ominous mass of cloud cover was rolling in fast, and I predicted a typhoon. We attempted the aviary instead, but the birds were all taking cover, so I insisted we leave and get changed. It was only an hour before the park close anyway. My childhood fear of thunderstorms kicked in suddenly. I’m not sure if it was because we were all soaking wet and surrounded by water, but I suddenly started to feel panicky about the approaching storm. All of the park staff were on high alert too, insisting people take cover. That didn’t help. I had to be reminded by the other parents to relax, which was embarrassing. I hate when I lose my cool. Fortunately we were quickly changed and enjoying the warm showers in the massive changing room. We ducked out of the park as quickly as we could (despite the staff telling us that we should remain where we were) and we avoided the rain altogether.

The kids were pooped. They made it clear that they were disappointed about leaving, but once they were in the air conditioned car, I could see how flaked they were. I think we all were pretty tired, but not in the “I’m too damned sticky and hot” way. Our end-of-day tired was from lots of physical activity, which naturally led us to find a souvenir shop paired with a Baskin Robbins. The girls took their time picking out their final souvenirs and finally settled on a small stuffy each, and some shark tooth necklaces. They were even thoughtful enough to pick a necklace for each of their best friends. Then we ice-creamed.

Back at the hotel, the adults were too tired and too water logged to consider more swimming, and the rain had finally arrived. We filled the jacuzzi tub in the master suite for the girls and let them have a soak while we ordered dinner to our room. Mama S and I set up the table on our screened patio, and we enjoyed our last supper in Florida watching the rain dance across the pond outside our room.

The next morning, we’d wake up early to get in a couple of hours in the pool before check out time, and then we’d head to the airport. Stay tuned for the final vacation wrap up.

Day Five: Dolphins are Horny Bastards

Day five was a leisurely wake up, breakfast, and then off again to SeaWorld.

Our first order of business was to return to the stingrays. The girls couldn’t stop talking about them. We coughed up our money for a tray of raw shrimp and lowered our hands into the pool so they could sweep the food off our hands with their lip flappy thinggies. In actuality, the stingrays swarmed whomever was feeding, so we all felt a bit more comfortable dropping the shrimp into the pool for them. I kept thinking “One of these critters killed the Crocodile Hunter!” Call me paranoid. I’m sure pregnant ladies aren’t supposed to be up to their armpits in raw shrimp stingray poop infested waters, so I gave myself a bath in the hand wash station and then we headed off to Dolphin Cove to watch the dolphins cavort before we got our seats for the dolphin show.

First we saw the dolphins splashing above water, then we headed to the underwater portion of their aquarium, and were treated to a different kind of dolphin show. The dolphins seemed very curious about the people watching them, so they kept swimming up to the glass to check everyone out. Then I started to hear tittering from the crowd gathered at the opposite end of the glass windows. I headed over only to realize that two of the dolphins were getting it on. I figured they were mating until I realized they were both male. (Take that all of you morons who think homosexuality is ‘unnatural’!) Once Bert and Ernie started going at it, all of the other dolphins seemed inspired, and soon it was like a scene from ancient Rome. With dolphins. There seemed to be no concern whatsoever for gender, and interestingly, none of the children seemed to comment about this display. It was the teenager and adult observers who seemed all aflutter about this. I guess to the kids it just seemed like play, which as far as I’m concerned, it was.

Daddy kept commenting about how sorry he felt for the dolphins. He likened their hump fest to bored young adults who were trapped growing up in the country with nothing to do but get drunk and high and fool around. I suggested he speak with the trainer on duty about the captivity practices at SeaWorld, and so he did.  I’m not sure she put him at ease though. She spoke about their breeding program and how they sometimes will sell breeding stock to other zoos or aquariums. SeaWorld sets the standard for care and treatment of marine life, but they breed some animals in captivity to keep people paying to see the animals do tricks. That money goes towards saving and usually re-releasing distressed and injured animals and to making more rich Americans. When asked why the dolphins were having a sex-fest she stated “Dolphins are very social creatures”. We decided they were the bonobos of the sea.

After leaving the company of our social friends, we went to grab seats for the dolphin show. The other dolphin show, which was decidedly less sexy. I think I enjoyed this show the most because it featured a team of aerial divers who did some really amazing tricks. I figure if the animals have to do tricks, the humans should also do strange and unnatural things with their bodies. All of the humans were dressed as exotic birds, and much to my surprise the show featured several flocks of parrots who were released from the back of the stadium, flying very close over our heads. My mother would have had a coronary. It was like a Hitchcockian paradise. At one point, a huge dark shadow passed over us and I felt a woosh of air over my head. A condor swooped from the back of our seats to the back of the stage. I’ve never seen a bird that large. It was terrifying.  After the show, some of the cast were on hand to pose for a photo. People were treating the actors like they were cardboard cutouts, but our girls both said “That was a great show!” without prompting from us. They make me so proud.

With time to spare before the next show, the fam decided to tackle the Atlantis themed log ride. Again, no pregnant ladies allowed. What to do but waddle into the gift shop which was icy with a/c. It also featured a small aquarium room with a glass floor. I settled myself on the cool floor with my back propped against the wall. It felt so good to be cold and sitting down, and I had a couple of other pregnant buddies to talk to. Watching the fish float by beneath me lulled me right to sleep until a toe against my knee woke me up. It was Mamma S reporting that near by lighting had temporarily closed down the ride, so she was sent to consult with me about whether they should wait, or catch our last opportunity to feed the dolphins. We’d come to the park to feed the dolphins, so the dolphins won. The kids were pretty disappointed about the ride, and I think were probably starting to get a bit tired. (Read cranky)

We chose well because there was a massive line up for the dolphin feeding. Fortunately, we were right next to the stingray pool so the kids were able to occupy themselves there until we’d moved further in the line. Finally we had paid our dolphin feeding fee and were about to face them head on. The trainer gave us some basic rules to follow and then they armed us with a tray of raw fish. The dolphins swam up very close and with one hand we could pop the fish in their mouths and with the other stroke them under their chins. I think I had expected to see some clever, ancient sparkle in their eyes, but they looked all dead on the inside. Again, I just ended up feeling kind of sad for them. They ate well every day, but they basically had to whore themselves and be fondled by strangers in order to do so. I scrubbed the raw fish and the shame away at the wash station.

By now the rain had started. We headed over to the next show, in an indoor theatre, featuring trained domestic pets. We were quite early so we stopped in a cafeteria for lunch, and surprisingly found some really healthy options. Daddy got the smoked turkey leg he’d been craving; another throw-back from my Renaissance Festival days.

After lunch we watched the pet show. It was easily the girls’ favourite. The set was pretty elaborate – it was a beach town for pets, and the animals were very amusing. There were lots of different dogs and cats, a rat, a pot bellied pig, and a skunk. They were all rescued from local animal shelters to be kept (probably in crates) at SeaWorld learning tricks to amuse humans. Hmmmm….

The pet show was our last SeaWorld attraction before we decided to call it a day. We let the girls play a “win every time” game, and they each got a stuffed stingray to take home. The girls really loved SeaWorld, and loved getting to see so many of these animals for the first time. H stated she wanted to be a marine biologist or trainer when she grows up. It inspired them in just the way a zoo or aquarium should. Two new converts to the “save the marine life” school of thought. This also led to a really interesting conversation about why we could go to SeaWorld, but why we’ll never spend our money at our close-to-home Marineland. Coincidentally, the Marineland animal abuse story broke just after we returned to Toronto. After SeaWorld we had a dinner reservation at the Benihana across the street from the hotel, and we had just enough time to go home and freshen up.

Benihana was highly entertaining for the girls. For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a Japanese restaurant that operates teppanyaki style, which means the chef cooks everything right at your table. We shared our table with a couple on vacation with their little boy. He kept making race car sounds, but no actual words, through the entire meal. Ironically, A was super annoyed with all of the noise he was making. Our chef was very amusing, and great with the kids. The food however was a huge disappointment. I could barely choke down my over-cooked steak. Fortunately we filled up on appetizers, which were yummy, but the main event was blah. Again, high entertainment value for the children saves the day.

It was straight to bed for the munchkins at home, and some relaxation time for the grown ups. Day six would be our biggest day yet, and our final full day of vacation. We had reservations for Discovery Cove where we’d swim with otters, stingrays, tropical fish and sharks. I think day six was the day we’d all been waiting for.

Vacation Day Three

On this particular morning, Daddy got up in the wee hours while we all snoozed happily away. He brewed some coffee to take in a travel mug, and then he went to enjoy the anniversary gift that Mamma S and I got him (all her brilliant idea). He hit the race track at Disney to enjoy a few laps in a Ferrari 458.

I think he was back just after I got out of the shower. By his account it was money well spent and he had a great time. He was grinning like a little boy, and I only wish we had a photo, though I’m glad he didn’t shell out the requisite $$ to get one.

Our plan for day three was to do absolutely nothing, and that’s exactly what we did. We grabbed some breakfast, headed over to the main pool, and swam and relaxed until one of the daily thunderstorms forced the pool to close down in the late afternoon. It rained every single day of our trip, but usually only for a very short spell, and then it would return to glorious sun shine. On day three, the rain came, and more or less stayed for the rest of the day.

We returned to our hotel suite and enjoyed some Olympic television, some games (including the super popular Bananagrams) and some nap time. Daddy made a dinner reservation at a near by Italian restaurant for later, and when the rain stopped falling we took the girls to the little playground near our room to burn off some steam while Mama S enjoyed her nap. If you’re traveling with children to a place like Orlando where there is so much to see and do, I highly recommend you plan for at least one day like this. It was a much needed re-charging of all of our batteries.

Dinner was nice, and the restaurant was packed. It was an independent place (not a chain, like most of the restaurants we visited) and it seemed like it was in high demand. Even with a reservation we had to wait over half an hour for a table, but the food was delicious. Our server was from Niagara Falls, NY so she was well versed about Canada. She gave us some pointers about where we could take the girls to shop for the little trip souvenirs we promised they could get.

After dinner, and with an ice cream – crazed A in tow (something wild can happen with the mix of tired and ice cream) we set out to look for a souvenir shop. I think we were all a little bit done for the day, but we’d promised the kids the chance to shop, so we persevered. We ended up stopping at the biggest place we could find, and really just found a sea of crap inside. The kids took forever to make a choice, and the grown ups really needed to direct them because none of us wanted to make room for cheap plastic dolphin figurines and snow globes in our house. We all hate that kind of knick-knackky crap.

The final winners were a pair of tiny stuffed dogs with big pathetic eyes that could be clipped on to a bag or a belt loop. The girls settled on these with the promise that we’d make one more souvenir stop before the vacation was over. FYI, we set a dollar limit of course. Mamma S and I also found our own great souvenir, but decided the photo was enough of a trip memory.

Back at the hotel, we put the girls to bed, and then the three of us got in some Olympics before our eyelids grew too heavy. Even doing nothing all day really seemed to take it’s toll. Perhaps it was an indication of how much we needed our rest. Day four was Seaworld, and an early start.