My Disney Hangover

We returned from a trip to “The Most Magical Place On Earth” yesterday. No, we were not at one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or Tahiti. We traveled to Disney World – the Magic Kingdom, specifically – for a quick and easy weekend trip. Except that there wasn’t anything quick and easy about it.

We should have known better. As the saying goes, Fool Me Once, Shame on Mickey, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me. We weren’t Disney virgins; we were seasoned Disney sophomores. This time our trip was going to be smoother, less expensive, more mainstreamed. Oh yeah, we had this excursion in the glittery bag.

Let me back up a bit. As a child, I never visited Disney World. My parents weren’t theme park people, save an occasional trip to the amazing Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas. Our trips primarily consisted of driving to Port Aransas or South Padre Island, Texas, swimming in the beach and pool, fishing and relaxing. My Dad always joked about how we would never have an itinerary on a vacation. I chuckled and thought that one day I would have trips with itineraries. I should have known that the beach bum doesn’t fall far from the coconut tree.

Last spring, the stars aligned and a trip to Disney World seemed within reach. We lived within a short drive of Orlando, my husband was coming home from a long deployment, and our three children were at an age where at least one of them would remember the trip years later. After an internal struggle inside my head, I finally decided to give Disney a shot – after all, I might really love the place and fall under its magical spell.

We stayed at Disney’s Art of Animation resort on our first go round. I felt like I was staying at the Walmart of Disney properties, though the price could have gotten us a suite at a nice Marriott. We didn’t use the inviting pool facilities because we were too busy knocking out four theme parks. We used a Disney specific travel agency and enjoyed wonderful dining experiences and met enough characters to choke a Hungry Hungry Hippo. The trip was not without its challenges, though.

For one, we were exhausted. As the week pushed on, every morning I would think, I have to get on a bus and do this again? The crowd levels were low, which was wonderful, but the rain was unrelenting and put a damper on the week. Overall, the kids had a blast, so we chalked the trip up to a success. Next time, we thought, we will make a few tweaks, and the adults would enjoy Disney too.

For our second trip, I did not consult the predicted crowd charts (yes, some guy online actually graphs out the estimated crowd levels for every day of the year at Disney), but in my heart I knew that the park would be crowded on Valentine’s/President’s Day weekend. “How bad could it be?”, I thought. We set up our FastPass selections for character meet and greets. I diligently researched hotels and found a well-reviewed boutique hotel off property with spacious and budget-friendly accommodations. We would visit only the Magic Kingdom on a Saturday, so we wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by multiple parks. In essence, this trip would be manageable, fun, and dare I say, magical?

Our first misfire was leaving our home on a Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, as opposed to the morning. I didn’t want the kids to miss their Valentine’s parties at school, so we didn’t take off until the end of the school day. This was a costly mistake, as we encountered massive traffic delays in Jacksonville, due to the holiday traffic and several car wrecks. We lost about an hour. Strike one.

After the initial miscue, we arrived in Orlando and began Yelping nearby restaurants. And what to my hungry eyes did appear – Chuy’s, that classic Tex-Mex restaurant based in my hometown of Austin. Now, when I lived in Austin, I tended to classify Chuy’s as overrated and sloppy seconds, best left for the tourists or non-foodies. But when you live in a Mexican food desert, and Chuy’s appears on the horizon, it’s like a gallon of ice-cold water after walking for miles parched. This trip was going to be the best ever!

Chuy’s delivered the goods – I chugged the first margarita in about ten seconds flat – the queso and creamy jalapeno sauce were so divine I initially just stared and took in their pure deliciousness. And to top off the good food and drink, there was a jolly man making balloon animals for the children. Our first and last meals in Orlando would ultimately prove to be the highlights of this trip. Chuy’s was the Last Supper.

After dinner, we made the short drive over to the Point Orlando Hotel and marveled at the spacious suite and nice set-up. We tucked in early and dreamt of magical fairies and fireworks. The next morning, we sprang out of bed bright and early, ate a solid breakfast at the hotel and started our trek to the Magic Kingdom. We arrived to the parking lot by a little after 8:00, which felt like an accomplishment. We easily parked and marveled at all of the Disney employees deployed to assist each of us. Disney runs a tight ship, I thought.

We then took a tram into an area where we could either opt to take a ferry or monorail into the park. My husband grumbled a little about all the transportation required to simply enter Disney, and we hoped we would not miss out on meeting Cinderella and Rapunzel. We packed into a car like commuters in Beijing, and I told the kids to pretend they were riding the subway in a big city. We finally arrived, and the fun could officially begin.

Looking back, the morning was the best part of our day at Disney. We met various characters with our three FastPasses, and as a bonus we even got to meet the coveted Anna and Elsa. For lunch, despite not having reservations, we waited a moderate amount of time and dined at the Crystal Palace, featuring a quality buffet and the affable Winnie the Pooh crew. After lunch, the day began its downward spiral, which would end with us hitting rock bottom.

The crowds became insane. You know when the Dumbo ride has an hour wait time, that fat elephant has the last laugh. We queued an hour to ride the Jungle Cruise, which consisted of a millennial tour guide making corny jokes the whole way. He was probably the highlight of the ride, next to the fake elephants and dark cave. The only other ride we were able to get on was Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride. We waited 45 minutes to go in circles in the air for about five minutes.

We finally called it quits on waiting in line for the rides and caught a few shows in Tomorrowland. My husband nearly lost it when a Disney employee moved our stroller to an unknown location, which took about 20 minutes to find in the dark. My middle son said he couldn’t wait to go back to school so he could tell the other kids how Disney took our stroller. “We visited Disney and all I got was this lousy stolen stroller story” is what his t-shirt should read.

We originally had dinner reservations at a Disney hotel restaurant but decided to cancel them because we didn’t want to deal with riding a bus and monorail all over again. The clock ticked on into the evening, and we had to start thinking about dinner. The sunny afternoon weather turned back into a chill, and we did not want to eat at an outdoor counter service restaurant. We decided that the kids would not make it to the 10 p.m. fireworks show, so we say goodbye to the Magic Kingdom and headed out of the gates.

The monorail was down, so all of us were forced to ride the ferryboat back to the area where we would then get on a tram to take us to our cars. I was fine with riding a ferryboat, as I thought the kids would enjoy the novelty, but the waiting dock was super crowded due to the lack of monorail service. I almost made a crass comment referencing third world country conditions but another guest took that liberty first.

Brooks sat down as we waited, and I urged him to stand up so he wouldn’t get trampled when guests started loading the boat. The ferry docked and we all loaded the boat like a bunch of hungry and tired refugees, desperate to not get left behind. The ferry, filled to the brim with people, pushed off from the dock. Our oldest child began to fall asleep as she was standing up. I had to hold her arm up so that she wouldn’t collapse. She was incoherent and for a time we thought she might require a hospital visit. How does a child fall asleep standing up? Was it an undisclosed side effect of Tinker Bell’s pixie dust? We finally hoisted her into our toddler’s stroller where she went comatose.

We arrived on land and made the short walk to the tram lines. We missed the first one, and Good Samaritans allowed us to wedge into their car, as our bulky stroller lay horizontal on all of our laps. We finally arrived at our parking lot, and with much relief, we settled in for the short eight-mile return trip to our hotel.

Our eight-mile jaunt ended up taking two hours. The highway was jam-packed – apparently there was a wreck, though we never saw it – and the light at our exit appeared to be out. We sat in the right exit lane for about one and a half hours, as some fed up cars veered onto the shoulder and took matters into their own hands. Other drivers sped up to the front of the line and cut in, thus we never moved forward. Discussing their lawlessness and whether we should follow suit, I maturely said, situations like this bring out the best or the worst in people. The worst in me would materialize soon enough. Everyone has a breaking point.

Initially we were going to eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner, then we decided, okay, we will just hit up the McDonald’s drive thru. (I remarked that I had never eaten at McDonald’s for a Valentine’s dinner, and that this would be a memorable time.) That quarter pounder with cheese meal was sounding divine. Unfortunately, once we exited the highway two hours later, the McDonald’s was on the wrong side of the road and inaccessible to us. That’s fine, we thought, our glasses still half full, the hotel restaurant is open until 11:00, so we will order food from them.

We finally pull into the hotel parking lot, and the kids are in various states of incoherent moaning and crying. We pick up various kids and sprint like scared animals toward the warmth of the hotel. We run into the light and inquire as to the restaurant’s location. A young man informs us that the kitchen just closed, one hour early, as the staff was overwhelmed and needed to catch up. At that point I lose my cool with a few choice phrases. I loudly proclaim that Orlando is the absolute worst city I have ever been to, and that I have been to some pretty crappy places, so this is a legitimate designation. At this point, I am beyond tired, hungry and dehydrated. Disney had finally broken me.

Dejected and resigned to failure, we return to our room, where we feed our kids a random assortment of snacks and leftovers from the previous night’s meal. Here is one cheese quesadilla; you may each have a third of it. Our two-year-old was so exhausted he started shouting “tired, tired!” and collapsed in his porta-crib, forgoing his nightly cup of milk. My husband and I ordered a pizza and finally ate a few slices at 11:30 p.m. I then collapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Our youngest son, who probably fell asleep at 10:30, woke up at 6:30, yelling “I want Eltha [Elsa]; I want Eltha!” We reluctantly awoke, showered and packed our belongings, ready to get the hell out of Orlando. (We originally considered visiting another attraction that day, but there was a tacit understanding that our only destination was home.) In my state of starvation the previous evening, I had remembered seeing a sign for Denny’s near our hotel. We made the decision to eat at the diner, and I silently prayed that it would not take two hours to go two miles to the eatery.

Like Chuy’s, Denny’s was the other highlight of our trip. The food was hot and delicious, and the perfectly mixed Diet Coke recharged and invigorated me. We stuffed our bellies into a comfortable state of fullness and then hit the road. The roads were relatively clear of traffic – church, we figured – but we didn’t want to jinx ourselves and comment on the smooth roads. We arrived back home later in the afternoon, at which point I collapsed into a deep sleep for three hours straight while my “husband of the year” took care of the kids.

On the drive back, we immediately decided to cancel our Spring Break trip to the Florida Keys. Too far, we thought. Too stressful. You know it’s bad when a beach vacation seems too hard. Thanks Disney. Instead, we would send the kids to preschool and camp and utilize a nearby luxury hotel’s pool and spa facilities during various days of the week. We would only return to Disney if the Disney guru’s website showed low crowds on his bar graph, we could afford a hotel like the Polynesian for ease of transportation to the Magic Kingdom, and if Arrendelle froze over (again). In other words, we may not return to Disney for many years, if ever.

Take away the transportation hiccups, long wait times in lines, and overall logistics, my main issue with Disney is much more philosophical and less tangible. Disney World is a fake world. It is not a national park, a cosmopolitan city, a museum of acclaimed paintings or ancient works. It is a creation built on consumerism and elaborate sets and 20-somethings dressed up as Disney princesses. My favorites are the rides or experiences that end with a mandatory walk through of a gift shop.

At my core, I am at odds with Disney’s being. I will no longer pay money to wait in line for an hour to enjoy a fake jungle ride among plastic animals. The most authentic part of Disney is probably Hollywood Studios, because that park celebrates the heritage of Disney and the art and evolution of animation, which are of artistic, educational and cultural value. This is probably Disney’s least popular park.

Cinderella’s Castle is a sight to behold, but so are centuries-old castles in Europe. From now on, I will seek authenticity and/or relaxation on my vacations. Tired, stressed, hungry, dehydrated and borderline losing my mind are not markers of a quality vacation. In the future, I will enjoy a view of the azure ocean from my beach chair with a cold drink in hand and line free bathroom nearby. I will enjoy a leisurely stroll through a bustling, cosmopolitan city with real people, culture and historic buildings. I will breathe in nature hiking through a majestic state or national park. Sorry, Disney, you have broken me, and we are breaking up for now. Thanks for the magical memories.

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Come Fly with Me . . . and my rug rats.

Author’s Note: I am posting this blog on the eve of driving with our three children 1100 miles to Texas. Today we did a trial run of a three-hour round trip, and that was just to board the dog. A lesson quickly learned — buy Dramamine for everyone! Unlike last year, this time my husband is home to help me pack and make the trek to the Lone Star State. That being said, it is a little shy of midnight, and we have just finished packing! My conclusion is, whether you fly or drive with kids, packing is a b*tch, probably harder than the actual travel part. At least in a car one is not limited by airline restrictions, but the packing part is still brutal. This blog is specific to airline travel; perhaps I will have some car travel tips later on if we survive this road trip!

As the holiday freight train roars ahead to Christmas Day, many of us prepare to travel through the air to celebrate with our loved ones. Last year I faced the daunting task of flying from Florida to Texas, with three small children, alone. Alone, as in, I am outnumbered three-to-one. From my experience I have some ideas to increase your chances of arriving at your destination with your sanity intact and all members of your family present and accounted for.

Travel tip #1: Do not wait until the last minute to pack. And by last minute, I mean the day before your trip. If you have multiple small children, there are all sorts of considerations, such as clothing needs, personal hygiene items, baby utensils, diapers and wipes, to name a few. Not to mention a travel crib, bedding, a Boppy pillow and anything else you use on a daily basis. I heeded this advice, and my bedroom became a staging area for our trip for a few weeks’ time. I’m not kidding when I say that packing for my holiday trip was the most stressful part. Despite my best efforts to organize ahead of time, the clock struck midnight on the eve of our journey, and I realized I hadn’t even packed a suitcase for myself yet.

Travel tip #2: Pack your diaper bag strategically. You might even need two diaper bags if traveling with a baby or several small children, and most airlines will not count the diaper bag toward your carry-on quota. Of course, you have only two arms, so packing lightly for the plane is preferred. I like to clean out my diaper bag before traveling, getting rid of the used tissues, half-eaten granola bars and random toys that snuck their way in. By now we know to pack a spare outfit (or two) for a baby or young child in case of a diaper blowout or potty mishap, but a prepared mom should also pack an extra outfit for herself.

I learned this lesson the hard way after my then baby girl decided to regurgitate the gallons of milk she had been drinking on me several times as I sat next to a prim businessman. I truly felt like Greg Focker when I rolled into SeaTac. My freshly blow-dried hair, made-up face and crisp black shirt gave way to wild frizz with beads of sweat pooling on my face with the distinct stench of baby throw-up. On the next flight I would know that a fresh shirt, baby wipe to the face and a little water to tame the fly-aways can have me looking fresh as I deplane.

Tip #3: Use flight times and layovers to your advantage. In my experience, the best time to fly with children is in the morning. They are alert and happy. Airport delays increase as the day goes on. The best flight for me leaves mid-morning, allowing me time to get to the airport and feed the kids breakfast before we board. I try to time a layover around lunchtime to refuel the kids with food and do a diaper change. I like about a one and a half hour layover with small children if during a mealtime, as it gives you enough time to eat, use the restroom and let the kids run around a bit before boarding the next plane. Beware of the thirty-minute layover in a huge airport like Atlanta or DFW. You will have trouble making your next flight, especially if you have to get on an airport tram or train.

Coming back from Christmas last year, I thought 35 minutes in Houston’s smaller airport would be doable since I was familiar with its layout, and most of the gates are close together. I did not take into account a delay out of Austin, which almost had us missing our flight in Houston. Which takes me to the next tip…

Tip #4: Rely on the kindness of strangers. As we approached Houston after our delayed departure from Austin, and I contemplated missing my connecting flight, gathering up all the luggage, and sleeping in an airport hotel and doing it all over the next day, I started loudly voicing my concerns. A Good Samaritan couple and their son grabbed our bags and children and escorted us to our next gate. The gentleman explained that his wife used to travel solo with their children overseas to visit him, and they knew how hard it could be. Luckily for me our next flight was delayed, so with a little help and a little luck, we made our flight.

Many travelers remember the days they had small children, or they are simply kind and want to help out. In my experience, most people are helpful and gracious as opposed to rude when you are traveling with little ones. I even had several random adults pick up my kids and let them sit with them for a bit while I caught my breath. Normally we wouldn’t hand our child over to a stranger, but on an airplane, you take the lifeline that is thrown your way.

Tip #5: Bring activities and provisions (and sometimes kids’ leashes)

These days many parents are concerned with their children’s screen time on devices like smart phones and tablets. When stuck on a plane with children, sometimes those rules fly out the window. Last year I brought every device I could think of – a DVD player, an iPhone, a kids’ tablet, plus those old-fashioned real paper books! Dolls and a special stuffed animal to travel with are good options too – just don’t bring any toys with small pieces or anything too large. As a bribe you could promise your kid a new stuffed toy at a layover’s airport shop. This will kill time and provide an incentive for good behavior.

Also pack plenty of snacks and drinks. You never know when you will end up stuck on a tarmac for two hours. This did not happen to me, but I wanted to be prepared just in case. My kids are always hungry, so I just kept throwing goldfish, graham crackers and baby puffs at them. If you keep feeding them, they can’t complain that they are hungry. I also recommend bringing your own sippy cups, so you can fill them up for free at the airport’s water fountain, instead of spending a fortune on bottled waters, which also take up more space.

The godsend for me was two kids’ backpacks with leashes attached. I swore I would never be the parent walking a kid on a leash, but that was before I had to keep track of three wild children during a day of three airports. I made the backpacks seem like a special treat, and my oldest son loved his “big boy” backpack, whereas my one-year-old son enjoyed his soft doggy one. My five-year-old daughter relished “walking” her younger brother as well. The whole scene was quite comical.

The leash also came in handy on the airplane, as my one-year-old could walk up and down the aisles while I sat in my aisle seat and held onto the other end. He also made friends this way and hung out with a few other passengers to give me a break at times. Walking the aisle worked great for my toddler, except for on the flight with the stern flight attendant who reminded me each time the seatbelt light came on. At that point I had to become a human straitjacket around my son as he screamed at the top of his lungs and tried to break free. Which brings me to the last tip…

Tip #6: Know that the flight will eventually end. No matter what happens on that plane, no matter how loudly your kids cry or scream, no matter how dirty and disheveled you are by the end, know that the flight has to eventually end, and at some point your kids will go to bed and you will get a hot shower. And the flight will one day be a distant memory that you can laugh at for years to come. Just don’t think about the return flight home.