The Pilgrimage

Just before New Year’s, Grandma and Grandpa generously brought us to Florida. We’d never visited their little snowbird house in its golf community—and they’ve been there 14 years! Heck, Laura had never been to Florida, let alone Jon!

The weather cooperated magnificently all through the trip. Not being extreme-heat lovers, the low to mid 20’s °C weather was pretty much perfect.

An actual palm tree!

Our first couple of days in Florida were spent at the grandparents’ house in Spring Hill. (Though we did go to nearby Homossassa Park to look at manatees.) Laura couldn’t get over the fact that palm trees actually do exist outside of movies. Jon had fun tooling around in Grandma and Grandpa’s golf cart and watching the “American Weather Channel”. It was a bit of experiment—Jon’s been watching the The Weather Network here since he was three, hooked on a je-ne-sais-quoi that he’s never lost interest in. It’s some kind of pastiche of hosts who look at him, the music, the scheduling around the hour and the different voiceovers, which he has memorized and can recite precisely at speed. Sometimes he watches; sometimes it’s on while he does something else. So how could the Weather Channel (which we had warned him in advance about) compete? By being just different enough. Within a day he was working on his LeapPad with the TV on in the background, occasionally muttering something about “Locals on the 8’s” (their local forecast catchphrase). La plus à§a change.

I want to steer!

Then, on to Disney. We stayed at the All-Star Movie Resort, basically a humongous (1900 rooms over 8 buildings) motel. The rooms were small but clean; just fine for us since we were spending all day at the parks anyway. Jon, having never stayed in a hotel, was thrilled with the whole setup, from the TV that could be watched from his own double bed, to the pool (with giant fountains of water shooting out of a Fantasia Mickey Mouse’s hands, 20 feet above us), to the nearby cafeteria for meals.

Jon’s introduction to it couldn’t have been better. Grandpa had begged and wrangled adjacent rooms in the Toy Story theme building, and as they parked we walked to our building. Jon’s limited vision allowed him to see the courtyard gradually, so he saw the 40-foot Buzz and the 25-foot Woody in his own time, hardly believing his eyes. A nice, slow introduction to things to come.

Woody just outside

Our building

First Day: EPCOT
Team Cookie split up into its component families fairly quickly, with Grandma joining us.

The afternoon started out auspiciously at The Living Seas, basically a souped-up, massive aquarium complex with a Finding Nemo theme. Jon loves aquariums—for some reason they don’t seem to overwhelm his vision. He was tickled when he managed to pick out “Dory” (a blue tang) without help and “Nemo” (a clownfish buried in an anemone, just like in the movie) in one of the small tanks.

Dory, Gill, Bubbles (Nemo’s mostly covered by an anemone)

With our wheelchair spot for an attraction reserved, and with time to kill, we wandered outside and came across out first character.

Aside: We had no idea how Jon would take to the wandering characters in the parks. He didn’t know anything of Mickey Mouse until recently (and come on, most of the Disney “classic” characters have been stagnant for nearly half a century) and with his visual comprehension issues inclued in the package, we suspected that Jon would get nothing out of meeting any of them. Boy, were we wrong.

Nemo, went past us (he’s a character on a wheeled platform, tail swishing as he moves) and Jon was breathless with joy. He stared and studied—even poked Nemo in the eye—just to see what he was made of. Usually Jon has to be told to smile for a photo, but you couldn’t have wiped that beam from his face with anything.

Go for the eyes!

Then back in the building for “Turtle Talk with Crush” (another Nemo character). It’s set like a small movie theatre à  la an aquarium tank. Peter and Laura at first assumed the “interactive” was just marketing hype, but when Crush started taking questions from kids (“you in the yellow shirt and ballcap, what’s your name?”) and gave answers using their names (“well, Christopher, dude…”) we weren’t the only parents who paid a bit more attention. Very nicely done, and a good first attraction for Jon.

Unlike what people usually think, EPCOT is not so much science-fiction-y as UNICEF-y. Much of the park is taken up with little areas made to look like various countries, staffed by Disney-hired emigrés from each domain. A little dorky, perhaps (Canada represented by the Chateau Laurier, next to the Rocky Mountains and a Haida mural?) but Japan does feature an offshoot of the Mitsukoshi Department Store with a nice selection of non-Disney-themed souvenirs. France is staffed by French staff. And Britain had great chips in large servings: one box served four quite nicely. Peter heard an British ex-pat exclaim “Finally, proper chips!”

This is Canada?

All but Grandma, Austin and Jon tried out Test Track, which was silly, bumpy fun that ended in a very fast car ride (we were clocked at over 60 mph) in a warm twilight evening. Welcome to Florida.

The others headed back to the hotel, but not us. We stayed for the lovely fireworks, then had to deal with a young man who had never been in a hotel before—and LIKED it! Bed, TV, hey, there was no way he was hitting the sack before his parents, and he kept chatting about the day’s events for quite some time.

Second Day: Disney-MGM
This park is constructed to look like a huge old-timey movie backlot, with fake streetfronts and cityscapes, all done in a pastel, Southern-California deco style. Most of the attractions here are shows rather than rides, but Jon gamely went on Star Tours, a Star Wars-themed flight-simulator. This was his first true “ride” and he panicked and looked away from the screen which was much of the illusion (Laura says that whenever she took her eyes off the screen to check to see how Jon was, she completely lost the impression of forward motion, and just felt the room jerking around). But as he started to use his eyes, he got more out of it, and by the end of the ride he was happy, and had a cocksure grin.

We darted in to MuppetVision 3D and confirmed once and for all that neither Laura nor Jon can see stereoscopically. Peter kept dodging the 3D projectiles coming out of the screen, while Laura and Jon sat there unimpressed and bored, until the Swedish chef behind and some critters on-screen started blasting at each other, and Jon was entertained by cannon fire. So much for that one. But our departure from the theatre was well-timed, and we ran into a sparsely-attended session with Toy Story‘s Woody, Jessie, Buzz Lightyear and Sarge. Jon was totally delighted. Peter missed the photo of Jessie giving Mommy a kiss. (!!!)

The Toy Story gang: Sarge, Jessie, Woody and Buzz

Next show: Playhouse Disney Live! A show for preschoolers featuring characters from Bear in the Big Blue House (one of Jon’s favourites) and Winnie the Pooh (another one), among others. Jon was happily agog through the whole thing. Even though he had been briefed, seeing Bear brought on a look of stunned disbelief, and finally a look to Mommy and Daddy with a wide smile.

Jon (left) looking at Bear

Jon must be one of the few kids to enjoy both Playhouse Disney and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? We figured he’d like this live version of another of his favourite TV shows, and he did, very much. Twice. About halfway through the first time he realized that the keypad that everybody gets allows you to answer (yeah, we’d been briefed, but again he was in a state of complete disbelief). So he begged to go again, and in that one he realized that he was a member of the audience and had to applaud with everyone else. Between intently pressing buttons and clapping, Jon was ecstatic; this was easily the highlight of the trip so far. Incidentally, Laura came in the top 10 of getting to the hotseat—that would have been really exciting. Jon’s head would have popped!

Millionaire set getting ready for showtime

Peter went on the Tower of Terror with Auntie Patti and Uncle David while everyone else enjoyed ice-cream.

An evening swim in the hotel pool, including a delighted giggly struggle under Mickey’s fountain and the day was done.

Third Day: Magic Kingdom
This was the big one: The park with the most rides, the most people, and the most people willing to kill each other to make sure Betsy Jr. gets on It’s a Small World five minutes quicker. There was a terrific amount of queue-jumping, cranky kids and crispy parents. We were glad we left this one till last; if we’d gone here first the shock might have killed us.

Once again we broke into groups, but we had walkie-talkies to contact each other and set up rendezvous points. Not that these worked much, but it was really fun trying. (Someone else was using the same channel as us, and Patti gave up trying to get through to us and tried to cheerily ask them if they were having a good time. Instead of enjoying the moment, they were extremely rude to her, so she cheerily began paging them once a second until they abandoned the frequency.)

We decided to start small, ease Jon into the rides with Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Jon loved both, but we noticed that the thing he loved most about Dumbo was the ability to rise high in the air and then mash the controller down so the car bombed to the bottom quickly. Hmm, thrill ride aficionado?

Up! Down! Up! Down! Bwaa-ha-HAAAA!!

Three trips on Goofy’s Barnstormer (a small roller coaster) later: Yup, definitely a thrill ride fan.

So we tried him out on Splash Mountain, a huge flume ride. This was the only ride that we had to wait in line for more than a few minutes—other rides we either got bumped up, were there at slow times, or used Disney’s Fast Pass system (get a ticket with a time period on it; come back during that time period; avoid the standby line). Jon was a little restless during the storybook parts of the ride, but laughed his head off during the three or four flumes, including the five-story plunge down (unlike his mom, who screamed), and was delighted to get soaked.

Big drop (us three at bottom right, front of boat)

One problem for Jon with many of Disney’s rides (especially the ones that feature animatronic tableaus) is that when you slide past one to go on to the next, you can still hear the fading sounds from the old scene mixing with the new one. People with normal vision—those who are visual first and auditory second—tend to ignore the “old” sounds, since they’re focusing more on the new scene. But Jon found the transitions noisy and confusing. More than once he brought his head down, to try and make sense of all the auditory stimulation first. But on the thrill rides, it’s all good; too bad Disney doesn’t have more of those.

Characters met: Cruella de Ville, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Yes it’s been heavily weighted towards Pixar characters, but that’s who Jon knows. Stitch was at the Incredibles’ station, and Jon had no interest in him, having never seen the movie. Skip.

The Incredibles

Other rides that day:
Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin—Mom and Dad shootin’, Jon steerin’. Jon loved spinning us around so we’d miss our shots (he probably would’ve liked the Mad Hatter teacup ride). Grandma bought photos of the family on the ride, and by far the best of them is Grandma and Grandpa’s, intensely battling Emperor Zurg. We need a copy of that!

Sad kids in jail with the Evil Emperor Zurg

Pirates of the Caribbean—Jon was totally unimpressed. Mom and Dad thought it was tired and desperately needs Johnny Depp.
It’s a Small World—Jon liked the music, and it’s the one tableau-ride that gradually consumed his attention and enveloped him. He’d go again, much like the way Mommy dragged Grandpa S. through a couple of times when she was six.
Tomorrowland Transit Authority (formerly WEDway People Mover)—Technically, you’d call this one “boring”. But by mid-afternoon when every ride has an hour-long line up and your kid resembles something that the bomb squad should take to a vacant lot, it’s the perfect ride: quiet, not too fast, not too popular, nice view, lengthy. And this was likely the last time we could ride it with Jon: to board you have to traverse a series of moving sidewalks, which requires full mobility—or a parent who can carry, and Jon ain’t getting any lighter.

Laura, Peter, Auntie Patti and Meghan later went into the Haunted Mansion (too dark for Jon) and Laura came out saying “That’s the hokiest thing I ever saw!”

The whole Team Cookie clan staked out a good position for the nighttime parade. It was often too loud for Jon, though he showed interest in the lights; sometimes he jack-knifed over in his wheelchair with his hands over his ears, other times he got so entranced by the lights that he’d be sitting up and he’d forget to even cover his ears.

Chip ‘n’ Dale at the piano

A little later were the fireworks—it wasn’t an ideal spot for fireworks-watching (being somewhat obscured by trees), and with five minutes to go Jon worriedly announced “I don’t like fireworks—let’s go to the bus now!”. The first rocket made him jump, and then all we heard from him for the next 10 minutes was delighted, power-mad laughter.

No, it’s not the castle blowing up…

Last Day: Character Breakfast
On our last day before heading back we packed up and drove to the Polynesian Resort for breakfast. This is one of the older Disney hotels (Peter remembers the family staying there when he was a kid), and a bit swankier than the budget All-Stars. Here we had a family-style brekkie of fruit and truly gluttonous amounts of waffles, sausages and bacon; while Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Stitch (how’s that for a weird assortment of characters?) entertained tables and led the kids in a parade around the dining room. Stitch was entertaining, accompanied by a handler who kept him out of trouble…

Let’s have a parade!

We took a tour on the monorail for a nice, quiet loop past the Magic Kingdom entrance and a couple of hotels before coming back to the Polynesian.

Then the two-hour trip back to Spring Hill, enlivened by a short detour into the city of Orlando proper when we failed to negotiate the bizarre Florida road signs (basically if you read the sign for an off-ramp, you’ve already passed it. No, really.)

Back at Grandma and Grandpa’s
The last couple of days at Grandma and Grandpa’s were largely spent recovering and decompressing from Disney. Unfortunately, Jon also seemed to be coming down with Grandma and Grandpa’s cold. He still managed to scarf down a huge spaghetti dinner…

…which we saw again later. There ensued a horrific night of Jon screaming major trouble at both ends. Ugh.

Amusingly, Austin managed to sleep through the night from hell, until he heard Peter gently scrubbing at the soiled carpet in the A.M., whereupon he sat bolt upright and asked what was going on.

The plane trip back home was uneventful, aside from a lost handbrake cap from the wheelchair (MIA while loading the chair into the taxi).

First vacation in five years. Mission accomplished!

Thank you, Grandma and Grandpa!

Team Cookie

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  1. David "Not A Jealous Bone In My Body - Not" Barker says:

    Cool! All those strange alien looking creatures and you didn’t get anywhere near Kennedy Space Center!

    Great pix! I especially like the Zurg one!

    Your trip rocks!

    Did someone say rocks?

  2. Jeff K says:

    Wow, comprehensive. In Tokyo & Paris, “It’s a Small world” is easy to get on. Dumbo is hard to get on in Paris & Florida (and probably Anaheim), but easier to get on in Tokyo. Anyway, there’s always “The Danforth” and the Bumble ride at Centre Island in a pinch (for those 2). The main street parades in Paris & Tokyo are fantastic and unique. Glad you had fun.

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