One of the best parts of the vacation was the house. I mean, that sounds pretty lame when you consider we went to Disney and Universal and Sea World, but honestly it was the one constant throughout the entire trip that was always positive. Clean house, nice (though small) pool, relatively inexpensive, in a nice gated community...it was our refuge. We really felt at home there. Without skipping ahead, for the most part we knew that whether our plans fell flat or we were too exhausted to go on...we could always cool down in the pool, have a beer, play pool, or watch TV, grab a glass of wine, smoke a cigar or just veg, and maybe part of us thought..."well, shit, we could do that at home," (minus the pool), but whenever the voice whispered that I would shut it up by responding, "but we never ever do." Sometimes just the very nature of "being on vacation" is enough to allow you to observe the conventions of vacationry. And so it was with the house, "Pepper" (we didn't know at the time, but that appears to be the owner's name, it was written on the key fob that plopped into my hand).
We pulled into the driveway of the house. We'd lucked out and piggy-backed through the community's gate since we had no idea what the access code was, trailing behind the vehicle just in front of us as the gates slowly swung shut. We followed the road through the neighborhood, slowing as the numbers climbed until we found the address. I pulled the minvan into the driveway and, with the information from the rental agency in hand, follwed the sidewalk to the front door where a lock box was set into the wall to the left of the door. I punched in the key code written on the paper and the lock box spilled a key into my palm. I put it in the lock, turned the key and pushed open the door.
Orlando is a warm wet blanket of muggy heat in August, so that cool dry gust of air that pushes out the door when you first open it is such a kiss of relief. I left the door open, pocketed the key, and walked back to the minivan to unpack. I'd glanced inside and told everyone I thought they'd be happy.
We toured the house. It was, as previously indicated, very nice. Pool table, air hockey, TV's in all the rooms, clean, new, table set with wine glasses and nice linens, the master bedroom complete with swans sculpted from bath towels a la cruise ship...it was "move in" condition. The pool was vaguely pear/kidney shaped and had a shallow end that was shallow enough for Lily to stand in and a 'hot tub' that overflowed into the shallow end. The pool area itself was inside a netted enclosure so the bugs/lizards couldn't get in. There was a table with cushioned straight-back chairs arrayed around it, and over by the hot tub were two reclining chairs.
This was home base, and probably my first "tip" to anyone doing this...
Tip 1: Get a house. If you're far enough off Disney property a vacation house is really affordable. We were probably 20 minutes from Disney and the price was great. We could cook meals for the kids (who are both picky) and everyone slept great (for the most part). Both kids love the pool so we knew even if the day was a bust we could play all day in the pool and be relatively happy on off days, and we never had to worry about sharing with others. (not that I have a problem sharing...but you know)
We had set the vacation up roughly as follows:
First Day/Night (Saturday): Travel, unpack, get settled, put together a grocery list, order pizza, play by the pool.
Day 2 (Sunday): Universal
Day 3 (Monday): Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 4 (Tuesday): Disney
Day 5 (Wednesday): Rest/recuperate/pool day
Day 6 (Thursday): Sea World
Day 7 (Friday): Pool day/pack up/clean up/travel home.
The idea was that we, not so much the kids, would need time to regroup after a day at an amusement park. My sister had offered to help us by acting as support for Lily. The entire family is very supportive of Lily but sometimes when we're encouraged to do things with the understanding that there'll be help to support Lily...we still end up focusing most of our attention on Lily and not on the thing we are trying to enjoy. Sometimes it's just because we can be overbearing and "take over", sometimes it's because while everyone is enjoying whatever it is...they lose sight of what Lily's into, and if someone's not taking the lead on Lily, then the hive mind just assumes someone else is in charge. But for whatever reason...this vacation did not go down that road.
My sister's kids were on vacation with their dad, and so Dawn was free (sorry if I'm not supposed to out you, Dawn, but I can edit it out later) and after a conversation with Leslie had offered to fly down for the first few days of our vacation...more or less to allow us more flexibility to pursue things that were geared for Emma but less likely to appeal to Lily. Or for us just to go out and have dinner as a couple. One of the highlights of the trip for me was just how smitten Lily became with Dawn being around. The house, which was obviously not our house, became "Dawn's house". When we were returning from something it was to go to Dawn's house. Dawn used our "first/then" scheduling without really formally referring to it as such, which is always better with Lily..."First the storm has to be over...THEN we can go to the pool" and Lily would check in dozens of times..."Dawn? Is the storm over?" She'd climb into her lap and get uncomfortably close to her face and ask "When is pool time?" It was nice to the see the interaction because Dawn's schedule is extremely hectic, and ours isn't much better, so their time together is birthdays and holidays for the most part.
I know I keep referring to Disney, but one of the biggest parts of the trip was centered around visiting the Harry Potter attraction at Univeral. Because Leslie, Emma and I are all fans, and because we wanted to be able to ride the rides together, and not split apart so someone could be with Lily, Dawn's offer to help allowed the three of us to visit Universal while Lily and Dawn stayed behind and played in the pool. If Dawn blogged, perhaps she could tell you how her day went...but ours was spectacular.
I feel like this almost needs its own Part...Part 3: Universal, but I think I'm going to have at least one or two more parts as it is, so if this post gets a bit long, I apologize. (I don't really care, but I think it's polite to apologize when inconveniencing other people. Leslie's not here to counsel me on this...she's my moral/emotional compass.)
With Lily safely in Aunt Dawn's care, we set off for Universal. For me, Universal was probably the highlight of the vacation. This is written with no small amount of guilt. To say that Universal was the highlight is to imply that "being without Lily was the highlight", so I want to make sure I qualify this properly. Being at Universal, and doing all the fun things that *I* wanted to do, rather than standing on the sidelines while others did it and I watched, or consoled, or redirected, was for me...a bit of a vacation. I'm not a big rider, but I rode several moderately tame rides, most of which were virtual and so didn't scare the witless shit out of me. So I actually "enjoyed" the park itself where typically I'm just an observer. So despite the guilt of saying it...Universal was more fun than Disney, and more fun than Sea World. And although the pool play was awesome...I can play in the pool with the kids in Pittsburgh. So Universal it is.
Tip 3: Take some time to go over the map of whatever park you're in. Identify the rides you think will be fun, or are appropriate, and plan your progression through the park based on that. I probably could have done a better job of that throughout the vacation, but where we did it best was at Universal. And to be fair, Universal is probably the easiest to do that with, since Disney is immense.
Universal is split into two parks...Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. We elected to follow the route that would take us to Harry Potter quickest, which meant going to Islands of Adventure first.
I think after Disney I could put aside those feelings, and indeed even as we progressed through Universal I was more and more comfortable with our decision as the park got progressively more intense heading toward Hogwarts. But accompanying us on those first couple rides guilt rode passenger. I managed to put on a brave face regardless.
That said...the end of Poseidon's Fury was actually pretty cool...campy or not.
There's so much to be said about how Universal shook out. But I'm going to try to encapsulate it as briefly as I can and then just bombard you with pictures.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was awesome. Lots of pictures of that. There are a few rides, and many attractions and lots of picture-worthy nooks and crannies. We visited Ollivander's wand shop for a presentation of "How the wand chooses the wizard". Emma got picked as the young wizard who would demonstrate, which was great...we bought the wand, of course.
Hogwarts and the half virtual-half actual ride was awesome. It got pretty intense for me, but if I can handle it, anyone can.
We had butterbeer and bought chocolate frogs and we all left with souvenirs...some of us more than one.
We could probably have spent more time there, but the ticket got us into both parks, and I wasn't really sure how we were going to accomplish that anyway, so we moved through the park. Emma and Leslie rode some rides I didn't think I could handle, then we all rode the Spider-man virtual ride (also a bit intense at times, but okay for me) and ended Islands of Adventure with "The Hulk" which had just reopened and had NO line. Really, the lack of crowd was great.
We meandered over to the other park, and ate dinner at Hard Rock (I ate a ridiculous hamburger) before visiting the Transformers ride (also fun) and then (when we found that ET was closed) wandering back over the bridge to our car as the rain started falling.
It was probably more than I've ever participated in an amusement park. Coincidentally it was probably the best time I've had at an amusement park.
Our day ended, we drove back home through the storm and arrived safely at "Pepper".
Story continued here: Day 3: Disney's "magic"
Some eye candy: