What I Did
Every kid needs a to experience a road trip with their parents, right? My son Chris is fifteen, and my daughter Megan is thirteen. They don't fight and are pretty open to doing things. If you're going to do a family road trip, GET KIDS LIKE THIS. And if you're going to Florida, DON'T GO IN AUGUST. Summer was in full blister, and Florida has its own brand of humid air, like inhaling flannel jammies. As we pointed our Honda Pilot south from New Jersey, we could not fully appreciate just how stiflingly hot it would be.
The first day's drive was a fourteen-hour long slog to Savannah, Georgia. To avoid the Baltimore traffic, we took route 13 through eastern Maryland, crossing the twenty-mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Virginia. We reached I-95 and covered hundreds of miles of open road through North Carolina.
Billboards featuring a sombrero-ed cartoon character named Pedro begged us to stop at a bizarre tourist trap in Dillon, South Carolina called South of the Border. I had been here during my own childhood road trip in 1972, and recognized a restaurant called The Bolero Room. They still had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the menu! I opted for the enchiladas, which tasted like a cheap serape with cheese whiz. The iced tea was wrung from a dishrag, with a faint taste of lentil soup. But the souvenir shop! What an amazing stock of the tackiest crap you'd ever buy. I bought a snow globe.
We eventually found the Travel Channel stuff: a quaint, cobble-stoned riverfront where General James Oglethorpe first landed in 1733, discovering Georgia for England and now the site of a Hyatt Hotel. We drove down narrow streets with old row homes and antebellum mansions with amazing decorative wrought iron fences. "Dad, can we leave yet?"
St. Augustine, Florida
Explorer Juan Ponce De Leon looked for the fountain of youth in this area. You may have read that he failed in his search, but not so! For $12 admission, we not only got to see the Fountain of Youth, but also were given a plastic cupful to drink, dispensed by a man in a scout's uniform. "It tastes pretty good today." He said, "Some days it tastes like rotten eggs." We then saw a planetarium show in a small room, run by a woman, also in uniform, who explained that the machinery was very old and prone to malfunction. "Why just yesterday, in middle of the show, the moon exploded! Ha ha!" (We weren't so lucky.) Donna and I really enjoyed the Fountain of Youth. It was so genuinely hokey, such an old school tourist attraction, that it took us back to.....to...... OUR YOUTH!
We escaped from St Augustine at 4:30 for the last leg of our drive. We hit major traffic and didn't get in until almost dark. Donna had booked a condo in Kissimmee, a five minutes' drive from DisneyWorld. Before checking in, we stopped at a local market to stock up. "Shall we get the seven dollar box of Cheerios, or the two-pack of Pop Tarts for eight bucks?" (seriously). Hey Chamber of Commerce, here's a slogan for you, "Kissimmee, feel the gouge!"
The Magic Kingdom
The Magic Kingdom: the gold standard.
Donna had already purchased our five-day passes (so much for college, kids!), and she was well peeved that we had to pay to park as well. Its like you pull up to the tollbooth and they poke you in the eye.
"Enjoy the magic!" Poke!
We parked in a massive lot and followed the crowd to a shuttle stop, where antsy tourists lunge for seats on shuttles like the last lifeboat on the Titanic. People were all revved up, anticipating the magic, and you'd best damned site get out of their way. The shuttle took us to a monorail station, where the crowd stewed on a platform waiting for a monorail to take us, at last, to the Magic Kingdom.
But not so fast, revved up revelers! Before going through the park gates, we all must have our bags searched and be fingerprinted. Yes, fingerprinted. All 30,000 of us. The crowd's anticipation turned to palpable stress, bordering panic. Hurry! We're missing the magic! Parents struggled to keep their families together in the melee. Civility was melting in the 104-degree heat. Forty-five minutes after paying to park (poke!), we finally stepped into The Magic Kingdom. I needed a nap.
Of all the rides, The Pirates of the Caribbean is still the best. They did a nice job incorporating bits from the movies too. Splash Mountain was quite refreshing (see video, above). And it was nice to see the original Country Bear Jamboree again too. I remember seeing it with Grandmom in '72 (sponsored by Frito Lay!).
©2007 Moore Studios, Inc
Conversely, by unanimous vote, the absolute worst attraction was The Tiki Room: Under New Management. The quaint, stylish, classic Tiki Room has been taken over by the boorish Gilbert Gottfried bird from Aladdin, who bullies the birds into making a more "happenin" show. It was mean, joyless, and left us wondering "Was that supposed to entertain us?"
above Mary Blair mural at the Contemporary Hotel
Not a Disney park but also in Orlando is Sea World, owned by the Anheuser-Busch Corporation, makers of Budweiser Beer. Also hot, also crowded, we saw a series of corny amphitheater shows involving well trained sea creatures, including one with Orca whales called Believe with oblique right wing Christian themes. The kids wanted to get wet, so we let them sit up front, while we sat in the next tier. They were drenched by neo-conservative killer whales. Don't believe? SPLASH!!!
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Megan wanted to see Rafiki's Planet Watch, which you get to by train, a train that could have been really useful had it gone around the park, like in the Magic Kingdom. This train, with its Third World look, took us to a remote location, where we followed a shady path of tropical plants to a small building with conservation themed exhibits. Veterinarians behind glass poked at a possum. Outside, through the back of the building, an old timer welcomed us into an enclosure where we could brush a goat. The end.
That pretty well set the whole day. By the time we caught the train back there weren't any major attractions that did not require a 45-minute to 2-hour wait. All I could say was "Let's brush a goat!" We took in the zoo exhibits and the safari ride, then wandered into some dinosaur-themed area, where the kids got in line for a roller coaster.
Donna went for ice cream and I rested on a bench next to some arcade booths where you try to win plush toys by squirting water pistols at targets. As I sat there, two women, twenty feet away, start fighting; a real fists of fury, roundhouse, saloon style brawl. This was much better than brushing a goat. A young man got between them and they started punching him instead. Two frat boys charged in, throwing cross-body blocks that sent the whole lot careening into the arcade booth's stools. Now, about these stools: they are planted in asphalt, immovable. They smacked into the stools, flailing to the ground like a pile of crash test dummies. This was followed by what they call in rugby, a scrum. I shouted to an oblivious arcade attendant, who rushed over, followed by heaps of security people. Donna came back to find me in middle of this whole mess and said, "What did you do?"
The security people asked us to hang out while they sorted things out. They brought us some cold water and were very nice. As it turned out, Woman #1 was the mother of the boyfriend of Woman #2. The Boyfriend Of Woman #2 (and son of Woman #1) was the guy who interceded. The Frat Boys were the sons of Woman #1 and brothers of B.O.W#2 . They were all from France. The End. For my testimony, we were given a bunch of special passes, so for the rest of the day we breezed through lines. Thanks Disney security!
The Moores meet Timon.
We had a front row seat for the Lion King show, with costumed characters and lots of acrobatics with songs sung live. The performers seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, even though they'd probably done this show four times that day. This was the best thing we saw at Animal Kingdom.
Welcome to the future.....now get walking!
The back of EPCOT has pavilions from different countries featuring native food and wares. Norway had a ride called Maelstrom that seemed promising. We boarded a Viking boat and floated along through "It's a Small Fjord". Our boat then encountered some mild wind and sound effects. This was "The Maelstrom". Our boat was slowly spun around, then we continued the ride backwards. A Nordic god shouted warnings of eminent peril as our boat was approaching a waterfall. Unfortunately, we couldn't see this perilous waterfall because it was behind us. Craning our necks, we could only see the back of our Viking ship. The god assured us we had dodged a close one. We'll take his holy word for it.
I picked the Moroccan pavilion for dinner. Having taken my family to Dar Maghreb in Hollywood once, I was hoping for something as special. But this was EPCOT, and this dinner was more like a rest stop on the Moroccan Turnpike. The dining room had cafeteria acoustics. The food was cranked out. The forks weren't plastic, but they may as well have been. And here's the bill - poke!
The last gasp was a fireworks show over the pond, grand scale pyrotechnics to be sure. The kids really liked this, though I was too exhausted to care. Once again, we had spent a four hours of our day melting in lines, with the ushers' gleeful mantra, "All the way in, folks. Allll the wayyyy innnn."
The Disney/MGM Studio
The previous day, Disney announced that the park was changing its name to The Disney Hollywood Studio. MGM was out. We hit the souvenir shops for something with the old name on it (eBay!). Surprisingly, there wasn't much. Dr. Barry found a pin. I found a little snow globe (perrrrrfect!). In thirty years, it will be worth tens of dollars. Maybe we were all standinlonglinesforashortride-ed out, but we spent quite a bit of time poking around the shops. They seemed to have better stuff than the other parks. Or did I just love the air conditioning?
At last we made a move; more heat, more long lines, more "allll the wayyyy innnn!" There was a Little Mermaid stage show that started out cute, with black-light puppets, then the villain Ursula took over and scared the shit out of the small children in the audience. KILL! KILL!!! MUA-HA-HA-HAHAHA!!!!! BOOM! CRASH!! SCREAM!!! Four families bailed out with hysterical children in tow. This one made the new Tiki Room seem kind spirited.
The animation building was depressing to me, like the LaBrea Tarpits of animation. "Look Dad! Fossilized in-betweeners!" And the backlot tour was seriously lacking. "Wow! Props from Herbie Fully Loaded!" There was a ride with animatronic movie stars that I don't remember. There were a couple other rides that I don't remember either. Dehydration, I guess.
One truly great ride was the Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster. This was wild. Like Space Mountain, you ride in a dark room. Unlike Space Mountain, you don't feel beat up afterwards. On this one, you ride in a comfortable seat that supports your head, then you fly like hell. On the way out, I took Megan's picture (see below). This says it all. Dr. Barry vowed, "That was my last fast ride ever." Thanks Aerosmith!
After the Rockin' Roller Coaster ride. "My last fast ride." vows Dr. Barry, left.
We saved the most surreal experience for last, shuffling in a stream of sweaty strangers to an amphitheater for a live show called Fantasmic. The stage was a barren rock formation set behind a large moat, like He-Man's summer retreat. There were lots of strobe lights and lasers and smoke and loud booms as The League of Disney Villains conspired to KILL MICKEY MOUSE. They each took a crack at offing the poor, terrified critter. They even set the moat on fire (see below). Yes, that's Mickey surrounded by real fire! In the end, it was just a bad dream. Indeed.
A performance art piece on the theme park experience would go like this: A man stands under a heat lamp before an ornate door. After forty-five minutes, the door opens. The man is splashed with a bucket of water. The door closes. Repeat ten times.
Road trips improve with time. The heat becomes less oppressive, the crowds thin out. The misfires are what you laugh about the most. What remains, what you carry through your life, is the shared family experience; the real Magic. And the road food. That stays in your colon forever.