Summer 2014/2015

07, Dec, 2011

Trip of a lifetime - Florida

How do you sum up the trip of a lifetime? Words and photos only tell a fraction of the story. It was so much more.

We left our home in Inglewood at 8.30am for the drive to Auckland Airport. Gavin and Julie from the Huapai-Kumeu Lions saw us off. Rory gave them thank you cards and a piece of artwork he had done at school. They gave Rory tickets to Disneyworld and a couple of last minute donations - a great exchange! The AirNZ flight to San Francisco was 11.5 hours. AirNZ allocated us an extra seat for Colt to sleep on, and provided meals, blankets and pillows, in-flight movies, games and music. The boys were very comfortable. The staff looked after us very well. We only had a few hours to wait at San Francisco airport but thi was extended when our United flight to Orlando was delayed. Five extra hours and three planes later we finally departed. It was a 4.5 hour flight across the US, and we finally arrived at Orlando International Airport at 3am (their time). We caught the Disney Magic Express bus to Animal Kingdom rolled into bed at Kidani Village at 4.30am. It was 37 hours door to door so it was no surprise we slept through the alarm clock I had set for 8am. Our room was on the 5th floor overlooking a savannah where wild animals grazed i.e. zebra, giraffe, wildebeast, ostrich, antelope and cranes.

Before we left we made a decision to make the most of our trip. Three days were taken up with travel and we filled the other 13 days to the brim.

We spent four days at Disneyworld. Disneyworld is divided into four theme parks; Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot (planet earth and our future). We spent a day at each park. I timed the days to coincide with the scheduled Disney ‘magic hours’ where they open the park an hour early, at 8am, for guests staying in Disney accommodation. We caught the Disney bus to each of the parks, and spent a minimum of seven hours there. Magic Kingdom was our first park, and the most magical. We were lucky enough to have my cousin David from the Virgin Islands join us for the day. We don’t get to see him often and we were happy for an additional adventurer. Many of the rides at Disney were friendly enough for Colt to ride on Sean or I’s knee. Our first ride was Peter Pan followed by ‘It’s a small world’. We laughed to see NZ represented as a tiny island with one maori and two kiwi. In each park we made sure we rode the rides which were most popular, thrilling, and all the old favourites. The highlights at Magic Kingdom were; Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, the Haunted House, Space Mountain, and Tomorrowland speedway. We sat on the sidewalk and watched the parade ‘Celebration of wishes’ on Main Street. Goofy gave Sam the thumbs up for wearing his hat, and Captain Hook came over to rough up Rory. The parks were full of stores with all the Disney merchandise imaginable. Lots of people were wearing Disney hats with Mickey Mouse ears (they come in heaps of designs).

Our second Disney park was Hollywood Studios, which is based on movie making. Again the boys hit the rides; Star Tours the Adventure Continues from Star Wars, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror which falls 13 stories. Initially we tried to keep Rory off the faster, scarier more violent rides, but there was no holding him back as he followed Sean and Sam into the unknown. We watched a 4D movie on the Muppets, and toured the Disney animation studio. We took the back lot tour where we learnt, and saw, how they make special effects happen i.e. gunfire, bombs, a burning tanker, and flooding of a canyon. We went to two stunt shows; Indiana Jones and Extreme car and motorbike action. At the end of the day we watched the Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun parade with characters from; Monsters Inc, a Bugs Life, Up, the Incredibles, Toy Story etc.

Our third park was Animal Kingdom. In the middle of the park is a giant Tree of Life. It is quite impressive and has animal images carved into its trunk. We went to a 4D movie underneath the Tree called “It’s tough to be a Bug”. We were farted on by a stink bug, sprayed with acid by a termite, and had cockroaches and maggots crawling along the seats under our bottoms! It was very entertaining. The boys were back onto the rides; Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, Kali River Rapids, and Primeval Whirl. We took some time looking at the animals in the park, and learning about efforts to protect them.

The final Disney park was Epcot and the only one we made it to prior to the 8am opening. We were able to listen to the welcome good morning message and were sprayed with an explosion of streamers. There were some ‘different’ rides at Epcot; Mission Space, Test (track where you were a crash dummy in a car), Soarin (where you are free flying) and Spaceship earth, which is inside the giant dome Epcot is known for, and takes you through the evolution of humans on our planet. We enjoyed a 3D movie called Captain EO starring Michael Jackson, and toured Living with the Land inside giant greenhouses where food plants for humans are grown in all sorts of new ways i.e. 9 pound lemons, tomatoes and cucumber growing on trees, a garden growing on top of a fish farm as a complete bio-cycle, and lettuces grown in small holes in pipes coiling up to the roof. In the afternoon we toured the World Showcase exhibits; Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Morocco, UK and Canada. We made a couple of stops at the Cool Club where you could drink free samples of Coca Cola flavours from around the world from a giant fountain in the middle of the room.

The trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the two other famous theme parks, Universal’s new Islands of Adventure and Legoland. You enter Universal along Universal City Walk a giant street filled with massive shops. The park is tailored towards older ‘kids’ and the rides are bigger, faster and scarier. The boys rode every ride beginning with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, after which they couldn’t resist buying wands from their favourite Harry Potter characters. I went with them on the Jurassic Park River Adventure. At the end there is an 85 foot plunge into a pool, the longest fastest water descent ever built. It felt like we were never going to hit the bottom and we all got wet sitting in the front row. Sean and the boys got even wetter on the two Toon Town water rides; Popeye and Ripsaw Falls. At the end there are drying rooms with fans blowing hot air. Everyone had to change and I had to buy a couple of t-shirts. The boys enjoyed the Marvel rides; Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, the Incredible Hulk roller coaster, the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman,and Storm Force acceleration. On our way out we went through Seuss Landing and the boys rode the High in the Sky trolley train, Cat in the Hat, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish where Colt and I got wet. We fit in one show during the day, Poseidon’s Fury. It had a huge rotating water tunnel which you had to walk through.

The pace at Legoland was somewhat slower. The park was full of amazing life-sized lego creations. We went through the Lego factory to see how bricks are made, and watched a 4D Lego movie called Spellbreaker. We toured Mini land which was full of miniature scenes of famous American landmarks i.e. Las Vegas, NASA, Whitehouse, and a pirates cove. The boys rode the Test Track and Aquazone wave racers, the Kids Power Towers, and the Flying School roller coaster. We watched part of a show called Battle for Brickbeard’s bounty with life sized lego figures. We walked around all the different area of the park i.e. Lego Kingdoms, Lego City, Lego land of Adventure, and went in all the stores; Pick a brick, the Mini-figure market, Lego Studios and the Big Shop. It would have been easy to buy a lot of lego but Rory was very controlled, picking out only two small sets which we haven’t seen at home.

After three nights at Animal Kingdom we swapped accommodation to Disney’s Saratoga Springs which had an equestrian theme. Both Disney hotels were lovely and all the boys enjoyed having a swim in the pool before dinner each night after a day on their feet. The pools had hydroslides, fresh towels in a cabinet, with a lifeguard on duty. One night Rory even had a frog swimming in the pool beside him. The Disney service was second to none. The staff were warm, welcoming, courteous and patient, thank goodness as we often needed information, advice or assistance. Following the four nights at Saratoga we stayed in a two storey apartment/house in Kissimmee, south of Orlando. It was fully equipped and had a pool in the backyard. We hired a car,and Sean drove on the right hand side of the road, which took him some getting used to (and me as front seat passenger). The high ways were massive with up to four lanes on each side with traffic travelling up to 80mph. The American cars are either huge or flash. The boys played ‘my car’ almost continuously as we drove along. At the end of most days the boys wrote a postcard to send to their classes at school but we had a hard time finding a post box or post office.

We made sure we enjoyed some time in the outdoors. We took an airboat ride on the St John River with Captain Gator Bruce’s son (also Bruce). For 90 minutes we went flying over the river, over switch grass, and over muddy tracks at 35mph (it goes up to 60mph). We all wore headsets (like in a helicopter). Colt was the only one in a life jacket on my knee (and there were no seatbelts). It was beautiful on the river and in the glades. The water is black, stained by tannins. We cruised through a Bald cypress forest and saw alligator, turtles, frogs, egrets, ibis, coots, plover and a range of other birds. Fat shiny cattle were grazing up to their middles in the river. We went for a drive to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. We went through the Visitor Centre and walked on their boardwalk surrounded by familiar Live Oaks dripping with Spanish Moss and an understory of Palmetto. At the Seabird Rehabilitation and Marine Science Centre at Ponce Inlet we learnt about the threats to wildlife from boats, fishing and pollution, and saw how sick and injured animals are nursed back to health. Florida’s east coast is the nesting area for 5/7 of the world’s sea turtle species. The boys got to touch and stroke young stingrays. A highlight was visiting Blue Springs State Park which is the winter home to the West Indian manatee. There were vultures in the carpark when we pulled up! Blue Spring is a crystal clear spring which bubbles up (which they call the ‘boil’) from an underground cavern. There are a network of them underneath Florida. The water is a constant 72oF at Blue Spring and flows into the St John River. The manatee cannot survive in the rivers in Florida in winter when they cool so make their way to Blue Springs where it’s warm. We saw manatee up close. They are huge, but slow and graceful in the water. Many wore scars from boat propellers.

We saw lots of new and very cool critters on our travels. Squirrel were everywhere. Early one morning Rory went missing and he was out trying to capture them on film in the dawn light. White tailed deer grazed by the side of the road at dawn and dusk, and otter, turtle and bass were swimming in the pond at Saratoga Springs. We saw alligator in water ways and drains in many places, with the greatest density on the NASA land which has been made into a wildlife refuge. We got to hold, a young male alligator called Wily, at the Bass Pro shop. He was an ambassador for conservation (for a donation you got to hold him). Wily’s skin was cool, hard on top but he had a soft underbelly. There were Great Egret (white) everywhere. For me they will always symbolise Florida. We were lucky to see Woodpecker, Mockingbird, Blue Jay, Cardinal, and Bald Eagle nesting in a tree at NASA (their nest is bigger than a double bed), and flying overhead. Introduced brown Anole lizards were abundant, and we were lucky to see a native green Anole at the Springs (it clambered over Rory).

The food was as new and diverse as the wildlife. On the menu were; Cinnabon, Churros, Twinkies, Rootbeer floats, Corn dogs, more Candy than you can imagine, Sherbet tubes, and Strawberry lemonade. At the Ghiradelli icecream and chocolate shop the air was good enough to eat, and EVERTHING is served with fries. We sat down to lunch at the old quaint Lighthouse Landing restaurant on the wharf at Ponce Inlet. Our meal consisted of fish, crab cakes, clam chowder, shrimps, corn dogs, and alligator tail! And fries. Colt had the coolest high chair I’ve ever seen, a ‘king’s’ chair, and he knew it. The shopping was also a totally different experience. At the theme parks we shopped as we went picking up a few souvenirs. We went to giant hunting and fishing store Bass Pro which was like quicksand for Sean. I had to drag him out after an hour and a half on the first visit. We all enjoyed shopping at Downtown Disney. Big hits were; Design a T-shirt, the Lego Imagination Centre, Little Miss Matched (where you buy three mismatched items i.e. arm warmers, socks, gloves with cool designs), Team Mickey Athletics Club where the boys chose and built remote controlled cars at Ridemakerz, and the House of Blues. We braved the Premium Outlet complex where there are giant stores selling cheap shoes and clothes i.e. Nikes, Levis, Under Armour, and navigated our way to the Florida Mall for the United World Soccer Shop (where we all had to show restraint), Lush, Game Spot, and the M&M store. There are 22 colours/flavours of M&Ms on offer, and you can stand under a monitor to be analysed to determine what flavour you are. There is M&M merchandise of every description. Shopping was an intense experience, especially on a budget. It was more exhausting than anything we did.

We managed to pack a bit of history into our trip as well. We visited the Cocoa Beach Pier, which is a timber structure of dubious strength which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and amazingly supports a few small shops and bars. People were fishing on the wharf and a Pelican snapped at Rory when he got too close. We walked on the beach dipping our feet into a different ocean. We also visited Daytona Beach but couldn’t go out onto the pier as it was under repair, and didn’t have any luck at the Daytona International Speedway as it was closed, but we got to see it from the outside. At the end of Ponce Inlet we visited Ponce DeLeon Lighthouse, the tallest in Florida. We climbed the 203 steps to the top. The lighthouse compound is intact and all has been restored. The lamps which provided the light were very complex and beautiful. We visited a second spring, called DeLeon Springs. It was very different to Blue Springs as it had been modified by people. A rock wall had been built around the boil of the springs (30ft deep) to create a natural pool. It had a sandy bottom, aquatic plants grew in it, and fish and a turtle were swimming around. There was an overflow into the St John River. The boys had a swim and could have stayed in all day. We were lucky to have sunny skies and warm temperatures (25oC) for all but two afternoons we were in Florida. The pool was surrounded by lodgings, changing rooms, and an old Sugar Mill with a water wheel which had been converted into a restaurant. The speciality of the Sugar Mill was pancakes, all you can eat. They brought you jugs of batter and toppings, and you cooked the pancakes on a hot gridle in the centre of your table. They were delicious. On the loop drive visiting the Springs and Ocala National Forest Sean stopped at a taxidermy shop. We all got out for a look at the stuffed alligator, bobcat, deer, snakes and armadillo. Sean came away with a gator tooth on a leather thong.

A visit to Florida wouldn’t have been complete without a tour of the Kennedy Space Centre (NASA). It was impressive. We changed our plans so we would be there when to coincide with the Atlas Space Rocket launch for Mars but unfortunately it was postponed by a day. We took a bus tour to the Observation Gantry. It is four stories high and from the top you have a 360o view of the launch pads and towers. We went past the famous NASA vehicle assembly building, and the crawler ways the rockets are transported along (1 mile an hour). At the Apollo/Saturn 5 Centre we experienced a recreation of the Apollo 7 launch in the firing room, and stood under the massive Saturn 5 moon rocket (363ft). We all touched a moon rock billions of years old (older than our planet), and looked at transport craft and space suits worn by the astronauts. The boys rode the Shutle launch experience, walked in the rocket garden, and ran their hands over the constellation sphere showing the stars in the earth’s night sky.

I think we were all sad to leave Florida, but we were getting tired as we hadn’t any days of rest and relaxation. The trip back to NZ was like the trip over but in reverse and more drawn out. We were at Orlando International Airport at 4am, and departed for San Francisco at 6am. United Airlines doesn’t have the home comforts of AirNZ so it made for a long 5½ hours. At times when the clouds parted we had a spectacular view of the United States. It was cool and foggy when we landed in San Francisco. We had a nine hour wait for our next flight so caught the BART (train) to downtown where we had lunch, rode the cable car up and down the steep streets, and walked on Fisherman’s wharf and through China Town. We departed the US at 7pm for the (comfortable) night flight home to Auckland. When we crossed the date line into the 1st of December the Stewardesses brought Sam a birthday ‘cake’ and the Captain made an announcement over the PA. Sam turned 12 on the flight home. Thank you again to everyone who helped make Rory’s trip of a lifetime possible. It was the trip of a lifetime for all of us.

When we arrived in NZ it was 4.30am and we had nowhere to go. We got my good friend Cindy out of bed and went to her place for breakfast and showers (thanks heaps). I broke the little toe on my left foot rushing/stumbling about her house. Rory had an MRI at Starship, his usual blood tests, and his hearing was checked. We spent the night at our home away from home, Ronald McDonald House, staying in their lovely new accommodation called Grafton Mews. In the morning we went for a long stretch in Auckland Domain feeding the pigeons, and caught up with the lovely Lyn (Moneypenny). The result of Rory’s MRI was a shock to us, and very scary. Thankfully cancer remains at bay, but a brain bleed was detected which is likely the start of a long term effect of radiotherapy Rory will have to live with for the rest of his life. We have learnt a spontaneous bleed is called a cavernoma. They can also occur on his spine. Very few bleeds show symptoms, and most heal themselves. Rory will need regular MRIs to monitor their incidence, and surgery will be required if they are large, continue to bleed, or cause brain damage. Depending on the nature and severity of the bleed he could have headaches, seizures or a stroke. I have many questions for the Doctors when we return in a couple of weeks.

We were all happy to get home. The weekend was full on unpacking, washing and putting our lives back in order. We attended the Taranaki branch of the Child Cancer Foundation Christmas party. There was a bouncy castle, a pony ride, lunch and Santa made an appearance. On Sunday we picked up our new puppy. Her name is Fern. She is nine weeks old and a black and white giant Fox Terrier (or will be one day). She has added a new dimension to our household. The boys were happy to go back to school on Monday. They had small presents for their teachers and friends. Rory was mobbed when he got to his classroom, and there was much excitement. I put the photos on a memory stick for them to share with their classes. Colt, who is now almost one, travelled well, but hasn’t been very happy since we returned. He is crawling properly, and pulling himself up to standing. I think the change in his personality is a mix of jet lag/tiredness, his phase of development (he is very clingy), being unsettled from the trip (lots of strange people and places), being weaned, and now the new pup. He has returned to Sharon at Porse, and while he was happy to stay with her he was like Velcro. He was the same with me at Space yesterday although he loved crawling through the tunnels and playing in the water trough with blue water. I’m sure he will come right soon.