Allison and I have reached this odd period in our lives where we look at every destination through the eyes of children-havers. There was a time when leaving the house felt commonplace, and with it the sense that a meal, concert or impromptu weekend trip was always on the table. Now, with our precious girls, we tend to be more selective with our outings. More specifically, 50% of the destinations involve a burger place within sight of our house, that has a large outdoor play area and decent enough food.
Your priorities shift. And just like that, Disney World starts to sound like a good idea. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has likely been dropping subliminal messages anyway, so you hand over your credit card, go buy cheesy matching shirts, and book it. We even splurged on the Animal Kingdom Lodge, because who doesn't want to wake up to Giraffes, Zebras and such grazing super close, but not potential lawsuit close, to your hotel balcony. As parents who (mostly jokingly) refer to the cat as a babysitter, maybe we knew that a pasture of animals right next to our room would provide a few quiet moments…
We took Maggie, our effervescent 3 year old, on a two-night adventure. It was her first plane flight, and a deserved respite since losing her only child status over a year prior. Biggest mistake here was telling her too far in advance. A month when you are 3 must seem like an eternity, and that's what it felt like when she asked every 15 minutes if we were leaving for Disney World.
Another lesson was learned as soon as we started logging onto the app and booking our Fast Passes. Around every corner, there was this constant reminder that the Disney pros were already one step ahead. Popular rides and even mediocre restaurants were already booked solid weeks in advance. One starts to wonder if the idea is to have you come away thinking “Just imagine how much better the next trip could be.”
As tends to happen in life, the day of departure did eventually arrive. Maggie took the direct flight from Birmingham to Orlando like a champ. She thoroughly entertained fellow passengers with amusing interjections such as "We are flying in the sky like a bird!" and "What is that lady doing!?" With a sigh of relief, we shuffled off the plane and made our way onto the "Magical Express."
Before I go all cheap on you guys, it is worth noting that a 45 minute Uber out to our hotel would have been pricey. I also was fretting about car seat options in the weeks leading up to our trip. The bus ride was reassuring, and a settling reminder that these people understand us. Maybe this could actually feel like a vacation.
Did I mention that day one of this trip was our 9 year wedding anniversary? Such as it was, we booked the fanciest restaurant within the Animal Lodge footprint. Although the $350 a night room was basically a Holiday Inn with animal print, the rest of the property was legit. Maggie immediately took to stopping at every window to see what animals had come into view. The pool was also excellent, but the wife and I spent quite a while decoding their alcohol policy.
Our good but pricey dinner at the “authentic” African restaurant was presided over by newly crowned Princess Maggie, who was greeted accordingly by every member of the staff as soon as we entered the building. This totally works, by the way. We had to tell her she couldn’t sleep in the crown.
Day 2 was an early wakeup call, because we were quite afraid of all the Disney professionals who would inevitably be one step ahead. Having not been to the Magic Kingdom in a good 20 years, it was odd to see it hasn’t really changed a bit. In an age of in-home virtual reality, It’s a Small World and Peter Pan’s Flight feel tragically stuck in the past (and a tad racist). Good thing we burned our first two Fast Passes on them!
With lunch came our biggest regret of the trip - a buffet character lunch. When your child doesn’t recognize the cast of Winnie the Pooh and is totally set with the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, dropping $160 on a quick meal is quite upsetting. Needless to say, after seeing the bill, Daddy found some stomach space for one last trip to the dessert station.
Our afternoon ended relatively early, when one of those classic Orlando summer storms sat over the park for a few hours. We were on the fence about waiting it out, but then Maggie literally fell out the stroller due to exhaustion. This handily knocked us out of the running for parents of the year.
For our third and final day, it was off to the Animal Kingdom. This place was much more in tune with modern day. At times it feels more zoo than theme park, with a safari that easily makes you forget you are still in the swamps of Florida. Maggie also qualified height-wise for a few of the more entertaining rides, and she asked permission before screaming the whole time. We saw the Finding Nemo Show, floated through India, hung with the blue hippies in Pandora and finished with her favorite: a meet and greet with Minnie & Mickey. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that Maggie and Minnie had to be separated. The hug went on for an uncomfortably long time (and it was adorable). Turns out, we dropped thousands and sweat profusely for days when all she wanted to do was love on her favorite character. Next time, maybe I’ll just hire Minnie to swing by our house for a few hours.
In closing, a few notable other tidbits:
1. Disney properties have already phased out throwaway plastic straws. I applaud the effort, but paper straws don’t work worth a crap after 5 minutes, so get to chugging that beverage.
2. A decent bottle of wine is $19 but a tall boy miller lite is $8. I’m not awesome at math, but those numbers say it’s time to get classy. Even the airport seemed affordable after Disney prices - it’s the most excited I’ve ever been about a Budweiser.
3. If you look closely, the Mickey silhouette is everywhere. After Allison pointed his likeness out in our Africa-themed carpet, I went slightly mad searching for other sneaky touches. Spoiler alert - the mouse is everywhere.
4. Summer in Orlando is pretty much unbearable. The whole time, you are either super sticky or trying to escape a thunderstorm.
5. Being the technological trendsetters they are, I look to Disney parks for hints on new ways of living. The first time I ever used an automatic hand dryer and faucet was at Epcot. This go ‘round, I was fascinated with their Magic bands. The amount of data they must collect (much of which we aren’t aware of) on all their subjects has to be impressive. Then again, I’ve been asking for my microchip for years now. Just go ahead and get it over with!