Thursday, May 16, 2013

On Amusement Parks

When last we spoke, I had just recounted the adventure that was getting to Orlando, and today we delve into the raucous journey that was taking Sidney to some of the theme parks.  Now, prior to the trip, several people, including yours truly, raised an eyebrow at the thought of taking a 15 Month Old to such attractions; many questions sprung to mind.  Will there be any rides at all he can go on?  Most rides require a height of at least 36", some even 40", and although Sidney is pretty tall for his age (32"), he still falls a bit short (no pun intended).  Will he freak out seeing the characters?  People in giant furry suits ... let's be honest, it scares us a little too (for decidedly different reasons).  Will our sanity survive the onslaught created by the throngs of fellow park goers, naked commercialism on display and the rigors of chasing a 15 Month Old around a giant amusement park?  Ok, mostly it was the throngs of people worrying me, but that is only because the masses tend to create massive lines which mean massive waits and just the thought of it gives me a massive headache.  See what I mean?  And let's not forget the question of Will Sidney remember any of this?  I am generally hard pressed to remember what I did last week, much less what I did at under 2 years of age, would this give Sidney any lasting memories?  Needless to say, we got answers to these (along with several others nobody asked), and now we can share them with you.

First up, were there any rides for Sidney?  Given the insane cost of admission (for our trip, we went to Universal Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom), your ROI is going to be the amount of "fun" you and your brood can extract from any given park.  Luckily, children under 2 get into most parks for free (including the 3 we visited), so even if we didn't find many rides for Sidney, the economics of the trip could balance out a bit so long as he had a great time.  Universal, predictably, was very low on rides for kids as wee as Sidney.  A couple of rides (Despicable Me and Shreck) had "stationary" benches where you could sit with a lap child and watch the ride/movie, but both were in 3D and there was no way Sidney was going to keep the glasses on.  So rather than risk giving him a headache and/or precipitating rounds of puking from watching the movies without the glasses (take off your 3D glasses next time, odds are you will be nauseated in seconds), we passed on these.  The park did, however, have Woody Woodpecker Land (or something like that - Google is your friend people) which was essentially a themed playground.  There were slides, see-saws, water spurting areas, etc, all themed to different children's properties (Curious George, Fivel, Barney the Dinosaur and the aforementioned Woodpecker).  There was a kid roller coaster Sidney was still too small for, and two water rides that we could have taken him on but for it being a cool and overcast day.  Sidney  nevertheless had a great time wandering and playing on the slides.  However, you really could not make a day out of this one area, thus the height limit for rides will be the measuring stick for when we can bring Sidney back to Universal.  Next was Epcot.  Here we finally got to put Sidney on "proper" rides.  Several rides are slow moving benches where you can either keep a small child on your lap or sitting next to you.  Little Nemo, Imagination and Starship Earth all were hits with him (he cried when we took him off the rides - a trend that would continue).  Sidney also got to do a lot of walking around in Epcot as we went through all the Country Pavilions.  Sidney is very much in his independent phase, so getting him to hold your hand while he walks around is a 50/50 endeavor at best, so this gave us the opportunity to try out our child-leash, and yes it worked like a charm.  Some folks gave us dirty looks, but clearly they don't have children (all the thing does is let us know where he is and give us the ability to stop him from diving into oncoming traffic people, relax).  Finally was the Magic Kingdom, the Happiest Place on Earth™.  Unsurprisingly, this had the most rides for Sidney.  The vast majority of the rides are of the "bench moves you through stuff" variety, and let me tell you those work great with a small child.  He loved It's a Small World (Grandpa's favorite ride), but his favorite seemed to be the People Mover (we rode this one twice in a row, he was having such a great time).  So, the answer to "are there rides for the really small kids" is not so much at Universal, some at Epcot and pretty much all of Magic Kingdom.

On to the characters; did Sidney freak out?  Way back when I visited amusement parks in my youth (yes, they had them in the iron age), the characters would just walk around the park and pose for pictures.  Not any more, apparently.  At Universal, Epcot and Magic Kingdom the characters are now stationed at certain locations at designated times and you can line up and wait to take your picture with them.  Yeah, you've been reading this blog, you know this had a very low probability of happening.  That being said, Barney had no line at Universal (more on that shortly), so Sidney met his first amusement park character and it was a giant purple anthropomorphic tyrannosaurus rex with a speech impediment (have you heard Barney?).  It went just fine and he even smiled and stood still for the picture; Sidney didn't do bad either.  We saw a few characters in passing while walking around all three parks but none caught Sidney's attention.  The only other characters we saw up close were the princesses at Magic Kingdom, as The Wife wanted us to have lunch at Cinderella's castle.  Sidney, predictably, was fast asleep for the portrait picture with Cinderella, and for 90% of lunch (The Wife is lucky Nana and Grandpa love her so much).  So we have a picture of a passed out child in a stroller with Cinderella, pictures of The Wife with Ariel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, respectively, next to a stroller with a sleeping child (apropos with Sleeping Beauty, in hind sight), and a picture of a crying Sidney avoiding Jasmine.  In Sidney's defense, it looked like Jasmine could use a Pilates class or 10.  Hey, don't hate the messenger people, she's the one in the belly outfit.  Although we didn't have a freak out, he was not exactly enthralled with the characters, so let's call this one a push.

Next, would we survive the throngs of people at the parks?  Funny thing, turns out that the last week of April and first week of May is a "low time" in Orlando.  All the various Spring Breaks are over, it is too soon for the Graduation Trips, and way too soon for the Summer Vacation crowd.  All 3 parks were readily manageable.  In fact, the longest line we waited on was 20 minutes, and that was for the lunch at the Castle that we had a reservation for; not so much irony as foreshadowing, really.  All of the parks now have some variation on "fast passes" that allow you to drastically cut your wait time, and we did use these a few times at the Magic Kingdom, but for the most part the parks were just full enough to show life, but there were almost no lines.  I am not saying this was a "sweet spot" week, but it sure comes close.  The down side is that this is still smack dab in the middle of Spring Showers season, so there was rain every single day.  It broke long enough for us to be able to go to the parks, but rain it did.  So ... yeah ... none of you guys go down during the last week of April/first week of May.  Totally not worth it.  Sure, we will still go during this time, but only because ... uh ... because ... oh, look, the last question.

Finally, will he remember any of this?  Half way through the first day at Universal I came to the realization that we will have no way of knowing the answer to this one until Sidney gets older and communicates whether he does.  That being said, we will definitely remember it.  He laughed, he pointed and oohed, he stared quizzically, and was otherwise very happy (with the exception of when Nana would make him wear his hat to protect from the sun.  Willful little bugger, but Nana prevailed).  In the end it is not so much of a "push" as a moot question.  Apparently, not everything with Sidney is fully about Sidney.  Hegle would approve (the philosophy majors will argue Kierkegaard applies more, the rest of you, Google is still your friend).

Join us next time when whatever I write is way shorter than the last two posts.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ramp up to the family vacation, or, how I learned we NEED all this stuff to go with us.

The Wife, Sidney, Nana, the Admiral and yours truly spent a wonderful week in Orlando, taking Sidney to theme parks, the pool and generally running him around in the [occasional] sun.  However, before we get to that entertaining story, I thought it would be appropriate to share the adventure that was packing for and getting to Orlando (it also means I get at least two posts out of the trip; huzzah for content).  How adventurous?  Let's find out.

I have mentioned in the past that travelling with a child (and My Wife) can make one feel a bit like a Sherpa, but I now realize that this description, although completely accurate, does not convey the entire experience.  To fully appreciate the undertaking we need to go back a bit (to pre-packing ... yes this is a thing apparently), stay a while in the middle (actually packing and then making it to, and through, the departure airport) and, finally, forward a smidge (to flying and arriving at your destination) along the Sherpa time-line.  Confusing?  Oh, it just gets better.

Pre-packing begins when My Wife decides that an upcoming trip is close enough to warrant starting packing lists and purchasing whatever "essentials" we lack.  If this sounds vague then I have properly phrased it.  For a while I thought the length of a given trip would dictate the pre-packing deadline (ie, a linear equation), but the lists and purchases would come no-where near when the math predicted; total failure.  Determined to figure it out, I would add and modify variables in (vain) attempts to refine the calculations.  Distance being traveled, the climate of the destination, the "excitement factor" of the trip, the significance of the trip; none of it worked.  Some combination of relativistic time dilation, exponential calculations, wave function collapse and Dadaism are likely at play, but that's the best I can muster.  So pre-packing begins when it begins, but once it does there is no stopping or off-ramp.  The aforementioned lists will include breakdowns of clothing necessary (by day), supplies, required peripherals, optional peripherals (which become required) and items we might have forgotten in the past, but do not want to forget again.  The lists are subject to modification at any moment and any list you might have previously referenced could have been replaced so double check with The Wife first.  The lists also multiply, because the packing list gives rise to the purchases list and those together will give rise to a to-do list in order to coordinate the shopping, the packing and Sidney's schedule.  And we're just getting started.

Pre-packing gives way to packing in a very organic manner, which is to say we can't really pinpoint the moment it happens.  They run into each-other slowly; one moment The Wife is going over the lists, buying stuff we absolutely need, and the next piles of stuff that will be packed start forming.  I used to be of the mindset that "packing" didn't start until there was a suitcase out being stuffed, but then just before one short trip down to Philly I saw our dining room table covered in zip-lock bags, each one filled with an individual, but complete, outfit for Sidney.  Sure, there was no suitcase yet, but come on, how is that not packing?  For this latest trip, packing started about 3 days before departure, with small piles of Sidney's clothing appearing  on the dining room table (but no zip-locks this time).  We were done by the night before, partly because I just waited until the end and then threw stuff in a suitcase, but mostly because trying to pack with a 15 month old "helping" means you spend equal times putting things into a suitcase and chasing the little bugger down to get back what he just pulled out of the suitcase.  I swear the child must think his full name is "Sidney No!".
But, finish we did (after he went to bed) and I'll let you guess the bag count.  It's for 2 adults and a 15 month old for a week in Orlando.  Have your guess?  It was six.  Three large suitcases, two small suitcases and a stroller bag.  Oh, and the stroller bag had the stroller and a bunch of Sidney's toys packed in it (tip: most airlines let car seat and stroller bags be checked for free/don't count against bag total, so use them for more than just the car seats and strollers).  Now, of the six, guess how many I was packed into?  3/4 of one of the large suitcases.  The rest of the storage square footage was Sidney and The Wife.  And before you ask what was in all that storage space I'll just tell you that: (1) I only can guess at half of it; (2) I don't want to ask what it all was; and (3) I am sure it was all absolutely necessary and could not be left behind.  Yeah...moving along.  So now we have six bags and a child to get down an elevator and into our car, then out of our car and into the airline's hands.  We had decided to curb-side check because that would be "easier."  Unfortunately, the curb-side attendant was nowhere to be found so we ended up having to take turns running luggage into the ticket counter and showing our IDs for check-in as the other stayed with Sidney and the car.   Naturally the curb-side attendant showed back up to his post after we were done and pulling the car away.    Sonofa ....  

Next we parked the car in the pre-reserved parking garage because I'll be damned if I am leaving the car out in the elements of Newark, NJ for a week.  Unfortunately, this parking was attached to Terminal C and we were leaving out of Terminal A.  This means we had to get 2 rolling small suitcases, a backpack, large purse, car-seat and a 15 month old from Terminal C to A.  "Luckily" there was an air-train that went form terminal to terminal, but to get to it we had to go up three levels using two elevator banks separated by a few hundred feet of mazes (Newark airport, designed with something in mind.  Nobody knows what that "something" is, however).  Finally over the river and through the ill designed woods, we got to go through security.  My take on the TSA/Airport security: it's a farce.  Some of you will disagree with me (and you are certainly entitled to be completely wrong), but the whole strip down to stocking feet with no belt, carrying no fluids, and then being subjected to the Freedom Grope™ by marginally trained individuals (not their fault, it's the fault of those providing the marginal training) is not stopping t'rrists, it's humiliating and delaying law abiding citizens.  Add trying to get yourself and a child through with baby food and formula and security checkpoints are akin to death by a thousand rusty cuts.  The Wife, Sidney and I joined one of the pre-verification programs, hoping to avoid these theaters of the absurd, but unfortunately the airline we were flying hasn't joined the program yet (and now I can say, with no satire, hey, JetBlue, get with the damn program!).  So we muddled through the rape of the 4th Amendment and were finally at the gate.

Because we had to budget in plenty of time to get through Not-Actually-Security, we were at the gate about an hour before boarding.  Sidney spent this time running around, saying hello and bye bye to everyone he saw, and exhausting his parental units.  But then we got to board the plane!  Yes, get the 2 rolling suitcases, the kid, the car seat, the backpack and the purse onto the plane, then secure the car-seat onto the airplane seat, get the luggage into an open overhead before they are full and then get our own asses into the seats before an over-eager "In-Flight Specialist" (or whatever they call sky waiters/waitresses these days) yelled at us for violating one safety code or another for breathing on the wrong side of the plane.  However, we were on the plane!  Sidney was an absolute pleasure on the flight.  He played, he ate, he watched some cartoons, he laughed ... then he fell asleep just 40 minutes before landing.  Luckily for us when we woke him as the plane reached the gate in Orlando he did not rouse cranky, but then we had to get him, the car-seat ... you know the rest ... off the plane and onto another air-train so that we could get to the baggage carousel and pick up the three large suitcases and the packed stroller bag.  Nana and the Admiral met us just before the carousel and Nana ran to grab her grandson.  To be fair, we were sort-of holding him out and yelling "LOOK, NANA!"  It's win/win people ... 

Join us next time when I talk way too much about taking Sidney to Universal Studios, Epcot and The Magic Kingdom.  If you'll excuse me, I need to go lay down and rest after our vacation.