Florida in February

As we did two years ago in Florida and last year in Hawaii, Dave and I tagged a couple of days’ vacation on to a scheduled winter business trip (in this case, mine). We flew down a week ago Monday to Orlando and drove directly from the airport to our first destination: Canaveral/Merritt Island National Seashore/National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast.

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IMG_5035I was overdressed in long pants and sneakers in the hot sun and sand of the national seashore, especially compared to most people dressed in shorts and flip-flops, swimsuits, wetsuits (for surfing), or, in some cases, nothing (we found a nude beach on the north end, where we saw one guy wearing nothing but a red baseball cap and a smile. Howdy! Welcome to Florida!)

The seashore was truly lovely. We walked a bit, watched the surfers, and just enjoyed the warm sand and sun. It was a nice break from the Iowa winter.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon doing the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, part of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We saw tons of cool birds and bird habitat, but no bobcats or alligators, which are both said to live there. The wildlife refuge was established in 1963 when NASA created Kennedy Space Center. The refuge provided a buffer for space operations while protecting key wildlife habitat. Not far from the official “drive” we stopped at a manatee watch area, where we saw the backs, tails, and a tiny bit of the heads of Florida manatees.

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The next day we took our sweet time getting to the first of our two Disney destinations, the Magic Kingdom, thinking anyone who is really serious about the park would get there when it opened (like we did when we visited with our kids) and we’d just cruise on in about 10:30 a.m. But no, we waited for the parking lot tram, waited for the ferry, waited while the ferry, well, ferried us slowly to the entrance where we waited in another long-ass line to buy our tickets. (Note to self: Buy tickets before leaving home. At least we were smart enough to buy a two-day pass so we didn’t have to stand in line the next day.) It took us more than an hour to get from the parking lot into the park. Sheesh. And I thought February was the off-season in Disney World?

I turned out that I was wrong, because we battled long lines and huge crowds all day. There were lots of international visitors, making up maybe a third of the total crowd, so maybe they have February spring breaks in Europe? I am baffled.

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We walked down Main Street and were greeted immediately by the “Move it! Shake it! Celebrate it!” street party (above), which is like a mini parade. I do love the parades at Disney; we would watch two more before the end of the day.

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I’m also a sucker for character sightings. It’s nice not to actually have to stand in line for your kids to meet them. I just hovered near the front of the line where the official Disney photographer takes pictures and snapped away. I loved this little kid’s reaction to Minnie.

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Dave and I have visited the Magic Kingdom many times with our girls, so we definitely didn’t feel the need to see everything or ride all the rides. In fact, I found myself feeling quite old when I opted not to stand in line for either Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (above), preferring to walk the park, sit and watch the crowd, and eat Mickey ice cream on a stick. (I’ve ridden both of those rides many times, plus Splash Mountain, which was closed down for maintenance. On previous trips this would have been a disappointment, but now, eh, no big deal.)

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We visited New Fantasyland and were not wowed. We grabbed a fast pass for Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid and were underwhelmed by the slow, old-school animatronic ride in a clamshell. Yawn. Basically, it made me want to watch the much more entertaining film. We stood in line for what seemed like an hour for Enchanted Tales with Belle (Belle is my favorite princess, if you were wondering) and were downright horrified at the sheer lameness of this “storytelling experience.” If eye-rolling were an Olympic sport, I would win a gold medal. (If you have little girls who adore Belle and would spaz out to meet her, I suppose you should stand in line. But even so, I’m not convinced it’s worth the time.)

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New Fantasyland looks great – I’ll give it that. All castles and France and mermaids. We loved the look of Gaston’s Tavern (they used antlers in all of their decorating), the Gaston fountain in front, and Gaston himself preening and signing autographs (above, with random children). Dave ordered a big piece of meat at the tavern; I opted for hummus and chips, which turned out to be pre-packaged and not even pita chips, so it wasn’t much of a lunch. We really wanted to see the inside of the Be our Guest restaurant but didn’t want to pay the price; we tried to just go in and get a beer (it’s the only place in the Kingdom where you can order alcohol) but alas, it was open for diners only.

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At 2:30 we found a good place to stand for the 3 o’clock Celebrate a Dream Come True parade. This always stresses me out: where do you stand for the best pictures? Which direction is the parade coming from? What if we end up shooting into the sun? Aaaaagggghhhh. But it turned out OK, and, as I said, I do so love the parades.

Later in the day we re-visited some of our favorite places and tried a few new ones: Tom Sawyer Island (relaxing, with no line and few guests), Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (hilarious), Mickey’s PhilharMagic, and the Disney Railroad.

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Once it started getting dark, we positioned ourselves on the second story of the railroad station to wait for the Main Street Electrical Parade (which runs twice, at 7 and 9 p.m.) This turned out to be the highlight of the day: Watching the sky grow darker while standing ABOVE the crowd, with a kick-ass view of Cinderella’s castle and the parade. Once the parade was over and people left, we actually got chairs on the balcony and settled in to watch the Wishes fireworks show. I love the fireworks even more than the parade; I always get a little teary-eyed during the fireworks and believe that this is truly the most magical part of the Magic Kingdom experience.

After the fireworks we got the hell out of the park and – surprise! – were able to get on the second monorail (no more ferries for us), which zipped us to the parking area where we grabbed a quick tram and found our car.

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The next morning we went to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and got in very quickly compared to our Magic Kingdom experience the day before. We immediately grabbed a fast pass for Tower of Terror (one of our two favorite rides in the park) and headed to Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (our other favorite). The sign said the wait would only be 45 minutes so we decided to stand in line…only to learn that the sign LIED and we would be in line for more like an hour and a half (I do NOT stand in lines for an hour and a half, so I was more than a little peeved). But the ride is AMAZING – I think it gets better every time I ride it. And by the time we finished, we could grab another fast pass, so we got one for the Aerosmith ride (something to look forward to later in the afternoon, after my head stopped pounding from the first ride).

We headed over to Tower of Terror and stood in a reasonable (fast-pass induced) line. I swear that ride is not always the same; I think sometimes you fall further or bounce more often. This time I wasn’t quite as wowed as I have been in the past. Maybe they just changed it?

Our heads were sort of spinning from all the rides by this point, so we took it easy and rode the Great Movie Ride (the movie clips at the beginning and end are my favorite part…Disney could have saved itself a lot of money by just doing a bunch of movie highlights).

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The Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun! parade began at 3 o’clock, so we jockeyed for a good place to stand where we wouldn’t be shooting into the sun. Afterwards we went to The American Idol Experience, which was sort of cool but also really annoying.

I was getting tired by this time and wondered how we ever did four parks in four days when the kids were little. We went to Muppet Vision 3-D, which apparently will never change, and scored fast-pass tickets from a passing couple to the Toy Story Midway Mania! ride, which had an incredibly long stand-by line (longer than I would ever stand in) and no more fast passes. So that was fun.

The park closed at 7 o’clock, but at 6 o’clock the sky darkened and I was in no mood to get rained on, so we headed for the exit. Got to our car in record time, just before it rained.

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