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Where I recount my Disney adventure

by John on January 13th, 2014

We left from Elizabethtown, PA. Because of medical concerns, flying was out for my mom – and, well, driving with my family of four for a day would be…difficult (because I can become quite grumpy), and we were talking about traveling with a party of nine, so we took the train.

Only it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit when we left (or eighty-two bazaillion degrees below freezing when you calculate in wind chill and the fact that you’re traveling with toddlers). Our itinerary had us leaving Elizabethtown and heading to Philadelphia, where we’d pick up a train to Orlando, hop on a van to our resort . . . all well and good, until 9:20am rolled around and the 9:17 train had not yet arrived.

As I said, it was 7 degrees. There were….train issues. I still don’t know the actual story — somehow, the train left Harrisburg, PA on time, and in the one stop between Harrisburg and Elizabethtown, the train broke. And then the next scheduled train went through, but, according to someone “in the know,” they got the first train running again. Anyway, it was cold as balls, and my plan of “leave the winter coats behind because I’m going to fucking Orlando, Florida” was looking tragically moronic. Duffy, being of far more sound mind, got coats for everyone.

Two and a half hours after the train was supposed to leave, the train arrived. And stopped five or six times for “mechanical issues” between Elizabethtown & Philadelphia.

Did I mention that we had a scheduled, two-hour layover in Philly? But we then got a two-hour late start, and went significantly slower than anticipated? Anyway, we spent a fair amount of time on our cell phones with Amtrak customer support on the way, trying to figure out what would happen in the increasingly likely event that we would miss our connecting train.

But said train left New York almost an hour late.

But we were going slow. And kept breaking down (seriously, they had a mechanic on board who kept being rushed either to the front or the back of the train to deal with issues).

We arrived in Philly at 1:21. The train that we were hoping to catch left Philadelphia at 1:06. Obviously, that sucked for us.

But Amtrak was both amazingly brilliant and horribly frustrating on this adventure, all at once.

Frustrating, so far, was that any information about the late/broken train was impossible to come by. I’m someone who would rather know what’s going on, even if the truth sucks. than be left to my own devices and try to figure out what might be wrong (answer: a band of evil dolphins decided to contact the mothership, which, in turn sent meteorite-like objects to attack incredibly specific targets on earth, ensuring that anyone who might be able to provide information and/or assist me in being on time is now dead by evil dolphin attack). I kept on looking at the schedule on the Amtrak application and just saw a train that was “on time” (despite being 40 minutes after the scheduled arrival time) that then went “late” that then had increasingly later anticipated departure times.

However, once we hit the train, between the conductor and the customer service people, it was clear that there was something in the works, behind the scenes, even after it was apparent that we had missed our flight. When the train finally arrived in Philly, the conductor told us to stay put, and then Amtrak personnel showed up & we went running through the catacombs of the Philadelphia train station. Ok, maybe these weren’t actual catacombs, but we were rushing, blindly following two incredible Red-Caps through a twisted maze of elevators & escalators.

We were rushed to an Acela Express high-speed train, bound from Philly to Washington, DC. While nobody ever actually told us what was happening, we were able to glean that, since a crew change was scheduled for our scheduled train in DC, and we were being sent via high-speed means, that we were hoping to catch up with our train in DC before it took off (I’ll admit that everyone in my party had kind-of assumed that we’d just catch the four-hour later train . . . which wouldn’t be the end of the world, there were still enough sleeper-car openings to put us in, comfortably enough, but, obviously, keeping to our original schedule would be better).

So far, my frustration with Amtrak was, mostly, due to mother nature. Brutal cold sucks, and it does horrible things to moving parts, like engines and tracks. Sure, it would have been better to have more information, but, really, I was anxious because my travel plans were being made tense because the weather sucked. And the kids kept crying because it was cold.

But the conductor on the Acela was a doucecanoe.

First off, he seemed to enjoy knowing our story, but absolutely refusing to tell us what the plans were. He was answering radio calls about “the passengers from train 644” and then leaving the immediate area. If we asked him what was going on, the most we’d get from him was “it sounds like they’re trying to get you on your train in DC, but we’re not going to make it in time, so you’ll probably have to spend the night there.”

Then, we were just following instructions, boarding a car we were told to board. We had no idea that they put us in a quiet car at the time . . . but said douchebag conductor certainly let us know. The quiet car, with a 4.5 year old, a 4 year old, a 3.5 year old, and a 1.5 year old. For the start of the trip, things went amazingly well . . . but the baby just had enough about halfway through, and the douchebag was downright mean in telling my sister to take the kid and go anywhere else but there.

Alas, the trip (and, therefore, the time with the douchebag conductor) was short. We made it to DC, only to find that they were holding the train there not only for us, but for another connecting train. No unexpected overnight stay . . . left, late, from another point of departure, but on our scheduled train, heading to Disney.

This excitement, though, took its toll on all of us.

First off, Amtrak lets you bring liquor on board, and I had brought some booze with me for the stay in Disney (hey, several days with my extended family, a little liquid patience goes a long way). I broke out the whiskey first thing, and relaxed.

And, while that whole first part sounds like a horrible knock on Amtrak, aside from the one douchebag conductor on the Acela Express, it really seemed that Amtrak employees were willing to bend-over backwards to help us out. Everyone was nice, everyone was pleasant, everyone was helpful. Some went well above and beyond, especially Eastlyn.

Two meals were included in the southbound voyage, dinner then breakfast (to answer the question, I found the food to be far superior to anything I’ve ever had on an airplane, but certainly not up-to-par for anything that even a middling restaurant could offer — it was edible, and adequate, but not good). CJ fell asleep between ordering and dinner delivery, and he was *out*. I went back to our roommette with him, screwed around on Twitter for a little while before falling asleep, myself.

But when your four-year-old son falls asleep before 7pm, he’ll be awake, and he woke up just after midnight. From midnight until 3am, we talked. We talked about the train, and the difference between talking to strangers when mommy & daddy are there & when we are not. We talked about the importance of holding hands in Disney. We talked about the fact that Daddy had been here before, but he was more excited to head to Disney with CJ than he was any time before.

Then CJ fell back asleep.

And so did I.

Fin, Wednesday.

The next morning started with breakfast on the train, then arrival at the Orlando Train Station, a van over to Disney, and the start of our vacation. We stayed in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and the original plan had us exploring the Animal Kingdom that first day . . . but we had dinner reservations at 5:30, and we didn’t get to the hotel until after 1pm, and it took almost 2 hours for our bags to make it via bell hop from the lobby to our room, and we had all been on a train for over 24 hours so we all needed to shower. In short, by the time we were actually presentable for adventure, it was just about time to head to dinner at Saana, the African/Indian fusion restaurant.

Where CJ fell asleep, again, between ordering dinner and the time that dinner was delivered.

Dinner was delicious. Service was impeccable.

Of course, CJ remained sleeping all of the journey to the hotel room (the room was 1/3 of a mile from the elevator to the room, just to put the scope of this hotel in perspective), so I took the Leila & my nephew to the pool with me, just to see if we could get them to blow off some steam. Until 9pm, we watched the end of the Little Mermaid (every night, they play a Disney movie at the pool) as my kids splashed around. Heck, the pool at the lodge had a very, very cool waterslide . . . while I could get neither my 4 year old son nor my 4 1/2 year old nephew to ride it for the entire stay, my 3 year old daughter went down the slide, twice, by herself.

Ariel kissed Eric, Ariel got her legs. The pool closed.

My friend Karen, a local (who actually was wearing a jacket while I was parading around in little more than my wet bathing suit) stopped by after picking up some much-needed groceries (we could have found everything local . . . but none of the grocery delivery services had any openings, and buying “regular stuff” at Disney is even worse than buying “nostalgic stuff” at Disney, when it comes to the price tag, and my friend Karen is totally awesome, and this meant that I got to catch up with her for a little bit). Fin, Thursday.

Friday saw me waking to run. Because I’m insane. See, after spending over 24 hours on trains, I wanted to be sure that my legs were ready for the half-marathon on Saturday, and I decided a slow 5k would do it. So I left my room a little before 5:30 and wandered and explored. A little after 6, I returned to the room to find that CJ had been awake, essentially, since I had left, wanting to go swimming, as he had gleaned that I had gone with his sister the night before. So we went swimming at 7 in the morning.

Then we got dressed and went to a character buffet breakfast at the Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom. It was incredibly yummy, though it’s really hard to go wrong with “all you can eat” and “breakfast food” with me. Seriously, I can eat scrambled eggs & bacon all day . . . if you’re throwing sweet pastries in the mix, you’d have to evict me.

So the kids got to meet several of the characters (Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Daisy), participated in a random African parade, and then we worked our way, via tram to the Magic Kingdom. Because, while the Animal Kingdom is certainly worth exploring . . . it’s not the Magic Kingdom, especially for 3 & 4 year olds.

We got to the Magic Kingdom & went to Tomorrowland — Stitch’s Great Escape proved to be a bit too intense for two four-year-olds, but the Atro-Orbiter was right up everyone’s alley (and didn’t have the 40″ height restriction, meaning that everyone could ride). From there, we made Fast-Pass reservations for the Monster, Inc. Laugh Factory (incredibly fun, especially if you’re into puns) and the Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (I scored higher than everyone in my family, because I’m awesome). After the ride, we had pictures taken with Buzz, and then Stitch, and we split up. The taller among us (me, my son, my sister, her husband, and their son) to Fast-Pass Big Thunder Mountain Railroad while the shorter (my wife, my daughter, my mother, and my sister’s daughter) went to ride the teacups.

CJ fell asleep on the way to the roller-coaster, and slept through all of the line (while we had Fast-Pass’d the attraction, there was still a wait, though nowhere near the Stand-By wait), but woke up to ride. Afterward, he claimed that the ride was “too fast” but said so with a great big smile on his face, so I think I have a future roller coaster fanatic on my hands.

We left the Magic Kingdom soon after that, however . . . despite CJ’s nap, he was done, and I still had to pick up my packet.

Yeah, my race packet? Have I gone all this time without mentioning the secondary goal (primary was to have fun)? My sister & I were running the half-marathon on Saturday morning, which meant that we had to pick up our packets before 7pm on Friday evening. Leaving the Magic Kingdom at 4:30, we thought, would give us plenty of time.

But transportation at Disney is not always easy.

Jess & I had to figure out how to get to the Wide World of Sports, from the Magic Kingdom. Asking around to several Disney personnel, it seemed that our best bet was to head to any of the “All-Star” resorts and hop on a bus from there. So that’s what we did. We went to All-Star Music and waited. And waited. And Waited. AND WAITED for a bus as the “ESPN Wide World of Sports” sign, to no avail. Eventually, we found a Disney Employee & badgered her to find out that there was additional, unmarked chartered busses from a secondary location that were hired to take people to the Expo (where we had to pick up our packets). So we went to the additional location. And waited. And Waited. AND WAITED. Eventually, a bus that wasn’t there just to drop people off stopped, and we boarded. And we got our packets. And we found a bus back to our resort — we picked up a takeout dinner from The Mara (the lone quick-meal option in our hotel grounds) for everyone in our party, ate, and I was asleep by 8:30.

And I was awake at 2:30 in the morning.

Yes, on vacation, I voluntarily woke at 2:30 in the morning to dress, board a bus, and then wait around for a few hours before running a half-marathon.

Through some sorcery and/or witchcraft, I scored a spot in the “B” corral. Basically, they start the quickest runners with the “Elite” start, and then A/B/C/D/E….through P (for those who are quite slow or simply haven’t run this distance before & didn’t have a qualifying event in order to justify a target time that would have allowed them to start with a faster corral). I was hoping to start the race with my sister, but they pulled a “you would be disqualified” card when she tried to enter my gate (I’m just a slightly faster runner than she is), and neither of us thought to play the “but she isn’t going to win this race” card in return, so we didn’t get to start together.

After promotional messages from the sponsors & notes about how wonderful RunDisney events are, we got underway — one corral started two minutes after the previous (so I started 4 minutes after the official gun) with fireworks, so that was pretty cool.

But, unlike most big races, I started off too fast. I realized my mistake early on, and corrected my pace, from 8:15 to closer to 9:00/mile. In the back of my head, I had hoped to set a personal record, but I hadn’t been running a whole lot lately, and it was hot & humid. I knew a personal best was a bit of a pipe dream . . . and then I saw the photo opportunities. Every mile or so, they had a character set up — some characters had a significant line . . . but you could stop and wait & have a picture taken with them. Other characters, though, had no line. I stopped to have my picture taken with Lilo & Stitch, Cinderella’s mice, and in front of Cinderella’s Castle. Each time, the act of stopping & taking my picture taken couldn’t have been more than 15 seconds . . . but when you add the act of stopping, and then getting going again . . . well, when you add the humidity concerns, hopes of a personal best went out the window.

But I had a blast, and I kept running strong. My time was under two hours, and I was happy with that.

After the run, I cleared medical (volunteers were sending people, left and right, to the medical tent after making eye contact with them — I figured I was a goner, but everyone seemed to think I was ok), boarded my bus, got back to the hotel, actually ran from the elevator to my room (because, after 13.1, what’s another third?), showered, and then went back to the Magic Kingdom, where I arrived just shortly after opening. CJ & my nephew were getting made up as pirates, so I met up with my mom, wife, daughter, and niece and we went to visit Tinkerbell & Periwinkle before flying on Aladdin’s Flying Carpets.

Then we met the boys pirates and rode the Jungle Cruise. Over on the monorail to Epcot for a fish & chips lunch before heading back, again on the monorail, to the Magic Kingdom. The afternoon had fast-passes of a visit with princesses Rapunzel & Snow White, Ariel’s Grotto, and Peter Pan’s Flight before riding the carousel and then waiting “the actual time” for a second flight of Aladdin’s flying carpets, Pirates of the Caribbean (which CJ almost found too scary at parts), and the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. We seriously considered heading over to the Haunted Mansion (one of my all-time favorite rides) but with CJ being almost scared by pirates, we decided to call it a night. Heck, I was done . . . and my kids weren’t far behind me. Home to bed. Goodnight, Saturday.

Sunday was a crazy day – we knew this ahead of time. I had talked to the front-desk at my hotel to see if the kid needed to be present for Jedi Academy at Hollywood Studios. The answer I got was, “as long as you’re signing up for a future time, that shouldn’t be a problem,” and CJ, the Star-Wars fanatic, had a 10:30 appointment to have tea with his grandmother. So I waited at the start of Hollywood Studios and ran to the ABC Sound Studio, only to find that the kid needed to be present in order to sign up for Jedi Academy, and there was no lie I could tell that would change the rule. My only hope was to get CJ back later, and then to sign up for an even later show. So I left to be with my family.

At this time, however, the Disney Marathon was in full-force (I’ll admit not small amount of jealousy to those running the full marathon . . . and those running the Goofy Challenge (the half that I ran and then the full marathon the next day) . . . and those running the Dopey Challenge, which was a 5k/10k/Half/Full on consecutive days — though I still feel like I ran the race that most enabled me to be “dad” while still running), and I knew that traffic was all kinds of fucked up (at this time, a steady stream of runners was running on the path from Hollywood Studios to Epcot for the end of the marathon). I decided that the fastest way to my family, who would be at the Grand Floridian hotel, would be to hop on a boat from Hollywood Studios to Epcot, take advantage of my Park-Hopper badge, run through Epcot (as marathoners were doing the same), get on the monorail, and then take the monorail from Epcot to the Magic Kingdom resorts.

What got me was that I showed up at the Grand Floridian at 10:35 . . . five minutes after the start of CJ’s tea, but left me with a wonder if, had he been with me, if I could have signed him up & actually gotten him back in time. I don’t think that was the case, but I’m left wondering.

Anyway, I had lunch with my lovely wife, sister, brother-in-law, and niece while Duffy recounted the trials & tribulations of Leila choosing pink hair extensions at the Bippity-Boppity-Boutique. Tea ended, I saw my made-up-daughter, and I got very grumpy waiting a very long time for transportation back to Hollywood Studios. It was well after 1pm that we arrived there, and by then, the Jedi Academy was booked solid . . . I felt like a bit of a let down as a parent, here, because this was one of the highlights that I had been promising CJ.

However, the Hollywood Studios had us do the Indiana Jones stunt show, then CJ & mommy went to Star Tours while Leila & I took pictures with Mulan, Stitch, The Green Army Guy (who proposed to my daughter, who was dressed as a punk-rock princess, and I still don’t know how I feel about this), Genie, and Mary Poppins. We saw Belle (La’s favorite), Phinneas & Ferb, Aladdin, and Maleficent . . . but either the lines were too long or, as we got close to them, their handlers found other things for them to be doing.

We met back up with Duffy & CJ and went to the Muppets 3D-show (which might have been the highlight of the entire trip for me – I just wish Electric Mayhem had been the backup band, instead of the penguins – who were great, but not Electric Mayhem), climbed around the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” playground (as I realized that my kids haven’t seen this movie yet, which is something that I need to rectify), before heading to the Disney Junior puppet show (which was spectacular – easily the best show for the kids through this entire adventure, including the great Peter Pan & Ariel rides in the Magic Kingdom).

We had to leave Hollywood Studios without the Ariel show, or the car stunt show, or any of the bigger rides, but it was all good, because we headed directly to the Disney Contemporary Resort for a pirate firework show. Two pirates (both named Patch) competed with punny one-liners as Captain Hook & Smee looked on & took pictures with the kids. Then we went out on lake-boats (and, I must admit, it was downright chilly when this happened . . . nevermind that it was still north of 50F, it was chilly, as enough of the “local weather” had worked its way into my bones.

The show was great — pirate humor cracks me up, and the fireworks were Disney. However much I might have gotten frustrated by the waits for transportation or getting misinformation from one Disney representative, or dealt with an employee who would just say “I don’t know” instead of trying to find someone who might be able to help me, a little bit of magic goes a long, long way — and the fireworks were like nothing I ever remember seeing. I left thinking that life was magical . . . until I waited over an hour for a tram back to my lodge (I, seriously, don’t do well when I’m left waiting).

I got back to the room, got myself some dinner, packed, and went to bed. Goodnight, Sunday.

Monday had us picking up the train back . . . I’ll admit that there was a small part of me that thought about getting 2, single-day passes to Hollywood Studios for CJ and myself, just to see if he might have been able to get CJ into the Jedi academy — but, I couldn’t guarantee that we’d get an early slot (and anything but an early slot would have meant that we couldn’t do it), and single-day passes are fucking expensive, and I was damn tired, and CJ actually seemed to be pacified by the Star Tours ride. So we went to the pool and then to the train station.

I’m writing this, now, from the train on the way back home. I’m feeling incredibly wordy . . . and, at the same time, I feel like I’m leaving everything out. In short, I’m a bit disappointed with my half-marathon time, but I had an absolute blast running. I’d have loved to spend more time in the parks. This won’t be my last time doing this with my kids. It was exhausting, frustrating, but magical. And my kids are still smiling. I am happy. Even if I hear that there is snow in the forecast at home.

  1. Believe me – it won’t be long before all you remember from this trip was the magic, not the waiting.

    These moments with your kids are what make life worthwhile.
    They are little for such a short time.

    When they’re grown, you’ll even look back fondly on the hours dealing with Amtrak.

    Maybe. 🙂

    • You know, Amtrak was mostly pleasurable — my complaints were, mostly, due to the weather . . . the unbelievably cold weather. I’m not sure if, had we flown or taken some other kind of transportation, things would have been any less frustrating.

      As it stands right now, the magic is certainly sticking around more than anything else. Heck, I’m already trying to figure out when we’ll be able to go back.

  2. Julie’s right. You’ll forget the waiting. And they’ll always remember the magic.

    • The waiting will dissipate, but I don’t think I’ll entirely forget it . . . but I think that might be for the best. The waiting memory will remind me, if I’m traveling over marathon weekend, to stay at a place that is either boat or monorail accessible to the Magic Kingdom . . . because if I can stay off the roads, the waiting will be minimized.

      As it stands, I’m hopeful to be back there in three years.

  3. You went to Disney with 4 kids under the age of 5 (I wouldn’t even dare do so with 1) AND you ran a half marathon. Although this post solidified you as a fellow crazy person, it also makes you one of my parenting heroes. I often find myself a bit selfish when it comes to parenting, and I feel my kids miss out on certain things because of it. You and Duffy do so much, yet give so much to your kids. As active as you 2 are in the community and with your activities, you never seem to let it affect what your kids get to enjoy. My hat goes off to both of you. I’m so glad you all got to enjoy this time together, you all deserved it.

    • Oh, Brandi – if only you knew the extent to which I am a crazy person.

      And yeah, for however much I have going on, my kids always come first — unfortunately, they know that, so when I come home tired but they want time, they’ll get it 🙂

      And I know I can say the same for Duffy as well . . . do as much as possible, but put the kids first & just hope everything works out.

      And, of course, don’t ever stop to think about how busy you are.

  4. Thanks for the good writeup. It in truth was once a leisure account it.

    Glance complex to more delivered agreeable from you!
    However, how could we communicate?

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