Wherever you go in Orlando, you can’t escape the spectacle of the Magic Kingdom fireworks.
As you drive around the city on any given evening, you see bursts of colorful light shooting up into the air. Then, they quickly cascade as though electrified streamers are raining down on passers by. Finally, the sparks disappear into the darkness as if they were never there. Those flashes of hope bring me back to central Florida again and again.
Nostalgic for Wonder
Even if Disney is too expensive, too commercial, and too corporatist (and it is indeed all those things), it brings me back to my childhood. A visit to the theme parks or one of the resorts reminds me of my wonder. My father, an Italian immigrant, was a workaholic. He never missed a day’s work, not for illness, not for anything. But when the season turned to winter and his landscaping company was on leave, he would take us to Disney World. The first stop would be Peter Pan’s Flight. The second stop would be the fireworks. He considered them awe-inspiring. They reminded him of the elaborate fireworks he would see from Buceto, the woods in Ischia, Italy, where he regularly camped out as a kid for certain religious feast days.
So, we return to Disney. Today, we watch Happily Ever After from the top of California Grill in Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The flurry of images projected onto Cinderella’s Castle cast a spell on us. Hearing the rush to silence from the sea of onlookers is magnificent. That booming launch of fireworks dancing in the sky, in beat with the music, stays with a person.
Standing on that rooftop with fireworks shaped like hearts dissipating before us, I clutch my little boy. His jaw sits practically on the floor. “I never want it to stop, Mommy,” he says. And I respond, “I know. I know.” Truth is neither do I.
Bridge to the Generations
My own parents sit right inside the doors of the restaurant. They preferred to watch the show from our table. Certainly, they long ago held onto my siblings and me in the same way. They too wished upon a Disney firework that we would stay little just a little bit longer. Of course, they longed to make our innocence and sense of security and cherished moments endure as long as possible. Now, they are doing the same for their grandchildren. As the fireworks enlighten us, we must accept that these years vanish in an instant – and there’s no way to get them back once they’re gone.
I remember a rush of water slapping my face and preventing me from breathing as I stared down the huge backside of a hefty grown-up man. For a moment, my 10-year-old self believed she would die a horrifying death by drowning because of a rather plump father, who had gotten stuck inside a tube in a maze at a water park. In his defense, this poor dad was just trying to keep up with his toddler who had scampered down the chute. But now we were all facing the possibility of a cruel and unusual death. God only knew where the kid was, and dad was reduced to a pig trying to squeeze through a pinhole while water with firehose-like might pummeled our little faces and baby bodies.
My younger brother and sister and cousins stood motionless and continued to take a beating from the forceful water pumps. Then, my littlest cousin dropped his water shoe down the holes in the maze, and it floated at the bottom of the pool beneath us. He began to wail, and as he opened his mouth, water rushed in. I thought, “This will be our end. The headlines will read, ‘Death By Fat Ass.'” Alas, it was not. Led by an older relative, we actually used our hands and the full force of our weight to squeeze Big Poppa through the tube. We raced to the end of the maze, got out, and called a guard for help getting back the lost shoe. This was my lasting impression of Sesame Place in Langhorn, Pa. Ok, that’s not completely true. I also remember loving the lazy river, and my brother peeing in the cooler on the ride home when we got stuck in traffic and nature called. True story. To his credit, he filled the thing with urine. Of course, it was garbage after that.
What Is Sesame Place?
Still, I longed to return to the land of Big Bird with my own son. Recently, I finally had the chance. While the park remains a Disney wannabe that doesn’t quite measure up, it is a lovely way to spend the day with young children, and I recommend it to anyone who can make it there and afford it. For full disclosure, Sesame Place is owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which also owns the SeaWorld parks, Bush Gardens, and a couple of water parks. As some of you know, SeaWorld has faced protest and criticism for its original means for capturing and training killer whales (think Shamu), which was explained in the CNN documentary Blackfish. The company is still trying to restore itself to its former glory and win back the trust of the public. Sesame Place, of course, is not an aquarium or zoo and should be seen as a separate entity.
Dating back to 1980, Sesame Place has grown from three to 14 acres of fun. The theme park features water rides, dry rides, shows, a parade, and restaurants. Kids have the chance to interact with the characters from the beloved educational show Sesame Street. Everywhere you look you will see a reminder of the show, including topiaries shaped like Mr. Snuffleupagus or Grover, the names of the restaurants (Elmo’s Eatery, for example), or Big Bird’s welcoming beak at the entrance. The place sure has changed since I was a kid. There is way more to do, including a character meet and greet lunch and dinner, special events for Halloween and Christmas, and a hopping parade.
How Much Is This Going to Cost You?
Tickets cost $55 for a summer single-day pass if you buy them online. (You’ll pay $65 at the gate.) Like SeaWorld of yesteryear, you can get what was once known as a fun pass, which means with your purchase of a one-day ticket, you can get into the park for a second day anytime until the end of the year free. We opted for this and plan to find a day to go again. If you live close enough or don’t mind staying until closing time at 9 p.m. on most nights, then you can get $15 off both weekend and weekday tickets by entering after 3 p.m. My sister-in-law has done this and felt it worked out well. We left around 4 p.m., and I noticed way more people traffic after 3, so if you don’t like crowds, the discount might not be worth it.
You can also plan your dining online. The only character meal is at Dine with Elmo & Friends restaurant, and it requires reservations. The prices ($28 for kids 10+ and $9 for kids under 10) are higher for this buffet meal than at the quick-service restaurants and food trucks and stands around the park, but your kid will get to meet the gang from Sesame Street, including Big Red himself. We might have done this but there was a special event on the day we went, so there were no reservations available. I found that there were openings in the days right after, so it might not be too hard to get a reservation. (In other words, you don’t have to be on the phone a la Disney Dining at midnight six months before your trip to score a reservation. Phew!)
Much like Disney, there is a dining plan from which you can choose even if but for one day. In fact, my family and I opted into this. Again, you must purchase this online ahead of your trip. The deal was good. For $13 each, my husband and I were able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack at Elmo’s Eatery, Cookie’s Cafe, or Captain Ernie’s Bistro. For $10, my son was able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack, all served on a souvenir plate and cup at those same quick-service restaurants. There is a Premium Dining Pass if you’re planning on eating lunch and dinner at Sesame Place. We were happy to have bought into this because the food isn’t very good. As my husband said, “You don’t feel as bad paying little for garbage.”
At Cookie’s Cafe, we ate burgers, which were standard and fine, and my son had chicken fingers, which were oily and a bit soggy, but he ate them anyway. The French fries had no taste at all; it was like eating air. Still, I’d recommend Cookie’s Cafe or Elmo’s Eatery next door if you go with the quick service dining plans. Captain Ernie’s was cramped and didn’t have as many options. We did, however, get snacks from Ernie’s later in the day. Despite looking like nothing special, the cupcake and cookie were super delicious. My son chose a Go-Gurt, which he devoured with pleasure. Don’t even try to use your snack at one of the food trucks. It’s an exercise in futility. Still, the Starbucks stand offers up some great soft-serve ice cream and a wannabe Disney Dole Whip, which I didn’t try but seemed popular with the regulars. There are a slew of other options, which you can check out at the Website before your visit.
Of course, you don’t go to Sesame Place for the food (or at least I hope, for your sake, you don’t). The appeal is in the rides and entertainment. We didn’t get to do as much as I would have liked because the lines were long on a hot summer Saturday. But we did hang out in Ernie’s Waterworks pools (which are short on waves and long on wading, perfect little kiddies), the Count’s Splash Castle (basically a series of mazes and slides like the one I went through and got stuck in all those years ago), Sesame Streak (a water slide for one or two), Big Bird’s Rambling River (which was as relaxing as I remembered), and the Sunny Day Carousel (my son’s first pick because he wanted to ride a blue horse). We stuck with the water rides – aside from the carousel, which was our first ride – because it was hot, hot, hot out there. Despite applying and re-applying sunblock, I did get a bit burned on my shoulders and my son ended up quite tan. Be prepared. We also used bug spray because of fears of Zica (which are nowhere near Pennsylvania at this time, but still).
All the rides seemed to be family friendly and appropriate for little guys. There were signs with measuring poles for some rides that required children under a certain height wear life vests, which were available. We did bring my son’s own vest, but he was tall enough to forego it on every ride on which we went. I was extra glad he had it, however, especially when he went down the blue slide in the Count’s play area by himself. It was great because he was so proud to go down on his own, and I met him on the bottom. My husband came – with a much bigger splash – right behind him.
Buy everything online, so you get all the discounts and know going into this what your day will be like and what you’ll be eating (more or less).
Bring towels and sunblock and bug spray – plenty of it.
Carry a bottles of water in a cooler bag.
Get a locker for your valuables (namely your wallet). It is a bit costly but it’s better than worrying about this stuff while you’re on the rides.
Bring a plastic fanny pack or bag (that you can wear like a chain around your neck) to carry a few dollars and a phone at all times. Lots of people had these, and I was jealous. I wasn’t able to take nearly as many photos as I would have liked because my phone was locked up in the locker for fear of breaking or losing it.
Invest in water shoes. We were all wearing flip flops, so we would have to leave them by our stroller in the stroller parking area. The flip-flops fall off upon impact of landing from the slides. The pavement was scorching hot. We ended up carrying around my 40-lb., barefoot son. And my feet felt as though they were on fire the entire time. Not fun.
No matter how hard you try, you will pass souvenir stores, especially on your way in and out of the park. I didn’t want to argue with my son, who was already disappointed that we hadn’t actually met Elmo. So, we agreed to get him a small gift. I ended up paying $12 for a small car driven by Cookie Monster. He loves the thing, and even brought it to bed one night. But I wish I would have picked up a Sesame Street item at the dollar store and had it ready to whip out when he asked for something. Of course, you can also always make this a lesson and just say no. I’ve done that before on other trips, and despite the crying, I think he is slowly learning he can’t get everything he wants. At least, I hope he’s learning.
On an afternoon like this one, I find myself drifting into daydreams. My thoughts turn to travel, namely the kind that allows me to escape into another world, become a kid again, and shut down my brain even if but for a moment. For me, that means virtually visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. I’ll admit, besides unlocking the memories in my mind, I seek out video on YouTube or read what’s new on some of the popular Disney blogs. Sometimes, I even delve into Disney history and read biographies of those who have made their mark on “the World.”
Some of my friends actually believe Disney is evil for its status as a multinational corporation and manipulation of children that has the company convincing them to buy their love of different childhood characters. I won’t even go into how they believe little girls are screwed up by all those princess fairy tales. If I’m being honest, they’re not wrong. Still, I’m walkin’ on the Dark Side, and I’m fine with that. Frankly, Disney is so good at getting you hooked, that I wouldn’t even know how to protest these practices. Here are some of the experiences that fuel my addiction and dominate my thoughts when I’m back home:
Yummy Treats – Hello Dole Whip! Only at Disney would the combination of milk and pineapple juice turn into a delightful, refreshing float that has people yearning in the way others seek true love. Then, there’s the moist, cake-like carrot cake cookie, replete with cream cheese icing filling, that might be the only draw at Hollywood Studios as it undergoes major renovation ahead of the arrival of Star Wars and Toy Story lands. Epcot serves as my own personal buffet of snacks – nachos in Mexico, pretzels and caramel corn in Germany, egg rolls in China, crepes and artisan ice cream in France, and fish and chips in England. The list of must-haves continues to grow as Disney expands its options and becomes more gourmet (at least by Disney standards).
Monorail – There are fewer sounds more soothing to me than the whizzing of futuristic trains that fly through the sky. Taking a ride on one is like a fantasy. As you swing around and visit each resort and the Magic Kingdom or head to Epcot, you are literally taken to another place, somewhere in a child’s storybook. I almost feel as though I’m hanging over Neverland. From your seat, you might catch a glimpse of the lit torches at the Polynesian, a wedding at the Grand Floridian, and Chef Mickey greeting guests at the Contemporary. Of course, you’ll see Cinderella’s Castle in all its glory, always beckoning you home.
Sound of Fireworks – The crackling explosion of colorful flames is like a lullaby. The best part is no matter where you are in the area, you can usually hear the fireworks every single night. Often, you can catch some of that color in the air. The sound of fireworks in Orlando is like a warm blanket on a cold day. It’s another way to get into your head and temporarily erase the usual to-dos and worries hanging out in there. Isn’t that the point of a vacation?
Peter Pan’s Flight – Everyone has her own favorite ride at the Disney theme parks, and this is one of mine. My parents took us to Disney just about every year when I was a kid, and this was always a must do. My father loved it because he said he flew away from his problems every time he stepped onto the flying ship. My mother hated it because she is afraid of heights and hanging a few inches in the air terrified her. She would clutch his arm and keep her eyes shut, but she never missed the flight. I think she wanted to be a part of our journey, which had us floating over Neverland, replete with Pan, Wendy, Hook, and the Tic-Toc Croc.
Mickey Mouse Ears for Everyone – The fact that it’s socially acceptable for full-grown adults to wear Mickey ears or capes or both makes Disney awesome. Grown ups like stuff kids like, including goofy string fights, chicken nuggets, and toilet humor. Normally, however, adults can’t admit this kind of stuff. Disney lets you be a kid again. In the World, you can wear the ears, take pictures with cartoon characters, and fill your plate with stuff from the kid’s section of the buffet. And nobody will judge.
All the Pretty Flowers – Flowers in a rainbow of colors, in a perfectly manicured bed, replete with water features or topiaries or statues inspire long, deep breaths and creative ideas. Coming from a family full of landscapers, I’ve been aware of this fact for as long as I can remember. While my family have the greenest of thumbs and have created gorgeous works of art with plants and flowers, even they can admit that Disney does it right. My father even learned a thing or two from Disney, like using cabbage as decoration in the fall and growing strawberries in a bag. Hello Land ride! Of course, all these gorgeous flowers and plants make lovely backdrops for your family vacation photos.
My Kid’s Smile – On any day of the week, my 4-year-old son has one heck of a smile, replete with a dimple on each cheek. Yes, I’m totally bias, but that’s not the point. When we are wrapped in the Disney bubble, his smile is wider and brighter. His teeth might actually sparkle and stars might circle around him as though he was in a cartoon.
Experts tell us that giving your child memories is a better investment than material items, such as toys. The pure joy I see in his smile when we’re on vacation at Disney proves that to me. Certainly, it helps alleviate the frustration at the significantly high prices of such a getaway. But it also makes me sure that when my son is older and I’m gone, these are the kinds of things upon which he’ll reflect. Sure, he’ll remember advice I give him and how I nursed him through the flu and all the stuff I will teach him (from tying his shoes to parking a car). But when he thinks about our bond – the love between us – I’m willing to bet shaking hands with Mickey Mouse and hopping on Dumbo’s Flight with my husband and me are going to be near the top of his list.
As you learned in yesterday’s post, Sea World is often atop my list when vacationing in Orlando, Fla. One of the reasons I love going there is its Fun Pass. You pay the price of one day’s admission and choose the Fun Pass option (at the electronic ticket sales booth at the entrance). This allows you to use that same ticket – without paying anything extra – to enter Sea World as many times as you’d like for up to one year. Yes, it costs exactly the same as a one-day ticket. The goal, as I see it, is for visitors to keep coming back and spending money on the extras – food, special shows, souvenirs, etc. My family and I went twice during my recent trip, and we bought lunch and drinks both times. And I still have my ticket, which will work until the end of the year, in case I find myself back in the area. It could happen. I could win the lottery. You never know.
Everyone goes to Orlando for Disney World, myself included. But there are many other theme parks in the area. One of my favorites is Sea World. It’s gotten a bad rep over the years, especially after the recent tragedy when one of the animal trainers was killed by a whale in the Shamu show. While that incident was awful, the park has done what it can to get back on its feet and implement preventative measures to keep that from happening again – at least from what I, a tourist, could tell. On my last visit just a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that there were far fewer Shamu shows than before, for instance. I assume that gives the whales more rest time.
Still, my family enjoys a day at Sea World. From the flamingos that greet you near the entrance to the wild Manta roller coaster (which I would never dare take a spin on but was popular with hubby and my sister), there’s something for everyone. The highlight of the park is the shows featuring the animals. Even though my sister finds it cheesy, the dolphin show with the acrobatic stunts by both man and beast and bright, lively costumes has always taken my breath away. “Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island” has sea lions performing tricks and humans participating in silly banter and antics on a pirate ship. Of course, there’s always Shamu, the star of the park. The one disappointment was that the penguin exhibit was closed for renovation. We actually went there because Baby boy loves penguins, and we wanted him to see them up close. Alas, he couldn’t. We did find other entertainment, though, and just walking through the park is a pleasure on a nice, sunny day.
Nowadays, there are also all sorts of concerts for the little ones, including a popular stage show with Elmo and his mates from Sesame Street. Baby boy bopped to the beat while other babies were literally dancing on tables during that one. That wasn’t even my favorite Sea World moment. Baby boy and I had been waiting for my husband and sister to feed the dolphins and we were by the observation pool. A dolphin literally came face to face with Baby boy and it was as though they had a conversation, talking back and forth to one another. Baby boy got so excited, he could barely contain his giggles. If only I could hold him up to the pool and take a picture or video at the same time. I’ll just have to keep this priceless memory locked in my own brain.