Saturday, December 29, 2007

Better late than never

Our flight is uneventful. There’s an overcast below us (does that make it an “undercast”?) almost all the way, so I can’t try to keep track of our location like I usually do. Because we’re at the start of Winter and with our later departure, we do have one new experience on this flight – landing in the dark! We actually descend through the sunset on our approach to Orlando.

I am thankful as we come in to land for the time I’ve spent on websites and programs, such as and Google Earth, which allow you to view interesting locations from the air. Because of that, I am able to tell which side of the airport we are landing on and I actually locate our hotel from the air just before we touch down. (For his part, Benjamin spots a McDonalds below us, and asks if we can eat there for supper. Um, no.)

We’re on the ground at 5:45 (Eastern time). The pilot was dead on about the two hour flight time. Brandon comments that “flights go by faster than you expect.” For him, maybe, but not for me. I felt all 120 minutes, and am ready to stretch my legs.

Once in the terminal, we climb onto the automated shuttle for the trip to the main terminal – the first time we’ve taken it in the dark. It may just be about 6:00 in the evening, but our lengthy day makes it feel like 10 or 11. We pop down to the A-side baggage claim and flag a skycap to help with our bags (a lesson we learned from our first trip). We get an enthusiastic young guy named Zachary. Our bags are sloooooow in coming, but eventually we have them all and I call the Wingate Hotel for a shuttle pickup.

We’re told to head to slot A34. That’s almost at the other end of the terminal, naturally, but that’s why we have Zachary and his baggage cart!

At A34, we unload the bags from the cart, and the hotel van pulls up within a minute or two – the fastest we’ve ever been picked up. The six of us pile into the van and head out. We think we’re headed to the hotel right away, but the driver circles around and takes us to the B-side of the airport, saying that he has another pickup to make. We hope it’s only one guy, as only the front passenger seat is empty.

It’s a family of four. The driver doesn’t seem at all bothered by this, so… we squeeze them in. It’s tight, but we make it, and at least we can go to the hotel.

We arrive at the Wingate at about 7:15, check in quickly, and toss our bags into our rooms. Next stop: Tony Roma’s!

Here’s where we find out the effects of our delay. We’re used to eating our meals early (with supper usually around 5:30), which means we mostly beat the crowds. At 7:30 on a Saturday night, though, Tony Roma’s is hopping. We’re given a wait time of 45 minutes to an hour. Chili’s next door has the same, so we head back to the Tony Roma’s to wait. I might implode.

The wait outside is not that unpleasant. We have benches to sit on, and the temperature is in the lower 70’s. Fortunately it passes quickly – it’s amazing how quickly one can adapt to waiting around doing nothing – and we have a table at 8:25.

Service is mercifully fast, and we have our traditional onion loaf out promptly. Needless to say, it is quickly demolished. For our entrees, Bob has baby-back ribs, while Becky, Linda & I get our traditional St. Louis-style Carolina Honeys. Yum. Benjamin sticks with the kids menu, predictably getting pizza – he would get cheese pizza at Victoria & Albert’s given the opportunity - while Brandon tries a Turkey & Bacon sandwich that is very tasty.

Stomach rumblings settled for the moment, we walk back to the hotel before 10 p.m. We agree with Becky’s parents to meet them at the breakfast buffet around 7-ish tomorrow morning. (Becky comments, “Them ‘7’, us ‘-ish’!”)

Once in the room, the kids head to bed quickly. “ET” is on the television. I pull out our passports and cruise documents to prepare for our check-in tomorrow, get my clothes – and pin lanyard! – ready to go, and Becky & I crash before 11:00.

A long day of travel is worth it, if it means we get to see Mickey tomorrow!

We will eventually get to Disney, right?

Waiting, waiting, waiting. I mentioned The Amazing Race in the last post. While it is continually one of my favorite shows, I could never be a contestant. Besides not being up to the physical demands, I couldn’t handle these airport waits. We’re only here at D/FW for six hours, in relative comfort. I’ve seen too many times the Amazing Race teams “camping out” at a foreign airport, lying on floors, overnight, with no freedom to get up and explore for fear of losing their place in line at a ticket office. No thank you.

Shortly after our arrival at the gate, Bob and Linda go exploring. They soon return, each with some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Hey, it is vacation, even if we haven’t really gone anywhere. (Truth be told, we’re actually farther from Orlando at the moment than when we woke up!) We each take turns either guarding our possessions or exploring the surroundings.

One benefit of our delayed departure is that we can have a substantial lunch, rather than just snacking as we go and hitting fast food on the run, so we scope out the local eateries. There are several choices, but we settle on a Fridays. We head there before 11, since none of us ate much breakfast.

Becky and her mom split a pecan-crusted chicken salad and a bowl of broccoli-cheese soup. (Food is always a major part of our vacations, so I report most meals in detail. Get used to it!) Brandon and Benjamin share the huge appetizer sampler, the “Three-For-All,” with fried cheese, buffalo wings, and potato skins. Bob gets his own order of buffalo wings and fries, while I get the skillet chicken & cheese. There’s plenty of garlic and onions in both the chicken and the mashed potatoes on my plate. I should be fun to sit near on a plane!

We eat heartily, knowing our supper will be delayed. We “traditionally” (on both previous trips) have eaten at the Tony Roma’s rib place just north of the Orlando airport on the evening of our arrival. It is definitely in the plans for us tonight, all the more because our local Tony Romas shut down a couple of years ago. (Hey, one reason I picked the Wingate hotel – true story – is that it is right next door to the Tony Roma’s!!!) It’s not clear what effect our later arrival will have on our plans, though.

We’re back at our gate for more waiting around noon. This time we have seats facing the window, so we can watch jets taking off and landing. About 30 minutes later I get up to go stretch my legs. While I’m up I check the departures monitor. There’s our (new) flight, American Airlines flight 676, on time for a 2:25 departure… at gate C21???

I check with a nearby gate agent, and sure enough, our departure has been bumped to a different gate, in an entirely different terminal. Good thing I looked! We’re still okay for time, so no pressure to get there, thankfully. We gather our stuff and head back to the SkyLink for another trip around the airport.

We arrive at the new new gate around 1 p.m. Fifty minutes later, boarding begins. Once on the plane, we find that we are in the very last row of seats. At least we’re together – not always a certainty when you’re bumped from one flight to another.

The captain announces that we could depart on time, but with an expected tail wind our flight time will be just over two hours, so he’s holding at the gate to allow some connecting bags to be loaded and the line of departing flights ahead of us to clear.

We don’t actually push back from the gate until 2:45, but as the captain predicted, we taxi straight to the runway and start rolling. We’re finally on our way.

I note that we left our house nine hours ago.

Going nowhere fast

D/FW airport is a sprawling place. It has five large terminals, lettered A through E. Our original check-in was to be at Terminal E, but with the flight change we will now check in at Terminal A, as our Super Shuttle driver confirms by phone. (He also tries, unsuccessfully, to get us on an earlier flight. A nice effort, that.)

We’re deposited, with our luggage, at Terminal A, at 8:15. I share our situation with a nearby TSA agent and confirm that we’d best check in at the American ticket counter rather than with a skycap. So, we haul the bags into an elevator (taking two trips) and head upstairs.

We weren’t sure what the airport crowds would be like this Saturday after Christmas. While there are plenty of people about, there is no line at the ticket counter. Check-in is smooth – it’s nice to know they were expecting us – but we learn our departure gate is at another terminal. No problem, D/FW has a nice new automated “SkyLink” shuttle – behind security – that we can ride to our new gate in Terminal D. (And we certainly have plenty of time to get there!)

Once we’re done checking in (and having gone through a litany of questions with another TSA agent that I’d not experienced before, such as whether I was carrying firearms in my luggage), we head for security. There is a substantial line, but we’re to the metal detectors in less than 20 minutes. Shoes off, jackets off, metal in the bins, pass through the detector, and collect the gear.

Bob is, as usual, pulled aside for wanding. He doesn’t look much like a terrorist to me, but maybe I don’t think like they do. More likely, his hip replacements just set off the alarm each time.

The agent wanding Bob is a congenial older man. “Have you been through this before?” he asks.

“Many times,” Bob replies.

The agent smiles and displays his handheld detector unit. “Then you know that this is the part where I beat you with this.”

Bob chuckles nervously. “No, that part is new.”

With everyone through the screening process safely, we re-shoe ourselves and head to the SkyLink shuttle. It’s nice, clean, modern, and has us longing for Disney monorails!

I strike up a conversation with a young-ish TSA agent riding with us. We discuss our trip to Disney. He expresses a desire to go back to Walt Disney World, as he hasn’t been since he was a kid, but more than that he wants to go back to Europe and see real castles again, something he did as a teenager. He mentions Nieuschwanstein specifically, the castle that was, in part, an inspiration for the castles of Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. I share with him that our family castle, Hoheschloss, is not too far from there in the town of Fussen. (Okay, I don’t know if any ancestors ever actually owned it or lived there, but I do have lots of German ancestry and, heck, my mom’s maiden name is “Hohes.”)

The TSA guy tells me that if we have to spend time at the airport, Terminal D’s a nice place to do it. For one thing, it’s fairly new, and much better designed than the older terminal buildings. He describes it as a combination terminal building, art museum, and shopping mall.

He also offers to lead us to our gate, since he is getting off at the same stop. I thank him but decline – we’ve got too much time to kill, so we’re actually going to stay on the SkyLink for a circuit of the entire airport before getting off!

We ride around, our own elevated tour of the airport. It’s rather a nice way to see it. I was the type of guy who used to hang out at airports, plane- and people-watching, until tougher security following 9/11 meant you had to be a ticketed passenger to get through to the gates. So I resolve to enjoy our wait time as much as I can.

We’re at gate D29 at 9:45. If our original flight were still in the plans, we’d be boarding about now. As it is, we will be boarding in about four hours.

So here we sit, in the very nice, new, D/FW Terminal D, reading, napping, chatting, exploring. I can be thankful that (1) we are not on The Amazing Race, and (2) that we have the extra day built in. Hey, this is exactly why we schedule our flights to arrive the day before our “official” package begins. We’ve just never needed to use it before.

On our way at last. Maybe.

Saturday, December 29.
I can tell, when I wake at 6:00 to my alarm clock, that this trip is starting better than the last two. In 2003, I was awake at 3:30 a.m. in anticipation; in 2005, I did not even get to sleep until that time, due to a
late-night doctor visit with my younger son. But this time, after a relatively peaceful Christmas week and an early bedtime last night, I rise refreshed, alert, and excited to be leaving. We’re flying to Florida today!

The pessimist in me insists that nothing ever goes completely smoothly, but for the moment I am able to suppress any negative thoughts.

Benjamin arrives in our bedroom fully dressed, before his 6:10 alarm even sounds. (What a difference from our first trip 4+ years ago.) Brandon is up not too long after. Almost all of our luggage is already in the car. I take care of all of our security timers, check that our newspaper delivery has stopped, and lock all of the doors. We’re in the car and on our way before 7:00, heading to Becky’s parents’ house, 35 minutes away with no traffic, where a Super Shuttle is scheduled to pick us up by 8 a.m.

Traffic is light, Disney tunes are in the CD changer (“On the Open Road” from the Goofy movie is a good fit for our mood!), and we’re there by 7:30. We park and unload our luggage onto the front sidewalk.

When I return from parking our minivan in the rear driveway, the Super Shuttle is already here! We load up quickly and shut the doors, with me playing an audio clip of “Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor mantengan se alejado de las puertas” over an MP3 player and mini-speaker I have brought just for this occasion. We are actually on our way to D/FW airport at 7:36, for a 10:15 flight on US Airways. That flight will take us to Charlotte, NC, where we will connect to a flight for Orlando, arriving just after 4 p.m. Eastern time. Wow, things are going well!

On the way to the airport in the Super Shuttle, the six of us chat about what we are going to see and do. As we are passing downtown Dallas, Bob and I talk about the new “ice lights” covering Cinderella Castle. He doesn’t recall having seen a picture of them. I just happen to have one as the wallpaper of my cell phone. I unclip the phone from my belt, flip it open, and… hmm, that’s odd – I have a new voice message waiting.

One of my favorite quotes is from George Will, about how the great thing about being a pessimist is that you are always either being proven right or pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, this is one of those “proven right” times.

The call is from US Airways. Our Dallas to Charlotte flight has been delayed enough that we will miss our connection to Orlando!

On the plus side, we’ve already been rebooked, on a non-stop American flight. It's a nonstop flight, but it leaves at 2:25, over six hours from now!

We have some time to kill.