Sunday, January 6, 2008

The final leg

The jet continues east all the way to the west coast of the Florida peninsula and out a bit over the Gulf before turning north. With Disney World behind us, literally and figuratively, we settle in for the flight to Dallas.

I get a ginger ale from the flight attendant and enjoy my M&M’s, and then I doze off. Actually, I sleep – hard. I’m out for half of the flight, waking about forty minutes before landing. It’s a nice way to pass the time.

Becky tells me she dozed some as well, but not as much as me. Benjamin… is still out like a light, draped across his lap tray. It’s pretty cute.

We get another semi-interesting view out of the window as we pass just to the southwest of downtown Dallas. I take a picture of the skyscrapers, and then try to spot landmarks, ending up with finding the red brick, four-story Sammons Center for the Performing Arts, where the Vocal Majority practices each Thursday. We’ve had a few weeks off following our Christmas shows, and I’m ready to be back singing with them!

The flight lands right at 12:52 – Central time, now. Within thirty minutes we have our bags and wheel them out to the Super Shuttle stand. There’s a couple of families waiting there already, but we have a prepaid reservation, and a van comes to get us within a few minutes of our checking in!

Along the ride back to Becky’s parent’s house, Becky calls her friend and fellow church children’s choir worker Tina. Becky and Benjamin actually have a rehearsal this afternoon, preparing for a joint musical debut with another church’s kids! Tina , her husband Rob, and their son Ryan will be taking their first trip to Walt Disney World in a few months, and Ryan was one of the kids to whom we sent a “postcard from Mickey” a few days ago. Becky asks Tina if he got it, and laughs when she realizes that Rob and Tina didn’t realize that we had sent it – they thought it was just a magical Disney thing!

The ride back to Bob and Linda’s house is otherwise uneventful. With a choir practice to get to, we’re not doing the traditional “viewing of the pictures” on the TV, just loading our minivan and heading out. I get my keys from where I’ve left them in their house and pull the minivan around front. We load the luggage, say our goodbyes, and start to leave…

…only to find that the right rear tire has lost some pressure. I get word to Linda to have Bob meet me around back with his air compressor.

I pull to their driveway in the back of the house, and when I get out, the tire is hissing audibly. Uh oh. I must have run over something. Becky and the boys go inside the house to wait while Bob and I work on the minivan.

One tire change later, we repeat our goodbyes and thanks and are finally on the road. We drive through a Wendy’s to grab lunch before getting on the freeway, and eat on the way.

It’s a very different atmosphere in the minivan, compared to the end of our last two Disney vacations. With both of them, we were heading home, settling down after nine days of exhaustion. Now the kids are older and more involved, and we have to hit the ground running. Oh, well, life goes on.

We drop Becky and Benjamin off at their rehearsal, and then Brandon and I stop off at the grocery store and then, finally, head home. We unload the suitcases and put away the groceries. Once that's done, I fire up the computer for the first time in a week and a half. There are 122 emails waiting – and 1,720 new posts on Stupid Guest Tricks!

The adventure never ends.

Stay tuned – one more post coming!

One last Disney surprise!

The time doesn’t drag too much, and before 11:00 we are on the plane. We push back from the gate right at 11:15, taxi to the runway, and are in the air quickly.

We’ve departed to the south, and then make a climbing turn to the east. Usually our flights back to Dallas turn north or northeast fairly quickly. I’ve always wanted to spot Walt Disney World from the air, but so far it hasn’t happened. Although I’ve practically memorized the place from the air by looking at Google Earth and Virtual Earth, and the rest, I’ve never seen it from the air with my own eyes. But having departed south from the airport and then turned east, maybe, just maybe…

Yes!! There’s Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon. If we keep going the same way we’re going, we will pass just south of WDW, giving us a perfect view of the World from the air!!!

We do!

We see Walt Disney World approaching. Bay Lake is in the center of the photograph.

Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake.

Epcot, with World Showcase at the bottom, the parking lot at the top. The brightly-colored rooftops of the Caribbean Beach Resort are at the bottom right.

Another shot of Epcot.

Seven Seas Lagoon. The Magic Kingdom is just above it, while the WDW Speedway is at the bottom of the picture. Space Mountain is clearly visible at the center right of the picture. Sharp eyes might be able to make out the Contemporary just below it, and even the green roof of the Wilderness Lodge.

A last shot of the same area. The Mickey-shaped water feature at the Speedway is easy to spot towards the bottom of the photograph.

Seeing Walt Disney World for one last time on our way out of town is a real treat. Of course, it just makes me want to go back again!

On our own again

I’ve taken many, many pictures of the Disney Wonder from the bus after our previous two cruises. They are almost all indistinguishable from each other. Even so, I still find myself with my camera out, snapping away. It’s not only a beautiful ship, but there’s also a strong sense of not wanting this moment to pass – or if it must, to have a tangible record of it.

Soon enough, though, the bus turns onto the main highway and starts across the Banana River, and the ship is now behind us.

There’s no departure video, but a Donald Duck cartoon is playing, interrupted frequently by our talkative driver. I’m not sure about his mastery of the facts he is giving out, though. He points out NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building – good so far – but then states that they are getting ready for a shuttle launch “to the moon, this time.” Umm, I don’t think so – the space shuttle is only made for low Earth orbit.

His interruptions continue to point out wildlife. I do spot a dolphin briefly in the water on the left side of the roadway, but after that I lose interest. Before long I notice that the other five members of my family have dozed off – Brandon, in the seat next to me, is leaning on me, with his head frequently sliding down my arm before he catches himself.

I power up my cell phone and find a couple of messages. The first says that our flight’s gate has been changed, from Gate 13 to Gate 12. The second, sent five minutes after the first, says that the gate has been changed again, from 12 to 16. Whatever.

The Donald cartoon is followed by a couple of Pluto cartoons, and before long we are arriving at the Orlando airport. Our group drowsily clambers off the bus, and for the first time in a week – almost to the minute – we are no longer in Disney’s hands.

We take our usual “freshen up” break on the lower level of the airport and then head upstairs to go through security. There’s a substantial line, but also multiple screening checkpoints, so the line moves quickly. I’m the first through, with the boys and then Linda and Becky close behind. We wait several minutes at the exit while Bob is wanded yet again. Thoroughly.

Poor guy.

Onto the automated tram we go, and then to our gate. We have an hour and a half to kill until our flight. I call home and check our answering machine messages. Nothing exciting there.

I notice for the first time that the airport seems to be gently rocking. Becky comments on it as well. As we learned after the first cruise, it’s the aftereffect of rough seas on our internal balance.

Brandon’s wearing his autographed t-shirt for the first time. It’s really cool with all of the signatures on it.

We take turns getting up, stretching our legs, getting a drink. I grab a Dr Pepper, my first in a week – they’re hard to find at Disney and on the ship. Brandon wants a snack “for the plane,” even though we’re still full from breakfast. Okay, sure – it’s still vacation, after all. He gets a bag of cookies and I add a couple of bags of Peanut M&M’s.

When we return to the gate, I half expect Becky to jump at the chance to have some Dr Pepper, since it’s her favorite, but she says, “Not before 10:00.” Within a couple of minutes, though, she’s reaching for “just a sip.”

I toss the bags of Peanut M&M’s into Becky’s purse, sheepishly joking to her parents that “I haven’t reached my chocolate quota for the week.” Bob just smiles and reaches into a pocket – to show his own bag of M&M’s! Great minds think alike.

Out and away

From the gangway we enter the terminal building, into that second-floor hallway we were so eager to walk up three days ago. There’s no one scanning our cards, though. Hmm. We just file down the hall with the other cruisers and head down the escalator to the baggage area.

This place has been redecorated since we were last here. Either that, or it’s just easier to see around the room, with so much of the luggage now being taken directly to the airlines. Either way, there are large sepia-toned murals on the walls depicting Disney cruise ships and characters as if they were around in the golden age of ocean liners, in the early 20th century. The Wonder and Magic with their classic designs would have fit right in.

Unfortunately, this is a customs area, so I can’t take any pictures of the murals.

The ever-friendly and helpful porters are around with their carts, and we’re able to find our bags quickly. There’s a double line for customs, but it moves quickly. We have our passports out, each opened to the photo page.

When we reach the agent, she takes the passports and the declarations page, quickly scans the passports with an optical reader, and waves us through. No questions to us this time, which is good, since I was a sputtering idiot last time.

Once past customs, we follow our agent outside and to the American Airlines desk. There’s no line there. Nice. As on our previous two trips, our bags are placed behind the desk and we hand our eTicket info to the agent, who checks us in, tags our bags, and gives us our boarding passes.

Only one thing left to do – board a bus to the airport. The Disney crew member at the door to the bus checks one of our KTTW cards – verifying that we have the ground transfer – and waves us onto the bus.

We find seats about 2/3 of the way back, and before long the bus is backing out of its spot and we’re rolling to the airport. This whole experience of departing the ship, finding our bags, going through customs, checking in with the airline, and boarding our ground transportation has only taken about 20 minutes. Amazing. It’s a seamless process and a great convenience.


We take the lifts down to Deck 4 and walk back to Animator’s Palate. The doors are already open, and we find Sutas and Nino smiling and waiting for us at our table. Bob cheerfully remarks to Sutas, “You’re up early!”

He evenly replies, “Always.”

As we are seated he starts reciting the menu items and stumbles once or twice, finally apologizing, “Sorry, but I’m not a morning person.” Hey, my kind of guy. We order our usual array of hearty vacation breakfasts and a plate of donuts.

While Nino is serving our drinks, Bob asks him what time he had to get up that morning, and is surprised to hear that he rose at 5:45. Bob thought he’d be up much earlier preparing the dining room. No, Nino explains, we actually set up the room the night before, and then cover everything, because then another crew comes in and cleans the floors overnight .

Breakfast is very, very tasty. Here’s another set of conflicting emotions – we’re tempted to linger over it and stay on the ship as much as possible, but we also have places to be and we’re anxious to get on with the next stage. We take a few more pictures of Sutas and Nino, and thank them for all they’ve done.

We’re out of the restaurant by 7:10.

We descend the big staircase on the other side of Shutters, with our carry-on bags in hand, and enter the atrium for the last time. The “See You Real Soon” banner is hanging over the exit on the other side of the floor. Sigh.

Just as we enter the atrium, a fanfare starts playing over the loud speakers, and Mickey’s voice thanks us (okay, probably not just us) for cruising with him. Hmm, never heard this before! He ends with – what else? – “See you real soon!” Maybe, Mickey. Maybe.

We walk across the floor, under the banner, and onto the gangway. We’re off the ship.

Into port, out the door

Sunday, January 6, 2008. It’s finally here – our last day. Wow. Once again, we deal with the emotional contradiction: Yes, we’re sad to be going home, but we’re also ready to be there. In that respect, these vacations are the perfect length – short enough to leave us wanting more, but long enough to have us really missing home.

My alarm sounds at 5:55 a.m., and I’m fully awake after only hitting the snooze once. I turn on the TV to the “View from the Bridge” channel. It’s dark outside, but there are stationary lights in plain view ahead. We’re at Port Canaveral and docked already.

I’m not too surprised. Christiaan, our cruise director, told us we’d probably be back at around 5:30. I hope Captain Henry forgives me for not getting up to help him dock.

As we rouse the boys up, I flip the TV over to the movie channels and find Nemo playing. I then step out onto the veranda and find Bob already there. He and I watch as a Royal Caribbean cruise ship backs into its dock just ahead of the Disney Wonder. We’re both hoping the ship doesn’t hit us, but intellectually I know it’s not as close as it looks.

Back inside, everyone’s dressed pretty quickly. It’s easier to do when your clothes have been laid out the night before and everything else is packed and gone. We spend some time stuffing everything that’s left – including the stuffed friends Benjamin and Brandon have – into backpacks and carry-ons.

It’s time for our final inventory before we leave the Suite for the last time. It goes like this:

Linda: “I have our passports.”

Me: “I have ours.”

Bob: “I have my driver’s license and Key to the World card.”

Me: “I have rhythm, I have music.”

Bob & Me, singing: “Who could ask for anything more?”

Sad to say, the time has now come to leave this blessed luxury in which we’ve been privileged to stay. The family files down the central hallway and out the door, with me trailing behind.

I pause to half-close the entry door and examine its back side, the one with all the paperwork and evacuation routes posted. There’s nothing really remarkable about it – I just figure that it may be my very last time to see that side of that particular door.

The door shuts behind me as I step out into the hallway. Goodbye, Walter E. Disney Suite.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Final scramble

It is such a blast being surrounded by all of the characters. But… now we’re back in the Suite, rushing to get our luggage out the door again. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

We’ve got to have our bags packed and in the hallway by 11:00 p.m. Okay, it’s not an absolute necessity, but the reward is that we don’t have to haul all of our bags off of the ship. Disney crew members pick up the bags and carry them off the ship for us, and then we find them on the lower level of the DCL terminal tomorrow morning, where we take them through customs. We could in theory take them off of the ship ourselves, but it’s a lot more convenient this way.

This means, of course, that we must have everything out of the bags that we need for sleeping tonight, dressing in the morning, and traveling tomorrow. We’re never organized in advance enough, no matter how much we plan, to get the bags out early, so it always turns into a last-minute rush.

I throw things into the bags – no sense being organized now, just want to make sure everything gets home somehow. Becky and I tear through all of the cabinets, drawers, closets, nooks, crannies… Okay, this is one time that being in the Walt Disney Suite is a disadvantage – there are a lot of places to look!

In the meantime, Brandon and Benjamin are getting ready for bed. I can tell Brandon’s a little frazzled from the long day. But they head for bed, and right at 11:00 I place the final bags outside the door.

Whew. Okay, that was a chore, but the bags are gone now, and we can relax. I chuckle to myself when I remember our last cruise – that was worse, because one of the boys packed away his Key to the World card, and we had to scramble after our bags and rummage through them to find it. It would have been a huge hassle trying to get off of the ship without it.

I’m pretty sure we learned our lesson last time, and I’d mentioned this to everyone already today, but… just to be safe, I’d better ask again.

That’s when I learn that Benjamin’s KTTW card is on his lanyard. Which he packed.

I scramble for the door, in my sock feet, screaming bloody murder – at least internally. Our bags our gone! ARGH!

There’s a luggage cart down the hallway. I race down towards it and find the boys suitcases on it. I can’t tell if I’ve surprised the poor CM who’s been collecting luggage or if he’s used to this sort of spectacle, but frankly, my attention isn’t on him. It’s on the bags I’m digging through, and … yes! Got it!

I thank the crew member and pad back to the Suite, the panic subsided. We’re ready to go for tomorrow.

Okay, not quite ready. As Becky and the boys settle down for the night, I finish up my trip notes, work some on the DCL guest survey, and then fill that big whirlpool tub with hot water for another late-night soak.

Ahhhh…. If this is my final night in the Walt Disney Suite, I’m going end it in style!

‘Till We Meet Again

We now rejoin your previously scheduled program, already in progress...

We have a few minutes to go until the 10:00 “’Till We Meet Again” massive character greet. Bob and Linda decide to turn in for the night. The rest of us head towards Mickey’s Mates for some last-night shopping.

On the way we find Christiaan greeting the exiting crowds. I thank him for a great cruise, and he’s nice enough to pose with the boys for a picture.

The store is crowded. I never do find a new cruise line hat that I like, so I don’t end up buying any. Maybe next trip? Becky finds a t-shirt that she likes, which has several of the character’s signatures printed on it, so it matches the boys’. Benjamin is tempted by many of the pins on sale.

Speaking of pins, Katrina from the pin station is checking us out. Okay, that sounds wrong. Katrina is working at the check-out counter. (Much better.)

Benjamin notices she has a pin of “Scrump,” Lilo’s homemade rag doll, on her lanyard, and tells Katrina he had one just like it. Well, yes, she replies – you traded it to me!

Okay, it’s just about 10:00, and Becky and the boys want to get a little more casual, so we all hustle up to the Suite. There's a towel lobster on the bed.

Once clothes are changed, we head back down to Deck 3.

When we arrive, we’ve missed the grand introduction, but the characters are just arriving, streaming in. On the last trip the boys and I saw this for the first time, and it is a Disney character lover’s dream. There are new characters everywhere you turn, on two different levels of the atrium. We still do have some packing left, so as a practical matter we focus on the characters whose signatures the boys do not yet have (sorry Mickey!):

Starting with Minnie, I noticed for the first time that the non-face characters never hold still. Even when posing, they do this head-bobble movement that (1) gives life to the character and (2) really comes out blurry when you have a cheap digital camera with a slow shutter speed!

Notice the bobble-head blur on Goofy also. (Yes, I know I need a better camera, or a flash.)

With Anne Marie and Peter Pan, the stars of Disney Dreams.

Ensign Bensen, the star of The Golden Mickeys.

Captain James "Bobblehead" Hook

Disney Dreams

So here we sit, waiting for the start of my favorite onboard Disney stage show, perhaps one of the best stage shows ever for Disney fans. It is a “kiss goodnight” from the Cruise Line to us, and it never fails to wring the emotions out of me.

I’ve read that this is an “enhanced” version, with added effects and characters. I’m both curious and skeptical. I’d hate for any additions to detract from what was already a great show.

Right away, though – even before the show starts – a new effect appears. Accompanied by a tinkling sound effect, a laser-generated Tinker Bell sparkle flits and sparkles and loops across the main curtain, and then disappears. Tink “reappears” every few minutes. It’s a simple thing, but it gets the audience, me included, bubbling with anticipation. Okay, I think I’m going to really enjoy the enhanced version.

When it’s time for the show to begin, cruise director Christiaan runs out on stage and flips to a stop, literally, with a one-handed cartwheel! The guy is awesome.

The last time I saw this, on our 2005 cruise, I documented just about every scene, kind of like I did for The Golden Mickeys last night. Sorry, but tonight, I sit back and just enjoy the show, without taking many pictures. Feel free to check out my 2005 report for pictures and a rehash of my 2003 narrative.

Disney Dreams is amazing as always, and the new effects are spectacular, beginning with the title of the show "etched" in laser light on the main curtain just before it rises. The laser is used (without being overused) throughout the show, to portray Tinker Bell and to add to the pixie dust sparkling in the theater at the end of the show.

There are a couple of character additions, notably Timon & Pumbaa in the Lion King segment. I notice some other new touches as well, such as confetti cannons at the end of the "Prince Ali" section and snow falling (!) on Beauty and Beast. I may be imagining it, but it seems as if the script has been tightened, and flows even better than before.

Besides these changes, though, the biggest improvement is to the flying that the characters do. In the original version, when Anne Marie learns to fly near the end of the show, she and Peter Pan are hoisted straight up, and then sideways off stage. Dramatic, but not that impressive.

The flying is different from the start of the show in this one. When Peter Pan first appears in Anne Marie's window, he launches himself off the window sill and soars effortless toward the audience and around the stage before landing again. It is breathtaking, and serves the storyline much better -- after all, if Peter is teaching Anne Marie how to fly, it's great to demonstrate that he already knows how! Best of all is the complete unexpectedness of the flying, for those of us who have seen the show before. It's a brief thing, but very stunning.

Of course, at the end of the show, both Peter and Anne Marie's flying is vastly improved -- no straight up and out any more! It's really cool.

The show is as touching as always, and the performers receive a well-deserved standing ovation. It's got me choked up again as well, with pixie dust filling the theatre and then the "home is where dreams come true" line and all of the characters coming out. Sniff.

The boys and I sing heartily along with the exit music, "When You Wish Upon a Star" as taken from WDW's "Remember the Magic" parade finale, as we walk up the aisles. Sniff.

Do real animators eat this well?

For my entrĂ©e, I select the bacon-wrapped filet mignon, served with a seafood-stuffed pastry shell. Becky orders the same. It’s delicious. Benjamin orders the lemon pepper chicken… and frankly, I start enjoying the conversation and atmosphere so much that I stop paying attention to (and taking notes on) what everyone else is eating. Just trust me that it was all good.

Sutas and Nino are delightful as ever, and at one point Lars the concierge stops by the table. He had popped by the Walt Disney Suite to deliver our printed arrival weather forecast and didn’t find us there. He must have gone there right after we left to have our portrait made. He gives us the custom-printed page and asks us if there is anything else he can do for us. It’s honestly hard to think of anything we could possibly be lacking!

There’s no “tribute to animation” video, but the servers do parade out, after we are asked to show who had the best servers by our cheering, of course. The high-pitched roar throughout the restaurant is almost deafening – everyone on a Disney cruise gets treated well!

Dessert time – again! Becky’s drawn to the chocolate and peanut butter pie, just as she is drawn to almost everything that combines chocolate and peanut butter. I’m not as big a fan, but when she offers me a bite I try it, and it is good! Bob also gets the pie, while Linda and I each get the ice cream sundae, which turns out to be a rather large concoction with a small wedge of chocolate walnut cake topped with scoops of both strawberry and mud pie ice cream, and drowned in a fudge sauce and whipped cream. Yum, yum, yum.

Brandon and Benjamin… can’t make up their minds, and each ends up ordering two desserts, with our once in a lifetime (or at least once in a cruise) permission. Brandon gets the chocolate / peanut butter pie and a Mickey bar, while Benjamin orders the double-fudge chocolate cake and custard.

Head server Bhoola stops by, and along with Sutas and Nino gives us our morning of departure instructions, which we already know by heart. We are to be out of our room and down here at the same table for breakfast at the way-early hour of 6:45, and then we leave the ship immediately thereafter. Sigh. I guess the end is that near.

We thank them all for a wonderful cruise. We’ll probably see them again in the morning, but better to thank them twice than forget.

We’re out the door at 7:45. We’d like to get to the Walt Disney Theatre earlier for Disney Dreams so as to get my long-leg seats on the center aisle, but first we have some more pin trading to do – and this time there are officers present with their lanyards. Katrina, the crew member who’s been at this pin station both previous nights, is here again, but there’s also a line of 4 or 5 DCL officers in their pristine white uniforms.

It’s fun chatting with them – and they have some cool pins. Brandon and I both end up making two trades, and when we compare pins afterward, we find that we’ve both ended up with the same pins! One is a Disney Cruise Line-specific pin commemorating pin trading on board, and the other is a small pin of the WDW monorail. The only difference between our pins is the color of the monorail!

From the atrium we head up to Deck 4 and down to the Walt Disney Theatre. It’s not open yet, and there is a small line, but before long we’re able to go in.

And we get the long-leg seats.