December 2014 - Orlando, FL

(Written by Caitlyn.)
We woke up very early Saturday morning to travel to O’Hare Airport, and Jeff, my mom, and I found ourselves going through the fastest security check ever.  I was prepared and pre-emptively took off my belt and shoes, only to have a TSA agent tell us that we didn’t need to, nor did we need to take our laptops out of our bags.  After putting my belt and shoes back on, I walked through the beeping metal detector and ended up having to take off my belt anyways.  We believe the process went so quickly due to the mass amount of people wanting to travel the Saturday after Christmas, and I applaud their efforts.  Our flight was delayed about three times, but we were able to meet up with my Aunt and Uncle in Orlando’s airport.  We made our way to the condo we were staying at, and checked in.  All of us then headed to Carabba’s for dinner, taking almost a half hour to travel 5 miles due to heavy traffic from the nearby outlet mall.  People had parked on the side of the road as if there was a special event going on, but according to our bartender, this was normal.

A street in our condo's complex.

The pond behind our condo.

The condo's main building.

On Sunday morning, we ate our breakfast at the condo’s restaurant and then went grocery shopping for the week.  After grocery shopping, my aunt Leslie and I went shopping at the outlet mall, and I enjoyed people watching while Leslie shopped at the high-end designer stores.  The entire mall was very crowded, and we occasionally had to wait in lines just to get into the stores. The rest of our day was spent relaxing, and we ordered pizza for dinner.

Imagine a world where poinsettias are planted in the ground...that world is Florida.

These guys were all over the place.

Irises were also common, despite it being December.


Monday morning started with my mom, my aunt, and me visiting a local yarn store called Needle Craft World.  It was a nice small shop that featured yarn with other needlework crafts.  While I wasn’t able to pick up anything local, I did buy some yarn that I don’t normally see in my local yarn stores.

After eating lunch at the condo, we drove to Magic Kingdom with the intention of parking and taking a bus to Animal Kingdom.  We waited in long lines for the cars to enter the park only to find out that Magic Kingdom was filled to maximum capacity.   Because of this, Disney gave us free parking at Epcot; we headed over there to park and went onward to Animal Kingdom.  

Animal Kingdom set up a Disney-animal-themed christmas tree, and it was very neat.

These birds were everywhere.  I caught some kids trying to feed them pulled pork.  I'm pretty sure that's not a normal diet for them.

After walking around for a while, we went to the Finding Nemo Musical, which was simultaneously wonderful and bad.  The show uses puppets with puppeteers/actors and they were absolutely beautiful.  The performers sang well and often matched the original voice of the characters pretty accurately too.  The first disappointing part was the lack of quality in the story; I love the movie, but cutting any 107-minute movie down to 40 minutes comes with sacrifices. The story had little character development and didn’t make me feel emotions.  (The one exception was at the beginning when the barracuda kills most of their family, but that was mostly because I remembered the feelings from the movie, and not because they portrayed it well.)  The second disappointing part was the music; it felt adequate, but forced.  There were no earworms I walked away with, and I’d be surprised if anyone buys the soundtrack to the musical.  It seemed to me that the producers of this musical had to follow the writing prompt they were given, and they really did the best they could with it.  They excelled at the theatrical stage production, but failed on parts that are probably impossible to do well.

The glass blower at one of the shops was starting a castle.

After more wandering around the Animal Kingdom, we ate dinner at the adjoining Rainforest Cafe, and then headed to Magic Kingdom.  The park was slightly less crowded because people were leaving after sunset, but it was still pretty packed.  We were able to enjoy the shops and some of the rides; it was hard for me to enjoy some of the newer parts of the park, because my night vision is awful.  We rode the Haunted Mansion ride, which reportedly was updated since my mom last rode it.  I thought the technical tricks they used throughout the ride were really neat, and the staff manning the rides seemed to have fun with their roles.  We also rode on The Little Mermaid ride, which featured a lot of animatronics and music.  (My mom informed me that, at one point, we both knew all the words to “Under The Sea”, which played during one part of the ride.  I don’t recall this, but I find it plausible.)

The Frozen-themed castle.

On Tuesday, we visited Universal Studios with the goal of visiting both Harry Potter sections.  When we got near that area of the park, we found out that the Hogsmede area was full. They were allowing people to stand in line for tickets that told them what time they could enter that area.  The line took about a half hour to get through, and it moved pretty often.  We joked with some of our line neighbors that this was the second ride we had been on today, with the first being the moving sidewalks near the parking structure.  

When we got our tickets, it was conveniently already the time we were allowed to enter the Hogsmede area, which was stuffed full of people.  Hogsmede has two sections - one with rides and one with the “downtown” feeling.  Everything was packed with people, which discouraged us from doing much.  We decided to take the train to the Diagon Alley in hopes that would be less crowded, and spent 50 minutes in line again (ride number three of the day).  It had been misting rain throughout the day, so most people had grabbed plastic rain coats, but the people who were in their Hogwart’s robes seemed to be pretty comfortable as well.

Once we were finally on the train, Jeff and I were paired with a group of foreigners who were blissfully unaware that there was a no-flash-photography rule for the train ride.  The gimmick for the train is that there are video screens that Harry Potter-related content is shown to make you feel like you’re actually riding from Hogwarts to London.  Unfortunately, the group we were with decided that taking a flash picture every 30 seconds was the most enjoyable thing to do, which made watching the screens unrealistic and uncomfortable.  I even asked them to stop, but they either did not understand English or they ignored me.

When the train arrived, we saw how packed Diagon Alley was, and decided to hang out until the rest of our party was finished in the area.  During this time, I also had my first IBS attack of the trip, possibly induced from how cranky I was at the crowds.  (Considering my history with vacations and IBS, this is actually a pretty good record.)  Jeff and I were both very disappointed about how busy things were in the park and our experience, but when you go at a peak time, this is a risk.  We finished our day eating at Bubba Gump, which was the best (and most delicious) part of the day.

On Wednesday, Jeff, my mom, and I went to Epcot early in the morning to try to avoid some of the crowds we had previously experienced.  We wanted to go through the World Showcase, and started by watching the Canada 360-degree movie.  I found it to be entertaining, and it was nice seeing some of the places we had been when we visited Vancouver.  After looking at all the different shops, we ate at one of the restaurants in the Italy section, Tutto Italia.  

After visiting all of the countries, we met up with my Aunt and Uncle and waited around for the 6:00PM fireworks, which seemed to be their normal program with an additional segment at the end.  After the fireworks had ended, we waited five minutes for the exiting crowds to die down a bit, and then headed towards the World Showcase exit ourselves.  We were met by a standing-still crowd which filled the street, where we pondered our existence for 20 minutes.  We were finally given word by some of the cast members to turn around and use another exit; they had opened a pathway that didn’t seem like it was seen by visitors particularly often.  We concluded our day by eating at Boatwright’s Dining Hall, which offered New Orleans-style cuisine, and Jeff learned that his new favorite wine is sauvignon blanc.

Our Thursday started by visiting Hollywood Studios, and we went straight to Star Tours.  I recall enjoying the ride when I was younger, and I found it amusing to ride again despite the plot holes.  Outside of the ride, they were hosting hourly demonstrations featuring a Jedi Master training younglings against Darth Vader, which is the most adorable thing I saw there.  Each youngling was dressed in the brown robes and armed with a plastic lightsaber; they’d each get a chance to battle Darth Vader, and some of them were more successful than others.  The Jedi Master commented towards one of them, “I’m not sure how you’re still alive, but you did it!”  

Darth Vader up against one of the younglings.

The stormtrooper actors were very good too; everybody looked like they were having a tremendous amount of fun.

The best weird fountain.

Next, we saw the Muppet 3D show, which hinted that it might have been updated since the most recent movie; the waiting room pre-movie movie has a spliced-in scene with Constantine, but they didn’t seem to follow through with the idea.  Our next show was the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, which was very entertaining and funny. After eating lunch we split up; Jeff, my mom, and I went to see The Great Movie Ride, and then we looked at the many shops in the park.

"Working with explosives is dangerous."

Later in the afternoon, we visited Downtown Disney, and much like the other places we visited during the week, was absolutely packed with people.  There were some unique art shops there, but most of them contained the same stuff we had already seen in the parks; an exciting find was some locally-designed teas in one of the shops.  Our day ended with a wonderful seafood dinner at Fulton’s Crab House.

Treats that we found in Downtown Disney.

The LEGO Maleficent outside of the LEGO store.

They had a few aquariums outside of the ride, with one of my favorite fish.

On our last day, Friday, we returned to Epcot to eat lunch at the Coral Reef, which is a restaurant that features an amazingly large aquarium to gaze upon while eating.  After lunch, we went to the Finding Nemo ride next door, which I found to be mostly confusing.  It doesn’t exactly recreate the story line, as you can watch Nemo join us while we travel through; it also doesn’t clearly explain what story it’s trying to tell, which left me feeling confused at the end.  They did have some neat tricks with projection onto some windows of the large aquarium, making it seem as if the characters were actually in the tank.

The one ride I really wanted Jeff and me to go on was Test Track, as Jeff enjoys cars, and I enjoyed the last time I had ridden it.  We waited in line for almost an hour, and designed a relatively powerful car that accidently had police lights on top.  The ride used to feature cards that you would carry from station to station so it would remember which car we were working on; with the newer RFID-enabled tickets, we used them instead.  (The wristbands were also an option if they were purchased.)  

We then went on Spaceship Earth and enjoyed all the updates that had been made to it as well; most notably, the touch screens on the backs of each seat.  Our pictures were taken at the beginning of the ride (with the comment that they would be sent to the future), and we were rolled through the history of time featuring technology.  It was very neat to smell the different scents that were chosen for each exhibit, although some were more pronounced than others.  After we had reached the top, they wheeled us back down while we played on the touch screens, with Siemens telling us fictional stories about what the future could be like based on what we enjoyed doing.  (I can only imagine the dataset they’re collecting with thousands of people entering in information, as well as where their home is.)  When we exited the ride, we entered a room that showed where everybody on the ride called home on a large touch screen.

Earlier in the week my uncle had expressed an interest in riding Soarin’, so I had arranged fast passes for him, Jeff, and me so we could skip the 90-minute wait time.  I wasn’t familiar with the ride and found it a bit underwhelming.   You sit in chairs that are similar to airplane seats and are carried upwards; then a large IMAX-like screen shows you video of different places in California.  I enjoyed how they used scents to mark the different locations, but I’m not sure why it draws the crowd it does.

Spaceship Earth at night.

We finished our afternoon by going through Spaceship Earth one more time, and enjoyed our evening eating the rest of the food we had purchased at our condo.

A new pin added to our map.