Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Florida trip report, continued

Monday afternoon

After lunch we headed over to Celebration to visit the former CFO of the company I work for, who had retired a couple of months earlier. Celebration, in case you’ve never heard of it, is a town developed by Disney, situated on part of the 50,000 acres Walt bought up to build Disney World on.

The town itself is modeled to replicate the look and feel of old time, small town America, and it succeeds admirably. The houses are close together and situated on relatively small lots. The downtown area has a variety of shops, a movie theater and a post office, all in interesting architectural designs. Unlike many of the other Florida developments I’ve seen, the houses don’t all look the same.

The house we visited was really beautiful. It was great to see my former boss and his wife. They look like they’re really enjoying retirement. Hopefully, I’ll be in the same position in about 20 years.

After leaving Celebration, we headed back to Mom & Dad’s to relax for a bit and get ready for our annual Chef Mickey’s visit. This has become a family tradition; it’s the 5th year the entire family has gone. This year was the first in the last three we managed to have the entire family there for the picture they take before the meal. Two years ago, my brother got stuck in traffic, so his family showed up late. Last year my niece was sick, so she and my sister-in-law didn’t make it. After the picture, we were seated and were immediately inundated with a series of Disney characters. This year’s lineup included Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Chip & Dale and my personal favorite, Donald Duck. We got lots of great pictures and the kids had some really fun interaction with the characters. J. and my nephew had a big high fiving session with Dale, and R. had some nice moments with Minnie. I told the kids that if they talk to the characters that they’ll react and it really seemed to work. The food was good for a buffet, but it’s really the family event that we all go for. Hopefully we can continue to tradition for a few more years, at least until the kids start getting too old for character dinners. Then we’ll have to find a new place to eat, I guess.

After Chef Mickey’s, we headed home and got to bed because we had another busy day coming up.


We got up early again and headed for Sea World, our one theme park experience for the trip. We had been there a couple of years earlier and the kids wanted to go there rather than any of the Disney parks. R. seemed particularly fixated on seeing Shamu again, so we made seeing his show a priority.

We got there around 9:30 and parked the car, rented a stroller and headed over to the dolphin show, which was really entertaining. It even included a great twist at the end, which caught us all completely off guard. Then we went to see Shamu. It’s incredible seeing these huge animals perform and watching the trainers interact with them. After the two shows we went to get lunch. This was the one place Sea World improved greatly from our last visit. Last time it took forever to get lunch and the food was mediocre at best. It seemed like there were more choices this time and the food was significantly better, even if it was still overpriced. The kids meals even included a plastic Shamu lunchbox, which they were very happy with.

After lunch we checked out a couple more exhibits, but at this point the park was becoming really crowded (the next day’s paper mentioned that they were close to closing the place to additional guests). We saw the penguins, which were pretty cool, fed the dolphins and petted some stingrays. At this point, the kids were getting pretty exhausted, so we started to make our way to the exit.

We had promised them a couple of souvenirs, and both the kids bought these Sea World trainer action figures. R., unfortunately, later experienced some buyers regret and decided that what she really wanted was a stuffed Shamu. Being big pushovers, we gave in and bought her one at the Sea World store at the airport on the way home.

All in all, Sea World was a lot of fun. The place is more show oriented instead of rides, so you don’t have to wait in a lot of lines. I prefer the Disney parks for the most part, but I don’t mind visiting Sea World every few years.

We went home, relaxed for a bit and then left the kids with my folks for our one “grown-up” night out on this trip. A. and I had made a priority seating for Jiko, an African restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. We had never been there before, but all the reviews I had read on the Internet were outstanding. So we left the kids in their grandparent’s hands and drove back to Disney.

We hadn’t been to the AK Lodge before, but I was looking forward to seeing it. I wasn’t disappointed. You walk into the lobby and it looks like a gigantic African lodge (or at least a Disney Imagineer’s version of one). Based on the lobby and surrounding areas, it’s my second favorite Disney resort for theming, after the Wilderness Lodge.

We had a bit of time to kill before dinner, so we wandered around a bit. The lobby has some great African artifacts displayed, so we inspected those. I wanted to get a look at the pool, so we walked over there, then wandered around the gift shop for a bit. It was still about 25 minutes before our priority seating, but we decided to check in anyways and see if we could get seated a little early. We were given a beeper and decided to go check out the nearby bar. We ordered drinks, and I tried an African beer (from South Africa - unfortunately I don’t remember the name of this one). It was a nice, crisp lager and I drank it down while A. sipped on a drink. Soon enough, our beeper went off and we made went back to Jiko to get seated.

We were taken to our table by the host, an exceedingly polite young African gentleman and sat down. The decor was beautiful - very tastefully put together. There was also a decided lack of the screaming kids you sometimes encounter at Disney restaurants. There were some children dining in the restaurant, but they were all very well behaved. The screaming kids all appeared to have been relegated to Boma, the buffet restaurant in the AK Lodge.

We decided to try one of the appetizers that they offered when our server, Michael, came over. Michael asked us if we had dined at Jiko before and we said no. He offered to describe some items on the menu for us and did a very nice job of laying things out. He suggested that we could get a combination plate of four of the appetizers, so we took him up on that, along with ordering a couple more drinks. I tried a Moroccan beer this time, which was actually brewed in Casablanca. Here’s looking at you, kid.

We ordered dinner when Michael came back with the drinks. I ordered beef ribs with an African sauce of some kind. A. ordered monkfish, which Michael had mentioned was one of their specialties. A few minutes later the appetizers arrived, and we were glad we had ordered the combo plate, since they were all excellent (BTW, if you ever eat there the combo plate isn’t on the menu, so you may have to ask for it if your waiter doesn’t mention it). Dinner arrived a bit later and it was wonderful. The beef ribs were tender, with the meat practically falling off the bone, and the sauce was terrific. It was a real change from the BBQ sauce that usually adorns my ribs. A. reported that the monkfish was excellent as well.

We were tempted by deserts, but too full, so we paid up and left. I can’t recommend Jiko enough. It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had at Disney and a very fine restaurant by any measure.

After dinner we went over to Downtown Disney. We wandered around a bit, but didn’t buy much. We were also getting tired from the long day, so we headed back to the house.


We had hoped to get moving fairly early on Wednesday, but that didn’t seem to be happening. The kids had been promised that we would return to Disney to ride the monorail, one of their favorite activities. We decided that we would grab some lunch while we were there. We arrived at the Contemporary, claimed we were having lunch there, and made our way to the monorail. We hopped on, got off at the TTC and switched over to the Epcot monorail. The kids love riding it, and I find it to be very relaxing. We rode to Epcot and back, switched back to the resort monorail and headed back to Contemporary.

By this time we were all ready for lunch. We decided to eat at the cafeteria style restaurant in the resort. It wasn’t bad - the food was reasonably edible and not too unreasonably priced. After lunch we headed up to my brother’s house.

We had a big family gathering planned for the day. Not only would we all be together, but my cousin and his family, along with my aunt and uncle would be there. That would make 16 of us, which my father and uncle both said was the largest gathering of people with our last name in at least 50 years.

We hung around the house for a while as the kids played, then the men and the kids headed outside to play a little whiffle ball in the back yard. My brother has a pool in his yard, so we had an unusual ground rule - anything that landed in the pool was a home run.

The rest of the gang showed up after we had been playing for a bit, so we kept playing outside until it was time to go to dinner. We went to a nearby Italian chain restaurant, which served meals family style. We ordered some drinks and food and the air was filled with all of our chatter. The six kids had a great time together and got along really well.

After a group picture we all went our separate ways. It was a nice way to end the vacation with everyone together.


Thursday, unfortunately, meant going home. I had really enjoyed the trip and wasn’t looking forward to returning to the snow and the dozens of emails that had no doubt piled up at work. We said goodbye to Mom and Dad and headed for the airport. Everything went smoothly, we landed on time, picked up our luggage and car and headed home. Soon enough, I found myself in boots and a winter coat, shoveling the snow that had accumulated while we were away. The memories of our trip kept me warm though (or maybe it was just the shoveling...)


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