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01-07-2007, 08:15 PM
Douglas C. Smith -- March 2000 -- Old Key West Resort & Offsite

March 27-April 4, 2000

Preamble:

We got a much larger than expected tax refund last year (because I am a financial idiot), so we had a family discussion about what to do with the money: Save it? Get a new water heater? Repair the roof? Go to Disneyland? The children were all unanimous that we should go to Disneyland, and although it seemed a bit unwise to me I decided that 20 years from now the children would never remember a new roof or water heater, but they would treasure the memories of a family vacation. In fact, I upped the ante a bit by suggesting that we go to WDW because I just didn't like the idea of being around all that construction and not having monorail access to DL. Besides I wanted to see the millennium stuff at Epcot. And besides that, we are eligible to stay at Shades of Green - a benefit we had never taken advantage of. I thought the money savings of SOG would somewhat offset the cost of flying to FL vs CA from our home in Alaska.

Who are we? I won't refer to us by names in this report since you don't know us anyway. There's me, a 40yo physician with the Indian Health Service, my wife, a full-time mother, and our five children ages 15 (girl), 13(boy), 8, 4,and 15 months (girl, girl, and girl). That's 7 people altogether. This is our 4th (and probably final) family trip to WDW. From now on when we need a Disney fix, we will stay at the Disneyland resorts. When DCA is completed, it should make for a more full vacation package.

On this trip we stayed at:

Shades of Green (sort of, see below)
Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort
Old Key West
Portofino Bay (at Universal)
NB: This trip started out with some problems and will be kind of a bummer to read, but hang in there, things turn out gloriously.

Preparing to go:

I made reservations for a suite for 8 nights at $180 a night at SOG about 1 year ago. Unfortunately 6 months ago when I made plane reservations, no flights were available until 2 days later than I had planned. I called back SOG and they said it was no problem to arrive 2 days later, of course, but that unfortunately we could not extend our reservation 2 days at the end. Rather than shorten our vacation I decided to make a reservation for the two additional nights at Portofino Bay in a "children's suite," so we could do IOA. We studied Sehlinger's guide and had a great time as a family planning the details of our trip over the past year.

Getting there:

Five days before we were to leave, I got a call from Alaska Airlines asking if we would be willing to fly out on a later flight. I said no, that we really wanted to get to Seattle in time to get to a hotel and get the kids to bed early. They called back an hour later and offered free tickets if we would go on the later flight. We said yes. How can we say no to 6 free round trip tickets to anywhere Alaska Airlines goes, including Mexico, not including Russia? That's like another free family vacation, for the price of getting a little less sleep. As it turns out, it was a lot less sleep. Here's what happened: We showed up at the airport for our 7pm flight and were told that due to high winds, no luggage would be allowed on the flight - only passengers. We had to decide whether to fly the next day, and miss a day in WDW, or take a chance that our luggage would not catch up with us for many days. We decided to take the chance. As it turns out, the captain decided at the last minute to load that luggage after all, but it would mean that we would have to make an extra stop along the way, in Sitka, to refuel. We left about 30 minutes late and took about an extra hour landing and refueling. So that we did not get to our room in Seattle until about 2 am, but at least we had our luggage. The hotel put us in a suite with only one bed, but they quickly and very graciously corrected the error.

The events of this day were extremely stressful (I left out some of the stressful details in this report) and I found myself getting irritable. They served sandwiches in flight and as is their custom, Alaska Airlines included a little prayer card in the snack basket. Mine had a quote from the Psalms saying something like "In all situations I will be glad and give thanks." I smiled to myself and wondered if God was trying to send me a message to lighten up little. I have made the mistake on previous WDW vacations of getting too uptight and tied to a particular schedule. If I just relax and go with the flow, things have a way of working out, and even being more interesting than if everything goes as planned. Good lesson. It turns out I'll really need it tomorrow.

Day 1 - Arriving at WDW

After only 4 hours sleep (but what the heck, we got a free vacation for it), we had an uneventful flight from Seattle to Orlando. Gerard of Tiffany Town Cars met us at the luggage carousel as promised. We really liked Gerard. Since Tiffany's lets you request a driver by name, you might want to request him. His van was plenty big for our family and he drove very safely and was quite pleasant. He offered to stop at a grocery store but we declined. I deliberately planned to arrive at night because I find it much more exciting to arrive when all the gates and signs and parks are lit up. Things seem more magical at night. The family excitement is at a fevered pitch as Gerard drove us within sight of Cinderella's castle and to the front door of SOG. At SOG, no bellman was there to assist with our luggage, but oh well, it's a cheap government place. What should I expect?

SOG was not expecting us. They had no record that I had called to say we would arrive two days later than originally planned. They counted us as a no-show two days earlier and gave away our room. I kept my cool. I figured that they would find a way of correcting their error, which might even turn out in our favor. The night clerk was very kind and sympathetic, but after 40 minutes of trying she could not find a room for us anywhere on Disney property. She found a room at Holiday Inn Family Suites at a discount rate of $110. We have no transportation so I ask if she will pay for the taxi. She called the taxi for us but said I would have to speak with the head of reservations tomorrow to get reimbursed for the taxi fare. I politely expressed my profound disappointment at not being able to stay on property and take advantage of Disney transportation and most of all, not getting to take advantage of early entry, which was an integral part of our plans. She gave me a SOG room key card and said I could use it to get early entry to the parks.

The Holiday Inn Family Suites is not far from WDW and it is clean, new, and adequate, but the suite was a bit small for us. We found ourselves tripping over each other and our luggage. At the late hour we checked in, they could not answer my questions about transportation. They said I would have to speak with guest relations at 7am.

Day 2 - Magic Kingdom

At 7am no one was at guest relations. Someone finally shows up at 7:15. By then there was a group of angry customers demanding refunds, wondering why the shuttle hadn't showed up etc... I was told that bus passes to the parks have to be reserved 24 hours in advance and the morning buses today are all full. They don't run early enough for us to take advantage of early entry, and they don't run late enough for E-ride nights. Unacceptable. I rented a minivan from Econoline who picked me up at the hotel. I made a bee-line to SOG to speak with the reservations manager about getting my taxi fare reimbursed and to check if perhaps today they could make better arrangements for us. I also picked up our Stars and Stripes passes.

I didn't get to talk with the manager in person, but was handed a phone with her on the other end (reminded me of Dorothy being told she could not speak with the great and powerful Oz). I asked if she would reimburse our taxi fare since they mistakenly gave away our suite. She says no. She says they don't even have suites (I don't know why she said that and I didn't pursue it). She says they have no record of me calling, so she could not authorize any payment, furthermore, I would be liable for the $180 fee (one night's rent for a suite) for failing to cancel. All this was in a condescending a brusque tone. I kept my cool and insisted I had called, giving the approximate date and the details of the call as I recalled them. She replied "If you had called we would have had a record of it in our computer, but the computer shows nothing." At that point I finally lost it. The cumulative stress of this trip, sleep deprivation, jet lag, and being called a liar, got to me and I turned Shades of Red. "Your employee made an error and you are making the immediate assumption that I am lying to you, and you are not even willing to help out with a taxi fare. Do you really think I would lie to you about this? Do you think I would spend $6,000 to fly my whole family down here on a gamble that maybe you'll hold a room for me without me bothering to tell you when we will be here?" She softened her tone somewhat after that and agreed to pay the taxi fare and waive the no-show fee if I can prove from my phone records that I called them, after all "it is possible that there was a human error on our part." I'm sure I can get the phone record (but privately resent having to) except that it is possible that I made the call from my office using a prepaid calling card. "There must be some appeals process," I say. She says, yes, she can take it to the manager, and maybe, just maybe, he will pay the taxi and waive the fee even without proof from my phone records. She then spent about 30 seconds looking to see if some room was available on Disney property for us (makes me wonder why it took 40 minutes last night), but there was none in "any of the resorts we have contracts with." I hung up feeling completely beaten down. I am a very frequent traveler and I encounter glitches all the time, but I can't recall ever being treated this way. And here I am 3,000 miles from home with my whole family waiting back in a Holiday Inn for me with all our year-long plans and dreams being shattered. I needed to cry. I had so much tension built up in me that I needed to cry or scream or something. But I decided not to. I decided it was time for me to take some deep breaths and be a man. I decided to protect my family from my anguish and to be big enough to relax and have fun with them. I showed up at the room to be greeted by 5 kids and a wife who are all excited and jumpy to go to the Magic Kingdom, so off we went.

We parked at the Contemporary resort since we had reservations later for Chef Mickey's, and I had a faux SOG room card. We took the resort monorail around to the MK with the excitement building all along the way. I was trying to not let it show, but inside I was still seething and hurting over the way the SOG treated me. I plotted ways of getting revenge, and brainstormed about what lawyers I could get to sue them. "Your honor, that hotel made a mistake then blamed me for it, called me a liar, and tried to steal a Disney vacation from my innocent children." It was such a relief to finally, at about noon, pass through the gates of the MK and leave the world of today and enter the world of tomorrow, yesterday, and fantasy.

I wanted to walk straight through the castle and hear my favorite song (When you Wish...) But the passage was blocked by a cheesy song and dance show, so we went around to the right and discovered a little niche where Belle was about to have a story time. This seemed like a perfect thing for out little girls, and it was. While the story was going I sneaked around to WtP to get fast passes. This would be my first experience with fast passes and I am a little leery and curious about it. The fast pass machines were out of order. So much for that. Keep taking deep breaths. After the story, we head off to do Peter Pan, which for months has been what our 4yo said she wanted to do first. She loved it, but found it a little scary when it gets dark and you can hear a cannon firing. But IASW was next, and was not all scary to anyone, so we are back on track and happy.

The heat of the day was overwhelming us so we had to gets drinks and the baby needed to nurse a lot. She was quite irritable. We figure it is the first time in her life she has ever sweated, plus she has never been around such crowds and noise. All the kids began wilting in the heat, so we got popsicles from a cart and ate them in the shade. By then the afternoon parade was about to start so we watched it. Afterwards we stayed put for a while to allow the crowds to clear (so we wouldn't lose any kids) then headed for the Tiki room. The new version of it gets our approval, but I can't help feeling a bit nostalgic for the old version. Then the SFR Tree House, then back over to the teacups, which was another special request of our 4 year old. She loved it. The little kids go with me and their Mom in a non-spinning cup while the older three kids spin as fast as they can in a separate cup and laugh hilariously. Afterwards some complain of hunger and we still had a while until dinner so we stop in at that counter service place on the edge of Tomorrow Land (I don't remember its name) and get a snack. I used the time to get our fast passes to WtP. They had a high school swing choir performing in the dining area, but we couldn't sit near enought to watch them because their family and friends took up the whole area hootin' and hollerin' for them. How ironic that they go the the trouble of performong at WDW only for their hometown family and friends. We rode the people mover (the baby nursed on it) and then WtP with a very short wait - maybe I like fast passes. But my wife is overwhelmed. The baby is getting to her. She wants to go back to the room for a while, but we can't without taking the whole family because we aren't staying on Disney property. Then I decided maybe we should head to Chef Mickey's a bit early where it is quieter and cool.

I love the Contemporary. I have pleasant memories of staying there on a previous trip. I see happy guests walking about and I feel extremely jealous. Why did I have to make a reservation at that stupid SOG? I should have known better than to trust a government-run hotel. I recall reading a story on RADP of someone staying at the Contemporary and being sent a bowl of fruit because the front desk had made a small error. I didn't get a bowl of fruit. I got called a liar and was given a $180 fine unless I can prove I was telling the truth. And we got kicked out into the "ghetto" as we began affectionately calling the Holiday Inn. The family goes off into the gift stores while I sneaked away to the front desk to inquire about a room. I explained how we had been screwed by SOG. The guy feels genuinely sorry for us and can accommodate us for one night only but cannot promise anything after that. I am tempted to go for it, but he suggests I call CR. The CR representative was also very sympathetic and tried very hard to accommodate us but finally determines that the only option available anywhere on property would be to stay 3 nights in adjoining rooms at Old Key West starting two days from now. That's about $600 a night - about $500 more than the ghetto, but I say an enthusiastic YES (wondering how I will explain it to my wife). By golly vacations are for splurging. I didn't spend $6,000 and fly 3,000 miles with a family of seven to stay in a Holiday Inn ghetto. Besides, my multimillion dollar law suit against SOG will more than recoup it.

The food at Chef Mickey's was fabulous, and the kids love the napkin thing. I tell my wife about OKW. She looks at me funny. "It means that much to you?" Yes. At that point it does. She is willing to go along with me (she doesn't know it but she has no choice: I already put a nonrefundable deposit on our VISA). Her main concern is she is dreading the move. She has already moved all the kid's clothes into drawers in the ghetto. I'm hoping the rooms at OKW will be worth it

Back to the MK. We missed the MSEP, but we have seen it many times in DL. We have tickets for the whole family for E-ride night and I'm banking on it to save our day. The air is cooler, the crowds are thinner and we are all wide awake because we are still on Alaska time. E-ride was great. We started with Buzz. We all loved it. The baby nursed through it. We wonder if perhaps she is the first baby to ever nurse on Buzz Light Year. We saw no other nursing mother-babies all day. Then we split so that the little kids and Mom did the easy stuff while the older kids did the scary rides with me. After a while I offer to switch with my wife so she can do Splash, but she opts instead to do HM while the baby entertains me. We finish with a flurry of 3 non-stop Splashes since no one is waiting in line. At midnight we begin a very casual stroll back through the park soaking up the magical atmosphere (I love MK at night) and satisfaction of giving the kids a wonderful day. We take the monorail back to the Contemporary and take our rental van back to the ghetto.

Day 3

A word about our strategy: WDW is a very different place with a large family. I have taken just one child with me before, when I have attended conferences. Two people can move quickly and do just about everything they want to do in a single park in one day. A large family, on the other hand, moves very slowly. At any given moment, someone has to pee, someone is hungry, and someone sees something in a store they need to look at. We decided we would only focus on doing highlights. We also decided to focus mainly on things not available at Disneyland since we go there more often. To keep the older kids from being bored stiff, we planned that they would do wild rides during early entries while the little kids slept (remaining on Alaska time). Then the afternoons and evenings would be for the little kids. We stuck to this plan fairly well, but not rigidly.

Early entry this day was in Disney studios, so after only 5 hours of sleep, I took off with the older two (ages 15 and 13) and headed straight for RnRC where we picked up FP's and then went on ToT with about a 30 minute wait. After ToT it was time for RnRC with fast passes. I enjoy fast passes, but I feel guilty walking by the poor peasants in the stand-by line. This was our first time on RnRC, and our 15yo's first time on an upside down roller coaster. We all loved it. Easily the best Roller Coaster in the world for its theming. We went back to the room, had breakfast with the whole family in the ghetto (the buffet is very mediocre, but it is free with the room), then headed to Epcot.

At Epcot, we headed straight for the "big ball." No line. We then decided to try test track for our first time (we had planned to do it during early entry yesterday, but I spent the whole morning getting the rental van and doing battle with SOG). Even our 8yo who hates being scared agreed to try it. Fast passes were sold out for the day, and the line was posted as 80 minutes, but we decided to go for it since it would be our only chance to do it this week. The line actually only took about 20 minutes. The kids loved it - even the 8yo. We rejoined the little kids and mom, who had been playing in the water to escape the heat. We had family radios which allowed us to reconnect easily without designating a certain spot. The radios proved invaluable throughout the whole week. We strolled towards Mexico because I was eager to do a ride that the whole family could enjoy. We were getting hungry again and enjoyed the respite from the heat so much that we decided to have an impromptu meal/snack at San Angel Inn. We also liked the live music. It was mid-afternoon and they were able to seat us right away.

We continued around the WS until my wife has to take a break to nurse the baby and let her get a nap in Germany. Our 15 yo chooses to sit with her, but I decided to use the time to take everyone else into the American Adventure. The 4yo sleeps through it on my lap, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it. We all rejoined at the theater in front of AA and took in the live performance of the Canadian folk group Barrage. By then it was about time for the parade so we stayed put in America for it. We liked the parade, but it was repetitive enough that we feel no need to see it again. I was distracted by the kids and didn't hear the narration, so I really am not sure I understood what it was all about. No matter - the kids enjoyed it.

We strolled to France and got our pictures with a living statue and relaxed for a while at the fountain. We had hoped to do much more today, but the time had come for our priority seating at Marakesh. This had been a top request of our 8yo, because she loved the Moroccan dancer on our last visit 3 years ago. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, we had a long wait. This was the only restaurant all week where we did have a long wait. I was afraid with a party of seven we would have more trouble than we did. Ironically Marakesh is the place I least suspected trouble since in the past we have always found it to be an easy walk in. We end up having to eat in a rush to get out in time to see the Illuminations 2000 - which of course was a good way to punctuatethe day. Some people behind us were talking on their family radios so loudly during the performance that I had to politely ask them to keep it down. They do.

Next came the long casual stroll to the front gate. I love listening to the music after hours in the WS. The line for the parking lot tram was huge, but much to my relief it moved quickly. This was the first time I had ever driven to Epcot. Always before we took the monorail. I was surprised to learn that exiting the park by car is much faster than by monorail. My memory from previous trips is that they don't run the monorail frequently enough. People have to pack in like cattle for a long standing up ride.

Back to the ghetto for one last night. Overall I'd say this was a slow, but satisfying day and everyone in the family seemed to get their fill, except my son who wanted to spend time in innoventions. I regret that we did not make it to the millennium village, but we built in some flexibility to our schedule so we may come back for that in days to come. [It turns out we never made it back - read on. How ironic that one of our main justifications for going to WDW, as opposed to D-land, was the millennium village, but we never got there.]

Day 4 - Animal Kingdom

Early entry to AK. CTX was a walk on, but also a loser for us. KK rapids on the other hand was a blast and also a walk on in the early morning. Being wet and cold is nothing new for us. Bugs life also gets a thumbs up. We return to the ghetto to rejoin the family and get our free breakfast then check out. I am nervous checking out. Should I double check with OKW first before I give up our room here? Will they screw up like SOG did? Maybe the SOG fiasco was my fault for not double checking. No, I never have double checked a reservation in my life and I've never had a hotel screw it up this badly. I resent that SOG blamed the customer, so I decided not to start blaming myself either. We arrived at OKW and were cheerfully greeted by the bellman. I walked right up to the front desk where they were expecting us and welcomed us "home." I think thats what they say there since it is primarily a DVC resort. I love this place. We got top-rate treatment, the rooms were spacious, and above all, the resort complex was beautifully themed and landscaped. What a relief to be back in the arms of Disney! My wife agrees that the hassle and expense of moving were well worth it. I think OKW is now my new favorite Disney resort. GF is a close competitor because of its ease of access to the MK and its wider selection of restaurants, and Ft Wilderness is also right up there for me because of its wooded isolation and quietness - but transportation is a nightmare. At OKW, you have to take buses everywhere, and I hate buses, but they have the best bus service of any resort I have stayed at. They have direct buses to every park, including water parks, and the buses always seem to have the closest drop off and pick-up points of any. We usually had to wait only a few minutes for a bus with the longest wait being 15 minutes on one occasion. They even have a pontoon boat to Downtown Disney. It is clear to me that Disney is catering to the DVC members and I loved being able to get in on it. It was enough to make me consider joining DVC.

We catch a bus back to AK with the whole family and we do Festival of Lion King (I give it a B), bugs life again (while I play with the little kids), the Safari (terrific setting but not as many animals as I had hoped, and I didn't understand what happened with the poachers), and Tarzan Rocks (I give it a C, little kids are disappointed that it is not more about Tarzan and Jane; big kids like it). We then let the little ones play at the Dinosaur dig to finish out the day while the big kids did KK Rapids three more times. Catching a bus back to OKW was quick and easy. We freshen up in the room but we are starving for dinner. We decide to head to Downtown Disney, but not before checking at Olivia's just in case they can squeeze a party of seven in. They can. Olivia's is great in all respects. Wife and little ones then retreat back to the room, while I take the teenagers to Pleasure Island. We were able to get in one Comedy Warehouse act, watch the New Year celebration in the street, then visit the Adventurer's Club for one show before catching the bus back again. I'm so glad we are on Disney property now, because that allows me to drink without having to worry about driving.

Day 5 Typhoon Lagoon

It rained in the night, and looks overcast with dark clouds in the morning. That is perfect for us because we want to do Typhoon Lagoon. We hope the rain will hold off the crowds (it does), but it won't affect us since we are cold-blooded Alaskans from a rain forest. We had heard that Typhoon Lagoon had to close its gates 2 days earlier because of crowds, so we were thrilled to find it sparsely crowded all day. We were also lucky enough to have the clouds clear by mid-day. We enjoyed TL, especially for being able to find shady seating next to the children's play area. On the other hand, the older kids were not nearly as satisfied as they had been in the past at BB, since TL has far fewer slides and less variety. We had brunch in the park including two kids meals which came in buckets with shovels. That kept the little kids entertained all day. Our 8 year old was hard to satisfy here because she was too tall for children slides, but too intimidated by larger slides (she is not a thrill seeker, except when it comes to skiing, where she is a maniac). The only thing she really likes is floating in the creek, so I went around with her about 5 times. Despite our best efforts with sunscreen, we all get a little burned on parts of our bodies that haven't seen sun in years.

We were planning to go back to MK in the evening, but the kids are so exhausted from the sun and swimming, that we have Dinner at Olivia's again, again with no wait. The two teenagers then take off for the MK for another E-ride night, while I decide to stay at the room with rest of the family. I was glad to let the teenagers have a night on their own. I remember getting to be on my own one day with a friend as teenagers in D-land, and it is a very fond coming-of-age memory. We also learned that my wife's brother (Uncle Don) was going to get to come up from Cape Coral to stay with us a night or two. This was a wild card in our plans, because he just changes jobs and wasn't sure of his schedule until the last minute. After his arrival we took a stroll in the cool night air to have some coffee by the marina back at the OKW Hospitality House. Drinking coffee and chatting over old times with Uncle Don while sitting outside at night was one of the most enjoyable times of our whole trip. The teenagers got home shortly after midnight with wonderful tales of a great E-ride night. Another very satisfying day for everyone. We spend a little while before going to bed discussing what to do tomorrow. Our plan was to do Epcot, but we feel like we have done about all we want to do there except the Millennium Village. Uncle Don has only a one-day park pass that does not allow park hopping, so we need to decide the one park that we can be the happiest with. Uncle Don doesn't like MK, and I am leery of the crowds on Saturday. We felt we had already "done" AK and Epcot, so that left Disney Studios. It is my least favorite park, but it does have a lot to offer to all ages. It seems disappointing to finish off the Disney portion of our trip with my least favorite park, but on the other hand, Fantasmic might just be a wonderful climax to our Disney experience. So Disney Studios it is.

Day 6 - Disney Studios.

We arrive just after opening time and head straight to ToT. I entertain the little ones and get a brunch for us all at the counter service place near ToT. We eat. Two of the pizzas are undercooked so I return them. They replace them plus throw in some free brownies for our trouble. RnRC was closed for technical difficulties so we did BATB instead (a bit dull but the little ones loved it). Afterwards RnRC had just opened so I grabbed 7 fast passes and instruct the others to go straight to the standby line which was still short. I stayed with the little kids in a shady area. By the time they were done, me and the two teenagers were able to go right away again on RnRC using the fast passes, while the others went ahead to see the Little Mermaid. I still had 4 fast passes left (one of the few advantages of traveling with a large family). I let the kids ride two more times in a row while I went ahead to catch up with the rest of the family. We all met up again and went to the Hunchback Show (thumbs up). Then we split up again so that the little ones played at the HISTK playground, while the older kids, uncle Don, and I went on Star Tours and Muppets 3D. By the time we were done with all that, it was time for our dinner at Mama Melrose's (I got a PS for it upon entering the park). The teenagers ate fast and left to do ToT one more time while the rest of us ate leisurely. We reunited to get seated for Fantasmic about an hour in advance. I love Fantasmic. The WDW version is a little longer than that In D- land, but I like the D-land one a little better. No matter, they are both great shows and very fitting endings to a Disney vacation. I held my 4yo on my lap and got a little teary-eyed during the show. They were tears of joy at seeing a great show, but more than that, they were tears of relief and deep satisfaction for providing such a great experience for my kids despite the setbacks. I looked at each of their faces and saw looks of wonder and excitement as they watched the show. There were so many times during the week when I had "father moments" of seeing all 5 kids having a great time. It just doesn't get any better for me than to know I have been a good father.

Back at the room, my wife (and the baby), her brother, and I decide we have enough energy left to go to Downtown Disney to stroll and talk and get some coffee. The kids played in the room and put themselves to bed.

Day 7 - Portofino Bay and IOA

There is one more Disney experience before we check out of OKW; we have breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and friends at Olivia's. My 4yo loves Winnie, and we didn't tell her in advance that we would be having breakfast with him. She was so surprised and happy she could hardly talk.

We say goodbye to Uncle Don who had to get back home. Gerard of Tiffany's picked us up at our room on schedule to take us to Portofino Bay. He wonders why we are not at SOG where he dropped us off. I tell him the whole story. He shares our outrage and tells me of a family that had a similar thing happen to them recently at Ft. Wilderness Lodge. They were housed off campus, but given coupons for a free future stay at Ft. Wilderness. I am so jealous. All I got from SOG was a $180 fine.

Portofino Bay was wonderful. The hotel is new and beautiful, and the service was extraordinary. Out suite was huge! The main room had a king size bed, and the children's room had two twin beds and a playful decor. We had a rollaway bed delivered to the room as well, and there was plenty of space for it. In fact, we joked that it could easily have gone on the bathroom. That was easily the largest bathroom I have ever seen in a hotel. A little later chatted with a family that had just come from the Grand Floridian, and they said they liked Portofino Bay better.

We eagerly took off for IOA via water taxi. The boat is new and spacious and makes for a pleasant ride to the parks. It lets you out at City Walk where you then have a little ways to walk either to IOA or US. We arrive at IOA in the early afternoon and the crowds and heat are intense. We first visited Seuss Landing. It is a charming place, but provides little shade. We love the CaraSoussel and the Cat in the Hat. I take the big kids on to Poseidon's Fury (interesting, but little repeat value). Then we rejoined the rest who were still playing in the water in the If I Ran the Zoo play area. I took the big kids on Hulk. It is probably the best ride I have been on for the ride itself, but the theming is not that great. We skipped spider man for now because of the 75 minute wait and went on to Bilge Rat Barges. The wait was an hour, but we were eager for some cool water in the heat of the day. Afterwards we headed for the Dueling Dragons. The lines were surprisingly short. The whole park seems to thin out at about 3pm. We rode both fire and ice. Both are a good ride, but the theming in the queue area is really not to be missed.

Now we are hungry so we summon the rest of the family by radio (they played in Suess Landing all day!). The Oak Tree Tavern loks really interesting so we all meet there and have dinner on the back patio overlooking the water. The little girls pretend they are princess in a castle in an enchanted forest. My favorite part of IOA is the Lost Continent. It is really well themed and inspires the imagination. Mom and the teenagers go on the Fire dragon one more time before we call it quits for the day. The park closed at 7pm which left us plenty of relaxing time back at the hotel.

After the kids were all asleep. My wife and I had some decaf coffee together in the room sitting at the window enjoying the beautiful harbor area. We hadn't requested a water view, but we were awfully glad we got it. We sat and watched the boat come and go ferrying happy guests about. We talked about how satisfying it had been to see the kids having such a good time, and we talked of memories of our first WDW trip when we had only two children. It was nice to get some alone time with my wife. We had been so busy all day entertaining the kids and sometimes split up -- usually with her with the little kids. I expressed my appreciation of her letting me do more of the fun stuff. She really doesn't mind, she says. Nothing is more satisfying to her than to see her children, and me, having a good time. She doesn't need to be on a wild ride to do that. I admire her.

Day 8 -- more IOA

Portofino Bay just changed its policy so that resort guests are allowed in the park 2 hours prior to opening (7am) and are allowed to use the express lines until noon. I boarded the water taxi at 6:30am with the two teenagers and we headed straight for Spider Man. It was out of order. We did Hulk 3 or 4 times in a row - front seat, back seat, middle. I don't think there is asignificant difference where you are seated on this ride. We did Dr. Doom. 13yo loves it, 15yo hates it. We went on to Jurassic Park River Adventure. It's a pretty good ride. Then we rode Dueling Dragons. Now here the front seat really does make a big difference because it allows you to see the near collisions with the other dragon. We went back to Spider Man and found it open. We rode it 3 times. I can see why people call it the best amusement park ride in the world. It really is unique and fun (still, nothing tops Splash Mountain for me). We did all this and it was only 10am! We felt we had our fill of thrill rides, so we did Cat in the Hat just for fun, and then had a breakfast while we waited for Mom to show up with the little kids. She made it at about 11:30. I send her off quickly to ride Spider Man and Hulk before noon when our express line privileges expire. She loves them both, of course. Our 15yo sees a dress she wants. I tell her buy it and have it sent to the room. The hotel guide says package delivery is available from the parks. However, the store clerk has no idea what we are talking about and says they have no way of delivering packages to our room. I figure this probably the kinks that they haven't worked out yet since both the hotel and the park are fairly new.

We went to the Jurassic playground, which is really fun and an easy way to entertain the kids for a long time. We all did the triceratops encounter. It is well done and realistic, but not frightening for kids. It is really hot and sunny so we eat some ice cream in the shade and decide to leave the park. We only want to do one or two things at US (T23D and Jaws) so we thought we would do them then return to the room for a swim. We never made it to US. The unshaded walk from IOA to US so overwhelmed us that we decided we need to cool off in the pool right away.

The beach pool at PB is quite fun. Somewhat comparable to the pool area at YC/BC. We end up staying there so long that we never made it at all to US. Oh well, we've done US before and didn't feel a strong need to go back. We clean up and have a great dinner at the hotel (they have a line up of about 4 Italian eateries next to the harbor, so you can pick your style and price range) then retire to the room. My wife and I do the decaf coffee thing again after the kids are all in bed.

The next morning Gerard picks us up precisely on time and we fly 14 hours back to home.

Some reflections on the comparison of Universal and Disney:

Too bad Universal doesn't have a unifying theme like Walt's dream and Mickey Mouse. One is left with the feeling that Universal is a scattered imitation of Disney. But they really have created a great resort complex with one big advantage over Disney: they are compact. Disney is so large and spread out that transportation becomes burdensome. I think Disney made a huge mistake by not connecting the whole campus in an efficient monorail system.

IOA needs to find better ways to manage the huge 11-3 crowds. They have express lines in the mornings. Disney runs fast passes all day. I think all day is better, but fast passes require guests to have another element of strategy. I don't like the feeling that we have to be savvy to have a good time at Disney. If you are a resort guest at Universal, you get early entry and express lines for 5 hours. Simple. The only real advantage for Disney resort guests is early entry for one hour. I wish all the parks would expand the E-ride night idea for those of us who get overwhelmed by the heat and the crowds in the days, and I would suggest they keep the E-ride nights for resort guests only. It would keep the lines shorter and would provide more of a reward to us poor suckers who leave great wads of money at their resorts.

In the end, I think we had our best Orlando area vacation ever. That's saying a lot because I never thought we would top the magical-ness of our very first trip there, when everything was new and we were younger and more energetic. The secret for me was giving in to the rhythm of the way things are, slowing down, relaxing, enjoying small pleasures, seeing things through my children's eyes, and giving thanks to God in all situations.

Douglas C. Smith