Orlando & Son

Orlando & Son

           My eldest child was two years old when I took him down to Orlando for the first time.  Father and Son, we got to spend a couple of weeks together in the summer of 1997.  It was a strange time for the both of us.

I had little money in those days, struggling in my practice after my law partner of four years had quit the business a few months before.  My 1991 Ford Mustang had certainly seen better days, but I didn’t have the funds to maintain it back then.  Airfare being beyond my modest budget, my Son and I set out from the south Chicago suburbs on a hot Saturday in early August.

Once on the freeway, the Mustang quickly developed a persistent vibration from an unbalanced tire, which really shook the car when it hit 60 mph.  It also lacked air conditioning and a reliable speedometer (although the aforementioned tire rattle indicated I was doing the speed limit).  To keep cool, we kept a large Coleman chest filled with ice cubes within reach in the back seat, and held the cubes to the backs of our necks during the hot afternoons on the road.

My Son was away from home with me for the first time, and I had all the concerns that come with being a single dad on his own:  from dealing with diapers to wondering what to feed the little guy.  But what we lacked in experience together we more than made up for in enthusiasm, learning from each other as we drove those long miles down to Florida.

I remember we talked a lot, but admit it was pretty one-sided.  At two, my co-pilot didn’t yet have much of a vocabulary.  Still, he could answer my basic questions about being hungry, thirsty, or car sick.  Somehow the communications must have broken down regarding the length of the drive, and his eyes filled with tears that first night, when we hadn’t made it to Orlando and instead stayed in a motel south of Atlanta.

Things improved when we drove into Orlando in the late afternoon the next day.  The sights of all those large neon-framed hotels and resorts along the I-4, not to mention the 3-D billboards showing popular park rides, picked up our spirits considerably.  In a short time, we were checked into our modest motel in Kissimmee and changing into swimsuits for the motel pool.

Unlike these days, when a trip to Orlando involves online booking of resort hotels, air, rental cars, theme park tickets, and even restaurant reservations and ride passes, I often “flew by the seat of my pants” in those years.  We checked into our motel without a reservation and paid cash for our first three nights, not certain we’d be able to stick it out longer.

The next morning, I grabbed a free coffee and local map in the motel lobby, and drove to Universal Studios.  After parking in their garage, I unloaded the umbrella stroller from the trunk and, putting a few snacks and diapers into the carrier underneath, headed toward the Park.  We only had to wait in a short line to pick up a multi-day ticket for me, and went inside without waiting in today’s lines for security checks or bag searches; and being only two, my Son didn’t need tickets, a savings I appreciated.

The Islands of Adventure theme park was still under construction that year, although a huge count-down hourglass was featured in the Preview Center, along with scenes of the coming attractions.  Islands looked like it was going to be a good time, and was indeed fun when we returned in later years, but on this trip Studios was all we hoped for and more.

Admittedly, some of the ride experiences at Studios were a bit intense for my Son; but he toughed it out, enjoying even Jaws, Earthquake: The Big One, and Terminator 2: 3-D.  The fun part for me was that my little guy very nearly believed a real shark was after our small boat in Amity Harbor, or that we were trapped underground for the Big One in San Francisco.

Back then as now, Universal Studios had some of the best rides in Orlando, a few even more exciting than their Disney cousins.  The animatronic King Kong was stunning in size and movement, dropping our tram at the height of his attack on Kongfrontation.  We barely made it out of the Big Apple, as a special news bulletin showed us on our in-tram television near the end of our ordeal.

Jaws was a bit reminiscent of the original ride in Hollywood, but had more of a storyline, which added several additional shark attacks, including one inside a dark boathouse.  To me, Jaws was both nostalgic and new at the same time.

Entering the subway car at the Embarcadero for my first ride on Earthquake: The Big One, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The pre-show presentations of Hollywood special effects had prepared us for a wild time, but when the underground fires exploded and a tanker truck started sliding towards our stricken subway tram, even I had to double check that we were still on the ride and not about to be its victims!  I’ve never been in an earthquake, but have no doubt it would have felt a lot like that ride (at least until the lights came back on and the subway scene reset itself).

As a fan of the Terminator series, Terminator 2: 3D was my favorite show at Universal.  We walked into the pre-show area to watch a sales pitch from Cyberdyne’s corporate shill, and were soon confronted by the specter of realistic cyborgs on a killing rampage.  Arnold, a.k.a. Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, eventually defeated the monster guardian of the cyborg production plant and destroyed it.  Humanity was safe from its own creations, but for how long?

Sadly, Jaws, Earthquake: The Big One, and Kongfrontation have since closed at Universal Studios in Orlando.  For those of us who enjoyed them, they fade only reluctantly from our memories.  Fortunately, we can still find video of these adventures online.  These images, while never quite the same, help us relive those original thrills.

Back in 1997, it was all new to us.  Still a toddler, my Son was worn out most afternoons by 3 p.m. or so, when we headed back to our motel for a dinner of fast food hamburgers and some pool time.

I’d brought with us a small bucket of soldiers for him to play with, and the local hamburger joint gave away mini car kits with their kids meals; so in the evenings, we’d line up the plastic army men to be run down by homemade Mad Max style vehicles.  Then it was off to bed before another day at the theme parks.

Our second day found us at Magic Kingdom, where I again purchased a multi-day pass, and soon was whisking him down Main Street.  I’d gotten pretty good at weaving the stroller through foot traffic, finding a place to park in the stroller lot and, taking my Son by the hand, sprinting to the closest ride queue.

We experienced most, if not all, of Disney World  and Universal Studios over the next several days.  From Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures at Magic Kingdom, through The Livings Seas and Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, to our last day at Universal and a repeat ride of Jaws and Kongfrontation, it seems we never stopped.

I suppose I tried to fit everything possible into this vacation, both to show him the fun of Orlando and because I wanted to relive my best times there.  Looking back now, maybe some of my enthusiasm was fueled by the desire to make it his best vacation ever.  During a time of change and challenge for both of us, I like to think I did pretty well.

We certainly managed to do a lot on that trip:  four days in Disney World and three days at Universal Studios, not including the four-day drive in the old Mustang and a couple of pool days at the motel in between.  I ended up extending our stay in Kissimmee for eight days, and the car made the 2200 mile round-trip without a problem.  All in, I probably spent less than twelve hundred dollars on the entire trip.

Those theme park rides and shows were their own particular slice of time, some gone now and some exactly the same as they were over 15 years ago.  That summer I shared my favorite experiences with my young Son, leavened with the endless explanations, opinions, and comments that most young dads are powerless to stop themselves from offering.

And if there were a few times outside the queue lines when I had to explain to him that the rides were not real and that we were never in any danger, the joy of surviving an attack from freaky ghosts, cyborgs, or a giant gorilla more than made up for it.  We grew closer over those summer days in Orlando, which I think was Walt’s original intent, and almost certainly the reason Universal Studios and Disney World succeed.  They not only bring out the child in all of us, but remain a unique lens through which we revisit our childhoods with our own children.

In my later years, I’ve slowed the “mad dash” to do everything on vacation, and learned to listen more when I talk with my younger kids.  I sometimes wonder which is the better approach to parenting, or if in the end it makes much of a difference.  My younger ones find a seasoned and considered Father most times, while my eldest Son often found the raw enthusiasm and energy of a much younger Dad.

I’ve been back to Orlando countless times since then:  with only my eldest; with him, my Wife and his younger siblings; and most recently with just my Wife and younger children.  Each new experience changes me and the members of my family, and I suppose I will never be quite the same person I was back in 1997.

Yet these days, I trust that our family vacations to Disney World and Universal Studios still manage to bring out the best Dad in me.  Walt would have understood.

Pete Murphy    April 2015

Yesterday’s EPCOT

My latest Walt Disney World article, Yesterday’s EPCOT, is posted on the Allears Disney fan site:

http://allears.net/ae/issue781.htm

In this piece, I remember a road trip I took to EPCOT with my Brother in the late 1980’s.

Recall with me part of that magical place and time, from the challenges of keeping an old car on the road, to experiencing one of the first video conferencing systems.

I hope you enjoy this look back at EPCOT as much as I enjoyed reliving it!

 

Pete Murphy

 

Comforting Thoughts

COMFORTING THOUGHTS

      I was waiting for a Metra train to downtown Chicago yesterday, just looking at the billboard advertisements along the track, when I savored a comforting thought:

Somewhere in a Las Vegas casino right now, there is probably a  young man betting my favorite numbers on roulette. Suddently,  one if his numbers hits, paying out 35 to one. I imagine he bet heavily, as I always did on my favorite numbers.

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Oddly, this wasn’t the first time I’ve imagined such things, when under some level of stress. I used to think that, regardless of what I had to deal with, I could take comfort knowing  at that very moment a family was enjoying Disney World for the first time, maybe riding Small World or Spaceship Earth, or climbing aboard their first Monorail. It didn’t matter, as long as someone, somewhere, was experiencing happier times than I was.

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I’ve come to believe that the act of remembering is deeper, more immersive than we usually appreciate. I once read that our minds are far more complex than we realize, and that our meanderings, our recollections, are true relivings of our past experiences. Who can think of a primal fear, like falling from a dizzying height, watching a crawling spider, or seeing a plane crash on the news (to name 3 of my fears), and not, at least emotionally, touch a part of their subconscious that recoils in terror from such images?

I reason that if these fears, when genuinely experienced in my memory, can elicit those negative emotions, than why not instead try to elicit pleasant experiences in idle moments? Indeed, I have found that such total recall, to coin a phrase, is akin to the genuine experience.

And so, in this humble context, I offer this thought: when confronted with the worst of life, remember the best of life. If fearful, or stessed, or discomforted, remember times of joy!

Combat everyday annoyances with images of some perfect moment in time. Whether it be a cherished vacation, a gathering with family or friends, or a past triumph, a happy thought can at least compete with a momentary displeasure.

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I suppose, for me, it’s the idea of someone enjoying, at this very moment, some happy time in my past. It’s usually a travel experience: a jet lifting off for parts unknown, a cruise ship leaving dock and setting sail, watching pounding ocean waves on a sandy beach, or even that lucky spin of the roulette wheel.

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So I seek these varied experiences in my own life: the times when I shake things up, push past the routine, and dive into unknown waters. Good or bad, they are at least different.

And when I find in my wanderings that I’ve hit upon that special moment, that joyful happening to touch my soul (whether I realize it at the time or not), I have discovered treasure. I store it, embellish it, and protect it from the world.

If possible, I retain some physical keepsake of that experience. My shelves and closets are crowded with momentos of these special times, always new regardless of how long I’ve had them.

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Too often, I will need those life-affirming moments again. And you know, they never wear thin. They are always present, in the back of my mind, to offer comfort.

Those memories are the reason I love to travel, and hopefully always will.

– Pete Murphy

September, 2014

Indianapolis: A Great Family Getaway

INDIANAPOLIS: A GREAT FAMILY GETAWAY

 

Indianapolis is a good three hour drive southeast of our home in the south Chicago suburbs.  A fun destination for a long family weekend or part of a week, my family and I last went in April, 2013.

For us, the car ride down is a decent balance between a day trip to one of Chicago’s Museums, and the are we there yet? trials of a longer vacation.  While not as scenic as other auto trips I’ve taken, my kids (ages 5 and 10 on our last trip) are always fascinated by the numerous windmill farms along I-65 south of Brookston, Indiana.  There are literally hundreds of them, and I recall reading on a billboard that Indianapolis Zoo’s electricity is largely supplied by these turbines.  Occasionally, you can see a flat bed truck carrying one of the massive white turbine blades as you transit this corridor.

Navigating through Indianapolis was much easier (and less aggravating) than driving through Chicago’s Loop, and soon enough the expressway was behind us as we checked into our hotel in the downtown area.  Hotels and restaurants are plentiful in Indy, but I don’t recommend visiting the area during the Men’s NCAA Basketball Finals (a.k.a. the Final Four).  Most hotels and tourist venues are packed with fans during this weekend, making getting around and seeing the sites difficult.

Typical of most visits, on arrival we bought tickets to our favorite destinations through the concierge at our hotel.  These can be had at somewhat of a discount, and during this trip we planned to see the Children’s Museum, Indianapolis Zoo, and the Motor Speedway (home of the famous Indianapolis 500).  While not speaking from personal experience, I assume the weekend they run the 500 race is also pretty crowded.

Our first stop, after checking into the hotel and getting our tickets, was the Children’s Museum.  This makes for a fun afternoon, and the Museum is a only a short 10-minute drive from downtown.  The Museum itself has several exhibits for kids and grownups alike.

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The entrance level is dominated by a life-sized dinosaur peeking into the glass enclosure of the lobby.  Once through the main entrance, we followed the path to the Dinosphere displays.  A good balance of fun and education, the mix of dinosaur models and skeletons are reminiscent of the Field Museum in Chicago.  From there, it’s a short walk to the All Aboard! exhibit of trains, including the 55 ton steam engine Reuben Wells.

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The Museum has five floors of exhibits, with a circular ramp in the center to move guests between floors.  In the middle of this ramp is the fabulous Fireworks of Glass, a 43 foot sculpture of blown glass that really is fantastic.  A maintenance crew was cleaning this sculpture when we visited, and it was neat to watch them perform their work while hanging suspended by ropes from the ceiling over 40 feet above.  It reminded me of mountain climbers descending from a cliff face, or divers working in a large aquarium.  Sort of eerie and unreal at the same time.

Another memorable exhibit was the tour of Egypt.  A walk through the cabin of an Egypt Air jetliner (complete with airline seats, in-flight movie, and cockpit windows showing animated clouds and scenery), and we arrived in the half-scale version of a small town in that Country.  While the jetliner was probably the kids’ favorite part, they also enjoyed driving (via video screen) a 3-wheeled cab, and walking through the stores and houses.  I’ve discovered online that this exhibit will soon be replaced by Take Me There: China.  I imagine this latest offering will be every bit as fun to explore.

Not surprisingly, my Daughter’s favorite part of the Museum was Barbie: The Fashion Experience, which unfortunately closed prior to our last visit.  Housing everything from the history of the Dolls to an executive office Barbie might occupy, my Daughter enjoyed each moment.  As a nod to the boys, a glass case of GI Joe figures and vehicles was displayed nearby.  The Musuem’s exhibits change from time to time, making each visit a new experience.*

While my Wife and Daughter visited the Health House interactive exhibit, my Son and I explored the Hot Wheels For Real exposition.  This was a testament to all things Hot Wheels, and as a long time fan of these toys, I was impressed.  Several full-sized race cars were on display, based on the Hot Wheels models I played with as a kid.  Also on display were the first 16 model cars Mattel made, the so-called “Sweet 16” from 1968.  Even now, I can’t quite help myself from occasionally surfing eBay, to see how expensive these cars are to buy.  As can often happen, I had most of them during my childhood, but have lost them long since.

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On the top floor of the Museum is ScienceWorks and Carousel Wishes and DreamsScienceWorks included a long water table to sail boats on, demonstrating currents and wind power, as I understood it.  Not surprisingly, the kids there (mine included) considered it more of a splash zone, and mostly just had fun playing in the water.

The Carousel was enchanting, a remnant from a simpler time, before automobiles were common, and modern air travel was unheard of.  This restored classic, like many I’ve seen brought back from decay, whirls under a dazzling of electric stars to the joy of the younger set.  Watching my Daughter tame her wild horse, I was reminded of my many rides on carousels long years ago.

We bid farewell to the Museum around dinner time, heading back to our hotel for a few hamburgers and some swimming before bed.

The next day, we were up early to be first in line at the Indianapolis Zoo.  For me, it’s hard to avoid comparing it to our own Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos.  Somewhat smaller than either of the Chicago Zoos, Indianapolis Zoo is unique in many ways and worth the visit.

The Dolphin Adventure Show at Indianapolis Zoo is probably the best dolphin show I’ve seen, and reminds me of those shows Brookfield Zoo used to present in the late 1960’s.  Only the Shedd Aquarium’s show comes close these days.  Flipping, jumping, and darting around, the dolphins are entertaining for all ages.  Those lucky few who sit close to the tank usually get soaked, a practice I discourage with my kids.

The penguins are also fun to watch, particularly as they pass beneath the glass floor from one side of their habitat to the other.  It’s also a treat to see the polar bears swim in their tank, which is clear to provide visitors with a view from underwater.  The Zoo also has a terrific cheetah habitat where you can almost touch the big cats, and an opportunity to run faster than cheetah speed on a timed track.  Not to worry when you lose – no one can beat a cheetah’s running speed!

Overall, the Indianapolis Zoo’s smaller size provides more up-close encounters with the animals.  Inside the Zoo is also one of the very few remaining Dog‘n Suds restaurants in the Midwest, where we enjoyed lunch next to the resident flock of pink flamingoes.  We stayed through the early afternoon, then headed back to the hotel to let the kids play in the pool and relax.

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After dinner, my Son and I walked over to Rhythm! Discover Center, in the lower level of the indoor complex in downtown Indy.  This complex has a series of walkways connecting several restaurants, hotels, and the Artsgarden, located in the center of the commercial district.

Rhythm! is easy to overlook during a busy vacation, but anyone interested in percussion instruments should make time to spend an hour or so touring the Center.  From primitive instruments to the most modern drums, visitors have a unique opportunity to see and play this fine collection.  Near the end of the self-guided tour, there are several sound-proof rooms available for the budding (or retired) percussionist to discover the fun of setting a beat.

 

On our last day in Indy, we headed out to the Motor Speedway.  At close to half an hour from downtown, depending on traffic and construction, the Speedway is typically the farthest we drive during our stays.  You enter the complex by driving under the actual race track, and quickly notice how big the track and infield truly are.

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We drove to the main facility of the Speedway, which houses the Hall of Fame Museum, on our last day in Indianapolis.  Inside is virtually every car that won the Indianapolis 500 since it began in 1909.  The Museum houses images of all the legendary drivers who’ve won, and many of the trophies they earned during their careers.

Walking through over 100 years of race cars, I couldn’t help but consider the improvements that each new race brought to the art of those machines, and to wonder what the future winning cars will look like.  We also had time that morning to take the bus tour through the infield and gasoline alley.

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I’ve watched many Indianapolis 500 Races on television, but like most such events that are televised, the true dimensions of the Race can’t be seen on TV.  The bus tour allows you to appreciate the enormity of this iconic track.  Indy cars cover 500 miles in 200 laps, meaning each lap is 2.5 miles, regardless of how quickly they speed by.  The closest comparisons I can think of are the infields of large airports, like O’Hare and Midway in Chicago.

Our tour guide was great at explaining the history of the Speedway, from the Brickyard  track of the early days, to the hi-tech racetrack designed for driver safety we see today.  A little piece of nostalgia remains here:  the start/finish line is made up of a 36” strip of the old bricks from the original track.

After our exploration of the Speedway, we headed back to our own piece of automobile history (my sedan), and made our way out of Indianapolis, to I-65 and home.

It’s hard to beat Indianapolis for a quick getaway with the family, and the expense is pretty reasonable.  I recommend this trip as a remedy for those long summer weekends when there’s little left to do at home, or those early fall days when school never seems to end for the kids.

My own kids never tire of our trips to Indianapolis, and keeping them interested in new and different experiences pays dividends.  Not only does it broaden their minds, but the threat of canceling an Indy vacation can work miracles in keeping the family peace!

 

*  The Children’s Museum exhibits described here may no longer be open.  For updates on current exhibits, visit their web site

http://www.childrensmuseum.org/

 

Reunions Workbook link to this article:

http://reunionsworkbook.com/indianapolis-a-great-family-getaway/

 

–           Pete Murphy                June 2014