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