“Really? A whole week at Disney World? Are you sure? I mean, what will we DO there for a whole entire week?” I asked.
But my husband was sure this was a good idea. Our first official family vacation, just the three of us, where we would go someplace where we weren’t simply visiting family, should be to Disney World in Florida. After all, Snags was five, a good age for this kind of thing.
I conceded, but I still wasn’t sure I actually agreed. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Disney World, it’s just that well, when I was a kid, Disney World meant the Magic Kingdom and we could do that in a day. And we did. Nearly every summer from the time I was born until I was in my early teens, my family piled in the car and we drove to Florida for our summer vacation. We had family there, a grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins. And some of them lived in Orlando. And some of them worked at Disney World. One of my cousins was Pinocchio! Well, she wore the Pinocchio costume. She wasn’t made out of wood or anything.
So every year, we went to Florida to visit the relatives and we’d take one day and go to Disney. To the Magic Kingdom. Because at that point in time, there wasn’t anything else. There was Sea World, but that’s not Disney. Epcot, MGM, and the Animal Kingdom, they didn’t exist yet. So I was used to seeing Disney in a single fun filled day, but I had trouble comprehending how we could spend an entire week there.
Still we purchased the tickets. Way ahead of time — we had almost an entire year to plan our trip. Getting there would be the easy part. We’d take the Auto Train! Because who doesn’t like trains? Yes, it was more expensive than flying, but it would be an adventure, right? I’ve flown before, too many times to count. It’s boring. All that waiting around in the airport, and then the delays and flight cancellations, and getting frisked at the security checks. Been there, done that. What I hadn’t ever done before was take a long train ride. I’d ridden the subway before, but I had a feeling that just wasn’t the same. So we’d board the Auto Train in the afternoon, sleep peacefully in our little compartment over night and when we awoke the next morning, we’d be in Florida. And we’d have our own car with us!
Our car was key. My son has food allergies so we don’t travel lightly. We carry boxes of food with us, and because my son is also five, we carry the requisite entertainment items: portable DVD player and movies, books, markers, drawing pads, toys, favorite pillow and blanket, etc… In other words, enough baggage to weigh down a plane so its underbelly can’t raise more than an inch off the ground. Something I imagine other airline passengers wouldn’t like very much – driving a plane along the highway to Florida…
In planning our trip we also purchased the dining plan. It allowed for more than enough food for each person each day, but I needed to arrange our meals. My friend, a travel agent who specializes in all things Disney, suggested I make all of our dining reservations six months in advance, because you can. Only, I couldn’t. With my son’s food allergies we don’t eat out. The thought of letting someone else prepare my son’s meals, of putting my son’s life in the hands of a stranger, it paralyzed me. I kept promising my husband that I’d do something about the dinner reservations, and then I kept putting it off, even though I had only ever heard great and wonderful things about how Disney handles food allergies. In a word, I was terrified.
With about six weeks to go I finally got up my nerve, called Disney’s dining number, and got us all set with reservations. We were officially on their records as a family with allergies. At each restaurant the chef would come to our table and meet with us, tell us what they could safely prepare. I was encouraged, but still, I packed some food to take with us. I had to bring allergen free food for my son to eat on the train, and then I needed to pack extra food in case I chickened out at dinner. I packed enough food to get by for at least a few days. We could always go to a grocery store if we ran out. We had our car with us, after all.
The Auto Train WAS an adventure. As we lined up on the platform to board the train, an old woman positioned herself in front of the train’s door, determined that she would be the first to board. At first glance, other than the fact that she seemed to be in an awful hurry, she looked harmless enough. But it wasn’t long before she revealed herself to be the crabbiest witch in the land. Any time my son whispered or even blinked, as we stood out there on the platform she’d turn toward him and say “Shhhhh!” very fast and very loud, like an angry hissing snake about to attack. My husband and I looked at each other in surprise and disbelief, and then in dread as we boarded the train and found that her sleeping compartment was next door to ours!
Old Crabby rang the porter every ten minutes the entire way to Florida. I am not exaggerating when I say she did this all night long. I know this because I heard her, and I heard her because it is hard to sleep on the Auto Train. Around midnight, Old Crabby rang the porter and kept pushing the call button even as he appeared in front of her. She didn’t stop, even as he stood there and said, “Ma’am! Please stop ringing the button, I am right here!”
I listened to all of this though closed eyes as I pondered how I had thought the ride would be smooth, not unlike a ride on the subway. I envisioned a peaceful night’s sleep where we would wake in the morning fully refreshed and not even an hour from our destination. Travel while you sleep, leave your worries behind… But oh, how wrong I was!
It turns out that the Auto Train rides on freight rails because well, all the autos it’s carrying are freight. Therefore, the ride is not exactly as smooth and light as I’d imagined it would be. It’s rickety, crickety, loud, and screechy and the train shakes, at times, rather violently from side to side. Neither the wine I drank at dinner nor the Benadryl I downed in desperation in the middle of the night helped to lure me into sleep. At one point, the ride was so violent I was certain we’d left the tracks and were hurtling through the woods to our death. You can imagine my surprise then, when I opened my eyes a few hours later to find it was morning and that we had survived the great train derailment that never was. We’d made it to Florida!
And Disney! Well that is a magical place! They don’t lie about that. But my son had never actually shown an interest in anything Disney prior to our trip. Not even once. We borrowed and read travel books about Disney from the library, we watched a DVD on loan from a friend. My husband and I started to get more and more excited. But Snags, he didn’t seem to care one way or another. And as we walked about the Magic Kingdom that first day he looked around a bit and smiled as he rode a few rides, but he didn’t seem terribly impressed. He complained about having to wait in line!
That’s when I started to get irritated. Where was his excitement? We’d come all this way for complaining? We’d spent thousands of dollars and endured Old Crabby and the shaky train for this? And we had to stay an entire week? What had we gotten ourselves into? I wondered.
Later though, near the end of that first day, as we were heading to dinner, my son turned and saw all the Disney characters on stage at Cinderella’s castle. And that’s when the magic hit him. He screamed at the top of his five year old lungs, “MICKEY! MICKEEEEY! I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU ALL DAY!” Had he been looking for Mickey? How odd. He’d never mentioned it. Yet if excitement was a firecracker, my son’s head was exploding right there. Maybe, I thought, this would all turn out okay after all. Then again, we still needed to eat dinner… Dinner that someone else had prepared. For my son with life threatening food allergies.
I held my breath through dinner and tried to hold back tears as I watched my son eat his first restaurant meal ever. Was his meal actually free of milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts? The chef assured us that it was. But if he was wrong, we’d likely spend the rest of our vacation in the hospital. I insisted that my husband try the Tofutti sundae the chef brought my son for dessert. “Taste his dessert!” I hissed. “Make sure it’s safe for him to eat!” Tofutti, a soy based “ice cream” looks exactly like vanilla ice cream and it tastes so much like it that I have trouble telling the difference. My husband though, he can tell the difference if he tastes it. So he did. And it was fine and my son was thrilled. Not only did he get to eat prime rib for dinner, he got a giant sundae too! And because it was a character meal, he got his picture taken with the characters and he got autographs from Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore, and best of all, from Mickey Mouse himself!
As our second morning in Disney World dawned my son turned to me and said “Mom, I thought this was going to be a BORING vacation, but I’m having fun!”
And the week I had been so worried about? It flew by but it was MAGICAL!
This post was written for the Family Vacation Group Writing Project over at Babylune.