Category Archives: around Central Florida

The Camping Trip (a.k.a. how to freeze your a$$ off in Florida)

Camping with my family was just another part of growing up in Florida. I knew how to relieve myself in bushes and bathe in alligator-infested rivers before I could to read.

During my tween years, I was a member of a kick-ass Girl Scout troop. We camped across the country, crashed Boy Scout conventions, and beat them at their own competitions. (Yes, this girl whipped the boys canoeing, tent pitching, knot-tying, and lip-syncing to Madonna.)

I could gut a fish and even earned my hunter’s education certification. (Not that I’d EVER willingly shoot an animal—come the apocalypse, this girl will live off wild berries and palm hearts or something. Plus I couldn’t hit a target to save my life.)

But you get the point—I was outdoorsy.

WAS.

I hadn’t spent a night in the wilderness (not counting the night I slept in my backyard hammock) for over twenty years.

And my husband had NEVER been camping—or the kiddo.

It was long past time to introduce my boys to the great outdoors.

So, when a Groupon popped up for a “campground resort” (a.k.a. KOA) practically around the block from kiddo’s soccer fields, I snatched it up. Though on the river and a part of a huge protected wildlife area, it was twenty minuets from home, and ten minutes from a SuperWalmart. Seriously. How rough could it be?

Being the ex-Girl Scout that I am, I made lists. I shopped for lanterns after carefully reading reviews. I dug through Pinterest for campfire cooking recipes. I forced everyone to pitch my parent’s old tent in the backyard so they had a clue what to do when I barked orders. I had this down.

The Morgan’s First Camping Trip was scheduled during Spring Break. The weather in late-March is usually gorgeous here in the Sunshine State—not too hot yet, but perfect for pleasant days at the beach and springs.The mosquitoes usually aren’t around yet to carry me away.

But this year, Spring Break was ridiculously COLD. Like we were running the heat at night. IN FLORIDA. Weather forecasters predicted a freeze night we were scheduled to arrive, so I pleaded with the campground’s office to push our reservation back a day, and we crossed our fingers for a speedy warm-up.

Yes, this is the SAME tent as above. I won’t mention how old it must be.

Upon arrival, the weather seemed glorious. The sun shined, the thermometer hovered in the 70s, and a dry breeze rustled the trees around the creek. We pitched the old tent without a hitch, unpacked, and explored. The campground centered around a huge old-fashioned Florida spring, and though the water remained at a chilly 72° year-round, kiddo was brave enough to play.  It was a good day.

Did I mention we have always used a gas grill at home? We brought along a cute little portable charcoal grill for cooking. We planned to toss firewood in later for our campfire and s’mores. Uhm—execpt we couldn’t get the damn charcoal to stay lit. Even with the handy-dandy fire starters I’d crafted from cardboard egg cartons, dryer lint, and wax.

So, diner was a little late, and my boys were ready to go all wildman and eat the meat raw by the time I warmed our food. When we tried to arrange the wood to make a campfire, the logs were twice the size of the fire pit/grill. And we had no ax. Well, shoot. Have you ever tried breaking up wood with a utility hammer? Not how Honest Abe used to split logs.

Once the sun went down, the temperature dropped. Rapidly. And the winds picked up. By the time we decided to retire into our snug tent, we realized it was going to drop back into the 40s overnight.

Then I discovered I didn’t pack our sleeping bag.

I swear, I packed half the house in the car. I remembered the air mattress, the air pump, the sheets. But no blanket or sleeping bag to keep us warm.

Did I mention IT WAS REALLY FREAKING COLD?

Hubby offered to drive out to Walmart and buy us a new sleeping bag. Stupid, stubborn me refused. We came with what we came with. If we were in the “real” wilderness, we would figure out how to survive.

Big mistake.

We layered every stitch of clothing I’d packed. Huddling under both sheets, the picnic blanket, the beach towels, and even the plastic table cloth, we tried to quiet our chattering teeth. Yes, I contemplated the whole bare-skin-to-skin method for warmth, but we were in public basically, with our snoring WARM kid not two feet away. I’d remembered HIS sleeping bag, complete with the zip-around-the-head warm hoodie.

We survived the freezing night, sleeping in freezing fits, as my frigid ass kept hitting the almost icy ground (turns out the air mattress had a slow leak, too.)

The next morning, we huddled outside, trying to light a fire for warmth in the wind.

We must have looked pitiful. So pitiful that our neighbors in their Mac-Daddy setup brought us some fresh wood to stoke the fire. (These pros pulled in with their fancy RVs and had canopies unfurled, fire pits roaring, steaks grilling, and booze flowing in less than ten minutes. I’m hooking up with them next time.)

Within hours, we shed our gloves and doubled-up socks and donned our swimsuits. We enjoyed a peaceful canoe trip along the gorgeous Wekiva River.  Later, we waded through a clear stream to the springs, where kiddo constructed cities in the sand and the hubby and I relaxed with books and beer.

We survived. My boys say they even had fun. We’ll try again soon. I’ve already bought a new tent.

Now I just need to remember the damn sleeping bags.

*****

Hooking up with Mama Kat again. Come join the fun.

Are you a camper or is a Holiday Inn your idea of roughing it?

A Day Without Magic: low marks for Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

 
First, let me preface: I am a Harry Potter geek. Though I’m not big into fantasy, MG, or YA lit, that bright boy charmed me from the moment my hubby (who IS a total YA & fantasy geek) convinced me to give the book a try over a decade ago. I’ve devoured each book since.

 I hate to do this. It’s a new year, and I’m trying to focus on the positive in life. But Sunday…Sunday stunk as much as rotten pollyjuice potion.


Over a year ago, I won two tickets to Universal Orlando. It’s been a fight to get them (another story, another day) but we FINALLY  marked our calendars for Janurary 20th: the day we’d experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

We were more excited than if we’d nabbed tickets to the Quiddich World Cup. Kiddo rushed to finish reading Chamber of Secrets (almost made it—he’s only in 3rd grade). We watched a marathon of movies. We hoped for a chilly day so the snow dusting the roofs in  the quaint town of Hogsmeade wouldn’t be too ironic due to the sweltering average Orlando temperatures.

The first faux pas came when we tried to buy an additional ticket. We’re local, we’re Florida residents—we expected to find some type of discount. Nada, unless we wanted to buy three days. Then our local newspaper listed a Florida resident discount in its entertainment section. Yippee. I couldn’t find it on the UniversalOrlando.com site, so I called.

They had never heard of it. And laughed when I asked if they’d honor the price.

So we purchased the ticket at FULL PRICE. {Shivers. Those who know me realize I never pay full price for anything.}

Our assigned day of fun arrived with promises of cool weather and slightly overcast skies—a perfect backdrop to mimic Harry’s land of enchantment. We rushed through the park gates as soon as they opened for us “regular” guests (hotel guests are allowed in an hour early) and raced towards the castle. My heart fluttered as we passed through the stone arch marking our transformation from mere tourists to muggles. We lingered for a moment to gape at the Hogwarts Express and snap a pic. The Hogwarts Express! A stampede of muggles and aspiring witchcraft and wizardry students in various Potter attire pushed through the narrow alleyway, barely gazing in the shop windows as all prepared to storm the castle. The stately towers of Hogwarts rose above the foliage, yet less than ten minutes after the park opened, the wait for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey clocked in at 75 minutes. Whaat? Flight of the Hippogriff (a 30-second kiddie coaster) 80 minutes. And the real coaster—The Dragon Challenge—closed for ‘area enhancements.’ Bloody hell.

Now, since I’m a local, I don’t go to any theme park during high season. But it was mid-January. The lines shouldn’t be this long…

We checked back several times and the line never wavered. (Oh, what I would have done for a Time-Turner!) By early afternoon we couldn’t resist and we joined the queue. I never made it on the ride. Once you wind through the maze of line outside you must deposit all your worldly belongings in lockers for the last hour wait. I’m not good with lines normally, but vicious allergies made the idea of standing in a confined space without any water, tissues, or throat lozenges impossible. With a tear, I fled from the line and crowds to the rainforest of Jurassic Park while the hubby and kiddo waited.

I’m glad I fled. The ride broke twice while they were strapped in and flying high. Holy freakout, Harry.

Instead I waited 25 minutes for a frozen butterbeer (yum!) and saw the tops of the Beauxbatons and Drumstrang students twirl and stomp on the little stage.

{Aside: check out the “Public Convinces” as Moaning Myrtle‘s voice entertains you in the loo.}

While the shop windows lining the narrow street in Hogsmeade are lavishly decorated with notions and displays that will surely delight any Potter fan, most are merely facades, and “Closed” signs hang behind their  glass paned doors. The shops that are open are excruciatingly tight; expect to push through as if they were giving away free Nimbus 2000s. No one can leave without buying some of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans at Honeydukes. The line for Olivander’s (just to watch one of 25 people go through the wand selection process) runs up to 90 minutes long, so we skipped that also. We oohhed and ahhhed over much of the merchandise in the cramped stores, but as expected, the prices seemed as high as a wanted wizard’s ransom. Be warned.




 

We bit the bullet and joined the line for Flight of the Hippogriff. Kiddo stood just an inch shy of riding on the massive looping Hulk coaster, and we couldn’t imagine leaving Islands of Adventure without at least one spin on the tracks. But we did.  The Hippogriff must have been insulted, because in the first ten minutes we waited, the coaster broke down twice. With passengers aboard, stranded.

Yeeah, we abandoned that line.

Of course, we stopped in for a pint at the Hog’s Head Pub. The decor was charming, the beer & cider cold, the line long (Hubby asked if they were brewing it behind the bar), the “suggested tip”  fleecing. (You’re pouring a beer behind a counter, you get a buck. It’s not table service. You’re not earning a 25% tip on a $7.95 pint.)



With a sigh, we left Hogsmeade and dragged the last dregs of our beers along to watch The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show. Cheesy, but the kiddo laughed, and it was lovely to actually sit and relax. Except…fifteen minutes into the show the actors disappeared and the show abruptly ended due to “technical difficulties.” Come on!

We were done. We stopped at the Caro-Suess-el as we wandered to the exit. A fifteen minute wait–okay. Except our wait grew as we kept getting bypassed by the Express Pass people. The entire carousel would be filled up by Brazillian tour groups who breezed past as we stood still. You see, for an additional $29.99 – $49.99 (on top of the $96 one-day one-park ticket) you can walk right onto most the rides, leaving all of us people who can’t or won’t spend the extra feeling like dirty mudbloods. 

For once, I say Disney does it better. MUCH better. Their fast past system is wonderful. Yes, I’ll take a FREE ticket to come back to a crowed ride at an assigned time. Works like a charm and makes a theme park visit much more magical.

Universal needs to study harder. Long lines, too tight quarters, poor fast pass system, and at least four attraction fails. Of the three Wizarding World attractions, two broke and one was closed. Though the facades were breathtaking, the magic just wasn’t happening.



This Chick Still Doesn’t Get RUSH

I’ve tried. I swear to the Rock Gods, I’ve tried. It took twelve years of marriage for a guy to finally drag me to a Rush show. Every guy I’ve ever dated worshiped upon the power trio’s altar, owned all their albums, saw them in concert every time they toured. I just can’t get into their music.

Since I LOVE going to concerts—seeing musicians transform their passions into sound, feeling the music, the energy—I thought perhaps if I saw them play live I may understand the devotion they sir in their thousands millions of fans. Male fans.

Last weekend I journeyed to their show (through two hours of gridlock) with an open heart, an open mind, and a big ass beer in my hand.

After seeing them live I can officially declare I still don’t dig them.

You want proof Rush is a guy band?

This. This is AN EMPTY RESTROOM. AT A CONCERT. They do exist.
Yes, it’s the ladies room. The men’s line wrapped around the building.

I’ve waited upwards of a half hour for a chance at one of those usually nasty stalls. Dave Matthews Band, NIN, Jane’s Addiction—I’d spent enough time in line to learn the life stories of the women around me while we stood with our legs crossed trying to look cool and not do the dance.

There may have been ten girls at the show. Okay, maybe a fifty. Out of thousands of rabid fans. To the point I stopped in front of one and said, “Oh look, there IS another woman here.” She just half-smiled and looked at her watch like she was ready to go.

And if you ever need an ego boost, go to a Rush show. The other women wore old vintage holey T-shirts (like my hubby). They hadn’t updated their jeans (ripped, stonewashed, high-waisted, relaxed fit) or their hair (mullets. many of them.) since they started going to shows thirty years ago.

I saw no pairs or groups of women. They all came with their male counterparts. Yet I’ve never seen so many guys together on dates in my life. No, nothing romantic (a gay guy would NEVER be seen in public dressed so tastelessly). Bromance hung heavy in the air: male bonding at its finest. Their wives/significant others were smart enough to stay away.

So why don’t women get Rush? Since I was not “at one” with the music, I had plenty of time to reflect while I people-watched and sipped beer. Each member of the Canadian power trio does show mastery of their instruments. They wove complex harmonies—perhaps too complex? The songs (with the exception of a few hits like Tom Sawyer and Closer to the Heart) just don’t have enough melody. There’s nothing to hum or sing. Thousands of old guys playing air guitar and air drum solos—hells yeah—but the sound is just too tangled. Forget being something to dance to, there’s not even a steady enough drum beat to swing a hip to.

 The lyrics are intelligent tirades, some nearly poems (seriously: they quote literature, even Shakespeare) but they are utterly lacking in emotion. Yes, I’m generalizing, but most girls don’t dig songs about robots.

Okay, and for some women it may be a question of sex appeal:

I don’t know if this album cover is supposed to make them look sexy and brooding, like porn stars or Jedis.  But there are plenty of bands where the singers are not the slightest bit attractive (have you seen Marilyn Manson?) but they just exude . . . something. Rush’s music is utterly asexual. Once again: robots over romance.

To be fair, I skipped a hunk of the show. Some drunk-assed baby boomer MAN knocked my FULL 24-ounce beer all over me. Yes, he was apologetic. Yes, he bought me a new one then found another patch of grass to pollute. But I was still soaked. And pissed. Though the bathroom WAS empty, I still couldn’t shower the stink off, so I wandered and tweeted.

I returned home smelling like a frat house couch: an eau d’ stale beer, various smokes, and testosterone. At least Hubby had a EPIC time. ::sigh:: The things we do for love.

Have you ever been dragged to a concert you didn’t like?

mullet photo credit: SeymourSolo via photopin cc

concert photo credit: wvs via photopin cc

Sparking the imagination with science and Star Wars at the Orlando Science Center #CFLGood

My son dreams of becoming an engineer when he grows up. Technically, if you ask, he’ll just tell you he wants to build roads. And buildings. And ships. And robots. Maybe space ships. Definitely a bigger, safer Titanic. Fueled by books and educational TV shows (they do exist), ideas for new designs seem to burst from his imagination each day.  He breaks out his roll of paper or borrows reams from my office so he can carefully draw out his plans. With old wooden blocks or gallons of Legos he brings his visions to life like a modern day young DaVinci—if DaVinci built his models from colorful, interlocking plastic blocks.

My kid dreams big. Entire ports, ocean liners, cityscapes, and transportation systems seem to spring from his fingertips.  Transferring his enthusiasm, his passion into the classroom is challenging; multiplication tables and math factors just aren’t exciting, but he’ll need a strong background in math and science for his dreams to become his reality.

Education is the gateway to opportunity. That’s why one of our favorite places to visit in Central Florida is the Orlando Science Center.

 

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is considered the cornerstone to our prosperity as a nation. As the world’s economy continues to be increasingly fueled by knowledge and innovation, it is vital that the workforce be well-educated in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. With that said, the United States is in the middle of a STEM crisis.

The Orlando Science Center is taking a stand in the efforts to revitalize STEM education in our community. Through informal science learning, kids can take interest in STEM fields through fun, engaging ways. By simply generating excitement for science everyone can win, as a child takes this new found appreciation and explores it at home and school.

The need for a strong, STEM-educated workforce is greater than it’s ever been. The percentage of science and engineering degrees awarded annually peaked in the 1960′s.

Locally, the problem is even more magnified: only 20% of the degrees awarded in Central Florida are based in STEM fields, compared to 30% nationally.

To put it in perspective, 60 percent of the new jobs created this century will require skills that only 20 percent of the current workforce possesses. Jobs now and in the future will depend on the bright minds of today’s youth in these subjects. In fact, 28 of the 30 fastest growing occupations projected for 2018 require strong proficiency in the skills of math and science.

Our ultimate goal at the Science Center is to create a STEM-centered community that paves the way towards excellence in science, technology, engineering and math. Exploring these critical areas in an informal way can be fun, exciting and even inspiring.

Our kids don’t want lectures. They thrive on interaction and entertainment. Hand-on, fun learning is vital to keep kids interested and intrigued. That’s why we love the Orlando Science Center.

OSC is one of the top hands-on science centers in the country. Featuring four floors of interactive exhibits and live programs, it provides a full day of entertainment and learning about everything from natural science to the high-tech world of simulation technology.

Kids (and parents) can build dams and channels at water tables (my kiddo’s fav), stare into the jaws of a T. rex, take to the air in F1-11  and F-16 flight simulators, get up close to native alligators and snakes, play a life-sized game of Operation, or control a Mars Rover.

The CineDome theater doesn’t just “show” movies. You can watch and experience the destructive power of a tornado at point blank range or take a visually explosive, sensory expanding voyage into space on its enormous screen (measuring 8,000 square feet!).

You can catch one of the planetarium shows, laser light shows, or view the cosmos via the Crosby Observatory, home to one of the state’s largest publicly accessible refractor telescopes.

AND coming soon. . .this has our family just buzzing with excitement:

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination
October 13, 2012 through April 7, 2013
May the Force be with you as you explore the blockbuster large scale exhibit celebrating the Star Wars® legacy and its impact on real-world science! It is the first exhibition to display costumes and props from all six Star Wars films with real-world technologies. The exhibit includes extensive video interviews with filmmakers, scientists and engineers; and hands-on components, including two large Engineering Design Labs, where visitors can build and test their own speeders and robots.
For more information on the exhibit, please visit: www.mos.org/starwars.
 Star Wars + science + kids = WIN

Not only is OSC an amazing resource for locals, but it should be on the itinerary of every family visiting Orlando. Need a day off from the hectic theme parks, some time to relax, hide from the heat or rain, or crowds and lines? Hit the Science Center. You will have fun.

The Orlando Science Center is a private non-profit organization with 501c(3) status. As part of the Blogging For Good Campaign, Central Florida bloggers are spreading the word about local charities and non-profits that benefit our community. Want to help? Buy a raffle ticket for this AMAZING Star Wars themed basket filled with:

  • 4 Open Guest Passes to the Orlando Science Center
  • Two tickets to the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination VIP Preview on Friday, October 12 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (This VIP Preview is the first opportunity for anyone to experience the exhibit at the Science Center!)
  • Rubix Cube Stress Reliever
  • True Green Life in 100 Everyday Ways – Written by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin
  • OSC Otronicon “Level Up” T-Shirt
  • OSC Coffee Mug/Beaker (it’s got measurements on it resembling a beaker – it’s awesome)
  • Command Line Mouse Pad
  • 2 Anakin Skywalker Lightsabers
  • Star Wars Minatures: Rebels and Imperials
  • Star Wars: STAR TOURS G2-9T
  • Star Wars: STAR TOURS SK-Z38
  • Star Wars 2007 Vintage Coin Set
  • Star Wars: STAR TOURS Boarding Party – STAR TOURS Officer, Kaink, Teek, Ree-Yees, Chewbacca (Set is Limited Edition of 15,000)
  • Star Wars Destroyer Droid
  • Star Wars Miniatures: Princess Leia – Attack on Endor

Any Star Wars fan (age 5 to 95) would be over the moon if they won those goodies. Maybe I’ll buy two tickets… Each raffle ticket is just $10 and can be obtained here. 100% of the money raised goes directly to the nonprofit, so it’s a win-win!

OSC website: http://www.osc.org/
OSC Twitter: https://twitter.com/orlandoscience
OSC Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/orlandosciencecenter
Blogging for Good: http://www.cflbloggingforgood.com/

**Please help spread the word about this important cause. Tweet, Facebook, Pin, and share this post. You can make a difference.

I am writing this as part of a contest for the CFL Blog Conference and the Rollins Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership Center.  I stand 100% behind the The Orlando Science Center.

Our Dolphin Tale @ Clearwater Marine Aquarium

We all can use something cute and inspiring—what better than a spunky dolphin with a heartwarming story?

dolphin tale, winter, clearwater aquarium

 

Last week we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. You know the place I’m talking about: it’s the home of Winter, the plucky, persevering dolphin who’s survival story enchanted millions when she starred in the movie Dolphin Tale.

If you’ve seen the movie (which I highly reccomend as one of the best family movies of the decade) you are familiar with Winter’s Hollywood story.  The real tale is slightly different, but just as remarkable.

At just three months old, Winter became entangled in a crab trap line in the Mosquito Lagoon (East coast of Florida near Kennedy Space Center). A team of marine rescue experts transported her to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  Winter made it, but her tail did not.

Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman did not swoop in to rescue her (as in the movie) but Dr. Mike Walsh and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc. did.  They created a prosthetic tale (several, actually) for the growing Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, while the team of marine mammal trainers at CMA trained her how to swim. (For the complete story check out the CMA’s website.)

winter the dolphin, winter's tail, how winter's tale works
Visitors to the aquarium can view one of Winter’s physical therapy sessions. Trainers attach her tail, work with her in the main tank, and remove the tail.

Trainers put on a “sock,” a soft rubbery material called “Winter’s Gel” to reduce friction and help the tail stay put. (This material is now used to reduce pain/friction on human amputees as well.) It also looks like a giant condom.

Then comes the “cup” placed at the base of her peduncle, a suspension strap, a sleeve, and a rubber band.  Sounds like something my kiddo would make at home, right?

With her tale in place, the trainers run Winter through her therapy session, encouraging her to swim in a normal up-and-down manner instead of the side-to-side motion she adapted.

Then they take it all off and the other dolphins at the aquarium, Panama and Hope, come out to play.

Though Winter is the main draw today, the CMA  has grown as a marine education, rehabilitation, and research center over the decades. Over 250 volunteers care for the animals and the 100,000 guest per year who pass through the center. They provide experiences from dolphin interactions in the main facility to four-day adventures including shark tagging (I totally need to find out about this!).

 

Most families who visit the aquarium can plan on spending about a half-day exploring the facility. Besides Winter and the other dolphins, you can pet stingrays, check out rescued sea turtles, fondle sea urchins,  watch otters frolic, and gaze into the eyes of a nurse shark.  The focus is on education, and all exhibits have detailed information boards listing fun facts about the species and the particular animal’s rescue stories. I found the info much more interesting than my kiddo, and I would have loved to spend more time reading about the animals and fish.


If you want more Winter, there is a second facility, Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, included with your admission. You can enjoy a complimentary trolley ride or a boat trip across the bay (take the boat!) to the Historic Downtown Clearwater’s Harborview Center. There you get a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie.

I’d say this area is more for older kids or adults — those familiar with the movie or intrigued by the story.  Displays feature many of the movie sets with movie trivia vs. facts.  This movie museum involves a lot of reading, so if your kids are young, expect to practice your oral skills. It also has a totally cool Hurricane Experience exhibit. The whipping rains, wild winds, and cracks of thunder freaked my kiddo out a bit (in a good, boy-thrill way). Or maybe it was the chair flying at him?

Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $14.95 kids. Discounts are available if you search online, but if you can afford full price, pay it. Your admission fee is not going line some corporate billionaire’s or stockholder’s pockets. It’s going to help save the lives of injured marine animals.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not fancy,  not a theme park attraction —  it’s a simple, working marine rescue facility run by amazing people dedicated to preserving wildlife and our delicate ecosystem. And it’s worth an afternoon if you’re ever in the Tampa area. Check it out.

*All opinions and photos in this article are my own and I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Central Florida Bloggers, Food, & Fun

I finally made it to another monthly night out with a group of fun & fabulous Central Florida Lady Bloggers.  Mexican food, an icy Imperial (a Costa Rican beer), and blogging buddies — ingredients for a perfect evening!

 It felt so good trade out my writing wardrobe (a.k.a. yoga pants) for a bright  new dress, ditch the slippers for some espadrilles, and head downtown.  This suburban girl doesn’t get out much. Though I’m only about ten miles from the hip downtown area, I felt like I was heading into a different world — one that involves the choice of valet parking or driving in circles for hours to snatch a tiny parallel parking spot. But I found a spot where I wouldn’t get towed,  then enjoyed some delicious food, cold drinks, and amazing company.

Carolina, from Peas in a Blog, was smart enough to bring her camera along (because no blogger should EVER leave home without one) and had our young waiter snap this photo. Thanks for letting us all totally steal it!

These ladies are amazing. Not only do they write for a diverse range of blogs, but they run marathons, compete for national fashion blogging awards, host panel discussions at BlogHer Food, produce nationally syndicated television and radio shows, and so much more. I can’t help but to feel out of my league. Take a minute to discover some of their unique blogs — you won’t be disappointed.

Food
Christine – Cook the Story
Kristina – Love & Zest

Food & Fitness
Carolina — Peas in a Blog
Jessica – Sushi & Sit Ups


Fashion
J – J’s Everyday Fashion

Children’s Health & Wellness
Carly & Courtney – Illuminate Blog

Sports
Colleen – Lady Ballers

A bit of everything
Heather – Housewife Glamour
Jackie – Mom Jovi


Social Media/Fitness
Katy – Katy Widrick


Running & Fun
Paula – Eat Watch Run
Victoria – Running Peanut

*Thanks again to Carolina for compiling this list.  And if I miss you, let me know, & I’ll gladly add you.

Since I’ve been trying to eat healthier (swimsuit season is already in full swing around here), I ordered the Lettuce Wrap Fajitas.  Probably not the best choice when wearing a new dress. They proved so messy, I dumped  all the ingredients on one plate and improvised a taco salad.  Not bad. And it gave me inspiration for dinner the next night.

I’d bought some of the new Kraft Fresh Takes (coating, seasoning, & cheese mix) when they were free with coupons.  I baked some chicken breasts coated in the Chili Lime and Panko coating and tossed it on top of a salad of mixed baby greens, red and orange bell peppers, black beans, and green onions.

Pretty good, if I do say so myself. And another example of why I don’t eat out much. It’s hard to justify spending $10+ bucks on a dinner salad when I can make it at home.

Oh, and while I was making this dinner, Hubby suddenly remembered that he had a potluck at work...tomorrow.  I wasn’t making him anything at such the last minute, so I tossed him a box of brownie mix and let him figure it out.

Better luck next time?  They still tasted great though (is it possible for brownies to taste bad?) and I’m sure all the ladies at his work will be tickled he made them himself.

Central Florida Ballet’s Nutcracker {and an 8-year-old Boy}

We all are guilty of doing things impulsively on occasion — whether it’s just sneaking a box of cookies into the shopping cart, stalking peeking at that old boyfriend on facebook, or deciding to buy a car that day.  Last Tuesday I took a leap of cataclysmic proportions  faith when a “daily deals” email tempted me with an offer I simply couldn’t refuse. I bought tickets to the ballet. And I decided to take my son.

No, I was not drunk at the time….but that would have been a fabulous excuse.

Now, I have a pretty darn good kid, but he’s an 8-year-old boy.  His world revolves around Star Wars, video games, and soccer.  Ballet, is most certainly NOT on his list of cool things to do on a weekend, unless perhaps you can somehow work in sets created from giant Lego blocks and dancers decked out in Storm Trooper costumes. 

But I was dying to see the Nutcracker again. It had been nearly two decades since my first venture into the enchanting world full of mice and men, magically growing Christmas trees, the Land of Sweets, and Sugar Plum fairies. And the music! Tchaikovsky’s enthralling score is one of the most well-know classical pieces in America; I dare anyone out there not to recognize at least a snippet of his grandiose waltzes or zippy Divertissemens which have grown into holiday staples. 

Not long after I clicked that tempting little “buy now” icon I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.  I would have to dress my son up and make him sit still while girls in tutus pirouetted across the stage. There would be no popcorn or cartoon action to keep him glued to his seat.  I got nervous. Really nervous.

The venue was a lovely theater tucked into a corner of one of the largest convention centers in the country. My son equated it to the international airport for it’s massive parking lots and hanger-like exhibition space. Getting there was an adventure in itself. But once inside there were escalators! And food vendors! And kids everywhere. Hallelujah — I was not alone.

Little girls in festive velvet danced across the lobby, boys stood awkwardly in their Sunday best, and parents flashed looks wavering between pride and death threats. We rode the escalators some more as we waited for the doors to open.

Our seats were fantastic — orchestra left, about ten rows back — and a family with three boys (three!) sat behind us. ALL the children within earshot were on their best behavior; no one kicked my seat, cried, complained, or spilled popcorn in my lap (not that it was allowed inside anyway).  I felt as if I had crossed into a different dimension: I had entered the blissful parent zone.

The music started, and as the plush red velvet curtains rose, a chorus of “oohhs” rippled across the audience.  A little girl behind me actually gasped and stage whispered, “What the…!”  The performers — dozens of children and adults in their sparkling party finery —  flooded the stage. The scene was set. The children were enthralled.

My boy sat still, watching, listening, occasionally even dropping his jaw in awe, for the entire 60 minute plus first act.  Okay, maybe he started getting a little antsy during the last number, the Waltz of the Snowflakes  (one of my all-time favorite dances), but he remained engaged the entire time. He loved the choreographed fight scenes between the Nutcracker’s soldiers and mouse army, the sword play between the children, and the mysterious Drosselmeyer with his magical twirling cape. The pyrotechnics and cannon blasts lit up not only the theater, but each child’s imagination.

We rode the escalators a little more during the intermission to coax any stray wiggles out. I did not give into the tempting hot chocolate or candies offered. Though much of the ballet was to take place in the Land of Sweets, I didn’t need my kid on enough of a high on sugar to actually be there.

Act II was shorter but filled with more “real” ballet than the first half of the tale. While I lost myself in fantasy lands of graceful ballerinas leaping across the stage in their tea-length tulle, my son let loose a yawn and whispered, “Sorry, but this music makes me kinda sleepy.” Apparently, he is not fond of waltzes.  But he jumped back on board as the Cirque du Soliel-esque high-flying hoop dance wowed the crowds followed by the captivating antics of the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese dances.

Our kids are often more mature and intelligent than we give them credit for. Perhaps we should  hold them up to slightly higher standards more often; take them out of their comfort zone of crappy Nick shows and video games and introduce them to new worlds of wonders.  I can’t imagine how any young girl, devoted to the commercialized versions of pepto pink princesses and fairies, could not be awestruck by the spectacle of a real ballet. The characters float across the stage, their costumes more breathtaking than any cartoon version could conjure; the Sugarplum Fairy twirls as the real-life version of  the little plastic jewelry box figure we dreamed of becoming as girls, ourselves.  The dancers exemplify not only grace and beauty, but the rewards that years of determination and of diligent practice can reap. They show us real dreams come true. And that boys — ahem, men — can be dancers, too.

The ballet exposes our kids to the disappearing world of art, music, and dance. The Nutcracker is the perfect  production to aquatint newbies of all ages to this often daunting new realm: a ballet on training wheels, enjoyable for everyone. Give it a try. It will be worth it.

My boy insists he wants to see to the Nutcracker again next year. He just has one request: we have to take his father. I think that can be arranged.

I took my 8-year-old son to the ballet. And maybe you should too.

Legoland Florida Review

 *Note: This is a completely unsponsored post and unbiased review. I paid in full for all Legoland admission tickets, food, parking, and souvenirs.  Free tickets would have been nice, but alas, no free rides here.

Legoland is Florida’s newest and most anticipated theme park addition. Located in Winter Haven (about 45 minutes south of Disney) on the grounds of the old Cypress Gardens, it is a brightly colored mecca for Lego lovers and fans. Be warned: it IS a park for kids. It is not like EPCOT or even Universal, which play to a definite adult audience as well.  Legoland claims its target audience is kids 2 to 12. I would say more specifically 5 to 11-year-old boys. For them, it is a wonderland.

We visited with my son, an 8-year-old who lives, eats, and breaths Legos: their ideal guest.

The park was everything he wanted and more.

We spent the day at Legoland on Monday, October 18th, the 3rd day the park was officially open. We were hoping to avoid the crazy opening weekend crowds. We did. The park was not busy at all. In fact, when we arrived at the empty parking lot we thought the park was closed. Lines for all rides (if there were any at all) were short. Now I understand why Legoland will be closed two days during the week (Tuesdays and Thursdays).

Rides and Attractions

Legoland has four roller coasters and all are great for kids. The height restrictions are minimal: 36″ to 44″ will get you on all the rides.

The Dragon is an easy coaster, full of knights, castles, and of course, dragons.

The Coastersaurus is an old wooden coaster refurbished from Cypress Garden days.  It’s bumpy and a bit different, but fun (once you get past the fact that you are trusting a very old wooden ride). My son actually looked a little nervous and asked the attendants if it was really safe.

Test Track is a short, swervy ride, but it was the steepest and fastest — a 45 foot drop before you hit the switchbacks — but still okay for most kids.

Flying School is a suspended coaster (meaning you hang from the top) where kids and adults can get the feel of flying without the fear like other suspended coasters (such as Sea World’s Manta).  It may look a little daunting, but it’s an easy thrill.

If you want to ride the coasters I would recommend hitting them first. If you turn right at the carousel (another holdout from the Cypress Gardens days), you can swing towards the Dragon first then follow the path along the back of the park to the others. We walked right on or waited only about 5 minutes for each on the day of our visit, but I have read reports of an hour wait — no fun with kids for such a short ride.

The Ford Driving School was a huge hit. Kids ages 6-13  sit through a short movie showing them how the life-sized Ford Explorer outside the ride was built and teaches them basic traffic laws and instructions. They are led out to the driving school track, a cute replica of some city streets complete with lanes, stop signs, and traffic lights.  They drive their own cars around (no parents allowed) following all the laws to get their license. It was adorable, and the kids all seemed to be beaming with pride that they were driving all by themselves. There is also aJr. Driving School for ages 3-5.

We didn’t get to try out the Boating School, also located in the Lego City area, due to some technical problems. Only one boat was running.


The Lost Kingdom Adventurewas just as fun for the adults as the kids. Guests ride four to a car through an ancient Egyptian tomb. It’s not scary. Each person has a laser gun to shoot at targets scattered through the day-glow painted ride and a scoreboard on their dash.

The Pharaoh’s Revenge is a glorified ball pit, but the kids loved it. Inside this small two-story netted area kids fire foam balls at each other (and parents if they don’t wait outside).

 

Only ride the Aquazone Wave Racers if you want to get wet. Spectators can set off water cannons as the 2-person wave racers spin by.  Fun for riders and spectators if you can manage to wait near one of the cannon buttons.

 


The Safari Trek is more for the littlest ones. While the Lego animals are amazing to behold — towering giraffes, water-squirting elephants, lions, zebras, even meerkats — the mini-jeep tour lasts maybe two minutes. I wanted to get close-up photos of the ‘animals’ so we waited in line for 15 minutes (longest wait of the day by far), then as we buckled into our vehicles, the ride broke. We sat for another five waiting to go somewhere. Walk the perimeter of the ride to see the cool animals, and don’t bother actually riding unless there is no wait.


Build and Test is a air-conditioned break-room for the adults while the kids have a blast building innovative race cars from dozens of bins of blocks. Kids fill several four car ramped race tracks with their creations, each vying to get their vehicle to the finish line first. Chairs line the walls for adults to chill out in the A/C while the kids are busy.  We had to drag our Kiddo out after a half hour.

Toddlers vs Big Kids: Speaking of little ones, Duplo Village is geared straight towards the smallest guests. The area features a mall-like play area, a Duplo block building area, and a few easy rides for toddlers 36″ and up. This area will not interest any kids over 5 though, so parents/groups may need to split up if they want to give toddlers their own time.

I have a photo tour of Miniland linked here, so just a few words: it’s cool. Even someone not really into Legos should appreciate these model cities. You could spend hours checking out all the amazing details the master builders included. It takes about 20 minutes just to stroll around the area, but plan on spending much more time there. It’s worth it. But save it for later in the day when you need a break from the rides. Bring some binoculars if you have room in your bag.

Part of the original Cypress Gardens is still on display.  Take the time to wander through the lush gardens of old Florida. Where costumed Southern Belles once greeted guests, Lego figures now stand — kinda kitsch, but a nice homage. Make sure to stroll under the immense banyan tree, planted in 1936. Many kids will be quickly bored with this area, but adults will appreciate the relative peace, beauty, and quiet. It’s also a great place to walk a tired little one in a stroller at nap time.

 

They also tried to preserve some more of the old Cypress Gardens by keeping a water ski show. The Lego version, Pirates’ Cove Live Water Ski show, is not a show stopper, but the kids seemed to like it.  You won’t see any of the old water ski pyramids or difficult stunts and tricks. Instead, bumbling Lego costumed soldiers try to save Isabella’s pirate ship from the bad pirate Captain Blackbeard. It’s a bit cheesy for the adults, but the  kids seemed to dig it.

The Island in the Sky is a rotating platform which rises over 100 feet above the park to give a 360 degree view of the area. It is not scary or fast, and the breeze from that height is quite lovely. If you are lucky you can catch part of the ski show from above and spot the Bok Tower in the distance — far more interesting that the Kmart and Bealls across the street.

As you stroll through the park, pay attention to the nearly life-size characters scattered around. The detail is amazing, and some have been created by Lego designers with an interesting sense of humor.

Food & Dining
The official policy says no outside food or drink except for baby formula or special medical needs.  However, at the time we went, no one was checking bags for contraband pb&js or chips.  No alcohol is sold in inside either (but it’s only open until 5 anyway, so you can hold out).

There are 11 spots to grab a bite throughout the park,  from funnel cakes to fried chicken.  The selection in each dining area is specific: for a burger you must go to Castle Burger or Cap’n Blackbeard’s Burger. Lakeside Sandwich Co. only has a small selection of premade sandwiches, wraps, and salads in a refrigerated case.

For more variety you can try FunTown Pizza Pasta Buffet ($10.99 adults, $6.99 kids) for all-you-can-eat  pizza, pastas, and salads (but how much can you really eat for lunch?).

We chose the Market Restaurant and were pleased with our choice. They feature several stations including fresh fruits & snacks, soups, basic salad (not a salad bar though), a few Asian dishes, mac & cheese, and rotisserie chicken.

 

For $8.99 I bought a 1/2 chicken meal with two sides (choice of veggies, rice, or roasted potatoes) that was more than enough to split with my son. The chicken was tasty and the veggies fresh. My husband bought the 1/4 chicken meal ($6.99) and was stuffed.

There is also a Lego building station inside the restaurant to keeps kids busy while parents catch their breath — a nice touch.

Legoland’s signature snack can be founds at Granny’s Apple Fries. I saw countless visitors snacking on the warm cinnamon and sugar coated Granny Smith apple fries served with a whipped cream dipping sauce.

 

 

 

Shops

Unlike some of Central Florida’s other theme parks, Legoland is not covered with souvenir shops and kiosks on every corner. It’s rather refreshing.  Most of the park’s 11 retail outlets are close to the main entrance (which means they are packed around closing time — shop early in the day and they are empty).


The Big Shop is supposed to be one of the largest Lego stores in existence. I certainly saw every Lego set I had ever seen in the catalogs lining the walls. And the prices ARE NOT MARKED UP. They are the same as online at Lego.com or at your local superstore (Toy r Us is actually more expensive). You can buy a souvenir set without being fleeced, and they have many to choose from that you can’t find locally.  WIN.


Minifigure Market is touted as THE place to build your own custom figures, but there is not much to choose from. At the time of our visit there were about three different torsos and legs with a Halloween theme to mix with different hair and hat styles. There are no licensed figures to choose from (i.e. Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.)  Kiddo was not impressed.  (3 mix & match Lego minifigures for $9.99) They also sold the minifigure “magnet” 3-packs ($14.99). They had a good selection (same as online) and this is the only real way to get many of the highly sought after licensed figures. (Beware: some of the figures cannot be detached from their magnets any longer.)

The coolest shop is the Pick A Brick area outside the Lego Factory. The Lego Factory itself is just a two-room “tour” of how the bricks are made, in kid-speak. At the end of the tour an official (and free) Legoland Florida souvenir brick pops out for each child before you walk through the Pick A Brick store.  Hundred of colorful bins featuring Legos sorted by size, shape, and color line the wall.  Bricks are bought by weight: you fill your bag with whatever you want and it is weighed at the register ($8.49 per 1/4 pound). Not too bad for some unusual pieces. Kiddo picked out some odds and ends he has never seen before for about $5.  WIN.

My boys loved the small Lego Studios store, filled with Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Spongebob toys. It didn’t hurt that they have a screen with the Lego Star Wars cartoon playing inside. I had to drag them both out.

There are a few other shops scattered around the park. The King’s Market featured knight and princess costumes and weapons (foam, of course). Outside the Driving School you can purchase an official Legoland Drivers License on a lanyard ($14.99, but you get a paper copy without a photo for free).

Discount Tickets

Regular price adult one-day admission is $75, child (3-12) $65. While this is competitive with other Orlando parks, it is a bit pricey when you consider Legoland is only open from 10 – 5 daily.  Annual passes are also available.

Currently, Legoland & Pepsi are a offering buy one adult ticket, get a child ticket free deal. Go to www.legoland.com/pepsi and enter promo code: 11090601.  You can only get one free ticket at a time, so if you have more than one adult/child pair you will need to do each transaction separately. The child tickets just went up to $65 bucks, so this is a decent deal. 

*(update 10/27/11) Publix Supermarkets are selling discounted tickets: Adult $60 and kids $50 (plus tax), a saving of $15 each from gate prices.

AAA Members can purchase discounted tickets at their local AAA branch, online, or by phone ($55.99 adults, $49.99 kids).


Central Florida Entertainment books have $5 discount coupons.

I’m going to stay on the lookout for discounts in the Lego Magazine. They run specials for all other parks, so hopefully soon some Florida deals will appear.


Parking is $12 per day.

Annual Pass Upgrade:
At the time of our visit, you could upgrade your one day ticket to a two-day ticket or annual pass while you are at the park.

The 2-day upgrade was $15 per ticket —not bad — but must be used within 10 days.

An upgrade to an Annual Pass was $50 (+ tax)  for adults and $30 for children. It is good one year from the date of purchase and does NOT include $12 parking.

We haggled over whether or not to upgrade to an annual pass. In the end, we did not, mostly because of the 1 1/2 hour drive through rush hour traffic each way and because it wouldn’t include the water park when it opens next spring/summer. We probably should have though.


Overall, we went on a good day. Granted, it was the Monday after grand opening, but the park (and parking lot) were pretty empty and we had virtually no waits all day.  If it had been sunny, crowded, and in the middle of summer, it would have been hard to see as much by the early closing time of 5 p.m. We did not get to see every attraction as it was.

The grounds were lush and nicely landscaped. The Lego characters scattered throughout the park were as much fun as the rides.  Keep your eyes open to spot “wildlife” around the rushing waterfall and study the details of the “people” around the park.

 

This park is perfect for elementary aged boys. I’m not trying to sound sexist, but I personally don’t know too many girls who prefer blocks to Barbies. Yes, certainly some girls will dig it (I would have when I was a kid), but if they are more into princesses and fairies take them to Disney instead.  If you only have children under age 5 and under 42″ I would wait to go. The rides are geared to kids but not toddlers.

In the end, my son could not decide upon his favorite part of the day. He loved each ride, store, figure, and show. His only disappointments: he couldn’t make a Captain Rex figure and Legoland wasn’t located next door to our house with $5 admission.  WIN.

**If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it for you.

Cheers!

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Legoland Florida Miniland Tour

The Grand Tour via Miniland, Legoland Florida style…
Seven distinctive themed areas, and the “heart of Legoland.”

First stop South Beach. Note: it is the happening South Beach, full of models rollerblading, hunks working out, and hot cars. Twenty years ago it would have been full of 80-year-old snowbirds and walkers.

 Lego sunbathers. Now my son will know how to create Lego breasts — fabulous. Please note the chick on the right looks as if she has had work done (this IS South Beach, Miami). Also please note those are NOT water bottles or soda cans on the table (this IS South Beach).
 

So that’s how you make a Lego banana hammock (a.k.a. speedo).

The Little Havana section of Miami. Please notice the old man in the lower right corner is about to whack the old man in the wheelchair. They take their games seriously.

 I spotted Beyonce the Chicken posing on a corner of Little Havana.
(Yo, Blogess, I didn’t know you pimped your chicken down there!)

 Kids gathered around the space shuttle, counting down with the clock.
When it hit 00:00 steam came out of the engines. The adults thought it was cool. 
The kids were mad because they thought it would actually lift off.
Next head right up the coast to Daytona International Speedway for a NASCAR race.

The infield is where all the ‘real’ fun happens during a week-long party camp-out. The girls are drinking tropical beverages under the umbrella, and I’m sure if I look closely enough there are plenty of beers to be found.
Also note the Lego Port-A-Potties on the right.
A short drive up the Florida coast will  bring you to St. Augustine, 
alleged home to the Fountain of Youth.
See how the aged strip off their clothes and turn into infants. 
I don’t want to go back that far, thanks…
And we can’t forget Key West. Where else can you find cats jumping through fiery hoops (bottom center) and sword-swallowing tightrope walkers just across the street from everyone’s favorite bar. I was pleased to see Legoland flies the Rainbow Flag proudly (must be the European influence — they are far more open-minded and tolerant than us).

This shipwreck was pretty cool. Divers poked around treasure chests, coral reefs, and skeletons as a hammerhead shark prowled above.

I’m not sure where or what time period the pirate scene depicted, but several great sailing ships and a smoking volcano proved to be a big hit.

 Next you have to go to Vegas, right?
I dare someone to count how many wedding couples they can find. 
There are several by each hotel and many hidden as well, I’m sure.
 I like the Luxor because it makes me imagine I am in a desert region full of vast cultural and anthropological history, instead of the gambling capital of the world.
 With Elvis, of course. And the guy in the back looks like he is attacking the woman. 
Where is CSI when you need them?

 While there are many grand Vegas hotels depicted in Miniland,
I like the little wedding chapel.
I’m sure there is at least one Elvis inside.

Ahhh, Venice. Oh damn, we are still in Vegas. Never mind.
It is far too clean to be the real thing. And there are no pigeons. Or Japanese tour groups. 
Or authentic amazing food and culture.

On to New York City. This model city is quite large and detailed. 
Yes, the man in the orange is a full-sized adult. 
They aren’t called skyscrapers for nothing.

Quick stop in Central Park. I’ve always wanted to visit Strawberry Fields. 
And I’ve always wanted to see how to make Lego dreadlocks.  
I’ve already danced in a drum circle with hippies.
(I would have been the one with the curls and the bell bottoms in the center.)

Who doesn’t love a trip to the Central Park Zoo? 
With parrots and penguins and school girls…

The Sound of Plastic, live on Broadway…
and a mugging just outside? (See guy on bottom left with hands up.)

Times Square…wonder if they add in all the drunks and police on New Year’s Eve?

Now off to our stately nation’ s capitol. The Washington Monument.
I forgot to zoom in to see if it had any of the new cracks.

The presidential motorcade moved through the city.
I didn’t spot any Tea Party protesters as it toured our capital.
President Obama and the first family standing in front of the White House.

Now off to Los Angeles for some mega star sightings in front of the Chinese Theater.
(I couldn’t tell who the celeb was supposed to be…any ideas?)

A relaxing concert at the Hollywood Bowl…
A quick trip (just a few steps) to San Francisco’s Golden Gate.

And make sure to spot the crazy cat lady with curlers in her hair waiting to be rescued from her great fire.

And I shall end, with a Lego kiss…
If you have an eye for detail and a love of Legos, you could spend hours wandering through Miniland, carefully examining the remarkable details the Lego builders added into every scene.  Even if you are not a Lego aficionado, you will be amazed. Spend some time there.
Full Legoland Florida unbiased review coming up soon.

**This post is not sponsored by or affiliated with Legoland Florida. No compensation was received (meaning we paid for all our tickets, trinkets, parking, and food).



Killer Whales and Kindness

*After reading articles in the Orlando Sentinel over the last few days regarding the Sea World vs. OSHA trial, I decided this post, recycled from last year, was once again relevant and appropriate.  In a citation issued by OSHA after a six-month investigation, the agency has recommended that trainers never again have close contact with Sea World’s killer whales without a physical barrier or an equivalent level of protection. Sea World is challenging the finding.  Original publication date: April 27, 2010.

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Sunday the Kiddo and I escaped to Sea World for one of our Mommy & Son bonding days full of sharks, sandboxes, and, of course, Shamu. We have had annual passes since the Kiddo was not even two, and although we cannot go nearly as much as we used to due to school schedules, we cherish these days of fun and learning.

Our local news has been in an uproar over the death of  killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau last month  (February 2010) at Sea World.  Brancheau, an experienced trainer, was dragged underwater by Tilikum, a 12,000 pound orca with a “questionable” past.  The press has been playing a vicious blame game with Sea World, accusing them of unsafe working conditions, animal maltreatment and exploitation. Now OSHA and PETA are also going after them, and even Capitol Hill is supposedly holding a hearing Tuesday to determine if marine mammals should be held in captivity.

Amidst all this unnecessary brouhaha, I made it a priority to see Believe, the current orca show which highlights not only the majesty of these animals but their integral relationships with their trainers. I have seen the show dozens of times over its 4-year run, and it is always different. Some days the whales were ON, seemingly feeding off the audience’s energy, amazing me with their synchronized jump, flips, and splashes. Other days they seemed distracted or perhaps a bit lazy, showing off only a few behaviors, yet still delighting the crowds of first-time watchers. I love it, no matter what they do. Just to be in their proximity is enough. I secretly yearn to be one of the lucky trainers in the water with these awe-inspiring creatures, communicating with them, stroking their shiny skin, feeling their power, their intelligence, their affection.

Sea World trainers during the Believe show May 2009
(before the current “no interaction” policy).

The changes in the show we witnessed Sunday were drastic. The trainers were no longer allowed in the water with the orcas (which was the main component of the show) and they had to stay several feet back from the water even when feeding them. The “show” element did not disturb me however, our entertainment was not the priority, but the lack of physical attention these animals were now receiving saddened me. They are used to getting rub downs, hugs, tongue scratches and genuine affection from their trainers and now it was being forcefully withheld from them. I always believed that the attention, affection, and positive rewards that they received was one of the main reasons they tolerated captivity.


Later that day, we walked around to the rear of Shamu Stadium to the underwater viewing tank. Some days we are lucky and one or more of the whales would be swimming around in the rear tank and we would see them only a few feet away from us. I saw a glimpse of black passing by so the Kiddo and I ran down for a closer look. Kiddo was up right against the glass when the whale swam by and bumped the glass.

Now, when a creature weighing several tons “bumps” anything, it is a bit forceful and quite a surprise. Everyone crowded around the window jumped back a little and gave an amazed laugh. The whale came back again, and bumped a bit harder. When it circled back the next time, it paused directly in front of Kiddo and opened it’s mouth wide before moving on. Even though there was a thick glass, I clamped onto him and gave a very nervous laugh. A visitor behind us asked Kiddo if the whale had any cavities, because he sure saw ALL her teeth. We stayed there for one more loop of the tank and window bump before I decided I had enough. This was not normal behavior. It seemed aggressive, and thought we were perfectly safe, I was uncomfortable.

We started to leave when I spotted the employee usually stationed at the viewing area to educate guests and answer questions. I casually asked, “What’s up with the glass bumping? I’ve been here dozens of times and never seen that.” She gave a very nervous laugh, pasted a fake smile on her face, and said she had never seen it either. She had just called the behavior in to the trainers. Maybe the whale had a toothache and was trying to get someone’s attention. She was obviously trying to communicate something, but what?

I left feeling very sorry for these orcas and the people that love them.

Not because these whales and other animals live here in captivity. I firmly believe that Sea World does an outstanding job of caring for their animals and educating the masses about the wonders of these creatures. No, their lives are not the same as if they were in the wild. Many of the animals in the park have been rescued from certain death in the wild, and if possible they are rehabilitated and released.

Each person that has the opportunity to see one of these magnificent animals (which they would never have the chance to see in the wild) leaves with a better understanding, a greater appreciation, and a heart more willing to help protect them and the conserve their environment. There is just no comparison between watching a nature show on t.v. versus actually seeing a dolphin, making eye contact, watching it frolic and play (sometimes with real toys) to gain an understanding and respect for these amazing mammals. The few kept in captivity are essentially ambassadors for their species.

OSHA and the press need to chill on their witch hunt as well. They are treating the trainers as if they are children who don’t know they are playing with fire and that fire can burn. No one becomes a killer whale trainer without knowing the inherent dangers of the job. It is not a career one chooses because they are tired of flipping burgers. It is a passion, a lifestyle, chosen by compassionate and intelligent individuals whose love for these animals overshadows the risks involved. The bond between the animals and their trainers has now been stretched, and all parties are suffering.

Perhaps that is what she was trying to tell us…with all of the bureaucratic bumbling, please show us some kindness and don’t forget what we need…

 

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