Gators, Wizards, and The Hulk, Oh My!: Fun In Orlando

I quickly reviewed the situation in my mind: it was a free to trip to Florida, a state I’d never been; I had nothing else going on; I’d be with a great student; and, most intriguingly, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was set to open soon.   “I’ll go! If you need someone to take her, I’ll go,”  I offered.  I didn’t really think that I would be selected to take Vi, our HOSA student who qualified for nationals at state, but I thought I’d put myself out there.  Nothing more of it was said until I received the paperwork for the trip with my name on it; I called my husband, “I think I am going to Orlando.”  Vi was told that I would be her chaperone, but only under the stipulation that we visit the new Harry Potter theme park.  She, being a huge Harry Potter fan, screamed.

Even though I had her as a student in my English 10 Honors class, her parents invited me over to lunch to make sure I was a suitable chaperone (which I appreciated).  She and her family are Fijian Indian, and after a pretty major cultural faux pas on my part the previous summer, I grilled Vi about any customs or manners I should be aware of.  She thought for a moment, “We take off our shoes inside.  That’s all.”  I painted my toes.  When I arrived at their home, her little sister invited me in and led me to the couch.  She left, and I sat there alone thinking how formal a reception it was and reminded myself to be on my best behavior. Finally the rest of the family trickled in and started cracking jokes.   They had made two lunches: a chicken curry and spaghetti and meatballs (made from chicken).  Both were very good.  We bantered for a bit, discussed the trip, and my teaching and travel experiences.  Finally her dad said, “Yep. You can take her.”

As we got closer to the trip, the reality of it hit me.  I was going to spend six days with a teenager.  I was in charge of her care and safety.  I was in charge. Period. Then the “what-ifs” flooded me.  What if we have nothing to talk about after the first day?  What if I screw up?  What if it sucks? What if we’re attacked by an alligator?  What if I can’t refrain from swearing for six days? What I really should have thought was, “What if I have an absolute blast?”  Which is what happened.

Part of our Disney resort.

We landed in Orlando and took the Disney bus to our Disney resort. We checked in and lugged our luggage half a mile to our room. (There was a luggage drop off service, but there were so many people checking in for the conference and so many bags, we opted to carry our bags ourselves.  This was great foresight on our part, because a lot of guests didn’t receive their bags until 3 in the morning.  A huge Disney FAIL.)  We stayed at the Coronado, and all of the buildings were painted to mimic the style of the Southwest.  The Mickey Mouse silhouette was cleverly worked into the design, reinforcing the Disney mandate of “Be happy or else! Don’t disappoint the Mouse!”.

Vi and I had talked the entire the plane ride out from California, but it wasn’t until dinner that I realized what type of travel companion I had.  She read the menu and began quizzing me on the different types of food.  “What’s mahi-mahi? What’s mole (moh-LAY)?  Have you ever tried sweet potato fries?”  Instead of acting like a typical teenager and ordering pizza, she ordered the mahi-mahi and tried the the sweet potato fries.  I ordered the chicken mole, so she could try that, too.  I had an adventurous traveler as my charge.

We spent all the next day at the conference.  We both had our events to attend, and when we met up for lunch and dinner, she told me about everything she had seen, who she talked to, and what she learned.  In the meantime I learned that one of my friends from college who now lives in Maryland was also in Orlando for a conference.  I asked Vi if she’d like to have lunch with me and my college buddy; her eyes lit up at the opportunity.  My friend Sophie was sequestered at the Gaylord Palms, an amazing resort with infinite possibilities, so we hailed a cab and booked it over there.  The Gaylord Palms is a city in itself; it reminded me of the Pentagon, but with a lot less military and a lot more frou-frou.  The outside 10-story rim contained all of the rooms, but its massive atrium held a small gator exhibit, a variety of restaurants, stores, swimming pools, and flora and fauna. We had a great time at lunch, but Sophie had to leave to catch her flight.  Vi and I had time to kill, so we explored the expanse some more, lamenting the fact that we were stuck at the Disney resort.  Why couldn’t we stay here?

Inside the Gaylord Palms.

Just when we thought we had seen everything that the Palms had to amaze and delight, we saw a manmade lake with a sailboat restaurant in it (remember this is inside!).  We wanted to go on the boat, but we just had lunch.  Then I recalled that we hadn’t had dessert, and we happily climbed aboard.  Vi again quizzed me on the menu and this time she tried tiramisu.

Who wouldn’t want to set sail for dessert here?

Back at our resort, we decided to take advantage of the Disney buses that took guests to other resorts and headed off to the one modeled after the bayou and New Orlean’s French Quarter.  It was well done with the guest rooms made to look like plantation homes and the “Quarter” buildings all had the wrought-iron scroll work. It was, however, a Disney resort, and lacked the colorful, yet sketchy, characters that pester tourists, the drunken frat boys stumbling around with their Hurricanes, and flashers that make up the ambience in the real French Quarter.  Even the beignets were “clean”, since they only had a slight dusting of powdered sugar.  If you ordered one at Cafe du Monde, you know that you should be wearing powdered sugar when you leave.

No napkins needed for these beignets.

We had a lot of time to kill on Friday.  By then we were both tired of the “G-rated” existence enforced by Disney.  However, Disney was kind enough to provide a car rental facility on the premises as a means of escape.  I was thrilled to learn that I could return the car at the airport and not have to deal with the Disney buses again.  Vi and I pored over our options of places to see.  We decided on Gatorland.  Unlike Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, it was something that could only be found in Orlando.  We hopped in the car, and I handed her a paper map (who knew they still existed?!), showed her where we were and where we were going, and put her in charge of getting us there.  She steered me in the wrong direction once, but quickly figured out how to get us on the right path. It turned out that it was only the second time in her life she had used a map.  She did really well.

This was totally awesome.

Gatorland was everything we expected: it is an old-school, no-frills, Americana roadside attraction.  We entered through a large alligator’s mouth and were quickly surrounded by alligator exhibits.  We saw little alligators, big alligators, bigger alligators, albino alligators, and alligators that leapt out of the water to eat chicken carcasses.  Vi had the opportunity to sit on an alligator and hold its mouth (securely taped shut).  We got to hold a boa constrictor.  We walked through a swamp, and we imagined the Spanish conquistadors wading through the water, muck, vines, bugs, and snakes in their armor centuries ago. We saw animals in the petting zoo that had a “Great Escape” goat that jumped the fence.   There was a gum ball machine that dispensed animal feed, so it stopped there first to eat the remnants around it, and then went its merry way.  We were afraid for the gate-hopping goat jaunting around the alligator exhibits. All of the wildlife shows were run by the same two guys who moved from exhibit to exhibit entertaining us with their bawdy sense of humor as they flirted with the women in the crowd (I don’t think Disney allows flirting).

Little gators.
Big gators.
Bigger gators.
Albino gators.

We decided to drive into downtown Orlando for dinner.  We referred to the map and it looked like a straight shot.  We drove and drove and drove.  Where did they hide the city?  We found ourselves in a cute neighborhood of homes built in the 20s and 30s, and we saw an Italian restaurant nearby on a lakeshore.  We were seated on the patio and watched the sun set over the lake.  Vi asked me what the weird looking word on the menu was, and I explained that gnocchi were small potato dumplings.  She ordered it.  Our waiter, a small man in his sixties, tried to figure out our connection.  What brought a dark-skinned and dark-haired teen and a light-skinned, blonde-haired person together?  I think he could tell that Vi was a teenager, but how old was I?  (I went walking with my 12 year old cousin once, and her older neighbor asked me, “How old are you, little girl?” She was taken aback when I said, “32.”  Made my day, though.)  As we drove back to our resort, we passed the downtown center with its high rises.  How did we miss it?

Part of our swamp walk.
Our view at dinner.

Saturday was a free day and we woke early to head over to Universal Studios and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Walking towards Hogsmeade, I saw a sight that threw my moratorium on swearing out the window. “Holy shit!” I exclaimed as I saw the loops, twists, and turns that towered in the air.  It was The Hulk, and my stomach hit the ground.  While I searched for a place to vomit, Vi’s eyes grew big as she planned to ride it sometime that day.  I weakly offered to hold her stuff while safely waiting on a sturdy park bench nailed securely to the ground. Later after she rode it, she reported, “You should be so glad you didn’t go on that, Ms. L!  It was scary!  It was fun!”.

The Hulk: Really, what would you say if you saw this?

We were giddy as we saw Hogwarts rise in the distance as we entered the gates of Hogsmeade. Immediately we saw the Hogwarts Express, and somehow the designers had created a snowy village in Florida.  We saw Ollivander’s Wand Shop and bought chocolate frogs at Zonko’s that came with a wizard collector’s card.  We drank pumpkin ale.  At the entrance of Hogwarts we put our stuff in a locker, and waited in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  We had seen this ride advertised on TV and its premise was that you would feel like you are flying around on a broom stick.  Vi tried to get me to ignore the signs that warned weak-stomached Muggles that if they had a fear of heights, gravity letting go, feelings of weightlessness, or were otherwise unfit to step foot into Hogwarts and deserved to have Dumbledore erase their memory of this experience, they should not ride this ride.  I am Muggle through and through, and I bow down to Hermione Granger.  Vi, a wizard worthy of receiving a Hogwarts’ scholarship, pushed me along the line.  Around us were pictures and their subjects moved from one picture to the next and spoke to us; stairways moved from one wall to another; holograms of Harry, Ron, and Hermione appeared as they made it snow inside.

Entering Hogsmeade.
Can I get a ticket for the Hogwarts Express?
Get your chocolate fix at Honeyduke’s.
Hogwarts towers above everything.

It was finally our turn.  Instead of being a ride where you sit behind someone, each person got their own seat side-by-side and you could not see them next to you.  Using a combination of IMAX technology and a live set, we flew threw the halls of Hogwarts, chased the Golden Snitch in a game of Quidditch, sparred with Draco Malfoy and company, entered the Forbidden Forest, fought against the Whomping Willow, escaped Dementors, and battled the “One-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.”  We dived, turned, flew upside down; I hung on for my dear life and screamed like a little girl.  Finally with the battles won, it was over.  I shook visibly as I exited the ride, and Vi lead my weak, limp body into the gift shop.  We purchased matching Gryffindor shirts and made our way out.

Words of wisdom from Dr. Seuss.

The rest of the day we visited Seuss’s Landing, rode the Raging Rapids and Log Rides, and basically had a ton of fun.  We made our way back for the conference award ceremony.  After cleaning up, we found our seats and slumped with exhaustion. The ceremony began with Mickey, Minnie and friends dancing across the stage.  We looked at each other; we couldn’t take anymore mice.  Being an awful influence and chaperone I asked, “Do you mind if we leave early?”  My good, dutiful, conscientious Vi replied, “Oh, thank goodness, I was hoping you would say that.”  I smiled and said, “You’re looking like you’re coming down with something.”  On cue, she began to cough.  I told her that I didn’t know that she was the kind of person to sneak out early, and she replied, “Yes, I am.  I’ve just never been around anyone who I could sneak out with.”  It became pretty apparent that Vi was not the only student that night who was “ill”.  Many others snuck out, too.

You can’t even tell us apart!

The next morning we drove to the airport. We decided to dress as twins by wearing our matching shirts, our glasses, and wearing our hair in pig-tails.  When we boarded the plane full of other students headed home sporting their Mickey Mouse ears, they looked at our Harry Potter shirts and groaned, “We wish we had gone there!”

This is how I gained a niece.  I couldn’t have asked for a better travel companion. Vi graduated this year, and I am going to miss her.

This past Thursday on our way to graduation practice. *sniff*
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7 thoughts on “Gators, Wizards, and The Hulk, Oh My!: Fun In Orlando

  1. What an awesome trip! I grew up in Florida and went to Islands of Adventure many times when I was a kid, and this just brought back so many awesome memories!

    Disney does get a bit heavy-handed after a while, I must say. Our favorite parts of family vacations were always when we’d find some local dive restaurant and get away from the tourists for a spell.

    I was fortunate enough to visit IoA two years ago, and that Harry Potter ride is amazing! Must ask – did you try the Butterbeer?

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