Day 1 – getting there (part 2)

Tuesday 14th August

The first flight, despite being the longest at fourteen and a half hours, finished and we emerged relatively unscathed. We deliberately allowed the rest of the plane’s occupants to disembark before we got out of our seats. With a five-hour layover, there didn’t really seem any need to make haste.

There were two types of staff in the customs hall and they each wore different uniforms. The staff we saw the most of was directing passengers left and right. Those were really rather unhelpful. They shuffled us towards one of several dozen automatic passport reader booths, where I answered a few basic questions about our situation, like whether our trip was business or pleasure, whether we had any fruit and vegetables, how much cash we had, etc. Since we were carrying over $10,000 or equivalent in cash with us (I have some Pounds and Euros in addition to US dollars), I had to declare this to the machine. It eventually spat out four paper receipts. The machine also said that it could not complete the process and that we’d have to check with a member of staff. Following the sheeple, we made our way to the zigzagging queues moving through the immigration hall to the next step in the process. I was in no mood to try and manage Joey through all of that, so I spoke to a member of staff about whether we could be moved to the priority queue so as to avoid a full-on meltdown from my autistic son. Another unhelpful member of the staff half-heartedly nudged us towards a particular queue after I pointed this out, but that queue was rather lengthy as well. He then said I had to speak to one of the staff members with the different coloured uniform, but there was none to be found and I wasn’t keen on leaving Sandy and the kids while I wandered around the customs hall looking for someone more helpful. I did eventually find one of the T.S.A. security staff. He was extremely helpful and had no hesitation in accommodating my request. We were duly sent straight to a waiting customs window where a nice man asked me a few simple questions. He marked something on our receipts and sent us on our way. He said we’d be asked a couple more questions after we retrieved our bags.

Any international traveller visiting the United States must collect all their bags at the first port of entry and clear customs – even if the bags are checked through to an onward destination, and so it was with us. We found the right carousel and retrieved all six of our checked bags onto a few trolleys. When I handed the staff member our receipts as we tried to leave the baggage hall, we were redirected to what’s called secondary. This is where they send everyone that, for whatever the reason, requires a bit of extra processing before they can be released into the country. It was all rather pleasant. Since I had declared that we had more than $10,000 in cash, they just wanted to know how much it was roughly. It was all noted on a form and we were swiftly sent on our way. I didn’t even have to show the nice man the cash I had on me. I guess he already knew what cash looked like.

When we emerged from the customs process, we found ourselves in one of the airport terminal buildings. I had high hopes of finding a local Waffle House, which is a sort of ritual for us. When Sandy and I lived here in America, we’d often grab breakfast at a Waffle House, which was one of our favourite haunts. With five hours to kill, it seemed like a reasonable idea to grab a taxi to the nearest Waffle House where we could sit and relax a bit and have a bite to eat. We found the taxi rank, although this was after we had made our way via a lift to another floor only to be told we needed to go back down in the lift again to where we had just come from. Out into the open air, the LA heat hit us full force in the face. Fortunately, it wasn’t humid. We pushed our trolleys to the front of the taxi queue and I asked the driver to take me to the nearest Waffle House. A young lady in the airport terminal building had earlier told me there was one just up the road so I wasn’t expecting this to be a particularly challenging request. Alas, the taxi drivers here in America aren’t made of the same stock as those in London. The driver had no idea where there was a Waffle House and insisted I provide him with an address, which I of course didn’t have. I asked the next taxi driver and he had no clue either. I then asked the third and he whipped out his phone to ask Google. Seriously, aren’t taxi drivers supposed to know where places are? According to Google, the Waffle House was literally on the same street as the taxi rank but about half a kilometre up the road. I mentioned this to the lead taxi driver and he then said there was a minimum charge of $19 – despite the fact that we’d be in the car for probably less than a couple of minutes. Since this meant almost $40 just to get to Waffle House and back, I expressed some reservation about the whole thing. The taxi driver picked up on this and didn’t seem impressed, suggesting I stop wasting his time. The man seemed wholly incapable of civil customer interaction, which was the last nail in the coffin for him as far as I was concerned. We resolved to just hang out at the airport instead and went back into the terminal building. Waffle House would have to wait another day.

By now, we had been warmed up by the LA heat and were becoming steadily exhausted from the manhandling of all our hand luggage – still a loaded trolley’s worth. We were all rather ratty and sleep deprived from the flight as well. Sandy insisted that joey needed to sleep. In truth, he was practically sleep walking anyway.

With a little more stress-inducing wandering around the crowded airport terminal, we finally found a restaurant. All the valuable bits of hand luggage were removed from the trolley and we took a seat at a bar where there were some electrical outlets. Joey took one look at the menu and declared there was nothing there he would eat and just wanted to sleep instead. So, bristling with good humour (I completely lied about that!) we all got up and went in search of somewhere where there was at least at carpeted floor and a power outlet. Eating is for the weak anyway, right? Try as we might, we could only find somewhere that satisfied one of those two basic needs. Eventually, I asked someone for some assistance. I know, I know. It’s really not in my nature to do so. The lady I found looked at our boarding passes and said we needed to be in a different terminal building. She duly directed us towards the exit doors. Lovely. That’s all I fucking need right now – another opportunity to push a loaded trolley through the LA heat with a couple of sleep-walking kids and a ratty wife that needs feeding.

Fortunately, we only had to push the trolley a short way in the outside heat. The next several terminal buildings, although physically separate from this one, were at least all joined together to form a single building. This meant I could push the trolley through an air-conditioned environment at least, albeit one that was packed to the rafters with travellers all heading in different directions to each other.

We trundled to the terminal where we needed to be, but the only restaurants were on the other side of the security checks. Fuck it! We’ll just have to head for our gate and park ourselves there. If there was something to eat, fine, otherwise we’ll just give up on the idea altogether and put up with whatever the airline was going to throw at us on the plane. Joey was close to collapse and we’d run out of options.

The ever-friendly T.S.A. security staff allowed us to go straight to the head of the queue at the security checks and we swiftly made it through to the gate areas. We parked Joey on a spot of carpet by the window with a pillow and through a blanket over him. He was off to la-la land pretty much as soon as his head hit the pillow.

As feared, food pickings were slim in the gate area but both Sandy and I tag-teamed between watching the kids/bags and wandering around the place.

With so much time to kill, several departures took place at our gate before our flight was even up on the boards.

When our time eventually arrived, we were again afforded priority boarding once we let the staff know we were traveling with an autistic child. I have to say that I do feel a little guilty about playing the autism card, but it has been extremely valuable to us. We are stressed enough as it is, and I can only imagine how much worse it would be otherwise.

We were on the plane and settled in no-time once the boarding call was eventually made. There was a bit of delay before that happened as the in-bound aircraft came from overseas and needed a security sweep before we were allowed on. Being a five-hour flight, I expected there to at least be a meal presented on the plane but in fact the only service they offered was for the purchase of some snacks.

By now, we’ve all lost a night’s sleep and are well into the tail end of the day. Our bodies just wanted to shut down. The aircraft was a 3-3 configuration. Sandy and the kids were next to each other and I was across the aisle by myself, but with another passenger by the window. There was no opportunity to get horizontal and the chairs, although comfortable enough, didn’t recline enough to allow my head to rest anywhere unaided. This meant I wasn’t able to lose consciousness (or sleep). I had a few micro naps, but I have to say that this flight was the most gruelling.

It wasn’t until we were in to the last hour of the flight that I thought I’d experiment with the on-board WiFi. I figured it would cost an arm and a leg, but I’d take a look just out of curiosity. To my surprise, it was completely free and provided a decent internet connection – even at a cruising altitude of 30+ thousand feet. It dawned on me that I didn’t have the US map to my Tom Tom Go app. This meant I’d be in trouble from the moment we left the rental car desk and needed to figure out how to get to the rental villa in Davenport. We could have relied on Sandy and my ability to get there by map-reading, but we know from past experience that there be dragons that way. I tried to download it now that I had a functional internet link. Although the link was pretty good, the map was over 6Gb. I got to around 70% downloaded before the plane landed and the link was broken. Shit!

When we disembarked and made our way into the baggage claim area, I hooked up to the airport WiFi and continued the download. It made it to 100% by the time we collected all our bags and found our way to the Avis car rental desk. Unfortunately, the download completed with an error and I had to start the whole fucking thing all over again. Shit! Fortunately, there was a South Eastern US version of the map that just included Florida, Georgia and Alabama, which was a much smaller download, so I chose that one and it completed by the time the rental car formalities were all finished.

I had booked and paid for the rental car directly via Avis well in advance. To make Sandy happy, I paid an extra fee of $130 to add a second driver. When the clerk asked for my driver’s license, I handed it over and Sandy volunteered hers also. The lady behind the counter asked if Sandy was my wife and I said yes. It turns out that spouses are automatically included in the reservation so there was never any need to pay the additional $130. I asked if I could claim that back but the best she could do, since it was already paid for, was to provide me the number of their central reservations department to claim it back that way. It’ll be interesting to see if I do end up getting that $130 back.

Since Orlando has a number of toll roads, we will pay a $19 per month fee for the benefit of using the car’s e-Tag. We’ll still have to pay the toll fees but those and the $19 monthly charge will eventually be applied to my credit card at some future point.

When she had finished and was finding the car assignment, I asked what we were getting. She said it was a Dodge. We used to own a Chrysler Grand Voyager, which has brilliant seats that collapse completely into the floor of the vehicle. For versatility, you just can’t beat it, so I asked if they had one. Sure enough, they did. We were immediately changed to a Chrysler Pacifica on the spot, which is the modern version of the Grand Voyager.

We took our rental agreement and wandered across to the adjacent car park to find our minivan. It looks and feels brand new. Electric everything and full of bells and whistles. The kids just love it, as do Sandy and me.

As we’re driving on the other side of the road and sitting on the other side of the car, it did take me a little bit of getting accustomed to the road layouts around the airport. Even with the Tom Tom Go app feeding me directions, I still missed our exit and had to do another loop around the airport terminal before we eventually made it onto the highway bound for Davenport.

Despite it now being well past 01:00am, someone in the car spotted a Waffle House off to one side as we made our way up the interstate near the Disney exits. That was all the encouragement I needed and we all agreed to a minor detour, so we could grab a bite to eat.

The Waffle House breakfast was everything we had hoped and wished for. It was just delicious. Better still, both kids found and ate something they each loved, so it was a resounding success all around. We were all in high spirits and had found our second wind. Finally, I was starting to feel like I had arrived and that I was now actually on holiday.

About an hour later, we rolled in to the Regent Palms Resort. Although I paid for the accommodation well in advance, there was still a resort fee of $15/day that I had to pay on the spot, which I was prepared for. The Regent Palms Resort is an up-market gated community complete with a very nice pool complex. The $15/day covers the use of those facilities. The nice woman at the check-in desk also gave me a stack of discount coupons for the restaurant here, which I’m sure will come in handy.

Armed with everything we needed, we drove in to the main gate and made our way to the actual villa. The house itself is beyond amazing. It’s a large four-bedroom house on the end of a terrace. The décor is amazing. All the rooms are spacious and nicely appointed. After a bit of exploring and juggling with who would get each room, we settled in for the night and all slowly ground to a halt. After a quick shower, I wrote up the notes to this blog and we all crashed for the night. Since all the beds are extremely comfortable, it wasn’t hard to do.