Day 39 – Sea World

Friday 21st September 2018

I woke up this morning and went straight into packing mode. This was a necessity. No time to waste on such silly things as allowing myself to wake up first or succumbing to the cold I’m still suffering from. No rest for the wicked, as they say. I ploughed through as much as I could as quickly as I could, stopping only briefly every minute or so to gasp for breath. I still had the unthankful task of disassembling many of Joey’s LEGO sets that he had built. He wasn’t happy with this, choosing to spend much of his time this morning whimpering on the stairs, his anxieties about what’s happening around him soaring.

Despite having started the process yesterday, there was still a lot of work involved getting everything organised into suitcases. It took a lot longer than we expected. Mid-way through it all, I received a phone call from the property owner. Evidently the cleaners had been and seen we were still in the process of packing. He reminded us that check-out was 10am. It was now already 11am. Fortunately, we were almost done. The cleaners went off to clean another property before coming back again. They were waiting outside in their car when we were finally loading all the packed luggage into the van at around noon.

Everyone was feeling a little off today. Maybe it was because we were all fighting a mild illness, or maybe it was just the fact we knew today was the last day here in Orlando. The holiday bubble we’ve been living in for the past five weeks was about to burst. Whatever it was, we were all just a little sombre. Since a full tummy has so often been successful at lifting everyone’s spirits, we drove over to our Waffle House on 27 to top ourselves up. It helped. The mood was decidedly better once we were full and back on the road again.

For our last day today, we headed back to Sea World for a repeat visit. We expected more downpours today. Sandy was worried that we mightn’t get as much park time today before the heavens dumped on us. It was another scorcher today, although thankfully there was more cloud cover, which did take the edge off the piercing heat a little.

Once we had parted with another $22 for the privilege of visiting Sea World by car, we again scored a slot in the disabled section. The lady at the car park payment booth told us to put on our hazard warning lights so as to let the car park attendants know to direct us accordingly. I couldn’t help thinking this was a process that was open to abuse. To the best of my knowledge, nobody actually checked whether we had a disabled sticker. In fact, all we had was the blue disabled card that we had received at LEGOLAND a few days ago that was still sitting under the windscreen. I wondered whether the Sea World car park staff checked the cars in the disabled section throughout the course of the day. If so, maybe this blue card looked authentic enough to be mistaken for an overseas disabled permit. Who knows.

Once again, after clearing the security and ticket checks, we entered the park and sort of mulled around aimlessly a bit. Once again, this frustrated me. I bit my lip. We did see a couple of official photographers around the front of the park. Naturally, Sandy wasn’t going to let those opportunities pass, so we all smiled and hugged for the camera a few times. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that the $70 photo pass Sandy bought on the previous visit a few days ago was only a one-day pass. By all rights, none of these photos were ever going to see the light of day as a result. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Sandy was already ahead of the curve on this one. She disappeared at one point to go and see what she could do about this photo pass situation. Sandy can be quite tenacious when she needs to be. Photography is her thing, so she put that tenacity into effect by wangling an additional day’s use for that pass for just $10. It would otherwise have been an upgrade from $70 to $100 for a fourteen-day pass. I’ve no idea how she did it. She did explain it to me, but I was still hazy from my cold, the heat and general tiredness. The information went in but just didn’t stick. Whatever. She magically made it all work somehow.

Once again, the Manta rollercoaster was the first attraction of the day. This time, I sat it out. I already attempted to talk Sandy out of it. In her infinite wisdom, she decided to take herself off her blood pressure medication a few days ago. Stubborn bloody woman. High blood pressure is one of the conditions the notices and audible warnings suggest is a good reason to not ride the rollercoasters. Naturally, she wasn’t going to listen to me, or indeed the posted warnings, and she went on the ride with the kids after all.

Around this section of the park are the first batch of those carnival medley games the kids enjoyed so much the last time around. In anticipation of both kids wanting to play these a few times, I decided to invest in one of the multi-game passes. Instead of spending $6 each time for a single game, these passes would provide five games for just $20, so a $5 discount all up. The young lady that was manning the particular stall we were at seemed a little distracted. I got the sense her vocational choice wasn’t one she was especially pleased with. I suppose giving the exact explanation of how the game worked to an endless stream of park visitors wears thin after you’ve repeated it a thousand times a day. I gave her a $100 bill for two $20 cards. With absolutely zero enthusiasm, she slowly counted out the change from a wad of notes and handed it to me. Her heart really wasn’t in it. I took the change, and she went about her business letting the kids pick one of the rubber ducks drifting endlessly around a river. The colour on the bottom of the duck indicated the prize you’d win, which was either a small, medium or large soft toy. As she was picking out yet another bloody soft toy I’d now have to forcibly squeeze into a fecking suitcase, I counted the change she had given me. It totalled $70. Hmmm. To be honest, I just didn’t have the energy to point out her error. She didn’t seem especially interested in learning about it either. The kids wandered off with their soft toy and she sort of drifted back into her corner again. At no point did she even make eye-contact with me. I decided it would simply be too much effort to deal with the situation. I stuffed my change into my bumbag and walked on after the kids.

We arrived here at Sea World right around the hottest part of the day. Up to this point, there was no shade anywhere, so we’d by now been exposed to the full force of the sun for over an hour. Our blood was already reaching boiling point. Our tendencies towards irritability always seems to be directly proportional to the amount of direct sunlight we receive. The longer we stay out in the sun, the hotter and more bothered we get and the more we tend to get on each other’s nerves. It was high time we found some relief from the heat. I wanted for us to go and do the penguin attraction. That was going to be the coolest place in Sea World – if not the entire state.

When we wafted our express pass at the attendant, this time they took it and started writing a return time on it. For the first time in two days of Sea World visits, the ride wait time was in excess of thirty-minutes, meaning we needed to come back after doing a bit of virtual queuing. That’s fair enough. We found an area inside to keep cool in the meantime. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t cool enough for Joey, who was by now really struggling quite a bit. All the tell-tale signs were there. We were rapidly approaching full-blown meltdown. It was now an exercise in desperately trying to stave this off. It’s sort of like trying to defuse a ticking bomb under extreme time-pressure. Worse still, you don’t really know which wires to cut to diffuse the bomb. Will it be the red one, the blue one or the green one? Let’s cut the blue one. Did that stop the bomb? No, it just accelerated the bloody countdown. Shit! Ok, let’s try something else. Etc.

Enough time had expired so we trundled back to the penguin enclosure to show the young lady our return time was at hand. Naturally, while standing there under the blistering sun, a group of barely legible non-English speakers were trying to communicate with the attendant. To her credit, she was doing a good job at managing the situation, but it wasn’t helping us since we had little choice but to wait for her interaction with the foreigners to run its course. All she had to do was to look at our express pass, so she could wave us through. In the meantime, the bomb is still ticking and it’s getting perilously close to running down the clock. Finally, the foreigners were dealt with and we were waved through – straight on to the end of an awaiting queue of people in close quarters. Shit. This wasn’t going to do. Joey is now all but crying and walking around anxiously. We were now just seconds from an explosion. This situation called for drastic actions. We called over to a nearby attendant – loudly so as to guarantee getting her attention. We explained the situation. She went off and picked up a nearby phone. In reality, it was probably only a thirty-second conversation, but we didn’t really know whether our ticking time bomb had that much time left before it blew. She hung up and came over to talk to us. She explained she would normally have someone come to escort us through but that there was no staff member available at the moment to do so. However, she said we could walk around to a side entrance of the building and go into the child swap area. There, a staff member would guide us farther. We found the door and went in. Unfortunately, this landed us in another queue of people waiting to get onto the ride. Shit – again! Once again, with the bomb now just moments from exploding, we called over an attendant and said we really needed to get to somewhere that was devoid of people. This time, we were taken to the pre-loading room. This is where you watch one final screening of the story of Puck, the little penguin, before boarding the round pods that dance you through the ice cave and into the actual penguin enclosure. Our relief was palpable. It looked like we had averted disaster this time. No sooner had this thought run its course, we were in for a shock. A small group of other people joined us in the pre-boarding room. The pods take eight people, so there was nothing out of the ordinary about us being joined by others. Unfortunately, Joey’s aversion to strangers suddenly kicked in to high gear and his anxiety soared. He withdrew himself into a corner and wouldn’t come out, shaking his head and hissing. We did our best to comfort him, but we really couldn’t do anything about the situation. There was no way out of the pre-boarding room until the doors opened for us to board and there was no way we could ask the other riders to just leave. The doors eventually opened, and we cajoled Joey into one of the four front row seats. When the other riders took their position, that was it. The bomb went off. Joey was kicking and screaming to be let out. We had to call the attendant to release the seatbelts and open the pod door again, sort of as an emergency. Sandy led him out to somewhere dark and quiet. Jennifer and I remained in the pod. I sat there with a complicated mixture of emotions. There was embarrassment, anger, sympathy, sadness, and empathy all jostling about inside my head. I scarcely paid attention to the actual ride itself, just hoping it would end soon and I could get out to see if I could do anything to comfort Joey.

When the ride did eventually finish, Jennifer and I spent but a few seconds in the enclosure before making our way into the next viewing chamber. Joey was there, huddled in a corner by himself. Sandy suggested we let him cool off there a bit. Although exhibiting regressive behaviours, he was at least safe and would emerge from his shell when he felt comfortable.

After a while, Joey did complete his climb down cycle and was himself again. Sandy took him over to the dolphin stadium, so they could find a seat up at the back and out of the way of the crowds. Jennifer and I wandered over to the nearby Kraken rollercoaster. We went around twice and got ourselves a couple of nice photos in the process.

By the time Jennifer and I made it over to the dolphin stadium, the 4pm show was just about getting underway. Joey was again in a happy place. It was a nice break for all of us to be able to sit in one spot for half an hour while out of the sun’s glare. Once the show completed, we remained seated until the stadium completely emptied. Only then did we all get up off the bleachers and made our way back ‘into the out’ again.

The kids both still had a few swipes left on their medley games cards, so we spent the next twenty-minutes or so exhausting those. More bloody soft toys! Making our way slowly back towards the front of the park, the kids went for another spin on the Manta rollercoaster.

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been sorting out all the quarters and pennies at the end of each day. My bumbag overfloweth with them in fact, and I was keen to offload some of the weight. With very little effort needed, I encouraged the kids to press as many pennies as they could find machines for. This did indeed lighten my load and the special pennies pocket in my bumbag accumulated quite a few more of the keepsakes.

As I was feeling benevolent (or perhaps worn down), I allowed the kids one final hurrah in the shop near the park’s exit. This was the moment our Orlando holiday was now coming to an end. The bubble was about to burst. I did start to make a verbal statement to this effect, but I was cut off by Sandy. She felt that to verbalise it out loud would solicit too many feelings of sadness on her part. She felt it best not to draw too much attention to it, as she didn’t want to cry. Both kids came out of the shop with a few more treats. I gathered the kids and their haul for the day together on a stone wall, so I could photograph the momentous occasion. With that, we all picked up and set off into the car park to load up and make our way north to Jacksonville.

Our time here in Orlando was done. We made a ton of wonderful memories here. To be honest, however, I was partially glad it was over. Although hugely successful, it was time to leave. We can well and truly say we’ve now ‘done’ Orlando. Between all the Disney, Universal, LEGOLAND and Sea World theme parks, we left no entertainment stone unturned. That’s not to mention everything else we did that wasn’t a major theme park, like Old Town, iFLY, the numerous restaurants we visited, etc. We became intimately familiar with all the road networks, how to get the best parking slots, where the shortcuts were, and so on.  Oh, and let’s not forget the cruise around the Western Caribbean, stopping at Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

My head was spinning trying to recount all of these experiences as we navigated our way along I-4 East and into I-95 North. Some of that spinning was due to me still fighting off this awful cold, but still.

All the way along I-4, Joey was still struggling. We all needed to have something to eat. It was a two-hour journey to Jacksonville, so we didn’t stop until about half way. When we hit I-95, we decided to look for a MacDonald’s and top up. Along the highways here, signs at the exits depict which hotels, petrol stations and restaurants are to be found when you turn off the highway. We’d already passed numerous food stops with plenty of MacDonald’s. Naturally, we were now entering some sort of bizarre alternate universe where there were no MacDonald’s. Shit! Both kids were by now complaining about being hungry. I kept hearing the same ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ over and over and over. It drilled into my skull each time, sending my own frustrations soaring. After the umpteenth time, I lost it, turned my head and shouted, “Sandy, will you just shut up!? You’re upsetting the kids! We’ll be there soon, I promise.”

After I could take the pressure no longer, I took the next exit. Nobody in the car seemed at all interested in the various non-MacDonald’s options there so I stopped the car. This was necessary, so I could operate the satnav search function correctly. I’ve had only intermittent luck doing this on this trip so far, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Anything was better than putting up with all the complaints in the car about everyone being hungry. I found a MacDonald’s, albeit it we had to drive ten minutes into Daytona to get there.

Feeding the family is often sort of like re-inflating a saggy balloon. You can pretty much watch the improvement in everyone’s disposition with every mouthful of food they consume. Everyone starts off solemn, quiet, grumpy and irritable. By the time the sugar and carbs kick in they’re all bouncing off the walls again.

Now that we were outside of the Orlando bubble, having a family meal suddenly cost less than $50+ each time. We got out of the building today for well under $20. With the kids and Sandy now all perked up and happy again, we made our way back to the car when something rather interesting happened.

Sandy and the kids had already gone outside while I was tidying up the table and putting my bumbag back into position. A man outside had struck up a conversation with them. He spoke to me when I got outside. He said he was an ex-marine that was down on his luck and living rough. At this point, some red flags were raising in the back of my mind, but he seemed pleasant enough. Naturally, his sob-story eventually led to a request for some change, so he could buy some food. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t indulge requests for money from strangers. This guy did seem quite authentic, however, and I didn’t see any harm in seeing him get fed. Rather than hand over some spare cash, I took him inside and ordered him whatever he wanted. He thanked me profusely and I went back out to the car.

By the time we completed the remainder of the trip up I-95 to Jacksonville, it was dark out. It was almost like the sun had set on the Orlando adventure. I had a mixture of emotions about that. On the one hand, we really enjoyed ourselves there. On the other, we had a whole new adventure now awaiting us with seeing friends in Jacksonville. Both Sandy and I were very much looking forward to seeing everyone again.

A very good friend and ex-colleague, Satya, has graciously offered us the use of his house while we’re in Jacksonville for the week. In fact, he and his son, Narayan, are moving out for the week temporarily so as to make it all possible. Let that sink in for a bit. You can’t buy that kind of friendship.

We pulled in to Satya’s drive in a leafy suburb just south of Jacksonville. I haven’t physically seen Satya for many years but instantly recognised him at the door. We chatted for quite a while, catching up on what had happened to each of us over the course of the past fifteen years. Eventually, the lateness of the evening meant we had to get all the luggage out of the car and get the kids off to bed. After we sorted out all the sleeping arrangements, we settled the kids and spent some more quality time chatting with Satya downstairs. Eventually, he handed us over his house keys and he set off. We’ll see him again this week, He’s staying at a friend’s house not far from here.

The long drive today (it’s all relative and I doubt any American’s reading this would consider two hours a long drive) took its toll. I had very little energy left in the tank to do anything other than write up the notes for my daily blog. I’ve decided to take a break from the blog-writing for this week, as I want for us to concentrate more on spending time with friends. I’ll probably do a summary of the entire week in a single blog post instead.