Road Trip II: Southeast US (05/2010) [Part 3/4]

2010 July 21
by Jon

TUE 05/25/10 – WED 05/26/10
Written 06/29/10 – 07/10/10

Tuesday, May 25 - having gotten a solid night’s sleep, we woke up at 6:45 to start what would be the second-biggest day of our whole trip. We checked out of the hotel and hit the road at about 8, getting back to I-95 South via I-516 East to I-16 West. From that point the drive was smooth and sunny and without incident. We hit the Florida border a bit after 9:30 and, still feeling fresh and enthusiastic about our day, I decided to keep going past Jacksonville and all the way down to Exit 223 just a bit north of Titusville. There we stopped around 11:45 to get gas and make a pit stop. The gas station had the Florida equivalent to Russian nesting dolls for sale:



There’d be plenty more alligators where those came from, too. But more on that later. Right then, though, we wanted to get some lunch before we started our activities for the day and so, after driving for a bit down US-1 South into Titusville, we elected to stop at a Wendy’s at about a quarter after noon:


Day 08 Stop 1 - Titusville, FL
Daily total distance: 275 miles

Titusville is a bit weird. You get a mix of Floridian local rednecks and people working at the Kennedy Space Center, which is to say, rocket scientists. The Wendy’s didn’t disappoint in that regard. It was mostly locals with thick, leathery tans, trucker hats and more tattoos than teeth, but there was one table of middle-aged men all talking in big Science Words who stood out as Not From Around There. It made me glad to think that science and discovery can find a way to carve out an existence even where it’s not as openly accepted.

After getting a Baconator that made me feel simultaneously ill and yet awesome, we continued on down the road and exited onto the long, straight-as-an-arrow NASA Causeway and out to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex:


Day 08 Stop 2 - Kennedy Space Center, FL
Daily total distance: 285 miles

We arrived a bit before 1 and parked in their immense lot to start walking toward the main entrance.


Kennedy Space Center with bus

All around us there were flags commemorating the space shuttle mission in orbit then:


STS132 flag

STS-132 was the final planned mission of the space shuttle Atlantis and the third-to-last planned shuttle mission overall. There’ll be one more in October-November of this year and then the final one in February-March of 2011. And then that’s it. The 30-year space shuttle program will have come to an end. As for that mission, Atlantis was scheduled to land the day after we were there. It turns out it did, successfully, at Kennedy, but we were sort of glad we weren’t there for it as the Space Center would have probably been much, much busier and I can’t imagine that seeing the space shuttle land from afar looks much different than seeing a plane land. Still, it was kind of cool to know that everything we were seeing was in preparation for the landing the following day.

As for us, we were just happy to be there on a nice bright and sunny day:


Kennedy Space Center

Hooray!

After paying for our admission, getting a map and a few squashed pennies for Becky, we sat down to formulate a game plan for our time there. We decided that the best thing to start off with was a walk-through display called Robot Scouts: Trailblazers for Human Exploration!


Robot Scouts!

Lego robot

Our robotic host

That last one there is our robotic host. He guided us through each room as we learned about how robots are used to explore space. It was a sort of fictionalized account of how they’re “trained” to become space robots and explore new worlds. In that particular display he’s conversing with various rovers and satellites throughout the solar system. In a Futurama-like twist, though, the audio track for the robots he’s talking to was totally out-of-whack and so the entire experience made no sense. Modern technology!


Kennedy Space Center

There’s where we saw a Mars rover getting “trained” by a robotic “engineer” whom – in honor of Futurama as it was then on my mind – I decided to nickname Dr. Goodensexy. With perfect teeth and a peppy attitude right out of an after-school special, she looked about as much like a robotics engineer as I look like Samuel L. Jackson. But hey, for the kids, right?


Going to Mars!

From there our robotic host took a space ship out to Mars!


Becky on Mars!

And there it is! The Red Planet! As you can see, Becky was there on a mission to help terraform it so that puny mortal human astronauts can go there one day and see it for themselves. Until then it’s purely the domain of brave robots such as our host!

After the 2-year journey home, we returned safely from Mars and continued our way around the Visitor Complex to our next stop, the Rocket Garden:


Rocket garden

Kennedy Space Center

Becky in rocket garden

The Florida sun was beating down upon us with great ferocity by then, but we made some time to launch ourselves into orbit once or twice:


Becky launching into space!

Kennedy Space Center

From there we walked over to briefly see the Early Space Exploration center. I was a bit disappointed that it seemed to be all about early human space exploration and didn’t contain any space monkeys. I’d have liked to have met one. Oh well, at least there were some 50s hi-jinks:


The roaring 50s

We also got to meet a real astronaut!


An astronaut!

He let us go to the Moon and drive around in a rover!


On the moon

Those last two pictures were taken by a lone Russian-sounding man who suggested he would take some photos of us in exchange for us getting shots of him. Despite the fact that his camera looked more expensive than was entirely necessary, what he took with mine – above – didn’t look all that great. At least he offered, though, I suppose.

By that point it was starting to get later in the afternoon and so we hoofed it across the Visitor Complex to the bus depot to take a tour of the Space Center ground where regular automobiles aren’t allowed.


NASA tour van

Kennedy Space Center entrance

The first major thing our bus went past was the shuttle hangar:


Shuttle hangar

Shuttle hangar

Now, it’s hard to get much perspective, but that right there shuttle hangar? It’s freaking huge. Called the Vehicle Assembly Building, it’s 525 feet tall. That means it comes up shoulder-high on the Prudential Tower here in Boston. That flag along the side? Twenty stories tall. Some window washers along side the building helped to give us some idea of the size:


Tiny ants

Window washers

The reason for this is that the space shuttle – and pretty much everything at NASA – is way bigger than one pictures it as being. Believe it or not, it takes a lot of fuel to generate enough power to launch something into space and that makes everything pretty big, I suppose.

Continuing along, we also saw the track where the crawler that takes the space shuttle to and from the launch pad drives:


Shuttle mover track

The reason it travels on a gravel pathway is that the crawler is so heavy that it would crumble an asphalt road beneath its tracks. And so, every time it’s moved, a new layer of gravel is prepared. They were in the process of laying one as we were there.

We also saw the distantly-placed launch box that contained the electronics responsible for controlling every launch from the Kennedy Space Center:


Launch control box

Sorry to say, launches are not, in fact, controlled by a man pressing a giant red button.

Our first stop on the bus tour was at a Mercury-era launch pad converted into a museum outpost. This was a bit of a surprise to me not because I didn’t expect them to show that to us but because I had not read the description of the bus tour properly. I had assumed it was a roughly half-hour journey around the property in which we all stayed seated and snapped photos as our driver offered explanations of what everything was. After reading my pamphlet my heart sank into my stomach when I saw it instead had some three stops and was supposed to take an average of 2 1/2 hours. Time we very much didn’t have. After trying to think it over a bit and grabbing some astronaut ice cream to keep us busy while waiting for another bus to arrive to take us to the next stop, we immediately continued onward to the Apollo Center, which was much more built-up into a proper museum:


Apollo center

Apollo center

Outside, we discovered that, by simply walking around back we could hitch a bus that skipped the third stop (the International Space Station Center… bo-ring) and went straight back to the Visitor Complex. With that in mind we felt much more at ease and spent some more time exploring:


Kennedy Space Center

Snoopy in space!

Landing on Becky's head

One day, Alice!

I was a bit disappointed that that sign on the floor didn’t blurt out “one day, Alice!” upon stepping on it. But I suppose the kids wouldn’t get it. And, really, it’s all about the kids.


Astronaut van

And Astronaut Vans: the official van of astronauts.

The Apollo Center had a small wing that contained some artifacts from the real moon missions, too. Like moon rocks!


Piece of the moon

And tools with which to pick up after your Moon Dog!


Pooper scooper for moon dogs

Pooper scooper for moon dogs

And this, donated by one Klaatu B. Nikto:


Space man from space!

And with that I could not make any dorkier jokes and so, after a quick trip to the gift shop to pick out a couple of things for ourselves and for our friends taking care of our guinea pig and lizard while we were away, we hopped on the bus back to the Visitor Complex. When we arrived we had time left only for one thing, and so we walked over to tour the model space shuttle:


Space shuttle display

Space shuttle

Space shuttle

From the top of the adjoining tower we could see across the whole of the Visitor Complex:


Kennedy Space Center

Inside, though, the micro-gravity associated with being in orbit was a bit tricky to get used to:


IJon in zero gravity

05/25/10

After we landed we decided that it was time to get going to our next stop. On our way out we saw a sand sculpture made by the natives of Astro-land:


Astronaut sand sculpture

Truly an advanced people.

Our passes to the Space Center included admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame just down on the Titusville side of the NASA Causeway and so we headed there next to quickly see what was there:


Astronaut Hall of Fame

While there we were able to see an early illustration of what space travel was like before NASA:


Crushed by space!

Though functional as sleepwear, early space pajamas had much in the way of improvement to be made to protect against the vacuum of space.

We also saw the helmets and uniforms of astronauts past:


Helmets

Uniforms

Nobody knows where all the astronauts are now…


Kennedy Space Center

I tried to call to find them, but to no avail. But wait!


America is #1!

There they are! In America, on the Moon! Hooray! We’re #1!

Becky tried to launch off a rocket to celebrate:


Becky launching a rocket

Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be working, but she still got to reach out to E.T. Astronaut on our way out:


Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center

And with that we ended our magical journey through the Kennedy Space Center. It was 4:15 and we needed to get a move on toward Orlando. We took local roads to FL-528 West, one of Florida’s approximately 8,000 state-run divided highways that is also a toll road whenever it feels like it. Advice to folks driving through Florida? Bring lots of small change and $1 bills. For what it’s worth, though, the roads are well-maintained and traffic keeps moving at a smooth pace, and so we made it to the Orlando area without any troubles.

We made our way onto I-4 West just south of Orlando and then hooked onto the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway. I don’t know who Irlo Bronson was but I like him because apparently it’s the only road in the US named after him so it was easy to locate on Google Maps. As we were driving we passed by a gigantic orange:


World's largest orange

…as well as a place that referred to itself as “Fun Spot” but was most definitely not FunSpot:


Funspot

What we were looking for, though, was much better than that. We found it a couple more miles on and had to stop for it:


Day 08 Stop 5 - Kissimmee, FL
Daily total distance: 350 miles

What did we stop for? Nothing less than a GIANT CAR-CRUNCHING ALLIGATOR:


Giant gator crushing a jeep

Giant gator crushing a jeep

Giant car-crushing gator

Giant car-crushing gator

Though he was quite impressive – far more so than the semi-abandoned, dilapidated motel he was advertising – he wasn’t without some wear over the years:


Hole in the gator

Do not climb on the gator

As getting tetanus was no more on our to-do list that day than getting hepatitis was the previous day, we decided to heed the sign’s warning and not venture out onto the rusted-out-rebar section of the gator and take pictures safely from the ground instead:


Giant car-crushing gator

World's second-largest gator

We barely had to go anywhere for our next stop as it was just next door: the Orlando Castle for Medieval Times!


Becky at Medieval Times!

Now, neither of us had ever been to Medieval Times before and we figured that the exceptionally touristy section of our trip was a perfect time to do so. The “performance” was at 7 and the tickets I’d printed out instructed us to arrive by 6. Sure enough, when we checked in around 5:45 we were far from the first to arrive.


Ye Olde Touriste Shoppe

Ye Olde Taverne

We were given our seat holders – apparently we’d be in Yellow, Table 1 – as well as paper Burger King-like crowns for each of us. Mine predictably did not fit around my enormous head. This is something I’ve long been used to so it came as no surprise to me. We were then sent to have our picture taken with the King and then left to our own devices. As I figured the 6:00 time printed on the ticket was to encourage people who fail at life to not show up too late, I took this as a queue to get us some drinks:


Ye Olde Fruity Drinks

IMG_1569

I don’t suspect they really had Ye Olde Fruity Girly Drinks in medieval times but they were quite reasonably priced given how big and how strong they were. And we got to keep the hologram cups they came in! Bonus! We wound up having two rounds simply to pass the time. Which passed. Slowly. 6:15. 6:30. Nothin’ much happening. It was clear we could have shown up an hour after we did and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. We passed the time as best we could.


IMG_1573

We also wound up buying that picture with the King simply to have something else to look at. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much money out of boredom in my life. Well played, Medieval Times. Well played.

Finally, around 6:45, after a lot of hullabaloo from the actors we were let into the arena. We were quite excited, not to mention hungry:


Ready to start the show

Hooray!

Our hero!

That’s the Yellow Knight – our section’s hero – in Ye Olde Programme above. After Ye Olde Waitere came around with Ye Olde Tomato Soupe and Ye Olde Pepsie the performance began! The Good White Knight came out with a message of peace, but, oh no!


Oh no!

The Black Knight!

The capture of the White Knight

He was captured by the insidious Black Knight! Meanwhile, Princess Whatserface wondered what became of her love, as Ye Royal Narratore welcomed us to Medieval Times:


IMG_1580

Ye Royal Narratore

Ye Royal Narratore

After a display of Arabian horses and falconry in which Ye Royal Narratore had to yell at Ye Olde Douchebags in the crowd not to reach up for the bird with claws primed to tear their eyes out, the knights came out, along with our main course! Now, the menu stated it would be chicken and short ribs. I assumed this would be equal portions of both. Instead it was a single short rib and an entire half of a chicken per person. And, as anyone who has seen The Cable Guy knows, there were no utensils in medieval times, therefore there are no utensils at Medieval Times. Which made rationing Ye Olde Singular Paper Napkin carefully all the more important.

At any rate, before long our hero, the Yellow Knight, came out!


IMG_1595

He and all the other knights were greeted by the King while Princess Whatserface continued to look worried:


King and Princess Whatserface

After the King gave his blessings, the Procession of WoW Players passed through the arena and the tournament began!


Procession of WoW Players

It was then that we noticed that, amongst all of the jobs at Medieval Times, the worst was clearly Ye Olde Poope Scoope:


Ye Royal Poope Scoope

As the displays of skill and heroism came to a head, Ye Olde Jouste began!


Ye Olde Jouste

However, without their helmets on, it seems that Ye Olde Knights were Ye Olde Ren Faire Nerds:


Ye Olde Ren Faire Nerds

After the joust a terrible secret was revealed! The thus-far-evil-looking Green Knight was actually the totally-evil Black Knight! Shocking! And so the hand-to-hand dueling that culminated the tournament (and made for lousy, blurry pictures, I’m afraid) became a battle of Good versus Evil! But fear not, for after much trepidation, the Green Knight was defeated by… our own Yellow Knight! Forsooth and huzzah!

Perhaps by arriving early we got seats at the winner’s table. I wonder if everyone who was a late arrival got stuck with the Green Knight. At any rate, it felt good to be on the winning side. After completing our meal and our experience and leaving a generous tip for Ye Olde Waitere who was working his ass off the whole night and was getting lousy tips from the people around us, we headed out and made our way back to I-4 and safely arrived around 9:20 at our hotel, the Best Western Orlando Gateway, near Universal Studios:


Day 08 Stop 6 - Orlando, FL
Daily total distance: 360 miles

I had to get a parking pass after checking in, and to do so required talking to a woman at a “special offers” desk. So, I sent Becky up with most of our bags and dealt with this lady. Unfortunately, I had to wait as a retirement-aged couple ahead of me were actually falling for her pyramid-scheme shtick. I stood growing ever more frustrated for nearly 15 minutes. Fortunately, I think my thoroughly-unamused demeanor made her give me only a cursory overview of her “services” and she wrote me out the parking pass without much further delay. I parked and made my way up to our room to relax around quarter of 10:


End of Day 08
Cumulative Total Distance: 1770 miles

The room seemed to be perfectly good for our purposes. Clean, cool, recently-renovated, and with working Internet. Couldn’t ask for more. We’d have a surprise for us the next morning related to that renovation but right then it seemed just fine and dandy. We relaxed a bit, I looked on the Internet some to check up for what would end up being the last time on our trip, and we went to bed content that we’d had a successful, full day. Our singularly biggest day of the whole trip was ahead of us the next day.

Wednesday, May 26 - we woke up around 7:45 rather suddenly, as I had apparently left my phone on vibrate from Medieval Times the previous day and didn’t hear it at first. We got up and I quickly jumped into the shower, at which point I realized something was amiss. The tub faucet was pushed out a solid 4 inches along the copper piping that fed to it. Wondering if I’d just somehow missed it the previous day, I shrugged it off and started the shower. About 2 minutes in the faucet popped off with a rather gentle thunk and water started spraying out directly from the copper pipe. This, of course, resulted in the shower immediately ceasing to work. As it so turns out, that recent renovation on our hotel must have been underbid since whomever did it cut corners in places like, oh, not bothering to caulk the tub faucet to the wall. After a degree of trial and error I figured out that if I shoved the faucet back along the pipe and sort of twisted it, it would take 2-3 minutes to slowly work its way back out, at which point I needed to push it back in again. Through this I was able to complete my shower successfully, albeit with a bit more difficulty than I had anticipated.

Then it was Becky’s turn. While I didn’t exactly have to force all my weight upon the faucet when I pushed it back in, I did have to give it quite a shove, and Becky was concerned about slipping as she did the same. So, while she showered, I sat across the curtain, arm sticking into the shower, holding the faucet in. We could already tell it was to be a magical day.

As we checked out I felt obliged to mention to the woman at the desk what happened. I didn’t force the issue, though. I mean, I suppose that if I raised a stink I could have gotten, like, a voucher for $20 admission to Disney, or something. In exchange for spending an hour writing about what happened and giving them all of my personal information and signing up for a time share. Forget it. Not worth it. We had a new hotel to look forward to that night and there wasn’t much sense dwelling on the past.

We left around 9 and drove back down into Kissimmee, not terribly far from where we had been the previous evening. We got to our first destination around 9:30, not too long after it opened up for the day:


Day 09 Stop 1 - Kissimmee, FL
Daily total distance: 18 miles

Our first stop for the day? The world-famous Gatorland:


Greetings from Gatorland

Oh no!

Gatorland Zoo

You know a place is serious about alligators when it has a mural of one busting through the wall and a giant set of jaws leading to the park. And at less than half the price of admission at Sea World and about a third the single-park admission at Disney, it’s recommended for all ages of central Florida visitors, as far as I’m concerned. Becky found a clue outside as to what might be inside:


A clue!

Do you think there are alligators inside?


Gators

Gators

Yep, there sure are.


Turtles?

And turtles? Sure, why not.

You might notice that the gators pictured above all look about the same size. This is completely intentional: they segregate them by age since bigger alligators have no qualms with stealing food from, attacking, or even cannibalizing smaller gators. Since American alligator hatchlings weigh only around a pound and yet can grow to over 1,000 pounds in adulthood, juvenile gators are no match for full-grown adults. Those above were not nearly full-grown. We’d see some bigger ones later.

Though the vast majority of the alligators at Gatorland were contained in those large pools, a couple were housed separately due to special concerns, such as their couple of white gators:


Albino gator

Though the gator pictured above lacks much of its pigment, technically it’s not albino. Albinism is a complete lack of melanin and is noted by the lack of coloration in the iris of the animal, rendering their eyes red from the blood vessels and almost always resulting in blindness by adulthood. Instead this gator – as well as one other of the three they had contained in that low-lighting area – had a different genetic mutation resulting in leucism. Leucistic animals have a severe reduction in skin pigment but do not completely lack it (as is evidenced by the smattering of black around its muzzle). They almost always still express normal pigmentation in the eyes, meaning that they have normal or only slightly reduced vision, unlike albino animals. However, leucistic alligators still lack the ability to blend in with their surroundings that’s key to hunting for food, and furthermore, their bright white appearance makes them targets for cannibalism by larger gators as hatchlings, so they often fare no better in the wild than albinos. Therefore, the leucistic and albino alligators had to be farm-raised and were kept separate from other gators their entire lives.

We continued on down through Gatorland and found a Mold-a-Rama machine:


Becky with Mold-a-Rama

This was the first Mold-a-Rama we’d seen in four years; the last one we’d gotten was from the Milwaukee Zoo in 2006. They don’t seem to be as popular these days as they tend to emit a rancorous smell of boiling hot plastic as they inject the mold. But, a little bit of carcinogens never stopped us from getting a cheap souvenir and so Becky loaded it up with a couple of dollars and out popped a model of a man wrestling a gator:


Mold-a-Rama

Mold-a-Rama

Why, did I just say gator wrasslin’? Now that sounds like a good idea!


Gator wrasslin'

We sat down for the early show at 9:45. There were maybe a dozen people in the park by that time, only 45 minutes after opening (I can’t say why there weren’t more since the Florida sun wasn’t nearly as brutal then as it would be by the early afternoon) and so, after a brief introduction we were all invited to come stand along the railing separating the crowd from a mote filled with 6-foot long alligators. As another gator wrangler came out to grab one out of the circular pool, it became obvious that gator wrasslin’ had a lot more to do with quick, confident motions than it did with cautious safety measures:


Gatorland Zoo

Gator wrasslin'

Gator wrasslin'

Yes, he did just reach his hand into a pool full of gators and grabbed one out by the tail and dragged it onto land. Yes, it did look as stupidly dangerous in real life as it does in those pictures. He claimed it was an old way of gator wrasslin’ that was passed down through generations of Florida natives and then asked the crowd if there were any original Floridians in the audience. After being answered by silence he remarked that they were a dying breed. One wonders if there isn’t a cause-and-effect relationship going on here.

He then plopped himself down on the back of the gator – which, I should note, was not even 1/4 the size of some of the larger ones they had that were far too large and too dangerous to wrassle – and asked us what part of the gator we thought was most dangerous:


Gator wrasslin'

Figuring it for a trick question, a couple of people ventured “the claws” and “the tail” as guesses. He answered “I ain’t holdin’ it by the tail, am I?” and stated that it was its notoriously powerful jaws that was most dangerous. Rednecks aren’t big on trick questions, it seems.


Gator wrasslin'

Fortunately, gators aren’t big on tricks, either, and, since they haven’t much had to evolve since the Cretaceous, they’re not the brightest of nature’s creatures. So, doing something as simple as putting a hand over their eyes will render them relaxed and more pliable to wrasslin’. From there their jaws, capable of biting down with astounding force but with only very weak muscles to open back up again, can be held tight with one hand:


Gator wrasslin'

Gator wrasslin'

You’ll notice there his fingers on his right hand are perched just outside the mouth and not inside the teeth. Whatever goes inside the teeth does not come back out. He then said, “hey, watch me do this,” and then chuckled and added, “redneck’s famous last words:”


Gator wrasslin'

Gator wrasslin'

Gator wrasslin'

Not recommended to try at home.

He then showed us another little part of the crocodilian’s simple neural anatomy: if you roll them upside down, the blood pressure in their heads will drop and they’ll fall asleep, just like frogs:


Putting the gator to sleep

Sleeping gator

Out like a light. But don’t worry! He’s okay!


He's okay!

It’s at that point that the real value in the ticket for Gatorland kicked in. For a mere $7 above the normal price one could get a special VIP package that included getting a chance to sit on a gator yourself! Why would anyone not do that?


05/26/10

On a gator!

I think I’m going to use that picture for all my official correspondence from now on.

Having wrestled a gator ourselves, we left to wander about the rest of the park. We got a chance to feed some of the other gators with bits of raw hot dog.


Gators

Most of the time they didn’t pay any attention to the floating pseudo-meat but when they did it was pretty impressive.


Gator eye

Unfortunately we used up all of the hot dogs on the medium-sized gators before walking around back to where the really big boys were:


Huge gators

It’s hard to tell the size of that guy based on the picture alone, but he had to have easily been 12 or 13 feet long and must have weighed a solid 800 or 900 pounds. The one swimming next to him was missing one foot, presumably from an encounter with that big boy or another gator his size. That’s why it’s crucial for them to segregate them based on how big they are. Meat is meat to a gator. Which is why it seemed so odd that there were so many birds hanging around there:


Some sort of heron

Egret

Great egrets

Great egret

Becky with great egret

Jon's new friend

The stately white ones are great egrets, common in Florida. They’re normally fishers but they live and nest in Gatorland by subsisting off the scraps tourists and gators leave untouched. The scrawny brown muppet-looking ones I’m not so sure about but I think they might be juvenile great blue herons that live there to much the same purpose. Since the egrets at least are not a threatened or endangered species in Florida the people at Gatorland seemed to consider them as a sort of pretty-looking pigeon that they tolerate but do not exactly enjoy the presence of.

As we walked by them the sun started to beat down more in earnest and we elected to head into shade to await the next show at 10:45, the one and only Gator Jumparoo:


Starting the Jumparoo

Now, the concept of the Jumparoo is simple and the folks at Gatorland have been doing it for decades. After a brief skit in which the same fellows who wrestled the gators earlier dress up in trucker caps and overalls and act out the part of local yokels named Bubba and Cooter, a bunch of pieces of raw chicken are suspended on wires and held a few feet above the gators, who must leap out of the water to grab them. This isn’t part of an alligator’s normal behavior and so it’s taught to them through a sort of operant conditioning at the very edge of the gators’ weak cognitive abilities. Therefore, these alligators at Gatorland are the only ones in the world that will exhibit this behavior.


Talking to the gators

After getting the gators’ attention by waving pieces of raw chicken at them and calling to them like slow, scaly, lumbering dogs, the Jumparoo began, first on wires held out into the pond:


Gator Jumparoo!

Gator Jumparoo!

They then moved over to a platform jutting out into the pond and fed the jumping gators by hand:


Gator Jumparoo!

Gator jumparoo!

Gator jumparoo!

Once again, not recommended to try at home with your gators. These fellows were trained professionals, or at least certifiably insane. Those were bone-in half-chickens they were feeding them, too, the texture and composition of which are not too dissimilar from a human forearm, lest you think they couldn’t have just as easily had their arms wrenched off at the elbow by these gators. Let’s see Disney try that!

Of course, all that meat flying around was bound to attract some carrion birds, and sure enough, we saw a turkey vulture there skulking around, waiting to clean up the mess afterward:


Turkey vulture

Becky noted that the gators seemed far more active in that Jumparoo than they did in one she’d seen when she was last there over two decades ago. As they hold two a day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – I suspect it’s because she had previously seen the afternoon one, after they’d already been fed and were far more docile. In the morning they’re probably hungrier and more liable to jump, so long as the water was warm enough to keep their body temperature up which, in late May with a high in the mid-90s, it most certainly was.

We exited through the gift shop, where they had a tank of tiny gator hatchlings about a foot long, not too much bigger than our pet bearded dragon:


Gatorland Zoo

Gatorland Zoo

That’s about the cutest they are, not too long after emerging from their eggs. A decade later they’ll grow so big and mean that they’ll readily eat cats and small dogs for daily meals. People in Florida didn’t seem to have outdoor pets as much as folks do elsewhere.

As we exited we saw posters of Gatorland’s founder, who looks eerily like my maternal grandfather:


Pa Gator

As well as his wife, whom one presumes was a very special woman to old Pa Gator:


Ma Gator

And that was it for Gatorland. Money well-spent. By that point it was closing in on 11:30 and we decided to get some lunch before continuing on. We saw a pizza place across the road from Gatorland and decided to give it a shot. It was already open and, as it turns out, pretty darned good. I explained to Becky how good pizza is one of those things that exists in Florida by the graces of the sheer volume of New York transplants that retire down there. Certainly it was better than we were expecting on such short notice. We left content and continued on to our next attraction a few miles up the road:


Day 09 Stop 2 - Orlando, FL
Daily total distance: 26 miles

After stopping quickly to pick up some more cash, we arrived at the gates at Sea World Orlando. Now, Sea World has smartly realized that folks’ least-favorite part of going to theme parks is waiting in long lines and, as such, many tickets can be purchased in advance online. So, we zipped right on through the parking gate and the main gate and got inside a bit before 12:30.


Sea World entrance

We first hit up a few penny machines – of which there many throughout the park – to help Becky fill her quota:


Becky at penny machines

Earlier I mentioned how butterflies are often the subject of demo photos for cameras because they look so striking. The other oft-employed subject is flamingos:


Flamingo

See? It gives the appearance that I know what I’m doing!

We continued on to visit a friendly sea turtle…


Tortuga

…as well as the captain of the Exxon Valdez:


No thanks.

We finally made our way to one of the main attractions, the dolphin tank:


Becky at the dolphin tank

Reaching out to dolphins

So close...

The dolphins swam up close to us but stayed just out of reach. They clearly liked their handlers more than us:


They liked the trainers more than us

One presumes we’d have been better-received if we had fish in our pockets, too. For the low-low price of an arm and a leg one can swim with the dolphins, but that requires previous booking. If we’d waited around for another hour we could have paid a more reasonable fee to feed them, but we didn’t have the time to spare. We opted instead to go down below the tank to get a better view of them from behind glass:


Dolphins underwater

Becky with dolphins

From there we walked through a tiny garden, in which the only anole lizard we’d see on our entire journey caught our eyes:


Anole lizard

Becky and I are both very intrigued that there are parts of the world where lizards skitter about like mice and chipmunks do here. Back in the world of mammals, though, we made our next stop at the manatee tank:


The pandas of the sea

The gentle pandas of the sea…


Seaworld

Amorphous as they are, though, they’re remarkably difficult to photograph, and so Becky had better luck with ones made out of shrubbery instead:


Becky with gentle manatees

She was using her umbrella as a parasol as, by that point, the sun was beating down on us with great ferocity. We’d opted to go to Sea World in the middle of the day as it was the park we were least interested in that we still wanted to see, and so we figured we’d lose the least out of our experience if the sun was brutal and the crowds were overwhelming. The former held true but the latter actually wasn’t so bad, presumably as, being the week before Memorial Day, most folks hadn’t yet started their summer vacations. So that was nice.

We continued on indoors for a bit to a small gift shop inside an aquarium:


Becky floating

Fluorescent fish

Seaworld

Kids were jumping on it

That Plexiglas flooring separating us from the manta ray tank below was jumped on repeatedly by several kids as we were in there as their parents watched on and thought it was cute. Just in case I was feeling too hopeful about the future of humanity or something.

From there we walked on a bit and discovered the answer to the great mystery of what ever became of New Kids on the Block:


What became of New Kids on the Block

What became of New Kids on the Block

We watched them bang out all the greatest hits of the early 90s as we ate a slush cone we’d gotten to cool off a bit. From there we went into the adjacent puffin and penguin enclosure:


Puffin

Penguin enclosure

You can barely make him out, there, but there’s a man in forest green waders shoveling artificial snow through fields of penguin crap toward the back. As he went along we could actually hear his facial expression marvel at how he ever thought it’d be fun to work at Sea World. Well, at least it’s cool in there.

We decided that catching a show was the best way to stay out of the heat. There was a performance at 1:45 at the sea lion and otter theater nearby and so we settled in there and waited for hi-jinks to ensue:


Hijinks to ensue

Get it?  Get it?

HMS Pinniped, get it? Get it? Fine, be that way.

The plot unfolded as such: pirate-lady captain crashes on supposedly abandoned island with her sea lion sidekick:


Pirate sea lion

They hatch a plan to steal the gold they think is on the island while an otter surreptitiously sets the scene for future hilarity:


Being the otter

But oh no! The island is already inhabited by another pirate with his own sea lion sidekick:


Another sea lion!

The two meet, glossing over giving due consideration to their outrageously unlikely circumstance:


What are the odds?

They decide to team up, which apparently involved serving lunch to the sea lions:


Dinner time

But then later they fight!


Battle to the death!

But then they make up and also there’s a walrus:


Something about a bucket

Presumably continuing his never-ending quest for his bucket.

And that’s how the show was supposed to go. Trouble is, the old Hollywood adage is never work with animals and children and, while this lacked the latter, it hinged upon the former and their unpredictable nature. It’s not that the sea lions blew their queues but, in a dog-like eagerness to please, they hit their marks too early, departing or entering the scene before the actors had time to say their lines. That, more than the show itself, was what was really entertaining.

We decided that we would be remiss if we went to Sea World and didn’t see a Shamu show and so from there we walked on over to Shamu Stadium.


BELIEVE

We immediately noticed that they’d spruced up the place a great deal. We were expecting something semi-educational about the great killer whale (probably glossing over how they’ll occasionally kill humans like one did there not long before we arrived, but whatever) but the place looked like it was instead set up for a Flock of Seagulls concert. Which, as it turns out, would have been preferable to what the show actually was:


Jump to freedom!

Seaworld

Jump, Willy!

Splash!

As you can see, the whales did their regular jump-around-splashing-the-audience routine but now there was a performance! With plot! It was called BELIEVE (no foolin’) and the basic idea was that one of the trainers – a phenomenally gay man in his late 20s or thereabout – was once a child who always loved killer whales. They played sepia-toned flashbacks to him a long time ago – like in the early 90s – when he delicately carved a tail fin out of wood that he then wore as a necklace. As opposed to, you know, playing Nintendo. They then showed him as the same child on a boat whale watching and look! Whales! It’s magical! They then showed the picture of the boy and the trainer side-by-side just in case anyone in the audience didn’t get the excruciatingly dull point.


BELIEVE

As the stage transformed a young girl was called from the audience and the magic talisman was draped across her neck to give her the POWER of the WHALES.


Seaworld

And then there was some choreographed dancing:


Unneccesary dancing

I believe it was Bart Simpson who put it best when he said, “it’s craptacular.”

Later, we saw carbon-copies of the MAGICKAL TALISMAN on sale in a gift shop for $4 apiece. So you, too, could be a part of the MAGIC.

I picked up my sister a remarkably macabre 3D model of the anatomy of a dolphin – guts, skeleton and all – and we decided that anything we saw at Sea World from then on would pale in comparison to BELIEVE and so we went on to our next stop:


Day 09 Stop 3 - Lake Buena Vista, FL
Daily total distance: 35 miles

Lest you think we’re the sort that go to a steak house and don’t order steak, yes, it was Disney World. Epcot, to be specific, since, even with a full day one can only really see one of the Disney parks at a time and Epcot, while not as iconic as the Magical Kingdom, seemed to me to be the most adult-friendly of the Disney parks.

We arrived around 3:30 as a man who looked strikingly like the King of Cartoons wearing an absolutely fantastic button-down shirt patterned with Spaceship Earth wished us to “have a magical day” in a boisterous baritone as we paid for parking. As it was the late afternoon not too many people were entering the park anymore, but not many had left yet, and so we had to park pretty far out and take the tram in. Fortunately, one arrived moments after we found a space and we shuttled into the main gate:


Becky on tram

Tram to Epcot

I had reserved our passes as will call, which was great, as there was no line at the will call booth. The woman who got our tickets told me she was from South Boston as she saw my Massachusetts driver’s license. She must have been living in Florida for some time, though, as she didn’t have the impossibly thick accent that is the trademark of Southies. We got our passes with no trouble whatsoever and entered the gates into the land of notoriously litigious magic:


Epcot

Becky at Epcot

Epcot Center

I’d like to point out that the Monorail in the first shot was moving at around 25 mph when I took that picture and that I doubt I will ever produce a more picturesque photograph in the rest of my life.

Of course, first things first we went right for Spaceship Earth:


Spaceship Earth entrance

Epcot Center

We were intrigued to discover these Space Cavemen that were apparently inside. Now, I’d been to Epcot a couple of times, most recently 16 or 17 years ago as a pre-teen when my sister was about 8. Becky had never been, though, so this was an experience for her to see what it was and one for me to see what had been updated since the early 90s. I think neither of us were disappointed. It still told the story of the history of mankind, from early cavemen:


Cavemen in caves

…to post-Civil War industry:


The war is over!

…to the foxy, groovy computer scientists of the 70s:


Groovy computer scientist

Yes, I’m sure that’s how it went.

As we reached the top of Spaceship Earth we focused on the Earth itself, so tiny as a speck in outer space:


Epcot Center

All this was part of Spaceship Earth as I remembered it from years past. What was new, though, was that, on the way down, or on-board screens presented us with a number of questions about what we’d like to do on our vacation. It did so in German because we’d selected German on a lark as our language on the way up, which proved interesting as it was as, when we passed the Roman Empire display, the centurion guard spoke German, giving him an instant Nazi feel.

We picked through the menus with our collective remembered bits of German from school and, in return, were presented with a short video of us on an adventure!


Trip to the future!

The beginning of your future!

An adventure into the Future! Which apparently meant taking a Jetsonesque spaceship to the Great Wall of China, for what it’s worth.

Down in the lobby we were able to use an interface to draw up our video and email a link to it to ourselves.


Visitors from everywhere

Unfortunately it seems like Disney expires any videos not accessed within a week of processing as we weren’t able to get to ours when we returned. Oh well, it was still lots of fun.

We saw some interactive games lining the outside of the lobby that looked like fun but each and every one was occupied by kids who looked like they were in no position to surrender their time playing them and so we continued on. We picked up a map of Epcot and decided to walk through a sort of interactive educational area next:


Garbage truck of the future

Educating children, apparently, about garbage trucks. Disney’s a milti-faceted experience these days, people.

After passing through there and playing with a few bells and whistles, we decided to go on one of only two rides we’d go on that entire day, Mission: SPACE.


Epcot Center

It’s also colloquially known as “Mission to Mars” since the whole thing is narrated by Gary Sinise. The requisite joker yelling out “Loo-ten-ant Da-yun!” was a few spaces in line behind us.


Epcot Center

We chose the “more intense” version of the ride, which subjected us to maybe 2 or 2.5 Gs as our pretend rocket ship blasted off from Earth and we were spun inside a giant centrifuge. As the centrifuge slowed down we dropped down to a low-G environment, too, so the whole experience was pretty neat and, as promised, more intense than I thought it would be. I mean, I didn’t feel sick or anything afterward but I could see how it might be a bit much for young children or the elderly. Who, clearly, would make lousy astronauts. Lesson learned.

From there we walked along the western perimeter and up to the international pavilion. We figured that by systematically hitting up each country’s land we would be able to get Becky the maximum number of flattened pennies. She even used her iPhone to look up which ones had penny machines (most, but not all, did) and so we proceeded with a game plan, starting with Mexicoland:


Mexicoland

Mexican laborers

As you can see, there were Mexican laborers slaving away to create tiny wooden… what would one call those?


Epcot Center

Ah yes, animales fantasticos. That’s it. There was even a petite Mexican woman sitting in the center of the vestibule at an open workshop painting these animales fantasticos who got to enjoy sweaty white people pointing their cameras at her all day long as she worked. Which, all things considered, is probably still not as bad as staying in Mexico.

We got our penny from there – featuring Mickey wearing a sombrero – and immediately figured that the pattern would be the same design with Mickey wearing a different, stereotypical hat in each one. Which it was. Which is pretty awesome, actually, to have them all displayed together. I recalled that the Mexico ride was pretty boring and so we continued on to the next location, Norwayland, whereupon we saw the Fjording:


Fjording

Here I recalled that the Norway ride wasn’t that bad and, since the line wasn’t all that long, we decided to give it a shot:


Vikings through time

The same mural showing how the vikings of yore are now the oil rigsmen and cruise ship directors of today was there when I was last there, too. As we exited after our adventure through Norse mythology we wandered into the gift shop where we saw the Norwegian natives running the place with a rather poignant look of longing on their faces as they dealt with the same sweaty tourists day in and day out. I couldn’t help but think they must be pining for the fjords.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

From there we continued on our quest for pennies through Chinaland!


Chinaland

Germanyland!


Der Teddybar

As you can see, Germanyland is home of Der Teddybär. Nearby there was also a vista from which one would take pictures across the pond from Spaceship Earth. We got one of the army of Epcot employees milling about to take one of us:


Epcot

From there it was onto the rather unremarkable Americaland:


Americaland

Which was more “some sort of mashup of late colonial and Civil War-era South land” with not much in the way of attractions. It did have ducklings, though:


Disney duckling

After that we proceeded to Japanland where, since they lacked a penny machine, we decided to stop for dinner, if only so I could say I ate sushi at Disney World:


Disney sushi

It actually wasn’t bad. I mean, it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. The wasabi was incredibly weak, though, and I had to use the whole dollop to get only a little heat, whereas I normally only use a bit of wasabi the size of a pea and end up pounding the table. But hey, it was filling and it was cool, which were two things I wanted on such a hot day. And I didn’t get food poisoning. Which is a plus.

We continued to Moroccoland, whereupon we saw the Book of Aladdin:


Book of Aladin

Now, I thought that Aladdin took place in the Middle East – present-day Iraq or Saudi Arabia – and that Morocco is nowhere near there, but hey, it’s all the same, amirite? Disney apparently thinks so. At least they had the culturally-sensitive Fez House:


Fez House

Moroccoland was actually a bit daunting to us. There was a penny machine listed there but, for the life of us, we couldn’t find it. We crawled all up and down its labyrinthine alleys to no avail and finally gave up. We had better luck at the next stop, Franceland:


Voila les Chefs de France!

Voila les Chefs de France!


Voila la Casserole!

Voila la Casserole!


Voila la Tour Eiffel!

Voila la Tour Eiffel!


Wee wee!

Wee wee! Je suis de Paris!

Having exhausted hilarious French stereotypes, we continued on to Englandland:


Too sunny for England

You’ll note that it has never, in all of history, been that sunny in England, ever.

We finally came to the last country at Canadaland:


Epcot Center

Which appeared to be more like Native Pacific Northwest Indian Land, since, well, you know. It’s Canada.

After that we hit up another outpost in which we were able to pick up a couple of pennies we had missed and then headed back to Spaceship Earth as the sun started to descend toward the horizon:


Epcot

Epcot

Epcot Center

We were exhausted by then but we decided to make one last run through Spaceship Earth, since there was no line by then and we could walk right on. This time we did it in Spanish.


Traveling through space!

And with that we concluded our trip to Disney World. It was 8 PM – we’d been there for 4 1/2 hours, going nonstop – and it was high time we headed to our hotel. We exited Epcot and got on I-4 West toward Tampa, hooking down on I-75 South and pressing through dark local roads to arrive around 9:30 at our hotel in Ruskin:


Day 09 Stop 4 - Ruskin, FL
Daily total distance: 125 miles

After our plumbing mishap that morning I was glad to be in a new hotel, the Resort at Little Harbor. It was also my first time on the Gulf Coast, so that was pretty exciting, too. I was a little worried we were in trouble when the snooty girl at the desk who clearly did not want to be working the late shift spent several minutes on the phone and ignoring us as a security guy who clearly was going above and beyond his job description felt bad for us and offered to help us, but that turned out to be the one and only bump in the road in an otherwise fantastic hotel off of Tampa Bay:


weeki wachee

After such a long day we were happy to see a lovely room:


Our hotel after a very long day

…and Becky proceeded to collapse in bed:


Becky collapsing in bed

I took a much-needed shower and laid down to watch TV and read for a bit, concluding our most active day of the trip:


End of Day 09
Cumulative total distance: 1900 miles

My computer was working just fine then but I couldn’t access the Internet. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get on it later.” Turns out I’d be wrong about that. But, for then, we were immensely happy to be put up in some swanky and very relaxing digs as we prepared for the final leg of our trip, in which there would be fewer daily sights to see but more more driving. The next day we’d both enter a new state – Alabama – for the both of us. We were looking forward to it.

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