Our Disney Vacation, Part 1

So, today we headed out to go to Orlando, Florida, to visit Walt Disney World and the other attractions that make up the happiest place on Earth. Hooray!

Sadly, in order to do so, we had to travel.

Have I mentioned how I hate to travel? No, really. I hate it. Despise it. Stab me in the eyeballs and pull out all of my teeth with rusty pliers before making me travel. Really.


So, the plan was to take the train to the plane because it is simple, reliable and slightly more fuel efficient and less annoying than trying to figure out long-term parking at Newark Airport. We piled into the car at 9 AM and away we went!

Our first step in the journey was to drive to the in-laws/Mom & Dad’s/Grandma and Grandpa’s house, where we would leave the car and either walk to the train or grab a ride. After stopping to feed my addiction by grabbing a few hot beverages at the local Starbucks, we were really, officially, on our way. I decided to take the highway route as it would be faster, and seeing as it was after rush hour, what could go wrong?

Right.

About two miles from the intersection of Route 1 and Route 295 in Lawrenceville, that’s exit 67 if you’re playing at home, a curious thing developed. There was a long line of cars along the shoulder of the road. This could have been anything, I thought. For example, a spaceship could have landed and caused the cars to all spontaneously lose power. Or perhaps a gathering of angels appeared above their heads and sang to the drivers a song of hope, and this is what they said. They said, “Come sail away, come sail—“

Wait, Wait. Where was I? Oh, yes. The cars that were lined up along the side of the highway weren’t there due to mechanical problems or angels that would eventually drag us onto their starships. No. It was a 2 mile backup to the exit for Route 1. And let me tell you, those cars weren’t moving.

But, did I panic? No. Not one little bit. Because we’re on vacation and vacations are relaxing and fun and enjoyable, even the traveling. Right.

Anyway, being forever the laid back traveler, I calmly switched over to the middle lane to avoid the inevitable idiot who would think he could be smarter and snake into the line closer up to the exit, and I headed straight for the next exit. That’s right, Route 206, Princeton Pike. By this point I was laughing at my sheer genius, the victory of my incredible mind over the Travel Gods who were out to get me. No longer seeing lines of traffic, no longer needing to worry about being delayed, I switched off the cruise control and headed to the exit ramp and – came to a halt, as a line of cars greeted me midway up the exit ramp.

The die had been cast by this point, however, and I was on the ramp and could not turn back even if I had another alternate route up my sleeve. So, with my course now set and the wind not at all aiding our travels, we waited. And waited. Another minute, another few inches forward. The kids were getting anxious that we were going to miss our train. My wife was questioning whether we needed to eventually turn left or go straight (we needed to turn right). The tension was getting to me so I turned on the radio to the only station I could think of that might have a traffic report, New Jersey 101.5.

Ugh.

So, over the next 350 hours or so (or maybe it was 15 minutes), we got to hear about how awful our state government is, how awful it is that the state government might raise taxes, how awful it is that the state government might lower taxes, how awful it is to talk about the awful state government and its tax raising and lowering games during an election year, and how awful it is to pay for gasoline to fill up an SUV that ferries a single person back and forth in the state’s awful traffic every day.

But not one traffic report.

In any event, it turned out that my brilliant plan to go around the Route 1 maelstrom was not so bad after all, as the traffic cleared out after about 20 minutes and we were on our way again. When we came back to the Route 1 area, crossing over it on Quakerbridge Road by Mercer Mall, we could see that Route 1 north was jammed as far as the eye could see and did not appear to be moving at all. So even dealing with the slow traffic and having had to listen to NJ 101.5 was better than having to try to snake into the traffic on Route 1.

So, we got to our initial destination, my in-laws. This part of the journey was smooth. We spent a few minutes there, I had my necessary cup of coffee as a chaser to my Starbucks, and we were on our way again, getting a ride to the train.
We planned on an 11:17 train, so we arrived at the station a little before eleven, to buy tickets, get the kids settled down before their first train ride, take a deep breath and remind ourselves just why we were doing this. I never got to the last two bits, as when I purchased the tickets I was informed that the incoming train was the one I wanted, since the trains were all delayed and this one, coming in just before 11:00, was the 10:30 train. So, I rushed out to the platform to find my wife and children and got them onto the train.

My son enjoyed the rocking of the train and the shaking as we switched tracks and the way the train would knock him back down into his seat as it came into the station while he was standing up. All-in-all, the train was fine, if a little slower than normal. It turns out we caught an express train, so we were at the Newark Airport transfer station in about an hour, as opposed to the approximately 60 minutes the local train would have taken.
Anyway, the AirTran ride was fine, once we got past the fact that one of the four tickets didn’t work right and then there was no soap (not even a dispenser) in the ladies room. As scheduled, the AirTran arrived every four minutes (we missed the first one by about 3 seconds) and we arrived with little fanfare at Terminal A, where we began the next leg of our journey, the airport experience.

It was after disembarking from the AirTran and having me take several bags down the escalator, assuming that my daughter was right behind me, that I learned that my daughter was scared of the escalator. She refused to get on it. Eventually my wife convinced her to get on the escalator, probably by threatening that we’d turn right around and head home, and the three of them came down the escalator. By this point I was furious that she had not followed me onto the escalator in the first place, what with me holding her bag along with my own and watching her come right up to the edge of it. Words were exchanged as soon as she exited the escalator and we continued onward… to another set of escalators. Luckily, there were also stairs and for this one I allowed her to take the stairs.

So, with this sorted out, we now set out to find the bag drop for JetBlue airways. Eventually, thewife spotted the big glowing sign that said JetBlue. Since itappeared to be the right place to go, we headed there. The helpful person behind the counter grunted as she looked at my wife and me and compared my license to my wife’s face and her license to my face. She tagged our bags and I watched as she literally took the bag, flipped it over in the air and watched it land with a thud, upside down, on the conveyor belt. She repeated this action with the second bag. I have to admit that I know the baggage people are not the most careful with the baggage, but I’ve never once seen the counter people flip the bags as they put them on the belt. Anything fragile in these bags could surely be forgotten about (such as my previously unopened bag of coffee… I smell a lawsuit brewing, I think).

So, with two bags no longer weighing us down, the four people and four remaining carry-on bags made our way to the security lines via, you guessed it, an escalator. This time I made my daughter take the escalator under penalty of death and she complied. There were, of course, no problems, no electronic-staircase-related injuries (unlike my experience in Denver a couple years ago where the maintenance worker turned off the escalator while I was still on it, claiming he didn’t see me there). Anyway, we wandered to the first security gate only to find it was the wrong one and wandered further to the next, which was the right one.

Now, I usually travel out of Terminal C, where there is nothing but a dismal wasteland outside of security. Inside of security, Terminal C has an oasis of food options, shops and places to get plastered before getting on the plane. But here in Terminal A, the oasis appeared to be outside of the security gate. But, unlike Terminal C, there was no line at all. So, unsure as to whether or not there was food beyond the security lines and seeing as we were all hungry for lunch (it was around noon by now), I marched right up to the security guard and asked him, “Um, Sir, is there any food or stuff inside, or is it all out here?”

“There’s food inside,” he said helpfully, “but not as much variety as out here, if there is any food at all.”

So, my kids were voting for the little Subway shop outside of security and being uncertain as to whether or not we’d find anything inside, we settled down for sandwiches, sodas and chips. After eating our delicious salad on a bun and watching my children throw away their $3.00 sodas, we returned to go through security, only to find a long, long line.

Sigh.

It took about 30 minutes, but we got through security with no real hassles other than a couple of women who pushed us and everyone around us out of the way in order to butt into the line right at the front, allegedly because their flights were soon, but more likely because they were fine, upstanding citizens who happened to have first class seats on the flight and we all know that the airlines allow the first class passengers to do whatever the heck they want to do. But I digress. The only other hassle was minor and consisted of the security agent glaring meanly at me as I requested that someone bring more of the stupid gray bins out so that people could put all their junk into them to go through the scanners. She eventually did so, but I sure felt the pure hatred in her stare. Or maybe she lost her favorite pen that morning, which I know puts me into a foul mood. Note to self: I should be more compassionate when people glare at me, for it may be that they’ve been having a worse day that I’ve been having.

Anyway, we got to our gate, Gate A-21, and found ourselves squarely immersed in a throng of people waiting for one of the several planes taking off from the gates around us. Few seats were available, so we stood. After several restroom visits, we were ready to get on a plane. Of course, it wasn’t there. Here it was, 2:18, and there was no plane at our gate. But, helpfully, the nice friendly lettering on the message board by the gate showed that our flight was on time for a 2:20 departure to Orlando and had a pretty picture of the weather forecast for Orlando (partly cloudy, chance of thunderstorms, high near 90). An announcement was made that the plane we were waiting for was in a holding pattern above the airport due to the weather (thunderstorms) and would be down on the ground just as soon as it was safe to do so and we’d be on our way just as quickly as possible.

Around 2:40, we were beginning to board the plane. Not too bad given the quick turnaround required to get the plane in shape. We all know that thorough cleaning of the seats and bathrooms in the passenger compartment normally takes a long time and so I know I was relieved that they were able to bring in additional people and equipment in order to get it done in mere minutes without sacrificing the quality of the cleaning.

So, for the first time in my travels I was able to board early as I was travelling with children (I knew there was a reason we had kids). Let me tell you how much nicer it is to get on board the plane without idiots running around, dashing to and fro while trying to find somewhere to stuff there oversized carry-on bags, suit coats, dogs…. (yes, one dog was in a carry-on that the passenger in the row opposite mine across the aisle eventually stuffed below the seat in front of her). It was so nice just to get on the plane, find the seats and slide carefully if not comfortably into them and put our properly sized carry-on bags under the seats in front of us. There is a certain peace there, at that moment, in the little tin cans we call airplanes, before the engines are on, before the people are on, before the foul stench of humanity permeates the entire aircraft. It was almost serene.
Then the madhouse started as everyone tried to get on the plane at once. The crew was still trying to get us off the ground as quickly as possible and by the end, when we had several passengers bickering over the seats, they just told the passengers to sit down and it would get straightened out once we were airborne, in just a few minutes. They eventually complied and sat, though I thought they never would do so. We pulled away from the gate and began the taxi to the departure queue when the captain came over the speakers to tell us that there were a lot of planes waiting and we’d have to be waiting a while. “Sorry,” he said. “But we’ll have you up in the air in no time.”
40 minutes later, we took off. My son, who has a tendency to get motion sick in cars, began looking green pretty quickly. I had him sipping water, I had him taking deep breaths, I had him counting his toes. I was briskly fanning him with a spider man coloring book while opening the little blower things as wide as they’d go. While this was going on, my arm that was slightly in the aisle was jostled by this grumpy looking woman who apparently wouldn’t be able to open a shoe box with the directions on the bottom. She decided that it was time to use the toilet and so, despite the fact that the seatbelt sign was still on and despite the fact that we had only just taken off and the plane was inclined at a 45+ degree angle and the engines were making their deafening roar, she headed for the bathroom. I thought the flight attendant was going to explode! There was yelling, there was screaming, there were threats. But in the end, the bio-break was taken and the passenger climbed her way back to her seat, at which point the crew chief came over the speaker to remind us all that it was not safe to be moving about the cabin while the seatbelt sign was on.

And so, another woman decided it was her turn to go.

I couldn’t focus on this as I was busy trying to keep my son from making the next two and a half hours more miserable than it otherwise should be. I took out a cloth and dumped water on it just as we hit a bump of turbulence. Of course, my pants now looked like maybe I should have followed the lead of the aforementioned women, but that didn’t matter. The cool water helped the boy to calm down and once the plane leveled off, he was fine. The lovely, blue, paper bag I had taken out and had at the ready was happily returned to the seatback pocket.

JetBlue has little TV sets in the back of every seat and they provide a full DirectTV channel assortment to each seat. This, in my opinion, is awesome. They also have movies, for 5 dollars, but why on earth would anyone pay for that when you could watch any of like 60 channels? My kids watched Cartoon Network and I watched “The Wedding Singer” on VH1, because I wouldn’t have wanted to see any music videos on there, would I?
JetBlue’s other gimmick is that they don’t use those clumsy drink carts that the other airlines use. No, they come by each row and take your order for drinks, then deliver them on a tray just like you’d see in a restaurant. It’s a nice try, but the service was really slow. And when the sodas cost about $500 per person, round trip, I’d expect more. Eventually we got a bag of chips, too.

The landing and descent were even more exciting than takeoff. This time, the little blue bag was NOT as lucky as it had been during the departure. The descent was a little rough and bumpy and the winds were strong (apparently the thunderstorms we had in Newark decided to join us for our trip to Florida) and we kept going down in spurts of a few hundred feet, leveling off, dropping another few hundred feet and leveling off. The pressure was tough to bear and my son was struggling. Water, fans, quickly moving Spider Man books…eventually they all failed to prevent the inevitable and the bag did its job well, until The Boy took a choke hold on it, preventing a free flow of matter between the opening of the bag and its deeper, darker depths. Frantically I got him to release his grip and I used what little I had in the way of napkins and towels to clean him up. I was thankful that the women who could only pee when the plan was at a 45 degree angle stayed in their seats this time; the last thing I needed was shouting over the intercom!

The landing was a little rough, but as I always say I’ll take a little bit of a rough landing over failed landing gear any day. We taxied to the gate and the flight attendants made sure to announce over the loudspeaker the names of several kids who were taking their first flight ever, a happy couple who were celebrating their anniversary and some woman whose birthday was today. Of course, I didn’t get my kids’ names on the list so I received glares from them as I looked helplessly over from the bright blue bag on my lap to their wide-eyed wonder as to why their names were not announced. Eventually the interminable ride to the gate ended and we got off the plane, me carrying my carry-on, my son’s carry-on and a little blue bag of wonder.

After a short stop in the restrooms to cleanup and change a shirt, we headed out to get our bags and get to the rental car shuttle. No problems ensued with the baggage claim; the bags were already on the belts when we got there. So, we headed toward the shuttles (via another escalator). At the bottom of the stairs and above the door, there was a sign for the shuttles, pointing to the right. So we went right. We got to the next set of doors to find a sign for the shuttles, this time pointing left, in the direction we had just come. Very funny, Orlando Airport. Very funny. We headed out and found the shuttle we needed (back outside the original doors we had seen) and the driver informed me that since I was not an elite member, I’d be the second stop, the stop for the losers. So he drove and drove and drove until we got to the elite stop and after some confusion, the one elite passenger departed. The doors closed and we drove another 100 feet to the second stop, for the rest of us.

I entered the building and waited in line, finally getting called up to the helpful person of the day at the rental car counter. I asked for a specific car (a Prius) and he mumbled about it being more expensive. I agreed to that extra $7 per day fee and then he said “You know why it costs more, right?” I answered, “Yes, because everyone has to make a dime off of those of us who try to do the right things for the environment.” He scoffed, “No, it is because it costs more to buy a hybrid.” Of course, I checked and the price for the Toyota Corolla I eventually was given as the rental is actually higher than the price of the Prius, but there would have been no point in bickering at that point. I said that I approved the extra charge so go get me a Prius. He then said, “Oops, it won’t go through, it must be a maintenance issue, you know how those hybrid cars are.” So, I got the Corolla.
I can never remember whether or not I am supposed to buy the extra insurance or the tank of gas or any of the other crap they try to tack on, so I declined everything. At that point, a pink sticker was slapped onto my rental agreement informing me that I had to fill out the pre-rental inspection form or else be liable for any damage upon return. It also said that an inspector had already performed a pre-inspection and filled it out for me so I shouldn’t have to do anything. Fine. I asked the guy how to get out of the parking lot and, oh yes, where is the car. He handed me a map and said that everything I needed was on the map and the car was “outside” in spot 425. “Next!”

Thanks a lot!

Eventually I found the car, after walking all the way around the building to the lot that had tumbleweeds blowing through it. My pre-inspection was highly negative – the form claimed that the tank was full and that the car was in pristine condition. Of course, there were scratches on the doors, the bumpers, the trunk, the roof…. No dents, just lots of scratches. The tank was almost full, but not quite full. Of course I noted all of this and diligently handed the form to the dude at the exit. He nodded and grunted something in Native Floridian and handed me my paperwork and sent me on my way.

We stopped for dinner at a Ruby Tuesday and then headed to the hotel. The guy behind the desk was nice enough and offered to upgrade us for an extra $20 per night to the newer, nicer rooms, but seeing as we hadn’t seen the crappy, older rooms yet, we declined. This turned out to be good, as what we thought was a two bedroom villa turned out to be a three bedroom villa. Sure, the décor was a little outdated (mostly the rugs) but it was fine. They had the air conditioning set to 50 degrees and there were icicles on the ceiling, but that was the worst part. At least until we went to bed, at which point we realized that the pool was just a stone’s throw away from our window and we could hear the gangs and thugs screaming and hooting and hollering until closing time. Or maybe it was just happy children enjoying their vacation. Sometimes it is hard for me to tell the difference.

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep, happily relieved that the first day was over. A few delays, a few less than helpful people and a little vomit are mere nuisances in the wonderful world of travel, and nothing to be freaked out about.

So, after a day of firsts for my kids, first train ride, first flights, first time taking Princeton Pike to go to the grandparents’ house, I feel I must reiterate: I hate to travel.

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