The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

December 29, 2008

Disney World Trip Report – Part 1: Getting There is Half the Fun, Right?

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 5:08 pm

For the three or four of you who actually read this Blog on a regular basis, you might have been wondering when I was going to get around to writing out the trip report that I promised for the Disney World trip that I went on a couple of weeks ago.  I have actually been working on this, but between the fact that I managed to land just hours in advance of what was predicted to be a possible major windstorm (that fortunately didn’t turn out quite as bad as it could have been) followed by a week of relentless snow and solid ice on the roads with Christmas thrown in there somewhere along the line, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for the Blog in the last week oro so, but now with things settling down (at least until Thursday when the next possible major windstorm and potential snowstorm is set to arrive)  I have some time to start on this.  Those of you who have been reading this Blog for long enough know that I’m notoriously slow with some of this stuff (Crossroads Profile part 2?  What Crossroads Profile part 2?) but I plan to get this done fairly soon, or at least before I end up going to Disney World again, whenever that might be.

I have actually begun writing this in a thread over at DISBoards.com, although I will try to keep things free of the jargon that seems to be common in the trip reports ver there.   This particular post here will consist of the first three parts that I have written over there as follows:

  • Part 1:  The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men:  The planning (or lack thereof) of the trip
  • Part 2:  Slip Slidin’ Away (in which the vacation very nearly gets put on ice before I can even make it off the ground…)
  • Part 3:  Who Have I Gotta’ Bribe to Get Outa’ This Town? (Goin’ to Chicago, and putting way too much stuff on a hot dog in the process)

Note that some of the material here is background info for the DISboard readers, and may be redundant to some of the people here.  In fact, some of this might actually be nearly identical to a couple of the Blog posts below. 

That said, please remain seated at all times, keeping your hands, arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle, and please no flash photography.  After the jump, we’re off to Never Never Land.  Or Outer Space.  Or wherever it is you’re supposed to go (well OK, this post will barely even make it to the hotel, but I’m sure we’ll get to some of those places eventually, right?)


The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men:

The Planning (or Lack Thereof) of the Trip…

To be honest, I have no idea exactly how I ended up at Disney World in December, aside from some vague idea that it would be nice to take a vacation. My job has me working as a contract software engineer, which is something that I’ve enjoyed doing, but it comes with a couple of things that make it hard to do much traveling: Not-so-great benefits (basically, I get a week of paid time off per year, and that’s it) and a mandatory 100-day break after I have spent a year at the company I’ve been working for (you’ve probably heard of them, they make this little product called Windows a few people might use.)

My parents, on the other hand, are frequent travelers (My mom works in the travel industry,) and are particular fans of cruising.  Most years they manage to go on at least one Caribbean cruise (always on Princess.) This year, they managed to go on several different trips, including spending a week in Cancun and going on a 7-day cruise. I am frequently invited to go, but there always seems to be a problem with either not enough money or no time off (more often the latter than the former,) and I find myself unable to get away for the amount of time that would be required for such a trip. As a result, whenever they go on vacation, I usually end up dogsitting these two:

These two are Imola and Minardi, my parents’ Beagles (yeah, we’ve got some Formula 1 fans in the family, in case anyone’s wondering.) They’re both very friendly but can be very high maintenance (believe me, you do NOT want to see the mayhem that a pair of bored beagles can wreak on an unsuspecting house…) This means they get to go to the off-leash dog park a couple of times a day to work off some of the extra energy that might otherwise be available for chewing on things. And it seems like every time my parents go somewhere, I end up being the one who is over there dogsitting. I just claim that I timeshare on the dogs.  (Editor’s note:  regular Blog readers are probably quite familiar with these two by now.)

Anyway, with my parents (and my brother and his wife) going off on all these vacations while I’m stuck here dogsitting, I started looking for a trip to go on when my contract at work ended, something to get away from the house for a few days. Based on looking at cheap airfares available along the West coast, I initially started looking at possibly heading down to Disneyland for a few days. I discussed this with my Mom, and she was actually the one to suggest that if I’m going to go through the effort to make the trip that I should just go all out and go to Disney World instead.  After all, I had been to Disneyland just a couple of years earlier (and besides, if the airfares stay cheap enough I could probably justify heading down for a weekend at some point later on.)

Initially, I started looking at the possibility of going during the second week of December, which would have been a week after my contract at work ended. On looking at Expedia, I determined that this week would have cheap airfares, but pretty much every Disney resort (except for the really expensive ones) was booked solid for that week (presumably, as I would find out later, because of a big Pop Warner football event being held there at that time.) I then started looking at the week after that and found the opposite situation: Cheap hotels, but not so great airfare. I initially considered going to the Pop Century Resort (one of the value resorts) based on information I found on it (sure it might not be fancy, but who can argue with freakishly huge yo-yos on premises?) but when I found a $99 a night rate at the Hilton in the Downtown Disney area, I decided to go for that instead (since the reviews I read online are fairly positive, saying it was a bit quieter than the Disney hotels, and still has the Extra Magic Hours benefit allowing extra time in the parks, one of only three non-Disney hotels to have this.)  When all was said and done, I booked a fairly early flight out of Seattle on Sunday, December 14th on American Airlines, connecting through Chicago. The return flight would be leaving early on Friday, December 19th, connecting through Dallas. At the time I booked, I didn’t give much thought to the type of weather that I might run into while trying to fly in the middle of December, but after I booked the flights it occurred to me that there might be snow somewhere along the line. I was most concerned about the possibility of running into weather delays in Chicago, but as it would turn out, Chicago was the least of my worries as far as weather went on this trip. Although it was nice to finally have a chance to get away for a few days, this stopped being a cheap trip pretty quickly (not the most expensive trip I’ve ever been on, but definitely not the cheapest either.)

With the flight and hotel booked, I then needed tickets and ground transportation. For the park ticket, I ended up getting a 4-day park hopper pass from the local Disney store at Alderwood Mall (there used to be a lot more of these in the area, but the one at Alderwood seems to be the only one left in the Seattle area these days,) and arranged shuttle transportation to get to the hotel from the airport.

By the time I booked the flight and hotel, I had less than a month to plan things out beyond the basics. Based on reading at DISBoards and seeing people plan Advance Dining Reservations months in advance, I guessed that I probably wasn’t going to be able to get into most of the places I’d be interested in, so I decided I was probably going to be eating mostly counter service on the trip. I also didn’t really plan out any sort of schedule for what park I would be in on which day, aside from the evening Extra Magic Hours in Magic Kingdom on Monday and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (a party held after regular hours in the Magic Kingdom with special fireworks and parades) on Tuesday. During the time I was there, the parks generally had fairly early closing times, and since I’m something of a night owl (I rarely get to bed much earlier than 1AM when I’m at home, and I suspect three hours of jet lag weren’t going to be helping me any there) I figured I would probably be getting a later start than most people and just staying out until the parks closed. Ultimately, this meant that I really didn’t have much of a plan most days, and while it was nice to have the flexibility in the schedule, it also meant that I ultimately didn’t make wise use of Fastpasses, and missed out on some things that I would have liked to have seen (including missing an entire park since I just had no time to get there.)


Slip-Slidin’ Away:

In which the vacation is very nearly put on ice before I can even get off the ground…

It wasn’t until sometime after I finished booking everything that it occurred to me that I I had just set myself up to travel through Chicago in the middle of December, and that there was a very real possibility that I might find myself dealing with some snow (or worse) along the way. Since Seattle winters tend to generally be mild, I didn’t figure on having any trouble getting out of here, and worried more about potential conditions at Chicago than here in Seattle.  As it would turn out, getting in and out of Chicago was just fine… Seattle not so much.

As it came down to the last couple of days before the trip, the weather forecasts here began to get rather ominous, and eventually a major snowstorm and deep freeze was forecast for the evening just before I was supposed to take an 8am flight out of Seattle. Rather than make my parents have to drive me down to the airport at 6AM on a Sunday with an inch of solid ice on the roads, I looked into the possibility of booking an airport hotel for the evening, and eventually my Mom was able find a coupon to get a room at the airport Fairfield Inn for a relatively cheap rate. This allowed them to drop me off in the evening before the snow arrived, and not have to drive down again under bad road conditions.

The hotel room would turn out to be clean and comfortable, but also a bit of a dull place to spend a Saturday night, impending Disney vacation or otherwise (but at least it had free Internet, which is the last time I would see it anywhere on this trip until I reached the Orlando airport for my return flight.) It was also some distance away from any convenient place to grab dinner, and since I had no car I was pretty much at the mercy of whatever delivery places happened to be nearby. Ultimately, I found a place that didn’t have an excessive minimum order for delivery (I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be eating $18 worth of food on my own that evening) and ended up with something vaguely resembling lasagna:

It actually turned out that the lasagna was OK (nothing special,) but the utensils provided to eat it with proved to be woefully inadequate for the task at hand. Fortunately, I had my SwissCard with me (in my checked bag, of course) which happened to be just the thing to deal with the stubborn foodstuffs:

I probably should have checked to make sure that packing tape adhesive residue isn’t too horrendously toxic before using that thing, but since I don’t seem to be dead right now, I’m guessing I’ll probably be OK.

On the other hand, this bottle of lemonade (added primarily for the purpose of getting the total up above the minimum order for delivery) proved to be a bit trickier to deal with. This bottle had an old-fashioned non-twist pop top on it, and I didn’t have anything even remotely close to a bottle opener with which to open it. Searching the Internet revealed a number of different tricks developed by untold generations of drunken frat boys for opening beer bottles, but as a teetotaler I lacked the practical experience to effectively employ such means. Ultimately I was able to get the thing open by trying bend out an edge of the cap with part of my watch band, but I’ll definitely have to say that the stuff definitely wasn’t worth $2.49 and a broken fingernail.

After I finished dinner, the snow began falling, and it didn’t take long for it to begin sticking to the roads. Fortunately, the hotel had an indoor pool so I was able to go for a bit of swimming (I had the pool to myself the entire time I was there) but unfortunately, their hot tub was out of order. After swimming for a bit, I returned to my room, set my alarm on my phone for 6am, and settled down for a not-so-long Winter’s nap.  I didn’t actually manage to sleep much overnight, and by the time 6am rolled around, I had already been basically awake for some time already. I made a quick trip down to the hotel’s continental breakfast for a waffle and some cereal, gathered my stuff, and checked out of the hotel to grab the airport shuttle. Here is what the roads looked like on the way to the airport:

Thankfully there was only a mile or so of this to deal with rather than the 25 miles that it would have taken to get there from home, and we had a reasonably non-maniac shuttle driver who got us there safely. After getting my bag checked and getting through security with little waiting, I arrived at the gate to see the plane looking like this:

The plane did ultimately end up boarding on time, but after the plane boarded, we ended up spending a whole hour sitting at the gate waiting for the plane to be deiced. Since I had a fairly tight connection in Chicago, this was going to be a problem, and it was at about this time that they began handing out slips with AA’s rebooking hotline number. Fortunately, I got rebooked to the next Orlando flight from Chicago without hassle, but it also meant that I would end up with a three-hour layover there instead of the one hour layover on the flight that I ended up missing due to the delay, and ultimately I would be into Orlando some four hours later than I had originally planned on.


Who Have I Gotta’ Bribe to Get Outa’ This Town?

In which way too much stuff gets put on a hot dog, and I somehow manage to make it to Orlando…

By the time the plane got off the ground in Seattle, we were about an hour behind schedule. The delay itself wasn’t really a problem for me (since I already rebooked to the next flight, and had some wiggle room in the schedule anyway.) It was the extra hour of sitting on the plane at the gate that was the annoying part of the delay. After the plane was deiced (and after a further delay when the deicing truck ran out of fluid,) We did eventually get underway for the 4+ hour flight to Chicago, and once we actually got off the ground the flight itself was fairly uneventful. I did have a window seat and my camera with me on the plane, so I took a few pictures along the way.

Once we got past the backside of the Cascades, pretty much everything from there on out was covered in snow.

Here was a rather interesting cloud formation I saw on top of some hills in (I think) Montana.

For some reason, I thought this bit of farmland somewhere over the Plains looked interesting, especially with the snow on it.

Eventually it got to a point where there were clouds covering the ground, so I made my usual token futile effort to get some sleep for a bit (as a bit of an insomniac, I find it basically impossible to sleep on any moving vehicle smaller than a cruise ship) and put on my instrumental songs playlist on my Zune. Since I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast, when the drink cart came around I ended up grabbing some potato chips. For $3 I ended up with this:

Getting that much meant that it very nearly wasn’t a total ripoff, but eventually I found that there was no good way to finish all of those or store them, so I ended up getting rid of the unused portion when we landed. Finally, the plane made it into O’Hare about fifteen minutes too late to catch my connecting flight, so when I got in, I had about three hours to kill before the next flight to Orlando went out. I first went to find the gate for my flight, then set off to find something to eat.

This is only the second time I’ve been through Chicago (the other time was a few years ago en route to Fort Lauderdale to board a cruise ship with a much shorter wait for the connecting flight) so I went wandering around a bit to take a look around.

Yeah, I’m “glad” to be “here” too.

This was an ad on the wall in one of the concourses. I’m not sure exactly how this would work out though. Would the additional global warming caused by having a big engine have been enough to avert the snowstorm in Seattle so my flight wouldn’t have been delayed? Would a torquey rear wheel drive vehicle have actually somehow got me to the airport faster on all the ice rather than just depositing itself neatly into the first ditch to come along? Somehow I’m not buying it.

Eventually I realized that it was getting to be late afternoon, and at that point I was pretty much running on a hotel continental breakfast at 6am (well, 8am local time) and a few potato chips, so I went off in search of one of those “dragged through the garden” Chicago-style hot dogs I keep hearing about. I’ve always thought it seemed like way too much stuff to put on a hot dog all at once, but when in Rome…

Eventually I found a place that had them (and grape soda in the fountain to boot) and ordered one. Trying to actually eat the thing wasn’t pretty. I’m sure that there’s supposed to be some trick to this, but I don’t think that I ever actually found it. Pretty tasty though, once I managed to find some way to eat it without needing a change of clothes afterward. I still have no idea why exactly the relish on one of those things is supposed to be so artificially green though…

After a bit more wandering through the airport, I decided that I probably shouldn’t be doing so much walking around since there would be plenty of time for that when I reached the parks, so I settled down near the gate for a while. With about a half hour left before boarding, I realized that I would be getting into Orlando fairly late, and my options for dinner would probably be quite limited by that time. I decided to try out some of the Chicago style pizza on offer for “dinner,” and got one shortly before boarding.

This one didn’t seem to be anything all that special, although reading some reviews later on seemed to suggest that this particular place wasn’t a particularly good example of Chicago style pizza.

Finally, the time came to board the plane to Orlando, and this flight actually left on time. I was rebooked with access to the priority line for boarding, and on this flight I was also in an aisle seat in the exit row (not much scenery at night, so it wasn’t a big deal.) Now at this point if I never have to ride on another MD-80 in my life it’ll be too soon, but I’l gladly trade the responsibility for evacuating my fellow passengers from burning wreckage for a few extra inches of legroom. Fortunately, there wasn’t any burning wreckage to deal with, and aside from some crosswinds on takeoff, the (much shorter) flight down to Orlando was pretty smooth and uneventful.

By the time the flight arrived in Orlando, it was 10:30pm. Somehow my baggage actually made it there at the same time I did and was collected with little delay, and as I departed the terminal, I found the outside temperature to be quite pleasant (especially in comparison to the stuff I left behind back in Seattle.) I put away my jacket (which from this point wouldn’t need to be used again until I got back to Seattle) and waited for the shuttle to my hotel. It arrived roughly ten minutes later, and I boarded. The driver was a British ex-pat who said he moved down to Florida mostly to get away from England’s lousy weather (gee, I wonder who would get that idea?) and we had a nice little conversation en route to the hotel. There were several other riders, and the Downtown Disney Hilton was the second stop along the way. I made it to the Hilton at roughly Midnight local time, and proceeded to check into my room, which is where I will pick up in the next installment…

Coming up:  Nice Room, Just Don’t Ask About the View… 

(in which I find out just what $99 a night will get you these days, and I might actually finally make it to Disney World at some point.)

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