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Sunday, March 30, 2014

One amazing trip in less than 100 pictures

Last week we went on a long awaited trip to Florida. 

This is a trip we have been planning for a very long time.  Nearly 3 years to be exact.  When we got back from our trip to Disney 3 years ago, Kristi said she wanted to plan a trip with us so we could all go when her youngest was a bit older.  We told her we could go after Sandi was done with school (at the time she hadn't yet started) so it would be the late winter of 2014.  

The growing pains of school, daily sacrifice, feeling rather poor and then finally graduation and a return to the world of regular paychecks and before we knew it, March 2014 was upon us.  

You can imagine just how excited all four kids might be for a trip they have waited this long for.  As we watched Sandi's grandfather get worse each week, we became very unsure it would be a trip we would even go on.  Postponement wasn't possible until the fall (Sandi's vacation lottery makes last minute switching nearly impossible) and we had to come to terms with the fact that we might not board the plane to sunny Orlando.  

But life has a way of working out and within the span of 48 hours we had attended a funeral, grieved and connected with family, and were belted into a plane heading south. 

Our family, Kristi's family and Sandi's parents made 10 of us total and we rented this beautiful, enormous house with its own pool and hot tub.  The house had 6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms and gave all the families room to spread out and operate at their differing rhythms all for less than $100 per night per family.  This was definitely the way to go for us.

I mean, to have your own pool!

We packed it all in.  We had 6 days in Florida, it was summer- hot and we had theme park tickets burning a hole in our pockets (and our wallets....).   We went to Disney's Magic Kingdom, Busch Gardens, Sea World and Discovery Cove for a total of 5 of the 6 days.

It was fun with a capital F.  So I should say it was Fun.
The four kids (with Ella wearing Sandi's Go Pro camera)

Kristi, Mike, Brevan and Makenna

I just love this one.  The girls are mad at the stroller intruder.

After the first day of parks (Magic Kingdom) our kids were both whining and complaining.  They were hot, they were tired, they wanted to leave, they wanted a balloon, a better lunch, a colder drink, a less childish ride, a less scary ride, and on and on.  It felt like a personal kind of torture, paying all this money to go to what most people deem the happiest place on earth and to be shuffling disgruntled children.

I took this deeply personally.  The amount of money we had spent, the hours of planning, packing, researching and strategizing, the build up of this coveted family time, and the fact that it is so important to us to have children that aren't spoiled and expectant.

That night we had a family meeting with the girls, a Come To You-Know-What meeting if you will.  We explained all that we had paid and sacrificed to bring them on the trip, all the extra hours of work to pay for it, the missing school, the waiting in lines for rides for them, not us.   We told them they could miss the rest of the week of parks and their cousins could go without them.

The profound reaction of our children was the biggest gift I could have gotten.  They were truly remorseful.  Watching them apologize and amend their behavior that night and for the rest of the week was one of the highlights of my parenting journey.  Maya made us each a picture as an apology. I have seen a transformation in their sibling relationship since we took their toys away two months ago and we put everything on the chopping block if they didn't straighten out.  But now I got to witness a new level of taking accountability and turning whining and complaining into gratitude and appreciation.

It goes to show you that there is still a place for a solid threat (as long as it's not a bluff) in today's parenting.   The remainder of the week with the girls was just fun.  They didn't complain about anything, even going to bed 2 hours before their cousins, and they were helpful and gracious.

Feeding kangaroos!

For us this trip was about dolphins, dolphins and more dolphins.

(I would like to briefly add here that I had so many conflicts going into this trip and paying money to support parks that keep so many animals, especially mammals, in captivity.   I almost opted out on my own but didn't want to miss this with my family.  We talked about opting out as a family.  There were lengthy discussions, the painful viewing of the documentary Blackfish and the acknowledgment that neither decision would feel good.  In the end we decided to focus on the benefit to our kids to get to see so many animals and sea life up close that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to them and to educate them as much as we could.  It was painful to see animals in captivity, especially dolphins and Orcas who I consider to be sentient beings, but it helps me to know that they were born in captivity and that they are well cared for.  I also believe that seeing them up close makes the human race better custodians of the animals of the earth.  At least that's what I like to think is happening.)

I think I can speak for all 10 of us when I say the highlight of our week was our trip to Discovery Cove.  It is a pocket of paradise in the bustle of packed theme parks.

Discovery Cove is on the pricey side  but I would say it is totally worth it.  You can spend all day there, from 8:30-5, and your admission includes breakfast, lunch, unlimited snacks and drinks (yes, including alcohol).   It might seem prohibitive if you were only going to Discovery Cove but since your ticket includes a 14 day unlimited pass to Sea World and Aquatica (Sea World's water park which we did not get to) and can also include Busch Gardens which we were already planning to visit, it worked out well for us.

(These combo tickets are offered because they are all owned by Anheuser Busch which meant, to Sandi's great dismay, that they only offered Budweiser beer.)

Discovery Cove is very chill and laid back.  The only line you are going to wait in is the buffet.  Whereas Magic Kingdom can hold 100,000 people, Discovery Cove has a capacity of 1,300.  We played in the 85 degree fresh water, drifted down their lazy river through waterfalls and a bird aviary, swam to an island to see Marmaset monkeys and sea otters,  and we even got to snorkel!

For those of you who don't know this about me, I have a tremendous fear of fresh water and animals or monsters that might lurk beneath (too many leeches as a child and too many horror movies set on lakes at a young age).  I don't mean to, but I hyperventilate when I get over my head even though I can, in fact, swim.  Putting my face in the water makes me anxious and gasp for air.

Discovery Cove was a bit of miracle for me.  I learned to snorkel and found myself floating freely with thousands of fish in their man-made saltwater coral reef.  Once I got over the panic of stingrays that are 4 feet across swimming under my belly,  I was able to marvel at the deep caverns filled with fish, each one more colorful than the other.  It was a world of wonder under there!  And each time I would raise my head to clear my mask and look at the surface of the water and think Oh dear, I'm over my head... don't let your legs dangle.  I would put my face back in the clear water and be unafraid.  We even got to snorkel up to a glass enclosed shark aquarium and I wasn't scared (although I did test and retest the thickness of the glass a time or two).  It was unbelievable!

It occurred to me that many people snorkel in the real ocean and that normally I would not be the kind of person who prefers something man-made to something natural.  But I have to say in this instance, I needed to learn in a controlled environment that felt like the ocean but was absent of say, Great Whites.

My personal breakthrough aside, the best part of Discovery Cove are the dolphins!  We went there specifically to "swim" with the dolphins.  (It is actually a 30 minute interaction but it was still awesome, especially since I like the idea of swimming with dolphins but I might have had a bonafide heart attack.)

I'm not exaggerating when I say our day at Discovery Cove was one of the coolest days of my life.

Our dolphin's name was Dixie and she was 40 years old.  She used to be an aquarium dolphin and has been living at Discovery Cove for many years.  She was sweet and gentle, playful and funny.  It was indescribable to be close to her and to watch our girls get to have this one of a kind experience.  (I totally have a thing for dolphins.  I can't explain it but I just feel something deep and profound in their presence.)

Makenna was too young to do this and so she and Mike are not pictured here.

Dixie doing a jump for us!
I needed this trip for the relaxed time it afforded me with my children.   Ella held my hand endlessly, we played a lot, I was very patient in listening to her when she was speaking and explaining why the adorable gibbon monkey at the gift shop was the next stuffed animal she could not live without .  I felt that we were free of all of the tension that has become part of our everyday since she became a tween.  There were no power struggles over homework, eating vegetables or getting out the door.   

Favorite times with Maya were all in the water and specifically underwater.  She learned to snorkel at Discovery Cove and it was so fun to be under there with her as she tooled along, exploring and experiencing this new world.  She was so excited by it all that she would exclaim continuously through her snorkel, using it not just as an oxygen chamber but also as a megaphone, shouting to everyone above about the incredible world beneath.  I would put my mask on just to play with her in her new world. 
I think Maya's favorite part of the trip was having Sandi constantly in her line of sight.

These four had so much fun together all week long!

Kristi is a bit of an animal charmer and she just HAD to catch the lizard the kids found in the game room at the house.  In order to stay on her it had to sink its tiny fangs into her skin.  

I think the bird was less painful.

Embarrassingly, this is the stuffed animal loot the kids acquired during the week.  I swear they paid for it all with their own spending money, but STILL.

Ella decided to do a report on dolphins for her school work since she missed to a week of school.   She began researching early with books from the library and compiling facts about dolphins.  At times there was some prodding and persuading to work on it before we left for our trip, but she eventually took ownership and ran with it.  She worked on it each day we were in Florida and then for about  7 hours when we came home.  With a little bit of help from Sandi and Tia and I, she made the most incredible dolphin scrapbook that was part memory book and part research report.

I have never seen her work harder on anything ever and have also never seen her so proud of herself.

"This was a dream come true."

showing her grandparents

I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to go on a trip like this.  We certainly worked hard in every way to make it happen but I am grateful it was within our reach.  It was a trip we will never forget!

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