Sunday, March 5, 2017

#1: Take a trip to Disney World for my 30th birthday

The last time I went to Disney World, I turned 16 years old. I was traveling with my high school orchestra - and my chaperone dad - during spring break, which always overlaps with my March 16 birthday. So, I serendipitously got to celebrate a hallmark birthday amongst characters from my childhood, and the magic that only Disney seems to bring to me. As I reflected on what a princess I was made to feel like for my birthday, I decided Disney would be the best place to ring in a new decade. I knew Zack and I would be able to plan things out ahead of time so once we arrived in Florida, we'd be able to kick our feet up and enjoy the ride. Little did I know how true-to-life that vision would be.

We decided early on that we wanted to room at a Disney resort. The perks are just too great:  free shuttles from (and back to) the airport, and into the parks each day; early and late park hours; the ability to charge every purchase to our Disney wristbands. We settled on the Coronado for its beauty and not-totally-pocket-emptying price, and I'm so glad we did. There was a beautiful walking path around the property and over a lake (that warned of alligator and snake residents that we thankfully never saw), and decent onsite food. We got in late Monday evening and celebrated with drinks before calling it a night and prepping for our first full day of fun.

Epcot was park #1 on our four-day tour, and we started off with a 2.5 hour wait in line for Test Track. Our first FastPass wasn't until after noon, so we figured kicking off with the ride that gave me the most stomach-churning anxiety was the way to go. You see, I hate roller coasters — or at least, that's how I've felt in my nearly-30 years on planet earth. I get tons of anxiety about riding on them, imagining all they ways they could break down and I could die. Even with things going right, I fear that feeling of having my stomach drop out and not being able to breathe. So with all of this in mind, why the hell did I decide to celebrate my birthday at a giant theme park? Well, I've always banked on Disney's ability to have kid- (and therefore Caitlin-)friendly rides, and so much eye candy that skipping out on the bigger rides wasn't an issue. But I am now married to a ride-loving husband, AND I tested the waters by riding Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, and I had a feeling I might actually enjoy an adrenaline rush or two.

When we finally got through the Test Track line and into the "car building" area, I felt like I might poop myself, but I tried to focus on building a winning (and ridiculous) Chevy before hopping onto my first ride of the trip. I didn't know much about the ride, except that at some point we'd be thrust through a door and get up to 65 miles an hour on a track. Before that there was some hurky-jurky fun business, but when I saw those doors I just got a smile on my face and prepared to scream. I was the only one in our car to scream, but I didn't let that stop me. We zoomed around the track, and as fast as it had begun, the ride was over. Suddenly I was energized and ready for the next ride.

At Epcot, there aren't tons of rides in the first place, so Soarin' was the only other one that was particularly thrilling. We spent more time on the first day walking "around the world" and having drinks here and there before heading to dinner at what ended up being my favorite restaurant of the trip, Coral Reef Cafe. The mixed drink I had was like a raspberry milkshake, the vegan "crabless cakes" I had were OUT OF THIS WORLD, and Zack had even called ahead so the restaurant surprised me with a chocolate lava cake with a candle in it. Followed up with a night of fireworks, Epcot really kicked the trip off right.

Magic Kingdom was, as expected, the fullest day of any park. It has the most rides, the most characters, the most nostalgia. Since I'd slept since my last thrill ride, I woke up nervous all over again of roller coasters. Thus, we started out easy on Aladdin's magic carpet ride. Then, our first FastPass kicked it up a notch — it was take 2 on Thunder Mountain. The adrenaline became a drug then, but we had an hour to kill before Splash Mountain and rain in the forecast so we ran over to the Haunted Mansion to spend some time under cover before taking the big drop. I was so frightened of this one as a kid, as I was reminded when the lights went out in the holding area and some little one said, "Turn the lights back on!!" We watched the ghosties dance and party it up, and then donned our ponchos for Splash.

This was the first and only really big roller coaster I'd ever ridden back when I very first visited Disney in 6th grade, and all I remembered was that there were a few sneak-attack drops before we hit the big one. The warm-up drops were great — thrilling enough, but not so intense that I couldn't breathe. As we wandered through Brer Rabbit's home, his Laughing Place, and up the big steep incline after he's caught in the story, I awaited his cry of, "Please don't throw me in that briar patch!" When I heard it, I tried to breathe deep so I could scream it out all the way down the drop. I got about halfway before I couldn't breathe at all, and then SPLOOSH - we were soaked. I laughed and hugged Zack and grinned from ear to ear. That was fun!

Our next FastPass roller coaster was the Seven Dwarves Mine Train, and it wasn't until late in the evening, so we filled our time with classics like Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Prince Charming's Carousel, Peter Pan...and Space Mountain. This was the one I really wasn't sure about. I'd heard that Space Mountain felt really closed in, and it being all in the dark there was no way to anticipate what was coming. Still, I couldn't wait 4 hours for my next rush of adrenaline, so off we went to wait in line for an hour and get on the single-rider classic. I had way more fun than I anticipated, although it was a bit of a painful ride (not nearly as smooth as newer roller coasters I was used to, this magnetic one jolted every now and again to make my neck really work). There was only one gut-busting drop that caused me to stop screaming, which in turn caused Zack (who was sitting in front of me) to yell back, "Are you OK?" "I'm still here!" I shouted in response. Truly the most appropriate response for the moment.

The rain let up in time for us to ride Seven Dwarves comfortably, and boy howdy is that another fun one! It's basically just like Thunder Mountain, but with a little more swing in its hips and a more coherent storyline.

Night was dawning and we had late dinner reservations, so we took a look at the wait times for other rides - and managed to book another FastPass for Splash Mountain. Apparently nobody else wanted to get more wet than the rain was making them! We headed that direction, thinking we'd hit up Thunder Mountain first, but that one had shut down for the day (likely due to rain, I'd have to guess). The woman turning patrons away from that ride suggested we go check out the Country Bear Jamboree, which I'd successfully avoided on my last visit, but we decided to go have a look even though I warned Zack that I'd seen the bears in old Disney videos and it was gonna be the stuff of nightmares. Picture this: the most stereotypical redneck you can imagine, but a bear. There were a few we liked (mostly the girl ones), but overall that's a show I'd never really need to see again.

Then it was Splash time, so walked right through the line and into a log with our FastPass, and as we rode around the river again, we got soaking wet not just from the ride, but the rain. By the end of it, we were drenched through to our we decided, why not ride again?? We ran through the normal line and basically climbed right back into a log (I've never seen such a lack of line at a classic ride!) and sang Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah and How Do You Do? and screamed at the top of our lungs for every drop. With each ride, we noticed something new about some of the animatronics — look at that possum hanging down from the ceiling! Check out those turtles floating in the fountain! It was such a blast, and by the end we declared it our favorite ride. We asked to stay on for one more round, since there was NOBODY in line waiting to get on, but the ride controller said, "It's too early for that," so we hopped out and headed to dinner, me with my mascara running down my cheeks from the rain and the splash and the joy.

The next day was Animal Kingdom day, which was the only park I'd never been to before. I was excited to go, because The Lion King has always been one of my top Disney movies. It was an early morning - the earliest so far - and after such a full day at the Magic Kingdom, we were pooped. Still, I couldn't feel tired for long, because the anxiety had come back. This was the day with the ride I most feared prior to our trip: Expedition Everest. It looked like the most "real" rollercoaster based on the videos I'd watched, and I wasn't sure how I'd handle it. Still, at this point I was enjoying that adrenaline rush so much that I was not nearly as nervous as I had been the previous few days.

We kicked off our day at the Kali Rapids, because there was no wait and I wanted to ease myself back into rides for the day. The ride reminded me of the "lazy river" ride Zack and I love at Schlitterbahn called The Falls, but it was actually a little LESS thrilling because there's really only one drop. Still, we rode around a couple times before heading off to Expedition Everest.

The story of Expedition Everest is that you're trekking up Mt. Everest, and you come into contact with a Yeti. The first bit of the ride was smooth and enjoyable - it reminded me of the easier parts of Thunder Mountain, just a few hills here and there and mostly speed. Then you come around a corner...and you see it. The climb. It looks like you're basically going straight up. You can look down and see ant-sized people staring up at you, and you wave although you doubt they can really see you. When you get to the top, as with most Disney rides, it's not a straight drop, so you just start to speed around a corner and go up a little hill and then you reach the part of the track that's been pulled up by the Yeti. You wait there for a moment, wondering - where do we go from here? The only way you can go, of course. Backwards! This part was actually a lot less intense than I feared it would be, because the backwards part isn't TOO steep. You go just a little ways before stopping, seeing the shadow of the Yeti pulling up more track and roaring at you, before you hit the REAL ride (and the part they photograph). Huge drops that thrust you down into your seat, you hold on for dear life while having the time of your life. There are so many drops and turns until you're suddenly at the end of your journey (not before the Yeti takes one final swipe at your head, of course). AMAZING. Immediately I wanted to get on it we did! We rode it again right away, because the wait wasn't terrible and we had way too much fun not to.

After getting our morning fill of Everest, we got to take a safari through open fields where giraffes, elephants, antelope and lions were hanging out, resting and playing and being freaking adorable, and then we walked through some other zoo-like areas of the park. We saw what was a disappointingly lackluster Lion King show, then went on Dinosaur! This was one we didn't have a FastPass for, so we waited in line a while to ride, but it was worth it. The ride takes you back in time to save a dinosaur, but things go wrong and there's a lot of dinosaur teeth in your face. The poor kid sitting in the row in front of us HATED his parents for taking him on the ride. At the end, he was sobbing and pushing his dad away from him, not wanting to touch him. I think it was the very end where the narrator yells, "You're not gonna make it!" and a T-Rex tries to bite your head off from above as you drop down the biggest drop of the ride. Sorry, kid. It was fun for us.

There was another part of the dinosaur exhibit that was basically like a dino-themed carnival, and that's where we rode Primeval Whirl, a rollercoaster that also spins around your car unexpectedly. It was a kiddy ride, but still fun. That said...we knew what we wanted, and what we wanted was more Everest.

We ran back across the park to ride Everest two more times in a row (there was, magically, almost no wait again!) and then we ran over to Tiffin's, which was our fanciest dinner reservation for the week. Their brussels sprouts were melt-in-your-mouth good, and the cheese plate was crazy. Since dinner ended earlier than any other night, we took the opportunity to go out to Disney Springs, the re-branded Downtown Disney. I was a little let down - I was picturing an adult version of Disney, but it was really just an open-air mall. Still, I was able to find a bunch of my souvenirs there, and I'd still go back because I didn't get a chance to pop into the Kate Spade store.

The last day started late because we were EXHAUSTED at this point. We had our only room service delivered for breakfast, which for me meant Mickey-shaped waffles and maple syrup. We finally got going a little before noon, and arrived at Hollywood Studios just in time to see the live presentation of Star Wars - with cameos by R2D2, C3PO, Darth Vader and the other masked villains of the movies. Spliced in with clips from all of the films (including Rogue One, which made me a little teary) it was a great way to start the day, and I figured a great intro to Star Tours.

My dad had ridden this 3D thrill ride with my younger brother on my 6th grade trip, and he'd said it was a bit bumpy, but I figured he was playing it up because my brother had been so scared on the ride. Turns out - nope. He was being exactly accurate. The ride was fun at first, but about halfway through I realized it was making me sick, so I basically had to close my eyes to survive. When we got off the ride, I felt like I probably looked green, so I asked Zack if we could find a place where I could sit down in the A/C and drink some Sprite. We found a food court and did just that until my head stopped spinning a little bit, but I never really fully recovered from that stomach-churning mess of a ride.

Still, we managed to ride rides and see shows before dinner. I ended up skipping out on the Aerosmith coaster because with my stomach in the shape it was in, I didn't want to tempt disaster by going upside-down. Zack rode in the single-rider lane, though, and then we had our food and headed back to the hotel room to rest and pack.

In addition to realizing I have a real fondness for rides, I got to be a kid again with Zack, and that was the most fun of all. I felt like we bonded even closer than we've been, which was a really nice treat for us. He pampered me by telling every restaurant reservation that it was my birthday, so I got a little special treat at each one. He also ordered a special celebration package with balloons, a chocolate cake, jelly beans, popcorn, and a commemorative plate. Oh, and my personalized Mickey birthday ears, of course! It was so nice to dress in cartoon-themed attire every day, and drag a stuffed Dumbo around without being looked at like a weirdo. Disney is a place where everyone gets to embrace their inner child, which is why it was the perfect place to go to celebrate 30. A new decade is a nice, fresh start, but it doesn't mean I'm abandoning my childlike wonder, my love of real-life magic, and my adoration for characters I grew up with like Alice, Ariel, Bambi and Pooh-Bear.

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