Wordless Wednesday: Our Foster Kitten, Lucky
Saturday 9: Tunnel Of Love

Sea World, Orlando, & Downtown Disney

Over the past two days (Monday and Tuesday), Team Odette traveled 4½ hours away to Orlando for a mini-vacation. Thanks to Anheuser-Busch for supporting our troops, because with their Here's to the Heroes 2013, Rob and three of his dependents could get in for free. We just had to buy a ticket for Jack. We also bought the eat-all-day deals for everyone but me, which is totally worth it, because you can literally go through the participating restaurants again and again and again and get way too much food for a normal person to consume. We are normally not wasteful people, so it was a little painful to throw away perfectly good food, but otherwise it was a really good value; do it!

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To prepare for the trip, I packed tons of snacks (no-frosting strawberry Pop-Tarts, trail mix, a little chocolate, cereal, etc.) in snack-size Ziploc baggies for all three kids in their new bags (from Publix) with their names on them. I gave each child a clipboard filled with paper and enough writing and drawing implements, new sticker books, glitter and glue, and more to keep them busy. Finally, I ran to the Toys 'R Us outlet store at a mall about 5 minutes away and picked up these glow sticks, together with smelly-good bubbles and more cyalume light-up bracelets and necklaces, for use on Monday night after we left the park.

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I let them open up their new goody bags on Sunday night before bed, giving them instructions on when and where each item was to be used. We had to leave at about 0400 to get to Sea World by the time it opened at 0900 Monday morning, or else I would have left them in their car seats and let them find them then. They were super-excited to find out what was in those bags!

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We arrived at Sea World more than a half-hour early, thanks to only having to stop for potty breaks and drinks at the Florida Turnpike travel plazas once or twice. I'm definitely going to do this pre-planning packing for the kids' car trip needs when we road trip in the future. It worked out perfectly: there was no "I'm hungry," "Are we there yet?" or "I'm bored" whining whatsoever. Awesome!

One really nice thing about Anheuser-Busch parks - and Sea World was no different - was that, right after the park opened for business and while we were standing in line to redeem our vouchers for tickets, they stopped to play the National Anthem. Rob stood at attention respectfully, and as usual, tears welled up in his eyes. I love that my guy is such a true patriot. I really admire that. Sophia started talking about what a dumb song it was, but I hushed her up and explained to her what the song was and what it meant, and that shut her complaints up immediately. She stood quietly and respectfully throughout the song after that.

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Entering the park was really easy, smooth and fast. The folks at Sea World have got it together. The first thing we found inside was a flock of flamingos, stinky and squawking like crazy. They have a distinctive smell, which isn't very pleasant, but they're absolutely beautiful. Sophia, our bird lover, was particularly captivated.

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Near the flamingos, also-banded pelicans waited to be admired. Or as a Facebook friend called them, "the crows of Florida." Still, as aggressive and unpleasant as these fowl can be, I think they are pretty cool.

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We moved along to the stingray tank (although there were other rays including this cownose), and of course my thoughts immediately went to the untimely death of Crocodile Hunger Steve Irwin, right? Apparently, though, the stingrays are de-barbed or something, to make them not dangerous to park guests. I don't know how I feel about that, but I guess liability would be a huge issue if a similar thing happened in the park.

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There were oodles and oodles of penny press machines inside Sea World. They were everywhere! We spent about $25 on collecting these souvies everywhere we found them, which makes me cringe a little. However, they're really cool, a great thing to collect, and the kids have fun doing them. It's a take-away and a project in one experience, so I think it's worth it in the end. We have collections from here, now, along with Disney World and Epcot, and everywhere else we've been able to find them. I love 'em.

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It took us less than two hours to fill our Sea World pressed penny book! The machines were so ubiquitous, it wasn't hard to do. We have about 10 more that don't fit in the book, plus there are another 10 or 12 on the back of this book, so we have plenty. We probably even missed a bunch of machines, since we didn't do everything there was to do in the park. It'll give us something to do on a future visit to Sea World, y'know? 

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After we pressed our first set of pennies, the first thing we found was the dolphin feeding tank. It cost $7 per kid and was on Chloë's bucket list, so Rob and I talked it over and decided to do it. $21 for an experience like that was pretty cheap compared to other behind-the-scenes adventures Sea World offered, and we had zero fundage for souvenirs other than the requisite pennies and my shot glass collection (I got a shark one, natch), so this was the thing to do. I'd rather give the kids an amazing memory than more stuff we don't need any day of the week, too. Here, we were waiting at the dolphin tank for our turn to pet and feed them.

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Soon, it was the kids' turn to step up and feed the bottlenose dolphins. It was an incredible, memorable experience for all five of us. I'm actually surprised Chloë didn't cry a little bit. We all got to touch them, and the girls and Rob (who stepped in for the too-nervous Jack) each fed them two fish after doing the instructed rub under the jaw. It was amazing; words can't do it justice.

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We walked through the aquarium that goes over one's head after feeding the dolphins, and I pointed out the different fish we saw to the kids. Parrotfish, like this Stoplight one here, are among my favorite of the reef fish. 

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We visited Turtle Trek, which was a breathtaking surround cinema, like the inside of a planetarium. Another Facebook friend highly recommended it, and she was right; I loved every second of this short 3D adventure through a turtle's life. Afterward, there was a staffer giving out trivia questions and discussing the lives and habits of turtles and other sea creatures. I answered one question correctly before anyone else did, so she handed me a baseball card-like information sheet on the Leafy Sea Dragon for a prize. Later, she talked all about conservation efforts in which Sea World participates and gave the kids a chance to earn their own cards. We walked away with prizes for the Bottlenose Dolphin, Florida Manatee, and California Sea Lion, too.

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Speaking of manatees, I love that the iPhone 5 has such a great camera; I took this picture, which Steph snagged off Facebook for a background on her iPad, with it. It turned out beautifully, IMNSHO.

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The kids played a little turtle game, "Race for the Beach," against other kiddos. There were lots of little educational and interactive exhibits around Sea World like this one. I think it's great the way the park is so focused on edutainment and conservation; they really make the effort to preserve our natural marine resources. That impressed me throughout the day.

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A Florida gator adolescent taking a swim 

We found some upside-down jellies, Cassopeia frondosa, near the alligator holding pen. I learned about these animals long ago as an undergrad at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmopsheric Science (RSMAS), during my Invertebrate Zoology class with the wonderful Dr. Peter Glynn. I wonder if he's still teaching; he was an inspiration for me as a budding marine biologist.

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I'm not sure what kind of Cnidarian this one is, but my question to you is: artistically beautiful species, or just ick?

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We then visited some leopard sharks, and Rob asked me to drop some knowledge about them. You know what? I didn't want to; I just wanted to have a fun, great day without so much pressure to be the authority on anything. So I refrained and just enjoyed being in the moment.

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By that point in the day, it was hot, we were sweaty, and the kids were red in the face. Sea World isn't too heavy on rides and play so much as shows and experiencing the natural beauty of the marine environment, so we didn't have a lot of that. Fine by me, but the children wanted more of it. We headed over to the little kiddie area on the far end of the park to let them play in the small waterpark area for a bit. It was just the cool-down they needed, so I'm glad we took the time out to do that.

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Sophia as Queen of the World! 

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Chloë and Sophia took a ride in Swishy Fishies, which is like Sea World's equivalent of Disney World's Teacups. Jack, who had been the most vociferous complainer about the lack of rides, chose not to go on any rides. Really? That's so Jack, but whatever, he still had a great time and thanked us for taking them on the trip, so it's all good. If you're a Teacup fan, by the way, they also had a similar ride that went high up in the air. We didn't do that one, though, because the kids have a bit of a fear of heights; they come by it honestly!

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Chloë had to pose for a photo-op with a Shamu replica; she happily obliged my request. It's never hard to get this one to do so; it's always hard to get Jack to pose unless he's thoroughly pleased at the moment!

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Oh, I lied. Jack DID go on one ride, the kiddie train. This was more his speed, literally and figuratively speaking. 

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We opted to rent a double stroller for several reasons: Jack, who has taut Achilles' tendons, has trouble walking for long distances. Plus, we knew we'd have lots to carry and thought it would be easier to take them around with us than pay for a locker we might visit but once during the day. And also, it would provide some sun protection for the kids, who took turns riding during our visit. An unexpected bonus was that it provided some tush respite for Rob, who occasionally took a brief siesta when he could sneak the opportunity!

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My friend from Portsmouth, Miss Lisa, requested a family picture in the park, so I stopped a woman to take one in front of the sea creature-themed carousel we all rode immediately after that. Sophia started to pull a stranger-child off a purple seahorse that she wanted to ride; the nerve of her! After a scolding from me, we went on the other side and found one for her. But talk about embarrassing...

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Just for good measure, I had Rob snap another shot of me on my carousel ride for Miss Lisa. You know, we all wore bathing suits all day long, but I was the only one who wasn't asked to cover up with a shirt or shorts. If you ever visit Sea World, be prepared to have a cover-up of some sort for males and females alike, because they will say something to you if you're not 'properly' dressed.

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A fun moment between Jack and Chloë that I was thrilled to capture

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We walked through the Arctic exhibit and found ourselves there at just the right time for a short training session for the beluga whales. The trainer had the belugas spin, jump and play for fishy treats. What fun to watch!

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This polar bear was lounging near the beluga whales. I'm sure there were more, but we didn't see any, and she didn't want to come closer for me to get a better picture. Brat. I jest.

Both Rob's and my phone died after that, so this is a shot of Shamu that I stole off Google Images. Hee. We walked around the beautiful Sea Garden - a replica of the undersea environment made out of land plants - while we waited for the Shamu show to start at 1730. It was completely worth the wait. I had gone to Sea World with my grandparents when I was five years old, but the only things I remembered were seeing the flamingos and having an alligator come toward us while we ate dinner. 


Shamu - probably the nth generation - and other orca friends put on a great display of tricks with their trainers. We had a lot of fun sitting in the Soak Zone and watching all the people in the rows in front of us get up, pissed, to leave after they got completely wet from the killer whales' antics (they're really dolphins, though, you know). Um, duh? You sat there knowing you'd get splashed and then you get upset when you do? What kind of sense does that make? None. Plus it's hilarious to have a whale do a humongous belly flop in front of you that leaves you dripping from head to toe. Make sure to put away those electronics and purses if you go; "soak" is definitely the key word!

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Shortly after watching Shamu, we headed to our nearby hotel for the night.  The Seralago has mixed reviews from friends and strangers alike who have stayed in the same place, but we had a really nice stay there. There is a big cafeteria-slash-convenience store near the main lobby; we were able to get pizza, burgers and gyros for dinner, and everything tasted great. We picked up breakfast in the morning from there, too, even though Expedia said there was supposed to be a free continental one. (That was the only let-down.) There was a tiki bar and playground in the pool area, and the room was spacious and comfortable. For less than $60 a night in a high-traffic resort area, we were not disappointed. Your mileage may vary. 

The kids played with their glow sticks and bubbles, went swimming with Rob and warmed up in the hot tub at Seralago. Meanwhile, Rob and I got drinks from the bar that we left mostly untouched. Oh, that was another thing - my piña colada? They must have thought I was fourteen, because I swear it was a virgin; if there was alcohol in it, it was undetectable by my highly sensitive system. And that's sayin' something. I'm actually kind of glad, though, because I no longer enough the buzz of alcohol and have pretty much decided I'm done with the stuff after this. I might have something now and again in the future, but for the most part, I see no need to imbibe.

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For lunch on Tuesday, we headed back East to Orlando (we stayed just West in Kissimmee, which is pronounced "Kiss-IH-me," but which my silly grandpa always pronounced "KISS-amee" to be funny) for a mystery shop. The place was dead, so we were able to get in and out of there fairly quickly before heading to our next destination.

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We didn't have any real plans for Downtown Disney other than something fun for Jack and possibly renting a paddleboat, so I asked Rob's dad if he wanted us to visit them instead at their place in Boynton Beach on our way back to Homestead. Only, Rob's dad was not actually IN Boynton Beach yet, so that didn't pan out. A weather check Monday night didn't look promising for Downtown Disney, either, but fortunately the rain held out and we had a beautiful couple hours of sun during our trip to the Marketplace.

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After getting squirted with water by the giant Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) at World Of Disney, we stopped to listen to the orchestra play some tunes from movies and TV shows everyone recognized. I really enjoyed that and was grateful we didn't miss it.

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There's a big LEGO store - one of Jack's few obsessions - at Downtown Disney, but instead he wanted go to Ridemakerz to build his own radio-controlled car. We spent a lot more there than I planned, but it turned out to be really worth it. The cars, accessories and chargers come with a lifetime warranty, which is good because later we discovered he had a bent axle and needed a new undercarriage. They swapped it out for him, no questions asked.

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At the store, which is at the back of Team Disney if you want to find it, there was a huge selection of rims and wheels. Some are included in the price of the chassis, and some are extra. Jack happened to pick a set that were free-with-purchase, to my relief.

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After he selected his rims, wheels and sound, Chris helped Jack assemble his new yellow Corvette. That was fun, to put it concisely. Jack could have been timed to see how long it put together the vehicle, just for fun, but he chose to take his time and not rush through the experience. I wasn't suprised at that; he's a pretty methodical kid when it comes to mechanics.

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I wanted the girls to have an equitable experience compared to Jack's, and we didn't want to do the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique, so we walked around to see what they could do. First, they chose to have their faces painted. Artist Emily was really talented; Sophia looks adorable in her "Princess Kitty" make-up, doesn't she?

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Chloë chose to have the "Music Mania" paint. They each opted to get the glitter lipstick after Emily verified with me that it was okay. Why not? Full package, baby.

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After their faces were done, we went to the Ghirardelli store near the entrance and got a strawberry shake for Sophia and a chocolate one for Chloë. I didn't taste Sophie's, but Chlo's was really rich and delicious. They were a bit pricey, but since neither girl could finish hers and passed them to the boys less than halfway through, it was okay by me. We got chocolate samples when we walked in the door, too, which satisfied my sweet tooth!

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Just like my dad, Chloë usually chooses to eat the stems of her maraschino cherries. I do it, too.

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Stim (Steph and Tim, back in Virginia) are big fans of Sulley from Monsters Inc., so now that the new movie is coming out, she was hoping to have me pick her up some Sulley merch to send her way. We didn't find anything for her or the boys, though I had fun looking around and texting her pictures of all the latest offerings!

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Even though he'd spent a small fortune at Ridemakerz and knew he wasn't getting anything else, Jack wanted to look around at the LEGO store. I figured I'd see if they had anything new in the LEGO Friends section (the girls collect those sets) for my lady-babies, because their shakes and facepaintings cost nowhere near as much as Jack's Corvette. Not that I wanted to spend money just to spend money, not at all, but I wanted both to be fair and also give them something to DO and something to HAVE, just like Jack.

Sophia, who's been gunning for the LF House for over a year now, surprised me by changing her mind and opting for the Stable instead. She loves horses, as well as the afore-mentioned birds (bugs, too, though all the kids love animals in general), so maybe it wasn't so surprising. Chloë went with a smaller set, the Café I think. When we got home that evening, they started building their sets out front on the patio, since their room is still crowded with unpacked boxes. Must remedy that situation soon!

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There are many LEGO structures around the store in Downtown Disney, including a serpent in the water nearby and this family and their dogs. On our way back to our van, Penelope, Jack wanted to pose with this structure for me. Oh, see his gappy grin? He lost a tooth at Sea World the day before! Apparently I forgot to tell my progeny that they weren't supposed to leave body parts in the park.

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After stopping for another potty break during the ride home, we spotted this fresh Florida oranges and grapefuit shop that I wanted to visit. We were out of oranges, after all, and I knew we'd find more local goodies from right there in Fort Pierce and surrounding areas. I was right. I spent more than I wanted to, but shopping locally is important to me, so it was worth it.

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Along with my ¼-bushel of Valencia oranges, I bought some real Florida honey (mmm...), some orange honey, and jellies and preserves: Guava Jelly, Jalepeño Pepper Jelly for Rob (ew, but he'll love it), Tangerine Marmalade (omg, that sounds so good right now), Orange Pineapple Cherry Marmalade, and also Mango Chutney. I also picked up some Vidalia Onion Mustard for Rob, and some Habanero Beef Jerky that he gobbled down as soon as I got back to Penelope and handed it to him. I snagged a bag of saltwater taffy that the propietor described as "so good, it's addictive" to ship to NY for my BFF, Dr. Lisa. She loves the stuff.

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When we finally got home after a quick stop at the Walmart Vision Center to pick up Chloë and Rob's new prescription sunglasses (theirs took longer than Jack and Sophie's because they're so blind), Jack rushed out to test out the new wheels. He drove it all the way around the block and had to be convinced to come in when it got dark. I'm glad he was so happy, but he seems to think we'll be going back every year to get him another one. Ha! I don't know where he got that idea, but it wasn't from me!

So now that it's May, it's time to really get serious and down to business. April was a full month of fun for Team Odette, but it's time to rein it in just a little bit. Oh, there will still be plenty of fun, but we have work to do. There's lots of homeschooling on which to catch up, jobs to get, unpacking to finish, VA paperwork to get done, a house in Virginia to sell, and college to get into (for Rob). Much to do, though like I said, we'll still be having fun in between the more serious stuff. Stay tuned for another post tomorrow, as I have fun mystery shops planned for today!

Fin.

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