Until recently my idea of a perfect vacation involved some type of wild adventure — skiing untracked powder, flying my hang glider at 20,000 feet or scuba diving with hammerhead sharks. The idea of spending time, much less money, in a “tourist” destination made me shudder. But life takes some interesting turns, and my 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, created a bit of a paradigm shift in my ideal vacation when I took her recently to Orlando, Fla., one of the tourist capitals of the world. Ironically, it turned out to be the best vacation of my life! Not only did I add a few check marks on my “things to do in this lifetime” list, but I was able to see the vacation through the eyes of a 6-year-old — pure magic indeed.
Traveling with Sarah and Schatzie, my 75-pound service dog, required a little more planning than my usual pack-and-run kind of travel. We arrived at the airport a leisurely two hours early, not my trademark “minute before cutoff time.” Schatzie towed us to the check-in counter — me with a stack of bags on rollers bungied to the back of my chair, Sarah and carry-on bags on my lap. Kudos to Delta Airlines — because they wanted my service dog to have enough space, they had blocked an extra seat for her on each leg of the flight even though they were nearly full.
Our first stop was the Kennedy Space Center. Like many ’60s kids, I grew up on the Gemini and Apollo space missions. I had rocket models, rocket birthday cakes and dreamed of someday watching a live rocket launch in person. And I figured if I want to encourage a love of science in Sarah, taking her to the space center will keep the learning fires stoked.Not only were we visiting the Kennedy Space Center, we were visiting on the day the space shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to launch. I was so excited when we drove into the parking lot that I was starting to embarrass Sarah, who told me, “Daddy, settle down!”
The Smartest Dad on Earth
As soon as we wheeled through the admission gates, we started seeing the huge displays — including an actual space shuttle craft before our eyes. Sarah’s excitement grew to equal mine. Usually it would take two or three days to see all the displays at the Kennedy Space Center. We only had one day and were determined to see it all. Fortunately we had an edge — in between displays Sarah would sit in my lap and Schatzie would tow us at “get the squirrel” (her command for fast) speed, weaving in and out of traffic to the next display. Thanks to Schatzie, we were able to see all of the displays. And what amazing displays they are. Sarah and I were mesmerized by the 3-D Imax moon mission film. Neither one of us had seen a 3-D film before, and a few times we both ducked as we thought the astronaut, or lunar rover, would land in our laps!
The best attraction — besides seeing a live alligator in a ditch — was going to the Apollo/Saturn V center. An actual Saturn V rocket was laid out on its side inside a massive building. As I explained to Sarah that these were the rockets I watched when I was a little boy, we both became awed by the massive rocket. Explaining to her how each stage would separate and where the astronauts would ride, I had that all too rare and fleeting moment of being “Sarah’s dad, the smartest man on earth.”
It was the ultimate treat to watch Sarah seeing all of this for the first time, raw and unfiltered. It rekindled a sense of how phenomenal the space program is. More than a few times that day I got teary-eyed seeing what amazing, positive things human beings can accomplish when they set their minds to it.
Another highlight was touring the actual mission control room for the Apollo moon missions. The room is in exactly the same condition as it was during the missions. It is astonishing to look at the desks and see paper, pencils, and slide rules — personal computers were science fiction back then. It is mind boggling to think the most powerful computer on Apollo 11 had less memory than a pocket calculator you get for free when you open a bank account these days.
If the Kennedy Space Center is any indication, outer space will be fully accessible. The folks at Kennedy don’t miss a trick — smooth pavement, ramps to absolutely everything, including the inside of the space shuttle display. The Center even had an idea that is long overdue — although common at all Florida theme parks — a restroom for people with disabilities and family use only. This solves two huge problems: finding a clean accessible restroom, and answering the question, “what does Dad do when he’s with his young daughter and she needs to use the restroom?” Brilliant!
Fortunately the weather held and the launch I’d been waiting 40 years to witness was a “go.” We gathered in the main “rocket park,” about 12 miles from the launch pad and watched the space shuttle live on a 50-foot screen. Tension built as the final countdown ended and the shuttle ignited. We heard a muffled roar that you could feel deep in your chest, the shuttle lifted off, and all of a sudden — behind and above the screen — there it was, like a huge friendly dragon flying toward the heavens, leaving a billowing plume of white smoke in its wake. Along with everybody else, I was bursting with pride and awe. I don’t think there was a dry eye — tears of joy and pride —- in the place. Now this would be a great place to collect taxes. No politics, just excitement, awe and amazement at being grateful to be part of such an incredible human endeavor.
I had promised Sarah that I would get her a toy at the gift shop. She had been her usual happy, well-behaved self. After careful study, she looked at a detailed model of the space shuttle, which was kind of pricey. Sarah did her “daddy test,” saying in her sweetest voice, “I like this, Daddy, but it’s probably too expensive.” What she didn’t anticipate was the 6-year-old in me really liking it, too. So I said, “I’ll make a deal with you. If I can play with it, too, I’ll get it for you.” She agreed, and we are still playing with it today.
Our next stop was Discovery Cove, a new addition to the Orlando theme park scene. As an avid scuba diver, I was looking for a way to introduce my passion for the ocean to Sarah. Discovery Cove was a perfect fit. The park is a series of saltwater lagoons in a lush jungle-like setting. The idea behind Discovery Cove is to allow people to interact with some of the most amazing animals in the sea. I booked our reservations in advance. Sarah and I rented the movie, Flipper, and I bought her a mask and snorkel and had her practice snorkeling in the bathtub.
Like everywhere we visited around Orlando, Discovery Cove is totally accessible. There is quite a bit of beach getting to the lagoons, but they have plenty of custom beach chairs and staff that are more than happy to lend a hand. Life vests are provided for people who can’t swim.
Our first stop was the Coral Reef lagoon, where the water winds around a coral reef, a shipwreck, and various rock outcroppings and grottos in depths ranging from ankle deep to 12 feet. In the lagoon are countless fish and rays of all sizes (the rays have their “barbs” removed on a regular basis). As we entered the water, Sarah was a bit tentative and clung to my wetsuit. We started snorkeling — Sarah in tow next to me. We were both excited as a big ray gently glided up to us, just inches from our faces. I could hear her happily shouting into her snorkel, “Dad, did you see that!”
Within a half hour, Sarah became comfortable with her snorkeling skills and decided that I was going too slow. She let go of my wetsuit and proudly said, “OK, Dad, it’s your turn to follow me!” This went great until we swam up to a huge opening in a rock grotto and came face to face with several big sharks! I had forgotten to tell her the sharks were safely behind glass. She settled down and we watched the stealthy sharks in awe. Then I pulled a “typical tourist dad” move — grabbed my camera and said, “Sarah, get in front of the sharks and I’ll take your picture.””
This is close enough,” said Sarah, her eyes telling me, “Are you crazy? You want me to be eaten by sharks just for a photo?!” After several more attempts, I remembered a similar incident when I was a kid and my dad wanted me to get in the cab of a loud and scary-sounding steam locomotive. The memory made me back off, and we continued snorkeling for several hours.
After a huge lunch, we were ready for the highlight of the day — swimming with a bottlenose dolphin. This had been a goal of mine since watching the television version of Flipper in the ’60s. We joined up with six other people, met our dolphin trainer, entered the water and were introduced to Capricorn, a 40-year-old male dolphin. We learned that in the wild, dolphins typically live to be 25, but in captivity, with good food and care, they can live well into their 50s. Capricorn swam up to us and we each got a chance to shake flippers with him and rub his back. Dolphins are big! They sure didn’t look that big on a 13-inch black-and-white TV screen when I was a kid. At first Sarah was a bit overwhelmed — here she was, face to flipper with an animal that was easily 12 times bigger than she was.
After being introduced to Capricorn, we each gave him a kiss and rewarded him with a fish. I was witnessing my daughter’s first time kissing a boy. Now if I can just limit the kissing to dolphins until she is about 20 …
The rest of the dolphin encounter is a marvelous blur of playing dolphin games, having him do tricks, and watching Capricorn swim on his side around our group, tail and side flipper out of the water, pretending he was an attacking shark. The encounter ended by each of us getting towed around the lagoon. To feel his power, grace and speed was amazing. The 40-year wait for a dolphin ride was well worth it.Sarah and I went back to the coral reef lagoon and snorkeled until the park closed, and then we talked nonstop about how fun everything was until she fell fast asleep.
The Difference Between Pricey and Priceless
Our final adventure of the vacation was spending a day at Sea World. Again, it would have been easy to spend two to three days trying to see every exhibit. But thanks to the high towing speed of Schatzie the wonder dog, we were able to see everything in one long early-morning-to-late-in-the-evening show.
Although we enjoyed all of the shows, the highlight for us was the killer whale show, another thing I had wanted to see since I was a kid. This was when Sarah announced, “Daddy, I remember seeing Free Willy when I was just a kid. I’ve been wanting to see a killer whale show my whole life!” Time is relative.
Our vacation ended with an amazing hologram-like presentation and fireworks show in the middle of the Sea World lagoon. By the end of the show we were full of wonder and memories, and as tired as can be.
Due to Sarah’s school scheduling, we went to Orlando in the summer. But in my experience, the best time to visit anyplace in Florida is in the fall. The weather is more pleasant, the crowds are smaller, and some of the prices go down. If you are planning on visiting Discovery Cove, advance reservations are a must. Also, advanced reservations are a good idea if you plan to visit the Kennedy Space Center on a shuttle launch day.
It is now the end of the summer and I have paid off the damages the trip inflicted on my credit card. To steal a line from the companies that financed the trip: It was kind of pricey, but the fact that Sarah and I will fondly remember this trip and the quality time we spent together is priceless!
• Discovery Cove, 877/434-7268; www.discoverycove.com
• Kennedy Space Center, 321/449-4444; www.kennedyspacecenter.com
• Sea World, 800/327-2424; www.seaworldorlando.com