Saturday, 15 January 2011

Mice, Ice and Magic (Not forgetting the dolphins)

Anxiously waiting for take-off
With his eye on an increasingly difficult weather situation Rolf took the decision to make a break for Gatwick a day early in a bid to beat the snow.  With the motorway closing behind us, and the airport closing in front of us, we crawled through the swirling snow in trepidation to catch our plane to Florida.  The situation looked dire with all aircraft grounded and mounting crowds putting pressure all amenities.  We were so fortunate to have a hotel as many people were literally sleeping on the floor.  Rolf and I could hardly breathe as we envisaged our holiday that Rolf had been planning all year,  being spent in an airport terminal.

Operating Instructions for Ground Crew attached to Tilly's Chair

Tensions were high with hundreds of stressful, personal dramas being played out all around us, with the snow showing no signs of stopping.  After two days there came a break in the weather which presented the smallest window of opportunity.  With expert care from the highly pressurised ground staff at Gatwick, we managed to negotiate 'broken' lifts and escalators and make our way to the departure lounge, (with four suitcases and all of Tilly's respiratory machines in our hand-luggage), by being led through a labyrinth of corridors to a service lift.  Just making the gate on time,  Rolf dismantled Tilly's chair and wrapped it in cling film, and then, miraculously, against the odds, we found ourselves at 38,000 feet winging our way to Orlando.  A gin and tonic has rarely tasted so good!

We made it
We had transferred Tilly to her seat from the aircraft aisle wheelchair, using the 'emergency transfer sling' which left the ground crew open-mouthed in amazement at such a brilliant device.  We supported Tilly in her seat with our coats, blankets and pillows and settled down to be entertained by the fabulous 'in-flight' entertainment system.  Interestingly, we were not disturbed at all during the flight by the British Airways Cabin Crew with offers of any assistance.  The lack of on board customer service and the sad decline in the catering product since our days of flying for BA didn't bother us one jot as we were just so relieved to be on our way.

After negotiating our way through Orlando airport's rather complex arrival system which involves being finger-printed, collecting and re-depositing the baggage and a short train ride, it was heaven to be warmly greeted by a delightful gentleman called Robert who delivered our wheelchair accessible car, complete with 'sat-nav' to the kerbside. 

 Rolf mastered the driving immediately, and the car was perfect for all of our needs, but sadly, even with the sat-nav, I failed miserably to master the American highways which led to many an unintended detour and the occasional frank discussion between driver and navigator!  Plus ca change!  I was also surprised by the volume of traffic on the roads as we did spend many an hour playing "I Spy" in long delays on the way to and from our activities.

Welcome Aboard the Griffiths-mobile

The wheelchair-accessible villa more than exceeded our expectations  It was perfectly located; tastefully decorated, fully-equipped and had a swimming pool, hot-tub and a pool hoist!  It also came with the support of Sven, a very helpful property manager, who attended to all our queries, but did have to break the news that the pool hoist was 'kaput'!  Never daunted, with emergency transfer hoist in tow, we found ourselves toasting our safe arrival in spite of any technical difficulties.

This is the life!
One of the first jobs, after filling the gigantic fridge with holiday goodies, beer and margaritas, was to put up the Christmas Tree that we found in the garage and 'trim up' for the season, which did feel strange with outside temperatures of 27 degrees,  We didn't feel odd for long, however, as the temperature fluctuated wildly from red hot to sometimes leaving a ground frost and ice on the top of the pool cover.  The coldest December on record according to Sven!  Hey! Hoh!  Beats getting sun-burned I suppose!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

One of the prime destinations of our trip was to Hogwarts at Universal's Islands of Adventure.  We are huge fans of Harry Potter as Candice has been reading the books to Tilly and I and has taken us as far as The Goblet of Fire thus far - what a Star!  We were shocked by the huge numbers of fellow devotees pouring into Hogsmead, but felt so thrilled to find ourselves wandering through the streets of Diagon Ally, surrounded by so many familiar JK Rowling inventions.  In spite of the crowds, and huge queues, we were eventually made it into the Castle which was brilliant.  Tilly was able to do the Castle tour, and then waited with one of us whilst the rest of us went on the roller coaster.  Daddie, Candice and I all agreed that it was absolutely mind-blowing!  Certainly, one of the most amazing rides that we have ever been on.  Awesome!  But be warned, it is so fantastic that the park had reached its capacity of 50,000 people and was closed by 1100 on some days!

 Spinal surgery and vertigo aside, Tilly is not a great fan of the scary rides, so Animal Kingdom is one of her favourite parks where she feels 'up close and personal' with her beloved Disney Characters.  Candice and I did queue for 90 minutes for a two minute roller coaster ride here whilst Daddie and Tilly enjoyed the parade and meeting the stars of the show.  I must confess that I found it quite surprising and most endearing that, in spite of the fact that Tilly seems so grown-up most of the time, the highlight of any day was meeting up with her favourite characters.  They all seemed so delighted to meet Tilly too, and I hope they realised just how much their attention meant to her. 

 On one of the warmer days before Christmas we braved Blizzard Beach water park, complete with 55 mph hour, free-fall, death-drop, water-chutes where we joked "with slides like that, who needs enemas!".  It was so inspired an idea to turn a 'ski-resort' into a water-resort complete with gondolas, toboggan races and the luge.  We thought it was brilliant, and the staff went out of their way to accommodate Tilly on the various attractions by providing a water-proof wheelchair and offering their assistance wherever possible.  Tilly did have a ride up to the summit of one of the highest peaks on the wheelchair-accessible gondola, but had more sense than to access the bob-sleigh down again.  With the help of the emergency access sling Tilly spent most of her time luxuriating with Daddie in the wave pool, whilst Candice and I terrified ourselves on the pistes.
Daddie and the 'lesser-spotted' Speedos!

It felt so wonderful to be outside eating lunch in our swimsuits, but it was also wonderful to jump back into our warm clothes as the unseasonal chilly winds blew in.  The girls also noted that Daddie was sporting a pair of 'Speedo' trunks, circa 1989, so  they kindly added another item to their list to Santa for an alternative item of  Daddy swimwear!     I have to add how mighty glad I am that I drew the long straw and took to the slides and was not captured in my swimsuit!

The Griffiths' Camp
Poor Tilly had a very rough couple of days following the water park and was confined to quarters with a horrible bout of tummy troubles - the suction unit was in constant demand and our hearts sank at the thought that this might be the start of something sinister.  All of a sudden we felt a very vulnerable to be such a long way away from Tilly's Respiratory Specialist and GP who had both taken great care to nurse Tilly through a nasty chest infection just before this trip.  It was a tense couple of days.  Rolf was in such a flim-flam that when he took Candice out to Seaworld and having paid for parking he discovered that he'd gone without the entrance tickets!  After this 'Hamlet cigar' moment they went off to Universal Studios, paid for some more parking, and tried to make sure that Candice continued to get the most out of her holiday.  It was such a relief when our prayers were answered and Tilly's colour returned and she showed signs of improvement.

I've got my holiday buddy back!
We joined the other 99, 996 visitors to Disney's Magic Kingdom on Christmas Eve, which, although was challenge to get through the crowds with Tilly's powerchair, lived up to its name and was magical.  Specially trained staff 'found' us in the masses and led us to the specialist zone designated for wheelchair users to watch the Christmas Parade.  It was breath-takingly glorious, and quite choking as it seemed that each and every character waved and blew kisses to Tilly, whose eyes shone in wonder and delight.  Rolf and I were completely 'finished' when Santa bent towards Tilly from high up on his sleigh and called "Happy Christmas Princess!" to Tilly.  We blubbed for the rest of the day.

Minnie Magic

I believe.......
With all the important jobs done: cookies and whiskey for Santa (couldn't find any mince pies) and water and carrot for the reindeer, the Griffiths' clan flopped into bed full of anticipation of a Christmas Day of a lifetime.  It was such a relief to see in the morning that Santa hadn't forgotten us and had filled our stockings with left some special Christmas holiday presents.

A sunny Christmas morn!

Blessed with warm weather and sunshine and kitted out in new bathing attire from Santa, we made our way for breakfast at Discovery Cove, the beginning of one of the most fabulous days of my life.  We entered an oasis of tropical calm, far, far from the madding crowds.  The serenity and beauty of the 'park' was so therapeutic, and the customer service beyond compare.  On the day of Tilly's diagnosis, way back in the mists of time, I promised that we would one day swim with dolphins.

A dream come true

Beyond words

A rare and beautiful smile
I hope that these few photographs of our encounter with the dolphins at Discovery Cove give some insight into the magic of the event, given that you have to accept that these beautiful creatures are not free to swim in the wild.

The whole experience is quite exceptional and although it does cost as arm and a leg, there is no parking fee; the food is delicious, plentiful and included in the price; free beer and snacks all day and a definite Caribbean atmoshpere with a live steel band in the background,

Beach buggy on silver sands
The range of activities included snorkeling through a coral reef, a lazy river through a tropical bird aviary, and feeding the rays, which was actually quite scary.  All equipment and wet-suits are provided, and the dolphin encounter is filmed and photographed by professionals for an additional charge.  It would be a strong man that could actually manage not to purchase such souvenirs, so we coughed up and vowed to live on nachos for the rest of the holiday!

Daddie is not sure about this
The only reservation that we have, is that there was just the one wheelchair-accessible changing/shower room which naturally meant rather a delay at the end of the day.  We did have the opportunity to pass this on to the staff who seemed very keen to make everything just perfect for all visitors.

Daddie was amazing and took the time and trouble to create a scrumptious turkey dinner, with all the trimmings, (including home-made cranberry sauce) for us on Christmas evening.  However, all that sun, fun and activity proved too much for Tilly who fell fast asleep during the feast.

The Kennedy Space Centre was an awesome place to visit because it was pretty much 'real', yet still 'out of this world.  The tours are fascinating, and a lot of the exhibits and adventures are very much a part of our history and of great interest to the girls.

Preparing to land
We went out to the viewing gallery for the launch pads for the Space Shuttle programme,which was so absorbing, but with such strong cross winds that Tilly's hand was actually blown off her controls.

Glad we're not in with the dolphins today!
We learnt that that space exploration had resulted in many great discoveries with useful applications here on Earth.  However, you many have noticed from the photos that Tilly took her Neater Arm Support everywhere we went and they caused a sensation at every turn, even in the Kennedy Space Centre.

It has to be said that almost everywhere we went Tilly's needs were addressed with genuine care and attention - all except for Disney's Hollywood Studios.  Not sure whether all the staff had had a late night on the egg-nog, but the vast majority showed little understanding of a little girl in a packed park with sub-zero temperatures.  "Susan" barked at Tilly, 'The line's closed' when she joined a queue of six children to meet Minnie Mouse, without the slightest sprinkle of Disney politesse and magic.  Fortunately, Tilly met up with Mickey Mouse later who was charming and delightful, and Tilly soon forgot her disappointment.

Magical Mickey
We did make a point of sharing our disappointments with the Guest Services Representative on departure, who duly wrote a few notes on a scrap of paper and gave us the impression that it would be jettisoned into the waste-paper basket just as soon as we were out of the door.  Never mind, it made us feel better and, in any case, we actually left the park with an over-riding sense of awe at the most amazing light show in the Avenue of Americas, complete with fake snow and Bing Crosby's "I dreaming of a White Christmas" in the air.

Disney pulls it off!
With the theme parks reaching capacity most days it was simply heaven to have a day 'away from it all' in a natural setting at Boggy Creek to enjoy a simple picnic and Daddie's much longed-for Air Boat ride.  Once again, Tilly's 'emergency transfer sling' came into its own and we all climbed aboard for the ride of our lives.

Pit Stop
It was fantastic!  We literally took off and flew inches from the surface of the shallow reed beds at breath-taking speeds.  It was so exhilarating and so wonderful to all be together to enjoy such a unique experience.

For just one day, there were no crowds,  no cast members, no characters, no animatronics, no music, no parades, no lights, no barriers - just the rush of adrenalin and the force of the wind as we roared over the wide, wild open waterscape, filled with 'gators and crocs and a myriad of different birds.  Daddie was in his element, and we all agreed that it was a real BLAST!

So very cool!
We returned to the parks and enjoyed a day at Universal Studios where Donkey from Shrek had us in pleats with his ad-lib remarks to his visitors and we were treated to Macy's Christmas Parade.  Before going home to yet another one of Daddie's wonderful culinary creations, Candice and I had a ride on the rocking roller coaster, a death-defying, vertical take off, that loops the loop forwards and back, spirals and spins, complete with a classic track of your choice.  I chose ZZ Topp to accompany me on this wicked ride, and I expect my heart rate to return to normal and my legs to stop shaking any day now!

The only way is up!
We once again decided to join the other 99,996 people at Magic Kingdom on New Year's Eve so that Tilly could see her favourite Disney Characters again.  Tilly beamed as she met up with the Princesses, the Fairies and Mickey and Minnie, never minding how long she had to wait in line.  Occasionally, a Cast Member would take Tilly on a quicker route, but generally, all of the entrances were wheelchair accessible.

Tilly loves these mices to pieces
We were coping quite well with the throngs of folk at Magic Kingdom on 31st December 2010 until the staff started handing out 'blowers' so that the masses could trumpet in the New Year!  At this rather noisy moment we decided to watch one last parade and head home for a champagne and seafood celebration supper.

True to style, Daddie cooked up an glorious meal and the girls looked ravishing as befitted this very special occasion.  We toasted each other and absent friends as we counted down to the New Year.

Ready for the New Year!
We managed to squeeze in a visit to Seaworld and were amazed and delighted at how very quiet it was compared to the other parks.   It seems that the footfall has drastically reduced since the tragic death of one of the staff during a show.  Rolf was literally running into all the open spaces and just luxuriating in being able to move so freely!

Tilly would make a new figurehead
   Even the new roller coaster has not enticed the crowds back to this Park as yet, so Candice was able to hop on and off them whilst Tilly went around and enjoyed the various attractions on offer.

All too soon it was time to pack up the bags, load the car and aim for the airport.  We thought we'd get lost 'just one more time with feeling' and found ourselves with just minutes to spare to deliver our car back to the very delightful Robert who was waiting, just as he had said he would be.

The Ground Crew at Orlando were super-helpful and the Dispatcher of the aircraft who looks after the passengers using wheelchairs took all the details of Tilly's 'emergency transfer sling' as he had never seen anything so good in all his years of experience!

We settled in for the night flight back to Gatwick and were once again studiously ignored by the Air Cabin Crew.  The aircraft landed in good time and we made it back to the airport hotel for a snooze before a special reunion with friends that I'd met over thirty years ago.

The relief for Rolf seemed palpable.  The most amazing trip that he'd worked for and planned for so intensely over the last year had come to an close and he'd achieved all that he dared hope for.  In spite of the challenges, all his hard work had paid off, and he gave us all a holiday that we will treasure forever.

Mission Accomplished!    

Rolf mountaineered us back up the motorways to Staffordshire in a very quiet car.  We all were on that 'other planet' counting our blessings for such a wonderful holiday and safe travel; lost in dreams and memories of the land of mice and magic.


Bonnie said...

Well done! I'm so happy for you that it was everything you dreamed of...and the rest by the sound of it! I'm sorry about your experience with BA... It sounds al too redolent of mine when I went to Florida... Must be something about transatlantic ones... Was it an unspoken thing among cabin crew in your day? ( y'know, whatever you do, don't draw the short straw and end up on a transatlantic!') I suppose there will be the slightest element of jealousy, in that we get to fly for eight hours, then disembark to enjoy the delights of Florida; you cabin crew get to... Turn round and go home!! Still no excuse is there? Well, happy new year any how. See you soon, lots of love, Bon.

Jibreel said...

sounds like an epic trip. thanks for sharing, just the break my exam revision needed. think the service depends on the airline, BA tend to ignore u but qantas border on the annoying. they prowl the cabin at night checkin 2 c ur awake by shining a torch in ur face. dead helpful tho

Anonymous said...

WOW Tilly. No matter what, you always try everything. I've seen your videos on YouTube as well. You are an inspiration to us all Tilly and we should follow your example.

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