Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Our Ocean Voyage - Part 2

Sunday dawned and it was our first morning on board. I tend to wake up early and my family likes to sleep in, so I slipped out of bed, put on my running clothes and headed down to the Deck 4 jogging track. It was a little rocky and I ran a little over a mile before I gave up. I headed up to deck 9, grabbed a cup of coffee and wandered around a bit. I found the fitness center which is pretty nice and has a beautiful locker room. I really enjoyed the quiet mornings on the ship, walking around as the sun was coming up.

Today was our first port call at Key West, but we weren't due to arrive until Noon. Our dining rotation was scheduled for our character breakfast this morning so I headed back to the room, got the family up. I took the girls out to the deck to look around and take some pictures while my wife finished getting ready.

For the character breakfast you sit with your regular dining group and your same servers. It was a lot of fun to get to know our table mates better and it was our first chance to see the kids really light up upon interacting with the characters.

Goofy, Pluto, Mickey and Minnie make their way through the room as the meal is served. They move pretty quickly, but we never felt rushed and we were able to get as many pictures as we needed with all of them. I remember being a little disappointed with the food, not necessarily the quality, but I still felt hungry after the meal. I hadn't yet clicked with the order more if you want more thing. During the meal the servers make funny hats for everyone out of napkins. They made my wife Pocahantas and I got done up as Capt. Jack Sparrow. The funniest one was when they took two plate lids and made our tablemate into Dumbo.
Arrr, where be the booty?!?
After breakfast the girls all begged to go to the kids club. I think there was a program with Snow White, so we dropped them off there. The guys then went out on the deck 4 promenade and watched the ship come into port at Key West while the ladies went shopping. They didn't realize at the time that the shops would close because we were coming into port, so my wife didn't get to put too much on the magic card.

A quick note about the magic card. When you check in the terminal each member of your party is given a key card. This is your room key and its also used to access your shipboard account so you never have to spend any real money while you're on the ship, you just put it on the card. Of course you have to be careful, but it became a running joke through the week. Don't worry about it, we'll just put it on the magic card.

We took our time and got off in Key West a bit after we docked. We didn't really have anything planned, so we just walked around the area by the port. The girls needed some sunglasses so we picked those up and then we decided to try one of the tours of the island. There are trolleys and little trains. We decided to try the little train because it looked neater, but in the end that was a mistake. I came to find out later the the trolley's had more stops and much more comfortable seats. We had to wait about 30 minutes for the tour to start, and then it took us all around the island, past the Hemmingway house, the southernmost point and was well narrated by the driver. The girls were pretty bored by it though. We ended up getting off at the first stop, which was about an hour later and almost back where we started. We saw a CVS right there and we needed to pick up a few things for the room, so we popped in there. This was the first time that I felt the ground sway even though I was on land, it was kinda funny.

Mallory Square
After that we were starting to lose the girls. They were tired and getting cranky. We tried to win them back with some ice cream, but that was a disaster. We walked back towards the ship through Mallory Square where things were just starting to get set up for the evening's festivities. Mallory Square is filled with buskers and vendors each evening where people gather to watch the sunset. We made our way back aboard and headed back to the room where we all relaxed a little bit and ordered some room service for a snack.

Later filled with people

We had plenty of time before our dinner, so I took one of the girls and walked around the ship. We watched some of the buskers on the dock and the fire jugglers from a safe distance. There is even a guy there with trained cats.

I'd really been looking forward to catching the sunset from Key West, as I'd heard that its an amazing site. Unfortunately, clouds in the distance blocked most of it. I did get some great pictures of some sail boats while we were out there though. We didn't realize it then, but we were sailing right out into those clouds and the rain they had inside.

After we watched the ship shove off,  we had dinner at Parrot Cay, which is a Caribbean Themed restaurant, and the same place we had breakfast. This was the first meal where I stopped worrying about looking like a fatty and ordered as much as I wanted. Our server always brought a few extra desserts anyway. They explained to us that whatever doesn't get served just gets thrown away, so there's nothing wrong with ordering more food. Afterwards we were all tired so we headed back to the room and went to bed.

Still not sure if this was a dog or an elephant. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Our Ocean Voyage - Part 1

So after months of planning and anticipating, our cruise was finally approaching. It would be the first cruise for all of us and the first Disney experience for me and the girls.  My wife had been several times when she was a kid, but hadn't been to Disney in years. As my regular readers will know, I actually did spend a couple of days on a cruise ship a few weeks before this which gave me an idea of what to expect and a little something to compare our experience to.

We drove down to Florida on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It wasn't the ideal day to drive, traffic was thick though not terrible and we made it to her parent's just at dinner time. We spent the next two days visiting with family and friends in Florida and warming up our bellies by eating great food from all our favorite spots in and around Boynton Beach. 

We had debated whether to drive up to Port Canaveral on Friday night and stay in a hotel or to stay at her parent's and drive up Saturday morning. In the end we decided to save the hotel money and drive up Saturday morning. It seemed like the wise decision until my mother called us during our drive Saturday morning and asked "Did you see the rocket launch?" Uh, no. It seems that a rocket to Mars was launched from Kennedy that morning. We spoke to some people later on the ship who said it was pretty cool to watch... but we missed it. No big deal, but disappointing.  Probably the last real disappointment of the trip.

Because I'd driven to the port a couple of weeks prior, I knew that we could see the ships in the distance from a highway bridge a few miles out, so I prepped the girls to look out the windshield. We started getting super excited as we could see the beautiful red stacks in the distance. It really is stunning the first time you see one of these enormous cruise ships up close, and they just kept getting bigger and bigger as we drove closer. Of course, we got stuck at a draw bridge right on the other side of the port and the excitement was almost unbearable.  The girls were fascinated by Goofy hanging off the back of the ship painting the name. "Is that the real Goofy, Daddy?" was all they kept asking.

From the moment we pulled into the port, you could tell that Disney was all about being friendly and making us feel welcome. They waved us through a gate where a shore cast member checked our passports and showed us where we could drop off our bags and passengers before I went to park. My wife was a bit nervous so we decided to stay all together and walk in from the garage. We dropped off our luggage and parked in the garage. We said good bye to our car for the week and walked into the terminal. At the walkway is another place where they check you in, and who is there but the same woman who was just at the drive way. We laughed and talked to her for a moment then went through security. 

When we got to check in I asked the cast member if there were any upgrades available. We had booked a oceanview stateroom, but our Travel Agent had told us that it could be possible to get a good deal on an upgrade at the pier. The cast member said that after she checked us in, we could go down to the end and see the supervisor about an upgrade. The check in was super quick. We filled out the health questionnaire, got our picture taken and were on our way. Down at the supervisor's desk we met another super nice person. There was one balcony room available and it was a Family stateroom, which was a bit larger than the regular room. I had a hard limit on what I wanted to spend for an upgrade and this room was just under it, so it was a no brainer. We moved up to the 8th floor with a balcony and couldn't be happier. One note of interest, they don't let you pay for the upgrade right there, but they put it on your shipboard account. This was ok, but I had wanted to pay for it from a different account, which turned out to be no problem at all.  

We had our first Mickey and Minnie sightings there in the terminal, but we decided not to wait for them, figuring there'd be plenty of chances to see them through the week. We went to the kid's club counter there in the terminal and the girls got their Mickey bands on. They allow them into the kids clubs and get scanned on entry and exit. They are a little bulky and we were a bit worried that they'd hate them, but the girls didn't seem to mind them at all. We only had one little incident with the bands, but I'll get to that later in the week. You'd think they'd be able to make them smaller, but its not a huge worry.

We stopped to get our embarkation photo done and then we boarded the ship. One cool thing they do when you board, they have two people there with microphones and they announce you boarding the ship. "Disney Magic would like to welcome aboard the Baker Family," they announced and we walked into the beautiful atrium lobby for the first time. Its a little overwhelming but they have a cast member approach you and direct you to where lunch is being served. You can't get into your cabins until 1:30 and it was just after 12.

First, I wanted to head to Guest Services where I had a few things to take care of. I was able to put some money down on our shipboard account to cover the upgrade. I also got us tickets to a special Tea with Alice on one of the sea days and I dropped off a couple of posters to get signed for the girls. You can drop off two items per stateroom and they'll have the characters autograph them. We'd found a princess poster at Wal-Mart while doing our last minute shopping and asked them to have them signed by the princesses. 

We made our way up to Topsiders, the buffet up on the 9th deck and though it was crowded we found a table and ate our first shipboard meal. I don't remember what we all ate, but I know we were happy and started to realize that we were finally on board after all the anticipation. The girls kept wanting to know if we were moving yet, if we were on the water yet, if we were on the ship yet. When we finished eating it was just  after the time that they opened the rooms, so we headed down to our stateroom. We were on the 8th deck, on the starboard aft side (that's the back right). The room itself was fantastic, bigger than we had hoped, with the famous split bathrooms that are in most of the staterooms on Disney. It really helps when a full family is getting ready. Our luggage hadn't arrived yet so we dropped off what we had and decided to roam the ship a bit. 

We found a little sundeck on the back of the 7th deck and took some pictures. You could see the huge space shuttle building at Kennedy off in the distance. We were so glad to finally be aboard! We got our first free ice cream and mommy and daddy got their first margaritas and we exhaled deeply. We stopped by the Kids Club to check it out and the girls didn't want to leave! A good sign of things to come indeed!
The only time these girls relaxed the whole week

This is what Daddy will look like later this week.

Our first ice cream of the trip
After we wandered a bit it was time for the the safety drill. I wouldn't normally mention this, but it turned into another one of those magical moments that would define our trip. For the safety drill you have to go to your appointed assembly point and they give you a little speech about what to do in an emergency and such. Our assembly point was in one of the restaurants and we were pointed to a table in the corner. A really sweet cast member approached us in her "assembly leader" vest, hat and life jacket and started talking to the girls. She talked to them about their favorite princesses and told them little stories. She was sure to let them know that she'd be there to help them if there was an emergency and was just generally super nice. We asked her what she did on the ship and she told us that she's a "performer." She told us about the princess gathering later that week, which of course I knew about from all my research, and my wife and I smiled at each other. It became a joke between us that maybe she's a princess. We were certain that she was one, though I joked that she's probably one of the wicked stepsisters. Well, I won't ruin the surprises yet, but we would be seeing plenty of her during the trip.

After drill it was time for the sail away party up on the pool deck. They handed out streamers and the girls got right up front for this one. It was a fun show with all the characters and plenty of singing and dancing. At the end they pulled all the kids up on stage as the ship started to sail away from port. We had a great time, met some people around us who we'd stay friendly with for the rest of the cruise and heard that legendary ship's horn for the first time. If you didn't know, the Magic's horn plays "When You Wish Upon A Star." I got a little choked up when I heard it I must admit because I'd been thinking about this trip for so long now.

After the party we went back to our stateroom to get our luggage and watch us sail away a bit more. We watched the harbor pilot boat come up to the ship and the pilot jump aboard. We all waved and yelled "Thank You" and he yelled "Bon Voyage". The cabin next to us were smokers and we were a bit concerned at this point that we'd be smelling their smoke during the whole trip, but really only this first time was it bad. We watched the land move away, unpacked our things and settled into our home for the week.

We had late seating for dinner, so we had time to change and get to our first restaurant by 8:15. The ship has three restaurants and you rotate through each of them on an assigned basis keeping the same table and the same servers throughout. Here is where Disney pulled off another bit of magic. We were assigned a table of ten, with the four of us and two other families of three, each with a daughter who was also 6. We couldn't have asked for a better group to spend the week with. Dinner that night was great, though I think we were all just not yet ready to really take advantage of the "order whatever you want, as much as you want" freedom of the thing. We started to get to know each other and the girls all hit it off. 

Dinner was in a restaurant called Animator's Palate which is dedicated to Disney animation. The decor is entirely black and white with pencil drawings on the walls and some video screens that display some sketches. As the night goes on, though, it starts to fill with color until Fantasia Mickey comes in and makes the room fill with color. It was pretty neat and a great intro to the fun that the week would bring. Dinner and dessert were great and afterwards the girls all begged to go to the kids club. We dropped them off and met the other couples for a couple more drinks in one of the many lounges on board to round out the night.

We found our first towel animal back in the room when we finally got back, exhausted from our first day on board and ready for whatever adventures were to come.  

Our Ocean Voyage - Prologue

Now that I've had a few days to catch up, I'm ready to start blogging our trip. Of course its been a couple of weeks so there may be details I forget, but this should be a fun way to look through all our pictures and various trinkets we collected to remember. I only took about 800 photos from Thanksgiving and the cruise. 

I'll start with some history. My wife and I have gone on a few weekend trips, but we haven't taken a real vacation. We both have family in south florida, so when we've taken extended trips over the last couple of years, it has been for visits and not true vacations. No offense intended for anyone, but visiting family is NOT a vacation. So we've traveled quite a bit, but not taken a vacation. We had decided that this year, for the girls' 6th birthday we would take them to Disney World. So my original plan was that sometime in September or October we would take the girls to Disney for a couple of days, then continue south, drop them off at the grandparents and take a few days to go to the Keys and spend some adult time. However, I forgot this plan when I volunteered to coach soccer for the fall, so it became impossible for me to get away for a week in those months. 

That pushed us back into November and we started looking at spending Thanksgiving at Disney. The more I thought about that, the less I liked the idea. Taking the girls to Disney by itself is decidedly not a vacation for me, as it would only be running and going, no relaxation. Plus, I don't think we could have dropped the kids off at the grandparents for Thanksgiving and take off by ourselves. I honestly don't remember how we shifted thinking to a cruise, but when we started looking into it, it seemed perfect. Access to the Disney characters, fun for the kids, relaxation for parents, food, drink, aahhhhhh yes. We priced the week of Thanksgiving and it was pretty ridiculous, however the week after Thanksgiving was pretty well priced, so we booked it thinking a week away from school in Kindergarten wouldn't really hurt the girls. 

Now, since we needed to be in Florida on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we really couldn't come up with any reason not to go for Thanksgiving and visit the families. Believe me, we tried and tried, but nothing worked. So the plan was complete. We drive to Boynton Beach on Wednesday, spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws, Friday with my mother and then to Port Canaveral on Saturday to board the Disney Magic.

I have to make a confession here. I think at this point I became a little bit obsessed about planning for this trip. I was definitely the most excited in the family at first. We made the reservations in July, so it was hard to fathom but I started researching activities and such. I didn't want the girls to miss out on anything that they could experience on the ship, and I wanted to make sure that we took advantage of everything the ship had to offer. I found some message boards dedicated to Disney cruises and made myself as expert as I could. I do feel that this all worked out for us, because we were able to experience a lot of special moments and knew some secrets that others had previously discovered. I'll take some credit for that.  

In fact, it was doing this research that I found out about the 5K held on the Disney island Castaway Cay. I thought it would be a lot of fun to run, though at the time I wasn't yet running. It was the spark that started me on my running journey.

Now the only thing left to do was to wait for the trip to come. We had a lot of fun talking about Mickey's ship. We even had Mickey call the house to tell the girls about the trip. It seemed like it would never come, but it did and what a trip it was.

more to come...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Back to Life, Back to Reality

So when we left our intrepid hero, he was headed off to a lovely relaxing vacation with the family. Aaaaahhhh, that was nice.  Now its over.  Well, its been over for some time now, but getting back into the routine of life after vacation left me with little energy for blogging. I'm going to try my hand at travel writing and make a few posts to review our cruise vacation, but since I've been focusing this blog on my fitness, i'll start with a post about that. In short though, our cruise was fantastic. All four of us had a great time, each of us getting to do the things we wanted and we can't wait to do it again. The only bummer was that we missed stopping in Grand Cayman because of the weather and my wife was really looking forward to shopping there. On the bright side, I saved the money that my wife was going to spend in Grand Cayman!

As for running, while I wasn't pushing myself while on vacation, I did manage to get several runs in. Thanksgiving morning I ran a little under 3 miles at my in-laws house. It was a tough slog but I got it done. Then I ran twice on the ship, a little over a mile each time. The first time on the jogging track and the second on the treadmill. I was getting up early almost every day, watching the sun rise and checking out the ship while most people weren't around, so I used that time to exercise. Then on Friday when we visited the Disney island called Castaway Cay, I ran a 5k. Short story, it wasn't my best effort but I struggled through it and finished in just over 35 minutes.

I'd been reading about the run online for a while now and I was really looking forward to it. I'd read various different reports about the course and the organization of the thing, as well as different stories about the swag that they gave away, so I didn't know what to expect. The ship newsletter the night before said that you had to sign up on-board at 9:30 and the run would start on land at 10:15. I made it down to the meeting point on time and they were taking people's names and stateroom numbers. There were about 30 people there running and for the most part they seemed very fit. I guess you don't get too many casual joggers who want to run on vacation.  The group left the ship together and took the tram out to the start point. The crew member in charge had given the group the choice to walk to the start or take the tram. Two people said tram and nobody else spoke up so we took the tram.  I heard several people griping about it on the way, but I didn't mind so much. We got out to the start point and they showed us the course on a map. it was very well marked on the island too, so no getting lost. They gave us each bib numbers to keep and after a group picture we were on our way.

The weather wasn't too bad, sunny and in the low 70's, but for me who was used to running in the cold, it was hot. I started near the back of the pack, but still went out too quickly for me. I just tried to stay in touch with the back group of runners. I realized into the first mile that its important for me to follow my regular routine and warm up, because i was struggling more than I normally do. I walked through the water station at the end of the first mile and then took off.  The front runners were starting to return from the turnaround point at this time and I was feeling pretty bad. I kept pushing and made it through the second mile and stopped to walk again. I had to do two more short walk breaks in the third mile, but once I got to the last 1/2 mile or so, I ran again. There were only a couple of people behind me and 2 who were at my pace. I passed them both with about a quarter mile to go. I heard the man try to encourage the woman to pick it up and finish strong, but she didn't have it.  He came running past me near the finish.  I thought about trying to out kick him, but then I noticed that they were taking pictures of us finishing, so I let him get far enough ahead so I could get a solo picture.  I checked my watch across the line and saw 35:14.  They gave us a finishers medal and later I got a certificate sent to my stateroom.

The race was a lot of fun and then I got to spend the day on the beach. Considering how much I had eaten that week and the fact that we stayed up late the night before trying to help our friends finish off a bottle of cuban rum, I did ok.

When I got home, I tried to focus on getting back into my 4 day routine. I ran 1.5 miles on Tuesday and did some weights, then did 3 miles on Wednesday and another 1.5 on Friday with weights again. Sunday I went out to the greenway and did my 3.5 miles there.  I felt great through that run. I realized that if I can maintain a consistent approach, it'll make everything less of a struggle. So this week I'm doing the same thing and I can't wait to run on Sunday.

I don't have any races planned at the moment, but I'm going to start to increase my mileage after the first of the year. At the very least, I want to be able to run the 10K Peachtree Road Race next summer and a few more races along the way.