Grand Gathering: Day One - The Arrivals

 December 4, 2009

My day begins at the crack of dawn, literally. Even the birds aren't awake yet when GM wakes me up. He has a creative way of doing it too. He flips on every light in my room, including the ultrabright bedside/desk lamp. I'm blinded but awake. Perhaps a little grumpy too and very glad I had the good sense to shower before I laid down at 2am. I resist the temptation to kill a light, bawl out chipper GM and roll over for another half hour's sleep. This is the day we're going to Disney with the entire family. I've been dreaming of this trip ever since we bought Disney Vacation Club three years ago.

Let me stop now and introduce the cast of characters who will be joining us for this foray to magic land:

Our hosts are me and Grandpa Mohawk (GM for short). We are the auntie mame and grandfather of the family, also known as traveling gypsies and Disney fanatics. Years ago when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, the three of us started traveling together. I'd work out the details, GM would do all the driving, and my mom would dream up the places to see. When she died 5 years ago, we had 3 trips already planned. She asked us to look after eachother and go on all those trips without her. So we've been storing up our adventures in the hope we join her in heaven one day with a scrapbook of stories to tell.

Next comes my siblings and their families:

If you count them all, that's 17 people including 9 children and 8 adults. Yes, we adults are outnumbered on this trip. We hope the kids don't figure it out. Due to scheduling and logistics, we will be traveling to Disney in waves. Call it a sneak attack on Mouse House.

The first wave departs at 6:20am, or at least that's the time on the van as we pull out of the driveway. I've plugged our destination (BWI airport) into Dave the Navigator and GM has scraped the ice off the windshield. Our house is just a mile from the university farm. By the time we drive past its open barren fields the sky is just beginning to lighten. Dawn has cracked.

It's Friday morning. Our flight isn't until 9:20am, but GM wants to get an early start to avoid rush hour traffic. It doesn't seem like anyone's on the road to me. I guess school rush hour is worse than work rush hour. Hop on the expressway, Dave tells us our exit for the airport is just ahead and GM promptly blows right past it. Oh dear! Fortunately Dave comes to the rescue again, recalculating and directing us back to the airport without a round of bickering over missed exits, bad directions and inconsiderate drivers who cut you off.

The logistics problems set in at the airport drop-off instead. We're traveling with GM's scooter, my powerchair, one suitcase and a duffel bag. We opted to take ourselves to the airport so that also means having to ditch the van in a parking lot somewhere. Fortunately, a very helpful Southwest employee notices our struggle and jumps in to save the day. She checks our bags for us at the curb and gives us our boarding passes. All I need to do is wait inside the terminal with GM's scooter while he parks.

45 minutes later (I've had a good long time studying the leader board to see where our flight is coming from... Buffalo, NY), GM returns to me and we drive through security. BWI TSA is not as fluid or helpful as Orlando. There's a line for wheelies but not well marked, and once you're inside you are shoved into the line with non-wheelies. It takes a bit before the TSA agents notice us and take over. We need to do the same as everyone else. Dump our bags and shoes in the bins. That includes my purse, my cane, my reaching stick, my backpack, coat, hat, scarf and shoes. Then I get pulled aside for my chair to be scanned and swabbed with a chemical detection stick. And of course there's the pat down that always seems to tickle.

Fortunately once we're in the process of all that scanning and checking TSA agents step up to be very helpful. I'm always concerned my stuff will walk off on that Xray line while I'm stuck in the little glass room waiting for my chemical test to clear. But a word to the TSA agent in charge and my stuff is pulled aside to wait for me. The agent on the other end even recovers my laptop and stuffs it back into my backpack then loops it around my chair. I've finished recovering my purse, hat, scarf, cane & stick and am slipping on my shoes when GM gets through enough to start repacking his various stuff as well.

All told, I think it takes us about 20 minutes to get through security. That's why GM likes to go early.

On the other end, our flight is delayed about 40 minutes from Buffalo. Weather systems are rolling through the east coast this weekend. It's supposed to be raining in Orlando today but for right now it is clear and cold in Baltimore.

We have time for some breakfast, buy a snack and make a rest stop before having to report to the gate. We've opted to Gate Check our wheels which means they tag them and take them from us at the airplane to deliver on the other side. Southwest is usually champs about handling wheelies. Although I still won't let them forget the one time a baggage handler broke my battery on the way to Orlando. A gentle reminder to head baggage handler usually suffices. We board the plane first, opting for the front row so I don't have to struggle getting into the seat. This time I opt for the window seat. I think my fear of flying is starting to subside.

Our flight takes off around 10am. It's a smooth climb over the houses and roads below then into the clouds below. We pop out of the low cumulous clouds to bright sunshine. It looks all puffy and snowy just feet below us. Like being over a Train Garden snow blanket.

I pop in my headphones and pull up episodes of Scrubs to keep me occupied on the flight down and distracted from that turbulance the pilot tells to expect in Florida. We are flying into a storm. The journey is smooth until South Carolina then we get the rocking and rolling waves of air. At one point my stomach drops a few feet but the wacky adventures of Dr. J.D. Dorian keeps me from wigging out.

Two hours later, we're on the ground and it is raining. Hard.

MCO baggage handlers are late retrieving our wheels. Everyone has deplaned but us. The gate is full of people waiting to board. The ground crew asks us to vacate to the terminal so they can  board the plane. I play a bit of a chicken game with them ("Yeah, but where are my wheels? I'm not leaving without them.") but allow them to ferry me up to the gate in one of those chairs. If I can't hold the plane hostage I can at least hold the baggage manager captive until his people bring us our wheels. GM's scooter is waiting for us at the gate, soaking wet. Yes, they rolled it out of the plane, across the tarmac to the elevators in the rain. (Shakes head.) Fortunately it's not too bad, though as I see my chair being powered across the tarmac out the window below I kick myself for not thinking to cover the joystick with plastic. My chair arrives wet too. The baggage managers locate gobs of paper towels and give our wheels a good scrubbing. They've loosed GM's scooter tiller so much the gears have popped loose requiring someone to reach up inside and fix it. They do get us situated and none complained about it. I can't fault them for their helpfulness though I do wish their handling procedures were a tad better for wheels in MCO.

Grandpa Mohawk at the MCO Airport Christmas Tree

MCO Airport Tree

45 minutes after landing, we find ourselves at the Magical Express desk to check in. They have to order a bus with lift but that gives us time to make a bathroom break. When our bus arrives it's still raining. GM learns something new. He can stow his scooter under the bus and walk on. That way only one of us needs to sit in the rain to ride the lift to the top. It also saves the driver a ton of time only having to tie down one chair. We don't worry about our luggage since Mickey promised he'd take care of it.

Magical Express

Me Twittering on the Bus

Magical Express Texting

It's around 2pm when we pull into Disney. Because we're staying at the Boardwalk this night, we're one of the last stops on the bus. Port Orleans first, reminding me why it's nice to stay at Saratoga. You're always the first stop there. It's still raining at the Boardwalk when we get off and I do get a bit wet sitting up on the lift waiting for the driver to bring me down. But I get a great view of the decorations awaiting me.

Boardwalk Lobby

The lobby is stunning. Lighted garland with bows and ornaments in patriotic red/white/blue adorn the columns and dangle from the ceiling. Christmas trees are in the lobby on either side of the large gingerbread creation of Donald Duck's house. The miniature train set from American Pavilion chugs around the house and Donald (as Santa) is stuck half down the Chimney over a lit fire. Look to my left and there's an even more inviting sight, a blazing fire in the hearth of the sitting room. On a cold rainy day like this it's so welcoming.

BWV Sitting Room

Gingerbread House

Gingerbread Stich & Donald

Gingerbread Train

After a few minutes of Disney gazing I finally remembered why we're here. To check in! There's no line at the desk and our room is ready and waiting. I've done online check-in for ourselves. I don't know if that has any bearing on room readiness, but it is pleasant to find Disney is waiting for us.

We stop in our room to check it out. It's on the 3rd floor, a short walk from the elevator and Ooops, our keys don't work! I leave GM by the door and run down to the Front Desk to cut new keys. They send a runner up with me carrying one of those reprogramming devices so he can make sure the electronic works flawlessly this time. Disney Boardwalk staff don't want to take any chances we'd be delayed more. You gotta love that service.

Keys work, reprogram the lock and we're good to go. Inside I survey the room closely. The bed is just right... not too high and not too low. And yup, it has a roll-in shower (although the design of that lip could be a lot better) and overlooks the clown pool. It also has a weird trapezoid shape very unlike the room I stayed in solo with the Boardwalk View last year. And it's been completely redecorated with a flat screen LCD TV, new armoire and new upholstery.

We don't have much time to stay however. It's almost 3pm and we have some errands to run before that 5pm Candlelight Processional I want to try and catch. I drop off my electronics (laptop, wheelchair charger, pretty much anything that would get soaked in the rain. GM pulls out the rain ponchos and we cover our wheels and ourselves.

Our next stop is the Swan. We need to check in for my brothers since they are using GM's Sheraton points to stay the night. I'm loving this short walk to resorts. Makes the rain tolerable. Inside the Swan has decorated their swans with Christmas wreaths and there are trees everywhere. Check in was simple. The hotel already assigned the rooms as connecting which means both my brothers and their kids would have loads of quality time together that night. GM and I are quite happy to be staying across the canal at the Boardwalk instead.

Next we stop at the Bakery where we get to use the first of our Dining Plan credits. Since we're only staying the night I figure this is a great time to try out the Quick Serve plan. $80 for the night and we get 8 meals (2 kids since we added my brother's youngest to our reservation), 8 snacks and 4 mugs. We have until the next night at midnight to use them all. It makes a great gift to share with my cash-strapped brother with the 4 kids too. We each get a mug full of hot chocolate then hop the ferry to EPCOT.

The rain is still coming down but at a lighter drizzle. I'm hoping it clears up in the next hour for the concert. I'm also hoping we're not too late to get in line for the standby seating at Candlelight Processional. I've opted not to buy the dinner package this trip so I could have a flexible schedule for my family. Next year when we bring my aunt & uncle we'll do the package.

It's 4:45pm when we arrive at the American Pavilion. People are walking into the theatre from both sides and there seems to be plenty of empty seats. I ask the CMs on duty what's happening. They are letting people in now and seat us right away. We're at the top of the theater in the wheelie section. It's a great view of the panoramic display but also right out in the rain. No worries. We have plenty of ponchos.

We add a couple more ponchos to our legs, in hopes it'll keep the water from seeping into our shoes. We're both covered head to toe with only the tips of our noses and eyeglasses exposed. We've also bundled up with several layers of warm clothing underneath. A good thing too since the heavens really opened up then and it poured just as the concert began. I came down with a new HD camcorder and high quality still camera intending to film all the sights and sounds for you. But with that much rain, I didn't dare take any of my electronics out. So I'll have to paint the picture for you with words.

At 5pm the sky was just darkening, the rain falling and clouds heavy. The band all dressed in their best black-n-white came out onto the covered stage and started playing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a line of green-robed people carrying black umbrellas. They were processing into the theatre from stage right. Inside they lined up on the stage in a Christmas Tree formation with a giant Star display lit above. Next came hundreds of yellow-robed kids from various school choirs, two-by-two under umbrellas (one kid carried the umbrella and the other carried flickering candle lights) marching into the theater on both sides, down through the aisles and surrounding the crowd. Then came the Voices of Liberty Choir, the professional band of singers who perform in the rotunda at American Adventure, all dressed in their Christmas finery. And last came our celebrity narrator for the night... Steven Curtis Chapman, all the way from Kentucky.

The next hour was a retelling of the Christmas story mixed with several holiday choir favorites... Do You Hear What I Hear?, Joy To The World, and a triumphant Hallelujah Chorus to finish the concert. GM leans over to me mid-way and says "Do you think this counts as going to Church?" It's a beautiful recital. Considering the penance I'm doing sitting in the cold, rain streaming down my nose, I'm hoping the Big Guy notices I'm at least trying to honor the reason for the season.

When the concert concludes, Mr Chapman, in his folksiest Kentuckian voice, tells us a little anecdote as his momma would say back home: "If that didn't light your fire then your wood is wet." Then without missing a beat, he added, "But tonight it probably is wet. Still nothing a hot cup of cocoa can't cure."

Sounds like a good idea to me. We turn our chairs around and head right for the Liberty Cafe. Pull out those Dining Plan credits and order ourselves two large cups of hot chocolate, a juicy sandwich and dessert. My cell phone rings. It's a text from Bro1. They've landed in Orlando. (His kids had a half day from school so they were setting off mid-afternoon. Bro2's family has a full day of school and work so would fly in that night. Sis has activities planned through the night so opted for a Saturday afternoon flight instead.)

I text back that he's all checked in at the Swan and just needs to pick up his keys. We're eating in America. Let me know when you're here. And of course, drive safely, it's raining. No kidding, he says.

Just as we finish our meal and dry off a bit, Bro1 texts me again. They are in their room at the Swan, 10th floor, great view. I text back we're on our way.

A quick drive through the rain back to the Boardwalk area and we're in the lobby of the Swan. Ask someone which elevator to take and next you know we're knocking on Bro1's door. He has given us the heads up that his kids know nothing about the trip or who's coming. He and Red (their mom) want to watch the surprise on their faces as they discover just how big an adventure they're on. First up, answer the door and find their Grandpa and Aunt. MiniMe and Choo-Choo are ecstatic. They immediately ask who else is coming. GM has one of those senior moments and blurts out that Bro2 and cousins would be in that night. MiniMe stamps her foot and glares at her daddy, "You lied to us!" Oh to be found out by a child.

Red has something she wants us to see on the computer. A video they made that morning of the trip reveal to the kids. Seems their "elf on a shelf" left them a note last night telling them of the special treat awaiting them. At the end, MimiMe turns to her brother and explains what all those words mean. The world's biggest smile on her face, she exclaims "We're going to Disney!" ChooChoo seemed oblivious to the letter reading until that moment. Then he slapped himself across the face in the funniest "I must be dreaming" kid moments.

It's dark now and the rain has let up. We decide it's time to grab a bite to eat together. So we walk over to ESPN, a place I've never been. The wait was short though we had to play a little table shuffling once we got to the floor. Staff there must have been really tired. They tried to seat 7 people at a table for 4. No worries, we can combine tables and do the musical chair shuffle. At least there are plenty of empty tables around. We enjoyed just being together and checking up. The kids entertained themselves with iPods while the grown-ups caught up and went over the plan for the next few days.

Now I've learned with this group having rigid plans usually leads to disaster. We all have independent mindsets and different needs/desires. So when asked what the plan is, I answer with what GM and I intend to do and what the flight schedules are. The weather is also impacting things. My All Park Day for Saturday looks threatened, as does Bro2's trip to a water park. The important thing is that we're all together, and there's the MVM Christmas Party on Sunday.

By 10:30pm, the kids are getting cranky. 9, 6 and 2.5 year olds do not have much night time stamina. I snap a picture, the first in my "Grandpa with X Family" series. I want proof that they all got a chance to be in GM's Disney posse.

GM with Bro1 Fam
FROM LEFT: Grandpa Mohawk, Red, Bro1, BabyA, MiniMe, Choo-Choo

Then we part ways for bed, GM and I stopping at the Bakery for drink refills.

We're settled in our room by 11:30pm and I get the computer running. Must check the forecast for tomorrow. Rain, rain and more rain. But it's supposed to clear up by noon. Maybe we all can make that early breakfast at Captain's Grill in the Yacht Club. I made it for 9:30am.

Just after midnight my cell phone rings. It's Bro2. He's landed and his family made it to the Swan with Bro1's help. Since they aren't staying at a Disney resort no Magical Express for them. We did find them a good deal on Alamo car rental via Mousesavers, but Bro1 went over to the airport to lend them a hand too. There's six in that family. We have room for a couple of the kids with us, but Bro2 says they are exhausted. They're just grabbing a pizza and hitting the sack. Ok, glad you made it safely. See you in the morning for breakfast.

I climb into bed that night, plug my MP3 player into the iHome and fall asleep listening to a mix of Holiday tunes. The dreams in my head that night are not of dancing sugar plums but the sweet satisfaction of knowing I'll see all my family in Disney World (my home away from home) tomorrow. I turn to GM to share my happy thought. He's soundly snoring, covers thrown over his head.

Onto Day 2: Saturday Arrivals