Slice of Life: My most memorable Florida trip

We’re going to Disney World. Really. For the February break. I am not crazy but I am a grandfather now, so I have permission to do such crazy things. Now I know that our granddaughter, not quite seven months, is probably a little young for such a place, but we’re not going for her. Really, the reason we’re going is for her dad, who is the one person left on earth that has never been to Disney World.

Because I was working in Florida at the time, I went to Disney World maybe three weeks after it opened in 1971. It was impressive then, but with just one theme park and two hotels, there was absolutely no one who could have imagined the colossus it would become. In its first year, Disney World had 10.7 million visitors, with 100,000 on opening day. Everyone who visited me in Florida wanted to go to Disney World, so I went with them the first three or four times, but after that I pretty much just gave them directions.

We went once with our family in 1986 or 1987 and then again maybe five or six years later but that’s been about it. Don’t get me wrong — we had fun. I had lots of fun watching Captain Hook scare the pee out of little kids and watching cotton-candy-coated toddlers in strollers with wrappers and tissues stuck all over them. I had fun watching grown men pleading tearfully with their wives not to make them go on the “It’s a Small World” ride for the sixth time. I had fun watching paramedics tend to youthful grandfathers who ignored the medical restriction signs on Space Mountain.

Of course, roller coasters are much more fun in the present day. Modern gravity-defying machines compete with each other to see which one can bring the greatest number of vital organs to the throat without actually launching them onto fellow riders.

But as exciting as a roller coaster can be, it can’t compare to the thrill of actually traveling to Florida. The choices are grim. You can spend 24 to 30 hours at the wheel, white-knuckling down I-95, eating nothing but fast food and stopping maybe twice for a bathroom, or you can fly or take the train, either of which will be packed with “are-we-there-yets.” It is this last option that has provided me with perhaps the most memorable Florida journey.

I don’t know what possessed us but on this particular journey we had tried the train. The way down was long but uneventful. The trip back was another story. We had landed in a car that was relatively quiet but separated from the dining car by another that must have contained at least 70 screaming kids. Being the good dad trying to get his family a snack, I left my seat and headed for the dining car. I slid back the door to a scene that could best be described as a cross between “Animal House” and “Hellzapoppin’.” All I could see were children of all ages wearing Davy Crockett hats, Mickey Mouse ears, Donald Duck bills, Goofy ears, climbing, running, jumping, crashing, wailing, laughing, screeching and shouting over seats, boosters and strollers.

There were foam-sword fights, fist fights and food fights. Some desperate parents tried to corral their children to absolutely no avail. Others, like me, were heading for the dining car. I saw one dad who almost got to the end of the car only to be pulled back by his shirt collar into the morass, never to be seen again.

Steeling myself, I plowed through the pandemonium, got a tray of food and drinks and skillfully maneuvered through the hurling bodies back to the sanctuary of our quiet car. Visibly shaken, I described what I had just witnessed to my wide-eyed family, who now saw me as a hero who had gallantly braved the storm and returned with the goods.

In the middle of the night, I headed once more to the dining car for a small dessert. I paused at the sliding door after opening it to take in the aftermath. Except for the loud snoring of several parents and the occasional soft whimper of an infant, the field of battle was now eerily silent. It looked as though all the children had been loaded into a cannon and shot the length of the railroad car. Everywhere on every seat, armrest and aisle, was a hanging, leaning, drooping sleeping little human. My wife visited the restroom. Two children were sleeping in it. Toys, food, paper cups and clothes filled the aisle, shin deep. A conductor sat at the far end on a stool, leaning against the bathroom door, quietly weeping. It was over.

This time, some of us are driving and some of us are flying, including baby Lulu, who will be strolled onto an airplane for the 13th time. Perhaps I’d be looking forward a little more to 80-degree temperatures if it were a little colder here but what the heck. As assistant concierge, chief luggage bearer, baby-bottle washer and cook, I’ll have plenty to do. I’ll take the crowds and lines in stride, smile and do as I’m told.

We’re going to Disney World! Just don’t put me on a train.