Coasters, Big Games and Big Game

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When you’re vacationing for a full week with 14 people in one house, you will not emerge unscathed, no matter how much finger-crossing you might engage in. Wednesday was the tipping-point day for our party. (How about that: Malcolm Gladwell makes an appearance in both parts of a Disney Diary!) Big Dave’s wife, Angela, had been feeling dizzy, and on this day would land in a local hospital for observation. (No sense in stringing you along: She’s now fine; it was her medication.) When we were shifting cars and vans in the driveway in preparation for an early start, one of the vans locked itself, keys inside and motor running, and we had to call Triple-A. I think all the airbags and other safety devices they put in cars these days are fantastic, but I don’t get this one — a vehicle that locks itself about a minute after all doors are closed. What might happen to anyone did happen to us, allowing lines to develop over at the Kingdom.

And develop they did on a glorious Wednesday. It got so crowded, in fact, that by noon it was shoulder to shoulder in Liberty Square. That was about the time that Grandma, who had been foreswearing the use of a wheelchair despite our urgings, got tangled with another guy and went down, hard. She was ministered to by a Disney mobile medical unit; as she sat there, we worried about her hip, which is artificial, but that turned out to be fine. Her nose was bruised and perhaps broken. She would spend the rest of the day in a wheelchair with an ice-pack to her face.

With Grandma on the mend, we went for milder entertainments. Mary Grace clapped along at “Country Bear Jamboree” — after all these years, I remembered the lyrics to “Blood on the Saddle” — and she and Jack went on their first-ever roller-coaster ride, “The Barnstormer at Goofy’s Wiseacre Farm.” And then, at 3 p.m., a miracle occurred: The kids were polled as to whether we should press on to Frontierland once more, or return to the house for a swim in the pool. The pool won unanimously. So overwhelming is life in the Magic Kingdom, even children can get enough of it — albeit after three days.

The swim was great fun, but after dinner our Day of Living Dangerously continued when Grandma and Wendy, our beloved nanny, tried to salve the wounds of the prior 12 hours with a pitcher of Manhattans. This led to a spirited discussion — euphemistic term, that — about child-rearing methodology, concerning which Grandma and Wendy held equally firm if diametrically opposed opinions. Lucille and I stayed well beyond the fray. Next morning, Grandma insisted that last’s night’s batch of cocktails had been superstrength, but I pointed out again that Manhattans are booze-on-booze, and by nature tricky.

        Thursday — last day — we headed for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Daddy, of course, was happy about this, and the kids were sanguine. They were having the week of their life, and whatever might come next was fine with them.

        The animal park is only five years old, and it’s five times larger in acreage than the Magic Kingdom; it’s a different species of theme park altogether. The attractions here range from the very fake (dinosaurs, after all) to the very real (even if not specifically native to Orlando). We did what seemed the safe thing after entering the park, and tacked sou’ sou’east for Dinoland, U.S.A. Who doesn’t like dinosaurs?

        While we older folks — ages six and up — were investigating the considerable pleasures of Dinoland’s rollercoaster (“Primeval Whirl”) and thrill ride (“DINOSAUR”), the wee ones were busy in “The Boneyard,” which is just about the world’s best playground, with tube slides and shaky walkways and mysterious talking doors everywhere. It shouts “Fun, fun, fun!” But when I arrived there, Wendy looked more concerned than usual. “We’re on a Jack hunt,” she told me. I did not know, at the time, that “The Boneyard” had only a single entrance and exit, and that the Disney attendant would not let a three-year-old leave of his own volition. So the same image popped into my mind that has been popping into every parent’s mind the last few weeks, the image of that poor girl being abducted right here in Florida. I started running about, and as I was zooming up a boardwalk, Jack came zooming down toward me. “Daddy!” he shouted, oblivious to my panic. “I found a sandbox!” In “The Boneyard” you can negotiate your way through an overpass that leads, indeed, to a huge sandbox. Jack had done so, and was proud of himself. I, for my part, gave him a hug, and an admonition to stray no more.

        Much of Animal Kingdom looks as if it were designed by whoever gave the Indiana Jones films their look. There are old Jeeps and baked African villages and ersatz Moroccan bazaars to wander through. There are, of course, the Disney bare necessities — plenty of rides and shows — in addition to the animals that give the place its name. We attended a performance of “Tarzan Rocks” that was electric. Mary Grace was transfixed by the roller-blading denizens of the jungle, and Luci and Marie were equally mesmerized by the rope-swinging title character, who certainly has no difficulty finding dates in greater Orlando. “When he came out,” I said to my wife, “I thought that body of his was, like, a character’s body — you know, fake, like Mickey's. I think I've been in Disney too long."

        Our favorite ride in Animal Kingdom was “Kali River Rapids,” which 10 of us did once, and eight of us did twice. It comes with a warning: “You will get wet, you may get soaked.” About three-quarters of our crew got soaked each time, as our round raft plunged down the rapids. This must be the most popular attraction in the vast Disney universe, come August.

        I had pre-arranged for end-of-the-day attendance at another new Disney offering, a Magical Gathering. Magical Gatherings offer groups of eight or more a chance to avail themselves as a group of a specially embellished aspect of Disney World. There are Magical Gatherings golf tournaments, breakfasts with Goofy, and Fort Wilderness games days. Our Magical Gathering would include a half-hour safari across the African savannah followed by a multi-course meal at the Tusker House restaurant in the village of Harambe.

From their seats up front in our all-terrain vehicle, the kids did a great job spotting and marveling at the gazelles, ostriches, elephants and lions who were roaming Animal Kingdom’s spacious plains. Then ours and a few other Magical Gatherings families had the Tusker House to ourselves as our hostess, Mama Desa, trotted out the entertainments (musicians, characters from “The Lion King,” live snakes for the kids to touch) and servers brought forth a bounteous feast.

        After dinner, we walked through the dark, after-hours streets of the Animal Kingdom — an evocative way to end our week at Disney, which I had entered with such concern and which I was leaving behind with sadness. The trams had shut down, so I jogged out to the Peacock Parking Lot and brought the mini-van ‘round. We buckled our crew in, and as I drove out toward Route 4, I played the daily game: “Raise your hand if you had fun!”

        In the rear-view mirror, I saw all the hands go up but one.

        “No fun, Mary Grace?”

        But she was already asleep.

Postscript: For any of you who have been with us throughout this ramble — I mean, really in for the long haul that began last Saturday — do you remember K.T.? He was the charming Chevy Suburban driver who ushered us so effortlessly to the airport, way back when. Well, he picked us upon Friday at 3:20, promptly got lost, crossed a median strip to correct his passage (with three precious kids as cargo) — “A Disney ride!” Daddy exclaimed to siphon off fear, still on K.T.’s side, if only for a minute longer — then got lost again, decided he was out of gas, got in a long line, got in line twice more at the tolls because his company doesn’t subscribe to EZPASS, therefore hit the teeth of the Friday evening rush hour on the GW Bridge, tried to make up for it by bombing north at unreasonable speeds on the Sprain, and got us home ten minutes too late at 5:40 (shouldv’e been 45 minutes early) to spare Daisy, our poor Springer Spaniel, an extra night at the kennel. K.T.’s drive took 3.5 minutes less than the airtime from Orlando to Newark. If anything was required to let us know that we weren’t in Disney anymore, K.T. provided it.

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