…. excited about getting their Muggles passes

Thirty years later and the monorail was right where I remembered it to be. However there are many more steps between the Monorail and the rides than I recalled. Yes, the monorail does connect the Contemporary Village and Polynesian Village to the Magic Kingdom, however we now have Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Epcot Center on the route. Lucky for us there is also a boat that will take us over to the Magic Kingdom and today looks like a good day for a boat ride.

We left our tiki hut and weaved our way through the tropical jungle to the Magic Boat and were soon docked at the entrance the Magic Kingdom. I waved my room key over a box with Mickey’s face on it, stuck my finger into the Magic Finger Reader and the Magic Gates to the Magic Kingdom were opened. 

As I stood there looking down Main Street I realized there is a reason it’s called the Magic Kingdom. You become five years old once again.

I loved walking down Main Street toward Cinderella’s Castle feeding the Ducks along the way, chasing Pluto and Goofy, ice cream and hot dogs on every corner and all I have to do is wave my Magic card to get some!

Our first destination was Pirates of the Caribbean – now starring Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Pirates singing sea shanties, sunken ships, stolen booty, all in an 8 minute ride. Yo ho ho it’s a pirates life for me.

After a dizzying turn on the Big Thunder roller coaster and a soaking ride on Splash Mountain I decided that perhaps we should split up into two groups.- those who want to hit the thrill rides and continue to get soaked – and me.

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I noticed how many families were attending the Kingdom together and realized that this is the perfect place for a Family Reunion … there is so much time to visit with everyone while waiting for your turn on the rides.

After three days of 7 am wakeup calls, blisters on both feet, water-logged shoes, shin splints and falling into bed at midnight we packed up and told the boys that we had to take CB and Mrs. CB to the airport so they could get back to Memphis and go back to work making art.

Of course, this was all just part of the continuing surprises associated with the Nephews Last Great American Road Trip. We went to the airport alright, but not to return Mr. & Mrs. C.B., no, we were instead picking someone up!

Yes, Shane was waiting at the airport gate for us – off we went to two more days of theme park fun! Universal Studios and the final “P.”

Remember the name of this blog, Pirates, Plantations and Potter?  Well, while the nephews enjoy these trips they don’t spend much time reading my stories about their adventures – they didn’t realize there was a third “P”  and were very surprised that there was more to come.

After picking up Shane (that was a trick, getting a seventh person in the mini with all of the accompanying luggage – good thing it was a short ride) we asked if they had figured out where else we were going?  Pensacola? Palm Beach? Philadelphia?

We pulled up to the Universal entrance and in unison from the back seat “Uncle Rusty, Universal doesn’t start with a “P”!

“No” says I. “But Potter does.”  They may not have appreciated my alliteration but they were excited about getting their Muggles passes to see the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and visiting their relative Professor Minerva McGonagall.

Universal Studios may not have the magic of Disneyworld but it has great rides and lots of 3D experiences – roller coasters and roller coasters and roller coasters.

At Disneyworld you get a Fast Pass every few hours which does save time in the lines but at Universal Studios you get unlimited use of the Express Pass if you stay on the property. Oh boy, is that worth it!

Mrs. Chicken Boy and Shane proved to be the most adventurous of all of us – they rode 17 attractions in one day. I was sidelined after getting soaked on Dudley Do-Right’s Rip Saw Falls as Dudley once again saved Nell from Snidely Whiplash. After this ride I had to buy new socks to end the squishing when I walked.

We became Minions for a time, traveled with Shrek and Donkey, were attacked by aliens and were saved by Men in Black, climbed walls with Spiderman and rode a broomstick in a game of Quidditch above the castle grounds at Hogwarts (I had to close my eyes for the last half of the ride).

The day got away from us and we had to make a dash to the airport, this time to really put CB and Mrs. CB and Shane on airplanes home.

We then headed for the Gulf Coast and Destin, Florida – the Jewel of the Emerald Coast, at least that’s what the ad says. Realizing that we were all hungry we sought help for dinner plans from TripAdvisor and found what sounded like the perfect place for dinner – McGuire’s Award Winning Irish Restaurant and Pub. I called ahead for reservations for dinner only to find that they did not accept reservations. When we arrived we found out why. There was a wait for seating, and this was on a Sunday night. While waiting to be seated we checked the place out. The most noticeable thing about the decor was that the entire place was covered by one dollar bills. One million dollar bills, or so they say, and from the looks of the place, I believe them. It seems that everyone who comes to McGuire’s has the urge to staple a dollar bill to the wall. Hmmm…now this is an idea I think could use some exploring.

Well, our trip is coming to a close, one night in New Orleans, dinner at Nola and lunch at Emeril’s rounded out our final Road Trip with the Nephews.

But before I sign off I just want to let you know that we did find the world’s largest ball of twine.  Stay tuned we are headed to Nashville for the Americana Music Awards.

…. I can buy 3 new pair for $9.50!

The best beginning of a day since yesterday. Breakfast by the palm lined pool at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. Then …. out the door and off to the beach. South Beach!  We are such rookies that we didn’t even know that it was supposed to be tough to find a place to park or a locate a spot on the beach. We only heard about that after we returned from our day frolicking in the waves.

We were just lucky that day – we happened upon a place called Niki Beach Club and a girl appeared to be leaving.

“I’m leaving, take my space.” says she.

“Why thank you!” says we.

“And here, I have three hours left on my parking ticket, so put it in your window.” says she.

” Why thank you!” says we.

“I will be leaving as soon as my family gets here, they are on the way” says she.

“Cool!” says we.

First came Momma. Mamma shook out and folded up her beach towel. Changed into her traveling drawers and stowed the cooler. Then came Auntie who performed the same ritual plus a few more. Then came big sis. Then little sis…..and a few cousins.  Little did we know that our benefactress was the captain of a clown car – but it was fun to watch and we still had two hours left on our free parking ticket.

Equipped with Coppertone SPF Please Don’t Let me Burn Oil, a Miami Vice Panama hat, flip-flops, a Spurs tee-shirt and singing Margaritaville in four-part harmony (remember that this is my story and if I say there was harmony it must be true) we beached ourselves til the sun was setting.

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After our day on the beach we checked out of our old school gangster style hotel at TCOD the next morning and took off for Hemingway’s paradise, the Florida Keys. But, before leaving Miami we  just had to have a Cuban meal.  After much studying of the trusty TripAdvisor we  selected the Versailles Restaurant “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant.”  I was told that they couldn’t claim that title if it wasn’t true.

After consuming the best (and only) Cuban sandwich he’s ever eaten, our self-proclaimed gastronome checked off another item on his bucket list.  Should a 14 year-old have a bucket list?

One more stop before leaving Miami … Lillie’s Laundromat and Internet Cafe. Graham was out of fashion changes and our fancy pink hotel wanted $9.50 to launder a pair of shorts. “$9.50 to wash my shorts? I can buy 3 new pair for $9.50!”

With clean boxers and socks we took Highway 101 toward Key West AKA The Conch Republic and home of the six toed cats.

Highway 101 skips through lots of Keys, villages, and passes by an interesting array of abandoned bridges as well as hundreds of motels and marinas with clever sea themed names (Sun of a Beach Motel, Cap’t Crunch Lodge, Sponge Bob Bungalows) all clear signs that one is surrounded by water.

We learned that three hours to Key West might turn into four hours or even longer, depending on how many people decide to make the trip that day. The “highway” is two lanes – one lane for those going in and one lane for those going out. On our day all the traffic was going into Key West and as luck would have it we got behind someone older than me who decided that if the speed limit was 50 mph he would go 40 mph, if the speed limit dropped to 35 mph while passing through one of the many little towns he would drop to 25 mph. Oddly enough, Gramps (my name for this leader of the pack) would decide to step on the gas whenever he reached one of the very few passing lanes.

By the time we finally reached Key West Gramps was leading a parade of cars with license plates from all over the U.S. and Canada. Where’s Dexter when you need him?

We arrived in Key West with just enough time to check into our hotel and walk down the beach (which was not even close to white sand and turquoise water shown in the hotel photos, in fact one of the nephews remarked, “Man that photographer should get an award” and the other nephew said “that hotel picture was photoshopped.”) where I accidentally wandered into the photographs being taken of a bride and groom after their beach wedding.

After enjoying a glass of bubbly wedding wine at the invitation of said bride and groom we decided to explore the town. We located Mile Marker 0, Hemingway’s house and the concrete marker “90 miles from Cuba.”  We meandered down Duval Street and decided to have a locally caught fish dinner and people watch from the patio of Mangoes Restaurant. Great people watching! Some of the best ever. After dinner we continued our stroll back to our hotel under the brightest moon of the year.

That was the best part of Key West and we decided it wouldn’t get any better than this so we bailed out of Key West one day early and returned to Miami where the water really is turquoise and the sand really is white.

Crying in the chapel…..

Arriving in Rome we were taken immediately to our hotel – The Giulo Cesare, where we were greeted by a rep of VBT – the quite dapper, Dr. Utr. Ius Frank Van den Broeke.  Snappy jacket, purple tie, white hat and a bicycle.

After a brief orientation, with special instructions about how to always “stand to drink” our cappuccinos or risk paying double the price, Dr. Frank left us to discover the Eternal City on our own. We, along with Gerhard, Duffy and Val (our fellow VBT’ers) set out to see what we could see.  We got the full experience during our walk about. Sunshine, then rain, then wind.

Just as we began our climb to the top of the Spanish steps it began to drizzle. Before we reached the top it began to rain. Within seconds the “step” vendors went from selling scarfs and Pinocchio magnets to selling one-time-use-only umbrellas. We decided to decline all vendor offerings for the moment and instead took cover from the elements in the Trinità dei Monti church located atop the Spanish Steps.

While inside pretending to be interested in the frescoes adorning the walls I caught sight of what I had initially thought to be statuary in the nave. Just as I was about to head back out into the rain I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. One of the silent white kneeling figures came to life and began to sing and then one by one each of the “statues” slowly rose and began to join in this prayer song. These statues were nuns and for one brief moment I was spellbound by the beauty of it all.

Of course I got a good poke from TWWNCBUIP when I asked if the Singing Nun might be expected to make an appearance.

The next morning we had an appointment to meet Dapper Dr. Frank who was to be our guide through Ancient Rome. Our meeting time, 8:30 a.m. at the Metro Station just outside the Colosseum. He had arrived early to get tickets from a ‘secret’ gate to avoid the lines–the good news was that the admission to all the historical sites today was free in celebration of Rome’s 2,762th birthday.  The bad news was that just as we arrived at the gate, the lines of tourists began to dissipate because a “strike” had been called and no one would be admitted to any of the Ancient sites until 11:30 a.m.

Undeterred, D.D. Frank had a backup plan.  He reversed the order of our tour and without missing a beat he took us through the Capitoline Museum for a special showing of  some of the letters from the Vatican’s private archives, which included among others, King Henry VIII’s petition to the pope to annul one of his many marriages.

Later that morning, the “strike” ended and we enjoyed a trek through Ancient Rome that was peppered with many historical and often hysterical asides that made for the most engaging several hours.

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At three p.m. Frank had to leave us to cycle back to our hotel to meet up with a second group of VBT’ers who had just arrived from a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Since we had been walking the ancient sites since 8:30 in the morning with only one cappuccino for sustenance TWWNCBUIP and I thought we’d grab a slice and a salad.

After our pizza and salad we meandered through the streets until we found the perfect Gelateria (that would be one that had a nice bench close by) so that we could savor not only our ice cream but the sights and sounds of Rome in the late afternoon. Today we were lucky because not far from our bench was an old fellow with a portable piano and a Dean Martin repertoire. Finally our moment in Italy with a Dino soundtrack. An ideal end to a perfect day.

The next morning we were scheduled to tour the Vatican. During breakfast at our hotel, TWWNCBUIP quite suddenly was taken ill and I had to seek out a farmacia. The medicine didn’t help much but she was determined to see the Sistine Chapel so off we went no matter how ill-advised the idea.

We set out for the subway only to find out that the “metro” was on strike today. Since it was again raining, I made my first purchase of a ‘single-use’ umbrella from one of the magically appearing every time a drop of rain falls vendor and started out on our walk to the Vatican.

We stopped once on every block just to reaffirm that we were on the right route. (I do not believe that there is even one single “square” block in all of Rome.)  We finally arrived beneath the walls of the Vatican two minutes before our tour was to begin. We were soaked to the bone and TWWNCBUIP was looking pale enough to have been confused with one of statues.

Still we continued on. We met up with our assigned tour person who, while like our dapper doctor may also have been a Phd, he was dry as toast compared to the stylish, funny and well-informed Frank.

As we passed through dozens of rooms of ancient armless, headless, fig leaf covered priceless works of art ornately tiled floors and gilded ceilings, TW felt worse by the room. Somewhere into the second hour of the tour, she went ahead of the group in search of the ladies room.

She found a guard who led her through the maze of tourists and I followed behind after informing our tour guide that we would be leaving the tour.  I lost sight of TW and we became separated for hours.

Somehow I wound up outside the building and the guards would not allow me to reenter.   I had all the money, the only phone and the card with the hotel name and address on it. TW had not even one Euro.

As I waited outside, Duffy and Gerhard (who just happened to be at the Vatican on the same day) actually ran into TW who they said was sitting in a corner of the Sistine Chapel with a guard who had been trying to reach me on the phone (they thought that perhaps some tears might have been shed). I later found out that TW had mistakenly given the guard Chicken Boy’s number instead of mine.  I still had no way to reach her.

After an hour or more I received a phone call from Italy (my first). It was a French woman who knew the “code” for reaching a U.S. cell phone and offered her phone so that TW could call me.

The guard suggested that I meet TW at St. Peter’s Gate because he would escort her from the Sistine Chapel to Saint Peter’s to help avoid some of the crowds.  Sounded simple enough. Turned out that Saint Peter’s was on the opposite side of the Vatican from where I was (don’t forget that the Vatican is a country).

So after walking half way around the country I arrived at St. Peter’s  – along with about 5,00o others leaving the country and another 5,000 arriving for a concert with the Pope.

Believe it or not, the very same French woman who had offered her phone to TW at the Sistine Chapel just happened to bump into her again standing with the guard just inside Saint Peter’s. Realizing that we would never find each other with so many thousands of people crowding through to the massive church this very kind French lady called me again and directed me go to the obelisk at the very front – there were only a few hundred people in this area and she felt that we would be able to find each other.

We were soon reunited. I promised not to elaborate but suffice it to say, TW was very happy to see me.  During my search I made a few new rules for our trips – everyone has their own money, phone and passport.

It was a wonderful trip  and thanks for sharing some of the highlights with us. Below is a little video of probably my favorite afternoon of the trip. Getting a pasta making lesson from Debora’s Nona (grandmother).

We’re taking a Very Long Airplane Ride

all the way to Italy. That’s in Europe. That’s right – THE Europe. And when we get off the airplane we’re going to have to ride bikes all the way across the size 8 million and a half boot.

Apparently I’m a little too tall to fit in the fancy Italian sports cars. Stay tuned for notes from the road, chronicles of TWWNCNBUIP’s quest for the perfect Chianti, pictures of the Romans, the Corinthians, and maybe even pretty ole me holding up the leaning tower of Pizza…double pepperoni and onions…with a Zantac for dessert. The adventure starts in a couple weeks but as of right now i’ve got a mini toothbrush, a roll of good old fashioned American toilet paper and a spanking new iPad 3 for documenting my adventures from the road. With any luck at all CB will be tutoring me on the finer points of blogging on the shiny retnia display for your vicarious adventuring.

We will be taking this trip as a romantic couples adventure as CB and ALICAT have movies to make, Graham has dishes to wash and Garret has many many cocky monkeys to knock from their roosts with irate avians. With the peace and quiet that this solitude affords, I plan on sipping my lattes (they do have lattes there right?) on what I believe is called a Piazza while I watch the girls on Vespas go by while TWWNCNBUIP searches out the nearest bocce ball bookie.

We are pretty excited to be making this excursion and I’m sure that my on the road chronicles will inspire you to sign up for our MMD European Vacation 2013. Until then, you’ll just have to trust that we’re finding and all the best cafés, vineyards and meatballs that Italy has to offer while taking plentiful notes punctuated with stunning, high resolution iPad pictures.