Hakuna Matata

It isn't ceremoniously springtime until the "sugar ants" make their appearance.  They're back!  It's definitely spring here in the Northeast!  We've begun the relentless pursuit of starving them out - no offense little fellas.  Keeping the counter tops and the sink clean, maintaining a tight lid on the compost bucket (tight lids on everything, this is war!) and basically, enduring their onslaught of tiny, marching bodies until they tire of us and move on (can't come soon enough for my liking!).  But... this post isn't about marching ants (hurrah, hurrah), however, it is in direct correlation with the animal kingdom, more specifically, Disney's Animal Kingdom!!  

Nineteen years ago, on Earth Day, Disney World opened their park doors at Animal Kingdom with a clear mission in mind: celebrate the animal world and bring about conservation efforts and education.  It's been their steadfast goal and I was surprised to learn that since 1995, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund has devoted more than $6 million to conservation efforts around the world and has supported more than 230 projects.  Wow, incredible work they are furthering and digging into.  Well done, Disney!! 

My family and I spent our last full day in Florida at Animal Kingdom.  It was bittersweet knowing it was the last day of our completely wonderful, amazing, treasured Florida vacation and our first "real" family vacation together.  I know it won't be our last!  We were all tired by this point, oh man, I had a huge blister on my pinky toe from all the walking and breaking in new shoes (didn't anyone ever tell me not to do this on vacation?), and we decided to take it easy.  Well, what were we thinking?!!  This is Disney World and there were loads of experiences awaiting us!!  Come along with me... 

Upon entering the park, the grand focal point and welcoming exhibit is The Tree of Life.  Standing 14 stories high, with over 300 creatures from the animal kingdom exquisitely carved into the trunk, and 50 feet wide, it is awe-inspiring, reminding us how small, vulnerable we all are, yet how beautifully majestic our world is, and that we should never take it for granted.      

Our first stop was It's Tough to be a Bug! situated beneath the Tree of Life.  This is a cute, interactive, educationally fun show featuring the character, Flick (an eternally optimistic ant from Disney's movie A Bug's Life).  I was not able to get any images within this theater as the screen is not photogenic, plus I was too busy covering up my lens when water was spraying over us!  It's a must see - the kids all loved it! 

Our next stop was completely by accident, an unplanned delight.  We took a wrong turn as we meandered through Asia, hearing applause, our curiosity took hold, we peeked in.  We were in search of a cool spot to sit before our next FastPass so we had time.  We watched the stage show, Flights of Wonder, with exotic, colorful birds that would fly on command.  Really neat!  

Then it was time for face painting!  Alanna remembered having her face painted here when we last visited with an entire crew of family members.  Pleasantly, we found what she was looking for in Harambe, Africa!!  

Finding Nemo - the Musical, was another delightful performance and a treat to experience.  They've perfected the stage presence for this one!  It moves along at a good pace to keep all ages entertained and tuned in, eagerly anticipating the story line and leaves you wanting more! 

Speaking of wanting more, the Festival of the Lion King show was a vibrant array of characters, exuberant dancing, all the songs we know and love, and agile acrobatics!  They ask for young members from the audience to participate and dance in the show towards the end (head's up!).  Our girls were too shy for it, but there were lots of others that weren't as shy!  The round-tent-like show was a phenomenal performance that had us singing, clapping along and ear-to-ear smiling!! It's another must-see!  I added in a clip of the Circle of Life finale for you to enjoy (be warned, you may be inclined to sing along!!). 

After the amazing Festival of the Lion King show, we were ready for a slower pace and more animals!  Kilimanjaro Safari is a wildlife adventure.  We thought that either early morning or later afternoon would be best to view the animals since they might be more active at those times of day.  We did see a lot of amazing animals, but we may have had better luck in seeing more activity a bit later.  Still, it was great!  And the girls loved (loved!!) witnessing the animals in their natural habitat.  It was another treat!  Interestingly, the "110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve is a spectacular sanctuary dedicated to the protection of African animals" that keeps you wanting more!  See if you can spot the furry head of a daddy lion sunning himself, napping in the eighth image below with the boulders.  Once you see him, you can't unsee him!  And then there was the silverback Gorilla that made his presence known.   

After our safari exhibition in the wilds of Africa, we were all set for dinner.  We ate at the Tusker House Restaurant with Disney characters popping in at our table to say "hi!"  This restaurant is a full all-you-can-eat buffet!  And the prices reflected that, too.  Be forewarned if you decide to make a reservation and eat their delicacies (and everything was incredibly delicious!) that they are priced a bit higher than a regular restaurant.  ;)  

After dinner, with full, satisfied bellies we were all set to head back to our resort for a night swim and pack up to head home in the morning.  On our way, we noticed another spectacular show happening.  The Tree of Life Awakenings, a gorgeously colored light show set to music.  The animation jumps off the tree and we were all mesmerized.  The story unfolding is centered on a young doe.   "A feast for the eyes, each revelation celebrates the eternal balance and harmony that exists in all living things, big or small, and is sure to inspire and delight the entire family, big and small."  Truly magnificent!

And with that, our Florida vacation is a wrap.  I hope you enjoyed hearing about our adventures and viewing my images.  I shot most all of these on my Sony a99 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens since that was lighter for me to carry, however, some of the images were shot on my iPhone.  You may be able to tell the difference. ;) We all had a marvelous, whirlwind vacation together!  We loved every minute of a every adventure... the girls didn't want it to end.  You might tell by the unenthusiastic faces on the flight home.  Thank you, Disney.  We are grateful to you.

The First Twenty

The first twenty years are in our "The Story of Us" book and we are now onto our next twenty, or more with a stroke of luck and a prayer!  Kurt and I have built a life together, and if I told you it was easy, I'd most certainly be lying.  Our life has had many setbacks, disappointments, struggles - deeply personal ones that we've had to work through.  That's the great thing about marriage though!  Once you work through the messy stuff together and you come out the other end, you can high-five one another, and say, "Hey! Look! We made it!"  It strengthens the marriage bond.  

People will always tell you how hard marriage is, that it takes constant effort, constant attention, constant compromise, and a constant, everyday devotion to one another.  I absolutely would agree with that.  But... I'd also add laughter and fun.  Each day it's important to make one another laugh.  I think that's what my guy and I have perfected.  He can make me laugh like nobody else, and I'd say it goes both ways.  We know how to laugh through life's ups and downs.  So, when we knew this monumental occasion was coming up and being that our young girls are at a perfect age to enjoy Disneyworld, well, the plan unfolded.  I mean, what better way to celebrate your 20th wedding anniversary than at the happiest place on earth?!  

We started the Orlando segment of our vacation at Epcot complete with amazing rides, aquarium enchantment, beautiful flower garden festival and dinner in France!  Oui, oui!!    

A favorite ride at Epcot includes Spaceship Earth - with a journey through time highlighting how story-telling has evolved and helped to form our culture, our very existence.  It's quite astounding to think we have evolved as a human species from documenting our lives on cave walls to now -- blogging with internet connections around the globe in a matter of seconds.  umm... wow.  I wonder what the future will bring for our grandchildren.    

Another favorite ride of ours was Soarin.'  I couldn't get any photos on that one, but if you get an opportunity to visit Epcot, do yourself a favor and take the Soarin' experience!!  Really neat!!  It was like flying through the world:  great mountain tops to lush valleys to castles in the sky to polar bears roaming the arctic!!  Truly magical. 

The Seas with Nemo & Friends was our girls most favorite!  (funny, I think it was Alanna's favorite the last time we visited - she was 3).  It is a sweet ride that tells the Nemo story.  Afterwards, there's a terrific aquarium (tanks full of all sorts of fish, some manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and more!) to tickle your sea-loving spirit.  The dolphins put on a show for us!  We loved it! 

silliness ensues as the girls pretend to be swallowed by "Bruce" the shark. ;) 

We made dinner reservations at Les Chefs de France months ago - thankfully!  The lines were long and if you didn't have a reservation, you weren't getting a table.  We were ready for dinner made to French expertise.  And the desserts!!  Heaven.  Pure heaven.  The food was delicious and the service was très chic!  I asked our server many questions just so I could hear her beautiful French accent.  :)   The evening was divine.  

bon appétit!

Afterwards, there were fireworks over the tree line that we caught glimpses of, and purchases of french berets and tiny Eiffel towers.  We had a super early morning the next day so we made our way to our hotel to settle in for the night.  All in all, a marvelous, magical day for an anniversary.  

Thanks so much for stopping by to view my Epcot images and hearing about our day's events.  I'd love to hear from you.  Have you visited Epcot?  What was your favorite ride?  Do you have any marital advice for my guy and I?  And if you are married, how many years for you?  I'm thinking a cruise for our 25th!  ;)  Thanks again, friends!  And Cheers to all the happily married couples out there making magic happen through the years!  Keep on high-fiving each other!!  xoxo  L'amour est le plus grand!  

One Candle for Forty Eight

Monday morning came too soon, but we were ready to move on to our next destination on our list of people and places to see.  We loaded up the rental car, said our good-byes to our Miami family and headed out on the open road, taking the Tamiami Trail (State Route 41; a 2 lane highway that leads you through forest and the swampy Everglades) across southern Florida and up the Gulf Coastline, watching for 'gators, unique birds and admired the landscape along the way.  We were on our way to visit with more family members, John & Kay, in Englewood (along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico), at their vacation home. 

Families can be an intricate web, a tapestry of designs, stitched together by marriage, children, siblings, branches that extend outward, stretched by sheer love.  I count myself among the fortunate to have the direct experience of loving family members that have accepted me as part of their own on those far-extended branches.  You know you've found the gold thread in your family tapestry when new members enter in and, without so much as a double look or the blink of an eye, they turn to you and call you "daughter."

When my stepfather, John (a loving man who helped to raise me and my sister from very early on) and my mother's marriage dissolved late in my teen years, I was heartbroken.  I was heartbroken both for my parents and for myself.  Fortunately, for all involved, hearts are resilient and heal and go on loving.  John remarried a woman I would soon come to know as one of my closest, dearest friends, another mom for me to love and cherish, and another grandmother for my girls.  I don't know how Kay does it, but I am certainly grateful that she hasn't wavered from her commitment to her ready-made family, not only taking on a step-motherly role for me and my sister, but also a grandma for our children, seemingly without ever questioning and diving in with a heart wide open, and the sincerest devotion to all of us.  Kay is one of those rare gems in life that sparkles with the utmost of patience, humility, loads of terrific wit and laughter, and, above all, Love.  She's a keeper!!  I'll share her, but won't ever let her go!  

We arrived late in the day, just in time for more 'gator hunting, a beautiful sunset, delicious dinner and then s'mores with John & Kay's neighbors, Katie & John!!  

Englewood FL with family-2.jpg

Tuesday was my birthday!  I had mentioned to Kay that it would be great to spend some time playing in the ocean with the girls, catch some sun and surf, just relax - that's really all I wanted for my birthday, to have my toes in the sand, listen to the surf on the shoreline, let the girls play in the waves and do some shelling.  My birthday wish came true!!!  

Kay took us to Boca Grande beach on Gasparilla Island, just north of Sanibel/Captiva Island on the Gulf.  It was a gorgeous beach day, with light winds and mid 80 temps.  The water was a bit cool, but the girls didn't mind and had a blast!  They have never seen so many different shapes and variation in colors of shells before!  This definitely is not the Jersey shore we are accustomed to visiting during our summers.  Check it out... 

It was hard leaving this beautiful beach, but there were more celebrations coming up!  So, we packed up for the afternoon and headed back to home base to prepare for our adventurous evening out. 

John & Kay treated us to fine dining at Rum Bay Restaurant on Palm Island!  We took a ferry ride to reach our destination, and along the way the captain allowed each of our girls to take the helm for a bit.  Their reaction was priceless!  They both handled it well, but weren't too sure they knew which way they should set their course!  Haha, too cute! 

Plus, there was a sweet bonus for us to enjoy!  Dolphins!!  A small pod of dolphins playfully swam along the rear starboard side of the boat, leaping and splashing.  It was yet another fantastic birthday gift!  Alanna & Emilia were thrilled, too!!!    

Here we are, happy, satisfied bellies full and our to-go boxes.  Our waitress kindly snapped a few pics for us to remember this wonderful evening together.  Coincidentally, we were not only celebrating my birthday, but also our 20th wedding anniversary.  Kurt and I married the day after my birthday so we'd always have double the reasons to celebrate our life together!  So far, it's worked out wonderfully!   

Kurt caught this moment for me back at John & Kay's home where we finished the night with birthday cake (gluten-free no less!) and ice cream!  What a fabulous day it was!  And I told John & Kay this was the best birthday I ever had!  If birthdays keep getting better and better each year, I'm up for that! 

Wednesday morning came too soon, and yet again it was time to pack up the rental car and hit the road.  This time we were headed to Disneyworld and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando!  More on that next up!

It was sad saying good-bye and I felt that choked up feeling, wanting to say so much, how grateful we are to have them in our lives, how much they mean to us, and how thankful we are for all the magical treats, experiences they bestowed on us during our visit.  Thank you, Papa John & Kay!  Your loving kindnesses and generous nature are appreciated beyond any words I could ever write.  I hope you feel our love from across the miles, just as much as when we are together!  We love you.  

And, I knew Emilia and Grandpa John would be best buddies.  They're 2 peas in a pod!  ;) 

Thanks so much for taking time to stop by, and hear about our happy trails, friends!  I promise, just one more blog on our Florida vacationing journey!  Here's to more adventures and joyous celebrations to commemorate!!  Cheers!!!