Thursday, July 12, 2007

How I spent my birthday

For a 22-year-old, I’ve had some pretty awesome birthdays so far. One memorable year, I was on a glacier in Austria, throwing snowballs in July. I’ve seen the Rocky Mountains on Independence Day. I have had more barbecues and pool party 4ths than I can count. We rented out a roller rink at least once. Last year, I even went to Las Vegas for my 21st – spending loads of fun time with my Dad and Cousin Andrew.

Yes, I’ve done all of those things, and they were all super special in their own way. The Rockies are gorgeous, barbecues are awesome, and I’ll never forget Las Vegas’ incredible foods and free drinks, and the most excellent company I dined with. This year, however, my birthday celebration was metered only by the limited time with which I had to celebrate: and even that was a full TWO days! What follows here is a documentation of how I spent the 3rd and 4th of July in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Because most everyone here works 6 days during July 4th week, I knew that I would be unable to secure off on the actual birthday. Resigned to that (hey, there are way worse ways to spend a birthday than giving safaris through Africa, by the way), I got an early start on the 3rd, taking to the streets of Asia at the Animal Kingdom early in the morning. Complete with a pin from guest relations on my chest “Happy Birthday Bobby!” I enjoyed the scenery, exhibits, and walking tours of Asia before heading to my first attraction: Dinosaur in Dinoland, U.S.A. It’s a terrifying thrill ride through the past, when Dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Bill Nye narrates the pre-pre-show, a room filled with fossilized remains of amazing(ly scary) creatures. The very fact that I can sleep at night is based on the rock-solid principle that monsters don’t exist, but Dinosaur gave my principles a shake. Amazingly lifelike audio-animatronics of Carnotaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and Velociraptors were in good supply here, and I gave more than my fair share of screams and shouts as we rocked along at speeds in excess of terrifying miles per hour. That’s not a real measure of speed, but whatever.

Walking back through Asia, I happened upon a man on a platform holding an owl, talking to a gathering crowd about his feathered friend. Not more than 5 seconds after I had stopped to listen (about 15 feet away from him, take note), he said, mid-sentence, “Happy birthday, Bobby!” This bears mentioning because literally dozens of cast members took a moment during these two days to wish me the same. It’s such a small thing, that button, but dudes love being wished a happy birthday, and an identifier like that is a real treat when everyone that mentions it does so with a smile.

Digressions aside, he was promoting the show that was about to begin behind him. I thought he was just there to tell us about birds, end of story, but no: the real show was called Flights of Wonder, and it was beyond beautiful to see the birds soaring over my head. Some of these things are super smart! I feel like a fool for not recalling their names, but one was able to fly out to the audience, pluck a dollar bill of of a man’s outstretched hand, and bring it back to the trainer, depositing it in her shirt pocket. No worries though, it flew back shortly thereafter, handing back the bill to its owner. “Whoa! Somebody got money back at a theme park!” was the comic relief’s joke there. Dad would love this show.

Fighting back tears of joy (shut up. birds are beautiful and I almost cried, so deal with it), I started walking back to Africa to go on a safari. On the way, I thought, “Hey, it’s almost lunchtime. How about a Mickey ice-cream?” and found an ice-cream vendor...who just gave it to me when I tried to pay and said, “It’s okay, happy birthday!” Man, this place is excellent.

After a most excellent tour through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, I left the Animal Kingdom for Downtown Disney, meeting up with my Aunt Maggie for a birthday lunch. It was wonderful to see her and catch up, as well as hear about how her trip north was. She stayed in my room after all, and spent time with my nearest and dearest. We had a lovely time, but the day was young, and I was shortly off again!

I met up with three friends from work, and we went to EPCOT for the afternoon, taking in Turtle Talk with Crush (where the radical turtle from Finding Nemo talks with kids and parents live!), The Living Seas (Nemo’s oyster-shell tour though the Great Barrier Reef), and Spaceship Earth (before it closed for renovations for the summer!). EPCOT was wonderful, and then it was off to The Magic Kingdom, where more amazing times ensued.

For the evening’s proceedings to make sense, it’s important to remember that I work in one of the biggest locations on property: there are a couple hundred Safari drivers, and when we get together, pairs of people can turn into groups and dozens before anyone knows it. Things worked out that way on July 3rd, because by the time all were present and accounted for, we peaked at 26 cast-members, rollickingly romping through The Magic Kingdom.

Now of course, there are fireworks every night in Disney World, in at least two locations. But for a place that launches thousands of rockets into the air every week, the Fourth of July holds special import. That said, there are four special fireworks shows that happen only during Independence Day. Over the course of the 3rd and 4th, we saw them all, and it began on Tuesday night in front of Cinderella’s Castle. The fireworks lit up the sky with reds, whites, and blues not just over the castle, but around the entire park! Without warning, flares shot up over Main Street, U.S.A., and then over Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland! If I were to complain, I’d say that nobody knew precisely where to look, but that’s okay because that night, no spot was a bad spot for fireworks. The spectacular show concluded with the sky flashing along with The Star Spangled Banner, and from there it was time to regroup and decide where our cadre was headed next.

The two dozen game drivers and I first hopped in line for Pirates of the Caribbean, where we filled an entire boat and I had the embarrassed privilege of being announced as a birthday on the P.A. system on the dock. Cheers and claps accompanied our send-off, and we sang like buccaneers all the way through.

From there, it was on to the Tomorrowland Transit Authority for a relaxing trip through Tomorrowland, followed by an exciting venture into Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, defending the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance. The Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor provided a brief respite from all the running around and shouting, giving us a chance to sit and laugh along as Mike and his friends made fun of various audience members (including one of us!).

While it was not easy getting everyone to follow along with the designated route (or even decide on a designated route), we eventually made our way over to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which accommodated us with an entire train. As operations cast members, we made the ordinarily arduous process of loading a large number of guests into a ride simple. It was merely a matter of saying, “We drive Safaris,” and they stepped back and let us load ourselves.

As it was getting close to midnight, and my birthday was at 12:16, they had me set our next destination, which I deigned to be the Philharmagic 3-D show, my favorite attraction at The Magic Kingdom. Donald flew at us from all directions, and we were splashed with champagne, teased with fresh-baked pies, and whisked along a magic carpet ride through Agrabah. Awwww. :)

Finally, the night drew towards a close near 1 AM, as we ran aboard Space Mountain for one last wild ride. Here, I found another awesome birthday surprise, as someone wished me a happy birthday over the ride’s P.A. system while we were on the up-slope. How cool! On the way out, down Main Street, U.S.A., I grabbed a free brownie from Casey’s (a birthday treat), and was gifted with a Magical Moment ice cream that was basically as big as my face across the street at Edy’s. Complete with chocolate mouse ears, this waffle cone was just about the most wonderful ice cream I’d ever tasted.

And that was day one!

On the 4th of July, just about everyone works. The day is a hugely popular one at the parks, and we all had to be in at one time or another. Work went really well: I had my birthday pin on, and Wilson, my Safari bear birthday present from my niece and sister, rode shotgun. The fun really began after work though, because that was when we drove like demons around Disney World, taking in the three other fireworks displays!

First up was the Disney Studios (MGM, if you’re not up on lingo). There I met up with not Safari people, but some friends from Flemington that happened to be in town for the week! We had a blast, sitting in front of the giant hat and waiting for the sky to darken and light up again after sunset.

I made a hasty exit from there, rendezvousing with the rest of Kilimanjaro at EPCOT for a special extended Illuminations, where the sky really did look like it exploded for all the bombs bursting in air. It wasn’t long, however, before we were making like tourists and running out of the turnstiles, hoping to get over to Pleasure Island for their fireworks. We were less successful there, however, as none of us were able to secure parking spots before eleven PM. Technically though, we did see the fireworks from the parking lot, so I count that as a win.

Those that made it through the night’s driving and running around once again elected me to determine our destination, and I was not hesitant to select The Adventurer’s Club, Pleasure Island’s premiere bar show. Set in a 1930’s social club for aviators, explorers, and other rugged and learned folk, the club entertains guests with song, laughs, and audience involvement. Guess who was audience-involved here? Your friend the birthday boy was hauled up on stage by the club’s beautiful maid, Sugar Snap, to demonstrate a dance to the rest of the audience. Pictures exist, but I will not volunteer them here. I will recommend The Adventurer’s Club to anyone that makes it down here, as it is one of the finest examples of off-beat amusement I’ve ever been to (we go every week)!

So it was that I concluded a full 48 hours of birthday. Four fireworks shows, a dozen rides, friends aplenty, more ice cream than I could eat, and the knowledge that this is my home for the next five months combined to give me an experience that was almost (but not quite) as much fun as an evening with my family back in New Jersey. I miss y’all, and I’ll be home soon.

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer,