December is the holiday season. We had thought that Christmas, 2012, was likely to be the last time we spent Christmas with Kal’s family since we would be on the road in our RV. However, since we are still at Auburn we were able to celebrate Christmas with the family in Birmingham on December 29. Christmas day itself was quiet with just Kal and I since none of the kids could get away from work or had other plans for Christmas. Travel was also limited, in part to save money. Kal put in a lot of time knitting kozies for cans and bottles, plus either socks or hats for all the relatives and kids. The three kids and spouses did get additional gifts, but they were limited in cost since this was the first time in a number of years that we did not get a holiday bonus from Auburn University. Oh, the trials of being retired! Therefore we planned only a single week in the camper visiting Jenny in Orlando, Florida for her birthday. However, before we were finished Christmas got a lot more expensive. I had minor surgery on my nose to remove a growth (which is still healing and I have yet to decide whether plastic surgery will be needed) on Friday the 13, the day before we left for Florida. Also on Friday, Kal attempted to drive the Lincoln to the store while I dropped off a dissertation review at the University. We had to jump the car since we had not driven it for a couple of months. While Kal got the store in good shape, the car died on the way home and refused to start. We had it towed to a repair shop in Auburn and left it with them while we were out of town. On Monday, they were unable to reset the alarm system on the car and the car was then towed to the Ford dealership. The problem turned out to be a fuel pump, which meant over $1000 to fix. While on the way back from Florida, the brakes on the Mariner started to squeal, meaning another trip to the repair shop and over $700 more. To add insult to injury, the garbage disposal sprung a major leak in the house the Friday after Christmas and another $200 repair bill. All totaled the month of Christmas cost us over $3000 in unanticipated bills. This is certainly going to be a bind on travel the next few months.
As I mentioned, we did get to spend a wonderful week with Jenny in Florida. As most of you know, Jenny works for Walt Disney World so we like to stay at WDW where she can get a good discount. Over the years we have stayed at a few of the Disney hotels, but we really like the cabins at Fort Wilderness. This trip would be the first time, however, we stayed in the campgrounds themselves. Since Jenny’s discount is blocked out for the week before Christmas, we could only get reservations from December 15-19. Not being in any hurry we split the trip over two days stopping over at Suwanee River State Park in Florida on the way to WDW and the weekend at Reed Bingham State Park in Georgia on the way back to Auburn. It rained on us going to Florida, so we had to set up a wet camp right at dusk and it rained on our way back to Auburn after the weekend in Georgia. However, the time in between was nice weather, even if a bit cool for Florida being more typical of Alabama that time of year. It was also nice that Jenny stayed with us in the campgrounds all week, which meant getting to use the extra bed in the camper. Of course, this meant we did not have a table inside, but we did not spend very much at the campsite anyway.
On Monday, we got together with a longtime friend and past roommate of Jenny’s, Kori, for a round of disc golf. Kori had a date at the gym in the morning, so we spent the morning making dinner reservations for Jenny’s birthday at the restaurant in Italy at EPCOT and buying tickets for Cirque de Soleil for Wednesday evening. There is a beautiful park in Orlando, Gordan Bennett Park near the fair grounds with two 18 hole disc golf courses. All of the fairways were wide open with few trees, however, quite a few of the holes went over water. After seeing the 18th hole on the north course with the pin on a tiny island, we decided to play the south course. This was a wise choice since neither Jenny or Kori had never played disc golf. They both got pretty good by the end of the day, but started out pretty rough. We were careful to position them beyond the water hazards whenever possible. As it turned out, I was the only one to throw the disc into a mud hole, which thankfully was shallow enough I was able to retrieve the disc. Kal played some holes, but spent most of the afternoon taking pictures of the rest of us. We then took everyone out to dinner and had a good time and a good meal.
On Tuesday, the three of us set out to visit the only National Park in the area, the De Soto National Monument, south of Tampa Bay. I used the GPS unit to find De Soto and we followed the directions. However, we did not end up at De Soto National Monument as planned, but Fort De Soto Park, which is on a small island south of Tampa Bay and St Petersburg. Instead of the National Monument we arrived at a county park and the remains of a Spanish American era fort. While the mortars at the fort never fired a shot except in practice, it was the staging area for the invasion of Cuba and served as target practice for bombers during World War II (they dropped bombs filled with sand for practice which still rattled the windows in St. Petersburg). While not what we had intended we enjoyed looking over the small fort and museum and settled in for a picnic lunch in the park. Near the end of lunch, we had a visitor. Jenny spied a raccoon watching us eat lunch and managed to get a few pictures of it in the bushes. However, the raccoon was not satisfied with just watching as it slowly crept closer and closer. When it was evident that the raccoon was determined to share our lunch and kept coming towards us, we started grabbing up the food on the table. I was still putting things into a plastic bag, when the raccoon climbed right up onto the table and grabbed a plastic container of animal crackers in its mouth. I tried to get the critter to drop the container, but it went immediately to the closest palm tree and up it went with its prize. We watched the raccoon as he tore his way into the plastic container up in the tree, totally in disbelief. However, before he could claim his cookie prizes, the container got away from him and we snatched from the ground. After taking the following picture as evidence, we throw the container away in the raccoon proof trash cans. However, the raccoon was not finished. After checking the ground around the base of the tree, the raccoon followed us back to the car staying no more than 10 feet away at the same time. I don’t think the raccoon was rabid, just very use to being fed from the leavings of picnic lunches and winter being slim pickings. It certainly made our day!
After the adventure the day before, we decided to spend Wednesday pretty much in camp. We did manage to squeeze in a round of mini-golf at the Winter – Summertime course at WDW (Jenny had free passes courtesy of Disney) and fixed a chicken Dutch oven meal for an early dinner. We then took the WDW bus to Downtown Disney for an evening at Cirque de Soleil. In all the years we spent visiting Jenny at WDW, this was the first time Cirque de Soleil was open. We have always wanted to make a performance of this world renown company and so this was our one time to do so. However, even with Jenny’s 50% discount the tickets cost $150 for the three of us! If we had known then how much the month was going to cost, we would have reconsidered. While it could be argued whether any 90 minute show is worth this much money, it was a show to remember! They had all the acts you expect in a circus from acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists, clowns, trampoline, high wire, and women doing unbelievable things hanging from drapes high in the air. Unlike any other circus, the entire performance is very well choreographed with live music and singing. The things they can do with a set of trampolines alongside a three story wall with windows is amazing. They had platforms that raised up out of the floor for different acts and trapeze and wires that lowered from the ceiling high overhead for other acts. If you can afford it, it is certainly a show not to miss!
I know what you are thinking, how can you spend a week at Walt Disney World and not spend time in any of many theme parks. You must understand that since Jenny can get us free into the parks and we have visited nearly every year over more than 10 years, we have seen and done everything we have wanted in each of the theme parks. You can also imagine how excited Jenny is with spending time in the theme parks where she works every day. Therefore, we generally spend a day in the theme parks seeing all the new or updated attractions and shows. Thursday was the day for us in the parks, ending with a nice dinner at Italy in EPCOT, watching the Candlelight Processional at America in EPCOT and watching the outrageous holiday fireworks display at EPCOT. The day started at Animal Kingdom where we went directly to the Everest ride which I enjoy and only rode once since it opened a few years ago. We also stayed around to enjoy the Bird show, which we had not yet seen. Then it was on to EPCOT for the rest of the day riding some of our favorite rides that we had not done for a while before heading into the World Showcase. We decided to see the updated film of Canada hosted by Martin Short (new to us even though it was updated quite a few years ago) and I was stopped by one of the cast members in Canada asking if I worked there. I thought they were speaking to Jenny, but it turned out that they were commenting on the red and black checked flannel shirt I was wearing which was identical to those worn by the cast members in Canada! I got a few more comments to that effect while we waited for the movie. Our day in the parks was excellent as usual. In my opinion, Disney simply does it right. Where other theme parks attempt to put on a good front, Disney succeeds every single time. We also have a great time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to run into a security guard that is a friend of Jenny’s who back doors us onto the Spaceship Earth ride without having to stand in the 30 minute line! I guess knowing the right people does have it’s perks!
Friday was a long day traveling to the Reed Bingham State Park, just off interstate 75 north of Valdosta. It took us over 6 hours to get there since we have decided to stay off Interstates when we are pulling the trailer. Part of this is a traffic issue, but it is also a desire to see more of the countryside and take a leisurely pace. This makes a lot of sense when you are only traveling for 4 hours before stopping at a campsite, but over 6 hours in the winter means you are either leaving before sunup (which is not practical) or you are setting up camp in the dark. While it is not quite dark at 5:30 in the evening in December, it was a challenge to set up and have dinner before it was too dark. We spent a leisurely day in the state park with a 2 mile hike along the Little River, a black water river with a lot of wetlands. They put a lot of effort into the trails which along the river are on a boardwalk. Sunday was spent coming home in the rain and I was glad we got home around 12 local time as Sunday afternoon the skies opened up.
This was a great trip and we don’t have any regrets. However, I don’t know how long it will take to recover from the other expenses of the month. I suspect January and possibly February will be confined to trying out my new hand held GPS unit I got for Christmas with some Geocaching in Alabama and Georgia. In other words, day trips! I hope everyone had a joyous and healthy holidays and you all had a chance to hug someone you see only once a year or longer!