Each February, Ingage Partners, the IT consulting firm Michael belongs to, takes a long weekend company trip to someplace warmer than Cincinnati. Orlando was the sunnier clime chosen for the 2019 getaway. Since Nancy had never been to Florida before, Michael suggested that we add extra days to the Ingage excursion so we could have more time to visit some of the area’s many attractions.
We left home after church on Sunday 10 February and drove five hours through wet snow to Chattanooga, then drove the remaining nine hours to Orlando on Monday. As we continued south on I-75, gradually the freezing drizzle ceased, the fog lifted, we pulled off our hoodies, and finally, a couple of hours before we arrived at the Red Lion Hotel in Kissimmee, Florida, we turned on the air conditioning. We had a little trouble locating El Tenampa, the Mexican restaurant about a mile up the highway that TripAdvisor had recommended, because it was set back from the street and its sign was not lit up, but the enchiladas and chile rellenos were worth hunting down. As most of you know, Michael feels that dinner is incomplete without dessert, but the churros, sopapilla, and Tres Leches cake offered on the menu sounded too heavy. So, back to TripAdvisor to search for somewhere nearby that served ice cream.
Sweet Dreams Ice Cream Cafe seemed like just the spot, but we had a little trouble finding it, too–not because the sign was dark, but because it was located deep within a cheesy “theme park” called Old Town Kissimmee. By the time we spied it among the panoply of kitchy tourist shops and rickety kiddie rides, we had walked off enough of our Mexican meal to enjoy the ice cream.
On Tuesday we went to Epcot, where we enjoyed “Soarin'” around the world so much that we rode the flight simulator three times. We also were fascinated by “Living with the Land,” a ride that educates as well as entertains. Visitors glide along in a boat reminiscent of the ones in “It’s a Small World” (minus the interminable song) through a world of sunny greenhouses, hydroponic gardens, and sustainable fisheries. Salad greens grown in Disney’s nearby organic farms were major ingredients in our lunch at the Sunshine Seasons Food Court. Later, we had fun wandering from country to country in Epcot’s World Showcase even though in many cases we had already visited the real thing. The “Gods of the Vikings” exhibit on display in a replica of a Scandinavian stave church provided some historical background for our upcoming visit to the Baltic, and an IMAX film about China made us want to put a trip to Asia on our travel schedule, too. Dinner at Restaurant Marrakesh featured couscous and a belly dancer. Following the fireworks, our international experience continued as we tried conversing in Spanglish with a family from Argentina while waiting for our shuttle to arrive.
On Wednesday we woke up to the kind of weather we had left in Cincinnati–not freezing, but gray, wet, and colder than usual for Florida. We had registered for a tour of the earliest launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but before we could enter the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where the tour would begin, we had to get a special security clearance. This involved standing in four different lines and waiting for nearly an hour while our reservations were confirmed and all the information on our driver’s licenses was copied onto an official government form–by hand, no abbreviations allowed. In contrast to this display of egregious inefficiency, the Orbit Cafe’s completely automated ordering system was capable of delivering a Cuban sandwich and a surprisingly juicy hamburger to our lunch trays in less than five minutes.
Probably the most impressive aspect of our visit to the Kennedy Space Center was not the gigantic dimensions of the Saturn rockets nor the astronomical distances traveled by Voyager 1, but our realization of how shockingly primitive the earliest manned space flights had been. Equipment in the command center for Alan Shepard’s 1961 launch beyond Earth’s atmosphere seems to have been jerry-built with stock components from Radio Shack and Ace Hardware. The command center itself was housed within a two-room bunker scarcely two hundred yards from the launch pad, protected from rocket-generated flames by thick concrete walls. The only way Mission Control could visually monitor the proceedings was through a few small windows formed from dozens of layers of laminated glass. And just as nobody had thought about accommodating Shepard’s need to urinate until it was too late, no one had thought to include a toilet inside the bunker, either.
We left the Kennedy Space Center marveling about how far space exploration had come within our own lifetimes–and how far we still have to go.
That evening, after a dinner cobbled together from leftovers in our hotel mini-fridge, we hurried to the catch the day’s last session at the Orlando Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where we could further contemplate the prospect of worlds beyond our own.
Yet another out-of-this world experience awaited us on Thursday, when we went to Universal Orlando and entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. During January, we had re-watched all eight Harry Potter films so we would be fully prepared for our day of enchantment in Florida. However, Michael was not prepared to see so many visitors dressed as characters from the Potter franchise.
“Should we be worried about all these grown men wearing wizard robes and brandishing wands?” he asked.
“Should we have been worried about all those grown women wearing sparkly pink mouse ears at Epcot?” Nancy countered.
Nancy was disappointed that the only way to explore inside Hogwarts Castle was to go along with “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” an intense ride we would not recommend for middle-aged muggles unaccustomed to apparating or flying on broomsticks. It took us a couple of hours to recover our equilibrium after that one.
Friday we returned to the real world. The night before, we had asked the concierge at Orlando’s Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort (where we had moved on Wednesday night to join the Ingage group) how long it would take to drive to Lake Wales in morning traffic.
She looked at us in bewilderment and asked, “Why do you want to go there?”
For the record, it took about 90 minutes to drive from the Hyatt to Lake Wales, a small resort community set amid the wetlands of the Kissimmee River system. Accompanied by six other Ingagers, we took an airboat tour of Alligator Cove. Our guide was the flamboyant Captain Flame, who told us that his family had raised cattle in this swampland since the 1850s, and that he had spent his entire life exploring its mysteries. For sure, he knew exactly where to go to find basking alligators, and could name every bird our noisy engines flushed into the air.
After spending a long-ago summer counting birds on Utah Lake as part of a BYU research project, Michael is pretty good at identifying waders, dabblers, and other shore birds, too, but Captain Flame helped us add some new species to our life lists. In addition to all manner of egrets, herons, and ibises, we spotted anhingas, purple gallinules, fulvous whistling ducks, limpkins, wood storks, a red-shouldered hawk, and a snail kite–some of which can be found only in Florida.
After days spent among animatronic creatures in simulated environments, it was refreshing to be able to marvel at the wonders of the natural world again. Our airboat tour–and the drive to Lake Wales–allowed us to see what central Florida was like before Disney, Universal, Sea World, and other “attractions” began changing the landscape.
Following lunch (which involved the eight of us crowding into a local take-out pizzeria and being served more food than we could eat for less than $7 each) we enjoyed more of the wonders of nature at Bok Tower Gardens, also located in Lake Wales. Designed in the 1920s by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., the gardens lack the wild allure of Alligator Cove, but are equally beautiful. They also provide a more varied habitat for many different bird species.
On our guided tour, we learned the history of the site and its founder, Edward W. Bok. A long-time former editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, Bok’s aesthetic sense had a tremendous influence on American domestic architecture and interior design in the early twentieth century. At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a concert of live music issuing from the art-deco carillon tower. We could watch the carilloneur perform via a video monitor set up in a nearby grove.
Friday evening we attended a happy hour at the Hyatt that officially kicked off the Ingage weekend. Both of us consumed too many hors d’oeurvres to feel like going out for a full dinner, but even after eating the rest of the fruit and mini carrots from the refrigerator in our room, we still weren’t entirely satisfied. So of course, we went searching for some good ice cream. While Twistee Treat of Lake Buena Vista didn’t serve the type of gourmet gelato we had hoped for, we didn’t mind settling for some huge soft-serve cones.
Saturday morning we rose early to catch a chartered bus that would take a group of Ingagers to Oakland Nature Preserve, near Lake Apopka about 15 miles west of Orlando. This was no pleasure excursion; we had been told to come prepared to get dirty, and dirty we got. The Ingage crew was put to work clearing brush, piling logs, and raking leaves in preparation for a controlled burn. The preserve occupies land that for many years had been cultivated with citrus groves and sand pine plantations, but now is being cleared of non-native species in the hope of reviving its original sandhill ecosystem. We didn’t run across any of the preserve’s gopher tortoises nor any of their burrows, but we hoped that our efforts would help make the area more hospitable to the threatened creatures.
Hungry as well as tired and sweaty after the service project, we went back to the hotel to clean up, then had lunch at Sweet Tomatoes with Brian and Lisa. We all wished the chain would open one of these all-you-can-eat healthy buffets in Cincinnati.
After lunch, we decided to take advantage of some of the resort’s outdoor amenities. A couple of nights earlier, when he thought he’d swim a few laps after soaking in the hot tub, Michael had discovered that the hotel’s main pool was unheated and February-frigid, so even though the day was relatively warm we decided not to don swimsuits. (A smaller, adjacent pool was heated, but because it was equipped with slides and fountains, it was usually crowded with splashing kids.) Instead of swimming, we walked across the sandy “beach” to the dock on the Hyatt’s private lake and got into a canoe. We soon realized that rowing required us to use the same muscles we had worked while raking during the morning, so when our arms began to ache after about 40 minutes, we took the canoe back in and started along the walking trail that circled the lake.
The Ingage weekend’s final event was a company banquet on the top deck of Paddlefish, a steamboat-turned-restaurant anchored on Lake Buena Vista in Disney Springs. Curiously, the only seafood offered at the buffet was a little lobster mixed into the guacamole, but the roast turkey and traditional trimmings were good, and we especially liked the little pots of chocolate, cheesecake, and key lime mousse we found on the dessert table. For us, the best part of the evening was the stimulating conversation with our dining partners, Erich and Ann.
Sunday morning (17 February) we packed our bags, loaded them into the car, and headed north on I-75. Ingage founder Michael K. had recommended that we stop for lunch at a barbecue restaurant in Valdosta, Georgia, adding a glowing review of its peach cobbler. How could we resist? Smok’n Pig BBQ did not disappoint–especially because we could take advantage of the lunch special: limitless salad bar, a half-rack of ribs, two generous side dishes, and that peach cobbler–all for $10.99. Not long after we left Valdosta, winter returned in the form of chilly, drenching rain. We spent that night at the home of some friends who used to live in Cincinnati. Two of the best storytellers we know, N.J. and Mary-Anne kept us laughing long after we’d finished eating some exceptional chili and cornbread, but allowed us to go to bed before midnight. (We’re glad that N.J. and Mary-Anne will be part of our cohort on the Baltic cruise we have booked for June 2019.)
We got on the road again after breakfast (another outstanding meal, featuring two kinds of quiche) and arrived home Monday afternoon without incident, despite continuing downpours. Later that week, we learned that record rainfall in Knoxville had inundated N.J. and Mary-Anne’s fully finished basement, including the lovely guest room where we had spent the night. Good timing for us, but terrible for them: their house is currently on the market as N.J. and Mary-Anne prepare to move away from Tennessee. We pray that all goes well as they clean up and make repairs. And so we beat on, boats against the current …