Our Week with Kia Sorento: Road Trip Memories

I received a 2016 Kia Sorento SXL AWD on loan to drive and review for a week, courtesy of Drive Shop and Kia. Here are my thoughts.

The timing of the loan was ideal. What better way to really get the feel for a family car like the 2016 Kia Sorento than to drive that car hundreds of miles for a Memorial Day weekend excursion?

Kia Sorento

We made a lot of road trip memories during our week with a 2016 Kia Sorento.

We piled in on Friday afternoon and headed for Gulf County, a five-hour drive north of our home in the Tampa Bay area. A magnificent beach house awaited on Cape San Blas.

Our loaner Sorento had a 2.0-liter turbo gas direct injection, four-cylinder engine; independent front and rear suspension; and full-time all-wheel drive with lockable center differential.

Um … what?

I’m no car expert. I drive them, and I pay attention to things like how comfortable the seats are, how good the gas mileage is and how much space there is for packing. Our Sorento passed those tests with ease.

There also was the Kid Test, though. Would the boys like it?

Short answer: They loved it. The Sirius/XM radio was a huge hit — Kids Place Live became, in just that one week, an all-time favorite. They were fascinated by the navigation display and paid close attention to our progress on the real-time map. There was plenty of room in the back for them to be comfortable during our long drives up to and back from the Panhandle.

I can sum up the experience simply: By the time our loan period ended, the Sorento felt like our car. It took us to a place where we made wonderful memories, and we will always associate our family’s first trip to Cape San Blas with the car we came in.

I wasn’t asked to do this, and it isn’t associated with Kia or Drive Shop at all, but I felt compelled to commemorate our experience with the Sorento in video form. Forgive its sappiness. It’s not an actual commercial, just a genuine expression of how a family trip can bridge generations, and how lifelong memories are made on the road.

Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.

SeaWorld

The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.

 

Swing, Fail, Swing Again

Baseball

Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.

The Field Trip

He came around the corner, distraught, and found me in the family room.

His face broke.

Tears gathered and fell.

“Mommy just told me you can’t come on the field trip.”

Small sob.

“I want you there,” he said. “I want you to go. I want to be with my daddy.”

He wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his face into my shirt.

I put my hand on his head and told him I was sorry.

“I have to work,” I said. “I want to go, too. I wish I could. But I have to work.”

I told him we could make our own family field trip. I told him to think of adventures we could have on the weekend.

The tears stopped. He stepped back. Our own field trip? That sounded promising. He seemed to feel better.

I did not.

_______________

The next morning I got into my car and began my commute as usual. I fought the traffic along the expressway and watched the sun come up.

When I reached the exit for my office, I kept going. My son wanted me there. I was going to go on that field trip. It wasn’t far, just up the interstate at the state fairground. A place where old Florida has been reconstructed out of antique buildings that were moved there from their original homestead sites. It’s a pretty, shaded village, a living set torn from the pages of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel.

I maneuvered through the downtown morning rush hour traffic and made it to the fairground ahead of the kids. I parked my car. I talked my way through the gate. The guard said he had a son, too. He understood.

When the bus arrived, I stood there smiling. Excited kids filed off and I looked for my son. He bounced off the bus chattering to friends, excited to be there. Then he spotted me.

“Daddy!”

He ran to me and grabbed me in a hug.

“You’re here! I can’t believe it! This is awesome!”

“I know, bud,” I said. “It is awesome. It really is. Hey, let’s go look at that old train station. It looks pretty cool.”

We explored the village, ate some kettle corn, pet some farm animals and had a great time making a memory.

_______________

No. That did not happen.

I battled the traffic, took my exit, and showed up to work. He went on the field trip with other chaperones, other kids’ parents.

We will have our own, personal field trip. But it’s not the same. I know it, and he knows it. That’s why he cried.

I wanted to be there. I should have been there. I could not be there.

It didn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right.

We can’t have it all. I know that. We understand reality. There is school, there is work, there are hours apart. Our family handles it as well as we can, just like every family.

But sometimes, if only for a day, it might be nice to have a little more. Sometimes, it would be nice to be there.

Tampa Sunrise

Tampa sunrise from the office. Beautiful view. Somewhere out there, there’s a field trip happening.

Sea World Spooktacular: Get there early to beat the crowd

Sea World Spooktacular

Our boys very much enjoyed their first visit to Sea World. The Spooktacular Halloween event only made it more memorable. And more bubbly.

Our family was invited to Sea World this past Saturday to experience the first weekend of the annual Spooktacular Halloween event. It was our sons’ first trip to Sea World, and the first trip for Beth and me since summer 2005.

I’ll say this up front: Our boys, a 7-year-old second grader and a 5-year-old kindergartner, loved every minute. They already were asking when we’d be back before we left the parking lot on the way out.

That said, let me add: Bubbles! Holy Mother of Shamu, there were so many bubbles. So many.

Bubbles.

And I get it. The whole scene is supposed to be an undersea Halloween adventure. As they put it in the news release: “An ocean of Halloween fun.”

B.

U.

B.

B.

L.

E.

S.

There were more than a few. And you know what? Our kids loved those, too.

Sea World

Did I mention there were bubbles?

Before getting into the day’s highlights, I’ll bottom line the Sea World Spooktacular here. The event, which takes place weekends throughout October, is OK for all elementary school-age kids, but is probably best suited for kids between 4 and about 8 or an early 9. It’s included with park admission, which is a nice bonus considering how much extra other parks charge for their Halloween special events.

As I mentioned, our sons loved the event and the park, so I can definitely recommend it for families with younger elementary- or preschool-age kids.

We got to the park around noon, which was definitely the right time to arrive. The lines for trick-or-treating and animal interactions were still relatively short when we went through. Later in the day, as we passed back by the areas we’d already visited, the lines stretched down the walkway. So, get there early. It was extremely crowded the day we were there, and because we aren’t regular Sea World attendees, I don’t know if that’s the norm. If so, prepare yourself for slow progress from area to area.

Photo Highlights of Sea World’s Spooktacular Halloween Event:

Sea World Spooktacular

Spooktacular is good for kids 4-8. Just make sure you get there early enough to beat the long lines for trick-or-treating.

Sea World

The boys met a possum and a beautiful eagle.

Sea World

The early trick-or-treat lines were virtually non-existent. We went past this one a couple of hours later and the line stretched down the walkway. Get there early!

Sea World

Waiting for Shamu!

Sea World

Orca leaping. When asked later to name the highlight of the day, our 7-year-old didn’t hesitate: the whale show.

Sea World

There are paid games and free arts and crafts, as well as interaction with costumed undersea characters at Penelope’s Party Zone. Our boys enjoyed decorating the gigantic sugar cookies (this activity costs extra).

 

Sea World

The entrance to Antarctica illustrates how dense the crowd got at times. The wait for the Empire of the Penguin ride was an hour, so we gave it a pass this time around. Really, I can’t emphasize enough: Get there early!

Sea World

Did our boys enjoy their first visit to Sea World? Well, this photo was taken at the six-hour mark of our trip. They look pretty happy to me!

Disclosure: Our family was admitted to Sea World at no cost for one day in order to experience the Spooktacular event and the park itself for review purposes. All editorial content and opinions are those of the author.

 

ESPN Wide World of Sports: Athletic Excellence, Disney Magic

WWOSGlobe

In 16 short years, ESPN Wide World of Sports has carved out a unique position in the world of participatory and spectator sports.

When the Braves and Reds inaugurated the beautiful baseball stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports in 1998, I was there to cover it for a newspaper. I remember being impressed by the “Florida Picturesque” style, and the whimsical Mediterranean Revival details of a stadium that instantly became the premier spring training ballpark in Florida. (It still is that, by the way.)

Back then, I barely gave the rest of the complex a second thought. After all, this was about the partnership between Disney and the Braves. Once spring training was done, I figured the facility would — like many ballparks in Florida — merely transition into a sleepy, minor-league facility for the Double-A Orlando Rays.

These days, those minor-league Rays are long gone. So is any hint of anything remotely “minor league.” In 16 short years, ESPN Wide World of Sports (the four-letter network became part of the name in 2010) has emerged as a unique destination for participatory and spectator sports.

Boardwalk

Disney’s Boardwalk Resort at sunrise, the morning of the Run Disney Fun Run at Epcot.

I and 18 other bloggers from around the country had the chance to immerse ourselves in the sports facilities and amenities — as well as the overall Disney World experience — earlier this week.

My bottom line takeaway from the very well-run and extremely informative media event: If you have a child who participates in organized sports, or you are a coach or team organizer (mom or dad) responsible for planning and executing trips for a youth sports team, I can’t imagine a better place on Earth to come than ESPN Wide World of Sports.

That’s a broad statement, I know, and it needs support. Here, then, are just a few things that stood out for me during the media event:

  • The 225-acre complex is the site of more than 350 events with 350,000 youth, college and professional athletes in more than 70 sports annually. That means the Disney Sports Solutions team is extraordinarily experienced when it comes to meeting the needs of athletes and their support crew (coaches, parents, relatives, etc.).
  • You, too, could own a WWOS DadScribe t-shirt. And you know you want one.

    You, too, could own a WWOS DadScribe t-shirt. And you know you want one.

    The ESPN brand is ubiquitous, and that’s on purpose. One of the most interesting aspects of the athlete experience at the complex is the opportunity to, as the marketing slogan says, “Play at the Next Level.” Part of that next-level experience is being on TV. There is an incredible ESPN control room located behind the scenes next to Champion Stadium, and the action on the many fields and courts is almost always framed by one of the 56 high-definition cameras that dot the complex. There also are high-def 40 screens, including three jumbo screens, carrying footage all over the complex. In fact, athletes can view their professionally edited highlights from that day on a dedicated channel in their Disney resort rooms. The goal is to dramatically increase the TV presence of these games. The Watch ESPN app and ESPN3 figure big in the broadcast future of the Wide World of Sports Complex, which also serves as a testing ground for breakthrough broadcast technology like 3D.

  • Yes. Yes, I was the MVP.

    Yes. Yes, I was the MVP.

    Memorabilia is big for kids, and they do those things very well at the WWOS complex. Customized shirts are available (mine is pictured above) and the visit can be commemorated with photos and a personalized ESPN the Magazine “cover” shoot (also pictured). I can imagine kids begging their parents for these items. I know I mine would.

  • Everything — and I mean, everything — logistical is handled for the teams and their organizers by the Disney Sports Solutions team. No matter what you need help with (the daily itinerary, fundraising for travel, safety and health issues, finding the right open tournament to match your team’s competitive level, housing for athletes and family members, transportation, nutritious food, entertainment between games, and so much more) the Disney Sports experts have it covered. In addition, the recently opened Office Max Business Center provides computer access, smart phone charging, and more.
  • The starting line of our personal Run Disney Fun Run through Epcot.

    The starting line of our personal Run Disney Fun Run through Epcot.

    And here’s the clincher. There’s no reason another sports complex couldn’t one day compete on an equal footing with Disney in all of those qualities (yes, even the broadcast element, if another big network decided to commit 100 percent to the plan). But no organization can combine a first-class athletic experience with the magic of Walt Disney World theme parks. According to the Disney Sports team, an estimated 50-60 percent of the athletes and their supporters who come to ESPN Wide World of Sports to compete have never been to Disney World. Nothing can compete with using your down time before, during or after games to head on over to the Magic Kingdom for a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean and a viewing of the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks; or to Hollywood Studios for a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard at twilight and wild rides on the Rock-n-Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror; or to Downtown Disney for dinner and bowling at Splitsville. Sure beats cable TV or an outdated game room at some low-budget motel.

The Welcome Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports integrates the athletic experience and the Disney experience for participants and families.

The Welcome Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports integrates the athletic experience and the Disney experience for participants and families.

To find out how to put your team on the Road to Disney, check out the Disney Sports website. Twitter is a great way to keep up with the many goings-on at the complex, and the official Disney Sports handle is @DisneySports. There also is a YouTube channel that is updated regularly with highlights from the complex.

____________________________________

Here are some bonus videos taken during the Disney Sports media event I was fortunate enough to attend. The highlight for me, in addition to learning so much about a place I thought I already knew, was meeting a lot of great writers and content producers from all over the country. I learned a great deal from interacting with them, too, and I think these videos provide wonderful insight into the work that goes into reporting for blogs.

The videos also expose you to detailed, behind-the-scenes looks at what goes on at ESPN Wide World of Sports. You’ll see what we saw. The first two are five-minute versions of our tours. The third includes highlights of a really cool Run Disney Fun Run we had the chance to do at Epcot on Tuesday morning.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Wide World of Sports media FAM and write about what I learned. I was provided a room and promotional materials, but all opinions and editorial decisions are my own.