Harry Potter and thrills galore set Universal apart

Universal Studios

The highlight of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort was walking into a masterful recreation of Diagon Alley, the crowning achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Before I get into the amazing experience we had during our Facing Fears Together visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure earlier this month, I need to put this whole Harry Potter thing into perspective.

We are a family of readers. By that, I mean we enjoy sitting (or lying) down with a good book and getting lost in the pages (or, these days, the digital representation of pages on my iPad Kindle or Nook apps).

Beth and I bonded over the Harry Potter series. How obsessed were we?

In the summer of 2005, we knew the sixth book in the Harry Potter series would be released during our visit to Charleston, S.C., with my mom and dad. So, we pre-ordered the Half-Blood Prince for pick up at a little book store on Meeting Street around the corner from our hotel.

Oh, and we ordered two copies, because we knew that neither of us would want to wait while the other plowed through the pages. This was during a long weekend in one of the coolest walking cities in America.

We spent a good portion of that trip to Charleston imagining ourselves roaming the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even as we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter, we itched to get back to the room and read.

That should give you a pretty good idea where things stand for us when it came time to step into Diagon Alley for the first time.

I was prepared to be mesmerized. Universal Studios did not disappoint.

___________________________

First, though, there were other thrills to experience, other rides to ride.

I think my new favorite roller coaster in Florida just might be Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 17-story, 65-mph rocket that allows you to create a music video of your ride using music of your choice (I chose Camouflage by the Beastie Boys). It was one of the first things we did with the party of bloggers and their friends and/or family members put together by Toni and Mellisa from Two Traveling Moms.

We also had our insides pureed at Universal Studios on Transformers, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Revenge of the Mummy. Later, at Islands of Adventure, we ate an incredible lunch at Mythos, acknowledged as the top theme park restaurant in the world by Theme Park Insider from 2003-09.

Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The castle looks so real, I half expect to see Harry come flying in on a broomstick.

At Islands of Adventure, we also rode the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park River Adventure and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.

It was all great, the kinds of thrills and wonderful experiences that help put Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on a world-class level. The proximity of Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida and Sea World demand that of Universal Orlando, anyway.

What takes the two Universal parks into a unique realm, at least in my view, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey came to Islands of Adventure in the summer of 2010. It gave J.K. Rowling fans the chance to experience what it’s like to move through real-life versions of the locations made famous in the books and movies.

Then, this year, Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express were added.

It’s a game changer on Florida’s theme park landscape. While Disney made great strides with the New Fantasy Land facelift last year, nothing I’ve seen in any theme park anywhere compared to the experience of walking into a place that brought to life a setting I’ve only imagined or seen represented on screen.

Universal Orlando

Once through the brick wall maze coming in from “muggle” London, the view is … well, magical.

Diagon Alley in the books and movies is one of the best-conceived settings in kid literature. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, it provided Harry’s first, true immersion into the world of magic. Everywhere he turned was something new and delightfully fascinating.

Later, it served as a setting for major plot elements. That new and amazing place of the first book eventually became a place of warmth and familiarity for Harry — and for us, the readers.

The detail of Diagon Alley is spectacular. Anyone who loves the books and movies like we do will feel transported.

Universal Orlando

A spectacular light fixture, part of the interior of Gringotts at Diagon Alley.

There were many highlights, but the Escape from Gringotts ride took the prize. Frankly, even though the ride itself is fantastic (it’s like you’re inside a wild, magical 3D movie), the re-creation of the interior of Gringotts was what put it over the top for me.

Small but important details, like the painted advertisements on the brick facades throughout Diagon Alley, gave the place a “street-level” feel not even the books or movies could provide. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the accompanying slide show, and I urge you to check out the information available about the Wizarding World on the Universal Orlando’s website.

Because Beth was not able to accompany me on this Facing Fears Together couples trip, she suggested I invite our neighbor, Ken. He had been to Universal with his kids and loved it, but he had not had the chance to see any of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, Ken — even though he has two kids that love to read and are Harry Potter fans — had never seen any of the movies or read even the first book.

He came into it as a Harry Potter newbie. While there, I repeatedly expressed my amazement with how real it all seemed. Ken was impressed at the time, too, but he lacked the perspective of a Harry Potter veteran.

That changed once we got back. He made a point of watching the Sorcerer’s Stone movie shortly after our return, and I got this text from him as he watched: “You weren’t kidding about Universal vs movie! Impressed!”

Exactly.

Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to the Facing Fears Together blogger event co-hosted by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando Resort to review the theme parks, Halloween Horror Nights, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Citywalk entertainment district. All opinions those of the author.

 

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Why We Should Care if CEO Dads Choose to be Engaged Parents

The thoughts and experiences of several CEO dads regarding work-family balance are detailed in a new article posted to TIME.

This quote from Ernst & Young’s Mark Weinberger sums up why it is important to tell the stories of these high-powered, high-stress, high-responsibility executives:

“You can have all the initiatives you want saying you can have flexibility, but until some of the real leaders make the choice to choose family, I don’t think people feel like they have real permission to do it.”

I agree with Weinberger, who told TIME about turning down the chance to take photos on top of the Great Wall of China after a recent speech because he had to board a plane to get back to the U.S. for his daughter’s driving test the next day. Weinberger added that he received many emails after that speech, all of which praised his commitment to fatherhood.

I am drawn to a story like this one, as well as the one I wrote last month for TODAY Parents about CEO Max Schireson reducing his work duties to be more “there” for his kids. The idea that millionaire men who are responsible for the growth and well-being of billion-dollar companies want the world to know they are engaged fathers resonates with me.

No, these guys don’t have to worry about paying for food or medical bills. They have the luxury to actually make decisions that will enable them to spend more time being dads, as opposed to working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

But that actually enhances their point. They have the choice, and they choose to make fatherhood a priority. Not merely the traditional, provider role of fatherhood. The vital role of being there, of engaging with their kids. As Schireson told me, “It’s not just about being there more. It’s about being ‘more there.'”

This is why it’s important to acknowledge these rich men who run these big companies but also are committed to being the best dads they can be. Because the more it becomes the norm for the men and women who are “big” bosses to make the right choices in terms of work-family priorities, the easier it will become for all of us to be “more there” for our kids.

____________________________________

I am beginning my second week working out of our home. So far, so good. Last week, the boys seemed pleased to have me home in the afternoons, and I was more than pleased to be here for them.

We’re still making the adjustment, and I get the feeling that it will take more than a few days to figure it all out. Then, just as we figure it out, I imagine things will change again. We’ll adjust to that, too.

For now, I’ll meet them at the bus stop, get them settled into a routine that includes an afternoon snack and homework (not necessarily in that order) and juggle the responsibilities of writing and maintaining the household.

I’m no CEO, but this will do.

 

Creative Minds Podcast Appearance with Chris Read of Canadian Dad

From left: me, Chris Read of Canadian Dad; Kevin McKeever of Always Home and Uncool; Whit Honea of the Internet. I spent an hour Tuesday rambling about baseball, storytelling and other things on Chris' Creative Minds podcast.

At Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans this past February. From left: me, Chris Read of Canadian Dad; Kevin McKeever of Always Home and Uncool; Whit Honea of the Internet. I spent an hour Tuesday rambling about baseball, storytelling and other things on Chris’ Creative Minds podcast.

One of the best things about publishing this online … whatever it is … journal, I guess … is the chance to develop friendships with people all over the world. One of my favorites is Chris Read of Canadian Dad.

Chris was kind enough to feature DadScribe on his Dad Blogs Exposed series about a year ago. And Tuesday, he was kind enough (again) to invite me to join him for an hour-long conversation on the Creative Minds podcast he produces with fellow Canadian Mike Reynolds of Puzzling Posts. Mike was out Tuesday attending to under-the-weather family members (get well soon, Mike’s family!), so it was just me and Chris.

Chris indulged my rambling about baseball writing and storytelling and parenting and other topics, and I enjoyed every minute. We name-dropped a few of our favorite fellow online writers and I made a few lame attempts at jokes about how Canadians occasionally add a “u” after an “o” in inappropriate places.

It was a good time, and I hope you get the chance to listen. Here is the link to the podcast, which is  also available through subscription on iTunes.

Thank you again, Chris and Mike, for the invitation. I’d love to do it again sometime.

 

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.

5 Things About Frozen Our Kids Just Didn’t Understand

Frozen

Can I say something crazy? Frozen has become our family’s favorite Disney movie, even though the boys don’t understand half of it. (Image: Disney Studios, via Click Communications.)

Can I say something crazy? We’ve seen Frozen three times. Three.

Can I say something even crazier? The last movie I saw three times in a theater was Star Wars: a New Hope, in 1977. I was 8.

Naturally, we own the complete Frozen soundtrack. Our boys know the words to all of the songs. And they sing them. Constantly. So do we.

The songs alternate as my daily ear worm. More often than not, I wake up with “Let it Go” in my head. And there it stays. All. Day. Long.

(It’s in there right now.)

Sometimes, though, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” or “For the First Time in Forever” manage to break the “Let it Go” stranglehold. Lately, “Love is an Open Door” and “Frozen Heart” and “In Summer” have made their presence known. Today at my desk, I noticed myself humming the chorus of “Fixer Upper.”

They’re all good. So good that I was tempted to download the digital HD version when it became available Tuesday on iTunes. We’re waiting, though. The Blu-Ray Combo pack comes out March 18. Maybe we’ll wait. Probably.

Meanwhile, we talk about it. I know the boys love the songs and the story and the characters, but I wasn’t sure they actually understood everything they heard or saw. A non-scientific investigation revealed what I suspected: Some of the lyrics and plot points were a bit beyond our boys. Not that it matters, mind you. They love it, all the same.

I’m just glad I took a moment to set the record straight for them on these five things:

1. Why would Anna think she was either elated or gassy, and where, exactly, is “that zone?”

This one required definitions for elated (delighted, overjoyed, very happy) and gassy (um … about to burp or, I guess, fart). It also required an explanation for the physiological effects that often accompany the anticipation of a life-altering event. Which … butterflies? That was a can of worms best left for another time, because our younger son still takes things a bit too literally. “No,” I said. “There aren’t actual butterflies in your stomach. It just feels like it.”

2. Why does Anna feel the need to stuff chocolate in her face at the prospect of meeting a tall, fair stranger at the ball? 

This one made absolutely no sense to them. Our older son doesn’t even like chocolate. If she was about to meet someone “special,” why would she want to risk having brown teeth? I explained to them that some people crave sugar and caffeine when they’re nervous, and as chocolate has both, it’s a natural stimulant. Or sedative. Actually, I’m not really 100 percent sure why she’d want to stuff chocolate in her face. Maybe they just needed something to rhyme with “sophisticated grace.”

3. Why is it crazy for Hans to ask Anna to marry him?

They got that it’s a bit weird for two people to become engaged to be married the same night they meet, but I don’t think they quite understood why. I tried to explain that first you need to meet someone. Then, after a protracted getting-to-know-you period of friendship, you have to become aware of a mutual attraction. Then, if that mutual attraction is more than physical zeal, there has to be some kind of … spiritual … connection? OK look, I don’t really know how love happens so if those two crazy kids want to get crazy with each other, who are we (or Elsa? Or Kristoff?) to say otherwise? I mean, sure, Hans turned out to be evil, but his horse seemed nice. It just goes to show you.

4. Why did Elsa change dresses (and hair) (and makeup) (and … bra size?) when she magically built her castle?

No, our boys didn’t ask anything about Elsa’s bra size. But they were a bit confused by her physical transformation. They understood that she left Arendelle because she was afraid she was going to hurt Anna or someone else with her uncontrollable power. And they got that she was now able to be who she really was and live how she wanted to live, with no rules. She was free. They got that. The purpose for the clothes eluded them, until I explained that it was the screenwriter’s way to make absolutely sure that we all understood that Elsa’s transformation was complete and absolute. That the only thing from Arendelle that she still carried with her was massive guilt for nearly killing her sister and for surviving when their parents drowned at sea.

Wait. What?

5. Why couldn’t Elsa just immediately freeze those handcuff things off her when she woke up in the cell?

You know … I have no idea. I’m just glad she remembered to put a little flurry over Olaf before he went the way of Frosty in the greenhouse.

An Interview with Santa Claus

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They're all as real as you want them to be. (Photos: Various sources.)

Pick a Santa, any Santa. They’re all as real as you want them to be.

One of the most remarkable developments during my many years of travel as a journalist was the time I interviewed Santa Claus.

It was March 2004, and I was in Tokyo for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-New York Yankees opening series. Our first afternoon there, I came across Herr Kringle strolling through the 400-year-old Japanese garden adjacent to our hotel, the New Otani. He was alone, unattended, not a reindeer in sight. I got the distinct impression he wanted to be left alone. But I was a journalist. This was news. I approached the Jolly Old Elf and introduced myself.

I pulled out my digital recorder and notebook and proceeded to conduct the interview of a lifetime.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

The 400-year-old Japanese garden at the New Otani in Tokyo, site of my interview of a lifetime with Santa himself.

Here’s how it went down.

Carter Gaddis: I apologize for interrupting your meditation, Mr. Claus.

Santa Claus: Please, call me Santa. And I understand. You have a job to do. You mind if we keep this short, though? I have a breakfast reservation in Paris.

CG: Paris? But we’re in Tokyo.

SC: Hello? Magic elf.

CG: Sure. Of course. Sorry.

SC: Look, if you don’t have any questions …

CG: No, no. Yes, well … um. I guess the first thing is, how is this even possible? You’re not real.

SC: And “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” right?

CG: Well, yeah. Who’s that, Locke? Hobbes?

SC: Hume. So, what do you deduce from the evidence? Wait, let me make it easy for you. You’ve studied your Pascal, yes? You’re familiar with his “wager” theory about belief in God? No? Well, it’s like this. Are you willing to gamble away potential eternal bliss spent basking in the presence of the almighty creator simply because you can’t bring yourself to believe in Him? I mean, what if you’re wrong? If you’re right, that there’s no God, all you’ve lost is an infinitesimal blip of time in the immeasurable immensity of eternity. Not a bad bet, that. In this case, the odds are heavily in your favor, because here I am. Think about it like this: Your eyes tell you I’m real, correct? With that piece of evidence, and knowing that not believing I’m real means you’re doomed to a lifetime of no presents at Christmas time, it is in your best interest to just go ahead and let yourself believe. Right?

CG: But …

SC: Buddy, I really can’t stay much longer. We can stand here and debate my existence for the next three minutes, if you like. And when I disappear into thin air on my way to the Champs Elysees for œufs brouillés a la truffes noires, you can stand here holding your … notebook. It’s your dime.

CG: OK. Yes. So, let’s say you are you. You’re really Santa Claus. How do you deliver toys to all the good little boys and girls on a single night? The whole sleigh and flying reindeer thing seems a bit unlikely, to be honest.

SC: I have a T.A.R.D.I.S.

CG: A … what?

SC: A T.A.R.D.I.S. You know, blue police call box from England. Bigger on the inside. Travels through time and space? Like Doctor Who.

CG: Doctor Who?

SC: Exactly.

CG: But that’s not …

SC: Real? Ho! Ho-ho-ho! Of course not. I was kidding. No, but yeah. It’s magic. I use magic. Simple, really. The reindeer are just for show. Mrs. Claus runs an arctic animal rescue up north, so I just – do what I do – and voila! Flying reindeer. The actual gift delivery system is far beyond your comprehension. There are too many moving parts to simplify the explanation. Let’s just call it magic and leave it at that.

CG: I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. I need to know how you do it. I need to know how to tell the world you’re real. Explain it to me like I’m a fifth grader.

SC: A fifth grader? Funny you should pull that particular time of life out of the ether.

CG: Funny how?

SC: Because that’s when you stopped believing. Remember? Even after you spotted all those toys in the foyer closet when you were 5, you wanted to keep believing. So, you did. You kept believing in me because that’s what you wanted to do. And that still applies today. To you, and to everyone in the world. Do you understand what I’m saying?

CG: Sure, but I don’t think it applies. I mean, you’re not real. You’re an inherited Western European archetype, based loosely on Germanic paganism and later Western religions, seasoned with a healthy sprinkling of good, old-fashioned capitalism. It’s all about corporate symbolism now. Is that the message we want to teach our kids? That it’s OK to perpetuate a vast, fantastical myth that celebrates commercialism and the all-mighty holiday dollar?

SC: OK. Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. Except this: Sartre was on the right track when he wrote, “In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.” You see?

CG: That doesn’t answer my question.

SC: Your question doesn’t have an answer. I’ve got to go. Merry Christmas!

CG: It’s March.

SC: I know. Ho-ho-ho! Bye.

And like that … he was gone.

As you can see, the interview was a disaster, which is why I sat on the story until now. It was nothing more than an incoherent mishmash of pop philosophy and obscure science fiction allusions. I didn’t have a camera on me (no iPhones back then), so I could produce no photographic evidence. My recorder crapped out after I transcribed the conversation, so I even lost the audio proof. I haven’t seen Santa since.

I believe, though. I decided to believe, and I did. In my portrait, the one I made for and of myself, Santa Claus is real. Just as every religion, every mythology is true in the sense that it is metaphorical of the mysteries of existence, Old Saint Nick is a metaphor. For me, he’s a combination of kindness, generosity and the wonder of imagination. I’m leaning toward zombie Santa at the moment, too.

What else does Santa symbolize? Depends on who you ask. Your portrait is yours, and yours alone.

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.

 

How Will Our Sons Remember Me?

Boys, I don’t know if you’ll ever have kids of your own. I imagine you will. I don’t know whether I’ll ever meet these theoretical grandchildren of mine. I hope I do.

If you do have kids, and if I’m gone by then, they’ll probably ask about me.

“Tell me about your dad,” they might say.

What will you tell them?

What am I doing now to create a legacy worth remembering, memories worth sharing with your own children?

I know what I hope you’ll say:

“Your grandfather was smart, kind, patient and funny.

“He loved to read, and he loved to write. He read to us and made up stories with us as the heroes and helped us with our homework. He played video games, too. He was just a big kid at heart.

“He taught us how to throw, catch and hit a baseball, and how to kick a soccer ball. He taught us to care for animals. He took us to nature parks and movies and arcades.

“He loved to visit Disney World every bit as much as we did when we were little. As I said, he was a big kid his whole life.

“He could really sing, and he taught us to appreciate music. He couldn’t dance even a little, but he was funny when he tried.

“He always told us to ‘be good, be nice, be you and have fun’ every morning before school.

“He loved Mom more than anything in the world, except maybe for us.

“He showed me how to live with grace and dignity, and every day I try to be the kind of man he was.”

That’s what I hope you’ll say.

Here’s what I fear you’ll say:

“Your grandfather loved us, but he had no idea how to relate to us – or to anyone – in a mature, meaningful way. He really was just a big, immature kid his whole life.

“He liked to call himself a writer, but he never published a book and he would put us to sleep with boring stories about covering baseball for a newspaper.

“He played video games, for God’s sake. And he dragged us to Disney World so many times I get hives just thinking about Mickey Mouse.

“Oh, and don’t get me started about all the times he tried to live vicariously through us with Little League baseball and youth soccer. He just didn’t understand why we didn’t care about playing or watching sports. If he had the sense God gave a ferret, he’d know we hated sports because he constantly shoved them down our throats.

“Sure, he could sing a little, but not as well as he thought he could – and he made an absolute idiot of himself whenever he tried to dance.

“He was like a parrot with that ‘be good, be nice …’ blah, blah, blah every day before school. What did that even mean, anyway? As if platitudes could replace genuine communication and empathy.

“As I say, your grandfather loved us – probably – and I think he meant well. But every day I live my life trying not to be like him.”

____________________________

Here’s the thing about legacies: They are impossible to forecast. Memories are fickle. Even if I do everything right in your eyes from now until the day I’m gone, I have no way to know how I’ll be remembered by you.

Chances are, boys, if you do have kids one day and they ask about me, the things you tell them and the tone of voice you use will be determined by things that have not yet happened, by moments that have not yet been lived. You are just now beginning to form long-term memories. This is Chapter One in your story of me.

All I can do is to attempt to live up to the ideal, while remaining mindful of the possibility of disappointment. If I’m fortunate, my true legacy to you will not be the memories and stories you share about me, but how your children remember you. Because if you grow up to be worthy of emulation in the eyes of my grandchildren, then I’ll consider this a job well done.