Before heading to Orlando, Elger and I flew into Tampa for a couple of days to visit with my father's side of the family. His parents have lived in the same house in Largo since the 1970s, and the green shag carpet is just as soft as they day they moved in, and just as soft as it was when my brother and I would make regular summer visits during our childhood in the '90s. It was the second time that Elger and I had gotten to spend time with the White side of my family in the past couple of years, but prior to that, it had been at least a decade since I had seen most of my aunts, uncles and cousins living in Florida. I got to witness my aunts doing impressive genealogical research about their parent's family trees, and Elger was taught a thing or two about planes (which is quite the feat) by my grandfather, a Navy and Coast Guard veteran, and we enjoyed having such a familiar, soft spot to land during our first couple of days in Florida.
We ran into my other set of grandparents and my uncle at the front desk, and after literally running over to my brother and jumping on his back, as Elger and I were riding the elevators up to the third floor, where my family was filling six rooms, we drew closer to a familiar, friendly cacophony of voices. When the doors opened, there was my mom, wearing a strobing necklace of Christmas lights and matching illuminated plastic Mickey ears, grinning ear to ear (her real ones). We traded places in the elevator as she and seven other members of our crew headed out, and after a brief visit to Hollywood Studios, Elger and I paddled around in the computer screen-shaped pool next to a four story tall statue of Roger Rabbit and then called it a night (while the rest of our party stayed in the parks until well after midnight).
The things I thought I would recognize were unfamiliar, but the newest park - Animal Kingdom - was oddly very familiar. It's effectively a zoo/mini safari (complete with artificial baobabs and air conditioned rocks for the lions) with rides and three zones: Africa, Asia and Pandora. All of them are equally fake, but the attention to detail in the buildings near the Mt. Everest ride surprised me: exposed rebar on concrete roofs, threadbare prayer flags draped from unassuming (fake) shrines, and intricately carved dark wood detailing was reminiscent of Kathmandu and Bandipur. Plus mouse-shaped ice cream and fewer street vendors (only slightly).
Although NASA is not sending manned missions into space currently, it was so good to see how much action is still going on at the 144,000 acres of Kennedy Space Center (including a whole lot of water, and a couple of alligators). Even in December, there were long lines for the (equally informative and trivia-filled) bus tours through the launch pads and other facilities. The tour guide emphasized that the various private companies now retrofitting NASA's launch pads and building new structures to accommodate heavier rockets are all collaborating rather than competing with one another. It's no space race, and it's comforting that there are still so many people focused on bringing mankind deeper into space, but seeing the retired Atlantis shuttle in a museum setting still brought tears to my eyes.
After driving about an hour southeast, including shuddering along an unpaved road through an orange grove, we pulled up our last stop before heading back to the airport for our flight home on Christmas Eve: Cherry Pocket. A seafood shack, covered in dollar bills, license plates and neon Budweiser signs, located on a pocket of water on Lake Pierce, lined with crumbling piers and billowing Spanish moss. The staff was much less on edge than the brave servers at Disney World, which probably says more about the likelihood that visitors to the Happiest Place on Earth behave in the parks with a greater degree of entitlement than the clientele that make their way to the "world famous" dive.
So yes, Florida is alligators and theme parks and oranges and sunshine. It was a good time.