Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.

An unexpected journey

When Barron and Harris piled into the back of the new Hyundai, eager to ride with Daddy after another great meal at Los Hermanos, they had no idea we weren’t following Carla home.

Bilbo Baggins runs to catch up with the party of dwarves headed off on an unexpected journey.
Bilbo Baggins heads off on his unexpected journey.

We had already had a pretty good day. It was one of those rare days when Carla and Carlton still had preschool, but the older boys were already out for Christmas vacation. They hadn’t seen my office since I changed jobs, so other than having to get up earlier than they would have liked on their first day off from school, they didn’t mind coming downtown with me for a few hours and checking out my new digs.

It really was fun having them around. Even the rain-soaked commute, which lasted an hour longer than usual, was bearable with the two of them making up dialogue between the commuters they spied around us in the seven-lane-wide traffic jam on I-85.

They spent the morning playing Stratego and watching “Batman Begins” on the TV and DVD player in my office with the always cautious Barron keeping the volume low to avoid disturbing the almost empty hall. My co-worker, Robert, did get a little jealous when he came by to ask me about a story he was working on only to discover that Batman was on.

I treated them to lunch at The Varsity where they ate like it was their last meal. Barron scarfed down a double bacon cheeseburger while Harris had, in Varsity parlance, a “naked dog” and cheeseburger. They finished it off with a mountain of fries and frosted oranges. I drove them back to my building by way of the central campus, showing them the academic buildings, the football stadium, Tech tower and various residence halls, which they said reminded them of Hogwarts.

“The magic we do here at Tech is called ‘engineering,’” I said.

Carla was soon picking them up, and I was off to my 3 o’clock meeting. Before shutting down for the day, I checked out movie times at the theaters near us in Lilburn. Carla and I conferred with a quick phone call to confirm our plans, and I clicked a purchase of two children’s tickets and one adult ticket for the 7:30 showing of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

We both arrived at Los Hermanos at almost the same instant, and I winked at Carla, who returned a knowing smile. Our meal was delicious, and the boys continued to chatter away about their day at daddy’s office.

“Who wants to ride with me?” I asked nonchalantly as we headed for the parking lot. Of course Carlton wanted to but couldn’t. He was due for an early bedtime as indicated by his lack of composure at supper.

The boys climbed into the back of my car, Harris’s booster seat still in position from the morning commute. We followed the minivan to the neighborhood, but when Carla turned in and we kept going, the boys began to get suspicious.

“Hey, Daddy, you missed your turn.”

“I did? Oh, well, do you want me turn around?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know. Where are we going?

“Where does it look like we’re going?”

And thus the conversation went for the 12 minute ride to Snellville Oaks cinema.

Gandalf beckons Bilbo to join in an unexepected journey.
It doesn’t take a wise wizard to see the benefits of making a regular night out with your sons an adventure.

About three miles from the theater, still completely in the dark about our destination, the moment happened that will stay with me from this day long after the details of Bilbo’s adventure grow fuzzy in my memory.

“This is like something Paw Paw would do,” Barron said.

“What? Kidnap you?” I responded mischievously.

“No… you know, act like he missed a turn then take you some place fun.”

Barron got it. He connected this whole plan for me in a way that I hadn’t even understood myself. It wasn’t the joy of tricking or even surprising my children that gave me so much pleasure. It was that I was able to do for my kids what my dad had done for us.

You see, Barron was right. My dad frequently would take us somewhere without telling us the destination. Sometimes it would be amazing, and other times pedestrian, but every time became more exciting because of the unexpected.

“Dad, where are we going? You didn’t turn,” we would say in protest.

“To the moon,” he would answer.

My brother, Lee, and I will never forget the Thanksgiving night when he suggested we go for a ride. Four hours later we ended up in Houston for a great family weekend at Galveston and San Jacinto and other Texas landmarks.

With a simple trip to the movies, I had lived into the best of the Wallace family tradition. Just like my dad, I was able to turn a mundane car trip through the suburbs into an adventure.

“I guess it’s kind of appropriate,” Barron said.

“What is?” I asked.

“You took us on an unexpected journey to see the unexpected journey movie.”

The older I get, the more I believe the best parts of our journey are unexpected. I believe we all could use a little more adventure in our lives. I guarantee you’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.

What unexpected journeys have you taken? Did your parents ever surprise you with an unexpected trip or gift? Have you been able to surprise your kids? Leave your story in a comment below and share your tale with us.

The faces of children

Christmas cards on pantry doors
Children’s faces beam at me from our pantry doors, bringing to mind the 20 children who lost their lives yesterday in Newtown, Conn.

Numbed by the senseless killing of 20 children yesterday in Connecticut, I went back to the drawing board for this week’s post. No topic merits discussion more than the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

Like a lot of people, I experienced deep and complicated emotions when I first heard the news. Two of my own three children were at school at the time. When they board their respective buses each day, I take for granted that they will return home. Friday, there were 20 kids who will never again return home.

I don’t think the impact of the tragedy hit me until this morning. Armed with a cup of coffee to warm my body after a chilly pre-dawn run, I headed to the pantry for the pancake mix. And there they were, staring at me: Children.

This year Carla has been attaching with clothes pins the beautiful Christmas cards we receive to two parallel strips of red ribbon. I was dubious that the cards would actually stay up given the amount of traffic our pantry gets. So far, they’re hanging tight, giving me a smiling, happy greeting every time I go for a protein bar or handful of almonds.

What struck me this morning about these cards is the number of children adorning them. Radiant, innocent, mischievous, smiling faces. These faces are making my Christmas season brighter like no amount of twinkling lights can.

Today, there are 20 fewer such faces in the world.

No doubt the parents of some of these children had already sent their family’s Christmas photo card. Stuck with a magnet on someone’s refrigerator is a joyful face of a child whose life has been cut short. I can’t imagine the pain these parents are experiencing and the loss that the school and community are feeling.

I can imagine my pantry doors with fewer children, and it makes me sad.

I have seen much more eloquent responses to this tragedy in the blogosphere in the last 24 hours. I couldn’t help myself. So join me in remembering these families in prayer. There’s really nothing more I can say.

Ruining Christmas

Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.

But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:

Buying our Christmas tree
Despite Barron’s best Scrooge imitation, the Wallaces proceed to checkout at Lowe’s with our Christmas tree.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.

By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.

So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.

The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.

The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.

“Why are we going to Home Depot?”

“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”

“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”

“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”

They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.

“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.

I laughed out loud.

“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”

“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”

Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.

As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.

Because we weren't doing Christmas "right," Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.
Because we weren’t doing Christmas “right,” Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.

After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.

There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.

I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.

Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.

My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.

So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.

What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.