A random act of kindness

If you are worried about how much something costs, you shouldn’t buy it.

That’s been my philosophy for years, and I apply it most often during vacations. I don’t want to worry about how much a meal, accommodations or an activity sets me back because worry hinders my enjoyment. Why spend money on something you can’t enjoy? If the expenditure doesn’t lead to enjoyment, for me, it’s best to skip it.

That philosophy was very much on my mind back in 2008 when we decided to take the boys to Sea World with my brother and his family while visiting my parents in Florida the week after Christmas. It’s a notoriously busy time at the Orlando theme parks, but we wanted to give the boys something special and memorable during the visit. We usually work in at least one special activity during our annual visit with my family.

In the past we’ve made trips to the mall, Lakeland to shop or eat out, Cypress Gardens and then Legoland when it was converted to the new theme park, and local playgrounds. We don’t get to spend time with my family often, and a day at Sea World gave us the opportunity to spend time with Uncle Lee, Aunt Karrie, and Cousin Kalee.

Lance and Carla Wallace stand with their two young sons holding blue light sabres in front of a lighthouse at the gate to Sea World in Orlando, Florida.
With all the money we saved on tickets, we could afford to buy Barron and Harris light sabres with which to pummel each other all the way home.

Our boys had never been to Sea World. I had been numerous times, and Lee had visited even more. His love of theme parks and thrill rides exceeds mine, and his years as a church youth minister gave him many more opportunities to go to theme parks with his youth group. That year, he and his family had a season pass to Sea World. It wasn’t a financial sacrifice for them to spend the day with us at Sea World, beyond the overpriced food. For our family of five, however, we were starting from scratch, and it took a lot of money to buy single day admission tickets to Sea World. At the time, single day admission tickets were in the neighborhood of $90 a piece.

But I wasn’t going to worry about the money. I worked at the nonprofit Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the time, and while I felt fairly compensated for my position, we weren’t exactly rolling in cash. Spending more than $500 for a single day of fun felt like a lot, but we were prepared to bite the bullet. We told ourselves it was an investment in making memories and spending quality time with family.

The front gate of Sea World is no different from any theme park I’ve visited. There are kiosks at which you purchase your passes, and then there are the gates at which you show your tickets have your bags searched and are allowed entry. Even as a kid, approaching the front gate of an amusement park created such nervous excitement I could barely contain it. One of the best parts of having a season pass at Six Flags Over Texas when I was 12 was the special pass gate I was privileged to enter. It was fast, easy and convenient, and I always felt a little bit of sympathy for the people queueing in lines at the ticket booths while I walked right in and started jumping on rides immediately.

There is nothing worse as a kid than waiting, and when you have a theme park in front of you, beckoning you to enter and experience the joys and thrills it offers, a line to buy tickets and then a separate line to enter feels like torture.

That’s where we were that day. Lee and his family zoomed through with their passes, while Carla and I stood in line at a ticket machine, choosing to bypass the lines at the booths where people were making in-person purchases. Our children were excited but being reasonably well behaved. Everything was going fine.

Then suddenly, the woman ahead of us in line turned around, smiled and spoke.

“Do you need tickets?”

Always suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true, we responded with a skeptical affirmative.

“We have three multi-day passes with a day left on them. We’re not going to be able to use them before we have to go back home. Would you like to have them?”

“Yes!”

Still, in that moment, this act of kindness felt like a trap. I worried that the tickets would be expired, non-transferable or counterfeit. The lines were getting longer behind us. If we purchased only two tickets from the machine and there was an issue with the passes over at the gate and had to return to the kiosks to buy three more tickets, we would be further delaying everyone’s enjoyment of the park.

She could tell we were dubious. She handed us the tickets to inspect. They looked legitimate. We were nearing our turn at the ticket machine. The clock was ticking. We had to make a decision. The woman looked friendly and honest. We went with our gut feelings.

“Thank you so much!” I responded. “This is great!”

She seemed relieved that the tickets would be going to someone who could use them. As she walked away, we stepped up and purchased two children’s single day passes. We crossed our fingers and approached the front gate where my brother and his family waited.

“Dude, you will never believe what just happened,” I said to him.

We showed them the tickets, and he confirmed they appeared genuine.

“Man, that kind of stuff never happens to me,” he said with a laugh. “You must be living right.”

We opened our bags for the gate employees to inspect and handed the attendant our tickets – the two new ones and three gifted ones. Without hesitation the attendant scanned all five, and each one beeped with acceptance. No issues. We were in.

As I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders I told Carla, “That woman just gave us $300.”

“That might be the most expensive gift we got this Christmas,” she responded. “And it came from a stranger.”

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.