Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pre-school Graduation

As her graduation day approached, I saw Ava walking around the kitchen with something in her hand. When I finally asked what was that she was carrying, she said, "Something that will make me cry when I look at it after graduation." It was a picture of her class, at their field trip to the fire station. In the picture she's at Ms V's side, with a grin on her face and two fingers stuck up in a "peace" sign.

That was the first indication we had that she was going to miss her two days a week in Ms V's class. During the year she had had her ups and downs with it, sometimes really not wanting to go, but during these final weeks she seemed to feel a deeper sense of belonging to the class and the school. She had gone on field trips on the school bus without us and looked forward to library every Thursday - she was rock solid with school.

Gram and Gramp went with us to the Kindergarten orientation meeting in the school cafeteria, where all the future kindergartners were taken in groups on a school bus ride. Ava confidently marched up to join the line for her bus ride and, with only a little glance back and a small wave, went off to the buses while we remained behind to listen to the principal and the guidance counselor and the school nurse describe school life and what to expect during the coming year.

The graduation itself was on Weds night, June 22, and Ava was very excited about it. Ms V had planned a special event for the parents, and the kids had been practicing for days. Once again, Gram and Gramp attended, first coming to the house so they could see the chickens - Ava handed "Leaf" to Gram and poor Gram got chicken poop on her sweater... Gram's had a lot of that stuff happen to her over the years, usually by babies, so she was unfazed and, after a little clean-up, we headed over to the school.

Ava went to her classroom while we went to the cafeteria to get ready for the show, being handed a "program" on our way in. After a suitable wait, the little ones paraded in - all of them, not just the kindergarten-bound kids - and up onto the stage. The stage!! Ava hadn't told me they'd be going on stage - I knew she must be very excited about it. Sure enough, she was smiling and waving and just as proud and happy as she could be. The kids did some singing, and then Ms V went down the line asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. ..."Princess" - "Spiderman" - "Hair dresser"... - and when the mic got in front of Ava, she leaned forward and in a loud, clear voice said, "DOCTOR!" That got some laughs and clapping from the audience. Then it was time to receive diplomas and have refreshments.

I had gone into the classroom while the kids were getting ready in order to give Ms V and Ms Kelly each a bottle of our homemade elderberry wine (discretely placed in gift bags), and had the chance to speak with Ms Kelly for a moment. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me how much she'd miss seeing Ava, and how much she had enjoyed getting to know her. I gave her a hug and told her how grateful we were to her and to Ms V for giving Ava such a beautiful, positive introduction to school. If Ava does grow up to be a doctor, no small thanks go to these two ladies.

We had told Ava that we'd get her a puppy for her graduation present. She had shown responsibility taking care of her chickens, so we felt that she was ready to take on a puppy. I had first contacted my friend Kathy, who had a new litter of Australian Shepherd pups, but then found out the prices ($650 to $1000/pup!) so we decided to see what else we could find out there. We spent Thursday afternoon going to pet stores to look for "puppy for sale" notices on the billboards, and ended up at Brooks Feed store in Brunswick. When Patrick asked the ladies at the register if they knew of any, he was told that one of their customers just happened to have a free puppy available!

He called the lady and found out that her name was Kathy, and the puppy was an Australian Shepherd!! Ava and I enjoyed the coincidence of this, and remarked on it several times on our way up to Wiscasset to check him out. We pulled into the driveway of a dilapidated old farmhouse out in the country with horses out back and chickens pecking around the yard. Kathy, in a full arm cast, came to the door and invited us in to see the 3-month-old puppy. He had a broken leg, and Kathy, with her broken arm, wasn't able to take care of him. He was in a confined area in the living room, and was very skittish and nervous. He was pretty, though - a blue merle with a cute little white spot on his forehead.

Kathy took Gaffer out back to meet the parents of the puppy and several of the dogs were brought back into the house. (Kathy is a breeder of miniature Aussies, and our little guy has papers if we care to register him at some point.) Ava played ball with the "grandmother" doggie, and really liked her. She decided she wanted the pup, so we took him home.

He's still settling in, now three weeks later. Ava and I took him to the vet for x-rays the Monday after we got him, and his cast was removed and replaced with a soft bandage. Ava was proud to show him to everyone - she had named him "Traveler" after watching him romp around with his cast on out back over the weekend. We were told to keep the bandage dry because the cast had gotten wet and the vet was worried about infection. We left the vet's with a bottle of pink liquid antibiotic, and Ava took it upon herself to dose him twice a day.

Unfortunately, it started to rain over the next few days and although we tried to protect the bandage with a medley of IV bag, saran wrap, rope and tape, it got wet. We took it off, and he's been learning to use his leg again ever since. The leg itself (right front) is smaller than the other - atrophied - and the shoulder muscle is non-existent. He's a happy little guy, though, and fast as a greyhound! He's still very shy, and terrified of Gaffer, but we're hoping that over time he settles down.

We were immediately impressed with him, though. When he's outside he stays near us - never tries to run off, and actually seems to want to "herd" us together! He's smart as a whip and comes running when he's called. He tried to chase the chickens a few times, but when told "leave it" he backs right away from them. But it's been challenging watching Ava get used to him. She's a dominant personality, and tends to be pretty hard on the little guy. We're trying to teach her that he's a baby and that she needs to have more patience with him.

She got frustrated with me the other night and said, "Gammer! This is my FIRST puppy! I've never had a puppy before, so I have to LEARN!" Fair enough, Ava. Unfortunately, at the moment he seems more comfortable with me (probably due to being raised by Kathy), and Ava gets mad about that and tries to drag him next to her - which has the opposite effect of what she really wants! As soon as she lets go of him, he runs away from her. He does love her, though, and when we're outside he romps all around her and rarely leaves her side. I think he'll be "her" dog eventually!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Philadelphia April 2011

Gaffer had been commissioned to carve and paint four eider decoys for a guy in NJ, and when they were ready we decided to make a family trip out of it - we could deliver the decoys, I could work some appointments in Philly and NJ and Gaffer and Ava could visit friends and swim in hotels.

We met the decoy guy at 2pm at Exit 7a of the NJ Turnpike, and by 4 we were at the Hampton Inn Center City Philadelphia on Race Street. Gaffer and Ava took a swim in the pool for an hour, then we walked a couple of blocks to Fogo de Chao, taking pictures along the way. It was warm and we had a nice time doing a little exploration of downtown Philadelphia. We loved this painting of a library bookshelf!

Ava loved having dinner in the "fancy restaurant" - chandeliers and bottles of wine and ornate woodwork - and had fun trying all the different meats. The waiters were so good to her and made her feel like a special little lady - we had a wonderful time. We slowly made our way back to the hotel and had a good night sleep.

In the morning Ava and Gaffer went down to the breakfast lounge and got trays of food to bring up to the room so we could have breakfast together while I was getting ready to "go to work", then we packed up our stuff and drove over the Ben Franklin bridge to meet up with Joe just over the river in NJ. I headed off to appointments in Philalphia and York, while Gaffer and Ave spent the day with Joe and his wife, Janice. When I arrived at Joe's house (in the pouring rain) at 5:30 to pick them up I found out that Ava had had a great day, and had even given a beaver a bath!

From there we drove to our next hotel in Fairfield, NJ. I had two appointments the next morning, so Gaffer and Ava were going to swim all morning at the hotel until I got back. It was a long ride in the rain on the turnpike, but Ava slept and we read out loud to pass the time until we got to the hotel. We had been upgraded to a luxury suite, with double-doors to get into the room, a living room, and a jacuzzi! It was 8pm or so by the time we checked in, so we ordered room service while Ava tried out the jacuzzi, and then by 9 we were settled in to watch the season premier of Deadliest Catch.

After breakfast together in the restaurant, they went back to the room to change into their swimming stuff while I went off to work. I was back to get them at noon, and we headed north. I knew Ava would be exhausted, and she fell asleep shortly after we left the hotel, but woke after less than an hour with the "sandies" in one of her feet - that's what she calls it when something falls asleep on her body - she's really sensitive to it and will wake up shrieking when it happens. So she never slept again, and was still going strong when we got back to the house. But she didn't go to school the next day - she slept until almost 9!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Magic Vacation 2011 Fourth Day

The next morning, Thursday, was our big day. Brenda and I had made reservations at the Akershus castle in Norway for a princess lunch for the kids. Ava and Alivia had both packed their beautiful princess dresses for the occasion. We got an early start and were at Epcot before it opened. It was another lovely, warm Florida morning and we were looking forward to seeing the rest of our family.
We met up with Brenda and John and Lindsey at "Soarin'" and were among the first group to get in. This is a spectacular ride and we were all blown away by the special effects - we swooped over the countryside in a glider, gentle breezes and scents of the landscape adding to the realistic sensation. Wow. Derek and Nikki and the kids were on their way, so we left Brenda, John, and Lindsey in that area of Epcot to wait for them while we took Ava over to "Spaceship Earth" and "Finding Nemo", until we got a text from Bren that everyone was at the "Test Track" and we headed over. It was great to finally know that we'd all be able to spend some real time together that day! Ava and Alivia both had their princess dresses on, and were absolutely gorgeous - the two nicest and smartest and most beautiful girls in Florida that day!

Derek took Alivia and we took Ava over to the line at Test Track and jumped in. The girls were happy to see each other and it was cute to watch them enjoying each other's company.

We were finally loaded into our car. Speeding, swerving, skidding - what ride!! The girls loved it, and so did the grown-ups! From there, we had to scoot pretty quickly over to Akershus to be there at the reservation time. But, although we got there right on time, there was still a pretty significant wait to get in. Ava went around to everyone for signatures in her autograph book while we waited. Aunt Lindsey had given her and Mason and Livvy brand-new ones before the trip (she brought her own old one from when she was a kid!), and Ava really had fun getting signatures from all the characters she saw.

The lunch was very exciting for the girls with their favorite princesses making the rounds in the room, and even a parade with Sleeping Beauty, and Mason enjoyed getting their autographs and was a good sport about getting his picture taken with them. Some of them were actually quite beautiful, and the guys joked about getting into a picture or two. The menu selection had something for everybody, and the desserts were phenomenal.

After lunch, the Wymans and Faulkners went back to their resorts for some down time - we'd be meeting again later for dinner at Ft. Wilderness Trail's End restaurant. Gaffer, Ava, and I spent some time walking around until Ava fell asleep and we decided to go back to the cabin and get some downtime ourselves.

Later in the afternoon, Bren sent a text that she and John were on their way over by bus, so we gave them directions to the cabin, and next thing we knew, we had company! Ava and Gaffer were down by the pool, so Bren and John and I walked over and had a nice visit sitting at a pool-side table until it was time for dinner. When we got down there Derek and Nikki were still a half hour away so we had time for Aunt Brenda to take Ava on a pony ride while we waited.

Dinner was a blast!! The Faulkners had been over at Magic Kingdom and came to Ft. Wilderness by boat, so we met them down by the marina. The kids were able to play for a while on the playground while we waited for our reservation, and they ended up tossing horseshoes like crazy right in front of the restaurant, attracting quite a crowd to watch!

During the dinner, I got to sit with all the kids except Landen and it was so much fun to talk with them - by the end of the meal I wasn't ready to let go of them. Brenda and John were going to spend the night with us, and I asked Derek and Nikki if Mason and Alivia could spend the night, too. She said yes, and the kids were ecstatic to be having a "sleep-over"! They had a lot of fun putting together a play for us later that night (even cut out little "tickets" to get in), and then at bedtime the three of them and me piled into the double bed, Gaffer in the bottom bunk, and John and Brenda out on the Murphy bed in the living room.

The kids and I read a lot of books, and one by one they dropped off, Livvy first, then Ava, and at 10:30 Mason's eyes were starting to droop as we got into "Tearwater Tea" of "Owl at Home", and he was gone. It was an interesting night - Livvy squeezed against the wall, with Mason between her and Ava, Ava pressed up next to me, and me hanging on by a butt cheek at the edge of the bed. I'm not sure how well everyone rested, but we got a fair amount of sleep in between the leg stretching and jostling for blankets.

Magic Vacation 2011 Third Day

It was our "Animal Kingdom" day and we got there at around 10:30. After getting a stroller, we bee-lined to the Kilamajaro Safari for a Fast Pass. The safari jeep ride is everyone's favorite thing at Animal Kingdom, so you can expect to wait in a long, long line unless you use the Fast Pass. Once we had ours, we had some time before we needed to return for our time so we enjoyed wandering around, soaking up the sights and the atmosphere. The details in Animal Kingdom are wonderful. In the Africa and Asia areas, the old villages, crumbling ruins, lush foliage, and mysterious temples are so fun to wander through.

At one point we saw something so cool! A vine was moving, slowly and gracefully. It emerged from some vegetation - a lady on stilts (legs and arms), covered in leaves, camoflaged perfectly until she moved. We watched her in amazement until she disappeared back into the jungle.

Ava also got her face painted while we waited for the safari, and had her picture taken with Baloo and King Louie from "Jungle Book". King Louie didn't know how to use a pen, but Baloo signed Ava's autograph book.

We had a good time on the safari. I always tell Ava she has a "hunter's eye, like Gaffer", and she takes great pride in seeing things before I do. So she was very excited to sit next to the open-air side of the safari vehicle and yelled out when she spotted something. The jeep took us through an African savannah, with beautiful grasslands and freely roaming animals. A giraffe was almost close enough to touch as we bumped by. Several crocodiles were lounging in a murky pond near the road, near Ava's side of the jeep, and Ava turned to me with wide eyes: "Are they real?" When I told her they were, she dropped off her seat onto the floor and covered her head with her hands! Luckily, we left the crocodiles behind quickly, and she enjoyed the rest of the trip pointing out the rhinos, wildebeest, zebras and elephants.

After the safari, we went back over to Asia and Gaffer took Ava on the Kali River Rapids raft ride. She says now that it was fun, but at the time when they met up with me afterwards she was wet and grumpy, and said she didn't like it. I had been waiting for them and watching some funny black & white Colobus monkeys - a little one trying relentlessly to get a bigger one to play and wrestle with him. The bigger monkey was being very patient and every once in a while would indulge in a little rolling around with the little guy, but then he'd get back to lounging around in the sun and put up with some more pestering. Their house looked like the ruins of an old temple, with bamboo staging all around it - lots of fun for monkeys to clamber around in. Gradually, I noticed John. There was Brenda and John! And Gaffer and Ava! They were all talking together (without me!!) a little way down one of the pathways.

So I hustled over and we got to have a few minutes of visiting and catching up, but then they were headed over to Expedition Everest, and we were heading out of the park - Ava was tired, so we wanted to get her back to the cabin for some R&R and then maybe come back to the Animal Kingdom in the afternoon. We would see each other tomorrow.

As we made our way to the park exit, Miss Ava fell asleep. Gaffer bought me a "Lost on Safari" cocktail at one of the little bars in the park - a mix of Captain Morgan, Bacardi, and "Pangani Punch" - it was delicious! We began walking slowly, sipping beverages, and just taking in this beautiful day. It was about 75 degrees and sunny; one of those heart-exploding loving-life kind of days. We made our way over to the Tree of Life to have a close-up look at the animal carvings.

Disney World is a crowded place, no question about it. There are lines for just about everything, people walking fast, people walking slow, kids darting around, a cacophony of noise - it's all part of the experience. But what never ceases to amaze us, and it's part of the Disney magic, is that in spite of all the crowds and noise, it's possible to have a unique and solitary experience while you're there. You turn a corner and, all of a sudden... nobody.

This happened to us at the Tree of Life. We found ourselves on a beautiful trail, surrounded by fragrant flowers and tropical birds. Time stood still for us for a moment. Ava was sleeping, we were happy and relaxed and able to hear the sounds of the running water and the different calls of the birds - it was paradise.

There are 325 different animals carved on the 50-story tree, and it was great fun to try to spot them. We had a good time as we slowly walked back to the exit. Gaffer slung Ava over his shoulder for the ride back to Ft. Wilderness, and she stayed asleep all the way to the cabin. We tucked her into bed, and enjoyed the quiet afternoon sitting out on the porch, reading the newspaper and talking, until it began to be overcast, and then to rain. What began as a gentle shower turned into a heavy torrent, and we were glad we hadn't made any plans to do anything. We cooked up a couple of frozen pizzas and hunkered down in the cabin, playing Pollys with Ava and reading.

Magic Vacation 2011 Second Day

The next morning was Tuesday. Just like at home, Gaffer was up first and I woke to the aroma of coffee in the cabin. We had packed a bag of our favorite coffee from home, so it was nice to kick back on the couch and sip Kona Macadamia Nut and watch the room get lighter.

It was cloudy, and I reached for the remote. Gaffer said, "What are you doing??" When I said that I wanted to check the news for the weather, he said, "Nope - we're not turning on the TV while we're here." I agreed to that, and it turned out to be a great decision. We knew nothing of Libya or Afghanistan or Lindsay Lohan during the entire trip. We also had no internet in the cabin, so we couldn't check Facebook or our Maine Seaduck website - we stepped away from the rest of the world for a while. I had my Blackberry, but made a point to stay off-line (other than a daily check at ""!) and only glanced at my Southworth emails, opening just a couple over the course of the week. I turned the ringer to "silent". We were off the grid! Except for texting with Brenda. This was very important and began every day at dawn.

So we drank coffee and watched the sky hopefully. The clouds darkened and brightened and darkened and brightened for an hour or two, and then it began to rain. We were happy that Ava was still sleeping - it was a perfect morning for her to sleep in. The Wymans/Faulkners were going to Magic Kingdom, and we planned to meet them in Fantasyland when we got there. Ava finally woke up, but it was apparent that she was still exhausted. She was moving in "granny-low" and very quiet. I thought a nice bath might get her sparkling again, so I filled the tub and she enjoyed playing with her animals in the warm water. She seemed pretty lively once she was dried off, dressed, and eating breakfast, and by 10:30 we were walking out of the cabin on our way to Magic Kingdom.

The rain had stopped and it was cloudy and warm. We walked to the bus stop and waited for the bus to the "Settlement" - the area of Ft. Wilderness where the marina is. The Settlement is also where the stables for all the Disney World horses are kept, and they have a big collection of ponies. Pony rides are available for $5, and it's worth every penny! Add pony rides to swimming pools and flowers, and you have Ava's perfect vacation. She made a bee-line from the bus stop to the pony stable! A "small world" moment = the lady working with the ponies was a retiree from Dayton, Maine. When she introduced the pony as "Cloud", Ava and I smiled at each other - she rode Cloud last year! He was a nice, peppy little white pony who stepped right along as I led him along the pony path.

I got in trouble, though. Cloud was stepping so briskly and seemed in high spirits, and Ava was loving the ride, and I stupidly said, "Ava, would you like to feel a trot?" Anyone who rides, knows. A trot is much different than a walk, and is the most difficult gait to sit. It's fun to learn to ride a trot, and I wanted Ava to get a feel for it. She was like, "YES!!" and I *cluck cluck*'d to Cloud, and he went into a crisp little trot. Ava was loving life! And then I heard the Dayton Retiree yelling at me from the barn - no trotting, no trotting!!! I shut him right down, and then I felt terrible. Of course these little ponies shouldn't trot - for many reasons!! What a dummy move on my part. So I apologized to Dayton when we came back to the dismount platform, and I explained to Ava that Gammer had made a mistake.

So then it was time to wait for the boat to Magic Kingdom. We stood on the dock and watched for the green flag boat. Ft. Wilderness is so sprawling (700 acres) that you learn to look for colors to be sure to take the quickest transport - purple, orange, yellow, blue, and green were all meaningful. As we waited for the boat to appear in the distance, we watched the birds - pelicans and cormorants and herons and vultures - and listened to the instrumental music playing quietly over the intercoms. (One of my best memories from Disney World is the music; whether on a bus or in a park, there is good music playing in the background - interesting and pleasing to hear.)

The Settlement is peaceful, with rows of lounge chairs on the long white beaches, and rental pontoon and bass boats serenely bobbing at their moorings. A tavern with a broad porch and rocking chairs sits adjacent to a playground for kids. After a short wait, we heard our boat whistle as it approached and pulled up to the dock. We waited for the in-bound passengers to disembark, then we loaded up for the 15-minute ride over to Magic Kingdom.

Bay Lake is a natural lake, about a mile long with two islands - Discovery and Shipwreck. Discovery Island was operated as a walk-through wildlife sanctuary from 1974 until 1999, when it was closed and Animal Kingdom was opened. Some of the docks and other construction can still be seen on the shoreline. The boat passes the Ft. Wilderness Lodge and the Contemporary Resort along the way, and then Cinderella's Castle appears in the distance as the boat rounds the corner into the Magic Kingdom harbor.

First stop to the stroller rental, and then we were off to Tomorrowland. We texted back and forth with Bren - she and her family were at the Carousel of Progress. We didn't see them when we got there, so we hopped into line to see the Carousel of Progress ourselves. Unfortunately, it wasn't the best way to start a day at Magic Kingdom. We had never been on this ride before and found it to be mildly entertaining at first, with the wonderful Disney animatronics and the rotating carousel seating, but after a while it just became too long and we felt trapped inside the theatre. A baby was screaming the whole time somewhere in the darkened audience until finally during the last scene its parent carried it out through an emergency exit. It was great to have the baby gone, but the unplanned exit caused the ride to stop and replay the final scene.

Finally, it was over and we could escape out into the muggy Florida air. We found Bren and John nearby, and then there were the rest of them - Lindsey and Nikki and Derek and the kids! Lots of hugging and smiling happened, and Lindsey and Alivia gave Ava presents - a Disney pin lanyard and a bracelet - then we went our separate ways again. By now it was after noon, and the Wymans were ready to go back to their room for a break. The Faulkners were going on Space Mountain. Gaffer and I wanted to escape from the "dark side" of Magic Kingdom and get over to the areas we loved.

Every year, we've given Tomorrowland and Fantasyland a lot of our time, but we've never really liked it. Ava loves the Teacups and Dumbo and the carousel, and so do we to a point, but that side of the park is concrete and steel and crowded and hot, and we can happily ignore it in favor of Liberty Square, Adventureland, and Frontierland - and that's what we did. We didn't mention anything to Ava about Dumbo and Teacups, but just hustled back over the bridge from Tomorrowland and through the park to Adventureland. Right away, Ava spotted the Aladdin's Carpet ride and Gaffer said he'd ride it with her. I was grateful for that.
There was a long line and they dived right in, while I went over to the Jungle Cruise attraction, and got a Fast Pass for the ride - basically, come back in an hour and go to the head of the line. Fast Passes help a lot where they're available - you can go do other things for a while, then come back and not have to wait in a long line.

After the Aladdin ride, we decided to mosey over to Frontierland. Ava had told us over the past few weeks that she wanted to ride Splash Mountain, and we had measured her to be sure she was over the 40" height requirement (she was 42"), so we decided to check it out while we waited for the Jungle Cruise. Gaffer ran to see what the line looked like while Ava and I found a comfortable spot off the main thoroughfare to watch the hollowed-out logs full of screaming passengers go straight down over the 5-story waterfall. I thought for sure she'd change her mind, but she was determined to do it.

Gaffer came back to say there was only a 10 minute line at Splash Mountain, so we parked the stroller and went running over. In no time at all, we were in our log flume - Gammer left, Ava middle, Gaffer right. We bobbed along gentle, twisting waterways for a long time, through the animatronic story of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and their friends, everyone cheerfully singing "Zippity Do Dah". The problem with Ava was that she couldn't enjoy the ride or the story to its fullest because she was waiting for the 5-story dropoff at every moment! She asked me constantly when it would happen. There were three small dips during the ride that added to the excitement, and by the time we were getting close to the real drop-off, Ava was so nervous she began to cry. "I don't want to do this", she sobbed. I tried to calm her, to say it would be okay, it would be fun, but she became so scared.

Finally, I said the one thing I knew would get through to her: "Ava, they take your picture going over the waterfall - you don't want to be crying in your picture, do you?" If you know Ava, you know this appeal to her sense of propriety is effective. She's embarrassed by public displays of emotion, and will always put on a calm, brave face to the public, no matter how she's feeling inside. (Hence the secret trip for band-aids at the Manchester Airport.) She pulled herself together in time for the waterfall, and even raised her arms up in the air as we went over! SPLASH!!! It was a fast fall, and we were wet and laughing as the log flume bobbed along toward the exit. Ava was proud of herself that she had done it, but has no plans to ever do it again.

A photo of your boat is snapped as you go over the falls, and we planned to buy it - what a treasure, Ava arms up on her first "coaster" - but we were in the store for an hour trying to find our digital image - never found it and walked away empty handed, dang it. Leaving Splash Mountain, we bought a Mickey Mouse ice cream (which turned into a tradition while we were there - I think Ava had a Mickey Mouse ice cream each day - she began to look forward to it), and walked over toward the Jungle Cruise. Our Fast Pass got us to the front of the line, and soon we were listening to the corny jokes and looking at the realistic jungle animals on either side of the Nile. From there, the other two must-dos for us - Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion (which was under re-furbishment so some of our favorite parts were missing...) - and then it was time to leave. We had dinner reservations in Mexico at Epcot, so we wanted to get back to the cabin and relax for a while before heading out again.

Ava was able to take a quick swim - she reluctantly got out of the pool after only 20 minutes and we had to get ourselves together and out the door. Ava and I were sitting in the back of the bus on the way to Epcot, and spotted a wild alligator lurking in the river near the shore, only a stone's throw from the road! His eyes, nostrils and part of his back and tail were clearly visible in the shallow water. Very exciting!

Ava really liked sitting in the back of the bus - her favorite seat was the last one, beside the window. I didn't mind going to the back because that's where the heater was and the seats were always warm. But Gaffer, our sherpa, didn't like having to walk all the way back through the bus, lugging all our crap, and then up the stairs to the raised platform where the seats were, so he often would settle in toward the front and we'd meet him when we disembarked. He always asked, "Come on, Ava... don't go back there..." but she always ignored him and cheerfully trotted back to her favorite seat.

We had dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel. The food was great - authentic Southern Mexican and a sampling of tequilas - and the dinner was one of the highlights of the week. We wrapped up the evening with a ride on "Spaceship Earth" in the Epcot ball. This turned out to be Ava's favorite ride at Disney - we went on it four or five more times during the week. She enjoyed the ride itself, the time travel through communications history, but she especially liked the interactive computer screen. At the end of the ride, it asks some questions about your lifestyle preferences (she always chose "health" over "work", "home", or "play"), and then a "future you" romps around in a cartoon, doing the activities you enjoy - very cute.

Ava and I both stayed awake all the way back to the cabin, and then "Owl at Home" put the three of us to sleep until the next morning when we awoke to a lovely Florida morning.