Vacation Week: Friday Universal Studios

The week was busy enough, but we had to end it with a lot more excitement. We went to Universal Studios in Orlando. Yes, again, we got free tickets. My sister-in-law works there and she got the whole group in free. Thanks Sis!

A pleasant surprise was that there was hardly anyone there. I guess this is low season and the economy isn’t helping. We were told that Disney was pitifully empty too. It is a great time for people who are interested in riding rides instead of excited about standing in lines. The longest wait we had all day was about 15 minutes.

Stunt 1 at Fear Factor LiveWe jumped on a couple of rides as we made our way to Fear Factor Live. If you want to play Fear Factor it is best to get in on the early show (I think they do 3 a day). There are fewer people auditioning for the show in the first hour. My older brother and I wanted to play. He had played before, but got knocked out in the second round. We were determined to go all the way this time.

Since only 6 can play at each show, we had to eliminate a few extras to start with. As outgoing as I am perceived to be, I am not one to perform well for strangers. I save my best work for my friends. But, to move on it was all about how much they thought you would make an excitable participant. I was as excitable as I could be, but was still afraid of getting cut. However, we both made it through.

ScorpionsThere were a lot of neat behind-the-scenes bits that I will cut out, but just suffice it to say that getting ready to play was actually quite entertaining and informative.

When we made our trash talk videos one of the other contestants said that he would not let a couple of old guys beat him. My brother and I at 40 and 39 years old, respectively, were twice as old as everyone else playing. They were 18, 19, 19 and 20 years old. I guess we were the old guys after all. Not only did we want to win, but we had something to prove to the young punks. There were 3 guys and 3 gals chosen as the final 6.

The first stunt involved hanging onto a bar at 40′ above the ground. The bar was made in such a way that you could not hold on easily. The record was just over 2 minutes. There was no way to keep from falling. But you could not be one of the first two to fall or you would be eliminated. I was the 3rd or 4th to fall. My brother was the 5th. Two girls were eliminated and the 3rd girl was the one who held on the longest.

Grabbing bags from an eel tankSince she held on the longest she got to make her pick for her partner in the second round. Fortunately she picked her boyfriend and that left my brother and I to be partners fighting against them.

Between stunts 1 and 2 my sister-in-law got a bunch of scorpions dumped on her head. As an interpreter for the Deaf at Universal, she had seen this done many times. She was not afraid of them harming her. Though she did say it was an eerie feeling when they walked on her face. They had what felt like spikes on their feet.

The second stunt for us involved carnivorous eels and dead octopus.

In the first part of the second stunt my job was to fish around, with my bare hands, in the tank of eels to find bean bags which I would toss to my brother holding a bucket while suspended from a rope. We won that half by 2 bags. The second part had my brother swinging around from said rope tossing octopi that I had to catch in a bucket. We may be old, but tossing stuff into buckets is not overly challenging for two guys who have excellent hand-eye coordination. Those years of video gaming paid off.

Dad and brother eating wormsBetween stunts 2 and 3 our younger brother and dad got involved in the game by playing in the eating gross stuff challenge. They were going to compete against one another, but another couple volunteered too, so they made 2 teams of 2. When it comes to eating, not too many things crawl off my brother’s or dad’s plate. They won despite the earthworm breath they had the rest of the day.

Since we won the octopus toss we eliminated the rest of the young people and it was just us two left to fight it out against each other in the final stunt. We had to climb a ladder while stepping across window ledges and pulling flags off the wall. Then we had to scale out one of the ledges and jump onto a fireman’s pole while grabbing a flag with a key attached. With the key in hand we had to run to a car and insert the key to be hoisted 20′ into the air. When the car got to the top, we had to climb out onto the hood and knock off 3 flags then jump back into the back seat of the car, grab a gun and shoot a target. All done while industrial fans were blowing wind and rain onto the whole set.

Climbing the ladderNone of it was quite as easy as it sounds. For example, the ladder was not a real ladder. It was 2X4s nailed to the wall. There was no real way to grab it, you just had to hook your fingers on while a steady stream of water was rushing down the wall.

My brother got his car started about 2 seconds before I did. We were pretty much neck and neck up to that point, but I had trouble getting my key into the ignition. With those two seconds lost, I never caught up. When I finally found the gun in the back seat and got it oriented to shoot the target, my brother hit the mark and won the game.

I took second place, but it was great that we could play the final round against each other. Between us we got 6 free tickets to Universal. He got a T-shirt and I got a hat that said “Fear Factor Live.”

It was all very fun.

Climbing out on the hood of the carThe rest of the day was spent riding coasters and running between 2 parks trying to catch different shows at certain times. About half the conversation the rest of the day revolved around the fun we had playing Fear Factor.

My grandmother had to catch her plane back to Texas that day so Mom and Dad took her to the airport while we were eating our picnic lunch on the ground in the parking garage. They came back for a short time in the afternoon and then headed home for some much needed rest.

We got home exhausted. We probably went to bed earlier on Friday night than we did all week.

Vacation Week: Thursday Family Photo

Candy FactoryThe big event for Thursday was getting the 17 of us together at a park for family photos. It all went pretty well even though it took a very long time to work us all in. Each family had a color that they all wore. My family was red. We also had green, blue, yellow and purple. For some of the pictures we changed into white shirts.

The photographer was very patient with us. We found him through a web search of photographers in the area. My wife wrote several explaining what we were looking for. He was the only one who responded. We have not gotten the pictures back yet, but we were very pleased with the way he handled the large group.

We returned to the house to grab a bite to eat and recharge for a minute.  I snuck upstairs and grabbed a 15 minute nap.

The next thing on the agenda was a candy factory. We visited Davidson’s of Dundee. They make citrus candy. We were given a short tour of the factory and then let loose to check out their products. Along with candy they sold different citrus fruits. We walked away with 2 bags of different oranges. The best part was the free samples.

GiftsThat evening was our time to eat our Christmas dinner as a family and open gifts. We only brought gifts for the nieces and nephews. But Mom could not resist buying gifts for some of us. My bald brother got a brush and hair gel from Mom. She got a plastic nurses kit for my brother who graduated from nursing school. I got a toy cell phone to replace my iPhone with if it ever dies again. She also gave me some Dora the Explorer band aids to help with a common running injury that involves my chest.

We had our turkey dinner. The turkey was not set out to thaw early enough. It took much longer to cook than anticipated. I am not sure when we finally finished eating, but it was much later than we expected.

My little brother is working on the Couch to 5K running program. We went out that night to run together. I was going to show him how to run slower so that he can build up his aerobic capacity more easily. It did not take long to realize that I probably could not teach him to go any slower. Walking would have been faster than we were running. But, that is fine. When starting out to run most people push themselves and go too fast. That certainly was not his problem.

Vacation Week: Wednesday Graduation

Santa made from LegoWednesday marked the reason we were in Orlando to begin with. My younger brother graduated from nursing school. His pinning was that night and it was an opportunity to get the family together.

But, before work comes pleasure. At least that is the way I always try to structure my life. The guys went golfing that morning. There were 4 of us: my two brothers, dad and me. No one played horribly. None of us have played in a while. In fact, for those of us who have played recently, this was only our second game in 3 years.

While we were out playing on the golf course, the ladies and children were running around at an orange grove. They went to a friend’s house who has several trees. They picked a few oranges and had a good time.

We finally all met up together at The Disney Village to go to the Lego store. We built a few items and bought a few. Mostly we were just there to let the kids play for free. We took a boat ride around the lagoon while we were there.

The graduate and his two brothers and grandmotherAfter all the playing it was time to start the mad dash to get ready for the graduation ceremony. Out of necessity we had to take 5 vehicles. We all had to go to different places and arrive at different times. It ultimately worked out. My older brother and his wife had to wait for the baby-sitter to arrive. She was late and caused them to miss some of the boring part of the ceremony. They were able to make it for the pinning.

After the ceremony we got to meet a bunch of my brother’s classmates.

With that out of the way the only serious stuff left to do was have our pictures taken the next morning.

Vacation Week: Tuesday Manatees

ManateeTuesday morning we loaded the whole gang up in a couple of vans and drove to Blue Spring State Park. It is located about 45 minutes north of Orlando. We were told that the best time to view the manatee at this time of year there was in the morning. We had to leave pretty early to get there by 8:00 for the park opening.

Peach TreeThey were amazing. I have snorkeled and dived with manatee before. They are super gentle. We were not able to get in the water with the manatee at the park. They had some great board walks that went along the river with platforms out over the water. Most of the manatee were on the other side of the river, but we were able to see them pretty well. There were a few that came right underneath us as we were watching them.

We left the older generations to test out a park bench while we younger kids strolled on to the spring. Manatee navigate about 250 miles of the St. John river from Jacksonville to Orange City to enjoy the constant 72 degree water.

We piled all the cousins up on a tree stump and called it a Peach tree.

After the hiking around we had a nice picnic lunch at the park.

On the way home the two vehicles split up with one going to visit some friends and the other going home to put the older folks down for a nap. I was fortunate enough to drive the nap car.

Vacation Week: Monday The Holy Land Experience

Monday was actually my birthday and we had already planned to go to The Holy Land Experience. On your birthday you get in free and get a free desert from their deli. Since my brother and his wife do some interpreting there, they were able to get us tickets to get in. Me getting in free for my birthday did not mean that much, but the pound cake with caramel and whipped cream sure was nice.

Holy Land Experience EntranceI have heard about the Holy Land Experience for some time from my brother and sister-in-law. I was very interested in going. One thing that I had not previously thought to consider was whether or not this attraction believed in Jesus as the Messiah or not. I was pleased to find that they do. They actually do quite a bit of evangelistic teaching while you are attending the different events within the park.

The other thing that I noticed was that it was very expensive. We got in free, but if we would have had to pay, my family would not have gone. Even after having such a positive experience there, I still cannot recommend that people pay the $35 per person to enter. It just is not worth that amount of money to me. I don’t know what the price was before TBN took over the park, but it is very commercialized and obviously a serious money making endeavor. Of course they are allowed to make money (I am not one of these Christians who believe you have to be poor to serve the Lord), but if I am going to make an investment in something, I want to get my money out of it, or completely believe in what they are doing.

Market Area
When you first walk in you arrive at a traditional market area. To me this was not all that special since I have been in countries which still have their markets set up the same way. What was neat about this one is there was a man playing a drum while we were there. The kids got to hit the drum with him and they enjoyed that. He, as well as much of the stuff, was dressed in period dress.

Hanukkah showHanukkah Presentation
One of the shows we attended was a presentation on the festival of Hanukkah. It was very entertaining and informative. It was a musical drama put on by a small group of actors. It did not go into great detail, and you would have had to understand some inter-testamental history to get the full meaning of what they were saying, but it was still informative. It was probably enough information that people felt like they learned something without being scared away.

Along those lines, I think it is better to think of the Holy Land Experience as an attraction and not a museum. I expected a museum with lectures and information. This was more of an attraction to entertain with hopes that there might be a bit of education in the process.

Jerusalem Model
For me this was the best part of the “Experience.” The model is something like 40 foot long by 20 foot wide. It is a diorama of the city as it would have been in AD 66.

JerusalemThe man giving the tour of the city stood on the model and gave a 20 minute presentation of the different parts of the city. He also gave a description of the events the night Christ was arrested and crucified. After the tour of the city my older brother and I got a chance to talk with him alone and ask a few more questions. It turned out that he was the school administrator at the Christian school my sister-in-law attended.

The Scriptorium was the closest thing to a museum they had there. It housed several old Bibles and fragments. Like most other presentations at the Holy Land Experience this tour through the history of the Bible was a multi-media event. We were directed through the scriptorium on a 55 minute show which sometimes proved a bit frustrating.

We were directed into different rooms with a group of 10 or so people. There was never quite enough time to see all the books and displays before the lights were turned off in one room and we were pushed into the next. If you were not one of the first people in line, you may not get a chance to see all the Bibles. (Except for the room where John Bunyan was highlighted, we had too much time and not enough to look at). Some of the cases had lights that were out.

The most amazing thing about the Scriptorium was the final room where we were privilged to see some of the most amazing art I have ever seen. They had 4’X8′ oil paintings of some of the human authors of the Bible. I think there were 8 or 10 of these paintings. Not only were they well done but they seemed to be in line with my thinking of what these men would have looked like. David, for example, was painted as an average height man who looked physically strong as any rancher would be. John, however, was painted as an older, gaunt man who looked like he lived in exile alone.

There was a very nice presentation of what the wilderness Tabernacle might have been like as well as the furniture within. They also had an actor playing the part of the High Priest in his priestly garb.

There was a 1/3 scale representation of the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. This is known as Herod’s Temple. It was quite impressive.

There was a presentation that was supposed to be about the Temples of Israel, but the man did not talk much about the temples. That was a bit disappointing. If you didn’t know that there were 3 temples in Jerusalem then you would not have learned it from this show.

There were several other shows and displays throughout the day that we did not see. It would have take most of the day to have seen it all. We were only there 5 hours or so.

It was all well done though I feel it was a bit weak on real educational content. But, as I said before, it was too expensive. I know it was less than half the price of the larger theme parks, but it still seemed to be too much.