Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween tricks and treats: a photo journal


Our spooky skeleton pumpkin!



Cupcakes!! We ate some, and I gave some away at work.



Our fun sugar cookies!



Yummy spiced pumpkin seeds (recipe here)



The Bradshaws: a family of crime-fighters!!




My heroes!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall frolic

Have I mentioned lately how I love fall? Well, I do. We've been reveling in the season lately at the Bradshaw household. Here's the skinny:

We made our traditional two loaves of pumpkin bread. One's already been devoured, the second one awaits us in the freezer. We also whipped up two batches of fun Halloween cookies shaped like ghosts and pumpkins. (Neither batch lasted very long. Clay put an end to the last ghost tonight after supper.) Luckily, we still have enough ammunition to make at least one batch of molasses cookies and an awesome tray of Halloween cupcakes.

We carved our first pumpkin last night before dinner. Clay chose a fun owl pattern that we found on the Internet, and he looks pretty good, if I do say so myself! We toasted and spiced the pumpkin seeds this morning, because I absolutely LOVE spiced pumpkin seeds. (We'll probably carve another pumpkin mid-week, just so I can keep the high going. I remember one time, when I went to a pumpkin-carving party, I collected all the seeds from everyone's pumpkin and had spiced pumpkin seeds for about a month. Good times.)

Clay and I are all set with our Halloween costumes, too. He's going as Spiderman this year. (His strategy for fighting crime? Disarm the bad guys with his unbelievable cuteness.) And dude, he has got the Spiderman costume, Spiderman shoes, Spiderman gloves, even a Spiderman treat bucket. He knows no overboard. (One of my friends has gently pointed out to me that he might take after his mother in this regard.) I'll be Batgirl. Hubs hasn't decided what he'll be, but it's looking like either Ironman or Superman. Can't wait for trick or treating this year!

This morning, we spent a little time gardening. We raked a bit of pine straw and used it to mulch the flower beds, watered (AGAIN. Some rain would be VERY appreciated.), and planted a row of daffodil bulbs along the edge of a flower bed. Still have some iris bulbs to get in the ground, plus plans of some butterfly bush, forsythia, and Lady Banks Rose once we get a few drops of water to loosen up the dirt. Shoveling today was tough going.

I really love planting daffodils. Planting any bulb in the fall is such an act of faith. You plant, hoping you'll be around to enjoy the bulbs when they pop out of the ground six months later. And daffodils are such cheery little scouts of spring, peeping their heads up before all the other flowers and sending back the word that all is ready for the blooms to follow.

At any rate, that's some of the celebratory fall frolic we've been up to. Still hoping to do a quick picnic along the Trace somewhere to see the pretty leaves turning! What a great time of year!!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Reader.

Wanted to jot down some of my thoughts about books I've read recently.

I read Bella Tuscany, by Frances Mayes (she of Under the Tuscan Sun fame), while on vacation. This is the kind of armchair traveling that I love. Mayes writes of Tuscany in language dripping with both adoration and vibrant description. She writes of food, of gardens, of little side trips she and her husband take. It's an easy, quick read, with some recipes sprinkled in here and there that I will probably try. Worth looking in to.

And now I feel that I have to go to Italy in the spring. Heh.

I also finally got around to reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I'd been meaning to pick it up for a while now, and the filming of the movie adaptation here in Jackson finally gave me the kick in the pants I needed. I thought it was a wonderful book. The movie chronicles the lives and relationship of three women living in 1960s Jackson, Miss.: Abilene, a black maid raising her seventeenth white baby; Minny, a sassy black maid who is widely recognized as the best cook in town; and Skeeter, a young, unmarried white woman.

I recognized many of the places in the tome (and some of the character names are alarmingly close to old Jackson names), and I thought the book was even-handed. I loved the characters, and I felt that Stockett's explanation about why she wrote the book was an understandable one.

What interested me about this book was that most stories about racism involve men and violence. This story about racism was about women, and about all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that the race question played itself out amongst them. There were stories that affirmed our faith in people, and stories that called that faith into doubt. All in all, I really enjoyed reading this book. Highly recommended.

Lastly, I picked up The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. I bought this book on a whim, and the cover proclaimed it a New York Times bestseller. Hmmm . . . It was an okay book, but nothing really special. It tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, a smart but melancholy young man who is recruited to go to a magical college called Brakebills. At Brakebills, Quentin learns how to do real magic, makes new friends, even meets a girl and falls in love. He later gets the chance to visit the fantasy world of his dreams.

But here's the thing - none of it makes him happy. He's still the same old depressed, whiny dude we meet on page one. And that became quite tiresome. If someone is going to learn magic and have grand adventures, he should at least appreciate it. But not our Quentin.

The end of the book got too convoluted and dragged on a bit, too. Needless to say, I won't be reading the sequel - The Magician King. (If Quentin became a king, he'd probably still be just as mealy-mouthed as he was before. Sigh.) Skip this one.

Fall Fun!!

Our little tribe has been having lots of fun lately! In addition to our Orlando adventure, we've been yukking it up with some of our traditional fall activities.

Right before we left for Florida, we went to the circus! We took little man to see the circus two years ago, but we missed it last year because they didn't travel to our town. (Shame on you, Ringling Brothers!) When we heard it was coming in late September, we bought some seats right up front. Clay absolutely loved the elephants and the lion tamer act. (Though it struck me that the lion tamer act was more of a "don't get eaten by the lions" act. Those lions definitely did NOT look happy to be there.) I was completely amazed by the trained house cats act. Seriously. I have cats. I can't even convince them not to hork on the floor, much less persuade them to jump through hoops and crawl along tightropes. We got a big box of popcorn, and little man was sticking his arm in it up to the shoulder by the end of the show, just to get the laaaast little bit of popcorn in there. So much fun!

Shortly after we came back from Florida, Clay's daycare took a group trip to Nichols Boyd pumpkin patch. We rode the hayride with his class, swung on the tree swings, saw all the animals and chose a pumpkin before eating a picnic lunch under the trees. The weather was absolutely perfect, and we really enjoyed this day. (And OMG if you haven't bought some of Gran's homemade peanut brittle from the shop, you are completely missing out. I inhaled it in less than 24 hours.)

Then, before we knew it, the state fair was in town! Hubs and I were so excited to take booger to the fair this year. It's the first year he's been tall enough to ride anything! He adored the rides and (as usual) showed no fear. We rode the carousel a couple of times, then the bumblebee ride, the swing ride, the hot air balloon ride, and the miniature roller coaster. Then, we hit the big ferris wheel, and we rode in that ski-lift-type ride up and down the midway. We enjoyed one of those tasty (and free!) biscuits and petted lots of animals at the petting zoo (again, free!). Lastly, I couldn't leave without taking little man down the big yellow slide at the fairgrounds. I have been whooshing down this thing since I was a kid, and I still love it. I sincerely wish they'd open it up for EVERY event they hold at the fairgrounds. I would pay to get on it every time. We practically flew down it, and then we headed back to the Trademart to look at the shiny antique cars before calling it a day. Loved, loved, loved it.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Orlando Trip Report, cont.

Day five dawned ominously cloudy. For about half a second, I thought about skipping GatorLand again. But we forged ahead, and I'm so glad we did! It was cloudy during the morning, which kept temperatures cool, and it never rained.

Our resort was less than 10 minutes from GatorLand, but you'd never guess it. The park feels miles away from everything. We found the place easily, parked in the free lot, and headed towards the queue to get in. $80 or so later, we were looking at little and medium-sized gators sunning themselves in the entryway pools. We hooked a left to see the giant tortoises and HUGE snakes. Then, we headed past the train station (The train wasn't running yet.) and into the "jungle," where pens with individual types of gators were located. We saw Cuban gators, Australian gators, some "celebrity" gators and more. This part of the park was really beautiful. Think long, winding paths through dense foliage, with areas here and there where you could peer into gator habitats. Then, the path turns into a boardwalk that goes out over the water. You can get REALLY close to some huge gators. There were tons of beautiful birds out there, too. We climbed all the way up to the top of the lookout tower - three stories. You could see most of the park from there. Then, we looped back around to train station, where we hopped the first train of the day.

After our ten-minute ride, it was lunchtime. We let Clay play in the playground and on the splash pad while we got lunch from the snack bar. The brats with peppers and onions, chips, and drinks Brian and I got, as well as Clay's hot dog kid's meal with Goldfish crackers and Oreos, cost about $20.

After we'd had our fill of lunch, we headed for the petting zoo. On the way, we stopped to take goofy pictures with the huge fake gator they had set up. So fun! Clay loved the petting zoo. They had goats, cows and chickens. The goats and cows would come right up to you to be petted. (And hoping for food. If you tried to buy a little corn from the machine there, the goats would eat it out of the machine before you could even get your hand in there to retrieve it! Wily little critters.)

We tore Clay away from the barnyard long enough to see the Gator Jumparoo show. They ran raw chickens out on a wire, and those big gators jumped totally out of the water to eat them! Yikes!

We walked further down the right side of the park to see the snake exhibits, the albino alligators, some beautiful tropical birds, some deer and two turkeys. You could even feed some of the birds. If you waled into the aviary with some purchased bird food, they'd light all over you while they at it. Then, we found ourselves in the right place to see the Up Close Encounters show. We sat in a small, shaded stadium, and the park trainers brought out tarantulas, snakes and other animals for us to see and touch. Clay and I even got to hold a BIG snake at the end of the show. He wasn't scared at all!

By this time, we were getting pooped. After some cold drinks and a trip through the gift shop (Clay had to have a stuffed alligator; Brian and I got fudge.), we headed home.

I so enjoyed my trip to this park. It's almost like the anti-theme park of Orlando. It wasn't crowded, it's easily do-able (at a leisurely pace) in one day, and being out among the water and the trees is just relaxing. It didn't hurt that most of the park is shaded, either.

You'll still drop some dollars here, but it's nothing compared to what you'd spend at most of the other Orlando theme parks. It's just an easier, less rushed day.

After we finished up at GatorLand, we came back to the condo to take a nap before dinner. Refreshed, we set our sights on Downtown Disney again. We ate at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, where I had the pumpkin ravioli (with sage and nuts), hubs got the barbecue chicken pizza, and Clay had a cheese pizza with fries and fresh fruit. Yum! This place is loud, but the food was really good, and the location is super-convenient.

We were hoping to go up in the "Characters in Flight" balloon, but due to wind, it was grounded. We contented ourselves with walking around Downtown Disney for a bit and stopping for a second time at The Candy Cauldron for more chocolate coins. We ate our treats on a bench by the river before a trip back to the condo.

On our last day in Orlando, we decided to laze around instead of pack in more activity. We lolled around the condo in the morning, eating breakfast in. A little before lunch, we headed back to Downtown Disney. We had our sights set on the T-Rex Cafe. We'd seen the restaurant on our jaunts through Downtown Disney before, and Clay was dying to get in there. We breezed right in at about 11:30 a.m. (no wait) and took our seats in the ice cave. We could barely restrain Clay from running wild all through the restaurant until we could order our food.

After we ordered, our waitress held our table for us while we examined all the dinosaurs in the restaurant. They had a big T-Rex skeleton embedded in the ice cave, plus some wooly mammoths. We saw a pachycephalosuarus, some pteradactyls, stegosaurus, triceratops, a giant squid, and, of course, a few Tyrannasaurus Rexes. Clay loved this place, and there were more animatronic dinosaurs there than in the whole exhibit that came to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science during the dino exhibit.

And the food was really good. Brian got the ribs and a lava flow, and I had the roast chicken with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned, the mashed potatoes were nice and fIavorful, and, after a week of carb-rich meals, the roasted vegetables were just what the doctor ordered. I ordered Clay the roast chicken with mashed potatoes, and his apple juice came in a fun red cup that lit up. He thought it was awesome.

After we ate, we (of course) made a trip through the gift shop. I bought Clay a little collection of 8 dinosaur toys. They'll be great toys for the plane ride back.

From afar, we noticed that the "Characters in Flight" balloon was flying!! We hurried over, walked right up to the ticket window, and paid for a ride up. We got right on the balloon (no waiting!), and up we went! The views were great from the top of the balloon. You could see Epcot and some of the other Disney landmarks. There was also a nice breeze blowing. Wonderful. We took some pictures and headed back to the condo for a nap.

We spent the evening in, too. We ordered room service and lazed around, reading, packing, doing a little bit of laundry. Clay played with his dinosaurs, and we looked back over all of our pictures, talking about all the fun we had on our trip.

Conclusions - the condo was a clear winner. Having a full kitchen, two bedrooms, and a washer dryer is just unbeatable. We flew home with two suitcases full of clean laundry. I also came away thinking that GatorLand was one of the funnest things we did on our trip. Even though we spent quite a bit of money there, the pace was slower and the park was easier to cover in a day than, say, Sea World. The next time we take the bit on vacation, we may only go for 5 days instead of 7. I could tell that little man was getting a little tired on the last couple of days, due to the non-stop activity. Plus, then we'd have a few days of down time once we got back home.

All in all, we had a blast in Orlando! We'll definitely be back!

Orlando Trip Report, cont.

Looking for a slightly more relaxed day, we decided to hit the WonderWorks Museum, then grab some lunch. The WonderWorks Museum really is a wonder. It's basically an interactive science museum. Every exhibit offers something for little people to do and experience, not just look at. We felt the force of 70-mph winds as we learned about hurricanes, heard the different roars lions make depending on what they are communicating, froze our shadows on the wall, played music with our feet on a huge piano, got to see what the inside of the space shuttle would be like, and landed a plane in the flight simulator. I even got to lie down on a bed of nails and take a ride in the rollercoaster simulator! Clay loved seeing himself dance to techno music on a colorful screen, push the "wonder wall" and see his handprint appear on the other side, and climb up into the life-sized spacesuit to peer out of the face shield.

He had a blast, and he's already asked if he can go back to the "upside down museum." It's not cheap to get in, but you can come and go all day (It's open from 9 a.m. until midnight.), PLUS you have the next three days to return and enjoy the theatre and ropes course in the basement. And all of it will cost you about a third of what you'd pay to get into Sea World. And it's air conditioned. (Did I mention it's air conditioned?) Highly recommended.

By noon, we were starved. Adamant that I wouldn't eat another sad lunch of theme park pizza, we headed to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, which I'd read about on chowhound.com. It's a locally-owned tapas place with tons of original art all over the walls. We ordered something for Clay off the kids' menu, then set about deciding what we'd have. We chose the carne asada (a mild steak served with guacamole, fresh tomato salsa, lime and tortillas), the dynamite shrimp (which were DELICIOUS with some kind of amazing Asian sauce and lots of toasted sesame seeds), the vegetable skewers (cherry tomatoes, onions, patty pan squash, and baby zucchini, grilled and served with a delicious tahini dipping sauce) and (my favorite) a plate of sliced pears over arugula, drizzled with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction and topped with decadent crumbles of really good blue cheese. This was served with the most delightful pecan crisps - like little crunchy crackers of pecans. The complementary flavors of sweet, musky, and peppery were amazing, and the pecans gave the dish great crunch.

We finished off with the banana pizza, and thin-crust pizza topped with strudel, roasted banana, cinnamon sugar, a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and caramel sauce. (OMG.) We washed it all down with mango tea.

Everything we had came to about $50. Not a cheap lunch by any means, but we paid $30 only one day before to eat crappy pizza in the heat, kwim? (Perspective, people.) I would go back there in a heart beat. It was completely worth it.

We lazed around at the condo pool the rest of the day.

Day four was supposed to be our GatorLand day. Unfortunately, it started raining (hard) the night before, and the morning dawned gray and forbidding. Not wanting to chance it, we decided to plan a day of indoor activities and shift GatorLand to Thursday.

After a big pancake breakfast (Gotta love Bob Evans. Our waitress even remembered us from a few days before.), we originally thought we'd go to the Orlando Science Center. However, there is ONE day a week that the center is closed. You guessed it. It's Wednesday. We were looking for something impromptu, and we spotted a model train exhibit off International Drive. We pulled in to discover that this location also offered quick helicopter rides. Sounded like a morning!

We started off with a short helicopter ride around Orlando. The whole thing last about 5 minutes. We hopped into the helicopter, donned our headsets, and took off. Riding in a helicopter is probably the closest I'll ever come to feeling like a bird. Unlike flying in a commercial plane (or even one of those small 7-seaters), you feel that precious little exists between you and the air. Views are great. We rode up and down International Drive, seeing some of the attractions we'd already been to (Sea World, the WonderWorks Museum) from above. Take-off was almost a bit of a shock, feeling how easily the helicopter ascended. Again, Clay was a little trooper. He didn't flinch or ask to hold my hand or even act scared.

After our flight, we toured the small model train exhibit. The exhibit is about 2,000 square feet, but the more you look, the more you see. The folks who put it together also have a sense of humor, tucking in characters from the major theme parks here and there throughout the scenes. Shrek peeked out at us from behind a tree. Shamu floated in one of the lakes. We saw two young wizards on their brooms, flying amidst some mountain tops. We enjoyed the train exhibit for a while until some little people in our travel party started acting out - running away from parents, yelling, and HITTING their daddies. Unfortunately, such behavior cut our model train trip short. Little people had to be hauled out to the car, screaming, while ignoring explanations that bad behavior meant going back to the hotel instead of staying out and having fun.

On the drive back, we were treated to the dulcet sounds of crying and loud begging to go back to the train exhibit, which we blithely ignored. Sigh.

Once back at the hotel, we enjoyed a nice nap before the evening's festivities. We'd planned dinner at the House of Blues and an evening Cirque du Soleil show to round out our rain day, and we wanted everyone to be well-rested and READY TO BEHAVE before we ventured out again.

Refreshed and ready for some good eats and an evening of entertainment, we loaded into the car and headed for Downtown Disney West. Our mission: to pick up our Cirque tickets and find some grub.

Picking up the tickets was easy. Our GPS system led us right to the Cirque theatre, and parking was free! Tickets in hand, we strolled right over to The House of Blues for an early dinner. We happened to hit the restaurant right during happy hour, so I had a $3 margarita and ordered my dinner from the half priced appetizer menu. I had a bowl of gumbo and the rosemary flatbread. Yum. Hubs chose the cheeseburger with fries and a beer, and little man had a pizza. The food was really good, and with drinks, our tab came to around $45.

We still had about 30 minutes before we needed to head to the theater, so we poked around Downtown Disney for a while. We bought Clay some brightly-wrapped chocolate coins at The Candy Cauldron, then perched on a bench overlooking the lake while he sampled some. Nearby, some musicians started playing music with a synthesizer and a steel drum, and Clay had to go over and dance for a bit. We leisurely made our way back to the theatre and settled in for the show.

It was great show, too. There's not a bad seat in the house, and I had no regrets about buying the cheapest tickets. They even have boosters for the kids, so little people can see all the action, no matter where they are seated.

Clowns, acrobats, some amazing bicycle tricks, trapeze artists, jugglers, and a crazy trampoline act (Clay's favorite) were all on the agenda. A troupe of four little Asian girls moved with such quickness and precision that they almost appeared animatronic. The only thing that gave me pause - I had thought, based on the advertisements for the show and the fact that it's hosted by Disney, that the staging and lighting would be lighter, more fanciful. In truth, the stage, set, and lighting (even the music) are much more somber that I would have expected. Nothing scary, but not as lighthearted as I thought it would be.

After the show, we headed back to the condo for sleep. After I put little man to bed, I filled up the amazing jetted soaking tub, poured myself a glass of wine, and settled in for an hour or two. Sigh. I need more vacations.

Stay tuned for more . . .

Orlando Trip Report!

We returned last weekend from a week in Orlando with little man! Since he's still too little for most of the offerings at Disney, we decided to stay at a resort and dip our toes into several different types of activities. Here's the skinny:

We left Saturday on a 3:15 p.m. direct flight from Jackson to Orlando. We flew Southwest because they were the only airline offering direct flights, and it paid off! Our flight left on time, and it was blissfully uneventful.

I worried that Clay might be nervous or scared (It's been two years since he's flown.), but no such thing. We buckled him up with his CARES 5-point harness, and he settled into his seat. We had to taxi for awhile on the runways, and I think he had a moment there where he thought we weren't going to fly at all. He turned to me and said, "This airplane isn't flying." But pretty soon, we started zooming down the runway, and he got excited when we took flight.

I think it really helped that we checked out all those books from the library ahead of time about going on vacation and riding a plane. Numerous times, he repeated lines from the books about buckling up, showing the agent his ticket, and taking a trip. It was really cute!

I worried, too, that he might get sick. Nope. In fact, once we were airborne and the newness wore off, he laid his head in my lap and went to sleep for about an hour. Can't ask for much more than that, can I?

When we landed in Orlando, we were starving, so we stopped at Oishi, a little sushi/teppanyaki place, for some food before checking into our hotel. I felt like I could eat a horse, so I ordered edamame as an appetizer (hubs got the gyoza), then shrimp tempura (which came with miso soup, salad, and rice). Brian got a sirloin and chicken hibachi dish, and we got chicken and rice for the baby. The food was soooo good, and it came out quickly.

After we'd filled our tummies, we hit the road for Lake Buena Vista Resort Village and Spa. We found it without too much trouble. It's a stone's throw from Sea World and Disney, and it's adjacent to a HUGE outlet mall! (Woo hoo!!)

I was extremely pleased with out unit. We got a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with a full kitchen, sitting room, and washer/dryer. We found a fabulous deal on it at the Orlando Convention and Visitors' Bureau site. The resort has a spa, a business center, a couple of restaurants, and a gorgeous pool with a huge pirate ship/slide in it. Our master bath had a roomy jetted soaking tub in it, and I made use of it shortly after we checked in. We got little man to bed and turned in early.

The next morning, we hit the road in search of pancakes. We found them at Bob Evans, which is apparently a chain restaurant, just not one we have here in the metro area. And, boy, was it good. Lots of delicious food, quick, and not very expensive. Hubs loaded up on eggs, sausage, and blueberry crepes, and I had waffles and bacon. Little man amused himself with pancakes topped with blueberries and a few bites of our food. YUM.

We swung by Publix on the way back to the resort to stock up on fruit and other snacks (plus a bottle of wine) for the unit, then hit the pool.

Clay loved it down there. The children's side of the pool is a zero-grade entry pool, so I just pulled my beach chair into the water a little bit and relaxed while Clay splashed around. He found some other children to play with, and we also climbed up the pirate ship a little bit and swung in some of the poolside hammocks.

By 4:30, we were hungry again, so we made our way to Ming Court, purportedly one of the best Chinese restaurants in Orlando. It did not disappoint. First of all, the restaurant is beautiful. Winding dragons, stone elephants, and lions decorate the entrance, along with beautiful koi ponds. They even had a machine that dispensed fish food for 25 cents. We let Clay feed the fish for a bit before going in to our table. Decor inside is as delightful as out. Clay absolutely loved the giant, colorful dragon suspended form the ceiling. We ordered pineapple juice and a chicken bento box for him, and hubs and I both splurged on the Enchantment Wok. (It's was $25 per person, which is much more than our usual fare. We'd skipped lunch, though, and we were starving. Plus, the waitress recommended it.)

We were thrilled with the result. Dinner began with a flavorful wonton soup, and then out came a heaping plate of fried rice and a large platter of crispy scallops, meat with peppers and onions, and sweet shrimp. OMG. It was sooooo good. Looking at all the food, I was afraid we'd be wasting most of it. Nope. We ate ALL of the meat and the veggies, and most of the rice! Clay loved his food, too. Of course, the french fries were his favorite, but then he hopped on the chicken, the noodles, and bites of what we'd ordered. He finished up with a small dish of ice cream with strawberries liberally strewn around it.

Seated in the dining room, one is surrounded by windows showcasing landscaped pools, waterfalls, and statuary. Calming music and the sounds of birds play over the restaurant's sound system. The whole thing is a wonderful experience. And though we chose one of the more expensive things on the menu, there were many entrees in the $10 to $15 range, plus a wide variety of appetizers and a la carte items for as little as $4 or $5. I highly recommend this place. It is a nice restaurant, which I would normally not suggest for those dining with little kids. However, because we were they very early (4:30 p.m.), we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. Nice!

On day two, we girded our loins with a healthy breakfast at the condo and set out for Sea World. We'd bought our tickets online ahead of time, and we arrived at the park right at 9 a.m., when they opened. We breezed through parking and check-in, and then we were off to see the park. We started our day with a trip to the top of the Skytower, a rotating ride that gives you a bird's eye view of the entire park. Because it was early, we were the only people on the ride! Clay scooched his bootie around on the seats, craning for more views.

Then, we checked out the Dolphin nursery, which we had completely to ourselves. According to the trainer stationed there, they had calves as young as two week's old in the pool! We sat Clay on a perch atop the hand rail, and he got a great look at the mothers and babies. This was almost magical.

After that, we headed for the Shark Encounter. This was a great exhibit. You tunnel through an aquarium, so sharks are on either side of you, and above you as well. I thought Clay might be scared, but he wouldn't even let me hold him! It was in this exhibit that I really started to feel like we were at Sea World. We almost made lunch reservations at Sharks Underwater Grill, but they didn't open until noon! (We had plans to go to the Shamu show at 12:30 p.m.) We contented ourselves with an up-close look at some of the rays and smaller sharks in the pool in front of the restaurant.

We also checked out Penguin Encounter, which had soooo many penguins in it that I feared they might be crowded. Tons of different varieties of birds, with shaved ice dropping in slowly from the ceiling! There was even a big, viewable tank where you could see the birds swimming. I was surprised by how graceful they were in the water.

After that, we were in just the right place to see Clyde and Seymour Take Pirate Island, a show featuring sea lions, otters, and a HUGE walrus. I thought the story line was pretty dismal, but Clay loved seeing the animals, and out of all the shows we saw at Sea World that day (a total of four), this has seriously been the one he has talked about most.

After that show, Clay was so enamored of the sea lions that we headed straight to Pacific Point Preserve. At this attraction, you can see the sea lions as they bask in the sun and swim in the pool. You can also buy small fish and actually feed a sea lion yourself! We couldn't resist, and the sea lions were expert beggars. Clay threw a fish RIGHT into a sea lion's mouth! (A bird got another, but we were on such an animal high by this time that we hardly cared.)

By now, it was about 11:30 a.m., and we were getting hungry. We had an hour to grab a bite before we had to be at Shamu Stadium for the 12:30 p.m. show. We decided to stop at the closest place - Seaport Pizza - and get lunch. Yuck. The pizza was awful, and you weren't even able to eat in an air-conditioned space. We should have forged ahead, despite our rumbling stomachs, to find something better in the park. This was a waste of $30. I would gladly have paid a good deal more to sit somewhere nice and cool and eat decent food.

After lunch, we joined nearly everyone in the park that day at Shamu Stadium to see Believe, one of the park's signature shows. They were only offering it twice that day, at 12:30 and again at 5:30 p.m. We had a feeling Clay wouldn't make it to the evening show, so we wanted to be there for the afternoon viewing. The killer whales were amazingly beautiful. Clay's jaw completely dropped the first time he saw one, and he loved this show.

After it was over, we stopped by the Garden of Discovery for some animal interactions (parrots, a falcon, and some other animals) before arriving back at the Nautilus Theatre (Ahhhh, air conditioning!) for the 1:30 p.m. showing of A'Lure: The Call of the Ocean. This was one of my favorite shows of the day. It was Cirque-style, with tons of fun effects: two giant seahorses that came out into the audience, bubbles that fell from the ceiling, jets of water spewing out, acrobatics, aerialists, amazing costumes, and dance. We all loved this show, and it gave us a chance to sip some water and get cool.

When this show let out, we realized there was nearly a whole side of the park we hadn't seen! We made our way to the Jewel of the Sea Aquarium, which Clay absolutely loved. It's aptly named, a little jewel-box of a space adjoining a gift shop. The fish swim in tanks under your feet and above your head, in addition to tanks positioned all around the room, The jellyfish were beautiful (and the only ones we saw in the whole park), as were the coral and tropical fish.

We left this aquarium and stopped by the Manatee Rescue and alligator exhibits. The underwater viewing at the manatee exhibit was the BEST. It was almost as if a couple of the big animals were doing underwater tricks for us! They swam straight up to the glass to have a look at us, showed us their big tummies, and did slow turns in the water.

We realized now that little man was starting to flag. We decided to sit a bit and have a cold drink while we watched Blue Horizon, the dolphin show. This was another favorite. The dolphins were so social, and they did some fabulous tricks with the trainers. Again, not the best of storylines, but all you really want is to see the animals. There were some colorful costumes and some neat gymnastics in this show as well. The trainers dove into the water from impossible high perches, hardly making a splash when they entered the water.

We cruised on by Dolphin Cove, but we didn't stop to feed the animals this time. We headed for Stingray Lagoon, where Clay and I were both brave enough to put our hands in the touch pool. The stingrays have learned how to splash people, and a big group of them will come over to the side of the water and splash their fins on the surface, sending water everywhere!

It was nearly 4 p.m. by this time, so we stopped in the gift shop to pick out a memento (Clay chose a big stuffed killer whale), and headed back to the condo. We sacked out for about an hour before heading afield to find dinner. We wound up down International Drive at Maggiano's Little Italy. It appeared to be a chain, but it's one we don't have back in Jackson. (Plus, I was jonesing for some Italian.). I got the Rigatoni "D," a delicious blend of rigatoni pasta, chicken, whole sauteed mushrooms, onions, and cream sauce. Brian had the lasagna special, and Clay had spaghetti and a giant meatball. Add some salads and a glass of wine (for mom), and you've got dinner. We came back to the condo and tumbled, exhausted, into bed.

More to come!