The Big Four-Oh

If you’re a 39 year-old heterosexual American male considering how to ring in your 40th birthday, doing so aboard a Disney Cruise probably isn’t at the top of your list. But that’s exactly where Nick found himself after we booked our cruise and then realized that his big day fell smack dab in the middle of the trip.

Given that our choices were to embrace it or ignore it, we chose to go with the former – and by “embrace it” I mean that Nick worked on not being bummed that he would turn forty while trapped with surrounded by gazillions of screaming, hyped-up children and adults either taking advantage of the poolside bar by 10 a.m. or dressed in life-size princess and pirate costumes. Meanwhile, the girls and I worked on coming up with as many ways as possible to draw attention to Nick and let everyone within a five mile radius know that it was his birthday.

We’re sweet like that.
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Nick had refused to open any birthday-related paraphernalia prior to his actual birth date, citing bad luck (umm, okay?), so we knew we’d either have to wait until we returned to give him his “real” birthday presents or we’d have to bring them with us. Given that we were already lugging several suitcases, that we planned to purchase more than a few souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, and that our stateroom – while lovely – wasn’t exactly palatial, we decided to give him the bulk of his presents back home… but that just meant we could go overboard* with the “fun” (read: embarrassing) stuff on the cruise.

* see what I did there?

The preparations began weeks before our sail date. I thought it might be neat to surprise Nick with some snacks, beverages, etc., in our stateroom, but I didn’t want to haul all of that stuff with me. I’d read about an awesome company that crafts custom-made gift baskets for folks in the Port Canaveral area; it seemed perfect, but unfortunately, Disney no longer allows off-site companies to deliver directly to their ships. Long story short (you’re welcome), after several weeks of phone calls and emails between that company, our taxi company, and myself — all without Nick’s knowledge — the gift basket lady met us at the entrance to the cruise terminal parking lot, our driver slyly pulled over and took the “delivery” into the front seat, and the porters quietly loaded the basket in with all of our other luggage, to be hidden away until the next morning. THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Nick’s sister, Emi, and her husband, Matt, had also sent a surprise wine and cheese platter to our room – but because of the whole “bad luck” thing, I knew I’d need to keep the goods out of sight until the following day. It was easy enough for me to enter our stateroom before anyone else (Nick was busy waiting in the interminable line to get a ticket so that Annie could meet Anna and Elsa), and it was easy enough to stash the wine and wine glasses in a cupboard… But the cheese plate a) would not fit in our tiny fridge and b) was super fresh and would have been, um, poisonous inedible if I’d tucked it away in a drawer or something… So, after conferring with Annie and Ella, we all dug right into lovely cheese plate that had been given to us by Disney as a way of thanking us for being repeat cruisers. (This was slightly less far-fetched than it sounds because there actually was a thank-you-for-going-on-your-second-cruise tote bag from Disney awaiting us on the bed.) Nick was skeptical (“They do this for everyone? Fresh cheese? Isn’t that kind of expensive?”), but with no one to say any differently, he had no choice but to buy into it.

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Not a bad way to start the trip!

When Nick awoke the next morning (aka HIS BIRTHDAY), we presented him with our contraband gift basket, Emi and Matt’s bottle of wine, and the real story behind why “Disney” had given us a lovely cheese platter. The basket was a huge hit – Nick and the girls had Milano cookies right there at 7:30 a.m. – but we were just getting started.
disney51 Also inside: the beach toys Ella used during our “adventure” on Castaway Cay.

First, I presented Nick with… the shirts (found here; Etsy is a mystical place, you guys). There were four matching ones for Annie, Ella, GranMary, and me, but Nick had his own… special… version.
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In case you can’t see them, our shirts say “This Girl Loves The Disney Dream” and Nick’s says “This Guy Turns 40 Today!”. VERY CLASSY.
Also, I’m just noticing now that Annie’s blue ears look like… my boobs. Very, VERY classy.

After putting them on, we headed up to breakfast — but not before stopping to admire our stateroom door, which looked slightly different than it had when I’d snuck out the night before to decorate it. (The doors are metal, meaning you can stick magnets on them. Many cruisers go all out with door decorations; it’s like an informal competition or a strange, impromptu art show.) The custom magnet (found here) was awesome, but even more fun was the white board – because as the day went on, fellow passengers left Nick birthday messages.
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This is the “after” shot, taken upon returning to our room at bedtime…

As we arrived at breakfast, I pulled out our next birthday treat… our Mickey ears. Nick had known that I’d purchased ears while we were in Epcot — it had been his suggestion, actually, to get some embroidered so that GranMary could have her own, personalized pair — but he didn’t know that I’d snuck in a different order for his ears.
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GranMary… Emily… Annie… Ella… 40 and Awesome!

Our big plans for the day began shortly after breakfast: while researching things to do in Nassau, we had decided upon a “dolphin excursion,” something that’s been on Nick’s bucket list for as long as he could remember. We were excited, but didn’t really know what to expect; the thirty minute boat ride over to Blue Lagoon was beautiful, but the girls were growing restless and Nick and I shot one another This Had Better Be Worth It looks.
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Upon our arrival, we sat through a brief – and interesting – information session about dolphins, dolphin conservation, etc. Following the session, we were split into groups and sent out onto the docks to meet with our instructor/trainer and the dolphins. Our small group consisted of us and another family; they went first, allowing us to see just what we were getting into.

There was no doubt about it: this was going to be incredible.

When it was our turn, we could hardly wait to scramble down the ladder and onto the submerged platform where we’d hang out with the dolphins. The first group had warned us that the water was cold; still, we were unprepared for just how chilly it would be. There was no time to ease in, however, because “our” dolphin – Missy – was being instructed to pose for a photo with us… so we gathered our courage, bent our knees, held our breaths, and smiled.
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Notice how the girls’ shoulders are up to their ears because there was no way they were ready to get that wet yet…

Missy – short for Miss Merlin – was fifteen years old, a nursing mama, blind in one eye, and just the absolute coolest, most fascinating animal I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. The trainer working with her was sarcastic and bold and more than willing to embarrass us in order to get a laugh; we liked her immediately.

I don’t quite know how to describe the excursion. I could tell you what it entailed: we – each of us, one at a time – got to hug Missy, dance with her (holding onto her front flippers and bobbing around together), run our hands along her back and head and belly (dolphins are unbelievably soft – there is little to compare her to that would make any sense because it’s a wholly unique feeling), kiss her (which may sound weird but which was SO VERY COOL), feed her (Nick was cajoled into feeding her by dangling a dead fish from his teeth – for real, yo), and sing with her (“Happy Birthday,” of course). We watched as she leapt into the air, doused us with water (at the trainer’s mischievous instruction), disappeared for a moment or two to check on her baby (who was hanging out in a separate, protected area so Missy could visit), scooted backward along the top of the water using only her flukes, blew bubbles under the surface, and made myriad crazy and amusing (to us humans) noises.
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What I can’t put into words is the sheer joy, awe, and delight that coursed through all of us during the 15 minutes we spent with Missy. It was something that transcended happy and blissful and slid into a kind of euphoria – but contained, special, magic. We felt it; it was almost an out of body experience, except we were so incredibly present.

Near the end of our visit, the trainer told us to wait a moment – and, at her hidden command, the dolphin swam out of sight. The trainer explained to Nick that Missy would be bringing him something to commemorate his big day, and when she returned he had to take it – but if it was alive (!!), he’d need to put it back. A moment later, Missy resurfaced and swam to Nick holding something in her teeth. Stunned, Nick giddily took it from her; it was a rock (which, thank God, is not alive), collected from the bottom of the lagoon.

To put it another way, a dolphin specifically selected a gift for Nick and then gave it to him. NICK GOT A 40th BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM A DOLPHIN.
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When we returned home, he ordered a plastic box from Amazon in which to store/display his gift. I am not even kidding.

There was lots of other stuff to do at Blue Lagoon – sea lion greeting, dolphin watching, a gorgeous Bahamian beach with inflatables on the water – but, agreeing that our experience with Missy couldn’t possibly be topped, we chose to simply head back to the ship.

It felt as though we didn’t touch the ground for hours. We ate lunch and got ice cream; the girls swam and rode the water slide; Ella got her hair braided all fancy-like; Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the Drink of the Day. He was on such a high, he even proudly posed with the girls’ and my last gift of the day: a towel that my aunt had embroidered for him, loudly declaring his age. (The rest of his presents awaited him at home.)
disney94This is maybe the softest towel in existence. I’ve totally stolen it for myself even though I AM NOWHERE NEAR 40, ahem.

I’d been informed that, at dinner, our waitstaff would present Nick with some kind of birthday treat; since he doesn’t really like dessert (or any sweets, for that matter; I KNOW), I decided not to order him a cake (see also: fridge too small to store leftover cake). It turned out perfectly.

Disney is nothing if not enthusiastic, especially when it comes to celebrations, and birthdays are certainly something to be celebrated. As such, when I stopped by the front desk the night before, the concierge eagerly forked over “I’m Celebrating” buttons for GranMary, the girls, and me as well as an “It’s My Birthday!” button for Nick. Those drew us some attention, but it was really the shirt that turned people’s heads. Nick insisted on wearing it all day (until dinner), explaining that it was the only day he could get away with it. I’d chuckled when I found it online, giggled when it arrived in the mail, laughed out loud when he actually put it on… but seeing other guests and cast members take notice of it, do a double take, and then stop to say, “Happy Birthday, man!” all day long was pretty much the most amusing best thing ever.

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Speaking of cool things…

After dinner, GranMary presented Nick with his final gift: a clever and funny reworking of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with mouse ears and dancing grandchildren); it was a delightful capper on a pretty damned terrific day. When we got back to the room, we discovered that our attendant had folded our bath towels in the shape of a birthday cake.
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Do you think they keep the ribbon on hand, just in case?

If you’d asked Nick what he envisioned doing on the day he turned 40, I doubt that he’d have described the day that he wound up having. Still, he was a tremendously good sport about everything – and, by the end, even he had to admit that as far as birthdays go, it wasn’t really so bad… In fact, it was pretty freakin’ great. We were in the Bahamas. It was a perfect, sunny day. He got some dorky fun swag, including a present from a dolphin.

He even got to check an item off his bucket list.
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This photo makes me ridiculously happy.

At the very least, I hope there’s no doubt in his mind that he is pretty freakin’ adored by the rest of us. (Adored… and seen as fodder for embarrassment.)

But hey – you only turn 40 once. Might as well kick back with a Yellow Bird, soak in the sun, kiss a dolphin, and look out onto the incredible horizon stretching before you – in every possible way.
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Awesome, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?

After our stopover in Epcot, we were totally stoked to depart on the cruise. GranMary met us at the hotel and we traveled from Orlando to Port Canaveral together, all set for the adventure to begin.

Annie had decided that she wanted to meet (and get autographs from ) as many characters as possible – and so, knowing that we’d have a slight wait at at the terminal, we took full advantage of the opportunity to get a little personal time with Goofy.

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GranMary defined the term “good sport” for the entirety of the trip.

We’d elected to get a room with a balcony (actually, by the time we booked this cruise, all rooms except those with balconies were sold out, so it wasn’t much of an “election” but still…). While it’s hardly an essential, we did enjoy being able to hear the ocean and feel the temperature (something that came in quite handy by the end of our trip).

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Not quire sure why, but I love this photo.

Nick turned 40 on the second day of the cruise and, as part of the celebration, he requested that we do the meet-the dolphin excursion at the Blue Lagoon while in Nassau, Bahamas. It was, hands down, one of the most incredible experiences any of us has ever had (more on that soon…).

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It looks as though we’re shrugging in response to a question, but really, the water was just freakin’ cold. 

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Thumb war battles on the ferry back from Blue Lagoon.
Why was GranMary the one who got roped into declaring thumb wars? See: GOOD SPORT.

For the remainder of the trip, we simply enjoyed what Disney had to offer – and it was a lot. (I won’t go into everything [you’re welcome], although you can feel free to read a bit more about it here and here.)

We shuffleboarded (is that a verb? If not, it is now)…
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GranMary and I lost, but we put up a good fight, I assure you.

We took in numerous ship-board activities…
disney164Cheering babies on during the fastest crawler race.
I’m not kidding.
It was an absolute hoot.

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Watching movies while swimming? Yes, please.

We – um, Annie – met characters. And characters. And more characters.
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Captain Jack Sparrow took his role very seriously.

It was pretty damn great.

When we returned from last year’s cruise, we said that it was the best vacation ever. And it was. Hence, as excitement mounted for our cruise this year, Nick and I were careful to remind Ella and Annie (and ourselves) that this would be different. Not bad, not at all – but different. It was basically going to be impossible to top, or even match, last year’s experience.

Turns out? We were right.
And you know that? That’s okay.

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Something that was way better on this ship: the AquaDuck water slide, which encircles the entire upper decks of the ship. Seriously awesome.disney120 disney128
Doing their best princess waves as they passed by…

See, last year, we neeeeeeded that vacation. We’d lost Bill the previous summer and were still emotionally exhausted; I’d started a new job; the girls both took on additional activities which made it hard to find our legs beneath us as our schedules became absolutely nutty; and our winter had started off with ridiculously cold temperatures, meaning that even I – who adore snow and chilly days – was desperate to get warm.

This year, it’s different. We still miss Bill very much, of course – and talk about him often, with tears coming at unexpected times – but the pain is not quite so raw, the roller coaster a little more rounded and not quite so exhausting. My job has remained steady and Nick’s has changed for the better. We’ve grown accustomed to swimming and soccer and after-school craziness – which doesn’t make it less crazy, but makes it unsurprising, so we’re steadier on our feet (although our white boards are used just as often, thank you very much).

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The mixology class did not necessarily make us steadier on our feet, but it was absolutely delicious.

And the weather… well. January started off just fine, even nicely. We Rochesterians commented to one another that this was a good winter — not frigid like last year, no huge snowstorms, just a good, even, steady, sunnier-than-usual winter. At least we’re not Boston, hahaha, amIright??

AND THEN CAME FEBRUARY. February, with piles and piles and FREAKING PILES of snow. February, which is already the second-coldest on record (and which, with single-digit temperatures forecasted this week, might become the coldest on record). February, which may be the shortest month of the year but OMG IT SEEMS LIKE IT WILL NEVER END.

If February had come before January, I would have been dragging my frozen butt on that airplane just as maniacally as I’d done last year. But because it hadn’t – because our winter had started off nicely and evenly – none of us was absolutely out of our minds to get someplace warm. (After being home with historically low temperatures, however, we might just storm the airport and try to stow away.)

Which, as luck would have it, was a good thing because this delightful cold front slid right down the eastern coast of the USA, meaning Florida and The Bahamas? Not so warm. Record setting cold in Orlando, as a matter of fact! I even got mild hypothermia while at Castaway Cay!! (There are two exclamation points there which makes it seem like I’m jesting or laughing, but in all seriousness… hypothermia. But that’s another story…)

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In addition to being chilly, it was also more than a little overcast and stormy on the day we landed at Castaway Cay…

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… which basically meant that we had the snorkeling area to ourselves.

So, the weather was a definite bummer. While we were tremendously grateful to be, you know, on vacation – I won’t go whining about it or anything – it was still a bit of a letdown to miss out on the activities we’d planned (plus, being cold in the Bahamas just feels wrong, yo!). Additionally, high seas and choppy conditions caused most of us, but Ella and me in particular, to become quite seasick – something we hadn’t experienced at all on our previous cruise.

And you know those storied kids clubs that I raved about last year and that the girls couldn’t wait to visit again?? The ones where Ella spent nearly all of her time using the computer bays to write elaborate stories and create digital cartoon thingies? Well, it seems that not all Disney kids clubs are created equal; the ones on this ship didn’t offer the same computer programs (apparently, because our other ship – the Disney Magic – had recently been retrofitted and revamped, they updated their kids club technology). Which meant that Ella didn’t really want to spend time in the clubs. Which… was not awesome.

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Also not awesome? The line to meet Elsa and Anna.
I do love how Anna has her hands on her hips, though. Very method.

As such – with the weather, the seasickness, and the change in the clubs – this trip had some hiccups, whereas last year’s had none. (We didn’t help ourselves by going to Epcot for a day this year and not Universal; when you’ve walked a mile in Harry Potter‘s shoes, almost nothing else can live up to that hype.) It’s difficult – impossible, really – to compete with perfection.

Thankfully, we didn’t need to enter that competition because we didn’t need this vacation in the same way we did a year ago. It could just be exactly what it was – fantastic.

If anything, the bumps in the road (the waves on the sea? How far can I stretch this metaphor?) showed us that last year wasn’t just a fluke: we really do love Disney cruises, even when things don’t always go as planned. It was particularly neat to be able to share this year’s experience with GranMary – to laugh with her while we watched the girls zoom in and out of the pools, to stifle groans as we waited in line to meet the princesses (GranMary helps the time pass by much more quickly!), to see her come waaaay out of her comfort zone time and time again (let’s just say that dressing as a pirate and kissing a dolphin on the lips are not usually part of GranMary’s routine), to watch as she and Ella and Annie sang and hugged and took in every moment of vacation and joy and fun.IMG_2305
Although she is very convincing here, I can assure you that Mary does not typically “arrr!” like a pirate.

As I sit here listening to the dripping of the icicles inside our front door (no, for real, inside the door; when all of this begins its meltdown [because, for the love of all things holy, IT MUST MELT AT SOME POINT, right??] it’s not going to be pretty), squinting as the sunlight reflects off the feet of snow in the backyard (but at least it’s sunny!!), the memories of our trip seem that much sweeter.

Even without this doozy of a winter, however, the trip would stand on its own. How fantastically lucky we were to have taken it!

 

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Pirate night, me hearties!

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