While sitting around the table at a friend's birthday party a long time ago, another farmer friend mentioned how his daughter-in-law was going to be having her first child in a couple months.
"First week of May, Jeff. Busiest time of the year and she'll probably be squawking like mad the whole season!" he said, shaking his head in mock frustration.
He said it jokingly, but I'm guessing it wasn't a complete stretch of the truth for him. There are certain times of the year on the farm when the To Do List is pretty packed. That's why I gave Sherill a couple of options when we decided to choose a wedding date. Choosing somewhere between December and March, she may have an easier time talking me into taking a trip to celebrate the blessed date. That's why we went with a January wedding.
Unfortunately, a person can only do so much scheduling when it comes to birthdays. Heck, I go over charts, graphs, tables and equations with my cowherd each winter, but they still never hold to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles when it comes to hitting their appointed date for the whole birthing thing. Some of them still jump the gun by a couple weeks.
Sherill's birthday kind of lines up with the friend mentioned above. I wanted to do something special for her this year, but I knew in advance that my calendar wouldn't be wide open in May for anything very elaborate. I can't really throw a party together in two or three days and still have it be what I'd prefer for the occasion.
Luck smiled upon us, though, in the form of an email. It was an offer from the good folks at Walt Disney World. They wanted me to know that they had some tremendous offers for those of us who hold an annual pass to the park. We could save a boatload of money on a stay in a fairly small window of time. That window happened to be my window of opportunity.
I looked at an extended forecast to see if maybe, just maybe, we'd be rained out at the right time if we weren't finished with planting by then. That one checked out in my favor.
Next, I looked at travel options. There's nothing I love more than finding ridiculously-low air fare on short notice using my frequent flier miles. That one also checked out in my favor, due in large part to a friend in Sales who travels a lot. We both prefer to fly out of Minneapolis, but sometimes a significantly better option is to fly out of a smaller airport and connect in Minneapolis to what would have been our original flight. The airport in Rochester, Minnesota, was a cheaper option, but their departure times are bit too early-morning for us. We could actually leave the house at the same time our plane would depart Rochester and get on the plane in Minneapolis at the same time. A bit more driving, but much less layover time.
That's when it got interesting. The best deal had us leaving on Tuesday morning and coming back on Friday morning. This was going to be kind of a surprise for Sherill, so I didn't want to tell her everything, but I can't exactly wake her up at 5:30 and say, "Hey, pack a bag, we need to hit the air in four hours out of Minneapolis!"
Sherill had planned a trip to see her mother in Michigan. Her original plan was to return to Iowa Tuesday night before her Wednesday birthday. I suggested a Monday return would be way, way better, and I kind of, sort of, in a way, needed that confirmed yet that day before she left for Michigan.
Consider that curiosity fuse lit.
"Why do I need to be home Monday?" she asked, somewhat aggressively.
"Because," I said. It's not an answer I've ever had success with myself, nor have I seen it work for many other people. That rule held true this time, too.
I ended up having to tell Sherill a general destination plan for our trip. "Florida," was as specific as I got.
"And where will we be staying?" Sherill inquired.
I went with the Florida answer again, but that didn't work. Sherill wanted specifics.
"Hey, it's your birthday. We'll be in one of the finest rooms that Mr. Howard Johnson has to offer!" I said as game-show-host-y as I could.
That's when I decided to keep the rest of the agenda a secret, right down to the room location. Surprise is good.
Sherill adjusted her trip plans and we forged ahead with "just Florida."
We got to the airport and made our way through Security in our usual TSA-Pre breeze fashion. That was an involved process last year, but worth it every time we see a huge line at Security. Sherill kept trying to ask me questions about where we were going and where we would be staying while we were in the solemn TSA area. They frown on monkey business at TSA. I think Sherill wanted a TSA employee to ask me where we were going, just in case I'd spill the beans to avoid a federal case.
No dice. My new, very serious response to the where-are-we-staying barrage was: "The Stadium Motor Lodge."
All of those TSA badges may be the only thing that saved me from a domestic violence situation. Sherill was being driven nuts, but she didn't have a final destination to put in her GPS navigation app.
The fun continued when we got to the airport. After a weather-related delay a couple years ago that flooded the airport with stranded travelers, I signed up for the super-fast system where you go straight to the parking garage to get your rental car instead of standing in line for an hour with everyone else.
It was a short trip, so we only had carry-on luggage. We walked out the door to head toward the parking garage when a Disney's Magical Express bus pulled up. That's the one where they get your luggage for you and then transport you directly to your room at Disney. I missed my chance to say, "Oh, look, there's our Magical Express!" by just a few seconds. Sherill still wanted to know if we were getting on that bus for a stay at a Disney property.
"Nope. Stadium Motor Lodge."
We got our rental car and headed out. It was around 1:00 and we had reservations at one of our favorite Disney restaurants -- 'Ohana -- at 5:05. That was a miracle score on my part a few days before. It's not uncommon to need four to six months to get a table at 'Ohana for their nightly Polynesian Feast. I got a table for two, at a prime time, eight days in advance! It was very similar to another trip when I scored a corner table at 7:00 for a group of friends and us, which allowed us a beautiful view of the nightly fireworks at 8:00.
Neither of us had eaten yet that day, so we decided to go to a favorite BBQ place for some appetizers, so as not to ruin our appetite for the Feast at 5:05. I had a geography hunch from a previous trip, which was confirmed by a server as I went to wash my hands after eating. We left the BBQ joint and turned away from our usual route to the park. That got Sherill thinking right away.
"A resort? Are we going to a resort?" she wondered.
Sure enough, my hunch revealed that just a block or two away was none other than the lovely accommodations provided by Mr. Howard Johnson!
Again, no sale. Sherill wouldn't even agree to a photo in front of the HoJo's.
I had pretty well milked that cow of a Howard Johnson's joke for all it was worth. Time for new material. I had a plan.
Disney has what they call "Value Resorts," which are nice places, but not terribly high-end. If you're at Disney for the park angle, a Value Resort allows you to save some money on accommodations and spend it elsewhere. You're going to be tired after a day at the park, so a $100 room will let you sleep just as well as a $500 room.
Howard Johnson's and The Stadium Motor Lodge were now out. My new decoy hotel was Pop Century Resort. I went with that one in part because it's not the first exit you come to when you drive to the park. We'd weave toward other exits first before staying on the road to Pop Century.
I checked my mirrors and saw no other traffic around us, so I did another weave-toward-a-minor-hotel maneuver before Sherill was ready to pummel me. Fortunately, our final destination was pretty much the last one we could take after we had passed all of the others.
We would be staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge! Not only that, but the offer I received was for a Savanna View room at an incredible rate. We walked into our room and saw a giraffe and various other African wildlife right outside the deck.
"Sorry, it's no Stadium Motor Lodge," I said with a smile.
Sherill was willing to settle for this option instead.
Let's face facts. I'm a farmer. This was essentially livestock outside my window. The scenery was truly magnificent, but the thing that caught my eye was what happened as a giraffe was grazing nearby. All of the trees are pretty well trimmed to giraffe-reach level. We could watch the giraffes stretch out to see if they could nibble one more morsel from a branch. Yet, there were some green bushes in front of them on the ground surrounded by what looked like either small streams of water from a sprinkler or some kind of thin, woody-stemmed plant.
Nope, that was a decoy plant. Those woody-looking stems were actually metal of some kind. PS, they had current in them, too! We discovered that when a giraffe reached too close to the greenery and got zapped by what amounted to a phony vegetative electric fence!
I want a couple of those so badly to put around my silage bags as an enticement for Ranger Rick, it would make your head spin. They look like something Allen Funt or Johnny Knoxville invented.
Our timing for a Disney visit coincided with another favorite from the past. Epcot's Flower & Garden Festival was taking place while we were there. It's a chance for the grounds at Epcot to become flooded with magnificent color. The landscape looks like something out of a PhotoShop masterpiece. The views I see are some of my favorites of all time. They are especially fun to look at in the depths of winter back home in Iowa.
The good people at Disney realized that we like to eat when we go to a festival, so they added mobile kitchens a few years ago. That is similar to what they do each fall during Food & Wine Festival. You can buy a small portion for a couple dollars and not risk a lot of money on a single entree. Flower & Garden Festival has more of a garden and freshness theme to it than the more international flavor that Food & Wine Festival has.
Our problem was that the temperature in May was crowding 90 pretty hard, so we weren't nearly as hungry as when it's 65 or 70 and easier to walk a lot to maintain an appetite. Plus, we also discovered a couple new dining spots at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
As I told Chef Matthew at Estelle's a few months ago, I judge the quality of food in many cases by how much insulin it takes for me to eat it and maintain normal blood glucose levels. More is better.
Surprised? C'mon, this is America!
The breakfast buffet at Boma includes bread pudding with a giant bowl of caramel pecan sauce. Bread pudding. For breakfast! This is why the rest of the world hates us.
They also have bacon and eggs if you're, you know, one of those people.
Whatever choice you make at Boma, it will be an excellent one. The food was beyond spectacular. We had a great server who brought us copies of several recipes from our meal. One of my favorites was a watermelon rind salad. Sure, it sounds like someone in Marketing was trying to enhance compost . . . aggressively, but it was actually an excellent complement of flavors in a cold salad. I made a second trip to the buffet for more.
Another unlikely highlight was Sweet Corn & Spinach Pudding. At first blush, that doesn't sound like a winner, but, WOW, was it ever tasty! It was smooth and sweet, which wasn't what I expected from sweet corn and spinach, quite frankly. I can think of several people who would pay good money to hear me say, "Excuse me while I go back for another serving of spinach pudding and watermelon rind."
For our final meal before we left, we went to yet another new-favorite location. Jiko is known as "The Cooking Place." They serve a wide variety of African cuisine with a menu that changes seasonally. We were fairly stuffed from all of our other Flower & Garden mobile kitchen stops, so we decided to just do some appetizers. Once again, the choices were diverse and difficult. I went with Grilled Wild Boar Tenderloin. What I really should do next time is just set my phone to "Record" mode and let it run each time the server comes to the table. There were so many foods and flavors that he described to us that I know I didn't get half of them. All of our choices ended up being outstanding.
That's the beauty of the restaurants at Animal Kingdom Lodge. They bring together foods you may never have heard of and present them in a way that is truly impressive. The menu changes frequently, too, so there is always a reason to go back.
Perhaps I will see if Sherill wants to start marking half-birthdays in the future.
To ease us back into our mundane reality, we stopped at Unideli after we landed in Minneapolis. They have a dish I love -- Dramen -- which is tsukemen, tonkotsu black and tantanmen hybrid broth with pork belly, bamboo shoots, caramelized onion, black garlic oil, leeks and soy egg. It has some heat and a ton of flavor, which are both right up my alley.
Walk into your local greasy spoon sometime and ask for some Dramen. If they look at you funny, tell them they need to start hanging out with different people. They may be surprised where a farmer friend could take them.
Guy No. 2