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In the end, his love of animals won out over his distaste for getting dirty. Zeke’s sixth camp of the summer was Native Animal Explorers, run by an organization called Fish and Explore. He spent every day wading knee-deep into creeks and streams and marshes, climbing over rocks, and making himself at home in the woods. He found hellgrammites and velvet mites (both of which I had to look up) and crayfish and tiny toads. He said he spent a whole day with another camper who had sharp eyes—she would spot the toads and he would catch them. He said he has quick hands. He held (non-venomous) snakes that the counselors found. He let little caterpillars crawl around on his hands. One caterpillar reportedly pooped on Zeke three times. He and his fellow campers named some of the crayfish—Big Daddy, Big Boy, Tiny Tim, Tiny Guy—you sense a theme? Zeke reported that getting pinched by a crayfish did not really hurt. The day they explored the Billy Goat Trail he came home with scrapes all over his legs. He did not complain. And this is a boy who is sensitive to pain and most minor injuries. 

He did complain, however, that the days were tiring—and they were long and included a lot of driving to the various parks. And that changing clothes in the camp van was annoying, which I’m sure it was. But he didn’t seem to mind getting wet and dirty and he definitely loved finding and observing and holding the creatures. He smuggled a hellgrammite home in his water bottle on the last day of camp. We observed it in a Tupperware container filled with water and then we convinced Zeke to let the little guy be free. 

This weekend we are in West Virginia, hiking to waterfalls and mountain lookouts, and exploring little towns. Zeke is reminding us that if we see any animals, he can identify them for us and probably catch them for closer observation. He wants to go off trail, which we’ve reminded him is not safe when you’re 3,000 feet up. He is ready to wade in the water, although so far we haven’t had a chance. He did go outside and dance in the rain on the porch of our Airbnb, though, which is pretty close. 

I insisted we register him for three active camps if he was going to do a week of Minecraft camp. He readily agreed—and so he did fencing and archery, a theater camp that involved much more choreography than he was prepared for, and Native Animal Explorers. He did like fencing and archery, and when we watched the Olympics, he taught us quite a bit about the kinds of bows and arrows and fencing weapons that the athletes were using. And he came home with a multitude of bruises on his legs from fencing but didn’t complain then either. The theater camp was a little iffier. He said he didn’t like the theme—Broadway Disney—because too many of the girls in the camp were obsessed with Disney princesses. Although Zeke likes to sing and dance at home—or truthfully dance anywhere—he didn’t care for the choreography or the choice of songs, even though he likes Disney movies as much as the next kid. 

He’s been saying he wants to do more archery and fencing, so I consider that a success. And of course he loved the Minecraft camp. Apparently, he actually learned some coding, so that’s a bonus. The most disappointing camps were the ones that did not at all match what was advertised. One was Safari Robotics, run by SciGenius. The campers were supposed to learn about safari animals and observe how they moved, and then create robots to imitate the animals’ movement. Instead, what they did was dig through bins of Legos to find parts to create Lego robotics projects they followed the instructions for. Zeke has nothing against Legos or Lego robotics, but he’s done those camps before, and that was not at all what he signed up for. Surprisingly, the best thing about that camp was that during breaks, they played soccer. As a result, Zeke said he wanted to join a soccer team this fall. I have been (gently) asked him since kindergarten if he wanted to play soccer on a team and he has always politely declined. But now he has a jersey hanging on the back of his door and we are eagerly awaiting an email from his coach letting us know when and where to practice. 

The other disappointment was Steve & Kate’s Camp, which had been fabulous years ago when Zoe attended. The whole thing with Steve & Kate’s is that kids get to choose what they want to do—among a wide variety of interesting activities including bread baking, sewing, karaoke, board games, and more. We understood that because of COVID they were forced to change the model somewhat, putting the kids into cohorts instead of letting them roam free. But they also seemed to limit what the kids could do. Zeke spent so much of the day playing on an iPad that he got bored, which I did not think was possible when Zeke has a screen in front of him. One other option was playing in the gym—with a ball—by yourself. They weren’t allowed to throw the balls to anyone else. And Zeke is tall but not quite tall enough to be able to shoot baskets at standard height net. So what are kids supposed to do with a ball in a gym by themselves for hours? The only unusual diversion was inflatable axe throwing at an inflatable target. Bread making, sewing, maker space, and other promised activities were never offered. Zeke was signed up for five days at Steve & Kate’s, but since you pay by the day and they give you refunds at the end of summer for days you didn’t use, we pulled him out for the last two days. 

I have already started a summer 2022 spreadsheet because that’s who I am, and I don’t want to forget what we learned after this summer. And I would like to think that by next summer COVID won’t actually be a terrifying and constantly looming threat, but I am not confident about that. But meanwhile, I am thankful that Zeke had the opportunity to be out in the world this summer, trying some new things, making new friends, and learning new skills. If we’re lucky, all that will continue when school starts in a couple weeks. Fingers crossed. 

While we did not set out to do a long hike or traverse rugged terrain, my family did walk 44 miles in five days during our recent trip to Florida to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary. My parents generously treated the four of us and my sister and her husband and son to a fabulous tour of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center (which has such eclectic attractions we decided Epcot stands for Every Possible Combination of Things), Legoland, Universal Studios Orlando, and Disney Hollywood Studios. None of our kids had experienced Disney or the rest of the parks, and the grown-ups hadn’t been in years, so this was a monumental and thrilling vacation for the family. We decided to fit in as much fun as we could stand.

Turns out that was a lot of fun. Some of the highlights for me from our day at the Magic Kingdom:

Learning that Zoe loves roller coasters. Although she is almost 12, she had never ridden a real roller coaster before this trip. Now she is absolutely hooked. Although she still fretted and gripped my hand while we waited in every line, worrying that each ride would be too scary. None of the rides were too scary for her. The moment she lifted up the safety bar, she exclaimed how amazing the ride was and how she wanted to do it again. She never felt sick. She raised her hands in the air. She screamed. She soaked up every second of the ascents and the plummets and the twists and turned and loved it all.

Rocking out to the tunes of the birds and the flowers in the Enchanted Tiki Room, because apparently that is my sister’s happy place. I did not have the slightest memory of the Enchanted Tiki Room, but my sister remembered it fondly and grew up listening to the tiki song on a Disney tape we had (where was I during this part of her life? I do not know.) The Tiki Room is decidedly low-tech compared to a lot of the newer CGI and 3D-infused rides. It is old school and a classic. But those charming and chatty birds delighted my sister, which delighted me.

I don’t care what anyone says, I like It’s a Small World. I know the song is repetitive, and the subject of much mocking, but I think the ride is sweet, and it’s one of my mom’s favorites. It was a great one to start with when we arrived at the Magic Kingdom. And I enjoyed laughing at my husband’s and sister’s and brother-in-law’s running commentary as we drifted through the world being serenaded by all its peoples. Is that last part of the ride, where everyone is dressed in white, actually heaven? Quite possibly. And I like all the signs at the end that say goodbye in different languages. Farvel everyone!

Taking my mom to the County Bear Jamboree. After most of us had ridden Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (a great coaster and the only one that didn’t make Zeke feel sick), my mom spotted Country Bear Jamboree and wanted to go, but it wasn’t open yet. A little while later after the group had split up to try different rides, she asked whether it was time for some jamboree action. She and my dad had a special moment with one of the country bears early in the day, during which the bear greeted her like a long lost friend, so perhaps she was eager to reconnect with the other bears. Not unlike the Tiki Room, the Country Bear Jamboree is old school animatronics, but well-paced and funny. If the Tiki Room is my sister’s jam, Country Bear Jamboree may be my mom’s.

The unexpected amusement of the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. After my sister and her family had gone back to the hotel, and my husband and kids were taking another spin on the Astro-Orbiter, I accompanied my parents to the nearby Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. My expectations were not high, but my stomach was not feeling like another ride, so I was willing to give it a chance. My parents haven’t even seen Monsters Inc., but I have and enjoyed it, so why not? Turns out the Laugh Floor was hilarious. This attraction uses technology in which the animated characters on the screen are able to “see” and interact with the human audience. Screens on the side occasionally show members of the audience with funny–but never mean or mocking–captions and comments. Everyone is in on the joke. It was funny and it was air-conditioned. What’s not to love? As a bonus, in Tomorrowland where the Laugh Floor and Astro-Orbiter are located, we found a snack bar that sold delicious churros (with chocolate sauce on the side) and the Mickey Mouse-shaped soft pretzels (with cheese sauce on the side) that I came to know and love. The amusement park food lacked a certain diversity or nutritiousness, but I would have those churros and pretzels again anytime.

A side note about the food. Some of us ate lunch at a baseball-themed hot dog restaurant, where I enjoyed a ridiculous meal that featured a hot dog topped with mac and cheese and bacon. Not something I should repeat, but it’s always good to try new things. Anyway, while I was ordering food for everyone, one of the cast members (Charlotte, from Melbourne, Australia, according to her name tag) behind the counter noticed my button that said “I’m celebrating my parents’ 50th anniversary” (my sister had arranged for all of us to have these buttons) and she congratulated me and gave me two little cakes to bring to my parents with her best wishes. Charlotte was training an older woman who was operating the cash register with careful deliberation. Although I ordered six meals, after I paid I realized that only four were listed on my receipt. I returned to ask Charlotte to correct the mistake, and got out my wallet to pay for the missing meals, but she waved me away, saying she would take care of it. Thank you for your kindness, Charlotte from Melbourne.

Next up–reflections from our day at Epcot, or Every Possible Combination of Things.

Never in my life have I imagined that so many people besides my mother love matching shirts. Growing up, I thought my mom’s penchant for buying matching dresses for my sister and me, or matching sweaters for her and me, or custom-made matching sweatshirts that say “Hugging is My Favorite Exercise” was excessive. I must now apologize to her because I have seen first-hand thousands of families demonstrating a much more extreme degree of matchiness.

Before you stop me and say, “Wait, didn’t your whole family wear matching t-shirts to the Magic Kingdom last week?” I will acknowledge that yes, of course we did, in honor of my mom and in celebration of my parents’ 50th anniversary, which was the occasion for our trip. My friend Annie designed the shirts and my sister and I gave them to everyone for Christmas. So I am not trying to be hypocritical here, just expressing amazement at the level of matching we witnessed on our trip.

We spent five days at five parks in and around Orlando, and every day in every park we saw hundreds or maybe thousands of groups sporting matching or coordinated shirts. Some were parents with kids, some were couples, some were groups of girlfriends. These families were white, Black, Latinx, and Asian. Most shirts were t-shirts, but some were tank tops. Most shirts featured the iconic Mickey Mouse ears, but many had slogans like “My real home is Fantasyland” or “I’m here for the snacks” or “Best Day Ever.” (Although I also saw a cynical shirt that said “Most Expensive Day Ever.”) There were also plenty of Harry Potter shirts, particularly in Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure where the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter live. People were representing their Hogwarts houses and favorite Quidditch teams or displaying the Deathly Hallows. In Legoland we saw a large group wearing white and yellow baseball style shirts that said, somewhat meanly in my opinion, “I hope you step on a Lego.” A kinder, gentler shirt sported by an older gentleman read, “I would walk across Legos for them,” meaning his kids or grandkids I assume.

In both the Disney parks and Legoland, many families had shirts that identified each member, not necessarily by name, but by their role in the family. Like “Husband” and “Wifey” (ew). Or “Daddy” and “Mommy” and the names of each kid, like “Isabelle” or “Ryan.” I didn’t see shirts that said “Son” or “Daughter” but I did see “Sister” and “Brother.” I also saw “Birthday Girl” and “Uncle of the Birthday Girl,” etc.

Somehow these shirts that reduced their wearers to their familial role only in relation to the other people present rubbed me the wrong way. I might wear a shirt that said “Betsy” but I would feel weird wearing a shirt that said “Mommy” even though I am very proud and honored to be the mom of both my kids.

Similarly, I am not a fan of the shirts that say, “I’m with her” or “I’m with him” with many Disney-themed variations.

The only shirts in that vein that I liked were from the Star Wars shops in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

I also liked this one. I liked it because not everyone in the family has to wear it for it to make sense. It’s relevant and positive but it doesn’t only work if you’re in Hollywood Studios while you’re wearing it. The shirt demonstrates a sense of familial unity without being cutesy.

I love our shirts and I’m delighted that we wore them to Disney World. I just had no idea that everyone else was going to wear theirs too.

My dad and me in our shirts on the first day of our trip.

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