Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.

SeaWorld

The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.

 

In Transit

He turns and grins, speeding ahead of me on the moving walkway, pulling the suitcase behind him, sprinting away and looking back over his shoulder as he moves, laughing and checking to make sure I’m still trying to keep up, making sure I’m still with him.

The rolling suitcase looks huge as he drags it behind him, the handle gripped in his small hand, its bones still as delicate as a bird’s but growing, growing stronger every day.

He looks back and smiles that smile, brilliant white permanent teeth still too big for his 8-year-old mouth. That smile.

I smile back and quicken my pace. He laughs and turns away, sprinting again toward the end of the moving sidewalk.

“Don’t run,” I say.

He slows and as I watch him struggle to keep control of the suitcase my eyes moisten and my throat tightens and I fight back tears because here, on this long, glass-enclosed concourse between the main terminal at TF Green airport and the rental car center, as we race along from one moving walkway to the next, as he looks back over his shoulder and grins at me, in a moment of perfect and terrible clarity I am reminded that one day he’ll look back and I won’t be there.

I’m here now, though.

I blink away the tears and break into a sprint, catching him in two strides, passing him and laughing, racing ahead and looking back over my shoulder to see him laughing, too, and trying with all his might to keep up as we hurtle toward the end of the moving walkway.

What do we tell the children?

What do we tell them?

What do we tell the children of Gaza as the tears stream down their faces, leaving tracks in the layer of dust that settled on their cheeks after bombs turned their homes into craters?

What do we say to the terrified children of Syria, where the innocent years have been smothered in bombs and blood?

What words are there for the lost and desperate children of the American border, where they stream across in their thousands, running from death, hoping for a new life?

What do we tell them? What can we do?

We see the images on TV, hear the horror even in the refined, detached voices of the men and women assigned to cover it. How can we change the channel? How can we look away?

How can we not, though?

It is easier, safer, to turn away from the horror than to stand up to it. Chores and errands demand our attention. Games and movies beckon. The lawn needs mowing. The baseball team is heating up down the stretch. Football is starting. School is around the corner. Vacation, birthday parties, a trip to the zoo.

All of this is here, in front of us. This is our reality. All we have to do is change the channel. All we have to do is click over to BuzzFeed or Upworthy or Reddit or Facebook.

Get lost in the fun.

Forget the faces. Forget the agony. Forget the blood.

Forget those children.

Hey, sorry. We all have problems.

Besides, they aren’t my children.

But yes.

Yes, they are.

They are mine.

They’re yours, too.

These children? We can’t see their faces, hear their cries, and relegate it to that place in our minds where unpleasant thoughts go to hibernate, waiting to stir when poked and prodded by our demons and thrust into our nightmares.

We can’t do that. We can’t just ignore it. Can we?

But what do we tell them? What can we do?

If I was there, if I didn’t have my own concerns and problems and distractions, if I could drop it all and run to them on the Rio Grande and in Gaza City and Aleppo, I would tell them that there is more.

That this is not all there is in this world, that life is still beautiful. That there are flowers and toys and music. That somewhere on this planet, a kitten purrs and a toddler laughs and laughs.

That even though the world allows little boys to be blown to bits on the beach as they play soccer;

even though men with guns and foul faces force little children to trek across dangerous Central American  fields and treacherous waters in a blind search for something better;

even though it is unspeakably awful now and sadness, despair and anger are their close companions … there is hope.

There is more.

I would tell them: Don’t give up.

You are precious.

And I would take them in my arms and hold them close, and cry with them until our mingled tears soaked the dry and fractured earth.

 

Once More … For Oren

Give Forward

Oren Miller, founder of a Facebook dad bloggers group almost 800 strong. He and his family need our help. Now is the time to act.

They were in the car together, Beth behind the wheel, husband Oren Miller by her side. This was life now. A trip to Johns Hopkins for radiation treatment, a necessary precursor to deal with a cancerous invader in Oren’s brain before the rest of it could be dealt with.

The rest of it is stage 4 lung cancer, which has spread and is life threatening. Very life threatening. But that would have to keep. First, the brain.

Oren’s phone rang. It was me.

My editor at TODAY Parents had agreed to let me write it up live. When a group of dad bloggers get together to make something this big happen, it’s news. Especially on the Friday before Father’s Day.

What was so big that the parenting arm of the TODAY Show immediately responded in the affirmative to my inquiry that afternoon? The fundraiser, of course. Using the wonderful Give Forward platform, Oren’s fellow blogger and Marylander, Brent Almond, had set up an online fundraiser on behalf of the Facebook dad bloggers. This group, this extended family of fathers and writers from all over the world, would do our small part to help Oren’s family.

Oren Miller

L-R: Oren Miller, his wife Beth and friend and fellow blogger Brent Almond, together on Memorial Day weekend — hours before Oren’s cancer diagnosis.

The idea was to raise as much as we could to help them enjoy a nice vacation getaway before Oren began his treatment in earnest. We figured $5,000 was a nice, round target.

Brent posted the link to the fundraiser late Thursday evening. By Friday morning, the amount raised had slid right on past $5,000 and was bearing down on $10,000 before noon. When it reached $13,000, I emailed my TODAY Parents editors and told them news was happening.

Important news. News that illustrated the strength and power of these things that bind us in that Facebook group. Fatherhood. The creative impulse. Passion for our roles as caregivers, and compassion for others.

It had to be shared, this wonderful story that arose from such a terrible thing.

I say terrible, because that’s what it was. And is. Yet, Oren’s grace and dignity in the face of this awful circumstance moved thousands (here it is in his words, powerful words, words that will make you cry and wonder at the strength of this gentle father and caring husband).

That Friday afternoon, as Beth and Oren wheeled their way toward Johns Hopkins for his radiation treatment, I reached back into my professional past and tried to wear my journalist hat for an interview session. We chatted, he and I. He sounded tired, of course, but all I heard was music in that thick Israeli accent of his. His responses to my forced and awkward questions were as graceful as you would expect, if you know him.

And then he put Beth on the phone. I wish I had known Beth before this. She sounds amazing. She also let me know how much the group has meant to Oren during this time. I wrapped my TODAY piece with a great kicker quote from Beth, but it was cut in the final edit. Here is that quote now, in its entirety:

“Right now, this is the [worst] time you could ever imagine,” she said. “The only time in those early days in the hospital I saw Oren smile was when he was keeping up with what was going on with the group. I don’t think he would have made it out of the hospital if not for that. I really don’t.”

The fundraiser goes on. The goal has been increased to $30,000, and as of this writing, we’re past $26,000. It’s more than a vacation fund now. It’s money they can use for medical bills or any other needs that will arise as they fight this. The founders of Give Forward have generously agreed to donate $25 for every post the dad bloggers publish (up to 40 posts), an additional $1,000. Click here to donate, if you like, or simply to leave Oren and his family a message of love and hope.

There is no moral here. No feel-good story, no happy ending. Not really. There is something, though, and it’s this: We can do good in this world when we act together out of compassion and love. What else is there?

Oren Miller

Oren Miller and family.

 

Thank You, Dad: a Father’s Day Appreciation

Dad and me, circa 1988 or '89. This would have been in Palm Beach Gardens. That young man on the left could (and still can) play a mean mandolin, and he could pick it at shortstop.

Dad and me, circa 1988 or ’89. This would have been in Palm Beach Gardens. That young man on the left could (and still can) play a mean mandolin, and he could pick it at shortstop.

My dad taught me how to play baseball and how to love music.

There are traits he possesses — stoicism, a quiet dignity, an abiding sense of (and appreciation for) the absurd — that I catch myself unconsciously trying to emulate every now and then.

I have never quite managed to match most of the character traits I admire most about my dad, but that’s OK. I can’t be him and he wouldn’t want that, anyway.

There is one thing, though, that I feel pretty fortunate to have absorbed. My dad, Vietnam veteran, itinerant sports fan (Reds, Phillies, Indians, Rays just in my lifetime), logical thinker, musician, and so much more — he is his own man. Even as he sacrificed for his family with career choices that might not have been as emotionally fulfilling as following the path of the singing cowboy, he knew who he was and everything I saw him do erupted from that knowledge.

Dad and me, circa 1972 or '73. Note the Dolphins helmet. And the sideburns.

Dad and me, circa 1972 or ’73. Note the Dolphins helmet. And the sideburns.

I am different from dad in a lot of ways, but in that way we are the same. He taught me baseball, and so much more that I might never fully appreciate. But one trait that is very much a part of who I am is a fierce independent spirit, and I can’t help but think I inherited that from dad.

Dad, thank you, and I love you.

Happy Father’s Day to all my readers! Is there something about you that you know your dad helped shape by example or through lessons taught? I’d love to hear about it in the comments here, or comment and give me a follow on the DadScribe Facebook community.

That little guy looking askance at that huge hunk of smelly leather would grow up to become a voter in the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting. Dad got me started early on the game.

That little guy looking askance at that huge hunk of smelly leather would grow up to become a voter in the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting. Dad got me started early on the game.

TODAY Parents: We’re in this together

TODAY Show

I’m proud to announce that I have joined TODAY.com’s new roster of contributors. With the shift to TODAY Parents from TODAY Moms, the website for the popular morning show is acknowledging the growing desire of dads everywhere to be seen as equal and equally engaged partners in parenthood. After all, moms and dads: We’re in this together.

Parents tell stories. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s how we cope, and how we thrive.

It’s also how we empathize with the blank, sleep-deprived stares we sometimes encounter as we try to engage other parents. We know what they’re going through.

How do we know?

Because we’ve been there — believe me, we can tell you all about it. Also, because we’ve listened to others who have been there.

Parents know what it’s like to wake up to a major diaper blowout in the middle of the night — only to find the box of baby wipes empty.

Parents know how it feels to experience all the firsts — the joy and pain, the rapture and agony. Parents also know that sometimes, the rapture and agony are the same thing.

Parents know what it’s like to bear the awesome responsibility of caring for another human being — a helpless, clueless, selfish, hungry, not hungry, sleepy, NOT sleepy, stubborn, funny, clumsy, loud, disobedient, angelic, possessed, loving, cute, smart, beautiful human being.

Parents know all this and more, and we love to talk or write about it.

The power of story-telling is to help us find common ground. A good story illuminates and entertains. A great story reveals something about ourselves that we might not have realized.

I started this online journal in February, 2012, because I wanted an outlet to share my family’s stories. It has evolved over the past two-plus years into a catch-all site for my musings on parenthood or politics, issues and trends, small moments and monumental milestones.

Always, it’s about the story. The individual chapters that make up the particular posts, and the big, sprawling, shared story of parenthood.

The Big Announcement

Now, I am thrilled to let you know that I’ll have another platform for story telling: TODAY.com.

The website for the popular TODAY Show invited me and five other dad writers from around the country to join a panel of regular contributors. The invitation coincided with a name change for the parenting section of the site. What once was known as TODAY Moms now is TODAY Parents. This marks a significant and welcome shift, an acknowledgment that the task of parenthood is a shared endeavor in many households around the country and the world, and that fathers — more than ever — want to be recognized as equal and equally engaged parenting partners.

This week, as a lead-up to Father’s Day on Sunday, the TODAY Show will feature fathers from around the country. TODAY Parents, meanwhile, will feature introductory posts from the new panel of writing dads. Our posts will reveal our favorite “dad hacks,” clever and simple solutions to those sticky situations parents sometimes find themselves in. Read ours this week, then go share your own parenting “hack” on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #DadHacks.

Here are my fellow Today Parents dad writers, with links to their personal websites:

Be sure to give these talented writers some love on their personal blogs, and please share our TODAY Parents work as often as you see fit. Check out (and follow) the TODAY Parents content on Facebook and Twitter, too

Finally, a favor. One of the reasons I chose to write about parenting is because being a father is such a big part of my self-identity. I can’t imagine anything more important for me to focus my creative energy on, and there might be no more fertile ground for funny, tragic, poignant or just plain insightful stories.

Tell me your story. Let me know what you think. Give me ideas to share with the TODAY Parents audience. Find me on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment on a DadScribe post. Make me laugh. Make me cry. Make me want to share what you have to say with the world.

That’s what we do, after all. We’re parents. We tell stories.

 

 

 

Our New York

The lobby clock at the Waldorf-Astoria.

The lobby clock at the Waldorf-Astoria.

New York is the Statue of Liberty. The Circle Line. Washington Square. Greenwich. The West Village. Chinatown. The Empire State Building. MOMA. The Guggenheim. The Upper West Side. Central Park.

We did none of that.

Our plans were fluid. We knew where we would stay, knew what day we would arrive. There was a reservation for dinner, a date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tickets to a show.

A loose itinerary for the rest of the weekend. We had ideas, certainly. We had hope. We made it there on our 10th anniversary. We could make it anywhere.

It rained. Did we care?

We had an umbrella, which I left under a table at a bar called Peacock Alley. We drank chocolatinis and ate truffled fries.

Fourteen-year-old dancer by Degas at the Met.

Fourteen-year-old dancer by Degas at the Met.

A decade of life together. At the beginning, 10 years ago, this is what we knew: We knew where we would wed, knew what day we would be married. There was a Las Vegas honeymoon, a date in a helicopter for a champagne brunch at the Grand Canyon, tickets to a show. After that …

A loose itinerary for the rest of our lives. We had ideas. We had hope. We made it to our 10th anniversary.

New York. Why New York?

Because the city was mine, and it was hers, but it had never been ours.

It is ours now.

The loose itinerary allowed our imaginations to play. The boys were home and well-attended. This was our time. Time to discover and rediscover.

Time. That was one thing I had forgotten about New York. It is an island floating loose on the stream of time. This place, this metropolis of memory, took us back a decade. We were at the beginning, back in 2004 on our wedding night.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

The loose itinerary of our life together still hovered out there, unformed, unknown, unknowable, inconceivable to us.

Had we known …

We did not know, though, and when we were caught in the rain without an umbrella we improvised. The walk from the Gershwin Theater to the Waldorf-Astoria is seven blocks, farther in heels. Farther still in the pouring rain at midnight, but New York is New York. There is always a gift shop nearby offering to sell you a $2 umbrella for $17.50.

It rained. At Grand Central Terminal, we ate hot soup and watched the stars. At the Met, I lost the docent, the tour group, my wife and myself. Through the Italian masters I wandered, past the Degas, the Seurat, the Van Gogh, the Rembrandts, the Monets, the Tiffany glass windows. I found her among the mounted knights in their armor.

The sun came out and we walked the streets of New York together.

It is ours now.

New York is the Upper East Side. The Met. Times Square. Wicked. Rockefeller Center. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, masked by scaffolding, inside and out. Bryant Park in the rain and in the Sunday morning sunshine. The Public Library. O’Casey’s Irish bar. Chelsea Market. The High Line. St. Paul’s Chapel. The Freedom Tower. Zuccotti Park. The Stock Exchange. Federal Hall. Stone Street. The Brooklyn Bridge from the South Street Sea Port. Little Italy. The 6 train. The 35th floor of the Waldorf Towers, where presidents and monarchs spend their nights in New York.

The original Winnie the Pooh, on display at the NYC Public Library on 42nd Street.

The original Winnie the Pooh, on display at the NYC Public Library on 42nd Street.

Our loose itinerary revealed to us the pew where George Washington prayed on the day he was inaugurated. It threw into our path the original stuffed animals that A.A. Milne gifted to his son, Christopher, and later immortalized as Winnie the Pooh and friends. With no tyrannical to-do list holding us hostage, we lingered at the Ground Zero memorial pools, tracing the engraved names of the dead in reverence. It was sublime.

We did all of that, unfettered by an agenda, free to actually see it, to let it wash over us and to appreciate the city and each other. We gave ourselves the gift of room to breathe in New York, and the city helped us remember who we were.

And as we remembered, we floated on the island in its stream back to a time before our hopeful itinerary of our life together hardened into the immovable facts of shared history.

For a time, it all fell away. There was just us, and just New York, and it was ours.

 

The southern tip of the High Line park in New York.

The southern tip of the High Line park in New York.

 

Sunday Serendipity

Brooker Creek

A serendipitous Sunday morning photo safari at Brooker Creek Preserve. Target acquired: dragon fly.

My older son stopped short on the boardwalk and signaled his brother and me with a finger to his lips.

“Dad! Shh. There’s a deer!”

He pointed toward the far side of Brooker Creek, where the brown back of a white-tail doe moved away from us up the bank. The deer crossed under the boardwalk and into the palmetto scrub on the other side as my sons moved lightly in her direction and readied their cameras.

Our unplanned Sunday morning excursion had just gotten interesting.

_______________________

A lazy Sunday. Breakfast consumed. No immediate plans. A couple of old iPhones and a freshly spawned world on Minecraft. Hidden behind the easy chair, they plotted with heads together, fingers flying across the screens, communication by murmur — something nearly indecipherable about reaching bedrock, diamond armor and creepers.

This would have gone on for hours on a bright, breezy Sunday morning.

I took a sip of coffee.

“We’re getting out of here,” I said. “Let’s go do something fun.”

It registered with one of them, who inquired from behind the easy chair: “Like what, dad?”

I didn’t know. I didn’t answer.

“Dad? Like what?”

The lesson here: Know the plan before speaking, just in case someone actually is listening.

“We’re … going to … um.”

My stalling tactic was to give them five more minutes on Minecraft, which suited them just fine. As they went about the business of … crafting a mine or … whatever, I mentally scrolled through the options. Beth was still asleep, a rare chance to grab a few extra minutes’ rest. It would be just me and the boys. I spotted our point-and-click digital cameras on a table in the living room, and I knew.

“Five minutes are up, boys,” I said. “Get your socks and shoes on. We’re going to Brooker Creek for a photo safari.”

_______________________

The standing highlight of our 20-minute drive to Brooker Creek Preserve is trying to spot the wild turkey flock that inhabits the open pasture across Keystone Road from the park entrance. On this Sunday morning, we spotted only a pair of sandhill cranes as we arrived.

A quick camera lesson for each boy in the parking lot. Spray-on insect repellent. Then we were off.

“When you’re looking for things to shoot,” I said, “try to see everything like it’s a picture.”

I pointed into the dense wetland woods.

“See how that tree angles away from the rest of them? See how the vines come down out of that tree next to it? And the Spanish moss hanging there … that’s beautiful.”

They stopped to snap a few shots of a dragon fly. We checked to see if “Bubble” the gopher tortoise was home in his den, and found him not receiving visitors.

Then Jay spotted the deer, and we spent a few minutes watching her move slowly away through the woods.

The morning ended with an encounter on the other side of the trail with an 8-foot American alligator.

This 8-footer looks closer in this photo by Jay than it actually was.

This 8-footer looks closer in this photo by Jay than he actually was. Chris named it “Crockie.”

There were other moments, while not necessarily as dramatic or breathtaking as running into a deer or a gator, that I found equally memorable. Both boys delighted in searching for photogenic details in the woods and on the trails. They found mid-morning light filtering through a basket-shaped spider web, and they found a dancing dragon fly to chase. They noticed odd knots and other irregularities on old trees. They looked at ferns and other plants as if for the first time. They saw paw prints and cypress knees and twisted branches and flowers. Purple flowers, yellow flowers, red flowers and thistles. Spiders they saw, and ant lions. Even fallen leaves under their feet held new wonder: “Dad, look at the colors on this one.”

Brooker Creek

Sunlight on a web. One of the many details the boys spotted as they tried to capture their morning with digital images.

We woke up this Sunday morning not sure what the day would bring. No plans, no constrictions, nothing to limit our imagination. By lunch time, we had interacted with a deer, danced with dragon flies and shared space with an alligator. There is something to be said for serendipity.

Here is a short video montage of our morning, including footage of the deer and the alligator:

 

Year of Disney Epilogue: Disney on Ice, Let’s Celebrate!

LetsCelebrateThe Year of Disney for the Gaddis family was a triumph. The memories we created with our sons as we used our seasonal passes to explore all the Walt Disney World parks and resorts had to offer will stay with us for a lifetime. We’ll go back, of course. New memories await.

Meanwhile, there might be no better epilogue for our 2013-14 Disney experience than heading to the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the Disney on Ice show, Let’s Celebrate! We’ll be there Thursday night for the 7 o’clock performance, the first of seven shows scheduled at the Forum for the Feld Entertainment crew through Sunday.

My family was invited to attend after my fantastic experience as the Tampa Bay Lighting social media captain last month. I’ll be tweeting from the Forum using the hashtags #DisneyOnIce and #LetsCelebrate, so follow along at my Twitter handle, @DadScribe, and on Instagram (instagram.com/dadscribe).

I also want to share a couple of details about the deals available this weekend for families. First, tickets for kids start at $12. And the Forum also has provided a “Me+3″ offer — buy three Disney on Ice tickets and get one for free by clicking this link and entering the pass code (not valid for the performances on Thursday, 7 p.m., or Saturday, 3 p.m.): TMNME3 

And here’s a preview video of the show, which is  of a 32-city U.S. tour covering 11,825 miles. There are 38 performers (14 men, 24 women), and 155 costumes in the production, which features characters from 16 different Disney stories.

Don’t forget to follow along Thursday night as I share our family’s experience at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

Crayola

Cinderella Castle in chalk and a sweet Mother’s Day message on the driveway.

The boys spent the past couple of days creating. Crayola sent us a big box full of markers and sidewalk chalk, and we got to work.

It began with two big poster cards that they designed and colored and inscribed themselves on Saturday. We also put our heads together and came up with a design for a huge driveway mural, featuring Cinderella Castle from the Magic Kingdom and a sweet sentiment.

Here are a couple of keepsake memories that made their mom very happy, and that we’ll never forget.

Happy Mother’s Day from our family to yours!

Working hard on the Mother's Day cards.

Working hard on the Mother’s Day cards.

Crayola

All the hard work was worth it, because mom was thrilled!