Zachary was 3 and a half years old when his mother, Mary, and I started dating. He was 5 years old when she and I married. Zachary and I did well together, but still, there was a distance between us. Even though his mother and I told him he could call me Dad, he never did.
We had spent time together - I often picked him up from school, packed his lunch and went to his after-school events, but we hadn't really shared a meaningful experience together. As children, neither my wife nor I had gone on vacations. Whether because we were unwilling or unable, it just didn't happen. Maybe that's why traveling never crossed my mind as the solution to becoming closer to Zack.
As adults, Mary and I realized we had missed experiences that other families had enjoyed, and we vowed to make vacations a part of our new family.
Living in Florida, it seemed natural to first go to Disney World. It's what everyone we knew had done, the most magical place on earth. With some pennies saved, we took off.
We got to Kissimmee and went to Disney's Magic Kingdom on our first day. Disney was beyond belief. Zachary's eyes popped as he saw one great attraction after another. He had seen Cinderella's castle in the animated film, but Zachary gawked as it stood triumphantly before him - glittering, with tower tops painted cobalt and spires that soared up into the clear sky. Zachary asked us to refer to him as "Mowgli," the main character from The Jungle Book, on board The Jungle Cruise. Via waterways, we traveled across continents. Grey, wrinkled elephants with beady eyes played in the waters of the Nile. "Did you know elephants can remember things for 50 years?" I asked. "I'll remember this for 100!" Zack replied.
Zack's favorite part was the chance to get up-close to the Disney characters, who were approachable and welcoming to the children. Zachary was shy when he saw Cinderella, but with our encouragement and her kind smile, he mustered up the courage to go say hello. Her castle was still on his mind, and Cinderella politely answered his enthusiastic questions. "You really, really live there?! It's huge!" he said. She let Zack know that she was lucky because Jac and Gus were still around to clean up. We had a great time; Zachary, not quite 4, was thrilled by so much he saw and experienced.
At first, I was worried that Zachary might be disappointed that we weren't staying on Disney property. This is where Kissimmee began to teach me some lessons.
Zachary was thrilled to see the hotel we were staying in, just outside the park, had a pool.
He gasped, eyes alight and gazing through the lobby doors at aquamarine.
"Can I get in?" he asked, practically buzzing.
How could I say no? "Yes, of course. Let's put our bags down."
Zachary dropped his bags and started running. No time for a bathing suit, Zack cannonballed in fully clothed, which made us all laugh, even the front-desk worker.
Zachary had the biggest smile you ever saw, hair soaked and t-shirt up around his shoulders, his shoes treading the water.
We learned that Kissimmee had lots of attractions that catered to the whole family - just as much fun as spinning 'round and 'round in giant teacups at the Magic Kingdom.
We went to Medieval Times, a fantastic dinner theatre that features jousting knights. As an added attraction, you eat the food with your bare hands - something Zachary still does many years later. He noshed on a chicken thigh that was almost the size of his head, reaching with greasy fingers for his goblet to wash his meal down with iced tea; the manners we enforced at home completely disregarded.
We were all supposed to root for a certain knight, but Zachary favored The Red Knight. He cheerleaded for his own, which ended up defeating my knight in a thrilling battle. "Huzzah!" he yelled.
Zachary poked fun at me as I pretended to be upset that his knight beat mine, even though I was secretly delighted that he was so happy. I had a hard time repressing a smile.
We kept returning to the pool to swim with Zachary, properly outfitted in trunks this time, and I began to see that it's not about how much money you spend. We had the most fun together, particularly because Kissimmee was so welcoming and such a blast.
We visited Eli's Orange World, a quirky gift store made to look like a huge orange, the largest in the world at 60 feet by 93 feet. "Imagine how much OJ they could squeeze out of that!" Zack exclaimed.
The building is memorable enough, but Zachary knew my mother loved oranges and he set out to pick out the five best oranges he could find for her. We spent literally two hours inspecting oranges before he found five that met his approval, but Zachary was proud that he had found something his grandmother would treasure.
We hopped in the car for out next destination, Old Town, an amusement park close by with dining, shopping and attractions, including lots of rides. Zachary and I hopped into a bumper car and BAM! we bashed into Mary's. She pretended to be shocked, which made Zachary laugh and say, "Do it again, do it again!" I then began to worry about what it would be like teaching him how to drive at 16.
Zachary loved Rootin & Tootan's Shootin' Alley, Mary found some shops she enjoyed and I checked out the vintage automobiles that give Old Town a wonderful 1950s America vibe.
We spent the next day with Florida's mascot at Gatorland, where we got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually feed alligators. Zachary stared at the alligators' bumpy skin, stumpy legs, powerful tails and mouths, slightly tilted upward in a spooky smile, filled with hundreds of scary teeth ready to snap. There were hundreds and hundreds of gators, and plenty more animals to catch a little boy's interest. Zachary got a chance to see birds, snakes, spiders, emus, deer and more.
We were able to mix some education with the entertainment as Zachary scooted from one exhibit to another. He introduced us to some animals he already knew, while Mary and I told him about emus and flamingos.
He kept us on our toes with questions and comments: "Emus look funny" and "I saw a really big snake but I wasn't scared." Some reminded him of The Jungle Cruise from earlier in the trip.
We decided that Zachary also might not be scared to see alligators in the wild. We took a ride on an airboat, wind rushing through our hair as we propelled across dark water. Then we saw that familiar bumpy skin. "Look, a real alligator," he gasped.
We reminded him that he had seen alligators at Gatorland, but it was a whole different experience to see the alligators in the wild. Our tour guide told him that we were safe, and slowly he began to inch his neck out a little further to take a look. When we got back to shore, Zachary said, "I can't wait to tell my friends I saw WILD alligators in Kissimmee!" We assured him that he had been very brave.
Too soon, it was time to go home. As we packed at the hotel, Zachary turned to me. "Dad," he said, "this is the best time I ever had."
And just like that, I had become Dad. Such a simple word, said so casually, and yet it was huge for me. My heart filled and I looked over at Mary, she had a tear in her eye and a smile. Her hand reached over to squeeze mine. With a nod, we acknowledged the moment's importance. Zachary, my son, in the background, packing and unaware.
My wife and I subsequently had two more sons, and we have kept vacations as an essential part of our family life. Best of all, the tradition is continuing. Now our three sons are grown and have families of their own, and we still vacation together.
It's always a topic, deciding on our next grand adventure. Somewhere we've never been? Somewhere we love to visit over and over? Often, we reminisce about that memorable trip to Kissimmee that set the tone for generations. I'm so grateful that my sons still want that experience of being together and spending time as a family.
Right now, I'm looking at a photo of us on vacation and recalling that first trip to Kissimmee, where we found so many affordable, fun things to do outside the theme park. Who would have guessed it's where we would become a family?