16 Jan

Where does it go? Time, I mean. Of course I mean time. Because that is the thing that is constantly escaping us. It was just here a minute ago. My youth. My childrens’ innocent childhood. But it slips past me at such an alarming rate I sometimes have trouble catching my breath. “But, wait!” I want to cry. “Slow down. I have stuff to do here. Stuff. I don’t even know what it is, but it’s stuff I have to do. Now. Before. While the kids are little. While I’m young.” But it’s gone. In the blink of an eye. Seven years have passed. Six years have passed. Four more. They grow up. I get old. And all that stuff goes undone.

Today is my middle daughter’s birthday. She, who is only 16 months younger than her older brother, and only 21 months older than her younger sister, is now 6 years old. Geez. How the heck did that happen? She already acts like a teenager, so I presume it makes sense for her to be creeping ever closer to an age when that behavior will be appropriate, if still not appreciated. But it boggles my mind to say it. I was asked several times today how old my children are. They’re 7, 6, & 4, I would say. Those ages just tripping lightly off my tongue, but inducing a mild confusion in my brain. Huh? They’re 7, 6, & 4?? Who is? My kids? Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s weird though, I could have sworn they were a lot younger than that.

Because of the school holiday today and tomorrow (thank you St. Johns County public schools!), I decided that what we needed, far more than the requested Barbie-themed party, was a road trip to celebrate Harper’s birthday. Just a mini-road trip to take advantage of the long weekend without breaking the bank. Something we could all enjoy and remember far longer than a birthday party. (Point of fact, when asked what we did for her birthday last year, Harper could not remember. We had a birthday party. At Ollie Koala’s. She had fun, sure, but she couldn’t even remember it a year later. See why I wanted to avoid throwing money at another party?) Anyway, I’ve taken the kids to Orlando, and even as far as Tampa, for simple change-of-scenery overnights before, but this needed to be something bigger. A destination. The Orlando theme parks were out, even Sea World, because with a three-on-one child-to-parent ratio, riding rides is impossible. At least at this age/size where I’ve got two who aren’t typically big enough to ride anything without me, and most rides are only two seats across. So I needed an exciting destination, within striking distance of home, for a two night road trip.

Anyone else see the movie Dolphin Tale? Yes, the one about the dolphin who lost her tail and learned to swim with a prosthetic. Well, that is based on a true story. She might not have befriended a troubled little boy named Sawyer, nor been rehabbed by a sexy marine biologist like Harry Connick, Jr., but there really is a tail-less dolphin named Winter. And she lives at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida. Clearwater is just a smidge past Tampa, so adding the extra overnight, I call that striking distance.

Today, Harper’s true birthday, we had a really full and wonderful day. Whenever we celebrate birthdays at home, I decorate the kid’s doorway with streamers and have balloons & cards at the breakfast table. Couldn’t manage the helium, but taking a friend’s suggestion, I brought along some regular balloons and blew them up after the kids went to sleep. Scattered those around the floor of the hotel room and even hung streamers between the beds and the sitting area. Laid presents and cards on the table in front of the couch. So when she woke this morning, Harper immediately got into the birthday spirit. Our first stop was Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure. A movie-based exhibit, including set pieces and props, in downtown Clearwater. It was cute and interesting, especially the videos and exhibits related to the role Hander Prosthetics had in Winter’s story, but mostly the kids were ready to go see the animals. So after a brief stop in the gift shop (where we, of course, purchased a copy of the movie), we headed over to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It was completely packed! I guess going on a national holiday was not the brightest move, but it was my only option. And really the crowd was fine, it’s just that the facility is not meant for that kind of volume, so traffic flow is restricted and it can be a little challenging to keep track of three curious little kids. Since the popularity of the movie, their attendance rates have exploded. And good for them. They are, first and foremost, a marine rehabilitation facility. And these crowds are enabling them to make structural enlargements to the CMA, and expand their rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

Once we made it in the door, which was made easy by the fact I pre-purchased our tickets online and checked us in for everything at Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, we went straight upstairs to see Winter. She was just swimming around in  one of her tanks. It truly is amazing. A dolphin with no tail. So odd. But you wouldn’t know it unless you looked at her backside. Or her peduncle – just a little dolphin vocab word I learned today, makes me sound so knowledgable, dontcha think? But while Winter is surely the most famous of the permanent residents at CMA, she is by no means the only one. We checked out the numerous sea turtles, manta rays, and other dolphins. Hope is just a baby, and we watched a rather unsuccessful training session with her. Panama is Winter’s friend and co-habitates in her tank, so we watched a very successful training session/photo op with her. And then we saw Nicholas, the only male dolphin at CMA, make a big splash with his jumps and frolicking behaviors. Of course, if you’re wanting a big choreographed show, then you should stop driving in Orlando and hit Sea World. But what these “shows” lacked in razzle dazzle, they made up for in authenticity. They truly were training sessions, and in the case of Winter, therapy sessions.

In addition to exploring the aquarium, we also took the Sea Life Safari Cruise. Just a little 90 minute pontoon boat ride, out and back in the Intracoastal. Not quite everything it was advertised to be, but fun nonetheless. They took us out to one of the spoils islands were the kids could run around collecting shells and soaking in the sunshine and salt air. They pulled a net, took some scientific notations, then walked around showing off some of the fish and crabs that had come up in the net. I was hoping to see some wild dolphin at play, but we had no such luck. Of course, nothing could have rivaled the wild dolphin show my kids were treated to the last time we were out on a small boat off Cedar Key, so I wasn’t too disappointed about our missing out today.

We rounded out our day by allowing the birthday girl to select a place for dinner. I’m not upset that she chose Maggiano’s. In fact, I’m feeling rather stuffed since we basically just skipped lunch today and snacked our way, unhealthily I might add, through the day. A true sit-down dinner was a treat. And when we finally made it to our hotel room, I let the kids kind of unwind, exploring the accoutrement of the room, before turning out the light. And as I was finally hustling them under the covers, I found the note that Harper had written, for her own gratification, on the hotel note pad. It simply said, “The trip has been amazing from so far.” I call that a birthday success.

Overall, I would have to give our trip to Clearwater a big thumbs up. My kids loved running around Clearwater Beach last night. The soft, sugar-sand is so different from our crushed shell beaches at home. And the huge dunes were just made for exploring. Add to that the amazing playground right in front of Pier 60 and you’ve got the recipe for some very happy children. I’m even wishing we had hit the beach a little earlier in the afternoon. At one point last night as we were on the pier looking out at the water, Beau looked up at me and said, “Do you wish you were on a boat far out to sea?” Sneaky little mind reader. I was, in fact, pondering how nice it might be, on that breezy night, to be out on a sailboat. As I took his hand and looked down into his inquisitive face, I smiled and said, “Yes. I would like to be on a boat far out to sea. But I’d want you to be with me.”

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