GRAB THE GUSTO

GRABBING THE GUSTO
Florida – 1999

“I have to come with you, Daddy.” Jeff’s ten-year-old daughter was dancing on her tiptoes at the news of her father’s upcoming conference in Orlando.  “Disneyworld is, like, the coolest place on the planet.”
“Honey, it’s for work and Mom can’t take time off.”
Jeff phoned me.  “Ever thought about the Florida theme parks?”
“In summer?  No way.”  Leah was more persuasive than her father.  We’d all stay with a friend of the family.  “It would be SO fun,” she crooned.  Leah and I flew to Orlando and our first day, rose at five.  Leah was set to “Swim with the Dolphins” at Seaworld, scheduled for the hour before the park opens. Dad’s conference was over and he had some free time.
While participants struggled into wetsuits, Jeff and I found seats at the show pool. The dolphin gate opened.  A powerful carnivore, the size of a great white shark, swam over to Leah’s group right on cue.
Dad looked nervous but this was under full control of a professional. Leah stroked the sides and shook the flippers of a friendly nine-foot female.  She gave the order and the dolphin made a great leap and fell back with a splash, then took a small fish reward.  It was a dream come true for this young dolphin lover.
We had the whole day at Seaworld, starting with the Atlantis roller coaster.  My heart thumped as the car poised atop a near vertical drop.  Gravity took over and we whooshed screaming into a shallow pool where everyone got wet.   As we climbed out I was still shaking with fear.  We all had milkshakes, to calm down.
High point of the afternoon was the killer whale show.  The orcas draw a huge crowd.  Amazing tricks are topped off by antics of big daddy Shamu.  On cue, he splashed the first 15 rows of spectators with freezing water, using one whale of a tail.  That set the audience screeching – either from shock, or the pure joy of cooling off.  Sitting near the back, we missed out on the big shower but ice cream cones made up for it.
Disneyworld was the next day, then MGM-Disney studios, a theme park glorifying Hollywood’s extravagance.  “Main Street” evoked Los Angeles in the fifties. Leah, the roller coaster connoisseur, planned on doing every ride in the place.
We waited 45 minutes for the Tower of Terror, a haunted Hollywood hotel from the Twilight Zone. Your group sits on benches in a big box supposed to be the hotel freight elevator, bodies held tight behind padded bars.
The elevator rises higher and higher.  At the 13th floor, it jerks along a spooky hallway where ghosts and electric phenomena twist and dance to weird music.  At the end of the hall there’s nothing between you and a view over the whole park.  The elevator drops a couple of stories, rises again and “falls” 13 floors.
We were screaming so hard, we hardly felt the soft stall.  I sighed with deep relief.  “It’s over.”
“No it’s not.”  Leah was right.
Up went the elevator.  Again.  Heart racing, I was terrified we wouldn’t survive another free-fall.  We dropped all 13 stories. I was still screaming, and Jeff and Leah were still laughing at me, minutes after the final landing.   “What doesn’t kill you, makes you strong,” Jeff said.  I had some fries to calm down.
Another long wait and we buckled into a little car in the disco-dim inner sanctum of the Rockin’ Roller Coaster. “This is going to be fun,” Leah announced.
Rowdy fifties rock music blared at 120 decibels. Our car accelerated, zero to sixty in 2.3 seconds then spun upside down.  My scream stuck in my throat.  It got faster.  We flipped through a series of spiral rolls and inverted turns.  It got louder.  I held on, white knuckles tight, desperate to keep down my food. We barreled down a dark chamber of hot neon and flashing lights.
On and on and on — it was torture beyond comprehension, terror, agonizing and without end — at least a full minute’s worth.
Finally, the car stopped.  Dazed and all shook up, knees weak from adrenalin, with Leah and Jeff holding on to me, I staggered out into the daylight and took a deep breath.
“That was cool,” Leah said, dancing her exuberance.  “Let’s do it one more time, Daddy.”  They rode twice more.  I sat in the shade, swearing off all forms of intense mind-warping insanity, forever.
As the day unfolded, I realized I was not a coward but a heroic ride survivor, a woman of courage.  I could handle just about anything.  When you’ve lived through the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, whatever else a theme park, or ordinary life, throws at you is just kids’ stuff.

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