Weekending: Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Pulse Vigil

Vigil at Lake Eola

Linking up with B Loved Boston for Weekending – it would be weird to put linkup stuff at the end of this post, so sticking it here instead!

I feel a little weird combining things like Disney World and a candlelight vigil in one blog post and considered splitting them up, but then I realized – wow, that’s life. There’s often no space between the highs and the lows, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to come your way next. The best you can do is really enjoy and appreciate the good, and do your best to “just keep swimming” through the bad.

OMG, I’ve been back in Orlando a week and I’m already quoting the Finding Nemo musical. I’m such a Disney nerd.

Speaking of which! On Friday my friend Megan and I hit my 2nd favorite Disney park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We had Fast Passes for Festival of the Lion King, Kilimanjaro Safari, and a meet & greet with Mickey & Minnie that morning, after which we had to run back at her house because a new fridge was being delivered. (YAY! The old fridge died while we were in Vero Beach, so we had to bravely drink all the wine and live on non-refrigerated stuff for a few days.)

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Festival of the Lion King is my FAVORITE stage show at Disney, and definitely up there among my favorite attractions in general. I still want to be the snake when I grow up.

 

 

You can find more videos of the show over on my Instagram!

I was surprised to see that they had renamed the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail to Gorilla Falls. There are so many little changes since I left, things other people might not even notice (front desk cast members at Wilderness Lodge got new costumes! There’s new carpet in the hallways at the Beach Club! They replaced the reticulated giraffes on the safari with Masai giraffes!), but that keep stopping me in my tracks to be all “Heyyyy! When did THAT happen?”

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I felt like this gorilla and I had similar life philosophies.

We’d kind of been hoping it would rain during our safari, since that tends to change up the animal activity, but the rain stopped a bit before our Fast Pass time. We still got to see plenty of animals, including that time we were totally stalked by giraffes.

Got stalked by a giraffe today, like ya do. #DisneysAnimalKingdom #giraffes #massaigiraffe #dak #kilimanjarosafari

A video posted by Crystal Ward (@crystalward11) on


dak-treeObviously had to break out the Snapchat for fun filtery photos!

One thing I love about Harambe at Animal Kingdom is the rare chance to practice my Swahili. (Yes, I speak a LOT of languages very badly.) Any time I see or hear something I can’t quite understand, I snap a pic and look it up later.

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This roughly translates to “Every door has its key”.

Last night was the vigil at Lake Eola for the Pulse shooting victims. It was so much bigger than I expected – the report is that around 50,000 people turned up. There was so much love around that lake,  you guys.

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My friend Todd, who I lost a few years ago, was a funeral director. He always talked about loving his job so much because although there was sadness, what he saw more than anything was love. He saw families and friends come together to hug and reminisce and talk about how much they loved someone. That’s exactly what I saw last night. Yes, the reason we were all there was incredibly sad. But what I saw was love. I saw pretty much every race, religion, and sexual orientation represented. I saw more love and acceptance and hugs than you could imagine fitting into a little lakeside park. I saw love everywhere I looked, and it was unbelievably beautiful.

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We built a pulse symbol from 49 candles.

One moment that hit pretty much everyone there right in the feels was this:

Rainbow over Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando during vigil for the Pulse shooting victims

Minutes before the official start of the event, a giant rainbow popped up over the lake. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the night. I don’t even have words for how cool and serendipitous it was.

You can find more photos of the vigil on Facebook.

Back when I worked at Disney, I worked with a guy that was so much like me (to the point that we discovered we lived in the same apartment complex and drove the same car) that we adopted each other and he became my little brother. That beautiful person who I chose as family is now my little sister, and I was proud to walk beside her as she carried her transgender flag around the lake last night. We went out for drinks with a couple of her awesome friends after the event was over, and ended up dancing to cheesy pop songs and throwback 80s and 90s music at I-Bar until after 2 am. It was so good to share the night both with someone I love so much and new people I was blessed to meet.  We shared a lot of hugs and laughs and tears and screamed out Beyonce lyrics.

Not gonna lie, there was a moment as we were dancing around to lighthearted music, wrists covered in rainbows of glow stick bracelets waving in the air, lyrics we’d forgotten we knew being sung into the night, when I realized that this was exactly what the people at Pulse were doing when the shooting happened. They were out having fun with friends and family, dancing carefree late into the night, until they weren’t. I had to stop for a moment and look at our little circle of love – gay, straight, bi and trans – and think about how all we could do was keep dancing, keep celebrating life and friendship and love and acceptance, for those who are no longer here to dance with us.

We remember them.

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Friday Favorites – Florida Edition

I’ve only been Orlando for a week now, and it’s crazy how much has happened in that short span of time! I have so many posts coming up about my travel adventures, I just need a nice chunk of free tie to actually write them!! Until then, here are a few favorites from the past week or so:

1. The way the community has come together after Saturday night’s tragedy. Lines to donate blood stretched on for blocks, so many fundraisers have been organized, there are vivils being held in pretty much every neighborhood (I’m going to one Sunday night), and even billboards popped up along the interstate literally overnight. What happened is unspeakably horrible, but as Mr Rogers said, “look for the helpers”. I’ve seen so much love and desire to help out in any way possible this week.  That’s love.

The #OrlandoEye, lit in #rainbow colors. 💜 #OrlandoStrong #Orlanfo

A photo posted by Crystal Ward (@crystalward11) on

 

2. If you follow my personal Twitter, you know I have a big ol’ nerd crush on MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. (“Big” is definitely an understatement there.) When I found out he was flying down to Orlando on Monday morning to broadcast live from a location close to Pulse that evening, there was no question that I’d be doing whatever I could to at least go say hi. It’s a good thing I’m determined and stubborn as hell, because making it happen was an endeavor. Every single street was blocked off by police cars, and there were media vans everywhere.

I parked at the ginormous Target since it has a parking garage where I was pretty sure my car would be safe and pulled up walking directions on my phone. I was only about 1/2 mile away from where Chris was going to be filming, but even walking wasn’t possible in a lot of areas due to filming in progress. It took about a mile of walking in 90+ degree FL heat and humidity, drawing upon that ever important skill of walking quickly with purpose and looking like you totally know where you’re going and belong there, but I made it. I didn’t have the best view, but I could actually see him every now and then.

He knew I was there thanks to the wonder and beauty of Twitter, so moments after he finished that night’s show, this happened:

 

Yes, I know that photo of me could appear next to the term “derp” in a dictionary, but OMG HE IS SO BEAUTIFUL I COULD NOT EVEN. I would have happily chatted with him for the rest of the night about news and politics and his upcoming 2nd book and how he got his eyes to be so freaking blue, but he had another live show to prepare for in just two hours, so after a few minutes of conversation I had to let him go. (I then proceeded to get totally turned around walking back to Target, because my brain had totally stopped functioning.)

Definitely NOT the circumstances under which I would have chosen to finally meet someone I’ve absolutely adored for almost 2 years, but timing is never perfect, and getting to meet him was such a nice break from the overwhelming sadness of that day.

 

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3. PUBLIX!

I don’t even want to add up how much I’ve spent at the best grocery store ever since I’ve been back in Florida. That black bean humus was amazeballs. Also addicted to the brownie pudding their deli makes. (I also got the Orlando City soccer shirt I’m wearing in the pic at the top of this post there for $14!)

 

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4. The creator of Welcome to Night Vale has a new podcast called Alice Isn’t Dead. I listened to the first 6 episodes on my drive to Florida, and it’s so good! And a lot of the storyline takes place on the road, so it’s perfect for a long drive.

5. Florida rainstorms. It rains almost every day here in the summer, which I’d kind of forgotten. It goes from zero to downpour in like a minute, rains like crazy for about ten minutes, and then stops as abruptly as it started. Then you get that glorious post-rain ozone smell, and everything is just kind of… refreshed. Plus, there’s usually seriously badass lightning involved.

Heading to Disney’s Animal Kingdom tomorrow, which I’m pretty excited for since I haven’t been in like 6 years! I miss my gorillas and Festival of the Lion King and everything else!!

Check out some of the other awesome Friday posts in these link-ups!

fri-favs Friday blog linkup 5-friday

Orlando

This isn’t the post that I planned to write today.

If you follow me on any social media, you probably know that I’ve been back in Orlando for a few days now. Today, my heart hurts so much for my city.

On Friday night, I went to see some friends play at the House of Blues, and came home to news that a singer who was on The Voice was shot over at the Plaza Theatre. I’ve seen so many shows at that theater. It was heartbreaking to see such a talented young lady’s life cut short at a place where I have so many memories.

Then there was last night.

I went to see another friend’s band, got home around 1:30,  collapsed into bed. Woke up around 7 to countless phone notifications. Turns out that shortly after I got home, the largest mass shooting in US history went down at Pulse, an Orlando night club. Over 50 lives lost, at least 50 more in the hospital. All because of one person who couldn’t deal with the idea of love that looked different from his definition of love.

I’ve already cried a lot of tears this morning. I’m trying not to focus on the anger I have towards these two people who have hurt my city so much. I’m trying to focus on how beautifully the community is coming together, how many people are turning up to donate blood. I’m focusing on the love.

Because until there’s a big shift in how we approach violence, tolerance, and so many other things, I feel like focusing on love is the best I can do.

Friday Favs – Middle of May

Happy Friday! We all survived another week! I say we deserve cookies & wine, don’t you?

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Here’s what I’m loving this week!

1. Perfect riding weather! It’s been in the 60s and 70s, so I got two good rides in since last Friday. It’s so nice to be able to get out and ride without freezing or sweating! Hoping to ride as much as possible while it lasts!

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This is from yesterday morning. I actually made it out of bed at 7:30 am to get in some riding time with a few barn ladies! Gambit and I are on the left.

2. Okay, I know this is a terrible photo, but I have to share my kind of genius invention with you guys.

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I found a pair of black petite, boot cut jeans at a thrift shop last month that I decided would make awesome cut-offs. (Ah, the joy of making shorts – no need to worry about the right length or cut!) After hacking off a good chunk from each pants leg, inspiration struck. What you see above is about 12″ from those jeans, folded n half and slipped over the jeans I was wearing to ride in. It makes the PERFECT phone holder while I ride!! I hate riding with my phone in my pockets – back pocket hits up against the seat of the saddle, front pocket isn’t very secure due to how my legs are bent. I tried putting my phone in a little bag attached to my saddle horn, but getting the phone in and out was super awkward.

My super fancy invention is rad because the slightly stretchy denin fits snugly enough around my thigh that I can just slip my phone in and it won’t go anywhere. And it’s just wide enough that about an inch of my phone sticks out the top, so grabbing it when I want to take a fast pic is easy. Plus, it’s a fairly large target to aim at when I’m ready to put my phone back in, which is helpful because it’s a law of nature that as soon as I pay attention to something like trying to put my phone away, my horse will do something dumb, so I like to be able to do so as fast as possible.

I’m a crafty genius, is basically the point I’m trying to make here.

3. I discovered this week that Dollar General has chocolate covered cashews for $2.35/can, and they’re actually good. I don’t want to question why they’re so cheap, I just want to stuff them all in my face.

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4. This is so true.

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5. Buzzfeed Yellow on Youtube has been doing Body Positivity Week. LOVE this one!

 

Linking up with these other fans of Fridays!
fri-favs 5-friday Friday blog linkup

Feeling Spoiled at Ameristar Kansas City

You know you’re totally on top of your blogging game when you’re writing about your February adventures in mid-May! I attended a horse convention/event/shindig thing in Kansas the end of February, and decided to spend a couple of nights in Kansas City on my way there, both to get in some relaxation and sightseeing, and to break up the drive a little bit. The absolutely awesome people at Pinnacle Entertainment, (who you might remember let me check out their River City Casino & Hotel in St Louis last year!) hooked me up with two nights at their Kansas City location, the Ameristar Casino Hotel. This place should totally be on your list of where to stay in Kansas City!

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I’m not a big gambler, but I love staying at casino hotels, and I think you’ll get why by the end of this post! Having my room, lots of dining options, as well as entertainment all under one roof is awesome, especially when I’ve been traveling all day and just want dinner & relaxation without having to find my way around a new city!

I asked on my blog’s Facebook and Twitter accounts just how many photos were TOO many when it came to a hotel post, and everyone who responded said there was no such thing as too many pics, so get comfy because I have a LOT to share! Let’s start with…

The Room:

You guys probably know that I’m a huge hotel nerd. I worked front desk and concierge for 7 years, with jobs ranging from a small independent 100 room hotel in Branson to Disney’s All Star Resorts, which comes in at over 5,000 rooms. Hospitality nerdiness aside, I just love a good hotel room! You get to step totally away from your usual life and relax in a beautiful, cozy little getaway that you don’t even have to clean yourself. Yes, please!

My contact at Ameristar went SO above and beyond this time – instead of the regular hotel room I was expecting, she got me an absurdly awesome King Suite that was larger than most apartments I’ve lived in!! (Actually, I just looked it up on their website – the Deluxe King Spa Suite is 1104 sq ft! So it IS bigger than any apartment I’ve ever lived in!!!) I only got lost in there a couple of times.

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Hello, kitchen!

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I love that all of this company’s hotel rooms come with free bottled water! These were so convenient to grab before I went out on adventures!

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Living room area. I had some glorious times on that sofa with pizza & cable news.

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I never got around to actually using the dining room area, but how awesome would this be for playing board games? DSC_1857

Yeah, I’d say that’s ample counter space for all of my makeup and skin care stuff! (Although there was actually a totally separate vanity with awesome lighting for doing makeup!)

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Is there any person alive who doesn’t love hotel soaps? That shampoo smelled awesome, btw.

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And, of course, the bedroom!

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You guys know I made excellent use of the bath robe and slippers!

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I arrived at the hotel just before sunset, so everything had a sort of dreamy pink and blue glow.

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My room had a ginormous wrap around balcony with a view of the Missouri River. 

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Yeah, I could get used to this!

Deluxe King Spa Suite

Oh, did I forget to mention the giant jetted tub? As soon as I saw this, I knew it was going to feel a-mazing after my horseback riding lesson the next afternoon!

Relaxation:

Between work and health stuff and taking care of my mom, I was SO READY for a couple of days to just hang out and relax!

One of the first things I did after arriving was run downstairs to purchase a pizza slice the size of my head and a decadent dessert, and then settle in on my sofa to watch larger-than-life Chris Hayes. 

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There is no vacation from my cable news obsession!

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Yes, I’m wearing my beloved “Socktopus” socks here. Because they are the best.

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No, for realsies, it was the size of my head. And only like $3.

The problem with working from home is that it’s hard for me not to work ALL the time. Just kicking back on the couch with pizza and TV is something I NEVER get to do! It felt totally indulgent. 

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And yes, that bath felt as great as it looked.

And I may have spent like 90% of my time in the room wearing these little slippers. Because vacation.

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I even had bonus relaxation for falling asleep! I went to stick my phone on the bedside iHome to charge while I slept and discovered that it was equipped with nature sounds! Happily fell asleep to gentle rain for the next 2 nights.

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Yes, I keep weird night owl hours no matter where I am. Don’t judge me.

Entertainment:

First, let’s discuss that this is what you see when you enter through the main Ameristar doors heading towards the casino:

Ameristar Kansas City lobby

Yes, that’s a train. No, it isn’t Platform 9 3/4. Yes, you’re indoors – the whole complex has a gorgeous painted sky ceiling.

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The actual casino is SO PRETTY, you guys. My photos don’t do it justice. But check out this big light…fixture? Ceiling thing? What do you even call this?

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This photo from Ameristar KC’s Instagram account captures the awesomeness way better than I did:

Pro tip: I’m the kind of person who carries a ginormous purse most of the time. I need room for my multiple notebooks and eighty thousand lip glosses and a spare pen or fifty. I have no desire to lug all that around a casino with me, though, so I brought this cute little bag that I picked up in Mexico for $5 several years ago:

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I tucked my room key, players club card, drivers license, and some cash inside to take downstairs to the casino with me. Way easier! And I just wore the bag’s strap across my chest like a crossbody style so I didn’t have to worry about it, since it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I spaced out and left behind a purse I had to remember to pick up any time I moved to a different slot machine!

I also discovered a new slot machine that I like. I think I only broke even, but the excited little bonus fish cracked me up, so it was worth it!

 

There’s plenty of non-casino entertainment here, too, though! Live music on some nights, an arcade for the kids (or big kids), and an on-site movie theatre! On my second night there, I took the opportunity to FINALLY see…

Movie Theatre Cinema Times

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Yesssss. If you’re keeping track, my Thursday included horseback riding, Star Wars, and cake. I have no idea how they ever got me to leave.

Eating All The Things:

Look, let’s just skip to the important stuff here.

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There’s a solid chance that I ate my weight in tasty things from the Falcon Bakery. But there were so many tempting looking things that I felt like it was my duty as a blogger to sample them for you! You know, in the name of research and journalistic integrity and all that. Right?
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I still have dreams about this passion fruit mousse dome thing.

Cheesecake on a stick

Cheesecake + chocolate + “on a stick” = Very yes.

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That chocolate mousse cake, though…

I’m guessing that a magical little Ameristar fairy Godmother saw my tweets about all of the desserts I was buying, because when I got back to my room after riding on Thursday, I had a note that I had a message at the front desk. When I got there, they handed me my “message”.

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Sorry I ate you, little birdie, but you were delicious!

One thing that I meant to check out but never got around to was Ameristar’s fancy fruit beers, which are available at their Amerisports Bar & Grill. (In the city of the KC Royals, you MUST have a sports bar!)

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Something for next time’s to-do list!

If you happen to be one of those people who can’t survive on pizza and cheesecake alone (weirdo), there are also plenty of “real” food options.

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There’s a steakhouse (above), a traditional buffet, a food court, a deli, you name it!

(Confession: I just had to take a break from writing this blog post to go make lunch. Writing about food makes me hungry!)

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Just me, or does Pearl’s Oyster Bar look like it was designed with being Instagrammed in mind?

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And, of course, room service! I had originally planned to order myself the big kids grilled cheese after riding, but ended up just doing pizza 2 nights in a row. Oops.

I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been super excited to get to Equifest that weekend, they may have had to literally drag me out of my room. I had cool horse stuff to do, though, so I waved goodbye to my awesome bathroom (literally…)

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…and set off towards Topeka. Definitely looking forward to staying at the Kansas City Ameristar Casino Hotel again the next time I’m in the area! I mean, did you SEE all of the desserts I didn’t get to sample yet??

If you’d like to learn more about Ameristar Kansas City so that you, too, can hang out eating cheesecake in bath slippers while trying to decide if you’re in the mood for a movie or some blackjack, you can find them on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and, of course, their website! You can also find my review of their gorgeous St. Louis area River Ctiy Casino & Hotel here! So much love to Ameristar for taking awesome care of me, and letting me hang out in this gigantic suite for 2 nights in exchange for sharing my experience with you guys!