Showdown at Sawgrass III

A rematch at TPC Sawgrass nine years in the making.

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater Seattle

For a hotel and Beatles junkie, this was pretty much as good as it gets.

Skagway and the Laughton Glacier Hike

Perhaps the most incredible day of my entire travel career.

My Top 8 Bucket List Golf Courses

After a year of incredible golf travel, it was time to revise the bucket list.

Arnie & Me

My brother is a pretty well traveled guy. He's marveled at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, gorged on tapas on Las Ramblas, shucked oysters fresh from Elliott Bay, and drained a birdie putt on #18 at Torrey Pines, among many other adventures. And yet, if you were to ask him his favorite place in the world, the Bay Hill Club & Lodge would be at, or very near, the top of the list.

Why Bay Hill? Simple.... Arnold Palmer.

Right smack in the middle of the theme park capital of the world lies The King's winter home for the last four decades, as well as the host of the PGA Tour event that bears his name. There's a distinct 1970's feel to the place from the moment you pass through the front gate. It's charming, unpretentious, and the polar opposite of its counterparts in Miami and Ponte Vedra. While the other members of the Florida Swing have spent millions on flashy new clubhouses and a continuous string of resort renovations, Bay Hill has simply remained what it always has been... A tribute to the man who made it all possible.

Over the last few years, my brother RJ and I have made a weekend at Bay Hill an annual tradition. Both of us would agree, for anyone that is passionate about this great game, The Lodge might possibly be the greatest hotel in the world. It is nothing short of an Arnold Palmer museum, and after several visits we still haven't come close to seeing all of the memorabilia.
My favorite picture in The Lodge... Arnie & Ike.

But it's not only the history.. There's something about being at Bay Hill that just feels.. comfortable. Almost like returning home. Be it the bleu cheese chips in Bay Window, the French Toast in the dining room, or the nightcap by the firepit outside of the clubhouse. Oh, and did I mention the shampoo? This stuff is so great, RJ gave me a year's supply for Christmas.

While my brother and I are unanimous in our approval of The Lodge, the actual golf course is a different story. He loves it. I hate it. Sorry Mr. Palmer, but it's true. No amount of nostalgia and history will change my mind. I could go on and on about how Bay Hill is the poster child for penal golf architecture, however I'll spare you the dissertation. Simply put, the course is just too damn hard.
Seriously.. What is fun about this?

The experience at The Lodge offsets most of this pain, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we didn't admit that what has really kept us coming back was the hope of meeting The King. For years all we've heard from staff and fellow guests was that from October thru April, Arnie is always at Bay Hill. After four visits between the two of us without a single sighting of Mr. Palmer, my brother decided to take matters into his own hands.

It started with a letter to Mr. Palmer's office in Latrobe, which somehow succeeded in both reaching his longtime assistant, Doc Griffin, and making it clear to him that we weren't desperate fanboys. The reply that came via email was a polite "We'll see what we can do, but don't get your hopes up." Still, this felt like progress..
My brother celebrating victory in The Showdown at Bay Hill II

In addition to sending the letter, RJ suggested that we plan the next Bay Hill outing on a weekday. The common denominator of all of our previous trips was that they were on a weekend. The thought was that perhaps Mr. Palmer made himself scarce over the weekends when the club was busy. The logic seemed sound, at least to this desperate fanboy.

We were joined on this trip by our good friend and member of our regular foursome, BV. My brother was stuck in an unfortunately timed meeting, so the plan was for BV and I to head down early for 9-holes and RJ would join us after work. For the first time ever, I arrived to Bay Hill hoping to not see Arnold Palmer... at least not until my brother arrived. If BV and I managed to meet Arnie and my brother didn't.. after all of his planning to make it happen.. I'd never live it down. RJ not being one to hold a grudge would be happy for us, but I'd never forgive myself.
The Showdown at Bay Hill I with our Dad.

We stopped by the front desk, headed straight to the dining room for a quick lunch and, of course, in walks The King....

BV and I sat somewhat paralyzed for the next few minutes as person after person stopped at Arnie's table to say hello. I was reluctant to do the same, not for fear of being rude by interrupting his lunch (which it was), but because I'd be doing so without my brother. Finally, BV made the hard sell...

"This could be your one and only chance. He'll be more pissed if you don't take it than if you do and he misses out."

He had a point... So I hatched a plan to head to the bathroom (my shirt was untucked and I had just eaten a burger, which I highly recommend) and as I returned, if and only if Arnie looked up as I passed would I stop. Again, part of me hoped he wouldn't notice, yet in the fog of the moment I had forgotten everything I'd observed over the last 10 minutes...

No one goes by Arnold Palmer's table without him noticing. He acknowledged each and every person that came by. From the Bay Hill members for which having lunch near him was just a regular Thursday afternoon, to our fellow starstruck guests asking him to sign their empty iced tea and lemonade bottles. As I rounded the corner toward the restaurant, The King and I locked eyes, and I think I managed to put together a few words about how much we enjoy Bay Hill.

"Well, enjoy!"

Success... Sort of.

We finished our meal, and The King did the same. A few minutes later, he took hold of the arm of his guest for lunch (Jimmy Roberts of NBC) and made his way, albeit slowly, out of the dining room.

As we made our way around Bay Hill's Charger 9, I couldn't help but wonder if BV was right. Would that be our one and only encounter? Surely, I hoped, my brother would get his chance...

After golf, BV and I sat in the Bay Window Lounge and enjoyed a beverage. Our plan was to meet RJ in the Men's Locker Room for a few hands of cards and cocktails before heading to dinner. On a whim, I decided to go survey the scene in the locker room first, thinking we may have been better off just staying where we were. I took one step inside and sure enough, there in the very first seat was Arnold Palmer...

Again, I tried to play it cool by pretending to be looking for someone who apparently wasn't there. I made a bee line back to BV, interrupted his conversation with an aspiring Tour pro, and told him we had to go. Back in the locker room, we set up shop at the table next to Arnie, and watched the door like a hawk, hoping with each time it opened that RJ would come walking through.

Roughly a dozen hands of gin and two cocktails later, still no sign. Arnie's glass was empty, time was running out... So I decided the time had come to let my brother in on the secret...

He made it... By now, BV and I were just totally accustomed to being in The King's presence, but RJ still had to work through the initial shell-shock that we'd experienced during lunch. Alas, this wasn't meant to be his moment. No more than 5 minutes after RJ arrived, Mr. Palmer shuffled out to his golf cart, and soon the Bay Hill locker room emptied.

My brother seized the moment.. He made friends with the bartender and struck up conversation with the guys who had been at Arnie's table, all of which led to an important question...

"If we're here at the same time tomorrow, what are our odds of shaking his hand and maybe a picture?

"100%"

Fast forward to the next afternoon, we returned to the locker room, greeted our new friend behind the bar, and tried to pretend as if we were there for any reason except meeting Arnold Palmer. We stuck out like sore thumbs.

A few minutes later, and right at the appointed time, Arnie walked in and sat down in his usual chair.

"OK gents, we're going to strike while the iron is hot," the bartender said as he delivered our drinks.... "Mr. Palmer, we have some guests here from Ocala that would like to say hello."



Perfection.

Let this be a lesson kids... Always get to know the club bartender.

We sat watching the golf on TV for a little while longer, before making our way to the door. Mr. Palmer said goodbye as we passed his table, and it was then that things felt a little heavy.  As exciting as the last hour had been, there was a distinct sadness in the air as my brother and I pulled away from Bay Hill. In one unforgettable moment, we had just said hello and possibly goodbye to a man who has done more for us through a lifetime in the game of golf than we could ever imagine. This wasn't about a picture. It was about saying thank you to a beloved member of the family whose time with us is running preciously short.

Long Live The King

Adventures with Uncle Deej - Christmas with Bug

The ability to spoil our niece and nephew when the opportunity presents itself is one of the most rewarding things in life for an aunt and uncle whose own children both have four paws. If Old Sport asked to go to the golf course during a freak Florida snowstorm, I'd probably go buy some winter clothes and take him. Likewise, if our niece, Bug, asked to go to Disney over the most mind-bogglingly busy time of year, we'd probably have her flight booked within the hour.

In this case, it was more like 12 minutes.

Because really, what self-respecting aunt and uncle is going to have the willpower required to say no to this Christmas list?...

The challenge with this particular adventure was one of timing... It all came together with just two weeks notice. That may not seem like much of an issue, but this is Disney... At Christmas... I didn't hold out much hope for a Fast Pass, let alone hotel and restaurant reservations. 

And yet, as he always does... The Mickster came through.

I managed to snag what may have been the last remaining room at Saratoga Springs for what I call "Chrstmas-Eve Eve." Not ideal, but who was I to complain.. It was a room, and if nothing else we'd have easy access to Disney Springs if Bug wanted to do some shopping. More on the shopping later...

But since I'd rather stay just about anywhere else than Saratoga, I kept checking.. and checking.. and checking. And then, there it was... Like a golden ticket in the Willy Wonka bar. The day before we were supposed to check-in, availability at Wilderness Lodge. 

While many will default and say the Grand Floridian is the most beautiful of the Disney resorts at Christmas time, Wilderness Lodge is, at worst, a very close second. It also made the logistics of the next two days exponentially easier...

That's because the mega-resort upgrade was really just score #4 on the string of good luck Mickey tossed our way. The next was a last-minute dinner reservation at Chef Mickey's... And instead of battling the Disney traffic, all we had to do was hop on a boat.

After giving our regards to the Chef, we walked over to Bay Lake Tower and paid a visit to the Top of the World Lounge. Yes, Aunt MJ and Uncle Deej needed an adult beverage after all of the Chef Mickey's hysteria, but it was the view of Wishes that we were really after...

The next morning - Christmas Eve - we made an early start of it. Not that we had much choice.. All 3 of us were awake at an ungodly hour recreating the famous "I'm too excited to sleep" commercial. 

This was my first time visiting the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Eve, and I'll fully admit that I was dreading the anticipated crowds. Being there early, however, gave us roughly an hour with a relatively empty park before the masses descended in full. We used the time to have a rather confusing discussion with Alice and the Mad Hatter. 

Next up... Breakfast with the gang from the Hundred-Acre Wood. Another last-minute score on this 36-hour Disney adventure. 

On our way to Frontierland, where we got soaked on Splash Mountain, we stopped and said hello to Chip & Dale. Naturally, they were quite enamored with Bug's old-school Polaroid camera, and couldn't resist the opportunity to connect with their inner Andre 3000.
"Shake it like a Polaroid picture."

As if scoring last-minute reservations at Wilderness Lodge, Chef Mickey's and Crystal Palace wasn't enough, we tossed in one more for good measure... Lunch at Be Our Guest. We all split a Grey Stuff cupcake, and yes, it is delicious..

After lunch, the crowds had officially reached the you-have-to-be-out-of-your-mind-to-get-in-that-line status. Thankfully, we had one last Fast Pass to burn...

Earlier in the day, Bug said she wanted to ride Haunted Mansion, so we navigated our way that direction only to discover a 90 minute wait. And yet, she was undeterred. I could feel my soul sinking with every step we took toward the back of the line - which was no where near the 90 minute sign - and decided it was time to make a deal...

"Bug, I know you really want to ride Haunted Mansion, but I will add $50 to your souvenir budget to spend on anything you want if you don't make me get in this line."

Worked like a charm. Let's go shopping....

Finally, the sun was setting on both Disney and this adventure, but there was still one thing I promised Bug we would do...
Ride a boat over a road.

Back home, as I swiped through the photos from the day, I felt like a 12 year old kid - anxious to plan Bug's next trip so we could do it all over again. And while this adventure may have come to an end, the memories still kept on coming...

Enjoy Your Stay

Adventures with Uncle Deej - Old Sport's First Cruise

For the better part of a decade, maybe more, my family tossed around the idea of taking a cruise together. Well, by "tossed around" I mean a bon voyage message from my Dad every time MJ and I were due to set sail - you know, the kind that yields a slight twinge of guilt - something along the lines of "One day we're all gonna take one together." For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was our overcrowded cruising calendar, we were just never able to make it happen. That is until one day when my Dad asked about a particular cruise the week of Thanksgiving. Wouldn't you know it, MJ and I were already booked on the exact same itinerary...
Thumbs up for "The Big Ship"
After ironing out a few details, it was official: the long awaited family cruise was really happening. And so began the 6 person pre-cruise-text-thread between my Dad, Mom, brother, sister-in-law, MJ and myself.

On a side note, have you ever been a part of a 6 person, all-family text thread for 7 months? Yeah, I, um, highly recommend it.

Of course, aside from all the digital family bonding, the biggest benefit for yours truly in all of this was that I'd get to cruise with my nephew, Old Sport. From the start, this cruise promised to be a memorable one, but it was also guaranteed to be very different than any we'd taken to date.

For example...

The approximate time between parking the car to parking my keester in a comfortable chair onboard is usually about 12 minutes. When you're traveling with 4 other adults, plus a 3 year old with more luggage than the rest of us combined, that time stretches to roughly 48 excruciatingly long minutes.
Dad had the right idea.
By this time I've also usually identified and made friends with the only bartender on the ship who can make a proper old fashioned. But that task would have to wait, there was putt-putt to be played...

The best time of any cruise is always the cast-off, and if its available we usually enjoy it from the heli-pad at the very front of the ship. It's usually pretty empty and gives the best vantage point. It also gives a kid plenty of space to run around and burn off the pent up energy from the stupid muster drill.

Another benefit of this spot is it allows you to look up and watch the activity on the bridge. And if you have a cute kid in tow, you may even get the captain to salute you with a short honk of the horn.
video

And so it continued for the next 5 days. Normal routines were tossed out the window in favor of whatever idea popped into Old Sport's head. For instance... 

Instead of quiet time in the Solarium with a book, I made my first visit to the main pool and dodged waterfalls.

Rather than burning $20's at the roulette table, we visited the air hockey table.

Did I mention that we played putt-putt?

While I play the role of the jaded cruiser quite well, this cruise managed to teach me plenty of new things. Such as...

There's no rule against having escargots for dessert.

On sea days, the winds are perfect for flying.

Bingo is a lot harder than I remembered it.

The duty free liquor shop is also known as the "Chip Store."

Ice cream cones are not for sharing.

Balancing a spoon on your nose is perfectly acceptable in the main dining room.

Above all else, I learned that family cruises are chocked full of memories.
Hopefully the first of many.

OK, sappy moment over. Never stop for the welcome aboard photo...

Enjoy Your Stay

Adventures with Uncle Deej - Old Sport Turns Three

"The most wholesome 'guys weekend' in the history of the world."

For most, the phrase "guys weekend" conjures images of a trashed hotel suite in Las Vegas or a naked Ken Jeong wielding a tire iron. On the opposite end of the spectrum... One and 3/4 adults taking a 3 year old to Disney World. It's safe to say the days of my brother and I climbing to the top of Caesar's Palace with a bottle of Jaegermeister are long gone, not to mention that nobody is going to mistake either of us for Brad Cooper. And yet this recent trip to the Happiest Place on Earth turned out to be the most fun, eye-opening, and memorable "guys weekend" that I've ever experienced.

We made an early start of it and arrived at "The Big Hotel - also known as the Walt Disney World Dolphin - before McDonald's had stopped serving breakfast. It didn't take long for me to realize this would be very different than my usual - read: childless - trips to Disney.

It was right about now that I questioned my ability to adapt to these unfamiliar circumstances. The words "Uncle Deej, I have to potty" are enough to send me into a mild panic. Pushing a stroller through the Magic Kingdom was simply inconceivable. But addressing that fear would have to wait... The Dolphin's pool was first on our itinerary.

After a hearty lunch of french fries, mac & cheese, and a chocolate chip cookie, we piled back into the car for a trip to my favorite hotel in the world... "The Temporary." Our plan was to rent two of the water sprite boats for a ride on Seven Seas Lagoon, but after Old Sport laid eyes on the monorail we had to call an audible. A short ride aboard Monorail Red later, we arrived at the Grand Floridian and headed for their marina.

Admittedly, I didn't fully think through the water sprite idea. In my excitement to introduce Old Sport to one of my favorite activities at Disney, I failed to take into account one crucial detail... It was 112 degrees outside. He was about as excited to be on that boat as sitting for a formal family portrait, so we cut the ride a little short and decided to enjoy another one of my beloved past times....

The hotel lobby.

I tried to convince him that sitting in a comfy chair in a hotel lobby was a blast, but he wasn't buying it.

Fully recovered from our water sprite misadventure, we climbed back aboard Monorail Red for the short trip to the Magic Kingdom. As luck would have it, we walked through the turnstiles and onto Main Street USA just in time for the 3:00 parade. Old Sport was beside himself with excitement to see his favorite characters up close...

Little did he know that we'd be visiting the man himself just a few minutes later. That is, after his dad and I found a little liquid courage at Starbucks.

The Mickster said he was glad to see him - I still find the talking Mickey to be a little freaky - and he was nice enough to give Old Sport his first Disney character autograph. And with that, regardless of what else happened on this day, our trip was officially a success.

And yet it was far from over...

We hung out with Pooh and Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood...

And took a ride on my personal favorite, the PeopleMover.

He drove his first car at the Tomorrowland Speedway...

Practiced his handstand in Fantasyland...

And searched, unsuccessfully, for Chip & Dale in Liberty Square.

This trip to the Magic Kingdom taught me a very important lesson when it comes to travel with little kids.... You just never know when the best memories are going to be made. For example...

We booked Mickey's Philharmagic as a filler attraction between seeing the Mickster and the race cars. It turned out to be the highlight of my weekend. From Old Sport yelling "HEY!" at the top of his lungs when Simba came on the screen, to his proclamation at the end of "Uncle Deej...I saw Aladdin" in a tone which really said "Trust me dude, this is a big deal." I'm not sure if future visits to Philharmagic will ever be as great, but I do know I'll drag him to it until he's 37 in hopes of repeating this special time.

After a whirlwind 12-hour, no-nap day, we made our way back to the car. Or at least we tried to... Old Sport wasn't too keen on the idea of leaving.

So I did what any self-respecting uncle would do... I bribed him with french fries.

And then the next morning we were back at it once again, beginning with my most sacred of morning routines at Disney... The stroll over to the Swan for coffee. Note: They have the best cold brew iced coffee this side of the Mason Dixon.

Inside the Swan, we surprised Old Sport with the two words every kid loves to hear, whether 3 or 34.... Character Breakfast.

While I detest the phrase "hidden gem" the Garden Grove at the Swan is the very definition of one. Not only do they have great characters - Chip & Dale, Pluto, and Goofy - but they are first come first serve only. We walked up at 8:45am and were taken straight to a table. Try doing that at Chef Mickey's. 

Luckily, Old Sport's meal was free because, and I quote... "I don't want to eat. I just want to see my friends."

I couldn't really blame him. 

We had finally reached the dreaded part of the trip when that awful reality sets in... It was time to go home. The greatness of this "guys weekend" had been exceeded only by the number of memories my brother and I would take from it. Neither of us wanted to break the sad news to Old Sport, so we squeezed in one more stop before heading home...
video

"The best playground ever." 

Old Sport's third birthday brings with it a looming milestone for any family as obsessed with Disney as we are... With the turn of the calendar, his days of visiting Mickey's kingdom for "free" are officially over. But as for his adventures with Uncle Deej and Mickey... Well, we're only just getting started.

Happy Birthday, Old Sport