I get to travel a couple of times a year to a variety of destinations. It’s frequent enough to satisfy my wanderlust, but not so often that I get overly annoyed with the airlines.
On a recent occasion, I was privileged to accompany three young men from Hillsboro High School on an excursion to Orlando, Fla., for the Technology Student Association’s national competitive convention.
I have been to a couple of these events before as an assistant sponsor and chaperone, but I had never been the only adviser/sponsor.
By way of explanation, Creigh Bell, the true TSA adviser and technology instructor for HHS, was not available this year to make the trip. So, I was asked to take his place for this year’s nationals. As a firm believer in the educational value of TSA, I was happy to oblige. Besides, travel is always a good topic for a column.
As is typical when flying east out of Wichita, we boarded a Delta Airlines jet. As is also typical, we were routed through Atlanta, home of the self-proclaimed busiest airport in the world.
I always try to arrange flights through the peach capital with a couple of hours of layover. But, to be honest, the pedestrian traffic seems to be flowing more smoothly there these days. I hardly saw anyone running to make a connection, at least on our way out to Florida. Coming home was a different story. An explanation will follow later.
The flight from Atlanta to Orlando is only about an hour. I found it amusing that attendants brought out the drinks and snacks for such a short jaunt. We barely had time to down our sodas and mini-pretzels before we had to discard our trash and prepare for landing.
I had not been in Florida for about 18 years, so I was not totally ready for the oppressive humidity that accosted us as we left the airport. Several times during the five days we were in the sunshine state, I emerged from an air-conditioned building or car to have my eyeglasses immediately fog over.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon with the intention of taking an educational sightseeing trip to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral before the convention officially kicked off. We arranged for a rental car and took off for the Atlantic coast. The expressway through and out of Orlando is booby-trapped with many tollbooths, but they did not hinder us in the least.
I was told by the rental car agent to simply drive through as if I possessed a pass. He said the cameras would take a photo of the license plate, which was not connected to me, and the bill for the tolls would be sent to the agency. Even though I paid $2 per day for the privilege of passing through without tossing coins in the basket, I somehow felt like a criminal.
If you ever find yourself in the Orlando area, the boys and I highly recommend a trip to Merritt Island, the location of the sprawling complex that is Kennedy Space Center. The center covers a whopping 219 square miles, so this is not a walking tour.
Upon our arrival, we were told the buses for the two-hour ride around the site left about every 15 minutes. So, being somewhat limited on time, we took our places in line right away.
One of my goals for the trip was to see an alligator in its natural element. Fewer than five minutes into the bus ride, we spotted a small gator in a canal on the side of the road.
Our bus driver informed us that only about 6,000 of the 140,000 acres of the island is used by NASA. The rest is a huge wildlife sanctuary, where all types of birds, reptiles, fish and mammals reside. We spotted several alligators, a wild hog and even a couple of sharks.
One of our guides pointed out a bald eagle’s nest the size of a king-sized bed. It has been in continuous use by the birds for 40 years, according to our guide. Each pair of eagles adds to the nest each season.
I was impressed by the shear size of the space center. The launch pads are actually several miles apart and a considerable distance from the area where the rockets are assembled. The timing of our visit was a bit of a good news, bad news situation for us.
The bad news, it turns out, was that a new exhibit, featuring a display of the space shuttle Atlantis, was set to open the next day. So, we missed that opportunity. The good news, however, was that the grounds were crawling with astronauts. On one leg of our bus tour, astronaut Curtis Brown, a veteran of several shuttle missions and a member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, hopped on with us and narrated the rest of the tour. There isn’t space here to list all of his accomplishments. That’s what Wikipedia is for. He shook hands with all of us and hung around for photos with anyone who wanted one.
Because we were pressed for time, we only had about an hour to spend at the beach, but the three Kansas boys and I frolicked in the Atlantic for a bit at a place called Jetty Park before heading back to Orlando. As we were making our way back through the swamp, all four of us agreed the trip to KSC was well worth the time, expense (tickets are about $50 each) and energy it took to make the drive.
The next day, the competitive events began at the conference. One of the young men, Erich Herbel, was entered in three contests: dragster design, flight endurance and structural engineering. Garrett Foster entered a dragster, and Chase Meisinger was Herbel’s partner in structural engineering. All three will be seniors at HHS this fall.
Herbel was the big winner of the group with a trifecta of top-10 finishes. He and Meisinger finished third in their event, having built a structure that supported about 190 pounds. They received a substantial trophy for their efforts.
Herbel’s car, a co2-powered model that weighed 40 grams and completed the 80-foot drag strip in under one second, placed in the top 10 out of 130 contestants. His rubber-band-powered airplane model also finished in the top 10. Foster’s dragster fell just short of qualifying for the final round.
Keep in mind that the TSA member schools are not separated by classification according to size. So, our boys were up against some huge districts out of Texas, California, Pennsylvania and Washington, to name a few. There was also a team from Turkey and one from Germany.
Besides the thrill of doing well in competition, our little group also had the opportunity to spend some time at Universal Studios Orlando. We rode some monstrous roller coasters; I mean that literally.
Right away after we walked through the gate, I was talked into riding The Hulk, a gigantic, twisting, roaring behemoth of a coaster. Regular readers of this column (both of you) will recall my bout with vertigo a couple of years ago. I had not been on a roller coaster since. I still get a bit dizzy when the dentist leans me back in the chair, so I was mostly concerned about the number of high-speed inversions this ride included. I decided this would be a test my level of recovery. I am happy to report I survived unscathed.
We decided to skip the Jurassic Park ride because people were being soaked by water on that one and opted instead for the newest attraction, featuring Harry Potter’s adventures.
Unfortunately, the expected wait time was 75 minutes. So, we entered the gift shop to assess our options. We met a “wizard” there who let us in on a key secret. If we didn’t mind our group being split up, we could get in the “singles” line, reported to be much quicker.
Even though I am married (ha, ha), we took his sage advice, and we were on the most popular ride in all of Florida in fewer than 10 minutes. We also successfully used this method on the Transformers ride.
I don’t know exactly how to describe these attractions. They are hybrid of roller coaster, I Max theater and high-tech rock concert. The “singles” trick allowed us to see more of the park, but we were again hampered by lack of time. It would take a couple of days to do Universal justice.
The conference was so much more than what I have described here, but as I was often telling people, “Hey, I’m just an English teacher,” so this writing kind of hits the non-technical highlights.
On our last day, we headed for the Orlando airport early, only to be greeted by the news that our flight was delayed by mechanical problems. I guess it’s better to know that before you get on the plane. But, that meant we were being pushed on our layover time in Atlanta.
When the second delay was announced, we knew we were in real trouble as our plane was projected to land about the time we were supposed to be boarding our next flight to Wichita.
A Delta rep suggested we “stand by” for an earlier flight, but the outlook seemed bleak.
Another trio from Valley Center had the same itinerary. The adviser, former HHS instructor Mickey Harvey, and his two students, were also on the list. Fortunately, we were able to be seated on the early flight. There were exactly four seats left.
Unfortunately, that left the Valley Center group to take the twice-delayed flight about one-half hour later. We hustled onto the plane, not knowing if our fellow Kansans would complete their connection in Atlanta.
Just as the last of us were boarding for Wichita, however, we were greatly relieved to see the Harvey party hustling up to the gate. Our guilt over taking the last seats had been assuaged. Lady Luck had smiled on all of us, and we all settled in for the last leg of our journey back to Kansas.