Friday, April 14, 2017

A trip to Disneyland with 300 high school students

The performing arts department of our local high school has sponsored a spring break trip to Disneyland for students in the program every couple of years for a number of years now. I first became aware of the program a few years back when our then high school senior wanted to go on the trip. He returned with a glowing report. He still counts the trip as one of the most cherished experiences of his high school years.

When my wife brought up the possibility of our son who has special needs going on the trip this year, I knew that his condition was such that we could not trust him to an adult chaperone that might or might not have adequate training to manage his needs. We ultimately offered to have me go on the trip as a chaperone for a group of boys, including our son.

This Disney trip would be impossible without the dedication of the school's drama director. I have watched this man grow from one of my young Boy Scouts into a highly competent drama and education professional. Although he doesn't earn one dime more than a teacher that puts in eight hours a day and then goes home, he has for years devoted vast chunks of personal time and effort to high quality productions and programs.

Not only would the Disney trip not happen without my friend's selfless work, his logistical management ensured efficient schedules, good accommodations, and minimal problems, all on a very low budget. This allowed a high number of drama, choir, band, orchestra, and journalism students to go. Even the Disney folks that work daily with school groups were impressed with my friend's attention to detail.

A few days before the trip we attended a concert at the school where each group performed the show they would be performing in California. Due to extensive preparations, each tour member received a duffel bag embroidered with the theme and their own name. In the bag were three T-shirts of different colors and designs. The proper T-shirt was to be worn on each of the three days we would be in the parks so that we could more easily identify tour members.

After the concert, chaperones gathered for a final meeting to put a cap on all the information that had been regularly emailed to us in the weeks preceding the event. We had enough chaperones that most groups consisted of 6-10 students. The drama director had a detailed binder that included all of the information about the trip to a high degree of detail. Each chaperone received a copy of the binder in booklet form. The students had received their booklets at school. In addition, everyone received a laminated copy of the full itinerary to keep with them at all times on the trip.

We gathered at the school late on a Sunday night to board rented tour buses. Most gear was stowed below. We kept anything we would need for the night and most of Monday with us. Travelers found their preassigned seats. And then we were off, pretty much on schedule.

I wasn't sure how well I would sleep on a bus. It sure wasn't as restful as being in my own bed, but it wasn't that bad. We occasionally paused at large truck stops along the way so that folks could stretch their legs and take care of necessities. (Each bus also had a restroom, but that's not really adequate for all of the people on the bus on a long trip.)

Mid morning on Monday we pulled into the parking lot of a beach not far from Anaheim. After a continental breakfast, we spent the next part of the day hanging out on the beach, swimming in the surf, and visiting nearby shops. Many people bought lunch.

After leaving the beach we went to a grocery store. The chaperones handed out the first per diem amount to their group members to buy food for breakfasts for the next three days. Students pooled their money with those that would be in the same hotel room. We then checked into the hotel and got everyone situated before heading off to dinner at Medieval Times. We ate dinner while watching a spectacular reenactment of a medieval knight tournament. Then it was back to the hotel and bed.

Although there was plenty of time for entertaining ourselves, the main purpose of the trip was for students to engage in top notch workshops with Disney professionals and to perform publicly at a Disney park.

The weather turned out to be spectacular during the next three days. Each day we would get the students to the Disney parks early. Different groups performed at different times. Each group also attended a top notch workshop in their discipline with Disney professionals. Once again, our drama director managed getting all of the performance gear and apparel where it needed to be, when it needed to be there. Chaperones managed getting students to their performances and workshops, although, most students were pretty responsible about this on their own.

Since my son is in one of the choirs, I was privileged to attend the choir workshop. This was led by a high energy middle age woman who could sing many diverse styles with stunning excellence. She also played the piano and was great at directing the choir. They listed a number of shows and video games that featured her vocal talents. Our choir director was very impressed. This woman taught about the business as well as technique. It was amazing to see and hear what she pulled out of our students. Our choir director was given recordings, which can be played at the school but cannot be legally distributed in any fashion.

Each day chaperones would hand out a per diem to group members to help defray the cost of eating lunch and dinner. It was made clear beforehand that students needed to supplement with their own money, since the per diem was definitely insufficient to buy real meals in the parks. Most of us regularly hiked to nearby fast food places to save money.

Spring break time is among the busiest times at Disney parks, along with Christmastime, and most of the summer. The parks weren't bad first thing in the morning. But I found that something I had heard years ago was true. The crowds that arrive at pretty much any Disney park at opening time tend to go to the right or else straight forward after walking through the entry area. If you turn instead to the left you will have no problem hitting attractions in those areas for the first hour. Crowds start to saturate after that.

During the days we were were at the parks, the sheer press of people was most pronounced between 4 pm and about 9:30 pm. Stepping onto a walkway was like jumping into a rushing river and getting carried along by the current. You have to plan and time your exit as if you are swimming in a current.

Another thing that amazed me was the number of people that would start sitting down along parade routes even more than three hours in advance, in order to have a prime seat for a 15-minute parade. Yes, they are high quality parades. But, come on! I kept thinking, "You paid an astronomical price for a ticket to get in here, and now you're going to blow a huge part of the time in the park sitting on dirty concrete?" Whatever.

Free Fastpasses are a great idea for the most popular attractions. These allowed us to quickly get on rides that others waited hours to ride. But you have to get Fastpasses early in the day because only a limited number are offered each day.

I wore good athletic shoes with Drymax lite hiking socks. But we walked a lot. My phone tells me that I walked more than 100,000 steps during the three days we spent at the Disney parks. If each of those had been a full step it would have amounted to 50 miles. As it was, I covered about 30 miles. Even with good footwear, my feet were sore and I developed two blisters. When I kept seeing people wearing thin, flimsy flipflops, I couldn't help but wonder how badly their feet hurt.

As chaperones we were tasked with ensuring that students stayed at the parks or nearby restaurants, and that they did not return to the hotel until after the nightly fireworks show. This policy was apparently developed years earlier to prevent certain problems that inevitably occur when you have several hundred teenagers staying a hotel.

On Thursday morning we had everyone pack their gear into the buses and check out of the hotel. They didn't receive their per diem until everything was ready to go. We walked to the parks as we had the previous two days, attended workshops and performances, rode attractions, and stuck around until midnight. There was no hotel to go back to. We had to wait until we met at a nearby restaurant, where the buses were ready to take us home. I noticed that lines for rides became much more manageable after 10 pm.

Tour members were pretty weary as we gathered. We had been going strong for three days straight. Some boarded as soon as the drivers opened the bus doors, although, the buses wouldn't leave for half an hour. All of the boys from my chaperone group were loaded and half of them were asleep by 12:10.

I had started coming down with a cold on Thursday morning. Chaperones couldn't go to bed until all of their students were in their rooms with no guests. We also had to be up early each morning to get ready in time to roll the students out of bed. That made for significant sleep deprivation. I found that I could maintain alertness via caffeinated soft drinks, but that the caffeine did nothing to provide the recovery that comes through restful sleep. I'm not a kid anymore, so this kind of thing takes its toll on me.

Fortunately we had no problems getting all of our tour members into their assigned seats on time. Folks had been in pretty high spirits when we left on Sunday night. That was all gone by 12:30 am on Friday. I was pretty much settled in by the time the bus turned onto the freeway entrance. I think I was asleep by the time the bus got onto the freeway seconds later. That's pretty much how it was for all of the passengers.

We again paused at a couple of big truck stops along the way. As we had on the way down, we switched bus drivers at one of those stops. I was still pretty tired when the bus pulled into a buffet restaurant in St. George, where we had breakfast. Nearly everyone went back to sleep between St. George and the truck stop in Fillmore. After leaving Fillmore we watched a Disney animated movie and part of a musical.

I was very happy when we pulled into the parking lot of the school. We had had no major problems on the trip. Things had gone pretty much as planned (according to the detailed itinerary developed by the drama director). We gathered our gear and headed home.

If your school is thinking about taking a trip like this, I'd suggest that the tour leader get in contact with our high school's drama director. His experience and organizational prowess would allow him to provide very useful tips.

People have asked me if I had fun on the trip. I tell them that I didn't go on the trip to have fun. Spending of week of precious vacation to hang out with 300 teenagers really isn't the funnest thing in the world. I went to make sure that my son could be safe while having fun. I was able to handle several situations to that end. It's not that I had no fun; I did. But that wasn't my goal.

I do this kind of stuff (including Scouting) so that I can help provide youth with worthwhile experiences. One reason for this is that others did this for me during my formative years. Also, seeing the faces of the youth light up and seeing them grow through their experiences is far more enjoyable than simply filling my personal fun bucket.