The day we lost our daughter at the airport

I got a last-minute request to appear on 9News this morning to talk about my travel tips with kids over the holidays. I compiled 10 of my favorite activities but here in the disclaimer on my travel expert street cred: We LOST Hadley at the airport last week.

Our trip to Disney World was pretty seamless until our final few hours. For this trip, we booked our flights through Kayak and had a mixed-bag of results. The good: We saved money. The bad: They often book you on different airlines with minimal connection time.

Our flight to Orlando from Denver was direct but on the way home, we connected through Atlanta with only a 45-minute layover.

In addition to that very small window, we had a few other things working against us: 1) Our flights were in different terminals. 2) Atlanta is one of the largest airports in the world and 3) Each of the kids had downed an entire McDonald’s soft drink in flight and were bursting to go to the bathroom.

But we had no time. We hightailed it out of there and 6-year-old Bode was in tears as we raced through the airport to the train (little dude has been cursed with a small bladder). A guardian angel worker took pity on our tortured family and called over to the plane to tell them we were coming.

When we arrived at the other terminal, Bode and Jamie raced up the escalator. Buoyed down with both my and Bode’s carry-on and another large bag, I couldn’t keep up so beckoned to Haddie to follow them up the escalator.

When I arrived at the top, there were no Johnsons in sight. I continued to race down to D4 (the far end, of course), stopping at a bathroom half-way down (I, too was dying). When I arrived at our gate, a horrified Jamie looked at me. “Hadley isn’t with you?”


And I then I REALLY FREAKED OUT. Just as our final boarding call was announced, he raced back through the terminal trying to track her down. I tried to hold back tears that she was wandering around this huge airport, lost and scared.

Several minutes later, he returned with her and we barely made it on the flight before the doors closed. As it turned out, she had caught up to the boys but they high-tailed it into the men’s restroom while she went to the women’s. By the time I reached the top of the escalator, they were nowhere to be seen so I sailed on by.

They waited for her but she is notoriously slow and figured I had gone in the bathroom after them and she was with me. WRONG ASSUMPTION. But she did exactly what she should have done: she didn’t try to find us and instead waited outside of the bathroom, likely cursing her rookie, scatterbrained parents the entire time.

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

I was prepared to love Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland and seeing all four parks dressed up in their Christmas best. What I was not prepared for was falling in love with Disney World’s 500-acre Animal Kingdom, the largest of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks. I only enjoy the zoo on occasion and I figured this would be one, oversized sanctuary.

I’m so glad I was wrong. Not only does the park lead the way in animal care, education and research (with 1,700 animals), but it has the perfect blend of education and family fun in some of my most coveted bucket-list destinations. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park is divided into seven areas and we started with the most important one: where the food was.

In our defense, it was 11 a.m. when we arrived at the park and had not yet eaten.

We opted for Flame Tree Barbecue, a surprisingly affordable quick-service restaurant with house-smoked barbecue chicken and rib meals. While I waited for our order, Jamie and Co. found seating in one of the tropical outdoor pavilions overlooking Mount Everest.Just your average day at Disney World.

Poor Bode had thrown up at 2 a.m. so we were walking on eggshells to ensure he’d be OK. We rented him a stroller (best $30 we spent on the trip) and let him take the lead and our little guide told us Dinoland, U.S.A.® was the place.

What a fantastic way to start and he was in his element!


From there, it was onto Asia and something within me was triggered. For as long as I can remember, I’ve yearned for this region of the world–particularly Nepal and Tibet–and have been obsessed with REI Adventures’ Everest Lodge to Lodge Trek (anyone have $5,000 to spare who wants to go?) I could have sworn I’d been transported to the streets of Kathmandu (though they named it Anandapur, which means “place of delight” in Sanskrit).

The township breathed its traditions, architecture, culture and people—from crumbling ruins to mysterious temples to rickshaws to lush vegetation to castoff backpacking gear to prayer flags to the Tiger Tree decorated with scarves and bells as a tribute to the spirits for wishes that have been granted.
I was in my paradise when I boarded Expedition Everest and didn’t come down from my high—it was by far my favorite attraction EVER as it raced around the “Roof of the World” with an ephemeral Yeti sighting (didn’t see it), a broken track and roller-coaster that careened backward into darkness (couldn’t miss ‘em—AHHHHHH!)
“I cried because I was so happy!” I exclaimed at the end.
“I cried because I thought I was going to throw up!” Hadley countered.

Following Jamie’s birthday dinner at Yak and Yeti (delicious Pan-Asian dishes such as maple tamarind chicken and mango pie), we were able to bribe Hadley to go again, with the reward of her very own Lion King Nala souvenir.

Money speaks louder than fear in our family.


Bucket List Item No. 2: Go on a safari and that is just what we did on the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition. Riding in open-aired safari vehicles, we were thrust into the 100-acre savanna as we spotted giraffes, lions, hippopotamus, crocodiles, zebras and so many more.

We traversed rickety bridges, rocky hills and even forged through rivers in the Harambe Wildlife Reserve. At one turn, our vehicle came to a standstill because of (what else) exotic animal crossings.

I was amazed how, just the day before, we had been waging the war in the concrete jungle and now were transported into an entirely different, unexpected and magnificent oasis.

And an Animal Kingdom I hope to visit again and again.


My Disney World coverage:

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon, our Orlando TV Debut and Jamie’s Famous Body Part

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad..and Then Good

Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

The day We Lost Our Daughter at the Airport


Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

One of the highlights of Walt Disney World’s Epcot was checking out their newly re-imagined Test Track. Disney’s Imagineers teamed up with Chevrolet to introduce this multi-sensory experience that literally blew us away.

We started in the Chevrolet Design Center where we designed our own virtual custom vehicles on kiosks that even the most technologically-inept can figure out. I teamed up with Bode to virtually draw, stretch and shape our vehicle for everything from engine size to tailored wheels to front grills.

We produced a vehicle that was a cross between a truck and grandma’s station wagon that Bode assured me was a winner. It wasn’t. How do I know? When our vehicle was complete, we swiped a card that encoded our personal specs and measured how it performed aboard a 6-person “SimCar.” Our design for our dream wheels was put to the test as we raced over challenging hills, on bumpy roads and tight curves.

Photo Credit: Walt Disney World.

Amazing technology, no?

According to capability, efficiency, responsiveness and power, we came up short but it didn’t matter. Following our real thrill ride, we raced our virtual custom-concept vehicles against other people’s designs at a digital driving table. Then, we created our own TV commercial starring our own vehicle and selected our location, narration and music, which we then emailed home. (See our Test Track video).Our car may not have been a winning design but this ultra-cool and fun attraction will make anyone feel like a champion.


My Disney World coverage:

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon, our Orlando TV Debut and Jamie’s Famous Body Part

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad..and Then Good

Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

The day We Lost Our Daughter at the Airport

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad…and Then Good

For our first trip to Disney World, we only had three days so knew we wouldn’t have time to visit all four theme parks and the two water parks. However, Epcot was at the top of my list.

The boys posing in front of Epcot’s polyhedral icon

People either love it or hate it and I knew we’d be in the former camp. My kids are huge fans of experiential exhibits (the Denver Museum of Nature & Science is a favorite) so I was sure we’d enjoy Future World’s technological innovations. We adore traveling so the World Showcase’s shops, attractions and restaurants that represent the culture and cuisine of 11 different countries were no-brainers.

Oh, how wrong I was. I loved it and the other three, NotSoMuch.

I can’t really blame Epcot but rather, our strategy and timing. We visited early in our trip when all the kids wanted to do was go on rides. Instead of heading to Future World’s popular attractions, we inched our way through the 300-acre park’s exhibits. In an effort to make it more exciting, I spotted a new addition to the park: Phineas & Ferb: Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. My kids are HUGE fans of the show so I thought they  would love receiving clues on their high-tech secret agent device and doing a scavenger hunt through seven World Showcase countries.

Calm before the storm

Oh, how wrong I was (again).

The concept of this secret mission is brilliant: Kids become secret agents to help Agent P defeat Dr. Doofenshmirtz by having them explore the countries. Hadley and Bode were instantly obsessed and fighting over their handheld device (another tip: get one for each child) and all they wanted to do was accomplish their mission. However, if this is your first visit to Epcot, I wouldn’t recommend it because the clues do not take you to all the countries.

And one of those countries it does not go to is Canada. You know. THE MOTHERLAND. The land of my birth.

I was obviously invested in touring it and Hadley (who was already being a moody tween) had a toddler-esque tantrum. “We can’t go to Canada. The mission doesn’t take us there!” I will spare you the sordid details but I was fuming. She was having such a colossal meltdown that I left her with Jamie and Bode and I explored it.

Replica of Victoria’s famous Butchart Gardens

I’ll hold ruining the Motherland over her to my grave.

Jamie told her she owed me an apology and stubborn little miss wouldn’t give in. When we arrived en France, we stopped in the patisserie and practically bought out the store with all my favorites–their les tartes aux pommes (apple turnover) tasted JUST like the ones I ate on my mission. It was as we bonded over pain au chocolat that Hadley finally said she was sorry.

Lessons learned in Epcot: Canada is the great divider and France is the great unifier.

I’m pleased to say the rest of our day in Epcot went smashingly. In Germany, we gorged on all-things caramel in Karamell Küche. And had the most delicious meal at Via Napoli in Italy (lunch after desserts–I highly recommend it). When we received our large pizza, we asserted we’d never be able to eat it all.

It was Gone in 60 Seconds (I totally *get* that movie now).

I could have spent hours touring the countries (next time I’m going it alone) so not wanting to rock the boat, we only focused on food and rides. Norway’s Maelstrom adventure cruise was such a hit we did it twice in a row and once back in Future World, we visited The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion. Somehow, the red eyes totally work in Bruce’s mouth.

My expectations were pretty low when we went to The Turtle Talk with Crush Show but it was one of the most delightful parts of our day. All the kids sat up front while parents relaxed in the seats. I expected some kind of marine talk about turtle habits but it turned out to be a hilarious, interactive show where kids were invited to talk directly to the famous sea turtle, Crush.

I kicked back laughing and listening until I heard a very familiar voice.

“What’s your name little girl?”


Out of the 50+ kids in that place what’re the odds she would get picked? I was instantly on-edge. What if her tween attitude continued and she decided to CRUSH him?

After asking her a few questions, the big kahuna queried, “Where are Hadley’s parents?” We haltingly raised our hands. Jamie had a microphone stuffed in his face and corresponded with the on-screen turtle.

Crush: “Aren’t kids the greatest?”

Jamie: {Short pause} “Most of the time.”

{Other parents erupt in laughter.}

Crush: “Duuuuuude. We just totally had a moment.”

That day at Epcot, we had plenty of them.


My Disney World coverage:

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon, our Orlando TV Debut and Jamie’s Famous Body Part

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad..and Then Good

Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

The day We Lost Our Daughter at the Airport


New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon & Jamie’s Famous Body Part

If you’re just tuning in, be sure to check-out my official write-up about Disney World’s New Fantasyland.

Wandering around Disney World’s New Fantasyland was enchanting. As we disembarked Under the Sea—Journey of the Little Mermaid, the staffer casually mentioned, “Watch out for dragons.”

Dragons? We didn’t think much of it. After all, it was the Magic Kingdom and pretty much anything is possible. And then we saw it: A fire-spitting, roaring dragon soaring above us.The frenetic crowd stopped, stupefied, as reality and fantasy blurred together.

(See it in action here. The robotic beast was released for the grand opening but here’s for hoping it will make other appearances.)

We wandered over to Gaston’s Tavern to grab some LeFou’s Brew (no-sugar added apple juice with toasted marshmallow syrup topped with an all-natural passion fruit-mango foam). Clearly, we were still in our spellbound state because we got pulled over by a reporter from Orlando’s Channel 6 and appeared that night on the local news!

Pimping LeFou’s Brew

Unfortunately, Bode and I were the only ones whose interview made the cut but Jamie is ever the optimist. “MY NECK IS FAMOUS IN ORLANDO!” (See above photo.)

Whatever it takes.


My Disney World coverage:

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon, our Orlando TV Debut and Jamie’s Famous Body Part

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad..and Then Good

Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

The day We Lost Our Daughter at the Airport

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

(Originally published in the Denver Post’s Hub. More pictures and commentary added here!)

“Wake up! You’re not going to school today. Mommy and Daddy are taking you on a special trip!”

For most of us, we only visit Fantasyland in our dreams but last week, it was my kids’ dreams come true. Not only were we pulling them out of school but we were going to Disney World for the first time.

Our surprise was over a month in the making. When my husband I heard about New Fantasyland’s multiyear expansion—the biggest in the Magic Kingdom’s history that nearly doubles its former size—we slapped down our credit card and bought our flights. We decided to make our trip extra-special by keeping it a secret from our kids.

No small feat for a woman who hasn’t been able to keep a secret since 1980.

It was love at first sight. Though Cinderella Castle still remains the park’s most iconic symbol, the New Fantasyland offers two more fortresses, making it a trip threat. Comprised of the Enchanted Forest and Storybook areas, Walt Disney’s Imagineers have taken storytelling of beloved stories to a whole new level.

Enchanted Forest

Once upon a time, I lived en France for 18 months. At New Fantasyland I was transported back to those pastoral French villages in this recreation of Beauty and the Beast—from the Beast’s foreboding castle to Maurice’s provincial cottage to the smattering of buildings in Belle’s Village with a conspicuous bronze statue of Gaston in front of his namesake, Gaston’s Tavern.

Chandelier at Gaston’s Tavern

The egocentric dude’s sidekick LeFou even has his own “brew”—a frozen apple juice concoction with a hint of toasted marshmallow, topped with passion-fruit-mango foam.

The Beast’s Castle is easily the highlight of New Fantasyland. Be Our Guest restaurant offers French-inspired quick-service dining by day and fine dining by night in an elegant ballroom, the mysterious West Wing or the delicate Rose Gallery where you can watch as the enchanted rose slowly drops petals as time runs out for the Beast.

Snow falls on the French countryside and special touches include wrought-iron gates, menacing gargoyles and an Armor Hallway where an occasional whisper can be heard from the six metal figures. Sounds enchanting? You’re not alone because Be Our Guest is booking out six months in advance for dinner so lunch may be your best bet.

My Foray as Madame Wardrobe

If Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs is most excited about New Fantasyland’s attraction Enchanted Tales with Belle, you know it has got to be good.

“This interaction with a classic fairy tale is how it should be,” he said. “Couple it with the Beast’s Castle and it is a totally different level of immersion. Now we have the tools and technology to do it.”

No detail remains undone in Maurice’s cottage, which is where the adventure starts. A painting of Belle with her maman. Maurice’s blueprints for his inventions. A smattering of Belle’s beloved books with one of them open to “Le Prince Charmant” (The Prince Charming.)

Kids can even measure themselves against the notches on the wall that chart Belle’s growth over the years—from 12 mois (months) to 18 ans (years).

A winding stone pathway led us to Maurice’s workshop where our group of about 30 encountered the Enchanted Mirror. We answered questions about the tale from our guide and then were invited to say in unison: “Take me back to the day when Belle and the Beast fell in love.”

All eyes widened as Maurice’s most treasured possession magically transformed from a mirror into a secret doorway to the Beast’s castle. And that is when the real magic began. Through props and costumes, we stepped right into the story as several kids were selected to help plan a surprise for Belle.

My daughter Hadley was delighted to be Phillipe the horse and Bode proudly grinned within a picture frame.

As I ardently snapped pictures of my burgeoning stars, I was plucked from the audience to play none other than party organizer Madame Wardrobe.

It was the role of a lifetime.

I fulfilled my dream of singing a few notes in my best operatic voice and Hadley was a show-stopper with her impassioned “neigh.” (I had to ensure her the audience was laughing because she was just that good).

Racing around the room living it up as Madame Wardrobe

But it was an adorable 3-year-old boy cast as the Beast who stole the show with his timid “roar” as he tried to woo the glamorous cast member who played Belle.

When our play wrapped up, we bid Belle adieu as Bode raved, “That was awesome!” and Hadley squealed “I loved it!” As for me? Well, I plan to audition for Madame Butterfly.

According to Staggs, “We hope New Fantasyland gives people time to slow down and be present in these stories. To take stock, look around and as soon as you walk in, you’re transported to new places.”

And what a fantastical world it is.

Other New Fantasyland Additions

Storybook Circus—This throwback to circuses of yesteryear features fun under the Big Top with Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, a ride that has doubled in size. It also features a very welcomed indoor air-conditioned, interactive waiting area to keep the kids entertained until your pager goes off.

The Barnstormer—This family-friendly rollercoaster features the Great Goofini while Pete’s Silly Sideshow round out the offerings.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train—Coming in 2014, this descent into a glistening diamond mine will feature a first-of-its kind ride system with a train of vehicles that swing back and forth as they respond to the twists and turns of the track. Heigh-Ho, indeed.

Under the Sea—Journey of the Little Mermaid. Fans of this Disney classic will love this musical journey as they begin at the shoreline of Prince Eric’s castle and plunge through the grottos in clamshells below the ocean’s surface where an iridescent sea world comes to life.

Side note: The kids aren’t interested in meeting the characters, which is huge time-saver. However, on the night of New Fantasyland’s opening, we accidentally stood in line for Ariel’s Grotto where you take photos and get autographs with the undersea’s favorite princess.

When we rounded the corner, Bode was instantly wowed by the hot red-headed mermaid. He shyly took his seat as she asked what rides they’d been on. “My favorite is Space Mountain,” he haltingly said. “No wait…” Flustered, he remembered he hadn’t been on in yet while he slyly scooted closer until eventually he put his hand across her lap. Prince Eric has some serious competition.


My Disney World coverage:

Disney World’s New Fantasyland: A Dream Come True!

New Fantasyland’s Fire-breathing Dragon, our Orlando TV Debut and Jamie’s Famous Body Part

Disney World’s Epcot: The Amazing Race Gone Bad..and Then Good

Epcot’s Newly Revamped Test Track Quenches the Need for Speed

Disney World’s Animal Kingdom: Hear Me Roar!

The day We Lost Our Daughter at the Airport

Disney’s New Fantasyland: It’s a Whole New World!

My family just returned from a whirlwind four-day trip to Disney World. As first-timers, we checked out the brand spankin’ New Fantasyland, had major meltdowns in the Motherland at Epcot, fell in love with Animal Kingdom and lost (yes, LOST) a child at the airport so almost missed our connecting flight.

Basically, it was just a typical vacation Chez Nous.

I’ve done a write-up about New Fantasyland in the Denver Post’s Hub today but stay tuned for many more details.

Just as soon as I recover from them all.