I flew to Orlando for the Mom 2.0 Summit on Wednesday morning, saw some old friends, collected an Iris Award for our Dads4Kesem walk across England, and reminded Andrew Shue of his 1-episode stint on “The Wonder Years” before meeting my family late Friday night at the Loews Royal Pacific for 5 hours of sleep before hitting Hogsmeade early Saturday morning.

Our hotel included an extra hour in Universal’s Island of Adventure, so we were there at 7:30am and riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey just after 8.  After a couple more rides there, we rode the Hogwarts Express to the sister park, Universal Studios, at its opening time of 9am and got on the Escape from Gringotts ride by 9:20am.  We then spent the rest of the morning in Diagon Alley, and it was amazing.

As you may recall, we visited the Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter studio last summer in London, and we loved it.  This was even better, because it included interactive rides, wands that “did stuff,” and shops + restaurants from the books and movies!  We had meals at the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks; we bought candy and fudge at Honeydukes; we peed in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom; we disappeared behind the wall at Platform 9 3/4; we bought wands at Ollivander’s; we talked to the shrunken head aboard the Knight Bus; we got souvenirs at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.

When Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley got too crowded, we explored Jurassic Park, Marvel Superhero Island (where I rode my favorite ride of the parks, “The Hulk” roller coaster), Seuss Landing, Springfield (home of The Simpsons), etc.

It was 2 incredibly fun and full days. We had “express passes” (also through our hotel) that allowed us to get into a special faster lane at each ride, so we never waited more than 15 or 20 minutes, even for the most popular rides.

Other tips to make a visit to Universal nice:  download the free app, which will let you know wait times for rides and includes a map of the park, information on where to eat, etc.  Also, buy this guide book.  That was the most valuable investment we made before or during this trip. And, read this informative article.  And lastly, see if you can get a military discount on the park and lodging (or a blogger/PR one), because this stuff is expensive otherwise!

On the 3rd day, we used our early admittance to ride the Forbidden Journey by the Hogwarts Castle again and enjoyed the 2nd track of the Dragon Challenge there; we then rode the Hogwarts Express over to the other park and then back again, so we could see it from both directions (which was totally worth doing!).

We spent our last couple hours before checkout (we got an extra hour, until noon) on Monday enjoying the enormous pool at the hotel and the on-site restaurant by Emeril’s called “Tchoup Chop,” which was, by far, the best meal we had in Orlando.  Then, we set off on the long drive north (my family had driven down Friday, so my flight down was one-way) toward Atlanta, stopping to charge in Ocala, Lake City, Tifton, and Macon.

This was our longest family roadtrip in the Model X, and while it added 2+ hours to the 6.5 or so hours Google said it’d take to get home, it made the drive a relaxing one, wherein we didn’t worry about where to stop for drinks or a restroom.  Frankly, we probably would have spent the same amount of time stopping for restroom breaks even in a gasoline-powered vehicle, given the 3 small stomachs and bladders in the rows behind us, and the superchargers are always located by malls, restaurants, and/or airports with lots of amenities (except Macon, which is by some museums and a bus station, so stopping there late at night is kinda scary, as nothing nearby is open).  We plan to take an even longer electric roadtrip in July to south Florida.

Everyone loved our trip to Universal and wants to go back when the shorter two children are tall enough to ride some of the more intense rides.  It made for a great Mother’s Day for my bride and was a wonderful way for 5 huge Harry Potter fans to spend a weekend.  Y’all should check it out.

20 years ago today, I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force through ROTC.  I remember how spending the next 4 years serving “active duty” or the next 6 years in the Air Guard or Reserves seemed like an eternity of commitment to “pay back” the entity that’d covered my tuition and books for the previous 4 years.

Today, I’m a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF Reserves. After 11 years in the Air National Guard, I’ve spent 9 in the Ready Reserve or traditional Reserves.  Since that commissioning ceremony 20 years ago, I’ve had many, many early wake-ups and sacrificed weekends.  I’ve missed a few weddings I wanted to attend.  I’ve had to forego the chance to grow out my hair, see if I could cobble together a beard, or smoke weed when we were in Denver a few years ago. But I honestly think I’ve gained more than I’ve foregone.  Here’s why.

I finished law school and a 2-month bar prep class without needing loans, thanks to the GI Bill.  Know many attorneys with no school debt?  Neither do I.

We were able to buy a nice house several years ago, thanks to a VA loan.

My bride and I are self-employed and don’t have 4-figure health insurance premiums, thanks to Tricare.

We get discounts at theme parks, museums, and hotels.

I’ve been to all 50 states.  I’m pretty sure I’d still be missing Alaska, Vermont, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine without the help of the Air Force KC-135s and C-130s.

I’ve had great experiences–“bucket list” items–thanks to the Air Force, like playing blackjack in Las Vegas, camping in Denali National Park, learning to surf in Honolulu, eating fresh lobster in Maine, hiking a rainforest in Puerto Rico, skiing in Park City, having Valentine’s Day dinner in Paris, driving 600km across olive groves in Spain, touring the Tower of London, driving a BMW 325i 135 mph across Oklahoma, sharing a NASCAR “ride along” with my dad at Dallas Motor Speedway, and flying a Cessna 3,000 feet above the ocean cliffs of Molokai.

I’ve made great friends, like Shane, whose wedding I officiated 10 years after we’d spent 5 months together in Iraq.

I started blogging because of the Air Force, as I was lonely and bored while working solo Saturday shifts during a deployment to Andrews in 2006.  Then I started another blog while in Iraq in 2007.  And then started writing for other sites (like DadCentric, City Dads Group, and Humor Blogs) upon coming home in 2008.  Blogging has led to hundreds of new friendships, numerous travel opportunities, and even an Iris award after an epic philanthropic project. Last year at Dad 2.0, I moderated a panel focused on military service.

The above paragraphs are why I’m a little embarrassed by the occasional “thank you for your service” comments I get from civilians who learn of my time in the Guard or Reserves.  If all I’ve benefited from the military were weighed against all I’ve contributed to it, I think I’d get a great view of Lady Justice’s forehead, not her knees.

But you know what?  I’d wager most of my fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines would say the same.

After our 3 days in Disney parks and L.A., we took our Kia Sedona for a 1000-mile road trip to explore some of the natural beauty of southern California, starting with Channel Islands National Park.  Have you ever been to Channel Islands National Park?  No?  You should fix that.

We got up early Friday morning and boarded the ferry for Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island for a guided 3-mile (or so) hike across America’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands (i.e., they were never connected to the mainland and have animals and plants not seen anywhere else in the world!).  The children especially loved spotting the numerous island foxes.

And the harbor seal.

And the sweeping views of the ocean from atop the cliffs, whilst I tried to push back fears of their bodies plummeting hundreds of feet onto those rocks by the water you see in the picture below:

It’s among the least-visited and most remote of the national parks (and perhaps the newest, as it was established in 1980), and it was a great way to spend an entire day of peace, quiet, and no cellphone signal.  The children completed the park’s junior ranger program and got their badges just before our ranger guide boarded the 4pm ferry off the island. We had seafood for dinner in the Ventura harbor after taking the 4:30pm ferry back to the mainland.

The next morning (Saturday), we headed east into the California wilderness; our first stop was Manzanar National Historic site, because not every national park or historic site celebrates our country’s achievements; this one, of course, reminds us of our mistakes. Before visiting Manzanar, I knew very little about how we treated Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing; I certainly didn’t realize we sent over 100,000 of them to these “camps” to live and prohibited their returning to California for several years after they were “released.”  The displays at this site (models of the homes they lived in, recorded interviews with some of the occupants, and written accounts from children) were heartbreaking and moving.  The stop was well worth the time and the few miles out of the way to Death Valley.  The children learned a great deal during their junior ranger programs, and we enjoyed the windy landscape at the base of the Sierra Nevadas as we explored the grounds.

We re-boarded our Kia minivan and headed southeast to Death Valley National Park, the hottest, lowest, and driest spot in the U.S., arriving just in time to get the kids’ junior ranger books before the visitor center closed at 5pm.  Dinner was at the Toll Road Restaurant next to our hotel at the historic Stovepipe Wells Inn.  There was an outdoor pool the kids badly wanted to enjoy, but the strong, sandy winds would have made that an unpleasant experience, I’m sure, as I envisioned that time I visited the hangar where my dad worked once in high school and saw the machine they used to clean aviation engine parts with sand particles, and I had no desire to be shiny and metallic that evening.

We hiked a salty creek and saw endangered pupfish, which are like tadpoles, but bigger, and in saltwater, and more endangered.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Death Valley on Sunday morning, but what we saw was much, much more.  We hiked sand dunes where the Tatooine scenes from “Star Wars” and “Return of the Jedi” were shot.

We saw the “Devil’s Golf Course,” where chucks of crystallized salt formations create razor-sharp terrain that seems to go for miles along the desert floor.

We saw what appeared to be a giant lake nearly 300′ below sea level that was actually a salt flat we could hike out to and stand where the hottest air temperature on Earth was recorded.

We drove on a trail cut between rocks seemingly painted by an artist, as yellows, reds, blacks, browns, and greens reflected on either side of us.

We re-boarded our minivan and headed south toward the Mohave Desert, determined to let the kids get another junior ranger badge and hike atop the Kelso sand dunes there.

Sadly, we ran out of time (in my bride’s estimation–she didn’t want to be stuck atop a 600′ sand dune at nightfall with 3 children and a 3-mile hike back to the car; I wanted to go for it) and did not make it to the top of the Kelso dunes, but we came close. 

It was after 6pm, and we had an hour or so to our hotel at 29 Palms Inn just outside Joshua Tree national park, so we headed south again, arriving about 7:30pm to dinner and live music by the 9,000-year-old Oasis of Mara.

Monday morning, we arose for breakfast at the inn before heading into our last national park, Joshua Tree, where I made immediate notice of the streets’ having no names.

We drove through acres and acres of the funny-looking yet beautiful joshua trees towering above the otherwise scraggly desert vegetation.  We stopped at Skull Rock and climbed the course sandstone boulders while chasing lizards and one large gila monster.

We had the picnic lunch our inn packed us atop an overlook above the San Andreas fault.  Luckily, nothing shook.

After lunch, we went back by the visitor center to let the children turn in their junior ranger workbooks and earn yet another badge + patch before returning to our Kia Sedona to head to I-1o and the airport, which was about 2 hours away. Our flight left just before 5pm (we made it by a few minutes) and landed after midnight Atlanta time. It was 2am by the time we were all home and in bed, so we let the children go to school a couple hours late, because we’re complacent like that.

This was an amazing trip.  We covered over 1,000 miles.  We drove past 8-figure houses in Beverly Hills and dilapidated ghost towns along abandoned highways.  We drove next to the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevadas; we went through multiple mountain ranges and crossed numerous deserts, all in just a few days.  I’m grateful to Kia for letting us use the Sedona, which was perfect for our family of 5 to explore everything from the urban streets of Los Angeles to the dirt roads of Death Valley.  Our family will never forget our California adventures, and we can’t wait until time to embark on the next one!