The Outside Rail

What a difference four and a half days make. The buses are headed north, home from sunny Florida and Disney. The band's performance went great, so did the choir's concert. But, man, these kids are quiet. No movies, no jokes, no conversations, everybody (OK, probably not everybody) is asleep.

We left home Thursday. It feels like a month ago. It also feels like yesterday. Disney was Disney. Overwhelming, clean, polite, sweet, big, musical, under construction, sparkly, crowded, "magical" as the cast members put it. Amusement parks aren't my thing, but Disney does a great job. There were fireworks every night, laser shows, music, parades and more.

Let's play word association . . .

Animal Kingdom: Wild. Hollywood Studios: Star Wars. Magic Kingdom: Over the top. Epcot: Like Vegas, only different.

According to my phone, I walked 13 miles today at Epcot and Disney Springs (basically an outdoor shopping mall; skip it). Yesterday was 12. The day before 10, I think.

Sunday, the band marched in a parade that started in Frontiertown, cut across Liberty Square, went right past Cinderella's Castle and then down Main Street U.S.A. Corny, yes, but it was cool. They played Uptown Funk, complete with periodic dance moves. It's a small band - actually three schools merged together to form one band - but it felt like a big deal. Nolan really isn't in the marching band, but got recruited from the concert band so it was all new to me. It's tough to watch your kid in a parade - you only get one shot. He was smiling, in step (as far as I could tell) and the trombone sounded fine to me. He said the uniform was hot and the trolley tracks were a bit tricky to navigate. Makes sense. Cheers to the various school directors who made it happen. To go backstage at Disney was as big a treat as taking part in the parade (no photos allowed).

Wisconsin's South Elgin High band also played, along with Danville High from Pennsylvania. South Elgin, which goes by The Storm, could compete with college bands for sound, look, precision. They're big time.

The choir sang at Disney Springs today - on a waterfront stage and for a solid crowd of locals, tourists, our bus drivers and a loud group of 200 or so busmates. Put together from three schools like the band, the choir looked sharp, sounded sharper and it was nice to hear them introduced as "from Cecil County, Maryland . . ." Kudos to the directors of making it happen and battling wind-buffeted music.

We did all the usual stuff at Magic Kingdom. Space Mountain is still good, and hasn't missed a thing. Disney regulars know this stuff, but the night ends with fireworks and a light show projected on to Cinderella's Castle. I have no idea how they do it. Crazy good.

The same goes for a show we saw at Hollywood Studios called Fantasmic. The thing had music, fire, fireworks, dancers, boats, a giant snake, Mickey Mouse, lasers, fountains, gymnasts, a cannon, video projected on to fountains and pretty much anything else you could think of. Again, crazy good. Flawless.

Today was Epcot, which someone said stands for Every Person Comes Out Tired. It's a haul. You've got futuristic stuff like Mission Space and Test Track, an aquarium (check out Lil Joe the manatee). And then there's the lake and a ring of "countries" to visit. Walking, eating, drinking, shopping pretty much sums it up. As at the other parks, the night ended with a fireworks, laser, fire and music show with a giant Earth in the center. Beautiful.

The kids survived. Sure, there was a little drama. How could there not be? But everyone is coming home with memories. They have a never-ending taste for gift shops, apparently, and they don't always eat three square meals but they can do theme parks.

My squad ebbed and flowed from three to 11 or so. I was usually a third, fifth or 11th wheel but that's what I was there for - more or less.

Girls are sillier, but have more sense. Boys don't sweat the small stuff. They all mixed OK in small groups. Couples made me nervous. So did large packs. They all make you think, challenge you to listen and pay attention and say the right things. They're public-school kids and come from as many backgrounds as you could imagine -boys, girls, farmers, street-wise, jocks, brains, cool, trying to be cool, exchange students, singers, musicians, marchers, actors, artists. They have long lives ahead of them. If we were passing out advice around the bus, I'd tell them to take it slow. Everything.

The bus is still the bus. It's 3:40 Tuesday morning and we're in South Carolina somewhere well south of Florence (because I just saw a sign). Yemassee. It's 57 degrees and rainy.

Mike just drives. Imagine steering this big, awkward thing with 45 people on board, navigating lane changes, rain, wind, tractor-trailers on the left and right. No thanks. The kids just ride, in all sorts of ways. Some read actual books (I hear a page turn now and then), some scroll and swipe on freshly charged phones, some sleep, some talk, some dream, there's no singing now but I figure there will be by daylight.

It's cramped, uncomfortable but oddly peaceful. Twelve (probably more) hours to go. Thanks for taking me along everyone.

This is the finale of a blog entry started when this trip did. For the rest, see parts 1-4.