Florida 2011 – Trip Diary – Part 4

Posted in Travel on January 21st, 2012 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

(NOTE – This is part 4/4 of our family’s trip diary detailing our vacation to Orlando, FL taken a year ago now.  This last installment is quite late, but better late than never, I think!)

Friday, January 21 – Today our house seemed quite empty as our travel companions left and it was just Hubby, me and the kids.  We did enjoy a day of family time, beginning with breakfast at…  Sizzler.  Actually, I don’t remember where we ate breakfast.  To be honest, I put the Florida trip diary aside for the past few months and now I don’t remember where we ate breakfast.  I don’t remember all of the details of the day, but I have enough treasured vacation memories to know that it was an excellent day spent with my family.  We drove over to Downtown Disney to try something different for a change – we had never been there.  Downtown Disney has so much to see that we just walked around for a few hours and were entertained without having to spend money.  My personal favorite was the amazing Lego store where one can buy just about any type of Lego a heart desires.  You can buy the flat building platforms, bricks in any color of the rainbow, minifigs, and there was even a sort of Lego buffet – you can fill a container with all different types of pieces, any kinds you want: basic building blocks, doors, windows, steering wheels, joints, hinges, you name it.  There were stations with samples to play with, and I had to exercise some self-control to let the kids play instead of sitting there myself for hours on end.  Because this is Florida, there were Lego things to see outside too – little stations with ramps where you can build Lego vehicles and race them, as well as full scale Lego models of people, the London Bridge, and even a large Loch Ness monster in the lake:

It’s really a good thing for my family’s budget that there is not a Lego store within 100 miles of our house; I could go nuts in there!

We also went to the Rainforest Cafe and a few other stores and restaurants where they had really cool decor for the kids to see.  There was a restaurant with huge dinosaurs where we stopped to use the bathroom, and the kids even enjoyed the Little Miss Match shop (a company that sells socks in sets of 3 and none of them match.  The store has socks and lots of other stuff that little girls love to accessorize with).  It began to rain, so we got on a boat to cross the lagoon to get to the bus.  If you are on vacation in the Orlando area and you find yourself with an extra day or some downtime, then I recommend taking a spin on the Disney transportation – especially if you are over-budget on your trip because it’s all free.  A fair warning that Disney property is so large that riding the buses, boats and monorails can take up a significant part of your day, but it is a fun and FREE way to see the sights of Disney.  So we took a bus to the Grand Floridian hotel to catch the monorail, just for fun.  Parking at Downtown Disney is free, so we got on Disney grounds without even having to pay parking!  We did have to spend a good 45 minutes on the bus though, but by now it was pouring, so we didn’t mind too much.  Besides, Hubby surprised me on the bus when he presented me with a Severus Snape minifig that he had picked up as a surprise without me seeing when we were at the Lego store!!  I could not even tell him that Snape is my favorite Harry Potter character because he would have wanted to know why – I didn’t want to spoil the last Harry Potter movie for him when it wasn’t out yet at that time.

At the Grand Floridian, I had to take some kids to the bathroom, and while I was in there, Hubby got a last minute great deal on a character dinner for us!  So we enjoyed dinner with Cinderella, her prince, her step-sisters and her step-mother.  The food was wonderful, and the kids loved meeting the characters as they walked around to greet tables.  After that, we made our way back to our car, and we were exhausted…  I think we called it a night – I’m not really sure; it’s taken me so long to finish this trip diary that my memory has faded.  All I know is it was a really great day, and a super way to end a wonderful vacation – SO WISH we could go back this year!

Saturday, January 22, 2011 – On this day I know we began to make our way back to Ohio, but I don’t remember the details.  I think we had told the kids we were going to do some souvenir shopping, but we ran out of time and just wanted to hit the road.  Then we had an idea – there are Cracker Barrel restaurants lined up along the expressway all the way home, so we found one on the GPS and got there just before it closed.  Cracker Barrels have little stores in them, and the one we stopped at (in Georgia) had a great sale going on.  The kids were able to shop and had fun getting some great deals – it was a nice way to add a little more fun to our trip.  We arrived home very early Sunday morning, if I’m not mistaken, and probably slept all day and unpacked.  SUPER trip that made awesome memories – can’t wait to do it again someday, I hope!!

Florida 2011 – Trip Diary – Part 1

Posted in Travel on March 1st, 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday January 14 – We left our hometown about 4:40pm after loading the car, getting kids’ school stuff stashed for the week off, the gas tank filled up, and some snacks from the drive-thru for the kids.  I noted the dashboard temp at 20°F.  Around 8pm, we found a Goldstar Chili to stop at in Westchester, a suburb of Cincinnati – we love to stop for Cincy chili and coneys!  We took about an hour there, giving the little ones some time to run off some steam since there weren’t many people there that time of night.  Luckily we asked first and that’s how we learned that the McDonald’s Playland across the street had been removed – otherwise we would have taken 4 kids into the Playplace-shaped McDonald’s and had much disappointment to contend with.  Dinner went well, despite the waitress’ well-meaning attempt to reward our cute kids with balloons – helium balloons.  Really, lady?  4 helium balloons to add to the 6 people and the 6 people’s week’s worth of luggage in the mini-van about to trek 1000 miles?  So we managed to sneak out of the restaurant with only 2 balloons, and one popped right after we got on the expressway – thankfully it wasn’t too distracting to driver Hubby or we would have all been in trouble.  That last balloon made it all the way down to Florida with us, and it bopped around our rental house for the rest of the week until I “forgot” to pack it for the trip home.  After the Goldstar stop, the kids bedded down for the night, and they were all out by 10:30 – not bad, not bad at all!!  I had such a great time talking with Hubby and keeping him company as we drove down the country together that I didn’t want to go to bed, but I made myself try for some shut-eye around 2:30am.  I do really like the schedule we’ve made for these long drives to Florida, but there is just one downside – the most beautiful part of our trip, the winding drives through the breathtaking Tennessee mountains, is always done during the night when we cannot see anything outside but the lights of the towns in the valleys far below.  Hubby (and me) arrive in Florida tired, but the kids are well rested, and this is a way to break up the monotony of a 20+ hour car ride for those kids.

Saturday January 15 – We all woke up around 6:30am when we stopped for gas; I can’t remember where we were.  But the kids were in good moods, and the sunrise was beautiful.  Since the south was just coming out of a cold snap at this time, the air had an odd smell to it – a hard-to-describe tropical-climate-frozen-over kind of smell.  The kids awoke in wonderful moods, and we ate up all the miles we could until we began to get hungry for breakfast.  We decided to stop first for breakfast and then head to the beach since we had made the extra 90 minute jaunt over to the coast to visit while we were in the area.  We chose St. Augustine Florida since it’s coastal, and I had been there as a kid and kind of wanted to see it again.  But when we got off the expressway, there was no place for a family breakfast.  The Shoney’s that was on the roadside attraction sign had turned into a Chinese buffet, and even if we decided to stomach Chinese food for breakfast, they were not open at 8 in the morning.  So we headed east to the coast, and we found St. Augustine to be somewhat of a ghost town.  There were shuttered buildings and for lease signs everywhere; it was sad.  There seemed to be 2 sections to the city, however, and while the one section was full of shuttered attractions, empty storefronts and loiterers, the ‘original’ part of St. Augustine was bustling and beautiful.  Hoards of people were walking around the streets near the quaint shops, and we found our first glimpse of the ocean beyond the Castillo de San Marcos.  We weren’t able to stay long since everyone was starving and St. Augustine does not seem to have any family-type restaurants (mostly seafood and steak here), but we did get to glimpse some of the oldest city in the United States and marvel at the narrow streets as we tried to find our way out.  We got back on I-95 and exited miles south; near Palm Bay, I think – everyone was SO hungry at this point I wasn’t paying much attention to where we were, just that there was food nearby.  The Golden Corral here was excellent and satisfied our hunger pangs quite well.  And I have to  note how incredibly amazing those hungry, tired kid behaved!!!  All they wanted was to get to the beach, and they were SO hungry, but they were SO patient while we looked for food  – unbelievable!!  Next it was time to find a beach, so we drove east and found a nice place where we had been before.  It’s a minimal $2 toll to get over a bridge and to the coast, but well worth it since there is ample parking and shelters with bathrooms and showerheads to get the sand off.

We had a great time at the beach, even if it was cold (I think in the 50s – I’m writing this so long after it’s hard to remember!) and the locals were walking along the coastline wearing hats and gloves while we were wading.  The kids LOVED the beach, but we got cold and very tired since we were on minimal sleep, so we threw everyone into the car; most of the kids were half-dressed.  At this point, all we wanted to do was get to our rental house in Orlando, and we were so excited when we spotted Orlando’s familiar landmarks along the I-4 corridor.  But we had one stop to make – Downtown Disney to check how many Disney World tickets we had left – you can’t do this over the phone anymore.  Downtown Disney was MOBBED and we were a bit discouraged, but then again, we go through this every time we take a trip to Florida- we think it’s crowded down there, but everything ends up ok.  This year was quite crowded comparatively, so we asked a Disney cast member, and they summed  it up in one word, “Brazilians.”  After she said that, looking around, there were a lot of Brazilians, I guess because in January it’s their summer vacation since they are in the southern hemisphere.  But anyway, my husband was walking around Downtown Disney, trying to find our ticket info, and things had been so crazy when we dropped him off, that he got out of the car without his shoes (remember he was on 0 hours of sleep!).  So he’s walking around Downtown Disney, confused, shoeless, and smelling like the ocean – people are staring, some are laughing.  Then he realizes – his toenails are painted!!  He had promised our 6 year old a week before that if she was good about getting up and going to school in the morning for a whole week, she could paint Daddy’s toenails.  We and some random strangers had a good laugh about that.

We left Downtown Disney, and we were SO anxious to get to the house we made a beeline straight for it except for one problem  – we were an hour early for check-in.  So we headed back to the tourist area (Irlo Bronson Highway), and we looked for some timeshare presentations to sign up for.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we  like to do timeshare presentations, but we’ve gotten great at saying no, and Hubby and I used to make little games we’d play (insert funny random word in the conversation, things like that) that would make the 2-3 hours fly by.  Plus they would feed you and pay you for your time, so we recovered some of our vacation expenses that way.  Little did we know that the Orlando vacation scene is changing – timeshare presentations are no longer a dime a dozen;  in fact, we never found one that paid enough to be worth our time.

So we’re trying to kill an hour before we could get to the house, and we make a stop at the gift shop when we realize that most of the kids are not even dressed.  So I open the back of the van, and everything that we had just haphazardly thrown in the back when we left the beach tumbles out – including our bag of collected seashells.  So I’m picking up the seashells from the parking lot, one by one, and since I was half asleep, I didn’t really notice what I was doing until I heard, “Uh, Mom…”  I look in my hand, and I had picked up a couple of someone’s old discarded cigarette butts!!  Having had barely any sleep, I lost it then, and I laughed with the kids until I cried.

We pulled ourselves together and made it back to the house, which was finally ready – YAY!!!  Hubby took the kids in the pool while I unloaded and unpacked – I was happy to do this chore without little ones underfoot, and their behavior on the long drive was so incredibly stellar that they deserved a swim.  In a couple of hours, some of our fellow vacationers arrived (my mom and our friend Jamiahsh), and we headed out for some stuffed Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s.  We have had the question, why go all the way to Florida to get Chicago-style pizza, but it was YUMMY and we had gotten a Groupon for it which saved us money.

After that, Hubby and I went out together while the kids stayed with Grandma and Jamy, but we didn’t do much  – we were still looking (in vain) for timeshare presentations to attend.  We went to  Old Town, which is an area in Orlando set up like an old-fashioned midway.  There are blocks of little shops – and bars, which were overflowing this Saturday night with intoxicated people- and carnival and thrill rides at either end of the strip of shops.  We normally have fun at Old Town, but I don’t think we will be going back on a Saturday night- definitely wasn’t for kids.

(continued in part 2, a more abbreviated version!)

The Great Zoo Debate

Posted in animals on February 25th, 2010 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is a sad post for me to write – a veteran trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was killed yesterday by an Orca whale at Sea World in Orlando, Florida.  Reports of the incident have been conflicting, but it seems that the trainer was pulled into the tank when the giant sea mammal grabbed her ponytail.  She subsequently drowned.  Unmistakably, this is a tragedy – pure and simple.

But it also re-awakens the great zoo debate – should humans be able to keep wild animals in zoos?  As they say, you can take an animal out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the animal, and tragedies such as yesterday’s incident at Sea World prove this.  It is also apparent that no matter how many precautions are taken to avoid tragedy, an accident can always occur.  However, I love zoos, and I strongly and truly believe that the conservation education and money raised by zoos has been and will continue to be detrimental in helping certain species survive and bounce back from the brink of extinction.  Many other people disagree, and tragedies such as this and the fatal Siberian tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007 always add fervor to the great zoo debate, which is depicted in this video from Good Morning America and features zoo advocate Jack Hanna debating with the Vice President of an anti-zoo organization, Born Free:

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In my opinion, they did not let Mr. Hanna have an equal part in the debate.  He has some good points, and it’s very difficult to say where the status of certain endangered species would be right now if it were not for the conservation efforts of zoos and wildlife parks – no one knows what could or would have been either way, so how can that be a part of the debate?  As Mr. Roberts points out, the number of tigers has greatly dwindled over the past century.  But one can also point out that no one knows for sure if it would have been worse had zoos not been educating the public about tigers or if they had not been learning how to breed them in captivity to continue the species.

The bottom line is, in my opinion, (and this is MY blog, so I get the bottom line) zoos and aquariums have taken great strides forward for the preservation of many animal species.  I believe their work and conservation efforts are invaluable to conservation (not to mention how many thousands of jobs zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks, and conservation programs bring to societies in hundreds of countries); in fact, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have funded more than 3,700 conservation projects in more than 100 countries and spend nearly $70 million on conservation initiatives annually.  Remember my post about the Kihansi Spray Toad?  This is just one example of a creature that would be completely extinct (it is believed to be extinct in the wild but still exists in just two zoos in the world) if it weren’t for the efforts of zoos trying to save it.

Obviously what happened in Orlando is a tragedy of great proportion.  And I’m not trying to undermine it, but Dawn’s friends, family, and colleagues are all stating that she was aware of the inherent risks of her job and that she would want nothing but for her work to go on despite what happened.  Perhaps changes need to be made; maybe certain species of animal require bigger and better habitats and different types of interaction and stimulation – the modern zoo world is relatively new, and experts are still learning.  But I think their hard work is invaluable to the world, and I hope that someday, all of this is just as obvious to the nay-sayers as it is to us zoo-lovers.

Kind of puts this into perspective now... I wonder if Marineland in Niagara Falls Canada still allows this after recent tragedies involving the killer whale?

Disney Vs. Universal – Round 1,642

Posted in Travel on September 16th, 2009 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As a frequent visitor to Orlando Florida, the United States theme park capital, the following news stories caught my eye.  Disney World and Universal Studios have been competing in an epic battle for tourists for a few decades now, and as a result, us tourists are the real winners!  Check out the two new additions to each park!

Universal Studios is adding a Harry Potter-themed world!  I’m not even a fan of the series and the pictures and descriptions of this place excited me!  I might have to read a Harry Potter book or see some of the movies before I check it out!  This answers the question I posed in a previous blog post – What will happen to Marvel Superhero Island when Disney buys Marvel?  Answer:  who cares?  Universal will have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!

Not to be outdone, Disney has released that they are doubling the size of their current Fantasyland area, adding a Little Mermaid attraction, among other things.  If the rumors on this blog are true, it seems to me like Universal is going to win this time.  More meet-and-greet space at Disney?  Yawn!  Bring on the thrill rides!  But if I know the folks at Disney, they have more than doubling Dumbo and adding more Disney princess meet-and-greet up their sleeves and just haven’t leaked that part of the expansion to the public yet…  So stay tuned!

What Will Happen To Marvel Island?

Posted in Travel on August 31st, 2009 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From the Financial Pages today – business news is not something I usually write about, but you’ll see why the following story would interest me:

Disney To Acquire Marvel Entertainment

Our family frequents the Orlando Florida area, home of Disney World and also their major competitor – Universal Studios.  For those of you who don’t know, at Universal’s Islands of Adventure (the newer and more thrill-ride oriented of Universal’s two Orlando parks), there is an entire area called Marvel Superhero Island®.  So my question is, now that Disney, Universal’s biggest competitor and business enemy, has bought Marvel, what will happen to Superhero Island at Islands of Adventure?  I can’t imagine that Universal would want to keep the same characters, now owned by Disney, at their park.  And I can’t imagine Disney letting Universal keep the characters at their park, unless the price was right, of course.  But based upon the competitiveness that is obvious to the tourists flocking to the area, Disney’s superhero lease price would probably put Universal out of business!

Marvel’s Superhero Island currently contains (click the link for an interactive map – Superhero Island is on the left side of the park, just left of the main gate) the following attractions:   The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall, and Storm Force Accelatron, which we’ve always skipped since it seemed like Universal’s answer to Disney’s Teacup ride.  We always skipped Doctor Doom also since it’s a free-fall ride and I’m afraid to go on those.  I think my husband went on this one however, but I don’t remember him saying it was any different from the rest of these types of rides.  In short, it probably won’t be much of a problem to rename these two rides.  The Hulk coaster is an awesome coaster and should also be able to withstand the re-themeing, although it might need a paint job to change its current green/purple Hulk theme.  The Adventures of Spiderman is another story.  This ride is awesome!  There really isn’t anything else like it in either of the two parks.  It’s basically like taking a thrill ride into a 3D Spiderman movie.  I guess they’d have to choose a new character and make a new movie.  Whatever they do, I hope it’s as good as the original Spiderman ride!  Also complicating a theming switch would be the superheros and villians that walk around Marvel’s Superhero Island.  I guess all the costumes would be sold to Disney.  Perhaps Disney will build a superhero section – my guess would be at MGM Hollywood Studios if I had to pick a place.

And Universal would have an entire area to theme and fill.  Hmmm, imagine the possibilities….
Let’s see, would they coincide the new area with  a new movie coming out (Smurfs (sorry Carol), Jetsons – not sure if those are Universal movies)?  Or would they take one of their existing franchises (Simpsons – they’d have to move that super-cool new ride from the Studios park to the Islands park!, NBC land (The Office – The Ride!)) and create a whole new world?  Any ideas?

**UPDATE** – From orlandosentinel.com: “…theme-park rival Universal Orlando will likely retain the park rights to its four Marvel superstars, including Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk…
…Universal’s contracts apparently gives it exclusive U.S. rights east of the Mississippi River for theme-park attractions built around certain of those characters, notably Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men and Dr. Doom.
Universal Orlando said Marvel characters will remain a staple at its parks.
“Marvel Super Hero Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the Marvel characters are an important part of the Universal Orlando experience. They will remain so,” said Tom Schroder, a Universal spokesman. “Our agreement with Marvel stands for as long as we follow the terms of our existing contract and for as long as we want there to be a Marvel Super Hero Island.”

So in response to several comments from blog readers, there are a separate set of rights for the Marvel characters in question – theme park rights.

Walking With Dinosaurs

Posted in Current Events, Kids, Theater on May 29th, 2008 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In case you haven’t heard of it, Walking With Dinosaurs is a traveling show that is based on the BBC documentary of the same name.  It is in Fort Wayne, Indiana this week, which isn’t too far from us.  They’ve been advertising it heavily, and I’ve been meaning to check out ticket info, but I kept forgetting.  Thanks to our local paper who ran a story about it the other day, I was reminded about it just in time!  Seems the tickets are QUITE costly!  However, my computer-savvy husband went online and found a discount that saved us SO much money on tickets, but only if we went opening night…  So, we dragged all the kids to Fort Wayne to see some dinosaurs on a school night.  Let me say, it was SOOO worth it!

It’s been a really long time since I was really excited about something that actually ended up measuring up to my expectations.  I was really excited about this show; I thought it would be a good show, but I will say that it EXCEEDED my expectations!  Not only was it visually stunning, It was a perfect show for the whole family.  There were lifelike dinosaurs engaging in battles, flying, and scavenging…  what’s not to like?!?  We have kids of all ages and bravery levels, and they were all entertained.  Our 8-year-old and our 4-year-old did get a little nervous in the beginning, but their fear quickly turned to excitement and awe once the dinosaurs started appearing.  Our 19-month-old LOVED everything about the show.  She is getting to the age where it’s hard for her to sit still, especially now that she can walk, but she watched every moment of this show, and clapped and laughed so hard that I was even distracted from the dinosaurs at times by my daughter’s cuteness.  I wasn’t distracted too much though, cuz the dinosaurs were totally AWESOME!  They were life-size and SO realistic looking, it was amazing.  Our seats were great too – best in the house, front row center.  These dinosaurs were even better looking than the ones in the movie Jurassic Park!  Walking With Dinosaurs operates on a $20 million dollar budget, and it shows!

I would venture to say that this is probably the best professional live show I have ever seen, and that includes musicals from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera, Camelot, and Les Miserables to other shows like Monsters Inc. on Ice, Dragon Tales Live, and dinner shows like Medieval Times, Arabian Nights, and Pirates Dinner Adventure in Orlando, Florida.  This was fun for the whole family; probably even most fun for my husband and I!  If the tickets weren’t so pricey, I would definitely go back and see the show again – even with the $20-30 it cost in gas money alone.  My 4-year-old suffered from what I call “fundown” after the show – a feeling of disappointment when an event is over that is so intense for kids, they usually cry or throw tantrums.  But I can’t say I blame her.  When I realized the show was ending, I had my own “fundown” when I realized there weren’t going to be any more dinosaurs!

Totally awesome show – wait, that’s not even the right word.  It was more of an experience than a show.  Even better than the dinosaur-themed rides at Disney World and Universal Studios.  As we were leaving the coliseum, the rest of the audience seemed very pleased as well.  Everyone was smiling and jabbering about the dinosaurs a mile a minute.  They also had one actor – who was upstaged by the dinosaurs, of course! – and some other props and effects in the show that made it totally awesome.  Also pretty impressive were the rows upon rows of trailers parked outside that carry the dinosaurs from venue to venue.  I knew it would take a few semis to cart around all those dinosaurs, but there were probably at least 25 semis parked out there!  It is understandable that all these lifesize dinosaurs would create such an entourage, since the Brachiosaurus alone was 36 feet tall and 56 feet from nose to tail.

If this live show experience is going to be anywhere near your hometown, I highly recommend that you do your best to get tickets.  It is a perfect show for the young and old, dinosaur fans, skeptics, or even those who are indifferent to the world’s history; I don’t see how anyone could NOT enjoy Walking With Dinosaurs!