September 30, 2011

Photo Friday - Segway Tour

Segway Tour of Historic Manchester, New Hampshire

This week's photo comes from my tour of the historic parts - so basically just the mills - of Manchester, New Hampshire. The above picture was snapped as we made a stop at the observation deck overlooking the Amoskeag Falls. To be honest - I'm sure I'm not surprising anyone when I say this - I just went on the tour so I could ride a Segway. Living in NH my whole life, I'm well aware of what's here, or rather, not here. The tour was pretty cute, and I did learn a few fun facts, but Manchester is not a hub of excitement and history like Boston or Philly. Still, it's good to be reminded that there are activities in your own backyard, no matter how boring you may think your neighborhood is, so thanks to Segway of Manchester for that. Oh, and we randomly met the governor of NH while we were motoring around. I don't think there is any other state in the country where the governor, with no security or handlers, would wander over to a group of people just to chat. Too bad nobody was brave enough to ask for a picture. Maybe next time.

September 16, 2011

Photo Friday - Flowers in Madrid

Irises in the Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid, Spain

That's right! After a month off, Photo Friday is back! For whatever reason I wasn't feeling overly inspired this week when it came time to choose a picture to share, so I went with a trusty favorite. I'm absolutely crazy about this photo from Madrid. The sharpness of the purple iris gets me every time, and I love the orange and reds hanging out in the background. The Real Jardin Botanico is filled with a million gorgeous flowers, and it also provides a quiet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Madrid. It only costs 2.50 to get in (unless you're a student, then it's just 1.25), so definitely check it out if you ever find yourself in the city. 

September 10, 2011

Disney World - Day 4

You guessed it, Day 4 - sadly our final day in Disney - began with one last sprint. This sprint, however, was much more orderly and really should be called a speed-walk mob, if you will. And this time, it was through Animal Kingdom.

As with Hollywood Studios, the crowds were allowed through the turnstiles and then held up just before crossing the bridge by a troupe of cast members holding a rope across the entrance. Jackie and I managed to our elbow our way to the front, and when the park officially opened, the cast members set off. I'm beyond impressed that they were able to maintain their steady pace and not run in fear of being trampled. We weren't so lucky. Jackie suffered from a few people stepping on her feet, and at one point I had to tell her to go on without me as I literally leapt over a stroller to avoid being taken out at the ankles. I was dreading the moment the cast members left us and all hell would really break loose, but bless their hearts, they escorted us all the way to the queue for Expedition Everest, our destination.

Jackie and I had already mapped out what rides we wanted to hit, and Expedition Everest was the first step in our game plan. We hopped in line and were in one of the first trains to leave the station. Being unfamiliar with the ride, we weren't sure where the best place to sit was, but we ended up towards the back, which is usually a pretty good bet on roller coasters.

Well it turns out it doesn't matter where you sit on Everest, because half way through the ride it starts to go backwards. That's right. Backwards. The back becomes the front and the front the back. I was definitely not expecting that, but holy moly, so much fun!

When we got off the ride, we ran next door to Kali River Rapids to grab FastPasses, but then headed right back to Everest. The wait time was still incredibly short, so on principle, we had to ride again. Afterwards, we crossed the park to get on a safari ride while it was still early in the morning - supposedly the best time to see the animals. And I think that's pretty accurate, because we saw some mighty cool animals.

The giraffes and elephants were my favorite. The rhino you can see walking in front of our car actually caused a road block, and we were lucky enough to be stuck right next to the elephants. I was pretty pumped to enjoy a 10 minute party with Mama and Baby elephant. I wish we'd had the same luck by the cheetahs, but our safari guide blew right by them. I was only able to grab one photo, and it came out blurry. I'm not even sure it's a cheetah (hence why I didn't bother to post it here). I appreciate that they have to keep the ride moving, but I'd rather they cut out the fake drama about poachers and just drive us around while we ooh and aah at the animals.

After the safari, we trekked back across the park - stopping for a quick photo op with the Tree of Life - to Everest once more since our FastPasses for Kali River Rapids hadn't quite kicked in yet.

Seeing the length of the regular queue, we decided to take our chances with the single riders line instead. It was certainly faster than the regular line, but unless you get lucky, FastPass is still the best way to go. Jackie allowed me to go ahead of her, so when my turn came, I was assigned to ride with a cute, young guy who was traveling as part of a family reunion. What luck! He high-fived me when we were paired up and made conversation while we waited for our train. I looked back to see if Jackie had been pulled out of line yet, but I couldn't find her. Somehow she had made it onto the train ahead of me! What the? However, she was paired with a rude woman who took up most of her seat and Jackie's, so I'll take the cute guy, thanks. And did I mention he was funny too? When we boarded the ride, he turned to me and said, "When I rode this earlier, I threw up." He had a completely straight face, and for a second I was actually concerned, but then he followed it up with a wink. Yup, I love him. When we met back up, Jackie was less than thrilled for me. I guess that happens when you've been berated and nearly squashed. That's the luck of the draw when you choose the single rider line.

By that time, our FastPasses were ready at Kali, so we walked back next door and blew through the line. And may I just say, it's a good thing we did. Having now experienced the ride, I can safely say it's not worth waiting too long for. If it's hot out, sure, you'll get wet and cool off, but that's about it. There's only one major drop, and the entire ride takes about two minutes (if that). I was sadly disappointed. Thankfully, we were paired with a pretty hilarious group of guys, so they made the ride worth it.

After that, Jackie and I were done with Animal Kingdom. Nothing else struck our fancy, so it was back to the resort for some lunch and one last afternoon at the pool. This time, I managed to burn. I don't know why my skin had been vehemently repelling the sun all week, but I guess on the last day it decided to make up for lost time, because I was lobster red in under an hour. I sought refuge in the room, where Jackie and I spent the rest of the evening getting ready for our nice dinner. I say nice because we decided to wear dresses and actually put more than three seconds of effort into our hair. I meant to take a picture of us looking cute and presentable, but I didn't remember until hours later when we'd changed and were walking through Cinderella's castle. Oops!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Jackie and I dined at Wolfgang Punk in Downtown Disney for our last night. It was pretty good, but after the meals we experienced earlier in the week at Bongos and Teppan Edo, I was a bit let down. Our waiter was pretty awesome, though, and recommended some great drinks and dishes, so bonus points for Anthony.

After dinner, we went back to the room, changed out of our dresses, and headed to the Magic Kingdom for one last night of Extra Magic Hours. As luck would have it, Wishes (MK's spectacular fireworks display) was just starting as our bus pulled in. Jackie and I booked it for Main Street (why are we always running?!) and ended up with a fantastic view of the show over the castle. Once again, I tried to take a few pictures, but then ended up just enjoying the show.

Towards the end, Jackie started edging us over to Space Mountain to try and cut off the inevitable crowd that would head that way right after the finale. We still ended up waiting in a pretty sizable line, so I can only imagine what it would have been like if we'd moseyed over. Somehow we ended up talking to the kids behind us, who felt the need to share their life stories. I tried to be polite, but it was exhausting. Thank gosh, again, that Space Mountain is worth all the trouble.

I was assigned to the very back of the car (rocket?), and it was the best ride yet. The back really zips and whips, so it was like a bonus to the already awesome ride. I also noticed as we were pulling out that the line had all but disappeared. You know what that means! As soon as we exited the ride, we turned around and got right back in line. This time we flew through - we didn't even have time for the games! - and once again found ourselves in the back. I let Jackie have the very back car so she could experience the awesomeness.

With two rides under our belts, we called it a night. Not before walking through Cinderella's castle, though. We took the long way back to the busses and passed through it because I'm convinced you can't go all the way to Disney and only walk around it. It was that photo op moment that made me realize we'd completely blown our opportunity to take a decent looking photo in our dresses, but what are you gonna do?

We made it back to the bus stop and thankfully did not face the nightmarish situation we encountered a few nights before. Soon we were back at the resort and packing our bags. I tried not to be too depressed as I threw my clothes back in, barely trying to maintain any sort of order.

The next morning, we gathered at the lobby bus stop with the rest of those mourning the end of their Disney vacation. The check-out of the hotel, check-in for your flight process was incredibly smooth and easy, but Disney should check it's misleading wording on the topic. They'd previously slid a memo under our door saying if you were checking a bag you couldn't do that at the Disney desk, but guess what, you can. Yup, can and can't are almost the same thing. Whatever, in the end, it all worked out.

Soon we were on our way back home. Back to real life. Twas a sad day, but I'm glad we had a magical time while at Disney. I can't wait to go back!

September 9, 2011

Disney World - Day 3

We kicked off Day 3 with yet another sprint, this time through Hollywood Studios (the park formerly known as MGM). Extra Magic Hours were in effect, so we once again rose early and headed for the park. Learning our lesson from Epcot, we arrived ahead of doors opening to try and position ourselves better. This turned out to be an excellent move because Hollywood Studios allows people to move through the turnstiles, but then has cast members block the crowd from advancing beyond the main road (aka before you can get to any rides or attractions).

When the clock strikes 8am, though, watch out! The cast members move the crowd towards the main rides, going left for Toy Story Mania and right for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, where we headed. Jackie claimed they stayed with us all the way to the rides, forcing us to walk and preventing a stampede, but I was too far back to see them. I just thought we were a rational enough group of people to limit ourselves to speed-walking and occasionally jogging. Jackie's explanation sounds more likely.

Anyway, at the end of the street, the cast members bailed and the crowd let loose. Half booked it for Tower of Terror (Jackie included) and half for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (yours truly included). Jackie had given me her key-card ahead of time, so I got us FastPasses for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and then jumped in the incredibly short line for a solo ride while Jackie lost her stomach on Tower (I had zero interest in riding that). I made it through the line in record time and found myself on the second car to leave the station. I have never been that close to kicking off a ride before!

After my ride, I met Jackie at the exit (she was in the first car to be dropped on Tower and had already made it back), and we immediately got back in line for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. We learned that whenever there was under a 30 minute wait for a popular ride, you get in line. Once again, we made it through the queue in record time. I tried to warn Jackie about the zero to 60 start, but she must have thought I was exaggerating. The look on her face when they snapped the picture (which they do right at the beginning when you blast off) is beyond priceless, especially given the stonewall expression on the kid's face in front of her.

When we got off the ride, our window for FastPasses was open, so we ended up getting right back on the ride. I'm almost surprised the people working the ride didn't roll their eyes when they saw us (or at least me) coming. We practically became experts, riding in the front, middle, and back of the car (unlike Big Thunder, you want to be in the front for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster).

After my third ride and Jackie's second, we decided to explore the rest of Hollywood Studios - but not before getting more FastPasses for later that afternoon. The problem is, there's not much else to do in that park. We're not big "show" people - they're best for sitting down and enjoying some AC - so nothing really struck our fancy. We scoped out Toy Story Mania, but the wait time was about two hours, and all the FastPasses were already gone. I'm sorry, I wouldn't wait two hours for any ride, especially not a kiddie ride.

Eventually we settled on Muppet Vision 3D, since we both had fond memories of it as a kid. It's a cute show, but I found it more nostalgic than actually entertaining. By the same measure, we wanted to see Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, but that show no longer exists! The attraction has been turned into a giant playground with large blades of grass and ants to make you feel small. Um, no thank you. Not cool, Disney. Shows > playgrounds.

We continued wandering, snapping some pictures of the city backdrops and hoping to stumble upon an attraction that caught our eye, but the only other two shows we were remotely interested in - Indiana Jones and Sounds Dangerous - weren't running. Indiana Jones didn't start until 11am (we'd barely made it to regular park hours at this point), and Sounds Dangerous is seasonal - and we weren't in season. Seriously, Hollywood Studios? Not very magical. With nothing better to do, we returned to Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and waited in line, which at this point was more sizable, but still not too bad. For the first time, though, we actually had to wait in each room. Turns out it's pretty cool inside. Who knew?!

After what was now my fourth ride and Jackie's third in about a three hour span, we decided it was time for food. We'd foregone breakfast in order to dominate the queues (and clearly we were successful), so we pushed up lunch. We had reservations at 50s Prime Time Cafe later in the day, but we were hungry and anxious to get out of Hollywood Studios, so we switched things up. Remember what I said about Disney being accommodating? We went to the restaurant, asked to be seated right away in lieu of our reservation, and they could not have been less phased. If anything, they were probably glad to have the open table for later. Thanks Disney!

The 50s Cafe is set up like a 50s kitchen: lots of linoleum and old black and white TVs. The waitresses wear cute dresses and aprons, and all the food is supposed to remind you of mama's cooking. The main schtick, though, is that they treat you like family. They ask where you're from and then announce to the surrounding tables that their "cousins from *insert where you're from* are here." They make you say hi to everyone, and it's sort of embarrassing, but if everyone plays along, it can be pretty hilarious. Our waitress was only a few years older than we were, which I think helped tone down the scolding, but often they'll yell at you to get your elbows off the table and to use your manners. If you go to the bathroom, they'll even ask you what color the soap was to check if you washed your hands. It certainly keeps you on your toes.

I wasn't overly impressed with the lunch menu - it was a bit lacking - but the sandwich I ended up getting was pretty good. Basically, I wouldn't go to the 50s Cafe for the food (all the food in Hollywood Studios is a bit meh), but if you're looking for a funny and potentially mortifying meal, it's a good time.

After lunch, we headed back once more to Rock 'n' Roller Coaster to cash in our FastPasses. Unfortunately, the ride had broken and was going to be down for a while. Since we weren't sticking around, we tried to find two people to give our FastPasses to, but sadly were unsuccessful (never would have thought that was possible). Then we headed for the exits, having spent just over four hours in the park. Pathetic.

When we got back to Pop Century, we planned to hit the pool again, but we never made it. We ended up passing out instead. Some might say napping is a waste of good Disney time, but I loved it. I think we were both looking to recharge after two early mornings and late nights. When we were all rested up, we headed to Downtown Disney for ice cream sundaes at Ghiradelli. Oh. Em. Gee. It was death by chocolate in the absolute best way. I could live off the smell of that store alone.

Anywho, after checking out a few more shops, we moved on to Epcot. Once again we wandered the World Showcase, this time sampling some food and drinks from each country. I only wish my stomach was bigger. I will say, the patisserie in France has some tasty treats, the cider from the United Kingdom was beyond delicious, and I will forever regret not finding room for teriyaki chicken from Japan.

When we'd gorged ourselves fully, we settled on the bridge between the UK and France to wait for the fireworks show, IllumiNations. We were befriended by a mom and her two young daughters, which actually made for a great way to pass the time. Finally, it was time for the show. The bridge provided a great view of the lake where the magic took place. A giant globe floats around showing images from all over the world, while the countries light up and contribute to the spectacle. Then of course there are fireworks and pyrotechnics. There was so much fire, in fact, that I could feel the warmth from where I stood on the bridge. Jackie and I tried to get some pictures, but then we decided to just enjoy it.

After the show, we followed the masses out to the bus stops. May I just say, Epcot ran a much tighter ship than the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps it was because the park was closing, so they brought in extra busses, I don't know, but after just a few minutes we found ourselves on a bus back to the resort. Thank you, Epcot.

Next, we have stories from Day 4, our final day in Disney. :-(

September 8, 2011

Disney World - Day 2 (part 2)

Exhausted from our time in Epcot, we decided to head back to Pop Century for some pool time to recharge. And to be quite honest, I wanted to have a look around the resort to check out all the cool theme pieces they have.

I love relaxing pool time as much as the next person, but I get bored with it pretty quickly. So after about an hour of getting in and out of the pool, alternating between actively pursuing sunburn and then taking a quick dip to cool off, we set off on a tour around the resort.

Our room was in the 90s, so we began there. Other than a giant computer and cell phone (with a number on the display screen that I really wanted to call), the 90s didn't really have much, so then it was on to the 80s. My favorite part of the 80s was the giant Walkman. It didn't look that big at first, but once we posed with it, you can really see how it dwarfs you.

After the 80s, it was over to the 70s for photos with numerous toys - in gigantic form of course. If you ever want to pretend to be part of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, you need only visit a Disney resort. My favorite part of all: the giant foosball table. Admittedly, I didn't know what the giant A-tracks were at first, but hey, they were before my time.


We continued across the main pool/lobby area to the 60s and then the 50s. I thought the 50s would be really cool, but other than a giant jukebox and a pool shaped like a bowling pin, it was a bit meh. Luckily the 60s were home to a giant Play-Doh. Awesome! (See if you can spot Jackie hiding amongst it.)

As you may be able to see in the pictures, by the end of our walk around the resort, storm clouds were a'brewing. We sought sanctuary in the main building where we got dinner in the food court. I was pretty impressed with the options available, too. There were four different "hot" stations where you could get your typical burger and fries, Mexican, pizza, or even Asian. Then of course there were desserts galore. Jackie and I may have gone a bit overboard around that much food. But you know what? It was vacation (that was our motto for the trip). 

When we were done gorging ourselves, we ran back to our room and waited for the storm to finish. Finally the clouds had no more rain to give, so we ventured back out to the Magic Kingdom for evening Extra Magic Hours. Having essentially struck out our last time in MK, we went in with a clearer plan this time around. I'm proud to say we executed it pretty well, too. 

We headed straight for Frontierland and after assessing the wait times for Splash Mountain and Big Thunder, got FastPasses for Big Thunder and then hopped in line for Splash. It took hardly any time at all and soon we were free-falling and drenched. I remember the drop being longer/bigger, but I guess that's what happens when you ride something as a kid and come back as an adult. 

After our ride, we went next door to Big Thunder, which was broken... again. So off we went to Tomorrowland - elbowing our way through the ridiculous parade crowds (seriously people? not exciting. move.) - and got in the queue for Space Mountain. That line was insane with a side of INSANE. Disney is the master of disguising how long a queue actually is, and nowhere is this demonstrated better than in Space Mountain. Fortunately, Space Mountain is one of the best rides Disney has to offer, so it was worth it. 

When we made it through that experience, we went all the way back to Big Thunder for one last try. And what do you know! It was running! We flew through the queue and soon found ourselves on a train. We were originally assigned the very front car, but Big Thunder is terribly lame when you sit in the front, so we moved to the back. Disney, again, was very accommodating. Keep that little nugget with you, kids: Disney lets you sit wherever you want. Twas a good decision because the ride was awesome. We got nice and jostled. 

With just three rides under our belts, we bailed on the park. The exhaustion caught up with us and we were looking at another early morning. We headed for the busses where we waited in the longest. queue. ever. EVER! Our resort filled the entire queue and then ran the length of the bus stop. Other resorts were looking at us with pity and appreciation that they weren't in our line. It was terrible. We weren't waiting quite as long as I thought we'd be (I was having nightmares about a 90 minute wait), but it still took us 45 minutes to an hour to get on a bus. I was not feeling the magic. 

But eventually we made it back and poured ourselves into bed, where we got a few hours of sleep before we once again rose early for a fun-filled Day 3!

September 7, 2011

Disney World - Day 2 (part 1)

As would become the theme the rest of the trip, Jackie and I began our second day with an early morning sprint. On this particular Friday, that sprint was through Epcot for our princess breakfast.

Epcot had Extra Magic Hours in effect, so we rose early, slapped on some sunscreen, and joined the busy queue waiting for the bus at our resort. When we got to Epcot, the doors were not yet open, but the lines to enter the park were already a mile long. We tried to find the shortest (and most childless) line, where we waited for the doors to open, and I began to panic about making our breakfast reservation. Word to the wise: don't make breakfast reservations in the parks unless they're at least an hour after the park opens. Yes, you can make it, but you'll stress yourself out and arrive sweating buckets, as we did.

When the doors opened, we pushed our way forward (or were carried forward) with the rest of the masses. At the turnstile, we swiped our cards, gave our fingerprints (I found this wildly unnecessary and very suspicious), and finally entered the park. After grabbing a map and quickly plotting the most efficient route to the restaurant, we took off for the World Showcase. I won't call it a run, but families were certainly throwing themselves out of our path (at least they should have been). We made what turned out to be a very lucky wrong turn and found ourselves by Test Track, so we grabbed FastPasses for later and continued our speed-walk/sprint.

Ten minutes after our scheduled reservation, we arrived at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Norway (thank gosh it's the second country in). Once again, Disney was beyond accommodating. Considering this is one of the most popular character breakfasts, I was concerned we'd get booted, but I guess Disney just doesn't do that sort of thing. Instead, we were greeted by a gorgeous blonde Norwegian girl who assured us everything was fine and was nice enough not to point out how awful we looked. We probably could have immediately joined the velvet-roped receiving line, but I guess Disney likes to announce its guests. So we waited about 51 seconds and then heard "Now seating the Royal Family of Ellen and Jackie." And thus our mortification began.

We booked our shame at the door and entered the banquet hall. First up, posing for a professional photo with Belle - aka the best princess ever. (There's no contest and I will fight you if you dare disagree.) She looked glamorous; we were a hot mess. But she pulled us in close for the photo, complimented Jackie's shirt, and told us purple was Beast's favorite color. Yes, all the princesses had their little quips.

After our photo, we were shown to our table (off to the side, naturally, since we were the only people there not with a table full of kids), where our waiter, Christian, welcomed us. Christian, by the way, was a beautiful man. Seriously, what are Norwegians eating? And how can I get some? Anyway, he pointed us in the direction of the cold buffet and brought over some hot dishes. All the food was exceptionally yummy, if not your standard breakfast.

While we dined, the princesses flitted about visiting with the guests. I know they're supposed to stay in character no matter what, but I'm pretty sure we got a few of them to drop when they swung by our table. Aurora stopped by first and was lovely. When she asked if we were too shy for a picture, I think she expected us to say no. Well, Aurora, when you paid as much as we did for this magical Disney experience, you bet your butt we're taking pictures. As we did with all the princesses. Observe. (P.S. they made us do those silly poses. Also, look closely and you can see Aurora laughing at us.)

 Snow White                                   Aurora                                             Ariel

Perhaps you're wondering why a one Cinderella is missing. Well, I'm sorry to tell you all this (block your ears, kids) but Cinderella is a stuck up bitch. She saw our table, did a 180, and went to visit a different group. Rude! She did come over later, but just to warn us not to lose our shoes. She didn't even ask if we wanted a picture! Well, Cinderella, congrats. You're now on my naughty list.

But I'm not going to sweat it. We got a professional shot with Belle and some fun ones with the other princesses. All in all, a good experience. I will say, though, Disney makes you pay out the wazoo for this magical experience. Yes, the professional shot is complimentary (they give you a large copy in a folder as well as four 4x6s), but when the meal costs as much as it does, it darn well should be. Just keep that in mind when booking a character meal. And be sure to make the most of it!

When we were done being embarrassed, we ventured back out into Future World. We hit a few rides, such as Spaceship Earth, but the lines were insane and nothing truly grabbed our fancy. We spent most of the morning perusing the shops and sampling sodas from around the world in Club Cool. A stop in Club Cool is a must. You may have to fight your way through rowdy crowds to reach the soda machines, but all the samples are free, and most are quite tasty. But beware of Italy! I had to wash my mouth out after that one. 

After Club Cool, it was back to the World Showcase, easily the best part of all of Disney. We started in Canada and wound our way over to Japan for our lunch reservation at Teppan Edo. As hibachi is one of the coolest and tastiest meals one could ever have, I was pretty pumped. Teppan Edo did not disappoint. We were once again seated away from the main hub-bub dining room in a secluded room with just two hibachi grills. We shared ours with an older couple and a family from Texas. Good times were had by all. Jackie and I also discovered that the mystery white sauce they served is the most delicious thing known to man. If you ever get white sauce: eat liberally. And let's hear it for the traditional onion volcano!

After lunch, we continued our circuit around the World Showcase, snapping many photos and taking inventory of all the food we needed/wanted to eat when we had more room in our tummies. On the way out, we cashed in our FastPasses and took a (literally) quick trip on Test Track. Then it was back to the resort for the afternoon for some pool time and a photo-shoot of all the cool themes.

 Canada                        United Kingdom                             France
 Japan                                          Italy                                       Germany

China                                      Mexico