Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Universal Studios)

I am currently on the road (surprise, right?), working our way from Florida to Pennsylvania on a road trip my mom has been wanting to take for years, to get back to our roots, apparently. It was short notice that we were doing this. I had gone to Orlando with my friends last week to spend two days at Universal. Came home and less than 48 hours later, we were on the road. So hopefully, we'll have some good times to share.

This post is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter only. I may add a review of the other parts of the Universal Studios amusement parks, but I wanted to get this part done while it was stiff fresh in my very limited memory. 

(Hogwarts Castle & Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Ride)

I have to first admit, I'm a late bloomer when it comes to "Harry Potter". My friends have tried getting me hooked for years, but after recently moving back to Florida, curiosity got the best of me and I asked a couple of friends, and their Harry Potter-addict daughter to go with me to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. She made me watch all the movies first (marathon style!), then made me go to the official J.K. Rowling website, www.pottermore.com (an addiction all on it's own!) to find out what house I belonged in. I am Ravenclaw. All four of us were in a different house so we were representing everyone. 

We timed it great at the end of September, but I'd say October to April would be perfect. It was still pretty warm and very humid when we went. We went on a Tuesday and Wednesday when the kiddies were in school and "the season" was technically over. Definitely the time to do it if you want to avoid long waits. And be warned, Universal makes you pay a big chunk of money if you want to have a "Fast" pass like Disney offers for free (at the moment...give them time!), so the timing of your visit is important. 

Let me explain something that confused me at first: There are two ends to the Harry Potter world; one end in each park (see this link for interactive map). Therefore if you want the whole experience, you have to buy a park-hopper and I suggest a 2-day minimum. There are other things to see in the parks besides Harry Potter, so give yourself enough time for all of it. Floridians get a special resident discount, and if you want a season pass (there are 3 types of passes, each getting more and more expensive, but hey! They'll let you make monthly payments!). What we would consider the 'original' Harry Potter, which is where Hogwarts Castle, Flight of the Hippogriff, Dragon Challenge and Hogsmeade are, is actually in Universal's Island of Adventure. The newest part of the Harry Potter area is in Universal Studios. The Hogwarts Express, which is a new train ride, takes you between the two parks. It's just like being on the real train. You sit in a cabin, and out your window you see different locations and people from the stories, and on the aisle side, there are shadows of Harry, Ron and Hermione walking by and chocolate frogs escaping and you can hear them having a conversation before they move on. I don't actually think the train moves very far at all, but it seems like it does. I think it's about a 4 minute ride.
The graphics out of the train window were awesome. You see Hagrid, centaurs, and the Weasley twins flying around, popping off fireworks in the landscape. I think we rode the train at least 3 times while we were there. The Hogwarts Express takes you to the newest part, Diagon Alley. Over 1 million people visited in the first month it was open. The Diagon Alley section was much bigger than I thought it would be (it's actually like a small town), but there really aren't that many stores. A lot of false fronts, but the atmosphere is just awesome and trust me, there's no shortage of things to buy or drool over. Be careful stumbling around Knockturn Alley, where it's said light never penetrates. 

And definitely find yourself some BUTTER BEER! They have stands selling it in Hogsmeade as well as the Three Broomsticks. There's a pub at the corner of Knockturn Alley (The Leaky Cauldron) where you can get that or the real thing. In the center of Diagon Alley is Gringott's; the bank run by goblins. The inside of the bank itself is impressive, with the goblins working hard. There is a new 4-D ride there. I actually liked it better than the ride at Hogwart's Castle ride ("Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey"), which almost made me nauseous. The next morning I took the Dramamine before I got to the park. It's getting so hard to tell what is real and what isn't anymore. I don't think we waited longer than 10-15 minutes at any of the H.P. rides. 

On top of Gringott's (which is where "Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott's" ride is) outside is a fire-breathing dragon. I actually liked that ride better than the one in Hogwarts castle. And don't forget to stop at Ollivander's in either Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley and see what wand suits you (it's actually a little skit taken from the first movie). Another cool thing is you can buy a special wand, that actually interacts with areas throughout both park sections. There are markers on the street and if you stand there and wave the magic wand, something magical will happen. 

We had a blast and I can now count myself in with millions of true Harry Potter fans. One of the only things I didn't like (and this was true for many of the rides in both parks), you are required to take all loose items and bags and put them in the free lockers provided nearby. However, whoever thought that up is an idiot because there's one video screen issuing and opening all the surrounding lockers, but you have to wait for everyone to get out of the way and sometimes there are like 4 people trying to get into one locker. It's a bottle-neck situation. One person could probably handle it. And, if you don't keep a phone or camera with you, you can't take any pictures of the inside of the castle or bank while waiting for your turn, and there are quite a few things you might want a picture of (btw...it is possible to take photos "out the window" on the Hogwarts Express as long as you don't use a flash). Also, I recommend being at the gate when the park opens and heading straight for Hogwarts in Island of Adventure. Reason being (and my logic really did work here), everyone wants to see the new part in the other park, especially those who have been to Hogwarts before. We walked right on the Hogwarts "Forbidden Journey", "The Dragon Challenge", Ollivander's, and "Flight of the HippoGriff" rides. As soon as we were headed over to Diagon Alley, those folks were headed for Hogwarts. We had an awesome time and I definitely recommend it for youngsters and adults alike. I see many more visits in my future!

(Entrance to Diagon Alley from "London". Weasley's Wizard Wheezes is on the right)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Georgia Geocaching and a Spontaneous Trip to Savannah

The Two Train Wrecks moved back to Florida from Nevada in January. We decided that now that we live in civilization again (as opposed to Las Vegas where you have to drive 300 miles to ANYwhere), that we were going to start a new tradition... THE TRAVEL JARS.  Now, so far, the jars are apparently invisible or can only be seen by mom's night vision because I can't find the physical jars, and with our memories, we really should have something tangible. The idea is, we have one jar for 'big' trips like cruises or major road trips, and the other jar for 'little' trips like over-nighters or nearby trips within the state. When we think of a place we want to go, we stick in the jar. My vote for Rome went in almost before the idea came out of mom's mouth, as did a return trip to Paris and Ireland. I guess mom wasn't expecting them to be THAT big because she just started laughing and said, "Keep dreaming. Neither of us can afford that on our pensions. Go play the lottery."  That's mom. A dream-destroyer. If I wanted reality, I would have put Gainesville in the jar and been done with it!

At any rate, one place that mom and I did seem to agree on and discuss more than once was Savannah. We started planning that trip a couple of times but with gas, hotel, and various places we'd like to see there, it wouldn't be a cheap trip so we nixed it the first time and went to Downtown Disney instead. Another time, we decided to head over to the gulf.

 I feel compelled to explain something here about geocaching (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, there is a "Geocaching 101" page on the left-hand column of this blog page): Every geocacher has something they really like to get on their statistics page. Some like to hide a lot, some like to discover and move trackables as much as possible. Some are almost feral about getting the "First to Find" claim on a new geocache (which, by the way, is NOT something included on the stats page, but I've known cachers that actually have their phones set up to alert them when a new cache is published and will get up in the middle of the night to go find it).

(The states we've cached in. The darker the shade, the more caches we've claimed there. So far, 16 states, including HI and AK)
For mom and I, because we travel a lot, we're all about the maps and souvenirs.  Souvenirs are special badges you get when you go to a new state or if you attend a special event. For example, last year in August, we had the 31-days of Geocaching, which earned you a (cyber) souvenir badge each day you cached.

But back to this story, when mom and I drove back to Florida from Nevada, we kind of did a zig-zag pattern to pick up a couple of states we otherwise wouldn't have, like Oklahoma and Arkansas. But we had a hole on our map. Georgia. It was driving us both nuts. We used to go camping up there often when I was a kid, but we hadn't been back in 27 years and we didn't hit it on our move back. One...little...hole...making...us...crazy!

Mom was bored on Labor Day weekend and tells me, "What do you think about going to Georgia this weekend?" I looked at her like, haven't we discussed this several times? She had decided that if we went to Kingsland, GA, it's right on the Florida border and we could get there in two hours. Well, hell, I'm in! We actually booked a room there so we could have some time to look around while we were the. We were in the car 3 hours later.

We arrived in Kingsland which is right next to St. Mary's, and there were several caches to choose from.These are two small but historic towns, mostly because it was an early settlement and there is a Navy and Submarine base nearby. We did spend some time geocaching in both places, but I didn't get to spend any time in the cemetery of St. Mary's because my blood is apparently even better than Sookie Stackhouse's...every mosquito in three states was having a go at me!  Mom?  Nope. Just me. The cemetery there goes way back to the 1700's and I'm a Graveyard Rabbit, so bummer. But there was a very nice area nearby down by the riverfront: a couple of restaurants (one serves gator-burgers, YUM!), the submarine museum, a tiny bar playing reggae and a park with plenty of benches to watch the sun go down over the swamp marshes. (It's prettier than it might sound, but hopefully you're not there when the swamp-gas is really bad. Blech.)
(The Sidney Lanier Bridge near Brunswick, GA)

While in our hotel room that night, mom says, "Want to go to Savannah?" My usual dumb-founded expression was the only answer. I didn't know where she was going with this or if she was kidding. She says, "It's only a couple of hours from here and who knows when we'll get back up here." I gave her all the logical arguments she had used on me, but in the end I was in! As usual. She found us a less expensive hotel about 20 miles south of Savannah (Tip for the area: If you want to stay close but not IN the city, meaning less expensive, try hotels in the "Gateway" area).

I had been to Savannah once. At night, at the airport, which really isn't in Savannah. The Marines were sending me back to CA from Parris Island, SC, and that's where they sent me to stay in a hotel until my flight early in the morning. So, it's not really fair to say I had actually BEEN there, St. Simon's Island is among several islands along the Georgia coast, and I had been there when I was about 12 with my church youth group (there's a large Methodist Conference Center there), but I only remembered the chapel (still there!). We were up early and actually went out to St. Simon's island before heading for the tourist district of Savannah. The island was much bigger than I remember with actual towns and historic areas. I guess the youth group powers-that-be figured that the history wasn't really important. We did stop at the lighthouse, as well as another really cool cemetery at Christ Church. We also stopped at Fort Frederica, but I don't recommend it. There is very little still remaining of the fort.

On our way to Savannah, we stopped at Bonaventure Cemetery, which is actually quite famous and very big. The only thing I wanted to see there was the 'bird girl'. You might recognize her from the movie, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". She's a little girl holding out a plate in each hand for bird seed. We went into the office and asked where we could find her. The lady said, "Oh, they took her out a long time ago." What?  Apparently, too many people were touching her so they moved her to the Savannah History Museum. That sucked, but she told us to maybe go out and look for "Gracie", also famous in a local way. (Tip: Don't want to go on a guided tour? Lurk about the ones already there. There were two different tour group at Gracie's grave and we couldn't get close enough until they had all moved, so I don't feel the least bit guilty about it. Keep an eye on those tour groups and follow at a safe distance. They'll take you straight to the most note-worthy graves.) Also, we weren't aware of it while we were there, but one famous person is buried there... Oscar Wilde.

I must tell you how hot it was. It's freakin' AUGUST in the south! It's like being wrapped in a hot, wet blanket on the surface of the sun. We were worried about this, but the goals seemed more important at the time. My mom is especially bad in heat and humidity and I have a long history of dehydrating quickly in the same circumstances. At one point, mom complained about it (she was wearing a tank top and shorts) and I said, "You do remember that I went to Parris Island in August and that's only 50 miles north of here? If you think this is bad, imagine a full set of cammies (camouflage), combat boots, a hat, a rifle, sand, sand-fleas (aka "no see-ums"), a 50 lb. sea bag on your back and hiking through the swamps with all the critters THAT entails. I don't want to hear anything else about it!" I must have had way more tolerance, or at least fear of my drill instructor, back then because (and I'm getting old...I'll say it!) this was wiping mom and me out!  It was 94% humidity and sunny both days we were there. I swear you have to take 3 showers a day down here!

Finally heading in to Savannah, providence stepped in because one of the first places we saw was one of the places I wanted to go:  The Pirate House.  It was air-conditioned, a historic building, a good size shop and a LOT of rum drinks to choose from! (Tip: Order from the menu and sit in the bar section. The dining area often has a wait and is quite loud. After our lunch, we walked around the building and saw the buffet. No way near as appetizing as what we had. Plus it had fried okra which is a deal-breaker for mom. LOL

Finding parking in historic Savannah can be quite the adventure. Sunday's aren't too bad because you don't have to deal with meters, so if you're patient enough, you can find a free place to park. If you're not patient, there is pay-to-park or you can go to the Visitor's Center and join a bus tour. Mom and I happened to get a spot right next to the Independent Presbyterian Church. I am a movie-junkie. Must be because I was an only child or something, but I love going to places where movies were filmed. My mother, the bookworm, does not understand this. No amount of explaining to her makes her get it. Sometimes, she just humors me. At any rate, Savannah seems to be pretty proud of their "Hollywood" history. The only problem, unless you're quite a bit older than me, you probably haven't heard of the majority of them. The two I was aware of were, again, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", and two scenes from the beginning of "Forrest Gump". (Ironically, most of "Forrest Gump" was filmed in Beaufort, SC, which is also where Parris Island is... my boot camp) In the opening scenes of "Forrest Gump", you see a feather floating around. It floats by the Independent Presbyterian Church before continuing on to land on Forrest's foot where he sits on the bench talking to people and waiting for the bus. If you're looking for the house from "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", you're looking for the Mercer-Williams House, which is located on Bull Street, on Monterey Square.

 (The Mercer-Williams House)

Now we come to the second disappointment. The square (Chippewa Square) does NOT contain Forrest Gump's bench. If you're familiar with the movie, you would instantly know this square. This time I went the Chamber of Commerce and asked the lady, "Where is THE bench?" I did not need to explain to which bench I was referring to. Without missing a beat, she said the bench was fake and made of fiberglass for the movie. THAT bench is currently also housed in the Savannah Historical Museum.

(Chippewa Square - this statue can be seen behind Forrest Gump's bench)

Savannah was not what I was expecting. I'm not sure why, but I kept envisioning the historic district of New Orleans. Old building with lots of wrought iron, and there was some of that, it's just that the main area of Savannah is all mish-mashed together in no particular order, that I could figure out. You may see 10 blah things and one cool thing. However, traffic is bad and the city streets wrap around several 'squares', which doesn't help and you have to watch one-way streets as well. One stop we had to make was at the Juliette Gordon Low House. She was the person who started Girl Scouts at the turn of the 20th century. I was raised in Girl Scouts from brownies until I went in the Marine Corps and my mom was my Girl Scout leader. It's a bit pricey for the tour and be prepared, there are several flights of stairs.

(Savannah's River Street and water taxi view from the river)

Let's talk about the Waterfront area. This is one of the most historic parts of Savannah. You will definitely want to check it out, as that's where all the "touristy" stores are and a couple of pubs and restaurants. You CAN drive on the River Street. I do not recommend this. First of all, it's set on a very steep incline to get there from the main roads. There is absolutely no parking. The road is made of large river rocks (original I think), and it's a narrow road. Added to that, there is a rail streetcar that goes up and down this street. People driving down there makes this even worse. Park somewhere near the Cotton Exchange building (there's an elevator down to the Riverfront to the left and behind that building), and walk down. If you want to get from one end to the other, the rail-trolley runs constantly and is free. Look for the "DOT" signs for stops and other free transportation.

(Today, the River Street area and Street Car look much the same, except no iron fence on the right)

The thing that makes Savannah so difficult to navigate is that, unlike most other historic towns and cities I've been to, where you can park and basically walk the whole town (we even did that in San Francisco), you really can't do that in Savannah because depending on where you want to go, it may be on the other side of town. We walked quite a bit, which would have been nice in say, February, but not in August.  Get your map of town ahead of time and mark what you want to see. Hopefully you can find parking somewhere in the middle and go from there. 

Savannah is rich in history and in architecture. There are eight kinds of architecture you will see: Federal, Georgian, Gothic (Victorian) Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Regency, Romanesque Revival and Second French Empire. Some areas are lumped together, like the 'Victorian' sector, but most of the time, you'll see them all jumbled up.

(One of my favorite buildings, the "Gingerbread House" in the Gothic/Victorian section: 1921 Bull St.)

On our second day in Savannah, mom tells me, "You know, South Carolina is just across the river. Literally." I knew where this was going. I was like, okay!  Another souvenir and another state on the geocaching map! Unfortunately, the closest one was near a fence that was just covered with huge spiders and webs. You could see where someone had managed to crawl under some of them to retrieve the cache, but I wasn't having any part of it. My mom (afraid of EVERYTHING in the woods!), asked me if I was going to get it. I told her she was insane. I counted no less than 6 of the giant orb spiders, mud and muck and who knows what other critters out there. I had a shower that morning, wasn't sweating just yet, and was wearing khaki pants. It was not going to happen! And I certainly wasn't going to marine-crawl down there to get it. Mom stared at the spot longingly, perhaps thinking if she concentrated hard enough, the cache would come to her. Nope! There was another cache 5 miles further up the road and I didn't have to get all icky to do it!  My kind of cache! Mission accomplished!

After seeing a bit more of Savannah, we headed out to Tybee Island. There's a nice lighthouse there that actually has all five of the original buildings standing and in use. But traffic getting on and off the island was HORRIBLE. Not sure why, but it was bumper to bumper and moving slowly the whole way. There is a very cool fort (Fort Pulaski) on Tybee as well that is in excellent condition if you're into the history.

My only other disappointment in the trip was the ghost tour. I LOVE to go on ghost tours in historical cities. I've done them in Edinburgh, London, St. Augustine, Williamsburg, Prescott, and several others. I really wanted to go on one in Savannah but it didn't work out for us. Since we were staying 20 miles out of town, it wasn't reasonable for me to take mom to the hotel and then go back for the ghost tour. The other thing is that the ghost tours in Savannah (there are several) are very expensive compared to others I've gone on. I think the most inexpensive on was $25. Nope!  The budget didn't allow for it. My mom doesn't do the ghost tours, and frankly doesn't know why I do. I keep explaining that a lot of the stories they tell are based on legitimate historical facts, and the boogy-man stuff is just cool for the same reason you sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories...it's fun to get creeped out! You can find flyers for the ghost tours at the Visitor's Center or the Chamber of Commerce. They offer cemetery tours at Bonaventure, they offer general ghost walking tours, ghost bus tours, and even haunted pub crawls. Take your pick!

Overall, mom and I enjoyed it, but I think we'd enjoy it more in winter. This little getaway gave us an idea of where we want to go and what we want to do for our next excursion up that way. There are more road trips in the plans, more states to go geocaching in and lots more trouble for us to find! And dammit if we STILL have a blank on the map for Louisiana!

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

WDW Resorts: Disney's Art of Animation and All-Star Movies Resorts

You'll have to forgive the delay between my last post and this one. I actually HAD my next post done, including the web links and photos and even though I saved it numerous times, it disappeared when I went to publish it, and I was so pissed off,  I feared throwing my computer across the room and screaming. OK, I'm calm. So, without further delay, let's try this again. Sigh. 

(For this entry, I may use "AoA" to refer to Art of Animation, and "DTD" as Downtown Disney.)

There are two things you almost NEVER hear in the same sentence:  'Disney' and 'free'. We were fortunate enough to get two in the same day!  I recently moved back to central Florida after a 20-year absence, but we were visiting last April (2013) and I wanted to go to EPCOT before our return flight to Vegas, since I hadn't been there in forever.  So, I talked my mom into getting a room in Orlando on our last day in state and a couple of friends of mine were going to meet me down there to go to the park.

(The pool and traffic cone cabanas from Radiator Springs- AoA Resort)

Now, my mom (Train Wreck #2) is sometimes a wonder to behold when she gets good deals on hotels. I have a degree in Travel and Tourism and she still runs circles around me! But, give the women credit... This one was one of the best! She got us a last minute, Monday night stay at one of Disney's newest resorts, Art of Animation, for about $96. It was only going to be a standard room, but we fully intended to be in the park except when sleeping, and it was only one night so who cared? Wish we could have stayed longer!

(Hakuna Matata! In the "Lion King" section of AoA)

Art of Animation has four 'themes', each being a step up in the ratings:  "The Little Mermaid", "The Lion King", "Finding Nemo" and "Cars". Think Ariel as your standard Holiday Inn type room, and Cars as the Marriott suites sort of room.  We were booked in Ariel, which had a door opening directly to the outside. The plan was, we would leave Ocala and drive for an hour to get to the park right when it opened in order to get the whole day.  My friends were going to meet me at the gate to EPCOT. On our way down that morning, I had a brainstorm. I said we should go to our resort, get a parking pass, leave our car and take the free shuttle to the park. It costs about $10 to park at ANY of the parks, and you may still have to park WAY far from the gate, so this just made sense.

We arrived at AoA at about 8:30 am.  WAY too early to check in, but again, all we were after was a safe place to leave our car. We went to the guest check-in counter (empty!) and spoke with a guest services representative. (I forget our rep's name, but I did actually send kudos to the Disney resort headquarters for her wonderful help, and Disney promptly replied with a letter thanking me for thanking them). We told her about wanting to get a parking pass and she said, "OK, but I can go ahead and check you in, if you'd like." Wait, what?!  BEFORE 1pm?  Well, hell yeah! Luggage will be safer inside! Then she said, "And would you like a FREE upgrade?" My mom and I looked at each other, stunned, and back at the rep and asked her to clarify because we just had to have heard that wrong. She laughed and said, "I'm serious.  Would you like an upgrade to a suite in the "Cars" wing?"  This is literally a four-step upgrade. "Why, yes." I said, as calmly as possible, but doing somersaults inside. "Yes, we would."  We were still grinning at our wonderful fortune when she threw it out there again...."And I'll go ahead and give you a suite overlooking the lake. Also free." It's entirely possible my mom and I both fainted from shock, but we were up fast and excited to see the room.  Text to my friends, "I'll be a few minutes late."

(Murphy bed up! Murphy bed down!)

We loved AoA from the second we pulled into the parking lot. Over-sized art all over the building and that was just the start! When we started taking our luggage to our room, I was like a kid in a candy store! Apparently, with each upgrade of a section in the hotel, you got a better atmosphere to play in. I can't figure out any other way to say it. Down in "The Little Mermaid" section, doors opened outside and there were some really big props, like a 50' Ursula, the statue of Eric and some dancing fish. Move up to "The Lion King" section and you get even more of these huge props. "Finding Nemo" was the pool area so most of the props there were in or at the water. But when you came to the "Cars" section, you actually WALKED INTO RADIATOR SPRINGS!!!  Literally, all the cars where parked about, the sheriff was hiding behind the billboard, the pool was set up with giant traffic-cone cabanas. Unbelievable!  And then... we went to our room.

(Careful! They're waiting for you!)

The entire suite was awesome! Traffic cones on the carpet, a couch that looked like the back of a '57 Chevy (sleeper sofa), two bathrooms resembling car washes, traffic-cone lamps and red furniture with that chris-cross metal trim that guys use in their truck beds and stuff. My favorite part though... the Murphy bed. It was actually 'Mater's dining table, but it pulled down into a Murphy bed. I thought this was just the coolest thing!  My mom, who lived in several itty-bitty apartments in our youth, some of which had Murphy beds in them, just looked at me like I was losing it (too late!). Whatever!  I gave her the bedroom and happily said I would be sleeping in the dining room.  Mom's room and our living room area both did look over the lake and across the lake was Disney's Pop Century resort (like AoA, only music themes).

(Parts of our "Cars" suite at AoA Resort)

We goofed off for about an hour, keeping my friends waiting with texts like, "Seriously! I'm on my way right now!" but then the A.D.D. kicked in and I saw something new. But more exploration would have to wait until the next day. We caught our shuttle and met my friends only a little after the gates opened and it wasn't crowded so it all worked out. I was telling my friends about our suite and my buddy Bryon says, "You got a Murphy bed?!?"  See, mom!  Totally cool.  My mom (who really never told me she didn't like amusement parks), hung out in the park for a couple of hours by herself, and then went back to the hotel around 1pm. She said it was the heat. I think she went to check out the rest of the resort.

(Hanging out with Lightening McQueen and his pals at AoA Resort)

I didn't make it back until after the park closed, which was just about the time started raining. I hadn't really eaten so I hit the food court at the resort before heading to the room. Now I need to say this... every single person I met at the resort from the custodians to the managers were all super-friendly and helpful. You could tell they love their jobs. And why not? It's Disney people!  Considering that I once applied for a job there which would have been a significant downgrade in pay, not to mention I did have a degree and I had worked previously in three different departments of another major amusement park, I couldn't get hired! Jealous. I would have just loved to be one of the princesses!  Anyway, there is always one exception to everything. The food court at the resort is sort of like on a cruise ship, only the food is not complementary. In fact, it's quite pricey. But you have options: Mexican, American, Italian, snack-type food, etc.  I chose unwisely, since I wanted the pasta Alfredo. I stood in line with several other people for a long time, at it seemed to be because the two main chefs were having disagreements. The manager came out and broke them up before they went to blows, but then the one came back again and started it all over again. I think the guy behind me was setting up his camera video in case it really did happen. But that truly was the only bad experience we had there. If you want to do something really cool for your family, spring for the "Cars" wing. If you get a last minute deal, mid-week, in the off season like we did, it's actually pretty affordable for the number of people it can sleep. If you stay longer than one night, they have programs available at didn't times of day for guests: Karaoke, movies under the stars, etc.

(Sarge's Surplus Hut in the "Cars" section of AoA Resort)

Now, let's flash forward about a year and a couple of months. It was the beginning of August (2014), and mom and I were feeling a little itchy to go somewhere. We discussed Savannah, but decided we couldn't really afford it at the time, so I asked mom if maybe we could go to Downtown Disney in Orlando. I was a regular at the Downtown Disney in Anaheim, because I would always stop for a stretch break there when driving from Vegas to Southern California to visit my friends. But let me tell you, DTD here in Florida is about 3 times bigger! Mom and I were really glad we got a room for two nights, because between me just getting over a bad illness and still pretty weak, not to mention the heat and humidity, there was no way we could do all of Downtown in one day. On a cooler day, maybe. DTD is free, and again, if you stay at a resort, there is a shuttle running every few minutes. It was more crowded than our last visit, but we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes. DTD consists of what used to be Pleasure Island and the old Lake Buena Vista shops, with a few new shops added on the other end. The largest Disney store in the world is located there. And I got some sweet new Mickey shoes while there.
(Downtown Disney Orlando (pre-renovations)

Since we knew we weren't going to the parks, mom booked us for two nights instead of just one. I ALMOST had her convinced that we should go to the Magic Kingdom the second day because she hadn't been there since the new Fantasyland had opened, and I really wanted to take her to Beast's Feast at the Be Our Guest Restaurant. If Disney was smart, they would allow people to enter the park with different colored bracelets on. So if you only want to go in to eat, you wouldn't have to pay the full price. But not yet. Sadly, I never thought I'd ever say it, but I had to fess up, I just wasn't up to doing the Magic Kingdom! I'd been so sick, I could only walk a couple of stores before I'd have to stop and rest. By the way, I should warn you, that at the moment, about 1/3 of DTD is under construction and unavailable. Judging from concept art hanging up here and there, it looks like they're turning the Pleasure Island section into a sort of Pier 39, like in San Francisco. Our waitress at the Irish Pub said they would be working on it for at least two years. Speaking of the pub, it's called Raglan Road Irish Pub and I highly recommend the Scallop Forrest and the Kiss before Shrimp. Both appetizers are great for two people to share as a meal.

(The "Fantasia" themed pool at All Star Movies Resort)

On this adventure, we got a deal at a different Disney resort in Orlando. The All-Star Movies Resort. We booked for two nights at about $89 each. That was mid-week and during the summer season, the least expensive area. There are three All-Star Resorts: Movies, Music and Sports. They are lined up in a row at quite a distance to any of the parks. They are a bit older, and I suspect they were the precursors for AoA, Pop Century and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Resorts. Having been in the newer resort, this was definitely a step down. The room was nice and clean, but opened to the outside instead of a corridor. As near as I can tell, almost every room in the entire resort must be the same, with the exception of one piece of art as a decoration. Unlike AoA that is completely tricked out with paraphernalia, All-Star was not. The resort is based on several old Disney movies that seriously need to be updated. I think the newest theme was "Toy Story", but they also had "The Mighty Ducks", "101 Dalmatians", "Fantasia" and "The Love Bug" (I can barely remember the "Love Bug" so I know kids today don't have a clue). The room had a border running around the top which had scenes from all of the movies...hence, they could make all the rooms the same and put up one piece of art. We were in the "Toy Story" section and there was a picture on the wall of Woody and Buzz. All the rooms in all the sections opened to the outside. 

 (Giant Woody (that just sounds so wrong! LOL) near our room at All Star Movie Resort)

I once had the privilege of flying first-class from London to Las Vegas. An awesome experience, but it totally ruined me for flying coach. This was sort of the same thing... after our suite at AoA, All-Star was disappointing. They did have some over-sized characters in various areas, but not nearly to the extent of AoA. I did enjoy the pool, and it was big enough that people weren't crawling all over each other  (the main pool is themed from Fantasia, but there was also a secondary, pool in the "Mighty Ducks" area that no one seemed to know about). After the hot, sweaty days at DTD, the pool never seemed more inviting (I don't usually do public pools... it's a cootie thing!). And I absolutely loved doing the movies under the stars at night. Perfect weather for it, and we even had some bunnies hoping through our deck chairs from time to time.

The morals of this post...do your homework and get your plans together in advance. Check the park website for last minute hotel deals... in both of our resort experiences, we got a better deal from the Disney website than we did on Expedia, Hotwire and the other hotel websites. If you know you're not going to be in the room for anything but sleeping and showering, go with a cheaper one like the All-Stars. They are nice resorts. If you really want a cool resort experience, give Art of Animation a try, especially if you have kids.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Flashback: An American Princess in England - Lumley Castle

Once upon a time...well, we all know where that leads. Every little girl wants to be a princess.  It's like a rule.  Even the best tomboys secretly want to be at least one of the Disney princesses. I won't lie; I did too, although my princesses didn't come out until recently (Merida from "Brave" and Anna from "Frozen" are the two most like me). Especially American girls because we grew up on Disney...what did everyone think would happen? 

When I was a 28-year-old, former Marine, corrections sergeant, princess in combat boots, making excellent money and doing a LOT of overtime (which translated to lots of COMP time), I decided to take some time off and go on my first major adventure abroad. Alone.  1999 - England, Scotland and Ireland (north and south) over about 5-6 week period.  I had a car (and learned to drive on the 'wrong' side at rush hour coming out of the airport in London!), a few maps, a tight itinerary and my vouchers. I had put together my vacation by buying pieces through British Airways.  I have no idea if they still do it, but it was a brilliant idea. What I did was to buy "pieces" for each part of the trip out of catalogs provided by the airline's travel company, and you chose where you wanted to stay. I especially liked the B&B section because you knew exactly where you were staying and if it looked safe and convenient. I bought one voucher for each B&B I stayed at, 2 hotels in London, ticket to "Phantom of the Opera", tours in the bigger cities and "Big Red Bus" tickets (hop on/off so I could park my car and not have to drive in the cities), all of my flights, both of my cars (one in Great Britain and one in Ireland)...you name it!  It really was a clever way of doing it. And the stress of trying to do everything on the fly was taken off my shoulders and when the time came, I had everything I could possibly need. Don't forget in 1999, the Internet was still growing and it wasn't as easy to buy and see everything you wanted to. We still used Foder's and Frommer's Travel books! And with my OCD mom and I doing the 'everything you can possibly see, and probably won't itinerary' (I swear, if I was going to see everything she had listed, I'd have to be up at 5am and on the road, but most of them didn't open until much later)', I was definitely NOT going to the normal tourist sites. I'll discuss the priest, the dolmen and the herd of cows in a later post. 

Since it was my first trip out of the US (Mexico & Bahamas excluded), and since I was being fairly frugal, I promised myself one night in an actual, real life castle. After quite a bit of research and looking at my maps and schedule, I chose Lumley Castle.  A beautiful old place on a golf course (No, I don't golf), they serve multiple course dinners, have a large wine selection and basically it was everything I wanted and more. The only thing was, because of cost, I had to get a room in the newer 'courtyard' area. Whatever!  I just want to stay in a freakin' castle, people!  I still had access to all the castle's facilities, I just wasn't staying in a real 'princess room'. I just figured it was out of reach so I would enjoy what I could get.

When I pulled up to the castle, I just knew I wouldn't be disappointed!  I parked and went into the reservation desk, which looked as if it should be where the old wine cellar (or dungeon?) used to be. It was definitely dark and felt like you were going underground. I got goosebumps! THAT is what I'm talking about! 

The people at the desk were so nice and friendly. However, they were doing construction on my
part of the castle so they couldn't put me in my reserved courtyard room. I was so bummed. But, have I mentioned I have a stellar gift of being in the right place, at the right time? You'll notice as you read more posts...the 'free- upgrades' God really likes me! The girl told me they were going to upgrade me to a TOWER ROOM for free.  Really?!?  Could I get more excited?  I think I was jumping from one foot to the other, like, "Oh. my god, this is too cool to be real! Oh, my god!" And other geeky-American touristy things to say. Or I might have looked like I was doing the pee-pee dance, now that I think about it. No further discussion on that issue, thank you. 

There was an older gentleman porter who came to help me with my luggage (if I was there 6 weeks, and only did laundry once, you can imagine how big my luggage was!). Plus I was a little prissy then, so a few dressier items took up my whole garment bag. He was asking me if it was my first time staying in a castle and I was like, it's my first time in England!  I think he must have taken me on the scenic tour because we went up some steps and down some and through some tight squeezes, maybe a tunnel and a well where an owner killed his wife (I'm not sure why this is, but in every castle I've toured, they talk about how one of the prior nobles killed their wife by dumping her in the well. I'm really quite sure they could have come up with something a bit more imaginative without spoiling the castle's drinking water, but whatever!).  Update: From Wikipedia: The castle is believed to one of the most haunted places in County DurhamLegend has it that the castle is haunted by the ghost of Lily Lumley, Ralph's wife, who was thrown down a well in the castle grounds by two priests for rejecting the Catholic faith. Knowing they would be in trouble, the priests told Sir Ralph that she left him to become a nun. Her ghost is said to float up from the well and haunts the castle.

When we finally arrived from the maze of hallways, I could look down to a central courtyard where a suit of armor was standing. At about that point, the gentleman opens the door for me and shows me into the room. I went from OMG to OMFG! in that one spilt second.  There is just no other way to describe it...OMFG. I was giggling!  I don't giggle!  Giggling is beneath me!  

The room was huge by American standards but in England, it's a penthouse! Every place I've stayed at in Europe (and this includes the major cities like London and Paris), you get a teeny-tiny room where you can barely fit a twin bed and your luggage. I have literally stayed at B&B's (Plymouth, for one) where a closet has been turned into a room. Really.  So anyway, back to my super-awesome-amazing castle room. There was a 400-year-old, canopied oak bed up on a dais with all the appropriate drapery. There was a writing desk, a sitting area under the windows for tea (yes I had tea in my complimentary robe...just because I could.), and a large wardrobe against one wall.  This whole time, I was just so excited, I don't remember anything I said (probably complete gibberish and possibly a new language altogether...or, I suppose, it could have been Klingon), but he knew I was having a blast.  It can sometimes be difficult to make the staunch English man smile, but he did, so that was just a bonus. I was seriously like dancing around with excitement at this point. I was just waiting for him to leave so I could break into every Disney princess song in the collection! Then the man says, "Do you notice anything missing?"  I looked around again and I'm like, "What could possibly be missing?" He said, "We apologize but there's no bathroom here, you'll have to share down the hall."  I was not about to let that burst my joy-bubble! I told him I'd been staying in B&B's for 3 weeks, so sharing a bathroom was not a problem. He gave me a smile and said, "Then I'll just hang your (garment) bag  in the wardrobe." Just when I was about to soar across the room and bounce on my 400 year old bed like a five-year-old, the porter said, "Oh my goodness! What's this?" Curiosity won out and I went to look inside the wardrobe. I didn't see anything until he reached through and grabbed a long bell-pull.  The light came on and it took me a minute to realize, there was a BATHROOM back there!  Through the wardrobe!! All mine! With a sink, and a sea-shell tub (complete with complimentary bubble bath, of course) and a old-style water closet. All in a secret room behind my wardrobe.  

Oh I was too excited for words!  I hugged him and screeched (another first!) with excitement and he was laughing. I think I was his entertainment for the day. I tipped him extremely well, and tried to decide: bed, bath or tea? Well, bath won out!  I don't even like baths but by god, I had one in my closet so I would take one that night! And the wardrobe door was closed so no one even knew I was there!  AWESOME. I took pictures from outside the wardrobe but it just didn't do it justice.

After my bubble bath, and my tea in a bathrobe, and maybe just a little more rolling around on my bed, I pulled out a short cocktail dress and decided I would live it up that night. I had an awesome, multi-course dinner in the restaurant, and a nice bottle of wine. OK, two. I wish I could remember what was on the menu, but just trust me that it was wonderful. Oh, how I killed the diet that night but I really just don't care. Yum.

At that time of my life, I occasionally had a cigar here or there (my then boyfriend and I liked to dress up and go out on Vegas date-nights to nice restaurants and Jazz clubs), and I had purchased a nice 'ladies' cigar earlier on the trip and thought it would be a great way to end the evening. So, after dinner, I took my bottle of wine and went to the library/lounge/bar. I sat in front of the fire, cigar and wine in hand, a book I was sort of reading, but mostly I just listened to what was going on around me. An amusing thing to do, just people-watch and people-listen. In this case, at the table behind me, there was a debate between four Englishmen and one American about the American death penalty. Now I love a good debate, and the death penalty is one I firmly believe in (that's the cop in me, I guess). But at one comment from team England and I snorted and chuckled. The boys turned and said, "Excuse me, are you laughing at US?" Uh, yeah!  That opened the door and they invited me to join in. Team America was looking pretty beat down at that point.  So, we debated back.  I explained my stance, that I'm from the South, where I worked, and that it should be used more. We must have sat there for 3 hours, and there were many more drinks flowing and that of course brought out the competitive men, and while I wanted to stay and win this debate, I didn't want to lose anymore time away from my room!

I slept great and it broke my heart to leave after only one night. The castle also does various events, like weddings of course, but also medieval role-playing murder mysteries. I could have easily spent another couple of days there. I never even got to see the grounds!  

All and all, this is one of the things I remember most about my long vacation in the UK. When I'm helping friends traveling abroad with their itineraries, Lumley is one I suggest to everyone. The people are friendly, there's great food and company and it's just a gorgeous place to stay if you want to really treat yourself. Again, I was there in 1999, so things might have changed a bit, but the website looks like they're still keeping it in great shape.  I wish I could remember the name of the room I was in, but I'm sure "Bathroom through the wardrobe," would get it done.  

I would consider this a five-star travel experience. After all, how many girls of all ages have really stayed in a castle and had a bubble bath through the wardrobe? They also do weddings, Elizabethan dinners, murder mysteries, and they also offer specials as well. The only possible way this could have been a more enjoyable stay, was if there was a huge hedge-maze in the back or a sighting of Lily Lumley's ghost. So, I am forced to only give it a 9 1/2 stars. Do enjoy!