31 December, 2013

Another Year in the Books...

This time of the year, it seems that there are only 2 types of stories out there. We have the ‘Year in review’ and we have the ‘What to look forward to in (insert new year here)’

People wax poetic on this -gate, or that –palooza, then they put on their best Carnac the Magnificent to predict what will happen in the next 52 weeks.

Some of the ‘Best/worst (fill in the blank) of (fill in the year)’ reports are well done. They are researched, well produced and have valid arguments for why this made it and that one didn’t.

Others are superficial. They are hastily thrown together to fill time or space. They are filled with things that most people wouldn’t consider legitimate contenders.

I have difficulty writing these sorts of lists off the top of my head, because I don’t always remember what happened this year.. Did it happen this year, or last.. was it significant enough to remember? When it comes to movies, I can’t write a good one, because I don’t see that many new movies. I can’t do best song, because I am old and boring, and only listen to talk radio, so I couldn’t tell you who sang what because I probably on heard a 15 second clip of the song at the last Knighthawks or Amerks game. I have no idea what the fox said.

That said, in no particular order, the best movies that I saw from 2013 are American Hustle, Hunger Games, and The Way Way Back. Movies worth seeing: Now You See Me, Thor, RED 2, Enders Game, and Hangover 3. Don’t waste your time: Anchorman, Superman, GI Joe. I am probably forgetting something.

Some personal highlights (again, in no particular order) of the year include a trip to Disney, on a drive to America to get props for our 4th of July, we stopped at the Corning glass museum, (definitely worth a trip if you are within driving distance.) We spent a day at Stony Brooke State Park, we spent a few days in Niagara Falls, The Knighthawks won a 2nd consecutive championship, a new nephew was introduced. Oh yea, I found out I am going to be the father of a new baby girl in May.

Things to look forward to in the coming year would be another strong season for the Knighthawks (including an expanded regular season, and a new play-off format). We will be going to Disney for a low-key trip, last one for a while (we don’t plan on getting back down there until late 2015 or early 2016). I think that the growing distrust of Big Government (particularly Obamacare) will lead to some changes in the Mid-Term elections this fall. NY will continue to become the nanny-state of all nanny states until it snaps. There will be a growing call for the state to split NYC off into its own state (but it won’t happen any time soon)

What do you think will happen in 2014? What were your highlights of 2013? Share them in the comments!

19 December, 2013

Hockey at Frontier Field???

If you have driven down Plymouth Ave or 490 through downtown Rochester during the last week, you probably saw something a bit curious, lights on at the baseball stadium. Did they start playing winter ball up north?

Nope, they are playing outdoor hockey! It is the Frozen Frontier. It is a 10 day festival that kicked off with an Amerks (AHL) game, and includes 3 college games, an Amerks/Sabres alumni game, several high school games as well as rec-league games and blocks of time sold to sponsors for open skate time. This is a joint venture between the Red Wings, Amerks and Sabres.

I had the opportunity to go to the Amerks game Friday night, it was the kick-off of the outdoor hockey festival. As you can imagine, December in Rochester isn’t exactly balmy.. The scoreboard thermometer showed a game time temp of 20, and it only went down from there.

As we approached the stadium, they had frozen the specially designed throw-back jerseys for each team into blocks of ice as well as a logo ice sculpture of the logo of the festival. They also had those mobile spotlights that are used at special events to draw attention to the location. When I got there, it was lightly snowing, which made for the coolest effect of the snow in the spot beams. It was a nice touch.

Special sweaters worn by the Amerks
They had set up a warming station tent down the walk way on the 3rd base side, that had a pre-game party with a band. They had also brought in several port-a-potties, since when they built the stadium 15 years ago, they didn’t predict having a winter event, so the plumbing is turned off at the end of the Red Wings season.  Lucky for me, my tickets were in the Perch suite, so we were ok, the suite level bathrooms were good to go.

In the Perch
My brother and I
The game had an announced attendance of 11k+, and it was a great atmosphere. From where we were sitting, we could see the lines of cars on both Plymouth and State St coming to the game, and could see cars parking on the very top level of the WXXI garage at High Falls. The traffic was steady through most of the first period.

The Colors were presented in a very respectful manner and the national anthem was sung in a very powerful way by a very talented young girl who is no stranger to singing before large crowds. She sang the anthem at a Sabres game that was nationally televised. The pre-game festivities included fireworks timed to the ‘rocket’s red glare’ line of the Star Spangled Banner.

The game turned out to be exactly the type of game you’d hope for in this sort of event. It featured division rivals that flat don’t like each other and had had a rather feisty game just a couple days prior. Early on, the gloves were dropped and that just got the crowd going. The Amerks jumped out to an early lead, only to see that go away and then turn it into a 3-1 deficit. The Amerks went to work in the 3rd, and not only tied it, but pulled ahead 4-3.

The game seemed all but over when the Lake Erie Monsters took a penalty with about 3 minutes left, down a goal, but they didn’t give up. They fought off the power play and then got one of their own with about 50 seconds left. They then pulled the goalie and skated 6 on 4 for the rest of regulation. The Amerks did the best they could to keep the puck out of their zone, but being out numbered, the visitors managed to put the puck in the back of the net with what appeared to be no time on the clock. The officials gathered, and they went to the review, and it was determined that the goal was scored with .1 on the clock to tie the game.

5 minutes of overtime were scoreless, so they went on to the shoot out. The goalies both prevailed in round 1, the Monsters scored in both round 2 and 3, leaving the Amerks down 2-0, with only 2 skaters to go. The 4th Monster skater comes up, if he scores, game over. He doesn’t. Now it’s the Amerk’s turn. If they don’t score, game over. They do.

Same scenario for round 5, The Monsters don’t and the Amerks do. Now we are tied at 2 after 5 rounds. This time Amerks captain Matt Ellis is not to be denied. He nets the game winning shot and sent the Rochester fans home happy, after the fireworks, that is. From the sounds in the crowd, there were more than a few who made the drive up I90 from Cleveland to root on their Monsters.

I haven’t had the chance to make it to any of the other games, and with my schedule, probably won’t. I would have liked to have gone to the RIT men’s game, but it wasn’t to be. I can’t imagine the experience it would be for those high school players that got to change in the Red Wings locker room, then play in that venue. It is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.

I am glad I got to be a part of this, even if just as a fan. I hope that they don’t do it every year. It is something that should be kept as a special event, and not repeated too often. Maybe next time, they can do it at Sahlen’s stadium. It would have provided better sight lines for the fans.

16 December, 2013

Who Dropped the ball?

By now you have heard about the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last week. Here in Rochester, home of the NTID (National Technical Institute for the Deaf), all of the local reporters went out and found anyone they could stick a microphone in front of to say how offended they were at the nerve of this guy who had the stones to fake his way through the service.

I think that people have a right to be upset and outraged, but not for the reason everyone is getting upset at. First of all.. how do we know that it isn’t a different sign language? It might be that the rest of the world doesn’t use ALS (American Sign Language). Perhaps, he is using a different version of sign language.

The thing that gets me upset at this is how did this guy get that close to our President? This guy has been arrested for burning someone to death, and the courts declined to prosecute because he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Those of you who know me, know that I am among the last to say anything good about Obama, but this is bigger than that.

Someone dropped the ball on this one. Probably several someones. First of all, how did the agency that picks and assigns the interpreter pass this guy? Did he have the right credentials to be in the pool? Also, doesn’t our Secret Service validate the people who are going to be that close to the President? What would have happened if someone got to him and got him to wear a vest? He would have been able to take out several of the world’s leaders in one shot. Then we would be talking about something other than a guy who was faking his way through signing some speeches at a funeral.

02 December, 2013

Let's all be Honest..

Ok, I know I am going to get some heat here, but I am going to call BS on something. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, you had people coming out against the retailers that were going to get a jump on holiday shopping by opening on Thanksgiving.

There were Facebook pages devoted to boycotting the retailers like Kohls, Wal Mart, and Target that would be opening as early as 6pm Thursday. Several of these stores wouldn’t be closing until Friday night.

The complaint was 2 fold.. first of all, people should be spending the holidays with their families, not fighting other consumers for that knickknack or special deal that you just have to have, or Christmas would be ruined.

The other reason is concern for the poor retail worker who had to leave their families, so you could go fight with other consumers for that knickknack or other special deal. They should be able to stay at home so they can watch the parade or the games with their families.

This is where I call BS. If you really cared about people being able to sit home with their families, then you wouldn’t watch the game. Or do the employees at the tv studios, networks, stadiums, etc.. not count?

If you really cared about people being able to stay home, then you would stay home and keep your TV off.

Let’s not forget that there is consumer demand for both. If people didn’t want to go shopping, or watch the game or parade, they wouldn’t and there wouldn’t be a need for those people to work on Thanksgiving.

I’m sick of people using retail employees as pawns for their own political agendas, whether it is for boosting minimum wage, to controlling hours, or increasing union membership.

Let’s call a spade a spade. If you don’t want to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day, then don’t. But don’t say it is because you want the stores’ employees to have the option to stay home with their families, then you better not watch the game or parade.

And, if enough people agree with you, then next year, the stores won’t open until Friday morning. 

22 November, 2013

How the Rattlers can be Successfull in Rochester

The Major League Lacrosse schedule was released today, and for now, I was a little surprised to see the Rattlers were still on the schedule, and that their home games would still be in Rochester. There was a new team and a former city is now dark, but the relocated team was not the Rattlers (Hamilton will now be playing as the Florida Launch).

The Rattlers have never been a strong draw in Rochester, despite being an original team in the MLL, and having won a championship in 2008. For some reason, they can't draw as well as their indoor counterparts, the Knighthawks. The location of the stadium is a cop-out in my book. Sure it's not in the best part of town.. but there are a lot worse places, and I have never heard of anyone having an issue at or around a game.

The team moved to Toronto then Hamilton the year after their championship season. A few years later, the struggling Chicago Machine relocated to Rochester a few years later.

Except for Denver, Boston and Chesapeake, who each averaged over 8k attendance per home game last year, the league overall doesn't draw well. The league average last year was just over 5k with only 3 of the 8 teams in the league over 4k. Most teams are closer to the 3k range. Rochester was under 2k last year. Part of the reason the numbers were so low were inconvenient times of the home games, and having 'home' games down south. What can be done to boost them back to the 3k+ that they were at last the season before, or even push it into the Denver/Boston range? The question may be better than the answer.

In my experience, most people know who the Knighthawks are, but few but the diehard lacrosse fans know who the Rattlers are. Part of that is that the Hawks have been in town for 20 years, and have won multiple championships, including the last 2. The Rattlers have played in 11 of the last 13 years. They have had 3 venues that they have called their 'home field'. They started in Frontier Field. This was not a good fit, so they moved to Bishop Kearney. When Sahlen Stadium, (then Paetec Park) opened in 2006, they called it home. 

Let me start off by saying I have no sports marketing experience. I have no idea what kind of money the suggestions I have will cost. I am just a season ticket holder who doesn't want to see the Rattlers leave town again, because if they do, they probably won't ever be back. Many of my ideas are probably not feasible, I am just kind of spit-balling here.

What can they do to grow exposure? I think that regionalizing the team would be a good place to start. Work with the success of the Syracuse Orange and other local colleges. Maybe have 1 game a year in the Carrier Dome. Especially with 6 former Orange on the roster, not to mention the 3 former Hobart Statesmen and lone RIT Tiger. 

Another direction to expand to is to reach out to local high schools. Many high school coaches are hesitant to encourage their players to watch the indoor game because off the many differences, but they shouldn't have the same trepidations with the outdoor game. There are some minor differences (2 point line and the shot clock being the two big ones), but it is basically the same game. 

I know that the NLL and MLL are separate entities, but I think that there is an opportunity to form a symbiotic relationship in cities/regions where there are are teams in both leagues (currently this is a short list, only Denver an Rochester). Many players play in both leagues. They should push the opener back to Memorial day. Opening in April is too early. None of the teams are at full strength before the NLL season is done, and the rookies don't join their new pro teams until the end of the college season, and championship weekend is Memorial Day. 

I understand that this league will most likely never be more than a part time league, but by spending a little on marketing (billboards, buses, radio/tv spots)  and getting players out in the communities that they play in can get the league and local teams some good press. Watch what Soccer Sam is doing. Send players to local radio stations for some in-studio interviews where they can give away tickets, send them to Wegmans, send them to the malls.

Fan involvement is key. Make it about more than just the game. Take a page out of Dan Mason's book. Throw tee-shirts into the crowd, play stupid human trick sort of games for prizes. Have 2 for 1 ticket promos. Wrap a few fans' cars (like the 'Hawks did a few years ago, I would be the first to volunteer). What do Denver, Boston and Chesapeake of the MLL and Buffalo and Colorado of the NLL do different than the rest of the teams in their respective leagues do?

Like I said, I am by no means an expert on these sorts of things. I am just a fan, and these are some ideas. Hopefully, a few of them will give one of the experts an idea and attendance numbers will improve.

20 November, 2013

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Our final stop on the trip around the World is Disney’s Hollywood Studios. When it first opened, it was actually used as an animation studio, but any movie production has long since been moved to other locations. 
turn around, you are in San Francisco!

At Hollywood Studios, you are immersed in all things movies. There is a street set that you can walk down where if you look one direction, you are clearly in Manhattan, but when you turn around, you are transported to San Francisco.

As you walk around the park, you will run into mini-scenes. You will have a movie diva talking about the ‘little people that helped make it all possible’, or you will have a prop master chasing someone who just stole a prop,  or a director scolding the ‘extras’ (park visitors) for getting in the shot.

There aren’t many rides in this park, but the ones they have are some of the most popular at all of Disney World. One I haven’t  ridden (and don’t plan on..), one I have (and may or may not ride again) and the 3rd we couldn’t get on last year, but I was able to ride 2x this year.  

These rides (in order) are the Rocken’ Roller Coaster with Aerosmith. I love the technology and planning that they put into creating this ride, but it is not my bag, so I probably won’t ever actually experience it. It is a roller coaster that doesn’t have a giant main hill to start. It starts off with magnets thrusting the car forward to 60mph right off the bat, all with Steven Tyler singing in your ears. 

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Next is the Tower of Terror. This is an hotel that was struck by lightning one Halloween night and all the guests mysteriously vanished, now the elevators are out of control. The engineering that went into this ride is great as well. It is a different ride every time. Basically the ride is, you are on this possessed elevator that will rise and drop at random. The amount of drops, and the distance of the drops are randomly generated each ride, so one time you will have several smaller drops, then the next you will have fewer longer drops. They left no detail out. It was more fun than I expected it to be, but as I said, this isn’t my kind of ride, so not sure I will brave it again.

The 3rd of the big popular rides it the Toy Story Midway Mania. When we went last year, we only spent part of a day there, and the Fast Passes were closed for the night. This year, the first day we went to the park, we went straight there to get FP, but they were already giving out fast passes for 4.30p, and our dinner reservation was at 5, not at that park, so that wouldn’t work out. When we passed by about an hour or so later, they had all the FP machines covered. They had given out all the FP they were going to for that day.  on our 2nd visit to the park, we got there earlier, and were able to get the fast passes and were able to ride that day. It was a much lighter crowd day, so I was actually able to get FP for another ride later that day! On this ride, it is a 3D ride that you play a few different carnival midway type games with a virtual shooter on your car. You play a ring toss game.. throw baseballs at plates.. throw darts.. etc.. it keeps score and gives you a virtual prize at the end. It is a lot of fun, and ranks as a ‘must do’ at Hollywood studios.

Some of the other rides are the Great Movie Ride, which takes you through some of the most iconic scenes from some of the most famous movies of all time. Another is the Backlot Tour, where you watch a scene of a boat being attacked by an unseen plane that is being produced including explosions and other special effects, you then go through a prop warehouse with props from all sorts of movies, you then board a tram which takes you through a bone yard of vehicles, through a prop shop, a wardrobe shop, past the greenhouses, and through a set that shows special effects of fire bursts and a flash flood. 

Another favorite is the Star Tours. This is a motion simulator that takes you all over the Star Wars universe. It is a different trip every time. you will get 3 of 9 possible scenes. It is in 3D and there is movement, and it feels pretty real. I enjoyed it when I rode it last year, but this year it was too much for me (I know.. I'm old and boring..).  

Fountain outside of the Muppet Show
There are several shows to watch at the park as well, with something for everyone. For the kids, there is Disney Jr, and the Little Mermaid. For the action junkie, there is Lights! Motors! Action! (a car stunt show), and the Indiana Jones stunt show (they show how movies like Raiders was made) and the American Idol Experience, a version of the show. And for everyone, there is a 3D Muppet movie! A museum of the history of Walt, including where he grew up, what he did and the things he developed is a very interesting stop.

Overall, this would rank as my 4th favorite of the Disneyworld parks. I enjoy the park, but wouldn’t be super disappointed if we didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time there on trips. There are a few good photo-ops and character meet and greets, and it is all about movies.

One of these years, we will get to the water parks and golf courses, but I haven’t been yet. As always, if there is something Disneyworld that you would like to share, please do, and I would love to answer any questions you have (to the best of my ability).

18 November, 2013

Employee Polyester Costumes Of Torture. Part 2

Last time I went over the front half of EPCOT, also known as Future World. In this posting, I am going to go over the back half, the World's Showcase.

The World Showcase features pavilions representing 11 countries from around the world. When I go, I typically go counter clockwise around the lagoon, but most reviews go clockwise.

Each of the pavilions are host to gift shops with items from the homeland and restaurants with native food. Most have both table service and quick service as well as snacks. 

Air Supply
Each fall, the selection of food is greatly expanded during the Food and Wine fest. That just happened to be going on during our last trip. There are several temporary kiosks that serve a variety of different samplings of both food and beverages. Due to the way the schedule shook out, we really didn't get a chance to see much of the festival. In addition to the food, they put on a concert series, called the Eat to the Beat concert series. They bring in several bands to do a couple concerts a night for a couple nights. We got to see Air Supply. I was a bit skeptical about them, but I have to say, those old guys can still rock!
Last year, we ate at Germany and at Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed both meals.  Germany is a buffet featuring all kinds of sausages, and anything German you can imagine. It was more than just the food, they had German musicians and singers to entertain while you eat. There was even a dance floor for those who felt inspired to work off some of the schnitzel. Japan is a hibachi grill. Always a good show watching the onion volcano. Watch for flying rice!

Terra Cotta Warriors from China
Each of the pavilions is sort of a museum of that country's culture, art, and history. A couple have rides (Mexico and Norway), a couple have movies (Canada and China) and the US one has a multi-media show similar to the Hall of Presidents from Magic Kingdom.

As you walk through, watch for performers. Anything from candy making, to a band to acrobats and more. 

At closing, people gather around the World Showcase Lagoon to watch one of the best firework displays you will see. Illuminations kicks off about 9pm each night. Fireworks, water cannons, and flame throwers are on barges in the middle of the lagoon. These are complimented by laser lights mounted on the buildings around the park. The center piece of the show is a giant globe with led boards that floats out to the center of the show. 

There is plenty to see and do at EPCOT, and isn't to be missed on your trip to Disney.

14 November, 2013

Every Person Comes Out Tired (part 1)

Space Ship Earth
Next on the chopping block is EPCOT. I know it hasn’t been the EPCOT Center for several years.. but I still catch myself calling it that now and then. I love what EPCOT can be, but I think it misses the mark. It is close, but not quite there. Sure it has its main attractions (Sorin’, Test Track, and Mission: Space), but it also has The Universe of Energy, probably the biggest waste of space in Disney.

EPCOT is divided into 2 main areas, Future World and the World Showcase. When you first walk into the park, you are in Future World and are greeted by the giant golf ball, known as Space Ship Earth. Inside this giant sphere, we learn the history of communication, narrated by Dame Judy Dench. Most of the rides are in Future World, and most of them have a sciencey/educational motif. There is so much to do here, I think I will break EPCOT into 2 posts.

One of the most popular rides at Disney is in The Land. It is a high flying hang gliding trip over the key features of California called Sorin’. On it you fly over orange groves, the Golden Gate Bridge, the high desert, Pebble Beach golf course, Downtown LA at night, and ending at Disneyland during the fireworks display. The concept for this ride was created in the garage of one of Disney’s Imagineers, using his old erector set from when he was a kid. Each seat on the ride has a fan above you to blow air in your face to help simulate you are actually flying, and in certain scenes, they inject a scent into the fan to enhance the experience, like when you are flying over the orange grove, you can smell citrus. This ride often has wait times in excess of an hour, and fast passes often sell out quick, so go there first if you are there on a busy day. I would like to see them tweak this a bit. First off, they should take a duster to the giant dome screen, and fix the few black spots on the screen. I also think it would be cool if they would change up the scenes you fly through. They could take a page from the Star Tours ride at Hollywood Studios and change up the scenes every ride. Still finish up at Disneyland, but make the journey there different every time. Also, of all the movies they have, this one seems most suited to getting the 3D treatment.

Also in the Land pavilion is one of the hidden gems (at least in my book), Living with the Land. It is a gentile boat ride that highlights agriculture. It goes through a green house showing different types of food plants, fruits, vegetables etc.. from all over the world, and some that have been genetically engineered to be more efficient or bug resistant. One such plant is a tomato tree. There is seldom much of a line here, so it is a nice respite.

Time for lunch? Stop by Sunshine Seasons at the Land. It is routinely ranked among the best quick service places in the entire ‘World’. I have only been there for breakfast, but there is something for everyone.

Next to the Land pavilion, is the Seas. Here you will find a Nemo ride, Turtle Talk with Crush and other aquatic activities. On the Nemo ride, you board a clam shell car (similar to the Doombuggies at the Haunted Mansion) and go through some of the scenes from the movie. The coolest part of the ride is towards the end, when you go through and under aquariums that have Nemo characters projected into them. It looks like our friends from the movie are swimming among actual live fish. It’s pretty slick. Once you finish the ride, there are several aquarium exhibits featuring all sorts of sea life, including dolphins, sharks, manatees, rays, and more.

Another big draw in Future World is Test Track. This was recently re-done to re-brand it with Chevy as a title sponsor. As you stand in line, you design your car at a touch screen computer. You design everything from the type of vehicle (sporty.. compact.. truck.. etc), the shape, color, wheelbase, designs and accessories. After you design your car, you then put it to the test. It goes through breaking, swerving, hot and cold conditions, then for a speed test. At different points through the ride, you go past screens with testing results of your car. The speed test takes place around the outside of the building. The day we rode it, when we came out of the building for the speed test, we were staring straight into the morning sun. In one of the few instances of poor planning on behalf of the Disney Imagineers, the camera is right there. Because of this, most of the pictures taken, show people shading their eyes. After the ride, you are let out into a room with several Chevy based exhibits. You can sit in a new Camaro, Volt, S-10 or other Chevy vehicles. You can have your picture taken with the care you just designed, and you can race your car in a video game similar to the old ‘Off Road’ arcade game.

One ride that is a big draw, but I did not like is Mission: Space. On it, you board a rocket bound for Mars, narrated by Lt Dan. It is a centrifuge ride, and you experience some serious G-forces. It was too much for me to handle, but if you like that sort of thing, you would probably enjoy it.

One of the least impressive rides at all of Disney is here. It is The Universe of Energy. It is a long (45min) ride. In it you are in a dream of Ellen DeGeneres. It is an old movie, (special guests Alex Trebek has a mustache and Jamie Lee Curtis has red hair) where Bill Nye the Science Guy teaches Ellen about energy and where it comes from. Part of the ride does take you through a large room of animatronic dinosaurs, which are pretty cool, but not cool enough to rescue this ride. Unless you are looking for a place for a nap in a dark, air conditioned area, I’d skip this. This ride is definitely due for a redesign.

The world of imagination could use a re-boot, the Capitan EO movie with Michael Jackson is very dated, and it’s time to retire it. It does have some fun interactive things that kids can play, but it isn’t as cool as I remember it when I went in 1986.

The last thing that I will cover in today’s posting is another of the coolest parts of Future World. It is Club Cool, sponsored by Coke. In here, you can try several beverages bottled by Coke from around the world. In the last few weeks, they replaced all the flavors here, so I can’t comment on any of them except for the newly added Inca Kola, since I had it when I was down in Peru several years ago. I really liked the sample they had from Israel, and will miss it. Perhaps I will find a new favorite next time we go down there.

Next time, I will cover the back half of the park, the World Showcase.

08 November, 2013

Disney's Animal Kingdom

The Tree of Life
This week, we will look at probably my favorite park, Animal Kingdom. A lot of people don’t rank this as high as I do, and many consider it just a ½ day park. I guess I get that, but I think they are missing a lot. Sure.. there aren’t the rides that Magic Kingdom has, but most of the attractions that it does have, I find fascinating.

It is a large park, and one ride is larger than the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT combined. And it happens to be my favorite ride at Disney, more on that in a bit…). The park is divided into ‘lands’ like Magic Kingdom. You can travel from Asia to Africa, even back in time in a day. They did a good job of recreating the feel of being in an exotic village. There are several gift shops with uniquely themed items as well as the traditional Disney stand-bys (ears, hats etc...). The park has several animal viewing areas with lots of different kinds of wild life. For those of us not from Florida, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the imported exotic animals, and the native ibis that you don’t see around Rochester.

At the center of the park is the Tree of Life, a giant artificial tree that is covered in animal carvings. It makes for a nice centerpiece of the park and a great backdrop for photos.

The 3 big draws for rides in the park include a roller coaster (Expedition Everest, which I have yet to ride, but it is on my list), a river rapid ride (Kali River, a lot of fun, and you will get wet riding it) and my favorite ride in all of Disney, Kilimanjaro Safari Ride. On this ride, you board a safari truck and go off into the wild. You will see several different types of African animals, everything from giraffes to hippos to elephants to rhinos and much more.  The designers of the ride did a great job of disguising the barriers between the territories, so it feels like it is one giant free-flowing wilderness preserve.
Most of the areas are very large, so the animals have a lot of room to roam. As a result, you may not have a great view of all animals, and sometimes, you won’t see them at all. In other cases, the ride is held up waiting for a rhino or giraffe to finish crossing the road. You can get some great shots of the animals that are not obstructed by fences or walls. You can almost reach out and touch them.

There are also several shows at the park, my favorite being the Flights of Wonder bird show. It is a good bird show that displays several birds and teaches a bit about them, with the typical Disney shtick (the guide that is afraid of birds, that is told to hide by that tree because birds hate trees). There are varying levels of audience participation.

Another show that I enjoy is a 3-D movie ‘It’s Tough to be a Bug’. It is in a theater that is actually inside the Tree of Life. It is a multi media movie with surprises with the bugs from Bugs Life. Some of the things are startling, so it might not be the best thing to take small children to.

My Niece Molly
and Simba
2 more shows that are well done, but I am not a fan of are the Festival of the Lion King, a colorful, high-energy performance based on the movie featuring costumed dancers and acrobats. People love it.. it is just not my thing, and the benches you sit on are not all that comfortable. The other is Finding Nemo. It is basically a Broadway version of the movie. Again, it is well done, but not my thing. I didn’t love the movie, and I don’t like the way they do the puppets. (And the benches are not all that comfortable either.) But it is air conditioned, so it is a nice break from the heat of the day, especially for a park that doesn’t have many indoor things to do.

There are wildlife experts throughout the park that are happy to answer any questions you have about the animals, and great photo-ops abound. We got one of the best pictures taken by one of the PhotoPass photogs.

All in all, I love this park. I am disappointed that we only got to spend part of 1 day there on our last trip. I plan on making up for that on our next trip.

04 November, 2013

Magic Kingdom

In keeping with the Disney Parks theme, I think I will now go with the attractions that I like best. I’ll do one column on each park. I’ll figure in what I like, why I like it, and what (if anything) I would do to make it better.

I’ll start with what most people think of when they say Disney World, the Magic Kingdom.

There is so much to like about the park. So many good rides, classics and new favorites. There are the iconic rides like the Mountains (Splash, Thunder and Space) and Small World, the Disney-ified carnival rides (i.e. Dumbo/Aladdin/AstroOrbiter and the Prince Charming Carousel, etc.. ), and the rides that only Disney would make interesting (i.e. People mover, carousel of progress, etc.. ).

I think my 2 favorite rides at the Magic Kingdom are the Jungle Cruise and the Haunted Mansion. I like to hit both rides multiple times each trip. Both have been there from the beginning, and have counterparts in Anaheim. Both rides have the high level of attention to detail that we have come to expect from Disney. There isn’t much I would do to improve either ride, other than updating the animatronics as technology improves, but be careful to not overdo it. Part of the charm is the corny-ness of them. They recently rehabbed the Jungle Cruise, and they did a good job of keeping the feel of the ride, while smoothing out the movement of the ‘animals’. As I mentioned in my last posting, I would like to see a camera added to the Haunted Mansion in the part where the hitchhiking ghosts are projected into your ‘doom-buggy’, and make it available for purchase or as part of the PhotoPass+ package. A close 3rd on this one is the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Other things that are ‘must dos’ in my book include:
-The Tomorrowland People Mover, it is a nice slow ride through Tomorrowland that goes past or through several of the rides/attractions in that part of the park
-Splash Mountain, a log flume ride themed after Song of the South
-Carrousel of Progress, a look at a family throughout several different eras and how technology has evolved. It is done well and is a nice comfortable air conditioned  break from the heat.

There has been a push to make things more interactive. This includes the rides as well as the queue. I like the Buzz Lightyear ride, which gives you a chance to beat your best score as you shoot your laser gun at targets throughout the ride. There is a picture on this one that is not a particularly intriguing (not like Splash Mountain) picture, that I only got because we had pre-paid for the PhotoPass+ which includes attraction pictures.

I am not usually a fan of the carnival style rides, nothing against them, but my general rule is there isn’t a need to ride a ride that can be done at a carnival or at Darien Lake, just because it has a picture of a Disney icon on it. This includes the flying rides, that are basically the same ride with a different theme (Dumbo, Aladdin and AstroOribiter), the Prince Charming Carrousel, the Tea Cups, etc.. I do have to say, that if the added a large Ferris Wheel in the back of Fantasyland, I would ride that every trip, and would make sure to ride it at night. Another one that I would just as soon skip is the Tiki room. It is a bunch of robot birds doing bad jokes and singing songs.. and the seats aren’t even that comfortable..

Other rides that I could take or leave, some (including my wife) would consider sacrilegious to have on this list would be It’s a Small World and Peter Pan’s flight. I won’t put up a fight, but I won’t ever suggest we go on either of them. The Peter Pan ride isn’t bad, but I just don’t get the lines it has.. It is a decent enough ride for a 15-20 min wait, but this ride often has a wait time well exceeding an hour..

All in all, there is more than enough to justify spending multiple days of your trip at the Magic Kingdom. There are some great snacks (3 words.. dole whip float..), fun restaurants (Liberty Tree Tavern is probably my favorite restaurant on property), and the Wishes fireworks show is always well done. There is enough variety of the rides and attractions that there is more than ‘something for the whole family’. 

11 October, 2013

Our Latest Disney Trip

So, I’ve just recently returned from my 2nd ever Disney trip, so obviously, I’m something of an expert at this point. I know all there is to know about all things Disney World, or as we experts call it, ‘the Parks’.

This time we stayed in a Savannah view suite at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village. It was a very nice room, especially with as many people as we had traveling with us. It sleeps 9 (we had 6 adults and 2 children), and has 3 full bathrooms, and a nice long balcony overlooking the aforementioned savannah (more on that in a moment). It also boasts a full kitchen (complete with plates, pitchers, roasting pans, utensils, etc…) and a washer and drier in the unit. It is basically a 2 bedroom apartment.

The property has a nice pool area with a spray park and hot tub, a fitness facility, an arcade, and other activities available.  I took advantage of the hot tub one night, but after long days at the parks, when we got back, I didn’t want to walk over to the pool area (which wasn’t that far, but it wasn’t close..), we just wanted to crash..

View from our balcony
From the balcony or from any of the several viewing areas, we could see all sorts of African wildlife. Some of the animals we saw included giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, several types of deer and antelopes and African cows (I don’t remember the actual name for them) and several types of birds. It was cool to see them. One thing I would have liked to see was a card or poster in the room that included pictures of the animals and a little about them. There was no visible fence, but there was a barrier that is difficult to see unless you are looking for it, so it looks like they could come right up to your window.

View from the lobby
We really didn’t spend a lot of daylight hours in the room, so we really didn’t take advantage of the amenities of the hotel. Luckily, it is a short walk to the Disney Transportation bus stop and a quick ride to the parks.

In our last 2 trips, I have ridden on most of the rides in the 4 parks at least once. A couple of the ones that I have missed (well, not missed, just not ridden) include the rides that are regular carnival rides with a Disney twist, the sorts of rides that you can do at your local amusement park (i.e. tea cups, the Dumbo ride, etc…) and the 3 big coasters (Space Mountain, Expedition Everest and the Rocken’ Roller Coaster). I am not a huge fan of roller coasters, so they aren't high on my list of things to do, although, I would like to get on them at least once.

A couple of my favorite rides are the Jungle Cruise, Pirates and Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom, Soarin’ at EPCOT, Toy Story, the Back Lot tour and Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios and The Safari, Kali River Rapids and Tough to be a Bug at Animal Kingdom (probably my favorite of the 4 parks). The first time we went to Hollywood Studios, we got there shortly after opening and went straight to the Toy Story ride to get a FastPass, by the time we got there, the return times for the FastPass was already 4.30p. We had dinner reservations for 5, at a resort, so we didn't get them. An hour or so later, we happened past the ride, and they had already covered up the FastPass machines, and were not issuing more for the day. a couple days later we went back to that park, and it was much slower, so we were able to get on the ride. I now know why the wait is so long. It is a similar ride to the Buzz Lightyear ride in Magic Kingdom, but it is much better.

The advantage of going at the time of year that we went is the crowds are so much smaller. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a ghost town, but wait times are rarely more than 20-30 min for most rides and some rarely have any wait at all. Not sure I would want to go during the peak times.. especially in July or August when in addition to everyone being there, it is 1000 degrees.

Lady and the Tramp fountain
I wasn’t in love with most of the places we ate on this trip. Some were good, others, not so much. The first night we ate at Tony’s Town Square at Magic Kingdom. It is the Italian restaurant from Lady and the Tramp. I really enjoyed it. I got the steak, and it was cooked perfectly. The bread and oil was good and the vanilla gelato was a great way to finish it. The service wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. She didn’t add anything to the experience, but she didn’t detract from it.  I would eat there again.

The next night, we went to Boma, an ‘African’ buffet in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was good, but not great. There wasn’t a huge selection, but what I tried, I mostly liked. Deserts were pretty plain, cookies and cakes.. typical buffet deserts, nothing really to write home about. This place probably wouldn’t be high on my list to return.

Next on the dinner schedule was one of my favorites, Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom. This is a colonial themed restaurant that has a fixed menu that is like thanksgiving dinner, served family style, all you can eat. The meal includes salad and rolls (didn’t love the house made dressing, but it isn’t my taste), then they bring out the dinner. Sides of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, mixed veggies (mostly zucchini), and sautéed green beans, and then the main courses.. roast beef, smoked pork and turkey, with stuffing. Everything is delicious. Just when you can’t eat any more, they bring out desert, a white cake with crasins in it, topped with vanilla ice cream, with a cranberry sauce to top it off. This is definitely a place we would go to again.

Dinner at Chef Mickey
Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary was the next stop on our dinner menu. It is a character dinner buffet that features the ‘Fab 5’, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. I don’t really care about meeting the characters, but it is fun. This was a good buffet. There was plenty of selection, from sushi, to mac and cheese to carved beef and pork. If you couldn’t find something to fill yourself up with, you are too picky. It is in the lobby of the Contemporary hotel, one of the originals at WDW. One of the cool things about the location of Chef Mickey’s is that you can watch the monorails go by as they come in and out of the hotel. This is a good place to eat, and would consider a return trip to eat with the gang.

A Hawaiian themed setting greeted us for our next dinner at Ohana, in the Polynesian resort. This is another set menu served family style. They brought out the bread, (which I didn’t love), then the salad (which I didn’t love) and a couple appetizers, wings and a sort of chow mien.  A little background about my tastes would be good here.. I am not a fan of sweet sauces for meats. I don’t like honey ham, I don’t put cranberries on my turkey and I don’t understand mango chutney. That being said, the food served here wasn’t bad. It is all cooked on skewers over an open fire in the middle of the restaurant, and the servers bring around the skewers until you tell them to stop. They have shrimp, chicken, steak and pork. The pork was very good, the chicken wasn’t bad, but the steak was too sweet. I tried the shrimp it wasn’t bad, but I am normally not a fan of crawling seafood.  The one saving grace of the Ohana was the bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce for desert. That was very good. This is not a place to go for an intimate setting. It is a large open floor plan with servers coming and going with skewers of freshly cooked meats. It is very busy and not quiet. I don’t think it will be on the list for a return visit. The food was quality, just not my taste.  (Although, I would like to stay at the Polynesian on a future stay, and now that they are building DVC Villas, we will be staying there on a future visit.)

Our final dinner was at the Coral Reef at EPCOT. It is in the same building as the Nemo ride, but has a separate entrance.  This is one of the smaller restaurants, but its main feature is that it shares a wall with one of the large aquariums. You can watch all sorts of sea life (including sharks and rays, and the occasional SCUBA diver) swim by as you eat. That was pretty cool. The food is served menu style and is predominately a seafood restaurant, but they have other options like chicken or steak. I opted for the steak. The steak was over cooked, I ordered medium-rare, and it came out more medium-well.

On this trip, we took advantage of the pre-sale of the PhotoPass+. We did the regular PhotoPass last year, which lets you get as many pictures as you want from the PhotoPass photographers around the parks, which you can add boarders to and have a CD of them all for future use. You can also order custom photo themed items such as mugs, tee-shirts, calendars, etc. The difference between the PhotoPass and the PhotoPass+, is the + includes pictures from the rides (Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, Buzz Lightyear, etc..) as well as the photo packages from other events, like dinner at Chef Mickey’s and the Pirate experience. Definitely a cool thing, but not something I would buy every trip, just on the special ones. Pre-ordering it saves you about $50. As a group, we got around 350 pictures, and I’ll be playing with the pictures for a bit to add boarders, stickers, etc.. then order the disk and share the pictures with everyone that went on the trip.

One thing Disney does big, is holidays. Halloween is no exception. On several nights in September and October, they host “Mickey’s not-so-Scary Halloween Party”. It is a separately ticketed event, so it is in addition to the park admissions you have already paid for. It gives you an opportunity to trick-or-treat in the park, in costume. The special ticket is required, so the crowds are a bit low. They have a special Halloween parade (which I didn’t see) and a special version of Wishes, their nightly fireworks display. This was a very good display. You can also take advantage of more and unique PhotoPlus opportunities. You can have your picture taken next to the horseless carriage in front of the Haunted Mansion, they then photo-shop in a ghostly driver. We had more pictures taken, but they have yet to show up on my page, I have emailed their help desk to research it and have it added, but no luck yet.

In the fall, EPCOT hosts the Eat to the Beats Concert series. They bring in bands for a couple days each and they do a couple shows a night. We happened to see Air Supply. I have to say, those old guys still put on a pretty good show they played for about 20 min, 5 songs or so. Other bands this year included Starship, Sugar Ray, The Go-Gos and more.

As part of the basic dining plan we had selected for food. This includes 1 table service meal, 1 quick service meal and 1 snack per person, per night of the stay as well as the souvenir refillable mug. The refillable mug is a cool thing, as long as you don’t have to pay extra for it. It is good at you’re the resort you are staying at for soft drinks. A couple of things to make it better would be to let it be good at a couple of places in the parks, or to make it a little bigger. It is currently about 12oz, if they made them 20-32oz, it would make for a more usable option. In the 2 places we have stayed (AKL this year and Saratoga Springs last year), the walk to where the soda fountains are is a bit of a hike, almost not worth it for such a small serving of soda.

A couple of the notable things we enjoyed on the trip include the cinnamon bun from the new Gaston’s Tavern, literally, the size of a baby’s head. We also got the Dole Whip float, a must have for all trips to the Magic Kingdom. As part of the new expansion of the Fantasy Land in Magic Kingdom, a new restaurant opened up. It is modeled after the Beast’s castle from Beauty and the Beast. It is a hot ticket for dinner, and is completely booked up months in advance. A couple months ago, I tried getting a dinner for our trip in January, there was nothing available. They are, however, a quick service for lunch, and the wait times can be close to 3 hours. We were able to secure a ‘fastpass’ of sorts and were able to jump the line and get in. The food was the standard type of quick service meals around the parks, but it is in the ballrooms that serve as dining rooms for the highly sought after table service dinner. There are 3 different rooms, all right from the movie. One featured the torn paintings and the rose under glass, one was the main dance hall and the other is the main entry way of the castle. Since it is so busy, it is tough to find a table. If you don’t have a MagicBand, they give you a RF pager so they know where you sit, and they bring you your food right to your table.

Since we have established that I am an expert in all things Disney World, I wanted to take a few moments to make suggestions to make a great experience better…

First off, there needs to be huge Ferris wheel at Magic Kingdom. Something similar to the one in Niagara Falls. Something that can get high enough to see a good part of the park from the top of the wheel. I enjoy people watching, and I like seeing things from above. I think that an aerial view of the park at night, or maybe during the Wishes fireworks display would be a cool way to see the park.

My next suggestion would be a couple of additions/tweaks to the rides that have photo-ops. I would add a photo-op to the Haunted Mansion in the part of the ride where the mirror is, that shows the computer generated spooks in the doom-buggy with you. Another suggestion would be to either re-locate the camera, or add an additional camera to that switches based on the time of day to Test Track. As it is now, it is right after you come out of the dark building to the fast part of the ride. When we rode it, it was early morning, and we come out looking straight at the sun. If they add another camera on the back end that they use in the morning, and keep this one and use it in the afternoons, it would avoid everyone who rides the ride in the morning from having to block the sun when the picture is taken.

So now that I am in Disney cool-down, I will begin ramping up for our low-key trip in January shortly. We will be going back to Saratoga for what will probably be our last trip for a year or so. I look forward to seeing if the 7 Dwarves train ride will be open by then (it looked pretty close this trip).

29 August, 2013

The Most Magical Place on Earth

About a year ago, I went to Disney World for the first time since I was in 5th grade. At the time, EPCOT (then The EPCOT Center) was only a couple years old, the MGM studios and Animal Kingdom were probably not even on the drawing boards yet. So it was basically like my first time.

We went for our honeymoon. I wasn't particularly looking forward to it. Not that I didn't want to go, but I didn't want to start off the marriage by spending soooo much money. I wouldn't say I had a bad attitude about it, but if you took a video of me, it wouldn't be one of the ones they would use in the commercials.

My wife was a member of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). Before I knew much about it, I was about ready to put the kibosh on it. I thought that spending $55 per person per day for 2 meals a day (and a snack) was on the excessive side, but we went with it.

The trip didn't start out great. When we checked in at the Saratoga Springs resort, we were given bad directions on how to find our suite. The resort is very spread out, and there are several buildings in several sections, and they aren't really numbered that well. I kept saying that they should have put us on a golf cart, and driven us to our building. After quite a hike, we found our room. Fortunately, we had used the Magical Express bus, so we were only schlepping our carry-on gear, our checked bags were being delivered directly to our room.

Our dinner reservations for that night were at the Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom, so after we dropped our stuff off at the room, we headed to the bus stop not far from the room to catch a ride to ‘the most magical place on earth’. As we were walking up to the stop, the MK bus was just pulling out. We sat down and waited for the next bus. While we were waiting, we saw buses for all 3 other parks (including some multiple times), both water parks, and Downtown Disney. After about an hour wait, the MK bus came back. I was pretty frustrated at this point.

Once we got to the park, things changed. I remembered a little of what I had seen nearly 30 years ago, and from what I had seen in commercials, on TV, and videos. Main Street USA seemed familiar with the view of the Castle.

All in all, it turned out to be a great trip. We hit all 4 parks, and had some great meals, and it turned out that we had more snack points than we used, so we stocked up on snacks that we could take on the plane with us.

Long story short, I am a Disney Park convert. I began looking forward to our next trip (which we fly out in less than a month). With I started looking on line for reviews and information about the parks. I found a couple sites that I really enjoy reading. I built a spreadsheet that lists the hours of the parks for each day, the time and location of our dinner reservations and special shows.

I thought it would be fun to write about Disney experiences. I won’t be going often enough (at least for now) to be any good at it, but I figured I would try my hand at it for now. As I mentioned, we will be headed down there in about a month. I plan on writing a few posts about the trip. Things like restaurant reviews, a hotel/resort review and some general thoughts about the parks (things I like, things I don’t, and things that could be that much better). I will try to post pictures as well (if I can figure out how to do that here.. other wise, you can see them on my FB page. Here is a link to some of the ones I took last year.)