You are viewing snicholson

Travel reports moving to Google+

syrreg
I am on a trip to Asia now, and will be blogging my travels over on Google+. I'm making the reports public, so you don't have to be a Google+ member to see them.

Just bookmark
https://plus.google.com/114846872042445255770/posts
to keep up with me.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter XTREEM

travel
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
IMG_1478

In late April 2011, my partner and I visited Universal Islands of Adventure to take in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We are both fans of the license and have kept up with the books and movies over the year, so it’s something we were both interested in. I’m a fan of theme parks, but as I’ve gotten older, have lost some of the patience and flexibility I used to have, so I don’t stand in as many long lines or try to ride everything.

We picked a time of year that was less busy – after spring break, but before school let out, in an attempt to avoid the crowds. (Admission is $80 for one day, one park, or $130 for two days, both Universal parks) For the most part, this strategy paid off.

On many days, you can’t even enter that area of the park without getting a ticket for a time to visit, so you have to walk there, get the ticket, then come back hours later to just get into the small Harry Potter section.

So, I’ll present you with the view of two older professors who are fans of the series taking in the park. Yes, I know, it wasn’t made for us, but I know there are many adult fans of the series who will want to take it in.

First, it’s not easy to get to. Once you get to the park, you have to walk through the commercial zone known as CityWalk, which is a conglomeration of chain restaurants and stores. (That said, we had a very good lunch there at Emeril’s, and as it was lunch, it was reasonably priced; I would visit there again.)

Then you go through the gates, and have to walk through the whimsical Dr. Seuss land (which is very well done and spread out) and the Lost Continent (think greek gods and the like) before seeing a glimpse of the Hogwarts’ Express train with its steam billowing out.

IMG_1449

That is a pretty magical sight, but like many of the things in Harry Potter land, is smaller than it looks in the pictures.

One of the best parts about the world are the first glances. The village with it’s tall (out of proportion) buildings with snow-covered roofs, the school up on the hill, it all looks like it is from the movie on first glance, and that is magical.

IMG_1451


It’s only when you start to get in close where you see the crowds, the lines, and the commercialism where the magic fades away.

The Wizarding World area is small and crowded. They added it into the park well after the park was built, so it was using some extra space. It is also the most crowded part of the park, so combining these things added to the frustration.

We decided to start with the big attraction – Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This was the “movie ride” as compared to the lightly themed coasters, so figured this would be the thing to focus on first. The first half of the hour wait was mostly outside in the area with plants hung high from the ceiling, to make it feel like a large greenhouse.
IMG_1455

There wasn’t a lot to look at during this part.

Once you got into the school, then the show began.
IMG_1458
Each chamber was something significant from the movies, and these were well-done (and the best part of the attraction).

IMG_1457

They had a classroom

IMG_1462

and Dumbledore’s office with videos running with the characters explaining the story of the attraction.

IMG_1461

The part that was most impressive were the paintings – throughout the chambers were paintings, some of which would come to life with little vignettes.

IMG_1460

This was very nicely done, as it added a surprise element as you were looking from painting to painting to see which ones would come to life.

I do wish the school had been a separate attraction that you could spend time exploring, and not part of a queue that you were pushed through. I suspect, however, that with time to examine things, it would start to unravel.

You then had the ability to leave before getting in the queue for the ride. Now, there are warning signs about how this is a scary ride and you shouldn’t ride if you blah blah blah…

In this case, these signs are true. This is a scary ride, and you really shouldn’t ride if you can’t handle significant motion, being on your back or further, and being tipped from back to having your face down, along with being tossed from side to side.

Oh, sure, it starts off all nice and floaty as you are in a car that is held from behind, so your feet dangle. You have bars over your shoulders (which should have been a hint, when the restraint system looks like one from a roller coaster).

MILD SPOILER ALERT – skip down a few paragraphs if you want to keep all of the surprises intact.

Imagine you are sitting in a chair, and a mechanical arm is holding that chair. Then, as you go from scene to scene, which were mixes of videos on parabolic screens that surround your visit to real-life elements that reinact some of the scary moments from the films (think Big Friggin Spiders – this is not for the arachnophobic), this arm tosses you around and shoves your face into the elements. So, you can’t just sit back and enjoy them – the attraction is saying “LOOK AT THIS.. now LOOK AT THIS” as your face is placed very close to SPIDER.. MOVIE SCREEN. DEMENTOR, some of which are on the ceiling, then on the wall, then toward the floor, then it’s dark, then you are spun around…

(I found some pictures of what it looks like with the lights on at http://www.snitchseeker.com/harry-potter-news/first-harry-potter-and-the-forbidden-journey-ride-behind-the-scenes-photos-released-75031/ )

MILD SPOILER ALERT OVER

It was chaos, and as we got off, my partner said “That was far beyond my limits.”. He was very shaken, and this pretty much ended his experience at this theme park. He didn’t go on anything after this.

IMG_1484

This was, by far, the most extreme Movie Ride motion simulator I’ve been on. In fact, after this, I rode the hanging coasters in the area, and felt more calm on those than I did on the Harry Potter ride. I really regret that they decided to make it so rough, as you couldn’t enjoy anything. You were just tossed around from one chaotic scene to the next.

This rougher-than-it-looks theme continued on with the two coaster areas. There were the dueling hanging coasters, which are my favorite kind of coaster. But to make it more XTreem, they make it seem like the coasters will run into each other. Har har, now let me enjoy the ride!

Even the gentle-looking Hippogriff-themed coaster where you get into wicker-looking baskets and have a soothing knitted blanket over your legs is much faster than it looks. It looks like your typical “mine car” coaster, but it’s got a real kick to it – there were a number of kids who were shaken and just clinging to their parents after these coasters.

In general, the area was set more in the later books, where things got much more dark and intense, than in the earlier happy times of the first books.

The Butter Beer (3.25 liquid/4.25 frozen) was like a cream soda float, where the ice cream had all melted and was the “froth” that they added to the top. I found the frozen to be less intense in flavor and less sweet, so if you don’t have a strong sweet tooth, go for that.

Other than that, there was the wand show, were 24 people went in at a time to have one person have a wand selected for them – we skipped this, as there was always a long line for it, a place to get a few English dishes like fish and chips, and several VERY crowded shops. There was a 4-person choir, two with frog puppets, doing a variety of a capella tunes.



Two shops were full of your typical Potter merchandise, like $100 robes and $80 sweaters, and then the toy/candy shop had a few Potter items (like the Chocolate Frog), and then the shelves were filled with typical stuff from toy or candy stores. You could also buy a postcard to send home from the mail there, but stamps were only sold in books of 10 stamps for $15. So, we picked up some postcards and got the Hogsmeade cancellation stamp on them, but didn’t actually mail then.
IMG_1483


I think the whole thing can be summed up in these pictures. This is the view from a bridge coming from the Jurassic Park area of the park of Hogwarts.
IMG_1472
It’s a lovely view, and makes you feel like it’s up there on the hill (like Edinburg Castle).

And this is a view of the same castle from behind, from the line for the main ride.

IMG_1452

It shows how small it really is, and how they are using proportion to make it look bigger and better than it is in real life. I think that is a good analogy for the WIzarding World - the first glimpse are magical, but the more time you spend there, the more the magic drifts away.

Videos

travel
Here are three videos I made during the trip. Two are of the Papantla flyers, and one is of two grey whales close to our whale watching boat.




Grey whales by Cabo San Lucas

Papantla Flyers and spinning

Papantla Flyers

From the two of us, thanks for tuning in!


Scott and Ken at Cabo San Lucas

Pictures are posted

travel
I'm home! Hooray!

Someone took away my white sand and swapped it for something else white! There's about 13 inches of snow on the ground that wasn't there when we left..

I've put up a selection of pictures from the trip at
http://www.flickr.com/photos/snicholson/sets/72157625835933034/

Coming Home

travel
The Last Day

The last day of the cruise was at sea. On this day, you’ve eaten and eaten and eaten, and spend the day not doing much. I played bridge and spades, ate some more, and recovered a bit from the sunburn that I picked up in Cabo! (so, no hot tub or sauna for my pink skin…).

I tried my luck at the Casino, and holding true with my cruise casino predictions, things are always the best on the first few days, and tighten up as the cruise goes on. There was a wacky dinner where the waitstaff did a song and dance between the courses, the best of which was the napkin ballet as they danced the napkins onto our laps.

The annoying part of the day was the disembarkation lecture. During this time, they talked about the customer review forms and how important they are. I’m sure the staff gets a bonus based upon the ratings that are given on these forms. The big problem I had was with the lies they told the passengers about the forms.

The forms had a scale from 1 to 9, with 9 being the best. So, there was a lot of emphasis on giving “9s”. The simple brainwashing things were the use of the number 9 in many things, such as the 9 prizes that were given out to randomly selected guests who filled out the form by a certain time.

But the thing that really chapped my hide were the lies and attempts to affect the ratings, such as:

“The rating scale goes to a 9 because we know we aren’t perfect. So, if you were simply pleased with the service, go ahead and mark a 9.”

What? If the scale goes to 9, then 9 is perfect! Just because you don’t have a 10 available doesn’t change that the scale has a top, and that top is 9.

In fact, when we got the forms, 9 was marked as “Excellent”, which in my book, is a far cry from “simply being pleased.”

There was no desire to have honest answers so that the line could improve; instead, the focus was on getting 9s. Statements like “If there was only one thing wrong, then don’t hold it against the whole department.”

I’m sure this is a case where the ship is trying to gain benefits as compared to what the Holland America line wants to learn. But why bother doing a survey if the goal isn’t to learn where you need to improve?

I’ve had similar pushes before, but the lies that were told in this case really bothered me.

BOO!

So, as is typical on cruises, we put our bags outside the room at night to be picked up, and are now waiting for them to announce our time to disembark, so we can head to the airport, get on the flight back to DC then on to Syracuse, where 10 degrees and much snow awaits! Hmm, maybe I’m not so excited about that last part.

To Conclude:
We won’t travel on HAL again unless it’s a good deal or we’re traveling with others. We enjoyed our Princess cruise experience more. Since the cruise lines reward frequent cruisers, we know it’s important to stay with one line, so we’ll be staying with Princess for future cruising,

I’ll post pictures soon, and will let you know here when I do.

Cabo san Lucas

travel
Cabo san Lucas

The final port stop for us was in Cabo san Lucas, which is on the tip of Baja California. (which, as I learned on this cruise, is not really in California, but instead is a state in Mexico. Learning is Fun!) Unlike the other two ports, Cabo is a resort town first and foremost, and is a young town. There was much stronger regulation in Cabo, so while there were people wanting to sell you boat tours or trinkets, there were specific places they had to stay, so it was much easier to avoid them than at either of the other ports. It’s the most Americanized of the ports we visited (by far). I spent about three hours walking around, where I left the main tourist boardwalk area and walked a little bit off the beaten path. I also visited a very American-style shopping mall and wandered onto the beach. It was a nice morning, just exploring the city.

I then had some more time to spend before our afternoon tour, so I went to the biggest tourist trap of them all – Señor Frogs. It had loud music, weak drinks, and bad food, all at high (for the area) prices. But they have marketed themselves like mad – there are merchandise shops for them everywhere. I figured – OK, let’s try it. I certainly don’t need to do that again!

That afternoon, we went on a whale watching cruise. This was a 2-hour trip on a smaller boat. We ended up seeing about 12 whales during that time. It’s tough to take pictures of them, as you don’t know where they are going to come up, then you just have a short time to get the shot. Instead, I focused on using a video camera and was able to catch a few of the breaches. They come up a few times, blow out water, and then drop back in. One thing I learned on this is that once you see the tail, the whale is then going back down into the water for a while. I will post the video when I get home.

So, our boat would see a whale, then pursue it to get closer to watch it. While our big boat was heading there, all of these small local water taxis would also zooooom right by them – really, way too close. The poor whales would be surrounded by 4-6 of these small boats.

Then it was back to the ship for another formal night and the final show. The entertainment on this boat was OK – one of the disappointments was that there weren’t two different shows each night like on the last cruise. In general, the production and the dancing was good, while the singers were not great. There was a late night desert extravaganza, which was basically the same deserts we’ve seen all week with some fancy plating.

Today is the last day of the cruise – a day at sea – and then back to San Diego tomorrow to fly home.

Mazatlan

syrreg
Mazatlan – Spanish for “Tourist Trap”
The next day, we went to Mazatlan, and decided to take the cruise ship’s “Best of Mazatlan” 7-hour tour. We started with a stop in the cathedral in the older part of town. The most interesting part of the Catholic cathedral were the number of Jewish stars that were part of the decor due to the engagement of the Jews in the construction process.

We then went to see some “cliff” divers, which were younger men diving from a platform about 40 feet up and then quickly get out of the water and run to the crowd to ask for money.
IMG_1166.jpgcliff
Basically, it’s a point on the side of the road that comes to life when a tour bus stops there. We chose to not get off of the bus at this stop, as passengers were immediately attacked by street vendors trying to push hats, glasses, and other treasures. It actually reminded me of a similar stop on our St. Petersburg cruise where several people had their pockets picked, and we decided to take the safe route and enjoy watching the view of the divers from the bus (instead of cramming up against a hundred or more other tourist bus folks to see the 30-second show).

Old Mazatlan is pretty run-down. We did a few stops for pictures and learned about the neighborhoods. What makes the contrast in Mazatlan is between the old area and the new “Golden Zone,” named because (I guess) of all of the silver shops. (what?) This area has built up only in the last 50 years, so is all touristy and shiny. Having just seen the older area makes this area seem that much more shallow. Locals were very aggressive both in the shops and on the street to get you to buy things.

The worst part was at a “show” where they piled all of the tours from the bus together in an outdoor theater to see the Papantla flyers, which are the natives who hang upside down about 60 feet up on a pole and swirl slowly down. The sad part were the far-too-many vendors pushing products on the one narrow path that took you in and led you out. Even the flyers were there pushing a variety of products. The show host had his own gig, pushing CDs “for the homeless children.” It was almost as bad as the Great Wall in Beijing, but not quite.

hocking

After this, our tour bus broke down. Hooray. So, we had to walk to a resort hotel where we could spend the rest of our day out on the beach and having lunch (the highlight of which was a sweet pineapple Tamale.) I put my feet in the water (COLD) and talked to the hotel about their spa, where I was able to enjoy a $35 hour-long massage (as compared to the $119 hour massage on the ship).

Then, back to the cruise ship terminal, where you were forced to walk through another long series of markets and stalls for those necessary purchases of hats, baskets, Tequila, vanilla, and Viagara from one of the the many pharmacies that didn’t require a prescription.

Overall, it was a pretty awful experience. It was MUCH worse than Puerto Villarta as far as the aggressiveness toward tourists. The beach and massage were nice, and walking barefoot in the sand under the 65 degree weather was very nice.

That night, we paid about $40 to have “A Night at La Cirque,” a replication of some of the dishes from La Cirque restaurant in New York. While it was good, and better than what’s in the main dining room, it wasn’t fantastic. On other ships, when we’ve paid extra for a special on-board meal, we’ve been really impressed. This one really wasn’t worth the extra money, and we won't eat in the other upcharging restaurants.

Day 2 and Puerto Villarta

syrreg
The second day at sea was quite the lazy day.

I did start the day with a stretching class, which was a nice way to get going. Then it was off to breakfast in the main dining room, where I enjoyed a Danish breakfast with bread, ham, cheese, and 2 sunny-side up eggs that ran over and soaked it all – that was very nice.

I spent the next part of the day running around seeking people to play boardgames with, holding my Settlers box up as I wandered through public areas, but no dice. Literally.

I ended up going to a cooking class, where the instructor didn’t really teach; he was an active chef, so more gave orders. When I looked over and saw two men trying to separate eggs, and realized they had not been given any more instruction than “separate those eggs,” I knew it wasn’t so much a class. As a group, we worked our way through ruining several dishes that we then cooked and ate. On the plus side, they had provided bottles of wine for us to enjoy, so the taste of the food wasn’t so much an issue when we came to the eating part.

A few hours passed, which meant it was time to eat again. After dinner was a magic show. The young magician had an entertaining stage presence, although his large illusions were standard, ending with the transformation illusion you’ve seen many times before.

Games of Tichu and hearts rounded out the evening with our traveling companions.

The next day, we woke up to Puerto Villarta. Here's the view from the ship where we docked:
Docking in Puerto Villarta


It’s a built-up tourist city, and we took the taxis down to the main tourist shopping area (going through some areas that I would not want to walk through to get there). We wandered down the shopping area, and were very pleased by the art and sand sculptures on the beach. We caught the last part of the flyers show, but we are scheduled to see more of that tomorrow. We didn’t buy anything, and went back to the ship area. Ken went to the boat, and I went to Walmart with hopes of getting a local shirt. While they did have some, they were tool small for me – even the 3XL didn’t fit. (this is always a problem when I travel; the local XL concepts don’t match my shapely curves). There was also a shopping mall that I wandered through, but didn’t need anything from the Dockers store, GNC Health, or any of the other American chain stores.

Back to the boat for a lazy afternoon – I swam a bit, bubbled in the hot tubs, enjoyed the steam room, napped on a ceramic heated bed, then came back to the room and napped some more.

And soon, it’s dinner time!
travel
Here we go again!

We had a conference in San Diego, and on our last Princess cruise, we heard a lot of people compare Princess to Holland America. So, we found a cruise that left San Diego on the day after the conference ended, so decided to give it a shot.

Therefore, you’ll find that I compare this cruise to our Princess cruise. Both boats were built the same year and hold about the same number of passengers, so they will be good comparisons.

One of the reasons we wanted to make this comparison is that we are interested in doing a big Alaska cruise. They are expensive, so we wanted to look at these different lines in order to make a decision.

The cruise left from San Diego, and spent the first two days at sea going down to Mexico. That’s where we are now – the start of the second day at sea.

During days at sea, the ship puts on many activities that you can enjoy. One of the things on the HAL (Holland America Lines) ships is a cooking demonstration area. They set up shows like the Food Network, with cameras for close-ups and the like, and teach how to cook. We were looking forward to these demonstrations, but the problem was that the person giving the demonstration didn’t follow the recipes that were handed out! In addition, his spoken English was not strong, and I had a hard time understanding the intent of some of what he was saying. So, while I liked the idea of the cooking demonstrations, the one we attended was disappointing.

The food seems to be a little better than the food with the Princess ship we were on. Not by much, mind you, but just a little tastier. The service, however, is not as good. The Princess boat had several smaller dining rooms, while this one has one large room. There seems to be significant lines and grumpy people if they did not make reservations for dinner. (You can either eat at the same time every night, or eat when you would like, but then it’s like a normal restaurant.) There is a buffet open much of the time (but not all of the time); however, it’s unusual in that there are servers at the buffet to help you with food. I think this has been done to avoid passengers touching the same spoons and controlling germs. So, the food quality is a little better on HAL, but the service was better on Princess.

The shows are equally cheesy, although we’re only in 2 nights on the the HAL ship. The HAL theater is bigger; one of the problems with Princess is that you had to get to shows 10 minutes early or you would not get a seat. There doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem here.

I much preferred the ship layout on the Princess. It was a bigger boat (although for the same number of people), and felt less cramped. I do like the style of the HAL line – very art deco (although Ken doesn’t care for it).

Both boats had a special “VIP Spa” area, and I joined it each time. The VIP spa here is nicer than the one on Princess; while they both had steam rooms, saunas, and heated ceramic beds, this ship has a swimming-pool size hot tub. One side has these series of bars that create lounge chairs in the water, and with the bubbles coming from underneath, are VERY relaxing.

The casino on Princess was much better than the casino here. The casino here also seems to be more tight – I don’t hear as many people winning. I haven’t done as well, to be sure.

The library and game-playing areas on HAL are much better. There wasn’t a card/game room on Princess, but there is one on HAL. There is a very nice library on board as well.

There were several drink cards on Princess to get unlimited soda or a number of brewed coffee drinks; here, the best they offer is a discount card to save a little money if you pre-buy the card. It’s a much worse deal.

The staff, overall, have been less friendly on HAL. Our cabin steward has been surly at times, so that hasn’t been as pleasant of an experience.

So, we’re still not that far into the cruise, but as of now, we’re giving the nod to Princess over HAL. Not by much, and HAL has some areas in which they area better.

We will see!

Today is another day at sea, and then tomorrow, we go into Puerto Villarta. (why do I hear Rod Roddy from the Price is Right saying the name of that city?)

This Week in Libraries

syrreg
They have posted the episode of This Week in Libraries from Boras. (that was fast!)

You can watch my interview at
http://www.thisweekinlibraries.com/?p=122