Stop and Smell the Roses

We all know the meaning of the sentence but how often do we really apply the wisdom, and stop to smell the roses?

March traditionally brings me to the Florida theme parks, and this year was no different.

At Universal Studios I had the opportunity to join the Krewe of the Jester float and celebrate Mardi Gras. It was a fun experience that I would not mind repeating next year. Universal Studios uses 4 million beads, 12,000 doubloons, and 2,050 pounds of confetti throughout the 50 days of the festival. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

One of my favorite experiences was seeing Rivers of Light, the new sound-and-light show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The animal scenes projected onto mist screens, the giant floating lotus flowers spouting water, and the wonderful soundtrack really impressed me. I wish I could have seen the show several times, take it all in, and enjoy the sounds and sights without the pressure of reporting about it.

There where no roses but plenty of flowers to enjoy at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival. I love the larger-than-life topiaries, the scent of the flower beds, and the inventive gardens on display. The best moment however was to meet with friends for a few hours enjoying the sights and culinary delights of the outdoor kitchens together.

On Sunday, March 12th, under grey skies, I was first in line to review Disney’s newest water park attraction, Miss Adventure Falls, at Typhoon Lagoon. Together with a good friend I braved the 68 F weather to report back about this new family-friendly ride.

So 12 nights and three hotels later, what is there not to like? I do love my job, I am grateful for all the wonderful opportunities but I think that, at times, I forget to smell the roses. Gratefulness and appreciation are two different things. To stop and smell the roses is a wonderful philosophical approach to life but a difficult one to learn for a type A person such as me.

I am willing to learn.

Sapphire Falls — Caribbean Island Vibe at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando offers island adventures for everybody’s taste, and with spring just around the corner, what could be better than spending some time on an island, not so far away?

Skull Island: The Reign of Kong, the longest ride at Islands of Adventure, takes you into a 1930s expedition inside an island where Kong is king. If you want to experience prehistoric beasts, a larger-than-life Kong himself, and a queue that will scare the willies out of you, go for it, as this island is just right for you!

I loved the ride but I must admit that my idea of island time is more the kind you can find at Sapphire Falls Resort, the latest addition to the Universal Orlando portfolio. The beautifully appointed rooms, and the overall Caribbean island vibe of the resort is welcoming and calming after a long day in the parks. Relaxing at the 16,000-square-foot, zero-entry main pool, a drink from the Drhum Club Kantine in hand, made me quickly forget about the life actors that lured inside the queuing area of Skull Island.

My favorite drink was a “Top of the Palm” margarita. Signature drinks are served in a 15-oz. souvenir glass for $15, with refills available for $10. Hotel guests can actually enjoy all pools at any of the Universal Orlando resort properties. How about floating in the lazy river at Cabana Bay Beach Resort? The pool at the Hard Rock Hotel is equipped with an underwater sound system, so you can rock on while enjoying the water and the sunshine. The lush tropical vegetation at the Royal Pacific Resort invites guests to set their watch once more to island time. Best of all you can bring your souvenir glass along and get refills at all the pools for $10. Can life get any better?

Sapphire Falls

On May 25th Universal Orlando will open Volcano Bay, the Polynesian-island-inspired waterpark. For a water puppy like me, Volcano Bay is a dream come true. Between the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, the Kopiko Wai Winding River, and Waturi Beach, I’m sure I will be on island time, all the time.

I am most excited to find out if TapuTapu really lives up to its promise. The waterproof, complimentary, wearable device is set to eliminate queuing at Volcano Bay. Guest can tap their wristband on the totem at the entrance of each attraction, and they will be given a return time. So look for me on Waturi Beach while I wait for my return time to Krakatau Aqua Coaster!

Volcano Bay is adjacent to the Cabana Bay Resort. I’ll be returning to Sapphire Falls and will report back on Volcano Bay early June. In the meantime check out my reviews of Skull Island: The Reign of Kong and Sapphire Falls.

Saying I Do at the Kaufman Astoria Studios

Tying the Knot where Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, and Maurice Chevalier Worked

The Kaufman Astoria Studios is a historic movie studio in Astoria, Queens, and home to New York City’s only backlot. On January 29th the studios became the center stage for the wedding of my son.

Kaufman Astoria Studios

A bit of history
Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor founded the studio in 1920, the first two Marx Brothers films were shot here, and silent-movie idol Rudolph Valentino filmed Monsieur Beaucaire at the studio in 1924.

After Paramount Pictures moved all studio operations to California in 1932, the Astoria location became home to independent producers until the United States Army, in 1942, took over the studio to produce training and propaganda films, including the series The Big Picture.

In 1971 the United States Army left the movie business and the studios were given to The City University of New York to turn then into a campus or a film school. These plans did not materialize and the future of the studios didn’t look promising. In 1976 a group of New York film people recognized the historic significance and the potential of the studios. They created a foundation to manage the studios, and eventually, The studios were declared a National Historic Landmark. The facility was restored and is the center of a bustling creative environment where shooting, pre- and post-production take place around the clock.

In recent years films and television shows such as Sesame Street, Law & Order, Orange is the New Black, Men in Black 3, and The Bourne Legacy, just to name a few, have been filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Saying I Do inside the atrium of the Kaufman Astoria Studios

The wedding ceremony took place inside the atrium of the Kaufman Astoria Studios. It was the first wedding held in the atrium ever. It was however not the first wedding held at the studios. On August 9, 2008 Annie Evans, a writer for Sesame Street, and Martin Robinson, a puppeteer for the show, got hitched in Studio J. The couple exchanged vows on a staircase of the “Sesame Street” set. Interestingly enough they got engaged on a New Year’s Eve, and so did my son.

The original studio’s commissary, now reimagined as The Astor Room, is where the wedding reception and dining took place. Guests seated where once Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford took their meals.

The party continued downstairs at the Bamboo Lounge, where my son surprised his wife with “As Time Goes By” from the movie Casablanca before dancing the night away.

Back home in Birmingham my thoughts often return to the young couple, the many special moments, and the studios. I know that every New York visit will bring us all back to the Astor Room for a meal and a cocktail. After all, who can possibly resist the classic Mary Pickford cocktail? Made of Cruzan aged light rum, maraschino liquor with house-made grenadine and fresh pineapple juice, this is the stuff dreams are made off!

Of Drones and Christmas Cheer

Disney Springs is all spruced up for the holidays this year and provides the backdrop for a new holiday experience featuring 300 show drones.

The Starbright Holiday—An Intel Collaboration takes place nightly at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. now through January 8th over Lake Buena Vista.

The 5-minute choreographed aerial performance of 300 drones is set to holiday music, and the drones create holiday images such as a Christmas tree, an angel, and a peace dove.

The show marks the U.S. public debut of the Intel Shooting Star drone–a new type of unmanned aerial vehicle specifically designed for entertainment purposes such as festivals and air and light shows.

But there is more. Every night at the Once Upon a Toy fountain play area, a Christmas tree lighting takes place at 6 p.m. and the new Christmas tree trail features 15 custom-decorated evergreens, each capturing a popular Disney character or movie.

I liked the Christmas tree trail a lot and I believe it really has potential, but think that there is room for improvement. Read: more trees, more bling, more decoration, bigger trees, and please bring back the traditional Christmas carols!

Talking about Christmas carols. Throughout the evening, at the Once Upon a Toy fountain play area, toy soldier stilt walkers, carolers, and an a capella group take turns spreading holiday cheer, and a DJ spins holiday-themed music, making sure that you get into the Yuletide spirit. And, make sure to look for the strolling piano at Town Center!

Walt Disney World is always decked out to the max and Christmas is indeed the most magical time of the year to visit the parks. Check out a related story I did for TheMouseForLess.com and find out the top 10 reasons why Christmas is a perfect time to visit the Kingdom of the Mouse. If you are considering a stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort read my article here.

Check Out these Hip and Fun Watering Holes

New, Hip, and Fun Watering Holes Shine at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando

AbrakadaBARAbracadaBAR at Disney’s BoardWalk is the newest watering hole to open at Walt Disney World.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the bar for drinks with friends. The atmosphere is elegant, and the décor draws on the 1930s, the golden age of illusionists.

The lounge is intimate and offers plenty of seating. Similar to Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs, the bar tells a story with props, vintage posters, and artifacts throughout the lounge, the hallways, and even the bathrooms!

Over at Universal Orlando Strong Water Tavern is the new kid on the blog. Located in the lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, the tavern offers a unique dining and drinking experience.

A Rum Captain is on hand to help you pick the drink that is just right for you, and the cocktails do the name of the tavern justice—they are strong!

watering holesThe Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs is another great way to relax after a busy day in the theme parks. Make sure to request a table on the outside deck. It is a great place for sunset-watching.

And when you think it can’t get any better, believe me it will!  In the Fall of 2017 George Miliotes, who formerly created an award-winning wine list for California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, will spearhead Wine Bar George at Disney Springs. Wine Bar George will offer more than 100 selections (both by the bottle and the glass) from renowned regions in North America and worldwide.

The bar plans to offer seminars with visits from renowned winemakers.

For drinks of a different kind check out the steampunk-themed Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen and try on of the irresistible sundaes and milkshakes with unique toppings.

Ready to relax? Read more here!

Shimon Peres a Life Devoted to Country and Peace

Shimon PeresShimon Peres never spoke about peace without evoking the security for Israel, and he was fully aware about the importance of the survival of Israel as a nation, but he also knew that there was no alternative to peace.

He persuaded Yitzhak Rabin, to accept the Oslo Accords. Peres shook hands with Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the P.LO. It earned them at Noble Peace Prize. We all know what happened next. But even after Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli religious extremist, Shimon Peres continued tirelessly to work for peace.

Shimon Peres wasn’t perfect, but he was the first Israeli president to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon, and deal with the economic crisis the country was facing.

Here is what Shimon Peres believed in: “An ancient Greek philosopher was asked what is the difference between war and peace. ‘In war,’ he replied, ‘the old bury the young. In peace, the young bury the old.’

Who will reassure us in the future that Israel will achieve peace? Shimon Peres was Israel’s moderate, in a nation led by hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peres was an optimist and once said “What happened until now is over, unchangeable. I’m not going to spend time on it. So I am really living in the future, I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better.” A good lesson I still have to work on. I belong to the generation who is still hurting from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and I often catch myself thinking what could have been.

On his 90th birthday Mr. Peres said that he still believed that he would see peace in his lifetime. I too want to see peace in my lifetime and firmly believe that peace is the only way foreward. Let’s celebrate a visionary and Israel’s rebirth while at the same time work relentlessly at bringing about a just peace for all. I was disappointed that Arab leaders were notably absent at the funeral but following Shimon Peres’ example I want to emphasis on the positive, the courageous attendance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Shimon Peres was one of the last surviving pillars of Israel’s founding generation. May he rest in eternal peace, a peace that eluded him in his lifetime.

I Know Words and I Love the Oxford English Dictionary

I know words, I just wished I knew the best of words.

Lately pundits and so called experts analyze every word that is uttered. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, use and abuse words so frequently, that it becomes important to recall John Locke’s argument to never trust words to stand for things in themselves.

How many words can one make out of glib?

I find solace in reminding myself that there is beauty in words, those we say, and those we we don’t say. Words we are afraid to say out loud, and words we hope to hear one day. Words, when we chose the right ones, can evolve in the most amazing sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English DictionaryAnother fascinating look at words is available from the New Words List of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What is stracciatella? Is it ice cream or soup? How in the world did trout pout and binky make it into the dictionary? Are you wondering if they are working chop-chop at the chop-shop? Is the female version of a cool dud a dudette or a shmurfette? Well, smurf and smurfette did not make into the dictionary but dudette did. But, I am confident that smurfing will soon make it from the urban language dictionary into the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary was first published in ten volumes in 1928. Revisions and expansion led to the publishing of 20 volumes in 1989. I wonder how many volumes a 2016 edition would be. Would I have enough bookshelves to proudly display them? Considering that revised and new entries are added four times a year, the books would be quickly outdated.  Guess I better continue to adapt to the electronic age.

It would be sacrilegious not to mention the comma, the one I struggle with, the pretentious little blurb, that can safe a person’s life.

In the end of the day however I believe in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. words:

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.”

TTYL

Cell phone addiction – Time to let it go!

Cell phone on bikeIt never ceases to amaze me how we seem compelled to check our cell phone constantly. We rarely are truly unplugged, and have become addicted to a constant buzz of information that often distracts us to a point that we are oblivious to our surroundings.

I love to bike to work and always worry about the traffic, drunk drivers, and lately texting and Pokémon Go players. I wonder if drivers really realize that when they are checking their phones while driving they are playing some sort of Russian Roulette. It is no secret that texting and talking while driving, or checking social media while behind the wheel, has started to cost lives. The only biker I caught checking in with his mobile device at least did it while stationary—in the middle of the pedestrian walkway!

Hot phoneWhen did constant access to mobile communication become necessary or even desirable? The stress of multitasking, working on weekends, evenings, and on lunch breaks, is of course furthering all this.

I am by no means perfect. I rarely leave my home without my cell phone and I am guilty of taking pictures, checking my mail, scrolling Facebook and other social media far more often than I would like. I have even managed to overheat the device! Yet, it would never occur to me to do so while driving. I am bewildered at how many people put their phone on a restaurant table. Even couples, obviously on a date, are on their phones instead of talking to each other. Why would I ignore someones company so that I can check in with other people who may not even be real-life friends? It just seems wrong.

Guests on cell phones at MKThe usage of mobile devices is a real nuisance at concerts and movie theaters. Can we no longer watch a movie without checking our mail? Why watching a concert through the screen of a tablet—and at the same time obstructing my view? The theme parks are no exception. Guests are spending a disproportionate amount of time on their mobile devices.

To be present and in the moment is so important. I recently even discussed cell phone wedding etiquette with my son and future daughter-in-law. They decided that during the ceremony only an official photographer will be allowed to take pictures, and that we will, like at the movies, ask guests to turn off their mobile devices. Here is to hoping that nobody will try to catch a Pokémon at the wedding.

It’s that Time of the Year Again – Revisions

Walt Disney World with Kids 2017After some intense weeks of work, and multiple revisions, my 2017 edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids is finally off to the printer. It is an annual ritual starting in March with a research trip to Orlando, followed by a first deadline for updates and new material by May 15.

His year however, there were so many changes, that by the time June came, I went on a second research mission to the Kingdom of the Mouse.  It was fascinating to be at Epcot the day the Frozen Forever ride opened. The ride opened at 9 a.m. on June 21st and I had made breakfast reservations at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall for 8:30 a.m., and was allowed into the park shortly after 8 a.m. that morning.  It was great to enter the park early and enjoy taking pictures on my way to the Norway pavilion. And yes, it was my ticket to the front of the line once the ride was about to open.

RevisionsNeedless to say that this made all the difference in the world.  I excited the ride at 9:10 a.m. and twenty minutes later the ride broke down. The park was officially open since half an hour and the line for the ride went back all the way over the bridge to the China pavilion. Cast members held up signs indicating that the wait currently was 180 minutes. Unfortunately the ride broke down quite often that day, and when you add to this the low loading capacity of the former Maelstrom ride, it is no surprise that the wait, at times, was 300 minutes—five hours!

I did experience the new Soarin’ Around the World flight, enjoyed all the new nighttime entertainment at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and saw Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire, the new show in front of Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom.

IMG_5666Over at Universal’s Islands of Adventure I paid a visit to Skull Island and rode the new King Kong attraction. Skull Islands: The Reign of Kong really did impress me. This multi-sensory, multi-dimensional ride is absolutely amazing.

Back in Birmingham it was crunch time. Revise the revisions, and submit last minute changes to my wonderful editor Amber Henderson. Amber brings it all together, and while it looks like magic when she takes over, believe me, it is not. It is hard work. A huge research team, editors, fact checkers, indexers, and a layout and art department support the authors. These behind the scene professionals make me look good and are the guarantee that a great product reaches the reader.

This year’s revisions are over—let’s play!

So what is next? Well, it is never too early to start collating data again, is it now?  In a few weeks I will once more board a plane and visit my happy place. I am excited to stay at three different hotels, including the newly opened Loews Sapphire Falls. I want to take tons of pictures and videos. But most of all I look forward to have more times for my friends than during my past two visits. And yes, there will be pool time!

Farmers Markets: Not all Peaches are Created Equal

farmers marketsEvery week, from April through early December, I visit the farmers market at Pepper Place. To me this is like a pilgrimage to a place where strawberries, peaches, cauliflower, lettuces, and flowers are competing for my attention.

Not everything is peachy though and it is sad to note that prices throughout farmers markets in America are anything but economical. Why is it that we have to pay more for healthy food?

Farmers markets connect consumers to local food growers

We all agree that nothing is better than getting fresh produce from vendors at local farmers markets. I want to be able to get the fresh produce, preferably organically grown vegetables and fruits, but, like so many other enthusiast, I cannot afford the price tag.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 8.16.32 PMFarmers are able sell their produce directly to the public, bypassing a lot of middlemen and customers are willing to pay a little more. How much more though are customers willing to pay? Affordability is an important aspect for every shopper. We should be able to get a better deal on fresh, high quality produce as farmers are cutting out middlemen like wholesalers, allowing them to retain every dollar they receive from customers.

So why is it that prices at farmers markets are more expensive than those we see at grocery stores? While I have no conclusive answer to the question I believe that it is all about the quality. I do think that prices are higher at farmers markets but it is important to keep in mind that the produce you find at farmers markets is very fresh. They last longer than those you can buy in a grocery store. The quality difference is huge. Produce bought at farmers markets do not go bad as quickly as store-bought items. Last but not least, freshness and quality contribute to better tasting fruits and vegetables.

Ideally I will have my own garden one day. In the meantime it’s all about the home-grown, and I can’t get that in the stores.