New York, New York

Every year, like most families, we come together for the holidays and New York is were we meet. I usually take a plane, but this year I decided to go by train. Amtrak’s Crescent train connects the Big Easy with the Big Apple and stops also in Birmingham. While Amtrak is lately often in the news, and not in a good way, I recommend this experience, and I know I will do it again.

No airport security stress, no worries about flight delays, and the freedom to walk around and have a meal in a dining car was worth the 17 hours trip. And what could be a prettier first sight than the beautiful Grand Central Station.

Grand Central New York

Spending the holidays in New York with my son and daughter-in-law is always special and together with family and friends we welcomed 2018.

We are all big Muppet fans and one of our favorite outings was a visit to the Museum of the Moving Image in Long Island City, Queens. The museum’s core exhibit is about the creative process of making moving images, but this visit was about the latest addition to the museum. We were not disappointed, the new permanent Jim Henson Exhibition is fascinating.

A classic, but an absolutely must see when in the city during the holidays is George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The performance by the New York City Ballet was held at the David H. Koch Theater, inside Lincoln Center. I have seen the ballet before and yet I am again and again mesmerized how one of the great 19th-century children’s stories can come alive on stage. During intermission it was so cute to observe the little girls meet with one of the ballerinas.

The Sugarplum fairy and her dancing Sweets, the huge Christmas tree, and the larger-than-life Mother Ginger impress, but for me the most amazing scene is the dancing Snowflakes and their queen. It is so beautiful that I wished snowfall would greet us when leaving Lincoln Center; it didn’t.

Soon it was time to say goodbye, but not before paying a visit to the Morgan Library. The museum is a treasure trove of books, medieval manuscripts, drawings, prints, and musical manuscripts. The building in itself is an architectural landmark I never tire visiting.

When my son and I visited the library had private letters and original music on display from a rotational exhibit called Treasures from the Vault.

For me, the highlights were a letter of Jane Austen to her eight-year-old niece Cassandra, in which every word is spelled backward; and letters written by and addressed to Alexander Hamilton and his family. The later and Franz Schubert’s manuscript of Der Winterabend moved me to tears.

It was good to be back in the Big Apple and even better to be with family and friends. Can’t wait to plan the 2018 edition.

It’s the Season to be Jolly and other Winter Tales

The end of the year always brings about a flurry of activities, starting with what has become my annual Yuletide trip to the Orlando theme parks.

Christmas Season

From park to park I go in search of the Christmas spirit. This year I found it inside Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure where the icky-green Grinch tried to steel Christmas from the Whos. I love this show and meeting the Grinch in person afterwards was the highlight of my visit to Universal Orlando.

To be fair, over at Universal Studios the Holiday Parade Featuring Macy’s is certainly not to be dismissed.

The big wow factor here however was the new holiday show that Universal Studios projected nightly on the walls of Hogwarts castle. The show was part of the Christmas in The Wizarding World, which also included an adapted show of Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees who put the song “My Baby Gave Me a Hippogriff for Christmas” into my head for days!

Usually Epcot is my favorite theme park during the holiday season, but this year I really felt that Disney’s Hollywood Studios conveyed the holiday spirit best. You will never look at the Tower of Terror the same way and I loved to see that even umbrellas were all decked out for the season!

Back in Birmingham I enjoyed the holiday party that the homeowner association organized at my new home. It was a nice way to meet my new neighbors, who like me, enjoyed the very musical Santa that stopped by for the occasion.

Early in the month the city came to a standstill as an unusual heavy snowfall brought about a snow day. Having experienced real Northeastern living in New York I still smile when two inches of snow shut down an entire city. I do realize however that it is such rare an occasion that the city acquiring snowplows would be a waste of my tax dollars.

Soon it will be time for my annual trip to New York City. Time to get ready!


There is No Place Like Home

I never thought I would ever write this, and yet, after over 3 years in Birmingham Alabama, I decided it was time to come to a decision. Do I stay or do I go?

When I accepted the position at AdventureKEEN it was understood that after proper training I would re-locate to wherever I wished to live and work for the company remotely. For the greater part of early 2016 I looked at all my options, especially Florida, but as time went by and after exploring my options in Orlando I came to the decision that the Kingdom of the Mouse was not going to work for me, after all.

Now what?

Reality check: I still have quite some years to go till retirement, and until I reach this day there must be a better way than renting a place that is fine, but was never meant to be permanent. The famous sheet with pro and contra columns literally saved the day.

I had grown fond of Birmingham, the little blue dot in the Red Sea. Friends and colleagues certainly were another plus in the pro column. The weather, definitively a plus, living on Highland Avenue, a lifesaver from the beginning, was another mark in the pro column. Paying rent, positively a minus, buying a home scary, and moving a thought that instantly raised red flags.

A Town House or Condo was always what I wanted as a single home would be way too much maintenance. What else did I need? A second bedroom for guests was a must; a terrace and an outdoor pool as well.

Friends had recently decided to retire and their apartment, a place I visited often was exactly what I longed for.

The rest is basically history. A contract was signed and on November 2nd I moved into Park Tower, only a block away from my rental apartment.

The move is a sore subject I prefer to forget about. Suffice to say that some furniture never made it to the new home. Reminder to self: for the next move pick reliable moving company, should there be such thing.

Getting settled came with all the ups and downs one expects and foresees. Yet the reality is that assembling cabinets quite never turns out as planned.

Slowly but surely everything, however fell into place. Furniture on backorder finally arrived, pictures went up on the walls, and last but not least the first flowers were purchased for the terrace.


Spring can’t come soon enough as I am eager to start my day on the terrace and end it at the pool.

In the end I think that home is a feeling, not a place, and there’s no place like home.

Los Angeles: From Shakespeare to Burlesque

Every year I go west to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Los Angeles. The trip always includes a lot of fun and great entertainment. This year’s visit was no different.

I started my visit with Shakespeare in the Park and enjoyed a fabulous performance of Macbeth, King of Scottland. It never ceases to mesmerize, especially the powerful line of the witches: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” The play certainly is an ageless reminder of what political ambition does to those who seek power for its own sake.

Next, I saw Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan of Interstellar, two Dark Night flicks, and Inception fame. For me, this was the best movie I have ever seen on this subject. The film is intense and stays clear of traditional storytelling, but that is exactly what I liked about the movie. Dunkirk, or any other movie depicting a conflict for that matter, doesn’t need a story, or God forbid a love story, as long as the visuals focus on conveying the horror that is war. The cinematography combined with great acting conveyed from the beginning that behind every soldier there IS a story—there is a mom, dad, wife, or sibling devastated by the loss of a loved one.

The musical score, written by Hans Zimmer, underscores the powerful message of this film. I admit that Zimmer’s music can, at times, overpower the action, but I thought it was the perfect choice for this film. Zimmer, best known for such movies as The Lion King, Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, Rain Man, and The Preacher’s Wife, is a musical genius.

Next on the program was a Burlesque show, which provided some much-needed comic relief. I loved the fact that one could interact with the cast once the show was over. And yes, we also went to see Girls Trip. One cannot describe it, so just go see it!

I loved shopping for the wardrobe of a movie that my daughter-in-law is working on. It always amazes me to see how much goes into this. Shop till you drop to find perfect 1930s outfits; next, bring them to a shop that earns money fraying these beautiful vintage pieces. Yikes!

At the end of the week, we all had a wonderful time at Universal Studios Hollywood watching the nighttime show over Hogwarts Castle.

Before leaving, I was in for a real treat visiting (and having lunch on the premises) the campus of DreamWorks. What a fabulous place to work. I’m so grateful to talented script writer Zachary Johnson for having us.

As always, time flew, and it was hard to say goodbye. I cherish the precious time with my son and his wife, and I enjoyed spending time with friends I do not get to see often.  And yes, I had the time of my life with my grand dog, who forgets his mom and dad the moment I arrive.

Gambit, your loyalty to Laura and Idan is questionable, but Lord knows I love you, and I miss snuggling up with you at night.

August: An America in Awe, An America in Pain

August brought us one of the most awesome and rare sights in nature— a total eclipse of the sun!

On Monday, August 21st, from approximately noon until 3 p.m., people in North America were able to see at least a partial eclipse, while the total eclipse passed through portions of 14 states.

Not since 1979 had the path of the moon so perfectly intersected with the path of the sun. People from all walks of life gathered together to watch this amazing celestial event. In a billion years or so, the moon will appear small enough that it won’t fully eclipse the sun, and the age of total eclipses will be over.

And so, on August 21st, I happily joined throngs of fellow earthlings to witness the partial eclipse here in Birmingham.

AugustIt was every little bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be. I can only imagine how scary it must have been centuries ago to see the life-giving sun swallowed up completely without warning and explanation.

Today, of course, we know that the sun is eclipsed when the moon happens to pass in front of it—and that it is a natural phenomena and not a sign of any deity at odds with its creation.

August a Month of Heroes and a Month of Pain

But August also brought us Charlottesville and the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.

The hatred I saw in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ultimately led to the death of Heather Heyer, is forever burned in my memory. The country that I call home is bitterly divided, and I am deeply concerned to have seen the ugly head of a racist monster show itself openly.

To see an angry mob marching with torches, on the university campus founded by Thomas Jefferson, was like adding insult to the injuries suffered during that weekend.

AugustThe hatred displayed on social media, and the lack of leadership in the days following Charlottesville taxed my belief in social discourse, human rationale, and my faith in humanity altogether.

Only a few days after the solar eclipse, Harvey’s 130-mph winds lashed the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. The pictures of flooded homes, people in distress, terrified children, and elderly residents stuck in rising waters were heartbreaking. But my spirits were lifted when I saw how America can come together to help with rescue efforts. Places of worship from all denominations opened their doors to house and feed those who made it to safety with nothing left but their bare lives. People, including the husband of a colleague, took their boats, packed up supplies, and left for Texas to help rescue complete strangers from their flooded homes. Some, like DACA recipient Alonso Guillen, died trying to rescue Harvey flood victims. He and many others showed what the American spirit is all about.

The fact that people were able to put their differences aside, that they showed empathy for their fellow countrymen, gave me hope, hope that we might be able to overcome what divides us, after all.

The monster storm and the solar eclipse also reminded me how helpless and small we humans really are. But we do have the capacity to give, to love, to help, and to reach out to one another. This is not just an ideal. It is what our world needs, desperately, everyday and unconditionally. I cannot and will not give up believing that we are all able to demonstrate compassion, love, and empathy. As Anne Frank once wrote: “… because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Chicago—Birthplace of the Skyscraper

Visiting Chicago is always a treat, and it was no different this month when I returned to the Windy City for a business trip. To me, Chicago, the third-most-populous city in the United States, with its streets laid out in a grid, feels a little like New York City.

Sadly enough, it was the terrible destruction caused by the 1885 great Chicago fire that led the city to become a modern, well-laid-out city, ushering in the skyscraper era.

The city was able to rebuild, taking into account urban planning and setting zoning standards. Every time I see a Birmingham Beautification Board award in front of a historic home, I am reminded that it is in Chicago that the City Beautiful Movement started. Of course, the movement, which promoted a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life, did not always succeed. As with every great idea, there are those who are more concerned with aesthetics at the expenses of social reform.

Another wonderful aspect of Chicago is that, just like New York City, it has attracted a lot of immigrants. It seems unbelievable that, in the beginning of the twentieth century, over 60 percent of Chicago’s population was foreign-born or born from parents that came to this nation from Germany, Poland, Sweden, then Czechoslovakia, Ireland, and other countries.

Over the past 30 years, I have visited Chicago many times; yet it took some research to find out that some of our nation’s tallest buildings are in Chicago. The former Sears Tower, now known as the Willis Tower, is the second tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. As a matter of fact, the Willis Tower, upon completion back in 1973, surpassed the World Trade Center towers.


The architect of the Willis Tower was Fazlur Rahman Khan, born in a part of British-ruled India that became East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. Kahn discovered that the ridged steel structures were not the way to go when taking into account wind and seismic forces, especially as the height of buildings increased. In short, Mr. Kahn became known as the Einstein of structural engineering. Among many other projects, Fazlur Rahman Kahn is also the architect of the other most famous Chicago building, the John Hancock Center.

Mr. Kahn, the father of structural engineering and expressionism, suffered a heart attack while on a business trip in Saudi Arabia at the age of 52. He is buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. In 2009 he was singled out by then-President Barack Obama for his contributions as a Muslim American and his achievements as an architect and engineer. The epitaph on his gravestone reads (in translation) “For you it is the beginning, For me it is the end, For you and me together, Thus flows the current.” On April 3rd, 2017, on what would have been his 88th birthday, Google honored Mr. Kahn with a Google Doodle.

While famous for skyscrapers, Chicago is also home to some amazing public art, the most famous being Cloud Gate, the 10-ton elliptical sculpture forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect Chicago’s famous skyline and the clouds above. Created by Indian-born British artist Anish Kappor, the sculpture is inside Millennium Park and lovingly called The Bean.

There is so much more to see, but no visit to Chicago would be complete without spending time at Navy Pier or on the shores along the ocean-like Lake Michigan. If the beach is not your thing, the 18-mile-long stretch of Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is perfect for running, walking, or biking. World-class museums, a vibrant performing arts scene, and great restaurants round out the offerings.

Chicago, I will be back, and I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah Bernhardt, who said, “I adore Chicago. It is the pulse of America.”

There’s More to Huntsville than U.S. Space Missions

The high-tech city of Huntsville, which sprawls at the foot of a mountain in North Alabama, is mostly known by its nickname Rocket City. Huntsville has been important in developing space technology since the 1950s, but, as I discovered recently during the TBEX (Travel Blogger Exchange) convention, there is more to Huntsville than U.S. space missions.Huntsville is home to Alabama’s leading visual arts center, the Huntsville Museum of Art. The museum welcomes traveling exhibits and is the home of a permanent collection that includes more than 3,000 objects that also form the basis for several exhibitions each year. The permanent collection primarily focuses on 19th and 20th century American art with an emphasis on art from the Southeast. American artists with Alabama ties include Richmond Burton, William Christenberry, Gerald Hayes, Nall Hollis, David Parrish, and Stephen Rolfe Powell.I loved discovering the exquisite silver creations designed and fabricated in Italy by the luxury jewelry firm of Buccellati. The Huntsville Museum of Art can claim to have the world’s largest public collection of these unique works of art. Buccellati: A Silver Menagerie is an absolute must-see when visiting the museum.The present house of Buccellati was founded in 1919 in Milan, Italy, and originated what is known as the Buccellati style, which combines Renaissance period techniques, luxury materials, and the extensive use of texture engraving to create objects of great beauty. This distinctive style won favor with a discriminating international clientele, including the Vatican, as well as the Royal Houses of Italy, Spain, Belgium, England, and Egypt.Gianmaria Buccellati carries on the family tradition today as an internationally renowned silversmith. He has dedicated his life to creating extraordinary objects that exemplify fine Italian craftsmanship. His highly realistic silver animals are replicates from earth, sea, and sky. Buccellati invented a new method of working in silver to capture fine detail like feathers, hair, or different types of skin, known as “lavorazione a pelo” or “hair-like workmanship.” One must see the artwork to realize the craftsmanship and level of skill required to produce such masterpieces.

Three galleries in the Davidson Wing provide the museum a showcase for its outstanding holding of American Studio Glass. The Collection encompasses a wide range of different techniques, including blowing, flame working, casting, and carving. Also included are works combining glass with other materials such as wood, rope, paint, gold and silver leaf, and manipulated imagery.The Ponchin Legacy is an exhibit from the museum’s permanent collection that pays homage to the creative work of two generations of acclaimed artists from the south of France—Antoine Ponchin (1872-1933) and his son, Jos. Henri Ponchin (1897-1981).Highlights of the exhibition include a dramatic rendering of Les Baux in the South of France, a view of the entrance to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, scenes of quaint cities and towns in Provence, and paintings inspired by travels to exotic locales in North Africa.

My favorite temporary exhibit, Encounters, was showcasing the surrealistic paintings of celebrated Memphis artist Beth Edwards. Enlarged flowers and animated landscapes from the viewpoint of a still life painter left a lasting impression.Edwards has been particularly fascinated by the way in which certain toys exemplify both the animate and inanimate spheres of existence, and it sure shows in her work.Our Living Past: A Platinum Portrait of Music Maker focuses on the work of photographer Tim Duffy who has immortalized Southern musical heroes and the world in which they live—not only through the photographs he takes, but also through his Music Maker Relief Foundation, which promotes and supports the enduring tradition of Southern roots music.Our Living Past celebrates the distinctive sounds of Southern roots music through 25 iconic images of living blues, gospel, soul, and bluegrass musicians. Duffy’s images of artists like Freeman Vines, Taj Mahal, Ironing Board Sam, Lena Mae Perry, John Dee Holeman, and Huntsville’s own Ardie Dean capture a sense of timelessness that is appropriate to the subjects.
Duffy’s images are supplemented by a hand-selected array of related materials, including musical instruments and ephemera directly tied to the artists on view. These include Captain Luke’s painted guitar case, Ironing Board Sam’s gold keyboard, Dom Flemons’s rhythm bones, and Ardie Dean’s hand-decorated suit.The museum also offers art classes for children and adults along with special programs, lectures, and musical performances. I absolutely loved the children’s section of the museum, which, in addition to all kinds of interactive stations, has an amazing walk-through exhibit teaching the history of art.The Huntsville Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and on major holidays. Admission: $10 adults, $5 students and children ages 6-11. Seniors 60+, educators, and members of the armed forces pay $8. For more information, check out the website of the museum.

Passover in Prattville, Alabama

Visiting Prattville, Alabama, sounded interesting; after doing some research, I was all for it and ready to go. The secret draw, of course, was that my son was going to be in town to shoot an NFL/Hyundai commercial, and nothing was going to stop me from visiting with him on location!

I discovered that my home away from home was only a 15-minute ride away from Spectre, a town built to shoot Tim Burton’s film Big Fish. If you ever get a chance to visit, do so because it is simply indescribable and well worth a look. Check out this fascinating article “Ghost Town of Spectre, Alabama: Then and Now” by Kelly Kazek for Downtown Prattville is a lovely little town with a dam and a former cotton factory providing a scenic photo op for the passing tourist.


When it comes to food, the best place in town is Mick’s Cajun Market. Reasonably priced, the restaurant features authentic Cajun fare. The food is fabulous and so is the service. Never have I been in a restaurant that encourages patrons to try as many samples of dishes before ordering!

The rest of my stay along Interstate 14 was exactly what I meant it to be: uneventful. There was no Seder, no matzah, and no four questions were asked. I spent the days working on my revisions for The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2018, and I had the evenings with my son. It was nice to take the office outdoors overlooking the pool, enjoying the light and the fresh air.

The film crew had very little time to spare between shoots, production meetings, set scouting, and equipment prep. It was amazing and my first time to witness it all.

Passover has always been about tradition and family. All over the world, Jewish families, big and small, gather to celebrate. Would I have liked a matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and a good glass of wine? Even a Haggadah reading and a cup for Elijah? I sure would have, but the gathering was so last-minute, so unexpected, that I just resigned myself to the fact that there wasn’t going be a traditional meal, nor would there be wine on Erev Passover, as Prattville is a dry county. Did it matter? It did not.

What we ate and drank that night is of no importance. It was anything but kosher, I can tell you that much. Together we remembered a holiday rooted in history, and we celebrated what really matters: family. Scripture does not teach us what will happen when Elijah announces the Messiah. The prophet Malachi proclaims, in the portion of Scripture we read on Passover, “God will turn the hearts of parents to children, and children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6). In other words, Messianic days are a time of family. Therefore, whenever you have the joy to be gathered around the table with those you love, you have a foretaste of redemption. I certainly had this foretaste of redemption being able to spend this precious time with my son.

Family, however, isn’t only about blood. It is just as much about friends, those who care enough to offer their friendship and to help you when you need it. In addition to being reunited with my son, I experienced a special gift of friendship and care this Passover. A big thank you to my colleague Amber for generously driving me to Prattville. I deeply appreciate it!

Happy Passover! Happy Easter! May we all experience the gift of family and friendship during the holidays and always.

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, 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 were no roses but plenty of other 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 meeting with friends for a few hours, enjoying the sights and culinary delights of the outdoor kitchens together.

On Sunday, March 12th, under gray 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’s not to like? I do love my job, and I am grateful for all the wonderful opportunities it offers, 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 practice for a type A person such as me.

I am working on it!

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, as well as the overall Caribbean island vibe of the resort, are welcoming and calming after a long day in the parks. Relaxing at the 16,000-square-foot, zero-entry main pool (with a drink from the Drhum Club Kantine in hand) made me quickly forget about the live actors that lurked 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. Guests can tap their wristbands 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 in early June. In the meantime, check out my reviews of Skull Island: The Reign of Kong and Sapphire Falls.