About Liliane Opsomer

Liliane is born in Belgium and is living since 25 years in New York City. She is the co-author of the “Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids”, a guidebook that provides detailed planning and touring tips for a family vacation. She also work for the Tourist Office for Flanders and is am passionate about travel, Disney and Hobbits. She is the proud mother of a son who just graduated from Florida State University’s Film School. Read more: http://www.johnnyjet.com/2012/12/travel-style-liliane-opsomer/#ixzz2GkwH1SqZ

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 one of a historic home I am remembered that it is in Chicago where 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. Like 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 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 thirty years I visited Chicago many times and yet it took research to find out that some of our nations 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.

Chicago

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 where not the way to go when taking into account wind forces, seismic forces, especially not as buildings height 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 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 along the ocean-like shores of 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, roundup the offerings.

Chicago, I will be back, and  I wholeheartedly agree with Sarah Bernhardt when she 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 al.com. Downtown Prattville is a lovely little town with a dam and a former cotton factory providing a scenic photo op for the passing tourist.

Passover

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.

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 and his bride.

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 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 ever held in the atrium. 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, just like my son and his beloved.

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

The party continued downstairs at the Bamboo Lounge, where my son surprised his new 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 of!

Of Drones and Christmas Cheer

Disney Springs is all spruced up for the holidays this year, and it 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 dove of peace.

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. 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 block. 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 one 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 a Noble Peace Prize. We all know what happened next. But even after Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli religious extremist, 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 who 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.” This is 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, 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 forward. Let’s celebrate a visionary and Israel’s rebirth while, at the same time, we work relentlessly at bringing about a just peace for all. I was disappointed that Arab leaders were notably absent at the funeral, but, following Peres’ example, I want to emphasize 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 wish 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 don’t say. Words we are afraid to say out loud and words we hope to hear one day. Words, when we choose the right ones, can evolve into 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 dude a dudette or a smurfette? 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 10 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 mark that can save a person’s life.

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

“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