Monthly Archives: January 2019

2019 Trip 1: Orlando Again: Jan. 21-22

At the start of the air boat ride, just south of Kissimmee FL

Orlando Monday Jan. 21

After two early mornings, we slept in Monday. Our activity today was a two-hour air boat ride through the headwaters area of the Everglades which starts just south of Orlando. Our tour operator (Spirit of the Swamp) was chosen because it offers headsets for better hearing of the guide’s presentation and because it is the only operator offering a two-hour tour, instead of just one hour. We were not disappointed; our guide, Lynn, did an excellent job.

Part of the marshy area of our air boat ride

This section of Florida is critical to the Everglades, that 1.5 million acres of marshes, coastal mangroves, slow moving rivers of water, etc that crosses most of southern Florida where it had not been destroyed by encroaching urbanization and agriculture. Our air boat ride was not in the Everglades National Park, that is farther south. We were in the headwaters area where Shingle Creek, which flows southward out of Orlando, runs in to Lake Tohopekaliga. Through various lakes, rivers, and canals (much of the water is southern Florida is controlled by various watershed management agencies), the water flows into Lake Okeechobee and down through the Everglades to the Gulf. The land in this area seems to be divided between ranches, urban development, and conservation areas. I am sure there are in-depth articles on the battle between various groups to use and conserve water, I do not know how this area ties in to that. So I won’t go there.

Cypress trees along Shingle Creek

Lynn, our captain, took us through a canal system into Lake Tohopekaliga, a shallow lake with numerous marsh areas. The air boat is able to go into areas with just inches of water or even areas of low grass. This versatility offered a wide variety of options as we covered marsh, grass, and open water. We saw the expected diversity of birds. We rode over a large swath of the lake area while Lynn identified numerous birds. The temperature, high of about 60 with a good wind, made us concerned whether we would see any alligators.

Up close and personal with one of the gators

Of course, a major highlight was seeing alligators. Mothers and hatchlings were not evident today but numerous large male alligators were sunning themselves. Most ignored us, one disappeared under the water as we got closer. With the air boat, we were able to come up within three feet of several of them. They just laid there, sometimes with an eye open, sometimes not, just enjoying the warmth of the sun on their backs. A few turtles were sunning themselves.

The five of us with CaptainLynn from Spirit of the Swamp air boat rides

The two hours went by quickly, we never tired of looking around the next corner to see what bird or animal would be present. Through it all, the landscape of water, trees, and grasses was a constantly changing backdrop of gorgeous greens and blues.

Tuesday, Jan. 22

The rhino blocking our path

Back to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Early arrival brought us to the gates around 8:30; gates were opening then. However, we had a glitch again and had to have guest relations re-authorize Sarah’s and Chris’ tickets to enter. We still made it to Na’vi River Journey before 9 AM and were able to easily enter the ride. From there we headed to Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition and once again were ahead of the crowd for the 20 minute ride through various African terrains. Our ride was about 3 minutes longer as a rhino decided to park itself blocking the road just in front of us. We had to wait until it decided to back up enough for us to pass.

Some of the animals at Animal Kingdom

We wandered back and forth though the park trying various park experiences and had a great time. Lunch was at Satu’li Canteen with tasty and healthy meal combinations. In the afternoon, Sarah, Sarah and Daniel decided to separate and take a chance waiting in line for Avatar-Flight of Passage. They felt the just over two-hour wait was worth the experience, although a second ride would not have been.

We ended the day with a second ride on Kilimanjaro Safari Expedition and riding Expedition Everest (only 3 rode, you can guess which ones). As Expedition Everest ended, the evening river light show was beginning and we watched it from a bridge over one of the water channels. It was a pleasant way to finish enjoying the park and our two weeks in Orlando.

River of Light show at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom

Ed and Chris Jan. 23

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2019 Trip 1: Orlando Again: Jan. 20

View of Hubble telescope which had been put into orbit by the space shuttle

Orlando, Sunday January 20

Up early again and off to Kennedy Space Center (KSC). KSC is an hour drive from Orlando and we wanted to be at the gates before it opened at nine. We were, but today the gates remained closed until the official opening time, no early jump. I, of course, added to the delay by grabbing the wrong gate ticket for Daniel and had to go to guest relations to have a new one issued. SL was excited to be here, her early career ambition was to be an astronaut.

At Kennedy Space Center

We grabbed one of the first tour buses that brought us to the Apollo/Saturn V complex. (Unfortunately, the partial government shutdown restricted us from visiting the Vehicle Assembly Building and various launch pads.) At the Apollo center, we viewed a series of films covering the Apollo program including a film shown behind a series of desks and consoles from the actual mission control room in Houston. Even though we knew the end result, the re-enactment still sends shivers down ones spine. Watching a film replaying the scenes from around the world as Neil Armstrong took the first step on the surface of the moon brought back the power of hope and adventure that America has frequently delivered to the world.

We returned to the main KSC complex where we experienced a variety of shows and exhibits. The group split up, Chris and I in one group, Sarah, Sarah, and Daniel in another. KSC offers a wealth of options, one could easily spend a day and a half trying to see everything, probably two days when the full tours are offered.

One of the theaters presents the history of the space shuttle Atlantis. Besides being informative, the ending has one of those dramatic moments when the film transitions to a curtain opening up to a view of the actual shuttle hanging in front of you.

Close up view of the white blankets on the space shuttle

In one of the activities, Chris and I had a docent tour about the Atlantis shuttle and heard some interesting details. First, while it is estimated 400,000 people worked at some point on the Atlantis project, an important element was the 18 women who sewed the thermal protection blankets used on about one-third of the shuttle. The use of tiles was more publicized but the blankets provided a lighter weight alternative that reduced the weight of the shuttle by 8500 pounds. We even met one of the women whose background was as a candy store operator but she could read blueprints and sew. That got her one of the jobs.

Second, the shuttle flew through space upside down and backwards. Upside down gave a view of Earth for the astronauts that provided a better sense of where they were than looking at the infinity of stars. Backwards allowed any floating debris in space or during re-entry to hit the strong rocket structure instead of the windshield of the shuttle.

The cargo area of the space shuttle Atlantis

Third, a young girl asked why the shuttle was so big. The docent gave an illuminating comparison: the shuttle is like a space pick-up truck. It was used to bring material into space to build the International Space Station.

Fourth, the docent related a tale of how the shuttle was hung in the museum. Several astronauts were consulting with the contractor. It had been agreed that the shuttle would be hung in a way to best showcase its form, at a 45 degree angle. The astronauts came back and said the shuttle had to be at a 43.21 degree angle. There was bickering back and forth but the astronauts won out. Later the contractor asked why 43.21 degrees. The astronauts answered, they wanted a countdown sequence somewhere in the display. Thus 43.21 degrees was the countdown sequence 4-3-2-1 lift-off.

Sarah, Sarah and Daniel went to a presentation put on by Mark Lee, an astronaut who had been on four shuttle missions.

All of us saw a large screen video of Planet Earth featuring views of earth from space. It was an emotional film, encouraging us all to continue space flight, to work cooperatively, and to undertake efforts that would preserve the quality of the Earth’s environment.

We would certainly encourage people to visit KSC if you go to central Florida. People from all over the world come here; on our small group docent tour were people from Brazil and Australia.

Our hope was to have dinner overlooking either the ocean or the Indian River. We lucked out at a small bar and restaurant on the Indian River, the Old Florida Grill and Oyster House in Cocoa. The initial appearance made us doubtful but the parking lot was busy so we gave it a chance. It turned out just fine although since it was so cool, we had to eat indoors and lost our view.

Atlantis hanging at its 43.21 degree angle

Ed and Chris. Jan. 23

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Trip 1: Orlando Again: Jan. 19

Hogwarts, Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure theme park

Orlando, Jan. 21

Up early for the first day of the MN group travel in Orlando for our day at Universal Studios. We planned to visit both parks in one day, hoping to focus on the Harry Potter attractions. Early arrival got us a great parking place and an almost head of the line for admission at Universal’s Island of Adventure (IOA) park. Once again, we lucked out as the gates opened 15 minutes early. We made a beeline to Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle, and walked right in.

Chris was not going to ride, she had ridden once before years ago and that one occasion was plenty for her. The rest of us enjoyed the ride. By the time we were finished the line had grown exponentially. We visited the Hogsmeade shops, rode one more ride and decided to head over to the second Universal park, Universal Studios Florida (USF). The Universal parks are cheek to jowl; one could walk or if you had the park to park admissions, you were able to ride the Hogwarts Express. This train ride simulates the countryside from London to Hogwarts via simulations played on the windows next to your seat.

Upon arrival in USF we discovered the line for the Escape from Gingrotts ride was up to 90 minutes. It stayed about there or even longer all day. We never got in line to wait for it. Instead we visited the shops in Diagon Alley and wandered through the rest of the USF park. We purchased two glassess of Butterbeer and found it surprisingly pleasant-but not so much that we ordered another round.

Portions of the Hulk roller coaster

The favorite ride was the Hulk roller coaster where the riders were fortunate to get in two rides with the wait line only being 30-40 minutes. It was deemed “fantastic” with its rocket-like start, twisting curves and sharp drops. I felt the park was crowded (it was MLK weekend) and noisy. By 4 PM we had seen the shows we wanted and ridden enough rides to call it a day.

A visit to the pool was a great release; the day had been close to 80 degrees. After the pool, dinner at the Saltgrass steakhouse was a fitting end to the day.

The five of us in Hogsmeade

Ed and Chris Jan. 21

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2019: Trip 1: Orlando Again: Jan. 16-18

Orlando Jan. 16

During Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney World Animal Kingdom

Well, I think Animal Kingdom wins our vote as the top park for Disney theme parks. As usual, we arrived early and the park opened before its regular, announced opening time. We headed for Na’vi River Journey and jumped on the ride with basically no wait. Na’vi, and its sister attraction Avatar, are based on the movie Avatar released in 2009. Na’vi River Journey is a boat ride making extensive use of 3D and 4D technology and luminescence. It was worth the early morning arrival.

On Kilimanjaro Safari ride

On Gorilla Falls walk

The four of us at the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom

After Na’vi, we rode on the Kilimanjaro Safari, a bumpy ride in a large Jeep-like conveyance through the animal enclosures of Animal Kingdom. This ride was high on the request list and was well worth the bumpiness. In retrospect, we probably should have gone to the Avatar ride before Kilimanjaro as the lines for Avatar were never less than 105 minutes (it was not operating part of the day) and we did not want to spend that much time just waiting in line.

Deb and Ed with Expedition Everest in background

The rest of the day we wandered around, enjoying rides (including the roller coaster Expedition Everest that Deb and Ed rode) and shows. The lush setting and quieter atmosphere were a pleasant contrast to the other parks. The ability to see numerous animal species in close proximity was an added bonus. We left the park in late afternoon and ate at an Italian restaurant for dinner. It was Deb and Rebecca’s last full day as we brought them to the airport for an 8 AM flight home Thursday morning.

Left, Mickey and Minnie float at Magic Kingdom parade; right, It’s a Small World attraction

Thursday afternoon, Chris and I went back to the Magic Kingdom to catch the parade and a few more rides. There is no evening parade unfortunately; that had been a beauty. The afternoon parade seemed shorter than my memory recollected; not sure if my memory is correct or if the cost cutters have shortened it. Disney theme parks continue to raise prices and profits are still high; seems to me the evening parade should return.

Friday was our switch day. We moved from the Marriott Cyprus Harbor timeshare over to the Sheraton Vistana Villa Resorts. Another two bedroom place, the complex is much larger than Marriott but just as nice. One of the pools is just across the driveway from our unit.

Our MN guests were arriving at 5:15 PM so in the morning we went back to an art museum we had visited previously. The Mennello museum is relatively small. Another example of a wealthy couple donating their collection to create a museum. The city of Orlando gave them parkland near the city’s collection of museums to establish their museum. The Mennello collection focuses on the primitive paintings of Earl Campbell that Mrs. Mennello was enamored with. We arrived when the museum was in the midst of changing exhibits so no admission was charged to view the reduced number of works on view.

After the brief time at the Mennello, we headed over to a new art museum, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens. The Polasek is another boutique museum. Polasek was a Czech-American sculptor. He had taught at the Chicago Art Institute. We were lucky enough to catch a docent tour.

Polasek’s Nativity carving done at age 15

Polasek’s themes included religion, man’s ability to persevere, and freedom. His monumental works include a sculpture of Woodrow Wilson in Czechoslovakia which had to be re-created from hidden molds since the Communists destroyed the work in their attempts to erase ideas of democracy.

Polasek moved to Florida after he left the Art Institute of Chicago and combined his home and studio. He suffered a stroke while living there which paralyzed the left side of his body. In the 15 years between his stroke and his death, he created 18 major sculptures. He would hold the chisel in his right hand and direct an assistant where and how to wield the hammer. His perseverance sculptures reflect this determination. Fascinating story.

Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, the painted cow relates to a traveling exhibit about cattle in Florida

Ed and Chris. Jan. 21

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2019 Trip 1: Orlando Again: Jan. 13-15

Orlando Florida January 15

Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom

8:00 AM, Sunday, arrival at Magic Kingdom

Well made plans are no guarantee of success. A few too many rides, a long day, and some stomach queasiness resulted in our leaving the Magic Kingdom around 4 on Sunday, instead of staying until closing. Until then, the day had gone well. No hassle with traffic even though Sunday’s run was a marathon compared to the half marathon on Saturday. Our parking spot was almost right at the gate to the Ticket and Transportation Center. Deb and I made it to Space Mountain early, walking quickly from the Main Street area when gates opened at 9 AM. We even had tine for the three ladies to stop for a morning coffee before the gates opened.

Lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern, Magic Kingdom

The predicted temperature high for the day was 80 degrees Fahrenheit but I doubt it reached that point. Certainly in the morning it was very pleasant. We walked around, made a few attractions and had early lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern. Four different meal choices, all were excellent. Several members of the group were emphatic that they were not going to the Hall of the Presidents since the current occupant of that position is included. So we passed it by.

Rebecca’s big request for the day was Pirates of the Caribbean. The wait advisory outside the attraction said a 20 minute wait but we timed it at 15 minutes. This ride has been updated; it has Jack Sparrow in it and has removed the scene with the bawdy bars. We walked by Swiss Family Robinson tree house, climbed up it, and had fond enough memories that on Monday we borrowed the video of the movie from the clubhouse here. The movie came out in 1960; I am sure some of the scenes and narration would be different if produced today. It brought back pleasant memories for all of us.

We have not observed any of the South American teen-age groups we observed at the Springhill Suites in their matching hoodies. Maybe Wednesday night had been their last day. Instead there were frequently families and couples with matching outfits; xxx family vacation 2019 was seen often. Disney themed t-shirts with Mickey and Minnie photos and individual names printed on them was another frequent sight. Colorful, almost tie-dyed, identical shirts popped up often. As usual, one needs to watch out for strollers, runaway toddlers, electric wheelchairs, etc. which all offer the potential for an accident.

One view of the Marriott Cypress Harbour.

We took it easy Monday, planning to go to Animal Kingdom Wednesday instead. Tuesday was Hollywood Studios and Chris really wanted to get a picture of us at the Sorcerer’s Hat which had stood in the main circle in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We did not see it-it had been big. After asking a crew member, we learned that it had been removed for a large stage showcasing a Star Wars major attraction to open later this year. That new attraction has closed off a large portion of the park including the space for the ride though a movie studio. Hollywood Studios can easily be seen in a day, or less than a day.

We planned a sit down meal at Mama Melrose’s Italian restaurant and the Fantasmic evening show as a finale for the day and to officially celebrate Chris’ birthday. Yes, we have been celebrating for a while but this was the actual day. Both the meal and the Fantasmic show were excellent, we had great seats at center stage to view the show. Last time we were here, we sat in just about the last seat in the house.

Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios

Ed and Chris. January 18

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2019 Trip 1: Orlando Again, Jan. 9-12

Orlando, Jan. 15, 2019

Spaceship Earth at Epcot Saturday late afternoon

This first trip of 2019 is a two-week period, entirely in the Orlando area. It is a combination of things: celebrating Chris’ 70th birthday, an opportunity to spend time with each daughter and her family, a winter break, and taking advantage of some great Delta air fares and lodging deals.

This first half of our trip is primarily at the Marriott Cyprus Harbour, a time share location where we were able to purchase excess capacity for a two bedroom suite. However, our first night was at a Marriott Springhill Suites. As we checked in there, we encountered large number of groups of teenagers. Small groups of 6-10 kids were wearing colorful matching hoodies with each group adorned in an amazing variety of individualized colors. At first, it seemed they might be in Orlando for a music, band, or gymnastics event. But as we looked closer and talked to staff, the teenagers and chaperones were from Colombia and were celebrating their 15th birthday.

We had encountered this on one other trip to Orlando. There is a big business in packaging tours for teenagers from South America for this rite of passage. Searching on-line, one can observe a variety of locations offered by tour operators; our ability to describe the tours is limited by our lack of Spanish.

The groups were well-behaved and seemed to be having a great time. We were wary about breakfast the next morning since the hotel has signs suggesting that one eat breakfast early, that the breakfast area is jammed after 8:15 AM. The breakfast area seats about 130 with multiple food serving areas to help handle the crush. We took their advice and were down there by 6:45 AM. There was no problem for us.

Other than experiencing several of the major theme attractions with our guests, we have no major plans for this trip. I know, very unlike us. The Orange County Historical Museum was a smaller museum that we had not previously visited so we made that our one visit for the day. It is located in downtown Orlando in the old courthouse building, solid but uninspiring architecture.

The museum was “blessed” with several school groups visiting that day; we worked our way around them as we explored. A notable new fact for us was the Florida Cracker cattle, a critically endangered domestic cattle breed dating back to the cattle brought over by the Spaniards. The cracker has several traits that helped it adapt here; heat tolerant and resistant to parasites. True crackers are relatively rare, they have been cross-bred to develop larger sizes and more meat. The Texas longhorn are one variety of cattle that traces its genetic roots back to the Florida cracker,

Florida is still a major cattle producing state, ranking 18th in 2018 statistics. (The exhibit must be outdated. The exhibit stated Florida is in the top ten cattle producing states.) The Mormon church owns a 300,000 acre ranch here, one of Florida’s largest. The exhibits documented the rise and continual cattle growing history of the state; including that the whip used here “cracks” over the cattle to direct them. The land is soft and full of scrub brush, unlike the open plains of Texas. The whip takes the place of the lasso.

Of course there is a display concerning citrus growing. This is Orange County, the center of orange growing in Florida, although numerous winter freezes and urban development have vastly shrunk the acreage under crop production. Florida is still number two in oranges, with one-third the amount grown in Brazil. China is a new competitor, not far behind Florida. On our way to the museum, we took secondary roads. On those roads we came across Dr. Phillips named schools, street, and neighborhoods. At the museum, it was explained that Dr.Phillips was the world’s largest citrus grower from 1920 to 1954. He innovated with crop dusting, elimination of the metallic taste in canned juice, and new marketing techniques.

Of course, raising crops does no good without being able to transport your product to market. The museum documents how, like many other states, the advancement from river transportation to railroads dramatically increased Florida’s opportunities to add population and to ship citrus and meat products to northern states.

The major impetus to growth in the Orlando area was not Walt Disney, but Martin Marietta which added a 2,700 employee plant in 1957 and by 1987 had 15,000 employees in the area. They began a movement by other technology companies to the area. When Disney came looking for land in the 1960s, he was able to amass enough parcels to create a large tract empty and still cheap. He purchased 27,000 acres; Disneyland in California operates on less than 300 acres. As they say, the rest is history.

Lake Eola in downtown Orlando

Chris and I walked around Lake Eola in downtown Orlando and had lunch at a local brewery. For a large town of 275,000 people in a metropolitan area of 2.7 million, the downtown was pretty quiet. A Gravely tractor commercial being filmed alongside the lake was the main generator of interest.

Thursday night we checked in to the Marriott Cypress Harbour, a very nice timeshare property. Our first night, they had a Hawaiian band playing for two hours which we enjoyed. Deb and Rebecca joined us Friday night. Saturday was our first day at Disney, visiting Epcot. Our travel planning has been aided by the “Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” and “Touring Plans”. Their predictions of crowd levels and customized touring plans has allowed us to optimize our time. The biggest hassle was the traffic. There are four marathons scheduled throughout the year on Disney property, we experienced one of them.

On Friday, we made a practice run to Epcot to make sure we knew the route for our early morning arrival at Epcot on Saturday. We made it; all the way to the parking lot pay gate where we had to explain we did not want to pay, just turn around and head back. They let us without a hassle. But no mention from them, from the Disney web site, the marathon web site, or anywhere else we could see that gave advance notice of the best way to manage the traffic Saturday morning. The detour routes marked on Saturday were more designed to get you to the Magic Kingdom. A helpful guard at Fort Wilderness campground got us pointed in the correct direction. We still arrived early and found out that Test Track, one of the main attractions and an attraction for which we were unable to get FastPass+ for, opened early. We headed to Test Track, got on the ride without any lines and thus began the day. Overall the day was less crowded than expected and we encountered few waits of any significance.

Biergarten restaurant in Epcot

Our dinner was at the Biergarten in the Germany Pavilion. The buffet meal was tasty with plenty of options. As a side benefit, we had dinner while the German band was playing.

Epcot Future World was disappointing to me in that several of the original attractions have been closed with no replacement, thus you observe these large buildings just empty and deserted. In Epcot World Showcase, several of the dramatic movies of countries were outdated. Minor disappointments but given the dollars one gives Disney, you hope for continual renewal of the attractions. Rebecca, however, who had not been to Epcot in over 20 years, liked the looks-it reminded her of its appearance when she first came, sort of a walk down memory lane.

Morocco pavilion in Epcot

I see no need to give a blow-by-blow description of the day, either you have been to Disney World or you have not. If you have, my detailed description would be a poor substitute. If you have not, my description would have to go on forever to properly give it justice. Overall, it was an enjoyable day.

Ed and Chris
January 15, 2019 (Happy Birthday Chris)

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