Sunday 31 July 2011

My wife may be Team Edward, but I'm Team Instinct!!

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my favorite things about the Hyatt Regency Orange County was their great buffet breakfast.  It really is good, but some days there's just nothing that's going to overcome the desire to stay in bed.  Not me of course!  We're talking about somebody else making me food here!  The kids, however, were not to be moved out of bed, so only Lori and I made it down for breakfast this morning.  Oh well, more food for us!

I get a lot of people asking about Disneyland passes.  I really wish that I had better tips for you guys, but I've never really been able to find a great way around the price.  Disney sells their passes for a slight discount online, but I kind of count that as the base price since I don't know too many people who show up at the gate of Disneyland without a ticket already bought.  The Southern California City Pass is a pretty good deal IF you're going to do Universal and Sea World while you're in town anyways.  Sometimes the airlines will have packages where they claim the tickets are discounted, but you never really know if they're discounting the park tickets, the hotel, or the flight.  Some hotels claim to sell Disneyland tickets at a discount, but it's usually about the same as buying in advance online.  My best advice is to simply go more than once a year and buy an annual pass.  Once you factor in the cost for two visits you're pretty much at the same price as an annual pass, which includes discounts at most of the shops and restaurants in the park, and in the case of the premium pass, free parking.  If nothing else, it's a great excuse to go to Disneyland more often.

Today was not to be a Disney day for me and the boy though.  We were back at MLG for day 2 of the competition.  Actually I should say we were back for "night 2" as we didn't get going from the hotel until much later.  It's not that we weren't keeping track of things.  We had the live stream of the event on in the hotel room all morning, but it took until around 3:30 in the afternoon for us to totally recognize the irony of us watching a live stream of an event that was taking place less than a half mile from us, which we had already purchased tickets for.  I spent a lot more time taking in the Starcraft tournament today, and with some help from my son I'm starting to understand things a little better.  I still prefer the Halo tournament though.  It's so much easier to see what's going on.

My favorite place in the Convention Center wasn't in front of the Halo main stage though, nor was it in the sea of people taking in the featured Starcraft match.  If you were looking for me you probably wanted to start at the Dr. Pepper booth, a stand staffed with lovely young ladies handing out free Diet Dr. Peppers.  The booth also happened to be the autograph booth, where people I don't look like lined up to get autographs from people I don't know.  Amazingly the tournament itself is actually holding my interest, and I find myself checking online to see who won the games that weren't played on the main stage.  I'm even looking forward to going back tomorrow for the finals.  GO INSTINCT !!!
The crowd watching the Starcraft main stage
Note Master Chief on the left.  Yes, he's playing Halo.


Saturday 30 July 2011

Embarassing the Boy

It seemed like a pretty good plan when I looked at it on paper.  We got home from Vegas on a Thursday and we wanted to be in Anaheim on the Friday for a gaming convention.  Come home, pick up the kids, do a little laundry and head right back out.  Simple right?  What I forget, and I've done this before so I should know better, is that we have to sleep sometime.  We had eight hours between arriving at the farm to pick up the kids, until we had to leave to catch the next flight.  Lots of time for laundry and a repack, not so much if you want to get any sleep in.

Not that I didn't try and free up some more time.  I called Alaska and tried to switch to a later flight.  It used to be their policy that you could switch to any flight within 24 hours for a $25 change fee.  Now it's been reduced to a 6 hour window.  I also asked about our first class upgrades clearing since the system was showing there were first class seats available.  I was told that those seats were being held for revenue sale.  Really Alaska?  You're holding First Class seats for walk-up sale six hours before flight time?  I've been a big Alaska airlines proponent for a number of years now, but I'm starting to get a little disenchanted.  I'm becoming more and more curious as to how next month's Southwest flight goes.

Back to Anaheim, for us, means back to the Hyatt Regency Orange County, one of our favorite hotels.  It's not that everything is perfect here, but they do everything well, and when something isn't quite right they take care of it right away.  It's got a great mix of location (a mile away from Disneyland with a free shuttle), convenience (Target, Subway, Pizza Hut and Red Robin all next door), and comfort (newer hotel with recently remodeled rooms and we are always given an upgrade to a suite here).  The free breakfast buffet for Diamonds is really good too.  We might be staying here a little too often though, as within an hour of our arrival there was a note under the door from the general manager welcoming us back.

Now for the reason behind our eight hour turnaround.  Today was the opening day of the MLG tournament in Anaheim.  MLG stands for Major League Gaming, and it is the professional tour for people playing Starcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty.  There are five regional tournaments being played (Anaheim is the third) leading up to the national championships in Rhode Island this November.  This is where my son is in his natural habitat.  He understands everything that's going on, why the players are making the moves that they do, what kind of strategy they are employing, which teams don't get along and what they could be doing better.  I, on the other hand, don't understand anything.  You want to see a boy cringe?  Put him in a room with thousands of his peers and ask questions like "Is that Halo they're playing?" or "Which team is winning?"  Apparently I am "That Dad".
I'm pleased to report though, that after 5 hours of watching the pros, I am starting to pick up on the logic and technique behind Halo and Call of Duty.  Starcraft still mystifies me.  Hundreds of people will stand up and cheer a move in Starcraft that to me looked like a line of ants taking a detour.  I'm learning the personalities, which is interesting (they're treated like UFC stars), but outside of the surrender screen I have no idea what's going on.  There's two more days of this tournament, so I'll do what I can to learn the game.  In the meantime though, I have, for the boy's sake, stopped asking questions.

Friday 29 July 2011

Lessons From Vegas

No matter how many times you go to Vegas, you always learn new things.  After 50 trips you'd figure we'd have it all worked out, but here's a list of what I learned this week:

  • Two hours before your flight is a little tight to be leaving for the airport. 
  • If you're big and you're bald, you probably don't want to sit down front at Terry Fator
  • It doesn't matter how well it's hidden, if there's an item in a store that's 95% off, my wife will find it.
  • The Monkees slot machine is really boring, but Star Wars:Droid Hunt is awesome!
  • The monorail is incredibly convenient, but $5 each way is too much.
  • It doesn't matter how much stuff they blow up, the Sirens of TI show still sucks.
  • Those stretchy cords that they give you with the slot cards are NOT meant to be weapons, but should you find yourself in the middle of a battle, what you want are 3 cords stretched together with a minimum of 5 slot cards on the end.
  • Just because a slot attendant tells you something, doesn't mean it's true.  Rum is always more than 150 points.
  • If you are dealt 3 of a kind, getting everybody in the casino to make sure the card you need isn't on their screen, does not guarantee that you will hit your draw.
  • If your wife asks you to wear a certain outfit for the evening, be very suspicious.

  • No matter what people tell you, the cards they hand out on the strip are not numbered, and you don't have to collect the whole set.
  • Nathans makes a great Grilled Chicken Club burger.
  • Mystere seems to appeal to everyone on the planet except me.
  • When the traffic lights in Vegas are red, they don't mean me.
  • Cutting through the Forum Shops to get to Caesars Palace may be shorter, but it's never cheaper.
  • No matter how much everybody wants you to, you'll look like an idiot carrying a flag at the front of a large group.
  • The TVs in the Mirage are set to full volume when you turn them on.
  • Nobody will ever see you singing along to a great song, but the moment you hum a bar of Justin Bieber...
  • My wife CAN drive herself around Vegas and lastly...
  • It really is the more the merrier.  I look forward to this trip every year and they really do get better and better.  Thanks for a great trip guys, and most importantly, thanks for letting me opt out of the boinger wars.

Thursday 28 July 2011

The Last Day in Vegas....

Every day of a Vegas trip seems to start just a little bit later for me.  On the first day, I can't wait to get out there, and I'm usually out on the floor at 5am or something crazy, while my wife is sleeping since the malls don't open until 10am anyways.  After that the night activities kick in, and as the evenings get later and later, so do the mornings.  Gradually I sleep in more and more and get less and less done in the AM.  By the time the last full day of the trip rolls around (which is today) I'm lucky if I'm not wearing pajamas down to breakfast, which is particularly bad as we weren't meeting for breakfast until noon.

I'm happy to report that (finally) my gambling fortunes turned around a little today.  My wife assures me that I shouldn't worry about my results as she's "saved" more than enough while shopping to make up for my losses, but as a good husband, I like to pull my own weight.  We went to a locals casino today that even I'd never been to, and the good hands started coming almost immediately.  I even managed to come up with more useless casino gifts, as the casino was giving away bottles of alcohol with every 300 points.  I doubt that I've ever looked more like a degenerate in my life than leaving a casino in Las Vegas with a bottle of Bacardi in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other.  It was enough to make me stagger a little as I walked, even though I had been drinking Diet Coke all day.  

Tonight we went to see Terry Fator.  I've never been to see a ventriloquist before, and I really didn't know what to expect other than something similar to his performances on America's Got Talent.  It's amazing what Terry can do with his voice, and it's hard to describe his show as just a ventriloquist act since it has equal parts of ventriloquism, singing, impersonations and comedy.  The puppets are so lifelike that you really do forget that Terry is controlling them. 
 A live band provides backup while the puppets do impersonations of today's (and yesterday's) music superstars.  The comedy is great and there's a part in the show where he takes a volunteer out of the audience and turns him into a life size puppet that is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.  The best way I can sum up the show is to say that it would have been a fantastic evening out if Terry had been moving his lips the entire time.  The fact that he does the performance without should have people beating down the door to see this show. 

We went out for a little bit after the show and took in some of the free Vegas attractions.  The volcano at the Mirage has been souped up a lot, and is actually now a much better show than it used to be.  The Sirens of TI show has also been souped up a lot, but is still every bit as bad as it used to be.  As it was the last night out, even the girls sat down to play some slots, although it's a much different vibe gambling when your wife is sitting beside you.  I do laugh at the guys trying to teach their wives to play video poker.  I long ago gave that up, and if, for some reason, Lori and I are in a casino together, it's Lobstermania time.  Which we did quite well at last night.  Now if only they'd been giving out more bottles of rum.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

This Song Goes On and On....

Thinking in the morning isn't my strong suit.  I'm much more of a late night person, and any important decisions of the day should be postponed until after lunch at the very earliest.  It is for this reason that I'm very grateful to the Mirage for giving us 2 free buffets per day.  I don't have to figure out where to get food first thing in the morning.  Usually, if left to me, morning food is anything I can find in the store downstairs or anything that is still left in the room from last night.  With two buffets waiting for me, I'm a well fed person for the entire day.  I appreciate it, and I'm sure Lori appreciates her breakfast not being a day old muffin that was 1/2 price in the gift shop.

Today we dropped the girls off at the mall (surprise!) and then me and the boys headed over to the Las Vegas Hilton to play for a little bit.  Things still haven't really turned around for me yet, and I'm still doing terrible at video poker.  It actually got so bad for a while that I got tired of looking at losing hands and decided to play the Star Wars slots for a while.  This might not have been a good decision, as it turns out these slots are incredibly addictive.  There's something about sitting in a chair that's rattling and vibrating each time the Millennium Falcon blasts by that's a whole lot of fun.  It was a great distraction from my losing streak, but tomorrow, I'm back to beating the video poker machines.

Tonight we all went out to see Celine.  Can you hear the boys in the group cringing?  I know they were because I was too the first time I went to see her.  What they didn't know, is that the show itself is a real big production, with lots of special effects and a huge band to play with her, some of whom are almost equally talented.  Celine is about a combination of things.  The girl can sing, there's really no arguing that point, and then you add a venue that's loaded with toys, combine it with some of the latest technology such as holograms (the duet with Stevie Wonder was fantastic) and you have a really well developed show with lots for everybody, even those who aren't particular Celine fans.  Somehow she even managed to keep my attention through the finale, the dreaded Theme from Titanic.  I had been bracing myself for that song through the whole show, but she threw in a spectacular special effect that even had me cheering and maybe, just maybe, singing along a little.

The night finished up with us walking the strip to show the newcomers to our group a couple of hotels that they hadn't managed to see yet.  It's amazing how sometimes it's the sober group who make all the noise.  Of course it was early on a Tuesday night, so I imagine that later we would have been one of the more behaviorally correct groups, but for once it was nice to see people trying to get out of the way of the crazy people who didn't have giant footballs full of beer in their hands.  Oh, and by the way Mark and Erin, yes, we have all done the crazy poses in front of the Monte Carlo.  There just doesn't seem to be any photographic evidence of the rest of us.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Justin Bieber Isn't Helping My Video Poker Game

I like my mornings in Vegas.  Although Lori and I organize the trip for everybody, we tell everybody up front that they're on their own until noon.  This is good for them, as for some insane reason most of them like to hang out by the amazing pools, and good for Lori and I as we can sleep, shop/gamble, or go anywhere we like that might not interest our friends.  Given my preference though, I like to play video poker in the morning.  There's almost never anybody else around, and I can get whichever machine I feel like playing.  Most importantly though, I can hear the music that the casino is playing.  I love hearing songs while I'm playing, but I don't like wearing headphones as you miss everything else that's going on around you (like the cocktail waitress).  I do, however, have a request of whoever chooses the music for the casino.  I like to sing along to whatever is playing.  Not out loud, but just quietly in my head, although my lips will move.  While this may seem strange, in Vegas it's pretty low on the bizarre scale.  This morning I was snapped out of my video poker trance by some laughing (which I hope wasn't directed at me, but I imagine it was) and found myself swaying back and forth singing along to Justin Bieber's "You Smile, I Smile.."  This is not quite the manly image that I would like to portray for myself, so I would like to ask the music director of the casino to only play artists who are actually old enough to legally enter your casino. 

The girls all went shopping this morning so me and the boys headed to an off strip casino for a while.  If you're the kind of person who hates reading about all the big wins that people hit when they go to Vegas then you can just carry on reading because the video poker has been terrible so far this trip.  I haven't been able to hit anything, and I think the machines are taking some sort of perverse pleasure in teasing me with "almost" hands.  You know it's bad when the casinos are giving you little trinkets for your play, and you're trying to find a way to value them for what you lost playing.  This is my $50 spinning photo clock.  You'd pay that for it right?

We spent the evening at the Rita Rudner show at the Venetian.  Lori and I saw Rita about 8 years ago when she was performing at the New York, New York casino and enjoyed her quite a bit, so we were happy when she extended her contract to perform in July while we were there.  While I think all of us enjoyed the show, I'm pretty sure our friend Mark got the most out of it.  We had seats down front, and Rita decided that Mark was the guy she would go to for all of her audience participation needs.  Whenever she was talking about women she would ask "Do you know why we do that Mark?"  and when talking about men it was "What's going on in there Mark?"  Lucky Mark got to participate in conversations on shopping, shoes, cleaning, cooking and menopause.  Sorry about that Mark, but better you than me.

A lot of people wonder why we would choose summer to go to Vegas for this trip.  Well for starters, there are 4 or 5 teachers in the group, so the timing works out well.  It's also easier to do things with our kids on either side of the trip so that they don't feel like we're having all the fun.  I assume most people's bewilderment at our choice of summer is based on the fact that the average temperature here is around 100°F.  It is hot but pretty much everywhere here is heavily air conditioned and there's plenty of ways to keep cool.  There's lots of places to get a drink, there are misters outside everywhere, you can always go inside a store, or, if you're truly crazy, you can always go down to the pool.  It's going to have to get about another 20°F hotter before I'm willing to go that far to stay cool.

Monday 25 July 2011

Vegas, I'm Up Already!

If you can't guess from the fact that the last two posts have been about Vegas, we are back in Sin City again.  This is our annual getaway trip without kids, with a group of very good friends who we don't get to spend enough time with anymore.  I make the arrangements, and use up a lot of the comps that Lori and I earn whenever we're in town, and we all have four consecutive date nights where we don't have to go home to children after.  It's possibly the most relaxing week of my year.

Of course nothing says relaxation like an early morning flight, but that's what was available to us this year.  I love the convenience of Alaska flying direct from Bellingham to Las Vegas without having to connect in Seattle, but I secretly have a secondary reason to love flying them to Las Vegas.  Alaska has a baggage guarantee where they promise that your bags will be on the carousel within 20 minutes of you arriving at the gate in your destination city.  They're remarkably good at it, and I almost never get to collect, except in Las Vegas.  I assume it's something to do with the way the system is set up for them here with it not being a major hub for Alaska, but for some reason, it's almost always 25 minutes.  In any case, we collected coupons for 2,000 Alaska miles or $20 off a future flight.  In Vegas 5 (well, 25) minutes and we're already up!

We made our way over to the Mirage, where we are all staying this time.  Here's a good rule of thumb for Vegas hotels.  If the first number in your room is zero, you probably got a lousy room assignment.  I wasn't very impressed with the rooms that we were given at the Mirage (not the rooms themselves, they've been redone fairly recently and are pretty nice) as we have five rooms, and the highest floor they could get us was the 9th.  We even had a couple of rooms on the third floor.  That's not a real Vegas experience when taking the stairs down is actually an option.  I'm sure the rooms fit in whatever category we were allocated to but I'm used to getting better room selection from Las Vegas hotels.  Still there are lots of good things to say about the Mirage.  The location is great, in-room internet is pretty fast, the rooms are very pretty and the water pressure in the shower just about blew a hole through me. 

The advantage of having an early morning flight is that you get to do something that evening, so last night we all went out to Cirque du Soleil's Mystere.  There are seven Cirque shows in Las Vegas, of which Lori and I have seen five.  We've passed on Zumanity (Cirque porn) and Believe (Cirque WTF?) so far just based on the reviews, but I'm sure we'll take them in eventually.  Mystere was the first Cirque show we saw about eight years ago, and it's always been my least favorite.  There are plenty of people who rave about it though, and my memories of the show are certainly faded, so we thought we'd try it again and see if maybe I just didn't understand what Cirque was trying to do, since it was my first time experiencing them.  Yeah, I still don't get it.  They've taken amazing performers who can do amazing things, mixed them in with funny people so you alternate between laughing and OOOHing, and yet the show still seems very disjointed to me.  It's not that I need to be able to follow the story (I have no idea what "O" was about, I just know it was amazing) it just needs to keep me interested in what's going on.  Mystere doesn't do that for me, but I'm glad I got to see it again.

Vegas with friends is very different than doing Vegas with Lori.  Lori and I usually have objectives in our day....I need so many points at X casino, Lori needs to hit this outlet mall and the other big sale that's going on over there.  When we're in town with friends, it's a little more tour guide, and it lets you break some of your Vegas rules.  One of the couples who are with us are on their first visit to Las Vegas, so we drove the strip last night.  We NEVER drive the strip.  I'll play paytables that I would never consider normally, just so I can sit with my friends while they learn video poker at the 5 cent level.  Lori skips shopping trips so she can....oh wait....she just takes all the girls with her when she goes shopping.  Either way it's a lot of fun, and I'm really looking forward to the next 3 days.

Sunday 24 July 2011

How I Got Hooked On Vegas

Nighttime Strip View Las VegasI'm probably not your average Las Vegas fan.  I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't go to night clubs to meet women.  I'm not opposed to these things (although I'm sure my wife would be opposed to me going out to meet women), and I can have a great time watching the people who do come to Vegas for the party, but it's not me.  I like the shows, the sportsbooks, the food, and I love playing video poker, but most importantly, I like Las Vegas because it can be beat.  I don't mean beat as in "walk away with all their money", although on occasion you may be a winner.  My goal is simply to enjoy a luxury vacation for pennies on the dollar, and we've been doing it for almost 10 years now.

If it wasn't for my kids, we might never have gone.  Las Vegas was never on my list of must see places, even though when I met Lori I was working in a casino, but three children in four years can really leave you desperate for a getaway.  Alas, having your kids that close together doesn't exactly leave you flush with money to jet around the world, but just when things seemed the darkest, enter...


In 2001 the US government hadn't made a stand against online gaming yet, so all of the major casino companies were readying themselves to enter the market.  Wagerworks was the trial version of MGM's online gaming system.  MGM needed people to try out their software for them, and in return for your playing with imaginary money on their site, they would award you points that could be redeemed in the real world at any of their casinos in Las Vegas.  The ratio of hours spent per reward wasn't very good, but as always seems to happen when computers are involved, somebody found a glitch.  A program could be run which would make your computer gamble for you, day and night, and continually rack up the points.  In hindsight, I must have looked like an incredible degenerate to the MGM, spending all my time gambling like a complete addict.  On the other hand, that could explain why there was absolutely no problems redeeming the points for free rooms, shows, and food.

Bellagio Lake View RoomIf MGM thought they were getting a high-rolling gambler coming in though, they were sadly disappointed.  Even though everything else was free, the airfare pretty much drained any spare money we had, and the only reason we could even stay in the hotel was that we managed to find a sympathetic desk clerk who let us check in without posting a damage deposit (Not the last time we'd have to do that. Just ask The Plaza).  From that point on though, everything was amazing.  We were treated like VIP's everywhere we went.  We stayed in a deluxe lakeview room at the Bellagio, had front and center seats for the Rick Springfield show at the MGM, and were always told to use the "Guests of the Casino" line at the buffet.  If they knew we were broke, they weren't showing it, and I was hooked by the fantastic service and wanted to become a regular "Guest of the Casino".

We've now been to Vegas over 50 times.  Lori's passion for the city didn't come until a couple of trips later when we discovered where the outlet malls were (and it really peaked later when the casinos started offering shopping money if we stayed with them) but there's been no argument since then.  My lifetime loss at MGM properties is (-$658.06), so I'm probably about done paying them back for that first trip, although I appreciate them letting me spread the payment over 10 years.  I've become a reasonably skilled video poker player (and a reasonably unskilled Lobstermania player), so although I play a lot, I'm not exactly the kind of customer that the casinos seek to attract.  Of course if you factor in the amount of money that Lori spends shopping, Wagerworks was probably a very wise investment for the MGM.

Written by Steve Pratt

Saturday 23 July 2011

Caesars Super Summer Offer

Every summer Caesars Entertainment runs a promo (which is separate from the great casino offers they send out). They’re usually something small designed to get people in the door of their casinos during what is usually a pretty slow time, normally a swipe to win kind of thing. Sometimes they get very generous. A few years ago they ran a promotion where if you checked in at each of the (then) six casinos in Las Vegas in one day, you could earn $50 in food comps, and you could repeat this each day. That one was great for customers (not so great for my waistline). On odd occasions, they put out a promo that you just know is too good, and there’s no way it’s going to last as long as it’s scheduled to.

Welcome to an odd occasion. 

This summer’s promotion is called “The Great Race to Rewards”. In a nutshell, Caesars is willing to give you credits if you visit their casinos in different parts of the country. If you visit three of their casinos, they will give you 15,000 reward credits. Total Rewards credits are valued at .01 each, so for visiting three casinos, you get $150 in credit. If you visit a fourth casino, they’ll give you another $150. Same for the fifth, and same for the sixth. So the maximum benefit of the program is that if you visit six of their casinos, they will give you $600 in Total Rewards Credits.

What do you do with Total Rewards Credits? In Las Vegas, pretty much anything you like. Shows, food, drinks or shopping are all eligible. In simple terms, anything you can charge to your room, you can pay for with Total Rewards Credits. You can even pay for the room itself with them. In general, I’d say $600 should cover your room and food bill for a 3 or 4 night stay at Harrahs in Las Vegas. If you’re more high end than that, get your significant other to do the promotion with you and you’ll have $1200 to spend.

The drawbacks? Well they’ve learned from some of their past mistakes, and casinos in the same area as each other only count as one, so you can only check in at one of the Vegas casinos instead of all 8. You do have to earn 1 point at each casino, which is the equivalent of playing $5 through a slot machine. There’s also the fact that playing lightly at a Caesars casino (say running $5 through to get the one point) will negatively affect your offers, but if you’re not getting offers from Caesars right now then there’s nothing to lose. Finally, the reward credits aren’t supposed to be awarded until the end of October, and the credits will expire if you have no activity on your card for a period of six months.

The biggest concern however, is how long will this promotion last? Caesars has pulled promotions before once word got out and there were too many people cashing in. The way they’ve got it set up seems like a highway to abuse.  With the only requirement being to earn a point, people could easily mail their cards around the country and have friends and relatives earn the points for them. There should probably at least be a requirement to stop in at the Total Rewards booth in each casino to show some ID.

It’s the uncertainty of the promotion lasting until October 3 that is my biggest worry, but I’m going to start chasing this deal anyways. Lori and I are going to be close to at least four of the casinos that qualify in the next two weeks, so hopefully we can get $300 each banked before anything gets shut down. If it works, it should make for a nice free vacation in Las Vegas down the line. If not, well hopefully Lady Luck will be on my side while I earn the points.

Friday 22 July 2011

That's Called Character

You know what you think of when somebody says "Winter in Whistler"?  You think of snow.  Lots of snow.  Skiing down the mountain, coming inside the lodge and sitting by the fire, drinking hot chocolate and warming up before heading back out for more runs.  Should somebody say "Summer in Whistler" then you're thinking golf, hiking, and all sorts of outdoor activities.  If, however, somebody should specify "July 21, 2011 in Whistler" then the visual you should have in your head is rain.  A lot of rain.  Enough rain for us to cancel any loose plans that we'd made for the morning and go right back to bed. 

So Whistler, while fun, wasn't all that it could be.  Unfortunately it seems that we're having that kind of summer in Vancouver this year, so there's not really much to do but go looking for some nicer weather, which we will do in a couple of days.  This morning though, we all enjoyed some extra sleep and then checked out to drive back to the farm in Abbotsford.  I was really surprised to find out that it only took two hours to make the trip.  Whistler to me always seems like some far off place, needing at least a full day to make the drive.  At two hours, I could be persuaded to make an overnight trip up the mountain again some time in the future, as long as the weather forecast is more promising.

It was while discussing a possible return to Whistler one day with my wife that something became apparent to me that I had never considered.  It seems that Lori considered the Fairmont Whistler and the Fairmont Pacific Rim as almost equally enjoyable experiences.  I was a little shocked.  While the service at both hotels was great, I found Fairmont Whistler to be a little dated and in need of updating.  I've been informed that these things I consider shortfalls are, in fact, "character".  Apparently fraying furniture is "charming" and old wallpaper in the hallways is "quaint dusty rose".  The whole Victorian motif was lost on me, and normally I would just consider the room old, but once my wife pointed out her appreciation for some things, I had to take a second look.

My preferences run so heavily towards the "latest and greatest" that it never occurred to me that other people would enjoy different things.  I'm glad my wife pointed out some of the things she liked, so that I realized that perhaps I was just being picky since the hotel has been open more than 12 months.  There were probably some things that would land on Fairmont Whistler's side on a list of pro's.  The room was a little bigger, the view (though not what it should be) was better than looking at an office building, the water pressure was great, and though we didn't use it, the pool is much nicer.  In the Fairmont Pacific Rim column is a more comfortable bed, a better bathtub, two TV's, and a cafe that features fantastic pastries.  So I guess it wasn't as lopsided a battle as I thought.  When it comes to breaking the tie though, we have to consider the welcome plates - chocolate vs. fruit.  Victory for the Pacific Rim, but not by as much as I originally thought.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Stop Watching Cartoons And Get Out Of The Shower!!

I woke up well before everyone else this morning, which meant that I got to do the breakfast run.  A twitter friend had recommended to me that I try the white chocolate scones at Giovane, the cafe attached to the Fairmont Pacific, and when I asked the front desk agent where the cafe was, she recommended that I try the sugar buns.  Sounds like the perfect breakfast to me, so down I went and picked up enough pastries for everybody.  Apparently these two ladies have some sort of inside scoop on the Vancouver breakfast scene, as the scones were fantastic, and the bite of the sugar bun that I managed to get away from my wife was amazing.  I now have a new "must have" item for breakfast in Vancouver, which I much prefer to my kids "must have" of McDonalds pancakes.

There was a lesson to be learned today though.  My kids are pretty good at getting up in the morning IF they have to.  They've had enough practice at clearing out of hotel rooms for 6am flights that they know the morning drill, and things run pretty smoothly.  This morning, however, things were running behind.  The shower times were running long, and the morning wash-up was taking forever.  I was really beginning to wonder what kind of illness was slowing our children down when my wife reminded me "You know there's a TV in there right?"

I had totally forgotten, even though now in hindsight I can remember dawdling at the sink while I caught the sports highlights.  I hadn't bothered to arrange a late checkout as I figured noon would be plenty late enough, but lunchtime was rapidly approaching and the only sound I could hear from the bathroom was that of channels flipping.  I'm sure there was a button on the control panel that shut the TV off, but I couldn't figure it out so we did our best and I made a mental note to always request a late checkout if there's a TV in the bathroom mirror.

When we finally got underway, we were headed for Whistler.  I must say that for all we heard on the news, I thought the changes to the Sea to Sky highway would be more significant.  I was anticipating some sort of fast moving four lane highway to be in place, but other than a little re-routing at the beginning, I didn't notice very much different.  I did notice the road signs were new though.  I need to find out what language they are using underneath the English on these signs, and more importantly I need to know how to pronounce the number 7 in Skwxwu7mesh.

We're staying at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler tonight.  After last night at the Pacific Rim, I had high hopes to be headed to another Fairmont.  We pulled up to valet parking (still cheaper than self-park in Vancouver) and to my surprise the valet not only took the van and the bags, but he handed us the keys to our room and sent us straight up.  Sounds wonderful right, but I had some concerns and it turns out they were warranted.  Checking in at the front desk can involve a little bit of a wait, but it allows you to confirm everything such as your rate and room type, and sure enough when we got to the room we had been given the wrong level of room.  It wasn't that big a deal, and after confirming that we had been placed wrongly, we decided to stay where we were.  It seemed like it might not be proper to move since the kids had already started picking at the fruit plate that had been left for us.  Still it was a little bit of a disappointment to have the valley view instead of the slopeside.

There wasn't really a reason for coming to Whistler other than the fact none of our children had ever seen it, and Lori and I hadn't been here in over 13 years.  They've made a couple of changes.  Actually my memories of Whistler are a little fuzzy (Lori was nine months pregnant with the boy last time we were here, thus I was focused on other things.) so I doubt that I could detail everything that's different to you, but I'm pretty sure the Olympic stuff is all new and wasn't here in 1998. We had a fun time walking around the village, eating at the Old Spaghetti Factory, and watching some insane BMX riders race down the mountain.  I do like the feel of Whistler, but as a non-outdoorsy type person I'm just never going to really be at home here.  On the other hand my two ski-fiend kids would probably love a winter visit.

So now we are all settled in the room for the night.  I might be a little spoiled after staying at Pacific Rim last night, but the Chateau Whistler really isn't my style.  It's a slightly older hotel, with a normal bathtub, regular light switches, the wrong view, and despite my remembering to request a late checkout tomorrow, there's no tv for me to watch in the bathroom.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

I Kissed a Girl (but I'm supposed to)

Got underway a little late today, as usual, but still managed to make it to the farm around mid-day.  Guess what?  The barn cats had new kittens!  This will not make my day go by faster.  Still when it comes to counting up life's little pleasures, dangling a piece of yarn for a newborn kitten has to rank pretty highly on that list. Even if it does make you late.  A short time was spent debating taking all four of the kittens with us, but logic prevailed (they don't have their passports yet) and we set off for downtown.

Tonight was the night I spent so long trying to find a decently priced hotel room for, with no luck.  Where did we end up?  Probably one of the nicest hotels in the city, the Fairmont Pacific Rim.  It just opened last year in time for the Olympics, and I can only imagine what it would have been like to be staying here for the games as it is right across the street from the Olympic Cauldron.  It's got a great location, the building is beautiful, and the Fairmont is known for top level service.  So would we be blown away?

Well yes, almost immediately upon arrival, when we noticed the self-park rates.  $42 per night is a lot, but I guess it's been a while since I've been downtown Vancouver on a weekday, so I'll just assume it's normal for the area.  Check-in was quick and easy, although I did laugh when the female check-in agent offered to carry one of my bags for me while she showed me the way to the elevator.  I appreciate the offer, but I can only imagine the mocking I would have gotten from my wife and kids had I given her one.

The room itself is very nice and modern, which is my style.  My kids were immediately on board when the first thing they discovered in the room was a plate of chocolates that had been left for us, which were amazingly good (Well, at least the one I got was, but judging by how fast the others disappeared, I'd say they were all equally delicious.).  The view isn't much to speak of, but let's be fair.  I only booked this room two days ago, and the hotel seems to be hosting a lot of people who are here for the RBC Canadian Open golf tournament.  The internet connection in this hotel may be better than my wired, high-speed connection at home, which is a nice change from the speeds we were suffering through in Orlando.  My kids were disappointed to find out that we only had one room, with only one TV (can you tell they don't pay for these things?), but that problem was solved when they discovered the second TV was built into the mirror in the bathroom.  This led to some rather strange seating arrangements while watching Disney Channel, but kept the natives at rest.

If I had a complaint, and it's a small one, it's that I can't figure out how to turn the lights on and off in the room.  Everything is wired up electronically, and the light pad has settings for "evening" and "relax", and the one at the door includes the electronic "Do Not Disturb" sign.  When you can look at the control, it's fairly simple to figure out what you're doing, but in the middle of the night when you're trying to not wake people, it's hard to tell which button you're pressing.  I might be turning on the bathroom light, or I might be signalling room service to bring up another plate of chocolates.  Actually if I can find that button, I've got it made.

The purpose of being in Vancouver tonight, was to go to the Katy Perry concert at Rogers Arena.  We were going hoping to get a show filled with hits and staging, and maybe a little edginess, that didn't leave us having to explain all sorts of things to our kids (I'm looking at you Lady Gaga) and that's exactly what we got.  Katy's show had something for each of my children.  At one point during the show she spoke about how she wished she was a nine year old in the crowd tonight, and my nine year old daughters face lit up.  My other daughter is very fashion oriented (I can always count on her to ask me after each show which outfit was my favorite, and I have to be very careful to not automatically say "the skimpiest one".) and there seemed to be an infinite number of costume changes, including eight in one song.  For the boy...well there were 13,000 people there, about 10,000 of which were girls, and about half of those were teenage girls.  You do the math.  It was a really fun show though, and in a huge stroke of good luck we were sitting behind a row of corporate guests who decided half way through that they preferred to be somewhere else, so our view was perfect.

So day one of the trip was a huge success.  Of course day ones usually are. The enthusiasm for vacation doesn't usually take much of a hit until after the first week. It's now the next morning and everybody is recovering from an exciting night out, still sleeping away soundly in their beds. Of course I've been trying to wake them for the last 20 minutes, but I can't figure out how to turn on these stupid lights.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Where Am I Going??

Apparently it's important to know where you're going.  I'm not talking about that whole guidance counselor "What are you gonna do with your life?" type of path, although as my children get older and start thinking about university I'm sure I'll be using that phrase more and more.  I mean when you leave the house/city/country, people want to know where you're going, even if you don't really know.

Today my boy came to me and asked what our plans were for the next month.  While not an unreasonable question, it's not a normal one coming from him.  He usually only cares about the speed of the hotel's internet connection.  It seems that his friends were laughing because he was heading out for the next 25 days or so, but he had no real idea where he was going.  This doesn't really seem fair to me, as I can guarantee you that none of them know exactly what they will be doing for each of the next 25 days (OK, one of them is settled into a SpongeBob marathon, and he may very well still be sitting in front of the TV 25 days from now, but the rest have no clue).  Even my wife, who has to be used to traveling without firm plans by now, wants at least a general outline of where we are going.  Apparently packing for Hawaii and packing for Denver require two completely different wardrobes.  Who knew?

Speaking of packing, man am I missing the Magic Suitcase today.  I don't like packing at the best of times, but packing for long trips is annoying.  On the other hand, I do have one big advantage when it comes to packing for a 25 day trip, in that I barely have enough clothes to get me through that long at home, so I don't have to pick and choose what to take, I just pack everything I own.  My wife doesn't have this problem.  The picture here is of her closet.  It was taken AFTER she packed 25 days worth of clothes.  It might be time to reign in that shopping budget.

Somehow, it's all been condensed into suitcases, and it's ready to roll.  I can confirm now that the longer the trip, the longer you'll stand there staring at the bags thinking "I know I've forgotten something", and I probably have but it's time to get going.  I hope I've got everything, I hope everything goes as planned, but most importantly, I hope our hotel gets the channel that the SpongeBob marathon is on.

Monday 18 July 2011

Turnaround Day

It's turnaround day for us today, which means that everything gets dumped out, cleaned, and then repacked for our next adventure (Manually this time. No more Magic Suitcase.)  We are actually lucky enough to have two days this time, which is a bit of a blessing as I haven't quite got everything booked for our next run yet.  I don't like leaving things to the last minute, as it can leave me having to force flights or hotels at prices that I don't like, but sometimes there's just never a price that I'm willing to pay.  That's where it gets tricky.

For the last couple of months I've been trying to get a room in Vancouver for Tuesday night.  There's a big convention going on at the Hyatt and it's sold out, so I would have to use my Diamond force to get a room, and that's expensive.  I tried getting in on the convention rate, but apparently the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives have some kind of "credentials" that you need to be a member.  I looked around other hotels, but everything was either too expensive or not expensive enough ($69 is a good rate, but East Hastings isn't really where I want to spend my vacation).  So last night I threw in the towel, and asked Lori to call her parents and see if the farm was available.  Of course it couldn't have been 15 minutes after she told them we were coming that something fell together and I got a room for the night in Vancouver.  I frequently wonder how my wife hasn't killed me yet, but now I also wonder how her parents put up with me. 

In addition to finishing bookings for the next trip, turnaround day means that everything has to be recharged and reloaded.  I'm sure my kids would watch whatever is on their machines, but if I can get them new programming, it makes my trip that much quieter.  It also means that I have to catch up on some e-mail.  I do my best to keep up with things while I'm gone, but I do shut the data roaming off on my phone, so sometimes the e-mail piles up a little. 

The kids, on the other hand, love being home.  They always look forward to those couple of nights in their own bed (or in the boys case, on his own X-box) with their own space.  Sometimes I wonder how my kids will look back on their summers.  Will it be "Wow, we went a lot of places and saw so many things.  That was great!" or will it be "Mom and Dad dragged us everywhere!  We never got to enjoy our summers."  I guess time will tell, but at least their future husbands and wives will know that they know how to pull a suitcase.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Isn't It Supposed To Be Summer?

For the last time this trip, I got to wake up in a hotel that was making breakfast for me. I'm not sure why I enjoy the free breakfasts so much, as I almost never eat breakfast at home. Of course it would seem like a lot of work to make the kind of food that is available in restaurants, so maybe I do like the breakfasts, but I'm just lazy. Or maybe it's the free part that I like. Either way, we had another great breakfast down at Urbane this morning, then packed up and headed home.

We usually cross into the US to fly when we travel, as the amount of taxes you save is quite often more than the cost of the trip itself.  While that part I appreciate, the one thing that always puzzles me is the border between the two countries.  First of all, I have no ability to figure out when it's going to be busy or not.  Times when I expect it to be busy, there is no line at all.  Then sometimes in the middle of the night it's backed up for hours.  Either way it's worth the savings, but what really baffles me are the random questions that the border guards ask sometimes.  I know that they are trained to ask these things, and observe people's reactions, but some questions are off the chart weird.  I frequently get asked "What is the purpose of your trip to Disneyland?" (and I stammer over an answer every time they ask), "What year did you graduate?" (I don't know what grad year caused all the problems, but 1986 is clear!) or "Are these your children?" (Oh the opportunities, but I know that sarcasm at the border isn't a good idea).  Those are going in to the US.  When we come home the border guards just look across me and say "Welcome back Lori.  How much did you spend this time?"

The one drawback to flying out of the US is that it's a long drive to get there from our house, which means a long drive back home at the end of each trip.  I didn't see it marked anywhere, but I assume that somewhere along the way we must have crossed the international season line, as there's no way that BC can still be calling this summer.  I haven't seen this much rain since...uh...well I guess last Friday in the Magic Kingdom. Fine. If summer's not coming here, I'll go find summer.  A couple of days to reset and we'll be off again.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Happy 16th Anniversary...with Cheesecake!

Seattle has it's moments.  Sure most of them are full of rain, but it's a pretty city, and there's always plenty going on.  This is where we find ourselves as Lori and I celebrate our 16th anniversary.  The romantic side of our anniversary will be toned down, as we are still travelling with children, but I'll score tons of brownie points by taking her out to dinner, a show, and she has her day free to go shopping. 

Seattle has two great Hyatts for us to choose from, and they're both within 100 yards of each other.  The Grand Hyatt is fantastic, and has a wonderful Regency Club, but it has trouble guaranteeing rooms with two queen beds, so when we travel with the kids, we usually stay at the Olive 8.  This hotel is just as good with the rooms, but because it doesn't have a Regency Club it gives out an amazing free breakfast for diamond members at it's restaurant Urbane.  Believe me you can't go wrong starting your day with Dungeness Crab Benedict, or an omelet stuffed with salmon and cream cheese.  It's even better when your kids can't finish theirs, and you get to sample other dishes too.  I'm pretty sure we were testing the load limit on the elevator that took us back up to our room after breakfast.

Lori and our oldest daughter wanted to go shopping today, so they went out while the other two kids and I stayed in the room.  We were all working away on our computers when my daughter started laughing and motioning me over to the window.  Now my kids know that my musical tastes can run wide.  I'm willing to give most things a go, but there are a couple of songs that will make me leap to switch the station immediately.  One is "What do you want from me?" by Adam Lambert and the other is anything by Owl City, especially "Fireflies".  That song drives me insane.  Of course my kids know the lyrics, but I'm not sure if they learned them because they like the song or because they know it annoys me to no end.  I suspect the latter.  In any case, I come to the window my daughter wants me to look out and what do I see?  A giant marquee announcing that Owl City will be playing there tonight!  It's time to get out of the room.

Our anniversary dinner tonight will be held at the exclusive, ultra luxurious, five-star, Cheesecake Cafe.  Yeah it's not too fancy, but we've got three kids in tow remember?  Plus we lost our Cheesecake Cafe in Kelowna just after Lori and I moved up there, and we do miss it.  While the dinner was good (and the cheesecake was great) the dinner conversation was entirely centered around how old I am.  I'm not sure what set us off down that path, and I'm really not sure how Lori manages to avoid these things (Yes, she's younger than me, but she's gotta still seem old to the kids.) but I was the target for the majority of the dinner.  Of course then the kids started singing "Fireflies" and I was wishing for more discussion of my age.

Seattle was really busy tonight, and everywhere we went there were lineups for things.  There were people lined up to get into the Owl City concert as we left our hotel (*shakes head*), people lined up to see the new Harry Potter movie, a long line to get into the Cheesecake Cafe, and then there were the people lined up to buy shoes?  We weren't too sure what was going on, but outside Niketown there was a huge mass of people.  Turns out that three of the Manchester United players were coming in to debut their new away uniform.  Now usually any mention of Manchester United is enough to make me cross the street and move away, never mind the actual physical appearance of a player, but I gave second thought when one of the players was Rio Ferdinand, ex-Leeds star.  It was tempting for just a moment, but then I remembered that Rio plays for the enemy now, so we carried on as we were already running a little late for our show.

Tonight we were going to see Disney's Aladdin at the 5th Avenue theatre.  This is the first place that this play is ever appearing, as Disney chose to do a months run in Seattle to get all the kinks out before taking the play national.  The director (who just won the Tony for directing "Book of Mormon" about switching gears...) came out before the play and explained that they were still tinkering with things and that they would be trying out some new stuff tonight.  Their official opening isn't until July 21, so I guess they still have time to change things, but other than a little bit of tightening, I wouldn't change much.  It was a ton of fun, and the cast was fantastic although, just as in the movie, the genie stole the show.  Most importantly (for a Disney production anyways) our kids had a good time and laughed throughout.

So year 16 of marriage winds up with a slow walk back to the hotel.  It's been a great ride, and I'm blessed to be sharing my life with a wife who tolerates my desire to travel, even if she does think I'm "miles obesessed" sometimes.  16 years ago today we were boarding a plane for Jamaica, and although I'm sure there's been some other happenings (Where did these three kids come from anyways?) it feels like we've been on a whirlwind tour ever since.  I love you baby, more than anything in the world.  Now let's start off year 17 with another great free breakfast at Urbane!

Friday 15 July 2011

Back to mean Seattle.

Today is that dreaded travel day, the one where you head home.  Well most of the way anyways. We are stopping in Seattle for a couple of nights, so that saves adding a 6 hour drive on after a full day of flying.  Waking up inside the airport is a huge convenience, as we could go down to the counter and get our boarding passes and check our luggage, then go back to the room to gather our carry-on items.  I thought it would give us some time to relax before going through security too, but the Orlando security line isn't the quickest.  In their defense, it's a very busy airport with a lot of families who aren't used to flying, and plenty of kids who are all done standing in line.

I wrote before about booking aisle/window in a row and sliding over to leave the aisle for somebody who thought they were going to be stuck in a middle seat.  Usually the person comes in and double checks their boarding pass, as I'm already sitting in their seat, and most of the time they will ask if I'm in the right place.  I ask if they're OK if I sit with my son and they can have the aisle seat, and I have a very happy seatmate for the flight.  Once in a while though, you get somebody who sees the empty seat and takes it, then immediately puts on headphones or pretends to be asleep so that nobody can tell them they're in the wrong seat.  We had one of those today.  He boarded with his wife, who continued to the back of the plane, sat down and wouldn't look in our direction.  The one time he did turn a little I tried to ask him if he was all right with the aisle seat, he just grunted at me.  So I took great delight when 2 minutes later his wife came up from the back of the plane and told him they were trading seats, sending him back to sit in a middle seat in the back of the plane. 

Coming home means another connection through LAX (and another ride on that shuttle down the runways).  I'm really not a big fan of this airport as it's really run down and dirty, but I think the real reason I don't like it is that instead of making bigger terminals with lots of amenities, they've made a bunch of smaller terminals, some of which are badly under served.  We arrived in terminal 5 which is pretty good, but we had to leave out of terminal 3 which is a tiny little space with only two choices for food.  I'm also betting that the stereotype for expensive airport food came from this airport.  $15 for a five piece sushi roll?

My kids were greatly amused by one thing though.  We got up in Orlando, had breakfast, took a five hour flight, and still made it to Los Angeles before they stopped serving pancakes at McDonalds.  This led to a bunch of discussions about how we could keep flying west and never have to eat anything but McDonalds pancakes again!  I think we may have raised our kids on take-out food a little too much. 

Lastly there's something I don't really understand that airlines are doing these days.  At the beginning of each flight, they're announcing that the overhead bins are for people with roller bags, and that all smaller bags should be stored under the seat in front of you.  This doesn't make any sense to me.  By doing this aren't they just encouraging people to bring larger roller bags instead of smaller carry-ons?  We don't do roller bags because we like to have our stuff under the seat in front of us, where it's easier to get at during flight, but now I'm thinking I should be bringing one so that I can use the overhead bins if I choose.  I haven't measured, but I'm pretty sure that if everybody brought a roller bag, there's no way it would fit.  What I'll probably do though is just put my smaller bags up in the overhead bins, then I'll put on my headphones and pretend to be asleep so that nobody can question me about it.