Friday 30 September 2011

Our Punch Buggy Travel Game

When I was young, we never really played travel games.  I know lots of people played things like license plate bingo or I Spy, but we just generally slept in the back of the station wagon.  It was probably easier back then since we didn't have to worry about little things like seat belts or not climbing back and forth over the seats.  Nowadays our kids have to stay strapped in, but they have 300 tv shows, 2,000 songs, and an entire library of video games at their disposal.  You'd think that would be plenty to keep everybody entertained, but there's still one classic travel game that we play.

Now before you start reaching for the phone to call Social Services, we don't actually play with the punching.  All we do is race to call "Red One" or whatever color it is and then gloat over how much more observant we are than anybody else in the car.  Also, despite the efforts of Volkswagen to update the game with their newer cars, we only call punch buggies.  Truth be told though, the game was a lot more fun before Volkswagen brought back the Beetle.  Now there's a ton of Bugs on the road and it's not really all that exciting to call one because there's probably another one right around the corner.  There are, however, a few exceptions we've come across that still carry some serious bragging rights:

The "Love Bug" One -
This used to be our automatic win car, until we realized that on a road trip of any length it wasn't that unlikely that you would come across more than one of these in a given day.  Unfortunately my kids have only seen the newest Herbie movie "Herbie: Fully Loaded", so they think that this is an automatic win car because it's what Lindsay Lohan drives.  Sigh.

The "Lobster" One  -
We saw this car on International Drive in Orlando and we chased it for a couple of miles trying to get a picture of it.  You wouldn't think that a small car with a giant lobster on top of it would be that hard to catch, but whoever was driving this thing had apparently spent a little time in Nascar school.  Although we never did get a decent shot of the car (this is somebody else's) it sticks in my kids heads as "that lobster car we chased around Orlando".

The "Pickle" One -
This one was parked at Town Square mall in Las Vegas.  It's for Johnny McGuire's Deli and sadly, despite my love for sandwiches, I haven't been in to try the place out yet as it happens to be right next to one of my favorite sushi places, and happy hour there usually wins out.  I do still look for the car every time I'm at Town Square Mall, and unless the sushi place purchases a Bug with a giant sushi roll on top of it, I'm going to have to give Johnny McGuire's  a shot pretty soon.

The "BatBug" One -
We were driving home from Seattle one day when this car came tearing past us in a huge hurry, almost like somebody was chasing him or he was responding to some kind of signal (Obviously the Bat signal wouldn't work in Seattle with all the rain clouds so there would have to be some other way for the city to communicate with it's hero.)  We spent the next part of our drive trying to figure out what kind of emergency Batman would be needed for in Seattle (Mr. Freeze making the coffee cold at Starbucks? Somebody playing something other than Nirvana? The Seahawks about to win a game?) but the BatBug had sped off far ahead of us, so alas, we'll never know.

There's been a couple of others that we just never managed to get pictures of.  We've encountered a few that were decked out like ladybugs, and one in Bellingham that was all black with a rhino horn on it's hood.  The last time we were in Las Vegas there was a new Beetle available in the aisle at our car rental place, and I thought my wife was going to make me go down a few classes to take it instead of the Chrysler 300 that we had reserved.  I managed to talk her out of it but I have to admit, if they'd had the BatBug there, it might have been a different story.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Isaac Newton's First Law of Travel (Why I Should Read What I Write)

While I was in the middle of writing the last series on the Disney Cruise Line, I got an e-mail from one of the bloggers whose site I read on a regular basis.  She was putting together a feature on How to Make Travel a Reality in your life (here's a link to the article), and asked if I would be willing to contribute my thoughts on the subject.  Now I usually don't have to be asked twice to offer up an opinion (although sometimes I have to double check with my wife to find out what my opinion is), but my thoughts were to be part of a collaboration on the subject with 20 other bloggers, all of whom know much more about travel than I do.  I hesitated a little, thinking that whatever needed to be said about the subject would be more than adequately covered by the more experienced writers involved.  Then, in the course of doing something else, a cutesy idea came to me that I thought might look somewhat intelligent alongside the other submissions, so I sent it in.

Ever outsmart yourself?

If you look down the list of submissions there's my "beat around the bush, try and tell a story so you look smart" thoughts and 19 other people getting straight to the point.  Now I'm not saying this to criticize my writing.  I like to tell stories, and despite being a little long winded sometimes (I often wonder if Unbrave Girl and I are related somewhere along the line) there usually is a point to the tale I'm telling.  What's different about this case is that, while I was weaving a story in to my answer, the other 19 writers were telling me exactly what I needed to hear.

Now this will make a lot more sense if you've at least skimmed the article (Here's another link in case you skipped over it the first time.  Go give it a look, it's full of good advice....and one rambling story.) but essentially what the other people were saying in their answer was "Don't make excuses, just go".  It's funny because in my own wordy way, I was trying to get the same sentiment across, but I never really got the point of my own submission until 19 other people repeated it back to me without hiding it behind a story (Actually it was more like 30 by the time the commentators piled on.)

I've had a trip sitting on my "to book" list for the last little while now, and I've been arguing with myself as to whether or not to pull the trigger.  I've been using the standard excuses of  "It's too expensive/I'm too busy/Who'll feed the fish?" to avoid actually clicking the purchase button.  To be honest I didn't really have a good reason not to book the trip, but I think I was being distracted by other things in my life.  Then yesterday, the article comes out, and every single submission tells me to get moving and make traveling my number one priority.  I got the point, and the trip is booked.

Traveling is never going to be the top priority in my life.  My God, my wife, and my kids will always take up the top three spots on that list.  I don't know the other writers well enough to know if they have any of those three in their lives, but I don't think their intent was to displace family or faith.  I think they were merely trying to tell people that if they want to travel, all they have to do is go and to not let the excuses get in the way. I don't know how many people are going to get the point of the article, but I did, and I'm grateful for it.  Thanks Ruth.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Characters

This is, finally, the last post on the Disney Cruise Line, and it's going to focus on the major difference between Disney and every other cruise line at sea, the characters.  I know that other lines have their own little sets of characters like Nickelodeon with their Shrek cruises, but nobody can bring the assortment of well loved icons that Disney can.  This is usually a big selling point to people with five year olds who are in awe of actually getting a chance to meet Mickey, but not so much for our children who might be deemed a little bit jaded.  Their favorite game now is trying to guess whether it's a boy or a girl inside the costume, and they're actually pretty good at it.  No, for our family the character selling point is aimed directly at Lori.  Being with Lori on a Disney cruise is like being with a politician during an election campaign - Every character must be met and spoken to, and a picture must be taken.  I'm not trying to say she was persistent, but I'm pretty sure this sign only went up after the first couple days of Lori chasing characters.

I spoke yesterday about Disney characters leading activities for the kids clubs on board, but it's quite obvious that more than just a little thought has been put in to this concept.  In the parks you can put a bunch of characters out for meet and greets, but you can't pair a certain character with a certain age group.  Take Goofy for example.  When Goofy went to the kids club to make cupcakes with the five year olds, he was a very gentle and kind Goofy.  When Goofy donned his track suit and led the pre-teens on the sports deck, he was a lot more physical and high tempo.  I imagine that the Goofy who went to the teen club was probably even more Rock n' Roll-ish, and the Goofy who showed up for the Tequila tasting.....well he might have been a hallucination, but you get the point.

One of the nice parts about the characters on the cruise is that they dress up differently than they would in the Disney parks.  This is great because we've had our picture taken with just about every Disney character there is at one point or another.  Sure Mickey is still Mickey whether or not he's wearing a captains uniform, but it's nice to have a little variety in the shots.  Pirate night in particular is a lot of fun, as you don't get a chance to see the characters in their pirate costumes very often.  It also opens things up for some really fun interactions between the characters that would be almost impossible elsewhere.

The main lobby is where you'll find most of the characters available for pictures.  Which character will be where is always listed in the daily program that you get each day, but quite often there seems to be a couple of extra characters around.  Since there are a limited number of guests on board, the lines to see a character never seem to get too long, and on occasion there are some just standing around with nobody waiting.  We once saw Chip and Dale with nobody in line, so they did what chipmunks do and started causing trouble.  They would scurry over to where Captain Hook was taking pictures and start trying to sneak in to the background (a kind of Disney photobomb).  When Hook noticed he turned and gave them his best pirate-y "Avast Ye Filthy Desert Rats!" which brought Peter Pan and (for some reason) pirate Stitch to their rescue.  It led to a minute of chaotic role play that you can get away with when you don't have 500 people waiting to get their picture taken with you.

The absolute best moments however, aren't planned.  Unlike in the Disney parks, here the characters don't need handlers to get them to where they're going.  I was once making the long trip up the stairs (gotta work off some of the guilt from all that food) from the kids club to the top deck, and when I turned the corner on the stairway I literally bumped in to Belle.  It took me totally by surprise, and I kind of stood there like the goofy high school kid who just collided with the hottest girl in school (Yeah, yeah, I know, Jasmine, but she's not who I bumped in to.)  She gave me an "Oh! Excuse me young prince!", twirled her dress to the outside and made her way around me.  Now first, I'd like to call your attention to the fact that she called me "young".  Belle is now officially my favorite princess.  More importantly though, is the fact that almost everybody we spoke with over the course of the cruise, had a similar moment.  There are characters everywhere you go on a Disney cruise ship, and eventually you're going to have a "Did anybody else just see that?" moment with one of them.  It's what makes a Disney cruise different, and if everything else was all equal, I'd choose "Wow!" moments with Disney over pretty much anyone else.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Kids Clubs

You knew they'd be good at this right?  I mean, it's Disney.  Of course they know how to entertain kids.  There is, however, a difference between having to keep a child mesmerized for two hours while watching a cartoon and entertaining them for a week.  Heck I can't even entertain my kids for a week (and if you asked them, the two hours would be in doubt as well).  Obviously what I need is a setup like Disney has put together on their cruise ship, as my kids were off and having a blast for our entire trip.

You thought your pilates class was tough...
Well, two of the three were.  There are different age groups for the Disney Kids Clubs, and the dividing line just happened to fall between our two girls.  Our older two children were eligible for "The Edge" - Disney's tween group - while youngest was left in the Oceaneer Lab for kids 10 and under.  She also happens to be our child who doesn't like new things and isn't particularly fond of crowds, so after the first couple of attempts, she decided that she'd rather spend her days with us.  Actually it was kind of handy having her around, as it gave Lori and I an excuse to attend some of the fun kids events like the Character Dance Party.  We wouldn't have been the only adults there without a child, but my dance moves are the kind that are far better appreciated by children than adults.

Even through my limited experience with the Oceaneer Lab, it looked like a pretty fun place to be.  The Lab is the place for 6-10 year olds to hang out (5 and under go to the Oceaneer Club) and enjoy some non-Mom and Dad time.  It's stocked with games, puzzles, crafts, videos and a whole lot of computers.  Parents can drop their children off (the older kids can sign themselves in and out) and go have some quiet time knowing that their kiddies have more than enough stuff available to keep them entertained.  One side of the room is designated for free play, while the other side hosted structured events.  The Disney touch on this, is that the
events are hosted by the characters, so a game of Mousetrap would be led by Mickey himself, Pluto held his own pajama party, and the Royal Ball was graced by a few of the Disney Princesses. The two events that we tried with our daughter were Flubber, where a mad scientist led the class in making the super bouncy structure from the movie, and the Ratatouille cooking school which taught the kids how to make chocolate chip cookies.  Both classes were filled with loud and exuberant children which just didn't work well for my daughter.  I can't blame the class though, as everybody else seemed to be having a great time, so I'll just say that while it wasn't a good fit for my youngest, it would probably be a very good option for most people.

Did I say a "little" more relaxed?
The pre-teen club "The Edge" however, was the perfect fit for my older two.  It was run in a little bit more of a relaxed atmosphere, so while there was always a structured event going on such as a trivia competition or a video game tournament, the room was quite often just used as a hang out place and the kids were free to come and go as they wanted.  The counsellors were absolutely amazing at keeping everybody entertained as they moved the kids around the ship from activity to activity.   My contact with my Edge kids was quite often limited to when I happened to encounter a group of 15 or 20 of them moving from one activity to the next.

Just as a side note, I learned a couple of physics lessons while watching the Edge kids one day.  There is a giant sports deck at the front of the ship where the Edge would frequently set up shop.  On the first day I watched them shooting basketball free throws as part of a timed relay race, and I couldn't believe just how terrible my kids were.  Actually all the kids were pretty bad.  Later, when I was taunting my son about his lack of basketball skills (because that's what Dads do), he pointed out to me that, unlike at school, on the boat you're not shooting at a stationary target.  As soon as you put that ball up, the basketball hoop is moving towards the shot, making it almost impossible to judge the proper distance.  This concept became even more clear during the dodgeball tournament, where you had to throw the ball towards the front of the ship, and then wait as the boat moved your opponents forward into the shot.  Also, should you decide to play a little ping pong, please note that with the aid of the wind and the motion of the boat, the person serving towards the back of the ship is most likely capable of breaking the sound barrier with anything heavier than a slight tap.

I'm very grateful for how much my kids enjoyed their time at the Edge, as I don't think they would have lasted too long sitting by the pool or playing Who Wants to be a Mouseketeer with us.  The highest praise I can give the program is that my children, who usually never want to leave the comfort of the nearest couch, would wake up in the morning, get dressed, and shout "I'm going to Edge!"  If I didn't go looking for them, that was the last I would see of my kids until closing time at midnight each night. While I wouldn't have minded a little more family time (the kids did consent to appear at a couple of Mother mandated mealtimes) the fact that at the end of the cruise my kids didn't want to leave a boat that they originally hadn't been all that enthused about getting on, proved to me that they'd had a great time.  For my older two kids, I give the credit for that to the Disney Kids Club.

Monday 26 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - Port Adventures

Puerto Vallarta from the boat.  The perfect viewpoint.
You know what the problem is with having great entertainment and endless food?  Who wants to get off the boat?  I didn't, but I was feeling some sort of peer pressure as we pulled in to Puerto Vallarta.  I guess when they advertise these cruises people imagine themselves visiting exotic ports of call and having once in a lifetime experiences as they zipline through the jungle or scuba dive to the wreck of a 15th century Spanish Galleon.  The only once in a lifetime experience that I was interested in was having a cruise ship buffet all to myself while all the other suckers tried to find their way around Puerto Vallarta.  A quick check with the children revealed that everybody was pretty happy with the amount of Puerto Vallarta that we could see from the verandah of our cabin, and there was no need to actually leave the boat and venture in to town.  Only Lori wanted to go check out the city.

So the first thing we saw when the five of us disembarked the boat was a giant Walmart. This seemed like an easy way to ease in to the Mexican culture, so we headed over to the megastore, along with what seemed like an inordinate number of our fellow passengers.  I guess the visions of diving and ziplining would have to wait until after they'd stocked up on Twinkies and Fruit Loops.  Strangely, it was in Walmart that I found my calling for this port venture.  Prices in Mexican Walmarts are marked in pesos and the exchange rate when we were there was roughly 16 pesos per American dollar.  If you want to see people looking confused, tell them that they have to divide the marked price by 16.  Now math just happens to be my thing, so I spent my time wandering around the store, and every time I saw somebody looking puzzled by the price of something, I would convert it to US dollars and shout out the new total for them.  This entertained me for quite a while until I happened to wander a little too close to the women's lingerie department.  Apparently shouting out $50 US at women holding up negligees can be misconstrued in foreign countries, and it was decided that we should probably gather our purchases and make our way back out in to town.

The only real local store we could find.
Here's where you can learn from our mistakes.  When going ashore in a town you are unfamiliar with, have a plan.  We thought that we would just go in to town, take a look around at some local shops, and then come back on board.  Well in Puerto Vallarta, unless you want to call Walmart a local shop, that's not that easy.  The port is a couple of miles from the tourist areas, and it's not exactly a nice beachfront stroll down there.  We walked for a while, but quickly got tired of the heat and lack of places to see, so we turned around and headed back to the ship.  If you're planning on going ashore in Puerto Vallarta, I'd book a shore excursion of some sort, or at the very least find out where to catch a taxi in to town.

The Disney Cruise Line has plenty of options available for you at each port.  I counted 23 different outings being sold for Puerto Vallarta at the Port Adventures desk on the ship, some of which looked almost interesting enough to tempt me away from my buffet fantasy.  The advantage of buying your tour from Disney is that they will take care of everything for you, and you are guaranteed to be back in time for departure or they will make arrangements to get you back (most likely holding the ship for you).  The disadvantage, of course, is price.  You will pay more booking a port adventure through Disney than if you booked it yourself, but if you book it yourself and something goes wrong, you're on your own.  I leave these decisions up to each of you, but again I encourage you to plan something.

The second port of call for the Disney Wonder in Mexico is Cabo San Lucas.  This has to be one of the most beautiful ports in the world (and having only been to Los Angeles, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo, I feel comfortable making that sweeping statement) and it's amazing vistas compel you to leave the ship and get a closer look, although I will point out that the buffet on the top deck has a complete wall of windows and the view from there would probably be pretty amazing too.  The cruise ships are too big to go right into the shore at Cabo, so they use a system called tendering, which means the ship drops anchor in the bay and little passenger boats come out and shuttle all the passengers over to the town.  It's a little chaotic, especially when the sea lions take it upon themselves to race you into shore, but it seems to get the job done and it means that the beautiful cityscape doesn't get blocked out by a massive terminal.

We actually got to spend two days in Cabo, so on the first day we went ashore just to take a look around.  You can get away with this here, as there is a line of shops and restaurants as soon as you step off the docks.  We spent the day wandering, sampling some authentic Mexican cuisine (Dairy Queen) and checking out some local stores (the leather whip store was my favorite) before heading back to the ship.  While making our way to the docks, we came upon a booth called Cub Paradise for Help, which advertises itself as a wildlife preservation agency.  Their deal is that for $25 you can get a picture taken holding their baby tigers.  Both of my girls are crazy about animals, so we decided to give it a go.  It occurred to me later that real animal preservation agencies probably wouldn't have live tigers in a baby crib on a sidewalk in Mexico, but it seemed reasonable to me at the time.  They set us on a bench and grabbed the two animals (I think it was one lion and one tiger) out of the crib and handed them to us.  I was hoping for just a quick picture and then put the animals back, but the people running the booth seemed to have a specific pose in mind, and were attempting to get the animals to look at the camera.  When the jingling of keys didn't accomplish this goal, they pulled out the heavy artillery, and started showing the animals the ice cream cones they had.  This seemed to appeal to the lion's basic instinct to stalk and prey upon waffle cones, and he became very focused on the soft serve treats that the people with the cameras had.  The tiger, however, had decided that he was all done, and started to growl in that "It's time to put me down" sort of tone.  My daughter, who was holding the tiger, didn't really know what to do, as dropping a tiger doesn't seem like one of those things you should do, even if you want to.  I could have helped her out, but I'd joined the lion in being fascinated with the ice cream that was being waved in front of me, and I was trying to work out if we had enough time to double back to the Dairy Queen before the last tender back to the cruise ship left.  Eventually my wife convinced the people running the booth that we would be fine with just one animal in the shot, and we got our picture taken, collected the print, and headed back to the ship.

The Final Shot
They gave us a copy of the two lion shot.  Can you tell I'm watching the ice cream?
On our second day in Cabo we finally wised up and booked an excursion.  We did the Dolphin Encounter at Cabo Adventures.  We did book it directly through Disney, but the marina where the program is held is less than a five minute walk from the drop off point for the ship, and you could very easily make your own reservations.  It's a very nice facility, with a beautiful view of the hills of Cabo San Lucas from the pool.  The dolphins seem very well treated, and the staff appeared very professional (and by professional I mean that at no time did anybody offer the dolphins ice cream).  The only drawbacks are that you are not allowed to bring cameras in to the facility (tell me you didn't see that one coming) and the fact that you have to wear a wetsuit to participate.  Let me advise you of something you may not know - Extra Large seems to mean something different in Mexico, possibly somewhere between petite and medium.  It took a while for me to get into the suit (possibly because I put it on backwards the first time) but once I squeezed in, the rest of the outing was fantastic.
Ours was the most basic package, so we got to sit on the edge of the pool and the dolphin would come over to us and let us pet him, then he would hop up on the edge with us for pictures.  The trainer teaches you all sorts of things that I'm sure were important, but they tend to get pushed out by the whole "I'm petting a dolphin!" thing.  There is a photographer assigned to each group to take pictures for you, and although there is no pressure to buy the pictures at the end of your tour, how do you spend time in the water with the dolphins and not want a souvenir.  Suffice to say your bill will run a lot higher than the $25 you paid to get your picture taken with the dairy infatuated lion.

Please understand that our family doesn't have a particularly strong sense of adventure when it comes to these kind of activities, and our choices should probably be viewed as the mildest of options.  There are plenty more things you can choose to do such as sport fishing, whale watching, horseback riding or regatta yacht racing.  You can make the story of your port visit as exciting or as relaxing as you like.  Of course if you really want something to tell the grandchildren about, tell them about that time you took on the buffet on the Disney Wonder all by yourself.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Entertainment

I'm fairly easily entertained.  To hear my wife tell it I'm something akin to a kitten with a ball of yarn - even the simplest of things can keep me fascinated for hours.  When it comes to paying for entertainment though, I can be a bit of a mainstream follower.  My musical tastes don't necessarily follow the popular charts, but my concert tastes definitely do.  I didn't used to be that way, but as prices rose for concerts, I wanted a little more bang for my buck, and paying $100 to see an acoustic set in a small theater just didn't do it for me.  The same thing goes for live theater, as I'd much rather head to New York and see a Broadway performance than spend my evening out locally at yet another performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Which should be banned everywhere except maybe the Globe theater in London.  Let's stretch our thinking a little please.)

So with this level of expectation in mind, how do the nightly offerings of the Disney Cruise Line hold up?

Quite well actually.  I shouldn't be surprised, as Disney is an entertainment company, but sometimes they've been known to go to the well a little too often, and you're left wondering if tonight you'll be watching D4:The Mighty Ducks go to Mexico.  Luckily they aimed a little higher, and except for the night that they show a new release movie, every
other night is more than worth making the trip down to the theater. The main show of the evening is performed at 5:45 and 8:15, the same times as the dinner seatings, so you can go to the show at the opposite time of when you are scheduled to eat.   In the weeks worth of shows, we had one "Welcome Aboard" show which consisted of some light song and dance numbers, but was mainly about giving you the gist of the schedule for the week, one 3D movie, one hypnotist, one comedian, and three Disney musicals.  Every show seemed to get better than the previous nights, and the finale, "Dreams, an Enchanted Classic", could probably be developed into a full blown Broadway musical with very little effort.

The fifth night of the cruise, was our "Pirates in the Caribbean" night, even though we were somewhere off Cabo San Lucas in the middle of the Pacific.  Disney goes all out for this night, as everybody gets bandanas at a pirate themed dinner, the characters get decked out in pirate gear, and there is a big on deck party with a giant dessert buffet.  Here's the problem with having the late dinner seating.  You finish a huge meal for the fifth day in a row, then walk outside and there's a gigantic section of the ship that has apparently been taken over by pastry chefs and somehow, despite the fact that you can barely walk, you feel duty bound to join the battle against the evil army of eclairs.  Fortunately for me our cruise was stocked with hundreds of people who were willing to make that kind of sacrifice, so I managed to skip out on the Meringue Massacre and took my place on the rail to watch the deck party and the fireworks (which look much better out at sea) that finished the night.

It would take quite an effort to find a time when there's not something going on worth doing.  The activities start at 9am (7am if you consider pilates an activity) and go right through until midnight.  For the family there's team sports, craft classes, pool games, karaoke, and game shows.  There's also two places to watch movies any time of the day, one giant screen on the funnel of the ship facing the pool, and another actual movie theater down on deck 5.  All of this is just to entertain any family members who decided that they didn't want to go to the kids/teens clubs on board, where the list of activities is enormous.  The adults have a couple of nightclubs for themselves on the ship, and the performers from the main showroom usually show up there the next night to do an "adult" version of their show (although Disney "adult" is still pretty clean by most peoples standards).  There's also a wine tasting class, a beer tasting class, a tequila tasting class (I'm sensing a pattern here) and a shopping class to teach you what to expect when you go browsing in the stores of the Mexican port cities.  Can you guess which class Lori went to?

There's enough happening on the ship to keep you entertained through an entire season of cruises, but you've only got four days to enjoy it (You're in port for three of the days remember?) and that's if you don't spend any time sitting by the pool or playing "King of the World" at the front of the boat (You know you're going to try it, and yes, it really is windy up there.)  I suppose if you really want to try and get everything in you could combine activities.  I'm going to suggest you double the tequila tasting class with the karaoke night.  What could possible go wrong (and end up on YouTube) there?

Saturday 24 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Food

How to know when you're full.
Do you remember those big numbers that I was throwing around in the post on pricing?  Well whichever price point you chose, here's your chance to break even.  Actually there's enough food available here for you to break even for the price of the cruise, your flights to the departure city, and a normal amount of souvenirs (You're going to have to make a couple more trips to the buffet if you're trying to make up for my wife's shopping bills.)  I'm not going to recommend gluttony as the best path to balancing your finances, but should you decide upon that route, here's what I can tell you...

The focus of the food experiences on the cruise was dinner.  There are three different restaurants on the Disney Wonder.  There's Tritons, which is seafood oriented and based on the Little Mermaid.  Parrot's Cay is a Caribbean themed eatery with a tropical feel to it, and Animator's Palate is the American restaurant where the walls color themselves in over the course of your dinner.  Fortunately there's a chance to try all of them a couple of times over the course of a voyage.  Are they good?  I guess that depends on your standards.  I thought the food was great, but like most people on a Disney cruise, I'm comparing it to the McDonalds take-out that I picked up on the way to one of my kids extra-curricular activities the night before.  If you frequent restaurants owned by the Iron Chefs of the world, you may see things differently.  If it helps, there is also an adults only restaurant on board which is supposed to be amazing, but it requires separate reservations, a small surcharge, and a suit, and since we were traveling with kids, we never tried it.

Animators Palate.  Doesn't the boy look manly with his Cinderella menu?
There are two seatings for dinner, the 5:45pm and the 8:15pm.  We were on the 8:15 rotation, and were given a schedule of which restaurant we would be eating at each night.  We were placed at a table for ten with another family of five from Northern California.  I wasn't really enthused about having dinner companions forced upon us, but they turned out to be such a great family that I began to look forward to seeing them each night, talking over the days adventures, and trying to decide what the best thing to order for dinner was going to be.  You get to choose your meals off a full menu, including appetizer and dessert, and then sit back and chat while your waiters take care of the rest.

Table 26 on the Disney Wonder.  Hmmm...boy's head on the table again.
I should mention that not only are you assigned a time for dinner and people to eat with, but you are also assigned a pair of waiters who move from restaurant to restaurant along with you.  It sounds a little corny, but it really does work out well.  After the first night they knew our names, what each one of us preferred to drink (except my boy, who kept changing his mind about what he wanted) and that my daughter preferred vegetarian meals.  Not having to explain things every time made for a much more pleasant meal, and by night seven I was just as sad to say goodbye to our waiters as I was our tablemates.

Things get a little crazy on Pirate night.  At least his heads up.
We went to six of the seven dinners (the second night was formal night, which just isn't our style) and loved every meal.  My kids, on the other hand, found the food a little "high end" for them.  My oldest two quickly decided that they would prefer to have dinner with their new friends up on deck at night, so each one only joined us a couple of times.  Our youngest preferred to eat in the cabin, so before we went for dinner we would either go up to the top deck and get her something she liked (pizza, hot dog, etc...), or order room service for her.  This left Lori and I to enjoy a peaceful dinner without anyone demanding our attention (and without witnesses when we couldn't figure out how we were supposed to eat something).  The only night everybody had to come to dinner was Pirate night, and that was mandated by Lori not Disney (If my wife has a chance to dress up like a pirate, we're all expected to be there.)

The outdoor table at the buffet seemed like a good idea...
That's a lot of information about dinner, but there's a ton of other food available to you.  If for some reason you got up in time for breakfast, you could choose from the Beach Blanket buffet or a sit down meal back at Tritons, and once per cruise each family got to attend a character breakfast.  There were two different buffets open for lunch, Tritons was open again for a fancier meal, and Pinocchio's (pizza), Pluto's Dog House (hamburgers), and Goofy's Galley (Starbucks without the drinks) were all open from 11am on.  There is a 24 hour beverage station up on the top deck, and if for some reason you managed to miss absolutely everything else, room service is available 24 hours a day for no charge (although you'll need to tip).

We ate and ate until we were sure that one more meal might cause the ship to start sinking.  I'm sure you could make more sensible choices about how much you eat, but you'd better have willpower because every time you walk past Pinocchio's there's going to be a new kind of pizza out, and Goofy always has new sandwiches and cookies available, and the buffet....well you get the idea.  All the food and (non-alcoholic) drinks are included (I was going to say free, but there's the little matter of that check you wrote to get on the boat in the first place.) and you can eat as little or as much as you want.  Don't worry if you overdo it a little though.  There are plenty of exercise classes available to help you work off the extra calories.

Friday 23 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Room

Whenever we go to Las Vegas people tell us "Who cares about the room?  You're not going to spend any time in there anyways!"  but we're not that kind of people, and we like a nicer room since we do like having some space to relax.  People told us the same thing before we went on our cruise, but this time I'd have to agree with them.  There is so much to do on a Disney cruise that the room is mainly used as a meeting place before dinners or shows.  At some point however, five of us needed to get some sleep, and it's really quite ingenious how Disney makes room for you.

The picture above is the exact layout of the room we had on our cruise, in daytime mode. Can you see where five of us are going to sleep?  Neither could I, unless four of us were supposed to share the queen bed.  Every night while you're at dinner, your room steward would come in and change everything over to nighttime mode.  The couch folded out into a bed, a top bunk pulled down out of the ceiling above the couch, and the chair got moved so that a Murphy bed could fold down out of the wall.  Spacious isn't the word you're looking for here, but at least each of the kids had their own bed.  I've stayed in 3000 sq ft. suites where I had to sleep on the floor because there weren't enough beds for all of us.  In the morning, your room steward comes and resets your room to daytime mode (in our case it was more mid-afternoon by the time we got the boy up and moving) so that there's room to sit.

Storage space is at a premium in the room, but we did find room to unpack a weeks worth of clothes for five people.  Unfortunately we were spending a week at Disneyland after the cruise, so we all had two weeks worth of clothes with us.  After a few tries at storing suitcases in the closet, we discovered a wonderful little fact - a queen bed is almost exactly the size of five full size suitcases.  You have to lift the bed an inch or two off the ground, but we got all five of our suitcases under the bed.  Obviously this is a well known trick because, while you couldn't pay me to look under the bed in most hotels, it was spotless underneath the bed in our room.

The bathrooms are split in two on the Disney Wonder.  There's a toilet and sink on one side, and the other has another sink and a shower/tub combo.  One of Disney's claims to fame in the cruise industry is that they have bathtubs in every room.  It's true, but you probably shouldn't be envisioning kicking back and letting Calgon take you away in this tub.  It's a very low tub, perfect for it's target audience of kids who aren't big enough to shower yet, but grown-ups would probably prefer the hot tub up on deck.  If you're in the mood for some laughs though, try and have a bath while the ship is going through some rougher seas.  Just keep lots of towels handy.

This is how the towels get delivered to your room nightly.
There is a small flat screen tv in the room which is loaded with Disney programming.  It has a few channels that just run classic Disney movies, a few basic cable channels, and of course, Disney channel.  Since our cruise was down the Mexican Riviera, the ship uses the Mexican feed of Disney channel.  This means that while all the shows are in English, all the commercials are in Spanish.  What an educational opportunity!  I can now tell you that "Does your man smell like me?" is "Su olor hombre como yo?" in Spanish.  Once you get past the fun of translating familiar commercials, the ship broadcasts announcements and activity schedules on the tv as well.

My favorite part of the room though, was the verandah.  Sure yesterday I said that I'd give up the verandah to sail half price or twice as long, but if you've got to have a room for five people anyways, you're going to enjoy the deck.  It's definitely not big, but it's a fantastic place to sit out and actually enjoy the ocean.  When you're in the lower levels of the ship it's kind of like being in a little city, and it's easy to forget you're at sea.  You can get great views from up on deck, but you're also going to be sharing that space with a couple thousand other people.  There's something amazingly fun about ordering some Mickey Ice Cream Bars from room service (Yes, room service is free too.) and sitting out on your private deck while pulling in to a beautiful port like Cabo San Lucas.  It's a whole "Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous" thing, at least until you see the boats that the actual rich and famous people are arriving on.

Our Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous moment.
I'm pretty sure nobody goes on a Disney cruise looking for a nice room they can hide out in all week.  The rooms are fine, and it's nice that I can have the whole family together in one.  There's so much to do (and so much to eat) that you really don't spend a whole lot of time in the room.  About the only time I saw my older two kids was when it was time to sleep.  Of course for teenagers, that time was 3am until some time after lunch.

It's 1pm.  Must have been a rough night!

Thursday 22 September 2011

Disney Cruise Line - The Pricing

There must be something about sending the kids back to school that makes peoples thoughts turn to vacation.  I've had a whole bunch of people come to me in the last couple of weeks asking about our experiences with the Disney Cruise Line.  Now this isn't exactly my area of expertise (Do I have an area of expertise?  Sleeping maybe?) and it was the first time we tried a cruise as a holiday, so I have no basis for comparison with other cruise lines. That being said, I'm happy to share our experiences with you and let you draw your own conclusions.

Let's start with the sobering news, the price.  Disney isn't cheap.  I'm sure that comes as a shock to some of you (specifically those of you who live in a place where there's no movies, TV, or internet) but you should be aware of what you're getting in to.  Fortunately, like every other cruise line, it does Disney no good to sail with empty cabins, so they do run specials.  We were lured aboard by the "Kids Sail Free" promo, which seems to be a fallback promo for Disney that they run quite often.  It normally doesn't run during school holidays, but in this case the last week of the promo turned out to be the first week of our spring break in Canada.

The really good news about the Kids Sail Free promo is that you're not limited to a one-to-one ratio.  This is the rule that kills almost all "Kids do ____ free" specials for me, as we are a family of five, so I never get the full benefit.  With Kids Sail Free, you pay for the adults, and all of your kids sail free.  It's a very good deal, but before you run around legally adopting all of your kids friends, there is a drawback.

The kids who sail free, must be staying in your room, and Disney cruise ship rooms cap out at five people (unless you're taking a suite, but if you've got that kind of money you probably don't care if your kids sail free). Also, the rooms that hold five people are all on the higher decks and come with verandas, thus making the cost for the paying adults higher.  There's also the fact that even when they're not sailing free, kids don't pay full price on the Disney ships.  Still, to figure out whether or not it's a good deal, let's look at an example.  I don't have my costs from our trip handy, so let's look at what it would cost for spring break this year (not that I've been tracking this week, waiting for a sale or anything...):

Looks expensive, but under the Kids Sail Free promo, it's a whole lot cheaper.  You'd be paying $1631 x 2 plus $222 in tax (you're not getting out of that).  Does anybody not have a credit card that provides vacation insurance for them?  So get rid of that as well.  Now your total for a family of five will come out to around $3485 for a seven day Mexican Riviera cruise.  Much better, but how much is that third free kid costing you?  Here's the pricing for a family of four, who are able to step down to a lower end cabin:

So now getting rid of the cost for the kids and the insurance, your cost for the week is $1760, almost half.  Of course you're buried in the bottom level of the ship, and have no windows at all, but for half price (or better yet, cruising two weeks instead of one) I'd probably be willing to make that sacrifice.  We, however, have three kids, so the discount on the top cabin was good enough for us (and we enjoyed the heck out of our verandah to make up for it).

Whew!  Enough of my "math geek" side.  Disney runs some other promos such as locals pricing, but if you're traveling with kids your best bet is usually the Kids Sail Free promo.  Now, for those of you who asked about this stuff, if I haven't scared you off with the numbers, I'll start talking about the actual cruise tomorrow.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Disney Makes Plans for Avatar Land

Disney announced yesterday that they have secured the rights to build theme park lands based on the movie Avatar.  The first one of these lands is scheduled to open at Disney's Animal Kingdom in 2014, just before the sequels to Avatar are scheduled to start hitting the theatres.  This, of course, assumes that either Disney or James Cameron are capable of sticking to schedule.  Cameron delayed Avatar for 13 years while waiting for technology to catch up to where he needed it to be for the making of his movie, and Disney is famous for having "flexible" opening dates.  If you can find a betting house willing to take your action, I'm pretty sure you're going to want the "over" on that 2014 date.

I'm not sure how I feel about Avatar Land.  I haven't seen any details on the partnership, but I question whether or not Disney needed to bring in an outsider movie to make an attraction out of.  There were so many other options on their plate.  They have a working relationship with George Lucas, and I know my kids would have loved to see a full out "Star Wars Land".  They could definitely have expanded upon the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and made a full "Pirates Land" out of it, and of course my wife is still waiting for somebody to announce a "Hugh Jackman Without His Shirt On Land".  So many other options.

To me though, the interesting part of this relationship is going to be the budget for the park.  Somehow I can't picture Disney and James Cameron having quite the same vision when it comes to where the money should go. Let's assume Disney has a budget of around five hundred million for the park, close to the rumored amount being spent on the new Cars Land at California Adventure.  For Disney that should mean one E-ticket ride, a couple of smaller rides, and a lot of theming.  James Cameron should be able to bring that five hundred million dollar park in for just over two billion dollars, consisting of a single ride.  It would, however, be Disney's first F-ticket ride, combining some new 5-D technology with a gravity reversal system and the introduction of a new species of actual flying dragons.  James Cameron with Disney's money is a scary thought.

So what are we likely to see in Avatar Land?  No details have been announced, but I'm going to go ahead and speculate (because that's what I do) on one obvious feature.  You're going to need another tree.  You can't build a land focused on the Na'vi people without their Tree of Souls.  This, to me, is what makes Animal Kingdom a strange choice as a host park for Avatar Land.  Animal Kingdom already has a tree.  A really big one.  Do you really need two giant trees in one theme park?  I'll grant you that, based on my experience there this July, any extra shade that can be provided in Animal Kingdom is welcome, but I was thinking more along the lines of a tarp and a few more misters, not a second giant tree.  Nobody tell James Cameron that there's going to be two trees or we'll have a two hundred and fifty million dollar zipline between the two of them.

As strange a pairing as I think it is, I'll have to confess that the opening of Avatar Land will almost certainly be enough to get me back to Orlando.  There's too many creative minds at work here for things to go completely astray.  I do worry about the crowds though.  Of the four Disney parks in Florida, Animal Kingdom was already the one with the worst traffic flow.  Now you're going to open a major new land there and draw in millions of new people?  We may need that new tree and zipline just to be able to get around Animal Kingdom after this place opens.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Colombia isn't all Coffee?

Although we travel a lot, we're not very worldly travelers.  My children have only traveled within North America, and my wife and I haven't ventured much further.  Our kids are kind of reaching that age now where international travel seems doable, so we're starting to look into some other areas of the world that we might get a chance to explore.  Most of our consideration is going to the obvious tourist places like Paris, London, or Sydney, but I'm enjoying chances to learn about different places in the world, with an eye to one day possibly visiting there.

Last night I was at a barbecue where I met an exchange student from Colombia.  She is up here doing a semester of English before returning home to attend university.  I was excited to get the chance to learn a little bit about her country, so I started asking questions about where she lived and what Colombia was like (coming off rather stalker-ish I'm sure).  She was very kind and answered all my questions politely, but after a few minutes it became rather apparent that I had no clue at all what Colombia was like.  I had three points of reference in my mind, Pablo Escobar, Juan Valdez and the Amazon jungle.  Essentially I thought that everybody in Colombia lived in treehouses in the Amazon, and they either worked for drug cartels or picked coffee.

Showing an insane amount of patience, the girl explained to me that Colombia was in fact a very developed nation.  She took my iPhone (Who knew they have iPhones in Colombia?) and showed me her city on Google Earth view.  Wow.  It looked like every other major city I've ever looked at from above, only it might have been a little bit bigger.  It was an absolutely beautiful place, and the more she showed me in Colombia, the more embarrassed I became by my preconceived notions about her country.

While I was grateful to be set straight about Colombia, it makes me wonder what other countries I have the wrong idea about.  In Canada we've gotten used to the fact that everybody thinks we live in igloos and drive dog sleds, and we just roll our eyes and laugh at the concept.  I'm imagining that there's plenty of other countries out there who are rolling their eyes and laughing at me.  I wonder if there really is grass in Spain (every visualization I have of the country has no grass), if people in Brazil wear suits (it's Speedos right?), or if there are cities in Australia that don't have giant snakes slithering down the middle of the road (I have my daughter's 4th grade teacher to thank for that one).  Obviously I need to start traveling outside North America more, or meet more exchange students.  Fortunately we've traveled enough within North America to have cured any misconceptions we had about those cities.  We know that only people over 65 live in Miami, everybody in Seattle listens to Nirvana, and in Dallas everybody rides their horse to work.  North America...check, now time to learn about other countries.