Monday, 29 July 2013

One Direction in Vancouver - A 24 Hour Road Trip

Not all of our trips are well thought out and planned in advance. OK, actually none of our trips are like that, but some are even more scattered and disorganized than others. Two days ago I was spending a lazy Saturday at home with a long list of things that I was going to spend my weekend working on. Then around 3 pm some last minute tickets for One Direction in Vancouver that night came available. This was going to make my daughter's day (and ruin my son's) so we quickly bought some tickets, woke up the kids (yes at 3's summer!), and within sixty minutes we were on our way to Vancouver.

1D concert Vancouver

Now I don't know a lot about One Direction. Sure I know the songs that are big hits on the radio, and they do those great Pepsi commercials with Drew Brees, but outside of that I've always considered them just another boy band. I've seen New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys and I assumed that it would be a show similar to that, but something was different this time. Something happened that turned me into a real 1D fan (That's how us true fans refer to the band....apparently) and while it's a little hard to explain, let me try to do it by telling you what I learned about the boys of One Direction during the show:

1D in Vancouver One Direction

This is Liam: As you can tell, Liam probably spends a lot of time at the gym. To prove this, Liam's job is to take his shirt off in the video scenes that air between the songs of the concert. This causes the audience to scream A LOT! Actually everything Liam does causes the audience to scream. At one point he threw confetti in the air and the audience lost it's freaking mind. I tried throwing confetti in the air once. I got a dirty look from my wife and told to go get the broom.

1D in Vancouver One Direction

This is Zayn: Zayn's job is to repeatedly mention the city that the band is in that night. This causes the audience to scream every time their city is mentioned, but it was especially cute on Saturday night as Zayn seems to have a problem properly pronouncing Vancouver. It kept coming out like "Van-cool-vah". It didn't matter. The audience screamed every time they heard a word starting with V, just to be safe.

1D in Vancouver One Direction

This is Louis: Louis has a very simple job in One Direction. It's his job to tell the audience to "Scream!" Needless to say, this causes the audience to scream, but I'm not sure Louis should get all the credit for this. As my son put it, "If people can't hear you telling them to scream because of all the screaming then your job is probably redundant." I'm proud of my son, not only for his keen observational skills but also for remembering how to use the word redundant while off school for the summer.

1D in Vancouver One Direction

This is Niall: Despite the fact that all of the members of One Direction claim publicly that they can't dance, Niall's job seems to be to dance. He busts out some crazy moves that look sort of bizarre to me, but they must be really good because every move he makes causes the audience to scream loudly. Of course at one point he stumbled a little and the audience screamed even louder, so I probably don't really understand these modern day dance moves as well as I think I do. 

1D in Vancouver One Direction

This is Harry: Most people know who Harry is from his brief romance with Taylor Swift, but I'm here to tell you that Harry has a far more important job than just dating country superstars. Harry also seems to be in charge of the group's water supply. Seriously, every time Harry came over to our side of the stage he would stop and grab a couple of bottles of water, open them both, place them strategically around the stage, then run off because he was supposed to be on the other side of the stage by then. Every time Harry opened a bottle of water, the audience would scream. If Harry actually paused for a second to take a drink of water, the audience really screamed. If Harry accidentally spilled a little water while drinking the arena was thrown into chaos. They might want to get Harry a sippy cup before somebody gets hurt.

1D concert in Vancouver

This is Neve: She is my daughter and was one of the 18,000 people who's job on Saturday night was to scream. Do you see the happy look on her face? That's why I'm a One Direction fan now. I may not understand the appeal of confetti throwing or water drinking, but I understand things that make my daughter happy. That smile made it worth the sixty minute notice for departure. It made it worth the hassle of waking my son up mid-afternoon (Actually that was kind of fun. "Wait...what? I have to go WHERE?"). It made it worth the four hour drive each way and the ridiculousness that is the Vancouver freeway system at the moment. In short, it was worth it. There's not that many moments in life when you get to make your child really, really happy so I'm very thankful that we got to take advantage of this one. Or at least I will be once I get my hearing back again. Seriously, they scream at everything.

A little taste of what the show was about, with the caveat that last minute tickets tend not to have very good sightlines...

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Disney Doesn't Give You All the Details

One of the things my family loves about Disney is it's attention to detail. If you've ever spent an hour (or longer) standing in line for one of Disneyland's blockbuster rides then you know what I mean. The lines are so packed with little things to watch, study or play with that the time seems to fly by, even when you're moving at a true Department of Motor Vehicle pace. It's the kind of thing that I'm not sure you can measure the return on, but Disney has certainly decided that there's value in obsessing over the details.

Standing in front of Radiator Springs Racers
Nope...not in the middle of the dessert...just a very detailed backdrop.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're covering all the details. Despite my admiration of their detail culture, I find that Disney kind of glosses over some of the more important items. The kind of things that you really need to know about a ride. Fortunately, I'm here to fill you in on a few of those missing details. 

For example, when you go to ride Luigi's Flying Tires, Disney goes into great detail telling you that you can control the direction your tire moves by leaning in a certain direction.

The detail they don't give you is how to get everybody to agree on what direction that should be.

Trying to direct Luigi's Flying Tires

When you board It's a Small World, Disney tells you that you're embarking on the "Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed!"

 The detail they skip over is that you will never, ever get that song out of your head again. Ever.

Going insane inside It's a Small World

The spiel you're given before riding Radiator Springs Racers says that "Your car is pitted against another for a friendly race for first place at the checked flag."

The detail they skip over is that after winning three consecutive races, your child will come out convinced that she's ready to conquer NASCAR and asking if she can drive the 405 on the way home.

Cars racing on Radiator Springs Racers

Finally, there's Splash Mountain. Nobody can say that Disney doesn't try and warn you. There's signs all over the place leading up to the ride warning you that "You will get wet!"

The detail that they forget to mention is that it will be from peeing yourself when you get a look over that last drop.

Splash Mountain pose

This post is a part of Wordless Wednesday over at Focused on the Magic. If you didn't get here from there, you should really head on over and check out some of the fantastic people that hang out there on Wednesdays. Most of them probably knew all of these details already, although I'd like to point out that none of them warned me either.

Written by Steve Pratt

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Vacationing at a Terror Target

I've had people threaten me before. In elementary school “I’m gonna kill you!” was a pretty common utterance on the playground. Rough and tumble games of ball hockey can always be counted on to cause tempers to overheat, and at least one ex-girlfriend has wished for an end to my time on Earth, although in her defence I probably deserved that one. Until this Canada Day though, I've never had anyone actually try and follow through on it.

Of course unlike all the other occasions my existence has been threatened, this one wasn't focused solely on me. Neither I, nor I suspect anybody else gathered in Victoria that weekend, knew the people who decided to plant bombs around the legislature lawn, but that really doesn't offer me a whole lot of comfort in the situation. I mean, I like to think that anybody who knows me would think I’m a nice, friendly person. Even on my worst day I’d hope that I’d be able to make a good enough first impression to qualify above the line of “people I’d like to blow up”. That seems like a reasonable ‘minimum level’ to hope to achieve in pretty much all human interactions,  yet somehow while celebrating my country’s birthday I found myself lumped in with a group that, at least in two people’s eyes, failed to make that cut.

I had no idea that my family had become a terror target. The RCMP were apparently well aware of the bombing plot and felt confident enough in their surveillance that they allowed the would-be bombers to take the ferry to Victoria and plant the bombs around the legislature lawn. The police simply followed along behind and gathered the bombs back up as they were planted. I envision it unfolding similar to a Scooby-Doo episode where Shaggy leaves a trail of Scooby Snacks behind him and Scooby follows along eating them up as he goes. That probably downplays all the hard work that the RCMP put in to this investigation but I like to envision happenings in my life in terms of Scooby Snacks. In any case, the police felt that they had the terror plot under control and thus never bothered to alert the public to its existence until the day after the Canada Day celebrations.

Which leads me to my question. If I had known that there was a terror plot afoot for the day, would I have altered my Canada Day plans at all. I know it’s been said that if the terrorists make you change the way you do things then they've won, but from my point of view I also consider it a winning scenario when nobody blows up. Even if the RCMP had assured me that there was no longer a threat, I wonder how comfortable I would have felt joining thousands of people on the legislature lawn to form a living flag. Would I have been able to enjoy the concerts when every drumbeat would leave me scanning the crowd for suspicious looking people? And the fireworks….well the setting off of miniature bombs in the sky would have certainly made me a nervous wreck by the end of that night. I might have felt a whole lot more comfortable staying back at the Fairmont Empress and watching the festivities from across the street, although I’m sure it wouldn't have been long before I began to wonder how great a target the hotel itself would make for some attention seeking terrorist. I don’t know how I would have reacted had I known about the bombing plot, but I do know that I enjoyed my weekend a whole lot more without being in the know.

Unlike most people, we hung around for an extra day after Canada Day. We were still in Victoria when the press conference was held to announce the details about the foiled terror plot and as the details were given you could see people starting to go back through their weekend and picture what could have been. For a while we were sitting next to a giant tree on the legislature lawn. Would that have been where one of the bombs was planted? What about the statue we all assembled next to for the living flag? And what about that guy who was hauled out of the crowd during the concert on Sunday night? They used four police officers to arrest that one guy. Was he involved in some way? When I look back on the weekend with the new knowledge it seems like a chaotic, high stress vacation, but at the time it was peaceful, relaxing, and a whole lot of fun. I’m glad that the RCMP didn't let us know about the bombing plot. I’m thankful for the very heavy police presence at the celebrations, even though at the time I thought it might have been a little overkill, but most of all I’m grateful that they didn't miss any of the bombs. It would have only taken one stray Scooby Snack to ruin everybody’s weekend, and they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling cops.

I'm not RCMP, but I would have had this lady under surveillance 24/7.

Written by Steve Pratt

Friday, 12 July 2013

Cleaning Up at the International Food Fair

Entrance to International Food Fair in Victoria, BC

Canada Day brought lots of activities for us to choose from in Victoria (besides photographing puppies), but one of our favorites was the week long international food fair taking place right outside our hotel. You've got food from all sorts of different countries? We're in!

Pulled Pork Food Truck in Victoria, BC

Strangely, we've never actually eaten at a food truck (Unless you count ice cream trucks. Then we're masters!) so we were quite excited to see all the great choices. Lori went with Canadian food (Not very adventurous, but it was Canada Day) and like any good Canadian would she ordered...

Pulled Pork Poutine from the International Food Fair in Victoria, BC

The pulled pork poutine. It was good enough to truly inspire pride in our country, but the rest of us wanted some international flavors. I went with the Mexican truck...

Spinach and Potato Tacos Victoria Food Fair
Two of my Spinach and Potato tacos went missing before I could get the camera out.
...the boy has his heart set on some fish and chips...

Fish and Chips from the International Food Fair in Victoria, BC

...while my youngest remained steadfast to her loyalty for the hamburger.

Hamburger at International Food Fair in Victoria, BC

We spent way too much time at the fair and ate way too much food. In fact, everything was great right up until time to clean up. It seems that Victoria takes their "green" image very seriously, and when we went to throw out our garbage after eating, every bin we went to had this sticker on the top of it:

Sticker from the top of garbage can lids in Victoria

We're normally pretty good at separating our recyclables but this was WAY too much pressure for us. I had visions of people booing us if we put something in the wrong bin, so we panicked and just took all our refuse back to the Fairmont with us. It might have looked strange, but I never heard anyone booing housekeeping, so I'll assume they got everything in the right place.

This post is a part of Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from there, you should really go check them out. There's people there who probably know what goes in which bin at an international food fair. I bet they have fun getting to boo everybody else.

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

How I Almost Got Divorced at the Fairmont Empress

My wife puts up with a lot of my strange travel quirks without even blinking an eye. When I force four stopovers on flights from Seattle to Los Angeles just so we can rack up a few more miles, she just smiles and explains my logic to the kids. When I make her switch hotels every night for three weeks straight so I can achieve a status level in a hotel chain, she just sighs and divides our suitcases into 21 separate sections. When I leave her at home and take my son to Disneyland for a 24 hour marathon of fun despite the fact that it was her birthday...well actually that one didn't go over too well. Generally though, Lori is one of the most patient and tolerant women I've ever met, so while I can get away with a lot of things I found out last weekend that there is a line that I should not be crossing when it comes to arranging our travels. Under no circumstances should I be booking us into a hotel that doesn't have air conditioning.

Now in my defence, who actually checks to see if a hotel has air conditioning these days? I just assume that all hotels have invested in central air, or at least those loud, rickety, one room air conditioners you find in the cheaper lodging options. In particular, I expect places that routinely make the list of the Top 500 hotels in the world to be capable of leaving temperature control up to the guest. The Fairmont Empress in Victoria, BC does not follow that line of thinking however. Built in 1908, it's main method of keeping you cool is ceiling fans which while effective, are not what my family has come to expect from our typical accommodations on the road. In fact, once it became apparent that there was no way to immediately lower the temperature of the room, there may have been some over-dramatic reactions from some of my children.

Ummm...if you're that hot, maybe don't wear jeans?
OK, so booking a hotel without air conditioning was strike one, but I've made it to strike one on just about every trip we've ever taken. I know that what I have to do now is earn that strike back. Thanks to our lifetime platinum status we were booked into a 1 BR suite (Which apparently is Fairmont code for "Walk as far as humanly possible. Your room is about five doors past that.) and after looking at the layout of the rooms, it seemed that the most logical sleeping arrangement was to give the kids the main bedroom. Considering how insanely comfortable the Fairmont beds are, this easily earned me back my strike from the two kids who ended up sharing the bed.

On the other hand, that meant that Lori and I were sleeping in the living room....on the pull out couch. Yeah, that's strike two.

Now I'm sure nobody is surprised to hear that I've been to strike two quite a few times in the past. The key here is to try and turn the situation by focusing on the positives. Things like the fact that there was coffee readily available in the room...

Or the fact that the toiletries in the bathrooms were by some company I've never heard of, which almost guarantees that they were of very high quality...

There was also the really nice view of the Empress grounds and the BC Parliament Building, although I think I only got a half point for that since the best view was out the bathroom window.

Perhaps the best feature of the Empress however is it's location. You are steps from the harbor, parliament, and just about every other attraction in Victoria. I can't think of a more central place to be, and with it being the Canada Day long weekend during our visit, being that close to all the celebrations and activities was invaluable.

In fact, despite the air conditioning oversight (and the room cooled down nicely once we opened the windows and let the ocean breeze in) our first day went so well that I was convinced I was going to earn one of my two strikes back. Of course that's when it all fell apart. Apparently while not doing enough research into the air conditioning situation or the number of beds in the room, I also forgot to check whether or not the Fairmont Empress gets HBO. On a Sunday night. When the new episode of True Blood is on.

Sorry you can't watch True Blood, but is that Batman's silhouette in the TV?
 So no air conditioning, no bed, and no HBO. Wait...that's three strikes. Am I out? Well no...not this time. Fortunately each of the problems with our stay presented themselves with relatively simple solutions. Opening the windows while staying on the harbor kept the room nice and cool. The pullout bed was actually very comfortable as far as pullouts go, and the lack of HBO was overcome by having a fairly strong internet connection to allow for immediate streaming of the missing episode. You could say that these solutions were what saved me from serious trouble on the marriage front. You could say that it was the overall great time that we had during our stay at the Empress, but in all honesty I attribute my avoiding divorce court to something else. You see, despite her beauty, charm, and amazing personality, my wife really isn't very good at math. It's not something most men look for in a spouse, but I highly recommend it. 

Yes dear...1+1+1=2. I still have one strike left.
Written by Steve Pratt 

Monday, 8 July 2013

How to Pay Extra for Your BC Ferry Ride

If you've been following More Kids Than Suitcases on Facebook, you know that we spent the last weekend in Victoria celebrating Canada Day. It was a fantastic time, other than some crazy people trying to blow us up, but I kind of suspected it would be. Victoria is one of my favorite places to visit and I always have a wonderful time when I'm there. With the beauty of the buildings and the convenience of having an ocean harbor right in the middle of town, I often ask myself why I don't visit this city more often.

Then I remember the $250 surcharge to get there. 

I suppose it's one of those drawbacks to visiting an island (except Staten Island), but getting to Victoria isn't cheap. For our family of five the ferry fare including a car on the Vancouver to Victoria route (technically the Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay route) is $121 each way. That breaks down to $51 for the car and $70 for the passengers. Kids under five sail free but apparently being 6'1" disqualifies my son from passing as a four year old, no matter how bad his vocabulary skills are. Unfortunately if you want to visit Victoria, you're going to have to pay the bill.

What if they just act like they're four? Do we get a discount for that?

As promised however, there is a way to pay even more. BC Ferries has a program whereby for a fee (there's always a fee) you can reserve a spot on a certain ferry in advance. It costs $15 if you plan more than seven days in advance or $18.50 if you book within a week of departure, and for that consideration you gain the right to show up not more than an hour before your preferred sailing but no less than a half hour prior to departure. For example, we reserved a spot on the 11 am sailing for our trip to Victoria (costing us $18.50 because we do nothing a week in advance) so we were required to show up between 10 and 10:30 am, which we almost did.

Important ferry tip: Girls with long hair should stay off the outside deck!

We actually got to the ferry terminal at 9:55 am, but since there was still space on the 10 am ferry, they just loaded us onto that one. The type A part of me really wanted to circle around and wait five minutes so that I could use my already paid reservation on the next ferry but eventually logic prevailed and I decided that getting to Victoria an hour early was a better plan than sitting in a parking lot for sixty minutes to justify the cost of my reservation. Lesson learned - if you're going to be early for your desired ferry, you probably don't need a reservation.

Not a situation where you need to make a ferry reservation.

On the way home we made a reservation on the 3 pm ferry, figuring that our morning would be fairly full and we wouldn't be able to get to the terminal much before that. That plan changed when we decided that instead of lunch we just wanted to have frozen cheesecake on a stick. Yeah, we make nutritional decisions like that all the time. Needless to say the expediency of having cheesecake for lunch placed us well ahead of schedule, so instead of lazing around the hotel for an extra hour we decided that we might as well drive up and catch the 2 pm ferry. Lesson learned - if your plans are fluid, you probably don't need a reservation. 

Still don't need to make a reservation...

So with our brilliant foresight and planning we managed to turn a $121 ferry fare into a $139.50 ferry fare in each direction. That's an additional $37 tacked onto our bill for reservations we didn't use, pretty much guaranteeing it a spot on my "Dumbest Things I've Spent Money On" list. If you don't think $37 was too much to pay for peace of mind, let me try and put it in terms we can all understand. That's an extra seven pieces of cheesecake on a stick. Uh you're understanding the wastefulness aren't you? To be fair, I'm sure there are situations where making a reservation on a ferry is important. If you're traveling on a major holiday or during the winter months when the sailings are much further apart it might be a good idea. On the other hand, if you've already set up an online account with BC Ferries you can just make a reservation using your mobile device should you see your preferred sailing filling up fast. For most of us though, it's probably better to just show up and take our chances. Worst case scenario you'll end up having a little time to explore the ferry terminal and enjoy a little time in the snack bar. Check and see if they have anything comparable to the cheesecake on a stick. If they do, you're really wasting your time getting on the ferry anyways aren't you? did make a reservation didn't you?
 Written by Steve Pratt 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Who Gave the Kids the Camera?

I love reading my friend's blogs. Not only are they inspiring but sometimes they come up with some really brilliant ideas. While flipping through a few sites the other day I noticed that many of my friends had decided that it was a good idea to give their camera to their children, to get a "child's eye" point of view. Even though my kids are a little bit older, I thought that this would be a great chance to get a fresh viewpoint on our travels, so this last weekend while we were in Victoria, a very picturesque city if there ever was one, I gave my girls the camera and told them to take pictures of whatever captured their attention.

I should have remembered my family's problems with following instructions. This is what the download looked like:

Have I mentioned they're angling for a puppy?

This post is a part of Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from there, you should really go check them out. There's people there whose kids might actually have noticed the beautiful harbor or the magnificent buildings. Wonder what that's like?

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Florida Theme Parks - A Guide by Alex Miller

Disney World Universal Orlando Sea World BuschDo you know why I like guide books? It's because I plan a lot of trips. I mean a LOT of trips. If I took even a quarter of the trips that I planned I'm pretty sure I'd lose my Canadian citizenship for never being in the country. It's not that I'm indecisive. I just like planning trips and exploring new destinations that I'd like to get to one day. Besides, having a basic game plan in place just in case a smoking deal comes along helps me to pull the trigger when time is of the essence. If there's a fare mistake to Foz do Iguacu you need to know if booking a flight is going to make you a hero with your family or leave you divorced and alone (Hint: If your wife is anything like Lori, this is NOT a flight you want to be booking).

So it might come as a surprise to you that when Alex Miller offered to send me a free copy of his Florida Theme Park Guide to see what I thought of it, I almost turned him down. Theme parks are definitely my thing and, as I said before, I thrive on guide books, but I'm the only one in the family who actually reads them and I've already done my Florida research. We've spent each of the last two summers in the Sunshine State and I was already pretty familiar with all of Disney and Universal's offerings, but it occurred to me that Alex might have some different insights considering he works for Disney. At the very least it would make a great reference book to have, so I agreed to review the book. Fortunately, this is a very easy book to review. In fact, I've gotten my review down to just three words:


Now if you're sitting there wondering just how fast paced a book about theme parks could be, I understand your confusion but you've got it wrong. This book literally moves. Do not put it down because it will not be there when you come back for it. I'm not entirely sure how it happens but this book has found itself in pretty much every room in our house and I promise you I'm not putting it there. I feel like I should notify some sort of government agency, but I'm not sure there is a Department of Self-Moving Books.

I first noticed it on the day the book arrived. I'd spent about 15 minutes flipping through the book, realizing that perhaps I'd overlooked some of the lesser known theme parks in Florida like Fun Spot America with it's multi-level go-cart tracks or Silver Springs, birthplace of the glass bottom boat. I decided to pour myself a Diet Coke to enjoy while I read, so I put the book down on my desk and went to the kitchen. When I came back two minutes later, the book was gone. Hearing my mother's voice over and over again in my head saying "Well it didn't just walk away!" I retraced my steps from the office to the kitchen a few times but I couldn't find the book anywhere. Eventually I expanded my search and finally found the my daughter's room. She was flipping through the pictures from Sea World Orlando and was not very enthused with my request to give the book back. 

Fun Spot America Legoland Florida
It's easier to take back when they're sleeping...
Since then, I've had to go in search of the book multiple times. I've found it in my son's room, laid out over top of his keyboard. I discovered it on my wife's side of the bed, sitting on top of the latest Charlene Harris novel. I even found it in my youngest daughter's backpack along with a pack of Pop-tarts, two stuffed animals and a note that was supposed to be signed and returned to school before the last day two weeks ago. The book has seen more places in our house than anybody outside our family, and considering I found it in the laundry room once it might even be one up on my son.

Silver Springs Sam's Fun City

That's my favorite part about this book though. Sure it's a pain to have to find it every time I want to check something, but seeing my kids enthused about the "planning" part of a vacation is fantastic. Normally my children don't get excited about a destination until we arrive, so I love to see them flipping through the pictures in the book and discussing which theme parks they've visited already and which ones should be next on the list. It's the "dreaming" part of travel, and it's really something that I can't teach them myself. If looking though a guidebook gets my kids excited about traveling then I'm grateful to Mr. Miller for putting together such a visually inspiring book. Perhaps in the future however he would consider including a beeper or a GPS tracker with each copy. My kids are getting better and better at hiding the book from me. 

Alex Miller is based out of Glendale, California where he works for the Walt Disney Company. In addition to his Florida Theme Parks Guide he has also written a guide to California Theme Parks. Both are available at, however if you'd like a two book discount as well as getting your copies signed, visit Alex Miller Media for direct ordering. You might also want to follow him on Facebook like I do. It's the perfect place to complain to him every time my kids steal my book from me.

Written by Steve Pratt