Saturday, November 18, 2017

Conference time!

I normally like to take notes on vacations.  However, the location of this conference merits some mentions!

I attended the LIVE 360:  SQL Server Live conference in Orlando, Florida.  The conference was held at the Royal Pacific Resort, which is also where I stayed.  Since I'd be there Sunday - Friday, I opted to rent a car, and also to spring for airfare so Lori and Traven could come along.

Picking up the rental car was so easy!  Thanks to my work, I belong to the Emerald Club for Enterprise and National.  You just take nifty airport indoor shuttle from where you landed to baggage claim, go down one floor, walk across the street and BOOM!  There's a sign that says "Emerald Club - pick any car in this row".  I chose a Nissan Rogue for the luggage and leg room and drove to the exit.  The lady gave me the "you don't come here very often" look and speech, but we were still quickly on our way.

As I walked up, I knew I was in for a treat.  The front of the hotel is surrounded by a lagoon, with rich vegetation everywhere.  You cross this bridge, surrounded by tikis with island music playing.  When you check in, you each get a personalized room key, because that bad boy is your Universal Express Pass.  That's right, if you stay there, and go to Universal, you get front of line treatment on every ride.  Unlimited.  Oh, I figured we'd find time to use that.

The room was nice.  It was huge, but it was clean and well kept.  Oh, check this out.  The hotel keeps in touch with you via text messaging.  How cool is that?  Any time I had a question or need, I could just text them.

There were several good restaurants on property.  Not overly expensive, and good food.  We tried two of them.  I think Jake's American Bar and Grill was my favorite.

The resort has a great pool.  I plan to go back and spend some time there.  There just wasn't time this trip.

I won't bore you with conference details, but it was the best one I've attended.

While I was conferencing on Monday and Tuesday, Lori and Traven went to Disney.  That was a true test of my will power, but honestly, I was so happy for them!  They were able to do some rides I haven't, so first hand reports were appreciated.  They were both great about texting me updates.  And I tell you, they were Disney Warriors!  I think they were gone from 7:00 am to past midnight on day one, and they were out almost as late on day two!

Since we had express passes, early park entry and were minutes away from Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, I managed to squeeze out some park time on days 3 and 4.  Not as much as I would have wanted, but I was there for a conference!

My one complaint against Universal is there lack of accommodations for someone with legs the size of mine.  To their credit, they are up front about it, and have test vehicles in front of the rides.  I'm nowhere close to getting onto any of the Harry Potter rides.  That's ok, while waiting at Escape from Gringotts, I chatted with a guy working there who doesn't fit on the ride.  That has to really suck!

The Hogwarts Express train ride is amazing.  From the train stations, to the train cars, it really feels like you are on a journey from London to Hogsmeade!  You can see shadows through the frosted glass to the interior of the train, and it would seem Harry and the gang are roaming around.  There's even a moment when a Dementor has its icy claws on your train car, but Harry chases it away.  Meanwhile, if you look out the window, you appear to be passing through London or scenes right out of Harry Potter.  It's all very impressive.

Traven suckered me into Olivanders again.  And he managed to get picked for wand, so now we own another one of them.  I couldn't say no.  The wand fitting is quite the production.  The owner has the lucky chosen guest try several wands.  Traven caused lightning with the first one, then wilted a plant with another one.  Finally, when he takes the right wand in hand, dramatic music plays and a spotlight hits him.  I'll bet the sell a lot of wands with that show!

Men in Black was a fun ride.  It's very much like Buzz Lightyear at Disney.  Simpsons, Minion Mayhem, Spiderman and Transformers are all very similar. 

E.T. is alive and well in Florida!  Man, I love that ride.  It still looks like it was built in the 80s, and I enjoyed every detail.  And of course, sending texts and Snapchats to my sister in law, who suffers from a fear of E.T., was also probably more fun that it should be.

Poseidon is an odd adventure.  It's kind of a tour meets special effects show.  You walk through 3 different scenes as the guide explains that is happening.  It ends with a battle between Poseidon and his enemy, which felt like watching Flash Gordon maybe?  I have never done an experience like this one before.  So odd.

Jimmy Fallon's race thing was not my favorite.  It's kind of similar to the other motion / screen rides, but not as cool.

Kong was great.  It's similar to the part of the tram tour in California that features Kong, but with more footage.  It's an amazing experience, watching Kong battle dinosaurs, sending your vehicle flying.

We did Jurassic Park right before the park closed on Wednesday.  We walked right up.  The ride attendants were like, well, sit anywhere you want.  It was just the 3 of us.  Traven took the very back row, and Lori and I sat right in front of him.  It was great doing the ride at night.  When we took the last drop, there was so splash.  No, we pretty much hydroplaned that bad boy, sending a shower of water right at our faces.  Traven was dry.  I felt like I had stuck my head in a cold shower.

They have two rides in Dr. Seuss land.  The one is kind of like the PeopleMover at Disney.  Loved it.  The other is very similar to a Disney classic such as Mr. Toad or Snow White.  It was nice.  Turns out, Lori is not a big fan of the cat, though.  He does cause a lot of trouble in the book!

Shrek 4D is also still in Florida.  It's still fun, though I've seen it enough at this point.

Oh, we did a couple of shows.  The horror effects show was so great.  At one point, one of the actors blames a kid for throwing a rock, and points to Traven.  From then on, he had a fun interaction with both cast members, and he played his part like a star!  He got to pose for a picture after.

By Thursday, we had completely worn out Traven.  Thursday was pretty much shopping day after the conference!

We did drive to Disney Springs one night.  We at at D'luxe Burger, which Traven claims is the best hamburger he has had in his life.  And he might know.  He had at least one burger every day of this trip!

All in all, I'm a big Universal Orlando fan now.  I can't wait to get back!  And that was with having a conference in my way.  I could really party it up full time!  I will for sure stay on property.  It was a short walk, but just in case you weren't up to that, they had a water taxi that would take you back and forth.  How cool is that?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Disney Dining Packages

For our 27th wedding anniversary, my wife and I headed to Disney.  After all, when you are married to a princess, sometimes you have to take her back to her kingdom!  With just the two of us, it felt like we could afford to spend some time and money on some upgraded dining.  Let's star with our Frozen lunch package at Carthay Circle.

Carthay Circle, located in Disney's California Adventure, is a restaurant that many overlook.  The outside of the building is a replica of the theater where Snow White premiered.  It's not flashy, and blends in nicely with the surrounding architecture.

As you enter, you are quickly approached by cast members in suits and formal attire.  You check in at the front desk, then take a seat in one of the many leather chairs in the lounge area.  The lighting is subdued, drinks are available for purchase if you are so inclined and it's quiet.  I immediately felt relaxed and looked forward to a slower than Disney paced dining experience.

When our table was ready, we were ushered to the upstairs dining area.  We were quickly served some ice cold water, our drink order was taken and we were looking over our menu.  Since we had opted for the Frozen lunch package, we didn't have a lot of choices, other than our main dish.

Honestly, I felt a bit like an uncultured buffoon.  I had to look over the menu later to even know what I had eaten.  But it was tasty!

The meal began with warm bread.  We then had what appeared to be small, round bread balls with lingonberry jam.  I wasn't really sure how to approach this.  It seemed I had more jam than bread.  And how do you get jam to stick to a small, round surface?  I did my best.

We then had a small portion of soup and a salad.  Both were so tasty.  Again, I'm not entirely sure what was in either.  The salad had a spring mix feel to it, with tomatoes, spinach and a vinaigrette dressing.

For our main entree, we both went with the beef.  It was so, so yummy!  It was herb crusted, with a blue cheese risotto.  It sat upon some unique potatoes.  There might have been a vegetable or two, but I was caught up in the steak.

The meal ended with "Olaf's Dream Summer Vacation".  It was so cute, I felt a bit guilty digging in.  But once I realized it was a cream puff, with chocolate sauce and a white chocolate Olaf head, I dug in.  I even ate his chocolate arms.  Who knew a snowman could be so tasty?

If you can afford around $100 a person, I highly recommend this dining experience.  I felt pampered and well taken care of, and the food was amazing.

The dining package included passes that put us on the front row for the Frozen show.  Even on a day when the park was not crowded, folks were lined up for this show hours before it started.  I think the value of not having to wait in line for that long factors into this package.  For me, it was worth every penny!

Our second splurge was the Fantasmic! package at the Blue Bayou.  Have you ever been on the Pirates ride?  Well, you surely noticed the restaurant on the right side as the ride begins.  That's Blue Bayou.

Again, we were well taken care of.  We checked in, and within minutes were seated.

My only complaint is with my old man eyes I could not read the menu!  It's pretty dark in there.  I had to take out my phone so I knew what I was ordering.  Trust me, no other complaints!

We started off with breads.  I believe we had sourdough and some sort of cornbread.  For starters, we chose between soup and salad.  I chose the New Orleans Gumbo.  I would have been happy if the meal had just been a huge bowl of it.  Chicken, sausage, spices and white rice all combined for a tasty warm-up for the taste buds.

For my entree, I chose the portobello mushroom.  It was served on a bed of Louisiana popcorn rice.  It was spicy, but not uncomfortable.  I was very full by the time I polished it off.  Again, I'm pretty sure there were vegetables, but it was dark....

The dessert was "Sorcerer Mickey Fantasmic Dessert".  Milk chocolate mouse with a chocolate glaze.  It was great!

The meal came with a cushion for watching the show.  We lined up at 8 pm for the 9 pm showing.  We were pretty far back in the line, but still ended up with great spots, smack dab in the middle.  By the way, the new Fantasmic! is incredible!

Just as an FYI, the dining package seating went in three waves.  First, they positioned the Riverbelle terrace folks to the right of the show.  Blue Bayou was then put in place front and center.  Lastly, the Hungry Bear crowd was placed to the left.  Those poor souls didn't have cushions.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Anniversary Trip 2017

For our 27th wedding anniversary, I planned a trip for Lori and me to Disneyland.  Now, I did get some odd looks and scoffing from some, but if you are married to a princess, doesn't it make sense to take her back home every now and then?

I love taking vacation notes.  It helps me do better and avoid repeating mistakes.  It also feels like someday, my posterity might look back and get a glimpse of who I was and what mattered to me.

I was nervous about Lori's back after her surgery back in January, so I wanted to eliminate a long car ride.  Allegiant Air burned us back in December of 2015, but they were by far the cheapest, so I gave them another chance.  When I first bought the tickets, we were set to fly out after work on Friday, then return Monday afternoon.  Allegiant decided not to burn us and cancel a flight this time.  Instead, they adjusted the times dramatically.  We ended up flying out early on Friday morning and SUPER early on Monday morning for our return.  It worked out that we went from 2 days in the parks to 3, so the change was a win this time.  I would say that when flying with Allegiant, keep your head on a swivel!

We arrived at LAX on time.  It took us a while to figure out that Super Shuttle has their own stop, but we found them and off we went.  This part of the trip was painful.  It's not that Super Shuttle wasn't good.  I'd use them again.  It's that we had several stops, and it felt like our turn would never come.    I think the trip from LAX to our hotel was longer than the flight.

We stayed at the Tropicana.  They are just finishing up remodeling every room, so the one we were in was crisp, clean and new.  I loved how close to the park we were.  It was about a 5 minute walk from the hotel to Disney security lines.  I would definitely stay there again.

With the new and improved Disneyland mobile app, I decided to do our tickets on my phone.  It was slick.  I bought our tickets while we were walking over.  I also opted to pay the extra for park hoppers and the new MaxPass.  Let me tell you, MaxPass did not disappoint!

Immediately as soon as our tickets were activated, MaxPass was ready to go.  I was able to get fast passes for rides in either park.  I could monitor their status and get new ones as soon as we were eligible.  When Soarin' and Indiana Jones had issues while we had fast passes, they seamlessly converted those passes to "Multi ride experiences", which is kind of like a fast pass wild card.  The only down side is you couldn't use these for Guardians or Radiator Springs.

MaxPass also includes PhotoPass.  We could have gotten a lot more use out of this.  As it is, I was able to get our exciting photos from some of the rides, so that was still fun and added to the MaxPass value.

I definitely would not do MaxPass without park hoppers.  We hopped a lot!  Basically, we did California Adventure fast passes until Guardians and Radiator Springs were gone, then we'd hop over to Disneyland.

The one downside to MaxPass is Disney's lack of Wifi in the park, combined with a whole lot of cellular data dead spots.  I frequently had to walk around to find a sweet spot where the app could work.  These network problems also contributed to killing my battery life.  Luckily, I was aware this would be a problem, so I had a battery pack case for my phone, as well as a portable charging pack.  Still, I was pretty much on battery fumes by the time we arrived back at our hotel room.

This was our first time experiencing a few things.  First off, Guardians of the Galaxy - Best.  Ride.  Ever.  From the line to the exit, it rocked.  There is so much to see while in line.  Rocket is a great as the host.  And the ride is off the charts.  The music is pumping (we had a different song each time we rode).  The ride never stops.  Even when it "stops" on a floor, you are still bouncing.  I was hesitant about the change from Tower of Terror, but I can safely say, this was an incredible upgrade.

Soarin' Around the World - again, this is a win.  It was great to see Patrick still doing the orientation.  The logos is similar, and the music is also very similar.  The sound and picture quality are so much better now, and including the actual Matterhorn and what looks like the inspiration for Cinderella's castle were nice touches.  The only odd thing for me was, if you are not seated in the middle, the Eiffel Tower has a major curve to it.  I didn't notice this on other landmarks, but it was almost comical for the Eiffel.

The remake of Fantasmic! is incredible.  I had watched it on YouTube, but to be there and feel it was something entirely more fulfilling.  We did the Blue Bayou dining package, which put us smack dab in the middle and also came with a cushion to sit on.  It looked like the other dining packages were to the left and right of us.  The location could not have been better.  We did arrive an hour early, and I would not have wanted to be any later.

The remake itself was great.  I enjoyed the introduction of Pirates into the show.  Again, the show and music were still very similar to before, but the changes were positive.

We also did the Frozen lunch package at Carthay Circle.  This gave us front row seats for that show.  We were so close that you could see Anna did not look like Anna should, so that was distracting.  However, this show was amazing.  I missed Aladdin, but everything about this show felt like an upgrade.  When Anna gets frozen, you can literally see it.  It snowed, ice appeared, Elsa transformed into an ice queen, etc.  Well done Disney.

The food at Carthay and Blue Bayou was amazing.  Be prepared to pay some serious cash for it, but I felt like, for our anniversary, we could splurge on a couple of the meals.

The fireworks were good, but "Remember" wasn't as awesome as I remembered.  Also, the Soundsational parade was meh.  Mickey and the Magical Map is feeling old and dated now.  Also, Star Wars Path of the Jedi feels like a waste of space.  Bring back Captain EO or Honey I Shrunk the Audience.

The train changes are amazing.  It really opens up now where it can.  You can see where the entrance to Galaxy's Edge will be.  You can see the huge cranes at work building the new land for us.

We were a bit too aggressive with our time in the parks.  We were over 16 hours on day 2.  Lori's FitBit had us over 10 miles per day.  Even on the 3rd day, when I said we'd "take it easy", we were over 10 miles and 22,000 steps.  Lori had some shoe issues, and had what looked like a piece of raw hamburger for a toe at the end of the 2nd day.  I really should have ramped it down on day 3, and I really thought I was.  Next time, definitely everyone should make sure their shoes are good to go.  And I probably should be more disciplined about figuring in down time.  Like real down time, not just what I imagine as down time.

Oh, I need to tell the story of Lori's phone.  On day #2, as we sat down for the train, Lori let out an "OH NO!".  Her phone was nowhere to be found.  By this point, we had eaten beinetts at Orleans Square for breakfast, been on Indiana Jones and Star Tours, as well as Small World.  We had no clue where it might be.  We went to City Hall on Main Street, where they made a few calls and could not find any phones that had been turned in.  They did give us a card, with a number we could call later to see if it had been found.

Lori called the number later, and it turns out they actually needed to create an incident for it and take down a lot of information.  We left them my cell phone number.  I was not too optimistic, but I hoped that some Disney magic would prevail.

Well, as we stood in line for Soarin', I received a call from Disneyland.  The phone had been found!  We went to the lost and found, located just outside the main entrance, and there was a joyous reunion!  The phone was no worse off than before, Lori had really tried to not let the lost phone bug her, but the sense of relief was apparent when they were reunited!

Don't worry, I had two jalapeno pretzels, a churro and a corn dog.  Yum!

Here are our ride totals:
Guardians (4)
Radiator Springs (2)
Mater's Junkyard
Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters
It's Tough to be a Bug
Little Mermaid
Soarin' (4)
Indiana Jones (3)
Jungle Cruise
Pirates (2)
Peter Pan
Mr. Toad
Small World
Star Tours (4)
Buzz Lightyear (2)
Toy Story Midway Mania (2)
Train (2)
Tiki Room
Winnie the Pooh
Mickey and the Magical Map
World of Color
Star Wars Path of the Jedi
Snow White