Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Universal Studios Orlando

As a treat to myself, I took a mini-break a few weeks ago, which included a trip to Discovery Cove, a night seeing saw Chris Cornell at the Hard Rock Live, and a few days stay at the Universal Orlando Resort. It was a sensationally great time. 

I choose to stay at the Universal Orlando Resort because I have always had great experiences there, and I love the Universal amusement parks. While it felt a bit expensive when I initially booked the trip, I never regretted the choice once I was there. The benefits, such as early entry into the parks, free express passes, and the ease of getting back to your hotel, were both a welcome convenience and a great value.

 Loews Royal Pacific Hotel

While I’ve stayed onsite before, this was the first time that I’ve stayed at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Happily, it was the least expensive and has also become my favorite. The hotel has a South Pacific theme, and it was the perfect combination of beautiful and relaxing that I needed. Specifically, I enjoyed walking the grounds to check out all of the interesting statues around. Likewise, my room was spacious, well-decorated, and extremely comfortable. I spent my time hitting the parks pretty hard, so it was nice to have reliable boat service, which I never waited more than a few minutes for, and a super comfortable room to relax in.

Veggie Fare (Aka the Food Situation)

The combination of travel and food for me are always difficult because I am a vegetarian, which greatly limits just about any restaurant menu. I was pleasantly surprised to find options everywhere in the resort. Also, the food prices in the parks and at the hotel were also fairly reasonable.

The following were my favorites:
  • Three Broomsticks: I am addicted to Butterbeer. Even writing this, I long for it. It was the highlight of Wizarding World of Harry Potter for me, so every day, I’d go to Three Broomsticks, buy a butterbeer, and find a shady place to relax and people watch. 
  • Emeril's Tchoup Chop: I wanted to try the Cilantro-Cashew Pesto Marinated Tofu, but my stomach was a wreck after a bad lunch at the Hard Rock (gross and so expensive!). My waiter helped me put together a combo of a Tchoup Chop Salad and an order of veggie rice. It was perfect, but I plan on getting back to try the tofu. 
  • Boulangrie: In Universal Studios, I was in desperate need for some nutrient packed food. I ordered a Health Sandwich, which they made special for me with a croissant, lettuce, avocado, tomato, sprouts, and cheese. It came with fruit and I got a lovely sweet cake. It was definitely one of my favorite meals. 
  • Bob Marley’s: My last day, I hit the parks hard. Around 6, it started to rain, so I went over to Bob Marley’s. I ordered the veggie patties (ahem, devoured). In the process, I learned that Marley was also a vegetarian, which makes sense why they had excellent veggie eats. 

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

My first order of business was to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was definitely a powerful,  feeling walking into Hogsmeade. I'm a big fan of the books, so it is magical to have something so special in a book made real. The place was completely packed, but everyone was so excited that it actually played into the great energy in the place.

I rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey first. I went in the single rider line, which meant that I missed most of the castle, but only had to wait a few minutes. My eyes hadn't completely adjusted to the dark and I had missed all of the set up for the ride story, so I was a little confused about what was happening on the ride. The following morning,  I took advantage of my early entrance to the park and was able to take a leisurely stroll through Hogwarts castle. The amount of attention given to the details was beautiful to me, and I was almost sorry that I didn't ride the first time with the whole experience. Specifically, I loved Dumbledore’s office and Hermoine's snow. The more I rode, the better I liked the ride.  However, as a single rider, I always got the last seat where the terrifying dementor attacks you.

Overall, I love Butterbeer, the Hippogriff was fun, the Dragon Challenge queue is the longest line in the world, Ollivanders was sweet and fun, Chocolate frogs are overrated, and I wish that I had tried the Pumpkin Juice.

Island of Adventure

I have always enjoyed Islands of Adventure, and this time I wanted to experience all of the rides.

Spiderman, as always, was one of my favorites, and the updated HD version was really nice. The ride and the story line go well together. During the ride, you never wonder what is going on and are able to get lost in the fun of it all. Plus, I just really enjoy Spiderman. 

This trip, Dr Doom’s Fearfall was my favorite ride. I love the shocking, giggle-inducing feeling of being shot upwards and then that groovy weightless feeling. I finally tried Storm Force and was amused at how fast some of the younger kids could get themselves spinning. I passed, fearing that my anti-up-chuck control might not be up to par with 8-year-olds.

The Hulk coaster always gives me a headache, so I avoided it this trip. Truthfully, while it does give me a headache, but I had this terrible bout of freaking out about heart attacks on roller coasters while I was there and I kept imagining The Hulk.  The last day, I decided to go anyway, but the minute I walked on to the platform, the coaster had some sort of problem and had to be shut down for a few minutes. I took it as a sign.

The Water Rides

Desipite having visited the park multiple times, I hadn't ever ridden any of the water rides. It is so miserable to be soaking wet at a park, so one morning, I wore old clothes and set out for the water rides.

I rode River Adventure (Jurrasic Park) first. I’m sure that with a ride full of people it is fairly silly and fun. I was on the ride completely alone and it was mildly terrifying. Less because of the ride and more because I felt very far away and alone and animatronic dinosaurs were popping out in the dark at me. Also, at the final hill, a group of foreign tourists was watching when I got my final soakingl, which was a bit embarrassing. The ride was really fun though. 

Bluto’s Barges was also a blast. However, some schmuck and his girlfriend were on the boat and he kept taunting her every time a drop of water touched her. I didn’t want him to get drenched, I wanted a random fist to come out of the waterfalls and pound him. 

Finally, Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls was amazing and my favorite. It has a funny story and the ride has an amazing amount of drops for a water ride. 
By the time I was done, I had pools of water dripping off of me as I trudged my way back to the hotel, but it was still a super fun morning.

Universal Studios

As a whole, Universal Studios is my preferred park. Walking around the park is an experience in itself. Universal has put an amazing level of detail into every building and turn in the park. It feels magical, like walking through a old time, working movie studio, which is what I’ve always appreciated.

As for the rides, here’s my rundown:

The Revenge of the Mummy ride is definitely my favorite at the park. I love classic roller coasters (aka without the crazy hills and million loops), and the combination of the coaster with the the story of the ride is interesting, funny, and well designed. It is definitely thrilling and fun.

I tried the Rip Ride Rocket for the first time this trip. Going up the first hill was the most terrifying part for me. I hadn’t paid much attention to the angle, but it was scary. I liked listening to Beastie Boy’s Sabotage, but the ride was too jarring for me, and it beat my head to smithereens.

Shrek 4-D is always fun. The audience is always extremely engaged, which makes it more entertaining. Plus, who doesn’t love Shrek and Donkey’s banter?

I spent my final day at Universal studios, so when I rode E.T. Adventure, my foot and leg had pretty much hobbled me and I was exhausted, so I might have teared up a bit. So what. E.T. rules. Pfft.

The Simpsons Ride was the last ride that I rode on the first day. I was completely dehydrated and exhausted. The ride was funny, and I love how they decorated the outside of the building. However, Back to the Future has always been one of my favorite movies and my favorite rides, so I really missed it. During the ride, I could remember exactly what was happening in the old BttF ride and I really wished for Marty, Biff, and Doc instead. It probably doesn't help that I'm not much of a Simpsons fan either.

Men in Black: You get to shoot stuff with a laser and you spin around really fast… what else could you ask for?

By the time I made it to Disaster, I was sure that someone was going to have to carry me back to my hotel. So, when I balked at standing through the different areas before the ride, the attendant suggested I could just ride the ride, which I did. I got to hang out alone on the subway system, which again was a bit weird but also sort of cool.

I definitely had a fun, yet relaxing vacation at the Universal Orlando resort. Everything was top notch and I look forward to being able to visit again.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chris Cornell

In high school, I had the sweetest Soundgarden glow-in-the-dark shirt.  I’m still upset with myself for giving it away. It was an iconic piece of my youth spent listening to Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Temple of the Dog as loud as possible, watching Singles (loved it for the Eddie scenes “a compliment for us is a compliment for you!”), Reality Bites, and Help! on repeat like I would die without them, and guzzling Faygo (hey, it was the Midwest!).

Despite all the footage of Eddie and Jeff, when I watched PJ20, I was most taken with Chris Cornell (Cameron Crowe, PJ20, and a look back at my adolescence...). I was drawn in when he talked about his relationship with Andrew Wood and found him to be eloquent, intelligent, and extremely grounded. He seemed like the kind of guy that you would want to hang out with and talk to for hours. When I read that he took the Citizen Dick track list (Singles) as a dare and ended up writing Spoonman, I was amused and impressed. I started listening to Audioslave and his solo work. I’ve mentioned it a few times before (Songs about feelings), but Like a Stone murders me; it is so beautiful that once I start listening, I leave it on repeat for hours because I miss the sweet, beautiful sound.

Anyway, after a long back story, I planned my recent vacation (Discovery Cove and Universal) around the weekend that Cornell performed at Hard Rock Live in Orlando.  I bought my tickets at the last minute and somehow lucked out with amazing 5th row seats near the center.

As soon as Cornell walked on stage, he was immediately comfortable and had a confident sense of emotional self-awareness without being too absorbed. He bantered with fans, took song suggestions from the audience, and even let one guy come on stage and sing Hunger Strike with him (more here). I instantly liked him. 

I’m not sure what I expected from the show.  I always knew that Cornell has a great voice, but I was completely blown away by how beautiful and rich his voice is live. On his recordings, he always sounds amazing, and while the music is always extremely interesting and goes along with his voice, it made me miss the powerful and unique sound of his voice. Hearing him sing with such force with just an acoustic guitar to back him up was amazing.

As the night progressed, the breadth of his songbook was staggering. When you start adding together all of his solo work with his Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden, and Audioslave songs, I started to get an idea of what a talented, creative powerhouse he is. My favorites were Can't Change Me, Fell on Black Days, Call Me A Dog (I'll call you beautiful if I call at all...), and When I'm Down (music on vinyl and chills amazing), but honestly, every song on the setlist was fantastic.

I worship a well-executed cover, so I was beyond impressed with Cornell's ability to take a song (amazing, classic, beautiful, perfect songs) and add his own touch to them. Rightfully so, his cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean is legendary.  At the Orlando show, he performed Billie Jean, Led Zeppelin’s Tangerine, John Lennon’s Imagine, and The Beatles’ A Day in The Life.

I am beyond a Beatles snob, but the cover of A Day in The Life blew me away.  Imagine a guy with just an acoustic guitar trying to successfully cover the back and forth of dark and light of Lennon and McCartney.  Sounds impossible, but he so successfully pulled it off that for a Beatles fan, it felt like a little bit of magic in renewing a much loved song in such an interesting way.

I’ve seen a lot of amazing performers, but I’m still a little goofy about the experience.  It’s been well over a week, but I’m still telling people about it, downloading live performances (see for some awesomness – I highly suggest the Seattle version of A Day in the Life), and having a hard time listening to other music.  A night that inspires all of this is both rare and awesome. I look forward to my next chance to see him perform.

PS. Whoever does the booking for Chris, you need to get him at Ruth Eckerd Hall. His voice would be mind-blowingly amazing at the hall. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Discovery Cove (A day in the pools with dolphins, rays, fish, and some awesome birds)

I was born longing to swim with dolphins. In elementary school, I told everyone I wanted to be a Marine Biologist. I didn’t know exactly what they did, but I knew they worked with dolphins and that was enough for me. Mostly ironic considering that I refuse to swim in the ocean for fear of what might touch me in the water.

A few different times, I tried to plan a day at Discovery Cove. I worried about going alone, the price, and being too tired to drive home afterwards. They were all excuses because sometimes I need the fun of dreaming about something for a while. However, I finally went, and it was an amazing experience.

I read a bunch of different reviews about what to expect and various tips and tricks, so I had my water socks ready (so lame, but so glad to have them) and left before 6am to ensure that I was there at 7:30am to get an early dolphin swim time (another excellent suggestion).

Upon arriving, I was amazed walking around. The grounds were so beautiful that I felt whisked away to some foreign land. The beaches were beautiful, everyone was friendly and happy, and it was so exciting to walk on the beach and see dolphins swimming around in the lagoons.


Because all food is included, you’re not allowed to bring anything with you. Being a vegetarian, this freaked me out. I’m not used to having a lot of food choices and knew that a day of swimming would leave me famished. At check-in, they send me to speak to the chef. They were incredibly accommodating, making sure that I had tasty, healthy food to eat. I didn’t end up requesting anything special because their normal menu was already healthy and veggie friendly. Breakfast was good, the snacks were tasty, and lunch was divine. It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Breakfast was especially entertaining. There were a ton of birds hanging out in the dining area, and when people left their trays, they’d swoop down and steal croissants and bread. While I was eating, they landed on the chair across from me and hung out.

Explorer's Aviary

Because my dolphin swim time wasn’t until 10:30, I took my camera to the Explorer's Aviary to shoot some photos before I got into the pools. I’ve never been a big fan of birds (seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie too many times), so I figured that I would quickly visit and be done with it.

I was wrong. I loved the aviary. As soon as I walked in, a trainer handed me a cup of food, and the birds flew down immediately to visit. I’m not sure what I expected, but when the birds landed on my hand, they were so gentile and sweet, their feathers were ridiculously soft and warm against my hand, and they were extremely social and playful. As I took photos, it felt like they were posing for the camera. The birds were divided into three areas based on their size. My favorites were the small birds.

I could have stayed in there for hours. Every time I turned around, I saw a different breed of bird. In one of the areas, there was even a miniature deer. I visited again in the afternoon, but there were a lot more people.

The following are a few of my favorite photos, but I'll post a link to an album with more photos at the bottom of the post.

Dolphin Swim Experience

At 10:30am, I met with my dolphin group in a nearby cabana. After a short film and some instructions, we broke apart into groups of 8 with our trainers into the lagoon.

In the water, we stood as a group while the trainers taught us about dolphins. While they talked, our dolphin Kaylee swam in front of us, allowing us to pet and see her up close. She was incredibly sweet and silly. She got distracted when a helicopter flew over and was always ready for us to throw her fish. In the learning process, we were able to hug and kiss her. Then, we swam out into deeper water and Kaylee towed us back to shore. It was extremely fun and a great learning experience. As long as I had been building it up in my mind, the experience still met all of my expectations.

Afterwards, we were taken to a hut where we could review our photographs. They were a bit expensive, but I was completely elated to have a professional capture those moments for me. I ended up buying photographs and the video of my experience. It was definitely worth the money.

As a side note, everything I read said that you definitely needed a wetsuit in the dolphin lagoon. I tried a wetsuit and about passed out from heat exhaustion. I changed into a vest, and while it was chilly getting into the water at first, I adjusted quickly. I ventured into the Great Reef before the dolphin swim to make sure that I would be ok.  

Grand Reef

I've never snorkeled before, and I was more than a little freaked out about the rays touching me. Once on a date, I had fed rays at the Lowry Park Zoo. They were so determined to get the food, they flew across the pool the second we put our hands in the water. I dared my date to put a fish close to the biggest one in the tank, and when that ray came at him, it splashed us and made him scream like a little girl. Hysterical at the time, but thinking about getting in a giant pool and swimming with them terrified me. I was sure they would sense my fear and zero in on me.  That didn’t happen. Nothing close to that happened.

The pool is partly shallow with deeper pools that hold the coral reefs . Most of the fish are down in the reefs, so it is best to swim out into the deeper areas. It took me awhile to figure out how to breathe with the snorkel because my mask kept flooding with water. I spent a lot of time trying to get comfortable and  hanging over the side, peering into the deep pools and avoiding the rays. 

At one point, a large school of fish swam around me. It was amazing and beautiful. At that point, I pushed past my fear and just swam into the deeper water. It was amazing  and kind of magical to swim (salt water helps you float along easier) and have these colorful schools of fish swim eye-to-eye past me in the water. 

I rested a bit in a shallower part, which I soon realized was a main swim pathway for the rays. There weren’t a lot of people around, so I floated for awhile as they swam around me.  Some of the rays were bigger than me, and as they swam past, I could see their eyes, watch them breath, and laughed at their process for burying themselves in the sand. I learned that they burrow under the sand to keep from getting sun burnt. I could have spent the entire day watching them and have a new found respect for the rays.

Wind-Away River

The Wind-Away River was beautiful as it twisted through caves and waterfalls (into the Explorer's Aviary).  Unfortunately, I picked a time when I was completely exhausted and the river was pretty packed with people. Also, the water was a bit too warm for my tastes. Normally I love to relax in the water, but I couldn't seem to relax.  The day had been so exciting that I had a very difficult time slowing down (left shortly after and went crazy riding just about every ride at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure - more about that in a later post). Next time, I plan on enjoying this part more.

Discovery Cove was an amazing experience for me. It was so nice to go to a place, dump everything in a locker, and be able to experience everything without having to reach for my wallet all day long. I also read that they are adding a Freshwater Oasis with otters and marmosets. I am definitely planning on returning to see that. 

The following photo album includes photos from my entire trip, which includes my visit to Discovery Cove.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Family Photos

I wrote about my fascination with my Family History a few weeks ago. That little bit of reading and research has fueled a total addiction to researching my family tree (also seriously loving The research and work is a really complicated puzzle. It taxes my brain a bit, but when I happen across a great find like the following family photo, it makes the whole thing so exciting and worthwhile.

The following photo was not directly connected to any of my immediate relatives, but when I opened it, I recognized my Great Grandfather right away, then my Great Grandmother, and beside her my Great Great Grandfather. After that, I realized that just about all (if not all) of the people in the photo are family members.

The research makes me feel connected to family members that I never got the chance to meet. I love piecing together facts and getting to learn about their lives.The following are a couple of my favorite photos of my Great Grandparents. It is all just amazing to me.