Walt Disney World!

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     We have just returned from a fabulous vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida. Corey’s and Mason’s grandparents, Conni & Tom (AKA Nanny & Papa) were kind enough to take all of us, including Aunt Amanda, Uncle Shawn, and cousins Sydney & Evan, on an absolutely amazing 5-day adventure. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their kindness and generosity. It was the trip of a lifetime for our family, and none of us will ever forget it.
     We stayed at Port Orleans in the French Quarter, which was lovely. If you haven’t been there, it’s supposed to feel like New Orleans. I’m not sure how much it really felt like NOLA, but it was very pretty, and I had some yummy spicy gumbo there. Also, the bus rides/ferry rides to the different parks from the FQ were perfectly reasonable, and the rooms were very nice, so we were quite happy. The kids, of course, were just excited about the pool and arcade. Pools and arcades are everywhere in the world. Epcot and Magic Kingdom, not so much. This logic escaped them.
     We had park hopper passes, and the plan was Monday to visit Epcot, then Tuesday at Animal Kingdom, Wednesday at Magic Kingdom, Thursday at Hollywood Studios, and back to Magic Kingdom for Friday with some hops between during the days if we had the time.
     Monday we arrived in Disney at 9:30, checked in, and then headed out to Epcot. Our first fastpass of the day was set for 11 AM. We took the bus from the hotel (Disney does have transportation down to a science), and when a woman with a baby got on the crowded bus, Tom stood up to offer her his seat. Mason said, “Papa is so nice.” What a good example of kindness and consideration for others to set for the boys. Here are some of us at the Epcot bridge. Spaceship Earth is in the background.
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     When we arrived at Epcot, it was obviously already open, and there was a huge line to get through security. I expected Disney to be busy, but that was an eye opener. As we waited for the fastpass, we walked around and found the only fast attraction, which was a terrible movie about man’s destruction of the environment, complete with all sorts of horrifying pictures of what our country looked like before the EPA, which should be playing on a loop in the White House for the current administration. It was a good lesson for the kids, but man was it depressing.
     Luckily the day went very well after that! We hit our first fastpass, which was for Spaceship Earth. Which I loved. I’m a big, big fan of rides that you sit in and are taken through as you look at beautifully detailed animatronics, and this ride did not disappoint. It was a journey through time on our planet, the evolution of man and technology, told through these lovely scenes with lifelike cavemen, ancient Egyptians, Renaissance painters, 1960s families, culminating in a breathtaking view of Earth from space and personalized with some computerized choices about what you’d like the future to be. Loved it. Mason loved it too, and we ended up riding it twice more as the week progressed.
     We spent the rest of that day riding whatever we could cram in. We all loved Soarin’ – it was a long wait, but well worth it. Sitting in a roller-coaster type seat and then being lifted into the air as though you were flying, feet dangling below you as you watched a massive screen and flew through the plains of Africa while smelling grass as the animals trampled it – just awesome. The kids’ faces were adorable. Frozen Ever After was a major hit – Elsa and Anna and ice castles. Can’t beat that. We also discovered a little hidden gem – in Mexico there’s an indoor restaurant that also has a ride tucked inside it that I’d describe as It’s a Small World, but for Mexico. Here’s the building:
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     Dinner was in the Bier Garten in Germany. Sign me up for the Bier Garten!  I had a beer flight and enough sausage and weiner schnitzel to feed a small village. And there was a potato/leek soup that was SOOO good. Not to mention the perfect bite-size desserts, such as black forest cake and cheesecake. Yummy. Add to this fact that there was live entertainment that enraptured the kids, and now we’re cooking with gas. They ate and enjoyed while the adults sipped, ate, and enjoyed. Tom’s beer was the size of a keg, and really I’d go back there again in a hot second. Except that Corey may be banned for attempting to eat all of the salmon in the restaurant. I think he had 5 servings. Check out the live talent:
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     When we were finished dinner, we spent time wandering around the countries of Epcot, taking in their beauty and trying some of the wine/beer. Mason and Sydney wanted to meet Snow White, and Conni was kind enough to take them while the guys were off riding Test Track.
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     So Amanda and I went to Italy and had a wine flight. Man I love a good wine/beer flight. And it’s so beautiful there – the details in all of the countries are breathtaking and so quaint. Italy is behind us in this shot:
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     Tuesday we hit Animal Kingdom and started out with Expedition Everest. That coaster is LEGIT. The entrance to the ride is decked out with so much wonderful detail that you feel as if you’re preparing to climb Everest yourself. It’s amazing. The coaster itself climbs to the top for you, where you discover broken track that was broken by the Yeti, at which point you find yourself flying backwards into the dark depths of the mountain. I don’t like backwards and dark. Neither did Mason. The photo we got from this ride is a clear statement of how Mason felt about it.
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     The African safari ride was AWESOME. We loved riding in the big 32-person JEEP and seeing the animals so close up. Rhinos, giraffes, hippos, elephants – all right there, not in cages or enclosures. Even lions. One day a Disney guest is going to be stupid enough to whip out a bloody roast beef sandwich and get eaten on that ride, at which point it will close permanently, so I’m glad I got to ride it before that happens. The driver had to threaten the guy behind us about 10 times as he lifted his kid up like bait.
     We also rode a river rapids ride which resulted in my complete soaking due to poor seating choice. Well unlucky seating choice, anyway. Damian and I went down a hill sideways together and just got pummeled by a wave. BAM! So I was wet for most of the day. But Corey loved it, and the weather was really good, so it was slightly uncomfortable, but no big deal. When we wrapped that park up, we went out for drinks with Shawn & Amanda at Disney Springs, where there were Corona-ritas involved. Luckily there is pictorial proof of the 1950s car that was cruising around in the lake, or I might have thought I’d imagined it.
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     Tuesday night we had a wonderful buffet dinner to celebrate Shawn’s birthday, then it was off to Magic Kingdom on Wednesday morning! We hit the 8 AM bus to be at Adventureland at rope drop. That was the right choice, because we were able to hit Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain (twice!) and the Haunted Mansion before our first fastpass opened up. Mason was terrified to ride the Haunted Mansion. So Damian and I smashed him between us in the seat, he wailed and complained the whole time about what evil, horrible parents we were, and then promptly announced that we had to do it again, preferably that very second, and that it is, in fact, his favorite ride.
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     We spent the whole day in Magic Kingdom, enjoying everything from the Peter Pan ride to the Jungle Cruise to It’s a Small World. Lunch was enjoyed at Be Our Guest, with a Beauty and the Beast theme that fell absolutely flat as far as ease for patrons to get their food and sit down to relax. Even with a reservation we had to wait in line for 40 minutes with a bunch of hot hangry people to order our food while standing at a kiosk like we were checking our own bags at the Southwest kiosks in the airport. Not a good setup. Apparently it’s different at dinner. However, the food was fantastic. I had a salad Nicoise with rare tuna and the freshest vegetables, paired with a potato/leek soup and capped off by a lemon mirangue cupcake. The kids loved the ambience, which was Disney.
     Thursday we started out with a breakfast with Mickey that the kids just loved. They got to see all the characters while chowing down on cinnamon buns.
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     After breakfast, we hit Hollywood Studios for a fun tram ride through Hollywood sets. This is my kind of ride – sitting and cruising through an air-conditioned ride, appreciating all the beautiful colors and sights that are made as only Disney can. We saw movie sets from Singin’ in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Casablanca, and the kids favorite – The Wizard of Oz, the perfect picture of Munchkin Land, complete with a visit in a puff of smoke from and animatronic Wicked Witch of the West. The other adults hit the Tower of Terror while I took the kids on a less-terrifying 4-D adventure with the Muppets, which they (and I) all loved. Everybody enjoyed grabbing a beer and sitting down in the shade to watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, which was very well done – interesting, exciting, and funny, complete with audience extras. Mason did yell at me for not volunteering to be an extra, and to be fair, it’s the kind of thing I normally would go for. But who would hold my beer? Here we are in Hollywood Studios:
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      A few of us took the ferry back to Epcot after that, where I split off with Sydney and Mason and made them stop for every possible photo opportunity. They were good sports about it, and we rode Spaceship Earth together once again.
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     Friday we bid adieu to the cousins and spent the morning back in Magic Kingdom where we used the skills we’d learned previously to get in a few more rides before the crowds descended. It was a great way to cap off a beautiful vacation, including one last go-round on our favorite, the Haunted Mansion.
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     Thanks again to Conni & Tom for being the best grandparents (and in-laws!) any kid could hope for!
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Let’s Go to Vegas & Rock Crawl in a Jeep

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     Yeah, we did that. Forget gambling in Las Vegas. We went for the full-on adrenaline junkie outdoor adventure with Las Vegas Rock Crawlers on the Logandale Trails. And those trails were no joke. Owners Tim and Quinann let us know that the difficulty level of these trails on a 1-10 scale is a 7. If Logandale is a 7, then I don’t want to see a 10. Ever.
     Here’s what I’ve learned. When my husband says, “Yeah Honey, we’re going to have a little adventure together,” I say, “You have fun with that. I’ll be at the spa.” It’s not like I don’t know Damian. The man jumps out of planes and bungee jumps off bridges. What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn’t, because we pretty much lost our minds and decided to jump in that red Jeep Wrangler. Las Vegas Rock Crawlers is an apt name – those Jeeps literally crawl through the most amazing and terrifying rock obstacles. We crawled that Jeep through some beautiful red rocks – it was totally insane. And while it was terrifying, and I am apparently a rock-crawling weenie, we did love it, and I can’t say enough good things about Las Vegas Rock Crawlers.
     But let me back up and begin at the beginning. We started the tour by meeting several other groups of people (who were also driving that day) on the rooftop deck of The Wynn Hotel at 7:30 AM. There were 2 other couples and a family of 4. The family drove a 4-door Jeep, the rest of us had 2-door Jeeps. We signed some forms and then headed up to Moapa (which is a Native American reservation) to begin our adventure.
     We drove 60 miles in a caravan up to Moapa, and it was FREEZING COLD. We were the last to sign up, so we got the oldest Jeep of the bunch. It’s from 1998, open in the back, and temps were running in the thirties that morning. I had myself wrapped up in a blanket with the heat blasting, and my toes still felt like ice cubes by the time we got there. Not to mention how loud that thing was. Damian and I literally had to yell to hear each other when we were blasting down the highway toward our destination. I must say, being in that caravan was pretty bad ass – people all along the road craned their necks to look at us. It’s not something you see every day – a caravan of red Jeep Wranglers with massive tires barreling down the highway together.
     Before we reached the trail, we stopped at a gas station to let the air out of the tires and flip the Jeeps into 4-wheel drive. From there, it was about 2 miles out to the trails. Once we reached the trail head, there were no other people around. It was amazingly isolated and quiet, and it struck me then that, if any of us got stuck, it was going to be up to us to get unstuck. Or rather up to the rest of the caravan, because I’d probably be busy quaking in fear and/or crying in a bush somewhere.
     Tim instructed all of us to get out of our Jeeps and then showed us the first obstacle. When he said, “So your left front tire is going to drive over this rock right here” – and that rock was straight up and down, I thought he was joking! He was not joking. Tim doesn’t joke about rock crawling. He explained, in terrifying detail, the way to navigate the first obstacle, then I watched with my jaw hanging open as he then demonstrated with his Jeep. Guess who got to go next? Us! And we had the oldest Jeep! Which meant the one that would be hardest to navigate through the obstacles.
     Great. We’re gonna die.
     I got in the Jeep, belted myself in, and white-knuckled my way through that obstacle. Tim stood outside on the rocks and talked Damian through it over my screams of protest. No I am not kidding. I was literally screaming. The Jeep was tilted so far to the right that we were pretty much sideways and my face was about 5 inches from a rock. I thought Damian was going to flip us for sure. I can’t believe we didn’t flip. But Tim was totally calm, and that kept Damian totally calm. I was not calm. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was so scared that I scared the crap out of the rest of the wives. Well, 2 out of the 3 – the family of 4 were totally fearless.
     I got out of the Jeep after that obstacle and did not ride through the next one. I hiked it on my feet. Feet that I trust, unlike my rookie husband driving that ancient Jeep. Damian who said, “Yeah, we might flip,” like he was saying, “Yeah, we might get a steak later.” Nonchalant. Gah! Roll bar or not, I did not want to end up upside down or rolling down the side of a cliff. Thanks, but no thanks. One benefit to my screaming-banshee escape from Jeep was that I was able to get some great photos. Like this one of Damian manning his way through the second insane obstacle. That’s Tim on the rock talking him through/taking his picture.
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     Take a look at his left front wheel. Not. On. The. Ground.
     After that, I rode with the company owner. Really. I knew that Tim wasn’t going to flip his Jeep, and even though going through the obstacles was still going to terrify me, I wasn’t going to die. Though there was a chance that Damian was going to bite it, but I figured that was his choice. Here he is, grinding his wheels and slipping while not biting it. Like a boss.
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     So I asked if Tim’s wife, Quinann, would switch with me, and she kindly agreed. She was awesome – so laid back and friendly. Just the perfect personality, along with her husband, for guiding a bunch of rookies through a really difficult course and keeping idiots like me from losing our heads. She was also helpful for Damian, because she could help guide him through the obstacles from the passenger seat. The more difficult obstacles Tim guided each Jeep through one at a time, but Damian still benefited from her experience for the easier crawls. She’d say, “Hug that bush!” – and Damian would hug the bush with his wheel, which is not something he otherwise would have thought of. Damian got his man card punched. I got my weenie card punched. I’m okay with that. I didn’t stop the production or ruin anybody else’s trip, so who cares? And now I can say that I did it. Here’s some proof that I did it, in case you’re really not sure at this point.
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     We crawled through those rocks for hours, and then we hit some dunes. That’s what I’d initially thought we’d be doing. Blasting around the dunes – weee! Nope. We did that for about an hour, and it was fun, but it was almost like an afterthought following the harrowing red rock journey. Here’s a shot of us in the dunes. The landscape was breathtaking, however, and not to be missed.
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     One other highlight was gunning the Jeep up a steep dirt hill. Tim did this maneuver without giving me any warning, and we were about halfway up the hill before I even knew what was going on. Which was good – less time to freak out. At the top we parked, got out, and enjoyed one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. Just gorgeous sun and red rocks all around us. That part was really peaceful and nice. I think my heart rate returned to normal for that portion of the trip. This is the hill – and that’s Damian gunning it with Quinann in the passenger seat.
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     When Damian and Quinann crested that hill, she gave me a look of faux fright and said, “Get me outta here! He’s a maniac!” Cracked me up.
     Another benefit to riding with the owner was listening to his tales of previous tour guests as well as other off-roading experiences he’s had. He talked about a place called Cliffhanger in Utah that even had him rattled, and this guy doesn’t rattle easily. He also shared stories of other people who were frightened by the experience – some who made it happen, some who saw the first obstacle and flat out refused. I’m glad I didn’t quit – it was an unforgettable experience, and one that I don’t regret. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to go back and do it again and actually stay in the Jeep. Or drive the Jeep. On the highway.
     We stopped at a park area and ate lunch together – sandwiches, chips, and water, which was nice – I was so busy fearing my imminent death complete with several broken bones that I didn’t consider the fact that I was actually really hungry.
     After that, it was back to the strip. We dropped the Jeep off at the Wynn and headed off for adventures that are more my speed. At the Beer Park.
     If adrenaline is your thing, and you like off-roading, do this. I’d love to hear about your adventures from the comfort and safety of my couch.

Customs

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By customs, I don’t mean that it’s customary to say “thank you” when some one gives you a gift. Although if you don’t, then you’re kind of a jerk. I’m talking about the customs agents at the border of a country who inspect your passport, ask you questions, and decide whether or not they’re going to let you enter their country. I have a few friends who are serious world travelers, and they could speak to this subject with much more knowledge than I can, but I can talk about what it’s like to go through customs in 6 different countries, so I figured, why not?Let’s start with a simple question: how do customs agents in the USA compare to customs agents in other countries? The answer: we’re total prigs. Getting back in to this country, as a US CITIZEN, is a pain in the butt. Every US customs agent I’ve ever met has grilled me before letting me come home. Coming back from Canada was the most ridiculous example of this. My husband and I drove across the Canadian border to see Niagra Falls. We drove back the same day. The US customs agent asked us at least 20 questions – including “How do you know this guy?” – “Uh, he’s my husband?” – before he finally waived us through the checkpoint. I started wondering if somebody had hidden a body or some drugs in our car – the way we were being questioned, I thought for sure he was going to search us and find a dead guy in the trunk. The agent was the definition of by-the-book, and it was a tense situation.

The Canadians, on the other hand, didn’t stamp our passports (damn! no proof I was ever there!) or ask us anything other than, “Here to see The Falls? Coming back today? Have a nice time.” So my advice is this: go ahead and drive that dead body into Canada, but for Pete’s sake, don’t drive it back into the US. I don’t have any other advice on body disposal, though – sorry.

The Germans scared the crap out of me. I flew into Stuttgart, just me, alone, and they asked me about a thousand questions. I guess American girls in their twenties don’t travel alone to Stuttgart. So the German customs agent looked at my passport, looked at me, looked back at my passport – back at me. Me. Passport. Me. Passport. This went on for what felt like hours. No smiling, no talking, no nothing. I just stood there and tried not to twitch too much. Here’s how the conversation went after that:

German Customs Agent: “Why are you visiting our country?”

Me, “Uh, I’m visiting a friend.”

GCA: “What friend?”

Me, “A friend who lives here. She used to work with me.”

GCA: “How long have you known this friend?”

Me, “Uh, several years?”

And on and on and on. What is this friend’s name? Where will you be staying? When will you be leaving? What kind of food are you going to eat while you’re here? Okay, so he didn’t ask that last one, but man, I thought at one point, this guy could really give the Gestapo a run for their money! I wanted to yell, “Look! I am not a sketchy character. I even have a German last name!” Which I did at the time. Finally, he let me in. I’ve never been questioned that extensively since, but the US customs guys definitely come in at a close second.

What about the French? Ah, the French. Viva la France! I was fully prepared to answer all sorts of questions about my reason for visiting, length of my stay, etc. They didn’t ask me one question. They didn’t even look at my face as they stamped my passport and waived me past. It was great! I’d go back just for that reason alone.

And the Swiss? They just wanted money. “It’s 40 Swiss Francs to drive onto our highways. Pay up. No I don’t want to see your passport.” We just bought our way in, and that was that. Again, no stamp on the passport though. Rats!

In Mexico they were super friendly. They just smiled, asked us a few questions, and welcomed us into their country. Come! Spend your money here! So happy to have you! Free lobster dinner if you listen to a time share sales pitch.

But every time I leave the US, I come back. Which means more US customs agents. And they just don’t mess around. I haven’t even tried coming from somewhere that’s actually dangerous – I mean, we’re talking about Europe and North America! What countries were you visiting? How long were you gone? What are you bringing back with you? You know, I tried to fit that dead body from Canada in my suitcase, sir, but I just couldn’t cram him in, so really, just some wine and chocolate.

Next on our international travel list: an island, and we’re bringing the kids. Can’t wait to see what kind of questions they get hit with. I am sure of one thing, Corey can’t keep his mouth shut, and he will confess to everything. “I ate 20 hot dogs, I’m bringing an illegal piece of fruit with me, and my parents have a dead guy in their suitcase.”

At the end of the day, I am very glad that these people are doing their jobs and keeping world travelers safe. I do find a lot of humor in their differences, but I’m glad they’re present to stop the people who really are trying to bring in drugs, dead bodies. Or worse.