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On Monday, we also did one of the water parks - Blizzard Beach. We got the whole shebang when it came to tickets, adding the dining plan, park hopper and water parks. I'm not sure we got our money's worth the the "water parks and more" option, although it really wasn't all that much more. We were so busy with the regular parks, and the pool at the resort was so nice, we hardly had time for the water parks.

P4180342_medium.JPGBut we headed over to Blizzard Beach for a few hours. It was, not surprisingly, packed. We barely found a single chair to toss our towels onto. And the lines for the various "rides" were pretty long - no FASTPASSes here! We tried a couple and, to be honest, were not all that impressed. I found the toboggan run to be hard on the neck. You go down on your stomach using this polyurethane "sled" but you have to keep your back arched and your head up, which put a strain on my neck and back.

There was a group ride down on a big raft that was fun, but hardly worth the long wait. And the huge water slide actually was tough on the tailbone. Even my girls complained of it hurting their back and butts after coming down it. And that was the shorter of the two, as Blizzard Beach claims to have the highest water slide in the country. But its extra long lines discouraged us from trying it and getting banged up enough of the shorter makes me think I'm pretty glad we didn't try that one.

But the big wave pool was fun, as was the lazy river ride that went all around the park. Just grab a tube and float along. For obvious reasons, that was my favorite. So it was a fun few hours and, as it turned out, the only time we went to a water park.

For dinner, we had another late night meal, this time over at EPCOT. It was nice to walk around the park at night, with lighter crowds. We ate at the Marrakesh, in the Moroccan ""quarter" and had a lovely "chef's choice" meal, with a bunch of courses and delicious chicke, lamb and vegetable dinners. The girls enjoyed their ribs (they have become real rib fans) and another busy day drew to a happily stuffed ending.

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Hollywood Studios portraitSo it was up and at'em early on Monday morning. I had warned the family that this was not going to be one of those 'laze around by the pool' vacations. This was Spring Break at Disney World and half the eastern seaboard was going to be there, so we needed to beat the crowds. The one suggestion I took to heart the most was to get to the parks early to beat the crowds. And as I'm a morning person anyway, this wasn't too hard a decision.

In addition, 3 of the parks had "Extra Magic Hours". During these hours, which come both before and after normal park hours, at different times at different parks, only people who are staying at a Disney World resort can get in. Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom each had Extra Magic Hours one hour before the normal opening at 8am (!). So my plan was to get to the park by 7am and get some riding in before the predictable massive crowds descended.

Lucky for us, the weather today (and, indeed, the entire week) was perfect - 100% sunshine, predicted highs around 90. We of course got a later start than planned, as we rolled out of the resort room at around 7:30am, but the temps were already in the 70s, so for these cold-hardened new Englanders,it was t-shirts and shorts time.

Hollywood StudiosAnd no lines. It was so empty, we decided to forgo getting a Fast Pass and just jumped right onto our first ride - the Tower Of Terror. The theme of this great ride is a Twilight Zone episode where some people got transported to the twilight zone from a ritzy 30s hotel due to a lightning strike. A cool little video presentation, replete with cast members dressed up as bellhops, set the atmosphere. About 15 people get into the "car", with an opening about 40 stories up, overlooking the rest of the park.

Then it just drops you. They've added a randomizer, so that each ride is a little different as far as how far it drops you and how often and how far you come back up. It was a blast! As we were going down the first time, I noticed a baseball cap floating in front of me, so I grabbed it. Turned out it was R11.9's hat! You fall, stop, go back up, fall, go back up, the doors open for another view of the park, then you fall again. I loved it, because I'm just not up to spinning rides and this was perfect scary fun.

When we came out, we went to the Fast Pass dispensing machine and talked about whether we wanted to get a fast pass for it. The girls were undecided if they wanted to go back on but then a very nice cast member stepped up and gave us a key piece of advice for the effective use of the fast pass.

A Fast Pass basically gives you an official ticket to cut to the front of the line. There's a special entrance and line for Fast Pass holders that pretty much dumps you at the front of the line. But there are a couple of catches to the Fast Pass:

  • You can't use it until the time printed on it. This time gradually gets later and later as the number of ticket holders expands.
  • You can't get another one, for any ride, until another time printed on the ticket, usually an hour later (but sometimes a couple of hours later)
Tower Of TerrorThe trick the cast member explained to us is that, although the ticket has a time range, usually an hour, printed on it, you can use it any time after the printed start time. You are not limited to just the hour or so shown on the ticket. And you can have as many Fast Pass tickets as you want, even to the same ride. The only limit is the other time printed, which tells you how long you have to wait before you can get another Fast Pass anywhere in the park (and maybe even anywhere at any of the parks - we didn't test that).

This makes things much more flexible. So we got the Tower Of Terror Fast Pass, went on the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, which features a great intro by Aerosmith and an amazing 0-60 in 2 seconds launch into a bunch of swirly loop the loops in the (mostly) dark. R11.9 had one of the more memorable quotes after the first time on it, when she remarked "If you open your eyes, it looks like you are about to hit some of the obstacles!". Not sure how often she opened her eyes, but they both loved the ride.

We also did the Indiana Jones show (loved it),"Sounds Dangerous with Drew Carey" (you listened in on headphones as he has an adventure - interesting), the Toy Story ride (great fun, if tiring, shooting at targets by pulling a string - I won naturally:) and had a great day walking around. I would have liked to do The Great Movie Ride, but I don't yet have any other movie buffs in the family. We did the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster again but for the only time at Disney World, the girls weren't interested in riding a ride again so we went on the Tower Of Terror ourselves and it was still great. We gave away the other 2 Fast Passes we had.

So a big thumbs up to Hollywood Studios. We had fun, the weather was great, the rides were a blast (even if the girls wouldn't go on Tower Of Terror again!) and the crowds manageable. By getting there early, getting a few rides in and a few Fast Passes into our hands, we were able to avoid any waiting. Something we did for most of the time at Disney World - a winning formula!

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P4170315_medium.JPGSC to Disney.pngOnce again, we were up early, heading from Walterboro, NC to Disney, which should be about a 7 hour drive. I wasn't taking any chances, so we headed out good and early. Check-in time is 3pm and we were going to be ready!

For once there were no problems on the road. We couldn't resist the siren call of the ocean, though, so as lunch time approached, we peeled off of I-95 and over to the beach at Palm Coast, Florida. The brilliant sunshine and 85 degree temps sure were welcome to this snow weary group. Even the ocean water was already over 70 degrees, which is warmer than it ever gets here in New England! A delicious lunch was had at a local seafood shack, including aligator tail nuggets for an appetizer, which, not surprisingly, tasted like chicken.

AllStarMusic.jpgWe got to the All-Star Music Resort, part of Disney's "value" level of resort, around 4pm. The great thing about the Music Resort is that it has family suites, which are a must in my opinion, Sure, the girls get the "master" bedroom, but at least there's a door to close for a bit of privacy on both sides. The room wasn't quite ready though - check in time is between 3 and 5, not at 3, silly us! But the girls changed into their bathing suits and gratefully jumped into the pool, while we sat at the nearby bar, frozen margaritas in hand. A fine beginning actually.

I had made a number of Disney dining reservations but the friendly parking lot security guy recommended Boma, at the nearby Animal Kingdom, so we decided to give that a try. And we're glad we did, as this "African styled" buffet had lots of interesting foods to eat. I have decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that I don't want to eat mammals any more, but there were plenty of bean, chicken and fish dishes to fill me up. It was all very delicious. I also liked that the waiter said no to me when I ordered a particular "specialty" cocktail. Anything with raspberries will attract me, but he said I didn't want it, as it tasted really bad and he didn't want to have to make a second trip to return it and get me a different one. I don't know about you, but I appreciate a waiter with an opinion, even a strong one like that.

It was too dark to see the animals that purportedly roamed outside and too late even to borrow the night vision goggles (although our waiter also said those weren't worth the effort either). We enjoyed the look of the Animal Kingdom Lodge and perhaps next time, we'll look into staying there.

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traffic.jpgThe post title is a dead giveaway that Saturday's drive was about the worst imaginable, especially if I told you we were on the road for a good 16 hours or more and we only made it to South Carolina. Tolls, construction, rain, heavy traffic and even tornados conspired to make it a drive from Hell.

NJ to SC.pngWe actually made it out of our New Jersey hotel at a reasonable hour, about 7:30. I was watching the weather report in the room and they predicted some severe weather moving east, due to arrive later in the afternoon, but I wasn't too worried, as the plan was to be sitting by the pool in Savannah Georgia long before it arrived, skirting it nicely. And traffic down Interstate 95 / New Jersey Turnpike was pretty good. Then we hit a combo construction site / toll booth heading into Deleware and sat for a good hour trying to get through that.

There was a bit of a drizzle and when we hit Washington DC, traffic really began to slow down. And then south of DC, it was a dead stop. According to Google, it was red for the next 30 miles, until you got past Fredricksburg. So we wandered off of I95 and onto Route 1 south, which, while it had traffic lights, at least was moving. Lunch at a little Chinese place and on down to Fredricksburg, which meant it took us over 3 hours to travel 30 miles. Now we are really behind schedule.

And traffic is really heavy. This two lane I95 was driving me crazy. It's like traffic was inverted, as there would be a car every 1/4 of a mile in the right lane, while everyone else would drive in the left lane. Periodically, someone would come flying up on the right, get about 5 cars ahead, and then slam themselves back into the left lane, causing everyone else to jam on their brakes. It was a long, tiring drive, on edge the whole time. The 70 mph speed limit helped not a lick, as I doubt we ever hit that all the way thru North Carolina.

As we approached Selma, NC, in the middle of the afternoon, the skies got very ominous and then traffic came to a complete halt. Once again, we checked Google and got off at the next exit, as it showed red for many miles ahead. But I was faced with a real suprise after pulling off the exit - 18 wheelers backing down the road on the other side! Other cars were coming back, waving us back onto the the highway. We weren't sure what the blockage was, but we wearily got back into the traffic.

I lasted one more exit and decided to try it again. This time, instead of heading west into Selma, we headed east and it soon became clear what the hold up was - high winds and quite possibly a tornado had preceeded us, probably by less than 30 minutes! Soon it began to downpour and then even hail! We crept along the side road, barely able to see, until the hail and rain stopped. We turned right to get back on the highway and then noticed a big pine tree down across the road. As we turned around, we saw a house with a tree right thru it and a small group of people just standing in the front yard, gazing blankly at the destruction.

P4160298_medium.JPGAs we slowly drove along the road, trying to figure out how best to get back on the highway, we came across more scenes of chaos - trees down, cars flipped over and mobile homes smashed. In one case, a huge pine had fallen, but went completely parallel to a mobile home, leaving it unscathed! It just never occured to us just how close we were to it - probably a good thing or we would have been really scared. We thought about taking some pictures but it just felt too ghoulish. Follow this link to see some Youtube videos of the storms: Selma, NC Tornado.

We finally got back on the highway, a little shaken but none the worse for wear. A few more miles down the highway, traffic got real slow again, but this time it was more of the "gawker blocker" version, as everyone was staring at the destruction on either side of the highway as we approached Fayetteville, NC. We got a couple of blurry pictures, which you can see here.

It was more slow traffic with one last soul crushing construction area on a bridge, at 11pm on a Saturday night. Over an hour to get merged down to one lane and over the highway. To rub salt into our wounds, when we finally pulled off in Walterboro, South Carolina, all the "name" motels were filled! We ended up in a $35 room at the Rice Planters Inn. Considering all we went thru, I was just glad to get a bed. We had been on the road for over 16 hours and had hadn't made 700 miles. Ugh.

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walt_disney_world_logo.jpgYes, we decided to drive down to Disney World. A little bit to save money (by the time we booked, it was like $700 a ticket to fly), and a little bit because we just like to drive. The girls are kept entertained with MP3 players, Nintendo DS, texting and DVD movies, while the wife enjoys following along on the map and via the in dash navigation system (who we have dubbed Casandra). We weren't going to kill ourselves though, especially for the drive down. As we weren't planning on leaving until lunchtime (ha!) on Friday, we figured we would stop after in Virginia, to make it to Savannah Georgia sometime mid-afternoon on Saturday. This would leave us with a relatively short 5 hour drive to Disney World, in plenty of time for a 3pm checkin, after about 20 hours on the road.

Medford to NJ.pngBut of course we got started late, not leaving the house until almost 4pm. This got us caught up in local rush hour traffic. Then the DVD player broke - yikes! With over 40 hours planned in the car, a new DVD player was a priority. So before we even got to Sturbridge on the Mass Turnpike, we got off at a local mall, bought a new DVD player at Best Buy and stayed for dinner, as traffic was still a mess.

This helped a little and we moved along smartly. Unfortunately, I deviated from my plan and listened to Casandra, as my navigator wife was dozing in the front seat and I didn't want to disturb her. Our original plan had us following 84 across the Tappan Zee bridge, giving NYC a wide berth, but I figured, how bad could New York City be at 11pm on a Friday night?

The answer was "Pretty bad.". It was stop and go down thru the city and across the George Washington Bridge and so we barely made it to New Jersey by midnight, well short of our goal of Richmond Virginia. Even a New Jersey rest stop was confusing, as it was one of the those between the north & south bound highways and the signage was incomplete, as it wasn't clear that the "Thruway" was the same as Interstate 95. So we pulled into a Ramada in New Jersey about 8 hours after leaving home, checked in and crashed for the night.

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Back from Disney World
Man, real life sure is hard work
Wish we could go back

We had a glorious time at Disney World! While it was an incredibly busy vacation (up at 6, to the parks before 8, up until 11, rinse repeat), it was fun and the weather was perfect, at least for these snow-weary New Englanders - upper 80s and 100% sun. I hope to have more travelogues coming up!
Hollywood Studios 2011.JPG

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Australia Slides, picture 4

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I think Melbourne was our favorite city we stayed in during our 3 1/2 week Australian vaction (see more photos here). It reminded us very much of our own home city, Boston - a small city, with lots of character and charm. In fact, we rescheduled our flight out so we could stay an extra day. We had some great meals, enjoyed the Gardens and in general fell in love with the city.

The only thing I regret not doing while we were out there was not going to see Hanging Rock. One of my all time favorite movies is Picnic at Hanging Rock, an incredibly atmospheric film by Peter Weir. It is just outside of Melbourne, but we just never made the time to go see it.

Anyway, this is a picture taken on the Great Ocean Road, a wonderfully scenic highway that goes north from Melbourne to Adelaide. We headed out along it one day, having had the drive recommended to us by several different Australians, and it didn't disappoint. Lots of great seascapes, jutting rocks and we even dipped our feet into the Indian Ocean.

Austrialian travel book

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Reading this post in Pharyngula (one of my favorite blogs), got me to thinking about our trip to Australia and one of the best travel books I've ever read. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson is a very good Australia travelogue. He's a bit of a wimp, but either because of or despite it, the book is very funny! One of my favorite passages comes near the beginning:

It [Australia] is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures - the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish - are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you, but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistable currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It's a tough place.

Like I said, a bit of a gloomy gus, and a wimp. But the book is very funny and a great read.

We didn't run into any of these, although Gabrielle did come down with an awful rash on her arms. We think it may have just been sun poisoning, as no one there seemed to recognize it. That's one thing he missed - Carns (pronounced "Cans") is at or near the top in skin cancer deaths, due to its proximity to the equator. We did get eggregiously sunburned while on a sailboat, despite wearing t-shirts the entire day. We were voted "most sunburned" by the other passengers:-) Made for a long flight back to Sydney!

I have to post another one of our Aussie photos; perhaps tonight.

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