Fabio… Again

I have to say that my husband is a prince among men. I mean, who else would see this sign on a five hour car ride

and decide we had to pull off the highway, find this restaurant, and then TAKE the picture of his wife in front of the place?

Hubs stood in the middle of street to take this picture

Too bad the place was closed.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Well, one day of it. That’s about all of the vacation I got if you don’t count reader and writer events (which, actually, I do count because I definitely consider them a break from my “real” life).

The family and I went up to Alexandria Bay, NY to take a two hour tour (cue Gilligan’s Island theme) of the Thousand Islands region, ending up at Boldt Castle on Heart Island.

Quick history: George Boldt (of Waldorf-Astoria and Bellevue-Stratford fame) built this home for his wife Louise. Sadly, Louise died before it was finished and George halted construction. The buildings on the island fell into disrepair and victim to the elements. Then the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority bought it in 1977 and are still in the process of restoring it. This past weekend, the main floor and main bedrooms on the second floor are completed, but the “basement” with the Roman bath/indoor swimming pool and upper 3 floors are still a work in progress.

This was my first trip to the Thousand Islands and, OMG, it is gorgeous. Millionaires’ Row and the 99% pure crystal blue water, the beautiful weather (sandwiched between two wicked storms), the Pirates’ Weekend in Alexandria Bay, and the great time with the kids… this is a weekend we will always remember. I hope you enjoy the pictures. You can check out the official website of Boldt Island at http://www.boldtcastle.com/visitorinfo/

Heart Island

Millionaires' Row

I'll take this one

and, of course, what would the well-appointed mansion be without a yacht...?

The Gazebo on Heart Island. At least 4 weddings were held while we were there

From the 4th floor balcony

Me and the Pump House

Dome in the foyer

The Grand Staircase

Harry Potter World, Part II… HOGWARTS

(Part I of Harry Potter World)

Hogwarts is amazing, both inside and out. Not built to scale, but a good size. You go beneath the hill for the recreated classrooms/halls/offices. I really hope they expand this because it’s just great for us fans.

The approach...

walking alongside it

First order of business, though, someone needs to redesign the free lockers where you put all your stuff. You can’t bring it with you on this motion-simulated ride. Note: I do NOT do well on motion-simulated rides, but this is one not to be missed. Especially if you’ve always wondered what it’s like to ride a broomstick. The ride was the best part of the day, even though ours stopped for about 2 minutes midway through. I heard stories all week how the ride kept breaking down; let’s hope they get that fixed.

Hogwarts!!

Another tip: volunteer to go as a single rider. Have your whole family do it and you’ll get on the ride in about 10 minutes instead of the 2 hour wait that we did. (Emily, we have to get you riding by yourself!). The ride contraption you sit in looks like a cross between an upright coffin and a pew. The bar thingy comes down over your head, the sides extend out past your shoulders, so you’re lucky if you can see the person’s feet next to you, let alone talk to them or hold their hand. So, go for the single rider thing and ride it a few times, and compare notes with family and friends after. They have a singe riders line that moves really quickly.

the detail is AWESOME!

Tip: put as much of your personal stuff as you can in your pockets and not in the locker, namely your wallet with money to buy water, because you’ll need it, a tiny umbrella b/c there is very little shade when you’re in the “back lot” walking through the roped off line, and the fans are only blowing hot, sticky air at you and aren’t really any help (and someone didn’t think to put an awning up over this ungodly hot waiting area, nor is there any place to sit down. They have water fountains, but they’re like teasers. By the time you get to them, you’re only about 8 minutes from the door. The other 2 hours prior to that, you’re looking longingly at the water vendor but you don’ t have your wallet b/c nowhere is there any sign at the lockers that you’re in for a 2 hour broiling wait. Also, put your camera in your pocket. I owe all these interior shots to Emily b/c she had her camera. Stupid me, stuck mine in the locker. Dumb…

Emily and I didn't remember this from the books, but it was cool

The locker area is a mess. People coming off the ride (and out of the gift shop, convenient how they walk you through that, but, hello? We don’t have our wallets…) are trying to get their stuff out of the locker while people coming in are trying to put their stuff in lockers. The biometric locks were a little touchy, so I really wish I hadn’t put my cell phone and money in it. This is a good place for a fanny pack, I don’t care how touristy it looks.

Dumbledore's Office

So, now you have nothing with you and off you go to explore the castle. Universal needs to take not only People-Moving lessons from Disney, but also How to Construct a Ride classes. You know how, in the Haunted Mansion in Disney you sit in this little motorized cart and here a ghost talking to you throughout the ride? That’s what they should do with the walk through the castle. You could have Ron, Harry, Hermione, Sirius, Dumbledore, etc.

Dark Arts Classroom

talking to you as you wend through the Dark Arts classroom and Dumbledore’s office. They could point out the Mirror of Erised and the pensieve. You could hear the pictures in the hall better than when you walk through. It’s a great concept, but they need to up the presentation.

the pensieve

Especially when you hit the back lot out back. I sincerely hope they were just anxious to open the park and have big plans for this waiting line b/c it’s a FAIL of EPIC PROPORTIONS. Poor shade, hot air from the fans, no seats, no water to drink, and the decor is sorely lacking. It looks like a back lot of a movie set, and while maybe that’d be cool to see, it’s just not cool in bazillion-degree heat.

entrance/staircase to Dumbledore's office

All this sounds like I hated it, doesn’t it? I didn’t. I really really didn’t. There’s magic there. I just wished someone had thought beyond the magic they wanted to create to the reality we all have to deal with waiting in line. Disney knows how to do this – someone please go take their management class or something!

mandragora plant

talking pictures

spell book

Harry Potter World, Hot as Hell, but Definitely Heaven for Fans

Entrance into park

Sorry it’s taken me a while to post this. I was in Orlando two weeks ago and hit Harry Potter World at Universal on Tuesday. The day the temperature broke all sorts of records at 111 degrees.

So, my take on Harry Potter World.

I’m very glad I didn’t bring my family. But I absolutely LOVED it.

How does one reconcile these two sentences? Simple. No one in my family is a diehard Harry Potter fan but me. I’ve read every book; when the last one came out, we were just getting home from a vacation. I dropped my family off at the house, left them the car to unpack, while I took another one to the bookstore before it closed to pick up my copy of the book. Then I got home, said goodnight to everyone (this was at 5 pm) and told them not to bother me, that I was reading the book straight through. And I did.

We own every movie, have seen each one on opening day. I love this series. So when Universal announced it was going to have a Harry Potter World, I was trying to come up with every way to get there. But I knew my family would not enjoy long lines.

Truthfully, I would have preferred to go to the park in any other month other than July. Well, except maybe August. I HATE/LOATHE/DESPISE the heat. Can. Not. Stand. It. (get the picture?) But with the trip we took out west this summer, another family vacation of this magnitude just wasn’t in the cards and when RWA had to relocate the national conference and it just so happened to end up in Orlando, well, hey. I can read the writing on the wall as well as the next person. So, off I went on the internet to buy my one day pass. (Hint: those “convention” packages? Yeah, don’t get sucked in by them; I would have paid a LOT less if I’d bought the ticket at the park, AND saved on shipping charges. I’m annoyed at how much more I had to pay for.)

Emily and Donna

So, I arrived in Orlando very early on Tuesday morning, got to the hotel, dropped my stuff off in my room, and headed outside to the shuttle van (Mears shuttle, $18 RT, very affordable). While waiting for the van, I met a wonderful mother/daughter team by the name of Donna and Emily.

They were on a girls’ trip for Emily’s high school graduation and Emily is a HUGE Harry Potter fan. (I’m sure you can see where this is going.) They, lovely folks, invited me to spend the day with them. Since I was all alone, and Emily was as big, if not bigger, a HP fan than me, sure!

Emily was a godsend (and not just for her Facebook pictures).

I’m not one for people coming up to me to try to sell me stuff on the street. I hate people in my face, so when a park employee waved something papery in my face and said something along the lines of Anneheuser Busch (I swear, that’s what he said and I thought it was something for SeaWorld, which I love, but I was there to see HP World), I just walked by him. Emily, thank God, heard “Harry Potter World” and walked over. Turns out, the guy was giving out fast passes into HP World. For Free.

Hogwarts Express Conductor

So there the 3 of us were with our fast passes, by-passing all the poor people who were in the hours-long line to get in the part (did I mention it was going up to 111 degrees that day?) From where we got the fast pass to the entrance of the park was a 20 minute walk, and the entire way was lined with people in line to get in the park. I know it was 20 minutes, b/c the fast pass was valid in 20 minutes from when we got it, and we started heading back that way, and arrived just as they were lettingĀ  people in with that fast pass time. I have no idea why the park employee was giving this away, no idea why other people didn’t get a fast pass, didn’t even see a kiosk where you could GET a fast pass, but there you go… We waltzed right in to Hogsmeade.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I’ve seen a documentary about the making of HP World, and checked it out online, so I knew that the team who made the sets for the movies were involved in making this park. They did an amazing job.

The snow on the rooftops looked so real it was a shame that I was still sweating. The buildings were jut like the movie, the steep pitched roofs, the hundreds of gables, the shingling… very cool. Of course there was the train engine. There’s an owlery and some shops and of course, Hogwarts. You can read all about it at Universal’s sight, but here’s my Traveler’s Guide to the park.

We're Heeeeere!!

Disappointingly, the shops were made to keep in line with the books. Meaning, they are small. Narrow. Tight. Tiny. When you see the Weasely’s and Harry and Hermione and Draco and his dad getting their books when Gilderoy is signing… that’s how scrunched together you are in these shops.

Inside HoneyDukes

And there are only 2 stores, really. First is

HoneyDukes, the candy shop. Very pretty, lots of pink and mint green, bunches of glass bottles filled with Every Flavor Beans, and Chocolate Frogs

in pretty packaging (complete with the trading card of your favorite Hogwarts founder – I got Rowena Ravenclaw). I bought some

candied almonds from the self-serve canisters and scrunched up in line to pay for them. Someone, however, decided that to leave HoneyDukes, you have to go through the joke shop. Okay, that’s fine; we get to see the Weasely twins’ favorite place, but as for buying anything… I think it’s more a curiosity factor to go in that store. I mean, seriously, do you really need a whoopee cushion that says “Whoopee Cushion” on it? If it said Harry Potter world, maybe.

Oh, I forgot to mention, we had to wait in line for like an hour and a half to get IN HoneyDukes.

Butterbeer vendor

In the hot sun. Where they don’t have awnings covering the line. Or a place to sit. Or water fountains. They do have butterbeer barrels set up like vendor carts. I HIGHLY recommend the frozen butterbeer. It’s very good -kind of like butterscotch and gingersnap cookies mixed together with ice. A butterbeer slushie. Not too badly priced – $3-$4 (can’t remember). I had taken a tiny umbrella with me to keep off the sun, so I’d recommend that, because the heat is BRUTAL.

We were then going to go to lunch in The Three Broomsticks, but this, also had at least an hour and a

half wait. We figured we’d wait and do something else. Surely the lunch rush would die down.

So off we went to the one place I’d been dying to see. Olivander’s Wand Shop. When that scene in Olivander’s came on the screen in the first movie, I caught my breath. The movie makers had done such an amazing job with pulling details from the book, I couldn’t breathe because it was as if they’d reached inside my imagination and taken out how I’d seen Olivander’s. That was a magical moment for me.

Gileroy Lockhart - and yes, the picture moves

And after another hour and a half wait (in the hot, unrelenting sun, with no shade save for my umbrella and one very cool stone arch that we commandeered for longer than we should have), in we went to Olivander’s.

The promos for the park have talked about having the experience of your wand choosing you. I was looking forward to that. Yes, I’m a 45 year old woman and know that it’s not magic, but still, I could pretend, couldn’t I?

wands in Olivander's

Apparently not. What they don’t tell you in the promos is that only 30 people are allowed in Olivander’s at a time (see note above about the whole park being built to story-scale instead of millions-of-rabid-fans-clamoring-for-this-new-park-scale) and only ONE (or two if they’re lucky) KIDS are CHOSEN to be part of the “show.” That was a bit of a letdown, though for those two kids, it definitely wasn’t. Nor for their parents.

Mr. Olivander

The shop itself is EXACTLY like the movie, so it was wonderful. Boxes and boxes of wands, sample wands on the walls, Mr. Olivander himself, and, of course, magic. I’m glad I waited, but I’d really wanted to “experience” the wand choosing me. But I got to choose my own wand, because park employees then funnel the 30 people into another store where you can get Griffyndor clothing, or Slytherin capes, and any other HP-themed souvenir. And you can buy your own wand. There’s a wall with wands coinciding with your birthday. I wasn’t fond of the screaming skull for a February 13th birthday. I was thinking something that close to Valentine’s Day might be a little more upbeat, so I decided to buy Hermione’s wand. There’s another wall with character wands, but Dumbledore’s was sold out. They said they sell out of his the most.

Tourist hint: They give you a 10% discount if you have an AAA card. Luckily, my new “sister,” Donna had one, so I got my wand for $27 instead of $30. No, there is no unicorn hair inside it, or whatever Hermione’s has inside (sorry, I’d have to go check; I might be a fan, but I am 45 years old. The memory ain’t what it used to be.), and it’s plastic, but it’s pretty and it was my souvenir (well, along with the chocolate frog box – the kids and I shared the frog. At $10, it better be a multi-person piece of chocolate and it is – it’s about the size of my fist.)

Emily with chocolate frog in HoneyDukes

Another Tourist Hint: DON’T buy your chocolate frog during your first visit to HoneyDukes and then proceed to carry it around with you the rest of the day. Otherwise, you’re going to have to double-bag it (with HP bags, so that’s kind of cool) and beg for ice from the butterbeer vendors (the added bonus is you can put some ice in your bra to try to cool your body temperature in the ridiculously hot, sticky, sweaty Floridian July heat).

So, after we bought our wands, we decided to check out lunch again, because it was now about 2 pm and surely there was no longer a long wait at The Three Broomsticks.

The Three Broomsticks

We were right; it was only about 15 minutes. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the food. Not fast food at all, though you order it cafeteria-style, but it was good. Ribs, chicken, fish & chips, shepherd’s pie (looked good but too small), and other English fare, the prices were pretty reasonable, too. I had ribs and chicken, some potatoes and an ear of corn, plus milk for about $13. Oh, and the water bottles from the vendors are only $2.25 (maybe $2.75, I can’t remember – that memory thing, you know. I need a pensieve for myself…) So, not too bad there.

Check out the next post for our visit to Hogwarts.

Hogwarts with Griffyndor tower

Our Great Adventure Out West – Part III

And now on to the Grand Tetons and the return trip.

Grand Tetons

Loved this sign. And it proved to be true a little later.

Here's a mama moose and her baby in the field behind her.

6 teenage boy bison. Somehow, we just didn't expect this to end well. Luckily, a park ranger showed up and made all the morons who'd gotten out of their cars get back in their cars and drive on.

the scenery was just breathtaking.

more awe-inspiring shots

somewhere in Wyoming. Check out the double-fronted car. Wonder how you get where you're going.

a roadside monument to Abraham Lincoln.

lots and lots of windmills.

The Budweiser factory in Ft. Collins area, CO. Free tour. Free beer. Nice.

some part of the brewing process.

And, of course, the Clydesdales.

river otter sculpture in Loveland, CO

The Stanley Hotel - where Stephen King wrote The Shining

Too bad Kubrick didn't film the movie at the hotel.

And we end our trip with one more national park - Rocky Mountain National Park.

Our Big Adventure Out West – Part II

Now on to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and the return trip. For those of you who might not know, I made a very similar trip with my parents/siblings 31 years ago. I said this trip for me was more about watching my husband and kids enjoy the sights.

Yellowstone landscape

Dragon's mouth/breath/cave. Something like that. Our first steam vent.

thermal vents. Some really interesting colors

Bison sighting

rainbow on the upper falls

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

lower falls - 10 ramps to walk down; 90 million back up. What an incline.

More Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Love the reflection of the bison in the water.

Coyote. It was eating 2 Richardson ground squirrels.

Grizzly mama and cubs on the opposite side of the road. Sooooooo many idiots got out of their cars - and even worse, they let their KIDS get out of their cars. Unbelievable.

My "The Hills Are Alive" moment. :) The mountain meadows are just gorgeous!

You remember how much I love snow? I especially love it in July. Even more since I played in snow 31 years ago in July. History repeating itself.

SNOWBALL! Yes, we had a snowball fight.

The bison held up traffic at the top of the mountain. After all, where else is a bison going to walk at the top of a mountain but on the road?

Emerald Green thermal pool

more thermal pools

sulfur is not the best smell...

3 female moose are laying on the opposite side of the creek.

Old Faithful

Interior of Yellowstone Lodge

3 elk crossed the road right in front of us. Seems to be a theme for this vacation. We weren't complaining.

rainbows galore

love these clouds

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