Jurassic World as a Theme Park

WARNING: It is impossible to discuss this topic without giving away key plot points and developments in the movie. Do not proceed if you’re concerned about spoilers.

Following our viewing of Jurassic World, DH and I both desperately wanted to hear our favorite theme park logistics/planning enthusiasts’ take on it. I tweeted to @lentesta and @jimhillmedia posthaste to request a podcast. But, while they’re considering that request, I wanted to give my own thoughts about Jurassic World as a theme park, as depicted in Jurassic World the movie. Also, I should note that I’m writing largely based on what I saw in the movie, but I did reference the spectacular website for Jurassic World for some details and data points. I also want to note that I use a lot of promo photos from the movie (ones that were part of the press park made freely available on their website) in this review. Those are all owned/created by the movie, not by me, and I’m using them here for criticism purposes only.

Who Would Go?

Jurassic World is located on an island, the fictional Isla Nublar, west of Costa Rica (how far west varies by movie, and Jurassic World does make clear that this is supposed to be the same island as the ones from previous Jurassic Park movies). Travel to that destination is going to require a passport and a fairly expensive flight for most of the world population. (It always bothered me how the prior JP movies, when panicking about escape, would talk about dinosaurs wandering around San Diego, when the closest region would be Costa Rica. Do we only care if they make it to the US? Seems like just about any of the flying species could end up at Costa Rica with little trouble, much less the many nearby islands in that region. But, I digress…) Additionally, there’s a ferry and/or separate flight to get to Isla Nublar (depending on the movie). In Jurassic World, it’s a park-sponsored ferry from Costa Rica.

I don’t think they explicitly mention a park admission ticket price in the movie (though I could be wrong), but I think it’s reasonable to guess that a park that offers a ferry ride to its off-coast site and is the only park in the world to have live dinosaurs would garner an admission ticket in the $2-300 range for adults. Add in what is probably a $800 flight, plus staying at what seems to be the only on-site hotel ($600+ a night I’m sure), and this a trip out of the range of most families. Thus, we can make some assumptions that the guests at JW are well-off world travelers.

Park Size

Jurassic World explicitly mentions 20,000 guests being present on the day the movie takes place. We’re also told that this is a time when kids are out of school, and it seems to be summer. That means Jurassic World should be seeing peak or near peak attendance, though the implication is that this is a Thursday, so maybe low peak. So, let’s figure that 20K is perhaps 60% of capacity, making the actual capacity around 35K.

Disneyland (not all of DLR, just Disneyland) hits capacity at 40K, roughly. Disneyland Resort has an 85K capacity. Magic Kingdom caps at roughly 100K. But, if we look at more zoo-like parks, SeaWorld Orlando is around 40K. Animal Kingdom is around 50K (though it can be argued that the attractions can’t support its functional capacity). So, this is in the ballpark, but it seems like Jurassic World is under-sized, particularly since it was built in the present with the movie taking place in the comparable “near future”. (There are plenty of technologies having nothing to do with dinosaurs shown in the movie that are not currently achievable as shown, but they’re likely achievable in the near future.) Then again, it may be that with the prohibitive cost they need to charge to meet their needs and the cost of travel, they anticipate a smaller available audience.

But…putting that aside, we see crowds shown in the movie that seem to indicate a) that Jurassic World is actually operating at or near peak on this day and b) that the attendance is higher than 20K. The one that stands out the most is the arena that we see for the water dinosaur demonstration (with the awesome stands that descend below the water level for a different view during the show):

Jurassic World: Mosasaur Arena

That arena in and of itself is shown holding nearly 20K of people. To give a proportion, 20K is less than half a Sounders game’s average attendance. Unless the entire park empties and that’s a once a day show, the number of people we see in the movie is far past the number quoted as attendance. So, it’s also possible that Jurassic World is much larger, and the 20K number is bogus.

(The interesting part is that it almost seems like 20K was a reasonable number to give, but the set/CGI designers then showed us stuff that didn’t fit that model, which is perhaps not surprising.)

Note: After doing all of this ballparking, I found the website for Jurassic World which has a handy park capacity graph right on it that let me back into the actual park capacity, which is approximately 31K. So…ha. 🙂 They were at 64% capacity, so my guess of a 60%ish capacity is spot on. Go me!

The Guests

The guests we see are mostly American, and communication throughout the park seems to be in English. While you can make a case that I can’t judge that easily, there’s one scene where a line of attendees gets ticked off that an attraction is closed where their American-ness is very apparent. Given the park’s location, their primary attendance will be from Brazil, which has plenty of affluent park enthusiasts. There should be signage in a few languages. Even EuroDisney has signage in both English and French.

That we didn’t see a single Brazilian tour group (nor any tour groups) is patently unrealistic, as any WDW frequent attendee will confirm. It, like the San Diego references I mentioned earlier, is a reflection of how US-centric this movie is rather than any reality of what you’d see in a true Jurassic World theme park. (The website actually further reinforces this observation.)

Some realism though was in the guests’ reactions when a ride went down (ready to mob the worker there) and the guests watching the Mosasaurus feeding who insisted on standing up for no good goddamn reason and blocking everyone’s view.

What they did not include that they should have: kids crying out of exhaustion and frustration (rather than because a pterodactyl ate their mom), selfie sticks (maybe they’re banned?), people holding up their phones/iPads/whatever during every single freaking attraction/show to video it for later perusal.

Sponsorships/Brands

They nailed this one. Every theme park these days is flooded with sponsored attractions and brand name shops. The ones I noticed on the “main street” of Jurassic World were Brookstone, Pandora, and Margaritaville. (There’s also a fake restaurant called Winston’s Steakhouse. You can view the fake restaurant menu on the website.) The research hall being sponsored by Samsung felt familiar as well, and we hear that Verizon Wireless might be sponsoring the Indominus Rex (ha! Figures!). What’s fun here is that it serves two purposes: realism and actual paid placement in the movie. I also wonder how much of the store presence was influenced by shops that have deals with Universal Studios theme parks.

Attractions

Per the website, there are 20 attractions. (Oddly, a “water park” is a single attraction, and the golf course is counted as an attraction. The monorail is relegated to a utility, like restrooms.) In the movie, we see a few, but most notably, we see the Gyrosphere:

Jurassic World: Gyrosphere

I have a major nitpick with the Gyrosphere. A key plot point of the movie is that the Gyrosphere is closed because of the escaping Indominus Rex while the 2 kids are out exploring. The kids get a notice that the ride is closed and that they should return. And then they proceed to keep exploring in the gyrosphere anyways, even rolling right outside the walls of the attraction. No. Just no. This makes no sense at all. For this Gyrosphere ride to have any sort of realistic throughput, it must have a time limit on exploration. There is no such thing as a “stay as long as you like” attraction in a major theme park that isn’t walk-through. Thus, by design, the Gyrosphere must have some kind of “bring vehicle home” control/command, or else that ride would be screwed. Not to mention that, according to the website, the Gyrosphere notices when you’re close to dinosaurs and moves you back to a safe distance, but in the movie, we see it clearly not doing that. That feature also implies that the kids would not have been able to drive it out of the fenced area. Most likely, the vehicle would be set to either auto-home if driven outside the area or turn off entirely within some short distance of the ride area. This one thing totally bothered me while watching. Thankfully, while it’s a key plot point, it also doesn’t last very long. They seriously could have fixed it just by having the ride person or even the Jimmy Fallon ride video note their “VIP bracelets” when they got on and say, “Oh, you’re VIPs. I’ve set your gyro for unlimited exploration. Stay as long as you like.”

Speaking of the Fallon ride video, while it was a bit over the top, it did hit home in terms of the inevitably corny videos telling you the safety information for a ride or touting the ride’s features.

I also wanted to call out the Mosasaurus feeding arena feature of the stands moving up and down. That is very cool, and I hope it’s in a concept list for some park somewhere, though I’m not sure of the right attraction in a post-Blackfish world.

On-Site Hotel/Day Visiting

The movie showed only one hotel, but the website says there’s two on-site hotels at different tiers. What isn’t clear from the movie or the website is how often the ferry runs. If the ferry is running with enough frequency (and enough boats for “rope drop” capacity) for day trippers from the mainland, evacuating the island shouldn’t have been nearly the problem it was shown to be. OTOH, if the expectation (and perhaps the ticket price) assumes you’ll stay at an on-site hotel for 1+ nights, the ferry may only run a few times a day. The ferry we saw looked like a 1500 capacity ferry. Just based on that, I’m guessing they have a fleet of perhaps 10 ferries and they typically operate 3 or so (1 loading at each port, one or two in transit), with the full 10 being used for the most common transportation times in one direction only.

Competition

The implication is that this is the only dinosaur park…still…even though it’s been running long enough that people are bored by dinosaurs (that they can only see at this one park in the whole damn world). For the record, I don’t buy for a second that people are bored by dinosaurs and thus attendance is dropping. People aren’t bored by freaking Space Mountain yet, and it’s been around for many decades and isn’t a giant-ass dinosaur. Jurassic World needs to learn about making tiny changes from Disney. They could just add a new track to the monorail and bump attendance rather than creating a whole new dinosaur.

Anyways, back to the topic…competition. I further don’t buy that not a single competitor park has opened somewhere else in the world. Wouldn’t it have been more believable that Jurassic World was creating Indominus Rex because “Dinosaur Land” was going to open off the coast of Taipei that fall with more space and more dinos and they needed to give a reason for people to keep coming to their smaller park?

Evacuation/Emergency Handling

This theme park has been operating for years. You cannot tell me that they have not needed to evacuate before now. It’s an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Have they never had a major storm coming in? No earthquakes? Heck, a super-cell thunderstorm would be enough to shut down their ferry service and thus a reason that they’d want to get guests off the island in advance of its occurrence. Among the many things I don’t buy, I don’t buy that they would have had so much trouble evacuating or handling a shutdown. As mentioned up above, they probably need a 10-ferry fleet to handle park open and close traffic. 10 ferries could have gotten most of that 20K of people off the island in a matter of hours. We’re fed that the COO (or director of Ops or whatever she was) doesn’t want to evacuate because of a fear that people won’t come back. Bullshit. Cruise ships have people going in droves, despite all the problems they’ve had. Disneyland had a measles outbreak. The big thing that COO would have to worry about is someone dying, not people being forced to leave due to a temporary and unexplained closure. Besides, as mentioned, given their location and mostly outdoors attractions, they would have to shut down due to weather periodically. They could have just messaged the park guests that a storm was coming in and they were advising everyone to a) return to their hotel room or b) get on the ferry. Then, start shutting down attractions, and believe me, people will leave. Guests do not hang around a park when everything is shut down. They do not sit down all over main street (as was shown). They queue up for the transportation (ferries) or go to their on-site hotel. Some of them might have flooded the restaurants.

It bums me out that the COO, who was shown as incredibly competent throughout, ended up seeming incompetent in service to the plot in two ways, this being one of them. That’s a separate post for another time, though, should I get around to it.

In Closing…

Well, this has been quite an essay. I look forward to Touring Plans‘ Jurassic World edition. In the meantime, if you have any other theme park nitpicks I missed, feel free to post them in the comments. 🙂

Mind Games 2014 Recap (Austin, TX)

Background:  The Mind Games convention is where/how American Mensa awards games the Mensa Select seal.  The seal is awarded to 5-6 games each year. It’s an event with 200-300 Mensans in attendance, specifically a self-selecting subset of Mensa that are gamers. As a judge/attendee, you are assigned around 25-30 games to play during the play period (Friday 11am until Sunday 9am). Between 50-60 are submitted in total each year by various manufactures in lots of genres, though Euro games are sadly almost always under-represented and under-ranked. Each judge gets to vote on 7 (in a ranked order) from the list of ones they were assigned. To vote, judges must play the 25-30 they are assigned, but that is on the honor system. The remaining submissions are optional, but I try to get through all of them each year. Other people have different mandatory/optional lists versus yours, such that it is balanced with the number of people who judge each game. At the end of the judging/play period, the ballots are tallied and the winning games are announced on Sunday. A press release generally follows on Monday.  You can look up the winners for past years at http://mindgames.us.mensa.org/about/winning-games/.

This year’s winners for Mind Games were Gravwell, Qwixx, Pyramix, The Duke & Euphoria.  My votes to win were (in rank order) Euphoria, Compounded, Pyramix, Four in a Square, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, 20 Express, and Tapple.  If I could have voted based on all the selections, my votes to win would have been Euphoria, Compounded, Coup, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Sushi Go, and Qwixx.  So, there’s decent overlap between what won and what I liked. 🙂

Of this year’s winners, the only one that really bums me out is Gravwell.  I just did not find it to be a very interesting game.  The concept is that you program moves to try to escape a gravity well with your spaceship, but in my play of it, it felt like the programming could only rarely be done strategically.  Talking to other attendees, their experiences differed.  Either way, I will say that it’s better than some past winners that made it into the mix.

Qwixx is a Gamewright republish of a game found at Essen, and they did a great job with the rules and components.  It’s a very quick and simple dice game with no downtime and light strategy.  Its only flaw is that you need the included pad of scoresheets (which will inevitably run out).  It’s also a great value for the price.

Pyramix uses cubes (d6’s) with symbols on them to build a pyramid and then has each player collect cubes.  There are multiple approaches that can win, and, like Qwixx, it’s aesthetically pleasing.  The strategy is a little limited, as final scoring depends heavily on things you can’t discover until the endgame, but it’s a unique concept and turned out to be a great little game.

The Duke is a chess-like abstract strategy game.  It’s a bit tough to summarize beyond that, but one unique mechanic it uses is having pieces where the moves change each time you use them, alternating between two types of moves.  This is made simple by them printing the move on the piece itself, so you never have to ask “what does the wizard do again?”.  As with any abstract strat game, it will suffer from Analysis Paralysis (AP) with the right player(s), but if you can avoid that, it’s pleasing and a good challenge. There are expansions in the box that add more complexity and variety to the gameplay, too, but I didn’t get to try those.

Euphoria…now, looking at the names of this year’s submissions alone, I would have bet good money that Euphoria would  be a dog, but it turned out to be my favorite of the weekend.  It is a worker placement and resource management game.  You’ll see people complain that the rules are long.  If you’re a frequent euro gamer, you’ll find them remarkably well-written and easy to grasp.  It *may* have a bit of an issue in that it doesn’t provide enough encouragement to perform a mechanic that seems like they wanted to happen (building markets), but that may also be a result of inefficient play or simply not knowing the game well enough.  The theming, building in a dystopian future, reminded me of several young adult dystopian future novels. (Is that a new genre yet?  Remember when we had “young adult paranormal romance”?  Do they now have “young adult dystopian sci-fi”?)

Compounded was a non-winner that I enjoyed.  You play the role of a chemist in what is clearly a severely underfunded lab (you have to build your own fire extinguisher), and you use elements drawn randomly to fill compounds from a set that is available to everyone.  Different compounds, once claimed/created, have different benefits that help you make the next compound faster, and the goal is to get the most points before game end.  There’s also randomized explosions that occur, scattering the elements around the lab.  Overall, it’s a medium strategy game with cute components and a nifty periodic table as a scoreboard.

Freedom is a co-op game where players work together as abolitionists trying to move slaves on the Underground Railroad.  This game is masterful with white guilt, but it’s also nicely historic, beautifully laid out, and it plays well.  You really do care about your slave cubes and feel bad about not rescuing them.  Plus, the theme forces you to make tough decisions in the vein of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to sacrifice one person to save many.  (People who have trouble not saving a person in Flash Point will not do well at this game. 😉 )

Another notable submission was Coup, which has an endorsement by Wil Wheaton on the back and comes from the makers of The Resistance.  Coup has similar elements to Resistance, but it is playable with fewer players (2-6).  It very much reminds me of the dynamic in Survivor around hidden immunity idols.

Overall, this year’s submissions were remarkably good.  The “dog” of the weekend was Po-rum-bo, and, in many past Mind Games, that would have been a middle of the pack game.  The head judge noted that every single game got at least one vote, and that, too, is unusual. I think it reflects that the submissions were overall of good quality.

Full spreadsheet o’ ratings and other such joy:

Comparing Glaciers – 2010 vs. 2013

One of the things I wanted to do after our most recent Alaska cruise was to compare glacier photos between that cruise and the one I took in 2010. I’m posting side by side images below, with some rudimentary circles to help identify matching non-glacial features in each image. Before that, though, there are some caveats to these pictures.

  1. My camera in 2010 was not as good as my camera in 2013.
  2. Some of the pictures are from different angles. The most egregious example is Mendenhall, and I call that out on the image. But, you can still compare it to the nearby features to see the change in size and height.
  3. I cropped to get the pictures as close to the same view as I could, but they’re not perfect, hence the circles to help identify what to match up between the two sides.

Mendenhall:
mendenhall before and after
As noted, it’s two different angles. The 2013 version is taken far more to the right of the glacier than the 2010 photo. But, you can still see the difference in the height and how far the arm stretches. Mendenhall has clearly diminished over time.

Margerie:
Margerie
This one is particularly shocking. In the left, you just see the tip of the mountain behind it (Mt. Root?) over the top of the glacier. On the right, you can see most of the mountain. The picture on the left uses less zoom and is also taken from farther away. Our ship was able to get closer this year than on our previous trip. Also, I just didn’t have to zoom out as far to capture the glacier, since it’s smaller now.

Lamplugh:
Lamplugh
So, this is interesting because Lamplugh is an advancing glacier. It’s actually getting bigger instead of smaller. However, it’s a very minor growth compared to the loss you see in the others. It also seems to have lost some height even though it’s advancing outward.

I present these just as a matter of interest, without comment on any implications. As I have tried to emphasize, my methods were not scientific. 🙂 This was just an exercise of personal curiosity in comparing vacation photos taken at different points in time.

Madison Falls, Marymere Falls, and Forks

After visiting Hurricane Ridge, I headed west to do some more waterfall trails. Madison Falls was my first stop, and it was a super-easy paved trail that took less than 15 minutes to do.

One thing that might not be well known is that there are no roads that cross Olympic National Park. Highway 101 circles around it, and there are spur roads that go into various areas, but you can’t go from one side to the other directly. That means you do a lot of driving around if you’re trying to do specific trails (versus just going to an area and wandering around). So, after visiting Madison Falls (and gaping at the rushing Elwha river), I headed to the Marymere Falls trail which was notably more interesting and challenging. In the process of getting there, I drove around Crescent Lake, which was foggy and pretty, though Pyramid Mountain was not very photogenic because of the fog.

Marymere Falls trail goes through an old growth forest, with GIANT trees, on a relatively flat trail. The trail was muddy, and it was very crowded with tourists when I was there.

After the majority of the distance on the trail, you cross Barnes Creek twice, first via a plank bridge and then via a log bridge that is quite bouncy and slippery on a rainy day like that one.

Then, you climb up a pretty steep switchback with lots of log-enforced steps and stairs to go to one of two overlooks (a high and low one, but both up quite a ways). The reward is a spraying and misty waterfall tucked into a canyon.

You will want to view the full size version of this photo to really understand what I’m about to describe. This picture is taken from the high overlook, and if you look in the lower center for a bright brown spot, that’s the entry point to the log bridge, and that’s how far up you go between that bridge and the overlook. Also, to the left of this picture, you can see how the trail narrows and becomes rocky and log stairs on the side of the crevice wall. Finally in the lower center and right, you can see the rails for the stairs going down to the lower overlook.

There I am! Hot and sweaty! Halfway up the stairs, I took off my coat and tied it around my waist and tucked my hat away, despite the rain, so I could cool down. Standing in the mist of the falls also did the trick. Another hiker took the photo for me.

I worked my way down the stairs to the lower overlook and then worked my way back to my car, trotting along nicely once I got back across the bridges. I briefly considered diverging onto the Barnes Creek trail or trying Storm King for awhile, but I hadn’t researched those trails in advance. (Well, I knew Barnes Creek was only open partway, but I knew nothing of Storm King. From this description on the WTA site, I think I made a good call by leaving Storm King be. My legs were tired enough from Marymere!)

When I got back to my car, it was late enough in the day (and cloudy, rainy, and dim enough) that I didn’t want to do another trail that day. As I had time to kill, I decided to drive down to Forks just to say I’d been. By the time I got there, it was pouring rain, and I ended up not even getting out of the car. The one restaurant that was open was closing soon, and there wasn’t anything else to stop for really. I did see tons of places hawking Twilight stuff, though none of them were open. The most notable was a place selling “Twilight firewood” which…is that a thing? 🙂

Photos:

Twihards, Hurricane Hill, and Such

Port Angeles is a small town on the north tip of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s the closest town to the main entrance of Olympic National Park, Heart of the Hills. It also happens to be featured a few times in the Twilight books as the place that the Forks kids go when they want real civilization. (It doesn’t make sense, btw. There are other towns and cities that would be an easier trip.) The town (along with Forks) is at least in favor of taking Twihards’ tourist dollars, including but not limited to the restaurant where Edward and Bella had their first date.

When I arrived in Port Angeles, I checked into my hotel and walked a block up to go to a restaurant for dinner. As it was *not* the first date restaurant, I wasn’t expecting any Twilightery, but I ended up sitting at the bar with a group of three women (all older than me) who were in town as part of a Twi-tour. So, I guess it’s unavoidable. I could see cruise ships headed for Alaska in the straight north of Port Angeles while I was eating, though, so that was cool.

But, my main reason for Port Angeles as the home base was going to Hurricane Ridge/Hill. After 17 miles of driving up and around the mountains, including two tunnels, I arrived at Hurricane Ridge, mainly notable for being the highest point in ONP that you can reach by car. It’s frequented by tourists for the spectacular views…

…but when I was there, not so much. 🙂 The fog actually made the drive up a bit scary, as visibility was often reduced to a few carlengths, and the road is very curvy with drop-offs on one side. I did get to see a little trickling waterfall (really, it’s a drainage gully) near a crazy-ass steep trailhead on my way up. There was snow on the ground that I and the other tourists were playing in. I did not quite realize that more snow was to come.

The scale is hard to imagine in this picture, but this is actually quite tall.

Snow! And hiking boots!

Steep and narrow trail going up, up, up (again, it’s hard to tell from the picture, but the top of that is well over my head, and I’m standing at the start):

Then, at the visitors’ center I shopped the gift shop and enjoyed the foggy views. Moreso, I enjoyed the 7-8 foot snowbanks around the area. The visitors’ center is at 5242 feet. For comparison, the top of the lift at Heavenly in Lake Tahoe is around 9900ft-ish. So, it’s high, but it’s not the highest I’ve been or anything. (Mt. Olympus, the highest peak in ONP, is 7980ft. DH pointed out that Lake Tahoe starts at 5000 feet though, whereas Port Angeles is just 32 feet above sea level. So, this is a greater ascent but not a greater height.) At the sensor that day, the snow was at 67 inches, which means that the banks were often higher (due to plowing). Lots of folks were making makeshift art on the snowbanks.

I decided to walk down the road to the Hurricane Hill trail and decide from there if I wanted to continue on the trail or head back up. This afforded me some pretty alpine scenery, and I even saw a black-tailed deer. (Black-tailed deer are unique to this region. White-tailed deer are far more common.)

This tree is flipping you off. 🙂

What a deer!

I ended up turning back once I got to the trail, as the trail was snowcovered and I wasn’t really dressed or prepared for that. Going back up the road was not fun, as the road had been downhill the whole way down and thus was uphill the whole way back. Fortunately, between the deer and scenery, I had plenty of excuses to take breaks. 🙂

Photos:

Murhut Falls Trail

After arriving on the Olympic Peninsula, I made may way first to the Quilcene Ranger station, where I got some relevant trail info and other guidance from the ranger. I also supported the forest service by buying a warm vest (that was very reasonably priced and had the Olympic National Forest logo on it!), a souvenir pin, and some postcards. Duffy also posed for a picture:

Then, I headed south along the Olympic highway (101, which circles the entire park). Along the way, I saw signs for the Mt. Walker overlook and decided to head up there, being as I was not in a rush. The road to the overlook was a two-way road with only one lane for traffic and copious pull-out spots to allow passing. As I worked my way up the 4 mile winding road, my “need gas” light came on, which worried me. There’s not a ton of gas stations along that section of 101, and I didn’t want to get stuck. So, I picked a wide pull-off (clearly large because it had a decent view of its own) and took some quick photos.

While heading back down the road, I realized the light had come on because my tank (while only at 1/4 full) apparently has the sensor in the front. As soon as I was pointing downhill, the light blinked off and didn’t give me any more warnings until well after I got to Brinnon and put a few gallons in to cover me to Port Angeles (where gas would be a bit cheaper). D’oh. I probably could have easily made it up the overlook and enjoyed the view. That was particularly regretful since Saturday turned out to be the only day that the weather was clear enough to see very much (more on that later).

Just past Brinnon, WA, is a little road called Duckabush Road that follows the Duckabush River. The trail I planned to tackle was just off that road. Duckabush road is easy to drive, and it starts in private property and then passes into the national forest area. Between the campground and the nearby (long, more for backpackers) Duckabush Trail, there were quite a few cars along the road. However, once I crossed the Duckabush river toward the Murhut Falls trailhead, I was on my own in the woodsy quiet on a muddy dirt and gravel road.

At the trailhead, there was ample parking around a campfire. Then, there was just a briefly steep climb up to get to a beautifully maintained trail.

It felt like you could hear the falls from the trailhead, though it may have been a mix of the falls and the Duckabush, both heavy from snowmelt. This trail goes steadily uphill for the first half mile or so, and then rolls through uphill and downhill until you get to the valley where the falls are. Along the way, you pass through forest with mossy trees and lots of rhododendrons.

Spotting the lower falls was a nice reward after the trek through the forest.

Once you’re in the gorge/valley/whatever, the trail gets narrower, steeper (though still not truly steep), and a bit rockier. For me, it was a great chance to use my spanking new hiking poles in earnest, to help ascending tall steps over roots and rocks and to steady my steps on the slippery (from drippy rain and the mist of the falls) logs and rocks.

The falls were rushing full force, crashing and misting down over two levels. They were truly beautiful, and I took quite awhile just to enjoy listening and watching them at work.

By propping my camera up on my pack, stacked atop the wooden log bench at the end of the trail, I was able to take a half decent selfie:

Then, I re-packed and headed back down, snapping some rhodie and view photos along the way. The downhill was, of course, a much faster hike than coming in.

Victory PT, mud mist and all, was a welcome sight back at the trailhead, waiting to carry me up to Port Angeles for the night!

You can read my trail report on the WTA site. Below are photos:

Ferry Ride

Riding the Seattle-Bainbridge Island FerryMy adventures over Memorial Day weekend started with a ferry ride. I’d never been on a drive-on ferry. I didn’t shoot for any particular time, since ferries left once an hour and they were advising to get there 30-45 minutes in advance. Also, the ferry terminal in Seattle has lots of restaurants, so I figured I’d kill any time I had by having brunch. I ended up arriving at the terminal right at 45 minutes before the ferry and was guided into the queue. There was a Subway nearby, so that was a tasty lunch option while I relaxed in the nice-ish weather with Victory’s windows rolled down.

Waiting in line for the ferry

Riding the ferry was pretty exciting. Since I found very little in terms of operational details on the internet before I got there, here’s a breakdown of the procedure:

  • Drive to the ferry terminal. There will be a gate, and a person at the gate will take your fare and point you to where to go next.
  • In Seattle, there’s the Bainbridge Island ferry and the Bremerton ferry. On the day I was there (and I think this is normal/standard), you drove to the right for Bainbridge Island and to the left for Bremerton. The signs were clear and easy to spot.
  • Once you get to the loading queue, a person will direct you to a line to park while you wait to load. Once you’re behind the car in front of you, you can turn off your engine, and once the cars near you are parked and stopped, you can get out and wander.
  • About 15-20 minutes before your departure time, be back at your car and ready to go. But, don’t turn on your engine until the lines of cars ahead of you have gone. If you car starts up pretty fast, you can even wait until the person in front of you starts rolling. Make sure to leave your headlights off so you aren’t blinding the workers as you head down the ramp.
  • Follow the car in front of you (or the worker’s directions if you’re in front) to drive onto the ship. If you’re the front car in a line, the crew will put blocks under your tires. You can turn your engine off once you’re stopped, but stay at your car until your “line” of cars has finished loading in case they need you to move forward more.
  • Set your parking brake and make sure you have your keys and lock your car before you go but don’t set your alarm. (For modern cars, this usually means using the door lock button inside the car instead of the one on your keyfob.) Reason being, the rocking of the boat can trigger your car alarm, and you don’t want to be that guy.
  • Then, you can stay in your car for the whole ride if you want, or you can go up the stairs (or elevators at the center of the ship) to the passenger and sun decks. There’s a snack bar that is overpriced but very friendly as well as vending machines. There’s also some racks of brochures about the places that the WSDOT ferries visit.
  • Wi-Fi – The ferry terminal in Seattle and the ships that leave from there have wi-fi provided by Boingo. It isn’t free, and I didn’t use it. I have no idea how fast or slow it is.
  • The passenger area has lots of bench-style seats with and without tables, at windows and interior, as well as lounge style seats and bucket seats with window views.
  • The sun deck is just an open deck that you can walk around on. There’s no seating outside.
  • There will be an announcement over the intercom when the ferry is approaching the next terminal, and this is when you should go downstairs and get back in your car if you’re not already there. Just like before, don’t turn on your engine until you’re ready to roll. Otherwise, it’s loud and you’re breathing fumes.
  • You’ll follow the car in front of you out, and then you’re off. (If you’re the front car, a bunch of bicycles will leave before you do. The worker will wave when you’re supposed to turn on your engine and go.)

While I was on the ferry, I visited all the decks, read about the boat (ship? I never know), used the restroom, and took some photos of the shorelines. I didn’t see any particularly interesting wildlife. I did see lots of happy dogs on the sun deck enjoying the breeze (they’re allowed there, but not the passenger deck).

Riding the Seattle-Bainbridge Island Ferry

Riding the Seattle-Bainbridge Island Ferry

Coming home after the trip, I was the front car, which was particularly cool. I ended up staying in my car for that ride, since I had a perfect view of the trip from the privacy of Victory PT! If you want to see more pictures of my ferry ride (although they’re admittedly kind of boring), the full gallery is here.

Volunteering for the WDW Marathon

DH did the Goofy at WDW Marathon Weekend for the first time this year. He had decided to do his half marathon at his usual pace but to take his time on the marathon course. (We had a good friend, too, who was doing her first Goofy–and her first marathon! Because of various issues, she was going to be at a pace just ahead of the sweepers. DH decided to stay with her on the course, which made it an “easy” finish for him but also ensured that she had someone helping her along.) Anyways, because he was going to be out on the marathon course for so long and because I’d be awake anyways, I decided to offer myself up as a volunteer. Before volunteering, I admit that I found very little in the way of first person accounts from other volunteers, so I wanted to describe my experience, end to end, to help out anyone who might be thinking of volunteering with runDisney.

BEFORE MARATHON WEEKEND:

The volunteer sign-up opens later than the race sign-up, and it isn’t as heavily publicized (except to prior volunteers). runDisney gives any volunteer who does at least 8 hours a 1-day 1-park ticket for WDW, so it’s somewhat popular as a volunteering option. I also learned later that, because of Florida’s lottery scholarship service requirements, lots of high school groups jump at that as a volunteer opportunity. So, volunteering actually does tend to fill up, particularly for the “more desirable” positions like expo volunteers. Fortunately for me, I was volunteering for one of the less desirable options, the marathon, so sign-ups were still available in October. The sign-up form is the exact same active.com form that racers fill out, except with volunteer events listed instead of races.

After that, I didn’t hear anything for awhile. In mid-December, I got an envelope in the mail with my volunteer assignment. The letter showed that I had been assigned the “17.2 water stop” on the marathon course. It stated I would need to be at the volunteer check-in by 4:15am and would be working until 12:30pm. It also included a temporary badge, with the note that the temporary badge was good for volunteers for the 5K or Expo, but that everyone else would exchange it for a real credential at the Expo.

The letter was also the first notice that I saw which stated clearly that I was responsible for my own transportation. This was news to me. Buses and monorails for runners start at 3am on marathon day, so I had thought that volunteers would get on those shuttles as well. I didn’t worry about it though; a cab isn’t that expensive, and I was excited to be a volunteer. I also (perhaps foolishly) figured that there might be something on-site that I’d learn about to make transportation easier, like a cab pooling arrangement or somewhere I’d be able to get to using the shuttles that I could then walk to. So, I set that aside as a potential concern and prepared to get excited about volunteering.

I posted in the Facebook group for marathon weekend that I would be volunteering and where. This was pretty awesome, because a lot of those folks chimed in that they were thankful for volunteers and quite a few said they’d make sure to look for me at that stop. I also crafted myself some jingle bell bracelets out of Stretch Magic and bells that I could use for cheering in case my voice went out.

AT THE EXPO:

When we arrived at the Expo, we had a lot of errands to do. DH had to pick up his Goofy stuff. We both needed to pick up 5K stuff. I had a Dooney pre-order to pick up. And, of course, I needed to pick up my volunteer credentials and instructions for Sunday. The letter I’d received said the volunteer credential pick-up would be at the Expo, but it wasn’t specific as to where. (The Expo is in multiple buildings and floors.) Fortunately, for obvious reasons, every volunteer on the floor knows where it is, so I asked around until I found it. It was basically a conference room. For people checking in to volunteer at the Expo or 5K, they had t-shirts there to pick up. For Half-Marathon and Marathon volunteers, you just picked up a packet.

I asked some of the folks there if there was anything I should plan for or any advice they would give to a first-timer, and this is what they said:

  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Wear sunblock.
  • You will get wet, so plan accordingly.
  • Don’t carry or bring too much with you. You won’t have time to do very much anyways.

I also asked more about transportation, and they confirmed that a taxi was my best bet to get there, but that the Disney transportation buses would be running when I left. The check-in location was at Downtown Disney, which was a $20 cab ride from the Polynesian.

The packet I received at the event included my volunteer badge, which had my bus number, assigned station, name, and a barcode printed on it. It also had another sheet of instructions, which detailed how to get to the check-in location (entrance 5 to Downtown Disney, which is the end near Cirque du Soleil, and then parking lots O, P, and Q). It also noted to bring a photo ID with you but to otherwise keep belongings to a minimum. (I’ll talk a bit more about what to bring and not bring in the next section.) If you have a car to drive to the check-in point, you can park there. Your volunteer badge will allow you admittance into parking.

The other thing that the on-site materials said was that they wanted you to check in 30-45 minutes before your assigned shift time. Ouch! That meant I needed to be there between 3:30 and 3:45, meaning I’d need to leave my hotel between 3 and 3:15am! I will say that I decided to ignore this a bit, largely based on prior experience with runDisney running events wherein they are really bad about erring on the side of extreme caution when it comes to what time they tell you to arrive. I decided to have my taxi pick me up at 3:30am, which meant I arrived at about 3:50am, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit.

SATURDAY NIGHT (VOLUNTEERING ON SUNDAY):

Because we were doing (and/or spectating) all the races during the weekend, we were, thankfully, already on a sleep schedule oriented for those early mornings. We were tucked into bed by 9pm on Saturday night. Before going to bed, I decided to wear a quick drying tee (one of my running shirts), and a pair of running shorts (also quick drying). I would be wearing my running shoes and quick dry socks. I also packed a mini-backpack with other gear I planned to take along. I want to provide here a recommended “what to bring” list. Some of these things I brought and some I didn’t. Keep in mind that my experience is based on working a water/powerade/sponge stop, so if you’re doing something else, your list might vary.

WHAT TO BRING:

  • A mini-backpack or a mesh/nylon cinch sak – You WILL want this to carry your snack and any other random items, so make sure it’s large enough to hold the stuff you’re bringing PLUS a water bottle and snack box. Also, make sure it’s a backpack, because the safest place for it will be on your back. It needs to be one that you don’t care about very much, because it may get dirty and wet.
  • A cap with a brim to help shade you from the sun
  • Sunscreen – granted, you may be too busy to apply it, but cover yourself liberally when you can
  • A baggie big enough to hold your cellphone (or a waterproof case if you have one), if you intend to bring your cellphone
  • Another baggie or waterproof pouch with your photo ID and any purchasing stuff you need. I took my room key, my photo ID, a credit card, and $40 to cover the taxi and anything else I ran into.
  • Spare socks and/or shoes that you can change into after your shift, ideally something lightweight like flip flops or just spare socks. If you bring spare socks, you’ll want to baggie those, too.
  • Caffeine for in the morning, if you’re so inclined. runDisney gives you a bottle of water, but they don’t have anything caffinated provided to you.
  • OPTIONAL: A sharpie, for marking your windbreaker as yours and also maybe making signs or notes on-site.
  • OPTIONAL: Your refillable resort soda mug, if you have room in your sack. It’s a handy way to drink water from a fountain or other source, plus you can use it for soda before you leave and when you get back.

WHAT NOT TO BRING:

  • A camera, unless it’s waterproof and very small. You’ll barely have time to take pictures anyways. If you’re bringing a cellphone with a good camera, just use that.
  • If the starting temperature is at least fifty degrees, don’t worry about bringing a jacket or sweatshirt. The sun rises fast, and your bus is heated. runDisney will provide a windbreaker that is a good source of light warmth and is also a little waterproof.
  • Any clothing or items that you will be upset about getting dirt-stained or soaked with water. You will get dirty and wet.
  • Food or snacks. runDisney gives you a snack box and there’s usually extra snacks afterward, too.
  • A purse (beyond the backpack I mentioned above). Keep your “wallet” to the few items I mention above and just baggie them. Then, when you get your runDisney windbreaker, put your baggie wallet (and baggie phone, if applicable) in the zippered pouch of that and guard your windbreaker with your life! Everyone’s windbreaker looks the same! (See earlier comment about bringing a sharpie.)
  • Unless you can wear it, don’t bother bringing stuff for cheering, like signs or cowbells. You won’t have time to use it, and if you can’t wear it on you, it won’t do any good. I had my wrist bells, and those worked great, but a sign or anything I had to hold would have been useless.

Finally, if you’re staying at a WDW resort, call the concierge desk the night before and arrange for your cab. That will ensure you get a yellow cab (Mears) and thus get a fair rate. Independent cabs on Disney property overcharge regularly. For example, last year, when I took a cab to the relay point during Chip and Dale, my “found right then” cab charged me almost $20 just to take me from Wilderness Lodge to the TTC parking lot! (It’s less than 2 miles. I could have walked it, except that I was about to do a half marathon and didn’t want to walk more than I had to. Also, it was dark on non-pedestrian roads. But, I digress…)

SUNDAY (VOLUNTEERING DAY!):

I got out of bed at 3am. Getting ready was fast, so I was out of the room by 3:15. I stopped by Captain Cook’s (the quick service at the Poly) for a refill of my soda mug. My taxi was there five minutes early, so we got an earlier start than expected. My taxi driver had already dropped off two other volunteers that morning, so at least I wasn’t alone in being a taxi-mode volunteer!

At the time I arrived, around 3:50am, it was an easy drop-off. Later, when our bus headed out at around 5am, the road into that parking lot was jam packed and not moving very fast at all. So, if your arrival time is 4:30 or 5, planning to arrive early is a good idea. If your arrival time is 4:15am, though, you really don’t need to get there much earlier than that, especially if you’re working a stop that is toward the end of the course.

Volunteer HQ was a tent. Your first stop was a station where they scanned your tag to check you in. Then, you went through a couple of queues to pick up your snack box, your water, and your windbreaker. After exiting the tent, volunteers pointed you toward the bus line. There were around 60-70 buses queued up, at least, maybe even eighty. Each line had ten or twelve buses in it, and there were five or six lines. The toughest part of check-in was finding your bus. My bus was number 34, but the buses weren’t in numerical order. It went bus 12, then bus 56, then bus 25, etc. So, you had to walk up and down the line until you found one with your number on it. When I got on my bus, there were two other volunteers on board, and we started chatting and taking pictures of each other.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

While we were chatting, we started wondering when the bus would leave, given that it felt pretty empty. (A few more people had come onboard, but we still had less than ten on the bus.) The bus driver said we were supposed to have 30 people on board, and that the bus wasn’t leaving until 5am. All of us were agape at that point, because we had been told to get there so much earlier than needed. It was almost like they padded our arrival time twice, once for 4:15 and then again by telling us to arrive in advance of 4:15. So, we had some time to kill. Some people went to the back of the bus to nap or got off the bus to go use the restroom. Most of us stayed onboard and chatted. But, our bus never got any fuller. Eventually a team leader (designated by a white windbreaker with TEAM LEADER on it) got onboard. He did a quick count and said, “well, we’re missing a lot of people here,” and then got off again. We eventually learned that a group of 20 that was supposed to be at our station had bailed (or were running very late). So, we got a few more volunteers from the contingency pool and before long, we were off! Our water station was being covered by two buses, ours and the one behind us, with a total of 50 people (was supposed to be 60ish).

Our bus got to drive on the closed Disney roads, even going the wrong way up roads for awhile. We saw the start line at EPCOT being prepped as we drove by. Then, we arrived at the drop-off point, which was at the corner of a field at WWoS between miles 19 and 20 on the marathon course. From there, we walked across the course and the intervening areas to get to our water stop. Though it was marked on our badges as mile 17.2, it was closer to mile 17.5, just before the course entered the WWoS complex.

Image courtesy of runDisney. All rights belong to runDisney.
Image courtesy of runDisney. All rights belong to runDisney.

When we got to our location, there were 8-9 palettes of stuff, wrapped in plastic, waiting to be unpacked. Our first order of business was tearing the plastic wrap off and sorting out what was what. Most of our water stop was being worked by two school groups, each with its own set of group leaders, with some random adults (like me) also present. The team leader had some additional instructions (though not much, it would turn out) and was generally directing things. After stuff was unpacked, we set up tables (a hand truck was provided to help wheel the tables and the water bottles and crates into place). We had disinfectant wipes to wipe down the tables. (Strangely, no work gloves were provided. It was really easy to get splinters while wiping down the tables.) Then, the team leader assigned one school group (the smaller one) to start mixing up Powerade. The Powerade came in a powdered form and had to be hand mixed (using stainless steel stirrers) with water in some provided jugs. The second school group was designated to finish dragging stuff into place and set up tables. Eventually, they were also designated to start setting up stacks of water cups along with the powerade crew.

Our stop included materials for a sponge stop, and we were the only sponge stop on the course. Our team leader had no idea what a sponge stop was or how to set it up. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten any instruction on that. I at least knew the basics of how to set it up from when I’d seen stops on races, so I kind of took over the setup and management of the sponge stop. (Manager in the hizzouse, y’all!) So, most of what I can talk about is the sponge stop. While I saw the water and powerade being set up, I had almost nothing to do with that. Instead, I worked on getting the sponges set up. The materials included wading pools, so we started getting those onto tables and filling them with the jugs of water. However, we quickly found that 4-5 of the pools were leaking. We were later told that runDisney typically doubles up the pools to help stymie the leaks, so, as the leaky pools emptied, we doubled them up. We also put as many sponges into the leaky pools as we could, to use what water we had while we had it.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

There were WDW maintenance staff on hand to help manage the mess as it happened. At first, they were just gathering up the empty bottles and trash we generated. Later, they’d be sweeping and collecting behind and around us during the race. Without them, we’d have been buried in trash pretty fast.

It’s worth noting that the instructions for the team leader had to have been pretty vague. He didn’t seem to know things like that the tables needed to be at least a few feet off of the road surface (because the runners need the whole road). I ended up passing that advice along. About a half hour before the first wheelchair, a rep from runDisney did a walkthrough of our stop with the team leader and made comments on things we needed to tweak or change. By then, we were really on final setup. That was when I found out about doubling up the leaky pools, and that’s when a lot of sad people that didn’t listen to me earlier had to move tables loaded with water cups back 1-2 feet off of the road. 😉

About the only “dead time” we had was 15 minutes before the first wheelchair racer, and maybe about a half hour after the wheelchairs before the first runners came through. From that point forward, it was go-go-go. Below is a picture of us craning to see the first non-wheelchair runner coming around the bend.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

And, I quite literally didn’t take a break or sit down from the point I got off the bus until we started shutting down our stop at 11am. While they provided a snack and water, I never had time to use it. Part of that was because our stop was understaffed. Part of it was because I was a lone adult (vs. being with a group that could trade off tasks). A good bit of it was because I was actively managing the sponge station, checking on it, trying to gauge when we’d need more or less staffing (we started with just one of us on each side but eventually went to 3 on each side, plus re-fillers behind the tables), etc. Mostly, I didn’t even notice the time until we started getting direction to shut things down.

So, what do you do all day? Most of the time, you spend yelling, “Sponges! Sponges! Sponges! We have sponges! Nice cold sponges! Stay cool, runners! Sponges here! Need a sponge? Sponges!” Every now and then, you get to yell, “Go WDW Radio! Go Marathon Maniac! Ohayoo gozaimasu, Tobiyashi! Yay WISH runner! Go Team!” Sometimes, you’d say, “You’re doing great, Ken! Way to go, Jeannie! Keep it up, Tina! Love those wings, Tinkerbell!” You grab sponges out of the water and hold them with the tips of your fingers so runners can easily grab them from you. You hand them out as fast as you can to anyone that wants them. Sometimes, you start hurriedly filling the pools up with water again or tossing in more sponges. (The sponges start out about the size of a wet nap and grow out to kitchen-size sponges.) You check on the people at the other stop and regret that you chose to be on the sunny side of the road instead of the shady side of the road. 😉 Stuff like that. And then, at some point, you realize that the runners are becoming less and less, and slower and slower.

Really, there’s three phases to the race. The front group are people who are trying to get a competitive time. They’re focused. They may not even stop for water or a sponge. All they’re doing is running as hard and fast as they can. The back group are people who are struggling. They’re injured, they’re tired, they’re sore, or some combination thereof. All they’re focused on is putting one foot in front of the other and staying on pace. In the middle, though, you get the people having fun. They know they’re going to finish. They’re there to enjoy the experience. They’re not exhausted. They’re just happy. And that’s when you get things like marriage proposals (even a guy going down on one knee) because you are handing a person a sponge. You get people joking about being spongeworthy, apologizing for their stink (which you don’t notice anyways), or offering to give you a sweaty hug.

Despite my best efforts to tell our team members to conserve sponges and avoid waste, we ran out of sponges well before the end of the runners, which made me feel terrible. After all, the folks toward the end, in some ways, need those sponges the most. They’re in the hottest weather, and they’re likely people who are overheating or otherwise having trouble. I’m sure runDisney monitors and will order more sponges in the future when the weather is hot, but it is the most horrible feeling to not have a sponge to give to a runner that clearly needs one. 🙁 Heck, most of the reason I never felt my sore feet or aching arms until later was that all I could think about was those runners and how they needed us to be on top of our game. So, if you’re volunteering, let me tell you that is the best and the worst part. It is incredibly inspiring to be there helping runners through a whole race. It is also heartbreaking, especially when the sweeper pacers come through (the dreaded ladies with smiley balloons), followed by a group of limping stragglers that know they’re about be swept…or when you see a husband who has a foot of height and at least fifty pounds on his wife being supported and practically dragged by his wife along the course while he pants and struggles. Meanwhile, she darts over to bring him water and sponges while getting none for herself. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed louder or yelled harder with encouragement than I did that day. My voice held out right up until I was on the bus, at which point, I had no voice left to say much at all.

WHEN YOUR STOP CLOSES:

After the runners are done, you have clean-up duties. What the runners leave behind is a kind of wartorn zone.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

So, you dump out any water that was poured but not used. You gather anything recyclable and put it into the specially designated bags (things like water bottles, for example). Cups get raked to the center of the road where a (literal) sweeper truck will suck them up later. Bottle lids go in the bags. Tables get broken down and hauled back to a central pile. A moving van pulls up eventually and you start loading things into the van. Pretty soon after that, a runDisney employee gives your team leader the “all clear” that you can head back to your bus, which is waiting right where you got dropped off.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

For us, our bus had to wait a bit before we could leave. I don’t know exactly why, but we had to wait around a half hour before leaving. I’m guessing that part of our route back wasn’t cleared yet. During that half hour, I cheered for more runners. Our bus was on the right side of the road just before the last turn before mile 20, so we got to see some last-ish people coming in. I cheered as hard as I could. 🙂

When the bus was ready, I climbed aboard, and we were shuttled back to Downtown Disney. After getting off, we went in and had our badges scanned again to “check out”. They gave us some of the leftover snack stuff, and the park pass we had earned. Then, we were free to go. I started the walk back to Downtown Disney to catch a bus back to the Poly. (Yes, I could have headed to the finish line to see DH and our friend finish, but there was no guarantee I’d get there fast enough, plus I was thirsty and dead tired. My socks were soaked, and I had not brought spare shoes or socks with me.) It wasn’t until I was on the bus to the Poly that my feet started hurting and aching, and I realized how much I’d been on my feet without thinking about it.

OTHER NOTES AND FUN STUFF:

  • I got to hand a sponge to Joey Fatone. He was the only celebrity I saw. He was very nice and said, “thank you.”
  • As noted earlier, I got quite a few marriage proposals and even more expressions of love. It’s nice to be the sponge stop.
  • I did use my wrist bells, but moreso for cheering after the stop than for cheering during.
  • DH and I were limping at about the same pace the next day, so there’s that. I had quite a few blisters because my feet had been so wet throughout the day.
  • Lots of people from the Facebook group said hello to me, so that was cool. Thanks, Facebookers!
  • I really liked the snack box, even though I didn’t eat it until later. We got cookies, a granola bar, dried fruit, and peanut butter crackers.
  • Neither DH nor I knew exactly what the sweepers looked like. I thought they were vans or bikes. It turns out that they’re two walkers with happy face balloons tied to their wrists. They move at the 16 minute pace. If you get to a mile marker and they’re ahead of you, you get swept at that mile marker. Because I didn’t know this, there was a point where I was cheering people on at the water stop after those balloons had passed. That is, I was cheering for people who knew they were about to get swept. 🙁 I hope they know or knew that I wasn’t trying to be mean. I had no idea or else I would have been more like, “You are awesome no matter what!” and less like “You’ve got this! Keep it up!”

Holiday Video Gaming Round-up

I did quite a bit of gaming in the time between returning from our pre-Christmas cruise and now. I’d received several games from my wish list for the holidays. I figured I’d share my thoughts on the titles I’ve been playing lately.

  • Fallout: New Vegas – It’s really an expansion of FO3 more than its own game, by all reports, and that’s fine, because FO3 was a really good game. However, I started getting through the main questline way too quickly, so I double-checked a walkthrough. Sure enough, just like FO3 started out, you can’t continue in New Vegas after completing the main quest. So, I’m now doing side quests. It feels like it happened too fast, though. I’m not sure how much of that is because I know the system now and how much is that it’s just a much smaller game. Also, I found New Vegas itself to be disappointing. FO3 was filled with real landmarks done in post-apocalyptic fashion. Just from going through the game, I know DC geography better. I suppose I recognize that they couldn’t do that with Vegas for obvious reasons, but it’s not even close. I suppose I wish that they had just picked a different location if they couldn’t do Vegas properly. All of this is really a nitpick though. It’s still an addictive game where you are enveloped in the story from the beginning. And btw, fuck the legion. (Hilarious bugs persist, too. My favorite was after I respawned in Nipton and the scene was setting up, the villagers were walking up to their crosses and hopping on, essentially self-crucifying.)
  • Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two – It pains me to say this, but it’s horrible. Okay, the first Epic Mickey had some control issues with the third person camera. Not only are those issues still present, the game is practically unplayable in single player form. Instead of letting you switch back and forth between Mickey and Oswald, the tried and true method for handling single player in a co-op game, they make you cope with AI Oswald, and the AI is horrible. Also, Oswald is lame compared to Mickey, which I suppose he had to be, since you can’t make the challenges very dependent on him because the AI is so bad. I’m still very early in the game, but it feels like it’s lacking the playful nostalgia from the original. Also, the EM1 storyline was really good. It really captured your attention. They made you care about the characters. EM2…it’s just kind of blah. It’s like any one of the issues would be forgivable but poor story + bad single player + bad controls = bad game. I’ll probably still play it through, because I’m dedicated, but it’ll be on the backburner.
  • Kinect Disneyland Adventures – Okay, this is surprisingly awesome. It really does feel like you’re in Disneyland. As far as storyline, it’s kind of Fallout-esque in the sense that it’s quest-based, with side quests and a main questline. Mostly, you’re just visiting Disneyland and doing stuff there. You can explore freely, or you can follow the quest path. The controls are all Kinect-based, which has pros and cons. To run around, you put an arm out and basically point toward where you want to go, or bend your arm toward you to turn around. It’s intuitive, but after a few minutes of running around (which can feel painfully slow…did they really need the realism of a crowded park?), my arm was getting tired. When you encounter characters or rides, you wave to interact, and then you have gestures that apply once you’re in that interaction. For example, to get an autograph, you hold out both hands, palms up, and say, “Autograph.” The rides are all mini-games based on the ride, rather than a ride-through. But, this game has what I would expect from a Disney title: attention to detail. As you walk around, you overhear other park guests talking about what they’re doing that day. Yes, some of it is PR (“Wow, this popcorn is amazing!”, “Dad, can we come back tomorrow?”), but it’s also a nice touch that some games would have skipped. The tutorial is fairly complete without being tiresome, and the game has lots of ways to help you out gently if you seem to have forgotten how to do something. Most of all though, it feels like you’re having a day in the park. I can see it as being a great way to tide you over between visits or to help a younger child understand what the park is like before their first visit. Also, if you’re a WDW person who can’t go to Disneyland, this lets you tour a virtual version of the iconic original cheaply and easily.
  • Just Dance 4 for Kinect – There’s not a ton of gameplay difference here in this one versus Just Dance 3. It’s got the same kooky animations and the same overly forgiving scoring system. Just like previous versions, you have to play to unlock features that really should be present out of the box, like playlists. However, the Kinect experience has been thoroughly improved. The tracking seems to be much better, and we were able to play with four people in a less-than-ideal space without too much issue. Also, they added video capture which has lots of potential hilarity. But, overall, you’re basically just buying a new playlist of dance songs.

Yet Another Cruise…

A few days before our RCI cruise, DH discovered that he’d have to return to home early for a work opportunity. So, he planned to get off on the morning of our last port, Cozumel. This itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1 – Depart New Orleans
  • Day 2 – Sea Day
  • Day 3 – Sea Day
  • Day 4 – Falmouth, Jamaica
  • Day 5 – Georgetown, Grand Cayman
  • Day 6 – Cozumel, Mexico
  • Day 7 – Sea Day
  • Day 8 – Arrive New Orleans

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I’d been to each of the ports at least once. I’d been to Cozumel three times. So, especially since we had a junior suite, we had decided in advance that we’d skip touring for the most part. We did want to go to Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica. I hadn’t gone the last time we were there, and it was DH’s first visit to Jamaica altogether. We did DRF via a ship excursion that was $79 each. It was pricey but a dear friend whose family lives in Jamaica had consulted with her folks and told us it was our best option. Some of our dinner friends tried to just grab a cab at the port, but they had no luck. It seems like RCI just basically bought and built up Falmouth such that it would be their port. The cruise people are basically stuck using RCI’s services because nothing else is made available.

It was roughly an hour to ride the bus to the falls. The chatter from the tour guide was largely uninteresting. But, once we got to the falls, she seemed to give us good advice and got us into the queue for a river guide safely. As we were walking down the boardwalk to the base of the falls, I chickened out mainly because the idea of stepping wrong and falling into water was not appealing to me. Plus, it turns out that you can really get great views of the falls and go in the water from the boardwalk along the falls, so I was like, why bother climbing the thing with this big annoying group of people when I can just hop into the water where I want and stroll along at my leisure? DH had fun, though, and the tour guides were really great. They even took pictures of us together at one of the big pools.

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The falls themselves were quite pretty and very cool and refreshing. DH climbed all the way up.

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After the falls, we had to walk through the really annoying and pushy souvenir sellers to get back to the bus. We were the first to get back. On the way back to the ship, they stopped at a bar/restaurant. Normally those stops annoy me since their main purpose is to strand you somewhere that you’ll be bored enough to spend money, but this bar had free wi-fi, so we got a drink each and dived into email and social networking.

The other port stops were mainly non-eventful. I had decided to get Andrew presents from each port as his Christmas gift from us, so most of our activity was around going into town and finding some nifty and largely useless trinket to get for him. We did have lots of fun on the ship though. Having two sea days up front meant that we got to experience the ship fully right away.

We played bridge on the first day, and we were pleasantly surprised to have enough people for three full tables of bridge, with some kibitzers. One other pair was even close to our age! The card and game room on the Navigator was adjacent to a room that was for general purpose but often got used for tot/toddler play sessions. On the first sea day, they had the divider between the rooms opened up. Lots of bridge and other game players complained, because there was noise from toddler play (kid songs, random drum banging, kids shaking rattle toys). It was really ill-planned and yet the staff seemed totally caught off-guard that it would bug us, like they always do this and we were the first people ever on a cruise to complain. When we went to play bridge the next day, DH eventually just took charge and closed the airwall between the rooms himself. He received applause from the game players.

The second sea day was a formal night. We had a late dinner seating, so we spent some time swimming and such right before dinner, while half the ship was off eating. I was already at the adult pool, but DH had run a few errands first. On his way out to meet me, he passed a family in their fancy duds for dinner. The young son in the family looked at DH in his swim trunks and tee and then plaintively whined to his mom, “Moo-oom! I thought you said it was FORMAL night!” Hee.

We had so much free time that we spent time on the balcony one evening coming up with actuary jokes. 🙂 We also went to a martini mixology class and tasting. At the end of the “class” (which mostly consisted of us being handed taster ‘tinis), each person got to make their own customized ‘tini for judging, and you got to take a full ‘tini of your custom blend. There were over forty people there, so there were lots of combinations, even though we had *very* limited ingredients to choose from (no flavored vodkas, e.g.). I ended up making a ‘tini of vodka with a splash of butterscotch schnapps and a couple of splashes of key lime syrup. It tasted like a lime cooler cookie, and I was quite proud of it. I was even more proud when it won the contest! The prize was a free ‘tini from the bar and also getting to be the martini of the day on the last night of the cruise.

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For DH getting off in Cozumel, he had to send off a bunch of info to the cruise line in advance, specifically he had to speak with the emergency travel department before the cruise to get approval for the early departure. On the Cozumel day, he had to go to a conference room on the ship right before they made port so that he could clear Mexico customs. Everyone who is leaving the ship for good goes through a specialized customs area, including employees and contractors. It was more likely to have bag searches and close attention than a normal customs entry. You, of course, have to have a passport, and you get a temporary visa. The customs agents also told DH that he owed a tourist fee (~$25), but they don’t have the ability to collect it there. They said he’d be asked for it at the airport. When DH got to the Cozumel airport, he asked United about it, and United collected the fee from him. If he hadn’t asked, though, he’s pretty sure no one would have ever cared about it. The Cozumel airport was really small, and DH says he breezed through check-in and security there. We made port at 9am and his flight left at noon, and he had no trouble making the flight. (Of course, keep in mind that he has status on United, so he can use the premier lanes where applicable.)

I was told by a cruise ship employee on the day after Cozumel that 80+ people got left behind, accidentally, at that port. We were over an hour behind in untying from the port (and thus hauled ship-ass on our last sea day). The weather that day in Cozumel was really windy, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the ferry from mainland Mexico (which a lot of cruisers take over from/to Cozumel in order to visit the ruins and eco-parks over there) was canceled or delayed. When B* and I were touring from Cozumel and took that ferry, I had us get on one way earlier than we needed to for specifically that reason. (I had read that the ferry is frequently canceled or delayed for stormy weather.) Anyways, we saw one boat bring a couple of latecomers to the ship from the dock, and there were people who came onto the ship a good 45 minutes late. (I could see the dock from my balcony.) I don’t know if it’s true that so many people got left. The person I talked to implied that both us and the other RCI ship in that port lost a lot of people, and that Carnival’s ship had missing people, too. That supports my ferry hypothesis, but it still seems like a lot of people to be abandoned.

After my cruise, I spent some time in NOLA. I visited the Audubon Insectarium. They had lots of holiday things in the bug aquariums. It turns out the praying mantis, ironically, is Jewish!

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I also went to see The Hobbit with Andrew, and we had comped dinner at the casino. The steak at the Besh steakhouse was one of the best steaks I’ve had anywhere. Sadly, as I was in the beginnings of the cold I have now, I had hardly any appetite. 🙁

Flying out the next day was uneventful. My PT cruise was iced up when I got to it in Milwaukee. Even my Agent P antenna ornament had icicles hanging off its bill!

Thanksmisukah

This has been a whirlwind of trips. We spent Thanksgiving weekend in Detroit, mostly. We visited with family, and we gave out Hanukkah gifts (and received some from our close family on that side). Getting to see the adorable nephews was awesome. I can’t believe AN1 is going to be old enough for his Bar Mitzvah next year! He’s almost taller than I am. AN2 is a hoot. He’s even more of a ham than AN1 was at his age, which is hard to imagine but still true. On our way home, we stopped for an overnight in Indiana. This was one of the first Thanksgiving trips in MI/IN that we’ve done where there hasn’t been snow. There were some flurries in Detroit at one point, but nothing stuck. I skipped out on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, mainly because they just weren’t that good this year.

Right after Thanksgiving weekend, DH had to go to Vegas for a bit, which gave me time to work on the job hunt. Right after DH got back from Vegas, we hopped on a plane to Asheville, NC to visit a casino down there and then drive to Charleston, SC to visit with my family. Asheville is a really pretty area. I wish we’d had more time there to explore, but I was eager to head down to SC.

For this SC trip, we had decided to rent a house out on Kiawah. DH was doing the Kiawah Islands Half-marathon to close out his 13.1-in-13.1 goal for the year, so having a place on the island was going to be convenient for him to get to the race start. It also allowed us to all be in one place for gaming and such. My parents fed us homemade food all weekend, which was awesome. It was too chilly for the beach or swimming, though still shorts weather for those of us acclimatized to northern reaches. DH and I enjoyed a nice walk around the island at one point, and he even did 20 miles on the day after his half marathon in preparation for running the Goofy in WDW in January.

DH completes 13.1 Half-Marathons in 13.1 States!

We introduced my parents to Ascension and played Empire Builder a few times. We also played sillier games like Zombie Fluxx. Mostly, we enjoyed each other’s company. 🙂

And, I have to say that while the vacation rental wasn’t as easy-breezy as the All Star Vacation Home in Orlando, it was still an awesome experience and certainly a great value. Per night, it was less than staying in a single hotel room on Kiawah would have been, and it was about the equivalent in cost of having two hotel rooms at normal to average city rates. We had a three bedroom house on stilts overlooking a small pond. There were three separate outdoor tables as well as a big dining table inside and a small table in the kitchen. Each bedroom had a small TV, and the main room had a big TV. I’m really thinking that I might try to coordinate “TravelCon” at some point, where I get a bunch of gamer friends together and we get a house at some scenic location but mostly have the intent to play games and socialize all weekend.

All in all, we had a good holiday season, and we were pretty much done with the holidays by mid-December, which was nice. 🙂

WDW Wine & Dine Group Trip Recap

DH and I rounded up a group of our friends to join us for a mega WDW Wine & Dine group trip. DH and T* ran the Wine & Dine half-marathon, while Moo, B*, BAD, and I enjoyed the Wine & Dine festival race party. We also toured WDW in general, including a stop by New Fantasyland before it opened to the public! I had lots of fun playing tour guide, despite having a nasty cold that I eventually passed to B*.

This was our first experience staying in an All Star Vacation Home. ASVH advertises on a few of our favorite Disney podcasts, so we were happy to give them some business. We were even able to book them using our MEI & Mouse Fan travel agent! As for the home and experience, in a nutshell, we loved it. You do, of course, have to have a rental car to make it work (we rented two cars), but it was great to have a full kitchen for cooking breakfasts and storing sodas as well as our own pool and hot tub in the back yard. We stayed in this house, which had a perfect amount of space for our group. It took us several hours on the first day (and a visit from one of the ASVH employees) to learn how everything worked and also get some burnt out light bulbs replaced, but after that, it was smooth sailing. The locks are PIN coded, so you don’t even have to worry about carrying keys. Everyone in the group loved the house and space, and I highly recommend it for anyone traveling with a large group. It would have been great for a family with kids, too, since everyone gets their own bedroom.

I have lots of trip photos posted in the photo gallery/album for this trip, but I wanted to highlight some of my favorites.

This was our whole group doing the one PhotoPass group shot we managed, at Animal Kingdom:
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

I got a really great castle shot on the morning we visited Magic Kingdom:
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

Moo and BAD show off their New Fantasyland Preview bracelets. (Because DH and I have annual passes, we were able to get our group in for a preview, including lunch at Be Our Guest!)
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DH posed with a gargoyle outside the Be Our Guest restaurant:
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Speaking of New Fantasyland, I do want to spend a few lines on the Be Our Guest restaurant. Lots of WDW reviewers echo the sentiment that this restaurant is the best lunch in the Magic Kingdom and possibly the best counter service lunch in all of WDW. The food was spectacular. Everyone in our party enjoyed the meal (though we did have some special order issues due to the computerized ordering system). Even the most basic entreés were more flavorful than you’d expect. The space is amazing. It’s just fabulous. If you’re going to WDW, it’s worth a visit, but expect it to be super-busy as the word of mouth is spreading fast about what a great dining experience it is!

Beyond that, New Fantasyland is pretty awesome, though generally aimed at (as one would expect) a younger set. We had fun with Belle’s Enchanted Storytime (and, without spoiling anything, the mirror is amazing), and the guy who is playing Gaston (outside the eponymous tavern) is perfectly cast. It also blends perfectly into “old” Fantasyland. You really can’t tell where the seam is in the concrete. Once the construction walls come down, it will seem like it’s always been there.

On to a new topic (and a different park), the baby rhino in the far right of this picture was born when I was doing the Expedition Everest 5K in Animal Kingdom, so he’s kind of special to me.
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

We had lots of fun sampling items during the Wine & Dine party before our racers finished. B* and BAD even had an impromptu dance party!

WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

DH had dressed up as Uncle Sam for this race. He got lots of compliments on his costume.
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

We visited the Osborne lights. WDW has done a great job improving the flow of that event. Oh, and the hot chocolate was delicious!
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

Duffy was even in the lights this year!
WDW Wine & Dine Half Trip - 2012

All in all, it was a very fun trip. The only bad part, aside from the roving illnesses in our group, was that we were all having so much fun hanging out together at the house that we had to really push ourselves to go to WDW. I guess that’s not so much of a bad thing. 🙂

Europe Cruise 2012 – Vatican City (Day 9)

Much like getting on the ship, getting off the ship was pretty easy since we were among a very small group disembarking in Civitavecchia. It was somewhat more crowded versus when we got on, just because lots of people were getting off the ship to tour either Rome or Civitavecchia.

I hadn’t noticed it when we were in Civitavecchia before, but there was this giant statue memorializing the arrival of US sailors in this port during WWII.

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Our plan for the day was to take the train back into Rome, drop off our bags at the hostel, and then head over to Vatican City. Vatican City is another area where I took a ton of pictures, so I’m just going to sum up two highlights. The thing to know about Vatican City, though, is that it is/was SUPER crowded. Like, you know how the trains were “shove yourself in” crowded? Vatican City was that crowded. There were tons of tour groups holding up every thing imaginable to distinguish themselves from the others.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

It was hot and sweaty, made worse by the Vatican’s draconian dress code (pants or skirts must be ankle length, no bare shoulders, etc.). I mailed some postcards so that folks would get the Vatican postmark before we went into the museum proper. Once we were in the museum, it was hard to enjoy the art, in part because there was tons of it everywhere and in part because of the sweltering, loud, rude, and shoving crowd.

I learned that the Vatican put fig leaves over all the penises of the statues, for modesty.

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They didn’t have a problem showing a multi-titted Egyptian goddess, though.

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The ceilings in one area were painted in a trompe l’oeil style that was really remarkable.

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The tape on one of them gave away the trick, though.

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They had a statue painted up to replicate the way that the marble statues looked in ancient times. The only reason they’re all white now is because the paint wore off with time. The statues were typically very colorful, and depictions of ancient Rome as this white marble area are inaccurate.

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You’re not allowed to take photos in the Sistine Chapel, but we must have spent at least forty minutes in there. It was breathtaking. After that, we saw St. Peter’s Square, where the Pope speaks about popey things. They were disassembling it from where he had addressed the crowd earlier in the day.

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Then, we went into St. Peter’s Basilica, where I fought my way through a crowd in order to see (from at least eighty feet away) Michaelangelo’s Pieta.

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Meanwhile, DH toured the rest of the basilica. Then, we met up outside the basilica and started making our way out.

Leaving Vatican City proved to be a challenge. We got directed through a tunnel and into a structure like a parking garage to find the bus stop, but it turned out to be a meeting place for tour buses, not a city bus stop. Then, we went outside that area and couldn’t find a bus stop that should have been there. DH was consulting maps when a priest stopped and asked if we needed help. He had an American accent, so I’m guessing he was visiting. We asked about the bus and he directed us back up a ways to a very hard to find bus sign. We thanked him and trotted over to the bus stop, where we were soon met by the cutest bus in the world!

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I wanted to ride it all day. 🙂 But, we were only going down to the river with intent to walk over to the Jewish quarter. We saw a temple, that I think I photographed but can’t seem to find the picture. We also saw a bridge that used to be the bridge used by Jews to cross from their area to the city for work. At one point (fairly long ago), Rome made the Jews live in the crappy part of town, on the riverbank that flooded constantly. Nowadays, that area is a trendy and young area with lots of eateries and entertainment.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

We went over there to eat at a place that was commended for its chocolate calzones. I got pizza without cheese that was delightful, and we used the wi-fi.

I should note that we had a bit of a crisis trying to find an ATM while in this area. We eventually found one, once DH guided us to the “main drag”, but it was worrisome. We were really low on Euros, and we couldn’t eat or drink until we’d found some money. But, we ended up in an area with a movie theater, and a bank was nearby, so that solved that problem.

After dinner, we made our way back to the hostel to pack up and get ready for a super-early departure to the airport.

Europe Cruise 2012 – Naples/Pompeii (Day 8)

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Epic visits Naples on the dark day for the archaeological museum, which is where most of the Pompeii relics are stored. That made our plans for Naples much shorter than otherwise planned. We decided to just go straight to Pompeii and decide afterward whether we wanted to go to Herculaneum or not.

Getting out of the port was very confusing. We knew we needed to take a bus to the train station, but the bus numbers on the signs didn’t match what was in our guidebook and info. We winged it and came out alright. Some locals helped. Naples, at least in the parts we saw, was very dirty and icky looking, but the people were really nice and helpful. The buses were very crowded. When we got to the train station, we had just missed a train to Pompeii, so we ended up waiting in the station for a little while. Then, we got on the train (in the conductor’s car, as our guidebook had recommended). As per the norm, we started out with lots of room, but the train got crowded as we proceeded. It’s a relatively long train ride to Pompeii, but once we got there, it was a short walk to the entrance.

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I checked the gift shop to try to find a recommended book, one with overlays of the sights that re-create the original buildings and art, but they had it in just about every language except English. So, we stuck with the Rick Steves podcasts, which were quite informative and humorous. (I did get bored of listening to him partway through our walk-around, though.)

Mt. Vesuvius is easily visible as you tour Pompeii, though it was cloudy and hazy on the day we visited.
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Our first stop was the main forum and gathering area.

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We learned that the streets had these blocks to allow people to cross when the streets were flooded for cleaning.

Europe Cruise 2012

We used it as a spot to practice our “OMG, it’s lava!” expressions.

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Mini-Duffy even got in on the act:
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We, of course, visited the molds of dead people, as well as lots of remaining art and architecture.
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There’s a ton of photos over in the Pompeii photo album, so I will try to keep it to a minimum here. You can explore more over there. This sign was to mark that the street was for pedestrians only. (No chariots allowed.)

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We visited an ancient spa and bath. They had cubbies for their stuff, with different carvings marking each cubby.

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Across the street, there was an ancient eatery. Fast food was really popular with Romans (keep in mind that this was all part of Rome back in the day…Italy didn’t exist yet).

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On the streets that were designated for chariot use, you could see how the chariots had marked up the stone from frequent use.

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You can see in this one how the stones were set up, on chariot-friendly roads, to allow pedestrians to cross during flooding but also to allow chariots to pass by them.

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Pompeii involves a lot of walking. DH wanted to follow the route that the podcast followed, but I really wanted to run around and explore. We compromised and did a bit of both.

Europe Cruise 2012

We visited the famous “Beware of Dog” tile entryway.

Europe Cruise 2012

In much of the park, vines and plants are overtaking the old stone ruins. It reminded me of movies like I Am Legend.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

The amount of tilework that remained and was in good shape was pretty impressive.

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They’d added modern plumbing throughout the park, with lots of water stations, each with unique decorations that are re-creations of original stonework for the irrigation system that existed long ago.

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We walked the long path to the arena and theatres. Altogether, that part was like a mini-Colosseum. Along the way, we saw lots of dogs napping or wandering, covered in flies. It did not seem like a happy dog life.

Europe Cruise 2012

We ended up staying in Pompeii throughout our time. We gave ourselves plenty of time to get back to the ship, and, since the train ran late, that meant we spent lots of time waiting at the station. Then, we took a combination of buses back to the ship and relished in some wings and spa time.

Europe Cruise 2012 – Epic Sea Day (Day 7)

(Author’s Note: So, it’s pretty sad when you’re on your next cruise while still trying to finish up recapping the previous one. Not to mention, I’ve been on two other trips since then that I want to write about, so I’m really behind. I can’t even blame being busy with work! 😉 I’m going to try to knock out all of my belated blog entries while I’m on this trip, though. I think it’s do-able. At some point, I’ll backdate all of these Europe Cruise posts to line up with the cruise dates, so don’t be surprised if they change in ordering in a few weeks.)

Our sea day was also my birthday, and NCL had given us a card to give our server at dinner for a special birthday surprise. I had also insisted that I wanted to go in the ice bar (which has a separate cover charge), so that was the majority of our plans. We also played trivia. In this post, I’ll cover what we did that day as well as talking about the NCL Epic in general.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

I hadn’t talked about this before, because I was saving it for this entry, but we had decided to take advantage of an offer for a weeklong spa pass on this trip. When we got onboard in Rome, they were having a special where you could get 2 spa passes (intended for a couple) for $199, but you had to buy it on the day you board. Normally, you can get a day pass for $30 per person, but you can’t buy a day pass on the sea day. Since we didn’t have a balcony for this trip, we decided having the spa access would be a nice way to get some extra semi-private space. So, for the entire cruise, we were taking the chance to go lounge in the Epic’s hydro-spa every chance we got. I think we went every single day. I know I went twice on the sea day. They have a pool with water jet massagers and a roller bed with massage bubbles that you can lounge in. One corner of it has a literal whirlpool area, with water swirling such that you have to really fight to stay upright (or you can just let go and float in it). They also have a hot tub. And, what really sold me on it was that they had these stone loungers that were heated that you could lay on. The heat felt marvelous, and it was a great place to relax with my Kindle. There was an aft-facing balcony with more loungers (normal ones). The sauna and steam rooms also had floor to ceiling windows. (I have to assume the windows are tinted or mirrored or something…but maybe not. Who knows. It’s clothing optional in the women’s one, at any rate.) The spa was stocked with flavored water, fruit, teas, and coffee, so it was a good place to grab a drink. The spa pass also allowed us to use the spa’s shower and changing areas, which had much better showers than the in-room ones (certainly more spacious and possibly better water pressure). Basically, we decided this splurge was worth it specifically because we were in an inside cabin. The spa gave us a place where we could have a semi-private balcony as well as where we could relax or lounge like we usually do in our balcony rooms. If you’re trying to save money on a cruise on the Epic but you’re used to having a balcony stateroom, I do think doing this method (inside room + spa pass) is a good idea. It’s definitely cheaper than the upgrade.

I also wanted to comment generally on my thoughts about the Epic in this post. You can consider this my brief review of the NCL Epic. The Epic has some definite flaws compared to other NCL ships, but it has some big advantages, too. You have to decide whether the flaws are important to you or not.

Things I didn’t like about the Epic:

  • Elimination of The Great Outdoors (and no equivalent) – One of my favorite parts of sailing on NCL’s ships is the area that they call The Great Outdoors. It’s a mini-buffet and bar on the aft part of the lido deck, generally separated from the rest of lido by the main buffet and the Italian restaurant. I love it because it’s a place you can go, outside, to enjoy a cool beverage in relative quiet (no bands or loud music), with tables that are suitable for sitting with a laptop. If you read cruising forums, NCL fans are generally big fans of TGO. It is one of the things that distinguishes NCL’s ships from other cruise lines, kind of like how Royal Caribbean is distinguished by the crown lounge. On the Epic, NCL replaced the TGO area with a giant movie screen, an adults-only pool, and a terraced area going up to the next floor’s bar. At night, the pool gets covered with a dance floor and the whole area becomes an ultralounge. Oh, and the pool for adults is teeny tiny. I’ve seen jacuzzis bigger than the pool. The movie screen never got used. You’d think they’d show movies under the stars there or something, but they don’t. They don’t even show sports during the day on it. It’s almost totally unused. So, the replacement for TGO was yet another tanning/lounging pool area with little difference or change versus the existing lounge areas. It’s loud. The only drinks are bar drinks. And, there’s only a few “normal” tables. Most of the seating is loungers and side tables.
  • Bathroom design – Lots of ship reviews and blogs have blasted the design of the bathrooms on the Epic. Someone really wasn’t thinking when they thought up the design. In each stateroom on board, the traditional bathroom — a separate, doored-off space containing all the necessities — has been deconstructed. As you enter a cabin, on one side is a shower with a sliding glass (actually plastic made to look like glass) door. To the other side, you’ll find the toilet in its own little booth, also with a sliding glass door, and there’s a curtain you can pull across the whole entryway/bathroom area for privacy. The sink and medicine cabinet are in the cabin itself, just beyond the toilet and shower booths. I’m guessing they did this design to allow 2-3 people to use the facilities simultaneously. However, it just fails miserably. Let’s start with the sink. It’s on the desk, and the sink is too small for the faucet it has. The water frequently shoots right out of the sink and splashes the surrounding space, which will often have your laptop and electronics, since it’s near the only easily accessible outlets. Stupid. Now, for the toilet and shower, the problem is that the space is very small, even more so than the typical cruise bathroom. I commented in an earlier post (albeit slightly hidden) that I couldn’t adopt a wide stance in that bathroom. And, I should remind you that the door for both the toilet and shower is *frosted faux glass*. It’s see-through, pretty much. Yes, you can pull the privacy curtain, but a cabinmate coming in would see you. If you’re a couple, it’s less of a big deal, but it’s still a little strange. Also, because they deconstructed the bathroom, there’s no ventilation for the bathroom. Most cruise ships put a vent in the bathroom space that either is on a timer or triggers based on the light switch. The bathroom will also have a lipped entryway (unless it’s a handicapped room) that helps keep any water spills contained. The Epic’s toilet and shower have no ventilation fan, probably because they’re separate pods. This means that a stinky toilet visit stinks up the room, and a hot shower steams up the room. The floor outside the shower is frequently wet, either from steam or a faulty door seal. So, you better be in shoes or bare feet in that area lest you get wet socks. The rest of the cabin design was great, and, having peeked in at some of the larger rooms, the “wave” design is smart. I think it’s cool that the Epic created rooms specifically for singles, too. But, the bathroom design is just ridiculous and practically ruins the ship. You certainly wouldn’t want to sail the ship with a family because of the privacy issues.
  • The Posh area – The Epic has an area called The Posh Bar. It’s a bar and lounge area only accessible to guests at the Suite level or higher (mini-suites don’t count). Extra perks for suite+ customers aren’t unusual, but this particular one irks me. I accidentally ended up in the Haven at one point, not realizing where I was and having hopped on the elevator with someone else. It’s very nice. I loved it immediately. While not as awesome as The Great Outdoors, it had shaded lounge pods that I loved, with cushy pillows, and misters to keep you cool. (I later found similar pods in the bow section of lido, but they were very popular and hard to get. Also, they were frequently wet.) So, I will say that some of this may be sour grapes, but it bugs me that they had this space and rather than just making it an adults-only area or a daypass area (like the spa), they put it for suite guests. Suite guests have a giant-ass balcony that could hold a pod. They have no reason to use a space like that (and sure enough, it was deserted when I was there, on a sea day in mid-afternoon). It’s just a waste. Plus, think of why you go to a bar on a ship, to sit. You go to be *with* people. It makes little sense to go to this exclusive bar area that has no one in it. Yet, there were no less than five staff there, sitting around idle with little to do. Stupid. Yes, I know it wouldn’t be as nice if it were public, but I would have gladly paid for a daypass or cover charge for a guaranteed quiet lounging area. Then, you can give the suite guests access for free as their perk but let other folks buy their way in for a reasonable rate.

Things I liked about the Epic:

  • The Entertainment – The entertainment on this ship was amazing. You have Blue Man Group, a Cirque show, Improv/Howl at the Moon, and Legends in Concert. (On our cruise, because we were in Europe, Improv was replaced by a Spanish juggling/music act.) I also liked that almost every show plays each night, so you can go to what you’re in the mood for instead of having to conform your mood to the one show playing each evening. It felt like being in a mini-Vegas. The only thing that sucked was that the BMG show was the exact same one they do (or did, possibly) in Chicago, so it was kind of boring to us. Howl at the Moon was awesome, though. As soon as that kicked in (it is dark for half the trip), we went every night.
  • The casino design – Now, some people complain about the casino on the Epic. It takes up most of a floor. And, yes, that floor can be hard to traverse when the casino is busy. What I liked, though, is that it having its own floor meant they had to design traversal space that wasn’t through the casino (since kids can go in the casino). Most ships practically force you to walk through the casino to cross the ship internally (i.e., not on the lido deck). On the Epic, there’s two traversal floors, with the casino being the lower one. They also had to manage the smoke really well because it’s a traversal floor, so there are purifiers every few feet. It was probably the least smoky ship casino I’ve seen. The casino bar was also convenient to the formal dining room, which was nice for us with our free casino drink cards.

Europe Cruise 2012

Beyond these notable things, the food was terrific and the service was awesome. I expect those things to be great on a cruise, and the Epic was no exception.

So…back to what we did on the sea day… We showed up for Bridge, but no one else did, so we gave up on that. We went to all the trivia they had that day (I think two or three). Despite not really finding good trivia partners (unusual for us!), we won one of them, and the prize was the most useful prize I’ve ever gotten for ship trivia: a fold-up frisbee with the NCL logo. When folded up, it’s a small disc about the circumference of a can of veggies. It’s thin and lightweight, not even an ounce. When you unfold it though, it pops into frisbee size, and it makes a terrific fan! It’s now in my bin of things that I dig through and decide whether to pack when appropriate, along with things like headlamps, waterproof camera, small tote bags, etc.

We had made some friends early in the cruise that we had plans to meet with to go in the ice bar. When you go into the ice bar, they provide parkas and little stretchy knit gloves. When you walk in, it very much feels like walking into a freezer, because that’s pretty much what it is. There’s even those plastic dangling things that you walk through in freezers.

Europe Cruise 2012

Your admission also gets you two complimentary drinks, served in cups made of ice. The drinks feature Smirnoff vodka, Inniskillin ice wine, or both. I sampled two drinks, and DH had two different ones. We didn’t find a truly bad drink in the bunch, but the orange ones were our favorites. The ice bar has a few ice sculptures that you can photo and pose with. Mostly, what I learned is that I’m meant to live in a freezer. It was the most comfortable that I had been on the whole cruise. Yeah, my legs and toes eventually got chilly; I was wearing flip flops, after all. But, it was just all nice and cozy.

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

Europe Cruise 2012

At dinner, my treat was a mini birthday cake, which was very cute. I brought Duffy with me to dinner to celebrate.

Europe Cruise 2012

Later that evening, we went to the Howl at the Moon bar, which was always super-fun. It’s a sing-along dueling piano bar. Our friends got called up to dance at one point. We requested happy birthday for me, but it was taking too long, and we got tired before they played it. Our friends told us they played it for me right after I left. But, we were happy to crash in anticipation of our day in Naples and Pompeii.

Europe Cruise 2012