Travel Tuesday: Harry Potter and the Prescription of Ass-kaban

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Now, I don’t want to blame Lance’s prescription for our less-than-stellar first visit to Universal Orlando’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

…but I am. [Editor’s note: Love ya, boo!]

I need to backtrack and provide a little context: Lance, per the usual, was having his Bi-monthly Health Crisis (seriously, he passed 30 and his body just began shutting down).  This time, Lance was experiencing (TMI warning!) a near-full-body rash.  We speculated for weeks as the rash grew more irritated and scaly: was it an allergic reaction? it was itching so bad, could it be bed bugs? and so on.

Finally, Lance got himself to a doctor, who couldn’t pinpoint the cause but figured it must be an allergy, and prescribed the steroid Prednisone to combat it.  I didn’t know much about Prednisone except I was under the impression that prescription steroids were supposed to be heavy-hitters: take a few and whatever was ailing you would be knocked flat on its ass.

Well, according to Lance, a side effect of Prednisone is that it makes you a giant rage monster.

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So that’s how we ended up in this Chili’s.  On the night of our arrival, we were to go to Artist Point, one of Walt Disney World’s signature restaurants in the achingly wonderful Wilderness Lodge (more on this in a future post).  However, we were having one of those travel days where we were both on edge and snipping at each other.  That, and Artist Point ain’t cheap, so I figured, “Why spend the money when we’re both miserable and certainly wouldn’t have a good time?”

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The rest of the trip was fraught with bickering, day in and day out.  This isn’t all Lance’s fault; when traveling, especially when the trip is understood to be “mine,” I am very sensitive to Lance’s mood.  Is he having a good time? I’ll worry.  Is he mad? Is waiting in line for Revenge of the Mummy going to lead to divorce??  

Whenever I notice Lance being quiet or distant, I prod him.  “Baby, what’s wrong?”  And that leads to us fighting over who’s being too sensitive, who’s spending too much time buying luggage at the Tumi outlet when we should be at Universal or Islands of Adventure, etc…

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My pal Brian is a champion of the Universal Orlando Resort (which includes the second park, Islands of Adventure) and after a recent series of articles he wrote for Theme Park Tourist, I was very excited to re-visit after nearly a six year absence.

We somehow slept in fairly late (something I never do) on our first full day in Orlando, and in my anxiousness to get to the park in an attempt to avoid lines, I ended up rushing us out the door and making everything even more tense.

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When we arrived at the Universal resort, we headed straight for Islands of Adventure, where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is, tucked in the back.  As we weaved through Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent, I was hit with a wave of disappointment.  Beyond just the light crowds limiting the energy in the air, both areas were in need of some TLC.  Seuss really needs a paint-job after its unique facade has faded in the Florida sun, and The Lost Continent (along with the Jurassic Park section) is stuffed with cheap carnival games.  Was Universal not the theme park powerhouse aiming to knock Disney off its perch, as it’s portrayed online?

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But as we rounded the corner into Hogsmeade, it was obvious what had people excited about Universal: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is drop-dead gorgeous, the theming and immersiveness so spot-on to the film series that you can’t help but chugging down a butterbeer or perusing through Honeyduke’s.

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There are three rides in TWWoHP: the fairly standard kiddie-coaster Flight of the Hippogriff (really, go on this for the queue alone, which features and animatronic Buckbeak and a swell recreation of Hagrid’s hut), Dragon Challenge (a Goblet of Fire-overlay of the preexisting Dueling Dragons coaster), and the absolutely mind-blowing Hogwarts walkthrough/crazy ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  I was completely taken aback by the whole of …Forbidden Journey, an amazing experience through and through, with such a unique ride vehicle technology that you really feel like you’ve never seen anything like it.  And the queue, which is more than half the fun! The “line” for the actual ride takes you through Hogwarts, up staircases lined with moving portraits, through Dumbledore’s headmaster office and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, and past the Sorting Hat.

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TWWoHP is, I’m inclined to say, on par with Tokyo DisneySea as far as escapism is concerned.  When you’re winding your way through the back alleys of Hogsmeade, or inside Ollivander’s watching somebody being paired with a wand, it’s truly incredible.  (My only complaint while actually inside of TWWoHP was being able to see the warehouse-like showbuilding for …Forbidden Journey just past the Hogwarts facade.) The main downside is its size: TWWoHP doesn’t take up a lot of land, and therefore you feel like it’s over almost once it’s begun.  The Diagon Alley expansion, due later this summer, will bring so much more depth and space to this really wonderful land.

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I’ll report back next week about the rest of our time at Universal, particularly the expansion of the Simpsons area, which is also terrifically swell.  We honestly spent 90% of our time at Universal and Islands of Adventure in one of these two lands.

But, back to Lance, who was not only suffering from Rage Monster-itis, but also a side-effect of nausea.  After a kind Universal team member let us into the express queue for …Forbidden Journey, Lance’s time with attractions was limited.  Harry Potter, Transformers, Simpsons, and more all rely on similar-ish ride systems, where the guest is basically whipped around in front of IMAX-esque screens where the “action” is projected.  Even though we took motion sickness meds before we set foot in the park, Lance couldn’t make it past Harry Potter.  I rode alone for the rest of the day, which made us breeze through Marvel Super Hero Island and Universal Studios.

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Looking back, this trip was kinda a dud (except for the food, which I’ll address in a future post).  Lance and I fought every day, even though we were both trying out best to keep things in perspective–I mean, it WAS the Prednisone, not either of us, that was causing a lot of the personality conflicts during this trip.  And while it was disappointing to think about how much money we spent to have a less-than-stellar time, I also had to remind myself that we’ve been together for almost seven years and have made countless trips together–not every one is going to earn a gold star.

And heck, I was in Hogsmeade with a frozen butterbeer. Who am I to complain?

Travel Tuesday: Dollywood or Bust

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Like some sort of religious zealot, Lance must make an annual pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park.  On our previous visit, we bought season passes, good from the holiday season of 2012 through the end of 2013; given that the season pass price was only ~$30 more than a 1-day ticket, we took a gamble, figuring we’d definitely be back in 2013.

Yet the close of 2013 was rapidly approaching, and we hadn’t once set foot on Wild Eagle OR Blazing Fury. Decisions had to be made.

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We again decided to visit Dollywood during the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas.  The weather is cool in Tennessee that time of year and Dollywood is literally wrapped to the nines in Christmas lights.  Dollywood, not surprisingly in a Southern state, also runs a fair split of Christian and secular holiday shows, which is kinda charming, if you don’t think too much of the “organized Christianity’s long history of discrimination against gays” thing.

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Now, Dollywood is a TREK from Philadelphia.  It’s not really economical to fly (PHL-Knoxville is like $450 round-trip per person during this time of year), and while the drive is scenic, it takes 11+ hours.  ELEVEN HOURS.  Sweet lord.  Driving that in a Ford Fiesta too, while great on gas mileage, will make you go stir crazy. No amount of Hardee’s Thickburgers can make it bearable.  I was kinda hoping that this trip would get me out of having to visit Dollywood for at least another 18 months.  It was just too much time in the car to ask of someone…

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We arrived in Pigeon Forge on Saturday night, with just a few hours left before the park closed for the night.  The place was jam-packed with thousands of locals there to catch the holiday parade; after spending a half-hour just getting from our parking spot to the gate, we shimmied our way to the back of the park for the terrific Mystery Mine and Wild Eagle coasters.

On Sundays during the holiday season, the park doesn’t open until 2:00pm.  Still, we felt like seven hours in Dollywood justified the drive, so we spent the morning taking a scenic drive through the Smoky Mountain National Park, which we’d never done before.
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On the way up a mountain, we saw a bunch of pick-up trucks (of course) pulled over.  City-slick gawkers that we are, we rubbernecked only to find…A BEAR. And not the kinda bears us urbanites are used to…HEY-O!

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Yup, just a cub hanging out in the trees near the side of the road.  Lance and I both speculated that this could’ve been some elaborate trap by the bear family to lure in stupid tourists. We felt like we were in a good position, though, since most of the other spectators were significantly…larger and most likely slower than us.  (This is what happens when you have dozens of pancake restaurants in your town.)

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Lance doing his best Rafiki.

Unfortunately, with the afternoon came rain, and right as we were in line waiting to be let in to Dollywood, it started to drizzle.  And didn’t stop all afternoon.

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JAM-PACKED in Timber Canyon.

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6:00pm rolled around, just four hours into park operation for the day, and ropes started going up in front of ride queues.  We were soaked, but we were committed to getting the most out of this season pass which we’d only used twice.

“Is the park closing?” I asked a Dollywood employee.  It was supposed to stay open for another three hours.

“Yup, bad weather coming this way,” she said.

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So Dollywood management just decided to shut down the park early.  We looked at the forecast, and the weather was not anticipated to get any worse than it had been all day.  Lance and I figured that it was probably related to the very light crowd in the park all day–it wasn’t cost-effective to leave the park open for maybe 100 guests.

Lance was obviously disappointed–Dollywood is practically his second home (aside from Bath & Body Works…and Pei Wei…and Target…).  I was disappointed because we’d spent 11 hours in the car the day before to get here and only got six total hours in the park.  I was on the verge of breaking down into tears thinking that all that driving was for naught.

On the way out of the park, I made sure to visit Guest Relations.  “They’re going to make this right, dammit!” I said, though I didn’t know how much of a case we’d have as season passholders who just happened not to have used their season passes all year.

“Well, we can offer you essentially a rain check pass to come back during the 2014 year,” the Guest Relationships rep told us.  We took it.

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So now we basically HAVE to go back to Dollywood in 2014 in order to take advantage of our free passes (I’m not one to easily pass up a good deal.)  Which means another 22+ hour roundtrip commute to eastern Tennessee.

GAH.

Food Hangover

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This post could also be titled, “You Know You’re Old When…”

I’m a guy trained since birth in buffet-style eating. Going to Old Country Buffet was not only a treat, but practice.  It’s a lot like running cross country…in the sense that it’s a test of endurance and you have to soil yourself so as to not slow down.

One of my first memories as a child was going with my dad to a Bob’s Big Boy in Maryland for the buffet breakfast and feeling disproportionately proud over consuming sixteen sausage links.

At a friend’s birthday party in elementary school, my friends were astonished that I could pack away eight pieces of pizza…as a fourth grader.

Eventually, I graduated to the minor leagues–college, where with a meal plan I could eat eat eat slightly grey taco meat and gummy pizza crust and it wouldn’t cost any extra.  I mean, I would be throwing money away if I didn’t devour as much as possible.  I’m nothing if not a man with an eye for a bargain.

On our first trip to Las Vegas, Lance and I were able to take advantage of a stellar promotion: all-day access to the MGM Grand’s buffet for just $30. Steak! Lobster! Crab legs! Heaven for a fatass like myself!

But all of this was years ago, and with age comes the Food Hangover.

A few days back, my office had a welcome lunch for one of our new employees.  Obviously, in a situation like this I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity for free food and gorge myself silly.

Except, like alcohol, my tolerance for the mass consumption of food has dissipated over time.  As I creep toward 30, there’s a fine line when eating (is this line called “being full”?) that I can’t cross anymore without suffering the dreaded Food Hangover.  And I got socked with it that day.

The Food Hangover probably isn’t as messy as your traditional hangover, but you feel a different level of gross.  Unlike in your youth, when your stomach and small intestine flex their muscles and say, “Don’t worry, we got this!”, you just can’t digest food as quickly anymore. That ball of meat and carbs will sit in your stomach for hours, if not into the next day, an infant-sized wad which, instead of creating a motherly glow, causes you to perspire with a cringe on your face.

There’s a lot of remorse, too.  “W-why’d I do this to myself?” you moan as you grip your tummy, seriously considering a laxative just to make the pain go away (hint: coffee is nature’s diarrhetic!)

The worst part of the Food Hangover is that it turns you into a sloth, literally weighing you down. “Just let me die,” you might find yourself crying, since the thought of doing anything else seems impossible.  You can’t even sleep because your food baby is pressing up against your diaphragm.

Unlike the hair of the dog, though, there’s no cure except time, and the solemn vow that you’ll never let it get this bad, even again.  “I’ve sworn off eating forever!”  But of course that never lasts.

::Sigh:: Gluttony is wasted on the young.

Travel Tuesday: Faith, Trust…and Pixie Dust

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The thought of traveling with a group of people can create a lot of apprehension among those of us with social anxiety. But for our first trip to Disneyland, I took–what was for me–a leap of faith (or craziness? Aren’t they sometimes the same thing?) and invited our friends to join us. (more…)

We Crash Club 33

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Here’s the story of Lance+Jeff and Brian and Phil at Club 33…and how we almost ruined our chances of ever returning.

First, an introduction for the Disney laypersons: Disneyland’s Club 33 might be the holy grail for the most intense fans of Disney Parks.  And somehow, we got in.

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