Tag Archive: tips


The Sunshine State

Moving on in a similar tangent as the Disney World series, it’s time to cover all the glories that Florida has to offer. Time to break out my trusty copy of 1000 Places and go through where I have been.

-Daytona Speedway

-Kennedy Space Center

-The Everglades

-South Beach

-The Florida Keys

-Sanibel & Captiva Islands

I’ll include links to the Disney World series here since it is on the 1000 Places list.

When & Where to Stay

Magic Kingdom

Epcot

Hollywood Studios

Animal Kingdom

Miscellaneous

 

Daytona Speedway is on the Atlantic coast north of Orlando, located in the city it’s named after, Daytona. It’s the Indianapolis 500 of NASCAR. And for those completely out-of-the-loop when it comes to car races, that means they are the biggest races of the season. There is a museum called the Daytona 500 Experience, where you can ride simulators, catch an IMAX movie about the race and learn more about NASCAR. There is also a Richard Petty Driving Experience here if you want to take a spin around the track. I’m personally not a big fan of NASCAR, but my father is so we went there as a family when I was younger. Will I go back? Probably. There is also a great beach there that is heavily visited for Spring Break, as well as Bike Week. If you choose to go for either Spring Break or Bike Week, expect crowds. Bike Week in Daytona is second only to the Sturgis Bike Week in terms of attendance, with almost half a million bikers visiting Daytona Beach.

A little over an hour south of Daytona Beach on the Atlantic is the Kennedy Space Center. Named for JFK, the president who launched the Apollo program, it is the home of a plethora of space-related activities. With the space shuttle program a thing of the past now, it’s only used for satellite launches. I was young when I went with my family, so I don’t remember much about the visitor center. When we went we were however lucky enough to see one of the shuttles on the launch pad, an image that has remained with me ever since. If you want an idea about how massive the Vehicle Assembly Building is, FL-528 runs along the south side of Kennedy heading to and from Cocoa Beach, and I’d say it is a good 5 miles away. You can see it easily from that far away. Now, about the center itself. The visitor center has a collection of rockets from the very early days of NASA, including the ones that put the first US astronauts in space and other significant memorabilia from the 50 years of NASA’s existence. There is also the launch simulator and an IMAX theater. And while there won’t be any shuttle launches, they are flying the shuttles to their new homes around the country, from New York City to Los Angeles within the next few months. So you may want to see them take their final flight to their new homes. The highlight of any trip to the Kennedy Space Center is obviously the tour of the grounds. You load up on a bus which takes you around to see the launch sites of the Apollo program and the shuttles, the assembly area for the ISS and the Vehicle Assembly Building amongst other things. If you are planning on visiting, I would see if there are any upcoming satellite launches. If memory serves, certain areas of the center are blocked off for security reasons. I say this because I think we weren’t able to get close to the launch pad while we were there because of the upcoming launch. Both Daytona and Kennedy Space Center are excellent day trips if you are going on a trip to Orlando since they are about an hour away.

A further 3-4 hours south on the Atlantic coast (depending on your final destination) is the Florida wetlands known as The Everglades. Once covering most of southern Florida, the sawgrass prairie that defines the Everglades is now mostly confined to the area south of I-75 as it goes east-west across the peninsula. The quintessential Everglades experience is an airboat ride through the grass. Home to alligators, turtles, herons and a plethora of other animals, the airboats take you out into the Everglades to get up close and personal with the animals that call this land home. The best way to get to most of what the Everglades has to offer is to take Route 41 or via Homestead, south of Miami. Off Route 41 is Shark Valley, which offers 2-hour tram rides into the heart of the park as well as a hiking and biking trail. For a nominal fee, you can drive your car in a short distance to a parking lot and look through the surrounding wetlands for alligators. One of the most spectacular views of the park is from the observation deck at the south end of the trail loop. All along Route 41 you will see many places to take airboat rides as well, but probably the best place to find them are in Everglades City on the gulf coast. If you are truly an intrepid adventurer, there is also Flamingo. Currently a ghost town which serves as a base for the rangers of the Everglades National Park, there is also a marina and seasonal cafe, as well as a visitor center and campground. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the Everglades, even if it was just a drive through it on the way to Miami or the Keys.

Also on the Atlantic Coast is Miami, home to the hedonistic South Beach. Located on the Miami Beach barrier island, South Beach is a neighborhood that lies south of Indian Creek and Dade Blvd. South Beach is also home to Joe’s Stone Crab, which is also on the 1000 Places list, however I’ve never been there. Known for the LGBT community and art-deco architectural masterpieces, South Beach never sleeps. Between the beach during the day and the clubs at night, there is enough to keep you busy. Most of what you associate with the iconography of South Beach is on Ocean Dr. near Lummus Park – art deco hotels and cafes festooned with neon lights at night. The first time I was here was before my family left for a cruise when I was younger, so we just took a stroll on the beach and got lunch at a cafe. Perfectly harmless during the day. At night, South Beach is a different monster. The last time I was here was New Year’s Eve. Granted it was a special holiday, but Ocean Dr. was shut off because of the amount of people partying. Normally it is really difficult to get into the clubs on Ocean Dr. for tourists, but we had no problems getting into Mango’s Tropical Cafe, which was the hotspot that night. All we had to do was buy a $200 bottle of champagne to enjoy through the evening. I felt bad for the huddled masses in Times Square because we were having the time of our lives in South Beach. To help calm down, we went to the Keys a couple days later.

I could really devote a whole post to the Keys, that is how much I love them. If I were to win the lottery, I’d buy what land I could and buy a self-sustaining/hurricane-resistant house and would probably rarely leave. With that in mind, I will do a quick run-down. Driving down US-1 is one of the best drives I’ve ever done. You start off with Key Largo in the north and end with Key West in the south and are blessed with views of palm trees and turquoise waters. In between, you will pass an overabundance of hotels, marinas and roadside cafes as you drive through the islands that dot this archipelago. You will not find many beaches, as the wave activity needed to create sandy beaches is pretty much non-existent. Most beaches you find there are man-made to appease tourists staying at local hotels.

If you want beaches, travel to Sanibel and Captiva islands on the gulf coast near Fort Myers. My grandparents owned a home in Fort Myers, which they have left to their children and grandchildren, so I have been lucky enough to visit these islands multiple times. Home to some of the best seashell pickings in Florida (maybe even the world), the public beach by the lighthouse is a popular destination. There is a very small parking lot for access to this beach, so arrive early if you want to visit. There are other public beaches on the islands, but most have the same small parking lots, so they get crowded early. Another popular activity is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There’s a drive through the wildlife refuge with plenty of places to pull off and snap pictures of all the wildlife. There are herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, storks and alligators – a lot of the animals you would hope to see in the Everglades. There are also sailing tours you can take around the islands, which are very relaxing. You may even spot a stray manatee or dolphin!

One thing I highly recommend doing while you are in Sanibel and Catpiva is lunch at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Aside from a Dairy Queen and Subway there aren’t any fast food or chain restaurants, thanks to a local law prohibiting them. And while Cheeburger Cheebuger is technically a chain restaurant now, the one on Sanibel is the first. They specialize in cheeseburgers, shakes and malts and is themed after 50’s era burger joints. The food is delicious and their list of toppings for the burgers and shake and malt flavors is HUGE. And if you are one of those “Man vs. Food” types that enjoy food challenges – their famous full-pound burgers. If you can finish it off, they will take your picture and add it to their Wall of Fame. My only relative who’s been successful in this challenge is one of my cousins. We usually only stick with the “Semi-Serious,” which is only a 1/3 of a pound. We always stop here whenever we visit the islands!

So there you have it – the Sunshine State in a nutshell. Check back later for a post on the Keys, my favorite place in the whole state. Yes, I like it even more than Orlando and Disney World!

Megabust

Lollapalooza 2012 is now a thing of the past. Time for a quick review of my mode of transportation – Megabus.

As an overview, Megabus is a bus company with low fares. It’s not as easy to navigate as Greyhound – from Cincinnati I can only go to Columbus, Chicago and Indianapolis. And if I wanted to take Megabus to somewhere on the East Coast, I’d have to travel 6 hours west to Chicago and hop on the bus back east to Cleveland, then take a bus to Pittsburgh and then take another bus to NYC or DC. And if I wanted to go to Orlando I’d have to take the bus to Indianapolis, from there to Louisville to Nashville to Atlanta to Orlando. Or I can just take a Greyhound. Their route map really needs to TLC if they want to really compete.

Now, onto the trip experience. It’s a double-decker bus, so there are loads of seating options, but the top deck did seem to fill up pretty quickly. There is also only 1 outlet per pair of seats on each side of the aisle, so be prepared to fight for that outlet if it’s a full bus.

The ride up to Chicago was uneventful. We loaded up our bags and grabbed our seats and the bus driver checked our tickets. We arrived at Union Station about 10 minutes or so late, so I can’t complain about that.

Coming back from a long weekend of sun and standing at Lollapalooza, the journey home was definitely less than desirable. The Megabus stop at Union Station is outside, so if you encounter inclement weather, you have no where to hide. With it being August, we only had the sun to compete with. We got to the stop about an hour before our scheduled departure, which it’s only recommended you arrive 30 minutes prior. But we weren’t sure what the traffic was going to be like, so we left early. Turns out we could have left about 2 hours later than we did because that’s how late our bus was. So we were left in the sun, standing around and waiting for our bus to hopefully show up. There was another guy waiting for our bus who took the initiative and called their customer service line to see what was going on. He was told there was something going on at their station where they cleaned and gassed the buses before they left and he would get a call when it was on it’s way. About an hour later, he got a call that it was on it’s way and it would be behind a bus heading elsewhere. Well, that bus showed up, and then about 5 more before our bus finally showed up. They really need to have an email system in place or something for when buses are getting held up like that. Airlines give you the courtesy of an email or phone call when they are running late. Why not Megabus? I would have much rather stayed in the air-conditioning of the hotel and slept in an extra hour than wait outside in the sun on a slab of concrete with the uncertainty of bus delays. Our driver, however made up for lost time. We were only late by about an hour when we arrived back in Cincinnati.

I will heed my own warning that I gave out for the dotcom hotel websites – you get what you pay for. Sure, the trip was shorter and cheaper than if I had taken a Greyhound bus. But given this experience, I will most likely go with Greyhound from here-on-out.

Bursting the dotcom Bubble

We all like to save money, right? Travel on a dime? I mean, who wouldn’t? That leaves us more money for tchotchkes and more trips, one would imagine. I’m going to go ahead and blow the lid off the conspiracy I’ll call the bargain sites.

With more families gearing up for summer vacations, they are increasingly going to sites like Expedia, Travelocity, et. al to book “deals” on hotel rooms to save some money. Let this serve as a warning if you are planning to go down a similar route.

Let’s use my place of work as an example. Tonight if you were to book directly through me, the rate would be $159.95. You would find similar rates at most of the travel deal websites. However, it’s currently going for $180 at Expedia, which they absurdly call the “Expedia Special Rate.” And this is before taxes! Once you figure those it, it comes out to $208.06 as opposed to the $185.55 you would be paying if you booked directly through the hotel.

These sites don’t look like such a great option now, do they? They suck you in under false pretenses. They say you are paying lower rates, which I can honestly say is true when compared to people who book their rooms directly with us. But remember how I said most of the sites are offering the same rate for rooms tonight? That’s because the difference between the rate you are paying to the site and what we are charging the site for your room is their profit. I’m not against anyone running their business like this, however if you are looking to save a few bucks I would strongly recommend against these sites as they don’t really save you money. If you really want to save money, look at the hotel’s website. More than likely they have a pre-pay rate that is lower than the usual rate for that evening.

A very, very strong word of warning, however. Once you book your room through these websites, you are essentially on your own. Here’s a secret for the readers to digest. When you book a room, you are really booking whatever room is available. If all that is left with us is a smoking king when you booked a nonsmoking double with the site, guess what room you’re really getting? The smoking king. They want your money, so they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear to get you to book. And once they have your money you’ll be hard-pressed to get it back if you want to cancel.

The way the contracts work with most of these sites is that we give them lower rates on the rooms, which they will then book with the general public. When they book rooms, they are guaranteeing us those rooms as being sold. If you are wanting to cancel your room because you didn’t get the room you thought you reserved, the people at the desk won’t issue a refund. You know why? We don’t have your money. You paid Expedia directly, and we turn around and charge them for these rooms. When people want to check out and get refunds, we tell them to talk to whatever site they booked through. The site will then have one of their customer service reps call us to see if there’s anything to be done. 99.99% of the time, nothing can be done because they were the ones providing false information to the guest since the guest has almost always had no contact with anyone at the hotel.

So about that refund? Well, Expedia will tell you that they will happily refund your money as long as the hotel doesn’t charge them. Guess what? Not gonna happen. You, Sir Travel-Site, promised us revenue from said room, so we look at it the same way we look at a cancellation. It’s not our fault the guest didn’t get the room they were promised. And since the site was the one who directly booked this room, they are the ones getting hit with the “cancellation” fees, not the guest. The sites are greedily holding on to your money, despite what they may tell you about the hotel stubbornly not issuing a refund. Like I said, the site has your money, not us at the hotel. They don’t want to be stuck giving you a refund and paying the “cancellation” penalty.

My honest advice? Call the hotel ahead of time. Check what their rate is vs. the “bargain” sites. See if the room you want is available if you are insistent on booking your room through those sites. And once you do book, call the hotel back to make sure they booked the right room for you. If there was an error, see if you can work it out with the hotel to make sure you are in the right room. If nothing can be done on the hotel’s side of the arrangement, ask the hotel about their cancellation policy. The hotel’s cancellation policy with dictate what happens when you call the site about canceling. For example, Expedia’s policy is that if there are any cancellation fees, you are responsible for them. By finding out what those fees are, if any, ahead of time you know how the conversation should go. If they try to fleece you and jack up the cancellation fees, call their bluff. Don’t trust these sites to make sure everything goes according to plan, because sometimes it doesn’t and it just leads to frustration.

So you’ve survived the theme parks. Hooray! You’ve been to the #1, #5, #7 and #8 most visited theme parks in the world. But let’s not rest on your laurels. There is much more to Disney World than the theme parks.

The biggest area outside of the theme parks is Downtown Disney. This is where you will find lots of shopping, restaurants and entertainment. World of Disney is here, which is the largest Disney store this side of the Mississippi. If you can’t find it there, chance are you can’t find it anywhere. There’s also a Christmas and LEGO shop. You will also find DisneyQuest here, which is filled with video and virtual reality games. My favorite thing at DisneyQuest is the roller coaster creator. You design your own roller coaster and then you ride inside a simulator. Also located in Downtown Disney is their Cirque du Soleil show – La Nouba. There is also a movie theater and a House of Blues. There is plenty of shopping and other things to do if the forecast calls for rain all day since most everything is indoors.

Similar to Downtown Disney is another area located at the Boardwalk resort, simply called Disney’s Boardwalk. As the name implies, it is a boardwalk that houses an entertainment district. It’s also very adult-friendly. There are 2 dance clubs for those 21+ as well as Disney’s only operating microbrewery.

Another destination within Disney World is ESPN Wide World of Sports. I’ve personally never been there, but from what I have gathered there isn’t much to it aside from some stadiums. As such, you won’t have any need to go there unless you are attending a sporting event. If sports is your thing, there is also a Richard Petty Driving Experience where you can ride-along with a professional driver for $100+. There are also numerous golf courses sprinkled throughout the resort – Magnolia Golf Course, Palm Golf Course, Osprey Ridge Gold Course, Lake Buena Vista Golf Course and Oak Trail Golf Course. Personally, golf bores me so I can’t say anything about the courses other than noting their existence.

There are two water parks within Disney World – Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach is a “melting” ski resort, complete with a chair lift. Being a ski resort, most of the water slides are naturally modeled after ski runs down the side of a mountain, in this case Mount Gushmore. Summit Plummet is the most popular water slide in the park, sending riders straight down at speeds up to 60 MPH. There are also water park staples – Cross Country Creek (lazy river) and Melt-Away Bay (wave pool). Typhoon Lagoon, however is the more popular park. It boasts the world’s largest wave pool, Surf Pool, as well as a lazy river, Castaway Creek. It also has a fun feature – Shark Reef. You can snorkel with some sharks and rays in a saltwater tank. For an additional cost, you can do the scuba/snorkel hybrid – Supplied Air Snorkel, where you can stay down longer because they supply you with air.

Speaking of additional costs, all the parks have special tours and experiences aimed at just about every guest. You will probably have noticed little girls dressed up as their favorite princess or little boys dressed up like pirates. These makeovers come courtesy of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirates League. You can also take an in-depth tour of Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom, go scuba-diving with the dolphins at EPCOT and take backstage tours to see what goes on behind-the-scenes. There are loads of ways to enhance your Disney vacation, so it’s worth looking into.

One last thing to touch on. Tickets are not cheap. Single-day passes without any extras is currently $89. The more days you add, the cheaper it gets per-day. Adding the Park-Hopper is an extra $35 per-day and adding the Water Park & More option is an extra $57 per-day. If you’re planning on getting the most out of your Disney vacation, I’d add both. Park-Hopper is great since it let’s you go between parks all day. The Water Park & More option gives you admission to either water park, DisneyQuest and a few other places. If you buy a 4-day pass, you get 4 admissions to any of those places, as an example.

And there you have it. Disney World in a nutshell. I’ve never had a bad time when I go and it really is magical, even for the kids-at-heart like me. There’s always something bigger and better coming down the line, which begs the question: How many times is too many times to have visited Disney World?

I was so excited about Harry Potter and my West Coast trip I forgot to finish this series of posts! Bad blogger, bad! Onwards, we go!

Animal Kingdom is the latest of the 4 Disney World parks, and while it is the largest of the parks, most of that land is associated with Kilimanjaro Safaris. As you’d imagine, this is Disney’s version of a zoo. It’s also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which means they’re on top of their game in regards to animal education and conservation. So if you’re a PETA-type who think animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, save your time and energy and go elsewhere. While the focus is on the animals, the only time live animals are showcased in a ride is Kiliminjaro Safaris.

As mentioned before, each park has a hub. For this park, it’s the Tree of Life. It really is a beautiful “tree” to look at. It looks like a baobab tree from afar, but when you get close you’ll see animals carved into the surface. To get to the rest of the park’s areas you will walk onto Discovery Island where the tree is located and take off on the appropriate spoke to get to where you want.

Starting with the area on your right as you enter, you will now be in Dinoland, USA. Mostly home to kid-centric rides, it also has Dinosaur and Tricera Top Spin, both of which are lots of fun. Dinosaur takes you back in time to try and rescue a dinosaur and take it to the present for research purposes. It’s pretty fun, and I’ll admit…the first time I went on it I was scared when you get a certain visitor. Tricera Top Spin is a fun, quick ride, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you get motion sickness. Like the name implies, you spin a lot. As you leave Dinoland, the Finding Nemo musical will be your next stop before the next area. As a Nemo fan, it was loads of fun. Everyone was singing along with Dory, myself included. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim. But wait! Where are the animals? Well, since this is Dinoland, the only animals you’ll see are close relatives – alligators.

Next up is Asia, and the other landmark of Animal Kingdom – Everest. This coaster is entirely too much fun. You go up the mountain to hunt down a Yeti and you go down the track forwards and forwards. If you want to spoil it, there is a YouTube clip of track. Asia is also where you’ll find Kali River Rapids, which I’ll include the same warning for this that I have for Splash Mountain. If it’s an especially hot and humid day, you will have gigantic wait times. You’re best off getting a FastPass and doing something else while you wait. You’ll see more animals in this area than Dinoland. There’s the Flights of Wonder show, which showcases birds, and the Maharajah Jungle Trek, which is where you’ll find tigers, komodo dragons and more.

Following Asia is Africa. Really, the only thing to do in Africa is Kiliminjaro Safaris. This is probably the very first thing you will want to do when you get to Animal Kingdom as the animals are most active during the morning before the afternoon sun gets too hot. I’d recommend heading here first and then FastPassing either Expedition Everest or Kali River Rapids and then riding the one you didn’t get the FastPass for. You’ll also find the train back to Rafiki’s Planet Watch here if you want to learn more about conservation. There is also the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which is home to the park’s troupe of gorillas. The safari takes you through their savannah, complete with lions, giraffes, elephants and more. It’s a lot of fun and you never get the same ride twice. You’re also on a rescue mission to save a baby elephant from poachers, so there’s more than animals to keep you entertained.

You are led back to Discovery Island after Africa, which is where you will find It’s A Bug’s Life. This is a 3D show similar to Muppetvision, only this time you are in the world of bugs from A Bug’s Life. There are also more animals to see on this island. I’ve personally never been back to Camp Minnie Mickey, but this is where The Lion King show is, as well as character meet-and-greets.

Since I last went in 2008 they’ve announced they are adding Avatar Land to Animal Kingdom, which will be completed a few years from now as construction will begin next year. As the name implies, it will explore the world of Pandora from the movie Avatar. If you think this seems an odd addition, if you look at the emblem for Animal Kingdom, you’ll notice a dragon. When they originally planned out Animal Kingdom they were going to have a land dedicated to mythological creatures. Well, the only mythological creature they have at the moment is the yeti. From what I’ve gathered, Avatar Land will be built in the land intended for the mythological creatures. All the more reason to go back, I suppose.

Next stop on the Disney tour: Downtown Disney and VIP experiences.

Viva Las Vegas!

Ah, the City of (Neon) Light. Where to begin? The casinos? The food? Hotels?

It seems logical to start with hotels. If you’re completely new to anything involving Las Vegas, 99% of what you’ll want to see is on a 4 mile part of Las Vegas Boulevard called The Strip. It begins in the south with Luxor, Excalibur, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand and ends in the north with Stratosphere.

There really is no slow season in Vegas since there are always conventions going on, so when you go is totally dependent on whether or not you can handle the desert in the dead heat of summer. Since it was January when we went, it was actually pretty cold – around 50-60 degrees were the high temperatures. And since 18 of the 25 largest hotels in the world are located on the Strip, there really won’t be a shortage of hotel rooms. So where you stay is dependent on where in the Strip you want to be.

Personally I think anyone’s best option would be to stay somewhere towards the middle of the Strip – around the Las Vegas Boulevard/Flamingo Road intersection. This is where the bulk of the casinos are located anyways, so you can walk to most of them and take a cab to the outliers.

Speaking of cabs, every casino has a taxi stand to pick one up at. They can’t stop and pick you up on the street, so find the closest casino and get one there. There is also the monorail, but it’s not actually on the Strip and is a couple blocks away. I’d just stick with cabs, but that’s me. If you don’t mind the walk, they do offer unlimited 24-hr and 3-day passes on top of single fares.

I’d HIGHLY recommend using the foursquare app on your smartphone. Most, but not all, casinos have specials for checking in. Mostly it’s for free drinks or discounts on the buffets. But if you’re not much of a gambler like myself, cheap or free drinks are a plus. And yes, you can drink as long as you’re playing at a table. Just don’t forget to tip your waitress.

One thing I wish the casinos had more of were low limit tables. Even in old Vegas (Fremont Street) it was hard finding $5 tables. I only budgeted for $100 in case I was unlucky at the tables, and sticking to the low limit tables was my plan to keeping to that budget.

I’d also highly recommend learning about the games before you go if you’re a newbie to gambling. I was looking for a poker table and there are so many different versions of poker! And of course the one version I was looking for – Texas Hold ‘Em – was hard to locate and usually full. We mostly stuck to blackjack, roulette and the occasional slot machine.

One of the few things I had to do in Vegas was the rides at the top of the Stratosphere. I bummed I missed out on the roller coaster they had a few years ago, but the 3 rides they have now are still a lot of fun. It costs $16 to get up to the observation deck, then $12-$13 per ride, or they have packages for both the tower admission and rides. We got the 3 rides and tower admission for $31, so it’s a pretty good bargain. One spins you around on a pendulum off the side of the tower, one is a see-saw/roller coaster hybrid and the third shoots you up into the air. They also have a free-fall/zip-line ride that’s an extra $110. Also, as an aside, the Stratosphere observation deck is a great place to enjoy an evening because it has a great view of the Strip and the sun setting.

My friend that went with me had gotten there the previous evening and he was up $100 at that point, so he wanted to treat us to a really nice dinner. We decided on steaks, since if there’s one kind of food Vegas is famous for, it was steak. After a quick google search, we decided on Delmonico at The Venetian. Whoa baby was that some good steak. The only bummer to the nice restaurants, especially if you’ve never been to one of that caliber before, is that it’s all pretty much á-la-carte. If you want any kind of side to go with your big hunk of delicious beef, you gotta pay for it. My friend who had been there previously said we should get the potato gratin, and I would recommend the same to anyone eating there. We also got the sauteed mushrooms, which were quite yummy as well. Top it all with an excellent wine (we got a Malbec), and it was a very delicious dinner.

While at The Venetian, we did do the gondola ride. It was a fun trip through the shopping area of the casino. I have yet to go to Venice, so I can’t make any comparisons with the real deal, but the “scenery” along the Grand Canal is actually quite nice. The gondoliers enjoy a good song and try to keep things romantic for the couples. Kinda awkward since my travel buddy was a guy, but we weathered it. It was getting late at this point, so we called it a night.

The next day was our grand adventure. We started at the south end with the Luxor and slowly made our way north, stopping at Excalibur and New York New York. We got the buffet at Luxor just to get the experience. I mean, who goes to Vegas without going to a buffet? I’m sure there are bigger and better buffets, but we went with Luxor because it was lunchtime and we were hungry. We played a bit of roulette and moved on to Excalibur. We couldn’t find any tables that struck our fancy so we moved on to New York New York. Now here is where we blew a few hours on blackjack. We were successful finding a table!

I do admit I don’t see the thrill in gambling. To me I just see my money going down the drain, not the thrill of potentially winning more. Call me a realist, I suppose. But if I had to pick a game, it would be blackjack. It’s easy to figure out. I was bummed because we missed out on the roller coaster at New York New York, but there’s always next time.

We walked through almost all of the casinos and played at a few tables as we worked our way up the strip. The day is a wee bit of a blur thanks to those free drinks, but I do remember the show at Treasure Island, the fountain at the Bellagio and finding a pay phone at Caesar’s Palace. Yes, we found the pay-phone “bank” at Caesar’s so we could pretend to be Alan from The Hangover. It’s only one phone and we had to ask a few employees where it was. We finally found one that knew about it and he was just smiling when we asked. He knew what we were up to. The Strip kind of stops abruptly after Treasure Island and The Venetian. You’ve got the Wynn right there, but the next big casino is the last one – Stratosphere.

The next day was our day trip to the Grand Canyon. We purchased our tour from Grand Canyon Tours for $80. It’s pretty much an all-day thing. They have a shuttle that picks you up at your hotel and takes you to Planet Hollywood where the buses leave from. You pick up a breakfast item and a drink then board your bus. There a few tours that the company offers and we took the longest – the South Rim tour. After much deliberation on my behalf we went with the South Rim because I had heard that the South Rim has prettier views than the West Rim tour. With the West Rim tour, you’re not gone as long, but it only takes you to the Hualapai reservation and Skywalk, which is an additional $30 on top of what you paid to get out there. Anyways, the South Rim is absolutely gorgeous. And the bus ride out there isn’t too bad. You make a couple of pit stops for lunch and for gas, you take Route 66 for a bit and there’s lots of pretty scenery to look at along the way. You only spend 2 hours at the canyon, but it’s enough to whet your appetite if you’ve never been. And I learned a valuable tip for when I go back during the summer – the donkey rides are impossible to book. You need to call ahead 2 years before you want to go for reservations.

On the return trip from the canyon we did slow down for a view of the Hoover Dam. Alas, it was dark so you really only saw the lights. If you book through this company I would recommend getting something to eat when you stop for gas on the way back – there is a Subway in the gas station. You do get back into town at a decent hour, though. It was a little after 9, so the night was still young. Seeing as this was our last night in Vegas we hit up the last few casinos that we hadn’t been to yet, like the Flamingo. We also went to Fremont Street to check out “old” Las Vegas and tracked down the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (hint: it’s south of Luxor). Just a tip – Fremont Street is way out of the way of the Strip. It was $30 one way to get out there!

Will I go back? Of course! I need to ride that roller coaster, after all. The City of Sin may not be as sinful as it was, but it is still a city of decadence. Whether it’s the hotel casinos, the gambling or the food, there is plenty of Vegas to go around. Pick what strikes you as fun and interesting and lose yourself in the City of Neon Lights.

Harry Potter-Mania!!

I’ve returned from my conquest of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it was phenomenal! If you were to grade it, it would definitely receive an Outstanding! So, who’s ready for a photo-intensive run-down of the park?

If you’ve read my first DW post, you’ll know that avoiding crowds and kids is all about timing. Being there the last week of September, kids were in school mostly and adults were at work mostly. The crowd levels and lines were VERY manageable. I’d been reading about people going on The Forbidden Journey and waiting a couple of hours to ride just once. The lines were so short most of the time we just walked on a few times in a row. Same for the Dragon Challenge coasters. I’ve seen pictures of Hogsmeade during peak season and the lines just to enter the shops. No such problems for us. We even waited for the Ollivander’s show a few times, hoping we’d get picked (no such luck *sigh*). We did everything (except for Flight of the Hippogriff) at least 5 times and still had time to go through the rest of Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.

So, what’s the park like, you ask? The main entrance takes you to Hogsmeade Station, which is where you’ll find the Hogwarts Express. You can get your picture taken with the conductor, even. On the other side of the path is Zonko’s and Honeydukes. Zonko’s is where to go to buy Extendable Ears, Pygmy Puffs and more. Honeydukes is where you’ll go to satisfy your sweet tooth with Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Beans, amongst other treats. I got a Cauldron Cake as well, and those things are delicious. It’s chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. Yum! Next door is The Three Broomsticks and The Hog’s Head pub. The Three Broomsticks is like a cafeteria – you’ll order your English-inspired meal and pick it up at the window. We had the Cornish Pasties and Shepard’s Pie, both of which were delicious. And that’s a vote of confidence from my friend since she’s a pretty picky eater. A word of warning, however – if you want sodas, bring it with you from somewhere else in the park. The only drinks they serve in Wizarding World are butterbeer, pumpkin juice, waters and teas. Butterbeer is liquid crack, let me tell you. They serve it either cold or frozen; it’s like a slushie. You can also get them in souvenir mugs, which of course I got. If you go the mug route, you do get discounted refills. The pumpkin juice is also delicious. If you don’t like pumpkin pies, however, just skip it. We killed a couple hours in The Hog’s Head to give our feet some time to recover from all the walking, and they have a specialty drink too. But it’s more adult. They have a micro-brew called Hog’s Head Brew, and it was a quite tasty Scottish ale. They of course also sell this is a souvenir mug.

Across from the food and drink is the entrance to the Dragon Challenge coasters. Fittingly, this is themed around The Goblet of Fire. Through the path are signs you’d imagine they would’ve had in the crowds at the tournament, then you enter a pavilion with the Goblet of Fire. You continue down a path and run into the Triwizard Cup and the eggs they are supposed to be retrieving from their dragons. You get to choose between the Chinese Fireball (red) and the Hungarian Horntail (blue). Personally I prefer the blue one because it has more twists, turns and loops than the red one.

Next up is the Owl Post, Dervish and Banges and Ollivander’s. The show inside Ollivander’s is quite fun. They shuffle you into a small room and Ollivander chooses someone from the crowd to find their wand. Usually it’s a child, much to the adults’ dismay. And by adults I mean those who are there that grew up reading the books, are avid HP fans and don’t have any kids. I understand they don’t want to discriminate, but it’s a real bummer when they pick someone who doesn’t speak English. There’s a lot of awkward pausing because the person doesn’t know what Ollivander wants them to do. The demonstration is pretty cool. Ollivander picks out a few wands, the person tries ringing bells and levitating objects to disastrous results. Then magically, Ollivander picks the right wand. Then you get spit out into Dervish and Banges and the Owl Post, where you can buy your own wand and other Hogwarts-related gear like robes, scarves and more. While in the Owl Post I got postcards for a lot of my friends. Outside there is a seating pavilion and a stand where you can get your postcards stamped from Hogsmeade and mail them off (they also sell collectible stamps inside).

Next up is the main attraction – Hogwarts Castle. On the right is the Flight of the Hippogriff, which is where you’ll catch a glimpse of Hagrid’s hut. Side note – for those who’ve been at Islands of Adventure before HP opened – the Dragon Challenge coasters were once Dueling Dragons and Flight of the Hippogriff was once Flying Unicorns. They retrofitted these rides to mesh with the new HP theme. You will have to store your belongings inside lockers for The Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge, but you’ll definitely want to keep your cameras in your pockets while in line for The Forbidden Journey. You’ll be passing through the dungeons, Herbology greenhouses, Dumbledore’s office, the Hall of Portraits, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and Gryffindor’s common room before entering the Room of Requirement to enter the ride. Take a moment to look at the ceiling before you get seated – it looks like the ceiling of the Great Hall with floating candles. The ride itself is great. Hermione transports you through the Floo network to fly and meet up with Harry and Ron on their way to the Quidditch pitch. You’re taken through a series of twists and turns while avoiding a dragon, the Whomping Willow, dementors and spiders. Overall, it was a great dark ride. One thing that bugs me though is that the staff refer to everyone as muggles – but muggles can’t see dementors, only feel their presence. So I’m not a muggle since I can see them, right? A girl can dream… The Forbidden Journey spits you out into Filch’s Emporium, which is the biggest gift shop inside HP. It’s got a really wide selection of trinkets to take home with you.

A couple of things I learned:

– Buy all souvenirs, especially chocolate, at the end of the day. You’ll avoid carrying around a lot of unnecessary weight, and in the case of chocolate, it won’t melt in the Florida sun. I got a replica of Lucius Malfoy’s pimp cane and I would have been very encumbered trying to carry that around all day.

– If going during the slow season, there’s a cut-through in line for the Dragon Challenge. As you exit the castle, there’s a path up the hill on the right that will take you back up to the castle entrance and it cuts out a lot of the line.

– Keep an eye out at all times inside the shops, you never know when you’ll see something magical in the rafters of the buildings. They even have Moaning Myrtle haunting the bathroom.

– The secondary entrance is via Jurassic Park. The bridge crossing into HP gives you a spectacular view and photo spot with Hogwarts. There’s also another butterbeer cart here that is usually not as crowded as the main one outside The Three Broomsticks. I’ve also read that this is the entrance to use during the peak seasons since most people will be taking the main entrance.

I’ve heard rumors that they’re already planning on expanding HP and completely taking over The Lost Continent, and I couldn’t be happier. They need a Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley. As it stands now, The Lost Continent seems kind of off since there’s not much to it now aside from Mythos and a few shows and shops. And I definitely will be going back at some point in the future during December because I can only imagine the Christmas decorations around the holidays.

I can’t wait until next time!!

Once upon a time, this park was called MGM Studios, but Disney has since cut their ties with MGM and called it Hollywood Studios. This park is probably my second favorite after Magic Kingdom. It’s home to most of the adult-targeted rides in the whole of Disney World. It’s dedicated to the movies, as it’s name implies, which as a movie geek I love.

You enter the park on Hollywood Boulevard and are greeted by this park’s hub equivalent of Cinderella’s Castle or the geodesic sphere of Epcot – Mickey’s sorcerer hat from Fantasia. I will honestly tell you that I find Hollywood Studios to have the most confusing layout of all the Disney parks, so a map will probably be your best friend. It’s not impossible to navigate, it’s just not as simple as the hub-and-spoke setup in the other parks.

On your right will be Sunset Boulevard, which is where you will find two of the biggest thrills in all of Disney World – Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. If you skip both of these I will hunt you down and kill you. No, I’m just kidding. They really are great rides, so do yourself a favor and get to them first before the lines become impossible. Tower of Terror takes you up to the top of a “haunted” hotel and drops you 13 stories a few times. I have a fear of elevators and free-falling, so this one gives me the chills on a personal level because it’s my worst nightmare come true. Despite that, it’s one of my favorite amusement park rides ever. And Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is your basic indoor roller coaster. They shoot you off at 60 mph into a series of loops and turns in a coaster car shaped like a vintage limousine, all the while having music from Aerosmith playing from speakers by your ears. Also located in this area of the park is a Beauty and the Beast stage show, which is nice if you have time to kill, but not a necessity. This is also where you’ll find Fantasmic, and I’ll come back to that later.

The next logical area is Animation Courtyard, which is dedicated to the Disney animation tradition. This is where you’ll find the stage show for The Little Mermaid. You’ll also find Toy Story Mania in the adjacent Pixar Place. This was only a couple months old when I was last there, so the lines were insane. We did a FastPass and went back and did The Great Movie Ride to bide our time. Toy Story Mania is entirely too much fun. It’s similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride at Magic Kingdom, but they added 3D to it. You board cars and play a bunch of midway games and you compete with those in your car to win. The Great Movie Ride is located inside the replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and is actually pretty fun. But this is also a statement coming from a movie buff. They take you through the Golden Age of the movies and show you reproduced sets from classics like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz. Luckily Disney was able to keep the rights to do this when they split ways with MGM.

Streets of America should be your next stop in the loop around the park. You’ll find the Muppetvision 3D show, the Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show and the Backlot Tour. Personally, I’d do all three. I grew up on the Muppets, and the show is great. The Backlot Tour is where they stash a lot of props from old movies. Since the 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean was released the year before there were loads of props from that series. As a GIGANTIC Pirates of the Caribbean fan, I squeed like a schoolgirl for quite a bit of the ride. The stunt show is a fun way to relax for a while because you’re sitting and they do a lot of really cool tricks and do a lot of explaining how they do it. Last on the loop around is Star Tours, which has gotten a facelift since I was last there. It now takes place between the old and new Star Wars trilogies. Any self-respecting nerd will not miss it, nor would they likely skip out on the Indiana Jones stunt show that’s nearby as well.

Now, back to Fantasmic. This is quite honestly the best show Disney World does. And in all seriousness, if you want good seats, you will be in the holding area before the 90 minutes they recommend getting there. There’s limited seating, so it’s obviously first-come, first-served. It’s a water/light/laser/fire spectacle. They project movie clips onto water spray, there’s floats with some of the Disney princesses and Mickey fights off the villains. It’s not to be missed.

As the smallest of the four Disney World parks, there isn’t much to it. But overall, it’s really enjoyable. If you’re only here for half of a day, do not miss Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours or Toy Story Mania. I’d recommend making it an evening half-day so that you can see the Fantasmic show.

And, now we’re onto the final park in Disney World, Animal Kingdom. Grab your safari gear!

I’m going to try and knock out the rest of the Disney World parks before I go to Wizarding World of Harry Potter in a month, so here we go for Epcot, which was the second park built. A little fun tip, instead of parking in the EPCOT parking, park at the Transportation Center and take the monorail to the park. You can do this for Magic Kingdom, as well.

Epcot is divided into 2 parts, Future World and World Showcase. Future World is really where all the rides are and World Showcase is home to little vignettes of countries. And I have one word for you: booze. If you’ve never heard of it before, you can do what is colloquially called the World Tour. This is definitely not an activity for the kiddies. But I’ll get to that later.

The park as a whole is aimed to be very educational, but fun. Future World is just chock full of learning. It’s home to Living with the Land,  The Seas with Nemo & Friends,  Ellen’s Energy Adventure and Spaceship Earth. I love The Seas. Finding Nemo is my favorite Pixar movie and Nemo and his pals are everywhere! There’s even a show with an interactive Crush. It’s also home to more thrilling rides – Test Track, Soarin’ and Mission: Space. Those three are definitely must-do’s. Test Track takes you through some basic car safety tests like handling and weather then shoots you out to do a few high speed laps. Mission Space keeps you in a tumbler that mimics the G-forces and twists and turns of a spaceship launch. And Soarin’ gives you a hang-gliding tour of California. But if you plan on doing the World Tour, it’s best to do them first to avoid vomiting while riding them.

Now, onto the adult fun stuff. World Showcase is set up around a lagoon. Anyone who drinks knows the saying “Liquor before Beer you’re in the clear, Beer before Liquor never been sicker,” right?

With that being the case, hang a left and start in Mexico and La Cava del Tequila inside San Angel Inn. As it’s name implies, it serves tequila. And any place that serves tequila also serves margaritas if you can’t handle straight tequila. There’s also Mexican beers. I’d stick with a shot of tequila or a beer as the margaritas are mostly sugar and won’t be sitting well in your stomach after a while, especially in the heat and humidity of Florida. Next up is Norway, which is also home to Maelstrom. This is another good reason to start in Mexico, which also has a ride called Gran Fiesta. While mostly gentle boat rides, it’d be safer to go on them as you’re starting to drink and not towards the end of the bingefest. Now, what do they offer in Norway? Beer and Irish coffee. Really? I know the UK is kinda close to Scandanavia, but they should’ve left the Bailey’s in England. So that leaves you with a beer, wine or a shot of Aquavit, which is a caraway-flavored liquor. I had a shot of the Aquavit, and it was actually quite tasty.

Next up is China, which was under construction last time I was there, so there wasn’t a whole lot to offer. Now that it’s back, my research has led me to find that it sells Yuengling. While delicious, it’s brewed in PA, not China. So for the sake of staying true to the goal of the World Tour, try Tsingtao in the cafe or a cocktail at the Joy of Tea stand outside. There’s also a plum wine to try, which sounds quite tasty. Following China is “Africa.” There’s not much to it besides a few stalls and kiosks, but they do sell beer, although none of it comes from Africa.

Now comes the country of my people: Germany. There is no shortage of beer in this country. I’ve been here for the lunch buffets both of the last times I was here, and it’s been great. There’s an oompa band to entertain you while you stuff your face with German food. This is definitely a good place to ask the wait staff what they’d recommend since the selection is so great. And it wouldn’t be Germany without Jagermeister and schnapps! Following Germany is Italy. Personally, I’m a limoncello fan, so that’s what I got. But they also serve plenty of Italian wine, peach bellinis and an Italian beer.

Following Italy is the US, which means beer. It also means you’ve reached the halfway point in your bingefest. And apparently beer is all they serve in the US. No Jack Daniels or wine from Napa here, which is a shame. They of course serve Bud and Sam Adams here, which between the two I prefer Sam Adams. Next up is Japan, famous for sushi and sake. This was the first place I tried sake and it is quite tasty if you’ve never had it before. If you want to stick with beer, they do serve Kirin Ichiban as well.

Next up is Morrocco. As an Islamic country, there really is no alcoholic drink that you’d associate with it. But Disney took it upon itself to invent some drinks for Morrocco. They came up with more margarita-type frozen drinks. They do serve a beer that is brewed in Morrocco as well, so that’s the extent of the offerrings in Morrocco. Coming up after Morrocco is France. It does have lots of wine and champagne like you’d expect, as well as a French beer.

You’ve hit the home stretch after France and you’re probably stumbling into England. And when you think of drinking in England, you think of having a pint in a pub. And Disney didn’t leave that out when they constructed England. This is the only real bar aside from La Cava del Tequila. You can order mixed drinks as well as pint of Guinness, Harp or Bass Ale. They also have a selection of Scotch and wines. And now you’ve reached the end – Canada. It unfortunately gets the same treatment as the US…it only serves beer. There is a full bar at the restaurant, but you need resevations to get in, so you’re left with the kiosks and beer. They do offer one mixed drink as well as a Bacardi mojito at a kiosk once you leave, though.

This is a lot of alcohol, obviously. If you stick to one drink per country, that’s a total of 12 drinks (including “Africa”). You will be properly smashed by the end. I’ve never done it the whole way around. I’ve picked and chosen – the Aquavit, a beer in Germany, a limoncello, sake and a glass of wine in France. Something to definitely keep in mind is the heat and sun: DRINK WATER! All this alcohol will leave you dehydrated, so unless you want alcohol poisoning, keep drinking water and lots of it depending on when you are travelling. A great thing to do is share drinks. If you only share with one person, that takes the 12 drinks down to 6. And if you’re there in the dead heat of summer, a beer koozie may not be a bad idea to keep everything cold.

Epcot may seem pretty boring on the surface, but there are a few thrills to be had. It’s also home to a drinker’s version of a marathon. Something I plan on doing next time I am there is starting at noon when the World Showcase opens and just taking my time and tasting a little bit of everything. A truly great way to end the night is by getting a table at the pub in England for IllumiNations, which is their nightly show that takes place in the lagoon. It’s not as spectacular as Fantasmic over at Hollywood Studios or the Main Street Electrical Parade at Magic Kingdom, but still a very nice show.

Now, that was the full-day tour. If you’re only there for a half-day, what time you go depends on what your inentions are. If you’re going for the rides and will be spending minimal time in World Showcase, go in the morning and be sure to use and abuse your FastPass. If you’re going for the drinking, the afternoon and evening work out better for you since World Showcase only opens at noon.

Now, onward to Hollywood Studios!

I have safely returned from not one, but 2 trips to Chicago. The first time was for a mini-family vacation and the second was for Lollapalooza. I was also there for a few days last summer with a girlfriend of mine and we did a whirlwind tour and hit a lot of the tourist hotspots. Time to report in, so to speak.

For anyone planning a trip to Chicago, don’t feel obligated to stay downtown. The city has an excellent transit system, so as long as you have a bus stop or El (subway) station within walking distance, you’re golden. I’ve stayed as far out as Evanston and was not more than half an hour away from the heart of the city. I’d also recommend buying an unlimited CTA pass on their website. They have 3-day and 7-day passes and are the best option if you plan on using their transit instead of driving everywhere. It’s a lot easier than trying to track down $2.25 in exact change each time you need to hop on a bus.

Now, what’s there to do in Chicago, you ask? A lot, let’s be honest. There’s Museum Campus, shopping on Michigan Ave., the Sears/Willis Tower, etc. etc. etc. When I was there last year we got CityPass, which back then got you into the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science of Industry, the Field Museum and either the SkyDeck at Sears/Willis Tower or the observation deck at the Hancock Building. Now apparently you get to choose between Adler and the Art Institute. And all this only costs you $76! You’re saving about $80, so it’s really the best economical choice you can make.

Here’s a quick rundown of what I thought of everything:

– Shedd Aquarium: It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Chicago. That was glaringly evident when we were there last summer. I love aquariums. If there’s one to go to where ever I am visiting, I want to go. But it was near-impossible for me to enjoy it because there were so many people there! And it wasn’t just families that were clogging it up. It was enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. I mean, there was a baby beluga! How can you not enjoy that? But the crowd level was definitely detrimental to my visit. Either be prepared for the summer tourist crowd or go during the other seasons when tourism is at lower levels.

– Adler Planetarium: Nicely done, but I wish I had the option to go to the Art Institute last year like they have now. The exhibitions are presented very well, I am just more drawn to art museums. It’s also a sad state of affairs in our educational system when a grown woman answers all the elementary-level questions in the Sky Theater show when any average kid should be able to answer it by high school. But I digress. If you’re a science geek like me, there is plenty to enjoy.

– Museum of Science and Industry (MSI): Love it! There’s so much to see and do here! There’s the Science Storms exhibit, which I loved! There’s a giant Tesla coil to simulate lightning and a wave simulator tank to demonstrate how tsunamis form. My personal favorite was a periodic table where you would place a pog onto an element, combine it with pogs placed on other elements and see what kind of reaction you would get. Examples: 1 Na pog and 1 Cl pog will give you salt, 2 H pogs and 1 O pog will give you water. For the life of me I can’t remember what gave you this reaction, but you can also get a volcanic explosion and some other explosive material. I think I spent half an hour alone just playing at this table. But that’s just scratching the surface.

– Field Museum: Whoa buddy is this museum a big one! Another one of my favorites. It’s home to Sue, the largest, most complete T-rex skeleton ever found. There’s loads of things to do here, from the Ancient Americas exhibit to Evolving Planet to the Hall of Gems.

– SkyDeck: This is the observation deck at Sears/Willis Tower. It’s technically called Willis Tower now, but it’ll always be Sears Tower for me. It’s a 60 second ride to the top and has some beautiful views of downtown Chicago. If you have the stomach for it, there are these glass boxes that extend out over the street so that you’re standing 103 stories up in the air. It’s a trip, let me tell you. I have yet to go to the observation deck at Hancock, but from what I understand there is a bar there. 🙂 It’s also on Michigan Ave. so you’re closer to the lake and can get a view of the shopping.

– Wrigley Field: Home to the Chicago Cubs! It’s not so much about the game at Wrigley, it’s an experience. Instead of building a baseball stadium and developing the area around it, Wrigley was plopped down in the middle of an already existing neighborhood. If you go during baseball season, I’d pick up some tickets and enjoy an afternoon/evening of baseball and some beers.

– The Art Institute: A wonderful way to spend a day. They have quite a collection! They’ve got pieces from all of my favorite artists…Monet, Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh. It’s also home to pop culture icons “American Gothic” and “Nighthawks.” I only got to spend a couple of hours there, but it’s easy to hit the big stuff in that time frame. I will definitely be spending more time there next time I’m in town.

– River Architecture Tour: We went on a Wendella cruise of the river and lakefront. It starts in the shadow of the Wrigley building and Trump Tower and takes you along the river. The guide will point out various buildings and rattle off some fun factoids about them. If you like pretty buildings, I’d give this a go.

Now, as far as Lollapalooza is concerned…

Wow, what a trip. It was one of the best weekends over my life by leaps and bounds. I didn’t get to see a lot of the smaller bands like I originally intended to, but I wanted kick-ass seats for the headliners – Muse, Eminem and Foo Fighters. Seeing all 3 of them made it worth the trip. Like I’ve been telling everyone now that I’m home…despite getting soaked to the bone twice, muddy, bruised, kicked by crowdsurfers and spraining an ankle, I had an excellent time. I think it’s a sign of a good weekend at a rock concert if you come back broken, bruised or remember the weekend in a haze. The whole weekend I was wondering why I haven’t been there before. I’ve even gone ahead and booked a hotel for next year! I’m ready to do it all over again already. There are some handy tips I will pass on for my sake next year and for those who plan to go in the future. A) Bring water. You’re allowed to bring 2 bottles in a day, so save yourself from paying $6 a bottle and bring your own. They also have Camelbak refill stations, so that’s another smart way to go. B) Plan for all types of weather. Bring what you need to get you through heat and rain because you’ll be going through both at some point. C) If you’re uncomfortable in crowds,  or can’t handle being outside and on your feet for hours on end, save yourself the time and money and don’t go. Also, for the women out there, please don’t think of this as an opportunity to show off your fashion sense. You will get sweaty and muddy and all-around gross. If it rains, your hair is going to get ruined and your makeup will run. Just save yourself from looking like a tool. It’s a rock concert, not a fashion show. Wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting stinky and dirty in. I for one will think more highly of you. Believe me, I saw less and less glitz and glamour as the weekend progressed.

Now, for a bucket list of things left that I haven’t done: the gangsters tour, a Segway tour, the Lincoln Park zoo, a show at Second City, the Chicago History Museum and a Bears game at Soldier Field. Someday soon I’ll be able to knock all that off my list of things to do and see.

1000 Places to see Before You Die on these trips: 5 completed.

Up next, a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!