Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hollywood Studios

 I'm a little late to wrap up my Disney posts, but I figured I'd live by the old saying "better late than never".  Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) was the last park we visited on our trip.  First opened in May 1989, 9.7 million guests walked through its gates last year, making it the 7th most visited amusement park in the world (behind Magic Kingdom and Epcot but one spot ahead of Animal Kingdom).

As you enter the gates, you cant help but notice the park's icon, Mickey's Fantasia Sorcerer's Hat.  Using our PhotoPass, we grabbed a group shot.
As a guest, you quickly realize that this park draws its inspiration from old Hollywood.  Unlike the other parks, there isn't really a set layout to describe.  However, there are six themed areas.

Hollywood Boulevard is essentially the main entrance that extends down the street to The Great Movie Ride.  The outside of this attraction is a replica of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the inside is a slow moving ride through Hollywood's most famous movies (such as Singing in the Rain, Wizard of Oz, Tarzan, Casablanca, Aliens etc).
2008 Trip
Echo Lake's headline attractions are Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.  Star Tours was actually closed for renovations this year.  It is going to be called Star Tours: The Adventure Continues when it reopens in May 2011.  Back in 2004 though, Dave posed on some of the props (in this case, the speeder) that they have in this area.
Streets of America is currently set up to resemble the streets of San Francisco and New York.  The main attractions here are the Muppet Vision 3DStudio Backlot Tour and Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show.  Muppet Vision is always fun.  I think the 3D is a bit outdated at this point, but is so cute and laugh inducing nonetheless.  We snapped a few pictures as we waited in line.
The backlot tour isn't my favorite ride so we skipped it this year because we were crunched for time due to our 6:45pm flight home.  We did take in the stunt show because the boys were interested.  I could definitely take it or leave it though.  It really is more of a guy thing.

Animation Courtyard has a few walk through attractions, such as Walt Disney: One Man's Dream and The Magic of Disney Animation.  We walked through One Man's Dream and it was pretty neat to see all of photos and various artifacts that formed Walt's life.  There is also a film narrated by Julie Andrews at the end.  It's worth a walk through if you have the time.  We did not have time for The Magic of Disney Animation so I'm not sure if its a must-do or not

Pixar Place is the newest section to the park and it also has the best new ride: Toy Story Midway Mania.   It was actually our last ride at the park (and our entire trip for that matter) and it was nice to go out with a bang.  The ride is described as 4D, taking guests through a series of interactive games hosted by various Toy Story characters.  Because you ride in a two-person car, it has a tendency to cause some healthy competition because your respective scores are tallied in real time.  Dave beat me be a small margin! I need to beat him next time!  I should point out that this ride's popularity is on par with Soarin' in EPCOT.  Thus, I would recommend going straight to this attraction and grabbing your Fast Pass before you do anything else.  If you don't, you may discover at an early hour that all of the Fast Passes are gone for the day.  Here are a few pictures that I took back in 2008 while waiting in line:
Sunset Boulevard in my humble opinion is where all the good action is at.  It is home to The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror.  The 199 ft tower is the 2nd highest attraction in Disney World (2nd to Expedition Everest) and is based in the fictional Hollywood Tower hotel.  The premise of the ride is to take guests through what happened to the hotel guests riding in an elevator when it was struck by lightening back in 1939.  As you are being taken through it, you are suddenly plunging down the elevator shaft.  The ride is always changing so it's hard to predict how many times you will be plunging down and then shot back up, etc.
Next door is another great ride: Aerosmith's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster.  The steel roller coaster is themed to be a stretch limousine taking passengers to the Aerosmith concert.  With Aerosmith music playing loudly through the speakers by your ears, you are told that you're running late to the concert.  You're then accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, making it the 2nd fastest attraction in Disney (2nd to Test Track in EPCOT). There are a couple of inverted points in the ride, which are a ton of fun! We had to ride it twice this year to get our fill!  I also had to buy the photo they take of you mid-ride since Adam's air guitar was true comic genius.
Sunset Boulevard is also where Daisy and I enjoyed our last Yuengling drafts.  Pity we had to come home and away from Yuengling availability.
It also has two live stage shows, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage and Fantasmic!  It's been such a long time since I saw the Beauty and the Beast show so I really feel incapable of comment.  The Fanstasmic! show is great however and you should definitely make time for this at the end of the night.  We would have but we had to catch our flight!

If you are at the park between mid-November and early January, you should check out The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in Streets of America. The light display is made up of over 10 miles of rope lighting that are connected to electronic switches that are set to music (such as Christmas Eve by the Trans Siberian Orchestra and Jingle Bells by Barbara Streisand).  Hence, it appears that the lights are "dancing" to the music.  They also installed fake snow machines to set the scene.  I really enjoyed this area in 2008 with the family.
Here's a video to check out if you're interested:

Hollywood Studios is (i) home to many great rides and is (ii) doable within one day.  At a minimum, make sure to find time for Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Toy Story Midway Mania, Muppet Vision 3D and Fantasmic!  Some of the other attractions I mentioned are nice to do's but not must do's.

This post also wraps marks the end of the Florida vacation recaps.  Well, at least until I decide I miss it too much and want to do it all again next year... :)

Winter's Touch

Refusing to mope about being stuck in town, I set out on a lunch date yesterday with my mom at Pickering Wharf.  She wanted to be able to see the water so I took her to Victoria Station.  Last time I was here, we had dinner out on the patio for Mike's birthday in August.  The scene was a bit different now and definitely demonstrated winter's kiss.
The indoors was how I remembered it though, warmly lit and inviting.
We were seated by the window overlooking the harbor.  I happily snapped a picture of the Friendship and even noted that people were still taking tours on the ship despite the cold, cold weather.
After ordering my signature, non-alcoholic drink, Diet Coke with lime, I was pleased to discover that their lunch menu was fairly robust.  I was choosing between a few things, but ended up settling on Frank Purdue's Turkey Burger ($7.59).  The burger was served with roasted plum tomatoes and feta cheese, along with a plate of fries.  
Mom ordered the Traditional Fish & Chips ($9.99).
Considering this restaurant is known for its prime rib, they did extremely well with these two non red meat dishes.  Mom even went so far as to say it was the best fried haddock she had in years, citing its clear freshness.  We both were unable to eat all of our fries, not because they were tasty but because the portion was immense.  We agreed it would be very unlikely for someone to leave this place with any room to spare.
Victoria Station on Urbanspoon
After a little down time at home at the condo, Mom dropped me off at the commuter rail station.  I was headed over to the North End to see Daisy.  Life's been so busy for the both of us lately that I hadn't seen her in way too long and was having withdrawals.  However, before I could get my Daisy fix, I had to deal with a wee problem.....missing my train.  Yep, I was the cool kid literally running after the train with a look of disappointment as she realized it really was too late.  With an hour to kill until the next train, I decided to walk over to the Gulu-Gulu Cafe up the street.  Outside of the cafe is the Samantha from Bewitched statue.  She looked too cute holding an ornament in front of a large (also decorated) tree.
I had only ever walked by a crowded Gulu-Gulu at night once, so I was pleased to see that it was still very vibrant and happening in the daytime.  I chose a seat on a comfy couch and popped open my laptop (free WiFi provided).  Still somewhat full from lunch, I decided on a Creme Brulee Latte ($3.50), made with vanilla & caramel syrups in steamed milk with a shot of espresso, and a slice of Baileys Irish Cream Cheesecake ($6).
The latte came in a pint glass, which was surprising!  I had to ask for a to-go cup after a while because I wasn't able to finish it in the short amount of time I had there.  The dessert was unbelievably amazing.  Baileys is such a good ingredient for desserts (i.e. my Irish Car Bomb cupcakes)!  The guy next to me also told me that they have open mic nights on Wednesdays and that they always have a packed house.  Seems like I'm going to need to pop in here again soon to check out the night life!
Gulu Gulu Cafe on Urbanspoon
I had better luck catching my train the next time and happily made my way over to visit with Daisy.  After a failed attempt at the $6 spaghetti & meatball night at Prezza (too crowded), we ended up on Tresca on Hanover St.  In between being Chatty Cathy's, we enjoyed a couple of drinks and a pizza. She took the pics this night so I will leave it to her to recount on III :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Okay, so I am not writing this post from the moderately warmer NC air.  Unlucky enough for me, I am still stuck in Salem.  Should this count as a retraction from my last post?  Lol.  As it turns out, yesterday was quite the story for me and Dave.  Actually, it is really more of a rant so bear with me....

We were scheduled to take Continental Airlines to Charlotte in the afternoon, connecting in Newark.  Even though it stopped snowing on Monday morning, Newark didn't have its snow removing act together and only managed to have one out of its two large runways operational come Tuesday morning. Bad news bears for us since it ended up causing the first leg of our trip to be cancelled.  I found this news out at 8am and tried to call the number that was provided me via the cancellation email.  However, when I called the number all I received was an automated message that said "Due to the weather in the Northeast, we are experiencing unusually high call volume and are unable to take your call.  Please check for more information. Goodbye".  Now, I might have been a more understanding patron if I got this message a few times, but I pretty much lost my cool after hearing it for 6 straight hours.  I mean, do they even have ANYONE attempting to answer calls?!  Still, it wouldn't have been that bad if I could access my itinerary online like they told me I would be able to do, but nope that was rendered not an option as well.  Every time I would try to enter my confirmation number on their website it glitched up and brought me back to the entry page.  Thus, thank you very much Continental for making it impossible to even talk to anyone at all.

I tried their partner airline (and soon to be merging with) United and got someone within 5 minutes.  I told her my predicament and she recommended that I try going down to the airport because at least that way I would be guaranteed to talk to someone face-to-face.  Ugh.  By the way, she also told me that United themselves could not get in contact with Continental either!  What the h*ll was going on with them!?

Fast forward to Dave and I schlepping our bags on the bus from Salem to Logan airport only to be greeted by the longest line known to man at the Continental check-in desk.  Mind you it was about 5x as long as any other airline's line (probably because they made it impossible to speak to anyone on the phone or through the internet).  By the time we were done with that mess, we were left with only one option...getting rebooked on the earliest next date which happened to be Friday (New Years Eve).  Since we are supposed to be in Atlantic City on Friday, it made no sense to do that.  We had to cancel our flights and take the refund.

On our way home on the commuter rail, we decided that we couldn't miss Christmas with Dave's family. We would throw our already packed bags in my car and just drive the 14 hours to the Charlotte area.  This would mean driving through the night but, hey, we're young and we can handle it.  After arming ourselves with road snacks, waters, sodas and a couple 5-hour energy drinks, we hit the road.  However, as soon as we hit the highway and I accelerated to 50+ mph, my car's wheel and front end started violently shaking.  Not cool!  My car isn't exactly old and it was FINE the other day before the snow storm.  The only thing Dave and I could think of is that there was a lot of snow and ice tucked away in the wheel well that we couldn't really see after we pulled over.  Need I remind you of the conditions my poor car was subjected to?
We couldn't very well drive to NC in a shaking car not knowing for sure if it was just snow/ice and we obviously failed at getting out via air.  That would make two failed attempts at leaving Salem.  Didn't seem like it was meant to be :(

On a brighter note, after pulling my car into the garage over night and letting it dethaw -- it is running perfectly today.  I'm thankful there wasn't actually a mechanical issue here but rather a meteorological issue.  We are also still heading to Atlantic City for NYE, but now we're just arriving via Acela.

For those of you that wanted some insights into the NC area, you'll have to wait until our next trip.  We are tentatively thinking that we'll make it out there in early February for Dave's mom's birthday.  Needless to say, weather permitting.  However, please still stay tuned for details of our trip to Atlantic City.  I'm sure there will be lots of debauchery to detail.  Oh, and I promised my friend Curt that I would post the picture of our hostess from last year at Mohegan (since it failed to make my last post).  I wonder if we'll see a repeat of this look this year in AC....

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ending 2010...

...on the road.  Where else?  True to form but not the counting endless hours at my office lately, I never seem to be in one place for very long without a travel-related adventure in the midst.  Today I'm heading out to the Charlotte, NC area to spend some time with Dave's parents.  They moved down there about 2 months ago, leaving the more harsh New England winters happily behind.

I have never spent time in NC, so I will report back with my thoughts! I always get giddy when it comes time to check out a new place.  I know that they live very close to Lake Norman, which is probably lovely in the summer.  We'll have to see about the winter.

To add a nice bonus to our trip, we are heading over to Atlantic City, NJ for New Years weekend.  The amazing couple below is picking us up from Philadelphia airport on Friday afternoon and driving our butts over to AC.
We just so happened to hang with these kids (then engaged, now married) last NYE at Club Ultra 88 at Mohegan Sun.  Since we got the invite again this year, I guess they must not have thought too much less of us after that crazy night!  It's always nice to see them since they live in Newark, DE and we live in siberia.

I'll write again in the New Year with all the dirty deets!  For now, I'll leave you with a few pictures from last NYE...

Merry Christmas

Christmas Day was spent at my cousins' house.  True to tradition, Norm, Kris, Jake and Kasey had us over for breakfast and continued feeding us throughout the day.

Christmas strata with veggies and sausage:
I look forward to this dish every year.  The ingredients are pretty basic but the add up to pure deliciousness.  While at on a break from gorging ourselves, Dave and I enjoyed taking in some down time by the tree.
Then more gift giving began, highlighted by a great group gift for my mom: a new LCD tv.
I received a new Betsey Johnson watch which I think is pretty awesome.
Kris followed up gift giving with our Christmas dinner, which included:

Chicken Cordon Bleu
Roast Port wrapped with Bacon
Crescent Rolls
Mashed Potatoes 
Green beans with sliced almonds
Spicy corn dish...perhaps it was succotash?
After playing a few games, including Cranium and whist, Kris put out the desserts.
Karen is holding "holiday presents" which were sooooo good.  They are comprised of three layers (strawberry ice cream, lemon cream and yellow cake) and are covered with chocolate ganache. I must get the recipe from Kris.

We also had a Ho Ho Ho cake for the hostess.  Despite what she thought that may imply, Karen had nothing but the best intentions with this purchase.
Kris and I were also drinking out of these special holiday wine glasses.  She is the best host!
Merry Christmas everyone! Hope your holiday was everything you hoped it would be and more! For me, it was a great chance to indulge in some great home-made dishes, share quality time with amazing family and enjoy some much-needed days off.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Eve Pasta Fest

Every year I spend Christmas Eve at my Aunt Carol's in the south shore.  We never have a set menu, last year it happened to be turkey.  This year it ended up being a serious Pasta Fest.  We were so loaded up with carbs, that we could have ran to the Christmas Day celebration at my cousins' the following day.

From 2010 Cooking Light, our first pasta dish was Two-Pepper Rigatoni and Cheese.  The fontina cheese and red pepper were the highlights for me in this dish.
Our second dish was baked ziti with marinara sauce, a relatively simple foray into Italian cooking but delicious nonetheless.  Such a good cold weather comfort food.
Just about when I was pasta'd out, Karen's famous Betty Crocker mac n' cheese made its way to the table.  Karen typically makes this dish for our Easter feast but she was nice enough to contribute to our imminent pasta coma this Christmas Eve.
After dinner, we began some gift opening. Mother and daughter matched this Christmas Eve.  Too funny.
Note the awesome Frosty Hat
Thanks to my family for a great evening.....
On to Christmas Day....