Sunday, July 29, 2012

Making Friends With Chipmunks

I took the most beautiful drive the other day on highway 212 in Wyoming. It was amazingly beautiful. Each turn had something new to look at. If you have the time, this by far is one of the most beautiful drives I've ever been on. At the top, you get a stunning view of bear tooth mountain.

On the way down towards Montana, I stopped at another viewpoint and the chipmunks were the friendliest I've ever encountered. They were all too eager to ham it up and be in my photograph. One looked like he took pleasure in photobombing my shot! It really was a beautiful drive and I would recommend making a trip if you've never been.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Royal Caribbean Grand Suite - Monarch of the Seas

On our recent cruise on Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas, we were lucky enough to get a taste of the "suite life" in a Grand Suite.

The Monarch is one of the cruise line's older ships and is in the smallest class.  In fact, Royal Caribbean has sold the Monarch to their Italian line, Pullmantur, and she will be removed from the fleet in April.  However, while the staterooms are much smaller than what is typically found on newer Royal Caribbean ships, the suites are still spacious and comfortable, though dated in decor.

The Monarch doesn't have any balcony staterooms besides suites.  All of the suites are located on deck 10.  We were in room 1038, which was the Grand Suite closest to the elevator on the starboard side.


The suite had a dry bar equipped with glassware and a coffee maker, as well as a flat-screen television (regular staterooms had tiny old-school box TVs).


The room had a king bed with plenty of floor space on all three sides.


A spacious vanity...


Three large closets with robes and slippers.


The sofa bed folded out into a queen size bed.



Lots of storage!


The balcony was very large.



We were welcomed with bottled water and a fruit basket.


As well as several invitations to events throughout the cruise.


The bathroom had a full-size bathtub.


And upgraded toiletries.


Suite guests receive gold SeaPass cards so that they can easily be identified by crew members.  On larger cruise ships, gold SeaPasses give people access to the Concierge Lounge and reserved seating on the pool deck, but the Monarch of the Seas didn't have the amenities (alternative to Concierge Lounge was an invitation to the nightly Diamond Plus event in the Viking Crown Lounge).  There was, however, a reserved area in the Sound of Music theater for suite guests.


One of our favorite suite perks was the ability to order room service from the dining room menu.  Instead of having to fill out the breakfast room service card the night before, we could call that morning and have breakfast delivered to the room.  It was a great convenience and sure beat battling the crowds at the Windjammer.

Other suite perks on the Monarch included -
  • Private party on Coco Cay with free cocktails
  • Reserved breakfast area in the dining room (never used it)
  • Pillow menu with variety of pillow options (also didn't use)
  • Priority embarkation
  • Priority tendering (not really necessary on the Monarch since it's such a small ship)
  • Free pressing service for formal night
  • Chocolates at turn down
  • Daily treats delivered to the stateroom (sushi, fruit, bottled water, etc.)
We were really glad that we chose to stay in a suite.  It was a good experience and did spoil us a little.  The 4-night cruise was an affordable way to see if the suite benefits were worth the upgrade (and on a larger ship, there would be even more benefits).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meeting Neighbors Along The Way

During my travels, I enjoy getting to know the locals in the area. The other night in Spokane, I took my bike out to see if anyone was out and about on that beautiful summer evening.

I approached "C.J." as she was sweeping her walkway with a hand broom. We started chatting and she told me all about the area, the history of the neighborhood and about her travels. She wasn't shy about asking me questions and we bantered back and forth for a while. When I approached her I told her that I wanted to meet people in different neighborhoods around the country since I think it's important to know our neighbors.

She told me that she has lived in Spokane all of her life and in the home behind her for the majority of it. I then asked her is she knew any of her neighbors and she got quiet and said "no."

Friday, July 20, 2012

4th of July in Chico

I just realized that I haven't blogged since Max and I went to Yosemite!  I will try to keep you posted here on my travels as much as possible but sometimes it's difficult when you run around without internet and the van is too hot to leave Max inside.  If you would like to see photos from our journey every day, I post them on the instagram app under my user name, "alisontravels."

After we spent time in Yosemite, we traveled North and visited with good friends, Kristiana and Greg and then up to Chico, CA to hang out with my old college roommates, team mates and now lifelong friends, Rose and Heide.  I spent the 4th of July with Heide's family and the rest of the time with Rose.  I took Lucy (the name of my bike) out and towed Max behind in his trailer around the park. Chico is a great college town in the middle of Northern California with lots of space to ride your bike and get lost in the park.  Back in the day, I used to be a lifeguard at Sycamore pool, otherwise known as the one mile pool.  It was fun to go back and watch the kids swim around with their families in the usual hot summer heat.

I will try to blog more often and share experiences on the road here.  If nothing else, I will post photos along the way.  Here are a few from my visit in Chico, all taken with my iphone.  More soon!

P.S.... The first round of postcards are in the mail!  If you signed up, you should have yours... if you didn't receive one and want me to send you a postcard from the road, see the right side of the blog for details. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tomorrowland Terrace Dessert Party - Magic Kingdom Fireworks

Claiming a fireworks spot to watch the nightly Wishes fireworks with the view of Cinderella's Castle in the background can get competitive - especially during peak season (summer, Christmas, spring break) at Walt Disney World when people begin to stake out spots in the Castle hub and along Main Street 2-3 hours in advance!  However, there are a few ways to ensure a great view of the fireworks without having to stand your ground or get pushed out of the way... or to hold a spot for two hours, only to have someone hoist their small child on top of their shoulders, in turn blocking your view.

The desire for reserved fireworks seating has contributed to the popularity of the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party.  And the irregular schedule of opening the dessert party for Advance Dining Reservations has also added to the difficulty of obtaining a reservation.

Reservations for the dessert party are different than typical Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) for Walt Disney World restaurants, which open 180 days prior to your visit, as well as dinner shows, which can be booked up to 90 days in advance.  The release period for the dessert party is typically 2-3 months in advance, and instead of opening it a day at a time, they open the entire month at once.  However, the release date is completely irregular - for example, they opened the month of May on March 7 and the month of June on March 27.  Luckily, I had been following this thread on the DISboards where people dedicated to calling everyday to find out if they are accepting reservations yet post when they open up the next month.

You pay for the party upon making a reservation.  It's $35 per adult and $15 per child (ages 3-9).

I booked the party as a surprise for my sister, Rachel, and her friend, Meredith's graduation celebration at Magic Kingdom.  I had read online that it's a good idea to arrive 30-45 minutes before the party begins at 9:00, which made us the third or fourth family in line.  They didn't begin letting us into the party until 8:45, but I was glad that we had arrived early because while other families were still waiting to enter, we had the dessert buffet to ourselves.

The desserts are miniature and adorable (not to mention delicious).




While they didn't serve soft drinks, they offered lemonade, water, and coffee.  In addition to miniature desserts, "homemade" ice cream was available.


All seating at the dessert party is assigned.  Historically, the sooner you make a reservation, the better your seat will be.  People who booked the day it opened have reported to be seated at tables on the front row, while people who have booked last minute reported that they were seated in the back row.  However, it's important to note that the front and back rows consist of tables for 2-3 people, while the middle row consists of tables of 4 or more people.  So no matter how soon you book, if you are a party greater than 4, you will be seated in the middle row.  Also, table location doesn't matter too much because you are allowed to stand along the railing to view the fireworks.


Here's our view from the table -


You can see and hear the Main Street Electrical Parade, but you don't have a very good view of it from the terrace.  If you wish, you can leave the party (you're given a wristband upon entry) to get a closer view of the parade.


Now, the annoying part of the Fireworks party was right about the time the parade ended, people from the back row of tables positioned themselves against the railing in front of the front row of tables. I had heard that people were allowed to stand against the railing for a better view, but I was shocked that they claimed their spot so early, just as if we were lining up for fireworks on Main Street. It was a little rude in my opinion because they essentially stole the spot directly in front of the first row of tables - taking the view of people who might've not been aware that they would need to stand up.

When this was happening, I was already against the railing in front of the buffet area, taking photos of the castle from the most direct head-on position. So, I lucked out with a great spot and had my family come join me. A CM then told us that we had the best view (which is funny because we were the last to claim a spot).

The view:


We had a good view of The Magic, The Memories, and You, as well as the fireworks.


There's a great view of Tinkerbell overhead.




They don't restock the desserts throughout the party, though it described as a buffet. However, there were plenty of treats still remaining after the fireworks, just not as much selection.






After the fireworks (actually during), the Cast Members go into clean-up mode.  They had left all of the desserts out, but had put away all of the flatware, so if you wanted another dessert, you had to use your fingers.  We got the hint to leave when a CM came by and asked us if we were going to finish our drinks (which we were clearly still drinking). We told her yes.  The CMs were very nice, but it was pretty obvious that they were ready for us to leave... though it was technically a public area, and we could hang out there if we wanted to.

While the dessert party was a fun experience, it isn't something that we're going to need to do every trip.  I wouldn't say that we really saved any time that we would've spent staking out a parade and fireworks location by doing the dessert party, and we still had to wait in line to get in... heck, we weren't even as close as we could have been had we waited in the Castle Hub.  But, it was nice to be able to have a relaxing pre-fireworks experience.  Not to mention, the desserts were really good!  I'd recommend eating a light dinner beforehand.

If you're interested in booking the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party, you can do it online or by calling Disney Dining at (407) WDW-DINE. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta

I'm one of those people who enjoys museums and aquariums and just looking and learning about things.  My sister, however... not so much.  In fact, she hates museums... and aquariums!  So while in Atlanta with my boyfriend, Max, on what started as a Ralph Lauren shopping spree (this guy is obsessed), I suggested that we check out the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta because I haven't been there since they moved to new location.  And being a go-with-the-flow guy who is always willing to please, Max agreed!

First: The new building looks great!


It shares a plaza with the Georgia Aquarium, and when purchasing tickets, you have the option to bundle with the Georgia Aquarium and/or an Atlanta Braves game.

General Admission is $16 for adults, $12 for children (ages 3-12), $14 for seniors (ages 65+).

Parking was $10.  The parking garage is convenient to both the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola.

The entry lobby has Coca Cola bottles decorated to represent countries from all over the world which were used during the 1996 Summer Olympics held in Atlanta.  They have a photographer stationed in front of the bottles for the first photo op of the tour (they scan a card so you can view and purchase your photo later).



The lobby also has a wall of flat-screen televisions displaying different Coke products.  I had to get a picture of Max with his favorite, Diet Coke.



The lobby is a holding room for the first part of the tour - a film about Coca Cola.


Next we went into another holding room - this one with an overly jolly tour guide who gave us a very enthusiastic history lesson on "COOCAAA COOLLLAAA" while we waited for the film.

The room had a lot of vintage signs, lights, paintings, and other collectible Coca Cola advertisements from decades past.




Finally, we could see the film!  It had the characters that were created for the 2007 "Happiness Factory" super bowl commercial which they showed us while we were in the second holding room with the tour guide.

Here's the commercial, if you haven't seen it before (love the song, by the way... remember my post on Wave Your Flag?) -

The film is called "The Great Happyfication," and is about finding happiness in your life.  It's got a good message, but in all honesty, I found the characters rather unattractive in a not-so-adorable way.  And the characters with the lips freak me out.

If you can't wait until you visit The World of Coca Cola to watch it, I've also embedded it below -

After the film, the remainder of the tour was self-guided.  There are different rooms where you can discover things about Coca Cola at your own leisure.

We were greeted by this not-so-lovely giant cheerleader upon exiting the film...


Max and I decided to bypass the line to have our picture taken with her and instead head to the bottling factory.  It was a good thing, too, because we got to watch the last bottles of the day get filled.









Next, we moved on to....


The Vault - where Coca Cola's top secret formula is kept!








There are some neat interactive elements in here... you can try your hand at recreating the Coca Cola recipe by adjusting wheels to "Spicy/Smooth/Crisp/Sweet/etc."



That's us on the screen -


We were then led to a secret room with.... The Vault! While I seriously doubt that there is a recipe hidden in there, an alarm did sound when Max propped up on the railing to get his picture taken, having forgotten the "No Touching" rule.



Next, we we wandered into a room set up like an old soda shop.








After taking a look around inside, we looked downstairs... THE POLAR BEAR WAS THERE!!! I insisted that we get our picture.


Then we headed upstairs.




Max was thirsty and headed straight to the taste lab.


This is the one thing about the new World of Coca Museum that I didn't like as much as the original (note, I visited the original over ten years ago, but I had a vivid memory of the Coke Around the World room because it's the one thing I enjoyed about the museum as a child). In the old museum, they had a giant fountain which actually squirted a stream of soda from the center of the room into your cup. It was really cool. This room, however, was set up more like Club Cool in Epcot.








We left the taste room back into the museum (it's also the exit) to see the 4D show. I won't spoil this for you with a video, though it is out there if you want to see it beforehand. It's another somewhat corny video about Coca Cola creating happiness.


We then ventured into a room with more Coca Cola art and artifacts.




There was a digital design center where you could create your own Coca Cola artwork and email it to a friend or to yourself.















Next was a station where you could write your own Coke story. The keyboards, however, were very difficult to type on. I submitted a Diet Coke love story about Max and me (we both drink Diet Coke religiously - how weird is that?).... you'll probably see us on advertisements in the future - haha!




We looked downstairs and... THE POLAR BEAR!!!


I insisted to Max that we needed to get another picture just because we could.

In the meantime, I took some more artwork photos.


And the ceiling. I'm an architect student, remember?






The polar bear is rather lifelike. He blinks and opens his mouth. Pretty cool technology!




We went back upstairs to do some final exploring before heading out.


But before leaving, we had to drink more Coke!





While there are Coke products from around the world to try, there is also a safe corner with popular North American products.


Max playing it safe.


Yeah, you got caught, buddy!


I guess he was having Diet Coke withdrawals.








Upon exiting, we were given a classic bottle of Coca Cola.




And dumped into a gift shop, Disney World style.


The merchandise was really cool, though.




























The World of Coca Cola Museum takes around 2-3 hours to tour.  We visited on a Tuesday evening (entered around 4:00) in late June and didn't encounter many crowds.  Combined with a visit to Georgia Aquarium would make for a great Atlanta day trip.  Add a Braves game and tour of the CNN Center for a fun-filled Atlanta weekend!