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Friday, April 18, 2008


Three years ago we visited Universal Studios in California where a one-day visit is sufficient. In Feb., '07 we thoroughly enjoyed California's Disneyland where we needed three days (with breather days between) but could have used four for comfort, but it has been years--maybe 15+ since we visited Disney World in Orlando, and WOW this is not the Disney World of bygone days. You gotta come here--and you've gotta come with plenty of time!

Epcot is fantastic--but it's big and diverse. Rob and I weren't sure if one day would do it for us, so I did a lot of checking in the multitude of guides in Barnes & Noble and online and then planned a potential itinerary. When we checked into Sheraton Vistana Resort, we bought our One Day ticket and made dinner reservations at the Rose & Crown Restaurant (a good spot to view Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at 9:00 P.M.) We thought Illuminations would be a spectacular fireworks display as we’ve seen in Disneyland and Disneyworld.

Epcot is divided into two distinct sub-sections, Future World and World Showcase. We decided to spend the morning at Future World and the afternoon at World Showcase, ending at the Rose & Crown Inn and Restaurant for dinner in the United Kingdom. Allison, Mike (from England) and I visited there years ago, and so there is a special pleasant nostalgia associated with this part of Epcot.

Future World looks at the present and the future, and the exhibits and rides hint of possibilities. If you remember the Disney created GE exhibit, It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow at the 1964 World’s Fair, you also know how much of that has come to pass. Today’s Future World does the same thing, and exhibits that are just fun today will be commonplace tomorrow. We went on some incredible rides in Future World! We began with Mission: Space. There are already tourist space travelers, but someday travel will not be limited to the extraordinarily wealthy. Rob and I, I admit, took the less intense training--we skipped the spinning part of the ride that simulates weightlessness--and took off to Mars. In our four-man ship, I was the pilot; Rob was the navigator, and we had a bumpy landing--and a lot of fun!

Next we climbed aboard a "clamobile" at The Seas and went looking for Nemo. This ride was amazing, and at times combined the real (and super) aquarium with projections of Nemo and his friends. They appeared to be swimming among the real sharks, porpoises and other fish. Pretty cool. We spent a lot of time looking at the aquarium which is always fascinating and a bit eerie when you get a close-up look at those beady fish eyes. There is a special tank for two manatees that have been rescued. These manatees, endangered, harmless vegetarians often mangled by motor boats, eat 100 heads of lettuce each per day! Disney is involved with all kinds of scientific projects with companies and governments, and their study of manatees is one of them.

At The Land, we skipped the Soarin' ride because we rode that in California last year, but I recommend this hang gliding flight if you have a chance. Instead we rode Living with the Land, and this was fantastic. It was Rob's favorite ride of the day. Living with the Land is a boat ride through amazing greenhouses and fish farms. Disney works in tangent with the government to develop new and more productive ways to farm while reducing dependence on fertilizers and chemicals. They also experiment with ways to grow produce in otherwise hostile environments so that countries having problems now might someday be able to become more agriculturally productive. We viewed regular gardens, hydroponic gardens, and air gardens where the roots are sprayed with water and kept moist without soil. Some fruits and vegetables were awesome sizes, but I got a real kick out of seeing a hanging squash in a plastic container shaped like Mickey Mouse. As it grows, it will shape itself into my favorite mouse. Pretty neat!
In Imagination!, we went on Journey Into Imagination with Figment, a kind of purple dragon character that has been part of the Disney cast for a while. I can't remember when I first met him, but it must have been here at Epcot years ago. He's a cutie, and the message--free the imagination and wonderful things will happen--is absolutely true!

On a one day visit, there are attractions we chose to forgo, but we enjoyed everything we saw in Future World before we headed over to World Showcase, exhibits of different countries and some of the things that make them special. We began with Mexico where we passed through the market square with its bright shops and beautiful Mexican products, past the Mariachi band where we paused to listen for a while, and headed to the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros who you might remember from your youth as Donald Duck, Panchito, and Jose Carioca. This musical boat ride was resplendent with colors, scenes of Mexico, animated fireworks and enough enhancing images to make us want to head to Mexico--which we're doing in April! This pavilion captures the atmosphere of Mexico, reflecting many aspects from the historic to the modern, and it does so with music and color and a good feeling for live. Viva Mexico!

We moved on to Norway, picked up FastPass tickets for Maelstrom and moved on to Germany for some lunch at Sommerfest--bratwurst, and sauerkraut washed down with Beck's Pilsner. From Germany we headed back to Norway to ride Maelstrom, a Viking boat voyage. Very nice. We disembarked in a Norwegian village and saw a film on Norway. Made us think that Scandinavia should be close to the top of the "to visit" list. Such a wonderful world. So many places....

We came to China with just enough leeway to still find bench seats and get ready for the Chinese acrobats. This act has stayed vividly in my mind since my last Epcot visit, and we were not disappointed this time. The flexibility and precision leaves one in awe. China is an amazing pavilion. Inside there is a Circle-Vision 360 presentation, Reflections of China giving the some of the history of this long-lived yet diverse and adaptive land and culture. Sometimes it is a bit political; sometimes there are slight jabs at the west. I remember the movie from my last visit, but I don't remember feeling any political connotations. Different time, I guess, and I'd term it ironic rather than offensive. The movie is breathtaking! There was also a marvelous exhibit featuring scale models of the Terracotta Warriors, and exhibits featuring Chinese art and Chinese music. Even the store in China contained many interesting and tempting products--beautiful tea sets and chopsticks, for instance. Lovely brocaded jackets and jewelry cases. Rob joked that it's just like everywhere else in America--the labels say "Made in China." China was the most ambitious and, for us, the best of the showcases although the best show was our own The American Adventure, the "inspirational story of America and its people" featuring animatronic figures like Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, F.D.R., John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and films of M.L.K. Jr., Rosa Parks, etc. This 30 minute show was really moving, and we loved it.

By this time, it had become a long day, and it was time for a coffee break at the Liberty Inn. If there is one complaint I have about this place is that all they serve is liquid Coffee Mate. Several theories, but no proof so no speculation here. At least it wasn't flavored Coffee Mate.

Japan is another fantastic place though it consists primarily of three restaurants. However the outdoor show of syncopated drumming combined with movement is out of this world!

By the time the drummers finished, it was time to head to The Rose & Crown at the United Kingdom. We had time to go into the shops, and we picked a birthday present for Michael. Unfortunately we did not realize that by the time the Illuminations program ended, the shop would be closed, so that ended that idea.

Epcot works for everyone! That's pretty unusual. Actually, Orlando works for everyone in some ways, and there is no reason to think age and mobility are limiting factors. There are wheelchairs and motorized chairs for anyone who needs one, and they do get used. Every ride is accessible, and in the map, you will see which ones fit your accessibility needs. This is one fantastic place. Just give yourself time. We saw everything we wanted to see and rode every ride we wanted to ride in Epcot in one day. My pedometer had us walking about 8.5 miles. To make this possible, remember we were in Epcot out of season, so we had short or no lines although we did use FastPass a few times. A more comfortable pace and probably more realistic for most of the year would be two days at Epcot.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Rob and I loved our day at Epcot. But I must add that a day at Epcot is not complete without staying for the last show of the day, Illuminations: Reflections of the Earth.

I've got to write about Illuminations separately because Rob and I never have witnessed anything like it. If you know Rob, you know that fireworks is his thing, but to call Illuminations: Reflections of the Earth fireworks is to sell it short!

We'd made reservations for dinner at the Rose & Crown at the United Kingdom in Epcot's World Showcases. It's the only restaurant fronting on the lagoon, and we wanted good seats for this culmination of our day.

At precisely 9:00 P.M., our restaurant seats morph into Broadway House Seats. The show begins.

Accompanied by beautiful music, sparkling, exploding fireworks emanate from different sites around the lagoon and of all colors, but particularly white, light up the skies. Meanwhile, from the middle of the lagoon, huge explosions and fireballs burst out of the night, adding feelings of power and grandeur. Then, moving slowly toward the middle of the lagoon, a huge globe, its continents cut out and twinkling with the greens of the earth and blues of the seas takes center stage. In the middle of the light in the middle of the night there is the earth, lighted and shining amid the continuing fireworks bursts. Around the perimeter of the lagoon, the shapes of the various buildings representing different countries in their individual shapes and personalities appear outlined in white light--pagodas, temples, Moor-inspired roof lines, Tyrolean inns and other shapes from around the world surround the darkened waters as the central fireworks continue. It is spectacular. It is fantastic. It is creation anew--the earth in all its glory and its diversity and individuality. Not quite spiritual, but definitely awesome!

Then, as we watch the lights and listen to the music, the globe changes. Individual portraits of famous people and group portraits of people dressed in native attire from individual countries on those continents appear, and as the globe revolves, the pictures change, and the earth evolves. As the show ends with more lights and sizzle, the globe opens, changing into a shape with petals--like a flower opening to display its beauty. That is our world. That is its potential. What an ending!

The creative geniuses of Disney are called Imagineers. There's no doubt in my mind that this appellation is totally appropriate.

Imagine the size of that globe. People on shore can see it clearly. Imagine the quality of the music. People on shore can hear it clearly. Imagine the vividness of the colors. They pierce the darkness of the night and sparkle and shine with incredible brightness and clarity. Illuminations is unbelievable! It is worth, in itself, a trip to Epcot. Never did we expect the finale to our day that Disney bestowed upon us. It was the best!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Sometime in the mid 1990s, Ireland launched an incredibly alluring television advertising campaign, and my mother was hooked. She, my son Michael, and I were off to Ireland. Not as easy as it sounds because my mom had trouble walking, and we needed a wheelchair. I did a lot of checking before we booked with Trafalgar tours. It was the perfect choice.

Trafalgar's competence was exhibited in many ways. Our tour's licensed professional guide was extraordinarily knowledgeable. Our driver had foresight and was caring without making my mother feel beholding. By the time mom was off the bus, if this was a "wheelchair stop," he'd have it open for her. I remember specifically how good she felt never having to ask and never feeling she was a burden to our driver or to the other people on the tour. In fact, she made a friend of another older woman on that trip who remained a friend until the end of their lives. It was a wonderful, informative, very professional experience.

One other important point for me was the number of tour companions we met from other countries, particularly winter escapees from Australia. We met other Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and New Zealanders too, and that was an added bonus. Different points of view and different expectations helped round out our trip and opened us all to new perspectives.

When Rob and I looked to plan our fall 2007 trip to Ireland, I turned first to Trafalgar, but I did not stop there. I checked into all the tour companies--their itineraries coupled with their schedules, their services, their costs, their histories, and the reviews that other tourists posted on the net. I also did a lot of talking with our own travel agency’s tour experts at At one point, for instance, I thought we might visit Ireland, Scotland and Wales on this trip, but eventually settled into Ireland and Scotland to avoid the rushed travel pace we sought to avoid. Sometimes less is more.

Why did I settle with Trafalgar and CIE as the two final candidates? It was primarily a matter of pace and slight differences in itineraries. Both offered several multi-night stays--a chance to unwind and relax a bit. Mornings began at the same early hour, but coming back to the same room on occasion does help. Trafalgar also made a stop on the Isle of Skye, and Allison recommended that as being a bit different. It was, and we were glad.

In choosing a tour company:
1. Request brochures from all possible suppliers and read them carefully

2. Understand the costs and what the company is including. Are their extra trips included in the basic price or is it more like a cruise's shore excursions? (Trafalgar's brochure suggested an extra $60.00 a day for optional side trips, and that amount turned out to be quite accurate.)

3. Look at travel books (Frommer's, Fodors, etc.) and check their suggested itineraries against the tour company's itinerary. Tours vary, and you want to make sure your tour includes the sites you want to visit. Check the internet too.

3. Consider the pace at which you want to travel.
We liked the number of multiple night stays. We weren't interested in "If it's Tuesday this must be Belgium." A tour is usually fully planned, but you need time to "digest." Staying in one place for multiple nights keeps you relatively close to a center point, meaning less time on the coach. That's a nice refreshing break

4. Think about what you're looking for in your trip. A tour, unlike self-guided travel, does isolate you from the local people in many ways. You can read ( , for instance, about Rob's conversation with a Northern Irishman in a pub, but our interaction with Scotsmen and Irishmen was rather limited. If you choose a tour for its other benefits, think about the population to which the company caters. Do you want everyone to be just like you or would you prefer a broader mix of people and a chance to look at the same sights through other perspectives. On my two tour experiences, some of the best moments have been sitting with new friends--this last time from Michigan, Canada, and New Zealand--as well as lovely conversations with people from other places.

Trafalgar Tours works for us. Some of the people on our tour used this company many times and came back because of the high level of satisfaction. Trafalgar’s professionalism in planning, their informed, highly efficient and personable tour guides educating and easing us comfortably through lands and cultures, their choice of hotels and itinerary all combine to make the trip something highly memorable. I'm not sure when we will next do a tour, but I definitely will place Trafalgar high on my list of possibilities. Make sure to check them out.

I’d be happy to book Trafalgar tours through my TATravel Agency, and by calling the toll free number, you can speak to tour specialists who will help you compare different possibilities to meet your needs. If a tour is your way to go, we can help you out.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


What if…? There's a thought we've all had. Well, here's one for the books (Ha! Ha!): What if the South had won the Battle of Gettysburg? That's the premise offered in this novel of the Civil War in which I recognize the real names of generals, sites of individual confrontations in this three-day battle, and areas around Gettysburg, PA where this epic battle made Civil War history. The authors are Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Ph.D in history and the author of eight books (as of 2003), and William R. Forstchen, a Ph.D with a specialization in military history and the author of more than thirty books. The result is an amazing, interesting, and well-written look into a horrendous, bloody battle that historically altered the face of the Civil War--a battle where the South suffered such enormous casualties that it could never again attack the North nor could it sufficiently replace its depleted forces. The novel is so powerful and realistic in its approach that my friend, Carol, a Civil War buff and scholar decided that its realism and attention to detail might cause her to entangle fiction with reality.

What's most amazing about Gettysburg is that this alternative is highly plausible. Gingrich and Forstchen develop their lead players with all the foibles we expect of human beings, and we see how the generals--Lee and Meade--play out their roles responsive to their own ambitions, their patriotism, and the political situation of the day. Unique to the Civil War, they and other commanding officers on both sides trained with or taught each other, and they made educated guesses about their opponents' moves and reactions as they planned their tactics.

The authors use an interesting writing technique by alternating sections and chapters between the U.S. Army of the Potomac and the C.S.A. Army of Northern Virginia. We are treated to the thought process behind the actions of both sides. It's a particularly interesting technique to employ at this point in our history because it illustrates the problems with "getting it right" when that means thinking and outthinking the enemy who is trying to do the same to you. Even a slight deviation in the master plan might alter the outcome. Weather, supplies, support, time, relationships, trust and intelligence all factor into an almost unsolvable equation. Only after the battle is over and the blood has been shed can light be cast on the reasons for the outcome.

In addition to the historical context, we are treated to the human side of men brutally caught in the conflict and marching to almost certain death. Brothers meeting opposing brothers on the battlefields, fathers meeting opposing sons, and enemies helping each other during the battle lulls reflect the tragedy of this campaign and this war. The emotions and feelings are so poignant, one continually wonders whether this is really just fiction.

The writing is horrifically descriptive and incredibly vivid in relaying the feelings of the soldiers.

"Time distorted. Some felt as if every step taken now seemed to transcend into an eternity. Some could look only at the guns; others could not look. A few gazed heavenward beseechingly; some noticed the most trivial of things, a frightened dove kicking up out of the tall grass, a grasshopper poised on a stalk of grass, about to jump...


The command was barely heard by either side. As if a single hand had struck the flame, in an instant three thousand rifles discharged."

Gettysburg ends with the C.S.A. winning the bloody battle although Lee does not accomplish his objective which is to end the war. Just as in the real Battle of Gettysburg, the toll on both sides is enormous, and the war drags on for another two years. Gingrich and Forstchen continue with the story as a trilogy. The next book is Grant Comes East, and the last is Never Call Retreat. I'm going to continue with the series, and I suggest to anyone interested in strong, vivid, historical fiction to pick up this NYTimes Bestselling series and have a great read.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I’m recommending your visiting an online map and travel guide which I’ve used to great advantage—Schmapp. Not because they’ve published Rob’s penguin photos in their Edinburgh edition nor because a shot I took of the Cloisters in NYC is under consideration for its U.S. East Coast edition but because we used Schmap’s list of attractions to narrow down to do-able the endless array of Las Vegas possibilities. They did right by us, and I’m going to them again for some San Francisco possibilities.

What I like about Schmap is its succinct clarity as well as the ability to be selective in printouts of information to add to my “Trip Envelope.” No bulky guidebook (sometimes) or unnecessary pages to add weight to my luggage, purse or backpack.

It’s not my only resource, of course, but it’s certainly one more to consider when making our trips as satisfying as we can.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Here is a Schmap!!! of Scotland. Schmap is an online map and travel service, and Rob's photo appears in the Edinburgh Zoo section.

To find Rob's photo: On the Schmap you'll see a revolving list of Parks and Gardens. When Edinburgh Zoo appears, place your cursor in the white area. (it will halt the list movement) Click on "see review" and you'll get a new window with a list of attractions. Put your cursor on Edinburgh Zoo, and watch the photos on the right or use the arrows to advance the photos until you see Rob's swimming penguin!

If you want to see the photo enlarged, double click on it. It's really good!

By the way, Schmap!! is a great place for information about your destination. Try it; you'll like it.