Tue, 30 Dec 2008

Our Florida Vacation, 2008, Hernando County

Mom & Dad on Pine Island

We left Universal and Orlando and traveled about 100 miles east (as the toll roads fly) to my parents' home in Spring Hill, FL. We spent a couple of days relaxing and being spoiled. Spring Hill (and it's neighboring town, the county seat of Brooksville) are located about a dozen+ miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

Intersection All For NoughtIt's an interesting time to visit the non-tourist areas of Florida. As I'm sure most already know, Florida is the retirement capital of the eastern United States. As a result, one of the largest industries is the construction and sale of retirement homes. When the housing and credit markets collapsed, these developers were hit hard. Financing for new developments evaporated mid-stream. As a result, there are subdivisions in various states of (un)completion all around the county. I rode around with my Dad as he pointed out several developments around town where new streets had been paved, lots marked and surveyed, street lights installed, water and sewer pipe run, all for homes that may never be built.

Wanna buy a lot?It's spooky to drive through a "neighborhood" of intersecting roads, full of dozens of numbered lots, complete with fancy street lights, and then come across maybe one or two occupied homes. Many of these places are starting to revert back to the wild.

Mom and Dad took us over to the Gulf to watch the sunset our second evening there. We went to a small beach and a boat dock and I took some very touristy photos and lost a lens cap. We had a quiet dinner at a small local Thai restaurant.

We mostly just took it easy in Spring Hill. The manic, stressful part of vacationing was fully covered in Orlando. As I told Tammie, sometimes it's nice just to sit on the couch next to my Dad while he snores in front of the TV. I miss that sometimes. :)

Sunset cliché

(more pics)

:: 10:09
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Our Florida Vacation, 2008, Orlando Portion, Part 2

IMG_0502.JPG

Of the two Universal parks, Islands of Adventure is the one more oriented towards thrill rides. As with many (most?) large parks, the park is divided into multiple themed sections, in this case they're known as "Islands."

Strong to the finishUniversal has something called Universal Express. The simplest explanation is that, for an added fee, riders can skip over long lines. This is a major benefit on the most popular rides (e.g. Simpsons, Hulk, Mummy). In practice, it means that you can often ride after waiting 2-5 minutes while people waiting in the normal lines are waiting for 30-60 minutes. One of the prime benefits of staying onsite at the resort is that our hotel room key served as a Universal Express pass, or, as we came to call it, the Pimp Pass.

Islands LogoThe area just beyond the gates is The Port of Entry, with theming meant to suggest maybe Morocco in the 1930's. It really seems like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie. You walk down a broad street of shops and restaurant's that leads up to an intersection that you can follow left to Marvel Super Hero Island. There are lots of Marvel-themed buildings and characters walking around here. As you would expect, you can pose with the various characters, get autograph booklets signed, and, of course, buy lots of licensed merch. If you stick around long enough, you'll witness a crime alert and you'll get to see all the Fantastic Four rush off on ATVs. :)

Hulk bendThere are a number of big-ticket rides here, starting with a well-done Spider-Man dark ride, Dr. Doom's Fearfall, which is a 200+ foot tower drop, and the centerpiece, the Incredible Hulk coaster. I consider myself a bit of a coaster connoisseur, but I have to say I admired the Hulk coaster more than I enjoyed it. To be honest, it's a pretty harsh ride. There seems to be a lot more head and neck movement than I'm used to on most coasters. Whether this is due to the amount of G's the riders are subjected to or suboptimal seat design I couldn't tell you. That said, I of course rode the thing 5 times. Sigh.

PhantomContinuing on counterclockwise to the next Island, you reach Toon Lagoon. This area features some pretty great graphic design in the theming of the various attractions and buildings. We were lucky enough to be greeted by some unbelievably blue skies as we entered this Island (the skies finally cleared after a day and a half of haze.) As beautifully blue as the skies are in these pictures, they were even prettier in person.IMG_0265.JPGThe primary rides in this area were water rides, which means we skipped them our first couple of days at the resorts (temps were in the low-mid 60s) Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges were, very, very wet. Let's just leave it at "walking around in wet denim for hours"...

Pterandon FlyersNext up was the Jurassic Park Island. There are two primary rides here, a Jurassic Park river ride, which is a water ride complete with animatronic dinosaurs, and the Pterandon Flyers. The Pterandon Flyers consists of a fairly tranquil suspended coaster that has an unfortunate flaw. Whereas most of the coasters at the two parks are capable of moving 16-32 riders per train, the Pterandon Flyers only moves 2 people at a time, and, at least the day we rode it, they seemed to be keeping about 45-60 seconds between cars. Ouch. Our only substantial wait for a ride at either park happened on this ride (the Pimp Pass wasn't honored here, either.)

Potter Under ConstructionBetween the Jurassic Park Island and the Lost Continent Island there's a bit of a transformation taking place. The Dueling Dragons ride (a racing coaster) is in the far corner of the park, but there's all sorts of new construction around it. A new Harry Potter Island is scheduled to open there next year. It's pretty obvious that the Dueling Dragons ride will be part of the Harry Potter Island once it's completed.Harry Potter coming to Islands of Adventure next year Anyhow, the coaster's pretty cool, and it'll be even better once the theming is completely integrated into the new Island.

The primary attraction on the Lost Continent island was Poseidon's Temple, which basically consists of a really impressive building constructed around an interactive show. There was a pretty funny and embarassing anecdote involving lemmings and emergency exits here that I think I'll leave for another day.

Seuss Island Riot of ColorThe last of the Islands is Seuss Landing, which is thoroughly impressive graphically. It really did feel like a Dr. Seuss book brought to life, with wonderfully curvy skewed buildings, brighter than bright colors in a riot of whimsy. As you'd probably expect, this attractions in this area are primarily kid-oriented, but there is plenty to enjoy here for any adult who grew up reading these classics.One fish two fish red fish blue fish

In all, we spent 4+ full days exploring the parks so we really did see pretty-much everything. Though you trade off a bit as far as weather, I would stll recommend mid-December as one of the best times for adults to visit the Florida parks. You can usually find nice discounts and the crowds are far smaller than during peak season (which means you get to see and ride a lot more.) There's probably lots more I could talk about (the cool fingerprint-locker system, the exhorbitantly-priced food, comparisons with Disney), but I've probably rambled enough. Next up: a visit to "real Florida" when we spend a few days at my parents' home.

:: 07:33
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Tue, 23 Dec 2008

Our Florida Vacation, 2008, Orlando Portion, Part 1

Loews Royal Pacific, Orlando

I mentioned earlier that we visited Florida for our annual vacation. For the first segment, we visited a resort complex in Orlando. The Universal Orlando resort consists of two theme parks, a complex of shops, bars, and restaurants, and a collection of hotels. We got a package deal that bundled lodging, admission to the theme parks, and a variety of entertainment coupons.

Pacifica Ballroom HallwayWe stayed in Loews Royal Pacific, a huge Polynesian-themed hotel located in the Universal complex. On our 2006 trip to Disney, we stayed offsite, so we wanted to try the on-campus experience with Universal. We had a very nice room with nice amenities. No free internets, though, so I stayed offline except for my phone. And parking was $15 per night, which was pretty obnoxious. Something we noticed on our Disney trip and which definitely held true at Universal was that the resorts represent a completely closed economy where everything costs 150% of what it would cost pretty much anywhere else. The hotel had a number of themed restaurants onsite, though we basically ate all of our meals outside to stretch our vacation dollars.

Fisherman's CoveThat said, staying onsite had a number of advantages. We could hop a shuttle bus or (more entertainingly) a water taxi between the parks and the hotel at any time. The entire complex was arranged around a natural lagoon, complete with scenic walkways and bridges. There were beached seaplanes everywhere, too. ;)

We arrived very late on Tuesday night, thanks to flight delays, and awoke the next morning to a steady downpour. We went out and grabbed breakfast, then headed over to the park in the early afternoon. Luckily, the rain stopped just as we got there.

Flash GordonUniversal has two parks at the resort, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Universal Studios is, as you would probably imagine by the name, strongly themed with movies and television-flavored attractions. For example, there is a partial recreation of the town of Amity as seen in Jaws, the centerpiece of which is boat tour with a large and toothy uninvited guest. There are themed rides and shows for Terminator 2, Shrek, Twister, E.T., Men In Black, and many more.

Simpsons rideThe rides we were most impressed by at Universal Studios were the two newest: the Simpsons ride and the Revenge of the Mummy. The Simpsons ride was a tour-de-force virtual coaster. The passenger car only moves a few meters in any direction, but thanks to perfectly synchronized IMAX scale sperical projection, six degrees of freedom in the passenger compartment, and elaborate tactile effects (moisture, wind, surround sound, etc.) the experience was completely enveloping. The wait in line was part of the experience -- the whole ride area was completely themed, all the way to having an onsite Kwik-E-Mart.

mummy logoThe Revenge of the Mummy is a completely enclosed indoor roller coaster. Riding this for the first time was especially fun, as I knew nothing about the ride at all, and thought it was a conventional dark ride, as many of the attractions at the Florida parks are. Indeed, the ride begins at the stately pace of a dark ride, but there's a point where you go through a door and WHOOSH! One impressive thing we noticed after leaving the ride was that much of the bulk of the coaster is camoflaged behind the external building facades down the block from the ride, so you really have no idea of the ride's scale from outside.

:: 22:31
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Wed, 17 Dec 2008

Florida 2008 - A Trip and a New Camera

Welcome to Universal

We flew down to Orlando, Florida last week for our semiregular escape from the Frozen North. My parents live near the Gulf Coast so the usual plan is to go down, spend a few days at one of the tourist traps and a few more at my parents’ home. We visited the Disney parks in 2006, so this time we headed to the Universal Orlando resorts.

IMG_0507.JPGI’ve been shooting with point and shoot digital cameras for about 9 years now, starting with a sub-2 megapixel Agfa CL30 with a fixed lens through progressively more capable models with larger sensors, zooms, and ever more advanced program shooting modes. Small digital cameras have gotten very good over the last decade. Though I like to think I’m pretty adept at getting decent results out of the small cameras I’ve owned, the fact remains that point and shoot cameras have some serious limitations that become maddeningly apparent after you’ve spent some in-depth time with them. They usually trade of lens and sensor size for a smaller physical form-factor. They tend to be slower overall — it can take several seconds recovery time (while the camera writes the images to storage) before you can take the next photo (an eternity when you’re trying to record the actions of small children or animals.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve missed shots because I was waiting for my camera to cycle.

Howard's, back sideThis year brought an early Christmas present: my first SLR. My new toy is a Canon EOS Rebel XS. Despite Canon’s apparent affection for product naming schemes that recall Apple’s in the Sculley/Schindler/Amelio dark ages, they really make a quality product. In many ways, the camera (at least in my week’s experience) is one of the most powerful (in a “number of cool things I can accomplish with it” sense) pieces of consumer gear I’ve ever owned. I am continually astonished with the sorts of things I can accomplish with it, even with minimal experience.

Tortoise (detail)At the most basic level, I can now shoot pictures-per-second instead of seconds-per-picture. I can capture images in a range of lighting conditions and at distances far beyond anything that would have been feasible before. I’ve now got a big zoom lens so that I could shoot this tortoise at a considerable distance without disturbing him.

IMG_0513.JPGThere are adjustments to make, too, of course. Physically, the camera (with its accompanying accessories) is much larger than any camera I’ve ever carried. One nice thing about pocket cameras is that they’re, well, pocket cameras, so taking one along with you is literally just a matter of grabbing it and going. Indeed, I’ve taken a large number of shots with my iPhone just because it’s always with me (that, and the auto-geotagging…) Conversely, taking the SLR anywhere mandates taking along a big camera bag. (I found a very nice bag, though, at the local Meijer.) I’m taking many more shots now (no, not really a bad thing), and the file sizes are much larger, which made this round of Flickr uploads an exercise in patience. :)

Loews Royal Pacific Resort - Blue Heron (cropped)I’m sure there’s some sort of Murphy-style law for photographers with multiple lenses that states that, at any given moment, you will always have the wrong lens attached for the type of picture you want to take. When this beautiful blue heron landed on the boat dock 40 or so feet in front of us I, of course, had the wide lens instead of the big zoom attached. I’m still at the point where that means many painful lost seconds bumbling around in the bag and fumbling with lens caps and sensor covers and the like, all the while trying not to make a lot of noise and fuss.

There’s also the fact that when you’re in an amusement park, you’re spending a lot of time on water rides and roller coasters where managing large and costly bits of electronic kit can occupy an inordinate amount of your attention. Thankfully Universal’s come up with a fairly elegant solution for that in convenience. In further posts I’ll talk a bit more about our experiences in Orlando, the resort, and Spring Hill/Brooksville.

:: 12:20
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The sun never sets on those who ride into it.
— RKO