31 October, 2010

First On Race Day

Oops...I'm a little too late for the cogent analysis of the Rob Ford phenomenon I'd planned. (The Globe and Mail ran a fantastic piece yesterday that has yet to appear online: between it and the Macleans article linked above, you'll learn everything you need to know about Mr. Ford.)

I like Rob Ford, and I don't know why.

He first came to the Breadbin's attention a scant four months after I had fired up its ovens. Back then, I was considerably more right-wing than I am today; that entry sounds as if it comes direct from Ford country. (Unlike the one I wrote three years later. By then, I'd learned not to trust my initial impression of anything or anyone...while I still applauded Ford's fiscal restraint, I also said he "comes across as a not-particularly-nice man with issues.")

Mr. Ford has said a number of things I do not agree with and can not accept. Just two of many examples: His views on AIDS (unless you're gay or a druggie, there's no problem, and if you're either of those things, the problem is yours, buddy) are simplistic and repulsive in the extreme. As a cyclist, I bristle at this: "I can't support bike lanes. Roads were built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day."

That aside, he has a tendency of pulling numbers out of his butt. He faced criticism during the campaign that his proposed cost savings don't add up.

And yet I still like the guy. Go figure. And it goes well beyond the nearly limitless potential for blogging material over the next few years. There are two things about Ford that make (almost) everything else about Ford forgivable, or at least less damning. One, the man genuinely cares about his constituents (and other people's). If you are a City of Toronto resident, even one of those latte-sipping elitist snobs we've heard so much about, and you have a problem with a city service, you can call up Rob Ford and by gar he'll listen. His campaign staffers say they know it sounds impossible, but they swear he's returned 200,000 phone calls over the last ten years--garnering, incidentally, a fair amount of support from people like me who ordinarily wouldn't have looked twice at the man but have been so impressed by his desire to make things better that they couldn't not vote for him.
The other thing about Ford you can take to the bank: he will exercise fiscal restraint. Unlike nearly every other politician who promises to, Ford actually has a legendary track record for pinching pennies. I don't see him changing just because he's mayor now. Will he save what he says he will? Probably not. But will he try? Absolutely. It's refreshing to see a politician whose first instinct is not to suck the taxpayer's teat harder.

Oh, and Ford has been the victim of a disturbing number of vicious ad hominem attacks over the past six months. One Globe article used the word "fat" seventeen times, as if Ford's weight had anything whatsoever to do with...anything whatsoever. He's been described as "boorish", "a hick", a "buffoon" and a "disaster"...and those are just the nice words, penned by those wealthy, credentialled and successful Toronto elites. No, Ford doesn't have a university degree-he dropped out to help his sister overcome a drug addiction--but his family is wealthy, due in large part to blue-collar frugality, and Ford is by any measure a success. Just ask the citizens of Etobicoke, who--denied the chance to return Rob to council with his customary landslide, instead elected...his brother.

The next four years are going to be mighty interesting. I have to admit, I'm kinda rooting for the guy.

29 October, 2010

A Pointless Blog Entry

Wow, I'm whipped.
Swanson dinners for $1 will do that to a person.
These things are only tentatively called "food", composed as they are of various unpronounceable chemical compounds, with salt as a binding agent. They're about as far from a healthy home-cooked meal as the McDonald's in Timbuktu.
And at a dollar each, they sell like a mad bastard.

I've never seen them this cheap, anywhere, ever. I booked almost 14 skids of them before we left for Disney; when we got back, I discovered a competitor had them on feature for $1.44, two weeks ahead of our "HUGE $1 SALE".
This worried me a little. $1.44 isn't $1, but it's still better than half off the regular retail. Doubtless everybody in the city had filled their freezers already...

...apparently not. I will sell 250+ cases today. ZOO.

There's a whole lot I want to talk about: Rob Ford, David Chen...a few personal items as well. But not tonight. Tonight I have to go to bed and dream about drowning in Swanson dinners.

See y'all tomorrow.

24 October, 2010

Back to Life, Back to Reality

...in so many ways.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won two games and lost a third in overtime due in large part to crappy refereeing while I was in the hockey vacuum, and have stunk out the joint in consecutive games since I returned. Non-sports fans may not get this, but it casts a bit of a pall on my mood.
Bad enough that getting details of the good games, without net access, was almost impossible. We had four different ESPN channels on the TV: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and ESPNews.
Only one of them bothered to include NHL scores in the rotation of its ticker, and that only happened once every four or five revolutions, if I was lucky. If I was unlucky, that fifth revolution would coincide with a commercial, and the ticker would vanish just in time for the NHL scores. After this happened three or four times, I became convinced unluckiness had nothing to do with it.
The papers were even worse, with the half-exception of USA Today, which does publish boxscores for all games that don't happen on Saturday. The Orlando Sentinel does not recognize the NHL's existence. Why should it? It's not as if there aren't two teams in Florida, after all, or a multitude of vacationing Canadians desperate for a hockey fix.

Enough of that. Suffice it to say that having to forage for hockey scraps bothered me.

So did coming home.

Not being home: that's a colossal relief. But coming home, both in prospect and practice, was not fun. I probably don't have near as much right to bitch as does my wife, who (of course) did all the driving. But it was hard to leave the haven of Old Key West and even harder to handle the long journey back.
We pulled out at 3:30 a.m., and as usual, I was worried. Worry plagues me away from home: increasingly outlandish scenarios jostle for space in my head. What if they don't have our reservation? What if the car breaks down?...and it just gets worse from there. Before long the craziest notions have assumed the characteristics of Known Facts, and it takes considerably more brain power than it should to banish them. In this case, one of my biggest concerns was the drive time: the internet mapping tools we used both said that I-75 was a longer route than the one we'd taken down. I had fantastical visions of the Flying Dutchwoman and her husband, condemned to cruise the interstates for all eternity.

The soundtrack, of course, would be Rush Limbaugh. Just to add that final hellish touch.

I needn't have worried about anything (except Rush, as it turned out). Although the hotel we'd planned to stop at in Richmond, KY was full (the first time that had ever happened to either of us), the Super8 down the road wasn't. And although I can't recommend Super8 to anybody who's not travelling alone, for $40 it was...okay. Oh, yeah, and that I-75 trip actually ended up being a smidgen shorter than the trip down.

Unlike past vacations, I had resolved not to avoid politics but to embrace them to some degree. Unfortunately, hugging Uncle Sam was...unpleasant. He hadn't washed since Reagan was President and he'd let his nails grow, the better to gouge out the eyes of Democrats. Worse, once you made that tentative first embrace, he'd enfold you and start choking the life out of your body, crooning, I'm going to hug you and squeeze you and call you George W.

It was scary. I listened in shock to The Rush Limbaugh Show, the highest-rated radio show in the U.S., as Mr. Dittohead Himself accused the President of the United States of treason. I listened as caller after caller phoned in, slavering at the mouth about the 'destruction of America' and 'Barack the Magic Negro'. Rush didn't have much to say, so he said it loud and proud. He endorsed Christine O'Donnell on the grounds that "she might be a kook, but she's not a Marxist." (PolitiFact debunks the assertion that Coons is a Marxist quite handily, but why let facts get in the way?)
Caller after caller phoned in slavering at the chops about Obamacare and socialism and the fiscal and moral bankruptcy of America under Democrat rule. One guy dared to question one of Rush's statements; he was quickly cut and we were treated to another tirade. I seriously felt as if I had crossed over into some Twilight Zone Tower of Error, and any second now my car seat would plummet.

Not that I hadn't expected this, not after a week flipping back and forth every morning to check on the progress in the war between Fox News on one hand and MSNBC/CNN on the other. Not after watching an endless procession of state and local political ads. Holy crap, the political ads. If you believe every political ad you see in the United States, every single person running for public office, without exception, is a bumbling, corrupted buffoon and quite possibly a serial rapist besides. Hide your kids, hide your wife, etc.

And not after seeing that car.

My shoelaces snapped one day. On the way to Wal-Mart to pick up a new pair, among other things, we saw a black sedan. Not a big one, an Accord or a Camry or something of that ilk, with windows tinted darker than is allowed back home. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from a flagpole mounted on the driver's side, constantly brushing the Israeli flag adjacent. U.S. and Israeli flag decals were in at least two places I saw, and there were five or six Christian symbols (again, just the ones I saw) plastered all over the car. I tried not to stare as we passed. Something about that car really bothered me. It wasn't the Christian symbols--believe it or not, we have people up here who feel the need to advertise their faith--but those, coupled with the two flags. One wonders if the driver knows Israel is not a Christian state. One wonders which flag means more. One wonders a whole lot of things.

But Rush is just so...so blatant. So unrepentingly, unapologetically, boorishly partisan. And people lap him up.

Once Limbaugh faded out, we went in search of someone else to share the care with, and found Dave Ramsey. I'd never heard of him before and his no-nonsense financial advice I found refreshingly candid. (Interestingly, his Wikipedia article mentions his penchant to infuse his advice with his Christianity: at least on the show I listened to, there was no inkling of religion whatsoever.)
The callers he was taking were in some pretty hard spots, and he counselled them with compassion and well-placed harshness. It occurred to us as we listened that there are countless Americans in financial trouble right now with little idea how they got there and less idea how to get out of it. That's almost scarier than Rush!

We knew we had crossed the border back into our home and native land when I turned on the talk radio to find a debate going on about how much the government should be allowed to micromanage our food intake. Seems Canada just got the KFC Double Down Sandwich. Guess what? It's pretty bad for you. The fat and calorie content are roughly on par with other fast food entrees, but the sodium content is off the charts: more than a day's recommended sodium intake in one sandwich.

I tried one a couple of days ago, just to say I did. All things in moderation...including moderation. It was delicious, but too expensive for it to be anything more than a one-off for me.

There had been speculation our provincial government, which has a tendency to ban anything it doesn't like, would step in. (It won't.) Nevertheless, the majority of callers on this Canadian radio show were in favour of at least some government oversight, both on fast food and in the grocery store. Canadians, just like Americans, are getting fatter, after all, and unlike Americans, up here we're all financially responsible for each others' ill health.

The difference between Rush and this was like night and day. I could actually feel my throat loosening as Uncle Sam removed his grubby hands. Home at last, home at last.

--------------

All in all I had a great time. I'd like to go back to Disney, not right away but some time in the future, this time maybe with a kid or two. Our next big trip, five years hence: Vegas. It's almost time to start planning it.

23 October, 2010

Disney, part the third

The baobab at Animal Kingdom

As previously stated, we really weren't of much of a mind to explore Disney's Animal Kingdom. We had to get up well before dawn's crack to make our 8:30 breakfast reservation (one of the perils of bus travel, not to mention Ken's forgetting that Boma, the restaurant, is not at Animal Kingdom but at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Travelling resort to park or park to resort at Disney is trivially simple; resort to resort involves an extra step and will definitely take longer).

Boma was worth it...one of the top three meals we had. The breakfast buffet has, I'm told, been considerably Americanized, but it retains an African flair: the dishes are just exotic enough to be interesting without being disturbing to unadventurous eaters like us. Absolutely delicious.

If your children love animals, they will of course love this place. Disney's enlisted biology students to act as animal ambassadors, the same way they have just plain folks from all over the world to act as cultural ambassadors in EPCOT World Showcase. Just be sure your kids are willing to walk. A lot.

We did go on an exceptionally well done dark ride called Dinosaur! The YouTube video for this, despite being filmed in night vision, doesn't even come close to doing the ride justice. It's bumpy enough to throw you around pretty good and the dinos would be terrifying to young kids.

After that, I hit Expedition Everest...three times. (I waited half an hour for my first ride, and by the time I had disembarked, a "single rider" line had opened: my second ride was a literal walk-on and my third almost as good.)

I am something of a roller coaster junkie. It is pretty hard to wow me on a coaster. And truth be told, if I was evaluating just the coaster aspect of this ride, it'd get a C, maybe a C+. What elevates its marks is that legendary Disney attention to detail. For a really good idea of what I mean, take a look at this. The line for this attraction snakes through a Himalayan village, an outfitting store and a Yeti museum, all of which practically demand you stop and appreciate them. Once again I found myself wishing the line wasn't moving quite so fast. Then, the ride, which was just as creative (the ripped up track is a nice touch). Top speed is a shade over 50 miles an hour, which is pretty tame, but 50 mph backwards into an overbanked turn in the dark is nothing to be sneezed at.
Climbing the lift hill, I called out "are we there, yeti?" which earned me quite a few laughs and groans.

Following our afternoon siesta we lit out again for EPCOT and Disney's first ever "3D Dessert Discovery". This was a highlight of our trip and, at $45 a person, an excellent value. We bought this primarily for the VIP seating to Epcot's IllumiNations, and we ended up getting much more than we bargained for. I can assure you the price for this event will rise in the future.

It's all-you-can-eat desserts and all-you-can-drink cordials and other liquor (some of which your teetotalling host even tried, discovering an unsuspected appreciation for Red Stag bourbon). The desserts are high-end and delicious. Doughnuts are made right in front of you and you get to eat them seconds out of the pan--it puts Krispy Kreme to shame. The ganaches, cobblers and biscotti were available in seemingly limitless supply; after the first half hour the lines were bearable to nonexistent. Had I stayed there any longer I think I would have gone into sugar shock.

The VIP "seating"...wasn't. We had to stand, same as everyone else. But I imagine the only way to get a better view of IllumiNations would be to sail into the middle of World Showcase Lagoon.

This video is shot from a couple of perspectives almost as good as ours:



Simply put, this dwarfed any fireworks display I've ever seen. The word "spectacular" seems pitiful to describe this.

DISNEY'S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS

The two most thrilling rides in all of Disney, for my money at least, stand side-by-side in this small, relatively unassuming theme park. Rock'n'Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is a delight for rock fans and coaster fans alike: an intense, linear synchronous motor-launched blast that takes you from zero to sixty mph in less than three seconds. Again, the pre-show is almost worth a line in itself: you walk past a recording studio, then get a little chat from Aerosmith's "manager", inviting you to take a super-stretch limo to the concert, after which point you're in a simulated L.A. parking garage awaiting takeoff. The DJ on your 'car' radio and the information signs ahead are both saying the same thing: traffic's jammed out there. The freeway sign says "USE ALT. ROUTE..TRAFFIC JAMMED...NOT!...PREPARE TO SHAKE RATTLE AND ROLL" and then the countdown starts. The ride catapults into a loop almost immediately, and what ensues is a high-speed game of chicken set to snippets of Aerosmith's catalogue. My second time through, "Love In An Elevator" changed into "Love In A Roller Coaster".

The other ride, the one I'd love to get my dad on, is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The ride itself is a ten-beller that will loosen your bowels; the detailing is again beyond belief. Check these two blogs by Jack Spence for some small idea of the verisimilitude and intricacy of this attraction. And here's the ride--so intense I declined to do it twice. Even watching it on YouTube gives me the creeps.



Yeeesh. The Unauthorized Guide to Walt Disney World referred to this ride as "The Shining on speed." No kidding. Eva took the chicken's exit after the pre-show (all the thrill rides have one, probably because Disney recognizes the setup is an attraction in itself. So what happens? They put her on a $%^&ing ELEVATOR.
"That's diabolical," she said. "That's just evil."
"Now you can say you rode the elevator on Tower of Terror. Just don't tell which one."

The ride is randomized. Every time through is different, and that's the real killer. You have no idea when your throat and big toe are going to switch places, or even how many times it's going to happen.

The other neat thing in Hollywood Studios: Mulch, Sweat and Shears, known outside the World as Los Lawn Boys. They're a first class cover band that performs a set in the center of the park. The drummer is really good. (And hot, says Eva. I can't corroborate her on this: the angle of my dangle's all wrong.)

(She made me add this: so is the bassist.)

-----------------

EPCOT WORLD SHOWCASE


World Showcase is kind of a world unto itself inside Walt Disney World.

Eleven country 'pavilions' circle World Showcase Lagoon. Going clockwise from the six o'clock position, we have Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the "American Adventure", Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Each pavilion contains at least one table service restaurant and one counter service restaurant, various representative landmarks are scale-modelled so that you actually feel like you're in whatever country you're in. Everyone working in a given pavilion is there on a work visa from their home country. There's shopping galore, street exhibits, and in several pavilions, films and/or rides showing off the country and culture. It's just like going around the world. (Though several countries are conspicuous by their absence....where's Russia? Or India?)

You could spend a week and still miss stuff. As with the rest of the World, the attention to detail is at times almost frightening. The King of Morocco took a personal interest in his country's pavilion. I've never been to Morocco, but I have to think it shows.

The grandfather of all model railroads sits in Germany:





Oh, hell, I could just keep linking YouTube videos from every pavilion. World Showcase is impressive, let's just leave it at that.

And the best meal of my stay (one of the best meals of my life, in fact) came from Le Cellier in the Canada pavilion. I'm not just saying this because I'm Canadian. In fact, both Eva and I had filet mignon, which last I looked isn't Canadian at all. It was, however, mouthwatering.
We both had cheddar cheese soup as an appetizer, which we paid out of pocket for and which I don't regret one bit. I actually toyed with the idea of ordering another bowl of the stuff, it was that good. Here's the recipe, which they gave out free of charge:

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients:

1/4 lb. smoked bacon finely chopped
1 medium red onion cut into 1/4 in. pieces
1/2 cup finely sliced celery
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
3 TB all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups chicken stock
12 oz. grated white cheddar, Canadian Black Diamond
3 dashes Tabasco
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup Moosehead Canadian Ale, room temperature
salt and pepper to taste
1 TB thinly sliced chives

Method:

1. Cook the bacon in a large heavy-bottomed, non-reactive soup pot over medium heat until wilted but not browned.

2. Add onions, celery and carrots and cook until the onion is translucent and bacon has crisped.

3. Sprinkle in flour and stir constantly for 2 minutes. Stir in milk and stock, a little at a time, blending well to ensure there are no lumps. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Remove from heat and whisk in cheese, Tabasco, Worcestershire and ale. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with your favorite bread and top with chopped chives.

Dessert was maple creme brulee for me and campfire S'mores for Eva. Mine was very good: Eva pronounced hers "lethal".

And the service was absolutely excellent. You know the old joke, 'what's the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? Canoes can tip'? Chelsea got a 25% tip out of us and she earned it.

One more thing I need to mention: one afternoon as were were touring World Showcase, we heard a plane, looked up, and saw it was skywriting. The message came clear over a period of about fifteen minutes:

U + God = (smiley) JESUS LOVES YOU

Hmmm. You plus God = happiness. Skywritten over "the happiest place on earth. I can only conclude that Walter Elias Disney was/is God.


ONE MORE OF THESE COMING UP: FINAL REFLECTIONS FROM THE TRIP HOME.



22 October, 2010

Stacey!

Every time you turn on a television in a Walt Disney World Resort, no matter what channel or volume you last had it at, what you'll get is channel 18 at TOP VOLUME. Channel 18 is all-Stacey, all the time, and what Stacey does is Disney Must-Do's. I wanted to get tired of this. I really did. But somehow her enthusiasm overcame my cynicism every single time. You can laugh all you want. But if you want an overview of all seven Disney parks and their premier attractions, you could do a lot worse than listen to Stacey.



Stacey's "Happiest Place On Earth" lives up to its billing, for the most part. Amid the stresses that come with being away from home for an extended period of time, it must be said that we had a wonderful experience. I mean that quite literally: an experience full of wonder.
Not every park, ride or meal lived up to the expectations I had (perhaps unreasonably) placed on it. Some overly hyped rides and meals were, quite frankly, mediocre. But that was offset by a great many things we hadn't thought would be half as good as they ended up being.

Yet another of Eva's talents discovered

Our first day was spent in the Magic Kingdom. Let me get this right out front: it's aptly named if you're a child or even a cynical pre-teen. For adults, a great deal of the magic lies in observing children, dozens, scores, hundreds of children, nearly every single one of them acting like that ideal vision you have of children, the vision that real, actual children rarely seem to live up to. The very few cranky kids were obviously overheated or exhausted. The vast majority gazed around in either Goofy wonder or with great big rapturous grins on their faces.


Cinderella's Castle, of course...except didn't Cinderella marry a Prince? Don't the castles belong to the King or Queen?

Adult thought, adult thought, banish the adult thought. There's no place for adult thoughts in the Magic Kingdom...just as there is no place for magic in (most) adult thoughts. Pity, that. Because there is magic here. You can call it illusion or Imagineering or whatever you want, but it really is a species of magic, and a pretty potent one at that. I was here in 1984, when I was the strangest mixture of hopelessly innocent and insufferably jaded, and a few short hours turned me into a child. This time, at 38, I could feel the same force at work in me. That's powerful mojo...trust me.
Whether you ride The Haunted Mansion, the special effects in which are all the more astounding when you realize how old they are, or Space Mountain, which moves at all of 28 mph but somehow feels at least twice that--magic just pervades the place. My most magical experience was undoubtedly Mickey's PhilharMagic, which will enchant anybody with the slightest trace of childhood left in them.

Our meal that first day was at Trail's End (Fort Wilderness), A boat takes you over there from the Magic Kingdom, and the love of my life will miss no opportunity to ride a boat. Disney did a wonderful job--a magical job, you might say--of making Fort Wilderness appear as if it was truly in the wilderness. Almost felt like my dad's place. And the meal was shockingly good: some of the best fried chicken I've ever had resides on that buffet.

Second day: EPCOT.



This is "It's a Small World" writ large; it's also Disney all grown up. We spent most of our time in this park, coming back to eat here every evening. The variety of restaurants is nearly endless.
As I mentioned, you will walk your socks off here. The front of the park is Future World: it's here you'll find the most popular ride in all of Disney World, one that I was told I "must do" long before I made Stacey's acquaintance: Soarin'.
This was (sorry to say it, Andy) my biggest disappointment. Don't get me wrong, it's a fun ride, but I've done something very similar at Science North in Sudbury, Ontario. For some reason I expected to be flying Superman-style through this: we were sitting. I thought it would be considerably more thrilling: it was a gentle, almost sleep-inducing flight. And there was absolutely no narrative to it. One second you're flying over a mountain in winter, then BOOM it's summer and you're somewhere else; JUMP CUT you're in L.A....it really brought me out of the magic.

TEST TRACK wasn't even on my list of Must Do's until I found out it was the fastest ride in Disney. (My car hit exactly the same speed as the one in this video: 64.8 mph). You want magic? This was the first of several occasions where I wish the line had been longer. You queue up for this in what looks for all the world like an auto factory. My stepdad would be much better able to ascertain the authenticity, but it looked real. And you exit into an actual GM showroom, where hot muscle cars and cool concepts vie for space with production models, including one my stepdad helps to build. A great ride.

Today was our anniversary. We had tried to book the most popular restaurant in Disney World with no luck, and so we ended up in Coral Reef. Again, sadly, a disappointment. We were nowhere near the fish tank window-wall, the food (other than dessert) was fair at best and hideously overpriced. We were grateful to be on the DDP.

The Disney Dining Plan is another of those things that must be debated pro and con beforehand. There are various levels. The one we chose gave us one 'quick service' (fast food-ish, consisting of a combo, a drink and a desert) and one 'table service' (sit-down or buffet, entree, drink and dessert covered, but not an appetizer) per day, also one 'snack', which could be a scoop of popcorn or a bottled water or any number of other things. That plan cost $42 per person per day. That sounds steep--it is steep--but paying out of pocket can be outrageous.

Eating out in America is considerably cheaper, as a rule, than eating out in Canada. Eating out at Disney presents prices a Canadian is apt to balk at. Most of our dinners were $70 or more, and a couple were over $100. With those prices, the DDP was a no-brainer for us, but you might find differently. If you have small appetites, never eat desserts, or if you prefer burgers over steaks, the DDP is not for you. We appreciated that we were able to order such things as filet mignon and New York Strip without worrying about the $35 price.

(And we ended up using all our snack credits to buy little edible gifts for friends.)

Tomorrow: EPCOT World Showcase, Animal Kingdom, and Disney's Hollywood Studios

21 October, 2010

Basting away again in Margaritaville

I know, I know, you want Disney stuff. You want to hear about the parks, the rides, the food, the magic.
We're getting there.
Before we do, I would like to beg an indulgence of you. I'd like to describe the indulgence and decadence that is Disney's Old Key West Resort. This was our Disney home, and a very fine home it was. A magical home. In fact, blasphemy though it may be, I would suggest that it was one of the best parts of our entire WDW experience.

Disney plays down Old Key West, for reasons I don't pretend to understand. Sure, it's a Disney Vacation Club resort--a time-share, in other words, and thus a little difficult to get into for non-DVC members like us. Not only that, it's the oldest DVC resort, dating to 1991. But the villas are huge, considerably larger than those at other Disney resorts. Our 1-bedroom was 942 square feet...practically the size of the living areas in our house.

Because Old Key West is a Vacation Club property, and because staff (called 'Cast Members' in Disney parlance) have no way of distinguishing DVC members from non-members, everybody is told 'Welcome Home'. It really did feel that way: before long, we were calling it home, anyway.

The resort atmosphere is relaxed to the max and the guest service was simply incredible. At 8:30 at night on our anniversary, after we had returned from Epcot, somebody knocked on our door. Eva went to get it.
"Hi, are you Mrs. Breadner?"
"Yes..."
"We have something here for you."
Thinking we had left something in the park, not knowing what it could be, Eva hesitated for a second.

We were given a laminated poster, signed by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, saying 'Happy 10th Anniversary"; a plush Mickey and Minnie; and a box of chocolates, all in a cloth reusable Old Key West bag.

At that magical moment, both of us began to think about coming back. Not necessarily to Old Key West or even Disney World, but somewhere Disney-owned. I'd long intended, out of mostly idle curiosity, to investigate the Disney Vacation Club. When we found out we could arrange vacations through them all over the planet, we decided to look a little deeper.

They promised no pressure or obligation and they pretty much delivered on that. We had an hour-long interview with a salesman who did a masterful job of pitching DVC to us. (I was willing to sit through much worse for the $100 Disney gift card we got right up front.)

A little more research has convinced us we didn't get the whole story--big surprise there--but it's still something I plan on costing out just to see if it's worth it for us.

We meant to film a video of the room for the Breadbin. Circumstances didn't allow for it. But there's a great YouTube treatment that could well have been shot in 3111, the recently refurbished unit where we stayed:



Old Key West is quite large (64 buildings, each with 4-8 units), but laid out such that you don't have to walk very far to get to a bus stop. The buses run frequently, all of them dropping you off at the main 'Hospitality House' before travelling to their respective Disney parks. Perhaps my only little beef about the buses is their music loop, really heavy on Buffett and Belafonte. I think I heard 'Margaritaville' about thirty times over eight days, with 'Come Monday' and 'Day-O' tied for second place.

No, wait a second, there's something else I hate about buses, Disney or otherwise, and that is bus riders.

Sometimes they're entertaining, as the teenager was the day we were bound for Disney's Hollywood Studios. He was giving a running commentary of the WikiHow article he'd dug up on his iPhone: "how to deal with mosquito bites". "Patience", he read aloud. "Screw that!"..."Bite the mosquito right back! Hey, I like that one!"

Sometimes they're jaw-droppingly dumb. I have a confession to make: I'm a little more racist than I thought I was. I'm racist towards Southern people. Y'all put a drawl in my ear and I'm just sittin' there waitin' for the stupid. I knows it be comin'. I'm sure there are PhD's from Atlanta that would blow my mental capacity before breakfast...but if they talk like that, I'm a-gonna assume they're dumber than grits, hyuck-hyuck-hyuck.
Those Chilean miners? Inspirational story, right? They was rascued the first night we were at Disney? One women held forth at great length to the bus at large about them miners. In a conspiratorial and yet somehow overloud voice, she informed everybody that she'd seen them miners come up, and they was clean-shaven. "What was that, like, 60 days and nights they was down there? And they even looked clean when they came out! I thought it was dark down there....He must have shaved on the way up."

That's the new Breadner code-phrase for "oh my God this person is a moroon": they must have shaved on the way up.

And sometimes...sometimes it gets scary. We didn't see this--it happened the first night we were there--but we sure heard about it over the next few days....


Yes, the crowds can get a little nuts, especially at the end of the day when your feet are nubs and you just want to get back to your resort. But there is NO EXCUSE for this kind of behaviour. I hope his kid gets taken away, his wife leaves him and he ends up sued to within an inch of his solvency.

------------------------

Okay, Rocket, I know you're looking for Disney must-dos and must-don'ts and I'm really sorry, I may not be able to help much. Beyond suggesting you research the hell out of your trip beforehand and know what you're looking for. With accommodation alone, there are 33 resorts on Disney property and probably 330 in the immediate area. The pros of staying with Disney:

--Extra Magic Hours (early openings and late closings just for resort guests)
--free parking at all seven park areas for the duration of your stay
--alternatively, free, unlimited bus transportation from resort to park and back. As a regular bus commuter, I can tell you this works pretty well
--atmosphere. You're right there in the Disney, 24/7...that might be a disadvantage, come to think of it

There's only one other con I can think of, but it's a doozie:

--price. At least if you want space. You can stay at Disney's Pop Century Resort for as little as $82 a night. That's the value category: the theming is garish and there are few if any frills. Think Super8. Families are probably going to want at least a moderate category resort, which starts at about $150 a night. The deluxe category--which gives you lots of space to avoid tripping over each other--will run you $250/night+, while the villas--suites--are even pricier. There is a wide variety of resorts in each category, each with different theming. But you can stay off-site considerably cheaper. You can even rent a house in the area, a house with its own private pool, for less than a villa costs per night.

Consider your vacation habits. Are you a theme park commando? Is your hotel room basically just a place to sleep between park raids? If that's the case, don't spend any more than you have to--cram your family into a Value if you want. We're the exact opposite, if you haven't figured that out.

And we ended up spending a little more time lounging around the villa than we had expected. Part of it was the 'welcome home' vibe...but part of it was also the weather. And the walking. And the crowds.

LESSON TWO: WDW actually stands for WALK, DEEP-FRY, WALK. OR MAYBE WALK, DODGE, WALK.

Our anniversary happens to coincide with what's supposed to be Disney down-time. If that's the case, I never want to see the place when it's busy. In Epcot especially, thanks to the Food and Wine festival, you had to suck your gut in to turn around. At times, you actually had to spend a significant part of brain processing time figuring out how to get from here to just over there.

And you will walk. Believe me, you will walk. John Pinette calls it the Epcot Death March. That's not far off. The Magic Kingdom--which should really be called a principality or something, because it's pretty small--has a nice little railway that takes you to various places. Epcot's got a boat sailing the World Showcase Lagoon, which is all well and good except to get to it, you've got to walk from the bus drop-off to the entrance (itself a heckuva hike) and then from that entrance through Future World.
We saw scooters galore zip by us, the majority of them--I'm positive of this--steered by fully able-bodied people. More than once I watched a scooter zoom up outside a washroom, whereupon its driver would disembark and trot in. I gotta say, at times like that, Mickey Mouse leaves your head to be replaced with Homer Simpson: "Hey, they have chairs with wheels and here I am using my legs like a sucker!"

Animal Kingdom's even worse--so bad I regret to say we didn't bother with most of it. The back of the park is called 'Africa' and I'll be damned if I'm going to walk there. It's also the only place in Disney where shade and rest benches are afterthoughts. And shade in Florida should never be an afterthought, because of

The heat. In hindsight it wasn't horrible, but it was pretty bad. Again, we were lucky: had we gone in July or even September, we would have got a permasauna. We had zero humidity, with temperatures in the high eighties each and every day. That's 28-30 in Canadian: hot, but not strictly speaking unbearable. What made it worse was the sun. There has been no measurable precip in Orange County for several weeks at this point, and rarely even a wisp of cloud. The sun beats relentlessly down with a strength that beggars belief and crisps your neck hair.

After one full day of this, we knew two full days would be unthinkable and three full days would probably be fatal. Being as we had five full days left, we concocted a strategy. We'd hit the parks early, making a beeline for the popular attractions, spend three or four hours, then retire to Old Key West for a nap, a Jacuzzi, and a foot rub before heading out again for dinner and maybe a little more park-time. This had advantages besides keeping us relatively cool, ambulatory, and sane. The worst line we faced was half an hour, and that only because the single rider line hadn't opened yet. FASTPASSes, which reserve a spot in line and cut wait time considerably, were completely unnecessary for us.

Next installment: THE PARKS

20 October, 2010

Home again, bliggety-blog

We are home.
Home from two days down, six dazzling days of Disney, and two grueling, crueling, utterly de-fueling days back.
Home, and mighty relieved to be. More convinced than ever that many Americans are completely batshit insane; I've never been so relieved to be on native soil in my life. Details on that to follow in a day or two.

I was going to do a day-by-day blog, but what passes for reflection in my befuddled and muddled mind tells me that would look too much like a standard Disney trip report. You want to see those, check out the Disboards. We're not standard people and we didn't have a standard trip. I pride myself on a different take...and that's what you'll get, dear readers.

All that said, the beginning is probably the most logical place to start.

We left on time at 3:00 in the morning last Monday--Thanksgiving here in Canada. Even knowing that Andrea would be moving in later that day, it was unbelieveably hard to pull out of the driveway and leave our puppies behind. We have never left them alone at that hour and both of them had been on edge for days already. Their free-floating stress transferred to us (well, if I'm being honest, mostly me) and never really went away until we got home at 1:30 this afternoon.

LESSON ONE: NEVER BELIEVE TIME ESTIMATIONS ON GOOGLE (OR BING) MAPS.

Never. Don't even use them as a rough guideline, not on trips of any duration, because they're not just wrong, they are completely out to lunch. And forget about stopping for lunch.
For example: Bing suggests the drive from our door to Charlotte, NC is 11 hrs, 27 minutes. Google, using almost exactly the same route, says it's 12:54. I noted the discrepancy and figured the real time was somewhere between the two.
Bzzzt.
As I said, we left here at three in the morning. Care to guess what time we hit the Charlotte Northlake Drury Inn? Six o'clock, that's when. Yeah, there were some stops in there, totalling maybe a little over an hour. (That includes the border, which took about 30 seconds.) Call it 90 minutes, just in case. That means our driving time was 13:30.
Which makes the Google estimation at least kind of in the ballpark...until you consider that the first two hours of the drive were on 400-series highways in Ontario. The posted speed limit is 100 km/hr--62 mph--and while police retain the theoretical right to pull you over if you're doing 101, the reality is that 100 km/hr is the de facto minimum speed limit. The flow of traffic, especially at four in the morning, tends to be running about 130 km/hr, a little over 80 mph. We probably made up half an hour or more in that span of time, putting Google more than an hour shy and Bing a ridiculous two and a half hours wrong.
The second day, both down and back, was supposed to be an easy 8 hour drive in the park. Both were over ten, with minimal stops to take on gas and offload Red Bull.Never had that stuff before. Hope never to again. For those who have never tried it, it tastes like sweetened Buckley's Mixture: carbonated cough syrup. But just like Buckley's, it works. I am beyond tired right now and still don't think I can sleep.

There is a great deal to admire about the American Interstate system. In most places, it's much more driver-friendly than our 400-series highways here in Onscario. A few examples:
  • reflectors delineate your lane as if it's a runway, almost everywhere on every Interstate we hit. They're exceptionally rare here
  • In many places, opposing lanes are spaced considerably wider apart on Interstates, sometimes completely out of sight. On the 401 especially, often a simple concrete divider separates you from them, or more to the point, doesn't separate you from their line of headlights. This is really hard on the eyes
  • REST AREAS. Sure, we have service centers, which are in the process of being rebuilt (and whoever decided to tear all of 'em down at once should have to live at least a year without access to a toilet, is my view). But American rest areas are so much nicer. Maybe they don't have restaurants and convenience stores...why would they, when both abound at nearly every exit? Instead, they have spotlessly maintained "rest rooms" (do you rest in them? I don't); dog walk areas; welcome centers; shaded glens that are actually suitable for picnicking...
  • Interstates are much better signed, in most cases. You'll get more than adequate, at times actually kind of excessive, notice about upcoming exits. You might get four miles notice that the lane you're in is going to piss right off on you.
Incidentally, this last leads into the observation that American drivers are generally much more polite. Let's say you have a left lane that's going to disappear over the next hill. Americans found out about that five minutes ago: they've all, without exception, moved over into the right lane, leaving that left lane completely empty. In Canada you'll get half as much notice, sometimes less, and while some drivers will move over, many will take advantage of that empty space and zoom up to the merge at Mach 12, then try and butt their way into the single lane at the last possible second.
We saw a few people doing five or eight miles over the posted speed limits, and one psychotic FedEx driver barreling through the Virginia mountains, pup trailer wagging furiously. Other than that, traffic was uniformly sedate and law-abiding.

There are a few things about Interstates I don't get:
  • WHAT'S WITH ALL THE ROADKILL? On this trip, we saw three dogs and a dog head, two cats, and a whole bunch of unidentifiable guts. Does anybody clear this stuff?
  • Speaking of roadkill, I've decided that every time an American soldier dies, a truck in America sheds part of a tire in sympathy. Because American soldiers are heroes, the shedded shred of tire must remain on the shoulder for eternity as a sort of rubber memorial. Hey, if you've got a better explanation for the literally thousands of rubber scraps lining American Interstates, I'd love to hear it.
  • Can we pick a speed limit and stick with it? Please? 55-70-60-65-55-40-60-70...make up your bloody mind. Or if you have to pick random numbers, can you maybe post them a little more frequently? You've signed everything else to a fare-thee-well.
And I gotta say while I'm bitching that I HATE HATE HATE prepaying for gas. I can maybe understand it after dark--I was a gas station attendant for a couple of years, after all--but almost every station requires it 24/7. In a land of convenience, this is inconvenient as all hell. I never figured out how to pre-guess how much a fill-up would cost. So I'd intentionally overestimate, pump the gas, and then have to go in again to get my change. Annoying. I'm told this is to prevent gas'n'go's. We have cameras here trained on your license plate to serve the same function. Over my two years, I had maybe four people try to get away with theft.

Anyway...

None of this has anything to do with Disney...by design. Walt Disney World is so overwhelming, so mind-bogglingly huge, that to even approach the subject properly requires a full head of steam. If I'm going to walk Epcot again, even in my mind, I need some sleep first.

Until Tomorrowland, this is M. Mouse, signing off.

10 October, 2010

To The House of Mouse!

Well, we're off like a herd of turtles, in less than 20 hours. Thought this day would never get here. The World awaits...

Thank you, Auntie Andrea, for living here with the Tux and the the Peach (and the B.B.-cat) while we're gone. We really appreciate it and I know they do, too.

I won't be online down there, for a multitude of reasons. The biggest is, well, duh, it's Disney World and, double-duh, it's our tenth anniversary. Even someone as Net-addicted as I am can recognize a priority when he sees one. Frankly, I doubt I'll even miss the Internet--maybe the one place on earth I could say such a thing.
I will miss a few Toronto Maple Leaf wins, but that's okay, too. Hopefully, ESPN will see fit to put the scores on the television ticker somewhere after the tractor pulling and the lawn bowling.

I'm taking a trip diary down with me, to scribble whatever comes to mind. When I return, the blogging will commence: one blog post per trip-day.

Man, are we excited. Eva's got little Mickeys painted on one set of fingernails and little Minnies on the other: she's justifiably proud of her work. I've done no such thing, but I do have pixie dust cascading around my cranium...

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Canadians, and happy Columbus Day to my American readers.

Until we return...

03 October, 2010

Of Tea Parties and Predicaments (I)

I have been digesting Catelli's take on the Tea Party phenomenon to our south, coupled with this excellent, meaty essay from yesterday's Globe and Mail. Much food for thought here, to the effect that there's a little Tea Party in all of us.
We see a great deal of resentment building in both our societies. "Vote the bums out!" is ringing loud and clear and far and wide, shouted loudest by people who conveniently forget they voted in the bums in the first place. Look at the Rob Ford mania in Toronto. The man really is a lot like Sarah Palin: proudly uncultured, he advocates simple solutions to complex problems.

There is a real allure to this approach. Most of us recognize on some level that things are rapidly complexifying beyond the average Joe and Jill's ability to deal with, or even assimilate. I'm tempted to say that the global economic system is nearing maximum complexity: even the Wall Street types appear to have no real idea what the hell is going on at this point.

And simplifying life is a noble and necessary goal on many levels, not least because I firmly believe the present way of life is unsustainable. We can argue Peak Oil if you want--the "drill, baby, drill!" folks certainly do. We can argue climate change/anthropogenic global warming (and most, if not all, the same people will argue right back). Or we can find common ground in the notion that current debt levels, both personal and governmental, are, if not beyond repair, very quickly getting that way.

These are not problems. These are predicaments.

The difference is critical, especially since the vast majority of people insist on viewing each issue as a problem that simply needs solving. Or, depending on the amount of tea in your blood, needs solving simply. I am deeply indebted to John Michael Greer for this essay explaining why a problem is not a predicament, but a predicament is a real problem.

Simply put: problems can be solved. Predicaments have no solution, by definition. They can only be responded to, adapted to, and coped with.

The Tea Partiers at least recognize (some of) the issues. Given humanity's astonishing ability to sleepwalk right into disaster, that is actually a real point in their favour. But they see each predicament as a problem, and their proposed "solutions" will invariably compound the trouble. Such is the nature of predicaments.

For an example, look to the clever backronym somebody devised for "tea": Taxed Enough Already. From a Canadian or European perspective, of course, the mere notion that anybody in the United States of America could possibly consider themselves overtaxed is preposterous.

(My e-friend Rocketstar makes an excellent point here: that the Republicans are making a concerted effort to block the repeal of Bush's tax cuts for the rich. The highest tax rate in the United States is currently 36% and they're fighting like mad not to have it rise to 39%. Under the patron saint of Tea Parties--Ronald "The government is not the solution, government is the problem!" Reagan, that rate was...wait for it...50%.)

You see this playing out all over the U.S, as budget impasses stalemate state after state. Essential services are on the chopping block, because the only alternative--raising taxes--is literally unthinkable.


Here we see people responding to a supposed problem by continuing the behavior that first caused the problem, then let it develop into a predicament. This is so deeply ingrained in human nature as to be near universal. Indeed, our primate cousins are susceptible to the same sort of thinking. Google "monkey trap" if you don't believe me.

We're in a giant monkey trap of our own devising, and it's long past time we recognized the trap for what it is.

I don't have any answers. Only a plea that we start asking the right questions.

As Catelli notes:

...those of us advocating (and yes I include myself) for action on the environmental front really want others to do the acting. I'll replace my light-bulbs, but I still want my house and car. We are afraid of the coming enviro-apocalypse, but we don't rationally do anything about it. We leave it for others. I really do not want to change the way I live. I don't, I like my life the way it is. Do you? Call me hypocritical, but there it is. (I have a constant sense of dread that change will find me, and I will not like it.)

I include myself, too. I think most people would. Enviro-prophets like Al Gore are not shining role models for sustainable living. I do like the way I live. I've done little things and have plans for larger things down the road (our goal is to live self-sustainably in retirement, or as close to it as we can manage). But that's later. If I was truly serious, I'd have done something ten years ago.

Some of the Tea Partiers--it goes without saying, the young, healthy ones--want to abolish Medicare. Like that's going to happen.

Since so few of us are willing to act on our own, we need some sort of authority to act for us. I recognize here I'm treading on a tightrope. It's a very fine line between "act for us" and eco-fascism. I wish to state categorically that I am appalled at the PSA recently put out in Britain by the environmental group 10:10. Warning: this video is not for the squeamish.

The Tea Partiers would, of course, disagree. They believe that they are their own authorities. Or that God is their authority...which is much the same thing: after all, God so rarely stops these people from doing what they feel they must.
They can disagree all they wish, but the predicament will keep staring them in the face.

Problems can be individually solved. Predicaments require collective effort and will to adapt to.

The debt predicament, for example, is going to require a monetary rethink on a planetary scale. Money is rapidly outliving its usefulness. It is increasingly being exposed as imaginary: the naked green emperor. As expected, the standard response to this predicament is to print more money and create more debt. Which is quite obviously insane. But the alternative is another unthinkable. How can you even imagine living without money when it practically defines many people's existences?

In the meantime, we have the Palin/Ford brigade trying to pretend complex predicaments are simple problems. It doesn't bode well. Should this new party called Tea succeed in gaining power in the United States, as I rather suspect they will, they will soon find they don't have the answers they thought they did. And if you think things are disturbing now, wait until that realization takes hold!