Thursday, November 19, 2015

A First-Timer's View of Sin City (Part 1)

It may surprise you to know that though I have visited six continents, I had never been to Las Vegas until yesterday.  Josh attends a national conference each November, and this year's destination is none other than Sin City itself.  Since Las Vegas wasn't a trip we were likely to take without a reason, we decided to go together with my in-laws, leaving the kids behind with friends.

Though I'd heard that there was gambling everywhere, even in the airport, I was surprised to see slots at our gate the moment we got off the plane.  I was too concerned about meeting up with my in-laws at baggage claim to be tempted by the garish lights, so on we went, passing the welcome sign on our way.

Within minutes of arriving at our hotel, The Cosmopolitan, I met a celebrity!  Scott Hamilton (1984 Olympic Men's Figure Skating gold medalist) was in line behind me when we were checking in.  

He was exactly as nice as you'd think he'd be, and he was super patient when the camera on my phone didn't work.  (Twice.)

Since Josh has gold status with Marriott's reward program (and the Cosmopolitan is part of the Marriott system), we asked for a room upgrade when we checked in.  Though none of the rooms facing the Bellagio fountains were available, we did get a huge room on the 56th floor with a vertigo-inducing balcony.  But the coolest part to me is the artsy vibe - the room has a collection of art books and colored pencils in an art glass cup just in case I feel inspired by the surrounding glam.
Oh Cosmo.  We only just met and you know me so well.

After unpacking, we headed to the Rio for dinner and to see Penn and Teller's magic show.  We ate at Buzios, a seafood restaurant near the entrance to the Penn and Teller Theater.  (Josh and I shared the ceviche and the shellfish pan roast, both of which were fantastic.).   

Though my favorite illusion of the show was performed by Teller, it was Penn that we met after the show.  Both performers were outside meeting fans, but Penn was far more efficient at crowd control.  Even without a real line, he worked through the hoardes of people who wanted a photo with him with an efficiency that would make a DisneyWorld character's handler jealous. 

And I told him so.  I don't think anyone has ever said that to him before because he looked at me kind of funny before thanking me for what he finally assumed must have been a strange attempt at a compliment.  (It was.)

Back at The Cosmo, I decided to take advantage of the Jacuzzi tub in our room while Josh worked on his convention presentation.  I had brought a Lush bath bomb from home to use (who wants to leave a colored ring around their own tub when you could leave one around someone else's?), and I luxuriated in the scented water while trying to figure out the controls for the jets in the tub.  I pushed a couple of random buttons and finally got a satisfactory stream of bubbles.  Unfortunately, the jets were loud so I began to worry about bothering guests in neighboring rooms and ended up turning it off.

Once we were both ready to turn in, Josh starting turning off the many lamps and overhead lights in the room.  Strangely, the desk lamp wouldn't cooperate and refused to go off.  He tried, I tried, and we even tried the button by the door that was supposed to turn off everything.  

And still the desk light continued to glow.  Josh called the front desk where a girl who surely thought we were idiots told us to push the goodbye button.  When we assured her that we'd already tried that, she promised to send someone up.  A few minutes later, a maintenance guy knocked on the door and said with obvious incredulity, "Um, they said you can't turn off your desk light?"  Josh gestured to the offending illumination and moved out of the way to let the guy give it a try.  Of course, I sat across the room worrying that a simple push of a button by this guy would reveal us to be the idiots he thought we were, but I needn't have worried.  He pushed the buttons (with increasing frustration) and eventually decided new batteries were in order.  He changed the batteries on the control pad, and then turned the light off with one push.

To be sure it was fixed, he pushed the button again to turn it back on.  Nothing happened.  He tried again and again, and eventually said, "Well, the goal was to get it off, right?" Josh laughed and agreed that yes indeed, off was better than on.

The guy left and we settled into bed in the now completely dark room.  Suddenly, a horrible, thundering sound filled our ears.  We both jumped and desperately tried to turn on some lights to figure out from whence the room-rattling noise was emanating.  Lo and behold, one of those random Jacuzzi buttons I'd pressed earlier had decided to pull itself out of hibernation and work.

Josh, bless him, stumbled into the bathroom and managed to turn off the offending appliance so that we could finally get some sleep.  As I closed my eyes, I thought, "Oh, Cosmo!  I thought we really had something here - a connection, an understanding!  How could you do this to me?"

So, dear Cosmopolitan, take note.  Colored pencils and art books only get you so far. Get the kinks worked out because what happens in Vegas is going on my blog.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Day in Paris, Boyd Style (or Sometimes Expectations Don't Match Reality)

Josh, Knox,and Kinley enjoy a croque monsieur (basically a French grilled cheese sandwich) with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower.

If you're going to Disneyland Paris, you might as well spend a day in the City of Lights, too, right?  And the Boyd way of doing it is to cram in as much as you possibly can and then collapse in a heap at the end of the day (with maybe some whining and griping from the kids and plenty of Christmas-card-worthy photo ops in between).
  • Ride on the Metro? Check
  • Parisian street food snack of croque monsieur?  Check
  • Eiffel Tower?  Check
  • Carousel ride in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Check

  • Notre Dame?  Check
  • Musee d'Orsay for some Impressionist art?  Check
  • Crepes at a sidewalk cafe?  Check
  • The Gardens Tuileries, enjoying the playground and views of the Louvre?  Check

  • An evening with fabulously interesting Parisians and several cultured ex-pats who, while dining with us in a former art studio in the 14th Arrondissement, would find my family adorable and intelligent and witty and far more aware of what lies beyond America's borders than most people with similar upbringings and would be in awe of what fabulously well-behaved and mature children we have?  Check.  Well, not really.  That's just what I intended it to be.
My friend Christi (a French teacher at a local high school here in Indiana) told me about Jim Haynes and his weekly dinners.  Mr. Haynes, an American living in Paris, has been inviting 50-100 strangers into his home every Sunday night for decades, providing travelers and local Parisians alike with the opportunity to meet new people while sharing a meal in an environment that's less impersonal than a restaurant.  He has entertained the rich, the famous, and the normal, and his friends help him cook every week.  My entertaining is on a much smaller scale, so I was fascinated.

I read articles and blog posts about Mr. Haynes and his dinners and decided to make dinner at his home a priority.  I even talked about it so much that my sister, Amanda, and her daughter, Elizabeth, arranged to go during their Paris visit in 2011.  While there, Amanda bought me an autographed copy of Mr. Haynes's cookbook which I pored over like the fangirl I was.
The cover of Mr.Haynes's cookbook

By all reports, Mr. Haynes was a master at introducing his guests to each other, finding out their commonalities, and helping every guest find another with whom they'd instantly connect.  I envisioned a spry man of 65 or so who would flit from one conversation grouping to another, refilling drinks and making sure no one was left without a conversation partner, all while surrounded by the magic of a Parisian evening and accompanied by the delicious fare in his cookbook.

So this year, when we realized that our Paris time would indeed include a Sunday evening, I got online, made our reservation for four, and waited for an email from Jim himself confirming our invitation to dinner at his home.  When it came, it included detailed directions and the request for us to bring a recycled envelope containing 30 Euros per person (or more or less if we felt like it) to cover dinner costs.  Dinner was still three months away at that point, and I was already giddy with excitement!

After our long day doing Paris Boyd style, we headed to the 14th Arrondissement, carefully following the directions.  We arrived in the garden where people had already begun to gather in conversation groups, and we tried to figure out what to do next.  I was a little surprised that no one greeted us or stopped their conversation to direct us to the right place, but I decided Mr. Haynes was probably occupied inside for the moment and, eventually, Kinley and I found our way to the kitchen while Josh helped Knox find a place to sit outside.
The garden outside Jim Haynes's home was where we ate dinner.  These pictures are from his AirBNB site. where you can book a night in his downstairs bedroom.  Click here to book an overnight stay.
Mr. Haynes was seated on a stool at this table.  People were seated on the couch and standing in groups talking while someone was serving soup from the stove.  (AirBNB pic)

Perched there on his stool with his head down over a pile of papers, surrounded by shelves of books with risque titles and erotic art, was Jim Haynes.  His mustache was more grey than his website pictures had shown and he was rather more slumped than I had expected, but there was no doubt that this was the man, the one who had entertained the likes of Yoko Ono and Chloe Sevigny and was now entertaining my family.  I walked up and introduced myself.  "Hello, Mr. Haynes!  I'm Gina Boyd, this is my daughter, Kinley, and we're here with our family."  I smiled my best Southern-belle-turned-Midwestern-girl smile and waited for him to welcome me with a knowing grin and a hug followed by suggestions of people I should meet.

He didn't even look up from his papers.  Instead, he fumbled with a typed list of guests and stared at it so long looking for my name that I feared he had fallen asleep.  Finally, I pointed to my name on the list and chirped, "Here we are!"

"Four of you?" was his reply.

"Yes, sir.  We're so happy to be here!  And what should I do with this?" I asked, holding out the recycled envelope that I'd carefully saved from our hotel trash can and into which I'd placed our contribution of 75 Euros for the food.  Again, he didn't look up.  He took the envelope from my hand, opened it, removed the cash and stuck it in his pocket with a stack of other bills, and added my lovingly-salvaged envelope to a pile of similar ones (not all recycled ones, I noticed) in front of him.

"Soup is about to be served and drinks are in the garden.  Help yourself," he said as he gestured to the door, indicating that I should go back outside and help myself to some cheap boxed wine.  He still hadn't even looked at me.  I wove my way through the crowd that was blocking the exit, and no one even spoke to me.

Back in the garden, Josh and Knox were standing alone, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I introduced myself to a lovely group of American ladies who were in town for a writing class, and Josh and Knox eventually made their way over as well.  As the evening progressed, we had a tasty soup followed by a chicken dish and the most delicious lentils I've ever eaten (I was told they were French lentils which aren't available here).
Knox whispers to Josh in the garden.  Notice no one else is talking to them.

We talked to the writers (one of whom has her own blog and later wrote an insightful post about the evening), met a couple from Texas, and did our best to avoid an American man who called himself a "regular" at Jim's dinners and appeared to be trolling for his next one-night stand.  A Parisian woman who was also a regular told us of her new business catering to the unique needs of ex-pats and advised us to get dessert quickly since it often ran out.  Somehow these regulars gave off a disturbing vibe, as if they all knew something about the real nature of these dinners that the rest of us didn't.  Remembering the books and art on display near the kitchen, I was kind of starting to think that maybe the dinner was some sort of bait for all of us newbies, and that we had been lured into something we hadn't bargained for.

As we finished our tiramisu, one of the Americans expressed her shock at having been hit on by another guest.  She felt violated, and her admission led another girl to share that she had just had a similar experience.  A Turkish girl standing nearby agreed that she, too, had been hit on.  So while we had loved meeting our dinner companions, we quickly decided that it was time for us to head back to the relative wholesomeness of Disney.  We said our goodbyes, and followed the directions in reverse back to the Metro.  Mr. Haynes didn't even notice we were gone.
The view of the garden as we left

Now let me just say that my French teacher friend Christi took her children to one of these dinners and had a perfectly wonderful evening.  In fact, it was her children's favorite evening of an entire summer spent in France, so I hesitated for weeks to even write this post.  But when I mentioned our odd experience to my sister, Amanda, she wasn't surprised.  She had been hit on, too, during her evening at Mr. Haynes's home, but had brushed it off as no big deal.

So I guess the point is this.  Dinner with Jim Haynes is an interesting and memorable experience.  It is undoubtedly remarkable that he gathers so many strangers together for a meal each week, and he inspires me to try something similar myself to reach out to the many travelers, grad students, and undergrads who are away from home in West Lafayette.  But if you go, go into this with your eyes open and a companion at your side.  And certainly don't worry about bringing a recycled envelope because he won't even notice anything but the Euros inside.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Out And About On Our Own!

If you know me or have been reading my blog for a while, you may think of me as a fearless traveler ready to tackle anything.  I hate to burst your bubble, but I had officially been in London for a week before I had the courage to try to get around on my own.  Until then, I had depended entirely on Josh to get me around.  Our flat wasn't close to a Tube station, but it was a walkable distance to a couple.  Unfortunately, every time we traveled to and from our flat in those first days it seemed that we took a different route or mode of transport, so I couldn't get my head around how to get from place to place on my own for several days.

When I finally mustered the courage to set out without the hubs, the kids and I took the ubiquitous red double decker buses.  I love the Tube, but being able to see where I'm going while riding the bus helps me to get my bearings a little better.  Plus, I just love sitting on the top deck.
Kinley and Knox wait for the bus to arrive at the stop nearest our flat.

You can see from the picture that this is bus stop K which is what Josh always called it.  What I didn't know was that 1) the signs on the bus that list the stops DON'T use the letters as names for the stops, 2) the corresponding stop for getting off here on the way home WAS NOT just across the street as one would expect it to be, and 3) this is just one of MANY K bus stops throughout the city.  But, of course, I didn't learn any of these things the easy way.  I learned them on the way home when I had no idea where to get off the bus.

Here we are wearing blissfully optimistic smiles before our Josh-less journey.

While on the bus, Knox read and Kinley listened to music, trusting me to know where we were going.  Silly kids.

I knew which bus took us to Kensington High Street, but I wasn't sure which one would take us to Hyde Park.  Of course, the stops aren't helpfully named or anything like that.  So I just got off on the High Street with the kids and hoped for the best.  We had to walk several extra blocks, and we took a wrong turn or two, but against all odds, we managed to find our way to Hyde Park and the Princess Diana Memorial Playground.

Glad to be out if the flat, Kinley was willing to play on the seesaw with her little brother.
The centerpiece of the playground was a giant pirate ship.  Knox was in heaven!

When it was time to go, we found the bus stop where we should have gotten off in the first place, but, again, the stop for the bus going in the opposite direction wasn't just across the street.  That would have been far too easy.  So we walked out of our way (again) and found the return bus.  

We got on the bus, and Kinley and I touched our travel cards to the little sensor thingy beside the driver.  Kids Knox's age travel free with a parent, so he always has to hold my hand as we get on.  He headed straight for the stairs, and the bus lurched forward.  

Bus drivers on double decker buses have cameras so that they can see passengers on the stairs, and I'm convinced that they must get a lot of joy out of stepping on the gas just as we're starting to climb.  Knox, Kinley, and I clutched the handrail and hung on for dear life while the bus sped down the street.  Just when we all got to the top and began scanning for three empty seats, the bus lurched again, and we had to work hard not to land on either a perfectly lovely British chap, a lady reading the paper and trying to pretend that we didn't exist, or a portly grandmother with a very welcoming-looking lap.

We finally fell into our seats and took a moment to pat ourselves on the back for being on our way.  But then came the drama of figuring out where to get off.  Was it Holland Park?  York House?  Where was the big red K on the sign?!!!??  And why couldn't I, a seasoned traveler who's been to six continents, figure this out?!  

Thank goodness Kinley had been paying attention all week.  She spied the general area of the stop and promptly pushed the little yellow button signaling to the driver that we wanted off.  We hurried down the stairs and out the door to begin our walk the rest of the way home.

And I came to a new realization.  Traveling with my daughter is different these days.  She's now old enough to be my traveling partner.  She can notices things that I don't, and she certainly no longer needs me to hold her hand as she gets on the bus.  She's growing into quite a traveler, and, even though she still occasionally enjoys a seesaw or pirate ship playground, one day she'll no doubt be setting out on her own adventures.

I just hope she continues to pay attention to the bus stops when she does.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Disneyland Paris Tips Part 2

In my last post I shared my first two tips for visiting Disneyland Paris.  In this one, I'll share the rest of my tips.
We're walking right down the middle of Main Street, USA even thought we're actually in Paris!

Tip #3. Prioritize the rides and attractions that are unique to Disneyland Paris.  Yes, I know. Your kids won't let you walk past Dumbo or the tea cups without riding them.  Tell them that you promise to come back to those when you've checked off the following Paris-only attractions.
Disneyland Paris unique attractions
*Alice's Curious Labyrinth (a walk through that needs some upkeep but is interesting for its novelty)
*Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril (completely different from the one at Disneyland - this one is a roller coaster that goes upside down)
* Space Mountain: Mission 2 (far rougher than any other Space Mountain, in my opinion, and closed for refurbishment during our 2015 visit)
*Mysterious Nautilus WalkThru (a walk through visit of the ship from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, also closed for refurbishment during our 2015 visit)
*Pirates of the Caribbean (the best one in the world, even better then Disneyland)
*Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (also the best in the world, in my opinion, since the train goes under a moat)
*The Dragon's Lair under Sleeping Beauty's Castle (another walk through, but cool nonetheless)

This is Kinley's favorite ride!  Isn't it neat to see the ride name in French?
The coaster is two cars long with seating for 12.  The theme is sort of a Cambodian Angkor Wat kind of place.
Just outside Alice's Labyrinth is a photo op.
Walt Disney Studios unique attractions
*Crush's Coaster (a spinning roller coaster based on Crush from Finding Nemo)
*Cinemagic (a sit-down theater attraction with Martin Short that is sort of like The Great Movie Ride in a theater)
*Ratatouille: The Adventure (a 4D ride that I loved through the kitchens and rooftops of Paris)
*Cars Four Wheel Rally (kind of like the Mater Tractor ride at Disneyland)
Note:There is a Toy Story section that is not unique to Disneyland Paris since it's also at Hong Kong Disneyland.  But if you have no plans to visit Hong Kong, then you should prioritize these.  The Parachute Drop is great, and I like the RC Racer ride, too.  But the a Slinky Dog ride is too long of a wait to go in a circle
Knox's favorite ride was Cars Four Wheel Rally.

Tip #4 :  Don't stand in line for character autographs.  Disneyland Paris has struggled with crowd management for character autographs for years.  Many of the guests come from countries where queuing (or, in American English, forming an orderly line) is not a part of the culture, so people mob the characters, shoving their kids to the front regardless of who was next in line or ignoring the queue altogether and photobombing with abandon.  Additionally, characters at Disneyland Paris have far fewer cast members assigned to them for crowd management making character greetings a frustrating free for all. 

To try to deal with this problem, Disneyland Paris has seriously limited character greetings.  Each character has a designated spot in the park and only appears there.  The main characters (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, etc.) are on Main Street with a few others in Adventureland and near the Toy Story area.  

Our kids (even our 14 year old) love getting autographs, so we bought autograph books as soon as we arrived.  We've trained them to bypass the basic characters on Main Street during Extra Magic Hours in order to zoom past and get to the rides.  But when we saw a queue for Buzz Lightyear later in the day, Knox couldn't resist.  We had no idea we were in for a 45-minute wait.  And Buzz didn't even sign an autograph!  His handler stamped Knox's book instead!  Plus we still had to contend with non-English speaking line jumpers.  Even Knox agreed that it wasn't worth the wait.  In fact, that was our longest wait of the entire trip.
The kids managed to look happy in spite of the incredibly long wait in the heat, but we had all learned our lesson and didn't wait in any ohter character queues for the rest of our stay.

Which leads to Tip #5:  If you really want autographs, book character meals.  We got Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Chip, and Dale at a Cafe Mickey lunch, and we got Ariel, Cinderella, Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty, and the two mice from Cinderella (Suzy and Perla) at lunch at Auberge de Cendrillon.  Cafe Mickey was a part of our meal plan, but we decided that the extra money we paid to eat with the princesses was well spent to avoid autograph lines.  (And, just so you know, there are appointments for character greetings with princesses each day but you have to wait in line 45 minutes to make the appointment and they are all booked up by 10:00 each day.  And even if you get an appointment, you only get one princess.  Plus you don't even get to choose which one!). Since every character at the meals comes to your table while you eat, it works out perfectly!
Dale made Knox laugh a lot at our character breakfast.  He and Chip came around to greet the kids separately which is different from other character breakfasts we've experienced.
Cinderella and Prince Charming were happy to be able to converse with English speakers!
All of the "face characters" are native English speakers, so the kids got to talk to them as long as they wished!   Ariel and all the other princesses were kind and gracious (as they have been trained to be) in spite of the other guests who refused to wait in their seats until the princesses came to greet them at their tables.

Which leads to Tip #6:  You don't have to plan as far ahead to get great dining reservations.  In Orlando, if you want to eat in Cinderella's Castle, you're going to have to call 180 days out and wait on the phone forever.  But we managed to get reservations for Blue Lagoon (the restaurant inside The Pirates of the Caribbean), Cafe Mickey, Auberge de Cendrillon, and Chez Remy (the new Ratatouille-themed restaurant) by calling from London about three weeks before our trip.  And the lady who took our reservations spoke perfect English!  We didn't try to get reservations at the other popular restaurant, Walt's on Main Street, so I'm not sure about how hard that one is to get.
Chez Remy is themes as if guests are Remy-sized!  So the table above is a jam lid and the seats are Champagne cork covers with a little drink umbrella above!  

Tip #7:  Stay at one of the hotels that is within walking distance and avoid the shuttle buses.  We have stayed at both Newport Bay (a 15 minute walk away from the parks) and at the Sequoia Lodge (a 10 minute walk).  We have also stayed at the Hotel Santa Fe which isn't really within walking distance, and being able to walk back and forth rather than having to wait for the bus is a huge advantage.  First if all, there are too few shuttles.  Secondly, you have to wait for the shuttle with people who don't know how to queue.  And third, those same people are smoking cigarettes like chimneys while they wait.  All that adds up to walking being a far better option.  

Tip #8:  The parks clear out and wait times are significantly decreased within a couple of hours of closing time, no matter what that time is.  Disney Studios closed at 7:00 one day and 9:00 the other days while we were there, so you'd think that visitors would stay until the bitter end since closing time was so early.  But that wasn't the case at all! We were able to get on Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones, and other popular rides with 5 or 10 minute waits at the end of each day.

Tip #9:  Remember that this isn't Orlando.  The French don't run their park the same way, so you won't get exactly the same attention to detail or focus on American ideals of customer service.  Unlike in the U.S., you will see lots of repairs and maintenance during the day.  They don't have as many employees.  Many areas need repairs and maintenance.  Be prepared for that and accept it.  It is what it is, and you can still have a marvelous time.  (And if something really bugs you, tell them at City Hall!)
On every trip we've taken to Disneyland Paris, we have witnessed maintenance in broad daylight.  Most of tasks such as these at other parks are carried out behind screens or during the night.  Here, workers repaint the faux rocks in Fantasyland.  The strangest thing was that these rocks didn't look that bad to begin with.  There are SO MANY other areas of the park that need work more desperately!

And Tip #10 (which is actually true for every Disney park on the planet):  Take advantage of what Disney offers you.  If you can get meals for free, do it.  (I wouldn't pay for a meal plan since it's way too much food.  Our family prefers to share meals.). Use Extra Magic Hours every single day.  Ask lots of questions at City Hall where they dependably speak English and have the authority to give you free Fast Passes if you complain about something.  (For example, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was continually either breaking down or running out of Fast Passes, so we went to tell them how much that interfered with our plans.  They gave us Fast Passes!). Use the single rider lines (especially on Ratatouille, Crush's Coaster, and the Rockin' Roller Coaster).  Hoard Fast Passes since they still use the legacy Fast Pass system instead of wristbands.  Use Parent Swap if your little ones can't ride so that grown ups don't have to wait in long lines twice and teens get to ride both times.  Whatever it is, use it to make your stay magical!

Oh.  And here's one last tidbit that isn't so much a tip as it is an opportunity to brag.  Before this trip, we had never met anyone else who had been to two Disney resorts on two different continents on the same calendar day.  

On August 8, 2008, our family was visiting Hong Kong Disneyland.  We had a character breakfast and flew out later that morning for home via Los Angeles, crossing the International Date Line and landing still on August 8.  Delays meant that when we got to LA, we had missed our flight onward to Indianapolis and couldn't get on another flight for several hours.  On the spur of the moment, we decided to rent a car and drive to Disneyland in Anaheim.  When we got there, we presented our still-valid Hong Kong Disneyland tickets dated August 8, and told our story.  The ticket guy was so impressed that he let us in!  It's one of our favorite Disney moments, but we'd never met anyone else crazy enough to do such a thing.

Until now.  Below is a picture with a Disneyland Paris cast member who did both Disneyland Paris AND DisneyWorld in Orlando on the same calendar day.  We had to have our picture with him, of course!

Whatever day and whatever park you choose for your Disney adventure, I hope it's magical!
If you are a member of the Two Continents, Two Disney Parks, One Day Club (I totally just made that name up), let me know in comments below!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Disneyland Paris Tips Part 1

Yes, we're those people.  Those people who go to France - Paris, no less - and choose to spend our time at an American theme park.  Look down your nose if you will, but we love Disney parks all over the world, and we're not ashamed.

If you're like many people, you have trouble remembering the difference between Disneyland (the original in California) and DisneyWorld (the Florida one).  So you may not be aware that there are actually parks in three other countries as well.  In fact, there are eleven total Disney theme parks and that's not counting the water parks in Orlando.  France has two parks (Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios), Japan has two (Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea), and China has one (Hong Kong Disneyland) with a 12th park due to open in ShangHai soon.

Josh and I visited Tokyo Disneyland for the first time on an off day during a Let's Start Talking mission project in 1997.
In 2002 we took Kinley to Tokyo DisneySea.

Our first visit to Disneyland Paris was with my sister and her family in 2007.

We've visited Hong Kong Disneyland twice, once in 2010 (this picture) and once in 2008.

Josh and I have been to all of them, which I guess makes us certifiable Disney fanatics.  So passing up an opportunity to go back to Disneyland Paris while we were just across the English Channel for the summer wasn't an option.

I had lurked on some Disney chat boards about the Paris park to find out if there had been any changes since the last time we were there in 2011.  I learned that a new Ratatouille-themed area has been added, but I also learned something far more valuable.

Tip #1  Check foreign Disney websites for Disneyland Paris packages.  Rates for Disneyland Paris Resort packages vary WIDELY from country to country.  That means that booking your package on the UK site gets you a different price than the French site or even the Irish site.  And by different, I mean by $1000 when you count price difference, free meals options, and exchange rates.  We ended up getting  four nights at a mid-level hotel on Disney property (Sequoia Lodge), park hopper passes for five days, continental breakfast every day, four other meals, and snacks every day for €1700.

It doesn't even matter that you don't live in the country you're booking through!  You put in your own actual address when prompted, but just leave the country box as the country you're booking through.  (For example, we booked through the Irish site, so we entered our U.S. address with Ireland as the country.). Tickets and details are delivered electronically, so it doesn't matter at all!  And just like the people on the chat board had reported, no one said one word about our lack of an Irish brogue when we checked in!

Of course, if the French site has the cheapest deals at the time you want to go, you're either going to need a French-speaking friend to help you navigate the site or simply use Google Translate.  But the savings can definitely make it worth the trouble.

From St. Pancras Station, we took the Eurostar through the Chunnel (the cleverly named tunnel under the English Channel, get it?!) to Lille, France.  From there we changed to another train that took us directly to the station at Disneyland Paris, and then we took the shuttle to our hotel.

The next day, we got up in time to have breakfast and get to the park in time for Extra Magic Hours (time that only guests staying at park hotels are allowed to enter the park) by 8:00.  We wanted to head straight for the Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast ride, so we used a route that is only available at the Disneyland Paris park to avoid the crowds on Main Street USA - the arcade.
At the far right and the far left of Main Street USA are two almost-empty covered walkways called arcades that allow you to beat the crowds to either Adventureland or Discoveryland.

Tip #2  Use the arcades to avoid crowds.  Even if you want to get your family picture in front of the castle, I'd still recommend avoiding Main Street.  Use the arcades and then make your way to the castle for pictures.
Gas lights illuminate the nearly deserted arcade.

Using the arcades allowed us to get to the castle quickly to get this shot with few other guests in it.
In my next post, I'll have tips about meeting characters, rides and attractions unique to Paris, and more.  Be sure to check back, or, even better, enter your email over on the right to subscribe to my blog!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

You've Got Mail....Er...Post

So many things in Great Britain are iconic from a design perspective.  From the simple elegance of the signs for the Underground....

..... to the unmistakable telephone booths......

..... to the ubiquitous red double decker buses, the UK has done an admirable job of making ordinary, everyday things extraordinary.  (And red, evidently.)

The bus on the left is a modern one while the one on the right is the Number 15 bus which is a vintage one that still runs the route near St. Paul's Cathedral.

One other everyday item that the Brits have managed to make interesting is the mailbox.  I don't mean the ones at a house or flat; those are pretty boring.  I mean the ones on the street for mailing letters or postcards.  The color (also red, of course), the shape, even the seemingly-indestructible cast iron solidness of them screams, "I am here!  Pay attention to me!  I am regal!  I am dependable!  I am as much a part of this place as the monarchy itself!"
Knox mails (er, posts) a postcard in 2011.

All of the mailboxes in Great Britain even bear the insignia of the monarch who reigned when they were manufactured.  The one above, for example, says ER VII which stands for Edward the Seventh, Rex (Rex being the Latin for King).

This one is from the time of his mother, Queen Victoria, and bears her insignia - VR for Victoria Regina (Latin for Queen).

That means that this bad boy has been in use since at least 1901 since her reign was from 1837-1901.  How cool is that?

This one in front if our flat had an unfortunate encounter with a car just before Kinley and I arrived.

The ones in Ireland were placed there by the British when Ireland was still a part of Great Britain and were simply painted green after Ireland gained independence in 1922!

This Irish mailbox is from the reign of George V (1910-1936).  I have no idea why they never put the V after his initial.

But here's a funny thing:  mailboxes aren't mailboxes here.  They're postboxes.  And you don't mail a letter here; you post it.  Same with picking up the mail; you pick up the post.  Why do you think it is, though, that in the U.S. we mail a letter at the post office while here they post a letter at the Royal Mail?   And we pick up our mail at the post office while they pick up the post at the Royal Mail!  What's up with that?  Doesn't it seem like we should all be consistent?

But whatever we call it, posting a letter in the UK just seems much more ceremonious than it does at home.  As if just by placing your missive into that hundred-year-old slot, you are part of something bigger and grander and more regal than simple long-distance communication.  As if you are somehow connecting with the monarchs themselves.  It is, after all, the Royal Mail.

Monday, July 6, 2015

When You've Got To Go, You've Got To Go

It's a fact : all toilets are not created equal.  In my travels around the world, I have *ahem* relieved myself on six continents, and let me just tell you that the experience varies greatly from place to place.  Now, lest you think me indelicate for discussing such matters, let me remind you that this is the one subject with which every single traveler will eventually have to deal.  So we might as well put it out there.

I have used everything from a bush to a hole in the ground to a squatty potty to a super-duper-multiple-button-controlled-water-squirting-and-warm-air-blowing Japanese toilet, and while they all get the job done, some experiences are definitely more pleasant than others.

When we lived in Italy in 2007, Kinley and I were fascinated with the various ways that toilets in Italy flushed.  We often had to stand in the bathroom for several minutes before we figured out how the crazy things worked, so we decided to take a picture each time we came across a different mechanism.  Here are a few.
This is the most common flush type we saw.  Often, the button would have two parts - a small button for, um, "Number 1" and a larger part for.....well, larger jobs.
This one took us a while to figure out.  It flushed with a foot operated button on the wall.
This one had a button on the wall.  (We were in Venice at Carnivale, so Kinley has confetti in her hair and is dressed in costume.)

Public toilets are much more difficult to locate in Italy, so usually we would go into a coffee shop where I would buy an espresso and then ask to use the toilet.  Buying the espresso (or macchiato or something) is an essential step since all over Italy restrooms are only for customers.  The good thing about Italian espresso is that it's meant to be shot, not sipped.  You knock that bad boy back in one quick motion, and then you're off to do your business.  (Of course, you're going to need another bathroom pretty soon after downing that shot so you'd better be on the lookout for another coffee shop as you leave.)

And then, of course, there is the European obsession with making you pay for the privilege of relieving yourself.  Now, there are some cases in which I am actually grateful for this custom.  In those bathrooms where a custodian is keeping the whole place spic and span, mopping each stall after it's used and spraying the whole place with disinfectant every five minutes, I'll gladly plonk down 20 pence to do my business.  But recently, I've used toilets where my money must only be padding city government pockets because the smell alone would knock you over.

I can remember when Daddy used to refer to pay toilets when he thought something was an unpopular idea.  He'd say, "Well, that will go over like a pay toilet in a diarrhea ward!"  A couple of frantic trips to the loo, desperately digging through my purse for change, trying to decide exactly which foreign coins were which, brought that idiom to life for me in a big way.
Gotta go in a bad way?  Better be sure you have change!
Well, at least there's a change machine nearby.  And in the background, the sign indicates that the disabled and mothers changing their babies' diapers can go in a different toilet for free!

Mother Nature's call is even more problematic in Asia where we have to use what we no-so-affectionately refer to as the Squatty Potty.

(This photo is from and I borrowed it from this blog.)

It took me literally years to decide which direction you're supposed to squat - towards the hole or towards the door of the stall.  I made my decision (toward the hole), but I can't guarantee it's the correct one.  Flushing is accomplished by filling the little bowl with water and pouring it down the squatty potty.  Effective but not elegant.

It took me even longer to figure out why, in some Asian public bathrooms that did have one token Western-style toilet, there would be dirty smudges on the seat.  In 2010, I saw this sign in a public toilet in Malaysia.

And then the evidence that the sign had been completely ignored and someone had climbed up on that throne and squatted.  For reals.  Now all was clear to me.
I could tell you far more than you'd care to read about foreign bathroom experiences (toilet training a toddler in Thailand, what to do when you're at Disneyland Paris and your child is trapped in a stall with a ceiling-to-floor door, what you do with those kitchen sink sprayers you might find hanging by the toilet), but I'll spare you.  Because, of course, all this talk of toilets has made me need a potty break.