Saturday, March 11, 2017

Planning for Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland

For those of you who aren't Disney fans and can't remember which park is Orlando and which one is in Anaheim, I'm assuming you might not know that there are actually twelve Disney parks on the planet.  There are four in Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort (The Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), two in Anaheim at Disneyland Resort (Disneyland Park and Disney's California Adventure), two in Paris (Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park), two in Tokyo (Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea), one in Hong Kong (Hong Kong Disneyland), and the newest one in Shanghai (Shanghai Disneyland).

(For my tips on visiting Disneyland Paris, click here.)

Until the new Shanghai park opened in June of 2016, Josh and I had been to every Disney park that existed.  We love Disney, and we really love exploring the differences in the international parks.  Often, we visit international Disney parks after we've been out of the country for a long stretch of time and are longing for a little bit of home.  Our first international Disney park visit was to Tokyo Disneyland in 1997.  Josh and I had been on a mission trip teaching English with Let's Start Talking for six weeks, and a little bit of Americana sounded like the perfect antidote to culture fatigue.

After similar missions in Thailand, we visited Tokyo DisneySea in 2002 and Hong Kong Disneyland in 2008, and we visited the parks in Paris for the first time while we were living in Italy for a semester in 2007.  Kinley has been to all the parks except Tokyo Disneyland, but Knox hasn't been to either of the Tokyo parks.  (I know, I know.  Cry me a river, right?)

Josh and I knew that we wanted to go to the new Shanghai park, but we didn't have a plan or a timeline for how or when we'd get there. So when the opportunity unexpectedly arose (as I posted in my last post), we were 100% on board.  So were the kids, of course.

As we have been planning our trip, a few resources have been exceptionally valuable.  At first, all we could find were videos that pointed out some shocking cultural differences in Shanghai.  (If you don't have the desire or the patience to watch the whole 3 minute video, you can start at 2:46 for what I think is the most, ...ummm...., culturally different part.)

Things were apparently so bad in the soft open period leading up to opening day that the Shanghai municipal government issued an etiquette guide reminding people not to do things like "lie on the ground" when visiting the park.

After some digging, we found this video that helped us feel less hesitant about our trip.
And then I found a podcast called Disney Dream Girls.  Podcasts numbers 141 and 144 were all about Shanghai Disneyland, and the couple interviewed on the pod had just been there in late December of 2016.  Both podcasts were incredibly valuable for helping us plan out our two short days in Shanghai.  

Another helpful website was the Disboards website .  This is basically a Disney discussion board that tends to focus on US parks, but it has an "Other Lands" section as well.  This was the same site we used when we found out that booking a Paris Disneyland trip through an Irish company was cheaper than booking the same trip through a British or French company.  There are all kinds of little tips and answers to questions on there.  And while there isn't a dedicated page for Shanghai, trolling the Other Lands page yielded a lot of good info for us.  And if you like numbers and facts, this article is pretty cool.

When we go, we are most interested in the attractions at both Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland that aren't in the US parks as well as the attractions that are in US parks that have been added since our last trip in 2012.   Now, we'll ride everything we can ride and experience everything we can squeeze in, but here are our must-do lists for both parks.

TRON Lightcycle Power Run
Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure
Voyage to the Crystal Grotto
Jet Packs
Camp Discovery
Hunny Pot Spin
Soarin' Over the Horizon (We haven't been on it since the ride changed from its California theme.)
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (We haven't been to WDW since this opened.)
Hong Kong
Hyperspace Mountain (Star Wars + Space Mountain = AWESOME)
Iron Man Experience
Mystic Manor (This is NOT a version of Haunted Mansion, I'm told.)

At Shanghai Disneyland we'll be staying at the Toy Story Hotel, and at Hong Kong Disneyland we'll be staying at the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel.  At Hong Kong we usually stay at Disney's Hollywood Hotel because it's less expensive, but with the short length of our stay and the deal we got on the flights, we decided to go big. We've never stayed at the Grand Floridian or the Disneyland Hotel at any of the parks, so we're super pumped.

It's going to be a quick trip - not even a full week - but it's going to be great!  Another Boyd-style adventure!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What to Do When Flights to Florida Are More Expensive Than Flights to China

If that ever happens to you, YOU GO TO CHINA!!!!!!!!  I'm so excited that I can hardly type!  Our family is taking a pretty-much-spur-of-the-moment spring break trip to both Disney parks in China! We're first going to the newly-opened Shanghai Disneyland, and then we're taking our third trip to Hong Kong Disneyland!
In front of Hong Kong Disneyland on our first visit in 2008

And again in 2010
How in the world did this come about?  Well, in the middle of February, we decided we should start thinking about how to spend our spring break, and we first looked into cruises out of Fort Lauderdale.  For about $2700, we could do a seven-day cruise on our favorite cruise line, Holland America, including all of our meals.  Unfortunately, we'd have to drive 18 hours each way since plane tickets from Indianapolis were about $600 each.

Now, at the time, Josh happened to be in serious research-avoidance mode.  That meant he didn't want to do research related to his job, but he was THRILLED to have an excuse to do research related to anything else.  He went to a website called Skyscanner which has a super cool feature that enables you to put in your city of departure and then put in "Everywhere" in the destination box.  It will give you every single flight to every single country that is available for your dates.  You click on a country, and the flights are listed cheapest to most expensive.

Josh did this on a lark, and there they were.  Round-trip tickets to Shanghai from Chicago for $495.  Yep.  You read that right.  $495.  Round-trip.  We could fly to China cheaper than we could fly to Fort Lauderdale.

So that's exactly what we're doing!!  Now, to be fair, we're not actually paying $495.  In order to buy that fare, we'd also need to shell out $560 for Chinese visas (the stamps that say you're legally entering the country, not the credit cards).  But we did some research and learned about a special visa just for visits to Shanghai that last no more than 144 hours, and it's FREE.  The catch is that you have to stop over in another country on your way home.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  Hong Kong isn't another country,  It's China.  But China doesn't see it that way (and neither, frankly, do the people of Hong Kong).  Hong Kong is what's known as a Special Administrative Region or SAR.  And as such, it counts as another country for the purposes of our free visas!

Of course, altering the base ticket meant that we had to buy a more expensive ticket (about $680 per person) that had a stopover in Hong Kong on the way home.  And since we were going to be there, we decided we might as well go to Hong Kong Disneyland as well!

To prepare for our adventure, we've been doing lots of online research.  Shanghai Disneyland just opened in June of 2016, and many of the posts we found about it dealt with the first few days the park was open.  Naturally, there were long lines, gobs of people, and several snafus.  But with enough digging, we found other posts that dealt with more recent visits.  Those unanimously praised the park and have been very helpful.  In my next post, I'll write about some of the sources we've used and what we plan to do while we're gone!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Six Reasons to Love Brazilian Beach Life

As I mentioned in my Rock/Stinks: Brazil Edition post, the beaches here are one of my favorite things about this beautiful South American country.  Since we're here doing mission work, we don't actually get to spend that many days at the beach.  Our days begin at 9:00 am with our team devotional time, and we have one-on-one sessions practicing English conversation skills with local people until 8:00 at night.  So when we do have days off, we make the most of them by enjoying some beach time.

The town where we're staying is called Natal, which means Christmas in Portuguese.  It's named this because it was founded by the Portuguese on Decemeber 25, 1599, and it is a popular tourist destination for southern Brazilians during their winter (which is, of course, North American summer).
And while it may seem like a beach in Brazil is not that different from a beach anywhere else, there are some things here that are particularly enjoyable to me.  You will, no doubt, notice that several of these things involve eating.  But I'm not ashamed. I'm also not the type of girl who skips a meal, so beach food suits me just fine.  In fact, about the only thing that can make me tear myself away from whatever book I happen to be reading at the time is the sight of a Brazilian beach food cart being lazily pushed along in the sand in front of my umbrella-shaded lounge chair. And I'm not above being that crazy American lady chasing the crepe cart down the beach, waving her arms madly and shouting in a bizarre combination of English and Portuguese.  You'd chase it, too, if you tasted one.  I promise.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Reason number one is beach cheese.  Yep, you read that right.  Beach cheese.  I don't actually know what they do to this stuff, but whatever it is, it's delicious.  It's like little skewers of yumminess.  The char-grilled cheese gets warm and kind of crusty on the outside, but somehow it doesn't melt.  It reminds me a little of that Greek cheese you can flambe, but it's not quite the same.

Grilled cheese cubes, straight from the grill cart, is a treat!
                                                                                       The char-grilling creates a delicious crust on the cheese.
Skewered, grilled cheese (left) is an even bigger treat when accompanied by grilled garlic bread!
Reason number two to love Brazilian beaches is what we affectionately call Beach Crack.  I think the actual name is Bala do Coco, but it's so addictive that we call it Beach Crack.  Ladies who make it walk along the beach selling little bags of the candies which taste kind of like a non-sticky coconut divinity. Or if you're familiar with Kentucky pulled cream candy, it tastes like that but coconutty.  (I just made that word up.)  You can also buy it in chocolate-coconut flavor, but the plain coconut is the best, IMHO.  You can buy three little baggies on the beach for R$ 10 (which is about $3), so we stock up.  And in case I ever decide to try to make it at home, I got a reader of mine to translate a recipe from Portuguese.  It's included at the bottom of this post.  (Thanks to my friend Sarah Cavalcanti Josua for translating it from Portuguese!)
Bite-sized pieces of bala do coco
A lady selling bala do coco on the beach
Reason number three is the crepe cart. People, Nutella+bananas+fresh crepes made right in front of you on the beach = Heaven.  How is this not a thing in the US?  Because it totally should be.

Reason number four is fresh grilled fish right on the beach.  Like, without moving from your lounge chair.  It's so delicious.  (Can you see a theme here?  I guess all I really do on Brazilian beaches is eat.)  On beaches here, you can use lounge chairs and umbrellas for free as long as you order food and drinks from the owner, so we pick a spot to plant ourselves on the beach based on the menu.  My favorite fish to order is called dorado.  I'm told that this translates to mahi-mahi, but it doesn't taste like it to me.  It's much steakier.  (I'm just making up all kinds of words today.)  Anyway, it's a great way to take a break from all that lounging and reading and bala do coco eating.


Reason number five is the availability of relatively cheap one-on-one surf lessons.  You can certainly take surf lessons in the US, but a 2-hour private lesson in Hawaii will set you back about $150.  Compare that to about $35 for an hour-long one-on-one lesson here, and you've found yourself a bargain.  Kinley took a lesson when we were here in 2014, and she took two lessons this year.  The instructors don't speak much English, but they're still able to get the basics across.  The lesson starts on the sand to help the student learn how to balance, and then it's time to try out your new skills in the water.  Kinley was able to catch some waves all three times she took lessons, but doing it on her own after the lesson was a different story.  During the lesson, the instructor would paddle her out past the breakers so that she could surf back in.  But when you're on your own and paddling for yourself, you expend so much energy getting yourself out beyond the breakers that you don't have any energy left to surf back in.  It's a service that's worth every penny.  Knox preferred to spend his time boogie boarding both years which was also a cheap way to enjoy the waves.

Pictures from 2014
Pictures from 2016

Reason number six is the lack of body self-consciousness or body shaming.  Some Americans may find this plethora of unabashedly-exposed bums and boobs off-putting, but in Brazil, the people I observed on the beach weren't afraid to wear whatever bathing suit they liked.  No matter the size or age of the person, the bikini was teeny.  Just being around people who were so comfortable in their own skin was liberating enough that I even considered buying a bikini for myself.  And let me tell, you, if you're in the market for a new swimsuit, there's no better selection than in Brazil.  These people are serious about swimsuit options.
 Consider this beauty that I saw in Rio.  Where but Brazil would you find an emerald-encrusted swimsuit?  But my favorite swimsuit shop in Brazil is much more affordable, if only slightly more practical.  It's called Agua de Coco, and I'm obsessed.  I didn't buy a bikini, but I did treat myself to a dress and a one-piece swimsuit.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to shake my own American self-consciousness about my 45-year-old tummy and thighs long enough to shell out the cash for a Brazilian two-piece.  

But that's ok.  I'll just keep sitting under an umbrella with a book and a skewer of grilled cheese, enjoying the view while waiting for the next crepe cart to stroll by.  And I'm good with that.

Recipe for Bala do Coco (aka Beach Crack)
200 mL coconut milk
200 mL water
1 kilo sugar  (Yes, really. 2.2 pounds of sugar.)

Use an aluminum pan, and also prepare a marble slab for later.  It should be cold and could be covered with waxed paper.  Combine the ingredients in the pot off the stove.  Mix thoroughly.  Scrape the sides of the pot well.  Put it on the heat and don't mix it.  It will grow and then reduce in size.  When it bubbles, turn down the heat.  It will turn yellow.  Test it with a spoon.  Put a bit in a cup with water, and swirl the cup.  It should string.  Try to break it like glass. If not, it's not ready.  Butter the marble.  Pour the mixture onto the marble.  It should harden.  When it is able to be handled, you need to pull it until it's white.  Then you can cut it into pieces.  It should soften after you cover it in a container.  Good 5 days on the counter, 1 month in the refrigerator, or 1 year in the freezer.