Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Walt Disney World Family Vacation - Part 2

This is part two of our family vacation in Walt Disney World. For part one, go here.

To catch you up, my dad decided to take the whole family to Florida - all FOURTEEN of us. We stayed in a giant apartment at the Boardwalk Resort just outside Epcot Center that's probably ten-plus-times larger than our apartment in Barcelona. It was big. And it was on a lake. With boats. Crazy.

Goofy with Ginny, Diana, dad, and some random Disney character:

It's been a few years since I was last at Disney World. I'm not 100% sure when it was but, like with lots of experiences in life, I remember the first time. I was 13 when my dad's mom took me. Back then, it was pretty much just the Magic Kingdom and Epcot so I think we spent a day or two at each park.

I remember the Magic Kingdom being fun but what really sticks with me is going to Epcot. The whole future thing and then all the countries you could visit. They all seemed so exotic and strange. Well, if you've been reading this blog at all, you'll know that I've been fortunate enough to see first-hand all but one (!!!) of the countries in the Epcot World Showcase. It's a bit crazy, I know. I didn't even realize it until we were walking around the park.

So, the first half of this story is dedicated to my parents who've given me the opportunity to have this oh-so-crazy trip around the sun we call life. In clockwise order on the map above...

There's Mexico, where I lived for two years:

...with Mariachis, of course! (Well, I didn't actually live with Mariachis but they were at the house...)

Then there's Norway, which Diana and I visited when we went to see Lena and Tony in Sweden a couple of years ago.

A little bit farther around the World Showcase, one of my favorites, China seen here with Epcot's version of Beijing's Temple of Heaven:

Next up? Germany. Surprise of surprises. We loved living in Germany and miss our friends there very much. The Disney version could be any one of a hundred small towns littering southern Germany:

Just about half way around, you come to the land of pizza, pasta, and faulty engineering, Italy. Diana hanging out with some Italian guys who, she assures me, are just friends:

At the half way point, the United States makes its appearance. Really, it seems a bit redundant as Disney's is as "American" as they come. There's no photo from the U.S. area but I'll throw in this one of me with a Mickey-shaped ice-cream sandwich. American or what?

Japan is next up in the World Showcase after the U.S. Can I just say again how much I love and miss Japan. And not only the food! I learned so much there.

Continuing along, Morocco, which is the ONLY country of the lot I haven't been to. Actually, we're just waiting on our friends Natalia and Adil to get married in his hometown of Fez so we can tag alone for the big party!

Next, France, followed by the United Kingdom and, last, but not least, our crazy poutine-eating cousins to the north, Canada (sorry, no links). Yeah, Epcot's pretty cool and it brings back a ton of memories!

The rest of this post is made up of random items from the trip. In the past, it would have been a separate post but I'm getting lazy in my old age.

I normally only get to see my family in small bursts during holiday visits. This trip was great because we got to spend a surprising amount of time together as one big group.

It also provided lots of one-on-one time that I was craving!

My next post will be about photo ops, characters, and Disney's photo package. But, one character stands out from the whole trip. Pocahontas. Yep. One of Disney's brown princesses.

We spent our third day at Disney World visiting Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is part zoo, part amusement park. It's full of zoo-type animals, log-flume rides, counter-service food places (if you've been to Disney, you'll know), and, on occasion, character meet-and-greets.

Because my sister had booked Disney's all-you-can-eat-style PhotoPass (more on this in the next story), we made sure to try to get as many character pictures as possible. Now, many of the meet-the-character locations are along major paths through the park or near entrances or exits to shops or attractions...except for poor Pocahontas. You can't actually see Disney's brown princess. She only gets this little sign, which you can see behind another brown princess.

Unlike all her character brothers and sisters, she's hidden down some narrow path and behind some bushes. Hey Disney, how about an upgrade for Pocahontas?

It isn't all back-alley though, so don't worry. The big name celebs get air-conditioned buildings:

All in all, an amazing time. Even with a daily bit of rain, the whole family was all smiles...

Thanks again for the amazing trip dad! You outdid yourself this time.

I'll leave this story with a composite of two photos taken on the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios that pretty much sums up how we felt during the whole trip.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Walt Disney World Family Vacation - Part 1

About a year ago my dad got a crazy idea (or did he go crazy and have an idea?) to take the whole family to Walt Disney World in Florida. I talked to my sister about it and we both were surprised and excited by the prospect of having all 14(!!!) of us meet up for a true Griswold-style family vacation. Well, it didn't end up being some group hallucination, it actually happened!

Day one going from our Boardwalk Resort apartment to the front entrance of Disney World on the Disney Express bus:

I'll admit right up front that Diana and I had embarrassingly little to do to make the trip happen. Our part pretty much consisted of using my dad's credit card to book flights one day and then drinking wine and watching movies at 35,000 feet on another. My sister did everything. And, I mean... E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. Can you say "spoiled"?

The whole "Poppy's Pirates" team a couple of minutes after entering the Magic Kingdom:

My sister had meticulously planned the entire week's adventure down to which rides to FastPass, where to eat, and, well, everything. She even ordered us matching shirts with an image of a Pirate Mickey, crossed swords, and the words "Poppy's Pirates". (My nieces and nephews call my dad Poppy.)

Diana practicing her driving skills at the Disney World Tomorrow Land Speedway:

The trip was extra special for me because I don't really get to spend extended time with my six nieces and nephews and this was a multi-day opportunity to do so. Even though we were 14, our group stayed together for most of the time, if you can believe it!

Waiting in line with Poppy and crew for the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster ride:

I made a conscious effort to spend as much time as possible with each of my nieces and nephews. Disney makes it relatively easy to do so as most attractions are whole-family friendly. Actually, looking back, and much to probably everyone's surprise, I can't remember even a single moment where anyone wanted to kill someone else. :) Quite an achievement for such a large group!

Happy campers waiting for a show at Disney World:

We lucked out with our trip timing, which was just after back-to-school time. It meant that there were almost no insane lines and those we did encounter were entirely reasonable. I think it really helped that my sister had FastPassed almost all the big-name rides.

The weather was good too. Still hot and humid but no worse than Barcelona in summer. The difference at Disney, though, is that there's air conditioning everywhere. But, on a downside, they set it at sub-zero temps and you go from sweating to freezing probably 100 times a day.

Hanging with bro-in-law and "the boy" on the Animal Kingdom Kilimanjaro Safari Ride:

Make fun of stuff like the air conditioning all you want but, I've gotta say, Disney's got their sh*t together when it comes to efficiently serving tons of visitors. From FastPass to their endless zig-zagging lines, I know I'm waiting but, inexplicably, I almost don't mind. Not always, but I notice it less than, let's say, with TSA at the airport.

I imagine that there's a team of folks like me looking for continuous-improvement ideas for things like queuing, ordering, paying, and so on. (Hint for the D-folks: hey, I've got the app downloaded... Can I, for example, order lunch for everyone and get a FastPass-style assigned time while I'm zig zagging my way towards Space Mountain rather than having to wait while some family ahead of me debate the health implications of a cheeseburger?)

Enjoying lunch at the Be Our Guest Restaurant in Fantasy Land:

No matter how modern Disney gets, some things never change. The Jungle Cruise and It's A Small World are examples. Usually terrible lines, somewhat cheesy sets, but, really, some of the best parts of being there. And, a plus, loved by all ages!

A not-so-Catalan Spain in It's A Small World:

It was Diana and five of six nieces and nephews' first trip to Disney World. This required us to do pretty much everything so they could have the full experience. Haunted Mansion? Check. Space Mountain? Check. Big Thunder Railway? Check. And, of course, the famed Main Street Electrical Parade!

Oh, and this particular blog post is significant for a technical change. Up to now, all the photos in the 425-plus (!!!) whereisdarrennow stories have been taken with my two mobile phones (Nexus One and Nexus 5) and only one point-and-shoot camera. Although the camera on my Nexus 5 is damn good, I've been wanting a new point-and-shoot with decent zoom and excellent imaging that could still fit in my pocket. For this trip, I researched and researched and finally pulled the trigger.

So, what do you think of the photo quality from my new Canon?

It had been a while since I went to Disney World and it was great to be back, especially with Diana and the whole family. A big thanks to my sister for doing such a great planning job and, of course, to my dad, Poppy, for making it all possible. Truly a trip of a lifetime.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Porto Portugal

I always find it interesting (and maybe funny) what images and stories I remember from childhood. Some are mere flashes like when I was probably two or three years old walking up the steps where we lived at the time. Nothing particular, just steps and the the front door opening. There are others like when my dad would take me and my friends to 7-Eleven for Slurpees that I can remember in much more detail (down to the car we went in). And then there are others that I recognize aren't even a particular event but rather what are a bunch of memories combined into one like how I wrote recently about my parents buying Cava to celebrate New Year's or even how they used to eat Port-wine cheese on crackers.

I hadn't thought about Port-wine cheese in quite a while but it flashed back when Diana told me about a conference she had to go to near Porto, Portugal. Never wanting to miss the chance to go to a new place, especially when it's in a new country and possibly the home of Port wine cheese(!), I booked some tickets and an apartment right away! Gotta' go!

Looking for cheese out over Porto and across the Douro river towards Vila Nova de Gaia:

Other than maybe four stopovers on the way to and from Philadelphia, I had never been to Portugal and really didn't know much about it (other than that damned cheese). I have a Portuguese friend here in Barcelona that lived for a while in Porto and another guy from Spain who had been to Porto quite a few times so they gave us quite the to-do list.

One of the many curiously blue-tiled churches I saw in Porto:

The old town part of Porto's just inland from the (Atlantic) coast of Portugal. The wine from the region got its name from the city around the 1700s when trade was booming in the area. Maybe it was later when cheese came into the picture.

The city of Porto to the left and Vila Nova de Gaia to the right:

I was pleasantly surprised by the great weather during our stay. It was a relatively quick trip but the weather reminded me a lot of San Diego with its cool nights and warmish days. Hmm...sounds good for some wine growing, doesn't it...?

The interior of Porto's main train station, Sao Bento:

As always, there are huge benefits when you know someone who lives in the place you're visiting or, like my friends, have lived there in the past. They recommended a bunch of places to see and, more importantly, some great places to eat.

Porto's known for the Francesinha sandwich, which is quite the gut-buster. There's bread, beef, sausage, ham, and it's all topped off with an egg, some cheese, although not the Port-wine type, and thick sauce. Have two, they're small.

We finished off our first day at an amazing hole-in-the-wall-dinner place and a nice walk along the riverfront. Porto is very scenic with hills going up from both sides of the river. The view from the Porto side up towards the Serro de Pilar Monastery:

True to most of our trips, we walked. And walked. And walked. We covered pretty much the whole city over just a couple of days but while managing to stop to visit everything that looked interesting or that we had been told about.

We saw this cemetery and spent some time checking it out. The most interesting thing was that there were lots of mausoleums and that most had glass doors where you could see the coffins stacked up inside. All the above-ground graves reminded me a bit of cemeteries I had seen during trips to New Orleans (sorry, no links!) where they "bury" people above ground due to the city being below sea level. That's not the case in Porto so I'm not sure why the tradition.

Like some celebrities, certain places become famous just because they've become famous. It kinda builds on itself as more and more people find out about it making them want to find out more. Our stop at the Lello & Irmao bookstore is one such example. This bookstore is famous for being a supposed, although completely undocumented (as far as I could find), influence on J.K. Rolling of Harry Potter fame who apparently used to live nearby. The beautiful but crazy wooden stairs and interior are impressive and do have a Potter-esque look to them. Who knows, right? We went anyway and had a look.

We also took a quick trip out to the beach. Porto's beach very much reminded me of the Los Angeles beach area around El Segundo including the nearby airport and oil refineries. It was lovely and there was even an old fort, which you can see just to Diana's left in the photo below.

Our final stop was at the friend-recommended Croft Port house, makers and distributors of Port wine. We took a tour, which included a few Port samples and some excellent cheese (but, Port-free, unfortunately!), and got to walk through the dusty old store house. The whole Vila Nova de Gaia hillside is full of Port houses and is fun to walk around.

And so ended my quick hop. Diana, on the other hand, went on to her conference and had even more fun. Thanks to Bruno and Pablo for the great recommendations and, until next time, ve lo novamente em breve Portugal! Oh, and about that cheese...