Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty

The Hello Kitty craze is global, from breathtaking fashion statements to almost any piece of merchandise you can think of. And it all started in March 1975 with a simple coin purse that cost less than a dollar.

At the new Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty now at the EMP Museum in Seattle, you can get a look at one of those rare coin purses, along with more than 500 unique pieces from Sanrio on display. The traveling exhibit is fascinating for anyone who has ever owned their own piece of Hello Kitty merchandise or been intrigued by her rise to pop culture stardom over the past 40 years.

Continue reading Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty

Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Despite the countless times we have made the trek to Florida, we have never taken the time to head over to Universal Studios. Our days in the Sunshine State are reserved for one place and one place only—Walt Disney World. It isn’t so much that we hate on Universal, but that we love Disney so much we don’t want to spend time elsewhere. That finally changed when we made a trip several weeks back, unexpectedly, and for just a few days.

It wasn’t a full-on family vacation, but a spur-of-the-moment adventure. My husband had to travel to Orlando for work and we decided to make the best of it by meeting up with him halfway through the week for a little getaway. The thing is, we usually do Disney for 10 days at a time so there was no way we could do our normal vacation in just 5 days.

This had us rethinking our entire strategy and we decided to check out some places outside of the Mouse House. Now, don’t get me wrong, we spent a fair amount of time at our favorite haunts in Walt Disney World, but we ventured forth and tried a few new places, too. On the list was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios as a whole doesn’t hold much appeal for my 13- and 11-year-old daughters. They simply have no interest in most of the park and are Disney fans through and through. The only thing that changed their minds was my youngest daughter’s current fascination with Harry Potter. Continue reading Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

We couldn't bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration -- and we're so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!)
We couldn’t bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration—and we’re so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!).

Earlier this month, my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Well over a year prior, we had decided to plan a very nice trip for our anniversary. Since we had such a wonderful experience with our 2012 Disney cruise, we made reservations for a Disney cruise to Alaska. Continue reading Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

Our Adventures in Outer and Inner Space

The close proximity between Roswell and Carlsbad, New Mexico, makes for a vacation of otherworldly proportions. Images: Rick Tate.

In the midst of a busy summer, we managed to get away for a short three-day vacation. We didn’t realize at the time what a diverse range of experiences we were in store for in that short time span that would take us from beyond the stars to deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The New Mexico cities of Carlsbad and Roswell are just a quick hour-and-a-half drive from each other, but they managed to create quite the journey. Roswell, being a three-hour drive from our home, seemed a fun destination that wouldn’t take too much car-trip time, but still seemed far enough away to feel like an actual getaway. Plus, as long as I’ve lived in the area and heard about the infamous “crash site,” I’ve never ventured to see the place myself.

Well, this year, we decided to get our Mulder and Scully sensibilities together and make this quirky little trip just for the sake of enjoying one of the weirder chapters of American history… or folklore.

Although our destination was a look at extraterrestrial pop culture, our trip took us through the town of Alamogordo, home to the New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall of Fame. The museum not only educates visitors in the history, science, and technology of space, it shows the State of New Mexico’s significant role in the development of the United States Space Program. There are plenty of interactive exhibits to keep busy hands as entertained as busy minds, including astronaut dress-up areas, a shuttle landing game (don’t ask how we did on that), and a platform to feel the vibrations created from different modes of space travel.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History offers plenty of educational and some interactive exhibits. Images: Rick Tate.

Our favorite, however, was the outside exhibits at the John P. Stapp Air & Space Park, which was named for the aeromedical pioneer. It features several full-sized artifacts celebrating the milestones in space exploration. Most impressive was the 86-foot Little Joe II rocket, which tested the Apollo Launch Escape System. Outside also has the final resting place of “Ham the Astrochimp,” the first primate to visit space.

There is no charge to visit the outside exhibits, but there is a separate charge for both the museum and IMAX. A package for both the museum and theater is also offered.

Take a look at Rick’s 360-degree panoramic view of the “Space Park” and the museum’s beautiful exterior on round.me.

The route from Alamogordo to Roswell includes its share of interesting stopping points, including the burial place of another four-legged icon, Smokey Bear, and the well-preserved historic community of Lincoln, the focal point of the infamous Lincoln County Wars for western history buffs.

Then, we hit Roswell!

For those unfamiliar with the “Roswell Incident,” an unidentified flying object crashed in a ranch near Roswell in July of 1947. Long story short, several details turned up, including three small “child-size” decomposing bodies, revealing it may have been an alien spacecraft. In true X-Files form, the government stepped in to say it was actually some experimental Air Force aircraft, and therein lays the continuing controversy. What was it?

What it was was the start of a thriving tourism industry, the now go-to look for aliens (almond eyes, large head, spindly limbs), and the spark that lit the imagination of everyone from stargazers to science-fiction writers.

Nearly 60 years later, that incident provoked a worldwide following of believers and skeptics, comic books, cartoons, novels, documentaries, motion pictures, and television series. It has also brought in millions of visitors and a substantial amount of tourism-based profits to local merchants.

My brother told me when we first mentioned visiting, “If you really want to believe, don’t look too close.” He had great point there. However, we learned fast it isn’t so much about believing whether the incident is true or not, it’s about celebrating the search of the unknown beyond the stars.

ufo museum
The International UFO Museum in Roswell includes a peek at the extraterrestrial presence in fiction and history. Don’t forget your foil hat. Images: Rick Tate.

The best place to decide for yourself is the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The museum has information on the Roswell Incident, as well as other UFO sightings and history, with photos, documents, artifacts and artwork, and even a sightings log to add your own close encounter to alien lore.

The center’s alien-landing diorama was the most photographed scene, but it really was the museum’s visitors who made it fun. One grandmother was entertaining her grandson with stories of her own recollections of the event. She had a “perfectly normal nurse friend” who was witness to the autopsy, so she said. There was also a group of visitors wearing homemade aluminum foil hats, and having a ball. One even looked like those stylish swan take-out designs they use in fancy restaurants. The whole experience was a blast, and worth the $5 admission ($2 for kids).

This is one city that has embraced its biggest tourist draw. Roswell aliens are represented everywhere, and in some of the most creative ways, ranging from delightfully kitschy storefronts to beautifully rendered works of art. Main Street alone, in the vicinity of the UFO Museum, is lined with gift shops, cafes, book stores, arcades, and other businesses taking advantage of the little fluorescent green men (who we learned weren’t really green, but who cares), with murals and window paintings of alien mariachi, ninjas, jazz musicians, and, of course, stoners. There were wooden aliens, inflatable aliens, and alien-faced street lamps. Even the McDonald’s is shaped like a flying saucer.

One shop which embodied this roadside attraction image best, was the Alien Zone and Area 51. The front part of the store housed a typical black-light gift shop, but for a nominal fee, you can visit its “Area 51,”which is filled with alien-centric photo areas, including a mock-up of a flying saucer crash landing.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 11.55.55 PM
Don’t pass up the chance to get some fantastically goofy photo ops, like these at Alien Zone and Area 51. Images: Rick Tate.

Some of these little setups look a little worse for wear, but it isn’t due to lack of business. We had to share the space with at least two other groups taking their pictures with alien bartenders, giant bugs, and little alien grill masters. It was amazingly cheesy, not to mention the fact that the real Area 51 is actually located in Nevada. However, these photos were some of our favorite, most personalized souvenirs of the entire trip.

The lady who worked the counter said you can’t even get near the place on July 4th weekend, when the UFO Festival takes place. She said thousands of people flock to the city for parades, lectures, book signings, alien cosplay contests, and everything in between. We were glad we visited on a non-festival week.

The alien crash may be the city’s most noticeable marking point, but Roswell was also home to another pioneer in space history: Robert H Goddard. Goddard, who felt as early as 1919 that it was possible to construct rockets for space travel, experimented with gasoline and liquid oxygen fuels, eventually launching his first liquid propellant rocket in 1926 in Massachusetts. It was the ideal year-round climate of New Mexico that drew him to Roswell, and in his 12 years living there, he conducted 56 rocket flights, 17 of which reached altitudes of more than 1,000 feet. Pretty impressive, considering many of these took place in the 1930s.

The Roswell Museum and Art Center includes a wonderful homage to rocketry pioneer Robert H. Goddard, including a replica of his workshop and his actual rocket launchpad. Images: Rick Tate.

The Roswell Museum and Art Center, a free museum, includes a recreation of Goddard’s workshop as it was circa 1936. Set in the middle of a pristine art museum with white, sterile walls, you can walk into this dusty-looking workshop, lined with walls of tools and rockets in progress. From the musty smells to the muted light and vintage calendar on the wall, this little detailed trip back in time to the height of Goddard’s innovation was so thorough, I felt like I was back in my grandfather’s tool shed or dad’s garage. It took a lot of self-control not to cross under the barrier ropes, grab a wrench off the wall, and start tinkering with one of the random rocket parts laid out on one of the work benches.

Aliens may or may not have landed in Roswell, but Goddard reached the stars from there.

The next day, we came down from the stars to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, 700 feet below the Earth’s surface. The caverns are actually located outside of Carlsbad in a tiny town known as White City, about a 27-mile drive.

carlsbad caverns
Carlsbad Caverns National Monument is one destination that should be on everyone’s road trip list. Images: Rick Tate.

Everything about these caverns impresses me. The formations are gorgeous and varied, and the walkway is well laid out to not only cover the most sights, but to blend with the landscape.

There is an option to take the elevator down to the “Big Room,” an 8.2-acre cavern you could plausibly fit six football fields in, if you were so inclined. However, if you are physically able, the natural entrance down to this room is the best way to go. There’s something both eerie and beautiful about twisting down the descending switchbacks from daylight to darkness, past the black abyss where the bats sleep away their summer days, and into a world where the temperature never changes. Once way from the entrance, only strategically-placed lights help guide the way. There are additional tours of other cavern areas available, as there have so far been 119 caves discovered. However, the main room is impressive on its own, with its the Bottomless Pit and Giant Dome.

It is a pretty good-sized walk, as the natural entrance trail is around 750-feet-long, with another mile around the perimeter of the Big Room. Get there early in the day, bring water (only water, as no other food or drink is permitted in the caverns), and be prepared to take a few breaks if traveling with younger kids.

One of the holdovers from the cavern’s mid-century days is the remnants of its lunch room. You can purchase a sandwich, pick up a souvenir, and mail a postcard from the bottom of the cavern. Yes, there are bathroom facilities in that location as well.

This is one of the most fascinating and surreal natural wonders around. It also has one thing in common with Roswell: visitors from all parts of the globe. This was probably the site everyone in the family got the most out of, and since it is part of the National Park Service, a Junior Ranger program is available for kids to earn a site-specific patch or junior badge after completing age-appropriate content in an easy workbook.

Since we were there during the “Bat Season,” we stuck around for the evening bat flight. This occurs at dusk each evening from around mid-May through October, when the summering Mexican (also called Brazilian) Free-tailed Bats descend from the cave’s natural entrance for an evening of feeding and revelry.

This is a free program, even if you haven’t visited the caverns, and it is just amazing. After the park ranger gave us a laundry list of rules for not disturbing the bats, she entertained questions until the light sun was almost set, and the cave swallows, who swoop around the cave entrance most of the day, almost instantly disappeared. Then, very quietly, wave upon wave of bats began to pour out and fly overhead, some so close you could feel them brush past. If you’re not squeamish about bats, this is an awesome experience. Unfortunately, there are no cameras or any electronic devices allowed, so you’ll have to see this peaceful spectacle for yourself. Early risers can also see them return to the cave at dawn. We did not, since we headed back home that night.

We may have only been away from home for three days, but we returned with heads filled with knowledge, 800 pictures on the old digital camera, some very tired feet, one little green hand-carved wooden alien tiki statue, some new insights in the world and universe around us (not to mention beneath us), and most importantly, some great laughs and memories.

As for the Roswell incident, the validity of the UFO crash is still a matter of opinion, but the adventure and fun is 100 percent legit.

roslwell aliens
Roswell’s aliens are everywhere from street lights to storefronts. Images: Rick Tate.

Espionage Cosmetics Levels Up With the Geek Boutique Grand Opening

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

If you’ve been to any of the major comic conventions across the country, chances are you’ve spotted the Espionage Cosmetics booth stocked with makeup inspired by various geeky passions. After successfully running two Kickstarter campaigns for nerdy nail wraps, Espionage has moved to the next level with two new endeavors: a subscription box service and and a brick and mortar storefront, Geek Boutique.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The subscription box, Nerd Makeup, is currently in beta testing and not yet ready for public signup. The box, however, inspired the opening of the retail storefront. In an interview with FanBolt, Espionage Cosmetics CEO Jaimie Cordero explains:

So the brick and mortar store is half production for the subscription boxes and the other portion is what everyone has been begging us to do, which is, “Where can I come and pick up the stuff in person? Where can your artists show me how to use these colors if I can’t make it to a convention, if I can’t get tickets, if I don’t have time? Where can I do that?” That’s what we’re starting here.

Cordero promises a storefront version of Artist Alley, and the new store delivers. Featuring not only your favorite nail wrap designs and geek-inspired makeup collections, at the grand opening, products from Geeky Hostess, Optimystical Studios, Throwboy, and more were on hand.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

If you are coming to the Seattle-Tacoma area any time soon and you want to stock up on nail wraps and more, head to 707 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma to visit the new, gloriously geeky Geek Boutique.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0
North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0

This summer my family and I have done quite a bit of travel. In fact, we recently wrapped up an Alaskan cruise that included driving from Colorado to our cruise port in Vancouver, British Columbia. And back. At the tune of 1500 miles and 2 days in each direction.

There were numerous benefits to our driving instead of flying to include the cost savings and the ability to be liberal with our packing since we didn’t have to pay extra to check luggage for a flight. Obviously driving took more time but we looked forward to seeing a new part of the country: the Pacific Northwest.

The most appealing reason for my husband and me was the chance to “check off” more states. Before the road trip, my husband had been to 48 of our 50 states (all but Oregon and Alaska), while I had been to 47 of them.

Continue reading Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

Geeky States of America: Bishop Castle, Near Pueblo, CO

Bishop Castle is tucked back in Colorado's Wet Mountains. The nearest large city is Pueblo. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Bishop Castle is tucked way back in Colorado’s Wet Mountains. The nearest large city is Pueblo. This doesn’t stop hundreds of visitors from paying homage to Jim Bishop’s creation every day. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

In July my family and some friends took a camping trip into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. We were near the northernmost part of the range, and our family’s plans included hiking in the mountains, as well as a trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park near the town of Alamosa.

On the drive back from the camping trip, our family took a detour to a place known as Bishop Castle, tucked deep in the Colorado backcountry, along the ridge topping the Wet Mountains west of Pueblo, Colorado.

I hadn’t heard of Bishop Castle, and my girlfriend said, “You have to see this place, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” She also prepared us for the weirdness that was forthcoming, “Don’t expect the Biltmore or anything like that.”

So we made the drive through the incredibly-windy Colorado Route 165, expecting a quiet, pretty castle in the woods.


Do You Trust Your Kids?

Out of nowhere, the road became clogged with parked vehicles and families walking along the very skinny shoulder of the road. We passed numerous hand-painted signs, such as this one:

Here is the sign announcing our arrival. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Here is the sign announcing our arrival. The smaller words at the bottom read, “Open to the Public on a Donation Basis.” Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

We parked the vehicles, unloaded the kids and our dog, and headed in.

The first thing visitors see is an honest-to-goodness drawbridge, gate, and moat! Unfortunately, that area is heavily wooded and it was tough to get a good photograph of it. You cannot raise or lower the drawbridge, but it wasn’t difficult to walk around it.

On the other side of the drawbridge is a clearing with the castle.

A full view of Bishop Castle. Note the people all over the catwalks. I'll get to that momentarily. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
A full view of Bishop Castle. Note the people all over the catwalks. I’ll get to that momentarily. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I called this the hamster ball. Visitors can climb up one of the turrets to enter the ball. I didn't make the trip up, nor did anyone in my family. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I called this the hamster ball and it’s about 60′ high over the ground. Visitors can climb up one of the turrets to enter the ball. I didn’t make the trip up, nor did anyone in my family. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Bishop Castle is private property, but has invitations throughout the area for visitors to explore the castle. There are also warnings that visitors are exploring the property at their own risk.

There are handmade wrought-iron catwalks all over the exterior of the castle, and people can walk all over it. Knowing everything is handmade was somewhat nerve-wracking, but I explored some of the areas. My husband, sons, and dog remained firmly on the ground.

The interior is very rough-hewn, and there is evidence everywhere of the handmade nature of the castle.

The interior of the main hall of Bishop Castle.
The interior of the main hall of Bishop Castle. All of the iron work seen here was handmade. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
An upward view of one of the turret staircases. The steps are tiny, and two adults have a hard time passing each other on these steps. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Can you see me? I’m in a very open opening in one of the turrets. With little more than a single horizontal bar keeping me safe. Photo: C.P. Keyser.

The castle is empty, and there are numerous areas still under construction, or else undergoing repairs. There are safety hazards everywhere! Parents need to keep an eye on younger children, and I saw dozens of very young children exploring.

Bishops Castle is a good place for a conversation about repurposing. The dragon's head is made from repurposed stainless steel warming plates that was discarded from a Pueblo, Colorado hospital. The top of the head sits 80' above the ground! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Bishops Castle is a good place for a conversation about repurposing. The dragon’s head is made from repurposed stainless steel warming plates that was discarded from a Pueblo, Colorado hospital. The top of the head sits 80′ above the ground! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Bishop Castle is a combination of creepiness and danger, but once you understand some of the story behind the castle, you too will find it worth checking out if you’re ever in southern Colorado.

Jim Bishop’s Dream

The castle wasn’t supposed to be a castle. Jim Bishop, an ironworker, had purchased 2 1/2 acres of land as a teen, and over the years worked on making the land a summer getaway location for his family. Bishop’s affinity for ornamental ironwork and architecture, along with the natural resources of the area (in other words, endless rocks!) made a small cabin project bloom into the castle visitors can enjoy today.

Jim Bishop’s dreams haven’t gone completely smoothly, though. He encountered numerous confrontations with federal and local authorities, between his use of rock from the nearby San Isabel National Forest (federal lands), to his posting of homemade signs on the local highways inviting visitors to see the castle. In 1996 the state made up official signs helping bring visitors to the castle.

Plan Your Visit

Even the locals know it’s a must-see for families, whether native to Colorado or just visiting. Once you arrive at the castle, allow at least one hour to visit, which includes a stroll through the eccentric gift shop.

If you’re lucky, you might see Jim Bishop himself sitting on the property. He’s happy to talk to anyone about his view about federal government (which I won’t get into here). However, he was recently diagnosed with cancer, so his appearances have been more scarce than in recent years.

Bishop Castle is located on Colorado State Highway 165 near the town of Rye, Colorado. Visitors can easily reach the attraction via I-25 exits 71 or 74. There is no admission fee, but there are donation locations throughout the property. The donations help with the Bishop Family’s legal fees and their non-profit foundation for newborns. On weekends someone sets up a hot dog stand, with meals for $3-5. Visitors need to parallel park along Highway 165, so be careful when taking children in and out of vehicles.

Cryptic States of America

Image: Google Maps

Over the past few nights, had you come to our house, you would have found a group of adults huddled around the kitchen table. Not playing a game or eating dinner, but poring over a list of the 50 states and 50 corresponding clues. On a recent trip to England, my father had picked up a book based on the UK game show Pointless. Hosted by Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, the show is centered around obscure answers to even more obscure questions.

The book, The Most 100 Pointless Things in the World, is almost as obscure as the TV show. Containing information about game show hosts, things that hang from pub ceilings, dramatic pauses on TV talent shows and reality shows, and Luxembourg, it is a must read if you are a fan of the British and/or a fan of the obscure. There are playable quizzes, musings from the show’s hosts on the absurdities of life, and you are never quite sure if the information presented is riveting or just plain ridiculous.

The quiz that most caught our eye, however, was #81 “US States.” Osman likes to post competitions on his Twitter page, @richardosman, and this was one of his geeky wordplay quizzes. He presents 50 cryptic clues, each pointing to one of the 50 states. You will either consider it pointless or become addicted to solving each one, as we have been for the past few days. I am not a fan of cryptic crosswords, neither am I very good at them, but this had me hooked.

Some examples from this particular quiz are:

  • Heavy Laundry – Washington – “Washing” “Ton”
  • Horsehair – Maine – “Mane”
  • Two things you might need for a PhD – Alabama – “A lab” “An MA”

Bear in mind that for this particular quiz, if you decide you can’t live without the book, you have to think in British colloquialisms and not in American. Watch an episode of Downton Abbey before playing to get you in the mood. It’s also worth printing a list of all 50 states to go along with the clues. If you think you already know them, see how many you can name in 10 minutes, and you will more than likely be surprised by the ones you miss out. Apologies to residents of that beautiful state, but I always forget Wyoming. Wyoming incidentally is “I can’t understand why you can’t be more merciful,” and for that one you need to have a British attachment to the 1980 movie Flash Gordon.

If you have no interest in such a pointless book, but are intrigued by the premise of this quiz, Sporcle.com has their own variation. Though I think that one is much harder and less enjoyable for being both online and timed. While you are at it, this State geography quiz is one that I allow to give me nightmares at least once a year. It tells you how many miles you are off in your placement.

Nerds Hiding in Plain Sight in Skagway, Alaska

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

We have just returned from a wonderful Alaskan cruise. This was my first cruise and my first trip to Alaska so it was a very big deal. Months of planning finally got us there and we had a wonderful time aboard the Disney Wonder. There were three stops along the Alaskan coast starting at the northernmost point of our trip in Skagway.

You expect to see certain things while you’re in Alaska. The list of expectations includes bears, bald eagles, and maybe some salmon swimming upstream. We saw all these things and they were amazing. What we did not expect was running into two wonderfully nerdy guys. They were hiding in plain sight at the Alaska Excursions Grizzly Falls Ziplining Adventure in Skagway.

We signed up for this excursion before the cruise because we love ziplining. We’ve gone several times closer to home and thought it would be fun to fly through the trees up north. You simply cannot beat the scenery up there and it was a beautiful view. We crossed suspension bridges, zipped over rivers, and had a grand time.

What made it one of the highlights of the trip were the two guides, John M. and Sam, who led this adventure. Once we were all suited up, they took us out onto the course and gave us the safety rundown. It wasn’t until I had zipped a few lines that I noticed John’s green helmet was painted to look like Boba Fett.

I asked him about this and he said he was a huge Star Wars fan and had even attended Star Wars Celebration several times. Sam joined in, tipping his head to show the Magic symbols covering his helmet. Nerds of the North!

The rest of our ziplining excursion was a fantastic mix of information about the landscape and talk about our favorite books. They were both voracious readers and we all ended up making lists of new books that we each wanted to read. We even had a chat about New York Comic-Con and San Diego Comic-Con and which was the better of the two. My vote goes to New York.

It was a wonderful experience. All the guides—even the non-nerds who were guiding some of our friends—were fantastic and made the experience something to remember. Should you find yourself in Skagway, Alaska doing some ziplining, look for the guys with the nerdy helmet decor. They’ll make the day one to remember.

The Crazy Fun of Drag Racing a Dodge Charger and Challenger Hellcat

Image: FCA
Image: FCA

Every year at the end of June, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) hosts an incredible event in Detroit that gives journalists a chance to drive all of the company’s vehicles. The brand includes Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler, Ram, and Fiat so it’s a pretty big list. It’s a rare chance to experience every car in the lineup during the course of one day.

It all goes down at Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan and this year, they had something special planned for their show-stopping Hellcats.

If you aren’t familiar with these cars, then here’s the lowdown. They are the muscle cars of the Dodge lineup and they bring a ridiculous, insane, stupid, completely unnecessary amount of power to the road. Each has 707 horsepower which is mind-blowing. The first time I had the chance to drive the Charger Hellcat I was admonished to pretend there was an egg under the gas pedal and to try not to break that egg. Why? Because smashing that egg will result in the car turning into a rocket ship on wheels. Not that this is a bad thing.

This time, things were a little different. They did not want us to drive slowly. They did not want us to take it easy. They wanted us to let loose with all 707 horsepower on a section of track reserved just for the Hellcats. It was separate from the rest of the event and required a short bus ride. Once you stepped off the bus, there they were—two Hellcats patiently waiting to blow your mind.

It was all staged like a real drag race complete with that red, yellow, and green light post to let you know when to hit the gas. There are very few times in your life that you can let loose with a car this powerful and this was my big chance. I did not waste the moment.

Now, not being a professional drag racer or professional driver, I have no experience with how one is supposed to drag race. I thought it was just about hitting the pedal hard and steering in a straight line. There were a few people in front of me awaiting their turns and we got to talking about the best way to start.

You’re supposed to left foot brake which is incredibly difficult if you haven’t developed the muscle memory in that foot. It’s sort of like that first time you got behind the wheel of the car with your Dad to learn how to drive and hit the brake so hard at a stop sign the seat belts locked. Come on, I’m not the only one that managed to hard brake and test their Dad’s patience.

It’s like that when you try to left foot brake. You’re also supposed to rev the engine a bit before the light turns green and then snap your foot off the brake and give it gas when the light changes. The guys told me that if I didn’t do it this way, then I’d post a horribly slow and embarrassing time.

Anxiety, much?

I watched a couple of guys give it a go and then it was my turn. There was an experienced driver in the passenger seat on every run so there was someone to guide you at least a little, but the fancy footwork was all up to the driver. I told him about all the advice and he asked me what I wanted to do. “Mash the gas pedal,” I said. “Then you do that,” he said.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The light turned green and I mashed that pedal for all it was worth. The engine roared, the tires squealed, and the car took off down the track like that rocket ship I mentioned early. It was glorious. I didn’t even care if I managed a decent time because getting to let loose with all that power was so exhilarating.

Nevertheless, when I got out of the car after the first of what would be many runs, they all asked about my time. Turns out I was right in line with the rest of the group and even better than a few. Score one for letting loose and having fun, technique be damned!

Yesterday I had the chance to drive a Challenger Hellcat up the coast from Massachusetts to Maine. It was a bright green Sublime that you could see a mile away. It was all I could do not to mash that pedal once again when I got to an open stretch of highway. There aren’t a lot of times when you can take advantage of all the car’s power, but oh is a Hellcat worth it for those few moments when you can let it go.

FCA covered my expenses to attend this event.

Reasons to Cheat on the Mouse: Why Disneyphiles Should Visit Universal

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

I have a confession to make: I love Disney. I know, those of you playing along at home are thinking, “But aren’t you the same chica who was extolling the virtues of showing kids horror films?” Yes. Yes, I am. But nonetheless, I love Disney. And most of all, I love Disney World. Not just The Haunted Mansion or the Tower of Terror, but Peter Pan and It’s a Small World too.

When my daughter was about two years old, we first visited Disney World, and just like that, we were hooked. We’ve made at least one pilgrimage to the Mouse every year since and have even embarked on a quest to visit all the Disney parks before our oldest graduates from high school. (Yes, I freely admit we have a problem. It might even be clinical.) For years, we strayed nary a step off the Disney property. And then a friend insisted we visit the Universal parks. “But,” we said. “We’re loyal. We could never cheat on the Mouse!” Lucky for us, we did.

It only took once, and we were Universal fans as well. (Okay, we have an amusement park addiction—I’m looking into 12-step programs.) As my kids have grown, we still visit Orlando, but now we spread the love more evenly and I’ve come to believe that even the most ardent Disneyphile needs to carve out time for Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Here’s why:

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
Dragon Alley photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As we’ve established, I have a theme park addiction. I’m not proud of it. Okay, maybe a little. But the point is, I’m a tad more than familiar with theming. I’ve enjoyed it from Anaheim, California, to Bruhl, Germany. Without a doubt, the best themed attraction I have ever encountered is Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando. Add into that mix the Hogwarts Express taking you over to Islands of Adventure and Hogsmeade Village, and the world of Harry Potter alone is worth the visit—even if you aren’t a super fan. Fair warning, though: You’re likely to have achieved fanatic status by the time you leave. The attention to detail is astounding. I’ve visited multiple times and I still find new and hidden wonders. The rides themselves are fine, but it’s emersion in the world that really seals the deal. If you have kids (spouses) that are into Disney’s Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, make sure to check out the interactive wands. Spell casting portals appear across both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and are worth the cost of the wand. The attractions don’t end there! From the flame-spitting dragon to the ice cream flavors, Diagon Alley has more than enough to justify a day away from Tomorrowland. And don’t forget the butterbeer!

Amusement Park, Not Just Theme Park. This may seem like a fine distinction, but in the case of Universal, it carries weight. Theme parks tell a story, Amusement parks push the thrills. Certainly the Wizarding World is a themed area, but the rest of the park is allowed to flow freely without an iron-fist to detail. Men in Black next to Fear Factor? Why not? The Simpsons Ride within a stone’s throw of E.T.? Sure! Not having to theme each area to specific parameters allows for greater variety and…

THE INCREDIBLE HULK ROLLER COASTER  at Islands of Adventure  Photo  Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
The Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster at Islands of Adventure photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

Bigger Thrills! At the Disney World parks, even the biggest thrills, let’s be honest, are fairly tame. With the possible exception of Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, the thrills are less about adrenaline and more about the story. Universal is the opposite. They aim to toss, twist, and drop you in the most extreme ways possible. Compare The Hulk, The Mummy, or Rip Ride Rockit to anything at Disney. If you’re looking for adrenaline, there is no comparison.

A Multi-park Pass Has Value. Full disclosure: We always buy the Park Hopper pass at Disney World. But the truth is that without proper planning, it isn’t easy to visit more than one park per day. Due to sheer size and location, vehicular transport is required to move between Disney parks. Your legs alone can get you from Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure. And if you want a bigger thrill, the Hogwarts Express runs between the two Wizarding Worlds and is an attraction in itself.

Express Pass and Express Pass Plus Are What (Some of Us Wish) FastPass Should Be. Sure, you have to pay for Universal’s Express Pass and Express Pass Plus and Disney (currently) doesn’t charge, but rather than the hassle of trying to determine where and when you will want to ride specific attractions more than a month in advance, Universal lets you flash a card and beat the line. Express Pass allows for one ride per attraction and the Plus option is unlimited. Both are easier than choosing which three rides you want per day at a Disney park. Further, you can purchase the Express passes for one or both parks, while Disney allows only one park for FastPasses. And don’t even get me started about juggling tier 1 versus tier 2 attractions!

Characters! This one may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, what is Disney known for if not characters? But the problem we’ve found with all those great Disney characters is that they’re, well, Disney characters! While my son still won’t consider a trip complete without hugging Stitch, the pickings for a 9-year-old boy aren’t quite the same as those for a girl. While Disney will always have a hold on my heart (I still hug Eeyore whenever possible), the diversity at the Universal parks is something to be admired. Further, they aren’t quite as hung up on separating each character into the correctly themed areas. (Remember, amusement park, not theme park.) Within one half block at Universal Studios, we ran into Woody Woodpecker, Bart Simpson, Betty Boop, Doc Brown of Back to the Future, and Shaggy and Scooby! Just try and find Buzz Lightyear and Elsa signing autographs side-by-side! Islands of Adventure features enough comic book characters—male and female—to get both my 9-year old son and my 12-year old daughter excited.

Marvel Super Heros!  Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
Marvel superheroes! Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

I’m well aware that in these days of tough economic times, it can be difficult to afford a trip to Orlando. But if you are able to take your little people to visit the Mouse, try to fit in a day (or two) at the Universal parks. I think you’ll be glad you did.

9¾ x 3: Comparing the Harry Potter Platform Experiences

The Three Platforms : Left © Universal Studios (fair use), Middle © Karen Roe via Flickr (Creative Commons), Right  © Sophie Brown
The Three Platforms : Left © Universal Studios; middle © Karen Roe via Flickr (Creative Commons); right © Sophie Brown

If you want to visit the magical Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter series, there are currently three places you can do so: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, the Warner Bros. Studios Tour in Leavesden, and the real Kings Cross Station in London. I have been lucky enough to visit all three within the last year and I wanted to try to determine which one is the “best” experience by scoring all three across a range of categories, including how much there is to do, the authenticity, and the cost.

Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios © Universal Studios (Fair Use)
Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios © Universal Studios

What Can You Do there?
Universal Studios definitely wins when it comes to the total Harry Potter package. As well as Platform 9¾, guests can experience Diagon Alley, which features Harry Potter and The Escape from Gringotts, Ollivanders, and dozens of shops and restaurants. After riding the Hogwarts Express to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, they can also visit Hogsmeade where they can ride the Dragon Challenge, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and explore Hogwarts itself in Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. There’s more shops and restaurants there too. I recommend a cauldron cake from Honeydukes—yum! 10/10

At the Warner Bros. Studios Tour, Platform 9¾ forms part of the overall tour, which takes you through dozens of original sets from the movie series. In addition, there’s a cafe where you can drink butterbeer and two shops—the Platform Shop, which sells merchandise specific to the Hogwarts Express, and the more general shop at the end of the tour. Other than a few staged photo opportunities throughout, there is little else to do other than the tour itself. However, more is constantly being added and the Studios run special events every few months. Look out for the Sweets and Treats event this summer, with prop makers recreating the food used in the films. The tour is an amazing experience (my husband and I took seven hours to go through the first time and its has been extended since then), but not ideal for younger children as it is very much a case of look don’t touch throughout. 8/10

Kings Cross station is a real working station not a tourist attraction, so naturally, there is little to do here in comparison to the other locations. However, the designers have packed plenty of theming into their small space. You can take your photo pushing a trolley through the station wall and browse the impressively themed shop, which packs an incredible amount of detail (and spending opportunities) into a very small space. 3/10

Platform 9¾ at the Warner Bros. Studios Tour © Sophie Brown
Platform 9¾ at the Warner Bros. Studios Tour © Sophie Brown

Universal Studios struggles to earn many points when it comes to authenticity. Existing as part of a theme park, the station and train have been built purely for that purpose and were not involved in filming in any way. However, Universal Studios is the only one of the three which allows guests to board the Hogwarts Express and take a real journey (from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios to Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure or vice versa). Because of this, guests pass through a real ticket check (only guests with a park-to-park ticket may ride) before entering the queue for the train. 3/10

For authenticity, almost nothing can beat the Studios Tour. The train sitting in the station is the 5972 Olton Hall—the actual locomotive used in filming—and you can tour the carriage used by Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the films. Each “room” along the carriage has been set out for a specific film with different props strewn around. For example, in the Order of The Phoenix room, you can see Luna’s copy of the Quibbler lying on the seat. 9/10

Kings Cross station also fares well when it comes to authenticity. After all, you’re really in Kings Cross station! If you step just outside, you will even see the building used for exterior shots in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Sadly, the Platform 9¾ area is not located between the real platforms nine and 10 (to do so would have required architects trained in real magic), but that’s easy enough to overlook. 9/10

Pushing the Trolley to Platform 9¾. When you're already standing on Platform 9¾... © Sophie Brown
Pushing the trolley to Platform 9¾—when you’re already standing on Platform 9¾. © Sophie Brown

Realism of the Platform Effect
Universal Studios is the only one of the three locations to use an effect to make guests really walk through a wall. Sadly, you won’t realize you’re doing it. The effect is used in the queue line where guests at one part of the line will see those further ahead of them appearing to walk through a brick wall. However, once you get to that point, there is nothing to see because the effect is only visible further back. Regardless, it’s an impressive effect that was amazing the children in the queue. 7/10

At the Studios Tour, there is no special effect to greet you as you move from the previous room of the tour onto the platform. I felt this was a wasted opportunity because guests walk down a fairly blank corridor and out onto a very realistic platform, so it’s a shame nothing was made of this transition. Instead, guests can pose with one of four luggage trolleys fixed halfway into the wall. Three are for the official photographers to take your picture, while the fourth is for guests to use their own cameras. While having four trolleys is great to reduce waiting times for the photo opportunity, having them together in a line does unfortunately take away from the realism of the setup. 2/10

At Kings Cross station, the same trolley photo opportunity is available as in the Studios Tour. However, there is only one trolley. This can lead to fairly big queues (even late at night), but the positioning of the trolley (on the same wall as access to real platforms) and the fact that there is only one “entrance” makes the experience impressively believable. 5/10

The Train Rides: Left © Universal Studios (Fair Use), Right © Sophie Brown
The train rides: Left © Universal Studios; right © Sophie Brown

The Train
At Universal Studios, guests can board and ride the Hogwarts Express between the two theme parks that house the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Although the ride isn’t a real train (it’s actually closer to a cable car), the appearance to guests is almost completely immersive. Guests queue up on the platform, wait for the train to arrive, and squeeze into carriages identical to those seen on-screen. During your journey, the “windows” of the carriage look out onto scenic British countryside with a few visitors. Look out for the Knight Bus, Hagrid, and the Weasley twins, to name a few. The journey going the opposite way has a different “story” happening outside too. Add to this the fact that the train journey is a real-life journey, and you couldn’t ask for anything more from the experience. 10/10

At the Studios Tour, guests can meet the real Hogwarts Express and climb aboard one of her carriages. The train is static, but will occasionally blow her whistle and make noises like she is getting ready to depart. A steam effect as seen at Universal Studios would have been a great addition here, but may be difficult to implement given that the train sits within an enclosed room. Across the platform, guests can sit in a semi-open “carriage” with green screen windows to recreate a short journey. This is very similar to the experience of the Hogwarts Express ride at Universal—some of the same footage appears to have been used—but lacks the immersive nature of its counterpart as you are clearly sitting on the platform while it happens. 6/10

Kings Cross station comes up dead last in this area, as there is no train experience at all. You could always board a real train and head off somewhere, but sadly, it won’t be the Hogwarts Express. 0/10

The Shop at Kings Cross © The Harry Potter Shop  (Fair Use)
The Shop at Kings Cross © The Harry Potter Shop

Cost (For a Family of Four)
In order to experience Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios, guests require a park-to-park ticket, as the train ride really does move its passengers between the two parks that make up the resort. Single-day tickets cost $147 per adult and $142 per child making the total cost a whopping $578. However, it is worth remembering that multi-day passes come at a significant discount if you’re planning a trip. 1/10

At the Studios Tour, the cost per adult is £33, while children age five to 12 are £25.50, and children four and under attend for free. A family ticket is available, so the cost for our hypothetical family is £101 ($160). Tickets include access to the entire tour, although extras such as butterbeer and photo opportunities are extra. You can also purchase a digital guide and souvenir book; these come at a reduced cost if purchased as part of your ticket. 6/10

The clear winner in terms of cost is Kings Cross station, which is freely accessible to anyone visiting the area. Photos and souvenirs are obviously available at a cost, but it is free of charge for anyone to queue up and take their photo at the entrance using their own camera. Total cost for a family of four: $0. 10/10

How Does It All Add Up?
The grand totals for each experience are as follows:

Universal Studios: 31
The Warner Bros. Studios Tour: 31
Kings Cross Station: 27

Despite providing dramatically different guest experiences, the two bigger attractions came out, amazingly, with identical scores. Both are must-do attractions for Potterheads and with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter now open in Hong King and soon to be arriving in California, hopefully there will soon be an attraction within a reasonable distance of even more fans. Although it didn’t reach the same total as its bigger siblings, Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross station still fared well, mostly because of its price point, which makes it refreshingly accessible to everyone—a rarity in the world of tourist attractions. Whether you prefer thrilling rides or authentic experiences, there’s a Platform 9¾ experience for everyone.

GeekMom received complimentary entry to the Warner Bros. Studios Tour.

Universal Orlando’s Portofino Bay Hotel : A GeekMom Review

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

So, you’ve decided to visit Orlando and now it’s time to choose a place to stay. Without a doubt, venues abound. Some on theme park property, others off. While the eventual decision will come down to your priorities and budget, if you are considering a stay on the Universal grounds, Portofino Bay Hotel deserves a look.

I feel I should preface this review with a bit of backstory. We love amusement parks and make a trip to Orlando almost yearly. But, until this most recent visit, we had yet to stay at a Universal hotel. For a long weekend devoted to only Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, however, we decided to give it a go, mostly for the inclusions only available as a Universal resort guest.

As one of Universal Orlando’s three deluxe hotels (the others being The Hard Rock Hotel and The Royal Pacific Resort), the Portofino Bay provides complimentary Universal Express Unlimited and one-hour early admission to either of the Wizarding World experiences, both with valid park admission. For us, this was the draw that got us in the door.

We discovered that we also got priority seating at the sit-down restaurants within the parks and character dining at select meals at the hotel. While they offer more inclusions than the more budget-friendly Cabana Bay Beach Resort Hotel, the deluxe resorts don’t come cheap. Rooms start in the mid-$200s and range to over $1,000 for the larger suites.

Designed to replicate the village of Portofino, Italy, the resort is a compilation of facades facing a central “bay,” which provides access for the complimentary water taxis to shuttle guests to and from the parks. While I’ve never visited the original, a quick image search shows the theming to be more than realistic. My kids enjoyed the ambiance and wanted many a picture taken on the stationary Vespa scooters dotting the cobblestone sidewalks.

With our tween and her little bother—I mean brother—in tow, we splurged on a deluxe room for space. Ours was conveniently located in the main building, giving us easy access to the two main pools and restaurants. The Portofino property is reasonably large, with 750 rooms spread out in multiple wings. I imagine if your room was located at the far end from the water taxis, the morning walk might be less pleasant than our leisurely stroll.

Compared to the Disney Deluxe resorts we’ve stayed at, the Portofino had by far the most space. Even with two queen-sized beds, we were able to have a roll-away single added and still had room to maneuver and store our bags. Our bathroom was equally big, with a separate tub and shower. This was particularly nice for a quick bedtime after a long day of park touring. My husband enjoyed the in-room Keurig on the morning we decided to enjoy an English breakfast in Diagon Alley. Overall, the room was spacious and comfortable, even if the in-room theming was somewhat lacking compared to Disney properties.

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

Where the Portofino really shines is in their pools. My children loved the Roman ruin-themed beach pool, with its zero-grade entry and sandy beach. By far the most lively of the main pools, this venue offers kid activities, a water slide, and surprisingly affordable blow-up floaties. When my little people first showed me the larger-than-life-sized inflatable turtle, I balked, unwilling to pay what I assumed would be an exorbitant price. It turns out both the turtle and the rideable dolphin can be had for only $12, including inflation.

With available flotation noodles, hula-hoops, a pool table, and hair braiding, the beach pool has more than enough to keep kids occupied. For adults, the bar provides a variety of delicious cocktails that, while a bit pricey at $13.50, can be purchased in a souvenir cup that provides refills for $10. Nicely, they allow you to change drink types at the same “refill” price.

While the villa pool has its fair share of kids splashing, the lack of slide and more conservative décor make this the better choice for quiet relaxation. Both pools have cabanas available to rent and a nice selection of loungers, although shade is at a premium and if you want an umbrella, plan to arrive early.

Since this is a review, I’ll list the two main drawbacks to this hotel.

First, while the restaurants range from casual to fine dining, the diversity is somewhat limited as they all, not surprisingly, feature Italian food. If that isn’t your cup of tea or you are perhaps trying to eat low-carb, this makes for some tough choices. The other issue is the distance the Portofino sits from the amusement parks. By foot and from our centrally located room, the walk still took roughly 20 minutes. The water taxis are faster, provided you can catch one immediately. However, in the mornings, the line can be several taxis long. Bicycle rickshaws provide a third option and were by far my children’s ride of choice. The cyclists don’t charge a set fee, working for tips instead. On our first morning, Anthony gave us the resort layout and helped us to generally get our feet on the ground.

Overall, the Portofino is more than comfortable, the staff incredibly friendly, and the inclusions, along with the self-serve kiosks that allow guests to obtain their park tickets and Express passes, make this hotel a good bet for a Universal-centered trip to Orlando.

Visit a Ball Pit Beach in Washington, DC, This Summer

Image credit: Snarkitecture

Through September 7 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, you can visit an unusual beach—one made of plastic ball pit balls.

The BEACH is an installation created by the Brooklyn-based studio Snarkitecture. It covers the museum’s 10,000-square-foot Great Hall with an ocean of nearly one million recyclable, translucent plastic balls. White beach chairs and umbrellas adorn a 50-foot wide “shoreline,” and the ball-pit ocean ends with a mirrored wall to make the space seem even more vast. You can take a ball-pit swim or take up whatever you might do at the beach, including grabbing a drink from the snack bar.

Admission is first come, first served, no timed entry. Adult tickets to the BEACH are $16, ages 3-17 and seniors are $13. For locals, there are also season passes available starting at $30 for an individual adult, $15 for youth, and $75 for a family (good for up to 6 admissions per visit).

Image credit: Snarkitecture

Happy Independence Day! Check Out This Lego American Flag

This past Wednesday, July 1st, Lego’s Master Builders gathered at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to build an American flag made completely out of Lego bricks.

The event was to celebrate the opening of the museum’s Innovation Wing, and visitors were invited to help with the build. Lego Master Builder Chris Steininger led the project.

The Colvin family, from left, Adrian, 4, Riley, 7, Jack, 10, and mother Shawna, of Tiffin, Iowa, take a "selfie" after helping build the world's largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)
The Colvin family, from left, Adrian, 4, Riley, 7, Jack, 10, and mother Shawna, of Tiffin, Iowa, take a “selfie” after helping build the world’s largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)

Fun facts about the Lego flag:

  • Dimensions – 117.9” tall X 152” wide
  • Weight – 546 pounds
  • Number of LEGO bricks – 109,200
  • 16 hours to design
  • Largest LEGO American flag ever built
Rob Neill, center, of Winter Park, Fla., and his daughters Alison, left, 6, and Cecilia, 8, help build the world's largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)
Rob Neill, center, of Winter Park, Fla., and his daughters Alison, left, 6, and Cecilia, 8, help build the world’s largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)

Who doesn’t love Lego sculpture?

LEGO master builder Chris Steininger places a brick while building the world's largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped LEGO master builders create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)
LEGO master builder Chris Steininger places a brick while building the world’s largest LEGO American flag to celebrate the opening of the Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in Washington. More than 15,000 museum visitors helped LEGO master builders create the 9.5-by-14-foot flag using more than 100,000 LEGO bricks. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for LEGO)

Enjoy the holiday weekend.

Universal Orlando’s CityWalk: VIVO Italian Kitchen and Blue Man Group

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
The Blue Man Group in action. Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort

My family loves amusement parks—the rides, the characters, the thrills! But even though we’ve been to the Universal Orlando parks more than a few times, we’ve never spent much time—okay, any time—in the Universal CityWalk. The neon brightness has been nothing more than a conduit to the bigger, wilder fun to be had at the parks. So when, on our visit last weekend, the nice folks at Universal offered to set us up with dinner and a show, we decided to get out of our rut and try something a different. Instead of spending every evening of our trip eating Shepherd’s Pie at The Leaky Cauldron, we broke from tradition and hit up VIVO Italian Kitchen.

Situated to the fore of the amusement-park-facing-side of the CityWalk, this restaurant is hard to miss. Roughly a year old, VIVO replaced another Italian-themed restaurant that lacked the quality and homemade goodness of the current resident. The friendly staff made us feel at home as soon as we walked in. Judging from the number of smiles on the other patrons, we were no exception. My two kids, ages 9 and 12, were immediately taken with the decor. They love restaurants with all the style of fine dining but none of the starched-shirt-uptight-country-club atmosphere. VIVO was perfect—lots of happy kids, cool subway tiles and metalwork. In particular they noted the cheese graters turned into light fixtures. Not every restaurant’s interior design prompts a discussion about cheese block nostalgia and the rise of pre-shredded dairy products!

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
VIVO Italian Kitchen’s modern graphic decor. Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort

The kid menu has all the standard fare, such as pepperoni pizza, but also more refined options like the house-made meatballs my son chose. Likewise, the adult menu had all the Italian staples, from lasagna to gnocchi, but also modern fusion options like roasted beet salad and squid ink pasta. The homemade bread, served warm, would have been appetizer enough, but we decided to try the hand-pulled mozzarella with olive tapenade anyway. If you have cheese lovers, this will be a hit. While my daughter enjoyed her bolognese—one of her favorite meals at home or on vacation—the biggest standout was the risotto and slow-braised short rib. If that even remotely sounds good, don’t miss it! Another plus, the portions are generous enough that sharing is an option, especially with young kids or hesitant eaters. We capped off our meal with a single order of bread pudding—and we’d eaten too much to even finish that! Ismael, our server, was friendly and knowledgable and helped make this meal a lovely break from our routine.

Our evening’s next stop was the Blue Man Group’s live show. Situated to the side of Universal Studios, the theater can be easily overlooked. Case in point: we’ve never noticed it before! But as my son has told everyone he’s met about the show, it was worth discovering. In March we attended the Cirque du Soleil performance in Downtown Disney, and as a family we’d recommend the Blue Man group as a better overall show. Not only is it more engaging, but with children tickets at nearly half price, it’s a better deal for a family on a budget. Both my 9-year-old son and my moody tween daughter laughed nonstop—a pretty rare win since the girl hit puberty!

Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort
The Blue Man Group’s interactive show. Photo Courtesy: Universal Orlando Resort

Not only did the show have us all out of our seats shaking our rear cushions (you’ll get the joke if you hit up the show), but the over-all theme resonated as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much, as a mom who feels she’s fighting a losing battle, I appreciated the anti-screen, pro-human contact vibe running through the performance. My kids don’t always want to hear me tell them to turn off the electronics, but when presented on a huge stage by guys in blue body paint and a sense of humor, it hit home. That alone was worth missing out on sticky toffee pudding!

Happy Birthday to the Geekiest Place on Earth!

Experience Music Project
Photo: Kelly Knox

Seattle residents have known and loved the most unique building in the city, the Experience Music Project Museum, for a long time. Neighbors with the Space Needle and Pacific Science Center in the heart of Seattle, the EMP is celebrating its 15th birthday this week, and there’s never been a better time to visit.

This is a place that should go on any geek’s bucket list. Where else can you be a rock star, play a great collection of indie video games, and see the original costumes worn by the actors in Star Wars, a Dalek used on Doctor Who, Inigo Montoya’s sword, and many, many more memorable items from pop culture?

EMP Museum also highlights the Seattle music scene, with exhibits featuring Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, and a continued emphasis on up and coming artists in the city.

Local band Bleachbear at the EMP Birthday Bash. Photo: Kelly Knox
Local band Bleachbear at the EMP Birthday Bash. Photo: Kelly Knox

Local band Bleachbear kicked off this week’s EMP Birthday Bash, an open house celebrating 15 years by inviting all Seattle residents in for free. Seattle Seahawks’ SeaGals, Harry Potter, a Dalek, the TARDIS, Darth Vader, and more were also in attendance, highlighting the museum’s dedication to the culture of Seattle. “You have no idea what a big Star Wars fan I am,” I overheard one of the SeaGals say, proving that even Seattle’s pro football cheerleaders are nerds at heart.

A new exhibit opened recently as well, “The Animation of Chuck Jones,” with original artwork from animated favorites like “Duck Amuck,” Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Animation of Chuck Jones. Photo: Kelly Knox
The Animation of Chuck Jones. Photo: Kelly Knox

If your kids have ever wondered how cartoons are made, be sure to spend time in this exhibit to show them the brilliance and influence of Chuck Jones.

If you ever find yourself in Seattle, make time to visit the EMP Museum. You won’t find a better place to share some of your favorite characters from fantasy and science fiction with your kids, and feel like a kid again yourself.

The unforgettable shape of the EMP. Photo: Kelly Knox
The unforgettable shape of the EMP. Photo: Kelly Knox

GeekMom was invited to attend the EMP Birthday Bash.

The Technology Is There, So Why Aren’t You in a Zero Emissions Car?

AGV Cover
Image: NEMPA

Automotive technology has come a very long way over the last few years. Fuel efficiency is better and seeing hybrid and electric cars is no longer out of the ordinary, but there’s one problem. No one is buying into the whole zero emissions thing right now even with a growing number of options that are significantly better for the environment.

This was the topic of conversation at the NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference held this year at the MIT Technology Center. It’s an annual event organized by the New England Motor Press Association along with MIT to focus on technology issues in the automotive industry. The topic this year was the challenge of getting people to buy into zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs).

You might remember a few years back when gas prices were frighteningly high and everyone was clamoring to get into a more fuel efficient car. There weren’t even a heck of a lot of hybrid options out there at the time so people were on waiting lists for cars like the Prius. Then gas prices came down and our priorities changed.

The expert panels of speakers included representatives from General Motors, Toyota, MIT, and the International Council on Clean Transportation. They represented different groups all trying to convince consumers to go green and get into a zero emissions car.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

If you look just at the cost of gas, that might not convince you to get into a ZEV, but if you look at the environmental impact, then it’s a no-brainer. Bob Perciasepe of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions gave a great example of the impact of ZEVs.

A hybrid produces roughly three tons of carbon dioxide annually which is a lot less than a beast like a Hummer at ten tons. Your traditional gas car probably falls in the middle somewhere, so you can feel good if you’re driving a hybrid. If you want to feel really good, then look at a ZEV. They come in at 60% more climate-friendly than even a hybrid. That’s a significant difference.

Pure electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are out there and they’re much more environmentally friendly than even the best hybrid on the road. The problem is, people are loathe to embrace this new technology and want to stick with what they know.

Image: NEMPA
Image: NEMPA

There are concerns about electric vehicles and their range, but the network of public charging stations continues to grow as does the speed at which they can fully charge a vehicle’s battery. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are lagging behind on refueling options making them an even tougher sell. The infrastructure doesn’t exist in a way that makes most people comfortable.

It’s like that old line from Field of Dreams. If they build it, they will come. The next time you’re in the market for a new car, take a second look at ZEVs and consider not just the dollars in your pocket, but the pollution in the air and how much you can help by going zero emissions.

Thomas Land Revisited: It’s Bigger, But Is It Better?

Thomas Land © Sophie Brown
Thomas Land © Sophie Brown

This year, Thomas Land at Drayton Manor Theme Park in Tamworth, UK, has undergone a massive £2.5 million ($3.8 million) expansion, increasing in size by 40 percent and adding in three new attractions. We visited the park over the busy May school holiday with our five-old-son to see what we thought of the new expansion.

We could tell we were in for a busy day before we even arrived at the park, as we sat in traffic and crawled toward the entrance for a solid 15 minutes. We were sent to a parking area we had never seen on our previous visits and after picking up our complimentary passes, and then entered via a second entrance we never knew existed (rather than the main entrance). This second entrance is positioned at the opposite end of the park to Thomas Land, although because Drayton Manor is such a compact park, the walk across only took us a few minutes. Walking through, we were able to point out some other family rides to our son for later in the day.

Sodor Airport & Jeremy Jet's Flying Academy © Sophie Brown
Sodor Airport and Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy © Sophie Brown

The expansion to Thomas Land is not immediately obvious when approaching from the “wrong” direction, as the entrance is somewhat concealed behind the main Knapford Station area. Our son Fin immediately spotted Winston’s Whistle-Stop Tours, a slow monorail ride up above Thomas Land and asked to ride it, which we obliged despite a 40-minute queue as it allowed us an aerial view of the new expansion to help us get our bearings. The new expansion has certainly increased the open space in Thomas Land so it doesn’t feel as cramped as it once did. Some rides have been moved around to improve access and the whole space feels open even with large crowds. Everything looks bright, fun, and well maintained and the whole area feels cohesive. Moving Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy to a central position outside the new Sodor Airport coffee shop and cafe creates a fantastic central feature for this whole area. However, there is a large area of seemingly dead space towards the rear. This appears to be set up for events, however, with it not being in use the day we visited caused that part of the park to feel desolate.

Time for a Game of "Where Does this Line Begin & Which Ride is It For?" © Sophie Brown
Time for a game of “where does this line begin and which ride is it for?” © Sophie Brown

My biggest complaint regarding the new expansion was the queuing system for the new rides, or rather, the lack of it. Most of the rides are small, circular affairs that stand by themselves in a large, open area. However, the fenced queue areas are just a few meters long, effectively only holding enough people to fill the ride up one time. This results in long, disorderly, snaking queues that weave around and are hard to define. On approaching the new Flynn’s Fire Rescue ride, we thought it had a short queue, only to realize that the queue actually began 50-feet across the park and was almost blending with the line for another ride. The introduction of some zigzagged fencing to mark out the queues for these new attractions would be a vast improvement to the area. It is also worth noting that none of the three new Thomas Land attractions actually feature trains, which could disappoint younger children. Instead, the new rides include Toby the Tram, Flynn the Fire Engine, and Captain the Lifeboat. Two of the three also result in riders getting wet as well, which I can only imagine will severely limit their attractiveness in cold weather.

Flynn the Fire Engine Ride © Sophie Brown
Flynn the Fire Engine ride © Sophie Brown

Sadly, we were only able to ride one of the three new attractions. It was too cold for us to get soaked on the Sea Captain ride, which has riders standing on slowly rotating boats and firing water canons at other riders and those standing in the designated splash zones nearby, and Fin refused to ride the rocking, spinning Toby Tram. However, Fin was very excited to ride the Flynn the Fire Engine ride on which riders stand in cages and fire water canons into the center of the ride, attempting to hit holes in the windows of a “burning” building. The canons were fairly difficult for a five-year-old to operate by himself, but he loved riding with his dad anyway. There is some splashback on this ride too, but only a little. However, I do find it odd to include two rides on which riders will get wet (or very wet in the case of the Sea Captain) in a park with a cool climate most of the year. I doubt either of these rides will draw many visitors during the colder months when the park operates.

Of course, all the original rides from Thomas Land are still present, so despite not getting to ride two of the new additions, we still spent many hours riding all the area has to offer. Fin gradually increased in bravery through the day and by the end, we had tackled nearly everything except a few rides which Fin considered too tame even for him! Some of his favorites were Terence’s Driving School, Rocking Bulstrode, and Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy. He was even brave enough to ride the Troublesome Trucks Runaway Coaster!

Fin & I ride the Jolly Buccaneer © Sophie Brown
Fin and I ride the Jolly Buccaneer © Sophie Brown

There are a number of family-friendly rides outside of Thomas Land as well, which we spent some time investigating. The Drunken Barrels (which was presumably named and themed some time ago—I doubt a family ride themed around beer barrels would get approval nowadays) are a fun, tilted spin on the classic teacups and the Wild West Shoot Out is great for everyone, even if actually hitting the targets is trickier than on some other similar rides. Sadly, the Pirate Adventure boat ride was closed for repairs the day we visited and our son is still too short to ride Drayton’s Dodgems. Later in the day, he braved both the Jolly Buccaneer and the Flying Dutchman, both of which had been greeted with a forceful, “no way!” in the morning!

Shockwave at Drayton Manor © Sophie Brown
Shockwave at Drayton Manor © Sophie Brown

Over the course of the afternoon, my husband and I took turns staying in Thomas Land with Fin while the other went off to ride some of the bigger thrill rides across the park. Drayton Manor is home to the only standing-up rollercoaster in Europe, Shockwave. After riding it, both of us declared it also the least comfortable rollercoaster in Europe. We both chickened out of riding the only new thrill addition since our previous visit, Air Race, mostly because it almost made me nauseous just by watching a ride video on YouTube. With most of the crowds concentrated in Thomas Land, the queues for the thrill rides were nearly non-existent, which was great for us as one parent could quickly nip off to ride one while the other rode a kids’ ride.

We had a fantastic day at Drayton Manor, so much so that we are planning an overnight stay at their hotel in August during the school summer break. The expansion to Thomas Land does not add enough to the park to win over any new converts—if the previous content was not enough to attract your family to visit, then I seriously doubt the additions will sway you. However, it is a welcome boost to the area for those who are visiting and adds more value for money to the park as a whole.

GeekMom received complimentary access to Drayton Manor park for this review.

2015 Heels and Wheels Puts Women Behind The Wheel

2015 Jaguar F-Type Convertible, Image: Nicole Wakelin
2015 Jaguar F-Type Convertible. Image: Nicole Wakelin.

There are dozens of automotive events held throughout the year, with journalists and bloggers invited to drive and learn about a brand’s latest offering. Heels and Wheels is unique because not only does it have cars from different companies all in one place, but it’s also only for women.

It isn’t so much about excluding men as it is tailoring a program specifically to women. All the attendees are women and so are most of the presenters. You might think cars are a guy thing, but this event proved that women are just as excited about cars.

There was quite a list of vehicles for us to drive and they covered every possible car buyer. There was a Jaguar F-Type convertible that runs $105K and, although it may clean out your bank account, it will be worth it for the thrill of driving it on a twisting road. It is the essence of a sports car with looks, power, and a delicious sound.

Those who still have kids in the house will appreciate the Kia Sorento and Nissan Murano. Both of these cars were favorites with the moms because they are manageable crossovers with good mileage, plenty of room, and great styling. The pair have been completely redone for this model year, so you’re getting the latest and greatest in safety and technology all for about $40K.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Even if you have kids, you might be someone who wants a car somewhere between the sporty Jaguar and a utilitarian crossover. The Buick Regal GS was a surprise, providing a very upscale driving experience. This is not your dad’s old Buick. It’s way better and you will be impressed by how much the brand has to offer. Roomy, luxurious, and very responsive, the Regal is a worthy family sedan.

Also in the mix were two muscle cars from Dodge. We had a chance to drive both the Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack and the Dodge Challenger 392 Hemi Scat Pack Shacker. These were my personal favorites because I simply love a muscle car. There’s an older generation Charger parked in my garage, so I’m completely biased. These two are much more powerful than what I drive and they made me want to buy a new car.

We’re talking 485 horsepower with all the brash, in-your-face looks and sound that a car can muster. The Challenger would be tricky with kids, but the Charger is your chance to own a family sedan with serious attitude. Both make you feel like you own the road and, this part I love, both had a woman engineer at the helm.

Alison Rahm. Image: Nicole Wakelin.

Alison Rahm is the chief engineer behind these two muscle cars and they are, like some people say of their pets, her babies. Sure, her babies happen to have enough horsepower to blow the doors off of other cars, but that suits her just fine.

Heels and Wheels 2015 was a chance to drive a great selection of cars and talk with a diverse group of women, each with their own preferences when they’re behind the wheel. No two of us were looking for the same thing in a car, which is why there are so many cars out there in the first place.

The lesson here is to get out there and drive when you’re looking to make a new purchase. Try out every car you like and see if it’s really what you want or if it’s not what you expected. Whether it’s a Jaguar, a Kia, or a Dodge, there’s a car out there for you that’s a perfect fit.

My travel expenses were covered by Heels and Wheels to attend this event.

Go Green With The All-New 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Sonata Hybrid (2)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Gas prices have left the stratospheric heights they reached a few years ago, which means people aren’t thinking about hybrids these days. The pain at the pump isn’t so bad and hybrids get a bum wrap for being blah, ho-hum cars that no one wants to drive. The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has been completely redone this year, giving you plenty of reasons to go green.

There are two models to choose from, so you can go traditional hybrid or opt for the new plug-in model. Both are surprisingly not hybrid-ish behind the wheel. You’re not driving a sports car, but you also won’t feel like you’re driving a glorified scooter. There’s even a chance for you to play with your drive experience by selecting one of three drive modes.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

Eco is the most economical choice and it’s also the least exciting. I wouldn’t drive in Eco unless I found myself in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to eke out the best fuel economy possible.

There’s a huge difference when you switch to Normal and the Sonata Hybrid suddenly becomes a car you want to drive. Press on the gas and the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that it is alive after all, with 193 net horsepower in the hybrid and 202 net horsepower in the plug-in. It’s all paired to a very smooth 6-speed automatic transmission.

Turn things up one more level to Sport and the steering and throttle response increase slightly. Again, not a sports car, but you’ll completely forget you’re in a hybrid, especially if you can find a nice winding road with tight corners. Opt for the plug-in and you unfortunately lose Sport mode, but stick with Normal and you’ll still be happy.

There’s a nifty energy indicator in the instrument cluster that lets you see how your driving style and choice of modes are affecting your fuel economy. It gamifies the driving experience by breaking things out to show how often you’re driving efficiently and how often you’re driving like Mario Andretti. It’s likely to make you ease up on the gas, if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

The plug-in will run in three different modes and you can choose which one. There’s electric, hybrid, and battery charge. It can run purely on electric for 24 miles, more than any other vehicle in its class. That does mean it has a larger charge time of about 3 hours on a 110 volt and nine hours on 240 volt. It also has a class-leading range of 605 miles.

On the outside, there are some changes from the gas version of the Hyundai Sonata. There’s a larger grille, modified front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs. It’s like a stealth hybrid that doesn’t want to brag about being green.

Hyundai has also pushed a lot of the battery components beneath the floor mat in the trunk to make for a nice flat load surface. It has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, so there’s plenty of room for groceries or a family’s luggage. They did eliminate a spare tire to free up some of that space, but there is a tire-mending kit instead.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

While we’re talking about all that space provided by the lack of spare and relocated battery, let’s talk about the warranty. The car has a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-powertrain warranty, but the best part is the lifetime hybrid battery warranty. They’re the only ones with a lifetime warranty on their hybrid battery, giving them a huge advantage over the other guys.

The interior is spacious and, as is typical of today’s Hyundai, absolutely beautiful. They aren’t the cars they were a few years ago and this is a very good thing. The Sonata Hybrid has plenty of room for a family of four and if you need to put someone in the middle in the back, they won’t hate you for giving them that seat.

There are two big reasons people buy hybrids. The first is environmental responsibility and the second is fuel economy. Hyundai has the first one covered not just by producing a hybrid, but by being environmentally responsible at a corporate level.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Their recently remodeled headquarters uses recycled concrete from the old building to reduce waste and varying types of glass on the windows to make climate control more efficient. They even boxed up 73 pine trees and kept them safe during construction before replanting them at the new finished building.

They’ve got the second one covered with the numbers you’d expect from a hybrid. The estimated highway fuel economy on the Sonata Hybrid is 44 mpg, while the plug-in electric gets 93 mpge. You will happily be driving past the pump far more often than you have to stop.

The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid offer two great choices for those looking to go green with their next car purchase. A beautiful and comfortable interior, sporty styling, great fuel economy, and that lifetime hybrid battery warranty make this car a winner.

Hyundai covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

What is it About The Hatbox Ghost?

A few of the Haunted Mansion’s Hatbox Ghost-themed images that haunt my home year-round. Although this figure hadn’t set his ghostly foot in the attraction for 45 years, he remained a fan-favorite. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

One of Disneyland Park’s most mysterious residents returned home this month, as part of park’s 2015 Diamond Celebration.

On the weekend of May 9, the newly re-imagined Hatbox Ghost was installed in the attic of the Haunted Mansion, appearing just before guests’ DoomBuggies make the backward descent into the ride’s raucous graveyard.

Dressed in full Victorian cloak and top hat, like a non-lethal Jack the Ripper, the grim grinning figure leers menacingly at guests as his head disappears from his shoulders and into the large transparent hatbox in his outstretched hand. The head then disappears from the box back onto his shoulders.

That’s pretty much all there is to him; the concoction of a basic lighting effect that didn’t seem to work the first time… and we Haunted Mansion fans just love him!

Walt Disney Imagineering Producer Jeff Shaver-Moskowitz announced the ghost’s long-anticipated return to the mansion in a Disney Parks podcast that same weekend.

“The Hatbox Ghost was one of the original 999 Happy Haunts in the mansion,” Shaver-Moskowitz said in the podcast. “Sometime around the opening, he disappeared and has been missing from the mansion for the past 45 years.”

Shaver-Moskowitz noted this ghost is one of the mansion’s most popular figures ever, and it didn’t even exist there… at least not since the attraction’s opening in 1969.

This means, no one my age or younger had ever even seen this ghost in person until this month. The majority of Disney visitors older than myself have never even seen the original ghost, although many have claimed to have “sighted” him that first year. There is only one video I know of, released on the fan site Disney History Institute (unaffiliated with the Walt Disney Company), that even proves this original ghost appeared in the ride at all. No one seems to even know where he went.

One of the many fan-art creations celebrating The Hatbox Ghost. Artwork by Chris Mason, courtesy of the artist.

I find myself among those admirers of the Hatbox Ghost. He has made his way into my Haunted Mansion decorations, many of which are displayed year-round, plastered on my file cabinets with homemade magnets and clippings, living among my Halloween models, and hidden in the images of our New Orleans-themed guest bathroom (if you know where to find him).

It is as if I know him as well as any of the other Haunted Mansion ghost visitors that I’ve seen again and again.

I’m not the only one. This ghost has had his own fan page on Facebook, and director and author Guillermo del Toro wanted to use him as the focus on a motion picture based on the attraction. Whether that film ever sees the flickering light of the silver screen remains a mystery in itself. The fan artists and cosplayers love him, as well. One of my favorites is a portrait by pop culture artist Chris Mason.

The marketing geniuses at Disney have done their best to keep this ghost in people’s minds, whether or not he has been in the park for more than four decades. He’s been featured in postcards, T-shirts, books, as the mascot for a past “Haunted Holidays” campaign where he talked about haunted sites around the world, pin-trading events, and as a costumed character. Families can even download their own Hatbox Ghost paper model from the Disney Family site.

The Hatbox Ghost’s return is such a little thing in the grand scheme of the park—practically no changes were needed to add him to the attraction. However, his presence is so significant to Haunted Mansion lovers, as he is the amalgam of the original, old-school classic design from Imagineers like Yale Gracey and Marc Davis, and today’s advancements in animatronics and computer animation.

He’s elegant and graceful. He’s eerie. He’s relatively simple in concept, but apparently complex in design. He’s classic. He’s humorous and weirdly friendly. Most of all, however, he’s very, very, Disney. I’m not talking about the overly tech-savvy, yet nonetheless impressive, Disney style of today. The Hatbox Ghost is the picture of early-stage Disney Imagineering at its finest.

I think it’s appropriate the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland Park is in New Orleans Square, because there’s a word of French and Spanish origins often associated with the spirit of the city: lagniappe, or “a little something extra.”

An early promotional photo Imagineer Yale Gracey and the original Hatbox Ghost. Image: flickr commons.
A circa-1969 promotional photo of Imagineer Yale Gracey and the original and long, long gone, Hatbox Ghost. Flickr commons, from the collection of Tom Simpson.

The Haunted Mansion is filled with these kinds of extras. The wild-eyed faces in the hallway wallpaper, the dueling gunmen portraits in the ballroom, the one broken singing bust head, and the seductively creepy nose wrinkle of the “Little Leota” farewell bride. All of these little “lagniappes” add to the ride, and are as good effects, if not better, than the Hatbox Ghost’s little head trick.

So why is the Hatbox Ghost so popular? I think people love a good mystery, a good reason for speculation, and “where is he now” conspiracy theories.

For me, the Hatbox Ghost represents my own growing up with the mansion. Never mind the fact the ghost and I are the same age—I think I look considerably younger, though—the Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite attractions, second only to Pirates of the Caribbean. This ride also scared me so much my first time on it, I never even made it past the stretching room. It was 1973 or 74 and I was just a toddler. The rules were a little more lax then, and I was perched atop my father’s shoulders as we entered the room. While everyone else was huddled safely together, I was exposed and alone over everyone’s head as the walls begin to stretch. I panicked and begin clutching the scalps of random victims. Long story short, they stopped the stretching room elevator and let us out.

The next year, I muscled up some courage and made my way through the ride, looking through a cage of my own fingers. The year after that, however, I started seeing the imagination behind each ghost and haunted hallway, and I fell in love with the ride. So much so, my youngest daughter’s first venture on the ride last year was, “I want to go again!”

This summer, there is just one more reason for riders to “go again,” and I’m sure many will make a few repeat runs through the ride just to see the ghost’s head grimacing up from his hatbox.

I predict the glamour around the ghost will settle now that he is back home, and he will become just another familiar favorite for most guests. For those in on the folklore, however, he’ll be that special “something extra.” He’ll be that mystery that still isn’t quite solved.

After all, that original ghost model has to be out there somewhere, doesn’t it? The logical explanation is the ghost just wasn’t working properly, and it was eventually scrapped for parts.

That’s both sad and not particularly fun. I like to think he’s still out there somewhere, perhaps roaming from attic to attic, looking for a suitable home. Judging from the flood of YouTube posts excited about seeing the new ghost, there are plenty of folk willing to take him in.

Geeky States of America: Visiting Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore

GeekMom Ariane had an adventure with her 4-year-old in Los Angeles, visiting The Last Bookstore.
The Last Bookstore. Photo credit: Ariane Coffin

I woke up last Saturday morning in the mood for an impulsive mother-daughter day trip, so I Googled kid-friendly activities in Los Angeles and found an article in the L.A. Weekly about “10 Fun L.A. Things to Do With Kids That Don’t Suck for Grownups.” My kind of list. Out of the activities suggested, I quickly settled on visiting The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.—one of the largest independent physical bookstores in the world. My 4-year-old was easily convinced with the promise of a new book and a trip on the subway.

Coming from Santa Barbara, we drove the 1.5 hours to the Universal/Studio City Metro station for its ample and free (on the weekends) parking lot. We caught the red line all the way to Pershing Square station, a 20-minute trip. The bookstore was just a couple of blocks away from there.

I have to say, my first impression was slightly disappointing. Being called one of the “22 most beautiful bookstores in the world,” “world’s 20 most stunning bookstores,” “17 coolest bookstores in the world,” and “20 most beautiful bookstores in the world,” I was expecting to be blown away by how grand and beautiful it was. Instead, I was surprised by how normal it was for being in all these “best in the world” lists.

There is a certain amount of charm that is lost on a parent chasing a 4-year-old who insists on visiting things at full running speed, I’ll give it that. And once I adjusted my expectations—it’s a store, not the Getty Museum—it was actually pretty cool.

GeekMom Ariane visiting the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.
The Labyrinth. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

The first story of the 2-story store is mostly dedicated to new books, while the second floor makes room for small shops and the “Labyrinth” of used books. The Labyrinth is where things get really weird…a good kind of weird. It’s darker and the space is filled with dark bookshelves in all kinds of crazy order to give the impression of being lost in a never-ending labyrinth. You see piles of books stacked in what seems like complete disorder, books stacked to make tunnels and windows, books ordered by colors of the rainbow. You feel like you’re Alice and you’ve just gone down the rabbit hole. Should you visit without an impatient 4-year-old, you could really have fun trying to find the most obscure used books. I spied a whole box of National Geographic magazines from the 1950s.

Touring The Last Bookstore. Photos by Ariane Coffin.
Touring The Last Bookstore. Photos by Ariane Coffin.

However, since I was with said impatient 4-year-old, we ran right through all that (with some pause at the weirdest features) and walked right back downstairs to the kids’ section. The kids’ section is conveniently located next to an old bank vault—The Last Bookstore occupies a space which used to be a bank. We got cozy with the picture books and read through a few of them, trying to choose which we should purchase. We settled on a book with a cute story and gorgeous art, Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett.

GeekMom Ariane visited The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles and came home with his wonderful picture book, Orion and the Dark.
Orion and the Dark. Image credit: Penguin Random House.

Then it was time for lunch and we left for our next adventure, this time a “taste adventure” (that’s what we call trying out new restaurants).

Overall, I’m happy with our little excursion. There was a lot of unique features throughout the store and it was definitely worth seeing once, though I’m not sure I’d do the 4+ hour roundtrip for just that stop again! Should your little travelers have more energy after visiting The Last Bookstore, you can take a 15 minute walk from the store to the Museum of Contemporary Arts or a short drive to the California Science Center, which I cannot recommend enough.

Happy travels!

SpongeBob Comes Ashore for World Oceans Day!

SpongeBob The Movie: Sponge Out Of Water \ Image: Paramount Pictures
‘SpongeBob The Movie: Sponge Out Of Water’ \ Image: Paramount Pictures

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea and is going on a tour across the United States? SpongeBob SquarePants. Just in time to honor “World’s Oceans Day,” SpongeBob is touring the country to tell everyone about his latest movie coming to Blu-Ray 3D, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water. 

In addition to promoting his new movie, SpongeBob will also be handing out reusable tote bags and asking families to go plastic bag free for one year. And if you have the munchies while visiting, SpongeBob’s crew will be handing out tasty treats and other goodies.

Invision Paramount Sponge Bob \ Image Courtesy of Paramount Photo by Steve Boxall
Invision Paramount Sponge Bob \ Image Courtesy of Paramount Photo by Steve Boxall

If you’re interested in meeting up with SpongeBob and his alter ego “Invincibubble,” head over to one of these tour stops:

5/19 at Zoo Miami (12-4pm)

5/21 at Lowry Park Zoo (9:30 am-12:30 pm)
5/21 The Florida Aquarium (1:00 pm-4:00 pm)

5/23 The Children’s Museum of Atlanta (11:00 am – 3:00 pm)
5/23 Atlanta Aquarium “Dive In Movie” event (7-10pm)

5/25 at Houston Aquarium (10:00 am-2:00 pm)

5/27 at Dallas World Aquarium (10am-2pm)

5/29 at Albuquerque Aquarium (10am-1pm)

5/31 at Location/time to be announced

Los Angeles
6/2 at Location/time to be announced

For more information check out the official website for Sponge Out Of Water and World Ocean’s Day!

Bungie Aims to Help Nepal Relief Efforts With “Destiny” T-Shirt

Image: Bungie
Image: Bungie

The earthquake in Nepal has left thousands dead and ravaged the country. The recovery process is going to be a long one with many months of rebuilding and recovery ahead for the area. It’s heartbreaking to see images of the devastation and it can leave you feeling a little powerless to do anything to help.

Video game company Bungie is doing their part with a special shirt design that they recently put up for sale in their on-line store. The Destiny-themed shirt will help raise funds for organizations that are assisting with relief efforts in the country.

“Nepal needs help now, Guardians. Answer the call and become a real legend.”

The shirts are available in men’s, women’s, and youth sizes with 100% of the profits going to help recognized charities directly aiding the people of Nepal. You also get an in-game shader and emblem code. Shirts are available for $24.99 in their online store now through May 24th and will begin shipping out to customers in June.

It might not seem like there’s much you can do for Nepal, but every small bit helps.

Ram Trucks “The Courage is Already Inside” Ad Aims to Inspire Women

Image: Ram Trucks
Image: Ram Trucks

Lots of people think that cars are a guy thing. Even more think that trucks are a guy thing, but this ad from Ram Trucks will change that perception.

The ad celebrates women who have used courage to do what they, and everyone else, thought was impossible, and it features women who have broken down barriers to achieve success in their fields. You’ll be inspired to do whatever it is your heart desires by the time the ad finishes.

The 60-second spot aired during the Kentucky Derby and includes women like two-time Kentucky Oaks-winning jockey Rosie Napravnik and country singer Miranda Lambert who is the Academy of Country Music Awards most-awarded female artist. That kind of success only comes from pushing harder than you think is possible and never giving up.

There’s also outdoorsman Eva Shockey who is the first woman in 30 years to be on the cover of Field and Stream, professional motocross racer Tiana Falls, and a host of other women who have gone on to achieve great success.

Sure, it’s an ad designed to convince you to buy from Ram Trucks instead of one of its competitors, but the angle is still worth nothing. Truck commercials traditionally aim squarely at men, leaving women somewhere out of the picture.

This time, women are the focus of the ad and I love seeing the toughness, perseverance, and determination of women being celebrated.

Play Ball! Minor League Baseball’s Best Goofy and Geeky Team Names

One of the best things about the minor leagues is the creativity and stories behind the team names. Collage by Lisa Kay Tate. Team logos copyright MiLB and its individual teams.

When my city finally got a Triple-A baseball team last year, after jumping through all the usual hoops from bonds to sponsorships, it was time to pick a mascot suitable for West Texas. There were plenty of options, such as Desert Dawgs or Vaqueros, all worthy of a border town with a Wild West history.

Eventually, the powers that be decided the best mascot to serve our city was The El Paso… Chihuahuas.

This was met with some wonderful tweets to our local news media from area residents and ball lovers including… “Yo Queiro no thanks,” and “Oh well, at least the beer is cheap.”

Chico the Chihuahua mugs for the camera. Image: Rick Tate.

Apparently, a shaky little bug-eyed dog didn’t go over with the masses at first. That was, until the first home game. After seeing the ballpark and how much kids loved “Chico” the mascot, the team’s first season was a huge success. The home games were wonderful experiences for the “dog days” of summer, including a few “Bark in the Park” bring-your-pooch nights, and the souvenir dog bowls in which they served the nachos! Yes, the little Golem of a mascot soon won over the skeptics.

One of the best things for me, however, is we got to play a nearby team with one of the best names in the game, the Albuquerque Isotopes. The Isotopes name is perfect for its New Mexico home, with the state’s contribution to the atomic and nuclear ages from Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratories, the Trinity test site at the White Sands Missile Range, and the often-debated WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project).

The name’s origin, however, comes from much different source, The Simpsons, and the fictional town of Springfield’s home team, the Isotopes. Albuquerque’s name was inspired by a famous Simpsons episode where Homer protests his beloved team’s potential move to none other than Albuquerque. There’s no “official” affiliation of the team to the series, but fans will find statues of Marge and Homer at the ballpark.

With baseball season in full swing (no pun intended), now is a fun time to take a look at a few of the other minor league teams around the county with some particularly geeky or clever team names.

Official MiLB (Minor League Baseball) teams include:

Akron RubberDucks. The name doesn’t just refer to a lovable bathtub buddy. It celebrates Akron, Ohio, as the birthplace of tire companies like Goodyear, Firestone, and other big wheels in the rubber industry.

Cedar Rapids Kernels. This is not a type for Colonels, this Iowa team’s corny name likely refers to Cedar Rapids being one of the world’s largest corn processors.

Great Falls Voyagers. The name may not sound too geeky at first, but area residents know it refers to the Mariana UFO Incident of 1950 that took place in the Montana town. This incident produced what is said to be one of the first images of a UFO sighting captured on film.

Hillsboro Hops. Oregon is the nation’s second-largest producer by volume of hop, the little green plant used to brew beer. Why not? “Brewers” is a popular name in the major leagues, and I’m pretty sure there are some sports fans happy to support this industry.

Lansing Lug Nuts. Lansing plays an important part in Michigan’s auto industry, and lug nuts are to cars and tires what hops is to beer. Small, powerful, and necessary. The team even plays in what once was called Oldsmobile Park, after the now defunct automaker.

Las Vegas 51s. Those with a true knack for the nerdier destinations know this number refers to the nearby “super-secret” Air Force Base, Area 51, in nearby Rachel, Nevada. Even those who don’t know about the site will soon figure it out, upon seeing the Roswell-style grey alien head on the team logo, one of the legendary “residents” who is said to live on the base.

Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Based in Springdale, the name can be attributed to the not-so-geeky designation to Arkansas as the “Natural State,” but the team is also named after the feel-good Robert Redford baseball movie, The Natural. Fans should be thankful for the name, as it beat out the second place mascot suggestion, “Thunder Chickens,” in a fan poll. The team did take on the name of this boisterous fowl for a publicity stunt one night.

Independent leagues also have their share of wonderfully silly names. Images copyright Frontier League, Pecos League, and American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.

Omaha Storm Chasers. Some of the coolest weather-geeks in the world are the adrenaline junkies known as storm chasers. Nebraska, where the Storm Chasers’ home field in Papillion is located, is part of one of the United States’ two major tornado alleys. According to data recorded at University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Applied Climate Sciences department, the state sees around 50 tornadoes a year. Now, its official minor league team is ready to join the hunt as well. Sure, there are teams named for storms, tornadoes, quakes, hurricanes, and volcanoes, but these are the guys who track them down with high-tech gear.

Pensacola Blue Wahoos. This name actually sounds weirder than it is. A wahoo is a fish found in the tropical and subtropical waters, including around the Florida coast. There are many teams named after regional animals (Chuckars, Bees, Flying Squirrels), but none as fun to say as “Wahoo!”

Vermont Lake Monsters. This Burlington-based team name is a tribute the American version of the Loch Ness Monster, the legendary monster of Lake Champlain, which sits on the border of Vermont and New York. The team’s mascot is also named after the monster: “Champ.”

There are also several great, geeky team names from the smaller Independent Professional Baseball Federation and other independent leagues such as the Roswell (New Mexico) Invaders (named for the Roswell, N.M. UFO crash site) and the Traverse City Beach Bums (from Michigan’s popular lakefront resort town).

Then there’s the Laredo Lemurs, named for an animal that seems to have no connection to Texas at all—at least not today. According to an article on sportslogo.net, team owners wanted a name that was kid-friendly, that no other team in the league would have, and that had something to do with Laredo. Apparently, during an archaeological dig in nearby Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, fossils of “lemur-like” creatures were found to inhabit the area about 42 million years ago. Close enough. Laredo had lemurs… and now they do once more.

I guess Chihuahuas isn’t that weird, after all.

My Geeky Southwest

My Southwest hometown may not be on any of those so-called “official” geekiest lists, but we know better. Image: Lisa Kay Tate.

Earlier this month, the data-driven predictive marketing firm Mintigo announced their “10 Geekiest Cities in America,” citing the television show The Big Bang Theory as a good place to look for geeks (despite the fact that cast members have admitted again and again that they aren’t really nerds).

According to Mintigo’s results, the geekiest city in the United States is New York City, along with Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago.

I am by no means saying that any of these cities aren’t worth their geeky props. There are no less than three cities from my home state of Texas on the top 10 that I enthusiastically tip my hat to: Austin, Houston, and Dallas.

What I was a little puzzled with, however, was the firm’s determining factors. These included technology usage patterns, jobs and hiring of technology-related jobs, news and public relation mentions about technology topics. and website mentions of relevant topics.

I would say this is a fantastic list for “tech-savvy” (which is a good thing, trust me), but is this really “geeky?” I always assumed geeky has as much to do with how people embrace all their passions, tech worthy, pop culture related, literary, artistic, sports-oriented, or anything else we can dive into with unadulterated fervor.

geekiest cities
Mintigo’s map of their geekiest cities. The darker areas are the ones that meet their tech-savvy criteria. Image: Mintigo.

If this is the case, there are plenty more cities that deserve to be much higher on this list. To demonstrate, I’d like to propose another look at my neck of the woods along the Texas and New Mexico border. This includes the seemingly isolated city of El Paso, Texas, and its Southern New Mexico neighbors, all who have been happily contributing to geek culture for some time. I’ve listed just a few of the reasons the El Paso and the desert Southwest can proudly fly its geek flag.

We can officially claim Gene Roddenberry and Alan Tudyk.
Trekkies everywhere can thank my hometown of El Paso, because it first brought Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry into this world in 1921, long before he set eyes on the “Final Frontier.” Roddenberry’s dad was working as a lineman at the time, but soon got a better job as a police officer in Los Angeles. As a result, Roddenberry wasn’t even two when he and his family departed town.

Still, El Paso boasts a huge amount of Trekkies (we even had a couple of moderately successful Star Trek conventions), and the local school district’s planetarium is named after him.

Another famous El Pasoan, who is getting plenty of geeky attention, is Firefly alumnus and Con-Man co-creator Alan Tudyk. Unfortunately, like Roddenberry, Tudyk did not grow up here. Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal, Alan! I’m kidding, we still love him. There are plenty of El Paso Browncoats waiting for a visit from Wash at some local event.

I wish I could also say “Deep Thoughts” creator Jack Handey (who was born in San Antonio) is native, but he did grow up in El Paso and got to hone his writing talents working for his high school newspaper. I’d like to think his time out here in the borderlands inspired poems like, “The Middle Ages was the best of times to be a rat; You could point to a man with plaque and say, ‘I gave him that.’”

We have the first “digital wall” in the nation.
The El Paso Museum of History combined the city’s past with the technology of the future, when it opened its Digital History Wall (aka DIGIE) earlier this year. This wall allows anyone age 13 and older to upload their own local memories or photos to the ever-changing wall, which can be explored via touchscreen technology. Kids are also allowed to contribute, under the guidance of a parent or guardian.

Digie-Screen Shot
A sampling of the El Paso Museum of History’s DIGIE interactive history wall. Image: El Paso Museum of History.

This tech-heavy display was developed with the help of the Museum of Copenhagen, Denmark’s TouchCity 3D Digital Wall. The creation of the wall became an international project with professionals, engineers, IT specialists, and others from both El Paso and Copenhagen. Now, we have the first Digital Wall of its kind in the United States, and it is really cool. You can find everything from Pancho Villa to Chico’s Tacos, just by perusing the touchscreen like Tony Stark in his tech lab. I’m betting other U.S. cities will be looking at getting a display like this soon. However, we can say we did it first.

We were a real Jurassic Park.
In 2001, University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) geology student Eric Kappus was hiking among the Cristo Rey Mountain range when he discovered something no one else had for literally millions of years: Dinosaur tracks everywhere! Tons and tons of dinosaur tracks, the first one being the largest print yet found of a classic 100-million-year-old theropod, or “big bird track.” This gained attention from scientists and news reporters around the world turning a new eye on the area’s significance along the great “paleocoastal tracksite” highway. There are more than three miles of nature trails at the dinosaur track sites, but since it is settled in a slightly secluded area near the border, it is best to go there with one of the many safe guided hikes held each year.

Astroscientist Alan Hale noticed what became known as the Hale-Bopp comet, while searching the skies from his New Mexico driveway. Image: Wikicommons.

One of my alma mater’s professors discovered Pluto.
Astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh taught planetary research later in life at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, El Paso’s closest U.S. neighbor and the town where I received my bachelor’s degree. He retired long before I got there, but his legacy was vastly appreciated. Tombaugh is the man who discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and later came to White Sands Missile Range to work in the ballistics research laboratory. Even after poor Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet” in 2006, it is still a beloved part of the solar system for area residents. Some of the late Tombaugh’s ashes may actually get to see Pluto someday, as they are on-board NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft headed in that very direction.

Another area astronomer, Alan Hale, is the co-discoverer of the Hale-Bopp Comet. He first saw the object while observing the stars from his Southern New Mexico driveway.

It just goes to show that it’s easy to get inspired by our Southwest skies.

…And Dr. Horrible!
New Mexico State University is also known for a top-notch drama department, home to Academy Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God). Geek sweetheart Neil Patrick Harris, who was born in Albuquerque, was discovered by Medoff when he was attending a youth drama camp at the Las Cruces university. Medoff later cast Harris in a movie called Clara’s Heart with Whoopi Goldberg, and he went on to do pretty much everything you can in the entertainment business… act, write, produce, direct, sing, and do magic.

Although he made a name for himself in the late 80s and early 90s as teen doctor Doogie Houser, he will be remembered for such diverse roles as his Emmy-winning portrayal of somehow lovable misogynist Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother and his Tony Award-winning role as charismatic gay East German rocker Hedwig in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch—not to mention the title role in Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, with fellow geek favorite Nathan Fillion.

We’re home to the world’s largest classic film festival.
Each year, more than 40,000 film fanatics from around the region flood the historic Plaza Theatre for the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the world’s largest classic and semi-classic film festival, to enjoy big-screen showings of such classic films as Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Labyrinth. There are also animated shorts, documentaries, recently made local films, roof-top “walk up” movies, and concert films (with live concerts) in the outdoor plaza, along with celebrity appearances, receptions, and exhibits.

This 10-day celebration of modern semi-classic and classic cinema keeps screens at the Plaza’s ,ain auditorium and annex theater filled from morning til’ past midnight with everything from film noir to fantasy.

This year’s full schedule hasn’t been announced, although festival organizers revealed 40th anniversary showings of two films that have absolutely nothing in common except a birth-date: 1975’s dark prison drama One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and the comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There seems to be but one consideration for the films selected each year: “Is it a movie?” If so, it might end up on one of the Plaza Classic’s screens.

We’re two hours from aliens and spaceports.
Before The X-Files, before Project UFO, before the The Outer Limits, and even before Kolchak: The Night Stalker, there was Roswell, New Mexico.

Everyone knows something crashed in the desert outside of Roswell in 1947. Whether it was a piece of top-secret military research or a weather balloon or an actual alien spacecraft has been the subject of debate for more than 50 years. Whatever the answer, it has also been the basis for a healthy and fun tourist industry in Roswell.

Roswell is proud of their aliens, real or not. The Roswell-style alien, with the large head, elongated arms, and almond eyes, became such a common look associated with the UFO culture, the city was even considering copywriting the word “Roswell.” They are also home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center and the annual Roswell UFO Festival, which draws thousands of visitors to the city every Independence Day weekend from around the world… and perhaps beyond. A visit to the museum is still on my personal geeky bucket list, but I’m honestly not sure I want to brave the festival crowds.

On the flip-side of the alien lore is the reality of potential commercial space travel. Spaceport America is home to Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, as well as to SpaceX’s Falcon 9R and many other suborbital craft. Preview bus tours of the facility and surrounding area aren’t cheap ($59 for adults), but there are plans for more accessible welcome centers along I-25. Until it gets a little less costly for a family weekend getaway, just knowing this port is there will have to be enough for us.

The famous antennae of the Very Large Array. Image: Wikicommons.

Just up the road from both Roswell and the spaceport is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, one of the world’s most famous astronomical radio observatories. If nothing else, the very presence of this 27-radio antenna field has sparked geeky photo ops, and they’ve been featured on everything from The X-Files‘ opening credits to the cover for the Dave Matthews Band’s single “Satellite.” Ironically, the video for this song featured Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki stretching his acting chops by sitting in a trailer watching television.

The idea that these antennae may find alien life brings in the tourists, but astrophysicists and other scientists have been using these for learning more about the sun and solar system, black holes, star birth and death, and other matters of the physical universe. The VLA conducts tours at least once a week, and they do have a visitor center and gift shop open daily.

Closer to home in Alamogordo, the site of the famous “Atari 2600 Port’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” unearthing that took place last year, is the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Among many of its indoor and outdoor exhibits is the final resting place of Ham the Astrochimp, who was the first chimpanzee to visit outer space. Bring flowers.

Our Chamber Music Festival’s artistic director killed a man with a cello… on HBO.
El Paso Pro-Musica, the organization behind the well-attended El Paso Chamber Music Festival, is under the artistic direction of world-renowned cellist Zuill Bailey. Bailey has a cadre of fans worldwide for his live performance and CDs, as well as local admirers for his innovative programming. However, fans of HBO’s dark prison comedy Oz may recognize him for his recurring role as a classical musician imprisoned for second-degree murder. He’s probably the only concert cellist who can honestly say he was killed in a prison riot.

Image: Sun City SciFi.

Yes, we do have some great ‘cons.
El Paso, like most cities, has had its share of comic, science fiction, fantasy, and horror fests come and go, but we tend to maintain a pretty good amount of fan-focused events for our neck of the woods. Most notably, Sun City SciFi events, including the Sun City Comic Con and Film Fest coming up in June, Border City Comic Con in the summer, Las Cruces Comic Con in the fall, and Sun City Scifi’s Fan Expo in October. We also have our own steampunk festival now too, Sun City Steam Fest, and handful of popular anime festivals including Las Cruces Anime Days and Yama Fest at UTEP. Past festivals have include EPCon, EPIC Festival, and Frank N’ Con horror fest. Really, for our little corner New Mexico, that’s not a bad haul.

My hometown and its surroundings may not have been on the radar for the list, but we know our geeky worth. I hope everyone else with a flair for creativity and fandom will look no further than their own hometowns as well, because when it comes to sharing our favorite things, be they scenic views or science fiction, there’s no place like home.

We don’t need a radar out here, anyway. We have a spaceport.

Alyssa Milano versus Heathrow Airport

Screenshot: @Alyssa Milano


This week, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to lambast Heathrow Airport for confiscating her expressed breast milk. Meanwhile, in small town Maine, I jumped for joy at finally having these policies and their ramifications brought to light by someone with a big enough voice to make a difference. Having traveled between Logan Airport and Heathrow Airport extensively with my children, I know from personal experience how Heathrow treats pregnant or nursing mothers.

When traveling through Boston’s Logan airport, I could not have asked for more courteous staff. I flew to London while in my second trimester, and was encouraged to use the fast lanes so that I wouldn’t be on my feet so long, I was even brought to the front for boarding, though I didn’t have children with me yet and had no first class ticket. Simple gestures that made a 17 hour journey so much more comfortable. When traveling through Logan with infants or toddlers, even when witnessing families traveling with older children, I saw the same impeccable service. Families are directed by members of staff to shorter lines, sometimes even skipped ahead if a child is in distress. Before we get into the idea of this being a privilege, and parents shouldn’t expect such behavior, let me ask you this: People traveling without children, would you rather be stuck in line with kids screaming, or would you rather kids get pushed through lines and settle down quietly to wait for their plane? I remember pre-child travel, I know how I would answer this question. Boston is a pregnant or nursing mother’s dream. Staff are helpful, sensitive and there are even rocking chairs.

Traveling through Heathrow as a pregnant or nursing mother, is like moving through one of the inner circles of Hell. Now it’s a big airport, so I don’t begrudge the distances you have to walk to reach your gate, or the small amount of time they give you before announcing the gate number, and expecting you to be there. I get it, Heathrow is enormous, those things cannot be changed. But laws and regulations can, and the regulations currently in place for nursing mothers traveling through Heathrow are appalling.

Alyssa Milano was traveling without her baby, and so using a breast pump to pump milk. For the uninitiated, you can’t just let that stuff sit in you for the length of a trans-atlantic flight, the body doesn’t work like that. While going through security, her expressed milk was confiscated. Her shampoo was not. They said that if the child had been with her she would have been able to keep the milk, she countered that if the child were with her, she wouldn’t have to use the breast pump.

Milano 2
Screenshot: @Alyssa Milano

Well, I’m here to tell you Alyssa, even if your child had been with you, Heathrow regulations still don’t look on nursing mothers with fondness. I traveled with my first son when he was nine months old. For reasons beyond our control, I wasn’t able to nurse so I had committed to exclusively pumping for the first year of his life. I carried my Medela around with me like most people carry a cell phone. Every three hours for twenty minutes I hooked myself up and thereby was able to sustain my son.

Image: Medela

It’s a three hour journey from my parents house to Heathrow airport, we stopped on the way for a bite to eat, and so that I could pump. I was a bit of a milking machine, and Toby was a bottle fed breast feeder so we arrived at the airport well stocked with my milk. In a cool bag, with ice packs. Ice packs that had been purchased in America and had already made the trans-Atlantic flight over and landed in Heathrow. And here my adventure begins.

We get to security, where my biggest concern is if they will let the pump through, even though I had checked and knew it was acceptable. Their first concern was the sealed jar of baby food. They made me break the seal and taste it. Quite frankly, I’m glad they did, we had never used store bought baby food before, but thought it best for the 17 hour journey ahead of us to use something a little more preserved. So I tried it, it was vile and we bought bananas from a cafe once past security. Their second concern was my breast milk. 4 ounces in each bottle, they wouldn’t let it past without me drinking some in front of them. Now I may have been using breast milk and making my own baby food, but drinking my own breast milk was not a frontier I felt the need to cross. But I did, slightly perturbed, and then came the biggest challenge: The ice packs.

These ice packs, as I have said, had already been through this airport once before. Logan airport security was fine with them coming through, and Heathrow had no need to check till my return journey. They insisted they would have to confiscate them. I insisted on talking to many people, and spending much time at security before I would un-willingly leave them behind.

Three hours to get to the airport. Three hours at the airport. Seven-and-a-half hours in the air. One hour through US customs in Boston. Two-and-a-half hours back to Maine. Seventeen hours of travel time—what did they expect me to do with breast milk that needs refrigerating? Three officers told me I could buy frozen ice packs once through security. This turned out to be completely un-true, Heathrow has a large shopping mall, but no-one sells ice packs, let alone ice packs that are already frozen. Back to security we went, they would still not return the ice packs but suggested we get ice from a coffee shop instead. Ice to fill our cool bag with water within the hour. We were told, by security, that once on board the plane we would be able to use inflight refrigeration. Good old US hospitality to the rescue, Starbucks graciously gave me some crushed ice to keep breast milk at a safe temperature.

Image: Sarah Pinault. Waiting at Logan Airport.

Once aboard the plane, we discovered that airport security had once again misled us. By this point, it felt like they were doing this deliberately to get us to move on. We were informed that it was illegal to store passenger property in on-board refrigeration. Luckily, Virgin Atlantic has the nicest and most helpful staff of any airline I have ever flown with. By this time I was pretty distraught and rapidly making calculations in my head as to how much milk would need to be thrown away, and if I would be able to pump enough fresh to keep my son calm on the plane. The flight attendants immediately came up with a solution and they filled our cool bag with dry ice from their meal compartments, which would stay plenty cool through our remaining trip back to Maine.

I don’t think people traveling with children should get special treatment, though I think it’s in everyone’s best interests when screaming children aren’t kept in line. I don’t think moms with small children should be exempt from the rules. I think the staff at Heathrow follow the rules they are given. I do however think that in this case, the rules are wrong. Regulations on flying with expressed breast milk need to be changed, and I for one, am glad that Alyssa Milano is expressing herself so vocally.

The 2015 Ford Edge Gives You New Tech in a Family Crossover

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Crossovers are smaller SUVs that make it easy to carry kids and cargo, are much more affordable than full-size SUVs, and have fuel economy that won’t have you crying when gas prices rise. The Ford Edge has been leading the pack in sales, so Ford was very careful to improve things with their 2015 redesign.

It’s definitely a mom car in all the best ways. It manages to be functional and stylish so that you’ll like carting your kids to and fro and won’t mind having to make a mad dash to the grocery store because you suddenly need supplies to bake cupcakes for a party at school tomorrow.

Let’s start with the new technology in the #FordEdge, in particular the parking package. The Titanium trim level comes with an option package that will help identify a spot that is large enough for your car, and then steer you into that space. You manage the gas and brakes while the car manages steering.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

As the wheel spins, a disconcerting thing if you’ve never experienced this before, messages on the infotainment screen will tell you when you need to shift from Drive to Reverse. It will do this both for parallel and perpendicular parking and if at any time you want to take control, then just put your hands on the wheel and the system disengages.

The only drawback is that the system is slow. If you’re in heavy traffic and there are cars waiting for you to park so that they can pass, then you’re going to get a few honks of the horn.

There’s also lane keep assist which will help keep you from drifting out of your lane. If the car drifts past the lines, it will let you know and it will nudge you back in the right direction. There are limits, however, as it will eventually tell you to put your hands back on the wheel. This isn’t full-on self-driving technology, but it’s getting close.

One of my favorite bits of technology wasn’t as fancy, but it was very useful. There’s a 180-degree front camera that lets you see when you’re trying to pull out. My drive was in Arizona so there wasn’t a snowbank in sight, but this feature would be so helpful when the winter snows make pulling onto the road an impossible task. It even has a washer so you can clear off mud and salt.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The inside benefits from an upgrade with materials that look and feel better than the previous generation of the Edge. I also liked that surfaces aren’t fussy, so when your kids inevitably get something icky and sticky on the seats, the seats will be easier to clean.

Soft-touch surfaces abound and there is storage everywhere you look. There are spots on the doors for holding water bottles that keep them in place so they don’t fall out when you open or close the door. There is a cubby on the top of the dash and another to the left of the steering wheel. If there was a spot that could hold something, Ford made it usable.

Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin
Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin

The rear seats fold down easily and even kids could push them back up into place. The best part about these seats is that when they fold up they do not catch the seat belt.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve managed to catch the seat belt as I’ve pushed the seats back and then had to open them up, adjust the belt, and push the seats back again. There’s a gap that lets the seat belt easily move so this just won’t happen in the Edge. It’s a small thing, but the kind of thing you’ll really appreciate when it’s freezing cold or pouring rain and you just want to get into the car.

Ford has also made the Edge a very smooth and comfortable ride no matter where you sit. The rear seats are large enough that the kids won’t be touching each other, God forbid, and front passengers won’t be bumping elbows either. The Edge evens out rougher roads nicely and the ride is quiet so you will be able to hear your kids and talk to them without that awkward half-yelling thing you do in noisy cars.

There are three engine choices starting with the all-new 2.0-liter EcoBoost twin scroll turbo 4-cylinder with 245 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. This is the smallest of the engines and if you’re looking for oomph, then this is not the engine for you.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 gets 315 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque and is a lot more fun to drive. There’s more power here and you feel it when you accelerate, but you’ll also pay an extra $10K for the option, so drive them both to see what you think before you make the call.

The last choice is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with 280 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque that has flex-fuel capability. They all get a 6-speed automatic transmission and can tow up to 3500 pounds for when the weekends come and it’s time for a getaway. Trucks are great, but they’re far from your only option for hauling stuff behind a vehicle.

The Ford Edge has received myriad updates for 2015 that not only keep it from falling behind in this competitive segment, but help keep it leading the way. Pricing starts at $28K making it easy to get into this comfortable, attractive, and functional crossover.

Ford covered my expenses to attend this drive event.