New Chevrolet Teen Driver System Keeps Kids Safe

Image: Chevrolet
Image: Chevrolet

Those first 16 years go by in the blink of an eye and suddenly you’re handing over your car keys to your teenager. You do everything you can to keep make sure they’ll be safe, make sure they know what to do, but how do you know if they’re really behaving behind the wheel? New Teen Driver technology from Chevrolet can help.

This snazzy new tech will make its debut in the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and will help parents monitor their teen’s driving habits so that they can make sure they’re being safe. It starts with muting the car’s audio if the front seat belts aren’t buckled as a little reminder to buckle up.

The volume can also be preset, based on the key fob, so that music can’t be blasting at a ridiculous volume that would cause distraction for your new driver. Additionally, if the vehicle is equipped with active safety features like forward collision alert, stability control, traction control, and rear cross traffic alert, then these features will be automatically turned on and won’t be able to be turned off.

The Teen Driver system can also keep track of how your teen is driving by providing information on how far and how fast your kid is going on the road. Forward collision alerts, forward collision braking events, and antilock brake events can also be monitored to provide parents the opportunity to discuss driving patterns with their teens.

The system is not subscription based and is available as an option on lower trims while being a standard feature on the Premier trim of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Now you’ve got one more tool for keeping your new teen driver safe on the roads.

Party Hard, Family Style, at Universal Orlando Mardi Gras!

King Gator Float, Mardi Gras at UOR \ Image: Universal Orlando
King Gator Float, Mardi Gras at UOR \ Image: Universal Orlando

Mardi Gras is a family-friendly version of what you find in New Orleans. Complete with a parade, beads, concerts, and food from the area, it’s a fun day for everyone. During this visit, my son and I were given the opportunity to ride one of the floats and throw beads to the crowd. My son was nervous about riding a float, but I knew once he was on there and throwing beads, he would cheer up quick.

A quick history lesson. Mardi Gras happens on the last day of the Carnival season that begins January 6th and runs through the day before Ash Wednesday. Many people confuse Mardi Gras for Carnival, the celebration that leads up to Mardi Gras. In New Orleans, they not only throw beads from the floats but also other small trinkets from cups to stuffed animals.

Image: Dakster Sullivan
Image: Dakster Sullivan

If you’ve never been to Mardi Gras at Universal Studios, you have no idea what you are missing, so allow me to enlighten you.

At 9:00 am EST the park opens and everyone runs through the gates, rushing to be the first one on Escape to Gringotts or Minions. For me, Minions is a top priority followed by Transformers and Men In Black.

After hitting up the rides, we head over to Diagon Alley for Butterbeer. It’s a requirement to have two on every visit to the park—one in the morning and one before we leave. It’s a filling drink that easily holds us over till lunch time.

After a few hours of hanging out at the rides, eating at Richter’s Burger Co., and just enjoying a family day out in the wonderful 56 degree Florida weather, we finally see the beginnings of Mardi Gras starting.

Image: Dakster Sullivan
Image: Dakster Sullivan

I really enjoyed checking out the various masks and specialty beads you could purchase. My husband and son were more than happy to model their favorite choices for me. The beaded tie that my husband is wearing was $12 and the mask my son is modeling was around $16.

Nothing classier than a beaded tie. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Nothing classier than a beaded tie. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

The French Quarter area is a bit small in comparison to what I remember it being when I was a kid, but it’s still fun to hang around and check out. The food smelled great and the performers around the area were lively and happy to stop and chat with you for a bit.

I took the opportunity to tell a few of the performers about my son’s fear of riding the float that night. He was worried he would embarrass himself and get stage fright. They were all very welcoming and gave him words of encouragement about how much fun he was going to have. Between talking with them and the churro we bribed him with afterward, he seemed more warmed up to the idea. I also reminded him that Daddy would be spotting our float, so we were in good hands.

Did you know Mardi Gras spotter
Image: Dakster Sullivan

By the time we were checked in to ride the gator-themed float and taken backstage for our costumes, Brandon was jumping for joy. He picked out a cute gator hat to wear while I was given a parrot hat (I’m still confused on that one).

We loaded up on the float and gave one last wave to the crew backstage as we started the journey to the parade route.

The gator float is the last one on stage so the crowd was already pumped and ready for us. It was more fun than blasting stormtroopers with Nerf guns. My son yelled “fire!” every time he launched beads in the air. I tried to throw as far back as I could so the kids in the back could grab some, and, admittedly, I hit a few people in the face. One mom was lifting her two-year-old son’s shirt to “flash” us for beads.

Image: Dakster Sullivan
Image: Dakster Sullivan

A special treat at the end, we were all allowed to take home all the beads that we could grab off the float. My son and I walked off like little Jawa bandits.

The only downside to riding a float is that the concert starts before you are unloaded, so you miss getting a good seat, but really… riding a float and throwing beads or getting a decent seat in a crowded concert area? Riding the float wins hands down.

At the end of the day my son was happier than I had seen him while not plugged into a computer and we had a great day spending time as a family. It was an all-around fun family experience that I highly recommend to any family coming to town during the February through April months. If you’re an annual passholder and would like a chance to ride, you can sign up online. Children must be at least 48 inches to ride and wheelchairs can be accommodated with advanced notice.

The event runs until April 18th, so if you are in the area or looking for a reason to get away, Mardi Gras at Universal is the perfect excuse. For the adult party goers, the fun doesn’t stop at Universal Studios. It carries over in to CityWalk, with Pat O’Briens, AMC Theaters, Cow Fish, and other cool hangouts.

For ticket prices and a complete list of upcoming artists, head over to Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras website.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom was given tickets into this event. 

A Geek’s First Renaissance Faire

This past weekend I attended the Florida Renaissance Festival in Deerfield, Florida. This was my first Renaissance Faire and after hearing so many great things about it,  I was anxious for my own medieval experience. I went into the faire only knowing that it was medieval / renaissance themed and that’s it.

We arrived a little early, and I’m glad we did because they have an opening ceremony where the key players of the court are introduced. It’s a ten-minute show that includes a canon being fired at the end. The humor is family friendly and a nice way to kick off the day.

We planned on spending two days there since Saturday was mostly the celebration of the “Rain” of King Ferdinand (thank you Florida weather). Despite the weather, the faire went on and we had a very fun day of hopping around in the rain and seeing as many vendors and booths as we could.

We ran into musicians, stilt walkers, faire players, and even a guy carrying pretzels on a giant stick like in the ye’ olden days.

If you didn’t come prepared in a costume, they had a rental area for you to pick out and play the day in. I forgot to stop in and check on their prices though (bad Dakster!).

The first booth we came across that made me stop for a bit was the home of Red’s Majikah Perfumery. It was a cute little booth with bottle charm necklaces that you could get filled with your choice of oil. My mom purchased me a small green bottle with a tree on it filled with peppermint (used to treat migraines). She decided on a purple bottle with lavender (calming). I really enjoyed this booth because they were inexpensive (one for $15 or two for $20) and the cork absorbed the oil inside for a gentle smell coming from the bottle.

As we walked along, we came upon another vendor with some charming ear cuffs and hair ornaments. My hair was too short for this one, but my mom has long, pretty, purple hair and modeled this one for me. I picked up a pair of flower ear cuffs for myself. They had some great steampunk ear cuffs as well, but I felt the flower ones would match my day-to-day life a bit better.

We didn’t get to see any of the shows because we were enthralled by the vendors so much, but what we did see as we were walking past looked really fun.

The Mud Show in particular looked like it was going to be a blast because the first three rows of the stage had been flooded from the rain…and people were already in the audience, sitting in the water, waiting for the show to start. I guess you could say it was swimming room only (dun dum).

The rest of the day was filled with walking and admiring the artistry of the costumes that the players and the attendees were wearing. The children were dressed as everything from princesses to a mix of Tinkerbell and Princess Ana (I guess you really can’t escape Frozen). The talented musicians were a joy to the ears and had a nice covered tent to listen to them play while it rained.

I did take a moment to stop at the Apothecary booth and listen to Sir Elrick talk about herbal first aid kits to a scout. Sir Elrick was a scoutmaster for 25 years and uses his time now to teach herbal medicine. One of the items he talked about having in the first aid kit were yellow onions.

Bug Bites
Cut a small yellow onion just below the top
Score the inside like a checkerboard
Squeeze the juice onto the bug bite
Rub it in for 20 seconds

The oil inside the onion acts as an anesthetic for the bug bite and will reduce the swelling and take care of the itching.

A few other interesting areas of the festival were the fencing and archery areas, Kids Kingdom, and the Tomato Torture.

Tomato Torture was like a medieval dunking booth. For $5 for 5 tomatoes, or $20 for a basket of tomatoes, you could throw them at some poor sap in the torture spot. I don’t feel too bad for him though, because he was having just as much fun throwing insults at people. He had me cracking up with a few of his insults including, “I have an idea. Throw it like I’m the guy that gave you that haircut.”

The Kids Kingdom had bounce houses, arts and crafts, games, and stage shows just for them. The prices were between $5 and $12 depending on if you wanted to go in once or be able to go back all day. I wasn’t able to get any pictures of this area because I left my son at home (and boy was he mad at me for that).

When it came to the fencing and archery areas, the archery area had a lot of adults while the fencing had more kids around it. It was $4.00 to fence your partner for five minutes or $5.00 to fence a master for five minutes.

I regret not seeing at least the jousting match, but I was so concerned about walking around and not missing anything that I ended up doing just that. Missing stuff. The next time I attend, I’ll be planning my time a bit more wisely (and bringing a lot more cash).

Tickets start at $21 per day for adults (12 and up) and $9 for children ages 6-11. If you can stay for the weekend, I highly recommend it. There is no way you can see all the shows, vendors, and otherwise medieval awesomeness in one day.

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Geeking Out with the Disney Dream, Part 1: The Little Things

Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Santa brought the Vollmer family a four-night Disney cruise vacation! The trip happened to coincide with our youngest son’s birthday. In a very uncharacteristic move, my husband and I agreed to take our sons out of school for a solid week and drove out to Port Canaveral, Florida, the home port to the Disney Dream, the Disney Cruise Line’s most-recently christened ship.

Learn more about Disney Cruise Lines through their website.  Check out Wikipedia for the Disney Dream‘s amazing statistics. Or better yet, how about the Disney Dream by the Numbers?

Our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside on Christmas morning. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
On Christmas morning, our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I don’t plan to discuss too much about the cruise itself. Anyone can write about taking a cruise, right? We stopped in Nassau, Bahamas, and on Disney’s island, Castaway Cay. Our sons got to experience snorkeling for the first time. I’ve cruised with Carnival in the past, but that didn’t hold a candle to a Disney trip! My family was geeking-out at some of the amazing little subtleties that make the Disney Cruise Line experience second-to-none!

1. Hidden Mickeys everywhere!

Need I say more?

It goes without saying that the "Hidden Mickeys" are everywhere. This one isn't quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
It goes without saying that the “Hidden Mickeys” are everywhere. This one isn’t quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

2. Characters everywhere!

Obviously, there are Disney characters on a Disney cruise, right? After having experienced many hours in line over the years waiting to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pooh Bear, Rafiki, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Fredricksen at Walt Disney World, it was a breath of fresh air to not have to wait long for characters at all. My sons filled up their autograph book on a family trip to Disney World in 2009, so they were rather laissez-faire about the characters this time around. In fact, we only waited in line for one character: Jack Sparrow! Most of the others we encountered almost by chance throughout the cruise ship.

When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer
When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer.

3. The Key to the World

Like other cruise lines, many things are tied into the key card. Disney calls their card the “Key to the World,” whether you’re on the cruise or staying at a Disney resort on land. If you are combining a cruise with a Walt Disney World vacation, the same card will have your resort key, park tickets, and Disney Dining Plan information loaded onto it.

On the Disney Dream, we used the key card to enter our stateroom, turn on the lights, enter/exit the ship at ports of call, drop off/pick up children from the Oceaneer Club, and charge beverages and souvenirs. It was even tied into a photography account when the on-board photographers take snapshots.

The Disney Dream was so new at the time that instead of swiping the key card in many places, we instead had a touchpad that was similar to MasterCard PayPass touchpads. To enter/exit our staterooms, the kids didn’t even have to remove the key cards from their lanyards. Just touch the card to the pad. We used similar touchpads for entering/exiting the ship.

The little black keypad above the door handle is a touch pad for the key card. The kids didn't have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The little black keypad above the door handle is a touchpad for the key card. The kids didn’t have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Another thing the key card is used for is to control the electricity in your stateroom. I found this a great energy-conservation tool. There was a slot near the front door for the key card. A card needed to be in the slot before lights or the television could be turned on. I discovered that it didn’t matter what card was used for the switch—I’m guessing it was a manual connection switch in the slot somewhere. I saw a stateroom host using a Sleep Inn key card while cleaning a nearby stateroom. Ha ha!

Using key cards to control room electricity is not new technology, I know. It’s been commonplace in hotels in Europe and Asia for years.

4. RFID bands for the kids’ blubs

I didn’t get a picture of the wristbands, but each child ages 3-10 who wants to participate in the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab kids’ clubs on the Disney Dream are outfitted with waterproof wristbands. These two kids’ clubs together (they’re connected) offer over 10,000 square feet of playspace, covering everything from playground space to arts and crafts to interactive play. You may fit the children for the wristbands in the cruise terminal before boarding, at the registration temporary office as soon as your board, or any time during the cruise at the Kids’ Club check-in/check-out area (which I don’t recommend because there’s often a line of parents that you tend to hold up while the attendant is printing and fitting the wristband).

It seemed simple enough for the kids to tap their wrists to the gate to enter and exit. Very secure! You provide a password through the Disney website that approved adults can use to check out the kids from the secure areas.

Note: As a safety measure, the kids’ club policies changed significantly starting in January 2012. Whereas previously parents could freely participate with their children at any time, now the kids’ clubs offer “Open House” and “Secured” areas. If you desire your child to be at the kids’ clubs without parents present, they have to go to the “Secured” area and no other parents are allowed in. Only DCL child care employees. If the family desires to do the kids’ club activities together, they can take advantage of “Open House” periods in 2-4 hour blocks throughout the cruise.

Another hidden feature of the RFID bands—the geeky part—is that in the kids’ club spaces, the wristband is transmitting what rooms you child travels to. This helps the counselors maintain their ratios and helps the parents quickly find their children when it’s pick-up time.

5. The automatic hand washing machine!

Also in the kids’ club areas were these most awesome machines. Automatic hand-washers! The kids simply stick their arms inside and the machine automatically starts. Water spirals around your hands and forearms, then soapy water, then another cycle of fresh water. All in about 25 seconds. Take out your arms and dry them off! Even my youngest son, for whom washing hands always seemed to be a monumental task, was looking forward to this cool machine.

It's an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
It’s an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

6. The amazing cast

Unlike other cruise lines, families aboard Disney Cruise Line trips are assigned the same service team for dining and stateroom care throughout the entire cruise. This has both benefits and drawbacks.

Of course, a benefit is that you get to know several of the cast members. This is great for the kids. We had very friendly servers and the stateroom host was a sweetheart. At the end of the cruise, you are presenting gratuities to the servers and stateroom host themselves, instead of their pooling the money. Our boys learned quite a bit about Bulgaria from our server, Dimi. Dimi was relatively new and was practicing his Mickey-Mouse ears-shaped ketchup patterns every night.

One of the drawbacks is that I could imagine if someone received substandard service (which wouldn’t be tolerated for long by Disney Cruse Lines, I’d imagine), you’re left with that server for the duration. I didn’t see this, so let’s just hope this is purely hypothetical.

Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you’re celebrating while on-board, stand back! Disney gives you several opportunities to tell them whether you’re getting married (there were several weddings during our cruise), celebrating an anniversary or birthday, or on a honeymoon. Since our youngest son was celebrating his 7th birthday during the cruise, they gave him a button to wear. Cast members left and right would say “Happy Birthday” to our son as we were walking throughout the ship and on Castaway Cay.

My youngest son was allowed to wear a "Happy Birthday" button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him "Happy Birthday" constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him "Happy Birthday." Look at that face! You can't beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
My youngest son was allowed to wear a “Happy Birthday” button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him “Happy Birthday” constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him “Happy Birthday.” Look at that face! You can’t beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

7. Disney movies galore at the Buena Vista Theater

Are there any Disney films in theaters while you’re sailing?  If so, you have several opportunities to see them during the cruise for no additional charge.

Since we sailed in January 2012, I was thrilled to see Beauty and the Beast 3D being offered, but I didn’t get to see any movies during the cruise. It’s tough debating what items to cut from the packed schedule.

War Horse and The Muppets were also showing. Other movies offered included The Help, Cars 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

8. A cruise ship tradition: Turn-down service, Disney style

Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation knows that the stateroom host makes up your room in the morning, and then during dinner he/she comes in and performs a “turn-down service.” For our particular stateroom, this meant pulling the bunk bed down from the ceiling, laying out chocolates, and leaving the kids a cool towel origami animal to enjoy.

Good night!

The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids' top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids’ top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Stay tuned for additional posts about our family trip aboard the Disney Dream. Coming soon: The Midship Detective Agency (and other biometrics), the Animator’s Palette, AquaDuck! and the stunning Disney art on the ship.

8 Weird Observations About Portland

Portlandia - Image courtesy IFC
Portlandia image courtesy of IFC.

This year, I took the leap and moved all the way across the country to a city I mostly knew from a comedy TV show. Crazy, right? Hey, better than saying I mostly knew it from Grimm.

No, I didn’t move to Portland this year just because of Portlandia, and no, it wasn’t my only source of information before I movedbut I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you that, as I contemplated how to get out of Kansas, I didn’t watch episodes and think, “Well, if locally sourced chicken is the worst of their worries, that place must be amazing.”

And it is amazing. It’s green, and beautiful, and quirky, and just feels like the place I always wanted to be from. Next year, everything in Portland will just seem normal to me, so here are a few observations about Portland that I can offer while I’m still a newbie:

photo by Marziah Karch
Photo by Marziah Karch.

Portland loves bikes (mostly).

Portland has a well-earned reputation for bike friendliness. People bike in the rain, in the dark, to get drunk, to go shopping, to move, or even to deliver soup. There’s a bike tour shop that regularly hands out donuts to bike commuters on their way to work. My doctor’s office even has free bike valet parking. A big shift from my all-highway commute in the sprawled greater Kansas City area.

That said, only 6 percent of Portlanders are regular bike commuters. That’s still enough to have a lot of regular bike traffic, but many non-bike-commuters like to grumble about Portland’s efforts to build out more protected bike lanes at the expense of existing roads. Portland also has a problem with bike theft, so keep those bikes locked up.

The PDX airport carpet is special.

Hey, what? Until I moved here, I didn’t realize this was a tradition, but Portland’s airport has (or had) distinctive carpeting. Portlanders loved to take PDX carpet selfies with their feet, and the pattern inspired a series of t-shirts, mugs, socks, and even beer (featuring a feet selfie on the label).

PDX carpet merchandise
Photo by Marziah Karch.

The carpet is being replaced by a new pattern, much to the dismay of many Portlanders.

Portland eats and buys local. A lot.

I’ve never lived anywhere with a bigger emphasis on local products, although I’m willing to concede that this may be more of a West Coast thing in general. Even the fast food restaurants here like to point out how much of their food is locally sourced. There’s also a real pride in supporting local businesses. When I asked for a recommendation on a rain jacket, both the coworker making the recommendation and the store making the sale were sure to mention that the jacket was made locally.

Portland also has a well-deserved reputation for catering to very specific diets. Vegan, gluten-free, organic, paleo? No problem. Find the appropriate food cart. You can probably also get that delivered by bike.

Portland loves beer.

Portland really loves beer. Well, alcohol in general, but they seem very infatuated with the IPA. Most things you do in Portland could potentially involve beer or bikes and beer or beer delivered by bike. My husband got a haircut and shave at The Modern Man, or as I call it, “the hipster man-spa.” They offered him a (local) beer with his haircut.

In Kansas, they don’t even sell strong beers in the grocery store.

Mossy rooftops and other Portland weather problems.

I remember when I moved, lots of people told me that they hoped I could “live with the weather” or that I should “pack an umbrella.” It turns out the weather here is awesome, even if it does mean you need to scrape moss from your rooftop every spring. Moss grows everywhere.

Yes, it rains a lot in Portland, although a lot of Portlanders try to claim that Seattle gets more rain (wrong). Most of the time, the rain seems to be a bare drizzle, and there’s hardly ever a thunderstorm. That is definitely a change of pace from living in Tornado Alley. (Portlanders actually stare and point at lightning). There aren’t many days where the sky dumps enough water to bother using anything more than a light rain jacket or hoodie. Speaking of which, Portlanders don’t often use umbrellas. That’s how you find the Californians.

I’m told that the entire city grinds to a halt when it snows because the city lacks the infrastructure to handle it. I wouldn’t know. It hasn’t snowed this year.

Homelessness is everyone’s problem.

If you are close to the edge and end up becoming homeless, you’re basically screwed when it comes to finding a shelter. Any big city has homeless people. Portland’s are just very visible. There aren’t enough beds, and the waiting lists are long. The city’s solution has been to be generous with blankets, food, and public bathrooms and fairly hands-off about sleeping in public. Old Town is full of visible homeless “rough sleepers” waiting for the soup kitchens and other services to open.

Part of the reason that there are way too few shelters for the number in need of them is because there’s just not enough housing for anyone. Even people with steady incomes have a hard time finding a place to live.

Portland is so awesome that you can’t live here.

The housing market is out of control. When I moved here this summer, I made a list of potential places to rent, and then started calling about a week later to see if I could visit each one. They were all rented. I was told that I pretty much needed to just apply for a place sight-unseen, pay for the background check, and refuse to sign the lease if it turned out to be a total disaster. So that’s what I did. The vacancy rate for rentals that summer was less than 3 percent, and my rental place told me theirs was 1 percent. Crazy. The price of rent has only been skyrocketing.

We’re a few weeks from closing on a house, but even that was challenging because we had to compete with cash offers from flippers and investors. Rumor has it that some of them even knock on the doors of homes that aren’t listed for sale with the hopes of enticing the owners out with a cash offer.

Coming from the midwest, I have a lot of sticker shock at these prices. People moving from California or New York may still see it as a deal. Speaking of which…

If you do move here, you’re ruining Portland.

Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But there are some folks who think that all the transplants have somehow ruined all that is nice about Portland by moving here. Sorry about that. Forget I said anything. Portland is terrible. Don’t move here.

Oi! It’s A Punk Rock Flea Market!

If the flyers advertising Punk Rock Flea Markets across the United States are an indication, the lifestyle often associated with anarchy is actually very well organized and business-savvy. Image composite by Lisa Kay Tate.

Leah Valdez, an artist out of El Paso, Texas, wanted to find a place where she and artists like her could display their wares, without raising an eyebrow from the more “traditional” flea market or arts-and-crafts fair settings.

Instead of trying to fit into others’ designs, she helped organize her own non-conventional art environment with El Paso’s monthly Punk Rock Flea Market, a darkly unique event for artists, performers , and shoppers of all ages.

“As an artist here in El Paso I found it difficult to find people who appreciated my work, which involved combining the macabre and the whimsical,” Valdez says. “I love Dia de los Muertos and my art definitely reflects that. I’m kind of weird and I needed a venue to display and sell my work that would understand and be cool with that.”

The El Paso Punk Rock Flea Market is billed as “not your grandma’s flea market,” but Valdez says that the supporters of the market come from all walks of life. The diversity of the visitors is as extreme as the artists themselves. There are always a few adventurous grandmas taking advantage of this unique marketplace setting.

Underground art from The Great Pumpkin Toad, roving performers like stilt walkers, and even photo ops with a punk Santa are some of what makes punk rock markets like El Paso’s event stand out from the traditional flea market setting. Images courtesy of Leah Valdez.

“We are the largest art and vintage market in El Paso, which is cool because we have something for everyone,” she says. “Abuelitas (grannies) can go browsing for antiques while their grown kids can appreciate all the locally made beauty products, art, and handcrafted jewelry, and finally, the younger crowd can check out our horror, punk, rockabilly inspired clothing, art, accessories, and everything in between.”

Valdez says that one of her inspirations was the Trenton (New Jersey) Punk Rock Flea Market.

“They had 200 artists selling unique, handmade items and their vibe was just awesome,” she says. “I was always wishing I could hop on a plane and participate, which wasn’t a feasible option, so I decided to organize one here.”

The Trenton market is run by The Rockhopper Creative, owned and operated by Joseph Kuzemka. Kuzemka says, like El Paso’s market, the diversity of the crowd at Trenton’s market is amazing.

“Although our target audience is more of the 18-35 demographic, we definitely appeal to folks from all walks of life, age, etc.,” he says. “It’s not at all uncommon to see older couples strolling through the market right alongside a tattooed, 22-year-old with a mohawk and a leather jacket that’s rockin’ a Nausea back patch.”

Kuzemka says there will always be the tendency for some people to hear the term “punk rock,” cringe a little, and shy away from the event. However, with over 25 years in the New Jersey punk rock scene and a knack for organizing large-scale events, he helped to bridge the gap with a family-friendly market of more than 200 small businesses from five states, nearly a dozen food trunks, the local arts community, and what he called that “DIY ethic” on which the entire punk and hardcore movement is based. He says the market is really a celebration of the arts and creativity.

“We’ve included everything from skate demos and live graffiti muralists to raffles and giveaways at every event,” he says. “For our upcoming event in March, we’ll actually have have live glassblowing going on the entire day.”

He says some of the misconceptions about the market have been amusing to read, particularly on the event’s Facebook feed.

“Many younger adults will RSVP and their parents will generally comment with a snarky reply suggesting they either shouldn’t come into an urban area or that their love of punk, goth, what-have-you, is somehow bumming them out,” Kuzemka says. “Many people don’t get it. They hear the term ‘punk rock’ and it somehow conjures up ideas of mosh pits and stage dives, when in reality we’re just several thousand people coming together to celebrate music, the arts, culture, craftsmanship and, most importantly, community. We welcome everyone, and I’ve spoken to many folks who were skeptical until they attended the actual event. They always come back.”

Kuzemka says his experience with the Trenton market has been so “unbelievably rewarding,” it is hard for him to really nail down what he loves most. One thing that does make him most proud is the market being so heavily community-based.

A large crowd gathers at the historic Roebling Machine Shop in Trenton, NJ, for its Punk Rock Flea Market. The market’s success is partly due to innovate vendors and artists like Little Punk People (left) and Vikki Sin Art. Images courtesy of the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market.

“Trenton is a little down on its luck and it’s going to require a lot of work to bring it back to its glory days,” he says, “but I like to think that by bringing more than 200 small business owners into the City of Trenton, three times per year, along with attracting several thousand people that attend each event, that we’re doing our part to contribute to the rebirth of our great city.”

The Trenton event happens around three times a year. The El Paso market has recently grown from monthly to twice a month, due to popular demand, in addition to occasional Twilight Market evening events held at various locations throughout the city. Valdez’s ultimate goal is to see the market become a weekly occurrence. Kuzemka, too, hopes to continue to see the Trenton market continue to grow.

“There are amazing things happening here… it’s just a matter of getting the people here to show them,” he says. “My goal is to not only continue this into the future, but to grow it beyond my wildest expectations!”

The Punk Rock Flea market trend is growing in other communities as well. In addition to El Paso and Trenton, Punk Rock markets and market events have popped up in Seattle, Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA, Bryan, TX, Brooklyn, NY, Newark, DE, Tulsa, OK, and Washington, D.C., just to list a few.

Valdez says El Paso has completely embraced the market, and there are anywhere from 500 to 1,500 attendees each month. She also says that the creative and talented people she has met since starting the market is one of the reasons for the draw. In addition, the emphasis is on the original works from local artists.

“(It’s the) vendors, artists, musicians, and all of the people that attend,” she says. “I think one thing that sets us apart is the vibe at our market. We’re all friends. We are all family. It is an artist-run market and it will stay that way. Come hang out with us, we have cool stuff, I promise.”

The Wonderful Crazy of Attending an Auto Show

Photo: Nicole Wakelin

Nerds have conventions like SDCC and NYCC, but gearheads have their own versions of these fan conventions. There’s the LA Auto Show and the New York Auto Show, but the big one is, of course, the Detroit Auto Show. It even has an acronym, NAIAS, because every good show needs an acronym.

I attended this year’s NAIAS (North American International Auto Show) for the second time as a guest of Ford. They gave us access to all the latest and greatest that they had to offer, but they also gave us plenty of time to wander the show floor and check out the general craziness of things.

Photo: Nicole Wakelin

The big deal at auto shows is when they reveal cars and it’s all staged like a mini rock concert. There is loud music. There are lights. There is even sometimes smoke just to make it really, super cool. You don’t actually need to look at the schedule of events, but rather can just hear where the next debut is about to occur.

There were several big debuts from Ford and they happened not on the show floor but in the Joe Louis Arena which is attached to the convention center. It is a special slice of crazy. Last year they debuted their new F-150 and this year they debuted the F-150 Raptor. This had truck people all in a tizzy.

Photo: Nicole Wakelin

They also showed off the Ford GT, and this one had me in a tizzy. It looks absolutely beautiful and it sounds completely delicious. After its debut, they brought it into the auto show proper for display. You know how I knew it had arrived? The rumble of the engine as it slowly coasted into its place was enough to announce its presence without even being seen.

The media days at an auto show are completely insane with photographers and journalists from around the world all converging on Detroit for a few days to see what automakers think we’ll all want to buy in the coming years. Even if you can’t attend the media days, if you’re into cars, make a trip to your local auto show and get a look at all the latest and greatest in shiny automobiles.

Ford covered my expenses to attend this event.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume Kicks Off 12-City Tour in Seattle

Photo: Kelly Knox
The famous metal bikini. Photo: Kelly Knox.

Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but you can’t deny that Queen Amidala’s gowns are breathtaking. In fact, from Princess Leia’s white gown to a Jedi’s robes, the costumes of Star Wars are now ingrained in pop culture. They are instantly recognizable and unquestionably memorable. Star Wars and the Power of Costume, an exhibit presented by the Smithsonian, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and Lucasfilm, celebrates the amazing costume achievements of the Star Wars trilogies with almost 60 original, handcrafted costumes from every film.

This exhibit is making its way to 12 cities across the U.S., starting at the extraordinary EMP Museum in Seattle on January 31. This incredible exhibit cements the EMP’s status as a geek mecca. Star Wars and the Power of Costume covers two floors of the museum, with a few costumes displayed elsewhere in the museum.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox.

The moment you enter the exhibit and hear the familiar music play, it’s not hard to imagine you’ve just stepped into Star Wars. (I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the entire time.) Each costume has been meticulously cared for and in practically perfect condition. It’s always amusing to see just how your favorite characters actually size up, from the small waist of Natalie Portman or how much Chewbacca would tower over you, but the exhibit goes into much, much more interesting detail about each piece.

Every costume has a story. Many are inspired by multiple cultures throughout history, like the headdresses of Mongolian royalty for Queen Amidala’s wide red headpiece and the samurai helmet resting on Darth Vader’s shoulders. Lucas drew from fascist regimes for the look of the Empire, the swagger of a gunslinger for Han Solo, and the humble simplicity of monk robes for Jedi. Each part of the exhibit includes fascinating details about the inspiration and creation of the piece, each a work of art in their own right.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume
The evolution of an emperor. Photo: Kelly Knox.

Costumes inspired the actors and vice-versa; both Ewan McGregor and Samuel Jackson were giddy at the prospect of wearing Jedi robes, while Harrison Ford insisted his shirt look a certain way. Be sure to spend some time listening to the interviews with the actors, designers, and concept artists peppered throughout the exhibit for a truly inside look behind Star Wars.

Young kids may not get much out of Star Wars and the Power of Costume, although seeing Darth Vader, Jedi, Chewbacca, and the droids “in person” should hold their interests. This is a rare opportunity to see the incredible detail of Amidala’s lavish gowns, the worn robes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or the famous metal bikini from Return of the Jedi. In short, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you need to see this exhibit, with or without the kids in tow.

Luminara Undili and Mace Windu take on the Emperor. Photo: Kelly Knox
I was certain the Emperor was going to move. Photo: Kelly Knox.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume is at the EMP Museum in Seattle from January 31 to October 4, 2015. Tickets are timed for entry, so plan ahead by choosing the best time for you and your family online. Tickets to Star Wars and the Power of Costume include access to all other EMP Museum galleries. (General admission gives access to all of the galleries except Star Wars, so double-check that you’re buying the correct one.) Don’t miss Icons of Science Fiction on the bottom floor!

GeekMom attended a promotional press preview.

OnStar Adds New Services to Make Life Easier

Image: OnStar
Image: OnStar

OnStar has been around for 15 years now and in that time has grown to become what many people think of as an essential service in their cars. Available exclusively on General Motors vehicles, it can provide directions at the touch of a button and, even more importantly, help during an emergency. Now they are expanding the service to include three new features that will make your life easier and maybe even help save you a little cash.

It’s one thing to have a warning light for low oil, low washer fluid, or that dreaded check engine light, but now OnStar can help you know about a problem before it actually causes an issue. There is new predictive technology that uses OnStar’s 4G LTE connectivity to provide data streams from sensors monitoring different systems within your car. If it senses something is not as it should be, then it can send you a notification in plenty of time for you to address the problem.

You don’t have to wait for an email or a phone call either. It can just send a message directly to your car so you’ll get the notification while you’re driving. This is pretty fascinating tech as it uses fancy algorithms to constantly monitor your car’s performance and see into the future. I would like this on every gadget I own.

The new service will also expand your ability to monitor things like tire pressure and oil levels. Rather than just the monthly summary available now, these things will be able to be monitored around the clock. These features will all roll out starting with the 2016 Chevrolet Equinox, Tahoe, Suburban, Corvette, Silverado, and Silverado HD in select models.

Image: OnStar
Image: OnStar

Another new OnStar feature that will be available on all 2016 and even some 2015 and earlier model years will be Driver Feedback which will let you take advantage of possible insurance discounts through Progressive Insurance. With your consent, OnStar will compile a report with driving metrics that evaluate your driving style over the course of 90 days.

They will then share this with Progressive which may be able to offer driving discounts based on safe driving habits. You don’t even have to share it with Progressive if you don’t like the results. The choice is yours, so you’re in control of how your data is shared and if it will ever be seen by Progressive.

Lastly is OnStar AtYourService which provides a host of features that includes the ability for OnStar agents to assist with finding hotels and even booking your reservation. A partnership with Priceline will not only find a nearby hotel, but also help get a better rate than you might find on your own.

Additional partnerships with RetailMeNot and Entertainment Book will give you digital coupons for retailers in your area. They’ll even help you find a place to park with Parkopedia and provide something to pass the time on road trips with These are just the first partnerships in a service they expect to grow over time to help you find what you need, when you need it. This service will roll out throughout the year.

Cars have all sorts of fancy infotainment systems, but the big complaint is making everything easy to use, intuitive, and actually helpful to drivers and passengers. OnStar is doing an increasingly great job of bridging the gap between what we want tech to do, and what it actually does in practice.

Right now, you may think of OnStar as your emergency backup plan or your instant source of directions, but these new services aim to make OnStar your source for anything and everything when you’re on the road.

Holidays at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida – My Top Reasons to Visit

Holidays at Seaworld \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Holidays at SeaWorld \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

The holidays are my favorite time of year to visit the theme parks. Each park has its own unique way of celebrating with shows, food, and attractions that make it special. SeaWorld takes their animal expertise and uses it to showcase the holidays in a way that only they can. Shamu Stadium shines with the holiday themed show. O Wondrous Night features animals that you don’t usually see in the park, and the decorations from the lamp posts to the recycled statues make it a must-see in Orlando.

Shamu’s Holiday Show – Shamu’s holiday show only runs once a night and it’s a must-see. The pre-show jazz and karaoke sing-a-long kept me and my son entertained before our favorite mammals took to the “stage.” The show itself fits right in with the holiday spirit with a very sweet portion dedicated to the love between a mother and child. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the soundtrack for Prince of Egypt was the music for the show. My favorite parts were when the mother and child were side-by-side. Since the accident with Dawn Brancheau, new regulations do not allow the trainers in the water with the animals. This is a huge bummer for both the trainers and the guests because the whales enjoy the interactions they get with their human companions and guests no longer get to see the special bond between trainer and killer whale.

Just before the show, we were checking out the underwater viewing area at Shamu Stadium, and an educator gave us some insight into the animals, including that the female killer whales are the dominant sex in the family. You could also see the floors of the viewing area were a bit different and I explained to my son that it allows them to lift the whales up for health checks and such. The educator overheard me and said that while that is correct, they use a different pool for that because it makes the mother and calf feel more comfortable. The underwater viewing area has always been one of my favorite places in the park, and I can’t wait to see it again when the massive expansion is completed.

O Wondrous NightO Wondrous Night is in the Nautilus theater and is so popular it fills up quickly. My son and I barely got in to see the 5:00 PM show the day we were there—we weren’t disappointed, so we are glad we made it in. It’s filled with upbeat Christmas music, sung by the Herald Angels, and the story is told by a cast of lively animal puppets. The grand finale includes a host of live animals including four camels, goats, sheep, doves, a young burro, and many more. To get a really good look at the animals, try to get a spot on the aisle to the left or the right of the stage near the side doors.

O Wondrous  Night \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
O Wondrous Night \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Polar Express – The Wild Arctic is redecorated to resemble the feel of the Polar Express movie. From the pre-show area resembling the house of the “hero boy” and the simulator itself being redecorated, you really feel like you are walking on the Polar Express. My favorite part of entering this area was walking off the Polar Express, and after a few rooms of presents and trees, seeing a Christmas tree and Santa’s sleigh, both of which look like they came straight from the film. My favorite part of the entire attraction was the interaction we had with Santa’s elves. They took their time with each of the guests who were next in line to see Santa and managed to get my son to come out of his shell. They talked Minecraft, Star Wars, and asked him about all of the things he liked to do. They stayed in character very well. I could have hung out with them all day.

Feels like we walked right into the movie! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Feels like we walked right into the movie! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

I was disappointed to see that the Polar Bears, Johnny and Klondike, were not there and have since gone to that big snow castle in the sky. They were my favorite part of the attraction and were residents of SeaWorld for a very long time. In their place, SeaWorld has given the area to a few harbor seals for the time being.

Empire of the PenguinThe Penguin Encounter has always been my favorite attraction in the park, because penguins are one of my favorite animals. Thankfully, the environment underwent a much-needed massive renovation and is finally an attraction worthy of the flightless birds it cares for. Built around the theming of their Antarctic home, your journey begins after watching the birth of Puck, a baby penguin who is learning his way in the world. For the adventurous, the Wild Expedition will be a cool experience. Those who prefer a little less action in their visit should take the calmer expedition.

The ride takes you through Puck’s life and the dangers he faces in the arctic including having to escape his predators. Geeks will be interested to know that this ride runs off of a wireless network with GPS to help the ride know who is where and where they need to go.

When you exit the ride, things will be a bit nippy because you will be in the penguin environment with nothing more than a four-foot piece of glass between you and them. While in the exhibit I learned that SeaWorld plays host to over 250 penguins and to make sure they’re comfortable, they keep the lighting and temperature similar to what you would experience in their home of Antarctica.

Holiday village and bonfire – Spend a chilly Florida evening (and by chilly I mean a crisp 40 to 60 degrees) with some holiday music, food, and a fire to keep you warm. The reindeer band was hopping when we were there and the fire was a welcome relief from the cold wind that was blowing that night. The village gives you a great view of the Sea of Trees which features over 114 trees and over 39,250 feet of garland. The trees dance to music nightly and by the time the holidays are over, will have done over 150 performances for guests.

Sea of Trees \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Sea of Trees \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Other fun things to do in the holiday village include festive musical performances, hot chocolate, shopping carts, and decorations galore to catch your eye. I don’t normally purchase souvenir cups, but the one the hot cocoa came in was really cute, so I splurged a few extra dollars on it.

On our way out of the park, my husband ducked into Manta for one last ride and my son and I checked out the hidden treasure that is the aquarium under the ride. There is one part of the aquarium where you are surrounded by glass walls and when you look up, you can see the sea life swimming over you. My son loved this part of the area and stayed there for a little bit just to enjoy the view. There’s another area of the aquarium where you can step into the fish world and have an “inside aquarium view.”  It’s the perfect size for the younger guests, but adults can squeeze in as well without too much discomfort.

I found Nemo! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
I found Nemo! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

As we walked back to the car that night, I took a moment to reflect on the day: We saw killer whales have a lovely interaction with their human friends; learned that all of the animals currently at SeaWorld were born in the park; fed a sea-lion ($5 for a really nice size amount of fish), and listened to their conversations with each other; and we saw the Penguins in their new and amazing environment, complete with freezing temperatures for us to experience. Overall, I’d say it was a fun day of learning and exploring and worth repeating in the future.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom received tickets into this attraction.

Gaylord Palms ICE!: A Chilly Family Fun Experience

Let's Get Chilly!! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Let’s Get Chilly!! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

ICE! at Gaylords Palms, in Kissimmee, Florida, has been a tradition with family for the past four years. Each year is themed to a different Christmas tale, and this year we were taken into The Nutcracker ballet. I’m not a big fan of this story, but I still enjoyed walking through the 9 degrees Fahrenheit exhibit and looking around at all the wonder that the 40 artists from Harbin, China, created for us.

This year wasn’t as extravagant with special effects as last year’s theme, Frosty the Snowman, but if you enjoy the story of The Nutcracker, I don’t think you will be disappointed. The four ice slides were a hit as always and my husband and son learned that by sitting on their parka they would go faster down the ice slides and were less likely to get stuck on their way down.

In addition to the regular ICE! exhibit, Gaylord Palms has added a new ice bar for the 21 and up crowd. For an additional $15.94 adults can make a stop inside the exclusive bar inside ICE! Included in the experience is a sampling of Johnny Appleseed gluten-free cider poured through an ice luge, and a choice of the Maker’s Mark specialty drink, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio or Rutherford Hill Merlot, served in a souvenir glass.

In the past, Gaylord Palms has tried various “ice villages” to entertain guests after they walked through ICE! and the general consensus was that it left you feeling like they owed you $15.00 in change for your $10.00 ticket. I’m happy to say that this year, they got the formula right with the Alpine Rush Snow Tubing experience.

They can have up to eight lanes of tubing going at once and, thanks to physics and gravity, every ride down is different. I lost count how many times my son went tubing while we were there, but we had to drag him away when it was time to go. A standard ticket comes with ten runs down the slopes and there are chocolate-stands-a-plenty to warm you up when you’re done.

While looking through my pictures of previous years, I felt a warm fuzzy feeling. Maybe it’s because last year’s theme was Frosty the Snowman, my all-time favorite that they’ve done. This year however, I didn’t see as much “WOW” to the event that my family and I have enjoyed the past four years.

If you have never been to ICE!, it’s a fun experience that needs to be done at least once. If you’ve been in the past, it’s worth going through if nothing else for the ice slides and the Alpine Snow Rush (separate ticket).

ICE! tickets start at $16.99 and can be purchased online in advance (recommended) or at the door. Alpine Snow Rush starts at $18.99 per ticket. If you would like to experience both, ask about their combined ICE! and snow tubing tickets.

Strollers are welcome inside ICE! and can get through the attraction pretty easily from what I could tell. Make sure you pack some blankets for the little passenger(s) to prevent them turning into little snowballs by the end of exhibit. Closed toed shoes are required and I also recommend everyone packs a long sleeve shirt, jacket, scarf, hat, and gloves (the parka works okay, but it won’t protect you 100%). Also, cameras should be rated for cold weather to prevent risk of them freezing up on you inside the attraction (pun intended).

ICE! is only around until January 4th, 2015, so if you’re in the Orlando, Florida, area make sure you stop by Gaylord Palms and check it out.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a media event at Gaylord Palms Resort.

A Weekend With the Penguins of Madagascar

Earlier this month, my family and I were invited to attend an event in New York City to celebrate the release of The Penguins of Madagascar. DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox hosted several bloggers from the area for a great day at the Bronx Zoo followed by a screening of the film, which opens on November 26th.

penguins of madagascar photo op
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation, used with permission.

The weather was a little grim, but my daughter, husband, and I still had so much fun. This was the day after Halloween, so we got to see some of the Boo at the Zoo set up. And my daughter Hannah, who is two-and-a-half, wore her costume. She was a cow; She loves animals and got to see lots of them during the visit.

She also loves the Madagascar movies, especially the third one (“Afro circus, Afro circus, Afro polka dot polka dot polka dot circus!”). This was a huge treat for all of us.

We met up with the group at the Residence Inn Central Park, where we were invited to stay overnight. We were bused up to the zoo (along with Corrina and her kids, who were there for GeekDad—it was great to see them!), and the bus ride was possibly the biggest highlight of Hannah’s day. We had a base camp outside of the Dancing Crane Cafe, and the food was pretty delicious. A hot breakfast and a nice lunch were hugely appreciated on the dreary day. And the Penguins even made an appearance!

It took Hannah a chunk of the day to warm up to the penguins, but eventually she did. In fact, by the end of the day she was up there dancing with the penguins.

Dancing with penguins
That’s my little cow! Photo by Jackie Reeve.

Despite the chilly rain, we spent the morning seeing the giraffes, the bears, the monkey, the gorillas, and the sea lions. And Hannah got to ride the carousel, which was definitely another highlight. The kid adores carousels.

Then we got a private tour of the penguin paddock, got to see a feeding, and hear some great information about the zoo’s penguins.

feeding the penguins
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation, used with permission.

We all got matching penguin hats (my husband would not be photographed in one for this post):

penguin hats
Photo by Jackie Reeve.

After lunch all of the bloggers and their families were bused over to the Bronxville Theatre for a special screening of Penguins of Madagascar. I have to say, this was such a fun crowd to see a movie with. All families, the kids were having a great time, and it was just such a nice afternoon. I’m not sure who laughed harder during the movie, the kids or the adults.

Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation, used with permission.

We loved the movie. It picks up where Madagascar 3 leaves off, with the penguins (Rico, Kowalski, Skipper, and Private) leaving the circus behind and heading off for more adventure. We get some background on how they become a super covert spy team. They team up with a very slick group of actual professional spies called The North Wind (led by Agent Classified, voiced by the god of the internet Benedict Cumberbatch). John Malkovich voices the bad guy, Dr. Octavius Brine, who has a history with the penguins.

I feel like the Madagascar franchise gets better with each movie, and this solo flight (ha!) with the penguins continues to support my theory. It’s goofy and enjoyable for kids, but it’s also funny for adults. This is everything you’d expect an entire movie dedicated to the penguins to be, it does not disappoint.

After the movie we were bused back to the hotel for the night. The hotel has two halves, the Residence Inn and the Courtyard by Marriott. We were in the Courtyard side. The rooms were cozy, and Hannah settled herself in immediately.

Photo by Jackie Reeve.
Photo by Jackie Reeve.

We grabbed some dinner from Steak ‘n Shake around the corner and got even more comfortable. Sometimes the best thing about a night in a hotel is doing things you’d never get away with at home.

Dinner in bed. Photo by Jackie Reeve.
Dinner in bed. Photo by Jackie Reeve.

It was a great weekend with the family, and the movie is absolutely worth seeing. Take everyone to see it this Thanksgiving!

GeekMom received complimentary access to the event for review purposes.

How to Actually Drive Across the USA Hitting All the Major Landmarks

Image credit: Brian DeFrees' road trip route
Image credit: Brian DeFrees’ road trip route

Periodically this year, I’ve seen the image above posted to Facebook purporting to be “how to drive across the USA hitting all the major landmarks.” Except it’s not very good at it. The image alone doesn’t even make much sense! What counts as “major landmarks”? Apparently there are none in Boston. It looks like a great trip, but I don’t think it qualifies as advertised.

What the image really shows is the route taken by Brian DeFrees across 32 states in 55 days, taking 200,000 photos and turning them into a video. It’s pretty cool—you should check it out. But the video and visiting friends were his main priorities, not “hitting all the major landmarks.”

So could you do that?

It’s going to be a longer trip.

Here’s a shot I took at creating such a path for you, assuming you have quite a bit of free time on your hands, as it’s going to take weeks. Brian’s trip took 55 days, and it skipped a lot of states. How long this would take you depends on how long you stayed in a given spot, of course, but you’re looking at 222 hours (more than 9 days) of driving time alone.

Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps
Image credit: Ruth Suehle; created with Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

The biggest task here, of course (other than 222 hours of driving), is choosing what counts as a “major landmark.” It’s impossible to let somebody else make your dream road trip itinerary. That list of perfect landmarks is going to be different for everyone, depending on whether the car’s occupants love art or nature, lighthouses or lakes. For this list, I tried to create a balance that included:

– Traditionally “major” landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty or Golden Gate Bridge
– Nature stops, like Yellowstone National Park
– History stops, like Gettysburg National Military Park and The Alamo
– Science, like Cape Canaveral
– Arts, like the Philbrook Museum of Art and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
– What Trivial Pursuit would call “sports and leisure,” like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Churchill Downs

It’s a well-rounded road trip. You can use this map to see the list of places I chose. In larger cities like New York or San Francisco, rather than suggest every possible place you could visit, which would be lists of their own, I picked one highlight. Doesn’t mean the rest aren’t great. And it ends with Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, on the theory that you started with Maine, not because Vermont isn’t an amazing state with a ton to see, but because after all of that, you deserve ice cream. And the Ben and Jerry’s factory is a really fun visit.

The second goal was to visit every state, even if it wasn’t much more than a drive-through. On a road trip, the best stops are the ones you didn’t know you were going to find. Long, blue stretches on this map are just undiscovered adventures waiting to happen.

However, this is the part where I have to note that upon a final pass, I discovered I neglected Michigan. My utmost apologies to the land of people who are the masters of navigation by pointing to their hands. You don’t need this map. Just stretch out your arm and call it the country. You have the necessary experience to make it work. For the non-Michiganders who need to get that state into this trip, you can hit up Hitsville, USA, the home of Motown. I have never had a more enthusiastic tour guide. You won’t regret it.

If you’re ready to start planning your own drive, check out my two secrets to planning your best road trip adventure. And then get driving!

The 2015 Dodge Charger: A Sedan That’ll Blow Your Mind

Dodge Charger Hellcat Track
Image: Dodge

Once you have kids, you have to rethink your automotive priorities. That cute little two-seater won’t work anymore no matter how much you love it, so you’re going to have to spring for something larger. There’s the ubiquitous minivan, but there’s also the good old sedan. The 2015 Dodge Charger is a sedan, but good doesn’t apply. This is a bad, bad, sedan and it’s so much fun, you won’t even miss that two-seater.

Let’s get something out of the way right at the start. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. If you’ve looked at a Charger then you’ve heard about this beast with its 707 horsepower. This is insane. I say that in a good way and, having taken it around the track, it was some of the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel of a car. Still, this isn’t the Charger I’d buy as my everyday car.

I know, that sounds like a whole different kind of insane—why wouldn’t you want all that power?—but stick with me for a minute. I happen to own a 2010 Dodge Charger, so I’m speaking as the Mom who refused to buy a minivan and instead bought a muscle car.

Dodge Charger SXT
Image: Dodge

When I got into the Hellcat on the track, the instructor pointed at the “707+ horsepower” on the screen and asked me what it meant. I looked at him questioningly and said, “Don’t mash the gas pedal?” and he responded, “Right. Pretend there’s an egg under that pedal. Be very, very gentle.”

Okay, egg under the gas pedal. Check. They gave us the go ahead, I gently pressed the gas, and instantly the imaginary egg under my gas pedal was a blob of sticky goo. I didn’t mean to do this, but 707 horsepower is a lot and it’s hard not to hit the pedal harder than necessary.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved that car and drove it in circles until the Dodge people told me I had to get out of the car and go home. The one I would buy, however, is the 2015 Dodge Charger SXT Plus. I had the chance to drive this one through the West Virginia countryside and it was enough to make me think about upgrading what’s in my garage right now.

2015 Dodge Charger model lineup.  From left to right: 2015 Dodge
Image: Dodge

This version of the 2015 Dodge Charger has a 3.6-liter V6 engine with 292 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. There’s also a Rallye Group that turns his into a 300 horsepower engine with 264 lb-ft of torque. Note that this is not a Hellcat but those are still hella good numbers. Another good number is the price. The Hellcat starts at $63,995 while the SXT starts at $29,995.

You can mash the gas pedal, when the law allows, and you will get an impressive burst of speed that will squish you back into the seats and put a smile on your face. It is loaded with comfort and convenience features and the SXT trim makes things a little more special, a little sportier, with LED fog lamps, Uconnect 8.4″ touchscreen, heated seats and mirrors, remote start, dual zone climate control, an Alpine sound system, and a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

Dodge Charger SXT  (2)
Image: Dodge

Add on the Plus Group, which technically costs less to add than the actual options if you separated them out, and you up the sport factor even more. Now you’ve got leather seats, a heated steering wheel and backseats, a rear camera, illuminated cup holders, driver and passenger lower LED lamps, and a security alarm.

Basically, the Charger SXT Plus is the Hellcat’s smarter, slightly more well-behaved older brother. He’s the one you want to bring home to Mom because he’s responsible and polished, but still a sexy bad boy beneath all those good manners.

Chrysler covered all expenses for me to attend this event.

Chevy Aims to Educate: Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

GeekDad Matt Blum and GeekMom Nicole Wakelin with a new friend. Image: General Motors

There are a lot of milestones in a child’s life like getting that first tooth and learning to walk, but the one that scares a lot of parents is the day their teenager gets a driver’s license. It’s a rite of passage for teens, but how do we make sure our kids are safe once they drive away?

That was the focus of the #ChevySafety event recently held in Detroit during Teen Driver Safety Week. We heard from a panel of experts on teen driver safety and got a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into making cars as safe as possible for all of us.

First, the reality of the situation. Car crashes were the leading killer of teens ages 13-19 in 2012. That’s a downright frightening statistic, but don’t go running to take your teen’s keys just yet. There are things we can all do to help ensure that our kids are safe whether they’re the ones behind the wheel or a passenger in a car one of their friends is driving.

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Image: General Motors

You may have a car with the latest safety technology, one that warns of approaching traffic, cars in your blind spot, and even beeps if you drift out of your lane, but all that technology isn’t the thing you need to be focused on for keeping safe. The biggest thing that any of us can do, and it’s one that’s been hammered into our heads for years, is buckle our seat belts.

It’s kind of funny that, given the vast amount of safety technology in cars, something old-school is most likely to save our lives. You’d also think that teens would buckle up all the time since we’ve been strapping them in to within an inch of their lives since the day we brought them home from the hospital, but you’d be wrong.

Learning about safety tech first hand. Image: General Motors

A study by Safe Kids Worldwide, partly funded with a $2 million grant from General Motors, showed that 25% of teens don’t buckle their seat belts. Add to that the fact that nearly half of teens killed in car accidents in 2012 weren’t wearing a seat belt and the problem is even clearer. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of death to those sitting in front by 45% so almost half of those lost young lives could have been saved by a seat belt.

You know it’s important and I know it’s important, but how do we impress upon our kids that they need to buckle up every single time? Talk to them.

Studies show the more we talk to our kids, from the time they’re young not just when they’re teens, the more likely they are to heed our advice. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has done studies that show teens are twice as likely to buckle up and 70% more likely not to drink and drive when parents take an active part in the process of educating them about driver safety.

Image: General Motors

We saw the extensive amount of testing that goes into making cars safe, from crash test dummies to high-tech virtual reality labs that can analyze something as minute as the pattern a windshield wiper clears so you can always see clearly. We also got a look at the incredible OnStar Command Center where they can help in an instant if something does go wrong, but it all comes back to parents. We simply need to talk to our kids.

The technology is incredible to experience first hand and it’s easy to see how it can help save lives. The facility where they run all those dummies through their tests is huge and impressive, but it just won’t do the trick if teens don’t buckle up.

There are programs like Countdown2Drive that will help you get started with this important conversation. Talk to your kids early and often about buckling up and not driving distracted and you’ve gone a long way toward making sure they come home to you safe and sound.

General Motors covered all expenses to attend this event.

Bringing Halloween Back to the Neighborhood

halloween parade
A parade of trick-or-treaters get ready to hit the houses in El Paso’s Kern Place. The West Texas neighborhood has become known throughout the area for its Halloween celebrations. All photos by Rick Tate.

My brother and I were always Halloween nuts, and we would get increasingly excited as the night of festivities approached.

Our neighborhood, Kern Place, was always filled with kids racing from house to house, and our proximity to the United States/Mexico border drew several visitors from Ciudad Juarez. My father would dress up as a stuffed dummy, complete with a grim mask, and sit deathly still just out of view of trick-or-treaters until they reached the door. He would jump up and scare the living daylights out of the older kids and adults. Many homes had something similar going, and one house even created a walk-through haunted attraction, long before it was the vogue thing to do. Everyone looked forward to the next year’s scares and surprises.

Then something seemed to go a little sour with Halloween. In the early 1980s, many of the kids in the area begin to grow up, and the nation-wide focus of Halloween seemed to shift more and more towards adults. Drunken bacchanalia at nightclubs seemed to outnumber the family-friendly carnivals, costumes for men were getting sleazier, and costume for women were just plain insulting. Gore often replaced the gothic in people’s decorating choices, and it felt like there were less places for kids to go that seemed safe. Even my dad gave up his monster role when some stoned teens threw a five-pound weight on our porch, narrowly missing his head. There were still trick-or-treaters, but not as many.

There were some good things happening, too. Eventually, more and more schools, community centers, and places of worship began offering trick-or-treat alternatives, which many families appreciated (my own church still does an incredible “trunk-or-treat” event) but many people missed that “old school” romp around the neighborhood.

It took the next generation of residents to rebuild it, and in the last couple of decades, Kern Place has taken back the night. More young families moved back into the area, fixed up their old homes, and made Halloween an event known by nearly every other neighborhood in the city, as well as surrounding communities in Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico.

halloween dog walkers
Even dog-walking takes on a spooky edge on Halloween.

Today, nearly everyone in Kern Place geeks out on Halloween night. Residents and guests gather by the hundreds in the neighborhood park for an impromptu costume parade, then flee in all directions for a night of trick-or-treating and house parties. Many homes maintain elaborate displays or little haunted houses. One house I recall, would show classic monster movies on the lawn, where families could sit on hay bales and take a short rest from walking. People often choose the evening to set up an open house style party spread for their friends, and families from less fortunate areas bus in their kids to be part of things in a place they know they are welcome. Some high school and college groups have taken advantage of the opportunity to host door-to-door food drives for area food banks for the upcoming holiday season, and trick-or-treat for canned goods and other nonperishable items.

To accommodate the large throngs of ghoulies and ghosties, some of the neighborhood additions in past years have included temporarily blocking off the busiest streets around the park to vehicle traffic, and hosting live bands in the gazebo.

It’s like a mini, family-friendly, spooky Mardi Gras, and it has become a proud neighborhood trademark.

There’s no waiting at the door for the bell to ring, as visitors form neat little queues at the door of every participating home, which don’t seem to dwindle for a good two or three hours, and visitors, for the most part, know to not disturb the homes without a lit porch light or some form of Halloween trappings out front.

My dad is now purchases enough candy, wrapped cookies, plastic rings, and other Halloween trinkets for nearly a thousand kids. He always runs out.

Some may think, “Noooo way! I don’t want anywhere near that chaos.” That’s fine. There are those within the Kern Place community who share that sentiment.

A few years ago, one neighborhood resident was so averse to the idea of this trick-or-treat romp, this person hired an off-duty police officer to stand guard on their lawn, lest some stray little costumed hooligan dare ring a doorbell. I remember feeling sorry for that poor officer spending his Halloween in the edge of a lawn looking slightly apologetic at the crowd. I assume he was making good money for his troubles, but I also felt sorry for whoever felt they had to barricade themselves away from the events.

Maybe it was simple fear of living in a border community where there had been, that particular year, some pretty scary drug-related violence neighboring Juarez. Maybe they were just grouchy by nature. Maybe the evening’s activities interfered with their faith. I tend to think this person was just feeling alone and depressed, with no friends or family around to pull them out of their loneliness.

That’s the beauty of what my childhood neighborhood did—and still does—every Halloween. It does strive to bring people out of their individual isolation, and onto their porches. Family members take turns manning their “candy stations” while others roam the neighborhood, visiting friends and neighbors they might not have taken the time to see during the regular rush of everyday life.

The best part is, everyone has the excuse to be someone else. Parents and kids walk side by side as hordes of friendly zombies, teams of superheroes, or covens of colorful witches and wizards. There is no competitive pressure of costume contests, no need to try attract the hormonal attention of a potential mate, and no worries what other people will think.

This is an evening for fun… And family.

death race
Many of the Halloween displays are over-the-top and photo-worthy.

No one should be forced to celebrate something they don’t want, but those who haven’t taken advantage of the camaraderie in Kern Place are missing out on an absolute blast of a time.

Case in point was another Halloween curmudgeon, a single friend of my brother’s who had just purchased a new home near the park. We were all enjoying the neighborhood celebration with my brother’s young son, and decided to swing by his new home. My brother found him, pouting miserably in the back room of his dark home, watching television.

“That’s the only bad thing about this neighborhood,” he lamented. “Halloween.”

They left him to his movie in peaceful moodiness.

A couple of years later, this same friend found himself married, with his own young child. We caught him sitting on his porch that Halloween, surrounded by glowing pumpkins and trick-or-treaters. He didn’t have a costume, but he wore something even better—a huge, genuine smile. He had finally taken the open invitation to be part of things, to loosen up and geek out a bit over a time meant for fun. It’s easy to say it was being part of a family that drew him out of his shell, but sometimes a party’s just too welcoming to ignore.

Yes, Kern Place does Halloween right. Anytime I get down looking at the shrinking size of women’s costumes, the tendency for torture porn to replace monsters and ghouls, or the lack of safe places for kids to enjoy the thrill of the genuine trick-or-treat hunt, I am thankful for the people of Kern Place keeping their traditions alive.

trick or treat
Long-time Kern Place residents know it is best to just set up shop on the porch, as the lines don’t cease until the evening winds down.

I hope everyone can find a neighborhood like Kern in their area, and if not, I hope they take it upon themselves to get something similar going. Call it Halloween, call it Harvest, or just call it Family Night Out, but whatever its title, make it happen.

Halloween in Kern Place has taught me that when a neighborhood plays well together, maintains a family atmosphere, and welcomes others of all backgrounds, it is a winning combination.

When I worry about the world today, I turn to Halloween in my old neighborhood, and my faith in humanity is restored for a little while.

I hope everyone out there, wherever they are, has a safe, spooky, festive, and very happy Halloween.

2015 Toyota Camry: The Family Sedan Gets an Upgrade

2015 Toyota Camry
Image: Toyota

The Toyota Camry is kind of a big deal. It’s been the best-selling car in America for the last 12 years in a row, so when Toyota decided to change it up, they had to do so very carefully. You simply can’t afford to mess up the best-selling car in America and the good news is, they made it even better.

They didn’t just tweak it a little here and there, they completely overhauled it with every single body panel except for the roof getting a new look. Inside, they’ve changed most of the surfaces so that what you touch feels better. This is the Camry you know, but at the same time you’ve never met.

I had the opportunity to drive the 2015 Toyota Camry recently and I was looking forward to seeing what they changed and if it really made any difference. Every time an automaker comes out with a new version of an existing car they claim it’s different, but making it feel that way is a bit of a trick.

2015 Toyota Camry Front
Image: Toyota

Toyota totally pulled it off, making this mild-mannered sedan less mild and a lot sportier and more appealing. It’s offered in no less than nine different variants, so there’s likely one that will fit your budget and your needs.

It sounds a bit complicated, but basically what you’re looking at are changes in trim from the base LE, to the sporty SE, to the more luxurious XLE, and lastly the XSE which combines both sport and luxury features. They’ve also got a hybrid that comes in three different trim levels.

Your last choice is between two different engines with either a 2.5-liter 4 cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6. Most people opt for the smaller engine, but I’m telling you, if you enjoy driving and want a little more pep on the road, you should give the V6 a test drive. There is a big difference between the two so it’s worth checking out.

2015 Toyota Camry Badge
Image: Toyota

I drove not all, but quite a few different variants of the new Camry and got a really good feel for what they changed. The one with the most noticeable new look was the SE, the sporty one, and it has a downright aggressive grille with styling to match. No mild-mannered anything as this thing takes to the road.

The luxurious XLE will make you feel like you’ve taken a seat behind a much pricier car than its $26,150 starting price. Yes, you can get into all but the V6 variants for under $30K, and you get an impressive list of safety and convenience features.

2015 Toyota Camry Interior
Image: Toyota

Driving a sedan this size likely means you’ve got passengers along with you, often kids, and we all want our kids to be safe. Standard features include 10 airbags, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist as well as Smart Stop Technology brake-override system. That’s all standard on every single Camry that rolls off the line.

You can opt for additional features like a Pre-Collision System, Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with Auto High Beam, and Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Safety is a priority for Toyota and it shows in all these safety features.

2015 Toyota Camry Charger
Image: Toyota

Convenience features also abound with a 12v power port, USB port and a wireless charging system for select smartphones. There’s a special space where you just set your phone, a light comes on, and you’re charging. How cool is that?

The Camry looks good, feels good, is packed with safety, and is something of an escape from the world outside the car. Even the sounds of a torrential downpour during my drive were kept at bay. This is thanks to better door and window seals, noise insulating carpet, and exterior tweaks to make the air flow over the car with less turbulence.

If you’ve driven a Camry and think you know the car, think again. Toyota has taken the best parts, made them better, and given everyone a reason to take another look at the 2015 Toyota Camry.

Toyota covered all my expenses to attend this drive.

5 Ways to Geek London with London Pass, Part 2

Heading to Platform 9 3/4 in full Gryffindor. Photo: Fran Wilde
Taking the tube to Platform 9 3/4 in full Gryffindor, with wand. Photo: Fran Wilde.

When we traveled to London for August’s World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, our family hoped to satisfy all of our geek-level travel interests: nautical tech, history, theater, literary London, and time(-travel). We discovered that the London Pass covered much—though not all—of what we wanted to see, providing the means to save on admission, transit, and gifts at many stops. Our 3-day passes* (£81 adult / £53 child) paid for themselves and then some (costs marked Included indicate London Pass admission). With our savings, we purchased access to two of our favorite exhibits: the Longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum and Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory.

In my last post, we explored things to see for Theater, History, and Nautical Geeks. This time, it’s Literary and Time Geek adventures in London. Onwards!

Literary Geek
• Shakespeare’s Globe: (Also seen in part 1 of Five Ways to Geek London with London Pass. Worth it for pure literary value, too.) We picked up a kids’ version of Anthony & Cleopatra in the gift shop when we thought we’d be able to get tickets to a performance.(Cost: £13.50 Included. Gift shop discount with pass.)

Dickens’ desk, Charles Dickens House. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

• The Charles Dickens House: Initially planned as a quick stop, we stayed for hours. Our daughter was fascinated, both with the treasure hunt the museum has wisely organized (bonus hedgehog in the scullery) and the quotes from Dickens’ novels in the children’s rooms. We spent a lot of time talking about different ways kids experience childhood as a result. She bought a copy of Oliver Twist to take home and was halfway through it before we left London. (Cost: £8 Included.)
• Poet’s Corner, Westminster: A visit with old friends, really to say thanks for their works. Those buried here include Chaucer, Tennyson, and Dickens, with memorials to many others. (Cost: £18  Included.)
• Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross, Gringotts: Find these stops and more using online guides, or take one of many guided tours; if walking, tube to each via the London Pass travelcard. Purchasing photos from the pros at Platform 9 ¾ can be spendy, but they don’t shout too much if you want to take your own. There’s often a long wait at Platform 9 ¾, so it’s best to arrive early.
• The Tower of London for fans of, among other things, Neal Stephenson’s System of the World. The coinage exhibits are of particular interest, as well as the White Tower. Also (primarily) for History Geeks. (Cost: £20 Included. Audio tour discounts with the pass.)

Plaque at the Southwark Cathedral. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

• Walking (free): Throughout London, blue plaques mark points of interest—from George Elliot’s home to where, at separate times, writers and artists lived, including such congruences as HG Wells and Peter Cook.  Literary markers run especially thick in Bloomsbury and Southwark, near the Southwark Cathedral.
National Portrait Gallery Virginia Woolf Exhibit, through October 26, 2014 (free), and The Cartoon Museum (adult ticket  £7  Included).

(For more literary wonders near to London, check out the Story Museum in Oxford profiled by GeekMom Helen Barker, the Roald Dahl Museum, and the Universal Studios Harry Potter Experience.)

Time Geek
• Big Ben: (ie: The Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock) Not on the London Pass tour, but you can see it from everywhere and if you are a UK resident, you may be able to arrange a tour.
The bells, everywhere. Listen to the bells. Few places ring the changes like London.
• The clocks on exhibit at the British Museum (free) are a must for any time geek’s travel plans… do not miss them as you move through the galleries and eras of the collection.  You may need a time turner to see it all.
• Self-respecting time geeks won’t miss the opportunity to try and spot a Timelord. Visit London has got you covered. (Not on the London Pass.)

Greenwich Royal Observatory. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.
Greenwich Royal Observatory. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.

• The biggest hit by far (and one of the most beautiful views) is the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (transport via Thames River tour, cost:  £18  Included, or train.) Re-enactors discuss various aspects of the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time and lunar transit observations, in particular those of Jupiter’s moons. One of the people you may meet on grounds is a dynamic John Flamsteed, first Royal Astronomical Observator.
• You can take your photo by the Greenwich Meridian marker, but the much less crowded and much more relevant option is to follow the time-line to the historic Airy Transit Circle telescope, housed in the Observatory. As you wander, you’ll also find a working camera obscura, so you can watch the day pass in negative, real-time. So cool.
• Longitude, Punk’d: (Royal Observatory, Greenwich, also Cutty Sark belowdecks) This exhibit, which runs through January 5, 2015, is a time-traveler’s dream, especially if you are a steampunk time traveler. With the assistance of artists including Robert Rankin, Citizen Griffdawg, Lady Raygun, Doctor Geof, Major Thaddeus Tinker, Lady Elsie, Emilly Ladybird, and others, the Royal Observatory galleries have been… adjusted, to allow for alternate history and its required gear and devices. The pictures cannot do it justice. I’d suggest an in-person visit as soon as you can navigate your dirigible to the exhibit. (Cost: £8.50, includes Longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum.)

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Make sure to read part one of our London Pass adventure: Theater Geek, Nautical Geek, and History Geek!

The author received a complimentary 3-day London Pass from Leisure Pass Group.

The Tech Behind The 2015 Ford F-150: And Now I Want a Truck

Image: Nicole Wakelin

I have never owned a truck because I couldn’t see why anyone would buy one unless they worked in construction or were a cowboy. Those guys, they need one, but me? No, I do not need a truck to haul my kids to school. However, after driving the all-new 2015 Ford F-150, I really, really want one.

Trucks are a big deal in the automotive world, and this one is pretty much the biggest deal of them all. It’s not just the best-selling truck in the United States; it’s the best selling vehicle. Period. The end. So when Ford redid the whole truck this year, people were excited and nervous.

When you’ve got a vehicle like the F-150 in your lineup. you simply can’t afford a fumble. Ford introduced their truck back in January at the Detroit Auto Show, but it wasn’t until now that they invited the press to drive it for the first time down in San Antonio, Texas. I was on this first-drive of the F-150 and it was an incredible experience.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

You may or may not know the horsepower on your car, but if you’re buying a truck, there are numbers you’re sure to be looking at before you plunk down your hard-earned cash. The two biggies are towing capacity and payload, and the F-150 has the other guys beat when it comes to full-size pickups.

It can tow 12,200 pounds and haul 3,300 pounds, and it does this with the help of some pretty amazing technological advancements. One of those advancements helps not just with its capability, but with its fuel economy and that’s due to the use of aluminum alloys instead of only steel.

This truck lost an incredible 700 pounds over the previous generation. That is a stunning number in an industry where every last ounce they can cut from a vehicle’s weight is cause for celebration. This means better fuel economy, braking, maneuverability, and handling, all of which become incredibly important when your truck is carrying a load or pulling a trailer.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And, if you’re like most people, you’re thinking about those aluminum cans you can squish under the heel of your shoe and wondering if this is a good idea. Is it safe? Is it strong? Will it hold up under the pressures of daily use? The answer is yes.

They torture-tested this thing over more than 10 million miles, which covered all sorts of scenarios. They had it on their proving grounds, in labs, and even gave it to select customers who they new would, well, beat the heck out of it to see if they could make it fail. They couldn’t. The truck passed all of those tests with flying colors.

The F-150 now comes with four different engine choices, including a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost designed just for trucks. This engine is capable of producing 325 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque, which falls in the middle in terms of capability. Most people needing mid-range capability and about 90 percent of those who look for light-duty trucks will find this engine a good fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s also equipped with start-stop technology that turns off the engine when the vehicle stops, saving you money at the pump. This is one of those features that, in some vehicles, is simply awful. The sound and vibration of the engine turning off and on can be downright jarring, but it was almost imperceptible in the F-150 trucks I drove. Really, the only reason I noticed it was off was the sudden silence, just like driving a hybrid.

There’s also an EcoBoost for those needing more from their truck. The 3.5-liter engine provides 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. This one is the monster. It’s also the one capable of the top range in towing and payload and has been tested in the real world with over 500,000 F-150s with this engine already on the road.

Inside, there is a mind-boggling array of trims that take the F-150 from basic truck that gets the job done all the way to something that looks and feels like a high-end sedan with leather trims and wood finishes. And it’s also packed with the latest infotainment and safety technology like a 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, and a lane-keeping system. No matter your needs, there’s a configuration of the F-150 that will be a perfect fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And driving the F-150 is something you have to experience. It is a big truck, so if you haven’t piloted one down the road, then your first few minutes will be spent thinking, “Wow, this is big.” That feeling, amazingly, only lasts for a short time, because though this is a big, capable, powerful, truck, it’s also a very well-mannered one.

Handling is smooth and easy, making you forget just how much truck that steering wheel is moving along the road. The seats are also supportive and comfortable, so that even after a full day of driving, there’s no road-weariness or stiffness when you get out of the truck.

I had the chance to tow a 9,000-pound trailer—something I have never done before—and once my heart stopped trying to beat right out of my chest, it was easy. Despite being a lighter vehicle than before, the trailer never pushed the truck, even going downhill. I drove a competitor’s truck right after the F-150 and experienced the disconcerting sensation of the vehicle almost jerking forward when the trailer did push the truck. In the F-150, it simply didn’t happen and the drive was much easier.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It was a unique experience driving the 2015 Ford F-150, with access to engineers and experts that could answer my every question and explain exactly what the truck was doing along the way to make driving easier. They’re running special test drives from October 11 through December 21 in 38 cities, so you can try out the new F-150, too. Pre-register for events or just show up and they’ll be happy to let you take a drive.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what the all-new 2015 Ford F-150 has to offer, whether you’re using it to haul heavy loads or just for hauling the kids to school.

All trip expenses were covered by Ford.

Five Ways to Geek London With London Pass, Part 1

The Tower of London. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.
Tower of London. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

In August, the Wilde family visited London for the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (aka LonCon3), where two of us were panelists. We had a few days to travel before the convention and different ideas about what we wanted to see: I’m a literary geek (shocking, right?), a nautical geek, and a time geek; the husband is a bit of a history geek, with a particular interest in Londinium; and our daughter? She thought most of what she wanted to see in London was Platform 9 3/4.  That changed. Because we were on a budget, we discovered many ways to tour London affordably, taking the tube, walking a lot, and using the London Pass. We were pleased to see that when we visited three attractions or more per day, and took into account additional discounts, last-minute promotions, and the excellent (and free) London Pass app, our 3-day London Passes* (£81 adult / £53 child) did indeed easily pay for themselves, as advertised.

Meantime, we often were able to skip long waiting lines, allowing us more time to walk around London. (And we bought several umbrellas using our London Pass gift shop discounts.) There are so many things to see and do in London (not all of them on the London Pass) that we found ourselves pretty overwhelmed at first. Using the London Pass app, we were able to mark our favorite points of interest, which let us be more organized about where we toured. Because some things we wanted to see and do were not on the pass, we took that into consideration and budgeted for them separately. We still think the London Pass was a great deal. Here’s Part 1 of our favorite five ways to geek out in London that the London Pass puts within easy reach.

Theater Geek

• Leicester Square was our first stop near the National Portrait Gallery to pick up our London Passes, as we didn’t have them mailed to our home. We found the London Pass offices located downstairs in the ticket information booth at the center of the square. While there, we took a long look at upcoming shows, as London Pass holders can get substantial discounts off tickets. (If you’ve had your pass mailed to you, you can order tickets online too.) (Cost: Free, bonus discounts.)

At Shakespeare's Globe Theater. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.
At Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.

• Shakespeare’s Globe Theater – We first tried to go late in the afternoon, but found tours had already ended. Not a problem, the next morning was beautiful, and we came back first thing. The Globe is, as the original was, open to the elements. Our guide was eloquent on subjects ranging from how sets were designed to the origin of the term “stinking masses.” One particular Harry Potter fan was delighted to find a brick outside bearing the name of the actress who played Madame Hooch in the movies. To sum up: this is a must go. The rebuilt Globe Theater is exquisite inside and out, and their museum of costumes and sets downstairs was of great interest to the whole family. If you can, take the opportunity to see a performance while you’re in Southwark. The ticket booth is at the end of your tour, although families with small children may balk as we did at the standing-room-only option. (Cost: £13.50 Included. Gift shop discounts with the pass.)

• London Pass holders can also get free backstage tours at the National Theater.

History Geek

• Start with Tower of London, and go early. Even though the London Pass let us skip the ticket line, we took a leisurely walk across the Tower Bridge (also on the pass) and by the time we arrived, the entrance line snaked and weaved across the pavement, despite the sudden downpours. Luckily, the line also moved at a very fast clip, so we didn’t get too wet. Once inside, we used the pass to get discounted audio tours. All three of us chose the kid’s tour. It’s very well done and, according to other members of our party, funnier than the adult audio tour. On our way out, we explored the new coinage exhibit just inside the main gate, and found it excellent, with great interactives and a look at other aspects of the tower’s history. (Cost: £20 Included. Audio tour discounts with the pass.)

A section of Roman Wall, The London Museum. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.
A section of Roman Wall, The London Museum. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

The London Museum traces the evolution of the city from pre-history through Londinium’s heyday, all the way to modern times. It’s a little museum that packs a huge wallop. We immersed ourselves in Roman culture (Londinium) and saw a piece of the original Roman wall, peered at an Auroch’s skull, and even learned how long each of us would have survived the Black Death. Utterly fun and well done. (Cost: £5 Included.)

Westminster Abbey – Lines form early here as well, but with our London Passes, we were able to skip the ticket office. Once inside, the tombs and memorials of nobles, scientists, musicians, artists, statesmen, and writers (yep, you’ll see Westminster again on the Literary list) grace the outer areas while royal tombs occupy the inner circle. The adults among us were overwhelmed by it. The kids were interested in the details of the tombs because our kids are fairly creepy. (Cost: £18 Included.)

• The Tower Bridge exhibit, Windsor Castle, The Churchill War Rooms, and many other historic buildings are also on the pass.

• Should you spend a day being a Nautical Geek (below), don’t miss the Fan Museum in Greenwich. The small museum has a great collection of vintage fans from all periods, as well as a study of the language of fans. Most important, if you can make reservations, it has an excellent and affordable tea. (Cost: £4 Included. Tea is extra.) [Many thanks to Julia Rios, co-editor of the wonderful YA Science Fiction and Fantasy collection, Kaleidescope, for telling me about this museum!]

• At certain times of year, you may be able to visit Buckingham Palace, which we did with a discount from the London Pass. The best audio tour here is again the kid’s tour, this time conducted by the palace corgis. The artwork and architecture in the palace alone is worth the visit.

Nautical Geek

• Our London Passes got us on Thames riverboat trips all the way to Greenwich. You can take the tube, but believe me, this is the way to go. The city’s naval history is told along the rivers’ banks, and the river cruise makes for a great way to see it all. (Cost: £18 Included.)

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo Credit, Fran Wilde.
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo Credit, Fran Wilde.

• The National Maritime Museum is free once you arrive in Greenwich using either your riverboat trip or a London Pass travelcard to get around on the tube. The museum contains all aspects of British maritime history, from exploration and maritime battles to modern-day racing. Everyone loved this one.

• Through January 2015, and for additional admission, the National Maritime Museum is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: the Quest for Longitude, a not-to-miss examination of the race to find accurate methods of navigation. We took some of the money we’d saved by using the London Pass and bought tickets to this exhibition and its companion exhibit, Longitude Punk’d (see below). Totally Worth It. (Cost: £8.50.)

The Golden Hinde II, the reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, located in Southwark, is not on the London Pass, nor is the Cutty Sark, but the HMS Belfast is. (Cost: Adult ticket £15 Included.)

Tune in soon for Part 2 of our London Pass adventure: Literary Geek and Time(lord) Geek! *The author received a complimentary 3-day London Pass from Leisure Pass Group.

Our Epic Family Road Trip to GenCon

Helping build Cardhalla. Image: Nicole Wakelin

We’ve been to GenCon for the last five years, but it has always just been me and my husband. We’ve flown out and driven out and decided that driving is more fun. Flying can be a hassle and I love road trips, so we always stop at fun places along the way. World’s largest ball of twine? I’m in!

This year, we did the whole trip a little differently because we decided to bring our two girls for the first time. They’re 12 and 10 and have been to local conventions, just nothing this big and all consuming. It’s one thing to drive into Boston for the day to attend PAX East, but an entirely different thing to drive 14 hours and then spend four days straight at a convention.

We thought about this, a lot, before we actually decided to bring them on the trip. It’s not just the distance, but the whole intensity of the thing. We wondered, as much as they love to play games, would The Best Four Days in Gaming be too much? Would they stay up late and be so tired that by day three they’d be little wrecks? Would this somehow make them hate gaming and never want to go near a board game again for the rest of their lives? We had concerns.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

In the end, we decided that we’d make the trip with the girls and just play it by ear. We didn’t plan to attend a lot of events. We didn’t have a crowded schedule of games to play. We didn’t even plan our exact drive route. Instead, we figured we’d see the sights on the way and take it easy once we arrived at the convention.

Lots of people make the drive from New Hampshire to Indianapolis in one day, but we broke it into two, stopping in Buffalo, New York, at the Staybridge Suites so we could have Buffalo wings for dinner. It’s what you have to do when you’re in Buffalo, right? Last year when we made the trip on our own we stopped there, too, and tried Anchor Bar. This year, we went with Duff’s Famous Wings because we were told that these are the places you go to in Buffalo for wings.

Although we liked Anchor Bar, Duff’s won our hearts for their super hot wings and giant bowls of french fries. If you want great hot wings and plenty of fries and giant pitchers of soda at a price that won’t break the bank, then try Duff’s. Also, there are two locations and though you might be tempted to go to the original, the one near the airport is not far and way less crowded with no wait when the other location is packed.

Paula’s Donuts. Omnomnom! Image: Nicole Wakelin

We also found a great stop for breakfast at Paula’s Donuts. This and Duff’s are all within just a few minutes of the hotel which really makes this a great pit stop. Sure, donuts aren’t the healthiest breakfast but I’m choosing to channel my inner Bill Cosby and his famous chocolate cake bit. If you go, try the cheese donut. I know, sounds odd, but think cheese danish. Everyone local suggested we try it, and they did not steer us wrong.

We arrived at GenCon on Wednesday night, the day before the convention started, and the kids had plenty of time to unwind in our room at the JW Marriott. This is where we stay every year. The staff handles the crazy of everyone checking in at once as though it was no big deal. They’re friendly, helpful, always professional, and never frazzled.

There are lots of places to eat in Indy, but the hotel offers a little break from the mobs of gamers. Their restaurant, Osteria Pronto, offers a wonderful breakfast buffet and a selection of upscale meals for dinner. It is on the pricey side, but the food is worth it, and the wait is never as long as you’ll find at less expensive restaurants in the area.

Ready for GenCon! Image: Nicole Wakelin

First thing Thursday, they were ready, and when I say ready, I mean ready like it was Christmas morning! There was no plan to get there the minute it all opened, but the kids wanted to see the crazy.

It was packed, and they were totally fine with the mob. They held our hands through the initial rush through the doors and happily wandered the show floor with us, checking out games and dice and stuffed animals and t-shirts and hats and, it was a lot of stuff. This is a big convention and it hit a record number of attendees this year at nearly 60,000 people, but the crowd was still manageable.

The girls loved every minute. They tried out some demos, had fun looking at the cosplayers, discovered the joy of eating at food trucks, and my oldest narrowly avoided being thrown in jail by a Stormtrooper. Hey, it happens at GenCon.

A little Imperial entanglement. Image: Nicole Wakelin

This was a GenCon unlike any other for me and my husband. We still went out and gamed, but we ended up splitting up with the girls so we could show them each the things they wanted to see. One night, the three of them played a new game at some chairs in the hotel lobby and the girls thought it was the best thing ever.

During GenCon, gamers take up every square inch of space in the local hotels. There are games being played everywhere you look at all hours of the day and night. This small moment, simply playing a game with my husband in the hotel lobby, made them feel like they were a part of it all and it was wonderful.

They even helped us at at our panel, where we recorded an episode of The D6 Generation with a live audience. Let me tell you, if you’re trying to get a room of unruly gamers to behave, nothing works as well as having two little girls give them all sad puppy dog eyes.

Cosplayer: @meaghanslottje Image: Nicole Wakelin

At the end of it all, we were all exhausted, but in the best way possible. We stayed up too late playing games. We walked around all day long hardly stopping to rest for fear of missing something good. And we all ate like we were on vacation.

But what made it perfect was going with the kids. We shared something we love and they loved it, too. It wasn’t the same as going on our own, but in the end, this GenCon was so much better. The last day, my youngest was very sad and said, “That went too fast. I don’t want it to be over.”

I know exactly how she feels.

Vegas’s Geekiest and Weirdest Weddings

geekywedding main photo
Geeky, Goth, or “Graceland,” Las Vegas has just the wedding or renewal package for you. Image by Lisa Kay Tate

This past summer, my husband and I celebrated 20 years together, by allowing “The King” himself to renew our vows.

When we first came up with this idea, we weren’t sure if there were even really Elvis chapels around anymore. After finding out there were, in fact, several, we settled on the “Hound Dog” package at the top-rated A Elvis Chapel.

Elvis officiates the 20-year renewal ceremony of GeekMom Lisa, and her husband Rick. Photo courtesy of A Elvis Chapel.

We could have chosen from several other options including an Elvis wedding under the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, a later days older Elvis, and a Blue Hawaii style. We could have even rented costumes, were we so inclined.

We weren’t disappointed with our choices, as everything from the limo ride to the intimate off-the-beaten-path chapel, and our “Elvis” (whom our attentive photographer told us was their “primary Elvis”), was exactly the Vegas-style experience we were seeking.

Elvis escorted me down the aisle, improvising personalized lyrics to “Love Me Tender” in spot-on Elvis Presley mannerisms, with our kids and my brother’s family in attendance.  Other family and friends from across the country were able to tune-in to the festivities on a live web cam. We couldn’t have recommended the experience enough when we got home.

As it turns out, we discovered having a gold-jacketed Elvis tribute artist deliver a ceremony while asking your husband if he will continue to be your “hunka hunka burnin’ love” isn’t even in the ballpark of the geekiest, most oddball weddings ceremonies offered in Las Vegas.

There are weddings for every interest, fandom, time frame, and budget found somewhere in Las Vegas, with some pre-packaged, all inclusive experiences, completely one-of-a-kind custom made ceremonies.

Themed Weddings

The famous Las Vegas “Welcome” sign, and a storybook castle are just two of the endless choices for Vegas wedding locations. Images by Rick Tate.

One of the chapels with the most themed options is the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, where themed weddings include Elvis options, but also wedding packages based on Twilight, James Bond, Blues Brothers, Zombies, Gangster, Western, Pirate, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Intergalactic wedding that can be customized for either Trekkies or Fancouples, and others. Guests can even have “Tom Jones” or “Alice Cooper” officiate the ceremony. They will customize themes as well, so this might be the best option for Whovian or superhero lovebirds.

Pretty much all of the larger hotels in Vegas had a wedding chapel of some sort, ranging from elegant to kitschy. Our hotel, Excalibur, was no exception. Even though the hotel is showing signs of age, the chapel is still a beautiful destination for Renaissance and Medieval-style weddings. Their costume selection for period bride and groom outfits is pretty extensive, and the event pairs well with their theme park-style “Tournament of Kings” dinner show.

Treasure Island Hotel and Casino may have gotten rid of its family-friendly pirate battle some time ago to replace it with the standard song-and-dance show with barely-dressed eye candy, but pirate lovers can still get married on the pirate ship. The famous Treasure Island “Song Ship” in the hotel’s Sirens’ Cove can be reserved for wedding ceremonies. Pirate attire isn’t required, but is certainly not discouraged.

Gothic Weddings in Las Vegas offers ceremonies with a darker edge. Billing their ceremonies as “not for the faint of heart,” couples can be married in an eerie fog-filled environment for a classic Dracula-themed wedding, as well as Goth, Rocky Horror, Graveyard weddings, and their newest option, Elvira. They dare guests to wear white.

Offbeat Locations

While themed weddings may be what some couples look for, it’s all about the locations for others.

A Special Memory Chapel offers one of the most personal locations a couple can choose—their own vehicle—with their self-proclaimed “World Famous Drive Thru Wedding.” Couples can drive right up to the chapel’s “Wedding Window,” and exchange their vows on the go. They can also “Super Size” the experience, by having the chapel’s limo deliver them to the chapel.

This chapel also hosts other adventure weddings at nearby Red Rock, Valley of Fire, or on the floor of the Grand Canyon, where couples fly in via helicopter. They can even say “I Do” in the air during a flyover of the Las Vegas strip.

Those afraid of heights can get hitched beneath the surface with Underwater Weddings at Silverton Casino’s 117,000-gallon aquarium. Vows are taken using waterproof word signs to hold up, and fish, rays, and casino mermaids can serve as unofficial witnesses. Silverton is also known for its slightly faster, and dryer, NASCAR weddings.

Couples with a specific special site in mind, be it a park or parking lot, can call the Las Vegas Wedding Wagon to bring the wedding to them. As long as the location is 20 miles or less from the Las Vegas Strip, guests just need to go online to book a time and date. The wagon will come with an officiant, photographer, legal paperwork or certificate, and witnesses, if needed.

For the couple who is simply out of ideas, there’s always Denny’s. The one-of-a-kind Denny’s at Neonopolis mall off of Freemont Street, does offer wedding packages 24 hours a day, with a full-service bar and wedding cake made of pancakes.

Make sure to take family and friend along to share in the celebration. Photo courtesy of A Elvis Chapel.

As for the wedding that both tops weirdest theme and location mix: a KISS-themed rock and roll wedding at the chapel of an indoor KISS-themed Monster Mini Golf course, officiated by their “MINI-ster,” a dwarf Gene Simmons impersonator. Guests can even get wedding invitations that look like VIP KISS concert tickets. We have a winner!

One last note to couples, before rushing off to Sin City in a love-filled daze, the clichéd movie and television scenario of an “accidental” Vegas wedding is a bit over-exaggerated. A Clark County wedding license is needed for a legal wedding ceremony to be performed. These are easy to obtain, and the Clark County Regional Justice Center is open daily.

There is no waiting period after a license is obtained, plus many of the wedding venues also cater to vow renewals and commitment ceremonies, in which no license is needed.

Even through ceremonies can be somewhat spontaneous, it’s even more fun to plan ahead, and invite friends and family.

Seriously, an experience like a wedding with a side of pancakes is too good not to share with those you love.

The Adventures of Deadpool Labbit

Deadpool Labbit Kills The Marvel Universe! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Deadpool Labbit Kills The Marvel Universe! \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Once there was a labbit and his name… was Deadpool. Deadpool Labbit was very sad, because he had no one to bounce his snappy wit at or photobomb. One day, the self-professed “cleaner of the gene-poool” arrived on the doorstep of a geek family. He was so excited to join their group, he decided they were worth keeping around.

Since that day, Deadpool Labbit has graced Universal Studios, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Magic Kingdom, Chuck E. Cheese, Tampa Bay Comic Con, and several other places with his awesomeness. He’s had people ask for his photo and several wanted to know where they could get their own Deadpool Labbit.

Deadpool Labbit’s family told his fans to head to Kidrobot’s website to adopt their own Labbit for $50.00! Everyone was happy to hear that they too could have their own Labbit to buddy around with.

Deadpool Labbit \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Deadpool Labbit \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Some people thought that while Deadpool Labbit is awesome, his 7-inch size might be a bit to much for them to handle. “In that case,” replied his family, “check out the mini labbits! They’re only 2.5-inches and can fit in your pocket.”

“That’s funny,” thought Deadpool Labbit to himself. “Could you imagine putting mini-labbit Wolverine in your pocket?” He giggled at the thought of people stabbing themselves with Wolverine’s claws.

With so many adventures already under his belt, Deadpool Labbit (or DL as his family calls him) doesn’t think life can get any sweeter, but it can and it will… very soon.

Deadpool doesn’t know it yet, but his next adventure will be taking him on the Disney Cruise Line to Nassau and Castaway Cay. With characters, food, swimming, and beaches, he might just find time to enjoy himself.

Stay tuned to GeekMom and Deadpool Labbit’s Facebook page for updates on his adventures and escapades. It’s going to be a fun ride!

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Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review sample.

Con Recap: Buck 2014

Buck 2014 © Sophie Brown
Buck 2014 © Sophie Brown

It’s been over a week since the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic convention Buck 2014 in Manchester drew to a close, and I think I’ve finally managed to get “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows” out of my head. The con was two days and three nights of fun and included some of the most interesting panels I had ever watched.

Held at Manchester Central, the weekend opened on Friday night with the “Summer Sun Celebration,” a six-hour family-friendly party/rave/festival featuring 10 acts from across the MLP fandom. The area surrounding the main stage was an intense zone of jumping, moshing, and dancing, but for those less inclined to throw themselves into the melee, seating was available toward the back. The vendors’ hall was also open to allow some early browsing before Saturday’s rush.

Yami Bjork leads the Cosplay Panel © Sophie Brown
Yami Bjork leads the Cosplay Panel © Sophie Brown.

With Saturday came the true start of the con with panels, challenges, competitions, and more happening throughout the day. The main stage played host to a 90-minute talk from G.M. Berrow, author of the many spin-off books, who discussed how she came to work on them. Then, over in Workshop 1, professional cosplayer Yami Bjork led a panel on how to create your own cosplays, which covered everything from budgeting to what to bring with you on the day of the con. As always with cons, many of the panels overlapped, making it impossible to attend them all.

I particularly enjoyed the fan-fiction writing panel, which included some brilliant advice on writing, getting yourself noticed, finding good fic to read in the sea of mediocre, and building your own universes. The main thing I took away was a surprisingly simple concept: “Don’t write to be popular; write because you have something to say.”

Cosplayers as Princess Cadence and Shining Armor in the Cosplay Competition © Sophie Brown
Cosplayers as Princess Cadence and Shining Armor in the Cosplay Competition © Sophie Brown.

The charity auction was as insane as last year, with people paying incredible sums for one-of-a-kind merch. A custom Chrysalis plush sold for £1,100 ($1,800), while a printed hardback copy of the popular fanfic “Past Sins” by Pen Stroke sold for £700 ($1,150). By Sunday afternoon, the total raised for Buck’s chosen charity, JDRF Research for type one diabetes, was over £11,000 ($18,000) and still growing.

The cosplay competition attracted more entrants than I could count, with the line stretching almost to the back of the room and the quality of many entries was astonishing. A number of challenges were held over the day, such as cupcake decoration and speed art, along with gaming sessions for Pathfinder variant Age of Harmony and Buck: Legacy. The creative corner was open nearly all day to allow artists and writers to sit down and create, although some more space could have been justified as nearly every time I passed, all of the seats were taken.

Saturday ended with the Lunar Eclipse, a 3-hour long music event on the main stage with five acts playing during the night. Again, the vendor hall remained open and there was a relaxed atmosphere throughout with groups chatting, playing on the video games and dance stages, and singing Karaoke in the gallery.

Heather Breckle Demonstrates Coloring © Sophie Brown
Heather Breckel demonstrates coloring © Sophie Brown.

Sunday’s events began at 9:00 a.m., earlier than Saturday’s, which seemed odd given the more limited public transport for those of us travelling in from beyond the city center.

Sunday’s schedule was also decidedly busier, with around double the number of panels and other sessions than Saturday. There were demonstrations of community-created Pony video games like Legends of Equestria and Rise of The Clockwork Stallions, music improv, a crash course in animation, a demonstration of digital art, and even more challenges to take part in such as speed Monopoly, speed fic writing, and blind bag decoration.

On the main stage, IDW colorist Heather Breckel presented a 101 course on coloring for comic books, demonstrating live on stage how she colored Nightmarity in a recent issue of the MLP comics in a step-by-step process that made it all look far easier than it probably is! She also gave lots of advice for those interested in becoming illustrators and colorists on developing their own work and creating a portfolio.

Dave Polsky Talks About Screenwriting © Sophie Brown
Dave Polsky talks about screenwriting © Sophie Brown.

Later in the afternoon, screenwriter Dave Polsky gave what ended up being my favorite panel of the day as he discussed how the writing of MLP mixes fun with rebellion and ends up appealing to all. He referenced theories by Goethe, Camus, and Alfred North Whitehead on how to criticize media and why that is important, and he fended off negative comments from a fan with an insightful and reasoned answer.

He also discussed fan/producer relationships and how they have changed since the arrival of the internet, and talked about his own work and how it was changed by September 11th. “I realized that much of my comedy was about tearing things down [South ParkScary Movie 2],” he said. “I wanted to do something about building things up.”

Polsky was back on stage later on with Breckel and Berrow in a special VIP panel that discussed their own individual experiences of working on My Little Pony and with Hasbro, and that finished up the weekend’s events before the closing ceremony.

I found myself constantly impressed by the way the event was handled in terms of accessibility and equality. The first page of the con book handed out to attendees listed the convention rules and included a strict zero-tolerance policy on harassment with instructions on what to do if you found yourself subject to it.

The website FAQ included information on transgender bathroom access, and those with disabilities were very well catered for over the weekend with free carer tickets available, a raised platform for wheelchair users at the main stage, and front-of-room seating for wheelchairs and those with hearing aids. There were also free water dispensers located throughout the venue, which were regularly topped up—a godsend for cosplayers in hot, often furry, costumes.

Cosplayers Watch The Closing Ceremony © Sophie Brown
Cosplayers watch the closing ceremony © Sophie Brown.

Of course, there were some problems; every convention has them. During the fan-fiction writers’ panel, the panelists were seated on low sofas, making them nigh-on impossible to see from even a few rows back.

Seating was very limited in the Creative Corner and in Workshop Three, and the organizers ran out of free blind bags ponies to decorate just 30 minutes into a 2-hour session*.

On Sunday, a card game tournament was scheduled in the bar area at the back of the main room, and this occasionally interfered with the talks on the main stage. In the same vein, some panels in Workshop Two, such as the Improv and Music events, were loud enough to bleed through into quieter panels in Workshop One next door. However, for the most part, the event ran beautifully and even kept to time for the whole weekend; a problem even at the biggest cons.

Even as someone who doesn’t identify as a die-hard pony fan, Buck was once again my favorite con of the year. The variety and depth of events over the weekend are second-to-none and panels on writing, illustration, and fan creativity are relatable to almost any fandom.

Sadly, Buck will not take place in 2015, due to the organizers needing a rest from the onslaught of organization, but hopefully it, and I, will be back in 2016 for more FUNFUNFUN!

*Attendees were advised of low stock on joining the queue and blind bag ponies were available to purchase in the vendor’s hall.

GeekMom received entry to this event for review purposes.

The 2015 VW Golf GTI: The Hot Little Car That’s Big Fun

Image: Nicole Wakelin

I learned how to drive a stick, or manual transmission, back when I was in college. It was after someone totaled my car and I was buying a new one on a budget. I saved $500 going with a manual so I learned, on my brand new 1991 Jetta GL, and the car lived to tell the tale. When I got behind the wheel of the new 2015 VW Golf GTI I was reminded of why everyone should learn how to drive a stick. The answer is one word and that word is fun.

Now, I’m not going to say the actual learning bit is fun. That’s kind of terrifying as you try not to roll back on hills, and embarrassing as you stall in front of your friends, but it is so worth it. It’s worth it so you can get behind the wheel of a car like the VV Golf with a manual transmission and see just how much fun it can be to drive. That’s exactly what I got to do at this year’s Volkswagen full-line drive.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s available as a 6-speed automatic, but, really, if you’re going for a hot little turbocharged hatchback with 210 horsepower, then you need the 6-speed manual because that’s where the fun lives. It’s right there, in that little knob that looks like a dimpled golf ball (cute, Volkswagen) and you hold it in the palm of your hand.

If you know how to drive a manual transmission, then you totally get me. There is something empowering about revving an engine hard, taking it up to that redline, and then shifting gears. The car doesn’t do the work for you, deciding when it thinks you should shift as if it knows better. You do the work for yourself and in the Golf GTI it’s work that will make you all kinds of happy.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

The thing is, in a car like the Golf GTI, it’s not fair to call it work because it’s just too darn fun. Some manuals are difficult, with finicky shifts and touchy pedals, but not this one. Within just a few minutes I was cruising the winding roads of Virginia with my driving partner, Julia Coney of All About The Pretty.

Both of us were in love with our bright red Golf GTI. This is the sport-tuned version of the Golf and it loves to be driven. We also thoroughly enjoyed our time in Virginia and The Salamander Resort which fellow blogger Carissa Rogers fell in love with during the trip.

I say “our” Golf GTI because we both wanted to drive it home. In fact, Julia loved it so much she was seriously considering buying one when the program was over! I took a different approach and decided to see how seriously they took that VW commercial where the guy licks the handle of the VW he wants so no one else snags it from the lot. Sadly, it did not make the car mine.

You’ll get some stellar fuel efficiency while you’re having fun since the Golf’s 2.0-liter inline four cylinder is not thirsty. Its 25 city/34 highway EPA estimates will have you driving past the pump more often than you stop.

Not only will it save you money at the pump, it won’t break the bank with its $24,995 starting price. This includes a leather-wrapped, multi-function sport steering wheel, 18″ Austin alloy wheels, 5.8″ color display touchscreen, Bluetooth, and LED fog lights. If you want it completely tricked out, it can still be yours for under $30K.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

Driving shouldn’t just be about getting from point A to point B. I know, a lot of the time that’s all it is when we’re rushing from one thing to another, or stuck in rush hour traffic. Driving isn’t so fun then, but the right car can make dull driving bearable, and good driving absolutely joyous.

And that’s what the VW Golf GTI is all about. It brings the joy to driving. If ever there was a car that was made to be a manual, this is that car. This hot little hatchback looks good, is comfortable, handles beautifully, and on a warm summer day with the sunroof wide open, it’ll make you want to keep driving until you run out of road.

Volkswagen covered my expenses to attend this event.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando Florida

Cabana Bay Beach Resort Front Entrance \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Cabana Bay Beach Resort Front Entrance \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Cabana Bay Resort is the newest hotel to open on Universal Orlando property. Themed after the 1960’s, a period when family time and social interactions (the real kind, not the internet kind) were a high priority, this resort is designed with the family in mind. I’d say they accomplished their goal with two family style pools, a bowling alley, and food court dining.

The theme park benefits to staying at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort include: early entry into the theme parks, on site charging, free shuttle service, and the ability to have your purchases sent directly to your resort from the parks. If any of this is important to you, then Cabana Bay is the place to stay for a family that can’t afford the pricier hotels on the property.

Let’s start with the basics.

The rooms at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort can be as low as $93 per night for a standard room and as high as $134 per night (depending on the length of stay) for a suite that sleeps six. After staying in a family suite with just myself, my husband, and our 8-year-old son, I can’t imagine anyone with more than four members in their party being comfortable in the suites. We were a little cramped with just the three of us, but then again, we didn’t spend enough time in the room to care.

The kitchenette area was a bonus complete with a bar and bar stools, a mini-fridge, sink, and microwave.

The groovy part of this room is the split bath setup. This came in handy when I was in the shower and my son needed to use the bathroom. I also liked how the doors and drawers were rigged so they couldn’t slam shut. I can see many an ankle biter’s finger saved by this.

Now that you’ve gotten settled in your room, let’s head to the pool!

The main pool is outta’ sight with a slide, toddler play area, and walk-in entry. This is a fun pool for those who enjoy being a bit noisier and let their inner-child out. While we were there they had a DJ outside, and the far-out part was that whatever he was playing on the deck you could hear under the water through the pool speakers. The Atomic Tonic is off to the side of this pool and has a bar with a limited menu.

The second pool is the bees-knees because of the lazy river. This is the coldest of the water sections, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it. You can bring your own floats from home, or starting at $8.00 you can purchase a float and relax the day away. Don’t worry about blowing all your air on this one because the attendants at the float stand will fill it, and refill it, for free.

The restaurant at this pool is Hideaway Bay and if you get lucky, like my son, and Ryan is your bartender, you might be able to request a drink that isn’t on the menu. Words can’t describe how happy my little guy was to hear Ryan tell him that he could absolutely make a special cherry slushy for him.

If you would like to watch a movie while you swim, each pool has a different movie showing on select nights. This is great for kids who like to have more than one choice in their nighttime entertainment.

Now that we’ve hung out at the pool, it’s time to serve up some grub.

Cabana Bay has one main dining area as well as pizza delivery to your room. The Bayliner Diner is the main dining area and includes four different stations including: pizza, grill, deli, and international. They open for breakfest at 7am and the food is reasonably priced starting at $5 and up for kids and $8 and up for adults.

I highly recommend the Swedish Meatballs at dinner. I had them with broccoli and mashed potatoes and they were amazing. My son’s pizza was also pretty tasty and he devoured the entire thing.

This brings me to the tech side of the resort.

All the drink cups have RFID chips that will allow you to fill it as many times as you want for two hours after the first use. This is a neat way for the hotel to let you refill your own drinks at the pool without having to have a manned soda station to refill it for you. This same technology is used in the theme parks for beverages.

If you would like to have the freedom to get as many refills as you want, you can purchase a refillable mug from the hotel, but they charge per day (with a maximum number of days based on your stay). This special mug allows you to to refill it as many times as you would like and once the days are up, the soda machines will no longer recognize the cup (the soda machines in the parks act the same way). The mugs can cost up to $17.99 for use during the entire length of your stay.

If you purchase water while at the hotel, my recommendation is for you to save the bottle. The soda machines will allow you to refill them with ice cold water for free.

Starbucks opens at 5:40 AM and is the only option for anyone who wants to take advantage of the early entry into the parks.

Whew. We’ve checked out our room, lounged at the pool, and had a nice dinner.

What’s next…ummm….bowling!

I’ll go ahead and warn you that this is where you will be spending a little more bread.

Bowling starts at $11 per game per adult and $8 per game per child (not including rental shoe fee). With only 10 lanes, you can bet that this fills up quickly, so I suggest you do this in the afternoon rather than in the evening hours. If you get the munchies while bowling, the food menu is traditional American fare (additional cost).

Once you play a round-or-two of bowling, the connecting arcade is a fun place to spend what you have left of your vacation money. The arcade is a decent size and there’s a minimum of $5 charge for a game card. For $5 my family played two rounds of a Batman car chasing game, two rounds of skee-ball, and one round of air hockey.

So up to this point, I’ve kept things kid-friendly, but what about the adults who want to hang loose and enjoy a beverage of the alcohol variety after a long day hauling a stroller through the park? Have no fear! Adults can get alcoholic beverages at five locations:

  • Hideway Bar and Grill
  • Atomic Tonic
  • Sizzle Lounge (open in the evening)
  • Galaxy Bowl Bar
  • And bottled alcoholic beverages at Bayliner Diner.

Overall, the theming is accurate throughout the resort with the the exception of playing current pop hits at the hangout areas such as the pool, the bowling alley, and the arcade. In Bayliner Diner they play commercials from the 60’s time period. For those traveling with strollers, you will appreciate how spacious the main parts of the hotel are. My family had a lot of fun in the two pools and while we found the room to be a bit cramped – the beds were comfy, the shower was hot, and we still had fun.

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event for this resort.

Exploring the World of Harry Potter: Dining and Shopping in Diagon Alley

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort. \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

The Universal Orlando expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was way to much for one post, so welcome to part two of my Diagon Alley coverage. In this post I’ll be covering the food at Leaky Cauldron and the many shopping experiences for guests to enjoy.

Wit the exception of the menu, the Leaky Cauldron has all the feels of the Hogshead over at Hogsmeade.

I had the opportunity to order anything or everything at the Leaky Cauldron and I took this chance to order two entrees, two drinks, and a dessert to get a nice variety of things you can enjoy. My husband did the same so that we could sample four dishes total.

For me, the Stew and Fisherman’s Pie were the most enticing. The Beef, Lamb, and Guinness Stew ($12.99) was served in a bread bowl and filled with tender meat and hearty vegetables.

Fisherman’s Pie ($14.99) was very enjoyable and was filled with chunky pieces of salmon, shrimp, and cod, blended into mashed potatoes and peas. Both the Beef, Lamb, and Guinness Stew and the Fisherman’s Pie came with side salads.

My husband gave the Bangers and Mash ($11.99) a try and he really enjoyed it. It’s served in the traditional British Pub style with sausage on top of mashed potatoes and gravy with vegetables. The Specialty Chicken Sandwich ($10.99) was a very simple choice and good for anyone looking for something less complicated.

Children have a very small variety of items to pick from including: macaroni and cheese, fish and chips, and a mini meat pie. Our son, the pickiest child on the planet, had the macaroni and cheese ($6.99) and devoured it along with his Butterbeer. For dessert we gave the Chocolate Potted Cream ($4.99) a try and, even though it wasn’t as smooth as what I expected, the flavor was very rich and enticing. My husband and I both agreed that even with its small size, one person can’t finish one by themselves.

In addition to Butterbeer, we also tried the Tongue Tying Lemon Squash drink (around $6.00) and the Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice (around $6.00). Of the three, Butterbeer is my favorite and Tongue Tying Lemon Squash is a close second. The Otter’s Fizzy was the most disappointing because it tasted like orange juice in a brown sugar-rimmed glass. My husband seemed to enjoy it, but the lack of unique flavor didn’t inspire me to want to order it again.

As much as I enjoyed the food at The Leaky Cauldron, the prices are a bit steep even for theme park food, but it’s the only downside I can see to eating there again.

Something else that guests will enjoy about Diagon Alley is how immersive the shopping experiences are. Each shop is themed to what they sell. The Magical Menagerie specializes in all things fluffy and dangerous in the animal kingdom. Quality Quidditch Supplies sells brooms, robes, and popular quidditch team apparel.

Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes has a really cool store front and if you watch it long enough, you can see Fred (or is it George??) make a rabbit appear on his head. Inside the store you can find all manners of jokes to play on your friends, including some suspicious looking candy. If you can crane your neck and look up, you can see the magical sun roof put on a display of fireworks.

Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment has one of the four known references to Jaws, the ride that previously inhabited this area of the park, in the form of a large telescope that was built using piping from the former ride.

Other recognizable stores in Diagon Alley include: Scribbulus, Ollivanders, and Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions.

For my Butterbeer lovers, you can get your fix at three locations in Diagon Alley: The Leaky Cauldron, The Fountain of Fair Fortune in Horizont Alley, and The Hopping Pot in Carkitt Market (located next to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour).

Butterbeer prices are as follows:

  • $4.25 for cold in a regular cup
  • $5.32 for frozen in a regular cup (think slushy)
  • $12.77 cold with a collectible cup
  • $13.84 for frozen with a collectible cup

The upside to getting the collectible cup is you can get it refilled as many times as you want with soda or slushy for $.99. If you’re local, bring it with you each time you visit and you can continue to enjoy the $.99 refills.

Other drink choices you might want to consider are:

  • Fishy Green Ale ($5.32) – A mint tea beverage with boba-style balls that give it a blast of blueberry flavor. Only available at Diagon Alley.
  • Pumpkin Juice ($7.50) – Available at Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. My husband tells anyone who needs to wake up to grab a bottle of this stuff.
  • Wizarding Draft Beers (around $8.00)

If you’re in the mood for Butterbeer ice cream, look no further than Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. This is the place to dip your taste buds into specialty ice cream flavors like: Butterbeer, Earl Grey and Lavender (there’s a Captain Picard joke to be made here), Chocolate Chili, and more. Prices start at $4.99 for a cup of any flavor (or flavors since they allow you to mix in the same cup).

I had a chance to try the Butterbeer ice cream, and it wasn’t really my thing (my husband on the other hand was happy to have the rest of mine).

If you’re more of a Gillywater drinker, stop by Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment stand and pick out an elixir to add to your water. Flavors include: Draught of Peace (mix of blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, and cherry), Babbling Revenge (fruit punch), Elixir to Induce Euphoria (pineapple and mint), and Fire Protection Potion (watermelon, strawberry, and peach). We tasted the Draught of Peace and were pretty pleased with it. The flavor wasn’t overbearing and we didn’t crash from the sugar.

Elixirs are $4.95 each and will flavor one 20 ounce bottle of water.

While the dining in Diagon Alley is on the steep side, it’s worth it at least once for the experience. Even as a local I’m not sure how often I’ll eat here, especially when there is a really tasty taco truck not far from Diagon Alley, but I’m happy I had the experience. The shopping is a huge improvement to Hogsmeade with its limited stores and merchandise and I enjoyed walking through the menagerie with all the fluffy items available. The next time you are in Orlando, make sure you stop by and enjoy everything Diagon Alley has to offer. It a three hour wait for a ride isn’t your thing, hit up the shops.

Tickets into Universal Studios start at $96.00 per adult and $90.00 per child (ages 10 and under). If you would like to ride the Hogwarts Express and check out Hogsmeade as well, you will need a two park ticket. Two park tickets start at $136.00 per adult and $130.00 per child (ages 10 and under).

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event for this attraction. 

Exploring the World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando

Diagon Alley \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Diagon Alley. Image courtesy of Universal Orlando.

Welcome to part one of my Diagon Alley coverage. The latest addition to the Harry Potter-themed attractions at Universal Studios Orlando is filled with the magic of the movies from Knockturn Alley to the Leaky Cauldron and all the way to Hogsmeade aboard the Hogwarts Express. I’m not embarrassed to say that my favorite part of the expansion is the ability to get Butterbeer in both parks with just a train ride between them. There was so much to see and do in Diagon Alley, it was almost anxiety-inducing trying to write it all down into one article.

I know you will be eager to run right into Diagon Alley, but make sure you take a moment to look around outside of the attraction as well. Rushing past the London facade can make you miss out on seeing Creature’s appearance in Sirius Black’s window or hearing the wise cracks of the shrunken head over at the Knight bus.

Once you’ve taken in everything on the outside, take a deep breath and walk through the brick wall and into Diagon Alley.

When I first stepped into Diagon Alley, I was reminded of an old Universal Studios’ billboard that said, “Universal Studios. Where you can ride the movies.” In the case of Diagon Alley, you’re walking into the movies and from the tops of the buildings to the streets, you are surrounded 100 percent by Harry Potter’s world. To add to the experience, there are no directional signs anywhere in this area of the park. In my opinion, this adds to the fun of exploring and discovering things on your own. You will also notice that there are no benches. Instead, several of the fake store fronts have stoops for you to sit and rest your feet on.

Something I wasn’t expecting was to pay attention to Diagon Alley with my ears. The sound system pumps the sounds of Diagon Alley into the area and makes it that much more immersive for guests who want to feel like they are visiting the Wizarding realm.

Escape from Gringotts
After walking through the brick wall and entering Diagon Alley, the first thing you see is the centerpiece to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, the Escape from Gringotts attraction. Beware of the fire-breathing dragon perched on top of the bank. I’ve stood halfway down Diagon Alley when this beast let his flames fly and even at that distance, I still felt the heat from his temper tantrum.

The inside of the bank is just as awe-inspiring as the scenery outside. From the moment you step inside, you are in an amazing lobby. The goblins are hard at work and will stare you down if you try to cross them. After the lobby, keep a look out for Ron, Hermoione, and Harry as they attempt to break into Gringotts to steal one of the horcruxes from Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault.

My husband described the ride as a smoother version of Revenge of the Mummy, another popular attraction at Universal Studios Orlando. The graphics and special effects in Escape from Gringotts was far superior to anything else in the park.

A friend of mine had a chance to work on the art for the ride and he told me that one of the other artists left a “hidden Potter” so to speak between scenes nine and 10 (Gringotts is divided up into different scenes to make it easier for maintenance to know where to work when something breaks). You will never see it because of how dark it is, but between scenes nine and 10, he created scene “9 3/4.”

A few words of advice. If you plan on riding Escape from Gringotts, get there first thing. Matter of fact, arrive to the park before it opens so you can rush through the gates and into Diagon Alley. I arrived in the park a little after it opened and the wait time was already up to three hours. Later in the day, it dropped to 2 hours and 40 minutes and in my three visits to Diagon Alley so far, that’s the shortest I’ve seen the line get.

If your young witch or wizard does not meet the 42-inch height requirement, ask for a certificate for them to come back and ride without waiting in line when they are tall enough. For the time being though, you can relax with them in the child swap area while the rest of your party rides and then “swap” the child to them so you can enjoy it as well.

Olivanders is another must-see experience while visiting the Wizarding realm and takes you into the scene in the first film where Harry’s wand chooses him. I’ve never done this myself, but I’ve heard it’s worth doing once to see the show. Hogsmeade also has an Olivanders experience, but the wait time is much longer because of the limited space they have in the attraction.

Something else I wasn’t expecting was for Universal to have shows in Diagon Alley. I’m not usually a show person, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying tales from The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the show was just long enough to give us a break from walking around, but not long enough that we needed to find a seat on the pavement to enjoy.

For those who like a little music in their day, check out the Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. Celestina was just recently given her own back story by J.K Rowling and her first single, “You Stole My Cauldron But You Can’t Have My Heart” has hit Pottermore for fans to give a listen to.

The stage is located over in Carkitt Market right next to The Hopping Pot drink stand, so grab yourself a regular or frozen-style drink and enjoy the show.

You can’t have the good without the bad and Knockturn Alley brings the bad (in a good way) to this attraction. It’s just as dark and foreboding in real life as it is in the movie (and chilly too). Borgin and Burkes comes to life in the alley and sells all sorts of gifts for the dark wizard at heart. Make sure you look up, down, and all around while visiting, because there are special effects that are easy to miss if you don’t.

Something that’s new to both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are the interactive wands. For around $40, you can purchase a wand that will interact with various areas in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Most of the spell-casting areas are marked with a gold medallion in front of the jinxed artifact, while others you learn about through talking with the local wizards and witches. My favorite spell to cast is “Aquamenti” at the Mermaid fountain and “Metelojinx” at the Umbrella outside the restrooms.

Beware of the Mermaid Fountain!
I learned the hard way that talking to a wizard with your wand in your hand can result in an unplanned shower. (On the upside, the wizard I was talking to felt so bad for me that he treated my family to Butterbeers while I dried off.)

When you have experienced all there is in Diagon Alley, take a stroll over to Kings Cross and hop aboard the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station. To make sure guests get the full experience of Harry Potter’s world, this attraction is limited to guests with a two-park ticket. Universal has ticketing stations in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade for those who wish to upgrade their park ticket and take a journey on the train.

After I learned that Platform 9 3/4 was going to have a spot in Diagon Alley, I wondered how Universal would get away with the trick. I imagined it working similar to how the mirror trick works at Belle’s Cottage in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. I couldn’t have been further from reality. I won’t spoil how it’s done for you, but it’s nothing to write home about.

When we finally laid our eyes on the Hogwarts Express, it took our breath away. It looked like Universal had transported her from the movie and into the park. Each party is put into their own cabin and when it’s time to get rolling, the doors are shut and you are tucked away in your own little world for the 4-minute journey to Hogsmeade. I was surprised at how much happens while you’re in transport. The doors and the windows react with shadows, pictures, imagery, and other effects that bring the train to life. The experience from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade is different from the trip from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, so make sure you take the time to ride it twice. On nights where one park closes earlier than the other, the train will stop running until the other park is clear of guests and then you can ride it there and back without having to get off and wait again.

For true Harry Potter fans, this will be an overwhelming experience. From walking into Kings Cross Station and riding the Hogwarts Express, thrilling adventure through Gringotts, and checking out the many sights of Diagon Alley, Universal brought their game face and made this a must-see attraction in Orlando, Florida.

Tickets into Universal Studios start at $96 per adult and $90 per child (ages 10 and under). If you would like to ride the Hogwarts Express and check out Hogsmeade as well, you will need a two-park ticket. Two park tickets start at $136 per adult and $130 per child (ages 10 and under).

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event about this attraction.

Destination Radiator Springs: Doing Cars Land via Route 66

here it is
The famous “Here It Is” sign on Route 66 is one of the many roadside attractions that found their way into Disney’s California Adventure’s Cars Land.  All Images by Rick Tate.

My husband, Rick, and I had talked about taking a trip down the Historic Route 66 for several years. When the Walt Disney Company and Pixar announced two years ago the addition of Cars Land, a recreation of Cars Downtown Radiator Springs, to their California Adventure Park in Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort, we decided to take action.

cool springs
Cool Springs Cabins near Oatman, Arizona (top) and Lizzie’s Radiator Springs Curios in Cars Land (bottom).

After several months of planning, and precisely scheduling the trip to coincide with our 20th wedding anniversary and our youngest daughter’s birthday, we set off to “get our kicks.” Time wouldn’t allow us to make the entire Route 66 drive, so we started just outside of Oklahoma City, to “motor west” the end of the road at Santa Monica Beach in California.

We knew we wanted to take in as much of the historic quirky, kitschy weirdness that was once America’s most prominent byway, but what about our daughters? Our route would be roughly 1,300 miles (a good four days of car travel), with several “back road” stops along the way. How could we make a long stretch of American concrete and often deserted buildings interesting for a 12-year-old ‘tween and a very, very active four year old anticipating her upcoming fifth birthday?

Thankfully, Disney had already done the job for us, as Disneyland Park was located in the Los Angeles area, near the end of the Route 66 line. We gave our girls the task of seeing how much of Route 66’s features they would recognize during their Cars Land visit. After all, four days at Disneyland was a good incentive to put up with what they probably felt was a traveling history lesson.

Once we reached our Disney destination, it was evening when Cars Land’s neon was in full glory. Our girls immediately begin recognizing all the details, shops, attractions, and features inspired by Route 66. Having just seen the “real deal” made the adventure that much more exciting.

Here are a few of the most obvious Cars Land/Route 66 comparisons we made:

Route 66 Road Stamps. These stenciled Route 66 shield stamps are periodically placed along the highway to mark areas of some of the original stretches of road or historic districts. Some of the signs we saw were marked with the state’s designation, and some had an extra bit of detail added, but they were all pretty much the same, classic shield design.

The over-sized Route 66 shield stamp in Cars Land was set in a centralized location, but much bigger than many of the ones on the actual highway. It was a perfect “welcome” the evening we arrived.

shield signs
Historic “shield” stamps mark the long, lonely stretches along original stretches of Route 66 (sometimes I-40), but the Cars Land Route 66 stamp (far right) was a little more crowded.

The “Here It Is” Sign. This sign was the tail end of an over-the-top “anticipation” method of advertising, where signs featuring the same bunny image were placed along the highway nearly every mile for around 100 miles. The idea was to wear down the driver with such a sense of curiosity, they just had to stop to see what “IT” actually was. The answer: a big fiberglass saddled bunny outside of the Jackrabbit Trading Post, between Holbrook and Winslow, Arizona. Today, only the final sign is left along the roadside, but the trading post is still open for business. The big bunny is still well cared for ready for photo ops.

The Cars Land “Here It Is” Sign is an adorable tribute to this sign, including the little “Stanley” bunnies aligning the top of the billboard. There was no giant bunny, but Mater’s “petting zoo” is near the sign, with a single tractor to pose with and pet. Unlike the jackrabbit, Disney discourages guests from sitting on the tractor.

here it is
Molly sits atop the giant Jackrabbit, the subject of the “Here It Is” sign (left). Cars Land’s “Here It Is” sign pay homage to its founder, Stanley (right).

The U-Drop Inn. Disney Pixar’s most faithful recreation of one of Route 66’s historic roadside buildings takes after Shamrock, Texas’s U-Drop Inn, and its distinct Conoco Tower. The Art Deco style building was completed in 1936, and is currently the site of the town’s Chamber of Commerce and visitor center.

The building was the inspiration for Ramone’s House of Body Art gift shop, which also boasts a unique tower and shape. Ramone’s, by the way, is the only place in Cars Land where people will find a hidden Mickey Mouse in the design. The Mickey heads aren’t easy to spot, but cast members will be glad to point out where they are found.

Also easily comparable, were the Cool Springs Camp along the windy road to Oatman, Arizona, and Lizzie’s Curio Shop.

Conoco Tower at the U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas (left) is near identical to Ramone’s House of Body Art, down to its green neon.

Cadillac Ranch. Even those who aren’t interested in the Route 66 history would find the Cadillac Ranch public art installment outside of Amarillo, Texas, interesting. The installment is not right on the route, but is a popular side trip for travelers. This line of upturned Cadillacs was commissioned by eccentric art lover Stanley Marsh 3, and built by the artist group “Ant Farm.” It seems isolated in pictures, but it is nearly always swarmed by people armed with colorful spray-paint cans, wishing to contribute to the ever-changing designs. Our family was no exception, and when we left, the words “Bad Wolf” adorned on a couple of the Caddys.

Cadillac Ranch is so popular, it inspired a similar lesser-known installation, “Bug Ranch,” created with Volkswagen Beetles, in nearby Conway, Texas. Someone else had already beaten us to marking it with, “Bad Wolf,” in the exact color of paint as ours, no less.

Cars Land’s tribute to this world-famous piece of pop art is a prominent part of Radiator Spring’s “natural” landscape in Ornament Valley. Cadillac Ranch’s famed tail fins can be seen in this landscape that makes up the back drop for Cars Land’s main attraction, Radiator Springs Racers.

cadillac ranch
Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo is one of the few places graffiti is encouraged (left), and the rock formations at Ornament Valley in Radiator Springs bear a striking resemblance to their tail fins.

The Wigwam Motel. We saw all types of “giant concrete items” and shaped buildings along the route, including the big Twin Arrows in Arizona, and the Milk Bottle Building in Oklahoma. The Wigwam Motels in Holbrook, Arizona, and Rialto, California, were the most charming. Both of these sister motel sites still take guests, too, but they do tend to fill up fast.

The Cars Land answer to these is the Cozy Cone Motel, which serves are a set of five little snack booths surrounding a small food court and the motel’s lobby. In addition to being able to hang out in Radiator Springs’ most popular motel, this is also the site where Lightning McQueen and Mater take turns posing—as well as cars can—with guests.

The Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona (top left), still welcomes overnight guests, and The Cozy Cone (bottom left and right), welcomes photo ops and hungry visitors.

Hackberry Gen Store and Bottle Tree Ranch. There have been several stories about the people who inspired the characters in the movie Cars. One of the possible inspirations for free-spirited Volkswagen Microbus, Fillmore, was the late artist Bob Waldmire. Waldmire supposedly wasn’t that thrilled with being associated with the fictional talking van, but his Hackberry Gen Store in Hackberry, Arizona, was certainly as creative as Fillmore’s hippy haven. The Hackberry site contains a large display of found item art, a somewhat eerie soda fountain recreation with costumed mannequins, and even a little koi pond “oasis” in the desert. Fillmore could also feel easily at home in Elmer Long’s “Bottle Tree Ranch” near Helendale, California, a front yard forest of bottle trees topped with everything from toilet seats to road signs.

The “geodesic dome” shape of Fillmore’s psychedelic-colored building was also typical of the design of a few of the remaining buildings we passed.

Another common building shape we saw again and again along the route was the cylindrical military buildings known as Quonset Huts. After World War II, private citizens and business owners, for extra garage space, surplus stores, barns, and other purposes, repurposed these huts. Sarge’s Surplus Hut gift store next to Fillmore’s was no exception, including its slightly rusted exterior.

Found object folk art installments, like Bottle Tree Ranch (left), shared the spirit of the 60s similar to Fillmore’s Taste-In (right).

“Burma-Shave” Signs. The Burma-Shave liniment and shaving cream first created their unique brand of roadside advertising in 1925, and was one of their major advertising means in most contiguous states through 1963.

An original Burma-Shave sign along Route 66 (top), and similar signage advertising Rust-eze in Cars Land (bottom).

Travelers likely won’t see many original Burma-Shave signs intact, but the well-preserved stretch of road west of Seligman, Arizona, has placed several reproductions along the route for nostalgia buffs to enjoy. This made the long stretch of empty desert highway more entertaining.

Some of these “episodic” road sign messages were straightforward ads for the product, but many were safe driving messages in verse form. Our family favorite: “Got insurance?…Remember, kiddo…They don’t pay you…They pay your widow….Burma-Shave.”

Since cars themselves don’t shave, the Burma-Shave style signage outside the entrance to the Radiator Springs Racers advertise, of course, Rust-eze: “Mind your speed…As you go…Sheriff’s old…But he’s not slow…Rust-eze.”

Neon! Both Route 66 and Disney parks shine best at night.

Two locations where Route 66’s neon seemed stand out the most were Albuquerque and Tucumcari, New Mexico. This was no surprise in Albuquerque, since it was a main urban college-area street, but in the smaller community of Tucumcari, the restored neon signs were beautiful, most notably the Tepee Curios and the Blue Swallow Motel. We had the good fortune to spend the night at The Blue Swallow, one of the more photographed signs along the route. Its neon accents also continue the entire way around the motel’s comfy courtyard.

I try not to fall into that “Disney does it better” trap, but I have to admit Cars Land—and all of California Adventure, actually—has some of the most beautiful neon displays I have ever seen. The neon-lit streets of Cars Land are so dazzling, there is even an official “neon lighting” ceremony around dusk each evening. This was a spectacular way to end the day….or kick off the evening.

Knowing where all of these “Disney details” came from made the adventure that much more fun for the girls, as if they were privy to insider secrets they couldn’t wait to share with others.

As for how the rest of Route 66 feels about Disney’s take on America’s Mother Road, there were plenty of tributes to Cars found along the historic sites, from murals to re-imagined vehicles bearing a strange resemblance to some favorite Pixar characters. There may have been a few places along the road that might have internally grumbled about the Disney-style sanitized treatment of their historic route, but most seemed to embrace this new unofficial partnership as a way to get new generations excited about this piece of American heritage.

For our family, the journey was a long and sometimes tiring, sometimes thrilling drive down history, and into another world none of us will ever forget.

Tucumcari, New Mexico’s peaceful, restored neon at the Blue Swallow Motel and Tepee Curios (top), and Cars Land’s flashy neon display including Flo’s Cafe in the center (bottom).

A Walk Through the Universal CityWalk Orlando Expansion

Universal CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Universal CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

Universal CityWalk is a unique place to visit in the Orlando, Florida area and sits as the middle man to Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks. With 30 acres of food, shops, movies, and partying to indulge in, you can bet that there is something for everyone in the family.

Depending on the time of year and when you arrive, parking can be anywhere from $6.00 per day (after 6pm during slow season) and $17.00 to park during the day. The pricing is a little high, but it makes sense because this is the main parking hub for both parks.

My first stop at CityWalk is always the food. Of the 20 options, I have two favorites for dinner. The first is Red Oven Pizza Bakery. This place has the best pizza I’ve had south of New York. If you want a light, but filling meal while going in between the two parks, this is a delicious place to hit up.

You have the usual choices to pick from, along with a few specialties including:

  • Pear & Fig with mozzarella, blue cheese, San Marzano tomatoes, and rosemary.
  • Funghi – a mushroom medley, red onions, fontina, mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, thyme, roasted portobello white truffle oil emulsion.
  • Alla Benno – Prosciutto, pineapple, jalapeños, San Marzano tomatoes, and mozzarella.
Antojitos at CityWalk  \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Antojitos at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

My second favorite for dinner is Antojitos, and in my opinion is the best restaurant at CityWalk. If you plan ahead, you can make reservations online to keep your wait to a minimum. My choice entree is the steak tacos with a small side of guacamole. For entertainment, they have a house Mariachi band and it’s fun to hear them go from traditional Mexican tunes to current pop hits, such as “Wrecking Ball.”

Before you leave, check out the artist who is hand painting Mexican wrestler masks at the front of the restaurant. The masks are free of charge and you can request the artist to make a special one for you (tipping is appreciated).

In addition to my two favorites, CityWalk also has a food court with Moe’s, Panda Express, Burger King, Bread Box, and Fusion Bistro: Sushi and Sake Bar. The Bread Box is my favorite stop in the food court and offers hot or cold sandwiches starting at  $7.95. If you try something and don’t like it, feel free to ask for do-over and the staff will be happy to oblige you with a new selection.

Hot Dog Hall of Fame at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Hot Dog Hall of Fame at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

If you’re more into the American fair for dinner Margaritaville, and the newest restaurant The Hot Dog Hall of Fame, are going to be the best places to hit up. The Hot Dog Hall of Fame is a must visit for any hot dog lover with a specialty two-foot-long hot dog and a slew of mustard choices. The outdoor stadium seating goes great with the big screen TVs that are mounted to the building.

Margaritaville is a nice indoor party for those whose motto is “It’s 5′ o clock somewhere.” I’ve eaten here plenty of times and insist you try the nachos.

I hope you didn’t fill up on dinner because Menchies is the next stop on my food tour. I was first introduced to Menchies by a friend during a girls-night-out and that one visit started a wonderful love affair. What’s Menchies? It’s a frozen yogurt shop that makes you do all the work for your snack. It plays out in your favor, because unlike at Cold Stone Creamery, you can add as much or as little into your bowl as you like.

Each station has two flavors and a mix it switch for you to do a swirl of the two taste options. They have flavors like cheesecake, key lime pie, fruit punch sherbet, and a slew of other odd-balls to choose from. The catch is you’re charged by the weight of your cup, so watch the kiddos when they’re making their selections.

For those who aren’t sure what to try, here’s my personal recipe for “Cheesecake extravaganza:”
(1.5) scoops of Honey Graham cereal (this acts as the cheesecake’s crust)
Desired amount of cheesecake soft serve
(1.5) scoops of Honey Graham cereal on top
(6 ea) frosted animal cookies
(1) scoop of favorite cheesecake fruit, mine is strawberries
Couple pieces of cheesecake thrown in for good measure
(2) cherries (chocolate covered or regular, it’s up to you on this one)

Okay, by this time you should be stuffed and loosening up the buttons on your pants. Time to walk off all of that food and check out the shops.

One of the most funkadelic shops at CityWalk is P!Q. They have some awesome stuff in there including Kidrobot’s famous Labbits. I’d advise keeping your kids away from the books. Some of them are not suitable for children (or my husband for that matter). For the silly-toy-geek, this will be the place you take your time and savor the shiny things.

If you are into GoPro, Oakley, backpacks, or the laid-back life of the surfer, check out the Quiet Flight Surf Shop. This is also a store you can cut through to avoid the crowds when walking to the park or back to the parking lot.

On top of my favorite places to shop, CityWalk also has the Universal Store with a little bit of everything including:

  • Harry Potter
  • Minions
  • Transformers
  • Simpsons
  • And more.

For the upscale shoppers, check out Fossil, The Island Clothing Company, Element, and Hard Rock. If you want to commemorate your vacation with a permanent souvenir, the artists over at Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company will be happy to oblige.

Now that we’ve eaten too much, done a little shopping, it’s time for a little friendly competition at the Hollywood Drive-In Miniature Golf.

Hollywood Drive-In Golf \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Hollywood Drive-In Golf \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

What makes this miniature golf course special is the magic that happens when the sun goes down. The lights and the magic of the two courses turn on and it transforms into a new experience that you don’t get to see during the day. The pricing is a bit steep at $15.00 per adult and $12.00 per child. If you feel like being a big spender, you can play both courses (36 holes) for $27.00 per adult and $22.00 per child.

On those hot Florida nights, you may want to consider something that’s both air conditioned and less pricey, check out AMC Universal Cineplex 20 and relax while watching a movie on one of their 20 screens.  The popcorn is good, the seats are comfy, and sometimes they have special movies playing.

CityWalk is just as much fun on a rainy day as it is on a sunny day (and let’s face it, this is Florida, the rainy state). On a rainy day, do your body a favor and avoid the Blueman Group sign area by the theater. There’s an incline in the pavement that has claimed many a knee on a rainy day (including my own). On the upside, if you do slip and fall, screaming loudly will get security’s attention and the medic will be right behind them. The crew that took care of me when I was hurt one a rainy day were great and got me back on my feet in no time.

With the largest expansion in CityWalk’s history almost complete, the 30 acre entertainment complex truly does have something for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you have a picky eater, a big spender, a minion lover, or a Gryffindor quidditch player in your group, there really is something for everyone at CityWalk.

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