The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 8, 2014

We’re Quickly Running Out of Frontiers Here: A Week in Alaska by Sea, Part 1

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

As much as I suspect a lot of us would like to have it hang around a little while longer, it looks like Summer has just come to an end.  As always, this is roughly when you start looking over what you did over the Summer and trying to make sure you didn’t waste it.  In my case, I have to admit that it just didn’t feel like I’ve really done much.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I had been more than about 50 miles from home at any given point this Summer, and in fact hadn’t really traveled anywhere since the last Disneyland trip me and my friend took back in April just before our Annual Passes expired.  A lot of this is due to the fact that our big vacation for the Summer got scheduled for just about the last possible time we could have scheduled it, set to end just two days before the Autumnal Equinox.  To put the situation into football terms (I hear football is kind of popular around Seattle these days,) it’s basically a matter of being down 28-3  with a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, and trying to get down the field for a garbage time touchdown just so it looks like you didn’t get completely blown out.

Then again, much of the reason that we didn’t do much this Summer was because we had this particular trip planned.  Admittedly, in spite of the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of cruising over the past few years, Alaska has never been all that high on my list of possible destinations.  As I believe I’ve said here before, to me it seems like Alaska has the type of weather than I go on vacation to get away from. Then again, it was my friends who were planning this particular trip, so in a lot of ways I was just along for the ride.  Not that there was much of a ride involved anyway (at least not until we boarded the ship.)  One of the nice things about cruising to Alaska is that a lot of ships use Seattle as their homeport during the Alaska season.  For two Summers I have worked in Downtown Seattle just off the waterfront, which means that if I look out the window in some of the conference rooms at the office I can see the ships docked at either Bell Street Pier about half a mile away, or Smith Cove several miles beyond that.  It certainly makes the prospect of just hopping aboard one sound a lot more tantalizing when you can actually see the ships in port.  If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to take a cruise and not have to fly across the country twice to get there in back (nothing against Fort Lauderdale, which is a perfectly nice place to get away from the weather, but a quick 12-mile taxi ride to the pier is, shockingly, a little easier to deal with than a flight of 2,800 miles in each direction (not to mention a fair bit cheaper.)

The itinerary for this particular cruise would be a 7-day roundtrip out of Seattle, making stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, as well as a day spent aboard the ship as it cruises slowly through Glacier Bay National Park (other ships with a similar itinerary may omit Glacier Bay in favor of Tracy Arm Fjord.)  Since I had been to none of those places (except for Victoria on a previous cruise) before, I didn’t know a whole lot about what to expect.  The ship, on the other hand, was in large part a known quantity, as if you’ve been on one Grand-class Princess ship you should have little trouble finding your way around any of the other ones.  The Golden Princess is one of the older ships in the fleet (she first sailed in 2001,) and is a sister ship to the Grand Princess and Star Princess.  Although these three ships were originally virtually identical, over time a number of renovations have taken the three ships in significantly different directions.  Nonetheless, even with the various changes between the three ships you are going to find that the passenger experience is pretty consistent across the Princess fleet regardless of which ship you happen to be on.  All in all, it’s not a bad way to go.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights from the trip.


January 19, 2014

We’re Only at Home When We’re on the Run

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:43 am

(Optional soundtrack for this post, if for no other reason than the fact that I’ve had this particular song stuck in my head for most of the past month.)

Although I’ve done a fair bit of traveling over the years, there’s no doubt that 2013 is by far the most traveling I’ve done in one year.  In addition to the usual commuting back and forth to work and wandering around the local area, I’ve been on seven different trips of various lengths over the course of the year, and over the course of my travels I have been as far as 4,200 miles away from home.  Granted, most of my trips have been much shorter than that, but with two trips to the East Coast, thirteen days spent at sea and a number of other interesting little side trips along the way, it occurs to me that I’ve probably put in quite a few miles over the course of the last year.  Even though I don’t expect to be doing nearly as much travel this year as I did last year, I thought it might make an interesting exercise to try to figure out just how much traveling I actually did last year.  If I count all the different methods of transportation I used to get around over the course of the year (including ones such as walking and riding the bus) it becomes just about impossible to get an exact amount (it’s not like I’m keeping track of all this stuff very well) but for things like air, sea or rail, it’s actually pretty easy to figure out the distances involved.  With that in mind, I’m going to make a (quite possibly misguided) attempt to estimate just how many miles I traveled across all of the various modes of transportation I used last year.

Driving:  This is probably going to be the least  accurate part of this, since I haven’t really kept track of this all that well.  That means I can’t really do much better than an educated guess.  I figure that in an average year I probably drive somewhere between 10 and 12 thousand miles, give or take a thousand or so.  I’ve owned my car for just about 6 1/2 years now, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 68,000 miles, which averages out to about 10,460 miles or so per year.   Nonetheless, I feel like I’ve done more driving than that over the past year, since I do commute to my job in Downtown Seattle and back at least a couple of times a week, possibly more.  Back when I worked in Downtown Bellevue a couple of years ago and didn’t need to drive at all to get to work and back, I know that the overall usage on my car was significantly lower.  Ultimately it averages out, but just to keep things convenient I’m just going to say that I drove (or rode in other people’s cars) for around 12,000 miles last year.  During the last year I didn’t go on any roadtrips in my own car, and I don’t recall having my car more than about 50 miles away from home at any given time.  Typically those would be included in the overall total, but since there weren’t any to speak of, I don’t need to account for any.

Of course, that’s only what I drove in my own car.  On the various trips I’ve taken in the past year, I figure I’ve put in a decent number of miles in various rental cars as well.  Between three different trips to Disneyland (which I figure typically involve around 300 miles or so, based on roughly a 100-mile round trip between LAX and the place we stay when we go down there, 3-4 days of a 50-mile round trip between the condo and parks, plus another 50 miles or so for miscellaneous driving (sightseeing, trips to the store, etc.)  to make a total of about 350 miles per trip.  There were also a couple of other trips (a quick weekend business trip to San Jose, plus the days before and after the December cruise in Florida) where I drove rental cars, but generally didn’t drive nearly as much on those ones.  I’ll estimate about another 200 miles of driving total for those two trips (although I suspect that number is high.)  I suppose if I ever bothered to keep the receipts for these trips I’d be able to get more exact numbers here (apparently the rental car companies are a lot more meticulous about this type of thing than I am) but since we’re pretty much working off estimates here this works.  If I add all this together, I come up with a total of around 1,950 miles driven in rental cars.

In addition to driving in rental cars, there was also the trip to Atlanta back in May for my brother’s wedding, followed by a road trip up to Charlotte, North Carolina to see a NASCAR race and back.  The shortest route between Atlanta and Charlotte would be I-85 (which is the route we took back to Atlanta afterward, roughly 266 miles) but since the wedding reception was in Augusta, we ended up taking a different route that took I-20 to Columbia South Carolina, then I-77 from there to Charlotte, for a total of around 344 miles.  Given the drive to Charlotte and back, plus miscellaneous driving for various things along the way (including a day spent in the Charlotte area touring around the various NASCAR teams’ race shops,) I estimate this trip to have been roughly 700 miles total.

Given all of the various driving and riding in cars I’ve done over the course of the past year, I’m going to estimate a total of somewhere around 13,950 miles traveled by car (both as a driver and as a passenger) over the past year.  Since I figure I’m probably not being very precise with this anyway, I might as well just go ahead and round that up to make it an even 14,000.

By Mass Transit:  In addition to driving, I also frequently commute by bus as well.  This is another one that is somewhat difficult to accurately estimate, but fortunately there’s at least some record keeping going on here, thanks to the ORCA card that I use to pay my bus fare.  if you look on the ORCA website, you can find a record of all the bus rides you’ve taken for a specified period of time.  which means that I can see that I rode on Metro and SoundTransit buses 207 times during 2013.  I can also see which buses I rode on.  Most of the time the bus I ride is either the 212 or 554 that goes to and from the Eastgate Park and Ride, and these two routes (and related routes with different numbers but which follow basically the same routing) accounted for 177 of the 207 trips.  By my estimate, each trip on this route is roughly 9.8 miles in each direction, for a total of 1,734.6 miles.  In addition to that, I also took 24 trips on route 550 (which is the direct bus from Downtown Bellevue that goes to Seattle.  If I take this one I don’t have to drive to the park-and-ride, but I also find it generally takes 10-15 minutes longer in each direction if I take this one than it does if I take the 212/554)  By messing around with some of the routing tools on Bing Maps, I can estimate that this route is roughly  11.5 miles for each trip, for a total of 276 miles on Route 550.  I also rode twice on Route 522 (a round trip from Kenmore Park-and-Ride to Downtown Seattle and back, about 15 miles each way) and there are 4 other trips I can’t be certain of (I think they may have been local trips in Downtown Seattle, I’ll just ignore those.)  I also rode once on the Light Rail from International District to Sea-Tac Airport (about 14.5 miles.)  If I add all these together, it comes out to an estimate of 2,055 miles total (give or take a couple) riding on mass transit last year.  I suppose if I really wanted to get nitpicky here (well, more so than I already am) I could probably try to figure out the distance I rode on Disneyland parking shuttles or the free trams they provide in Laguna Beach during a visit there, but that just makes my brain hurt.

By Train: This one’s actually pretty easy to figure out.   I took one train trip last year from Vancouver BC to Seattle aboard the Amtrak Cascades following the cruise we took in May.  According to the Wikipedia Article for the Amtrak Cascades, the distance from Vancouver to Seattle by rail is 157 miles.

By Air:  Perhaps not surprisingly, this ends up being where most of the distance traveled in the last year comes from.  Fortunately, it’s quite easy to get a fairly precise distance for all the flights I took last year, since  the various resources offered to frequent flyers for the purpose of figuring out their miles make it easy to find distances between airports, including connecting flights.  Based on the various flights I took last year, this is what the distances would look like:

  • SEA <-> LAX (3 round trips:)  1,908 miles roundtrip x 3 = 5,724 miles
  • LAX -> SFO -> SEA (one trip, one way:) 1,016 miles
  • SEA <-> ATL (1 round trip:) 4,360 miles
  • SEA <-> SJC (1 round trip:) 1,392 miles
  • SEA -> ATL -> FLL (1 trip, one way): 2,762 miles
  • FLL -> MSP -> SEA (1 trip, one way:) 2,880 miles

When I combine all of these together, I come up with a grand total of 18,134 miles traveled by air in 2013.  At this rate, I suspect that I might even manage to get a free flight with frequent flyer miles in another 3 or 4 years.

By Sea:  I suspect that most people don’t have this one on their list these days, but given the two cruises I was on last year, this accounts for a pretty significant chunk of mileage as well.  On the last day of each cruise, Princess Cruises provides each passenger with what is known as a Log of the Cruise, which describes where the ship has been and provides some statistics on the cruise, including the total distances between ports and the overall distance sailed.  It is from this that I get the distances for the two cruises I took last year:

  • Island Princess, Pacific Coastal (3 days, Los Angeles to Vancouver, no port stops:) 1,718 statute miles, 1,494 nautical miles
  • Emerald Princess, Southern Caribbean Medley (10 days, Roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale, stops at Eleuthera (Bahamas), St. Thomas, Dominica, Grenada, Bonaire, Aruba:)  3,565 statute miles, 3,100 nautical miles

Between these two cruises, this comes out to a total of 5,283 statute miles (4,594 nautical miles) traveled by sea last year.  Not that I was paying much attention to any of them…

Unless there’s something I’m forgetting here, this should account for all the traveling I did last year, both at home and abroad, by land, air and sea.  Now to add all of this up:

  • By car (both driving and as a passenger): 14,000 miles
  • By mass transit:  2,055 miles
  • By train:  157 miles
  • By air:  18,134 miles
  • By sea:  5,283 miles
  • Total: 39,629 miles

So when all was said and done, I came up with a total of nearly 40,000 miles traveled last year, which would be enough mileage to circle the Earth nearly 1.6 times.  That seems like an awful lot of traveling, but I do also know people who can end up traveling twice that many miles in a year on a regular basis (one of my friends did a two-week trip to Southeast Asia by way of Australia last year, plus another trip to India for work, and those two trips by themselves would probably come close to matching my whole mileage total for the year) whereas this past year was a fairly unusual one for me in that I did a lot more traveling than I usually do.  I do plan to continue traveling this coming year, but I seriously doubt I’ll be putting in quite as many miles.  On the other hand, I never know just where I’m going to end up.  After all, these things seem to have a tendency to sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

December 12, 2013

Live from the Lido deck

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 7:41 pm

 photo 20131212_193124.jpg

Date:  Um….  Not quite sure really.  Thursday, perhaps?
Time:  Kind of late in the evening.
Temperature: Not really freaking cold, which is about as much as I care about the subject at this point.
Location:  Somewhere on the leeward side of the West Indies, headed toward Dominica.

It’s kind of a quiet night aboard the Emerald Princess, with not much of not going on this evening.  Club Fusion at the aft end of the Promenade deck is showing a football game, which is just about the most packed I’ve seen the pace all week.  None of the other lounges are showing much of note, and the big movie screen is showing some movie I’ve never heard of.  My traveling companion is, unlike myself, inclined to go to bed at sane times in the evening, so I figure that vacating the premises for a while is probably the best course of action.  Since that doesn’t leave a whole lot of options for activities that don’t involve either watching people dump big piles of money into the slots or dumping big piles of money into the slots myself, I figure I have a bit of time to do some blogging.

The day today was spent in lovely St. Thomas, where the agenda included a visit to Trunk Bay on St. John, and a brief shopping trip in Charlotte Amalie, also known as the Wal-Mart of the Caribbean (although ironically there isn’t actually a Wal-Mart there, just a Kmart.)  The snorkeling at Trunk Bay went far better than the earlier attempt at snorkeling at Princess Cays a couple of days ago, where the waves made everything to murky to see anything.  The beach at Trunk Bay is also just as nice as advertised, making for a lovely couple of hours (one of the big drawbacks to cruising is that there never seems to be enough time in any one place, one of these days I really need to take a land trip out here…)  As for the shopping, I ended up with a shiny new automatic watch I probably don’t need.  Oddly though, my attempts at finding fake Rolexes didn’t bear much fruit today.  Plenty of fake handbags in the flea market though.  There were alleged Pradas, Coaches, Guccis, Tory Burches, Michael Kors and Burberries all over the place, but oddly enough not a single fake Louis Vuitton to be found anywhere.  Presumably they sent someone over to crack down recently.  The next four days each have a port stop (tomorrow is Dominica, followed by Grenada, Bonaire and Aruba,) then there are two more sea days before arriving back in Fort Lauderdale to disembark.  Maybe there will be better luck there (not that I actually need any fake Rolexes or anything like that…)

One thing you learn quickly when taking a cruise is that it tends to mess with your sense of time.  If I was at home this would be pretty close to the peak of the holiday season, with all the pomp and circumstance in downtown Bellevue that always accompanies it.  Around these parts, Christmas seems to be some vague thing that is happening, but doesn’t really seem to be all that big a deal.  Sure there are all the obligatory decorations on the ship and in the ports (as well as the obligatory reggae versions of all the usual Christmas staples) but it all seems out of place when it’s 78 degrees and sunny everywhere we’ve been so far.  If it wasn’t for a few trees and decorations scattered around, it could easily pass for the middle of April around here.  Taking a longer itinerary than the usual 7 days tends to mess with ones sense of time as well.  Even though we’ve only been on board for four days do far, it already feels like we’ve been here for ages.  And we have a whole week left before it’s time to head home (the flight back is the day after we get of the ship to save the hassle of trying to fly out the same day.)

All in all, it has been quite interesting so far, but my traveling companion seems to be wishing things were a little more active around the ship, particularly in the evenings.  Although I’ve been pretty loyal to Princess in my cruising, I’m starting to think the next time I come down here I will probably need to try out one of the Oasis class ships on Royal Caribbean, if for no other reason than a change of pace.  To be honest, I’m not a big party type person, but even I have to admit that things do get a little slow at night here.  I suppose it’s either that or Carnival, but I think that might be just a little to much party and/or booze cruise for my tastes.  Then again, as long as I can get away from things for a while, that’s really what matters here.

November 3, 2013

A Concise Guide to Surviving Disneyland: Dubious Advice From a (Somewhat) Seasoned Disneyland Veteran

Filed under: travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 9:42 pm

It was in January of 2006 that I took my first trip to Disneyland.  Well, actually not my first trip, but the first one I could remember more than vague details of.  My mother took me and my siblings there for one day back in 1987 when my Dad was in Los Angeles on business.  Although I do remember some stuff, particularly the Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Railroad, as well as Star Tours (which was new at the time) and the construction site for Splash Mountain, for the most part it was all a blur.  It wasn’t until I was able to visit on my own as an adult that I was able to gain a greater appreciation of the place, and it wasn’t long before I became a frequent visitor.  I have now been an annual passholder at Disneyland since 2011, and me and my friends now make frequent trips to the parks, typically weekend getaways.  Not to say that I’m any sort of expert on the subject or anything like that, but we’ve definitely picked up some tips along the way.

Given the fact that I occasionally get asked for advice by people who may be planning trips of their own, I thought it might be a good idea to put together some of the general advice that I pass on most frequently into one convenient place.  If nothing else, it might save me some typing later on.  As enjoyable as a trip to Disneyland can be, it’s about as far as you can possibly get from being a relaxing vacation, and it’s also the type of thing you don’t want to just charge into unprepared.  I apologize in advance if some of these tips don’t necessarily apply to everyone After all, when me and my friends go to Disneyland we’re flying down there and generally spending three days or more in the parks.  Although from my perspective this might be the most common scenario I see when people make Disney trips, your approach may and will vary.  Some people are stopping in for one day on the way to somewhere else or when they have some extra time.  Other people might decide to make a whole week out of it and go from rope drop to park closing every day (which sounds like a great recipe for epic meltdowns if you ask me, but that’s beside the point.)  Regardless of the approach you’re taking to your trip, you still want to be prepared.

That said, don’t take any of this as anything more than advice.  I am not trying to tell people that there’s one specific way to do things, only give advice on what has worked for me and my friends in the past.  It is also likely that as I figure out new things and as things change (as they tend to frequently do) I will periodically update and add to this guide.  You will find my list of tips and tricks after the jump.


October 11, 2013

Too much magic? Maybe.

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Brian Lutz @ 9:39 am

Last night I was visiting with my siblings at my parents’ house since my brother was in town for a few days, and my sister made the observation that lately it seems like I haven’t been doing anything but working or going on vacation.  To be perfectly honest, I think she has a point on that one.  It does seem like I’m either spending way too much time at work or I’m not spending much time at work at all.  I can’t remember the last time I actually worked a regular 40-hour week, since I seem to be either working well in excess of that (including weekends on occasion) or being out for a day or two.  In the end it all seems to even out, and even with plans to take two whole weeks off in December. I still suspect I will be pretty close to the standard 2,080 hours that comprise a year of 40-hour work weeks. 

I’m fortunate to work at a place that allows the flexibility to travel as much as I do, even if I do occasionally end up working long hour.  One of the people I work with on my current project actually spent a month in Europe visiting family recently, then got back here and promptly got sent to England for work for two weeks, came back, then got sent over again.  Another one got sent to Japan for several weeks as well.  So far I haven’t had to do any business travel in my job,  but I suspect it’s a matter of time at this point.

As often seems to be the case, I’m writing this on an airplane, taking my typical Friday morning flight down to LA for yet another weekend at Disneyland.  Yeah, I know I seem to be spending an awful lot of time there lately, but given how much I’ve spent on my annual passes, I figure I should try to get as much use out of the things as I possibly can.  I don’t I would be able to visit nearly as often as I do if I didn’t have friends whose parents generously allow us to stay at their condo in Orange County when we go down there, thus saving us the cost of hotels.  As long as we have that available, we can do a trip for a few days for basically the cost of plane tickets, a rental car, food and incidentals.  Granted, all that can still add up pretty quickly (there’s still no such thing as a cheap Disney trip unless you’re a local) and the whole thing is entirely dependent on having an Annual Pass ($650 for the premium one when me and my friend bought them, $670 now) but add long as you’re spreading out the costs of that over several trips, even that becomes cheaper in the long run.

But perhaps the biggest effect of having the annual pass is that it completely changes the way you do Disneyland.  The last trip me and my friend took a couple of months ago was nothing like some of the other trips I’ve been on.  Neither of us was inclined to bother rushing to do anything.  We didn’t really care if we got to do every ride and see everything.  We didn’t bother rushing to your drop or staying excessively late to cram in the last couple of rides.  There are some obsessive planner types who would consider a trip like that up be a total waste, but to be honest, that was one of the best trips to Disneyland that I’ve been on.  Given the fact that this trip will be with a much larger group, I’m not sure how this one will turn out, but it should still be interesting.

September 5, 2013

Just a Little Bit of Pixie Dust…

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:21 am

Even though I have been known to make occasional attempts to pass myself off as being a mature responsible adult in recent years, to be perfectly honest I’ve never really been all that good at it.  Sure I’ve managed to tick off a reasonable number of the items on the big checklist, but there’s still quite a few that I haven’t figured out yet, and a few of them I’ve never been all that inclined to really bother with.  As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been reading this Blog for any length of time, one of the items in the “not going to bother growing up” category would be my little Disney habit.  Since my first trip to Disneyland as an adult back in early 2006, I’ve taken seven more trips to Disneyland for 3-5 days at a time (with another trip with my friends coming up next month), one trip to Disney World,  and I’ve now had an Annual Pass since 2011.

Naturally, this has led some people to ask just what it is that keeps me going back there so often.  And while I’m not sure I could truly answer that question, I generally tell them that it’s a nice convenient place to get away from things for a bit.  Getting there takes only about a 2-hour flight from here (and it’s reasonably easy to find cheap flights from here to LAX if you do a bit of looking and planning ahead.)  If I’m traveling with my friends, generally we don’t need a hotel since their parents own a condo about 25 miles away from the parks where they generously let us stay when we take our trips down.  This means that if we have annual passes to the parks (which are admittedly a fairly significant upfront cost,) we can generally do a trip to the parks for not much more than the cost of flights, a rental car and food.  Not that it will be a particularly relaxing getaway (it doesn’t matter how easy you’re taking it, there’s still no such thing as a relaxing Disneyland vacation)  but it will still provide plenty of opportunity to get away from things for a bit, and plenty to take your mind off of whatever it needs to be taken off of at the time.  And no matter when you go, it still seems like there’s always something new to see, be it a new show, a new ride (or a change to an existing ride) or even on occasion something as big as an entirely new land.  On the flip side, there’s also a good chance that for one reason or another you’re going to end up missing out on something along the way too (the trip me and my friend took in April happened to coincide with an unplanned closure of Space Mountain, and this trip saw both the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain closed for various reasons.)  Naturally, this can be a disappointment, but if you know how to plan around things it generally shouldn’t end up being too big a deal.

Of course, if you happen to be making what you expect to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland, chances are your plans are going to be a lot different from they would be if you happen to be an annual passholder that makes several visits a year.  Gradually you learn the little tricks and the shortcuts  to get around things and out of the long lines.  We happen to be firm believers in going through the gift shops to get around crowds on Main Street and along other paths; it saves time, gets you out of the sun (which turned out to be a significant issue on our most recent trip, where temperatures reached well into the Nineties with high humidity) and only occasionally results in ill-advised impulse buys.  You also start to figure out where the best places to eat (and possibly save a few bucks) are, both inside and outside of the parks.  And you also start to learn other tricks to make things easier (for example, if you have a tendency to bring ridiculous props into the parks to take silly ride photos, it’s a good idea to rent a locker to store stuff in.)  Even though I’ve been coming to the parks for years now, this really feels like the first trip where I’ve really felt like we knew what we were doing.  I think I know the freeways around Los Angeles well enough now that I can (mostly) find my way around without needing to use the GPS on my phone, we were doing a good job of staying out of crowds, long lines and the sun, we weren’t really under any pressure to do anything, and (most of) our ride photos turned out reasonably well.  Unfortunately, we did have some problems with the excessive heat (who wouldn’t?) that did put as crimp on our plans for a couple of days, but that pretty much seems to come with the territory when you go down there during the Summer months.  We probably should have learned our lesson last year when we went in August, but apparently this time around the temperatures were well above average for this time of year, and the heat index was close to 106 degrees when the humidity is factored in.  I’m guessing things should be a little more tolerable when we go back in October, but with the way things are going these days, who knows?  Anyway, regardless of the ups and downs it was still an enjoyable trip with good company, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a nice little excuse to forget about work for a bit.

Oh, and another of the little traditions I’ve developed on our Disneyland trips is one of making up random Disney facts out of thin air and posting them over on my Facebook wall.  To bring this post to a close, here is a sampling of some of our Disneyland Facts that are Not True from the most recent trip:

  • Anyone who has been visiting Disneyland for long enough knows that the old Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland was replaced in 1979 by the much more thrilling Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but few people know that the creation of BTMRR was prompted by an accidental discovery of a significant deposit of rare earth minerals underneath Nature’s Wonderland in 1975. As the ride was being built, a small but productive mining operation was commenced several hundred feet below the attraction, and continues to this day. For most of the past year the ride has been closed, ostensibly to facilitate a replacement of the tracks, but in addition to the work above ground, an exploratory shaft is currently being dug toward the Matterhorn in hopes of finding even larger deposits.
  • Although the Haunted Mansion is advertised to have 999 Happy Haunts, in reality Disney’s internal standards allow for a variance of plus or minus two percent on any given day to account for scheduling conflicts or other issues that might arise. Although they do manage an exact count of 999 on most days, the Mansion can be considered to be operating normally with as few as 980 Happy Haunts or as many as 1,019. On March 14th 2009, a mishap in scheduling resulted in a record 1,143 Happy Haunts in the Mansion for a short time before the ride was brought down to rectify the problem.
  • In July of 2009, the Captain Jack Sparrow animatronic in the final scene of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride suffered a major malfunction. Rather than risk extended downtime to the ride during the busiest part of the year to make repairs, Disney hired Johnny Depp to replace the broken animatronic in the ride for three days. He did such a good job of staying in character that the ruse was not discovered until several weeks later by Disneyphiles reviewing YouTube videos of the ride and noticing discrepancies in the motions compared to the existing figure.
  • Although it is rarely seen by park guests, there is in fact an alternate path on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride that does not lead you to the Gates of Doom. Naturally, you get there by not looking into the Eye of Mara, which is nearly impossible to get 12 tourists on a ride car to cooperate on at once. If you are fortunate enough to reach this alternate path there will not be untold riches or eternal youth, but you may get free t-shirts, snacks, Disney gift cards or possibly even free admission to the park. Naturally, the ride is considerably shorter than normal along this alternate path.

July 30, 2013

To Get Away From it All, Don’t You Have to Get Away First?

Filed under: Random Stuff, travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:31 pm

(Note:  This post started out as a message board post, so I apologize in advance for any unexplained jargon that may creep in.)

I’m not saying that my job has been overly stressful lately, but if nothing else, there’s certainly been plenty of it to go around.  My timecard at work for the past couple of weeks ended up being in excess of 100 hours, including spending most of a Saturday at work a couple of weekends ago (as well as the Saturday before that.)  Without getting into too many details, it seems to be one of those situations where it basically just ends up being one thing after another, and where things never seem to quite have time to settle down before something flares up again.  In theory, I still have a cubicle that nominally belongs to me at the office, but I’m there so rarely these days that on the rare occasions when I make it down there, mysterious piles of snacks have started randomly showing up when I’m not looking. This odd behavior leads me to wonder some sort of cargo cult has sprung up around my cubicle in my absence (John Frum, as always, could not be reached for comment.)  As I’ve mentioned before, even with all the time I ended up taking off work back in April and May, with all the overtime I’ve been working it has eventually managed to even out, and I think at this point I’m even actually several days “ahead” for the year.  After spending months dealing with a project like this, the thought of just getting away from it all for a while and taking a nice long trip starts to sound really appealing.  And come this December, I intend to do just that.

As usual, since I seem to be stuck in a pretty serious rut when it comes to my vacation plans, I’ll be spending my upcoming vacation at sea, taking a nice long (by my standards anyway) 10-day Caribbean cruise in early December along with one of my friends, and throwing in a couple of extra days in Florida before and after the cruise to make it (almost) a nice even two weeks.  This will actually be the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to do a cruise of more than 7-days, (so far, I’ve done three 7-day Caribbean cruises, but most of the cruises I’ve been on so far have been various shorter ones than that up and down the Pacific Coast of between one and five days). For many years I’ve found myself mostly in one of two situations when it comes to time off from work:  Either I have plenty of time and no money to do much of anything with it (typically known as “being unemployed”,) or I have had plenty of money on hand but no time to do much of anything (typically known as “being employed and single.”)  Although I’ve been able to sneak a few cruises in here and there (mostly joining my parents and other family on some of their various cruises) I just haven’t really had the luxury of being able to take more than a week or so off work at a time. In fact, this time around my original plan was to find a 7-day cruise of some sort in December (there was some talk last year of doing some sort of a family cruise over Christmas this year that never materialized) and I had made plans to book an Eastern Caribbean sailing on the Crown Princess sometime in June. When it came time to actually put down a deposit though, it turned out that for roughly the price of a balcony on the 7-day cruise I was looking at, I could get an interior cabin on a 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise instead getting a much more interesting itinerary out of the deal (not to mention free gratuities thrown in thanks to a promo Princess was running.)  Given the choices, I would much rather take three extra days (and three ports I haven’t been to before) even if I have to sail in an interior cabin to do it.

Of course, in many ways booking the trip is the easy part.  It’s easy enough to pick out a cruise and put down a deposit on a cabin, but figuring out the logistics of actually getting there and back can be far more tricky indeed.  Even though I’m only spending three more days at sea compared to what I had originally planned, the way the schedule works out on this basically requires taking two whole weeks off work, which certainly complicates things. With a 7-day itinerary, one can generally rely on having their embarkation day on a Saturday or Sunday, and if they can finagle convenient flights they can manage to do that while using just five days of vacation time, or if they want a little extra wiggle room they can throw in an extra day or two before boarding. For example, if I’m on a 7-day sailing with a Sunday departure date, I might take a redeye flight on Friday night and arrive early Saturday, spend a night in a hotel (following a day of sleep deprived fun, but that’s another story)  and then board the ship the following day, catching a flight back on the afternoon after disembarkation a week later to be back in the office on Monday.   A Saturday departure is a bit trickier without either taking an extra day off work to fly in some time on either Thursday night or during the day on Friday, or daring to flaunt the First Rule of Cruising (which, as you quickly learn if you spend any time on the Cruise Critic message boards, is that you should never fly in on the day of the cruise lest you put yourself at risk of missing the boat if anything at all goes wrong with your flights) and take a Friday night redeye flight.  Either way, it takes a bit of planning to figure out (and to be perfectly honest I’m not a big fan of cross-country redeye flights anyway if I can help it) but it is doable.

When you add three days to that and start looking at 10-day itineraries or longer, your embarkation day could be basically any day of the week, which pretty much throws all that logic out the window. In this case, I’m fortunate to have one of the “easier” scenarios to deal with, since the cruise I will be on departs on a Monday and comes back the following Thursday.  On one hand, the way this is scheduled means that even though the cruise is only ten days long I basically have to take two whole weeks off work to do it.  On the other hand, it does allow the “luxury” of a convenient weekend to fly in (without having to do a redeye, something that I certainly approve of) and have an extra day in Fort Lauderdale  before boarding the ship, plus another day and a half (or so) to spend after the disembarking before flying out on Friday afternoon (in theory I could fly back on Thursday, but a) the flight schedules really didn’t work out, and b) why bother?)  In theory I could even tack on a couple more days to the end of that and fly back on Sunday, but given the fact that the return flights are getting rather close to the Christmas rush, it quickly gets to be too expensive to do that  And that’s not even getting into the various hotel, rental car and other arrangements that might need to be made along the way.

For something that’s supposed to be a nice relaxing getaway, it sure doesn’t seem that way while you’re in the process of trying to get it all sorted out, but by the time you get through all of it, make the trip and walk up the gangway to board the ship, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have completely forgotten about all of that within ten minutes.  And really, when it comes down to it, isn’t that the point?

June 1, 2013

A Little Bit of Southern Exposure

Filed under: travel — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:42 am

Savannah Rapids Park, Martinez GA

In what has become a somewhat annoying but predictable pattern, I have returned from last weekend’s trip just in time for things at work to get ridiculously busy again, which typically means working the weekend.  I figure that I could (eventually) get used to a pattern like this, but the main problem I’ve got right now is that I’ve kind of run out of vacations to take for a while, which means that I’ll probably be spending the next little bit between being busy at work and being slightly less busy.  I suppose I should be grateful to be employed (and especially to be making as much as I am these days) but it sure seems like I’m spending a lot more time at work than I’m used to these days.  Then again, I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit lately, and by the time I figure all that in, things tend to (mostly) even out.

That said, I quite enjoyed the little trip to the South that I got to take last weekend.  It was my first time in the South (aside from the times I’ve been in Florida, but that hardly counts because they’re pretty much off in their own little world anyway,,) so it was all a rather new experience for me.   As discussed in the previous post, the primary purpose of this trip was to attend my brother’s wedding at the LDS temple in Atlanta last Saturday, followed by a reception later that day in a park on the Savannah River near Augusta.  Following the wedding and reception, we needed to head up to Charlotte the next day to drop my brother off at the airport there  for his return flight, at which point we then had no further plans until Tuesday evening, when I needed to be back in Atlanta for my return flight.  The “no plans” part of that evaporated rather quickly, as a number of factors coincided to provide us a rather unique opportunity to watch the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway from what might possibly be the best seats in the house that were not currently doing 180 MPH around the track at the time.  That (and some of our subsequent visits to some of the NASCAR race shops in the area) will be another Blog post, most likely next week.

The weather for my brother’s wedding day was surprisingly nice.  If I understand the local definition of these things correctly, this mostly means that it wasn’t oppressively hot and humid outside.  Up here in the Seattle area, this same weather would constitute a warm Summer day of the type we generally don’t get much of until July and August.  Either way, you probably couldn’t have asked for much better weather.  I don’t have a lot of photos from this, since the photos at the temple were mostly being taken by the professionals.

Following the temple ceremony, the wedding party began making the trip from Atlanta over to Augusta, but not before making a stop in the small town of Social Circle, roughly halfway between the two cities.  There, a wedding luncheon took place at the Blue Willow Inn, a buffet restaurant located in an old mansion serving up some of the best Southern food I’ve tasted (yes, the sample size is kind of small at this point, but still…)  With carefully landscaped grounds around the mansion, a location well off the freeway and in the heart of small-town Georgia and a front porch covered with rocking chairs, the whole place seems to be designed to provide a quintessential Southern experience.  Quite a few of the wedding photos got taken here, and I can’t say I blame them.

Upon arrival in Augusta, frantic last-minute rush was the order of the day as the preparations for the reception weren’t quite as finished as we would have liked, but ultimately things came together pretty well.  The reception itself wasn’t overly fancy, but things still turned out quite nice, and the setting (the dance pavilion of Savannah Rapids Park) provided quite the picturesque backdrop for the proceedings, as seen here by the sunset behind the Savannah River.  One thing that you come to realize in the South is that there’s history all over the place that you just don’t have around here.  In the various local historical research I’ve done here at various times on this Blog, I’ve rarely gone much past the 1920s, since there just isn’t a lot of history to be found much earlier than that.  In Seattle, 1889 seems to be the cut-off point for historical buildings, owing mostly to the Great Seattle Fire that burned down most of what was there prior to that.  Then again, at this particular park, there’s an unassuming barbecue pit located below the dance pavilion overlooking the river which dates back to the 1880s.  And then there’s the Augusta Canal which begins here, which I learned from a bit of Internet research to have played an important role in making Augusta a major industrial center for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Although the canal is largely non-functional at this point, the historical structures found in the area make for an interesting backdrop for a wedding reception.  The gorgeous sunset and even more gorgeous moonrise (which my phone camera proved woefully inadequate to capture reasonably) certainly helped as well.

Although the schedule for the trip and the 3-day detour to Charlotte didn’t provide much opportunity for random wandering around the area, we did make a couple of brief stops in South Carolina on the way back to Atlanta at the end.  One thing you see featured prominently along the I-85 corridor in South Carolina is fireworks, and plenty of them.  Right near the North Carolina and Georgia borders can be found gigantic warehouses full of fireworks open year round, and they’ve got all the big stuff too.  We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to stop at either of these (I probably would have been a bit too tempted to try to sneak some stuff into my carry-on luggage, which probably would have ended badly) but we did make a stop at a smaller farm store along the route that featured a pretty decent selection of fireworks itself.  Fortunately the Fourth of July isn’t too far off so Boom City and the other reservation fireworks stands should be opening soon, but I’m starting to think I may have to go pay another visit to South Carolina one of these days, mostly to blow stuff up take in some of the rich history and culture to be found along the way.

All in all, it wasn’t a whole lot of time to see things, but it’s always interesting to get the chance to expand one’s horizons and see parts of the country that you haven’t seen before.  I have no idea when (or if) I will have a reason to make another trip down here, but I certainly enjoyed the chance to visit.  The people were friendly, things seemed reasonably inexpensive (then again, compared to here things seem cheap pretty much everywhere) and there’s a lot to see.  I suspect I may have to take another trip down there at some point, preferably with a bit more time to wander.


May 23, 2013

Well Actually, I Am Pretty Much Just Whistling Dixie.

Filed under: travel — Brian Lutz @ 9:08 pm


Ok, this is the last one for a while, I swear.

Lately it seems like if it weren’t for boring plane rides, I wouldn’t have time to do any blogging at all.  Then again, I usually travel a lot less than I have been lately, but most of that is my own fault.  This time around, I am somewhere in the middle of a 4 1/2 hour plane ride down to Atlanta, where my brother will be getting married in a couple of days.  Presumably we are currently flying somewhere over the Midwestern United States (South Dakota, it appears), but there’s really nothing to see out the windows right now, the screens on the plane are showing some random movie I’ve never heard of, and even if there was something besides clouds out the window I’m in the middle of the plane anyway.  At least the center seat next to me is empty, so things aren’t too crowded.

All in all, I guess this isn’t too bad.  The flight is a non-stop so there aren’t any random airport layovers to worry about, and the plane isn’t too crowded.  Which is a far cry from what I usually end up with on these cross-country flights.  Most of the time I seem to end up on some jam-packed redeye on a creaky old MD-80 in seat 38D.   Usually they throw in a three-hour layover in Dallas or Chicago for good measure.  Even then, something inevitably gets delayed, and pretty soon it turns into a five hour layover.  By the time I arrive at my destination on a flight to the East Coast I’m usually running on at least 24 hours of no sleep (as I’ve discussed before, I seem to be completely incapable of sleeping on any moving vehicle smaller than a cruise ship, and even that one can be iffy sometimes,) which means I typically get to spend the next day alternating between trying to stay awake and being completely wired.  A good night’s sleep usually fixes that, but I don’t think I’ve ever arrived in Florida without being sleep deprived.

A couple of weeks ago when returning from the short cruise I went on with my friends, we took the train back from Vancouver to Seattle.  I’ve taken the train before, but the last time I did (same trip, but in the other direction) I was in Business Class, which had even bigger seats than normal.  Nonetheless, even in coach the train is still much nicer than most planes I have flown on.  The seats are nice and wide (four per row instead of the six you would get on a plane,) you have more legroom than you know what to do with, every seat had power outlets, there isn’t a seatbelt anywhere to be found, and you can move about freely almost whenever you want (except during the Customs inspection at the border.).  In fact, I might be inclined to consider the train for more of my trips if it wasn’t for the fact that it takes at least twice as long to get anywhere as the same trip would take even in the car.  The train is a good way to go for a four hour short haul trip, but I suspect I would probably find myself a bit less enthusiastic about a 36 hour ride to LA  (or worse) on the thing, especially when I can make the same trip in 2 1/2 hours by plane.

And even in a really nice car, I don’t handle long car trips well.  Currently my job involves testing stuff that’s going into an upcoming 2014 model luxury car, and we currently have one at the office for testing our stuff.  Last Saturday (have I mentioned that work had been a little busy lately?) we spent the day testing stuff in the car, which basically turned into the equivalent of a ten-hour road trip to nowhere.  Even with all the cool bells and whistles I kind of wish my car had, spending all day in the car was still a serious pain.  I actually don’t mind a road trip every once in a while, but I’d much rather be the one driving if I can help it.

In theory, I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on my e-mail for work right now, but a last-minute plane change left me on a flight that doesn’t have Wi-Fi on it.  Even if it did, there isn’t enough room for me to use my work laptop anyway, so I’ll just call that a convenient excuse.  Which means that one again, I am typing this post up  (or whatever the equivalent thereof would be on a tablet) on my Kindle Fire.  Surprisingly, it actually works pretty well compared to some of the alternatives thanks to the built-in Swype keyboard.  Which is interesting, because I have it on my phone too, but could never get used to the thing on there. Maybe it just needs more screen space to be used effectively.  Either way, I would much rather have an actual keyboard to type on, but this is actually pretty reasonable too.  Not that I plan to write any novels on this thing anytime soon, but it’s certainly a lot more usable than my iPad was for the same task.

To make a long story short, yeah I’m still traveling all over the place, I expect to be doing less of it soon, and there are probably worse things I could be doing right now. To be honest, I’m kind of looking forward to things settling down some for a bit, but I suspect I will be doing more traveling sooner than I think.

May 21, 2013

How to Conveniently Ignore the Usual Crises for a Weekend or So

Filed under: travel — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:30 am

In what seems to be turning into an oddly recurring pattern lately, once again the past couple of weeks have seen me alternating between being on vacation and being incredibly busy at work.  This past week saw me getting off a cruise ship in Vancouver on Monday following a three-day trip up the coast, then working 49 hours in the next five days (including 11 hours on Saturday) as the team I’m on remains in crunch mode trying to get stuff out the door.  Somehow, I suspect that if I hadn’t spent the weekend on a cruise ship I probably would have spent much of it at work anyway, but that’s another story.  Fortunately, I’ve only got one more iteration of this recurring pattern to deal with, as I head for the Deep South for a few days for my brother’s wedding in Atlanta, followed by a couple of days of wandering around the area, then things settle down for a while (and by “settle down,” I suspect I mean that they’re going to get even busier at work.)  On one hand, it’s kind of nice to be able to have the ability to travel as much as I do.  On the other hand, a lot of traveling means that I’m spending a lot of time getting from one place to another.  Fortunately most of it is flights up and down the West Coast which are relatively easy, but the trip back home from the cruise (itself a  3-day ship ride, but after sorting out all the various conveyances involved in the cruise, we figured it went something like this:

  • Drive a car to an offsite airport parking lot;
  • Take a shuttle bus from there to the airport;
  • Take a plane to LAX;
  • Take a taxi to the cruise ship;
  • Ride the cruise ship up the coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver over the course of three days;
  • Take the Vancouver Skytrain from the ship to the train station in Vancouver (after walking most of the way there and back to the cruise terminal while wandering around to kill some time);
  • Take the Amtrak Cascades down from Vancouver back to Seattle;
  • Take the Light Rail back to the airport;
  • Catch another shuttle bus back to the parking lot;
  • Drive home.

For what’s supposed to be a relaxing vacation (in theory, at least) that sure seems to be a lot of running around.  And that’s just a 3-day weekend getaway.  Me and some of my friends are already in the process of looking into a potential 12-day Mediterranean cruise next Summer, which I suspect will turn out to be considerably more complex.   Of course, we do also have an entire year to plan that one,  so there should be plenty of time to figure things out.

As for the cruise itself, it was, as usual, a nice little getaway, although with only three days, it certainly felt short.  Not quite as short as the somewhat ill-advised 1-day trip I took a couple of years back where it seemed like we spent almost as much time in the security line at Canada Place as we spent actually on the ship, but certainly not like a full 7-day cruise either.   As seems to be the case with a lot of the Coastal cruises I’ve been on, the weather at sea wasn’t all that great, with much of the trip spent in fog, and not much opportunity to spend time above decks.  On one hand it was a bit of a shame because we had received a really nice  upgrade to a Caribe deck balcony cabin with one of the larger balconies to be found on the ship (not bad for having booked an obstructed oceanview cabin) and didn’t get much chance to take advantage of it.  As I’ve noted on some of the other cruises I’ve taken, when there’s fog at sea the ship’s horn is sounded at regular intervals, which can get a bit annoying after a while.  On the other hand, there was enough going on elsewhere on the ship that this wasn’t too big a deal.  Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed the trip, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be going somewhere warm for the next one.

As for the ship itself (the Island Princess,) it was a nice shape in good condition, but I do have to admit that it took a little bit of getting used to.  I’ve been on six other cruises on four other Princess ships, but this is the first time I’ve been on one of the two Panamax ships in the Princess fleet (the Island Princess and her sister ship Coral Princess spend much of the year doing Panama Canal cruises when they aren’t in Alaska),  and although all of the various Grand class ships in the fleet share a substantially similar layout, the Coral and Island Princess very quite a bit from the others.  For example, the Horizon Court buffet is located on the forward section of the Lido Deck instead of the aft where you’d find it on a Grand class ship.  Similarly, the entrances to the two main dining rooms are located at the forward part of the ship’s atrium instead of the aft part where you’d find them on the other ships (there’s also a third dining room on the other ships that isn’t present on this one.)  And even though there’s plenty of stuff that’s different between the Panamax ships and the other Princess ships, there’s also plenty of stuff that’s in similar locations as well.  As a result of this, it took me a couple of days to get my bearings and to stop going the wrong way down the hallways trying to find our cabin.  I’m pretty sure the next time I sail on one of these ships I’ll have figured things out already and this won’t be an issue anymore, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind when you sail on one of these ships.  Then again, most people who sail aboard the Island Princess tend to have more time than we did to figure things out (the ship spends much of the year sailing 10 and 14-day Panama Canal trips, and it spends its Alaska season going back and forth between Vancouver and Whitter Alaska (a small town about 60 miles away from Anchorage) on alternating 7-day one-way trips.

Anyway, in spite of whatever difficulties may have arisen in finding one’s way around, the staff was friendly, the service was good, the ship was clean and well cared for, and things were overall quite nice.  Boarding was also quite simple and painless, which probably owes a lot to the fact that a third of the passengers on the ship had boarded at Fort Lauderdale and were continuing onward to Vancouver, so there were fewer people there to board the ship than one might normally expect.  Even if the ship was full (as it usually is), it never really felt crowded, which can be a bit of an unusual experience compared to some of the larger Princess ships (the Island Princess only holds 1,970 passengers and 900 crew, while the Crown, Emerald and Ruby Princess hold 3,080 passengers and 1,200 crew each, and the soon-to-be-launched Royal Princess will hold 3,600 passengers.)  Tables in the main dining room were easy to come by, as were seats in the theater (something of a sore spot for passengers on some of the larger Princess ships.)  Competition for deck chairs was virtually nonexistent, probably owing mostly to the fact that the weather wasn’t particularly conducive to spending much time outdoors.  All in all, it was a nice little getaway from what’s been a stressful few months at work, and I’d gladly do something like this again.  Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure I’m thinking Caribbean again for the next one, preferably when there’s some weather that I need to get away from.

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