Florida 2014: Disney vs. Universal


In August 2014, we spent two weeks on vacation in Florida, which included 4 days at the Universal Studios theme parks and 8 days at Disney World. I’ve summarized our vacation in some detail already (planning, Universal, Disney), but here I’m going to look at the similarities and differences between Universal and Disney. I’m skipping the rides, shows, and food, mainly because they’re so varied and you can find ride reviews anywhere. I wanted to focus on other parts of the experience that may not get talked about as much. Primarily, I want to look at the difference between their two “line-skipping” technologies, Disney’s Fastpass+ and Universal Express.

First I’ll describe each one, and then compare them.

Fastpass+

Disney’s Fastpass has been around for a while (it was there when we went in 2002), and it recently got changed and renamed to Fastpass+. It allows you to sign up for a ride hours or days in advance and then skip the line. It’s basically a “reservation” for a ride; you are assigned a time range (usually 15 minutes) and as long as you arrive within that time range, you can go into the Fastpass+ line rather than the regular line, and your wait is significantly decreased. For some rides, this is the only way to get on the ride without waiting an hour or more. You can also get Fastpasses for non-ride things like shows, character greetings, and even some restaurants. However not every ride accepts Fastpasses, and for those that do the number they have is limited so you generally have to get them in advance.

Fastpass+You can only have one FastPass+ per ride at a time, so you can’t get a bunch of Fastpasses for Mission: Space and ride it all day. You can get Fastpasses online or through the Disney app, and there are even stations throughout the parks where you can get them.

Fastpass+ is free for all Disney guests.

Universal Express

Universal Express is similar to Fastpass+ but not quite the same. While Fastpass+ is essentially a reservation system, Universal Express is simply a way of paying extra for the privilege of bypassing the normal lines to wait in much shorter lines. It’s not available on every ride, but almost all of the rides that didn’t offer it were the ones where the lines were short anyway. The big exceptions were the Hogwarts Express and Escape from Gringotts.

Multiple lines at The HulkIf you are a guest at one of the Universal hotels, you get Express for “free” (considering the price of tickets and hotels, it’s hard to use the word “free”. Let’s say it doesn’t cost any extra). But if you’re staying off-site, it’s rather expensive. The Express costs anywhere from $34.99 (with restrictions) up to $149.99 (with none, peak time), and that’s per day per ticket. Express is an add-on, so this cost is on top of your regular ticket price.

Compare and contrast

Both Fastpass+ and Express provided lines that were much shorter than the regular lines and in some cases we just walked straight onto the ride, feeling a bit like a VIP. “Sorry, regular people, these people want to ride now, so you’ll all have to wait.”

There are two big advantages to Fastpass+. The first is that you know when you will be riding certain rides, and you can plan your day around that. This is also the big disadvantage – if you decide to change your plans, you either lose your Fastpass or you can try to change it online. But we found that changing it was generally not possible because the times booked up very quickly. You can also only have one Fastpass for a ride at a time, so if you loved a ride, you can’t just turn around and bypass the line again. You can do that with Universal Express.

The second big advantage is that Fastpass+ doesn’t cost any extra and everyone can use it. For those staying onsite, Universal Express is included but otherwise, it ranges from a bit of a pricey add-on to “holy crap, are you kidding?” expensive. There were stations around Universal advertising “Buy your Express pass here!”, and when we were there the cost was around $89.99 (per day per ticket). Since we went to Universal for four days, that would have cost us over $1400. That’s insane.

The biggest advantages for Universal Express is that it’s available on the majority of rides and it’s very flexible – you just walk onto the ride. You don’t need to plan ahead and you don’t need an app on your phone. If you get the cheaper version you can’t use it more than once for the same ride in a day, but the “Universal unlimited” pass (that we had) allows you to use it as many times as you want.

Since we did stay on-site, the price wasn’t an issue for us and so overall I preferred Universal Express to Fastpass+. it was so much easier to simply walk in the Express line rather than booking the time in advance. Having said that, if I had to pay several hundred bucks per day for the four of us to get the Express tickets, that opinion would change very quickly.

In a nutshell, Universal Express was easier and more flexible than Fastpass+, but unless you’re staying on-site, it’s not worth the crazy amount of money.

I originally thought the price was unrealistically high – who’s going to pay that? Why would Universal charge that much? But I figured out why. Having this feature free for hotel guests may push people to stay at a Universal hotel rather than off-site. The hotel may be a little more expensive, but if you save $1000+ by not having to buy Express for everyone in your family, you may decide that the higher hotel price is worth it. If I were going back to Universal again, I’d certainly consider it.


A few other comparisons:

  • Magic BandsAt Universal, your ticket is a small card (like a credit card) with your name on it and a mag stripe, which you swipe to get into the park and hotel room. Universal Express was a different ticket (WHY?!), and we bought lanyards to keep both tickets easily reachable. For the cost of the vacation, I think Universal could have thrown in four lanyards. Disney used a “magic band” (see right), which is a plastic bracelet with an RFID chip in it. The bracelet was your park ticket (with a fingerprint), Fastpass+ ticket, meal plan ticket, hotel key, and identification for the Disney photographers. You could even use it to charge things to your room (with a PIN). As I said in an earlier article, the only thing it didn’t work for was the in-room safe (which used a large metal key – WHY?!). Advantage: Disney.
  • At a number of rides, there were lockers nearby since they don’t want you bringing cameras and backpacks and such on the rides. At Universal (and at Kennedy Space Center too), there were fingerprint scanners near each bank of lockers. You scanned your finger and it would open an empty locker for you to use. When you came back later, you scanned your finger again and it opened the locker. If you were gone less than 20 minutes or so (the time varied with the general lineup length for the ride), the locker rental was free, otherwise you had to pay to get your stuff back. The boys thought that using the fingerprint scanner was pretty cool, though personally I wasn’t as impressed – I wrote fingerprint scanning software two decades ago. Disney had no such lockers. Advantage: Universal.
  • Both resorts had free wifi throughout the parks and hotels but Universal’s was much spottier. In the hotel, you had to agree to some terms and conditions before it would let you surf, and I had to agree to those terms and conditions a number of times because it seemed to forget. There were a number of places throughout Universal where the wifi signal dropped to nothing. At Disney, the wifi covered just about everywhere (you might say it was universal) and had a much stronger signal. Advantage: Disney.

One other difference was the staff. The Disney staff seemed to truly enjoy being there, and there were quite a few that went above and beyond. While waiting for the boys and I to finish a ride at Epcot, Gail saw an impromptu “concert” by some of the cleaning staff, who put a bunch of upside-down garbage cans and buckets together and started drumming on them. They called themselves the “Jammitors”. Also at Epcot, we saw another member of the cleaning staff “painting” surprisingly good pictures of Goofy and Donald Duck on the ground with a wet broom. This was very shortly after the park opened, and he knew full well that the pictures would only last minutes because of the heat, but it was fun for him and guests liked it. It’s not that we had any negative experiences with the Universal staff, and some of the people in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley did get quite into character, but more often we felt the Disney staff just went that little bit extra.

Florida 2014: By the numbers


Total nights away from home: 15 (1 Buffalo, 2 Titusville, 4 Universal, 8 Disney)

Border wait time going to Buffalo: ~3 minutes

Border wait time coming back from Buffalo: ~45 minutes

Total flying distance: 2064 miles (3321 km)

Total driving distance: 375 miles (603 km) – this does not include driving to and from Buffalo

Total walking distance (Ryan): 178.05 km

Total walking distance (Nicky): 179.17 km (298,702 steps), though we missed counting a day

Total pictures and videos taken: 2292 (9.03 GB). About half were on the actual camera, the other half on our phones. We actually filled the camera’s CF card and had to delete a few before we could continue. Should really get a second card.

Phone pictures taken:

  • Gail: 568 (3.19 GB)
  • Nicky: 411 (573 MB)
  • Graeme: 264 (1.54 GB)
  • Ryan: 1 (291 KB) – he actually took two pictures of the same thing (Bob and Dale)

Temperature: roughly 32-35°C every day, slightly cooler first thing in the morning and in the evening, especially after a thunderstorm

These little guys were everywhereHumidity: roughly 50000% every day. It turns out “humidex” is strictly a Canadian thing, but the American weather reports did have something similar, which I think they called “real feel”. We didn’t check these values often but they were in the low-mid 40’s whenever we did. Apparently the humidex numbers would be slightly higher than this.

Number of pounds gained (Graeme): Astonishingly, 0. In fact, a week after we got back I weighed 1.5 pounds less than a week before we left.

Number of pounds gained (Gail): Yeah, right.

Number of alligators we saw: 1

Number of armadillos: 1

Number of live armadillos: 0

Number of salamanders: many

Number of American white ibises: countless

Florida 2014: Disney


This is part 3 of a multi-part travelogue on our 2014 trip to Florida. Part one described some of the planning of the trip. In part two, we spent a day at Kennedy Space Center and four days at Universal, and Gail spent two days in bed. In this instalment, we travel down the road from Universal to Disney World.

August 21: Early entry at Magic Kingdom today. We tried to get to the Seven Dwarves coaster first since the line-ups on that ride get insane quickly, but it was closed so we rode Buzz Lightyear instead. Since there were no lines, we actually rode it twice. After that, it was over to the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, which I expected to be a short movie with the Monsters Inc. characters, but it was different. It was actually a “live” comedy show featuring a monster. They must have had a comedian in a motion capture suit backstage with cameras on the audience, and the character on screen interacted in real time with audience members. It was very well done and pretty funny.

Obligatory Mickey pictureAfter that, we did more rides: Big Thunder Mountain, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Peter Pan, Under the Sea, Tomorrowland Speedway, Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Jungle Cruise. Sounds like a pretty busy day but most of that was before lunch.

Lunch was at a Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant called Be Our Guest (note that we tried the gray stuff, and it was indeed delicious). During our entire Disney vacation, something we kept coming back to was “Disney does things right”. We were impressed countless times with how efficient or easy things were, from making dinner reservations online to free wifi throughout all of the parks. Lunch at Be Our Guest was one of the very few times that I was surprised at how this was not the case. First off, we did have lunch reservations (which we had made months in advance), and even placed our food orders to speed things up. But we still had to wait in a line for at least 20 minutes before getting inside. This was around noon and there was no shade anywhere near the line. It was around 35° outside so we were melting by the time we got inside, but I felt worse for the family in front of us, with two much younger kids. Once inside, we found that our reservation was there but the lunch order had been lost, so we had to go through the ordering process, which was not very efficient at all. We were sent to a room with terminals where an attendant would enter our food order. But while we were waiting for the group ahead of us to finish, people in line behind us were redirected to other stations and finished far earlier. It seemed very haphazard and slow.

Eventually we got seated and things were fine after that. The food arrived very quickly and it was really good so while the overall experience had some problems, the end result was happy people with full bellies. And some desserts to take back to the hotel.

After a few more rides, we headed back to the hotel around 3:30. The boys and I went for a swim while Gail napped. For dinner, we tried the Pepper Market, a cafeteria-type place within our hotel complex. Coronado Springs is a huge place and since it’s all two-storey buildings spread out around a lake, we actually drove to the front of the hotel for dinner. Let me say that another way: we went to a restaurant within the hotel complex in which we were staying, and we still drove to get there. Anyway, the market had lots of variety and the food was very good. I had enchiladas with green chilies made by a guy from Mexico City. Turns out that Taco Bell is not the best example of Mexican food you can find!

After dinner, we went back to the Magic Kingdom. We were hoping to get a good position for the evening’s parade, but while looking for a spot, some pretty dark clouds started to move in. We were walking by It’s a Small World and Gail suggested we duck inside there to avoid the rain. We rode that and once we came out, the ground was pretty wet but we were not. But the clouds were still there and the parade had been cancelled so we decided to call it a day. On the way out, we stopped by a place near the front gate called Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. This was a scavenger hunt kind of game involving cards and video monitors hidden throughout the Magic Kingdom. It was free to play, so we signed up and found a couple of the easy ones in that area. But it was getting late and the boys were tired so we decided to continue another day.

Ryan: 21.03 km
Nicky: 12.90 km, 21506 steps

August 22: Another early entry day, this time to Hollywood Studios. The first ride was the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which was very fast and loud. I really enjoyed this one, as did the boys. Gail’s back was feeling much better by this point, but she was taking no chances so she skipped this one, and all of the other intense rides for the rest of the trip. Tower of Terror was right next door so we did that next. I am totally not a fan of this kind of dropping ride, but I remember this one (from when Gail and I went in 1996) as not being all that bad. I was mostly right. It was about as intense as I could handle from a ride like this – any more intense and I wouldn’t have liked it. This was a little beyond Ryan’s limit, however, and he wasn’t happy at all. Nicky, as expected, loved it.

Toy Story Midway ManiaAfter this was Star Tours, and then the Indiana Jones stunt spectacular, Muppet Vision 3D (I’m not a huge Muppet fan but I liked this one), Toy Story Midway Mania, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow (lame), One Man’s Dream (a historical show about Walt Disney), and Voyage of the Little Mermaid. This was a very hot day, so we spent a lot of time inside. Lunch was Pizza Planet, where Ryan and Nicky had some fun playing overly expensive video games. Dinner was also fun – we went to the Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater. The restaurant is built like a drive-in theater, where all the tables are shaped like cars and they have scenes from very bad 50’s sci-fi movies and old commercials playing on the big screen.

One thing we missed was the Backlot Tour, which we remember enjoying from years ago, but it was closed for renovations. We never managed to get on the Great Movie Ride because the lines were too long.

After dinner, we did one more ride on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and then Nicky went on Tower of Terror by himself. Once that was done, we hung around for Fantasmic, a firework / film / laser / water live-action show that’s hard to describe but we really enjoyed. After the show I realized that I’d left my Toronto Rock hat on the roller coaster, so we went back there to see if it had been turned in. Just like Nicky’s phone from a few days before, someone had found it and turned it in so I was happy to get it back.

Ryan: 12.35 km
Nicky: 18.47 km, 30799 steps

August 23: A rare non-early entry day so we slept in – until 7am. After breakfast we headed to Epcot. Our first ride of the day was The Sum of all Thrills, which was an interesting combination ride and Raytheon advertisement. You use a fancy computer (created by Raytheon) to design your own roller coaster, then get in a one- or two-person simulator (created by Raytheon) and actually ride it. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as the name implied, but it wasn’t bad. Next was Mission: Space, which ended up as one of my top 3 favourite rides of the whole trip. Right next door was Test Track, which was fun as well. Considering you were sitting in a car with no seat belts or restraining bar, it was quite fast.

Some other rides: Spaceship Earth (the ride through the big golf ball), Ellen’s Energy Adventure (which was fun even though I might have dozed for a few minutes), the Circle of Life (a thinly-veiled “we’re destroying the planet” environmental documentary featuring Timon and Pumbaa), and some parts of Innoventions.

We went into the World Showcase shortly before lunch since we had reservations at the German Biergarten. Lunch was a buffet featuring lots of German specialties and I’m sure our hosts would have been offended if I didn’t have a German beer, so I made that sacrifice. After lunch we headed over to the Canadian pavilion where we saw the 360° movie “O Canada”. This one was new – the pavilion had had a similar movie running since Epcot opened, which Gail and I had seen back in ’96. It was very dated even then, so we warned the boys about it. But the movie we saw was “all-new” and featured Martin Short. It was much more up-to-date and we enjoyed it.

After the movie we were walking back towards the front when the sky started to grow very dark very quickly. Gail said “let’s duck into this store” and within a few minutes it was teeming with rain outside while we were nice and dry inside. There was a cafe attached to the store so we had a little snack while waiting for the rain and thunder to stop. This was at least the third or fourth time we’d missed being outside in a rainstorm by minutes and the boys and I were getting quite impressed at Gail’s ability to make this happen.

The iconic Epcot golf ballDinner that night was at the Maya Grill back at the hotel. Not the quickest place around – it took a long time for our meals to arrive but once they did, they were very good. I had more enchiladas since I liked the ones from the other day, and Nicky ordered chimichangas – I think mainly because he liked to say “chimichanga”.

One thing I noticed back in the hotel room was that there was a safe in the wall – with a metal key. I’ve stayed in many hotels over the last 20 years with safes in the rooms, and they almost always have a numeric keypad that allows you to enter a code to lock it and then enter the same code again to unlock it. Disney issues everyone “Magic Bands” which are RFID bracelets that get you into the parks, act as a room key, allow you to book and redeem FastPasses and dinner reservations, and more – and the room safes use a metal key? Another thing we noticed was that there was no channel on the TV that would list the things you’d charged to your room, or show you your balance owing or anything like that. Nothing personalized at all. This also seemed like 20-year-old technology that Disney just didn’t have.

We were in bed pretty early this night. The early mornings, many kilometres of walking, and the crazy heat (32°-35° all day every day plus humidity – we had several humidex values over 40) are starting to take their toll on us. By the end of every day, we’re all exhausted.

Ryan: 12.33 km
Nicky: 16.53 km, 27551 steps

August 24: Today was supposed to be an early-entry day for Animal Kingdom, but the exhaustion took over and we all slept in. We changed our minds on our destination at that point and around 9:30 (!!) we headed out to Typhoon Lagoon for some water park fun. The boys and I did a few water slides together and then Nicky (Mr. thrill seeker) wanted to do “Humunga Kowabunga”, a slide with a 5-storey drop. After that, we tried to do Shark Reef, which was a pool containing all kinds of fish including small sharks. You get a snorkel and mask and swim through slowly and get a great view of all the ocean life. But at the beginning, Nicky put his mask on and immediately felt a burning sensation in his face. He had to take the mask off right away and was almost in tears because of the pain. Then I put mine on and felt the same thing. It wasn’t terribly painful for me but seriously uncomfortable. Ryan was fine, so off he went, but Nicky and I just returned our equipment and skipped it. We figured it probably had to do with the cleaning solution they used on the goggles.

Baby elephant!After lunch at the Leaning Palm, we did the lazy river around the park and then spent 20 minutes or so in the wave pool. But this wasn’t like other wave pools, where waves come in every few seconds. In this one, you get one wave every minute or so but that one wave is six feet high, blasting everyone off their feet. The boys loved that and I had a bunch of fun too. Around 1:30 we pulled the boys out of the wave pool, got dried and changed, and headed to Animal Kingdom.

At Animal Kingdom, we first rode Dinosaur and then Expedition Everest, which was a very fun coaster that went both forwards and backwards. Then we saw Finding Nemo: The Musical, which was very good, and the Festival of the Lion King, which is an absolute must-see if you go to Animal Kingdom. It’s definitely one of the best shows at any of the parks. Just as we were walking into that one, we felt a few raindrops and sure enough, a few minutes after we got inside (before the show had even started), it was pouring outside. Missed us again, Mother Nature. <sticks tongue out>

After the show, we went to a place called Tusker House, which was another of the places we might not have gone were it not for our free dining plan. It was an African buffet which featured various curry dishes; all kinds of chicken, beef, and pork; tabouleh; plantain; hummus, and a ton of other things you don’t get at your average food court. I wasn’t sure the boys would find enough stuff that they’d eat. As it turns out, they’re pretty good when it comes to things like that. I know people whose kids will only eat a handful of things and basically refuse to eat anything else. They’d rather go hungry than eat anything but chicken fingers or Kraft Dinner. My boys certainly have their favourites and sometimes don’t seem that adventurous (Ryan would happily take a bagel with cream cheese as his lunch for five days straight), but they’ll at least try stuff they’re not familiar with, and have surprised us on more than one occasion.

After dinner we went on the Kilimanjaro safari where we saw rhinos, elephants, a cheetah, antelopes, lions, giraffes, crocodiles, and a bunch more. Being Disney and all, you almost had to remind yourself that these are real animals – no animatronics, no CGI, nothing like that.

Once we came out of the safari, the park was closed so we headed to a place in Downtown Disney called Disney Quest. This was free included for us as part of the package we bought (which included this, the water parks, and a few mini-golf courses that we never had a chance to go to). It was basically a big five-storey arcade with lots of video games, a few simulator rides, and even a virtual-reality ride. The boys are avid gamers so they had fun but quite honestly, I could have easily skipped it.

Ryan: 18.93 km
Nicky: 9.89 km, 16486 steps

August 25: Another Magic Kingdom day, though not early entry this time. We did arrive for park opening though, and then headed straight to Splash Mountain which we missed on our previous day. While we were in line it started to rain and we couldn’t duck into a store or restaurant, so we actually got rained on. Of course, we were doing Splash Mountain anyway, so it didn’t matter much. Big Thunder Mountain was next and by the time we finished that one, the rain had stopped. Other rides: Space Mountain (can’t ride too many mountains, ya know), Buzz Lightyear, Carousel of Progress, Under the Sea, Enchanted Tales with Belle (where Nicky got picked to act in the story – he was a knight), Liberty Square Riverboat, and Swiss Family Treehouse.

Bob and DaleWhile waiting for the train to take us from Libertyville to Tomorrowland, we talked with a “cast member” named Bob. While talking, a squirrel walked fearlessly up to him and climbed his leg. Bob took a peanut from his pocket and gave it to the squirrel, who promptly ran back down and ate it right there. Bob said that he’d tamed this squirrel over the past few months, and calls him “Dale”. He told us that a few months prior, Dale had had some kind of physical problem (don’t remember what it was) and the Disney people had actually captured him and sent him to a vet, who’d performed surgery on him. Surgery. On a squirrel. Just because. Only at Disney.

After lunch at the Liberty Tree Tavern, we did some more of the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. We ran into another guy playing this and he gave us some hints. He had a big binder with what looked like hundreds of cards. I guess there are many levels to this game, and the further you go, the more accurate you have to be. To “defeat” enemies, the boys had to pick a spell card or two and hold them up – the card would be detected and usually that was it, but at the higher levels you had to pick the right card or series of cards. I think I’m glad we never got to those levels because that’s just too much thinking.

We then a Disney bus from the Magic Kingdom to Downtown Disney where we had dinner at the Portobello Country Italian Trattoria. On most nights I would have said this place was very good, but given the great food we had at a few other places around Disney, this place was just all right. No major complaints and it wasn’t any more overpriced than anywhere else (not that we cared – Dining Plan), but nothing stood out.

After dinner, we did some shopping. There was a Christmas store which had hundreds of Disney-themes ornaments and other Christmas goodies. I saw an ornament of Mickey Mouse holding a lacrosse stick. Since I’m a big lacrosse fan, I tweeted a picture of it and within minutes, I had requests from two people to buy it for them, which I did. We then grabbed the bus back to the Magic Kingdom, arriving just in time to get a good spot for the electrical parade, followed by Celebrate the Magic (a unique show featuring video projected onto the castle itself) and then Wishes, a fireworks show.

As an aside, the rudeness of some people never fails to amaze me. There are security people all over the place and hundreds of people lining the streets waiting for the show to start, and two minutes before it’s supposed to start, a family with three kids tries to squish their way in next to us. There is not enough space for them (and we didn’t move), and thankfully a security guy managed to convince them to move on, but really people? We’ve been standing in our prime spot for an hour (because it’s a prime spot) and you think we should just move over when you arrive two minutes before the show? Once again, Disney got this right. There were taped lines on the roads and sidewalks and if you wanted to stand / sit for the show, you had to be within the taped area. If you weren’t, move along. This made it completely subjective – you can’t argue “but people can still get by!” or things like that. Either you’re inside the line or you’re not. We were. They weren’t.

Ryan: 18.96 km
Nicky: 25.94 km, 43240 steps

August 26: This was another sleep-in day. Nicky in particular took full advantage and slept until about 9:30. We decided to make this another water park day so we headed to Blizzard Beach once we were all dressed. Blizzard Beach had more water slides (and bigger too) than Typhoon Lagoon but a smaller wave pool – or at least the waves were smaller, more like a typical wave pool. There was one slide called Summit Plummet which was (for me) scary even to look at. The tall slide at Typhoon Lagoon was about 5 stories high, but this one was about twelve. Of course, Nicky had to ride it. It took him the better part of an hour in the line and Ryan and I rode a few other slides while he was waiting but he loved it.

We had lunch at the Lotta Watta Lodge and then back for more slides. We left the park around 3:00, went back to the room to change and then headed to Epcot. We rode Mission: Space once again and then all four of us rode Soarin’. Honestly, I didn’t think Soarin’ was the mind-blowing unbelievable experience that others have described, but it was definitely fun. Dinner was at a restaurant in the Chinese pavilion called Nine Dragons, and it was excellent.

After dinner we rode the boat ride in the Mexican pavilion, then saw Turtle Talk with Crush which was similar to the Monsters Inc. comedy show – they had Crush (from Finding Nemo) on the screen and someone talking in his voice but interacting in real-time with the audience. The show was very good. After that we managed to get on the last Spaceship Earth ride of the day before the park closed.

Ryan: 7.36 km
Nicky: 9.49 km, 15827 steps

Looking up Main Street, USAAugust 27: Our last day at Disney. We arrived at the Magic Kingdom at opening and went straight to the Seven Dwarves mine train since we couldn’t get fast passes for it and the lines during the day were always over an hour long. We managed to get on after a short wait and it was OK but it really wasn’t worth an hour wait. We spent the rest of the morning doing the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game, and the boys had a lot of fun with it. Lunch was the Columbia Harbour House where Gail and I each had an amazing lobster roll. After another hour or so of the Sorcerer game, we headed back to Epcot.

We rode the Maelstrom in Norway, then Soarin’ again, and then headed back to China for the Chinese acrobats which are always entertaining. Dinner was at the Coral Reef, and I think this was our best meal of the whole trip. We said that it was our last day at Disney and asked if they could get us a table near the aquarium and after an extra five minute wait, we got a table right next to it. We had a great view of all the fish, sharks, rays, and even scuba divers in this immense aquarium, and the food was outstanding.

After another ride on Mission: Space, we tried another new thing: an “Agent P” adventure. Agent P is a character in the Disney show Phineas and Ferb (which is just as funny for adults as it is for kids), and this game was similar to the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom thing, but using a special smartphone. You’d follow clues and the GPS in the phone would detect when you’d gotten to the right place, then you’d have to answer some questions about where you are, and there were videos on the phone and such. There were different adventures in different countries in the World Showcase but we only did the one in England.

After that we grabbed a spot next to the fence around the lake in the middle of the World Showcase and waited (about an hour) for the IllumiNations show, which was fireworks + laser + fire + water + video + music. It was a great show and a great way to cap off our amazing vacation.

After the show we headed back to the hotel where we packed up everything for the trip home. We could have checked into our flight as early as 48 hours beforehand (i.e. yesterday) but we forgot so we did it tonight. Unfortunately, that meant we had boarding numbers in the C15 range.

Ryan: 19.11 km
Nicky: 23.09 km, 38491 steps

August 28: Home time! We packed everything up last night so there wasn’t much to do this morning. After breakfasting on the remaining breakfasts / desserts / snacks, we packaged up the rest of the food in our carry-on bags and left a note for the cleaning staff, asking them to find a good home for the remaining cans of pop. We packed up the car and headed for the airport, stopping for gas on the way. Dropping the car off was uneventful and after a short wait we checked in and got our boarding passes. We made our way to the gate, with another wait to get through security. Unfortunately, I did a dumb thing and it cost us.

When Gail was laid up in bed and we were walking around Hogsmeade, we bought a bottle of pumpkin juice to bring back to the hotel for her. But she never drank it. She wanted to bring it home. I know that checked bags aren’t in a pressurized section of the plane, and I thought it would be possible the bottle would explode (or at least leak). So I was smart and put it in the carry-on. This was indeed clever until we got to security. While putting my shoes and belt back on, the guy said he had to open my carry-on because something unusual showed up on the X-ray. I figured it was our GPS receiver, but no. It was the pumpkin juice. I immediately smacked myself in the head because we’ve known for years that you can’t bring more than a very small amount of liquids onto a plane. The security guy said that I could either throw it away or go back out into the concourse to drink it, but then I’d have to get back in line to come through security again. With Gail giving me the stink-eye, I reluctantly dropped the bottle into the garbage.

Since we had only checked in the night before, we were very late in the boarding procedure and I ended up sitting in the second- or third-last row next to a guy with a baby girl on his lap, across the aisle from his wife, who had the baby’s twin sister on her lap. Not exactly ideal, but it worked out fine. The babies were cute and quiet, and the guy and his wife were friendly so it was all good. Upon arriving in Buffalo we called the hotel where the van was parked, and they sent a shuttle for us. After picking up the van, we headed to an outlet mall in Buffalo for some back-to-school clothes shopping, then a 45-minute wait at the border, and we were home around dinner time.


So that was our vacation in a nutshell extreme detail. But wait, there’s more! I have two more articles coming, one is something I like to do called “by the numbers”, summarizing our vacation with a bunch of “statistics”: how many nights in different hotels, how many miles we drove, how many pictures we took, that sort of thing. The second is a comparison of the Disney and Universal experiences. This will be primarily a  comparison of Disney’s FastPass and Universal’s Express, their strategies used to reduce wait times.

Florida 2014: Titusville and Universal


This is part II of my Florida 2014 travelogue. Part I described the planning for the trip, and in this article, I’ll discuss the first eight days of the vacation, starting the day we left home, and finishing the day we left Universal for Disney. Disney World is described in the next article.

Wed, Aug 13: This was a working day for me but everything that needed to go had been collected so Gail and the boys spent the day getting everything packed into the van. Our friends Jeff & Kerri were going to be looking after Shadow while we were gone, so Gail had brought him to their place the day before. I got home from work around 4:30 and we left shortly after that, stopping at Subway for dinner. After crossing at Queenston-Lewiston, we headed for Wal-Mart in Buffalo where we bought a few things for the trip and a few snacks to bring home at the end of the trip. The things to bring home were things we can’t buy in Canada like Cherry Coke Zero.

After our shopping trip, we continued to the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport.

Thurs, Aug 14: Early morning and a quick breakfast at the hotel before taking the 7:10 shuttle to the airport. We had an uneventful flight to Baltimore, then a 1½ hour wait before our equally-uneventful flight to Orlando. Southwest offers wifi service but if you want actual internet, you have to pay $8 for it. However they do offer free TV service over the wifi, and Nicky was apparently able to get that working. Ryan tried on his tablet but kept getting “Unable to play video”.

On arrival in Orlando, we picked up our rental car – a silver Nissan Maxima. I really liked this car – it held all the luggage easily, and was comfortable and drove nicely. We didn’t get food on the plane so we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch and then drove 45 minutes east to Titusville. Our hotel was the Hampton Inn Titusville which also featured free hot breakfast (Nicky became well acquainted with the waffle-maker) and also had a pool and weight room, neither of which we used. After checking in, we drove out to the nearby Merritt Island Nature Preserve (north of the Space Center, though we could see the Vehicle Assembly Building). The visitor’s center was closed but we want to the Manatee viewing area where we got eaten alive by “no-see-ums” (tiny little biting flies which we don’t have at home) but managed to see a few manatees in the distance as well as some pelicans, storks, buzzards (or vultures), and little salamanders. On the way back to the hotel, we picked up a pizza from Domino’s for dinner and enjoyed it while watching a movie on Gail’s laptop.

Fri, Aug 15: After breakfast, we drove to Kennedy Space Center. This was not the cheapest place around: $50 admission each. But by the end of the day, we all agreed that it was well worth it. We took a short tour of the “rocket garden”, which contained a number of rockets identical to the ones used by the early astronauts. These were missiles that NASA had bought from the military. They removed the warhead and replaced it with a tiny capsule into which they put a person. This was essentially a ten-story fuel tank with a little box on top. It’s one thing to fly in a big space shuttle where you can move around a little but these early astronauts had nowhere to move.

After that tour, we saw a presentation about the new Orion spacecraft that is being built for future missions to Mars. These won’t launch until 2020 or so but we got a good overview of the capabilities and what kind of hurdles the engineers have to overcome. After this we headed over to the Atlantis building, where we saw a very cool movie about the Space Shuttle program, from its beginnings in the late 60’s (!) to the launch of Columbia in 1981 to the other shuttles. At the end of the movie, the wall with the screen was raised and there it was: the actual shuttle Atlantis hanging from the ceiling. Cool trivia: It looks like the shuttle is hanging on a 45° angle, but the angle is actually 43.21°. Get it? 4-3-2-1 – it’s a countdown! There was a ton of information and pictures about all of the shuttles and their missions, as well as a short movie on the Hubble space telescope and the mission to fix it.

AtlantisAfter lunch we got in line for the bus tour around the facility. It started to rain while we were in line but luckily the line was covered so we didn’t get wet (this was a bit of foreshadowing to Disney). The rain got heavier and then the thunder and lightning started. The lightning was very close by and I can’t explain how or why the thunder sounded different than at home, but it did. By the time we got on the bus, the thunder had stopped but the rain continued. The tour went by the Vehicle Assembly Building and then out to the launch pads that were used for the Apollo and shuttle missions, and it then dropped us off at the Apollo / Saturn V center.

Engines on the Saturn VThis building wasn’t there the last time Gail and I were at the KSC, though that was 17 years ago. There was an entire Saturn V rocket inside, broken up into stages so you could see what each stage was used for. The size of this thing was unbelievable. There were plaques for each of the Apollo missions as well as other memorabilia. There were also movies about an Apollo launch and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. I’ve heard the Apollo 11 landing story many times but I still learned a lot here – for example, the Eagle lander had less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining when it touched down on the moon’s surface.

After the bus tour, we walked around the Early Space Exploration building, which taught us a lot about the pioneers of the space industry. Many of them died long before the space missions actually started, but their work was instrumental, even if it happened fifty years before the space program existed.

The four of us are definitely science and space geeks, and so we really enjoyed KSC. But even if you’re not as into it as we are, I think there was enough at the visitor’s center to interest almost anyone. Everything was really well done, there were lots of informational plaques and videos and such, and there were plenty of interactive exhibits so even if you didn’t want to read all the information, there were still things to do.

After the Space Center, we stopped at Denny’s for dinner on the way back to the hotel.

Starting today, the boys wore pedometers every day, and every night I recorded how far they walked. Neither of the pedometers were calibrated properly though, and some days the distances travelled were wildly different, so while they weren’t completely accurate, they gave us a pretty good indication of how far we walked. Ryan only told me the number of km he walked, while Nicky included the number of steps as well.

Ryan: 4.39 km
Nicky: 11.19 km, 18661 steps

Sat, Aug 16: After packing up and having breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and drove back to the Merritt Island visitor’s center, since it was closed when we went on Thursday. After perusing the visitor’s center, we went on the nature drive just down the road. This is a 5 mile one way driving path through the preserve, on which we saw lots of water birds (mainly storks, herons, and egrets) and one alligator in the water.

Once finished here, we drove back to Orlando where we had lunch reservations at T-Rex in Downtown Disney. If you’ve ever eaten at a Rainforest Cafe, this was very similar except there were animatronic dinosaurs and mammoths and such rather than rainforest animals. I had a proud daddy moment when Nicky pointed out that mammoths lived only 10-15 thousand years ago while the dinosaurs were over 65 million years ago. In another episode of foreshadowing, it began to rain just as we were entering the restaurant. We didn’t get wet, but a few minutes later it was raining hard. Unfortunately, when we left it was still raining pretty hard. Luckily, Gail had packed rain ponchos for all of us. Unluckily, three of the four of them were still in the car. I’ll let you guess who remembered to bring theirs. The boys and I were quite wet when we got back to the parking lot.

After lunch, we drove to the Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Studios, our home for the next four nights. We parked the car and then went to check in, but our room was not yet ready. They did have a luggage service so we left our bags there and wandered the hotel for a while. There was a very large pool outside as well as a mini water play area, two ping pong tables, and a pool table as well. There was supposed to be shuffleboard but we never found that. There were also at least three restaurants, a weight room, and a small video game room. We played ping pong for a little while and then went back in to check on our room. Still not ready. Half an hour later, we checked a third time, and it was still not ready. By this point, we had been waiting for well over two hours so as an apology, they gave us a voucher for a free dinner at one of the restaurants while we waited. We chose a place called Jake’s, and shortly into the meal (I don’t think our meal had even arrived yet), I got a text message saying that our room was now ready.

After an excellent dinner, we got into our room on the 7th (top) floor. We had a view of the river running through the resort, and could see parts of the theme parks (including some of the rides – see the picture below. Hulk is the coaster in the middle, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall is the two towers to the left of Hulk, and Rip Ride Rocket is on the far right). At night when there were firework shows, we could see them pretty clearly from our window.

View from our windowWhen the boys went to bed, I went out to find a Wal-Mart to buy some milk, cereal, muffins, and snacks to keep in the room for breakfast. Since neither this hotel nor the one at Disney offered free breakfast, we did this the rest of the trip.

Ryan: 9.96 km
Nicky: unknown

Sun, Aug 17: For those of you who haven’t been (or haven’t been in ten years, like us), there are two Universal theme parks: Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. They are right next to each other, and you can get from one to the other (assuming your tickets allow you) on the Hogwarts Express. The entrance to Islands of Adventure was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, and Universal Studios was about 5 minutes beyond that.

Gail’s back had been bugging her a little each day on the trip up to this point, but she had brought some Robaxicet (muscle relaxant) with her, and that was enough to make the pain go away. But shortly after her shower on Sunday morning, something in her back “popped” and started hurting much more. She took the last of the Robaxicet and we headed out for Islands of Adventure. Early entry was at 8am but we got there at 7:30, and there were plenty of people ahead of us. Once the doors opened at 8, we followed the crowd to Hogsmeade and the most popular ride in that park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. All four of us are huge Harry Potter fans, so walking through Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts castle was amazing for us. Since we were there so early, there was almost no line. The entrance to the ride was inside the castle, and we actually felt like we were walking through Hogwarts. We saw the Defense against the Dark Arts and Herbology classrooms, the stairway to the headmaster’s office, moving portraits, the Mirror of Erised, the sorting hat, the Fat Lady, and much more.

Forbidden Journey was one of our favourite rides in any of the six parks we visited on this trip. It combined a moving car with a simulation ride to give you the impression you were actually flying. Most of the cast of the movies played parts in the video on the ride as well as the “pre-show” while walking through the castle.

After that, we rode Flight of the Hippogriff (a fairly tame roller coaster) and then went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop where the boys each bought a wand. The wands were interactive, meaning there were places around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios) where you could use your wand to cast spells, and they had fun with that.

The boys at HogwartsAt this point (it was no later than about 10:30), Gail’s back was hurting much more and she had to go back to the hotel to rest. The boys and I rode Dragon Challenge, which was one of the most intense coasters I’ve ever done. It wasn’t huge but very fast and compact, which means the corners and loops were very tight. There were two coasters intertwined, and they were different so it was like two different rides. The lines were still short so Nicky (he of the iron-clad stomach) actually rode it a second time while Ryan and I sat the second one out. The rest of the morning was all rides: Hulk (Nicky only), Spider-Man (similar to Forbidden Journey), Poseidon’s Fury (a show, not a ride, but very fun), and the River Adventure in Jurassic Park (a cool flume ride). Then it was back to Hogsmeade where Nicky rode Dragon Challenge again.

Our friends the Finnigans (Andrew, Gail, Gareth, and Jenna) were at Universal that day as well. They were near the end of their vacation while we were just starting ours, but we managed to meet up for lunch at the Three Broomsticks. It was there that we first tried butterbeer, both the “cold” and “frozen” varieties, as well as pumpkin juice. All of them were really good; I preferred the cold type of butterbeer (sort of a cream soda kind of thing) while the boys preferred the frozen stuff (same but more of a slushie), and I really enjoyed the pumpkin juice which tasted like liquid pumpkin pie. Ryan is our pumpkin pie fanatic (he prefers that to cake on his birthday), but surprisingly, he didn’t really like the pumpkin juice.

After lunch, Andrew, Gareth, Jenna, Ryan, and Nicky rode Forbidden Journey again while I called Gail to see how she was. Her back was even worse than before so we left the park and went back to the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, Nicky realized that his phone was missing. He thought maybe he had dropped it on Forbidden Journey but by this point were near the front of the park. I told Nicky we’d check back later on or the next day, but we both figured we’d seen the last of it. “Nicky’s phone” was actually my old Android phone and was not actually activated as a phone, but he had it as a wifi device. We brought it so that if he got lost, he could get in touch with us through email. Ryan had a real phone.

Gail’s back had gotten steadily worse throughout the day and by this point, she was barely able to get out of bed to go to the bathroom and couldn’t move to do anything else. One of my work benefits is out-of-country health coverage, so we called Sun Life to see if they could send a doctor to the hotel. They arranged for a doctor, and an hour or two later, Dr. Almond (“like the nut”) arrived. He was very friendly and helpful, and we didn’t have to pay him a cent (thanks SAP!). It turns out that the drug in Robaxicet is only available in the US by prescription so he gave us one, and I went to get it filled and also picked up some sandwiches for dinner.

After dinner, the boys and I went down to the pool for a while before heading to bed.

Ryan: 11.88 km
Nicky: 14.85 km, 24752 steps

Mon, Aug 18: Another early entry day, this time to Universal Studios. Gail’s back was a little better this morning, but not enough to go anywhere. The boys and I arrived at the park a little later than yesterday and got in at 8am. However Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (the most popular ride at Universal, particularly because it had only been open for a couple of months at this point) was closed. It opened later on, but see the picture below for why we didn’t ride it today. This, plus the fact that almost nothing else in the park was open yet, kind of threw a wrench into our plans but Despicable Me was open so we went and did that one. This turned out to be a good idea since the line for this ride was insane later in the day. After that, we did Transformers and then walked around Diagon Alley where the boys did tried more magic with their wands.

The line for GringottsAfter a while we left Diagon Alley and did some more rides. By lunch we had done Men in Black, The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy, Twister, Rip Ride Rocket (Nicky only), and Shrek 4-D. After lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, we took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure, where we rode Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge once again. We headed to the guest services area to ask about Nicky’s phone. We described it and when and where we lost it, and presto! It had been found and returned, and the lady had it. She told Nicky that if he could unlock it, he could have it. He did, and we walked away with the phone. Nicky was ecstatic, and I was pretty surprised and thankful. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that something would get lost and then found.

We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios where we got an ice cream and a bottle of pumpkin juice to bring back to the hotel for Gail (since she hadn’t had a chance to have any yet). We walked back to the hotel where we found Gail in better shape than in the morning. She could get up and walk around the room a little. It wasn’t much, but it was definite improvement. We hung around the hotel for the rest of the day. We watched the reboot of Robocop and the boys and I went for a swim. Dinner was ad hoc – we had some snacks and leftover sandwiches from the previous day, and I think Ryan had a bowl of cereal.

Ryan: 13.5 km
Nicky: 15.37 km, 25623 steps

Tues, Aug 19: It was a sleep-in day for Gail and Ryan, but Nicky and I were up by 8:00 so we got dressed and left them to sleep. We went for a walk around the hotel and played some ping pong before Gail texted me to tell me that they were awake, around 9:45. Gail was feeling much better this morning – so much so that she wanted to leave the hotel room (for the first time in two full days) and go down to City Walk, an outdoor shopping area in between (but outside) the two theme parks. On the way there, she changed her mind and decided she wanted to go to the Three Broomsticks for lunch, and I was very excited that she felt good enough to go into the park. On the way there, we stopped at the ticket counter. We each had a three day ticket and this was our third day, but since Gail had not used her ticket the day before, she still had an extra day to play with. We stopped to see how much it would cost to add an extra day onto our tickets. The answer: $10 each. This was a no-brainer.

GringottsAfter lunch we went back to Forbidden Journey but just did the castle tour rather than the ride, so we could spend as much time in the castle as we wanted without worrying about the lines. Then we took the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios and walked Diagon Alley for a while. The boys and I did a few rides, but Gail wasn’t taking any chances with her back so she sat those out. At this point the line for Gringott’s was under an hour so we decided to do that while Gail went back to the hotel for some more meds. This worked out well since Gail couldn’t ride it anyway. The line moved fairly quickly but it still took about 70 minutes before we actually were on the ride. It was similar to Forbidden Journey but more roller coaster and less simulation.

We met Gail at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company for dinner and had a wonderful meal before heading back to Universal Studios for the Cinematic Spectacular. This was a combination fireworks / laser / water show with movie clips being projected onto a screen of falling water, which was really cool. Of course, it was only Universal movies, but considering the amount of money they spent on Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, it was odd that there were no clips from Harry Potter movies in the show.

Ryan: 14.8 km
Nicky: 9.2 km, 15341 steps

Wed, Aug 20: This was our transition day from Universal to Disney so the first thing we did was pack up, check out, and put everything in the car. But since we had extended our passes by a day, we went back to Universal rather than driving to Disney. We did Despicable Me first, then took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure where we wrote some postcards and got them stamped “Owl Post” before mailing them. The boys practiced their magic before watching the Poseidon’s Fury show again and then heading back to Universal. We saw the Terminator 2 show, which has stood up pretty well since Gail and I first saw it 18 years ago, then had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. A little more wand work in Diagon Alley, a ride on E.T., and we were done.

We took the water taxi back to the hotel where we piled into the car and drove to Coronado Springs. After checking in and unpacking, we headed over to the Wilderness Lodge resort for dinner at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. I don’t remember the name of the thing we ordered, but it was essentially a huge plate of food for the four of us to share, including roast beef, BBQ chicken, sausages, ribs, corn, baked beans, mashed potatoes, and roasted veggies. The amount of food was unbelievable and we felt really wasteful not finishing it but it was just way too much and not having a microwave in our room, there was no point in taking it to go. The funny thing is that it was all-you-can-eat, so if we wanted, we could have asked for more.

After dinner we wandered around the Lodge, where we saw a blue heron just a few metres away who caught a fish as we watched. We also saw a rabbit under the boardwalk. Then it was back to Coronado Springs where Gail did laundry while the boys and I went for a swim. Once the boys went to bed, I hit Wal-Mart once again for snacks and breakfast foods.

Ryan: 13.45 km
Nicky: 12.25 km, 20425 steps

Our Disney vacation began in earnest the next day, and that will continue in the next article.

Florida 2014: Planning


In August 2014, we spent two weeks in Florida, spending two days in Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center, four days at the Universal theme parks in Orlando, and eight days at the various Disney World theme parks. You know what that means – it’s that time again! That time when Graeme uses his blog to capture a ton of vacation information that you, dear reader, probably don’t care about. But to be honest, it’s not you I’m writing this for, it’s me. I’ve done this in the past for other vacations, and I find it’s a pretty good way of capturing all of the minutiae of the trip that we’d otherwise forget. I find it fun to read them over again a couple of years later. That said, if you don’t happen to be me, I hope you enjoy it too.

This was a pretty long vacation with no “down” days, so there’s a lot of information here. I’ve broken it up into a number of different articles: the first (this one) talks about the planning of the trip, the second covers Titusville and Universal, the third covers Disney World, the fourth contains some stats about our trip, and the fifth is a comparison of the Universal and Disney experiences (i.e. stuff other than rides).

The castleWe began by booking the flights and hotels back in about April. Once we booked Disney, we were given access to a web site called My Disney Experience, where we could look over our information and bookings as well as do things like book lunch and dinner reservations (and in some cases, even order our food in advance), and even book Fast Passes for rides. Gail had fun doing this, but there was one other web site that she frequented in preparation: touringplans.com. This is a site that allows you to pick the rides you want to go on at a particular park (it covers all of the Disney and Universal parks) and it will tell you what order to do them in so that you’re not spending half the day waiting in line. There are iOS and Android apps so you can see your plans and even update them on the fly, as well as checking out the current wait times for each and every ride. If it sounds like it’s regimenting your day, it kind of is, but in a good way. Plus these are of course only guidelines so if you want to shuffle things around or skip a ride or do one twice because the line is short or whatever, you can. There were some days where we followed the plan reasonably well and others where for one reason or another we ended up doing our own thing, though having the app really helped. Gail really liked that app – to the point where she was checking ride wait times weeks before we even left. “Look, 158 minutes for Gringotts!” “That’s great, dear, but we don’t leave for another month.”

The cheapest flights we could find were out of Buffalo rather than Toronto. We’d never flown out of Buffalo before but lots of our friends have and the flights were far cheaper than out of Toronto. Buffalo is about an hour from home but our flight was at 8:25am so we elected to book a hotel room and use their shuttle service to get to the airport. Most hotels near the airport also offer shuttles as well as parking services, which were generally cheaper than the $50/week that parking at the airport would have been. We chose the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport which included 2 weeks of parking, a hot breakfast, and a shuttle to and from the airport for about $89.

We flew on Southwest, which was unusual compared to other airlines for two reasons: (1) Each of us could check up to 2 bags for free, and (2) there are no assigned seats; instead, you check in online 24 hours in advance and you are assigned a “booking order” (A1-A60, B1-B60, or C1-C60). When the flight starts boarding, the A’s go first in numerical order, then the B’s, then the C’s. When it’s time for you to board, you get on the plane and pick whatever available seat you want. Obviously if you’re C20, you’ll have less to choose from than if you’re A10. We couldn’t get a direct flight on the way down (or didn’t want to pay extra for it), so we flew to Baltimore and then to Orlando an hour later. Our return flight was direct to Buffalo.

At Disney, we originally booked the Port Orleans Riverside resort, based on price as well as recommendations from friends. But after we had booked (and paid), Gail heard from her hairdresser (who heard from her cousin) that Disney sometimes offers a free dining plan, and we should check into that. We did, and the free dining plan offer was only good if you arrived after August 31, so it didn’t apply to us. But we kept checking and after a couple of weeks, they moved the date back to before we arrived, so Gail called them. The deal didn’t apply to our hotel, but they said that if we didn’t mind switching hotels, they could give it to us. We said yes immediately, and chose Coronado Springs, since it was on our original short list anyway. The total cost actually ended up about $80 cheaper, and we now had the free dining plan. This was huge and it sounds weird but words cannot express how excited Gail and I were about this.

The dining plan consisted of one “counter service” meal, one “table service” meal, and one “snack” per person, per day. The meals consisted of an entree, a non-alcoholic drink, and a dessert. So basically, other than breakfast and a couple of appetizers and alcoholic drinks, all of our food at Disney was free. We didn’t do the math (since some of the restaurant bills consisted entirely of $0’s) but we figured this saved us close to $1500. This applied to any restaurant (there may have been restrictions, but we never ran into any) in all four theme parks, Downtown Disney, and all of the resorts. Not only did this save us a bunch of money, but it gave us some freedom as well – if Ryan wanted to order the $29.95 salmon, go for it. We ate at an African buffet for one meal, which we may not have otherwise. We didn’t have to order the $16.95 chicken when we really wanted the $28.95 steak. In many cases, we were too full from dinner to get dessert but since it was free anyway, we got it to go and then ate it for breakfast the next day. That way, breakfast ended up being free as well. Of course, having cheesecake or key lime pie for breakfast isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice but hey, we’re on vacation. And really, is it that much worse than a chocolate chip muffin or waffles with syrup?

In the next article, I’ll cover the first week of our trip.

Habitat for Humanity


Every year, SAP has an event called the Month of Service, where every employee is given time off from work to volunteer in one of a number of venues. Some are right in the building and only take a couple of hours, others are outside the building. The participation in this event is impressive – numbers from the Canadian SAP offices varied between 42% (c’mon Calgary!) to 72% in Waterloo to a confusing 129% in Ottawa. Overall, over 60% of Canadian SAP employees participated in some volunteer event and in addition, SAP donated money to some of the charities involved. This is a great event and kudos to SAP for doing this.

Oddly, I don’t remember hearing about this event last year, though I am now aware that many employees did take part. I wanted to do my part and bump up those Waterloo numbers, so I chose Habitat for Humanity. They are doing a build in Kitchener, and an employee who volunteered with them last year was organizing it again this year. I love building stuff but I’m not very knowledgeable about such things, so a place like this is perfect for me: they’ll tell me exactly what to do, they have the tools and equipment available to do it, and they have truly knowledgeable people around to help and advise.

The block we were working onWhen we first bought our house, we had lots of repairs to be done and I always enjoyed doing them. I can do simple electrical stuff and I don’t totally suck at working with wood, though I’m not going to be building a dining room suite anytime soon. I’ve installed phone lines and electrical outlets and replaced light fixtures and such, and I enjoyed helping my father-in-law and brother-in-law build our “cold room” (pantry) and workshop in the basement as well as replacing our deck. One thing I don’t enjoy is plumbing. For some reason I can just never get the hang of plumbing, though I have installed new showerheads a couple of times. That’s brain-dead easy but Gail’s done some more difficult stuff like replacing the kitchen faucets and our bathroom sink and she’s pretty good at it.

But I digress. We arrived on site around 8am where there were some snacks and coffee/tea available. There were about 15 of us from SAP plus a bunch of contractors. At 8:30 they had a safety presentation and after that we all geared up in our borrowed CSA-approved boots and hardhats and headed out to the work site. The area they’re working on is huge (see the picture below, taken from the top of the scaffolding on the new block). The site manager was telling us that if they were to buy just enough land for one house in this area, it would cost near $200,000 – and that’s without a house. Much cheaper to buy a large lot and put up townhouses, which is what they’re doing in Kitchener. There was one block of six houses that were mostly finished, and they’d started another block of four in the back corner, which was where we were working.

We started by bringing a pickup-truck worth of 4’x8′ sheets of plywood down to the site, and then passed them all up to the second floor. Those were later installed on the roof by some of my colleagues. We then installed a couple of 2x4s horizontally through the trusses, which I believe were to be used for running wire between rooms. The trusses needed spacers installed, so that was our next task. While getting ready for that, another contractor came by and asked if we had extra people since he could use a hand. I volunteered and so he and I headed to the other end of the building, where the all of the siding had been done except for the very top pieces. My first task was to install five pieces of J-channel, so I needed to measure the pieces, cut them to length, and nail them in place. Once that was done, I cut the last pieces of siding for each of the five sections – this took a lot longer than I expected and I burned through a couple of utility knife blades doing it. Finally that was done and I was able to install them and screw them into place.

The work siteThat’s it. That’s all I got done all day. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? It was a lot of work though and my shoulders and legs were feeling it over the next couple of days.

There was a 10-15 minute break at 10:45 or so, where they supplied some ham sandwich fixin’s as well as some crackers, cheese, and fruit. Lunch was at 12:30 and was catered by people from a local church. They had brought a bunch of baked potatoes and all kinds of toppings: grated cheese, bacon, onions, diced tomatoes, chili, sour cream, and a bunch more. For dessert there was more fruit as well as brownies, lemon bread, date bread, and banana bread. The food was excellent.

I have lots of kudos to go around. First to my SAP colleagues and particularly Dave Brandow for organizing it. Secondly to the church people for supplying lunch – it was fantastic. Thirdly to Andrew and Darrell and Marcus and the other construction pros who were all helpful and very patient with a bunch of non-pros. Fourth, to the person who gave us the introduction and safety training – I believe her name was Janine but I feel terrible that I don’t remember for sure. She reminded me of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds – particularly her voice. And finally to all of the Habitat for Humanity people everywhere, those who donate, and those who volunteer. You are doing a great thing and I am looking forward to volunteering again next year.

Manufactured controversy


People love controversies, don’t they? There’s nothing like a good controversy to stir up people’s emotions. But what if you want to stir up emotions on a topic that isn’t controversial? That’s easy: just pretend it’s controversial! This is a popular thing to do on Facebook. There are always people trying to get others to like their page or share their picture in order to drive up ad revenue or visitors to their web site, and making the picture controversial will always work.

I saw one the other day saying something like “I’m proud to wear a poppy to honour our servicemen and I don’t care who that upsets!” Who’s upset about it? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone being upset by the wearing of poppies. But there was a web address to a Facebook page at the bottom of the picture.

Carrie Underwood is prettyAnother was the one about atheists wanting to ban a Carrie Underwood song because it (gasp) talked about God. There have been headlines like “Carrie Underwood’s brand new song making atheists mad as hell” or “Atheists outraged by Carrie Underwood’s latest song” or “Atheists viciously attack Carrie Underwood’s new song, want it banned“. No we don’t. Go ahead – find one atheist who wants to ban the song. Even if we did, what reason could we possibly give for banning it? There is a whole genre of Christian music which includes countless artists and probably millions of songs. No atheists are trying to ban them and no atheist is concerned about this one song. We’re not outraged at all – but you know who is? The Christians who believed this crap. As a commenter on one of those articles said, maybe it should have been “Carrie Underwood’s new song making Christians mad as hell”. But all of this “controversy” has certainly raised the profile of the song, hasn’t it? There are probably tons of Christians out there who are buying the song and/or album just to spite us horrible atheist bastards. Well played, Ms. Underwood, well played.

The vast majority of scientists know that global climate change is happening and is caused by humans. But a small yet vocal minority of people don’t want to believe that for whatever reason, so they make it a controversy: “Is global warming happening or not? If it is, are we to blame? It’s a scientific controversy!” No it’s not. The scientific consensus is that it’s happening and we’re to blame. Consensus doesn’t mean 100% of scientists, but it does mean that this is the generally accepted position. There is no controversy

Same as evolution, which is also supported by a scientific consensus. In fact, the vast majority of scientists would say we know evolution by natural selection is happening, to the extent that we can ever know anything in science. We can never prove things in science, only disprove them, but bucketloads of evidence supports evolution and no evidence contradicts it. If our current model of evolution is wrong, it ain’t wrong by much. The whole “evolution vs. creationism” controversy isn’t a controversy at all.

You want a real controversy? You need two things: first, don’t make shit up. Second, avoid science altogether. Should abortion / prostitution / marijuana be legal? Should the death penalty be abandoned? Is Obama a good President? The science says… nothing. Find a topic on which the pro or con arguments are entirely based on opinions. Now we have real controversy.