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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter!

I don't normally stray that far from my normal travel tips, but I figured it was time to share more of my Harry Potter geekery. You know I love the Wizarding World and have gone to Harry Potter: the Exhibition, the Warner Bros. tour in London and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. I've also taken a fantastic Harry Potter walking tour of London and you may well remember my Christmas Snape (who stands guard all year in different headgear). Tomorrow is Harry Potter's birthday and I wanted to put together a fun post to commemorate it, as this September we will have caught up to the epilogue of Deathly Hallows.


Harry Potter love

This year we hope to visit the WWoHP at Universal Studios Hollywood that just opened in April. Next year we're planning a trip to Toronto where we will hit up The Lockheart, a Potter-themed bar. Every summer we throw a big party for Harry's birthday and we all dress up and act like wizard nerds and have a great time eating and drinking stuff from the books. Since we can't realistically travel to the Wizarding World, we bring that world to us. Here are some of my favorite photos of my HP travels, real or imagined:



The dragon standing guard over Diagon Alley is an awesome reminder that you are in the Wizarding World, but also of the heroic lengths the Golden Trio went to in order to save that world from You-Know-Who.


Everyone remembers the magic of the Yule Ball in Harry's fourth year. The fancy clothes and the way the Great Hall was transformed into an icy wonderland.

Don't you wish you could get your hands on some of those magical textbooks? It makes me want to channel my inner Hermione. Even if I can't do magic, because I'm a lowly muggle, I'd still love to read them.

This replica of Hogwarts was amazing and the perfect end to the WB Studio Tour. You can easily spend half the day here, so plan your trip as early in the morning as possible. And if you've already been, don't rule out a second (or third or fourth) visit, as they are always adding set pieces and they make the holidays even more special than usual.

Though I'm pretty sure the bridge was just made for the movie, because it was never mentioned in the books, I really love this photo with the Knight Bus in the background. 

My very first Harry Potter party was a small affair with a handful of people and dishes served. Everyone had a wonderful time making their own wands and duelling one another with the spells they knew.

You must have some licorice wands and pumpkin pasties. They are staples of the Wizarding World.

Our next party was so big as to be a bit scary, considering the year before. The food was devoured and the Butterbeer flowed freely and quickly. We didn't make wands this time, but we did pull some memories from the Pensieve to talk about and found our Patronuses (those are the stickers we're wearing). From left to right: That's me as Tonks, my friend Lydia as Lavender Brown, our friend Brande as Trelawney and one of Lydia's daughters as Luna.

I have my own potions storeroom, which also shares a corner with a bit of whimsy. Snape wouldn't approve, I'm sure.

While our first party was just a general Gryffindor get together at "the Burrow", the second was held in "Hogsmeade". Guests entered Platform 9 3/4 and took the Hogwarts Express to the little Wizarding village outside Hogwarts. Some students left their belongings at the station to be picked up by the castle elves.

Snape dressed up for the occasion and stood watch over the common room, though you can tell he was still unhappy about the revelry. He missed the opportunity to dig out his old "Potter Stinks" badge given to him by Draco. 

Do you remember in Sorcerer's Stone when Hagrid takes Harry into London to buy his schoolbooks, robes and such? They walked through Leadenhall Market to get there. While it's not pointed out in the movie, you'll recognize this in the background when Harry asks "Hagrid, can we get all this in London?" and Hagrid replies with "If ya know where to look."

Tonks and a Weasley
In January we attended a Hogwarts feast put on by the Portland Chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance to fight hunger. We got sorted, practiced spells, played games, ate a bunch of food and had a great time. Here we are on our way out. I love my pink hair more than my other wig (I cut it myself for a more punk rock feel).

Here I am practicing my magic with Snape. He's not all that impressed by my technique, but that seems to be his attitude about a lot of things. 


And here is a pic of the feast itself. It was quite dark, as the floating candles weren't working at the time, but there were four house tables and the Ravenclaw you see at the head of the table is also a magician. Awesome!

The loss of Alan Rickman this year was a bit devastating. I'm not going to lie. He was a brilliant Severus Snape and versatile actor that will be sorely missed. It felt even more important to me to throw a fantastic HP party. Unfortunately, we have pushed it back to August, so you won't get any pics today. 



While we were in Vegas, we made the pilgrimage to the new Harry Potter-themed coffee shop, which I enjoyed so much, that we went twice. They have some really fantastic drinks with names like Butter Brew and Black Forest Latte and amazing foods like the so, so delicious Sirius-ly Prosciutto sandwich with fig and goat cheese. (Drinks we tried out and loved: Butter Brew with espresso <a must, right?>, Sea Salt Iced Coffee, Lavender White Chocolate Mocha and the English Toffee Latte. They all have subtle flavors and bold coffee, which is totally the way I love my java.)



The tables are all stenciled with fun and magical Wizard sayings like the one above and one that rocks a fantastic quote from Alan Rickman. The decor isn't over the top, but it's enough for the geeks like me to not feel like they weren't trying. It's beautiful and tasteful and I'm already looking forward to another visit.


On my first visit, I made Eric take my pic with Hedwig and the trolley at Platform 9 3/4. On my second visit, some ladies were trying to get some photos, so I offered to get some with the two of them in the shot and did a mini shoot for them. Always willing to help out a fellow Potterhead. 

Tonight we'll be headed to the midnight release of Cursed Child at a local bookstore and tomorrow we'll be attending another HPA event that's collecting school supplies for underprivileged students that'll also give us another chance to dress up and play some games, so look for an upcoming post on those that'll include pics of both and our Potter party.

Will you be doing any Potter-related activities or travel this year? 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Seeking Out Art in Las Vegas

Usually, when you want to see artwork in a city, you head to the nearest museum. Las Vegas is definitely not an ordinary travel destination and that goes for their art, too. Though you can visit their museums, you don't have to if you're hoping to look at some fantastic artwork of all kinds. The city has a special relationship with local artists and showcase them everywhere they can. It's great, because they bring the art to you instead of the other way around. Everywhere you look, you'll find a mural, sculpture, painting or something equally cool. 

You can head to the casinos on the Strip to see traditional artwork, like they have at the Cosmopolitan, Caesar's Italian sculptures, or pay money to see famous art from masters like Monet and Dali at Bellagio Art Museum. Of course you can just wander around outside as well. 

street art on the Linq Promenade

the amazing ceiling inside The Venetian


From the Linq Promenade to the new Park at Las Vegas in between New York New York and the Monte Carlo, there's street art and more to view absolutely free. Each night you can watch artists bring their art to life while they interact with visitors. Feel free to go up and ask them about their piece or themselves while they are creating fabulous works right in front of your eyes.



One of my favorite ways to see art is downtown. The streets are lined with vintage Vegas casino signs that have been revamped and made like new so you can enjoy them again. See even more if you book a tour of the Neon Museum, where old Vegas signs go to retire. Many have been repaired, but many still have been left in their broken down state, waiting for their turn. You'll learn the history behind almost all of them.

artwork and water wall at The Park LV

more art panels at The Park LV




























If you've never been downtown on a trip to Vegas, it's really coming into its own and becoming a the place to be. From Fremont Street to the Container Park, there's literally something for everyone. I recommend hitting up the Mob Museum when you're there, because it's awesome and definitely the best and most productive way to beat the heat.
love locks installation outside the Container Park

You'll find a ton of great art in and around the container park and up and down Fremont Street and the surrounding areas. Look down while you're walking around, because you're likely to see gold plaques that give you a little history of what happened on that spot in the early days of Vegas.



And don't forget to look up, because you'll see some fantastic art on buildings everywhere. I love the colorful koi, but I also was enamored with this artwork that took up two sides of an otherwise boring building. Do these people sleep in the desert or is their bed a wild place? Also, what are the umbrellas for? To keep the sun out or to replicate a ceiling of some sort? So much to think about. I love it.



Even when you're not strictly in town, make sure you keep your eyes open. On the highway behind the Strip is full of wonderful art, like these metal bighorn sheep (?), as well as metal horses. There are desert animals painted on overpasses and critters peeking over walls. 

Even if you've been to Vegas, you have never seen it all. The city is always changing and evolving to keep up with what visitors want and to keep frequent guests and locals from getting bored. Unfortunately, some of your favorites may disappear, but then you'll find a new favorite fairly quickly. If you want to see more pics of my trips to Vegas, including food and fun activities, follow me on Instagram.

What's your favorite way to sneak in some culture on your Las Vegas trip?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

See More with the Las Vegas Explorer Pass

Earlier this month we made our annual trip to Las Vegas for NBA Summer League games, to see family and do some sightseeing. We had a spare pair of Explorer Passes from Smart Destinations to amp up our trip and do some touristy things in addition to the other stuff we had plans. If you haven't used Smart Destinations for their Go Cards, then you really should. Do more for less and skip the ticket lines for the most part, which are two awesome things. 


We used Explorer Passes last year as well, which you can read about here. Last year we rode the Big Bus. It's a hop-on, hop-off bus, but you have to go inside Circus Circus to the Big Bus desk to get your actual ticket(s) (instead of across the street as it used to be) and then you can pick it up anywhere along the route. Since you're already there, go outside Circus Circus and hop on there. 


There are two routes, a downtown one and a Strip one. We already took the downtown one, so we chose the Strip one this time. Here's a tip for you: sit on the top deck, on the right hand side just in front of the canvas top (it should be the first row of seats behind the stairs). This way, if you want to take pictures, there won't be anyone in front of you, there's no top to get in the way and the windshield doesn't cut all your pictures in half. Just make sure to wear your sunglasses/hat and sunscreen.


Depending on the destination you're at, you'll either get earphones to listen to a recorded tour or you'll have a live person, like the ones in Vegas. They ask you questions, tell you stuff about where you are, including fun and historical facts. They can vary with a live guide, though it's much more interesting. We learned things about the sites we saw on the ride and about our fellow riders.



As someone who loves to take pics, it's difficult to get good ones while walking and driving, but the view from the top of the bus gets you over traffic, so you can get unimpeded views of the hotels and the awesome stuff out front. The Mirage is really beautiful when you don't have to see it through six lanes of traffic, or from the ground right in front where you can't get a good angle of both the building and the waterfalls.


The same goes for New York New York's Brooklyn Bridge and shop fronts, though Eric got a pretty good one of me on walk. 


And, unless you actually stop at the Las Vegas sign, you pretty much can't get a photo at all. You can get out here and stand in line to take your own pictures, but it was super warm out and standing in the heat to get a pic of us under the sign didn't seem like fun, so I took pictures of other people doing it. Ha!


They are continually changing and adding to Madam Tussauds, so we made the trip there again. Even though my camera battery died, I was able to get some good shots with my phone. Here I am with Johnny Depp. I wonder why he looks so serious.


I think we're trying to figure out why Nicolas Cage wasn't in that movie! You know, the one he wasn't in. LOL! I love that guy.


Eric had some words to shout at Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) on the set of Glee. The props they have at this one is really fun and are everywhere so you can get into your photo ops.


In fact, Eric was shocked to find his secret revealed on the Jerry Springer Show. You push a button on the box off to the side and your picture is shown on the TV screen with a random reason you're on the show. Eric's was "My wig is made from my dog's hair". Hysterical! I find that my squeamishness around wax figures is getting a bit better the more I visit these places, but I did jump when I turned around and Eric was right behind me looking at the same thing, because I didn't know he was there. It's also disconcerting when they have a bunch of figures just standing in the middle of the room, so there's really no place for you to stand without one being behind or next to you.


So, I think I've been to Vegas 15 times and I've never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. What's up with that? Well, with the Explorer Pass we were able to finally do it. The pass only allows for the daytime visit, so maybe next time we will try doing a nighttime visit on our own.


In the gift shop, you can buy a lock...or you can bring your own and add it to the portion of the bridge at the top of the escalators. Once you do that, or take a picture of other peoples' love locks, head across the bridge to get your picture taken and to the elevator. 


The elevator is really cool. It's triangular-shaped. I loved it, even though only, like, six people could fit in it comfortably. Check out the view on the way up and the structure of the tower. It's quite similar to the real thing.


Once at the top, you can walk around the observation deck for views from all angles. Just like the real Eiffel Tower, there's a cage around it so you don't jump off to your death or toss things over the side. There are gaps in the fence for better photo ops, but any you take this way will have the mesh in the background.

Here's a pic I took without the fence in the way. There were quite a few more, including this one on Instagram that I love. Make sure you follow me there if you want to see more fun travel pics. I also post food and puppy

Another activity we did last year, but liked so much that we wanted to do it again was to take a spin on the High Roller. It's the world's largest observation wheel and it's awesome. I have heard a lot of folks say that they are too afraid of heights to get on it, but it's almost like hanging out in a very small hotel room in the sky. 

The wheel takes 30 minutes for a full rotation and takes you up to 550 feet at the peak. The views are phenomenal, the music is fun and the comedian they have on the screens is hilarious. There's fun facts, trivia and the occasional reminder of how high up you are. There's even a countdown to the top.


We were lucky to have a whole cabin of our own, because the time we went was pretty slow. That just gave us more room to walk around, with the ability to not get in anyone's way as we tried to see everything from all angles.


Check this view from away from the Strip. The mountains are gorgeous and I want to run around on that lovely golf course that has its own waterfall. Amazing! You get totally different views from the High Roller than you do from the Eiffel Tower, so doing both is fun and not at all redundant. This is another thing that's only available for the daytime with the Explorer Pass, but I feel like you probably see more that way and Vegas can be really beautiful. 

Want to get your own Explorer Pass (or create your own Go Card) for your next trip to Vegas. Click here for more information. If you want to get a Go Card for any of the other destinations (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oahu, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington DC) click here to buy and for more info.

Your Go Cards are good for 30 days after you've first activated them (the first time you use them for an attraction) and are valid for one year after purchase. They make fantastic gifts and also save you so much on your trips, while allowing you to do the things you planned to do anyway, plus even more. Each card comes with a guide that includes info on all the activities included, addresses, phone numbers and a map. It's invaluable and fits right in your bag or pocket.

Connect with Smart Destinations on Facebook Twitter | Google+ | YouTube | Pinterest

Have you ever used Go Cards before? Where, or where would you like to go with Go Card?

Disclaimer: I was provided with Explorer Pass Go Cards from SmartDestinations for the purposes of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why TSA PreCheck is THE BEST

I have 5 weeks of travel this year, three of which will start and end at the airport. Last year we made the decision to sign up for TSA PreCheck (shown everywhere as PreΓΌ), because as much fun as it is to stand in line with a hundred other people and take half the stuff out of my bag and take off my shoes and get x-rayed, we decided we traveled enough to spend the $85 each to apply for it. 


Listen, I understand why the TSA exists and why the procedures are so important. The above inconveniences don't really even bother me, except when I'm stuck behind the person who hasn't done any research or read the 48373602 signs in the airport and in the line and on their ticket and haven't taken out their laptop, put their liquids in a bag at all, taken off their belt and emptied their pockets or even gotten their ID out to show the security desk. Come on, people! They make it easy to be prepared. Just because it's annoying doesn't mean that they won't make you do it.


So, considering I would rather spend less time waiting in line and more time waiting at the gate (or, more likely, eating, shopping, people watching and scrolling Instagram), spending that money was a no-brainer. Did you know that if you are approved for PreCheck that you are able to breeze through security for FIVE YEARS  at any American airport that supports it without taking off your shoes, belts, hats or jackets, without taking out your laptop, without segregating your liquids from your other toiletries?! For real. 


The PreCheck lines are crazy short. The most we've ever seen was 10 people and usually there are even less. Your pass-through time is cut down considerably, too. In fact, you basically get through the metal detector and wait for your bags to be scanned. It's fast, but not nearly as fast as you are not having to take off shoes and watches and remembering to take that random tissue out of your pocket. Plus, you don't have to wonder exactly what the agents are seeing on he screen that makes you look like a terrorist. 

Eric took his hat off as we wee coming back home from Vegas and it fell out of the coin bowl - you know, the one that looks like a dog dish - and was annoyed that he didn't just put it on the conveyor belt. The agent, never looking away from the screen, just said "you should have just left it on." I'm not sure we actually knew you could until that point. This is still our first year of having it, but the second time we've used it and have had no issues at our home airport (PDX), Orlando (ORD) which is one of the busiest airports or Vegas (LAS). Later this year we'll also use it to come home from New Orleans and Anaheim. 


Now, you're probably wondering what happens when you travel internationally. We do every few years, but didn't think it was enough to do more than PreCheck at this point. If you do,then instead of PreCheck, you'll want to apply for Global Entry, which automatically includes PreCheck and only costs $15 more. I actually didn't think I knew that when we applied, and probably would have done that instead had I known. So, if you travel at all internationally, just head to your nearest PreCheck office (we visited the one in McCarran Airport when we were already on vacation) with your passport, ID and credit card. 


You may need an appointment, so call ahead before just showing up. They take you back one at a time to answer a bunch of background questions. They're all easy and gives the government insight in who you are, so they can check you out and make their decision. It takes up to four weeks to hear if you're approved. We got our approval letters in just two weeks and were really surprised by how fast it was. These letters contain your new travel number, which you enter every time you book an airline ticket. 

Whether you use a paper ticket or an eticket on your phone, you'll see PreCheck designated on it and can go directly to that security line and get on your trip faster. You should still get to the airport as early as you would without it though, because you never know if the PreCheck line will be closed (this doesn't usually happen) or there will be some other annoying delay. I say two hours for a domestic flight and three for an international flight. Traffic may suck or the airport may be crazy packed, so you need that bit of padding.

I don't regret for a second having spent the money on PreCheck and will immediately sign up for Global Entry once it expires, even if I only plan two weeks of travel a year. Some people pay that amount per trip to check a bag, so why not get five years of frustration-free airport visits instead? Have you signed up for or used PreCheck on your trips?
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