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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Stay Safe Out There! 10.31.12

With Halloween here and Hurricane Sandy still wreaking havoc on our east coast, there are plenty of reasons to stay safe this week. If you’ll be out trick-or-treating or partying in costume, make sure  you take precautions and don’t travel alone, especially in neighborhoods you aren’t familiar with. Bring a flashlight or wear some reflectors to be seen by cars.

For those traveling during this chaotic time, you may need some help with getting home or out of the disaster zones. It’s times like these that travel insurance would come in super handy, too. Harriet Baskas from Stuck at the Airport has some wonderful resources for those that are stranded in the wake of Sandy – links to airport guides, information on what to do for different transportation types and extending or cancelling your hotel stay.

Since everyone will likely be busy in some capacity tonight, even if it’s just handing out candy, I’ve decided to keep it short and sweet today with some fun Halloween pics from my trip to Southern California earlier this month.

What are your plans for Halloween?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Strolling the Canals of Venice…Beach 10.27.12

This year I wasn’t able to travel to Europe for vacation, but I was still able to go to Italy! Okay, not really, but we took a day trip to the beaches near Los Angeles, including Venice Beach. We love unique and fun places, so it was definitely on our list. Since Venice Beach is just 8 miles from Santa Monica, I decided to do them both in one day. Before our trip, I looked up more things to do in Venice and it turns out that developer Abbot Kinney had a Venice in America plan and recreated 16 miles of the Italian canals in 1905.

Unfortunately, 75% of the canals have since been covered up, because the sidewalks and houses surrounding them fell into disrepair in the 30s and 40s. The city was salvaged and the remaining canals are lined by million-dollar homes and looked amazing online, so Eric and I wanted to see them for ourselves. We parked at the beach and walked down to Washington Boulevard on the advice of a local walking his dog. Although I was bummed that I couldn’t rent a gondola to float down the water, I still wanted to experience the neighborhood.

The houses aren’t large, though they are fantastic “beachfront” houses with small yards and large mortgages/rents. They have the advantage of being steps from the beach, having a great walking neighborhood and being on a manmade river that they can cruise down. The banks of the canals are lined with small boats owned by the residents. Maybe they row down the river to their friends’ houses when the weather is nice. Whatever the case, I’m sure it’s a beautiful view from their tiny balconies.

We visited the beaches on a weekday on the off-season, so we didn’t get the whole experience of Venice, but I love that the beach is clean and there are two sidewalks. One is specifically for bicycles and the other is for walkers. It’s a great way to keep traffic separate and minimize accidents. I did get to see an old guy rollerblading in a pair of jean cut-offs, but mostly we enjoyed the quiet day and watching bicyclists roll by.

Venice is a great way to enjoy both the beach and a recreation of the European canals on a budget. Both are free, there are usually unique street performers and there are plenty of fun shops and restaurants to choose from, too.

Have you been to Venice Beach? If so, what was your favorite part?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Social Travel Infographic 10.26.12

Social Travel become a travel-planning trend. With so much information available online, it's almost impossible to using any kind of social media. Reviews, Facebook, Twitter and blogs are all amazingly helpful in planning travel of any kind. Obviously, you are already doing at least some social travel, since you read this blog. If you aren't doing more online to make your vacation awesome, maybe you will want to join the growing masses after checking out this Infographic from TouristLink.

How has Social Travel changed how you travel?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Disney's Mad T Party 10.24.12

In case you weren’t aware, I love Disney theme parks. We hadn’t been to Disneyland in almost four years, so between our last trip in 2008 and our trip earlier this month, a lot of new things have been added to the Disneyland Resort. With the announcement of Cars Land, we were pretty much just on the verge of vacationing in Anaheim, so it wasn’t the biggest disappointment when we couldn’t go to Europe this year. I mean, our Plan B was so exciting, it was hard to be too sad. Disney would have been in our trip plans regardless, it was just a matter of it being in California or France.

A few weeks before we were ready to leave, I was looking at show times for the parks and came across something called the Mad T Party at California Adventure. The limited information I got from the Disney site made me think that it was like a dance club within California Adventure, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when we got there. We stumbled upon the party on the first Sunday we were there, in between fancy dinner at the new Carthay Circle Restaurant and the amazing World of Color water show. I had it on my schedule as something to check out, even though I had no idea where it would be.

Down the rabbit hole

The open space they used to have by Monsters, Inc and The Muppets 4D has been put to good use with a stage, giant lamps, an arcade, a lounge area and two kiosks where you can buy beverages – both themed alcoholic and non-alcoholic – to get into the Alice in Wonderland spirit. Imagine going to your favorite club, putting it outside and not having to pay a cover. That’s Mad T Party. The Mad Hatter and his band play, including tunes belted out by a rocker Alice, for 20-30 minutes at a time throughout the evening and in between you can play games, hang out, get on a ride or shop for Wonderland merchandise at the pop-up store nearby.

The Mad Hatter, in addition to being insanely cute, wears crazy edgy outfits and his signature hat, while belting out popular tunes from different eras. You may hear Black Eyed Peas one song and then Prince the next. It was a great mix, the vibe was good and there was even room for dancing – in the middle of the rest of the crowd enjoying the show.

So, what kinds of drinks do they serve? In addition to the regular Coke products, the now popular Fuze drinks and bottled water, you can also grab a beer (Blue Moon or Fat Tire), a croquet-tini, Mad Hat-ito, Mad Long Island Ice T Party, Cotton Candy Lemonade, Cheshire Chiller (frozen pear drink), Jabberwocky Juice (frozen apple drink) and Hot Chocolate. The prices are right up there where you would expect them to be, but your cup is festive and blinky for that Disneyland rave feel. I was hoping for themed food as well, but no such luck. They did have this cute souvenir hat that you could buy for them to put your beverage in.

Another night we were able to go in and see a bit more of the show and explore the rest of the party. They had air hockey tables set up near the larger Drink Me drink counter and an arcade with Wonderland-themed games, such as Cheshire Cat’s Smile Smash, Queen’s Croquet and Frajous Day Frenzy. We played a few games and then went back out to browse the pop-up shop’s goods and marvel at the giant flamingos - stilt walkers in costume. You can also dance to beats spun by the house DJ - the White Rabbit. Apparently, Tweedle Dee and Dum make an appearance, as well as a dance crew, in between sets but we weren’t fortunate enough to experience these. I’m guessing because we were visiting in the off-season. If we lived nearby, we would certainly have season passes and be visiting Disney often for the party and to eat at any of the yummy restaurants in the park.

Have you been to the Mad T Party yet? What did you think?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Reserve123 Tours (Part 2)

While I was on vacation in L.A., I had the opportunity to try yet another tour through Reserve123. With all the normal sightseeing we had planned, Reserve123 set us up on a Los Angeles by Night tour with VIP Tours. This isn’t the first time we’ve driven with VIP Tours either. We went on two lovely city tours with them while in Hawaii and had a great experience. We were pretty excited to see L.A. in a whole new way.

Robin picked us up at our lodging in Anaheim, where we introduced ourselves and learned we were the only two on the tour that evening. This has happened to us many times on tours. Maybe we’re just lucky, or it’s because we often go on mid-week tours during the off-season, so there’s more chance of it being mostly empty. Either way, Robin was excited to show us his Los Angeles and we were able to do a personalized tour. He said we could see more if we didn’t actually stop at many places, which we agreed to, as we’d been pretty much walking non-stop for 7 days.

Our drive to the city included learning about Robin’s background and how his history interweaves with that of L.A.’s history. He’s lived there almost his whole life and knows more about Los Angeles than I know about pretty much anything. Los Angeles is the only major city separated by mountains and the only one where the main water source (the L.A. River) drastically changed its course. The river was prone to overflowing and flooding the city, so an aqueduct was built to make it twice as wide and twice as deep. This greatly improved the flow of the river and the safety of locals.

Photos of Echo Park, Los Angeles

This photo of Echo Park is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Echo Park Lake under construction
On our tour, Robin taught us about the people who the major streets are named after – Mulholland, Bandini, Crenshaw, Pico and Sepulveda. We then drove to the Echo Park area where Hollywood started with movies like Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin’s first film, Making a Living. In this area, known as Edendale, is the park where the show Gilligan’s Island was filmed. While I wish I had gotten to see it in the daytime, I was able to get some great glimpses of the island with the tropical trees that was the main set for one of my favorite classic shows. At the moment, the park is under construction and they are planning to turn it into a great hang-out spot for locals that will enjoy its former glory mixed with modern touches, including nearby shops and restaurants. It gives me an excuse to return to Hollywood in the future.

Robin took us to some fantastic Hollywood hotspots, including the El Pollo Loco where Brad Pitt once worked as the guy in the chicken suit to bring in patrons and the beginning of Hollywood that is marked by five lovely Hollywood mavens: Mae West, Dolores Del Rio, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong are topped by a tiny Marilyn Monroe. We then passed by Paramount Studios and Century City, which is where Fox Studios resides and you can see the bridge from Planet of the Apes and the building where Die Hard was filmed.

Building where Die Hard was filmed
Riding along with Robin was like hanging out with a friend. He told us about the good old days when Hollywood was just starting out and execs moved their houses to the city from New Jersey, so they could film year-round and asked us questions along the way, so the tour was more of a conversation. When we had our own questions, he would answer them in a way that it turned into a story and then segue it back to what he was originally talking about. Because he used to make successful documentary films years ago, and was also in the theater, he had an inside view of the inner workings of the studios and their owners in the early days.

We had a wonderful time on our tour and were a little sad to see it end. We learned more in three hours than we did in three days and I would highly recommend taking it or a similar tour while in Los Angeles. Reserve123 did all the work for me in setting it up, all I had to do was call and confirm with VIP once I arrived in Anaheim. They have the same tour that picks up at different points in L.A. as well. If you have a large travel group, this would be an excellent activity, but it’s also great for just a few of you. We always have fun chatting with other people on our tours – if there are any.

Jim Henson Company
Reserve123 only works with reputable tour companies and once you book your tour through them, all that’s left to do is confirm directly with the company closer to your tour date and have a good time. Bring your camera for all the fun stuff you’ll see along the way. Also, with the holidays coming up, a unique city tour makes a great gift for the person on your list that seems to have everything. If you aren’t sure which one they would like, you can even buy them a gift card to use at Reserve123.com. With Christmas right around the corner, you might want to book a tour or activity to get yourself or your relatives out of the house for an afternoon, so you aren’t spending 24/7 with friends and family that may be driving you a little crazy.

We plan to book more tours through Reserve123, not least of which they are awesome, but they are also affordable and there is a huge variety to choose from in each city. If you missed my last review of how we were tourists in our own city on the Historic Portland Boat Tour, make sure you go check it out. I’m eyeing the Food Cart Tour next and will likely check out Reserve123 first when we travel in the future.

If you want to see the extensive list of tours and activities available for your home area and your vacation destination(s), check out Reserve123’s website. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Disclosure: I received a free tour for the purpose of this review, but all opinions are 100% my own.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Halloween Tourism for Everyone 10.20.12

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Not me, but there are so many other things I am afraid of. Halloween is the time where you can face your fears and put a little scare into others. Why not spend this October hitting up places that have good old fashioned ghosts and goblins? The past few years we attended the Halloween events at Disney World's Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and I look forward to checking out the Disneyland events and returning to EuroDisney to check out the party happenings there. This year, I'll have to live vicariously through everyone else.

  • Many park days at the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland in Sept-Nov are cut short for this party that requires a special ticket to get in. From 7pm to midnight, many of the park guests come dressed in costume to enjoy 5 hours of trick-or-treating, dancing, nighttime thrill rides (only specific rides will be open during that time, not the whole park), Hall-o-wishes fireworks display, an all-villain musical show in front of the castle, villain meet and greets, amazing park decorations and, best of all, a special parade opened with the Headless Horseman on horseback. It’s all totally Disney and so out of their normal festivities that it’s worth putting off your vacation until that time of year.

  • Knott's presents Knott's Scary Farm. Save $6-23 on your tickets by buying them online instead of at the gate, where they will be $57 each.

  • Universal puts on Halloween Horror Nights. While ticket prices don't waver, you're sure to get your money's worth while riding select rides and being scared out of your wits with roaming creeps, themed haunted houses and scare zones. It's like being in your very own horror movie. 
  • Busch Gardens in Tampa offers up Howl-o-Scream. Much like Universal, they have scare zones, haunted houses and themed entertainment. You can't get cheaper tickets for this event either, but it'll scare your pants off, which you maybe can't put a price on.
  • Sea World has a great event for the little ones and admission is included with your regular park ticket. It's called Spooktacular and it offers trick-or-treating, silly and spooky shows and kids are encouraged to come in costumes.
Now, that's just the major theme parks that have fun activities. There are plenty of other activities the world over that you can get in on. Here are some inexpensive things you can do during the fall season or any other time of the year.

  • The Dungeons are on my list of kitchy and kinda scary (if you're afraid of the dark and mirror mazes where you might be followed) and must-do attractions. The site offers best price guarantee and you can get discounted deals if you purchase a combination ticket with Madame Tussaud's and/or the London Eye. If you plan to visit off-peak hours, you can save up to 50%! You must purchase your tickets online though. Each dungeon (located in London, York, Hamburg, Edinburgh and Amsterdam) walks you through the "streets" of history and winds you through creepy stories and rides that take you from one area of the dungeon to another
  • Paris Catacombs. There are miles of underground tunnels underneath Paris full of human bones that were put there when the cemeteries became overcrowded. Even now they are still crowded, but with tourists. Get there right at opening and beat the crowds. Lines can stretch up to 2 hours long and with prices at only 5 Euros per person, it's one of the cheaper things you can do in France. If you want to skip the lines and go on a 2 hour guided tour with a small group. Viator can help you with this if you're willing to pay more than 5 Euros. For a little more than $54 per person, you are guaranteed access into the Catacombs, which is extremely limited.
  • Plenty of creepy things have come out of London. One of the most famous? Jack the Ripper. He was never caught and you can walk the same streets on a London night with a small group for around $15 per person. Feel some of the fear those women must have felt while standing in a dark alley and hearing about the gruesome and brutal murders that happened on the very spot.
  • New Orleans has always claimed to have a rich history in the occult and creepy myths. For an hour and a half walk among the darkened streets on the New Orleans Vampire Tour for only $20 per person. Many other walks are available, but who wouldn't want to believe in the undead and the horrible things that happen in the shadows of the city?
  • New England always seems to be the backdrop for creepy and bizarre happenings. Stephen King loves to write about New England in his scary novels, too. One such story, which happens to be true, is the tale of Lizzie Borden in Massachusetts. Not only can you stay in the very house both her parents were murdered in (whether she did it or not, as she was never convicted, but moved to live outside of town where she was shunned for the rest of her life), you can also take a tour of the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast. As cheerful as a B&B sounds, this one claims to be haunted. People have said to have had many encounters with ghosts while staying there, but if you can't get in to sleep there or are too scared, take the tour. They are only $12.50 per person and occur only during daylight hours, so there's (mostly) nothing to be afraid of, but what happened to the real murderer?

  • Portland's Shanghai Tunnels are quite a tourist attraction. There is a whole city of tunnels under the Oregon town's downtown area. For $19 per person you take a flashlight tour of the tunnels and learn about how people would be pulled into the tunnels (often drunk), have their shoes stolen and forced into slave labor. If you missed my blog post on underground sightseeing, find it here.

  • Winchester Mystery House. Tour 110 of the 160 rooms of the house that took 38 years to build and has stairs that lead to nowhere and doors that open into walls. There are several tours to choose from, including a flashlight tour special for specific October dates. Tours range from $25 to $33 per person and should be purchased online.

  • Almost anywhere you go that has open land will have a corn maze. You can go during the day or the evening and enjoy getting lost in a labyrinth of corn! The daytime maze will be fairly tame and the maze at night is dark and may have several spooky surprises. Though you may not be able to take advantage of pumpkin picking, you CAN stop at the general store they have set up and get some local foods to take home, like pumpkin butter and huckleberry candy (okay, that's probably just what we have here in Oregon). 
  • Check out some fun musicals for Halloween season. Search for discounts on great theater in London on BroadwayBox. Two musicals that might be of particular interest to you are Thriller Live and Wicked. This week we're going to see Lost Boys: The Play! in Portland, done by a great local sketch comedy group. 
I look forward to finding out all the new fun Halloween activities for the this season. What are the cool things to do in your town that are fun and affordable?
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