Arcade Nirvana

Jeff enters Galloping Ghost

And now for a travel tale of a different type.

For my regular readers, you know that I was once a serious video gamer and that I’ve occasionally visited retro arcades to revisit that aspect of my childhood.  A few months ago, I read of a place in Brookfield, IL called Galloping Ghost that claimed to be the world’s biggest retro arcade.  I told my old friend, Jeff Bevirt, about it.  Jeff is still a serious gamer and he was intrigued, so we decided to take a weekend road trip to visit this arcade.

It had been a really long time since I had a true buddy road trip.  Having a friend along not only makes the time go faster, but it also helps to have someone with whom to share the driving duties so neither of us gets overly fatigued.

We got an early start, leaving Omaha around 8:30am.  I took the first leg of the drive and took us to Walcott, IA where we took a lunch break at Gramma’s Kitchen at the world’s largest truck stop.

Gramma’s Kitchen

Gramma’s Kitchen serves old-fashioned comfort food (and some not so old-fashioned, as well), includes a gift shop, and just has the feeling of yesteryear with its vintage signs and knickknacks.  Jeff ordered a meat loaf dinner which included a trip to the tiny salad bar where he got some prime rib and mushroom soup.  For myself, I decided to try the Frisco Burger.  My burger was delicious with its crispy bacon, vegetables, Swiss cheese, and toasted sourdough bun.  Should I ever eat here again and get a burger, I’ll be certain to get it medium well, as my choice of medium was just a bit underdone for my tastes, though tasty.  I ate half of my burger and saved the rest for my evening meal and Jeff took over the drive from this point.

A few hours later found us in Chicagoland where I had a premium king suite reserved at Embassy Suites in Naperville, IL. 

This Embassy Suites was a bit different from others in its construction.  Embassy Suites tend to be built in an atrium style, but this one was actually designed like a regular hotel.  Our room wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, but we got it about 10 minutes after our arrival.  We deposited our gear and Jeff ordered some bedding for the hide-a-bed and we left for Galloping Ghost.

About 40 minutes later, we arrived and managed to get a spot in the parking lot.  A few minutes later, we entered a place I can only describe as arcade nirvana.

Galloping Ghost is owned by Doc Mack who co-founded the business back in 2010.  Originally the arcade boasted 130 games, but Mack has multiplied that many times over and, today, the arcade contains over 700 video games and a separate venue contains 75 pinball machines.

For $20 you can play all day and that’s a bargain as you will play an equivalent amount in about an hour or so and you’ll need far more time to truly get a feel for this place.

Jeff and I spent the first half hour just wandering through the rooms admiring the games and marveling at the variety.  Not only did I see games that I see at nearly every retro arcade, but I also saw rare treasures, games imported from Japan, prototypes that never had a formal release, plus some originals.  In the second to last room we explored, we found a roped off area consisting of numerous games being prepped for future release as the arcade features a new release each week.

Interestingly, some of the games actually share a cabinet and a switch is available so you can toggle between them.  From watching various interviews online, I’ve learned that Mack and his crew hope to get each game its own cabinet.  But it’s a painstaking process as they try to get an original cabinet and, failing that, they create a similar one for the game.  Truly these are people who appreciate classic games.

Then it was game time!

I made a point of mostly avoiding games that I have played at other retro arcades to focus on the ones I had never played.  Jeff and I teamed up to defeat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time, and Contra:  Evolution (an updated version of Contra released in 2011).  Later Jeff would join me to help me finish off Two-Face in Batman Forever, a prototype game.

Then we split and I wandered about and was stunned to find either limited release or never released sequels to Joust (Joust 2:  Survival of the Fittest) and Mappy (Hopping Mappy).  Then I started playing long missed favorites such as Crime Patrol and Mad Dog II:  The Lost Gold from American Laser Games.  I also enjoyed Biohazard: Code Veronica, an import shoot em up from Japan better known as Resident Evil in America.  I also dabbled in Timber, a spin-off of Tapper where you chop down trees while avoiding obstacles.  I took a crack at Super Burgertime which beat me to a pulp.  I also rescued the children and stopped Mr. Big in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker; played a Dragon’s Lair II cabinet for the first time since a video game convention in 2010; came within 2 Sinibombs of destroying Sinistar; got creamed in Cliff Hanger, a diabolically difficult Dragon’s Lair style game based off two Lupin III movies; experimented with Hologram Time Traveler, but threw in the towel as I had trouble viewing the screen.

But the most interesting game I played was an interactive movie called The Spectre Files:  Deathstalkers.  In this game, you take the role of a private eye searching for a missing heiress in a haunted institution.  Whenever the game stops, you have to make a choice.  Choose correctly and the game continues.  Choose wrong and you will come to a premature end.  I really dug the mash-up of cheesy horror film and choose your own adventure.

Not every game works at peak capacity which is to be expected given the age and rarity of these machines, but that number was shockingly small and most worked like a dream.  The games are also packed tightly together so gaming could get a bit snug when the arcade is super busy.

After 6 ½ hours of gaming, my feet were done in and Jeff was a bit tired so we headed back to Embassy Suites.  Jeff’s bedding hadn’t been delivered so both of us ended up having to call the front desk to finally get some sheets and a blanket for him before finally retiring about midnight.

The next morning, we enjoyed Embassy Suites’ famed cooked to order breakfast before heading back to Omaha, planning to possibly return next year to enjoy Galloping Ghost once more and explore Chicago a bit.

But if you’re in the Chicago area and you are a video gamer, visit Galloping Ghost (9415 Ogden Ave in Brookfield, IL).  Once you visit this retro arcade, you’ll be hard pressed to want to visit another.

The Fourth in Wausau (But First in Class): Stewart Inn & Wausau,WI

Stewart Inn

Today the road has brought me to Wausau, WI.

After 4 months, I was more than ready for a relaxing return to the road.  I’m currently in the midst of my regional play reviewing season, but my Fourth of July weekend was open so I decided it was time to partake in my 70th B & B review.  My choice:  Stewart Inn, owned and operated by Randy and Sara Bangs.

I couldn’t have asked for a better road trip.  I had to deal with a little rain, but also got to enjoy lunch with my best friend, Josh, when I made a brief stop in Fort Dodge, IA.  I had a peaceful layover with a comfortable suite at the Holiday Inn Express in Albert Lea, MN and then took a more scenic and circuitous (by 15 minutes) route to Wausau.

Mid-afternoon on Saturday found me in Wausau and I soon found myself outside the impressive edifice of Stewart Inn.  A quick text to Randy gained me entry into the mansion.  As the first arriving guest, Randy gave me a thorough tour of the inn and its rooms.

Stewart Inn is designed in the Revival style by George Maher, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright.  This is a big house, but it’s very wide as opposed to being tall.  It has the biggest commons area of any inn I’ve visited with a mammoth living room area, a library where one can curl up with a good book while seated in a comfy chair in front of a fire, and a TV room that could seat 6 people. 

Architectually speaking, everything in the house is original:  the wood, the fixtures, the fireplaces.  The furniture is not, though some of it is period.  After showing me around, Randy brought me to the Foster Room which would serve as my home away from home for a few days.

The Foster Room is very intimate with a working fireplace, a cozy chair, a small library, a desk, a queen-sized bed, and a TV mounted in the far wall.  Stewart Inn actually has a pillow menu, but the soft, squishy pillows set on my bed fit the bill just fine. 

Each room of the inn contains two unique amenities:  a steam spa shower and an Amazon Echo Show.  The Echo Show is voice activated with Alexa and you can get weather reports or enjoy some music.  The steam spa shower lets you turn the shower into a steam bath.

It was a perfect day (perfect weekend, for the most part) with very comfortable temperatures and very little humidity.  So I decided to walk to church to worship at Church of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  At least, that was the plan.

When I arrived, I was puzzled that no cars were in the parking lot and I found the doors locked (a fact that saddened me as, once upon a time, churches were unlocked all the time).  Someone connected with the church appeared and asked me if I needed help and I befuddledly answered that I was hoping to attend the 4pm service.  The helpful stranger told me that the 4pm service was at St Michael which I would never make.

As I walked back to the inn, I pulled up the church’s website and there it was:  4pm service.  Then I read the rest of the line “at St Michael”.  It turns out the website was for all the Catholic churches in Wausau and not just Resurrection.

So I enjoyed a leisurely walk around the neighborhood and downtown area before returning to the inn where I worshipped via a streaming service performed by Fr. Jack Sheaffer.

As it happens, Wausau is the hometown of my brother-in-law, Scott, and his mother, Pam, suggested I have a meal at the Pinewood Supper Club. So I made a reservation.

Pinewood Supper Club

If you want to enjoy fine dining, I recommend giving this club a try.  It’s located by Half Moon Lake so you can dine with a view of the water.  It also has a well-stocked bar for those who would like to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.  I was seated by the window where I enjoyed viewing the lake while noshing on a relish tray. 

My dinner consisted of a salad with a dill ranch dressing and a main entrée of Blackened Salmon Oscar served with jasmine rice, fruit salsa, and grilled asparagus.  The salmon was exquisite and I spent over an hour savoring the meal and even indulged in a post-dinner cordial of a grasshopper.

I drove back to the inn and took in another constitutional before retiring to my room for the night.

I awoke from a great night’s sleep and made use of the steam shower (very relaxing) before heading downstairs for some breakfast.

Down in the commons, I met Jodi and Brian with whom I enjoyed some conversation during the meal.  Randy had promised some really great coffee.  Now I don’t drink the stuff, but Jodi does and the self-professed “coffee snob” said it was really great coffee:  very dark and rich.  So consider that a recommendation from a connoisseur. 

Breakfast was served in 3 courses.  The first was a tasty yogurt served with grain-free granola.  The second was fresh strawberries from the Farmer’s Market with homemade whipped cream.  The final was biscuits and gravy.  All of it was wonderful and I truly appreciated the portion sizes as they didn’t leave you feeling stuffed to the gills.

If you’re into nature and outdoor activities, Wausau has a number of parks and is famed for skiing.  Given that it was summer, I decided to visit the Monk Botanical Gardens.

I was somewhat disappointed by the gardens simply because nothing seemed to be in bloom.  However, I did enjoy walking the trails and got to play around with a flower kaleidoscope.

I returned to Stewart Inn where I took a longer walk around the downtown area where I looked at the famed Grand Theater and the 400 Block which is an outside concert venue that plays host to many summertime concerts.

Sweets on 3rd

It started to mist a bit as I walked back towards the inn so I ducked into Sweets on 3rd where I nibbled a cup of Ultimate Oreo ice cream while I waited for the weather to clear up.  Once it did, I returned to the inn where I organized photos and then headed out for a tour of Yawkey House.

Yawkey House Museum

Yawkey House was the home of Cyrus and Lisa Yawkey.  Cyrus was a lumber baron and had the house started in 1899 and it was completed in 1901 at a cost of $35K ($1,000,000 in today’s numbers).  Six years later, Cyrus had the house completely remodeled to keep up with the Joneses due to the popularity of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright whose revolutionary designs made Yawkey House’s original design seem passe. 

Cyrus was part of what was known as the Wausau Group.  They were a group of powerful businessmen who pooled their resources to bring a massive economic boost to Wausau (known as Big Bull Falls at the time).  So massive was Wausau’s growth as a result of their efforts that Wausau nearly took over as the state capital.

Yawkey House is definitely worth a tour, especially at the low cost of $7.  The house has had some restoration, but the woodwork is all original (most of which is no longer commercially available) as is most of the furniture. 

After my tour, I came back to Stewart Inn where I did some prep work on the article until dinnertime.

And my evening meal was eaten at Milwaukee Burger Company.  Now I rarely partake of a truly junky meal, but allowed myself to do so on this night.  I tried a Spicy Curd Burger with a side of chili cheese fries.  Everything about this burger screamed spice.  Aside from the two pieces of spicy curd, the burger also brings the heat with a spicy chipotle spread and jalapeno infused bacon.  The burger was nice and juicy and it definitely had a lingering heat as I very nearly broke out into a sweat.  The service wasn’t quite up to snuff and that’s even making allowances for the Great Resignation.

After dinner it was back to the inn to begin writing and just relaxing for the night.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a delightful Almond Joy Crustini, cantaloupe, and polenta with chicken sausage. Conversation ran the gamut from music, to pets, to fitness, to employment. As we left the table, Randy gifted us with discount coupons for stays at Inns of Choice (11 best B & Bs in WI), future stays at Stewart Inn, and a last one for any B & B in WI.

A very wonderful and relaxing inn experience and I was sorry to see it end. But if you find yourself, up Wausau’s way, take in a night or two at Stewart Inn. It’s a haven.

Have a fun Fourth and, until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Hot Time in the Old Springs: Gables Inn & Hot Springs, AR

Gables Inn

Today the road has brought me to Hot Springs, AR.

I had some time to burn, so I decided to go on an outing, but wanted to go in a new direction and, preferably, someplace warm.  A little look through my spreadsheet and I settled on Hot Springs, AR where I would stay at Gables Inn, owned and operated by Dave and Judy.

It was a beautiful day for travel and I enjoyed the weather and my tunes as I made my way to my stopping point of Miami for the night.  Miami, OK that is.

Miami is a small town nicknamed “The Gate” due to its being about 30 minutes from the Kansas border and about 20 minutes from the Missouri border.  The legendary Route 66 also runs through the town.

I checked into my suite at the town’s Holiday Inn Express and rested for a few hours before heading off to worship at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Sacred Heart

It was a mighty good service as Father warmed up to his sermon which centered on the parable of The Prodigal Son where he talked about the role of forgiveness in Lent.  Father said nothing thrilled him more than when people came to Confession and told him that they hadn’t come in years.  He saw it as a time for celebration as they recognized their need for forgiveness.

I also ended up providing a little entertainment for the congregation as I was seated near the front and didn’t know what to do for Eucharist as nobody appeared at the front to distribute it.  One of the parishioners eventually pointed out that they were really old school and actually knelt at the Communion rail in order to receive it.

After church, I began looking for something to eat, but found myself thwarted a bit.  My first choice was closed for the day and the town is also suffering from the short staffedness caused by the pandemic so I ended up skipping my second choice as the wait would have been too long.  Eventually, I hit pay dirt with my third choice of Montana Mike’s Steakhouse.

I enjoyed a surprisingly tender sirloin with a topper of Creamy Cajun shrimp.  The cream was nice and sharp and really enhanced the flavor of the beef.  After the meal, I returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a quiet night capped off with a relaxing jacuzzi bath before going to bed.

The next day I was back on the road and soon found myself in the Natural State enjoying the views of forests and mountains as I made my way to Hot Springs.

Hot Springs is a village nestled within the Ouachita Mountains and the last 70 miles found me navigating twisty roads and hills as I admired some of God’s scenery.  Around 4pm I found myself at Gables Inn.

Gables Inn is a Victorian house which had been built as the dream home of Fred and Myrtle Sammons.  The home was gutted by the infamous Hot Springs fire of 1904, but the Sammons rebuilt the entire thing from top to bottom and returned to their home in 1905.  The house became an inn in 1993 and was taken over by Dave and Judy in 1996 which makes it the longest continuing B & B in Hot Springs.

Judy met me at the door and led me to the Governor’s Room which would serve as command center for the next few days.  The room has the feel of a classic Victorian inn with its fireplace and Victorian lamps.  For more modern comforts, the room contains a king-sized bed with memory foam pillows and a two person jacuzzi bath.

On the desk was a bottle of the town’s namesake water which is reported to have high healing properties and I can certainly testify that it healed my thirst.

I didn’t plan too much for my first night.  I just went to Red Pier for dinner as I was in the mood for Cajun food.  It’s a chain restaurant very similar to the Angry Crab Shack of Phoenix, AZ.  The meal balanced out to OK.  I had a small bowl of gumbo which had a decent taste, but was more like soup instead of stew.  The chicken strips I had were incredibly juicy with flavorful meat, but had bland breading.

Red Pier

After dinner, I just returned to the inn where I puttered around before going to bed to energize myself for the next day.

In the morning I went down to the dining room for breakfast and heard the other guests excitedly planning their days while we dined on a delicious 4 cheese quiche with cherry tomatoes and sausage.  With the other guests plotting their own adventures, there wasn’t much conversation so I finished eating fairly quickly before heading out the door.

4 cheese quiche, cherry tomatoes, and sausage

Hot Springs is interesting as it is not only a tourist town with a lot of activities, but it’s also built around a national park so there’s something for everybody.  Is shopping your bag?  Lots of interesting stores to visit.  Enjoy nature?  Plenty of hiking and scenery.  Perhaps you like shows?  The #1 magic show in all of Arkansas holds court in Hot Springs.  Maybe you just want to relax?  There’s a series of bathhouses and spas along Bathhouse Row.

For myself, I went to the national park and went to the top of the Mountain Tower.  This 216-foot structure provides a panoramic view of Hot Springs and in the distance you can see the West and Sugarloaf Mountains.

After enjoying nature, I went back to the main drag and bought tickets to take a duck boat tour as well as visit Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

A duck boat is a truck that can transform into a boat.  So our captain took us on a tour of Hot Springs on the streets before taking us onto the lake in boat mode and show us some of the luxury homes.  A lot of wealthy people like to use Hot Springs as a vacation home.  The owners of one of the houses only visits 3 days out of the year and, the rest of the time, the house is occupied by a housekeeper and her daughter who keep the place tidy.

Speaking of “vacation homes”, a lot of notorious gangsters liked to spend time in Hot Springs.  Lucky Luciano and Al Capone were frequent visitors who often plied their trade while relaxing.

When the tour was done, I went to Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum.  If you’re wondering, she is the great-great granddaughter of Madame Tussaud, but this museum is not connected to that famous chain.  It’s been the same exhibit since 1971, but is still in pretty good condition.  I enjoyed replicas of The Last Supper, wandered through a Chamber of Horrors, experienced historical moments like Lincoln’s assassination, and ambled through a land of fantasy where characters from fairy tales and Mark Twain stories greeted me.

From the museum, I wandered up and down the drag, stopping in at an old-fashioned candy store where I picked up some cinnamon bears and at a beef jerky outlet when I picked up a snack pack of cracked pepper jerky.  Heads up, the jerky isn’t cheap.  My snack pack cost nearly $12.

I also took a brief stop at Arlington Lawn to see the hot springs and briefly touch the 143 degree water.

Hot Springs

Then I got in my car and headed off to Anthony Chapel.  This wood and glass structure looks like the twin of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the inside of it as a wedding was being held.

Anthony Chapel

I was ready for a little break and returned to the inn to rest up a bit before walking downtown for an early dinner at Brick House Grill.

This is one of the favorite restaurants of Dave and Judy and after experiencing it, I can see why.  Brick House Grill has a bistro feel and even includes outdoor seating.  I had the Brick House Burger and it was one of the tastiest burgers I’ve ever eaten.  I could smell the chargrill as it was placed in front of me.  It was so juicy and the grilled onions and crispy bacon really hit the spot.

When dinner digesting I headed over to the Malco Theatre AKA The Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic.

Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic and Comedy

Maxwell Blade’s magic show has been the top rated show in Arkansas for the better part of three decades and I highly recommend a visit to the theatre to experience both the Close Up show and the full theatre show.

The Close Up show takes place at 6pm in a tiny theatre just behind the bar.  And I do mean tiny.  The theatre only holds about 24 people so I can assure you the tricks are done right in front of your face.

The Close Up show is performed by Jonathan Erlandson, a very talented magician.  He did things 3 feet from my face that just didn’t seem possible such as making a table float and dance.  He even did variations of classic tricks with bold twists.

At one point, Erlandson brought up an audience member and had her shuffle a deck of cards and give him half.  Then he offered to switch decks or even have her take cards from his pile or add cards to his pile from hers.  She added to his pile.  Then she picked a card and he picked a card.  Then they switched decks and he correctly picked her card.  But the real trick was that she was going to pull his card.  Erlandson told her to fan the cards and pick any card she wanted from his deck.  Then he calmly stated what his card was and the eyes of the audience member bugged out as she turned the card around and it was right!!

I thought his most impressive illusion was when he asked for a bill.  I offered up a $20 and Erlandson had me write my name on it.  He then folded it up, tossed it into a bowl of lighter fluid, and lit it on fire as a stopwatch while he sped solved a Rubik’s Cube.

He solved the puzzle in a matter of seconds, but my $20 was ash.  Then he talked about the Attention Test (watch the video first).

Did you do so? OK.

Then he asked us if we had noticed the point he walked over to the sealed jar on the opposite side of the stage.  He went to the jar, removed the lid, and took something off of the clip hanging to it.  He handed it to me and had me unfold it.  It was my $20. And, no, he never walked near the jar.

You must see this show and enjoy some truly in your face magic.

Maxwell Blade

The main show, performed by Maxwell Blade, is also a treat.  Blade’s show is full of comedy, music, and magic.  His sleight of hand is so quick and sure.  He’s an accomplished piano player and he and his girlfriend belted out a pretty fair rendition of “Rocketman”.  Blade’s tricks and illusions are performed at a blitzkrieg pace, but my two favorites were his new take on Houdini’s famed Metamorphosis trick.  Though, in this one, his assistant was chained up in an iron maiden shaped cage in full view of the audience before they swapped places with a close of the curtain.  With another sweep of the curtain, Blade had escaped and the stagehand was now shackled.

His final illusion was incredible as he poured various colored powders into a fish bowl and swirled them into liquid.  After showing us his clean hands, he swirled again and broke them back up into solid powders.

If you’re a fan of magic and fun, buy a ticket for this show and find out why it’s the best in the state.

Then I walked back to Gables Inn, drew a jacuzzi bath, and just relaxed while sipping a cream soda before going to sleep.

The next morning found me back in the dining room where I had some conversation with a couple from Texas and a couple from Germany while enjoying blueberry cream cheese stuffed French Toast and sausage.

Sausage and Blueberry Cream Cheese Stuffed French Toast

This was a great trip and I’m a little blue to see it come to an end.  But take some time in Hot Springs where you can enjoy almost any sort of activity you can imagine.  And be sure to take a room in Gables Inn where you can enjoy some classic Southern hospitality in a comfortable Victorian inn.

Until the next time. . .oops, wait a sec.

It’s bonus time.

On my way home, I took an extended break in Fayetteville, AR so I could experience Arkadia Retrocade.

Arkadia Retrocade

Hands down, this is the best vintage arcade I have ever seen and it wasn’t operating at full strength. The arcade has only recently reopened so some of the games are being worked on, but even at partial strength, this place is amazing.

For $5 (yes, you read that right) you can play all you want for the day. This place not only has classics, but has some next door to impossible games to find as well. Some rare gems I found at this arcade were Thayer’s Quest, a Dragon’s Lair type game that was never fully finished; Hologram Time Traveler, another Dragon’s Lair type game which simulates the look of a hologram; Gold Medalist which was made for the Seoul Summer Olympics; 720, Krull; and many more. There are even sections set up where you can play classic systems like Coleco Vision and Atari 2600. If I’m ever through this way again, I’m going to arrange for a full day of gaming as two hours was simply not enough time.

And now, until the next time. . .happy travels.

The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse

Lovely little nutcracker, isn’t it?  Well, this nutcracker has a very interesting story behind it.  This nutcracker is both a trophy and a reminder of the time I assisted Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in solving a murder at the Victorian Villa in Union City, MI.

I had alluded to this story when I wrote my remembrance of the inn back in 2014, but enough time has passed that it is now safe to share the tale.  Some elements must still remain hidden, so some names may be changed and some details removed and altered, but those that know the truth will understand.

Many believe Holmes and Watson to be fictional characters, but that is a myth perpetuated by Dr. Watson’s literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who published Dr. Watson’s stories under his name.  In truth, they are real and much older than one would believe. 

In his retirement, Holmes had cultivated a royal jelly elixir and ingestion of it had greatly extended his life span and that of Dr. Watson.  Over the years Holmes and Watson had regularly visited the Victorian Villa as its owner, Ron Gibson, is the great-grandson of Senator Neil Gibson referenced in the case known as “The Problem of Thor Bridge”.  Aside from their friendship, Holmes also enjoyed visiting Union City as, in his own words, “it is a hellhole of crime of great depth and brilliance”.

When I learned that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson would be visiting, I immediately booked a weekend stay to meet the famed detective and his trusted associate.

It was September of 2005 and I was making my second foray out to the Villa.  I was a bit weary as I had mistakenly forgotten to schedule myself as unavailable for Hamlet rehearsals the night before so I had put in a long night of rehearsing before setting off on my drive at 10pm.  By midnight, I was exhausted and collapsed at a Motel 6 in Des Moines, IA before driving another 8 hours to Union City the next morning.  The welcome sight of the gorgeous Victorian mansion served as a salve to my spirits and boosted my energy level as I pulled into the tiny parking lot.

The Victorian Villa

Once more, I was greeted by Ron and his two sons, Zach and Josh, before being led to my room for the weekend:  the Victorian Country Bedchamber.  As I got myself situated, I found a note under my pillow.  It was rather snarky and, I noted, written in a feminine hand.  I put it away before freshening up and reacquainting myself with the Villa.

Around 6pm, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson arrived at the inn.  I introduced myself to Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson who politely shook my hand.  Holmes was just as Watson had described him with his aloofness and unmistakable air of authority.  Watson was friendly and every bit the gentleman.

I retired to the parlor with Holmes and Watson and the other guests who had come to meet the legendary duo.  Among them were Ted and Rhonda Cowell and their Holmesian scion society, The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay; the Mallon family; George Ault; and Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Harbaugh.

We opened up the night with a round of Sherlockian Trivial Pursuit.  We formed into two teams and Mr. Holmes asked diabolically difficult questions relating to the many cases he had investigated.  As the two teams battled back and forth, Mr. Holmes would vacillate between contentedly smoking his pipe and brooding about some vexing problem.  On several occasions he alluded to a case he was working on before returning to the game.

Sherlock Holmes relaxes

By the end of the game, the two teams were locked into a tie, though I ended up stealing a symbolic victory for my side when I answered the question “Who killed Victor Savage?”  After the hard-fought game, we entered the dining room where Mr. Holmes gave us a demonstration on the art of observation and deduction while we dined on one of Ron’s fine meals which consisted of English Cheshire Cheese Soup and roasted loin of boar among other delicacies.  I did note that Ron had brought on some help for the event as a placard on the table said the meal had been partially catered by Maxine Simons.

Upon finishing our meal, we returned to the parlor where Mr. Holmes told us he was investigating a murder that had taken place at the Villa a few days prior.  A man had shown up at the Villa around 11am on the fateful day and asked Ron if he could have a room.  As Ron had no reservations, he rented a room to the man who gave no name, but simply went upstairs to his bedroom with his dressing bag.  A short while later, Ron saw him descend the stairs sans bag and enter the parlor.  Ron left him to his own devices as he had to leave the Villa to run some errands.  When he returned later, he found the man collapsed on the floor, arm outstretched in front of him, and clearly dead.  Ron contacted the police who found no identification on the man nor in his room.  The labels on his clothes had been cut off and the only items found on him were a handkerchief, some cigarettes, and a pen.  Ron had told Mr. Holmes of the baffling death and he agreed to look into it.

Mr. Holmes wanted us to be his eyes and ears and help him investigate.  He asked us to discover the following:

  1. Who was the victim?
  2. How was he killed?
  3. Who killed him?
  4. Find a way to link the killer to the crime and unmask him or her.

Certain rules were set in place for us.  As Mr. Holmes had already investigated the private areas of the mansion, we were not to enter them.  He also told us not to snoop into Ron’s desk as only he would be allowed to investigate it.  Short of that we were free to investigate as we chose. If we managed to discover any evidence, we were only to hold onto it for 10 minutes before returning it exactly where it was found.  Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson bade us good evening and left the Villa promising to return after breakfast in the morning.

Exhaustion had found me again so I retired to my bedroom, vowing to rise early and begin looking into the case.

I arose the next morning feeling refreshed.  After heading to the dining room and enjoying some of Ron’s special scrambled eggs and sausage patties, I began to look into the case. 

From re-reading Ron’s statement, I realized that the victim had not carried his dressing bag back down with him so I immediately went to the second floor and began searching for it, but was unable to find it.  I searched the mansion from top to bottom and then made my way over to the Carriage House.  Up in the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber, I discovered George Ault and Glenn Harbaugh discussing something and they froze when they saw me.  I asked if I could enter and Glenn said I could.  I quietly closed the door and noted they had the dressing bag.

“So you found it,” I said.

Realizing I had already deduced the clue, George and Glenn opened the bag and we all looked into it.  Among the toiletries, we found a letter addressed to James Fitzsimmons requesting a meeting in the parlor of the Villa to discuss the matter of a deadly toxin that had been developed by the writer of the letter.  Apparently Fitzsimmons had been the letter writer’s boss and had aspirations of selling the toxin to the highest bidder who would likely weaponize it.  The toxin caused almost instantaneous paralysis before shutting down the body’s vital organs.  Death would occur in a matter of minutes.  The writer wanted Fitzsimmons to destroy the toxin and begged for a meeting to convince him of this.  It was simply signed Max, though I recognized the handwriting as being the same as that on the note in my bedroom.

After examining the evidence, I asked the two men if they had found notes as well.  They admitted they had and let me read them.  Red herrings and smart alecky comments.  After reading this, we looked at each other and I suggested pooling our resources to which George and Glenn readily agreed.

“All right, we’re now a team,” I said.

Upon forming our alliance we headed down to the parlor to meet Mr. Holmes who asked if anybody had anything to share.  I casually blurted the bag clue to which Mr. Holmes looked at me and said, “You’re a rather blithe young man, aren’t you?”

After unintentionally giving out the clue, the race was on.  Though we were investigating a crime, it was treated more like a competition and ended up as a three way battle between The Stormy Petrels, the Mallons, and my little triumvirate.  The Petrels played for keeps and were not above providing a few red herrings.  The Mallons were smart and crafty, though I engaged in a little quid pro quo with Mrs. Mallon which I’ll get to in a bit.

Mr. Holmes was always available for private consultation where we could bring our discoveries and theories and he would make comments and subtle suggestions to help light our path.  When we first informed Holmes about the letter we found, Glenn kept referring to the writer as a he, to which Mr. Holmes asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘he?’”.

“What do mean?” asked Glenn.

“He means how do we know it’s a man,” I replied.

“Precisely,” said Holmes as he clasped my shoulder.

A vital clue, indeed.  While not a guarantee, we did have to open our minds to the possibility that Max, if that was the real name, was a woman.

We continued to investigate.  I realized that no matches or lighter were found on the corpse, though cigarettes had been discovered.  No smoker would ever lack those items and there was no reason for the killer to take them.  Remembering the outstretched arm, I assumed the position of the corpse and found a book of matches under the coal scuttle.

Taking them, I opened up the packet and found a scrawled message which said “Beware TR-70”.  The name of the toxin had been found!!

Outside the parlor, I found a business card book on a stand and began thumbing through it and saw Mrs. Mallon watching me.  When I leafed to the third page, she suddenly coughed.  I looked up and saw her smiling at me, I took a hard look and found the business card for Maxine Simons—Caterer.  However, “caterer” had been written in pen over a blacked out word.  Reversing the card and holding it up to the light, I saw “chemist” written under it.  I had the name of the killer!!  I then shared with Mrs. Mallon the name of the poison out of gratitude.

My team had another consultation with Holmes where Glenn spun an amusing, but outlandish, theory that Ron Gibson was the killer or, at least involved with her.  Mr. Holmes and I shared some glances and after Glenn finished his theory, Holmes simply stated, “I sense you have some misgivings about his theory.”

“One or two,” I replied.

I then finally had a chance to fill in Glenn and George on my discoveries and had a private conversation with Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Mallon while I made my deductions.  When I finished, Mr. Holmes looked to Mrs. Mallon and said, “You know, I have great faith in this young man.  He’s quiet, thoughtful, and observant and everything he says is based soundly on logic.”

Then we took a break and had a reading of one of Watson’s stories followed by a pop quiz.  I ended up winning the quiz contest and surprised Mr. Holmes with one of my answers.

“This number is the square root of the number alluded to by Watson,” said Holmes.

“Sixteen,” I readily answered.

“Sixteen is correct!!” said Holmes with some wonderment.  “Tell me, young man, how did you come up with that answer?”

“Watson mentioned the wait was like the night the two of you faced the Andaman Islander which was a reference to the case known as The Sign of Four,” I said.

Holmes smiled and nodded approvingly.

After the quiz we had afternoon tea where Ron had prepared a whole turkey and we helped ourselves to little sandwiches with a bit of homemade mustard and fixings.

The case was solved, but there was still one last item:  how to unmask Maxine.  There was no real proof tying her to the death and all my deductions wouldn’t hold water in court.  I had a final consultation with Holmes where I told him everything I had learned, but felt I was just one step away from the total truth. 

“Think of the problem of the three Moriartys.  All of them were named James and were identical.  How would one tell them apart?” said Mr. Holmes.

I began to see the light when he gave me one final nudge.

“You have two pieces of vital evidence.  What you need is a third.”

The truth hit me like a thunderbolt.  The letter on my pillow plus the letter in the bag were my pieces of evidence.  What I needed was a way to get a third example of Maxine’s handwriting to connect her with the other two.  Handwriting was how you’d distinguish the Moriarty boys from each other.

Piecing the puzzle together

I expressed this problem to Glenn and George and we threw around ideas until I said, “Maybe we could get a card of some sort.”

“My son is serving over in Iraq.  We could get him a Wish You Were Here card,” said George.

“Yes, and we’ll have everybody in the inn sign it!!” I exclaimed.

The three of us dashed to Mr. Holmes where I laid out the scheme.

“An excellent plan,” said Holmes. 

I shook hands with Holmes and Watson and dashed to the bar area where I found Ron.

“Is there a drug store nearby?” I asked.

“Yes, just a few blocks up on Main Street,” said Ron.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I speed walked through the front door and vaulted over the steps to the sidewalk.  I then sprinted and I do mean SPRINTED to the drug store where I bought the card and repeated the process back to the Villa where I hurdled the steps once more.  George later said it was the funniest thing he ever saw.

As I walked back in, I heard Mrs. Mallon’s daughter ask if there were a drug store nearby.  I then politely coughed and gently waved the card.  Knowing that the game was up, the Mallons signed the card and Mrs. Mallon’s daughter assisted me with finishing the job by asking Ron if there were any other people in the kitchen as Maxine was also helping to cater tonight’s dinner.  Ron stepped into the kitchen and asked Maxine to step out.  I told her about the card while George showed a picture of his son and Maxine signed the card.

I then led my team back to the parlor where the other guests had gathered. 

“Do you have something to show me, young man?” asked Mr. Holmes.

I presented the card to him and he looked at it.

“Were there any witnesses?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.   Myself, (Mrs. Mallon’s daughter), George, Ron, Zach, and Josh all witnessed this.”

“Very good,” said Mr. Holmes.  “This case has been solved.”

Then we proceeded to have a debate about what to do with the killer.  Her motivations were understandable.  Fitzsimmons would have unleashed a plague of death on the world.  He had committed no crime, but would have had the blood of countless people had he sold the toxin.  Maxine shouldn’t have killed him, but her act had thwarted a much greater evil so I pled for leniency.  Holmes said he would consider the situation.

Glenn gave me a hug and then bought George and myself a drink at the bar.  Mr. Holmes approached me privately and asked me to present the denouement after dinner.

A splendid dinner was served and after we were all satiated, Mr. Holmes signaled for silence, indicated my two partners and then clasped my shoulder acknowledging our victory.  He then presented me with the nutcracker as a trophy for the case.  Then he brought Ron, his two sons, and Maxine into the dining room where I presented my findings.

I walked the group through the maze of the case, casually keeping an eye on Maxine who whitened with every revelation.  When I explained about the card we had purchased and how the killer had sealed her fate by signing it, I calmly looked at Maxine and said, “Isn’t that right, Maxine?”

At that point, Maxine begged for mercy and Holmes gently led her out of the dining room while discussion resumed.  Shortly afterwards, he returned and he and Watson made their final farewells and exited.

And that was how I helped Mr. Holmes solve The Adventure of the Nameless Corpse.  I would later learn that Holmes did show mercy to Maxine, letting her leave the country.  George did send the card to his son with an incredible story.  I had made new friends and had a reminder of the case forever gracing my mantle.  And the next morning, I enjoyed some of Ron’s incredible cream cheese stuffed French Toast.

Little did I know that I would return to the Villa a few years later with my trusted friend, Mat O’Donnell, to engage in a peculiar investigation centering around a crying woman.

But that is a story for another time.

Natural Tranquility: Hidden Serenity & West Bend, WI

Hidden Serenity Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to West Bend, WI.

It’s nice to get back on the road after the winter months.  Though, honestly, I was originally going to take this trip back in January as the Midwest had been experiencing a very mild winter.  However, the night before my trip, the state of Iowa got crippled by a monster blizzard which stopped my excursion cold, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Mercifully, the owners of the inn I planned to visit were gracious enough to let me move my reservation to March so I wouldn’t be out the money plus the good people at Holiday Inn of Cedar Rapids gave me a refund on my nonrefundable rate without my having to ask so it all worked out for the best.  Thus, I finally found myself on the road to Hidden Serenity Bed and Breakfast, owned and operated by Chris and Sally Cochran.

The trip didn’t start off the greatest as I had to listen to my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes make an ignominious first round exit from the NCAA BB tournament due to a combination of ice cold shooting and the refs missing some blatant fouls that would have likely led to us winning in spite of our shooting woes. 

A meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, and a free upgrade to a king suite at the Holiday Inn at Cedar Rapids helped to improve my mood as well as grant me a satisfactory night of rest.

A grim and rainy day met me the next morning and followed me all the way to West Bend.  Hidden Serenity is located on a secluded acreage outside of West Bend and the bright white house shone like a beacon in the gloom.

I pressed the doorbell which chimed out a charming tune and the door was answered by Sally who showed me around the common areas and, to my delight, offered me a free upgrade to the inn’s honeymoon suite, the Kettle Moraine.  After showing me all the ins and outs of my room, she left me to my own devices.

Hidden Serenity isn’t your typical B & B abode.  The Cochrans built the house in 1997 from wood on their acreage and it was their private home where they raised “four extraordinary children”.  The Cochrans also hosted exchange students for years and have a travel bug that might even exceed mine.  But once the children had grown, they decided to start sharing their home with the public, filling the house with fine furniture and they are currently in the process of renovating the basement area into a spa complete with hot tub, sauna, and massage room (this is currently in use).

The house evoked memories of my visit to Otter Creek Inn in Eau Claire, WI in the sense that the house has more of a lodge feel with its massive great room which includes a pool table guests can actually play. The house is also a unique fusion of rustic and luxury.

The Kettle Moraine has the same blend of swank and hominess possessed by the rest of the house.  A soft king-sized bed is the centerpiece of the room, but it also contains a pair of comfortable leather easy chairs with a beautiful view of the forest.  A faux fireplace graces one of the walls and the mirror above it contains a hidden LCD TV.  The bathroom contains heated tiles, a rainfall shower, and a two person slipper tub.

I didn’t have too long to putter because I had a massage scheduled at 4:40pm.  I met my masseuse, Joann, who led me to the basement and the massage room.  As I readied myself for my massage, I noticed the starlit roof which made me feel like I was in a planetarium.  Soon all thoughts fled my brain as Joann worked the kinks out of shoulders and the aches out of my feet.

Jail House

Feeling good and relaxed, I headed out to get some dinner at the Jail House.  Sally had told me that the place might be jumping and right she was.  Luckily, on Fridays, the Jail House only accepts reservations for parties of 5 or more so people can move in and out more quickly.  I was told I’d have to wait 30-40 minutes which I was fully prepared to do as I had a new volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches to read.  However, I only ended up waiting for about 20 minutes before being seated for dinner.

I opted for a Southwest Salmon served with homemade black bean salsa, a bowl of seafood chowder, and a side of steak fries.  The broth of the chowder was a little thin and could have used a bit more seafood, but had a good taste, especially when enhanced with a bit of pepper.  The salsa and salmon were excellent.  The salmon had a sweet chili glaze and was just slightly blackened which made it incredibly flavorful.

After dinner, I returned back to the inn and I advise caution as there are no street lights, but a path of lanterns does light the way to Hidden Serenity once you get close to the inn.

I started watching Cinderella Man, based on the true story of James J. Braddock, a promising boxer who saw his career derailed by injury and descended into poverty due to the Great Depression.  He staged a miraculous comeback which saw him upset the virtually unstoppable Max Baer for the world heavyweight championship.

Slumber beckoned to me throughout the film, so I stopped it and went to bed.

And sleep I did, not awakening until nearly 8am which is practically unheard of for me.  I spent a little time watching the The Price is Right channel before heading to the dining area for breakfast.

I saw the inn’s other guests being entertained by Chris as I took a seat.  Soon a plate of fruit and a small pot of herbal tea was placed before me.  The tea was an amazing blend of rosemary and peppermint which I contentedly sipped while nibbling on kiwi, oranges, strawberries, and blackberries.

Course number two was Polish sausage with peanut butter cream cheese stuffed French Toast served with the inn’s own maple syrup (also available in a peanut butter variety) and a maple vinaigrette salad.  For dessert, there was a concoction of blue Jell-O and Blue Moon ice cream which was a tasty treat of an exclamation point to the meal.

After breakfast, I headed out to West Bend to Blades Barbershop for a bit more pampering.

Blades Barbershop

Blades updates the traditional barbershop experience for the modern times.  I decided to have a shave and a haircut with Julie Kidder.  I was long overdue for a haircut and felt the relief of having a pound of hair cut away from my head.  But the shave was the real joy.  Julie treated my face with some tonic before lathering me and scraping off my beard with a straight razor.  I truly felt clean shaven afterwards and she mentioned I had an extremely thick set of whiskers (no hyperbole as I can grow a full beard in roughly 2 weeks).

For once, I decided not to book any other activities.  I just wanted to relax so I returned to Hidden Serenity where I walked its trail and then returned to my room to finish Cinderella Man.  With the movie over, I drew a bath and added a bottle of peppermint bath salts and just soaked until the heat left the water. 

St Frances Cabrini

With the bath done, I was ready to head off to worship at St Frances Cabrini.  It was a nice service with Father’s sermon focusing on how the time is now to change your heart as the theme of Lent this year is about conversion.  I also found it apropos as the Catholic church is making a concentrated effort to evangelize and St Frances Cabrini seems to be ahead of the game with literature encouraging their parishioners on how to welcome those curious about this branch of Christianity and not to be afraid to explain the ritual parts of the service to those unfamiliar with them.

After getting my praise on, I needed some dinner.  My first choice, Main Street Café, was closed so I went to Omicron Family Restaurant.  There’s nothing fancy about this place.  It’s just good, old-fashioned comfort food and I enjoyed a Gyro sandwich before returning to Hidden Serenity for a bit of writing and beddy-bye.

I was pleased to wake up to a sunny day which would make for a very pleasant drive home.  I really didn’t want to go home, but reality was calling.  But at least I could enjoy one more nourishing breakfast before I started the drive.

Today’s repast started with a bowl of carrot cake oatmeal. So tasty!! This was followed up by a custom made omelet (I had mine with the works. Ham, bacon, cheese, onions, olives, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms) with a bit of fruit and asparagus. Last, but not least, was a pair of chocolate cake/fudge bars drizzled with chocolate and (I believe) caramel. A fine, bracing meal to get me on my way.

This was a fine return to the B & B world and I consider Hidden Serenity to be my own personal Walden. So if you want to get away from it all and I mean REALLY get away from it all, book a stay at Hidden Serenity and enjoy some rustic luxury.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Holidays at Disney, Day 4: Woah, Oh, Oh, it’s Magic Kingdom

Cinderella Castle

And so the final day had come and I had saved the best for last for today would be Magic Kingdom day.

I was able to rest up a little bit longer as early entry would be at 8am.  Tonight the park would be open until 1am, but I also ordered Genie+ again as I didn’t want to have to wait late into the night to hit my favorite rides.  I also bought a Lightning Lane for Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train, Magic Kingdom’s newest roller coaster.

As I expected, the place was a zoo prior to rope drop.  But I figured everyone would head to the Mine Train, leaving me free to visit Liberty Square and Frontierland where my favorite rides were located.  To my shock, only Tomorrowland and Fantasyland were opened up at early entry.  I thought that to be a poor business decision and a puzzling one.  Every other park opened in its entirety so I couldn’t understand why only part of the Kingdom would open. 

As my favorite sections wouldn’t open until 9am, I went ahead and rode one of the WDW originals:  It’s a Small World.

This is a slow-moving boat ride that takes you through the countries of the world where scads of animatronic children sing the titular song.  It’s syrupy sweet and shares a message about world peace since “it’s a small world after all”.  I was really struck by how much animatronics had evolved since this ride.  The robots are pretty primitive and seem more like oversized toys, but, at the time, this was undoubtedly cutting-edge technology and would lead to much greater advances.

Eventually, the rest of the park opened and I headed off to Frontierland to visit one of my two favorite rides:  Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain was inspired by the Brer Rabbit sequences from the controversial 1946 movie, “Song of the South”.  It, too, will eventually be shut down so it can be overhauled into “The Princess and the Frog” so this was likely my last go round in its original incarnation.

Splash Mountain and Haunted Mansion are my two favorite rides in all of WDW and I could spend a day just flipping between the two and consider it a day well spent.  I enjoyed the leisurely float as I watched Brer Rabbit outsmart his nemeses, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, time and again before plunging down the 50 foot drop into the Briar Patch just in time to see Brer Rabbit’s neighbors welcome him home with “Zip a Dee Doo Dah”.

Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train

From Splash Mountain it was back to Fantasyland to enjoy the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train.  It wasn’t that bad of a coaster, but it wasn’t spectacular.  Though it was amusing to watch the Dwarfs work their mine before heading home to dance with Snow White.

After the Dwarfs, it was off to the Hundred Acre Wood to experience The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  Hop on a honey pot and experience the stories of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too.  It’s a quick ride, but an entertaining one for the young ones.

Under the Sean–Journey of the Little Mermaid

Then it was off to Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid which tells an abridged version of “The Little Mermaid”, but leaves out the darker moments to keep from spooking the children.

From there, I moved right along to Tomorrowland where I took a break by riding The Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover.  This is a slow moving cart ride that transports you around the Magic Kingdom, gives you a little history of the park, slips you inside Space Mountain, and is just an all around good way to people watch.

Space Mountain

Then I went to over to Space Mountain.  It’s an oldie, but a goodie as you ride a single car into space and enjoy a rollicking roller coaster ride in pitch darkness.  I’ve heard the coaster only moves at a top rate of 25mph, but feels faster due to your not being able to see anything.  It’d be interesting to ride it with the lights on and put that to the test.

I then started making my way over to Adventureland, pausing in front of Cinderella Castle (pictured at the top of this article).  If the castle looks familiar to you history buffs, it’s because it was patterned after Neuchwanstein Castle, one of the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.  Fun fact:  each Disney park in the world has its own unique castle.

I wandered past Jungle Cruise, astounded at its popularity.  Waits never seemed to get lower than 90 minutes.  I imagine the new movie has something to do with it plus a friend of mine told me that some Christmas stuff was added to the ride for the holidays.  For myself, I consider it a meh ride at best and one I would have ridden only if the line were short.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Instead, I bypassed that and went to Pirates of the Caribbean.  Yes, it’s the ride that gave the world Captain Jack Sparrow and launched a lucrative franchise.  I floated around and watched a battle on the high seas and watched pirates loot a town that was going down in flames.  Captain Jack popped in from time to time and even warbled “A Pirate’s Life for Me” as you exit the ride.

Then I was off to my other favorite ride:  Haunted Mansion.

Haunted Mansion

Enter the home of Master Gracey for a chilling (albeit Disneyfied) ride through a haunted house.  I’ve always been amazed at the depth of detail in this ride.  It begins in the foyer of the mansion where a picture of Master Gracey ages from a young man to a skeleton in front of your eyes.

From there you enter the stretching room where you see the untimely ends of some of the mansion’s past residents.  After escaping you get on your doom buggy to ride through the mansion where creepy events unfold around you.  One of my favorite moments is the séance where the disembodied head of Madame Leota (voiced by Eleanor Audley, the voice of Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” and the stepmother in “Cinderella”) summons the spirits.

Soon you ride past a ballroom where the ghosts whoop it up in a party except for the two engaging in a duel.  Eventually you make your way through a graveyard before picking up a hitchhiking ghost as you exit.  For some extra fun be sure to ask a cast member about the legend of Master Gracey.

Eventually I made my way over to Epcot for another early dinner at the San Angel Inn in the Mexico Pavilion. 

San Angel Inn is another intime dining experience.  I started with a bowl of Sopa Azteca which was a spicy red soup with tortilla chips and followed it up with a main course of Enchiladas con Pollo.  Very satisfying meal.

Then I took a ride on the monorail over to the Grand Floridian.  This is Disney’s most luxurious hotel and the last thing on my Disney bucket list is to stay one night at this hotel.  Brenda had tipped me off that the Floridian goes all out for Christmas and indeed it does.

The decorations here are what I expected to see all over WDW and its centerpiece was an authentic gingerbread house.

After enjoying a quick blast of Christmas cheer, I returned to the Magic Kingdom to enjoy Disney at night.  The Kingdom was getting ready to do the first of two fireworks shows and I maneuvered through the crowd to enjoy Pirates and 3 straight runs on Splash Mountain (where I also enjoyed watching the fireworks).  From there it was off to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as I roared through the mountains on a train coaster.

Disney was hosting an early New Year’s party so the crowds weren’t really dissipating much.  In terms of endurance, I had the juice to go all the way to closing, but my poor feet were throbbing.   Small surprise after being on my feet from before sunup to well after sundown and walking an estimated 60 miles over 4 days with little downtime except for sleep.

I took one final ride at Pirates and decided to call an end to the day.  I caught the bus back to Coronado Springs.  When I got back to my room, I slipped off my shoes and peeled off my socks and just knuckled my tired feet and it felt fabulous.  Soon after my lights were out.

The next morning I packed up, boarded the Magical Express, and began the trek home.

It was a grand adventure and I look forward to my next adventure in WDW.

Holidays at Disney, Day 3: Breakdowns & Reunions (Disney Hollywood Studios)

Disney Hollywood Studios

I got to sleep in an extra half hour today as I would be starting things off at Disney Hollywood Studios and early entry would begin at 7:30am.

I opted against purchasing a Genie+ for the day as Hollywood Studios doesn’t have a lot of rides.  Instead, much of its focus is experiencing the world of Hollywood from backstage lots to lavish productions to walking down a replica from Hollywood and Vine.  Oh, and a little thing called Star Wars:  Galaxy’s Edge.

I knew the crowd would immediately make a beeline to Galaxy’s Edge in order to ride Star Wars:  Rise of the Resistance so I purchased a special Lightning Lane pass to ride it at 1:35pm and immediately veered towards Hollywood & Vine to ride two of my favorite rides:  Twilight Zone:  Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.

The Tower of Terror is a truly unique experience.  You’ll be thrust into a Twilight Zone story that tells the story of the Hollywood Tower Hotel which catered to the rich and famous of the 1930s.  One night a bellhop and 4 guests were riding the elevator when it was struck by a bolt of lightning and they were vaporized.  Now their ghosts haunt the abandoned hotel and you’ll be exploring it.

It’s a genuinely eerie ride as strange phenomena take place and the ghosts beckon you towards them.  The highlight of the ride is the famed drop.  Originally, the ride took you to the 13th floor where the doors opened, gave you a view of the park, then dropped you 13 stories.  Now it’s a random experience where you could rise and fall up to 5 times.  It’s never the same ride twice.  And I should know for I rode it twice.

Rock n Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith

I then made my way towards Rock n Roller Coaster only to find it was down and they didn’t know when, or if, it would come up (it never did).  This would set a distressing note for my time at Hollywood Studios.

I decided to explore Galaxy’s Edge myself and was extremely impressed by its attention to detail.  I genuinely felt like I was in a Star Wars movie.  I walked by the Millennium Falcon and noted it was the entrance to the Millennium Falcon:  Smuggler’s Run ride.  Even better, I noticed a single rider line.

I went through the special queue and became part of the crew of the Falcon as I took part in a smuggling mission as an engineer along with two pilots, two gunners, and another engineer.  It’s an interactive full motion ride and your team is actually scored.  You get a share of the profits minus the cost of any repairs required for the Falcon.  As an engineer, it was my duty to repair the Falcon, if damaged, as well as launch the grappling hook to snare the item we were trying to swipe.  Whenever buttons and switches flashed on my panel, I’d press them and flip them to fix the Falcon.  I only missed one repair on the first go round and was perfect on the second mission.

Then I walked past the famed Rise of the Resistance and saw a swarm of people exiting the attraction.  It had gone down.

Muppetvision 3D

I made my way over to Muppetvision 3D.  Now this is a really fun attraction that puts you right in the middle of a The Muppet Show performance.  You walk into a perfect replica of the Muppet Theatre, complete with Statler and Waldorf up in the balcony heckling the Muppets as you experience Muppet Labs latest invention:  Muppetvision 3D. 

Now this is truly impressive 3D as the images really do seem to pop right off the screen and you think you could really interact with them.  As is wont to happen, things go to pieces when Sam the Eagle’s “Tribute to all Countries, but mostly America” number goes haywire resulting in the destruction of the theatre.  It truly is the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational time.

I wandered back to the front of the park where I saw an electronic billboard and paused to look at ride wait times.  All of the big ones were down with the exception of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad.  With that being the only working ride, the line was long and the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular wasn’t set to start until noon.

I didn’t feel like twiddling my thumbs for an hour so I left the park and took some rides of a different sort.

Disney Skyliner

First, I hopped on the Disney Skyliner.  This gondola system connects Hollywood Studios and Epcot with some of the resorts.  I was meeting a friend at Epcot at 2pm and wanted to do a dry run to see how long it would take to ride the gondola as I figured it would be more efficient than waiting for a bus.  It was a gentle experience and gave me a good view of the parks and resorts.  Total time was 20 minutes.  That seemed like it would work, provided Resistance came back up.

Then I got a boat which ultimately took me back to Hollywood Studios where I caught a bus back to Coronado Springs and I rested for a bit.

At 12:45pm, I checked My Disney Experience and saw that Rise of the Resistance was back up so off I went to Hollywood Studios.  To be safe, I sent a message to my friend letting her know that we should make the meet-up time 2:15pm and she replied that we should make it 3pm as she was stuck in traffic on I-4.  Plenty of time to do the ride and then meet up. . .or so I thought.

When I arrived at Hollywood Studios, my eyes popped when I saw the wait time for Rise of the Resistance.  245 minutes!!  And people were truly waiting for 4 hours to ride.  Thank goodness for my Lightning Lane.

Then again, maybe not.

The catch with Lightning Lane is that if the ride goes down during the period you were supposed to ride it, your pass is still good.  I made my way to Lightning Lane and found the wait was an hour!!  Clearly the ride had only recently gone up.  I couldn’t wait that long as I had to meet my friend so I opted to eat the cost of Lightning Lane.

Then I boarded Skyliner to get to Epcot.  About halfway through the ride, I felt the gondola slow down and then it stopped.  And it stayed stopped. . .for 45 minutes.  While I was just hanging around, I spoke with the older couple sharing my gondola to pass the time.  Slowly, but surely, we finally reached solid ground.  To my surprise, a Disney rep was waiting with a $25 gift card to make up for being trapped.  This covered my cost for Lightning Lane and then some.

Luckily, I managed to arrive at just the same time that my friend, Brenda Elze, was arriving at Epcot.

I’ve known Brenda for nearly 30 years where we were part of the Papillion-LaVista High School band (Go Monarchs!).  We met on a band ski trip where, ironically, we got stuck on a stalled ski lift and I was talking to her to keep her mind off the cold and we’ve been friends ever since.

We spent our day hitting up some rides and noshing our way around the world from the various kiosks.  We snacked on poutine, smoked salmon potato latkes, cheese fondue, and a chocolate peppermint stout.

We closed the night having dinner at the Rose and Garden in the UK Pavilion.  We both had the Shepherd’s Pie.  It was tasty, but not quite as good as the one I enjoyed in Ireland. 

The day started off rough, but my time with Brenda ended it spectacularly.  After sharing a long hug we said our good-byes and I returned to Coronado Springs.

One day left.

Holidays at Disney, Day 2: Walking with the Animals and a Meal Fit for a King (Animal Kingdom & EPCOT)

Tree of Life

At 5:30am, I rolled out of bed.

One of the perks of staying on a Disney property is that you get early entry into the parks.  Later hours for on property guests are also making a comeback, but are currently limited only to the deluxe resorts, but I digress.

The final week of December is one of the most crowded of the year (a fact I was unaware of when I booked as when I last visited during this time frame in 1994, it was a low-capacity week, but times change).  Though WDW is still capping capacity, the parks do get awfully crowded, but not as bad as I feared.  I’d actually seen much worse on certain event days in the past.  That being said, I was still banking on the early hours to be able to do my favorite rides first thing without having to endure long waits.  Also, because of the heavier crowds, early entry would begin an hour before regular opening instead of 30 minutes.

Currently, you need to make a reservation to visit a park in order to gain entry.  The Park Hopper pass has returned so you can bounce between parks, but you have to start in the one you reserved and you can’t start hopping until 2pm.  OK, enough prefacing.

Today my reservation was for Animal Kingdom which opened at 8am, meaning that early entry was at 7am.  I’m a bit of an early entry veteran so I knew how light the crowds normally were and was counting on that again, especially with such an early opening time.

Dopey me.

I arrived at Animal Kingdom and my eyes went wide at the huge lines already waiting to enter the park.  Fortunately, I had taken a few precautions.

That morning I booked Genie+ through My Disney Experience.  For an extra $15 a day, you can start reserving the Lightning Lane on WDW’s more popular rides. 

Lightning Lane replaces the Fastpass system.  You can reserve an hour’s time frame to return to the ride and get into a special line where you’ll only wait a few minutes before getting to board.  Through experimentation, I found there was a 10-15 minute grace period before and after the time frame you’re given for the most part.  Use of Lightning Lane is unlimited for the day, but the catch is that you can only book a new experience every two hours.  Please note that you can start booking at 7am, but the 2 hour clock doesn’t start ticking until the park officially opens.  So that means I booked a pass for Kali River Rapids at 7am, but wasn’t able to book again until 10am since the park officially opened at 8am.  After that I was able to book every two hours for any park until they closed or until all the Lightning Lanes got used up.  To keep people from cheating you have to pass through two checkpoints with your park ticket card, Magicband, or Magicmobile device in order to utilize the lane.

With Fastpass, it was impossible to have overlapping times with another ride, but you can do that with Lightning Lane.  So with a little strategy, you can stack Lightning Lanes and get a series of line skips. 

My other precaution was that I knew everybody and their uncle would be heading for Avatar:  Rite of Passage.  Due to its mega popularity and relative newness, you can’t get a regular Lightning Lane pass, but you can purchase a special Lightning Lane pass just for that ride.  I did so and would return around 6:30pm to ride it.  As such, I was able to hit all the other rides in Animal Kingdom with minimal waits.

Animal Kingdom is a hybrid of amusement park and zoo and is my least favorite of the four.  Sure, there’s plenty of fun, but you can do it all in a half day, at best. 

I followed the crowds to Pandora since it was new to me and wanted to see what it looked like.  I was blown away by the construction of the world of Pandora which housed the Avatar ride, but while a humongous line formed over there (the wait was already at 2 hours), I moseyed over to Na’vi River Journey which had a wait of zero minutes.

Na’vi River Journey is a pleasant boat ride through the world of Avatar and I was blown away by the advancement in animatronics.  With the use of projected animated faces for expressions and the fluidity of movement, the robots seem like real people.

It was an enjoyable ride, but not enough for me to take a second go so I headed over to Dinoland, USA to ride Dinosaur.

Dinosaur is a dark EMV attraction where you ride a time rover back to the age of the dinosaurs.  The tour is supposed to take you to the early Cretaceous period, but one of the scientists, Dr. Grant Seeker, informs you that he intends to send your group back to the late Cretaceous period in order to save an Iguanodon from extinction and bring it back to the present.  Unfortunately, the late Cretaceous is when the theorized meteor shower that wiped out the dinosaurs struck so you’re racing against the clock.

It’s a bumpy, exciting ride as you see legendary beasts of yore before escaping from the meteor shower with the Iguanodon who then starts wandering about the Institute, but that’s Dr. Seeker’s problem.

Then I made my over to Expedition Everest.  This is a thrilling roller coaster ride where you search for the legendary Yeti, but be wary.  Thanks to this ride’s single rider line, I dashed through it three times in a row.

From there I visited Kali River Rapids and the line was so low that I took a ride on it.  It’s a river raft ride meant to show the dangers of deforestation, though that seems to be a bit more underplayed nowadays.  It’s a fun ride and I got a fair dousing after barreling down a waterfall which was more invigorating than a morning cup of joe.

I wandered through Maharajah Jungle Trek to dry off and view tigers, monkeys, and other animals.  Then I used my pass to get through Kali River Rapids again.

By 10:30, I had done everything I wanted.  Normally, I would have hopped to another park, but since that was out until 2pm, I simply went back to Coronado Springs to rest and use the pool.

Coronado Springs does have multiple pools, but the main one is called the Dig Site.  A towering Mayan pyramid dominates the site and the site has a large heated pool and hot tub.  It also has a pretty fun water slide called the Jaguar Slide, so I enjoyed a pleasant period splashing, sliding, and luxuriating in the hot tub.

The Dig Site

Then I caught up on some reading in the hotel room before making my way back to Epcot.

I did some more exploring before heading to the Canada Pavilion to have a very early dinner at Le Cellier Steakhouse.

Le Cellier Steakhouse

I had been looking forward to this meal for a long, long time.  I had tried to get a reservation on every trip I’d taken to WDW for the last 20 years and was denied each and every time.  Finally, I managed to get that elusive reservation and mark it off the bucket list.

As I was led to my table, I saw why I had so much difficulty snaring a reservation.  If that restaurant could hold more than 150 people, I’d have been amazed.  It’s also one of the most popular restaurants in all of WDW.

I started off with an exquisite bowl of Canadian Cheddar Cheese soup.  It was seasoned just right and had bits of bacon and chives mixed into it.  It was also served with three kinds of rolls (sourdough, pretzel, and multigrain with sunflower seeds).  The main course was a NY strip with cheddar potatoes au gratin, crispy onions, and le poivre (ground black pepper) sauce.  This was the tastiest steak I had ever eaten.  So tender and juicy.  I spent over an hour savoring this meal and sent my compliments to the chef.  My server, Sharee, was perfect.  She checked on me just enough so I could savor my meal and gave me a to go cup so I could sip my soda as I walked around Epcot.

After walking off some of my meal, I dashed back over to Animal Kingdom where I worked my way through the crowd getting ready to watch the closing show at the Tree of Life to make my way to Avatar.  Animal Kingdom closes shortly after sundown due to its lack of artificial light.

Avatar takes full motion technology to the ultimate level.  The theme of the ride is that you’re linked with a Na’Vi avatar to experience the rite of passage of flying on an ikran or mountain banshee.  With the use of 3-D glasses and the motion technology, you fly around the beautiful world of Pandora and actually feel like you’re flying on the ikran.  You can even feel it breathing and its wings flap.  Definitely worth the money I paid for the Lightning Lane.

Speaking of which, I had been stacking them up at Epcot so I returned there to start burning them off.

The two new rides I rode were Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After.

Soarin’ is also an impressive piece of motion technology that simulates taking a hang gliding trip around the world as you sail over pyramids, oceans, deserts, mountains, elephants, and whales.  Frozen Ever Water is the 2nd most popular ride in Epcot and replaced the Maelstrom ride in Norway.  I think it tells an abbreviated version of Frozen, but I’m unfamiliar with the film.  I did marvel at the incredible animatronic technology.

After the ride, I nabbed a peppermint sundae from the Holiday Sweets and Treats kiosk and enjoyed some ice cream before returning to the hotel for the night.

Holidays at Disney, Day 1: Educational Fun (EPCOT)

Geosphere (also houses Spaceship Earth ride)

Boy, are my dogs barking.  (Notices reader)

Oh, hi there!

I just finished one hectic adventure.  So hectic that I had neither the time nor the energy to do my daily write-ups.  So welcome to Part I of the tale of my final visit to Walt Disney World.

WHAT????  I hear some of you expostulate.  Let me clarify.

Those who know me know of my fondness for the Disney parks.  While I have enjoyed them as a solo visitor, I realize that adventures like this are even more fun when shared.  So, barring unusual circumstances, the next time I visit Disney, it will be with friends and family.

Upon making this decision, I decided to plan a very special finale, especially as my last visit to WDW was ten years ago.  Normally I visit during the summer, but that brutal heat and humidity eat me alive.  Now my love for Christmas is legendary and having done an early family Christmas, a most wonderful idea struck me.

I would visit WDW right after Christmas and fuse my love for the holidays with WDW.

December 27 found me flying a non-stop flight to Orlando via Southwest.  God was looking over me that day as a powerful tail wind brought me to Florida almost 40 minutes early. 

During the pandemic, I finally caught up to the rest of the planet and invested in a smartphone.  So I downloaded the My Disney Experience app and I’d highly recommend it for your visit to Disney parks.  You can plan an itinerary, get tips, order food, make Lightning Lane and restaurant reservations (120 days in advance as opposed to the 60 using the webpage via a computer), and check into your hotel far in advance.  On arrival day, the app will give you your room number and, with MagicMobile, your phone turns into the room key and park passes.  That way you can bypass the front desk, go straight to your room, and have more park time.

But first, you have to get to your hotel.  I made use of Disney’s Magical Express which provides free round trip transportation from airport to hotel for those staying on Disney property.  Once upon a time, the Magical Express also took care of your luggage so you could skip baggage claim, but I learned that particular service was no longer offered when I booked this trip. 

Disney’s Magical Express

Regrettably, you will not be able to make use of this service as Magical Express ended operations as of Dec 31 so I ended up being one of the final people to ever make use of it.  Mears, the company that managed Magical Express, will still work with Disney to provide transportation, but it’s going to cost you.  Standard service will be $32 a head for round trip standard service and an express service will be offered for $250 (for up to 4 people).  I’d stick with standard service as you’ll be on your way within 20 minutes.  Outside of price, the only real difference is that express takes you straight to your resort while you might make a few stops with standard service which was how the Magical Express operated.

As my final solo outing, I decided to book a moderate resort (Disney’s middle tier).  Moderate resorts will have some onsite restaurants and bigger rooms.  I picked Coronado Springs and hit the jackpot.

Coronado Springs

Coronado Springs has been dubbed “the deluxe resort (top tier) priced as a moderate” and I believe it.  It had recently gone through a massive renovation which updated the rooms and added the Gran Destino Tower which is a more luxurious set of rooms.  The property also contains a fitness center and spa and is Disney’s largest property.  It’s like a small town and has multiple bus stops.  Since the price difference was negligible, I booked a preferred room with a king bed.  Preferred rooms guarantee a good view of the property and usually contain a view of the lagoon or swimming pools.

I was notified that my room was ready while I was on the Express so I was delighted that I could go straight to my room without having to store my luggage since I was arriving several hours earlier than the 3pm check in time.

I entered the main lobby at Gran Destino where I was directed to my room.  I felt my Christmas juices flowing as I gazed at the elegantly decorated lobby and couldn’t wait to see what the parks had prepared for Christmas.  I took the elevator to the lower lobby and marveled at the button design as they were on the outside of the elevator.  You press the button for your floor, then get a message saying what elevator will be transporting you.

It was a fair hike to my room at about 10 minutes, but I had a room on the top floor with a lovely view of the courtyard and swimming pool.  A very spacious room awaited me and I put my clothes and toiletries away and immediately headed to Epcot.  For those on property, complimentary bus service is available at all resorts.  Some of the resorts also have alternate modes of transportation.  Depending on where you’re staying, you might be able to travel via boat, monorail, or gondola.

EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) is the park I always do on the first day since I can’t get a full day.  It’s a more adult themed park as it’s very educational and cultural.  While it does boast rides, they’re all very slow paced and perpetual motion based with a few exceptions.

Epcot is also broken into two sections:  Future World and World Showcase.  Future World deals with science and technology (mostly) while World Showcase takes you on a miniature tour of the world.

I started things off in Future World by visiting Test Track.  This is the lone power ride of the park which simulates the testing of a new car.  This ride also boasts a single rider line so solo guests can bypass the main line and just fill in a gap.  Groups can use this line, but you will be split apart.  But I highly suggest using it as you’ll get to ride in about 5 to 10 minutes so you could do it several times over.

From there I also enjoyed rides on Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land, and Journey Into Imagination with Figment. 

Spaceship Earth (pictured at the top of this article) is the ride in Epcot’s famed geosphere (or giant golf ball, as its nicknamed) which takes you on a tour through the history of communication.  It’s also the longest ride in any of the parks at a whopping 16 minutes and is narrated by Dame Judi Dench.  The ride is slated for a massive overhaul which will shut it down for two years, but that project was delayed by the pandemic and has not yet been rescheduled.

Speaking of the pandemic, masks are required on all rides and anywhere indoors.  Now back to the rides.

Living with the Land takes you on a boat ride where you learn about growing foods.  The fruits, spices, and vegetables you see growing in the greenhouses are actually used in Disney restaurants.  Journey Into Imagination with Figment takes you on a tour of the Imagination Institute hosted by Dr. Nigel Channing (played by Monty Python alum, Eric Idle).  Channing’s tour gets taken over by Figment, a talking purple dragon who teaches you how to unleash your imagination.

Then I made a stop at Club Cool which is an exhibit where you can sample Coca-Colas from around the world.  It’s a good place to get free drinks though you can also get free cups of water at most eateries as Florida law mandates that it be available due to the sweltering heat in the summers.

They had actually changed up the flavors from my last visit.  My favorite was Country Mix from the Dominican Republic which has a creamy, fruity flavor.  Beverly, from Italy, is my least favorite and isn’t meant to be enjoyed.  It’s a bitter aperitif meant to activate your taste buds so you can enjoy your meal more.

Then I began meandering around the World Showcase beginning with the giant Christmas tree.  I admit I was surprised at what I considered the lack of Christmas decorations.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were elegant wreaths and lights everywhere, but I was expecting a lot of flash and pizzazz and not the understated beauty I saw.

Epcot is running its Festival of the Holidays so each country in World Showcase is doing little shows explaining how Christmas is celebrated in that particular region.  It also does a Candlelight Processional telling the story of Jesus’ birth each night with a different celebrity reader each week of the holiday season.

Each region also has special food kiosks for the holiday season so you can sample food and drink from different cultures and each sample costs between $5ish to $15ish.  I hadn’t eaten all day so I stopped at L’Chaim where I had a delicious pastrami on rye with a homemade pickle and mustard to tide me over until dinner.

I did walk through all the countries, but stopped at the Mexico Pavilion where I entered the faux Mayan pyramid so I could ride Gran Fiesta Tour, a boat ride that shows you the culture of Mexico under the conceit of Panchito and Jose Carioca of the Three Caballeros searching for Donald Duck so they could perform their concert.

Then it was time for dinner.  Epcot has the best restaurants of the 4 parks so I had dinner there each night.  For the first night, I hit up one of my favorites:  Teppan Edo in the Japan Pavilion.

Teppan Edo

Teppan Edo is teppanyaki dining which means the food is cooked at your table.  A salad course precedes the main entrée and it was served with a ginger peach dressing that blew my socks off.  For my main course, I enjoyed steak, chicken, and shrimp served with vegetables and Udon noodles along with steamed rice and enjoyed some conversation with Dave and Kyla who were seated with me at the table.

With a fine meal under my belt, I enjoyed the Christmas lights as night had fallen and the geosphere had been turned into a mammoth Christmas ornament as it went through a beautiful light show.

I had thought about using my Park Hopper to dash over to Magic Kingdom, but it had been a long day.  So I returned to Coronado Springs to go to bed as I had to get up mighty early the next morning.

Christmas Lights it Up: Fargo Mansion Inn & Lake Mills, WI

The Fargo Mansion Inn

Today the road has brought me to Lake Mills, WI.

Yes, sir, it’s time once again for my favorite event and, I hope, yours.  It’s the annual Christmas B & B review.

This year’s review brought me to Lake Mills and The Fargo Mansion Inn owned and operated by Tom Boycks and Barry Luce. 

Fargo Mansion Inn is an 1881 Queen Anne mansion which had been bought by E.J. Fargo, son of the founder of Wells Fargo, in 1883.  Fargo was also a bit of an inventor as he created the central vacuuming system still used in homes today.  He lived in the mansion until his death in 1921 and his third wife continued to live there before moving to a nearby nursing home where she passed away at the age of 67.  At that point, the mansion was transformed into apartments for years before falling into disrepair and condemnation.

Boycks and Luce bought the mansion in 1985 and spent two years restoring it and were actually one of, if not the first, B & B proprietors in Wisconsin.  In fact, the partners are the founding members of the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association.  If the inn and the association don’t keep them busy enough, Boycks and Luce also have several other business interests in the community.

Unlike a great deal of my outings, I was only going to have one day to enjoy the inn and community so I had to hit the ground running.  Once I spotted the mansion, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

One of the inn’s calling cards is that the owners like to decorate it according to a 19th century Victorian Christmas and I felt my Christmas juices flowing when I saw the Christmas tree and pine strings decorating the outside of the inn along with cutouts of toy soldiers.

Tom opened the door before I even had a chance to ring the bell and welcomed me into the home where I also met Barry.  Tom gave me the quarter tour of the home and I marveled at the decorations and period antiques in the common areas.  He then led me to the Enoch J Fargo Suite which was my room for the night.

This is Fargo Mansion’s largest room and dubbed the honeymoon suite containing a queen-sized bed, English writing desk, and a secret.  Don’t worry, I won’t keep you in the dark.  The bathroom has a secret entrance behind one of the bookshelves and is the closest I’ve come to seeing a true secret passage.

Once I got settled, I returned to the commons where I took a really good look around and enjoyed the fresh, piney smell of a real Christmas tree and took a close look at the intricate Christmas decorations and enjoyed some photos of the mansion back in its original heyday.

Before I knew it, it was time to go to church.  I visited St Francis Xavier and this was a mighty small chapel; about on par with my visit to Our Lady of Victory in Limon, CO over the summer.  Father Bob conducted the service and he was a gregarious and entertaining pastor.  This was the third Sunday of Advent known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday and is represented by the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath.  Rejoice was the key word of the service as Father’s sermon centered around rejoicing that our Savior was coming and our Savior was here and with us.  It was definitely a good one to feel the Spirit moving and I left worship with a flutter in my heart and a rumble in my stomach.

It was indeed dinnertime and I headed over to the nearby town of Johnson Creek to eat at Crawfish Junction.

Crawfish Junction

Crawfish Junction is a bar/restaurant known for its Cajun fare.  Surprisingly it does not seem to serve gumbo (unless it pops up as a soup of the day), but does serve an excellent plate of jambalaya to which I added some delectable shrimp and forewent the hush puppies for homemade mashed potatoes and gravy.  The gravy had a great taste, but was much too thin, but the potatoes were right on the mark.

Satiated, I then headed to Janesville, WI to enjoy one of the region’s premier holiday events:  the Holiday Light Show at the Rotary Botanical Gardens.

I had read of the event prior to my arrival, but, thanks to Sandy, whom I met in my previous review, I learned that the tickets had to be bought in advance and would not be sold at the door.  So keep that in mind if you want to visit.

This truly is a popular event as there was a large line of people still waiting to get into the gardens, but it is well worth it.  A million lights transform the gardens into a Christmas wonderland where you get to see flowers, Christmas trees, old-fashioned lampposts, sea serpents, Old Glory, and many other colorful surprises guaranteed to make your eyes pop.

I could have spent hours there, but had to settle for 40 minutes as plummeting temperatures were turning me into a Chrisicle.  Afterwards, I returned to Fargo Mansion for some article prep and then sunk under the thick quilt for the night.

I wish I could sleep like that all the time.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them it was nearly 6am.  I had some time to write and ablute and then went down to breakfast.

Tom served up some lemon bread with a granola/yogurt/fruit dish and a main course of cheesy scrambled eggs, orange slices, and sausage links.  Tom is easily one of the best conversationalists I’ve had as a host and he may be the future version of myself as we seem to share similar senses of humor and personality traits.  But he is truly a master at the art of hospitality as we talked about the B & B industry and the events of the day.

Alas, I had to start heading the preparations for my drive home.  But if you’re in Lake Mills, especially around Christmas, stay at Fargo Mansion.  You’ll have an excellent pair of hosts, a wonderful mansion to relax in, and a fine feed in the morning. 

And that wraps up this review, join me in about two weeks when I close out the year with a special holiday series when I travel to Orlando, FL to experience Walt Disney World for the holidays.  It’ll be a grand adventure.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.