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.

‘Tilly’ is Silly

Tilly is having a rough holiday season.  Her sister ran off with a guy and left her in sole control of their diner which is in danger of going out of business.  She misses her father.  She’s lonely and her beau hasn’t proposed to her.  And her Christmas Extravaganza talent show is lacking star power and talent.  Will her apprentice guardian angel be able to help her find her Christmas spirit?  Find out by watching Tilly’s Holiday Extravaganza currently performing at Harold’s Koffee House under the auspices of 2×4 Planck Productions.

For full disclosure, the show’s playwright, Doug Marr, was a friend of mine and I performed in several of his original works so I have a good feeling for his style of writing.  This show definitely has the feel of an early work (it hasn’t been performed for 30 years) and seemed like a tale of two plays.  The first act needed a bit of polish.  It sets up Tilly’s woes and introduces Novice Betty whose “help” just seems to make things worse and then she vanishes and Tilly’s day just goes from bad to worse with various mishaps.  Act II jumps ahead to Christmas Eve and the extravaganza and is a much stronger act centering on the, ahem, “talent show” and the turn things take when a pair of strangers arrive at the café before everything gets wrapped up in a bow (Christmas pun intended).

Though it has some weaknesses, Doug’s love of Christmas and nostalgia are palpable and the play does feature some of his hallmarks.  Witty one-liners.  Ridiculous situations.  Frenemy characters.  And the energy of his family and friends who came together to produce this show definitely boost the production.

Lorie Obradovich does a laudable job of directing this play and does a very strong job of staging the actors, though there are points where the actors are out of the view of some patrons depending on where they’re seated in the diner.  Her coaching is quite solid as she really got her actors to embrace the silliness of their characters and just have some fun.

Some amusing performances come from Mike Downey as a dumb as a brick mechanic whose angry singing of “Frosty the Snowman” to the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy” is the play’s highlight; Dylan Marr and Elizabeth Planck make for a cute newlywed couple with an enjoyable pair of bad songs; Rob Baker brings some smiles as a never will be singer whose act is more lounge lizard than Sinatra; Ann Downey serves as a capable “straight man” to her goofball husband; Daniel Baye supplies some yuks as a befuddled thief; Wes Clowers has a nice everyman quality as Tilly’s boyfriend, Dale.

Rose Glock is an absolute delight in the dual roles of Novice Betty and Marlene.  As Novice Betty, apprentice guardian angel, Glock summons the spirit of Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker with the Queens accent and her good hearted ditziness.  As Marlene, Glock comes off as a mannish Lucy Van Pelt.  She’s crabby and she’s the boss (especially with her dominance of her brother, Pee Wee) and few are the people she can stand (and probably vice versa) for more than 5 minutes.

Laura Marr shines as the titular Tilly.  There’s definitely a flavor of Vicki Lawrence’s Mama character in her performance.  Marr’s Tilly is, more or less, the level headed leader of this neurotic group.  She never seems short of a snarky one liner, has a real take charge attitude, and can deliver extemporaneous, subtle sarcasm like a champ.  Still, she has a good heart and you genuinely want her to find her Christmas cheer.

The costumes supplied by Laura Marr, Paula Clowers, Robyn Baker are well done, indeed.  Most enjoyable were Tilly’s waitress outfit and poofy wig, Murray’s ugly as sin “tuxedo”, the coveralls for the mechanics, and Novice Betty’s flapper outfit.  There’s even a few clever light tricks from the director and cast as flickering lights (both regular and Christmas) abound whenever divine intervention is afoot.

It’s a sweet show for the holiday season and a worthy tribute to the late Doug Marr.  Come for the show.  Come for the pie.  Come for some Christmas cheer.

Tilly’s Holiday Extravaganza plays at Harold’s Koffee House through Dec 21.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat (Dec 21 is a special added Tuesday show).  Tickets cost $18 for the show and $25 for show, pie, and coffee or soft drink.  Harold’s Koffee House is located at 8327 N 30th St in Omaha, NE.

You’ll ‘Die Hard’ Laughing

A hard-edged NYC police officer flies out to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife and family, but gets caught up in a massive robbery attempt and he’s the only hope to stop the thieves.  Hey, this might make for a good movie!  But it’s A Very Die Hard Christmas and it’s currently playing at BlueBarn Theatre.

Jeff Schell and the Habit knew just what notes to strike when they decided to lampoon this classic action flick.  They actually stay true to the story, but completely upend its spirit with a comedic tour de force guaranteed to leave you wheezing for air before the night is through.  The meta aspect of the script is its finest quality as the show is aware it’s a show.  And a show done on the cheap at that as they can’t afford a full contingent of criminals and rely on Nerf ammo and squirt guns to mete out the show’s rampant violence.

Susan Clement dives into the heart of this show with a stylish bit of direction.  The show is immaculately staged as actors flow in and out of scenes as seamlessly as a rolling river.  Clement is able to give each actor a moment to shine and each feels like an individual and not just a piece of the ensemble.  Her coaching is right on the money as each performer gives a well-developed performance.  But keep your eyes on everybody or you might miss some subtle sight gags going on in the background of the crowd scenes.

Each member of the ensemble is a joy to watch and you’ll be treated to some quality work from Jonathan Purcell as Ellis, a coked-up prick who arrogantly thinks he can negotiate his way to safety and has a surprising set of pipes when he sings about how he “doesn’t want to die tonight”.  Roni Shelley-Perez lights it up in overacting, soap operatic glory as McClane’s estranged wife, Holly.  Raydell Cordell III is a scream as a Nakatomi employee who continuously pops up to say, “Oh, snap!” as well as providing a gentle take on Sgt. Al Powell, a police officer who lost some of his heart when he shot a kid.

Katie Becker-Colon might have the best role in the show as the Narrator.  Dolled up like Andy Warhol, Becker-Colon pops up to move the story along with endless variations and styles of Twas the Night Before Christmas while filling in needed gaps for assistance such as playing the piano or serving as a cameraperson for the obsequious reporter hungering for a scoop.  Becker-Colon is also a heck of a hoofer as I was blown away by her crisp dancing in the musical numbers.

Hughston Walkinshaw is magnetic as Hans Gruber, the criminal mastermind.  His performance invokes reminisces of Alan Rickman without aping him.  Walkinshaw is clearly having a ball as he cold-bloodedly squirts people to death, clomps around the stage while monologuing, and occasionally flips characters to Severus Snape for obligatory Harry Potter jokes.

Josh Peyton is a worthy John McClane as he makes the role his own.  He’s a chain-smoking, blue collar cop determined to see justice done regardless of regulations.  Peyton’s physicality is staggering as he deftly moves between building floors to dodge murderous thieves, hangs and shimmies down a bar, and rolls, rolls, rolls his way to justice and cover.  His fistfight with a life sized doll near the end of Act I is easily one of the funniest sight gags I have ever seen on stage.

Melanie Walters’ choreography is a blast to watch.  Robert Donlan’s set provides the feel of a cheaper version of downtown LA with the towering Nakatomi building.  Joshua Mullady’s lights really add some spice to the show with the starlit night sky and the complete drop to darkness before doing a slow light rise for the entrances of the FBI.  Jennifer Pool’s costumes evoke memories of the film from McClane’s dirty T-shirt to the 80s style clothes of the Nakatomi employees. 

It’s fast, furious, and funny and it’s almost sold out.  As of this writing, the only available tickets remaining are for the Dec 8 show at 7:30pm and they’re limited.  So visit www.bluebarn.org or call 402-345-1576 to grab one of the last tickets for this Christmas blockbuster.  Tickets cost $35.

A Very Die Hard Christmas runs through December 19.  Due to profanity, the show is not recommended for young children.  BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

A Magical Holiday Escape: The Roost and Appleton, WI

The Roost Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Appleton, WI.

Oh, what a difference a month or two can make.  Originally, I was going to be doing an earlier than usual Christmas review, but I ended up having to change plans when my selection opted to postpone its signature holiday event.  So I booked a different venue for the annual review and still found myself with an extra day off for the Thanksgiving weekend.  So I thought to myself, “Why waste a good day off?”  Thus, I scheduled a trip to Appleton to visit The Roost Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by De Ann Steffens.

I enjoyed a pleasant drive to Appleton while sitting on pins and needles as I listened to the Iowa Hawkeyes pull off a miraculous comeback against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  I lost the signal for the game’s final few minutes, but heaved a sigh of relief as I saw they had obtained the victory just as I pulled into the Roost.

De Ann greeted me at the door and gave me the nickel tour before leading me to the Tapestry Suite.  True to its name, a large tapestry does adorn one of the walls.  A cheery fire was going which added to the room’s ambiance.  A large two-person jacuzzi sat in corner while a high, four poster queen bed sat in the other.

I got things organized and immediately headed out to my car to experience some of the town.

Though this isn’t a formal Christmas review, I was able to scratch my Christmas itch with visits to Darboy Community Park to enjoy Fox Cities’ Festival of Lights and the nearby Oshkosh Celebration of Lights at Menominee Park.

The Festival of Lights is a half mile self-guided walking tour through a winter wonderland of lights that form elves, dinosaurs, toys, snowmen, and even Santa’s workshop.  It’s completely free and donations are cheerfully accepted.  You can even buy a hot beverage to ward off the chill.

But if you want a heavy shot of Christmas, you definitely need to visit the Celebration of Lights in Oshkosh.  It’s a drive through tour featuring twelve miles of lights and effects while you tune in to a dedicated radio station of Christmas songs to strengthen the magic.  Cost is $10 per car.  Aside from the dazzling display of lights, you can even stop by the workshop to visit that guy in the red suit who likes to say “Ho!  Ho!  Ho!”

Feeling the joy of the holiday, I returned to the inn and gamed a bit before curling up in my bed for the night.

I awoke the next morning and I was starved.  De Ann had prepared a fruit dish along with Baked French Toast that had a crust of brown sugar and cinnamon along with some bacon and eggs.  I was unable to finish the tasty meal and took a half hour walk to burn off some of the calories.  Then I hopped into the car to begin exploring some of Appleton.

First, I decided to get my history on with a visit to The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton.  It’s not terribly huge and, at first, I was mildly disappointed.  The main floor featured an exhibit about famed writer (and Appleton native) Edna Ferber along with some tidbits about Appleton history including the first jukebox, X-ray machine, and new voting machine, but nothing with that wow factor.  I headed upstairs feeling overcharged for the $10 I spent, but then things took a turn.

History Museum at the Castle

The second floor features a little exhibit on social research and the history of toys, but its main attraction is the history of famed magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, and that was worth the price of admission by itself.

Houdini had claimed Appleton as his hometown and the museum goes into a detailed history of Houdini’s upbringing and rise to fame.  The museum even has a replica of the trick coffin (a new illusion) that Houdini was buried in as well as cuffs he escaped from, one of his straitjackets, a replica of his milk can escape, a representation of his Chinese Water Torture Escape, and you can even perform his famed Metamorphosis trick where he would be locked into a box and then switch places with his wife in 3 seconds. You can also perform one of Houdini’s famed jail cell escapes.  Houdini wasn’t shy about sharing secrets to some of his tricks so be forewarned to skip the backstage part of the exhibit if you want to keep the tricks a mystery.

From there I drove through downtown Appleton and enjoyed the Christmas decorations.  Appleton is actually a happening town with a lot of restaurants and activities and even boasts a pretty impressive performing arts center which I may have to visit at some point in the future.  But, for now, I had a quest.

My older and younger brothers, Brian and Dan, decided to utilize my being in Wisconsin to pick up some regional beverages.  So I began the search for Spotted Cow beer and Sprecher’s Grape Soda.  I went to a Super Target and was denied.  Then I reached a Festival Foods where I found Spotted Cow, but they seemed to have every flavor of Sprecher’s except Grape.  Brian opted for a cherry soda as a Plan B.

Flush with success I returned to The Roost to begin writing.  After a few hours I was off to worship at St Bernadette’s where I enjoyed a pleasant Advent service centering on a sermon telling us that Jesus, our Friend and Teacher, had come, will come again, and had never left us.  A truly blessed thought to warm the soul.

St Bernadette

With services completed, I grabbed an early dinner at Cinder’s.  This restaurant is famed for cooking over charcoal and I enjoyed the cindery goodness of a Northwoods Burger with a side of fries (bottomless, if you feel like more) while I watched the Minnesota Golden Gophers give the Iowa Hawkeyes an early Christmas gift in the form of a trip to the Big 10 title game with a victory over the Wisconsin Badgers.  Then it was back to The Roost to organize some photos, write a bit more, and grab a hot bath in my jetted tub on a frozen night while watching The Karate Kid before retiring.

At breakfast this morning, I met Fred & Sandy who seemed to love B & Bs as much as I do along with sharing a mutual love of theatre. As we conversed, we enjoyed sausage, eggs (over hard for me), granola & yogurt, and more Baked French Toast though with cream cheese and blueberries. I hated to end the conversation, but duty called, not to mention a fairly long drive.

And that wraps up this installment. Appleton is a nice little town with a lot of activities and Christmas cheer and Green Bay is not too far away if you happen to be a Packers fan. If you’re in the area, take some time to rest at the Roost and enjoy a little understated elegance.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Maples Repertory Theatre Closing Season With ‘Tis the Season: A Maples Rep Holiday Celebration’

Macon, MO–Maples Repertory Theatre prepares to ring in the holidays and close out the season with Tis the Season: A Maples Rep Holiday Celebration.

Synopsis

Christmas traditions come to life on stage in the all new, singing and dancing extravaganza.  Your favorite holiday songs and characters will delight the whole family.  It’s the perfect way to celebrate the season with your family and friends.

Directed By: Brance Cornelius

Featuring the Talents of: Tyler Lord, Emily Gardenhire, Josh Bernaski, Todd Davison, Olin Davidson, Lauren Longyear, and Kimberly Braun

Showtimes

  • Wed. Dec. 1 – 7:30
  • Fri. Dec. 3  – 2:00 & 7:30
  • Sat. Dec. 4  – 2:00 & 7:30
  • Sun. Dec. 5  – 2:00 & 7:30
  • Tues. Dec. 7 – 2:00
  • Wed. Dec. 8 – 2:00
  • Fri. Dec. 10 – 2:00 & 7:30
  • Sat. Dec. 11 – 7:30
  • Sat. Dec. 12 – 2:00

Tickets cost $33 for the Main Floor and $26 for the Balcony and may be purchased at www.maplesrep.com or calling 660-385-2924. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Camille Metoyer Moten to Grace Omaha with Some Christmas From Her Heart at OCP

Omaha, NE.– Christmas in My Heart: A Concert Featuring Camille Metoyer Moten will open on Friday, November 26th, 2021. The show will run in the Howard Drew Theatre through December 23rd. Performances will be held Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, December 22nd at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are on sale now starting at $30 with prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, 6915 Cass St., Omaha, NE 68132, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

SYNOPSIS

OCP legend Camille Metoyer Moten makes her highly anticipated return to the stage for an intimate holiday affair. Christmas in My Heart is all the wonder and magic of the season in concert. Cozy up in our Howard Drew Theatre and let Camille’s soaring voice warm your heart with beloved holiday classics, contemporary Christmas melodies and everything in between!

Photo provided by Richardson Photography

It’s Back!! OCP’s Holiday Tradition, ‘A Christmas Carol’ Returns in its Full Glory

Omaha, NE.– Omaha’s favorite holiday tradition, A Christmas Carol, will open Friday, November 19, 2021 at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP). The show will run in the Hawks Mainstage Theatre from November 19 through December 23. Performances will be held Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and Wednesdays beginning in December at 7 p.m. There will be no performance on Thurs., Nov. 25 due to Thanksgiving.

Tickets are on sale now starting at $40 for adults and $26 for students, with ticket prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, located at 6915 Cass Street, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

SYNOPSIS

It just isn’t Christmas without A Christmas Carol! Experience Omaha’s favorite holiday tradition as Ebenezer Scrooge takes us on a life-changing journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas. Filled with stunning Victorian costumes, festive music and crisp, wintry sets, A Christmas Carol is a beautiful reminder of the power of redemption and the generosity that lies at the heart of the Christmas holiday.

Directed by: Susie Baer-Collins
Co-directed by: Carl Beck & Ablan Roblin

Cast

Jerry Longe as Ebenezer Scrooge
Chris Berger as Bob Cratchit
Vienna Maas as Tiny Tim
Noah Jeffrey as Fred
Don Keelan-White as Jacob Marley
Julie Huff as Ghost of Christmas Past/Myrtle Crow
Jonathan Hickerson as Ghost of Christmas Present/2nd Charity Man/Toyshop Keeper
Christina Rohling as Mrs. Cratchit
Mark Haufle as Mr. Fezziwig/1st Charity Man/Baker
Lauren Johnson as Mrs. Fezziwig/Baker’s Wife
Benjamin Brickner as Young Scrooge
Bethany Folks as Belle Fezziwig
Megan Morrissey as Millie
Hannah Rembert as Lucy
Cullen Wiley as Topper
Seth Maisel as Jake
Kim Clark-Kaczmarek as Nell/Mrs. Dilber
Sara Tiemann as Chestnut Vendor
Brandon Fisher as Poulterer
Joshua Orsi as Beggar
Emma Powell as Martha Cratchit
Tyson Bentley as Peter Cratchit/School Boy
Madeline Scarsi as Frances Cratchit
Anina Frey as Belinda Cratchit/Fan
Cruz Martinez as Ebby
Carter Frey as School Boy/Greenery Vendor
Benjamin Rohling as School Boy/Boy with Sled
Cadee Scheer as Toyshop Assistant
Halaina Hunter as Little Bo Peep
Claire Caskey as Little Boy Blue
Adult Ensemble features Tom Neumann and Elizabeth Fleissner
Youth Ensemble features Grace Messina

Historic Finery or One Last Blast of Christmas: A.G. Thomson House & Duluth, MN

A.G. Thomson House

Today the road has brought me to Duluth, MN.

I was looking forward to this outing even more than normal.  After getting fully vaccinated, I was ready to experience the most normal adventure I had enjoyed since the pandemic began and I wasn’t let down. 

I started the journey by taking the scenic route through Fort Dodge where I enjoyed a quick bite to eat at Taco Tico before continuing my drive to my stopping point of Northwood, IA.  Cashing in some points, I enjoyed a free night at the Holiday Inn where I was also upgraded to a suite which was much appreciated after a long day of work and driving.  After a full night of uninterrupted sleep, I spent the morning puttering around before hitting the road again at 11:30am.

It was a gray day with sporadic, steady rainfall, but it didn’t dampen my spirits and I found myself in the North Shore town of Duluth and A.G. Thomson Bed & Breakfast, owned by Tim and Angie Allen, before I knew it.

I admit to being wowed when I pulled into the mansion’s parking lot.  A.G. Thomson is a 1909 Dutch Colonial mansion, but looks absolutely pristine and brand new both inside and out.  This property is so meticulously maintained that shoes are left on shelves at the front door.

The inn is absolutely immaculate and has loads of room to spread out with a massive living room, dining room and side porch.  Wine is also sold by the bottle and a room under the staircase contains a refrigerator with water, soft drinks and wine (one complimentary glass per guest) along with a variety of snacks and a large DVD library.

The house had been built for William Ryerson for the sum of $17,000 (roughly $492K today) and passed through the hands of a number of prominent Duluth families.  The name of the house comes from its second owner, Adam G. Thomson, who had a two story addition added to the rear, built the two story carriage house with a four room dwelling on the upper floor and a tool house.

My room was the Mayor’s Chamber, named for John Fedo who owned the house from 1986 to 1989.  Fedo had been the mayor of Duluth and was one of the city’s most controversial figures.  He is credited with the renaissance of Duluth’s lakefront, but was also the only mayor in history to be charged and tried for criminal offenses while in office though he was eventually acquitted.

The room contains the same elegance as found in the rest of the house.  A queen-sized bed takes up a corner of the room.  A tiled gas fireplace is set into one of the walls while the opposite side contains a 2 person whirlpool tub.  The floral wallpaper lends brightness to the room and a leather chair and footstool takes up the center of the room where one can watch the TV set on the wall in comfort.

After getting myself set up, I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.  A.G. Thomson is located in the Congdon district AKA the Mansion district.  The area practically shouted wealth as I wandered past the million dollar homes while occasionally communing with nature.  Deer were plentiful and let me get within a few feet for photos before bounding away.  I enjoyed a phone conversation with my best friend, Josh, but eventually called it quits as the late afternoon was becoming a real pea souper and I didn’t need to literally get lost in a fog.

I hopped in the car and made my way to At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Café for some dinner.

At Sara’s Table/Chester Creek Cafe

Even without a full vaccination, I would have felt safe visiting this town as Duluth set the bar for social distancing with protocols set in place for local businesses and a strict mask mandate.  At Sara’s Table is certainly no exception as seating is set six feet apart.

The bistro reimagines traditional American food and it is quite tasty.  I was seated in the library and it does have books you can read.  For my dinner I enjoyed a hearty Rachel with fries and tried a cream ale with has the smoothness of a black beer, but lacks the bitterness.  After my fine meal, I returned to the inn where I organized photos and took a long whirlpool bath before collapsing on the softest mattress I have ever lay upon and didn’t crack an eye until morning.

At breakfast I met Chris and Jessie Peterson and enjoyed some conversation with them while enjoying a repast of chocolate chip muffin, warm butternut squash soup, herb and black pepper scrambled eggs, sweet potato mash and French Toast with a blueberry compote.  A truly fine and filling meal which gave me the energy I needed to visit Glensheen.

Glensheen was the home of Chester and Clara Congdon and their family.  Chester was a lawyer and investor who was one of the first millionaires of Duluth.  He had Glensheen built on a 22 acre tract of land located by Lake Superior for the princely sum of $854,000 in 1908 (modern day equivalent of $22 million).  The Jacobean style mansion contains a jaw dropping 39 rooms and the property also contains a boathouse, gardener’s cottage, carriage house, tennis court and a stone arch bridge built over Bent Creek.

Glensheen

In 1968, the property was given to the University of Minnesota-Duluth by Elisabeth Congdon through a life estate and it continues to run the property to this day.  Tragically, Elisabeth Congdon’s life was cut short when she was killed by her son-in-law, Roger Caldwell.  It was theorized that the crime was committed so Elisabeth’s daughter, Marjorie (charged with & acquitted of the murder), could obtain her $8 million inheritance of which he was to receive $2.5 million.  Caldwell would end up accepting a plea deal for second degree murder, but recanted his guilt in his suicide note.  He never received the money.

I was quite fortunate to get a last blast of Christmas as Glensheen was still decorated for the Christmas season.  Twenty-five Christmas trees and a plethora of decorations adorned the mansion.  For social distancing purposes, the tours are self-guided, but placards containing the tour information are present at every stop and an audio tour can be had courtesy of the Glensheen app.

The mansion has been lovingly maintained and I was floored by the luxury in which the family lived. 

The Congdons were also noted for their charity and generosity.  Most notable was that the servants were permitted to enjoy the same menu as that of the family at meal times which was not the tradition of the day.  Chester was also known as a dutiful and loving husband who kept a spare room that he could retire to on nights he worked late so he wouldn’t disturb his wife and gifting her with $14K worth of pearls each Christmas.

All in all, I spent 2 hours at Glensheen before returning to the inn to post photos and begin writing.

For the first time since the pandemic started, I would finally attend worship services instead of taking in an online service.  A six minute walk took me to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary.  The chapel is gorgeous and I enjoyed a pleasant service.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary

Then it was time for a little dinner and I opted for one of the inn’s favorite restaurants, Tavern On the Hill.

Tavern On the Hill is a bar/restaurant and must be quite popular as it was packed to socially distant capacity.  I ended up taking a seat at the bar where I enjoyed a Thai Chicken Tender Melt.  The sandwich is served on sourdough bread with the chicken glazed in a Thai curry sauce and covered with swiss cheese and bacon.  I contentedly nibbled away on the sandwich while reading my latest volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  Once satiated, I returned to the inn for a quiet night of writing, reading and another whirlpool bath.

Sunday morning found me polishing this article a bit before making my way to breakfast. Today’s repast consisted of a dark chocolate raspberry scone with fruit plate and a main course of spinach artichoke baked potato, grape arugula salad and mushroom & asparagus cheese encrusted quiche. I spent a bit conversing with Chris & Jessie who told me about their day and I spoke a bit with Kirsten, the innkeeper, who regaled me with a story of how she and a friend traveled from Alaska to Duluth. I also got to meet with Tim, one of the owners, who had once lived in Omaha when he was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

And all too soon, it was over. But I had an amazing time here in Duluth and it was a much appreciated return to normalcy. Rest assured, I will be back in the area again, possibly for my annual Christmas review. But take the time to experience the peace and tranquility of Duluth and enjoy a night or two at A.G. Thomson House. As an ornament says at the second floor, you’ll enter as a stranger, but leave as a friend and you’ll enjoy some world class dining and luxury.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Christmas in March: Christmas House & Racine, WI

Christmas House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Racine, WI.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I enjoyed my last normal B & B run when I visited Astor House of Green Bay, WI.  So it seems apropos that my most normal run since the start of the pandemic would also take place in Wisconsin.  My destination for this journey would be Christmas House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Pamela Deskins.

The trip couldn’t have started out any better.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I managed to dodge the rush hours of both Omaha, NE and Des Moines, IA.  I got to enjoy a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, listened as the Iowa Hawkeyes delivered an absolute drubbing to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in basketball and arrived early at my first stop, Davenport, IA.

I had booked a junior suite at the Holiday Inn & Suites, but I didn’t know how good of a room it was going to be.

Holiday Inn & Suites of Davenport, IA

This was a very elegant Holiday Inn.  I’d put it at 4 stars.  Thanks to digital check-in, I was able to check-in the day before and merely had to pick up my key at the front desk.  My room was on the top floor where I had a good view of the city and, while I’m not positive, I think I might have been upgraded to a full suite as I had a spacious living room, bathroom with a double sized shower and a separate bedroom with a king-sized bed.

I had a good rest that night. 

I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, the J Bar, for breakfast.  Even had my diet not been limited by Lent, the breakfast buffet still would have been overpriced at $10 as it only consisted of a few items.  I had some scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a granola bar.  The server did bring me a wonderful green salsa that added the perfect kick to the eggs and potatoes and the orange juice was mighty smooth.

At 11:15am I checked out, gassed up and continued the jaunt to Racine.  My journey took me on the toll road that has taken me to Algonquin, IL on several occasions, but I was surprised to learn that all of the toll booths were closed.  To pay, you need to go to the Illinois Tollway website and register your plate. Then the Tollway will eventually charge your credit or debit card.

Around the 2pm hour, I got off the interstate and started passing through small towns.  I smiled as the towns seemed a bit more vibrant and enjoyed the vast farmlands and imagined what the leafless trees would look like in full bloom.  Around 3:20pm, I saw the mint-colored Christmas House looming in the distance.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, you should know that I am a Christmas nut.  It’s my favorite holiday and I feature a Christmas B&B review on my website each year.  Thus, Christmas House called out to me with all the subtlety of the ringing of a chow bell.

I was met by Pamela who gave me a tour of the mansion before leading me to the Glam Suite which would be my base of operations.

The Glam Suite offers one plenty of room to stretch out and relax.  The room’s mint-colored walls and off-white carpeting promote a calming effect.  The room contains a small kitchenette with a fridge that contains complimentary water, a pair of comfortable red leather chairs, a large TV and a comfy king-sized bed with what felt like a memory foam mattress.

Once getting settled in, I started a more detailed exploration of the mansion.

Christmas House had been built in 1893 by Emily Baker, the widow of former Racine mayor Robert H. Baker, and one of the original “Big Four” partners of the J.I. Case Company, nowadays known as Case New Holland.  The mansion has been home to some of the most powerful people in Racine’s history and also served as the women’s dorm for the St Luke School of Nursing for 35 years.  It gained its name in 1987 when it began hosting the Christmas House for Cancer benefit which it did until 1995.

The house is actually a blend of two styles.  It is built in the Colonial Revival Style, but follows the plan of a Queen Anne.  It is also mammoth.  This is easily one of the three biggest inns I’ve visited, yet it only contains 4 suites which allows for plenty of privacy.  A Carriage House is also available for rental for even further seclusion.

And, yes, the theme of Christmas is prevalent in the mansion as the first floor contains Christmas trees, knick-knacks, decorations and a life-sized Santa Claus.

When I finished looking around the mansion, I took a constitutional around the neighborhood and soaked in the view of Lake Michigan.  From there I returned to the inn where I relaxed for a bit before picking up some dinner from Red Lobster in nearby Mount Pleasant.  I enjoyed some Salmon New Orleans with mashed potatoes and a Caesar Salad.  After my meal, I spent a quiet evening watching a little TV and organizing photos.

Breakfast was a grand affair the next morning.  An extra leaf was added to the table for social distancing and I met a truly charming couple, the Jacksons, from Bloomington, IL.  We had some incredible conversation and I thank them for pointing me towards my next major B & B outing, Black Bear Manor of Ouray, CO, which I hope to do this summer after I’ve had a poke or two of COVID vaccine.

Pamela whipped up a delicious skillet of sunny side up eggs, sausage and hash browns along with cornbread crumble and Kringle, the famed danish pastry of Wisconsin.  I also learned that Pamela has almost limitless energy and boundless humor.  Pamela is not only extremely knowledgeable about the Racine area, but she is well known for her entrepreneurship and philanthropy.  Aside from owning Christmas House, she is also a realtor and “Big Sister” for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Kringle, breakfast skillet, and cornbread crumbles

She bought the inn in 2014 after it had been in foreclosure for 7 years and was responsible for over 70% of its restoration into the grand inn it is nowadays.  To give you an idea of its disrepair at the time of Pamela’s purchase, the house literally had no roof.

For the first time in nearly a year, I actually managed to enjoy some local activities.  I began with a long, leisurely walk through Petrifying Springs Park where the gurgling water of the streams provided some succor to the soul.  I also had a phone call with my best friend, Josh, and some childhood memories were triggered as I saw some children enjoying themselves on classic playground equipment of slides, swings and merry-go-rounds.

After my hike, I visited a Kenosha, WI classic:  Mars Cheese Castle.  Admittedly, I originally thought it was a castle made of cheese.  It is actually a store shaped like a castle that sells cheese, meats, clothes and old-fashioned candies and sodas.  It even has a deli, restaurant and bar.

Mars Cheese Castle

From there it was back to Christmas House when I did a little writing and took in an online worship service with Fr. Matt Barone. 

When the service was completed, I was faced with a quandary.  Did I want to have a very early dinner or wait until my normal dinner hour?  Pamela had mentioned a local eatery called Kewpee’s, but it closed at 5pm.  I thought about it and realized I wasn’t in the mood for a regular meal that night, so I went with the extra early dinner.

Kewpee’s is actually a Racine stalwart.  There actually used to be a chain of them, but now only six are left and the Racine location is the only one in Wisconsin and it’s been operating since 1926. 

Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop

The restaurant has the look of a fifties diner and is inspired by the famous kewpie dolls and there is a display case full of them inside.  Being so close to closing time meant that there weren’t a lot of people inside so social distancing was an easy task.  I ordered the double cheeseburger with the works, a side of fries and a Coke. 

Not only does the place look like a fifties diner, it also has portion sizes to match with prices not that far behind.  I personally appreciated the portion sizes as you get a great meal without feeling overstuffed.  These are old fashioned burgers cooked fresh on a flattop grill and the fries are crinkle cut.  Kewpee’s is also noted for its homemade root beer which I’ll make a point of sampling at some future date.

With dinner digesting, I returned to Christmas House for more writing, reading, photo organizing and some classic game shows on BUZZR.

Another great night of sleep led into a new day. Breakfast that day consisted of a pecan Kringle, strawberry waffles with whipped cream and cornbread crumble had sausage and egg added to it for quite the tasty melange. I had another satisfying round of conversation with Pamela and the Jacksons where I was introduced to the dancing skills of Pamela’s dog, Dewey.

Strawberry waffles with whipped cream, cornbread crumble and pecan Kringle

This trip was just what the doctor called for and if you find yourself in Racine, make plans to stay at Christmas House. It’s truly as festive as the name sounds.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.