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.

A Bridge Between Them

Francesca Johnson, an Iowa housewife originally from Italy, looks forward to a few days to herself when her family heads off to the 4H Nationals at the Indiana State Fair.  When her family leaves, a well-traveled National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, arrives to ask for directions to the Roseman Bridge to complete his photo assignment.  Robert has recently visited Italy which sparks a fast friendship between himself and Francesca which evolves into something more and forces the two to make some life altering choices.  This is The Bridges of Madison County by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and based on Robert James Waller’s novel.  It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I was quite surprised by this show.  I had been expecting a schmaltzy love story, but what I got was a well framed tale that built slowly, organically, and subtly.  This story is about much, much more than a man and a woman falling in love.  It’s about the circumstances that brought them together, the forces that drive them, and the hard choices they have to make about their respective futures.  I especially liked how natural the affair comes about.  There’s nothing forced about it.  It was just something that happened which leaves it up to the viewer to decide on the morality of what goes down.  The show is aided by Brown’s score, especially as interpreted by Jim Boggess and his splendid orchestra.  The songs are almost internal monologues and span a series of emotions that I have never seen before in a musical.

A story that builds as methodically as this one requires a very gentle touch with the direction and Kimberly Faith Hickman provides that touch and then some.  Ms Hickman strikes each emotional beat dead on the mark.  It’s never too much or too little.  The pacing is phenomenal and keeps the attention of the audience with every gradual revelation of the plot.  She also has a killer set of performers to tell this story, especially in her 4 leads.

That previous sentence may have made you take pause, but there are 4 leads for this production.  Kimberly Faith Hickman made the decision to double cast the two leads and each pairing takes one down a very interesting variant of the story.  In order to give readers a complete vision of this play, I watched the show twice so I could see how each set of leads interpreted the tale.

Mackenzie Dehmer is deadly accurate with her character choices in the role of Francesca.  She seems. . .not happy, but settled in her role as a farm wife.  She loves her children.  She loves her friends.  She even loves her husband, but it isn’t the same love that she once shared with him.  Her body language indicates that there is a void in her life that she doesn’t know how to fill.

Then Robert comes into her life.

Suddenly Ms Dehmer just lights up with passion and life as she now has someone with whom she can truly relate.  As their friendship grows, Ms Dehmer really makes you see the happiness blooming in her soul, yet it is still tinged with a thorn as she is always constantly aware of the potential effect on her family.  Her anguish as she wrestles with the decision to be with Robert or her family is heartbreakingly real and well essayed.

I think Ms Dehmer would have a fine career in opera with her devastating vocal range.  A natural alto who effortlessly hits soprano notes, Ms Dehmer shone musically as she wonders about Robert in “What Do You Call a Man Like That?”, consummates her relationship with him in “Falling Into You”, and sings about her haunting final decision in “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles”.

Angela Jenson-Frey gives us a Francesca who is actually quite happy with her life.  Yes, she misses her native country, but is comfortable with her life in Iowa and is mostly satisfied with her choices in life.  When Robert appears in her life, there isn’t that immediate spark of attraction.  It is a friendship that quickly transforms into a passionate love.  Ms Jenson-Frey’s Francesca also seems a bit more assured in her decisions as her final choice seems to come a bit more easily and confidently.

Ms Jenson-Frey also has a beautiful soprano singing voice which she uses to full emotional potential in her numbers whether she’s gladly telling the audience part of her life story in “To Build a Home”, tenderly asking Robert to simply “Look At Me”, or sharing the rest of her life story with Robert in “Almost Real”.

I was crushed by James Verderamo’s take on Robert.  He projects a palpable aura of loneliness.  His Robert is a man who lives apart from the rest of the world.  He’s never in one place very long and has made the decision not to get involved with people because he always has to get to the next assignment.  His chemistry with Mackenzie Dehmer is pitch perfect as each truly seems to fill a missing part of the other.  When he falls for Francesca, you really feel the wonder of a man who is experiencing happiness for, perhaps, the first time in his life.

Verderamo’s tenor is velvet smooth and allowed him to emote his songs to the fullest.  Whether he is “Wondering” about Francesca or describing the life of a photographer in “The World Inside a Frame” or musing about his own mortality in “It All Fades Away”, Verderamo never failed to let the audience see his true thoughts and emotions.

Thomas Gjere’s Robert is far more content in his life.  While he is a bit of a wanderer, he is comfortable with the life he has chosen though he believes he isn’t the greatest company in the world.  What I liked best about this take is that Gjere’s Robert is quite likable and charming, but seems completely unaware of that fact due to his always focusing on the next assignment.  When he falls for Francesca, it seems to truly awaken himself to himself for the first time.

Gjere has a mellow low tenor that you could listen to for hours.  His phrasing is always perfectly precise and he makes you feel his budding happiness in “Temporarily Lost” and the full joy of his personal awakening in “Who We Are and Who We Want to Be”.

While this is primarily a two person show, a supporting cast does periodically appear to show what is going on outside Francesca & Robert’s world and sometimes get involved in it.  Kevin Olsen and Joey Hartshorn provide some levity as an older married couple who are neighbors of the Johnsons.  Ms Hartshorn is especially amusing as the busybody with a heart of gold and has a hilarious solo in “Get Closer”.  Mary Trecek belts out a great hoedown in “State Road 21/The Real World” and Analisa Peyton has a moving solo as Robert’s ex-wife in“Another Life” where she explains why she left him.

Jim Othuse crafts a realistic small town with the farmhouse of the Johnsons and a spot on replica of the Roseman Bridge.  I also liked how he created bars and other homes through the use of windows and bar counters.  Aja Jackson’s lights brilliantly support the story with sunrises, sunsets, and proper mood lighting during the show’s weightier and emotional moments.  Megan Kuehler’s costumes well suit a small town farming community with simple dresses for the adult women and t shirts and jeans for the men and kids.

As I said in the beginning, this is far more than a love story.  This is a story about two people who were missing something vital and found that missing piece in the other.  It is not about their love.  It is about what they will do with that love and it makes for a profound tale indeed.

The Bridges of Madison County continues through March 24.  Tickets start at $24 and vary by performance and seating zone.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets can be obtained at the OCP box office, online at www.omahaplayhouse.com, or calling the OCP box office at 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 5: An Island of Beauty and a Secluded Village

I awoke to another one of the mornings that makes you want to fall to your knees and praise God for being alive.  Another beautiful sunrise.  Another breakfast buffet.  Into the bus and off at 7:45am.

Our road took us back through Italy today.  Specifically the town of Stresa where we stopped on the bank of Lake Maggiore (it literally means The Biggest One).

002

At last we would be taking another formal tour as we were visiting the island of Isola Bella (Beautiful Island) where Borromeo Palace is located.

077

Borromeo Palace

Borromeo Palace is a palace, but it is not owned by a royal family.  Though the patriarch does hold the title of prince, it is strictly an honorary one obtained through wealth and power.

The place is a work of art and the family still lives in the palace.  I marveled at the treasures secreted within including a bed used by Napoleon Bonaparte who once resided at the palace, grotto rooms, a piece of art made with an estimated 35,000 pieces of glass, and a tapestry room where optical illusions of depth and movement of water were stitched into the fabric.

After the tour, you can tour the palace gardens and also find a variety of food and goods kiosks.  To break up some of my coins and since I was in Italy, I decided to snack on a slice of authentic Italian pizza.  It was pretty good.  The crust was similar to a pan crust, but was light and didn’t weigh on the stomach.

As I ate, a cute spaniel wandered over to me and politely sat down, clearly wanting a bite off my plate.  I looked around for an owner, but didn’t see anyone in sight despite the fact that the dog had a collar.  Those puppy dog eyes melted my heart and I gave the pooch a bit of my crust.  Then I heard someone calling for the dog and waving her finger in a “no no” motion at me, indicating that I shouldn’t feed the dog.

The dog wandered off and I trashed my plate and went to wait for the boat to return to the mainland.

When our group reboarded, we were off again to the city of Zermatt, but stopped briefly at the Simplon Pass.

081

The pass is 3,000 feet above sea level and a biting wind ripped through us as we took pictures of the place.  Swiss soldiers were running training exercises for new recruits and the explosion of cannons echoed throughout the pass.

After our photo break, it was back on the road.  Zermatt is an interesting city as it is a secluded mountain village located 6,000 feet above sea level.  One also has to stop in the city of Tasch to take a train to the village as combustion engines are not allowed there.  Any motorized vehicle is electric.

Zermatt is a very quaint rustic village that feels like one is stepping back in time.  In spite of that feeling the city does boast modern conveniences such as grocery stores, outlet stores, restaurants, grand hotels, and even a McDonald’s.

We checked into the Hotel Pollux where the rooms have actual keys instead of cars.  I opened the door to my room and saw a plush king bed awaiting me.  I smiled as I plugged my camera in for a charge and explored the village.

It was very peaceful up here and I watched children having races at an outdoor rec center and I stopped at Stefanie’s Crepiere to snack on an oh so hot and gooey sugar cinnamon crepe.

We were on our own for dinner tonight though Brane had made arrangements with the restaurant at the nearby Hotel Derby for anyone who was interested.  If we said we were with Globus we would only be charged 19 CHF for the meal plus costs for drinks.  The restaurant had a wide variety of choices so I made use of the offer and enjoyed a delicious mozzarella and tomato risotto and a salad.

103

Tomorrow we get to sleep in a bit, but some of us still have to be in the lobby by 8:20 as we will be braving a climb up Kleine Matterhorn.

Stay tuned. . .

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 4: Well, I’m Sailing

001

We got to sleep in an extra 15 minutes today.  But waking up to this beautiful sight made it all worthwhile.  Not a cloud was in the sky and it looked like it was going to be a perfect day.

I organized my luggage before heading down to breakfast.  It was a zoo!  I made a small plate of ham, bacon, hash browns, cheese, and orange juice before finding a seat at the front of the restaurant.  I ate quickly, then returned to my room for my carry-on bag and heading for the bus.

Once more, we were all on early and began our trek down the mountain.  Now I’ve ridden on mountains before, but nothing had switchbacks like this behemoth.  The lower we got, the higher the temperature rose.  Today’s journey would take us to Lugano, but we would have to pass through the tip of Italy to make it.

We took a small break at a bakery/cafe in Italy where people loaded up on baked goodies and snapped a few pictures of the vista.  We continued on our way until reaching the legendary Lake Como when another photo break was taken.

004

From there we made our way to Lugano where we stopped to take an extra long lunch break of nearly three hours which would allow us to eat, shop, and explore.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at a nearby McDonald’s to find out what the local fast food palate was like.  I opted for a Big Tasty meal.  The Big Tasty is apparently McDonald’s response to Burger King’s Whopper.  The name was apt as it was quite tasty and used a tangy Swiss cheese sauce that really added some punch to the sandwich.  For further proof of how expensive Switzerland is, I paid 14.90 CHF or roughly $15 American.

As I lunched, I noticed quite a bit of school aged kids in the restaurant and wondered if they got a long lunch break from school.  As Brane told me, kids in Switzerland start school at either 7, 7:30. or 8 in the morning and only go until about 1pm.

From there, I began exploring the city center marveling at the myriad shops.  Outside of a drug store, I bumped into fellow travelers, Bill and Bonnie, and joined them as they walked around the area.  We stopped at a Coop City (a popular department store/grocery store chain) where there was a gelato stand and I had a small cup of vanilla gelato with a chocolate topping.  Quite creamy and served as a good dessert.

On our ambulations, we found a large staircase that Val O’Brien nicknamed the Stairway to Forever.  I decided to run up and down the stairs.  All 267 of them.  But it was worth it for the view I had of Lake Lugano from the top of the stairs.

028

029

At 2:45, our driver, Max, picked us up and drove us to our next hotel:  Hotel De La Paix.

036

Hotel De La Paix

This was a swanky hotel and provided me with my biggest room so far.  Loads of room to stretch out and relax.  We would be leaving for a cruise on Lake Lugano followed by dinner at a grotto restaurant at 4:45, so I drew a hot bath where I had a soak and shave and dolled up in my set of dress clothes for the night.

The cruise was quite pleasant and relaxing and we got interesting tidbits of information on the city and islands.  Before I knew it we had arrived at Ristorante Rocabella.

Our host for the evening was Brian who provided us with a bit of comedy as our courses were served.  I sipped on white wine while I enjoyed a meal of prosciutto wrapped melon, veal chops and noodles, and teramisu.  Such an enjoyable night of food and conversation before we sailed back to the hotel for the night.

This night gave us the most free time we had experienced so far which allowed plenty of time for writing and photo posting.  But a good night’s sleep is needed as we have another early day and an earlier leaving time as we head for the city of Zermatt.