Month: August 2010

Money Is Time

Let me start off with this statement: it is impossible to do Disneyworld/Universal Studios on the cheap. You just can’t. With park tickets for one child and one adult coming to $160 a day (for either set of parks) you are already in for it fiscally.

This does not mean you can’t be fiscally prude.

What I did:

I shopped around (full disclosure: I work for Expedia. This does not mean I didn’t shop around. On the contrary, Expedia is a great tool to START shopping, because it’s comprehensive and it gives you a lay of the land —maps, photos, links to Tripadvisor, etc.). I looked at packages because I happen to know package deals do offer savings over booking incrementally – if you don’t believe me, try it ;). I also did not leverage any employee deals). I ended up booking 6 nights, 7 days on Expedia, flying Alaska (my preferred airline) and staying at the WDW Dolphin. I booked ground transportation separately online.

We booked during hurricane season. It’s less expensive and warm rain beats oppressive sun and heat; plus the Disneyworld parks are geared for long lines – in shade, or indoors. It only rains about 30 minutes each day. We did buy rain slickers at Magic Kingdom before we figured this out, $15 not terribly well spent. If you’re really worried about moisture, go at another time or bring collapsible rain shells.

I stayed on property. My rationale was, should we choose to go to any of the Disneyworld parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood, the Water Parks, Downtown Disney) we could take the free busses to and from our hotel, and we wouldn’t have to pay for parking.

For Universal Studios, we rented a car. I had no idea how near/far it was, and so I paid for the prepaid gas option. I also got a Garman GPS because I hate getting lost. The option was between renting a car and taking a cab, and even figuring in parking at Universal ($15), it was still cheaper than the cab from our hotel (the Dolphin).  Universal was worth it for Harry Potter, but note that most of the rides are for kids over 44” if they’re at all “fast”. (The kiddo could ride all rides at Magic Kingdom. He could ride only one of the two Harry Potters).

We went to the Magic Kingdom for two days, rested one day by the pool, and went to Universal for a day. We ate mostly at our hotel (lots of dining options) and took the free bus to Downtown Disney for dinners out like the Rainforest Café and Fuller’s Crab House. We also did a little shopping there (hello, Lego Store!).

What You Should Do/What We’re Doing Next Time:

I’m booking on Expedia again, and likely for the same property or one of the other properties. The Grotto Pool is a big seller here at the Dolphin, and it was great to have someplace fun to go and relax.  I will leverage ground transportation that Disneyworld provides – they apparently have a mass transit system that includes MCO transportation. *AND* I’ll get the meal plan – we spent most of our time eating at WDW hotels/places, it’s likely going to be less expensive next time.

Go to Universal early on in your trip. Rent the car to do it, but DON’T pay for the full fill up at the end: Universal is like 10 miles away, and there’s a gas station (Hess) on the Disneyworld property that you can fill up your car before returning it. Use the car coming BACK from Universal to purchase things like sunscreen, drinks for your room (they have mini fridges), sundries, etc., because for example a bottle of sunscreen on property runs you $17. (Why didn’t I pack sunscreen? I carry on if I can help it. And yes, for a weeklong vacation with a child and my laptop for work, I carried on). Turn the car in same day – no point paying for parking on property. Oh – and don’t rent the Garman with the car. It’s absolutely useless. Rely on a map, or use your iPhone/Crackberry for GPS – more accurate and you’re used to it.

Stay on property if you can afford it.  It’s better than the hassle of driving in and out of the park. You can book close to the park with a hotel that provides a shuttle, and that will likely offer you more dining options.

If you’re staying at the Dolphin or Swan, go to the Garden Café and do the Character Buffet. Worth it, as they have characters on the floor pretty much the entire time, and the food is really quite good. If you want a night out to yourselves, note that you get two free hours of Dolphin Kids Club (movies, videogames, crafts, dinner for kids 3-12 at $10/hour) PER ENTRÉE ordered at one of the nicer restaurants on property.

If you are going to have even the slightest inclination to visit more than one park (we didn’t, but I think next year the kiddo would like to) book your park hopper tickets in advance – they’re less expensive than at the gate.  Note that Magic Kingdom has this process down more efficiently than Universal – you can get them off of a touchscreen machine, vs. Universal still has normal cashiers.

Take cash for contingencies – for example, the spray-on tattoo guy at Universal is cash only. And plan on buying more than souvenirs or food in the parks – the Pirate Adventure ($30) is well worth it (for kids and adults) but if you’re budgeting/watching expenses closely that (or the BibbidyBoppidyBoutique, which makes over your daughter/sister/wife/mother as a princess) can be an unforeseen one.  Again, that cash is well worth it – you get take home souvenirs, usually personalized, and it provides constant entertainment for something like 30 minutes (or more, depending on which kind of makeup you get).

Remember that these parks are here to be fun, and clean, and make money. Every ride at Universal ends in a gift shop; while Disney’s don’t there are many shiny baubles tempting you as you meander through the park. The layout of Universal is also like a casino (weaving through the park, nothing is really interconnected in multiple ways) and Disneyland is like a wheel and spoke (so you can get from Tomorrowland to Adventureland without having to go up through Mickey’s Toon Town, Fantasyland, and Liberty Central first). If you are travelling with small children who have this idea that Mommy/Daddy is the Ultimate Credit Card, establish expectations early as to exactly what and exactly when souvenirs are purchased (at the end is best—you don’t want to have multiple bags on rides). Many souvenir items are available online for nominal shipping – did you really want to haul four wands through Universal Studios? What about that oversized Mickey plush?

Lastly, with your carefully crafted Excel Spreadsheet budget complete, add 10%. Seriously. There will be things you can’t plan for, like floaties or lost goggles or that really cool Quiddich t-shirt or whatever. And with that budget in mind, go forth, and have fun.

Because that’s what vacation is all about.

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The “Dolphin”

Ok, little known fact: I have a BS (Bachelor of Science, not Bull Sh!t) Degree in Zoology. As such, it took me about 45 minutes of concentrated staring to discover why the “Dolphins” of the Walt Disney World “Dolphin” Resort threw me for a loop. It wasn’t that they were cartoon stylized. It wasn’t the scales (ok, that was part of it). It was the complete lack of a dorsal fin.  After deciding this was the only thing wrong with this resort, I laid back and enjoyed myself.

Look, you can go to Expedia or even the WDW site to find out how lovely this place is, you can see pictures, etc. I’ll offer you the things that aren’t spelled out:

1. The all important toiletry rating: “plus”… it has separate Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion; all good stuff. No funky smells, nice and gender neutral. Also, flip-top caps. And they replenish daily.

2. Everyone is friendly. EVERYONE. Maids, pool lifeguards, the guy who advises you on sunscreen, waitstaff, busboys, gardeners, etc. EVERYONE. It’s kind of bizarre, and kind of cool.

3. The busses are worth it when going to the parks, but understand that they come as they come — so it may take up to 15 minutes for one to show for the destination you want. They do go all over the place– in the park. If you want to go outside of the park, I’ll write about that later.

4. The Grotto Pool — best seats are under the waterfall (especially if you, you know, burned yourself to a crisp on day one) or across from the waterfall. The Cabana Restaurant will happily serve you drinks and food at the bar, but will not deliver. You can charge that to the room, along with floatie rentals, sunscreen (yep, it is $17, so you may want to check a bag to pack that), kids goggles, etc. Towels are complementary and thick. They have a water slide to go with the waterfall, and it’s fun — this big kid already did it. Twice.

5. If your typical breakfast is Starbucks, head to the Java Bar at the Swan (it’s a nice walkway to the hotel across — about a block). If you want sit-down, head to the Garden restaurant in the Swan, they have character breakfast on the weekend. Note– sweet stuff is almost cloying sweet, so those chocolate chip pancakes? Really love chocolate. Those apple cinnamon crepes? REALLY love apples and cinnamon.

Other stuff: there’s a National/Alamo rental car company in the hotel, and I will point out it’s cheaper to rent a car for a day for when you want to go to, say, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (at Universal) vs. a cab. Same day rentals are available in the lobby.

Next post: “Budget” travel (no, not really).

The Alex Hotel

Ok, so, moving on: time to (finally) review my last hotel stay. I’ve been reviewing hotels on my other blog, which is all well and good, but at this point there’s no real reason to keep it on the down-low. I work for a travel company: get over it.

The Alex was set up for me by one of our local gurus based on the very basic requirements I had of a hotel: it needed to have a gym (that was back before the triathlon) and it needed to be relatively close to the office. At ten blocks and complete with cardio bikes, it fit the bill.

First impression: Swanky, narrow storefront, done in that tasteful Western-Faux-Asian Minimalism you see pretty much everywhere (e.g., lots of beige with dark/black wood, a single orchid in an interesting clear vase, etc.). Right next to a restaurant that looks decent, done in the same style (yes, they work together). Friendly staff (at the cab, at the door, behind the desk, at the elevator).

The room in question was on the 27th floor (yeah!) with a view of other tall buildings. As it was a suite, the separate dining area (again with the minimalism) had one eccentric (and appreciated) flourish: five (5) each Starburst candies on each of four place settings. If you are doing the math and come up with 20 Starburst candies, you are correct. If you further figure out that I had just got off a 6 hour flight and hadn’t eaten anything since a sad little bagel earlier that morning, this was good news. Fifteen (15) Starburst candies later, I went and unpacked in the separate bedroom.

OK, let’s get this over with: hotel rooms in New York are small. They just are. They have to be fit into buildings that were made with smaller rooms and there’s only so much an architect can do with that. So the “suite” itself was probably 200 square feet, maybe slightly larger, but they used the space exceptionally well. The bedroom had another tv (there was one in the living/dining room) and the bathroom had one as well. The only way you could practically watch tv in the bathroom though was to be sitting perpendicular in the bathtub, which doesn’t strike me as either comfortable or a good idea. I don’t sit in hotel bathtubs for the same reason I take off the comforter cover in hotels — I don’t care how clean it looks, I know it’s not. I digress…

Second impression: After going to an event for the evening I got back to the hotel when it was dark out, and the view had much improved — lots of little lights in lots of little windows, and anyone wishing to play voyeur was treated with a view of an executive sitting by himself at a ten person conference table, working until what turned out to be 11:30. I know this because I worked until midnight, as I was referencing my computer clock (PST) and not the local time (no clocks anywhere in the main room, anyway).  Having a kitchenette equipped with the usual mini-bar accoutrements as well as real dishes and cookware was great — if you want to cook. When I’m working I don’t want to cook, but made a mental note that the cookware itself was quite nice.

The three times I went to the gym, it was manned by a nice guy sitting next to a rack of towels and headsets (towels so you can sweat onto something other than the machine, headsets so you can take advantage of the individual tv’s in front of each machine). There are at least 2 treadmills, 2 elliptical machines, and a cardio bike (there may be more than one, I was half asleep most of the time).

The Toiletries: Now, on the other blog I have a rating system for hotels based entirely on toiletries. This is important, because if you think about it, toiletries tell you a lot about a hotel:

  • How do they see themselves?- a hotel with a simple bar of soap and shampoo is validating it’s utilitarian existence: you’re not staying here for the hotel, you’re staying here because you can’t stay anywhere else.
  • How much cash they spend on the “little” things? – hotel-branded toiletries are fine, but they’re an X factor. Now if they’ve partnered with a spa, they’ve paid a bit more for the toiletries
  • How lavish are they with said little things? – some places want to give you the impression of reckless and relentless luxury: replacing toiletries daily, even if it is evident that you have only used a little bit (or none at all) of the previous day’s provisions.
  • What do they think it likely that a guest will need, and/or want, that they haven’t packed? – I get a kick out of places where they include something like bath salts or mouthwash or face lotion (separate from hand and body lotion).

The tag I gave the toiletry rating was based on gasoline (hey, I coined it five years ago) with your Motel 6 single-use bar soap and purportedly conditioning shampoo equivalent to “Leaded”. Your separate shampoo and conditioner hotels? That’s Regular. Separate shampoo, conditioner, and lotion is for a “Plus” gasoline rating; although I don’t know anyone who actually buys that gas. You either buy the super high-octane or regular. Supreme is a hotel that has everything “Plus” has, and an item (or two) that they use to differentiate themselves (bath salts, mouthwash, vanity kit). And racing fuel? That’s reserved for the hotel that has *everything* — bath salts and mouthwash and a shoe polish kit and reusable sewing kit etc. etc. etc.

The Alex is, I’m happy to say, “Supreme”. They have *good* shampoo and conditioner, and the bath gel makes you smell like Fruit Loops (a bonus in a hot, humid, smelly city). They didn’t overdo it on the replenishment, either — the pattern seems to be every other day.

Internet is $15/day and there’s a hotel use service fee thing of $1.50 per day that’s beyond the usual Room Charge and occupancy tax. Room service is available from the restaurant downstairs near the entrance (hi, Riingo!). I did eat there on my last day, the food is good and frankly not as expensive as you would expect for that kind of food in NYC.

Verdict: I’d definitely go back. Especially on the company dime 🙂

Whimper Whimper

I met with the surgeon today.

Apparently, adenocarcinoma sucks and what sucks about it is its metastatic rate (it gets big and ugly fast) and its recursion rate (it comes back, even if you get the whole tumor; you have to make sure you have “clean margins”* and even that is no guarantee). What sucks particular in Kumi’s case is that the tumor is right on, and around, her sphincter. I realize that may be too much information for you, but as the surgeon put it: there is a very good chance that she is going to be incontinent for life if he has to snip both nerves that control the sphincter.

The normal surgical method to ensure clean margins is to excise a gratuitous amount of tissue around the tumor — so if it were on her back, for example, he’d cut out a good half-inch all the way around, and just sew it up. But because it’s on her sphincter, he can’t do that. And if he is trying to get as close as possible to the edge of the tumor, it means the chances of getting good clean margins goes way down.

Further adding to the equation is that “rest of her life” — statistically, dogs with adenocarcinoma have an average of 8 months post-surgery. Without surgery she has a “few weeks to a few months”. There is no more accurate way to look at it, because of the nature of the cancer. And with the recursion rate post-surgery, and her age (she’s 9yrs 9mos, the average Malamute lives to 9-11 years), it wasn’t a good sign that the usually optimistic surgeon was telling me about all the tough decisions he’s had to make with his pets. (Veterinary surgeons are among the most optimistic people in the world — they have to be, because of all of the complications that surgery brings). He kept bringing up “quality of life” and “there’s no good way to go” and “I tell my wife that one of these days we’ll be lucky and have one of our pets go peacefully in their sleep”. 

*Clean margins – they excise the tumor and send it to the lab. The idea is as they slice it, all of the exterior edges should have noncancerous cells.

Whimper

I was in New York last week, where I took full advantage of my hotel’s gym, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

I was going to talk about the travel aspect of New York, having decided that I travel more than I enroll for events, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

I have a sinus infection courtesy of the Newark-Seattle Continental flight I took, and that will very likely kill my ability to do the triathlon this Sunday, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

I have a dog. Actually, I have two, but I have a dog named Kumi that I raised from a puppy. She has spent the last five years being raised solely by me, and being a very good girl. I have taught her new tricks in the last few years (Stay — while waving a cookie in the face) and subjected her to a second dog (dubious choice but that’s done) and she’s been the only constant thing in my life in the last five years. She is nearly ten years old.

I found out yesterday she has cancer. What looked like a small lump on her rear (and appeared quite suddenly) is a tumor, and little bits of it are out to a pathology lab for testing. Bloodwork was done as well and that is out for testing.  She can have one of two kinds of cancer: one that’s annoying, will require surgery, and probably some lifelong(?) discomfort in her hind end.

The other means, as the vet put it, “we have to talk about solutions for her comfort”.

I know that talk, and I know she’s hedging, because I used to work in a vet clinic. The first day I worked there I watched an old man have to put his lab down, and the last day I worked there I watched a little boy bring in his dead bunny. It was 18 months of bad smells, pain, and lessons in emotional restraint. She is required to look on the bright side, but as soon as she took the biopsy and it bled, she said, “Well that’s not good”.

Kumi, aside from the aforementioned lump, looks like she always has. She’s lost a little weight, and she’s a little slower than she used to be, but she’s nearly 10 and that is expected. She still wags her tail, still runs around like mad given the opportunity, still eats all of her food and will happily help you with yours.

I don’t want to think about what “solutions for her comfort” means even though I know what they are. It means how long do you want to see your puppy alive and to what expense of their pain threshold or their ability to get around and remain continent. It means that it’s very likely that at some point, I am going to have to be the decider.

I really, really don’t want to be.