RAGBRAI 2019, day 3: Winterset to Indianola

A few days after I drove the first two days of the RAGBRAI route, I started where I left off: in Winterset, Iowa. I had become lost on the gravel hills of Madison County at the end of that first day, but today I was fresh and ready to start again.

I knew I would find lots of opportunities in Winterset; it’s a great community (population 5,190).

The first thing I found? Corn. Not fields of corn, but actual corn you can eat, at a sweet corn stand right on the main drag into Winterset. I wheeled in there and bought a big bag from these guys:

Actually, I did one other thing before I even got to Winterset: I stopped at Covered Bridges Winery. Madison County has several wineries, and this one is right outside Winterset on Hwy. 169. I stopped by to take a few photos and was such a big fan of their logo that I almost bought a T-shirt! I like the wine names, like Francesca’s Folly (an easy-drinking blush) and Hogback Bridge (a sweet red), tasting room is modern and attractive. The winery has “Sunday Wine Down” events all summer, with free music, wine, and snacks for purchase. Given that I was driving the RAGBRAI route, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to sample the wine; I’ll wait and do that another day.

Back in the downtown area, I had already photographed the Madison County Courthouse, some of the surrounding shops, and the Iowa movie theater when I was here earlier:

 

I wanted to visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, but I did not want to pay the $14 entry fee. I’m not that enthusiastic about John Wayne.

 

Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. His home is small and tidy.

Nearby is the Winterset Freedom Rock, painted by Ray “Bubba” Sorensen. This county’s rock features many of the military films starring The Duke, which seems appropriate.

I visited Roseman Bridge on my previous visit, but you can’t be in Madison County and only visit one covered bridge, right? So I went to the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge (below), which was built in 1871 but moved to Winterset City Park in 1970. It gets my vote as easiest to get to and with the least amount of gravel. And it’s just as cool as the Roseman bridge.

 

On my way out of town I stopped by the Cedar Covered Bridge (below), which is famous for all the wrong reasons. It’s been the site of arson and rebuilding (both in the early 2000s), which kind of makes me sick when I think about it. It has lost much of its historical beauty.

I mentioned in the Atlantic to Winterset post that I discovered a new (to me) Iowa Byway. And now, here’s another one! The Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. This route encompasses, obviously, the covered bridges in Madison County, but also other scenic natural, cultural, and historic areas. The route is 82 miles long.

 

Speaking of route, today’s RAGBRAI route is historically short. Actually, if you drove straight from Winterset to Indianola, it’s just 25 miles (and 31 minutes by car). Even with the never-direct RAGBRAI route, it’s still only 39.9 miles. Today will be a breeze for the bikers, compared with the hills they had to climb the two previous days.

Once the cyclists leave Winterset, they will not encounter any towns for quite a while. They’ll actually stop at Howell’s Greenhouse & Pumpkin Patch for a “RAGBRAI OASIS” sponsored by the Iowa Soybean Association. I stopped there, too, and think this will be fun for the riders.

It’s too early for pumpkins, of course (too bad; that would be fun), but there will be some of the normal fall activities retrofitted for summer (i.e., the pumpkin cannon becomes the gourd cannon). I spoke with some of the folks there, and they said cyclists should expect food vendors, booths, and other fun activities.

I nosed around in the barn shop and greenhouse, and I watched people playing with baby goats.

I was looking forward to visiting the town of Cumming. There’s an active bike trail that goes right past Cumming Tap, so that’s a great place to see cyclists stopping off for a refreshing beverage any time during the summer. Unfortunately, Wednesday afternoon must not be a hopping time for Cumming Tap or the bike path – or the town of Cumming, for that matter – because it was very quiet.

Cumming is also home to the Iowa Distilling Company (conveniently located right across the street from Cumming Tap). And also an old, preserved gas station.

Norwalk, today’s “meeting town” on the RAGBRAI route, is mostly a bedroom community. Its proximity to Des Moines and I-35 have spurred the growth in the community from 8,945 in 2010 to 10,590 in 2016 – and more today, I’m sure. Norwalk definitely looks like a suburb, with rows upon rows of newer homes – and more being built – plus schools, churches, and other signs of expansion. That’s in contrast to its tiny main street that has seen better days.

After Norwalk, it’s on to Indianola along R63. Indianola (population 14,782) is home to the annual National Balloon Classic and to the year-round National Balloon Museum and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame. I’ve really enjoyed attending the balloon events in August; in fact, attending my first one about 10 years ago was the inspiration to start a blog about Iowa.

Indianola is also home to Simpson College, a small liberal arts college. The college has 1,250 full-time and 300 part-time students.

Des Moines Metro Opera, a highly regarded opera company, also has its headquarters and performance space in the heart of Indianola. I arrived the main building – the Lauridsen Opera Center – just before the staff was leaving for the day to prepare for the evening’s performance. It’s a beautifully renovated space, located in the old Indianola Public Library building, one of the Carnegie libraries that are scattered throughout Iowa. I love the photos and quotes on the walls: “World-class opera grows tall, proud in the Cornbelt,” said the Chicago Tribune; “Don’t tell anyone, but Des Moines has good opera,” writes the New York Times.

 

Indianola’s downtown area gets my vote (so far) for Best RAGBRAI Signage with this mural featuring cyclists in silhouette:

I didn’t visit them, but three wineries are located in and around Indianola: Summerset, La Vida Loca, and Annelise. All are open for tastings and events.

With that, I headed back to Ames. I finished today’s route just in time for rush hour.

 

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RAGBRAI 2019, day 2: Atlantic to Winterset

I arrived in Atlantic around noon on my first day of driving the RAGBRAI XLVII route. Atlantic is the first overnight stop along the route – the sixth time the town has been selected for an overnight stop in RAGBRAI history.

I’ve driven the route some days and experienced disappointment at the lack of food resources along the way, especially when I try to stop for lunch after 1 p.m. For that reason, I’ve started bringing food with me. As I sat on a bench in downtown Atlantic, chewing my peanut butter sandwich, I saw several places to eat with their OPEN signs lit. I guess I should have checked out the possibilities before digging into my sack lunch.

Atlantic – population 7,112 and the Coca-Cola capital of Iowa – is a pretty nice little town. I found a lot to like: Thrift stores, downtown shops, movie theater, Coca-Cola museum, beautiful old homes. I thought it was funny to see a vintage Pepsi sign on one of the buildings… in this city of Coke.

Out on the highway, there are the usual chain stores and restaurants, which I always avoid. As I left town, I drove past a motel where I stayed last summer when I came to this area to celebrate a college friend’s milestone birthday.

Today’s route starts out with a quick pass through Wiota, where there isn’t much to see (sorry, Bob).

Anita, Iowa, on the other hand, has my nomination for Best Welcome Sign. It’s a cut-out of a bear wearing red-checkered pants and yellow shoes, holding a big blue fish printed with the words “Anita: A Whale Of A Town.” You’ve gotta love it, right?

For a town with fewer than a thousand residents, it’s surprising that Anita has an 18-hole golf course, a cute downtown, and a fair amount of other services and amenities.

I especially like Lake Anita State Park, just south of Anita and not technically on the RAGBRAI route. I drove there, parked my car, and walked along the bike path that loops the lake. It was a beautiful day, and the lake’s edges were filled with water lilies. I also encountered birds, geese, cyclists, and flowering milkweed covered with butterflies.

I hope the nature-loving cyclists have an opportunity to experience the beauty of this state park.

Next town on the route is Adair, where I found a very large John Deere dealer, a city park, and a rooster crowing loudly at 2 p.m.

It was leaving Adair that I first noticed a new Iowa Byways sign for White Pole Road Scenic Byway. When did this happen? I thought I had driven all of the Iowa Byways, and I have a brochure that details each of them (though it is a few years old). But I didn’t know about White Pole Road.

I was interested in the history of the designation, so I looked it up. According to the Travel Iowa website, the 26-mile route, located between Adair and Dexter along old US Hwy 6, was formerly part of the route known as the Great White Way. It was lined with 700 white-painted telephone poles, linking five small towns and events from wagon times and train robberies to present day.

Well, I like this road and I’m happy to know more about its origins.

I’m guessing that a lot of Iowa towns are celebrating their sesquicentennials this year, because as I entered Casey there were signs proclaiming the 150th anniversary celebration (I’d encountered Avoca’s celebration earlier in the day). Casey’s celebration was scheduled for the next weekend, July 12-14.

I felt a strong sense of community in Casey, with its retro banners, flower baskets, and veterans’ pocket park

I got confused for the first time all day, trying to follow the RAGBRAI map to Menlo. The road signs said Hwy 25, a north/south road, and I needed to go east on county road F65. I did a number of U-turns before finally deciding to just head south on 25 and see what would happen. It turns out that the road was also F65, a fact that would have been nice to know at the intersection. But I did meet these nice horses during one of my side-of-the-road-map-reading sessions.

I got to see more of White Pole Road, too:

I had fun photographing signs and a vintage gas station in Menlo (population 342):

I have to add these fun factoids gleaned about Menlo from Wikipedia:

Menlo “hosts an annual avacado [sic] festival and lawnmower races. Turbo has won the lawnmower races 33 years stright [sic]. In 2019 Turbo extended his winning streak to 34 straight victories at the sesquicentennial celebration.” And: “Paul Bunyan was born in Menlo in 1642.” I think it’s especially chuckle-worthy that this entry misspells “avocado” and “straight” but correctly spells “sesquicentennial.” Somebody must have looked it up.

Stuart, Iowa, is the meeting town on this second day of RAGBRAI. Of all the towns I drove through today, Stuart was the friendliest. A woman walking downtown smiled and said “good morning!” then corrected herself and said “I mean, good afternoon!” We both laughed.

Stuart has an Instagram-worthy downtown and the “strictly modern” Hotel Stuart:

And then it’s on to Dexter. I clearly failed to do enough pre-travel research, because I learned when looking up the White Pole Road Scenic Byway that Dexter is home to Drew’s Chocolates, the only candy shop in the country (emphasis mine) that daily fork-dips each piece by hand.

Also, according to Wikipedia, Dexter (population 600) was the site of a shootout between members of the Bonnie & Clyde gang and police in 1933.

And now here we are in lovely downtown Dexter:

The next town on the route is Earlham, the last stop before the route turns sharply south. Up until now, as I mentioned, it’s been following that White Pole Road byway, which is due east.

Earlham is a tiny town with a hint of class, as shown by its downtown architecture and shops:

RAGBRAI’s Day 2 route ends in Winterset. As I was heading south on P57, I saw a sign for the Roseman covered bridge, built in 1883 and famous for its role in “The Bridges of Madison County” book and movie. I’ve visited the bridge a few times before, but I thought, What the heck, why not take this gravel road and shoot some photos before finishing my drive in Winterset? Here’s the bridge, which comes complete with its own gift shop:

That seemed like a good idea at the time, but after visiting the bridge I got ridiculously lost on The Never-ending Gravel Roads of Madison County. (If I were writing the book, that would be the title.) The gravel hills are like freaking roller coasters, and none of them seem to A) go any particular cardinal direction nor B) go more than about a half mile before ending at a T intersection or turning off slightly with a different road name. I gave myself a deadline to get un-lost before turning to Google Maps (oh, the horror of using Google Maps on a RAGBRAI drive!)

But I finally found (without Google) a paved road (Hwy. 169) way the hell south of Winterset. I did spend a little time in the downtown area before heading back to Ames for the night, but I’ll save that for my next blog post: Winterset to Indianola.

RAGBRAI 2019, day 1: Council Bluffs to Atlantic

It’s July, so it’s time for my annual-ish drive across the state of Iowa, following the designated RAGBRAI route. This is always a cool opportunity to get out the big Iowa map, travel along county roads and through small towns, and see parts of Iowa I’ve never seen before.

To be clear, I do this by car, not bike.

I started this year’s drive the 4th of July weekend, spending a full day driving the first two RAGBRAI sections.

The route starts in familiar territory: Council Bluffs. It takes about 2.5 hours to get there from my house in Ames, so I will admit that I only drove as far as the edge of the town to get gas at Casey’s and then turned back east on the official route. I was eager to be on my way.

Riders will experience a teensie bit of the Loess Hills right at the very beginning of Day 1 – not nearly enough, in my opinion. I think every RAGBRAI route should start with a full embrace of Loess Hills.

The beginning of the route runs parallel to Interstate 80, so close that you can see and hear it.

Driving along county road G8L, I was immediately greeted by a patriotic hay bale before rolling into Underwood, population 917.

The next town, Neola, has a good welcome sign, a ball field, big American flag, and brightly painted water tower, all as you enter the town.

Continuing through Neola, I stopped at what appears to be an old movie theater. The sign says the Phoenix operated from 1913 to 2011.

I vaguely remember driving through here before, because there’s an engaging black-and-white mural of the Champlin gas station, complete with vintage cars from the 1940s. Here’s a detail:

Neola also has a bar called the Tipsy Cow, another mural – this one a salute to veterans – a church with a steeple so tall you can see it from all over town, and a small downtown area with buildings in various stages of disrepair.

Next up is Minden, with its grocery store, park, greenhouse, and fireworks stand. And a lot of American flags. (It’s 4th of July weekend, after all.)

Continuing on county road G18 toward Avoca, I encountered slow farm equipment, good-looking corn, and killer hills. To me, the hills are fun. To the bikers on RAGBRAI, they will probably be less so.

In Avoca, today’s “meeting town” on the RAGBRAI route, I inadvertently stumbled upon the town’s 150th celebration. Wow, this is a big summer for Avoca – first a sesquicentennial and then a RAGBRAI stop.

The celebration ran July 3-6, with games and a farmers market, car show, train display, scavenger hunt, barbeque, corn boil, watermelon feed, beer garden, talent show, fireworks, 5K run, pancake breakfast, swimming, kiddie parade, sand volleyball, ice cream social, food trucks, and lots more. Just thinking about the planning that goes into this kind of small-town celebration makes me tired.

The day I was there (Saturday, July 6: “Born To Be Wild” day, according to a sign in one storefront), there were a lot of bikes of a different type: motorcycles.

I was intrigued by the trivia questions in some of the store windows. Do you know what was built in Avoca in 1924 and at 250 feet long and 135 feet wide is said to be the largest in the state of Iowa? Well, I do not. (Let me know if you have the answer, because this is bugging me.)

I hated to just drive away from Avoca’s celebratory downtown, but I was eager to get to Walnut, Iowa’s Antique City. (As an editor, I cringe at this, because I’m sure that it should be “Iowa’s Antiques City,” right? The city’s not an antique; it has antiques stores. Anyway, sorry to digress.)

I love antiques, so I’ve been to Walnut several times before. If you are NOT an antiques lover, you might want to avoid this town, because that’s pretty much the only thing here. A few images for you:

I poked through a few of the shops and managed not to spend any money. I did enjoy just perusing the storefronts, murals, and other visual details. They are clearly starting to prepare for RAGBRAI here in Walnut (population 785).

The land around Walnut is pretty: hills, curves, corn, wind turbines. After leaving Walnut, I drove through Marne (population 115) without stopping, even for one photo. Perhaps I was too hasty. Marne has a darn nice website, touting the town’s “convenient location between Omaha and Des Moines” and its proximity to I-80. There’s apparently a beautiful park with tons of amenities. How did I miss this? My favorite thing about the website? Pictures of pie. Marne’s slogan, if you’re curious, is “From a proud past to a promising future.” All I know is that I slowed down a bit, looked left, looked right, and then noticed that the speed limit had gone back up.

Wow, today went by quickly on four wheels – I’m sure it will feel a lot longer on two. I got to Atlantic (population 7,112) around noon. I’ll tell you more about it in my next post: Atlantic to Winterset.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Well, after Yosemite you’d think these two lesser-known California national parks would disappoint. But I really loved this area.

First of all, it’s much less crowded. Secondly, we had an awesome lodge, as opposed to the fantastically placed but outdated Yosemite Valley Lodge.  We took some great hikes, climbed Moro Rock, saw bears, and got to (literally) hug some truly massive trees.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon are two national parks, but they’re sort of packaged together. The visitor guide and all the brochures are together, and entrance fees are combined.

We arrived in the afternoon after spending the morning in Yosemite, so we got a fairly late start. We drove the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, stopping to take photos at scenic vistas and to take a couple of short hikes:

We were very tired when we arrived at our overnight, Wuksachi Lodge, located in Sequoia National Park.

We didn’t have dinner reservations and there were no tables to be had in the dining room, so we sat in the bar and ordered food off the menu. Tonight, we slept well.

The next day we drove the Generals Highway to our destinations: Sherman Tree Trail, Moro Rock, and sequoia trees so large and famous that they’ve been given their own names.

We loved the giant trees and the relative solitude of the hiking trails. At times, we were alone among the trees. Other times, we were hiking with just a few other people. We walked through meadows and along streams and through the oldest living trees on the planet.

How many pictures of trees do you want to see? Probably not very many. They all look pretty much alike. And not one of them really shows how freaking cool these trees are in real life.

Hiking Moro Rock (above) was a fun experience. Also strenuous and a little bit scary and ultimately invigorating. Here are some photos from the trek to the top:

On one hike, we encountered marmots, which look like a beaver without the big, flat tail. I think they’re exceedingly cute.

We also got our first bear sighting of the trip! We’re told these two were probably juveniles, but they seemed HUGE to me.

We had a relaxing evening on the patio, eating pizza with a bunch of people we just met.

The next day, we ended our visit to Kings Canyon and Sequoia with a walk through Grant Grove.

Here are some parting shots:

Yosemite National Park

I’ve always had this vision of Yosemite that made it seem otherworldly, untouchable. Like somewhere I’d never get to actually see. It was for people with money and connections and serious climbing gear. In my mind, it was a combination of Ansel Adams’ pristine photography and a valley so crammed with tourists that the line of cars would stretch forever. The idea of Half Dome seemed completely inaccessible to me, and I couldn’t even imagine El Capitan. I thought the park would be impossibly large. All of these things were contradictory and confusing. I clearly didn’t know what to expect.

After spending four days in the park, I have such an intense love for this place that I can’t believe I was so conflicted about it. Yosemite’s beauty goes far beyond anything I’ve experienced in the National Park System – except in Alaska. It was approachable, easy to navigate, and filled with happy people – but not so full that the people and cars overshadowed the nature. For me, Yosemite was a land of surprises.

I’ll start at the beginning. We arrived at the west entrance gate the first morning and were ready to dive right in. We thought the park would be so large that once we got to the valley we wouldn’t get back to this point, so we explored the immediate area.

Based on a recommendation from a park ranger, we started with a hike at Merced Grove, famous for its giant trees. We were prepared to hike in Yosemite – we brought hiking shoes, sun protection, rain gear, water, camera equipment, backpack, hiking sticks, you name it – but we left most of it in the rental car. It was a pretty day, and the hike was only a couple of miles along a well-marked path.

Well, you already know where this is going, right? Things change. Weather is tricky. We were about halfway to the end of the grove when we heard the first clap of thunder. We made it to our destination – a stand of huge trees – before it started raining, but then we had to hike back. Oh, and did I say “rain”? It was actually hail. So much hail that my hair was filled with ice and the trail was white and we were super wet and freezing cold and the word “hypothermia” crossed my mind.

Welcome to Yosemite. Land of surprises, indeed.

But the freak storm ended and we dried off and took another hike in nearby Tuolumne Grove to see more mind-blowingly-large trees (above). This time we carried more gear, which of course we did not need.

After a picnic lunch, we drove into Yosemite Valley and were blown away by one spectacular sight after another: Our first look at Half Dome. The imposing El Capitan. Yosemite Fall. Bridalveil Fall. The rushing white-water rapids of Merced River. Sentinel Bridge. The famous “Tunnel View” where you can see Half Dome and El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall all at the same time.

Well, I should just shut up and show you the pictures:

We did all this sight-seeing before we even checked in to Yosemite Valley Lodge, our home for the next three nights. It was an incredible day. Maybe the best day EVER. I was so stoked to be staying in Yosemite Valley, with Yosemite Falls pounding behind our lodge, that I didn’t even care that our room was tiny and probably furnished in the 1970s. We found a bar within our “village” that served good beer and surprisingly good food and called it a night.

Oh, and today was Dave’s birthday.

 

Day 2

The next day we left our car in the parking lot and took off on foot. We wanted to hike and explore and take the shuttle buses wherever we needed to go.

We had a whole list of hiking trails we wanted to attempt. We started with a hike at Mirror Lake, with its views of the surrounding peaks (above). Apparently it’s not really a lake but just part of Tenaya Creek. Anyway, the hike is just an easy two-mile loop but we didn’t end up doing the whole thing because the signage confused us.

We meandered around and took the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and tromped around Lower Yosemite Fall and got wet with a couple hundred goofy tourists with selfie sticks.

We walked through meadows and watched deer – they are as tame as dogs, these deer – and hung out at the Yosemite Museum and Ansel Adams Gallery. I think we overdid it the first day, because we were really tired.

We chose our lodging – Yosemite Valley Lodge – because of the location and because it was considered moderately priced. There are other lodging choices in Yosemite: Campgrounds are cheaper; The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is very pricey; Big Trees Lodge is cool and historic but located a long way outside the valley. I wanted to at least visit the Majestic and Big Trees, so we decided to eat meals at both places.

Tonight we ate a disappointing dinner at the cafeteria in our village and had more beers in the bar.

 

Day 3

We had a breakfast reservation at the Majestic the next morning. It was a Sunday. Our reservation was early, but we knew the shuttle buses would be running. We put on our nicest clothes and waited at the shuttle stop. We waited a long time. An older man was waiting with us, and he was complaining loudly about how slow the shuttle service was. According to him, just two buses start circulating at 7 a.m. (many others are added later). One bus is supposed to go one direction, the other bus the other direction. There are about 20 shuttle stops, and it takes a long time to make the whole loop. He theorized that both buses went the same direction. And he was right. Long (boring) story short, we waited so long for our shuttle to pick us up that we ended up walking to the Majestic (me wearing shoes not made for trail hiking) only to be passed by BOTH of the shuttle buses going the same direction. I was very cold and irritated by the time we got to the hotel (half an hour late), but the enormous dining room seemed really warm and welcoming. Until they told us the buffet would cost $56 per person and sat us, literally, in between two waiter stations even though there were a gazillion other available tables. (In hindsight, why did I not ask to move to a better table?) Luckily, we could order food from the menu, so we weren’t stuck with a $135 breakfast bill. I ordered The Continental, which ended up being some fruit and coffee and juice a plate filled with such amazing little pastries that I forgot all about being pissed off and just enjoyed it. (See the hotel’s historic interior, above.)

Our destination for the day – Hetch Hetchy – required our car, so we caught the shuttle back to our lodge, changed clothes, and drove out of the valley. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir (above) provides drinking water and hydroelectric power to the city of San Francisco and was the site of some serious controversy between John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt (spoiler alert: the president won). It’s a beautiful area, but we didn’t think it was nearly as pretty as the valley. We were planning to hike the trails around the reservoir, but once we crossed the O’Shaughnessy Dam we encountered standing water on the trail that would have filled our shoes. We considered doing the hike anyway but ultimately decided were unwilling to get our feet that wet for a walk that didn’t look all that interesting.

We had talked to a park ranger the day before about going up to Glacier Point, a destination south of the valley that isn’t far as the crow flies but is a fairly long drive down and around and up a mountain. He said there was snow on the peaks, with a potential for wet, snowy trails. After our disappointment at Hetch Hetchy, we had plenty of time on our hands, so we cut our losses and headed for Glacier Point anyway.

As we drove up the mountain, we did indeed see a lot of snow on the sides of the road. Some of the side roads were actually blocked off because of deep snow. And it was raining by this time, so we had sort of low expectations for the Glacier Point lookout.

Hoo, boy, were we wrong. Turns out there were a lot of crazy people who drove up the mountain in the rain, and they were all hanging out up there getting soaked. We found a place to park and decided the rain was light enough that we should just hike up to see the view before the weather got any worse.

Our first glimpse at our surroundings took our breath away. We pulled our rain jackets over our cameras and started shooting. Every few yards the view became more spectacular. By the time we got to the top, it was just unbelievably gorgeous. The low clouds just added to the dream-like atmosphere. Eventually, as we stood there with our mouths hanging open, the sun came out and we had to shoot everything over again because it looked completely different. How many pictures can you take of a snow-kissed Half Dome? It turns out A LOT.

Again, just shut up and show the pictures.

For a day that started off with an overpriced breakfast, bad service, and an iffy reservoir, today ended up being another Best Day Ever.

We eventually stopped taking pictures and saying “WOW” over and over and headed back to our car. On the drive back down the mountain, the road was covered with new snow. At the intersection at the base of the mountain, we learned that our 45-minute-ish drive back to the valley would be a tiny bit longer. The road was closed due to mudslides. (Apparently this happens.) We could wait an indeterminate length of time to see when (if) the road opened back up, or we could take the very long route south and west then north and east back to the main entrance. It took for freaking ever. Maybe three hours. But the drive along the Merced River back into the valley almost made up for it. Almost.

We were really ready for our evening beer.

 

Day 4

The next morning, we checked out of our lodge and drove south in the park to Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. If I remember my John Muir history right, this was one of the first places he sought to have preserved as a national park-type area, before Yosemite was a national park.

We took the Mariposa Grove Trail and the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail and took more pictures of large trees than were strictly necessary, especially considering that we were headed next to Sequoia National Park, home of the most giant of giant trees.

After we had our fill of large trees, we doubled back a bit into the park to eat lunch at the aptly named Big Trees Lodge. I was hoping to dine on the wrap-around veranda, but we were served in the dining room instead. Still, it was a nice meal.

So, that’s my Yosemite experience. If you go, I have a couple of pieces of advice: First, stay overnight in the valley. You won’t regret it. And plan your trip a year in advance if you can, because even though it seems like there’s plenty of lodging in the valley, it fills up very quickly, especially during the summer months. Also, if you go too early in the season, just be aware that many of the roads will be closed. We were there at the very end of May / first of June and Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows (an area I would have loved to see) was still closed. Glacier Point Road had just opened before we got there.

Here’s a lovely thought: Maybe someday I’ll go back in the fall.

Exploring San Francisco’s National Park sites

For my husband, Dave’s, 60th birthday in late May, he wanted to do nothing more than visit National Park Service attractions in California. His number-one goal was to see Yosemite National Park, but we were able to cram in half a dozen more for good measure.

We started in San Francisco with a ferry to Alcatraz – yep, the former U.S. penitentiary on Alcatraz Island is run by the Park Service. And it’s surprisingly popular. We saw boat after boat heading to the small island in the bay.

The now-defunct prison has a fascinating history, from the Birdman to attempted escapes to Al Capone. I learned about the American Indian occupation in the 1960s, of which I was previously unaware, and about the families of the correctional officers who lived on the island.

The cellhouse itself not as cool as the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum in Philadelphia, but it’s interesting. And the views of San Francisco are outstanding.

Of course, while we were there on Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked around, ate a couple of meals, and barked at the sea lions.

The next day, we drove to Eugene O’Neill’s home in Danville. Tours of the famous playwright’s last home, Tao House, are given a couple of times a day. The isolated home is situated on a hillside, and you have to drive through a few gates to get there, so you meet the park ranger downtown and ride up with him.

On this particular day, we were the only visitors, so we had a nice chat with the guide and actually found out we had friends in common in Illinois. Small world.  Anyway, O’Neill is most famous for his plays Ah, Wilderness!, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He is a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner. The house and its remote setting are worth a visit:

That afternoon we visited another home, this one belonging to the famous conservationist John Muir in Martinez, Calif.

Muir has been called the father of national parks, and he worked tirelessly to preserve America’s wild lands. He’s closely associated with what is now Yosemite National Park and with his influence on President Theodore Roosevelt.

Here’s the house and some of the interiors:

After seeing Muir’s home and watching a film about his life, we were inspired to visit Muir Woods National Monument in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco.

It’s a peaceful, wonderful place. We took a hike through groves of redwoods, many of them more than 600 years old.

We were lucky to be able to visit Muir Woods, because you have to get a reservation in advance – and this was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Luckily, there’s an app and we were able to snag a time. I’m so glad it worked out.

Ames 4th of July Parade

How is it possible to get SO MANY people to turn out for a small-town parade? The Ames 4th of July Parade route was packed this morning. The weather was pretty great, and all the kiddos were there with their candy bags at the ready.

The parade was a bit more political than usual, with Bernie Sanders supporters blowing away the Elizabeth Warren supporters…who blew away both the Story County Democrats and Story County Republicans. There were climate change activists and people protesting puppy mills.

But, mostly, it was just fun. Here are some scenes:

Strolling and eating in New Orleans

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New Orleans is known for its food – from Creole, Cajun, and French-inspired delicacies to sweet beignets and pecan pralines. I visited The Big Easy last month for work and didn’t have much free time to explore, but I did manage to find a lot of great food and to revisit some of my favorite places.

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I started with lunch at Café Beignet (334 Royal St.) in the French Quarter. Its tagline –  “Beignet…done that” – made me groan every time I saw it, and I saw it a lot, because there are several locations and not a small amount of advertising. I was too late to order breakfast, and all their sandwiches were much too meaty for my vegetarian diet, so I ordered a modified sandwich with cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted croissant. I sat inside the small restaurant, but diners could also eat at the adjacent courtyard.

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I spent the afternoon walking in the French Quarter, strolling through the French Market (above) and flea market on Decatur Street, until I reached Frenchmen Street – my favorite place to hang out in New Orleans. It’s a small area just past the east end of the French Quarter, across Esplanade (a lovely boulevard with charming homes and huge oak trees).

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Frenchmen Street is known for its live music, funky shops, and restaurants. I revisited the Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor (610 Frenchmen St., above) where I got my first tattoo, and stopped by the Spotted Cat music club (623 Frenchmen St., below) to listen to some live jazz.

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Eventually I got hungry and climbed the stairs to Adolfo’s, a small Italian restaurant on the second floor above a jazz club. The place is cash only, which is kind of inconvenient, but the food was excellent. A lot of people were eating mussels, which is apparently a specialty, but I had a cheese-filled pasta that tasted incredibly fresh, and the price was very reasonable.

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I also revisited a small tavern called Erin Rose, a place I discovered years ago on my first trip to New Orleans. Erin Rose (811 Conti St., just a block off Bourbon St.) is a small Irish pub, just teeming with tradition and memorabilia. During that first visit, this was the first place I felt at home in the city, as a solo female traveler. The bartenders were friendly, and I had some interesting conversations with other bar patrons. I felt at home, I guess, because it seems a lot like an Iowa dive bar! It was also the first place I ever drank an Abita, and I’ve enjoyed that beer ever since.

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The next morning, I headed for Café du Monde (800 Decatur St.), expecting to find a long wait. I got lucky and was able to grab a sticky, powered-sugar-covered table right in front. Café du Monde coffee stand has been operating since 1862, and all it serves is chicory coffee (I always order it café au lait) and beignets – French-style donuts served hot from the fryer, three to an order, covered with like half a bag of powdered sugar. You can get stuffed to the gills for $6. Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except on Christmas day and during the occasional hurricane. It’s a joyful experience. By the time I left, the line was down the block.

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I ate dinner that night with a group of editors from all over the country. We walked from our hotel to NOLA (534 St. Louis St.), one of the well-known restaurants owned by famous chef Emeril Lagasse. I enjoyed my dinner there; it was not as fancy nor as expensive as I expected. Several in my group ordered local cuisine like shrimp & grits, gulf fish, and alligator. I played it safe and got a quattro formaggio pizza. The service was good, and we were able to get out of there with separate checks.

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The next day was a full day of conference sessions, but we had an hour and a half to do lunch on our own. I ate at the Café Fleur-de-Lis, an old-fashioned diner at 307 Chartres St.

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I love eating breakfast, so I just ordered some scrambled eggs, a biscuit, and a cup of coffee. It was very rich-tasting and filling.

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My last day in New Orleans was warm and sunny, and I couldn’t wait to find an outdoor café. I spotted the Palace Café at 605 Canal St. and enjoyed a cheese plate and people-watching. Palace Café is a Dickie Brennan restaurant, and when I went inside to use the restroom, the interior was so stunning that I almost wished I’d eaten inside.

I had some time to kill before I had to head to the airport, so I wandered through the French Quarter, poking around in some shops. Many of the souvenir stores sell nothing but tourist tchotchkes: Mardi Gras beads and masks, pralines, alligators on a stick, and X-rated T-shirts. But there are also some adorable little boutiques if you look around. I went in several of them and found them on the pricey side, but one in particular appealed to me. Lost & Found (323 Chartres St.) was filled with reasonably priced, ’50s-style cotton dresses and other throwback styles. I love that look, but didn’t know where in the world I would ever wear a dress like that. But then I found a tank top with little French cats all over it – for just $18 – and I knew I had my New Orleans souvenir.

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My final stop in the French Quarter was at a French Truck coffee shop (217 Chartres St.), drawn in by the colorful yellow cup. I sat in the window and watched the people go by. It was a great way to end my visit to New Orleans.

Here are some final street scenes from my walks:

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Tanzania: A photo safari

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Hosting an Iowa State alumni group on the “Best of Tanzania Safari” through Thomson Safaris is undoubtedly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I expected to see abundant wildlife – and I did – but I’m not sure that I expected the tremendous service, hospitality, and warmth of the people, nor the exhilarating “summer camp” experience that brought our group extremely close to each other and to nature. I started dreaming about going on an African photo safari more than 30 years ago, and it did not disappoint.

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Several of us arrived together at Kilimanjaro Airport late in the evening and were whisked to Rivertrees Country Inn (above) near Arusha, Tanzania, where we spent a full day and two nights getting acclimated.

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After our full group – 12 of us total – arrived, we took off on a short, scenic flight in a very small airplane, landing on a remote air strip in the Eastern Serengeti. We met our guides and drove to our first Nyumba (camp) in an area known as Enashiva. This 10,000-acre nature refuge is owned and managed by Thomson Safaris and is jokingly referred to as “Giraffic Park” because of the large numbers of giraffes that are thriving there.

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We spent two nights in Enashiva, and I was in heaven the whole time. Surrounded by wildebeest and zebras and giraffes and Thompson’s gazelles and ostrich and many other animals, we literally heard the animals around us all night long. Wildebeest are loud little dudes, I will tell you that. And zebras bark like dogs. And they both will thunder by your tent at 2 in the morning, which is the coolest way ever to be woken up. Our little group of 12 had the whole camp to ourselves and ate all our meals together.

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At Enashiva, we went out on several game drives in our Land Rovers, and we also took a morning hike through the land near our campsite – with the animals always maintaining a comfortable distance from us – and had a bush breakfast (with eggs and crepes and fruit and local honey) and a nighttime game drive to see nocturnal animals. We took warm showers in our really awesome, spacious, comfortable tents (so much better than I expected). Slept with rain pelting our canvas roofs. Drank cups of strong, hot coffee every morning, delivered to our front porch with a cheery “jambo, jambo!” by the Nyumba crew.

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We visited a Maasai women’s collaborative to see (and purchase) their intricate beadwork, and we traveled to a Maasai boma, a settlement of circular mud-and-dung homes. We also visited a school and dispensary (clinic) supported by Thomson and saw many Maasai herders with their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle.

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Enashiva was so comfortable and delightful and magical that I didn’t want to leave, but after two days we struck out in our dual Land Rovers for Serengeti National Park. It was a long drive, but who’s complaining? We were in the Serengeti. We stopped for a picnic lunch, and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons, a mother lion (below) with her cub, cape buffalo, impala, and other animals.

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The land was very different from the Eastern Serengeti, with tall grasses and flat-top acacia trees and rock outcroppings. Our Nyumba was similar to the one at Enashiva, but there were more tents and a larger dining area. Within view of our tents were always two cape buffalo, whom we dubbed the camp’s mascots, and usually an elephant or two. On one of the three evenings we were there, so many elephants came into the camp that the crew had to shoo us away for our own safety (of course, we were all taking pictures). But I really think they were just passing through.

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Most of our time in Serengeti National Park was spent on morning and evening game drives. We saw lions every day, and those were the sightings that made us the happiest (and caused the biggest safari vehicle traffic jams). Many pairs of lions had separated from the pride because it was mating season, so we got to see some lion love.

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We also got to see a pair of cheetahs, and that was a really amazing experience. They started out as specks on the horizon but slowly, slowly came closer and closer until they walked right by our Land Rovers and to the other side of the road. I don’t think I breathed the whole time.

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On our second full day in the national park, most of our group (along with a second Thomson group that had joined us at the camp) got up at 4 a.m. and piled into safari vehicles to ride to a balloon launch site. We were there before dawn and got to watch four huge hot-air balloons inflate. Each balloon basket held 16 people plus the pilot, and we took off one at a time for an unforgettable flight over the Serengeti.

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At times we were high in the sky; at other times we were barely skimming the tall grasses and the tops of the acacia trees. It was a spectacular experience and a lovely day for the flight. We saw hippos hurrying to get into their pools, a group of lions prowling in the distance, a family of warthogs, spotted hyenas, and more. Just seeing the park’s rutted dirt roads, the animal paths, and the trees from the air was a real treat.

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We flew for about an hour, and after we landed we had a champagne toast followed by a bush breakfast (with more champagne) and a nearby lion sighting. It was a good morning, to say the least.

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The day we left our Serengeti Nyumba was perhaps the best day for animal viewing in the park. We saw literally thousands of wildebeest and zebras, plus elephants, lions, cape buffalo, giraffes, and other animals. This was a big migration area for the zebras and wildebeest, and they were everywhere. It was thrilling to see so many animals at one time.

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En route to our next tent camp near Ngorongoro Crater, we stopped at historic Olduvai Gorge for a brief lecture and box lunch. The remaining drive to our Nyumba was so surprising: The ecosystem changed entirely, and the emerging lush greenery began to remind us of Hawaii, or maybe Costa Rica. Our Ngorongoro Nyumba (below) was set in a magical, tropical place near the crater rim, and it felt like paradise.

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We were there only one night; we set out the next morning to explore the crater floor. We spent the day in the crater observing zebras and wildebeest, baboons (below) and cape buffalo. We spotted several elusive rhinos (above) and a flock of flamingos. This crater – 10 miles wide from rim to rim – is said to have some of the most abundant and largest variety of wildlife anywhere in the world.

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We had box lunches inside of our safari vehicles near a hippo pond – our guides said if we ate outside our food would be snatched by the poorly behaved birds circling the picnic area. We were happy to oblige.

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To say I was not ready to leave our animal-viewing safaris is an understatement, but as we left the crater (Please, just one more lion sighting! Just one more elephant!) we left the wildlife behind and headed for Gibbs Farm in the Ngorongoro Highlands.

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Gibbs Farm, an 80-year-old former coffee estate that’s been turned into a world-class eco-lodge, was actually a lovely place to spend the next two nights, decompressing before returning home.

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The farm had a 10-acre organic fruit-vegetable-and-herb farm with chickens, cows, ducks, and goats. They grew and roasted their own coffee (yum). The setting was even more paradise-like than the Ngorongoro Nyumba, and we all very much enjoyed sitting out on the deck, taking long showers in our comfy cottages, and eating an incredible array of fresh, exceptional foods.

After two nights of pampering at Gibbs, we headed back to Kilimanjaro Airport (we saw the mountain!) and back to our real lives. I feel so fortunate that I had this experience – and that I got to have it with such a great group. (Asante sana, you guys!)

Here are a few more of my favorite photos:

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Iowa Girl’s guide to Walt Disney World at Christmas

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I’m no expert on Disney World. (You’ll find plenty of those online, both official and unofficial.) But I’m an enthusiastic consumer, and I have a lot of experience (and, no surprise, opinions!) with WDW parks, attractions, and resorts.

I first visited parks with my young daughters (ages 5 and 9) back in the 1990s, then as older kids, and teens/young adults. More recently, I’ve gone with just my husband, Dave, and with just my adult daughters. (My older daughter worked at Magic Kingdom during a semester-long program while she was a student at Iowa State, so I have some insider information.) I’ve visited in spring, fall, and winter (I’ve managed to avoid the heat and crowds of summer, which I recommend). And with my last visit, I can say I’ve been with the whole family during Christmas week, widely known to be the busiest days of the year at the parks.

My recommendations and experiences are in many ways general, but some will not resonate with families with young children. (For these families, I’d just say to go when the parks are LEAST crowded – fall, January-February – and the weather is mild. I would also suggest not trying to see everything a park has to offer in just one day; go multiple days or prioritize your top interests and leave everything else for another trip.)

THE HOLIDAYS AT WALT DISNEY WORLD

 

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Know before you go

  • Plan in advance! The Christmas holidays are CROWDED. Book your resort a year in advance, if you can. I literally tried to book one of the Animal Kingdom Villas in January before our December visit, and they were already sold out.
  • Stay on property. If you stay in a WDW resort, you’ll have access to the transportation system, get “extra magic hours” in the parks, and get to book your FastPasses first.
  • Go to just one park each day. If you try to do a park-hopper pass, you will lose valuable time during these busy days, and in extreme cases, parks can actually be filled to capacity by afternoon.
  • Schedule meals in advance. If you want to do character meals or any sit-down meals in the parks, resorts, or Disney Springs, make plans early and schedule your reservations so you have the best choice of restaurants and times. (Restaurants are pricey, but it’s definitely nice to do a few of these.) If you’re staying in a WDW resort, you can reserve meal times 180 days out.
  • FastPasses are essential, and if you haven’t been to Disney World lately, the system has changed. A lot. You’ll be booking online and they’ll be loaded onto magic bands that you wear at all times. The system can be complicated, with tiers of attractions from which to choose (I learned a lot from Mouse Hacking), but the basic thing you need to know is that if you’re staying in a Disney resort, you can book FastPasses 60 days in advance of the first day of your stay. You’ll be allowed 3 FastPasses per day.
  • My husband, Dave, and I (in consultation with our daughters) had our list of top rides and attractions ready for our 6 a.m. (7 a.m. Eastern) window of opportunity for FastPasses on Oct. 24, and it took us just 13 minutes to scoop up everything we wanted. But some popular rides were already starting to be booked up – our Slinky Dog Dash FastPass was for 6:15 p.m. – the earliest time available on our very last day. More on this later.
  • Plan, plan, plan each day before you get to the park. Keep in mind that it will take time to get to the park via Disney transport (on Christmas Day, our bus to Animal Kingdom filled up with others at our bus stop who were smarter and more assertive than we were; we had to wait for the next bus, making us later than expected). Once you get off the bus, you’ll still have to go through security and then the gates before you’re actually in the park. This all takes a while, so get there early if you have an early FastPass or want to jump onto a popular ride for which you don’t have a pass, or if you have a character breakfast reservation. Early mornings in the parks are really special, too, with dramatic light and fewer people, so it’s a great time to take photos. Get there early!
  • Download the app. This will let you know how long the lines are for rides and attractions at any given time, when the next bus will arrive (we did not find this to be very accurate, so plan accordingly), and show all of your FastPasses and meal reservations. You can also procure additional FastPasses and meal reservations while you’re in the park.
  • Have a detailed list of your top priorities and plans so you don’t miss out on the things you want to do most. Don’t expect to do everything. Let every family member choose the one thing they want to do so nobody is too disappointed.
  • Enjoy the decorations, the special light shows, the Christmas parade, the holiday treats, and other things that you can only see during this special week.
  • Expect big crowds, but don’t let them spoil your fun. It’s completely doable if you plan in advance! And it’s really, truly magical. I highly recommend it.

 

Epcot

 

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When the kids were young, Epcot was their least-favorite park. Now it’s their favorite. And that’s because there’s shopping, great food, and drinking around the world in the park’s World Showcase. For little kids, there are some good shows, like “Turtle Talk with Crush;” rides, like “Frozen” and “The Seas with Nemo & Friends;” and plenty of characters to meet. For adults, there’s “Soarin’ Around the World” (better than ever; this is our favorite Epcot ride, hands down) and the best selection of restaurants in all of Walt Disney World. It’s a super-fun atmosphere.

 

We got to the park on Christmas Eve day just before it opened. Without fast passes, we stood in very short lines to meet Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Goofy in Future World and ride the Nemo ride. We had a morning fast pass for “Soarin’ Around the World” and after that we walked to the World Showcase to check out the line for the “Frozen Ever After” ride in Norway. I expected the line to be very long, but it really wasn’t (the standby wait time was listed as 60 minutes, but we were on the ride in less than 40 minutes). It’s a cute, new-ish ride, and I’m glad I got to experience it. I recommend it, especially if you have kids who love the movie, but I wouldn’t stand in a super-long line for it otherwise.

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By this time, we were hungry/thirsty. Let the feasting begin! We sampled foods from Mexico (pork tacos for my carnivorous family members, guacamole, fantastic margaritas), shared several cookies from the Holiday Cookie Stroll (available for $2 each in most of the lands), and caramel popcorn from Germany. I made the mistake of ordering a drink called “Tipsy Ducks in Love” from the tea stand in China – holy moly, that was a strong drink. It’s fun to say the name, but I don’t recommend it.

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We saw Mulan, Mary Poppins, and Alice in Wonderland (above) doing meet-and-greets; rode Spaceship Earth (why this ride is popular is beyond me, but we always seem to do it anyway); had a beer at the Rose & Crown Pub; saw Santas from around the world (below); and listened to fun, rowdy musical performances in Canada and the UK. We walked through a lot of shops, which are always fun to browse.

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Our dinner reservation was at Tutto Italia Ristorante at 7:30 in Italy, and we were ready to sit down. We had a nice (rather expensive) meal and afterwards were ready to go back to our resort. (Epcot has an evening fireworks show, but we didn’t stay long enough to see it. We did see a bit of the special holiday Candlelight Processional, with its huge orchestra and choir. There was a very long line to sit down to watch it.)

 

Animal Kingdom

 

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Merry Christmas! Today we wore our matching Mickey/Minnie holiday shirts. Even Dave.

We chose to be in Animal Kingdom on Christmas Day because we were guessing it would be the least-crowded of the parks. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the crowd wasn’t too bad except a couple of times when slow-moving scooters and strollers created a bottleneck.

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We hadn’t been at Animal Kingdom for several years, and a lot has changed. There’s a whole new land: Pandora, modeled after the movie “Avatar,” which I’ve never seen and don’t really care about. But the design is pretty cool; it’s mostly weird, oversized plants (above). There are two major attractions in Pandora: “Avatar Flight of Passage” and “Na’vi River Journey.” We had a FastPass for “Flight of Passage,” one of the hottest rides in all of Disney World right now. It did not disappoint. The guy next to me on the ride was obsessed; he described it as “Soarin’ on steroids.” After riding it, I’d go a step further and call it “Soarin’ on acid.” Almost. It’s a visual, physical adventure into a world I don’t recognize. You hop on a flying “banshee” and off you go. I sometimes avoid these kinds of rides because I am prone to motion-sickness and also am claustrophobic, but I’ll say that this ride was pretty thrilling. If it had gone on much longer I might have become slightly nauseated, but as it was, I made it out OK. It’s worth a long wait in the stand-by line.

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My favorite ride at Animal Kingdom is “Expedition Everest” (above). It’s a fantastic roller coaster and, again, worth a wait. We had a FastPass for this one, too, and it was thrilling as always.

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We also stood in a reasonable line for the “Dinosaur” ride and also for the “Festival of the Lion King” show (below). The show features really terrific music and gymnastic stunts – I highly recommend it.

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Animal Kingdom is known for its animals, obviously. The “Kilimanjaro Safari” is still awesome, and they’ve removed the storyline from the ride through the animal park, which I’ve always found annoying. You almost need to go on this ride twice if you want to get decent pictures; sit on the left side first and then the right side of the tram to see animals on both sides and maybe do it later in the day for different light.

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We saw lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, and many other animals. Disney has done a terrific job with what is basically a zoo-like large-animal enclosure, and after the safari you can also walk through the “Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail” for primate encounters.

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We found mostly good things to eat at Animal Kingdom. I struggled a bit at lunch and ended up eating pre-packaged hummus and veggies, but others in the family ate shrimp mac and cheese and some kind of chicken. In the afternoon, we splurged on pineapple Dole Whip with coconut rum – it went down so easy! I wanted more.

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We took a lot of photos at the Tree of Life and enjoyed the early-evening light in the Asia section with its glowing lanterns. We saw Russell and Dug (characters from the movie “Up”) – adorable!

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Our Christmas dinner was excellent. We had a reservation at Yak & Yeti, a Pan-Asian restaurant. We got there early and sat in the bar for a while, which was very enjoyable. The restaurant menu was not as vegetarian-friendly as I’d hoped, but our server recommended a tofu dish that was incredibly tasty. I think everyone found something good to eat.

 

Magic Kingdom

 

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I guess I failed to mention why we decided to go to Disney World over Christmas in the first place. My birthday is Dec. 26, and I turned 60 this year. I wanted to do something really special with the whole family, so this was it. We spent my birthday in Magic Kingdom and even in the enormous crowd, I felt like the center of attention.

Disney people are so nice. They give you a birthday button and then all the cast members say “happy birthday” to you all day long. One of the Disney photographers took my picture at the parade; even people IN the parade said happy birthday to me! I was surrounded by Disney love.

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We got to the park early (we had an “extra magic hour” starting at 7 a.m. that morning) because we were afraid it would take forever to get there (it didn’t). So we got through security and the entrance gates in no time. There were not many people there when we arrived, and I’m guessing those who were there were heading for some top attraction for which they had no FastPass. We took advantage of the emptiness and took a gazillion photos in front of Cinderella’s castle. The morning light was perfect! (see above) We even got to see the park-open show (below).

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We had an 8:30 reservation for a character breakfast at the Crystal Palace. I’ll admit it – I wanted to have breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and friends! This is a great thing to do with kids, but it’s fun for grownups, too. Once you get to your table, you have access to a huge buffet of very good food, and you can eat as much as you want – including, of course, Mickey-shaped waffles.

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The characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore – come around to each table and will let you take pictures to your heart’s desire. You don’t even feel rushed. I was wearing my “60 and fabulous” shirt and hammed it up with all the characters. The food was great; I ate way too much. It was a good time and worth what we paid for it.

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Before the park got too busy, we stood in a short stand-by line for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride (meh) and then used (some would say wasted) a FastPass to meet Mickey at the Town Square Theater. We claimed our spots on the curb along Main Street well in advance of the noon Christmas parade. We had a clear view of Cinderella’s Castle as the parade began (it came from that direction) and the sun was in the right place for perfect viewing and photos. (This never happens!)

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The Disney Christmas parade is something I watch on TV on Christmas morning (or record it and watch it later), and I’ve always wanted to see it in person. I was pretty excited, and it did not disappoint. Disney does everything right, from the music to the dancers, to the floats, to the characters. It was fun, fun, fun.

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I should mention at this point that if you’re planning to visit Magic Kingdom in December but not the week of Christmas, you can pay extra for “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” on some evenings. If you choose not to do that, you won’t have access to all the holiday specialness, like the parade and some of the shows.

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We had a FastPass for the “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” ride, which is cute and entertaining but not worth a long wait. And then we were stuck in Fantasyland with thousands of other people in crowds so big we could barely move. We might have gotten a little bit crabby. We tried to find a place to buy beer, because that would have cheered us right up, but although Disney World overall has really stepped up its game in terms of adult beverages, the Magic Kingdom is still rather dry. You can only get drinks at the sit-down restaurants, and for that you must have a reservation on a day this busy. So, no drinks for us.

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We walked around, drooled over the holiday treats, and took notice of the stand-by line waits – many were 180 minutes. That’s three hours! No thanks! We tried to ride “It’s a Small World” because the line seemed reasonable, but it didn’t move fast enough for us so we bailed. We had an afternoon FastPass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is always a thrilling ride.

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And then it started to get dark, so I took a lot of early-evening photos with the Christmas lights and the castle. At around 6:15 they do a holiday castle-lighting ceremony with “Frozen” characters, and the castle becomes a winter wonderland right before your eyes (below). The only thing that would make this ceremony better is FEWER PEOPLE in front of me, or perhaps to be taller so I have a better view.

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Once the castle was lit, it was only a matter of time before it got dark enough for the holiday fireworks spectacular, but first we watched a very cute holiday show in front of the castle (below).

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We were hungry so we sat in Tomorrowland and ate bad food and shared a cake-batter-flavored shake from Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies. And then we went to the “Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor” show. You can always count on this show to be hilarious, even if you’ve seen it 20 times.

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We stood at Casey’s Corner for the fireworks. Again, there were SO MANY PEOPLE that it was hard to get good photos of the full castle with the fireworks behind it, but I tried valiantly. The show was wonderful, but I honestly think the “Wishes” show I’ve seen so many times before is actually more magical because it has more of a storyline. But I’m not complaining – Disney does the best fireworks in the world.

 

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And thus ended my magical birthday at Magic Kingdom.

But wait! This is Disney! When we got back to our resort, the staff had loaded our room with birthday balloons, cookies, a jar of cocoa mix, a mug, two bags of popcorn, and a birthday card. That was a wonderful end to a wonderful day. I was too giddy to go to sleep.

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Hollywood Studios

 

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Our day in Hollywood Studios started with some logistical stuff. We had to check out of our room, stow our luggage at the resort, and make a reservation for the Disney transport to take us to the airport later that night. Our adventure was coming to a close much too soon. But we made the most of it…with matching shirts.

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We arrived at Hollywood Studio right as it opened, and based on our experience the day before, we made a beeline to the “Tower of Terror” ride and got right on. (By the time we rode, the stand-by wait time was 60 minutes, and later that day it was 175 minutes!) We grabbed a coffee and walked around a bit, then went back to “Tower of Terror” and rode it again with our pre-arranged FastPass. We love this ride. We got to be in the front row the second time, which is always the best.

We hung out by Aerosmith’s Rock’n’Roller Coaster until it was time for our 11:55 FastPass, then walked right on. We love this roller coaster, and it never fails to thrill. You just scream the whole time and then laugh when it’s over.

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Hollywood Studios has greatly improved its food and drink options since the last time we were there. We didn’t have reservations, but after a short wait we snagged a table at the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge and enjoyed drinks and small plates on the patio. In the afternoon, we went to “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-Along Celebration” stage show (above), and we stood in a not-too-terrible standby line to ride “Toy Story Mania!” (The line is almost as amusing as the ride.)

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Although “Toy Story Mania!” has been open for several years, Toy Story Land is a new section in Hollywood Studios. It’s adorable; at least I think it is – it’s kind of hard to see with so many freaking people. It was really crowded. The line for “Slinky Dog Dash” was ridiculous – at least three hours; but then again, other rides in the park had lines that long as well. It’s just that time of year.

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No matter, we had our final FastPass for “Slinky Dog” so our wait was not long at all.

This ride has received some rave reviews, but honestly, I didn’t think it was that great. Sure, it was fun, and it was really cute, but to wait in line for three hours? No way. My recommendation is, if you don’t have a FastPass and the line is more than an hour, just go look at the ride and say, “Oh, how cute!” and then go ride something with a shorter line. It did not thrill me. (However, I will say it’s a good first roller coaster for a younger kid. So, again, if the line is short, ride it.)

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We drank beer and shared a big pretzel and a cheese plate on the patio at the new BaseLine Tap House, which was a really fun atmosphere. And then we watched the Flurry of Fun “Sunset Greetings” light show at the Hollywood Tower Hotel – a just-for-the-holidays light show, complete with “snow.”

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It was a great way to end the day. (There’s also a fireworks show, but we needed to head to our hotel to sleep for a few hours before our early-morning flights home.) Here are some parting shots from Hollywood:

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Disney Springs and the resorts

 

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I should mention that we stayed at Coronado Springs Resort (above), which was nothing too fancy but was in an ideal location – not too far from anywhere. It’s one of WDW’s “moderate” resorts – nicer than the “value” resorts but not nearly as pricey as the deluxe resorts. Our room was fairly comfortable, considering we had four adult human beings all trying to get showered and dressed at the same time every morning. Someday I would love to stay at the Grand Floridian or Animal Kingdom Villas, but when you figure how little time you actually spend at the resort, it just doesn’t seem worth the extra cost.

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We visited the Grand Floridian on this trip; the resort has fabulous holiday decorations, as you would expect (above). We shopped and then ate lunch outdoors. We also visited the Yacht and Beach Club and BoardWalk Inn (all next to each other) and enjoyed a huge family-sized “kitchen sink” sundae (below) from “Beaches and Cream” by one of the pools.

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We also spent some time our first day at Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which is an expanded shopping and dining destination (above). We spent some money there, walked through the Christmas Tree Trail, and ate dinner at Frontera Cocina.

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All in all, it was a fabulous vacation for my Disney-loving family and a great 60th birthday adventure for me.