Thursday, May 26, 2011

Florida: I Want To Go Back Already (Part IV)

And now (almost two weeks after I started writing what was once an immensely long blogpost, and what has become what I like to call the Great Orlando Blogging Project), the time has at last come for Part IV: The Wrap-Up.

After our Universal excursion we had two final days at Walt Disney World, where we went back to each park one more time to fill in the gaps of what we didn't get around to the first few days (and to re-ride some of our favorites, of course).  We took pictures at all the entrance signs and even had a photo tour around the World Showcase, where we kept an eye out for passers-by who looked like they would be willing and able to take our picture at each country (we dubbed them "poor unsuspecting souls," which Julie very cleverly adapted to Ursula's song from The Little Mermaid).
Epcot didn't seem to have a sign outside, so we had a picture with Spaceship Earth from the back instead.
We wore ourselves out pretty well those last couple of days, but we were determined to make the most of every last minute of our trip.  I had been yearning to go back for so long, and I wanted to try to remember everything in case it's many more years since we visit there again.  I think we did pretty well at soaking it all in before we had our final goodbyes to the parks and even the shuttles.

We had a pretty uneventful last day, sleeping in, checking out of our hotel, eating at the new T-Rex restaurant at Downtown Disney (think Rainforest Cafe but with dinosaurs, and also amazingly even more overpriced--we made it work for not too much by sharing a hearty appetizer sampler and a big salad), and catching a pretty late flight home.  It was a pretty relaxing day, but it still would have been nice to have a day to recoup before heading straight back to work, or at least getting in before midnight (there was a brief glorious few moments when we thought we had been bumped up to an earlier non-stop flight, but alas, 'twasn't meant to be).  But, um, I guess I can't complain about anything after such an amazing vacation.
This bed is kind of tiny.  Our big bed is one thing we had to look forward to back at home.
So we had a wonderful time, and Julie's first visit was a great experience.  My itch has been scratched!  It's nice to go back after all these years, see how things have changed, and how so many things are just the same as I remember.

When can we go back, Wife?!?*

* But seriously, I can wait if I must.  It's nice to know there's a Land so relatively nearby that we can visit when we get the itch again.  Which is going to happen in like six months.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Florida: I Want To Go Back Already (Part III)

And now, for Part III: The American Idol Experience.

Like I said, I heard about this opening last year, and was pretty impressed that they managed to get every single American Idol winner (and many of the other contestants) to attend the grand opening.  I heard reports and understood it was a pretty neat show, so when we made our vacation plans, I decided to go for it.  Now, my history with auditioning for American Idol is pretty disappointing, but since there were no extended episodes of auditions, and as such, no trainwreck singers let through merely for the sake of ratings, I thought it might be fun to give it a try.  Of course, I tried to have zero expectations at getting through, butIhopedIwouldanyway.  I did some research online and found out a little information.  They do four-five regular shows each day featuring guests who auditioned throughout that very same day, and the winners for each show appear at the finale that evening, and the winner of that round would get a Golden Ticket, entitling them to skip to the front of the line at any city's actual audition for the show.  I hoped to get cast in the first place, and then I thought it would be great to sing again in the evening show, but seriously, that would have been totally satisfactory for me.  Outside the attraction they have Cast Members holding a sheet with a couple hundred songs to choose from and a good amount of basic information for those hoping to audition.  I was told later that on some days the park is less crowded but they get hundreds of auditions, and on other days, the park is full to capacity, and they don't get too many hopefuls in the audition rooms.  When I went to audition that morning, things were pretty quiet, but I could hear people singing and auditioning and practicing behind closed doors.
Crossing my fingers!  I've had bad luck with AI auditions in the past, so I'm a little stitious.
The two audition rounds were fun, a lot less crowded and even more seemingly legitimate, as they are actually looking for talent to put in their shows, rather than sideshow acts and sob stories.  The first producer I auditioned for really liked me, and made suggestions for what to sing for my next audition (she loved my "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" and also recommended "Go the Distance" from Hercules--sometimes they suggest doing a couple different style of song, but she thought the belty ballad was right up my alley), since she would definitely put me through.  I had a few minutes in their recreation of the infamous Coca-Cola "Red Room" to practice with one of the provided iPods, after which I auditioned for another producer, and then they cast me for one of the afternoon shows!

I'm through to the next round!  I have a golden ticket!
Practicing in the Red Room.
I suddenly have the strangest desire for a Coke.
These were the girls I competed with in round 1.  They were like 17.
After a little bit of filming with a director and cameralady, they told me to come back about an hour before the show, where I and the other two singers rotated between reviewing our piece, having a little hair/makeup touch-up, and working briefly with a vocal coach.
Apparently this lady has worked with a lot of former American Idol contestants.
It was so cool to be backstage and part of the show at a Disney theme park!  The theater was awesome, it totally looked like the one on TV, and the whole experience seemed really authentic and exciting.  We had a dress rehearsal, where we each sang through our pieces and had some final feedback from the vocal coach and stage manager, and then it was time for them to let in the audience and start the show!  The host had their schtick and introduced the three type-cast judges as well as the contestants, and then we each had our turn.  The other two contestants sang "This Is Me" and "Bubbly."  After we sang, the judges went around and gave us feedback and everything (they warned us that they paid one of the judges to occasionally say something a little sassy, they don't want to "cheat us out of the true American Idol experience," and not to take it too personally--he was still pretty nice to me, though he called my performance "a little square," and suggested I modernize it a little, which I thought was such a perfect criticism for some reason), so that was really fun too.

I was a little nervous that the girls who were in my round were there with a high school group (which counts for a lot of votes), but in the end I evidently garnered the majority of them and was invited to return that evening for the finale!

The camera operator would probably like it to be made mention that she was recording clandestinely from her lap, and the camera shifts downward at one point because they were pointing out to her in the audience and she didn't want to draw attention to the fact that she was recording.  The shakes are also explained by her clapping at certain points.  When I asked, they said they technically have to say they disallow video recording or photography, but they don't really enforce it.  I'm glad I because I desperately wanted this recorded, so, much thanks to Julie for being a great photographer and catching the key moments on bandit video. :D

I'm going to the finals!!!
It's hard to tell, but I'm doing the same pose as the square on the park map cover.

So we went around the park for a few hours and came back that evening for the finale show.  Presumably to generate interest and fill the audience seats, they had given us some swag that loudly proclaimed we had auditioned and were performing on the show.  A few people came up to me and said they really liked me and had voted for me and I said "Much thanks, and come back tonight and vote again!"  There were five singers this time, and the styles of music represented were very different.  The other songs were "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," "Achy, Breaky Heart," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Holding Out for a Hero."  There was a different host and different judges, but the rest of it was pretty much the same, but a little more exciting.

When it came time to reveal the results, they even drew it out as long as possible, very Seacrest indeed.  They called two people forward and eventually told them their "journey" ends here, then they called down two more (self included) and said we were moving on.  So it was down to me and the girl who sang after I did, and after a good deal more stalling, she was named the winner!

She was cute and fun and enthusiastic and SO excited.  She was really good, and so into it, and she will actually use the Golden Ticket, so I'm really glad she won.
The winner is announced!  She looks like she just finished an Olympics gymnastics routine.
So that was it.  I felt like a celebrity, and on our way out at park closing, I noticed a lot of people (especially little kids) looking over and pointing and whispering to their parents or siblings about me.  A lot of people came up to be and randomly started applauding and cheering, encouraging me to keep singing (in case I was bummed that I didn't win), and how they were torn between me and the girl they eventually voted for.  Some said they would have picked me but they felt loyalty to the winner because they had seen her previous show.  It was awesome.

It was amazing all in all, and I'm so glad Julie was patient and let me spend so much time of our day doing this!  I think my until now insatiable yen to be on American Idol is actually more or less fulfilled.
My biggest fan!  And hers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Florida: I Want To Go Back Already (Part II)

Part II: Universal Orlando--

And now, I couldn't possibly leave out the literally amazing Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal.  After a few days at Disney, we decided to use our one day at a neighboring theme park.  Historically I haven't cared much for the "U-word" parks, but Julie has been there before and enjoyed some of the rides, and then, considering their recent addition, they must have known exactly how to get my attention (and my cash).  To put our excitement for HP Land in perspective, there are two parks at Universal Orlando--Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure--and we spent a total of one day going back and forth between them, and out of the 9 hours of that day, 6-7 of them were spent in Hogsmeade.  If they had stayed open later, we would have been happy to browse the streets and shops even more.
I may or may not have bought this shirt just in preparation for HP Land.
In general, Universal was a pretty fun place, but if it weren't for Harry, there wouldn't be a HUGE need for us to go back there anytime soon.  They don't have a general Fastpass system (unless you pay extra for it), a lot of rides require you put your belongings in lockers, and the theming and lands are just missing a little something that is so evident at Disney parks.  The cast members have a totally different feel, and everything seems a lot less organized.  They have a few more thrill rides, but some of them are based on much older movies, and it has a pretty dated feel.  I loved the Jaws ride, and the Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, E.T. and Mummy ones were really cool too, but a lot of things we just walked past.  Harry Potter fans MUST spend a day there, but otherwise, it was just a pretty fun theme park.
This girl just loves that Wolverine.  And he is HUGE!
*cue JP theme here*
Shes also loves that T-Rex.  She would have one as a pet if she could, though I try to tell her it might just eat us.
The spinosaurus?  Not as much of a fan here.
I'm holding my nose in reference to the memorable Triceratops poo excavation in the movie.
Imposing, yes?
I'm saying, "We were JUST talking about this!" because I was just texting Lacie about getting tickets to Seussical when we get home.
This girl can find a library anywhere she goes.
"Bathing Beauty, say hello!"
It seems like a perfectly safe shark-free day to visit the beach, doesn't it?
This is also so big and scary.
I'm saying, "Who needs it?"  (Apu: I dooooooo!)
So, between Disney and Universal, which park features the better Keane's artwork?...
As we were leaving Universal Studios to go back to Islands of Adventure, we were asked to answer a few questions about our trip and our feelings about the park, and at the end of the (rather lengthy) survey, they asked a rather pointed question about how our family feels about Harry Potter.  We responded quite enthusiastically that we were big fans (gesturing to our t-shirts), so it's pretty clear they were trying to gauge how many visitors were drawn by Harry.  Speaking of which...

And now, for the main attraction...
We could see Hogwarts from Jurassic Park!!!
• Hogsmeade is incredible.  It's a spectacular recreation of the village in winter from the movies, and features so many of the stores, though they are sort of a conglomeration of shops found there and at Diagon Alley (Zonko's, Honeydukes, Ollivander's, The Hog's Head, The Three Broomsticks, Scrivenshaft's, Dervish & Banges, and an Owl Post station).  They have so many awesome wands and props for sale, as well as general souvenirs, and a lot of it is unique to the park shops.  The candies at the sweet shop (Chocolate frogs, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, U-No-Poo, etc.) have packaging just like in the movie, and, I should say, charge a good amount more than the mass-produced versions you find at Smith's, but I guess that's to be expected at a theme park.  We dropped a good amount of cash there, but not an obscene amount, and really, we were AT Hogsmeade.  We couldn't possibly resist buying wands at Ollivander's or a time turner to complete Julie's Hermione costume (which we pretty much have decided we're going to bring back this year)!
Like a kid in a candy st-- well, anyway.
Not exactly as described in the books, but it's all good.
Julie just loves that Arnold.  (Right, sweetie, right??)
"Why are you worrying about You-Know-Who? You should be worrying about U-No-Poo!"
Ollivander's!  So, so many wands!
This is my Voldemort's-wand-hand impression.  Nice fingers there, man.
I wanted to Elder Wand SO bad, but that's just too much power.
Julie was quite taken with Sirius's unique design.
In the end we went with Hermione's and Harry's wands.  (Of course!)
OMGoodness, Gilderoyyyyy!!!

The girl selling wands at this stand (near the robes) offered to take our picture as if we were working at the shoppe.  This is a good look at the characters' really cool wand designs.

They had a bunch of other really neat non-character wand styles too, in case you wanted something different.
"Dementor, dementor!"  Nothing like a bit of good old Boy-Who-Lived hazing, eh, Malfoy?  Classy.
"My horn can pierce the sky!" -- Michael Scott
Poor Hedwig.
Who would want a Li'l Pettigrew?  Gross!  Unless they didn't know, in which case, spoiler alert...  But seriously, if you don't know that by now, it's just too bad.
 • The food is splendid!  Butterbeer is delicious and comes cold or frozen (basically a slush version, we preferred it cold), it's sort of like root beer mixed with butterscotch, and served with a delightful foam on top.  Pumpkin juice was also so so very nice, a kind of pumpkin-flavored cider.  We had lunch in The Three Broomsticks, which featured a great English menu--I had Shepherd's pie and Julie had Cornish pasties.
Worth the price--JUST BUY IT.
At the Three Broomsticks! (slash Hog's Head)  Can you see the actual three broomsticks??
• The rides are really awesome!  Two of them were there before and have just been rethemed to fit in the world of HP (Dragon Challenge is a cool dueling-dragons double roller coaster themed to the Dragon Task in GoF, and Flight of the Hippogriff is a tamer roller coaster surrounding Hagrid's Hut and Buckbeak's nest), but the new Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride is just amazing.  The queue winds through Hogwarts and there are SO many awesome things to look at (Dumbledore's office and the Pensieve, the Mirror of Erised, statues featured in the movies, mandrakes in the greenhouse, house points in their glass containers, moving portrait galleries, classrooms, and really great appearances by Dumbledore, Harry, Ron and Hermione), and the ride is such an amazing blend of motion simulation and dark ride elements, it just has to be experienced to be understood.
I wanted to put my name in for consideration, but I was fresh out of parchment.
That's right, go on!
The roller coaster cars were wicker hippogriffs!
The winged boar entrance even!
A wee warning from the headmaster.
"Cockroach cluster."
My heart's desire was to be in Hogwarts.  That's why my reflection showed me pretty much as I was.
• The overall feel of the whole area is so authentic and immersive, it just feels like you're in the movie set.  You look behind you and see Hogwarts rising above the trees and you look down the street and you see Hogsmeade winding down the path, leading to the steaming red engine of the Hogwarts Express at the exit back into the rest of the park.
Busy and bustling, just like Hogsmeade should be (but not overwhelmingly busy, the crowds were pretty good).

*ahem* Bad boys?...
She really wanted to get on board.
They even have character meet-and-greets!  If there weren't a line we would have posed with them, but we settled for an in-between-pictures picture.
There wasn't so much interest in taking pictures over on this side, so Wife decided to show a little love.
And that's it.  We were among the last to leave at park closing, taking literally hundreds of pictures of every single detail (including the signs for the "Public Conveniences" where you can even hear Myrtle moaning and complaining in the toilets, the Gringotts-themed ATM and signs for the Wizarding Wireless Network), until we were ushered out quite insistently by a security man (it might have been a nice touch if he had been wearing some sort of Ministry of Magic logo, or perhaps an Azkaban pin or something).  The Wife has posted dozens and dozens of pictures on Facebook if people are interested in seeing some of the details of the shops and castle and props and such.

It was quite incredible.  I'm pretty sure that Universal has finally figured out a way to get me to have to visit each time I go to Florida now.  There are rumors of expansions and additions, which would be awesome (even though it is truly magical just as it is).
Saying goodbye to Hogsmeade... *sad*
Just a few more trip details are on their way, don't go too far!