Friday, February 17, 2017

Spy vs. Spy at the International Spy Museum

Afraid that someone had heard me, I froze in place. I felt a little claustrophobic hunched down on my hands and knees inside the air duct I was crawling through. Catching a glimpse of the people in the room below me, I hoped that no one would look up and notice my face staring out through the hole in the vent. I strained my ears to try and pick up threads of conversation from the cacophony rising up from the crowd, praying that I would not be discovered and my cover blown. World traveler, expat trailing spouse, mom to three kids, prone to occasional bouts of daftness. It's the perfect cover for a spy.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Disney's Art of Animation Resort

It wasn't until we stayed at Disney's Art of Animation resort last year that I realized how low key most other Disney resorts are about incorporating Disney characters into their architecture and design. Many of the other hotels are more about transporting their guests to a real place rather than into the magical setting of a Disney movie. The Grand Floridian where I honeymooned almost 25 years ago harkens back to Victorian-era Palm Beach. The Wilderness Lodge recreates the atmosphere of a Northwest National Park lodge. And the newly opened overwater bungalows at the Polynesian Villas & Bungalows will make guests think that they've escaped to the South Pacific. The Art of  Animation resort, on the other hand, is all about making guests feel like they've stepped into a Disney animated movie.

Enlarged sketches decorate the Check-In area

Upon arrival, were were ushered into the Check-In area of Animation Hall which is fittingly decorated with enlarged pencil sketches of modern era Disney animated characters. A majestic chandelier is composed of storyboards which visually convey the development of the plot. The rest of the lobby has a bright wall of backlighted colorscripts. These images help guide computer animators regarding the lighting, colors, and mood of each scene. If you're a fan of the movies they reference, it's quite fascinating to see parts of the production process before it ended up on screen.

Colorscript wall

Animation Hall also houses a game arcade and the Landscape of Flavors, a casual dining restaurant featuring five cafeteria-style, mini-restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6AM to midnight. Diners can choose items from World Flavors, the Soup-Salad-Sandwich Shop, Burgers, Pizza and The Market. Resort guests can also call here to have pizza delivered to their room if they're tired after a day running around the parks. Souvenirs can be found in the Ink & Paint Shop.

The resort is divided into four areas that each feature a different, modern-day, Disney animated movie as its theme.

This not-so-Little Mermaid is three stories tall

The Little Mermaid buildings make guests feel like they are part of Ariel's underwater world. The medium-sized Flippin' Fins pool looked inviting with Sebastian the crab conducting the Under the Sea orchestra. The building with Ursula the Sea Witch looked rather intimidating though. I wonder if kids who have to walk past her to reach their rooms feel like poor, unfortunate souls.

Ursula the Sea Witch is scary indeed.

The Lion King buildings are supposed to make you feel like you are in Africa, of course. If the kids need to burn off energy -- if that ever happens after a day at the parks -- they can always run among the huge, curved bones of the the elephant graveyard playground. Mufasa proudly watches over the area while young Simba, Pumbaa and Timon prance across a log.

Hakuna Matata (No Worries) when you stay at the Art of Animation Resort

The centerpiece of the Finding Nemo section is the 12,000 square foot pool which is the largest in all the Walt Disney World resorts. It's very kid-friendly with plenty of shallow areas perfect for splashing around. For the adults, there's a poolside bar called The Drop Off. Another play area is located behind the pool with stairs and slides so that kids can pretend their exploring the reef.

The largest pool in  all of Walt Disney World

Because my younger boy was a huge fan of Lightning McQueen when he was little, we stayed in the Cars section of the resort.  A large billboard welcomed us to Radiator Springs, and the building facades evoked the American Southwest setting of the movie.

Each building's main entrance was disguised as one of the businesses from the Cars movie. Of course, all the favorite characters were on hand for plenty of photo opportunities.

Sally Carrera and Lightning McQueen

Tow Mater

Flo and, in the background,  Luigi

All these buildings faced the Cozy Cones pool with large traffic cones serving as pool cabanas.

What drew us to the Art of Animation Resort in the first place is the value-priced family suites. With three kids and more than one person in the family who is 6 feet or taller, we needed more space. Each suite sleeps up to 6 adults. The suite includes a separate bedroom with attached bathroom, a living area with a bathroom, dining area, and a kitchenette with a sink, mini-fridge, microwave and coffee maker. One bathroom has a walk-in shower, and the other one has a tub/shower combo. The best part of the room is converting the dining table into a double bed. (No, you don't just plunk a mattress on top of the table.)

Bedroom with a Queen size bed and an attached bathroom

One of two full bathrooms

The sofa converts into a double bed.

The dining table converts into a double bed, too. Clever!

Other Disney hotels that I've been in have decorative motifs that tastefully reference Disney characters in subdued ways. Art of Animation emphasizes the movie setting and amps up the theming. I really did feel like I may have been staying the in the Cozy Cone Motel from the Cars movie. The couch looked like a classic car bench seat, and the kitchenette evoked an automotive repair shop. The bathrooms had carwash signs, and the pictures on the walls were of the movie characters on an old Route 66 roadtrip.

Highway map on the coffee tabletop

Considering that we would have needed two rooms at one of the more expensive resorts, this was a very economic option. The only drawback was the distance from the parks themselves. Disney provides complimentary bus transportation to all its parks and the Disney Springs shopping district, but I found the late night traffic jam we were stuck in as the parks started to close to NOT be what I needed at the end of a long day. Despite that, I think that the Art of Animation Resort will be a strong contender for lodging the next time we visit Walt Disney World.

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
  1. Link one of your inspirational travel photos or stories to this post by adding your info.
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  3. Visit some of the other wonderful travel bloggers, read their posts, and leave a comment.  It would be great if you could comment on 2-3 posts.
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  5. Follow all the hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration who are working hard to spread the word on what wonderful work travel bloggers are doing.
  6. Don’t forget to check out my amazing co-hosts and their pages: Reflections EnrouteThe Crowded PlanetContentedTravellerAlbom AdventuresSafari 254, and FamiliesGo.

I've also joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Different Views on Washington, D.C.

National Mall, Tidal Basin
The Lincoln Memorial as seen from the top of the Washington Monument

I should have gone on a cruise this past week. Or perhaps trekked deep into the jungle. Or maybe one of those off-the-grid places where people go on retreats to look into their souls without being distracted by all the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In any case, it would have been best if I had put myself on a media blackout these last few days. Because my head is about to explode the more and more I read the news.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Wondercrump Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

Outside the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre with a Big Friendly Giant (BFG) on the front

After hauling my family around England to places associated with the Brontë Sisters and Jane Austen, I thought it only fair to honor my daughter's request to visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center. Like many children,  she's a fan of his books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Watching the musical, Matilda, based on Dahl's book of the same name was one of the highlights of our family trip to New York City. Plus, the Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of his book, The BFG, was released immediately before our trip to England. During our time in London, we crossed paths a few times with The BFG Dream Jar Trail which was set up to both promote the movie and celebrate Dahl's 100th birthday.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Bath, England through Jane Austen's Eyes

Dressing up in Regency era clothing such as Jane Austen may have worn

I have realized that I am slowly turning into a woman who could easily slip into a Jane Austen novel. Alas, I am not becoming one of those spirited, self-assured main characters in the tradition of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Instead, I am displaying all the old-fashion qualities of a mother worried about social graces and fine manners. At eleven years old, my daughter is on the brink of becoming a "young lady," and against her will, I signed her up for etiquette classes (a.k.a. "charm school").

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Walk on the Yorkshire Moors with the Brontë Sisters

Today is the perfect, lazy day for curling up with a good book. The weather is unusually cold... well, for Central Texas... just a tad below freezing. The sky is dark with clouds, and the trees have lost their leaves. It's the type of gloomy, Gothic setting I pictured  when reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë or Jane Eyre by her sister, Charlotte Brontë. A place inhabited by dark and brooding types.

Ever since I read those novels in high school and at university, I've always wondered what it was like to stroll along the Yorkshire moors. Growing up amid the metropolitan sprawl and suburban strip malls of flat-as-a-pancake Houston, it was difficult to picture myself inserted into such a foreign scene. So, when we decided to visit York, England last summer, I was seized with the notion of making a pilgrimage to  the Brontë Parsonage in the tiny village of Haworth and finally walking among the heather in the rolling moorlands. "It's just a 90-minute drive from York," I explained to my husband with pleading, puppy dog eyes." How could he resist?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Traveling Near and Far in 2016

2016 is what I'm calling "the New Normal." It's been two-and-a-half years since we returned to Texas from our three year expat assignment living in Malaysia. There's no doubt about it. Malaysia was a turning point in family travel for us. Before that, we fell into the "One Big Trip a Year" category, typically during the summer. Most holidays were spent visiting our families who live 3 hours away in Houston where both hubby and I grew up. With the overseas move, we were in a rush to squeeze in as much travel as possible while living on the other side of the world. It really helped that almost all our friends were in the same mode.

The "New Normal" is a mix of both styles. We still drive to Houston for Easter, Fourth of July (USA's Independence Day), Thanksgiving, Christmas and other weekends here and there. But, we managed to take three big family trips this year, too. On top of that, hubby spends a total of one month in Malaysia and one month in Hungary on business.

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