Showdown at Sawgrass III

A rematch at TPC Sawgrass nine years in the making.

The Beatles Suite at The Edgewater Seattle

For a hotel and Beatles junkie, this was pretty much as good as it gets.

Skagway and the Laughton Glacier Hike

Perhaps the most incredible day of my entire travel career.

My Top 8 Bucket List Golf Courses

After a year of incredible golf travel, it was time to revise the bucket list.

Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

I’m not much on Halloween. It’s not because I’m too old or some strange aversion to costumes, I just don’t do scary. Horror movies, the dark, particularly intense episodes of Scooby-Doo - all are things I try to avoid like the plague. By default, Halloween falls into this mix, though it’s partially offset by the copious amounts of leftover candy. This year, for the first time in at least two decades, I was able to take part in the Halloween fun because my good friends at Disney have a celebration just for guys like me… Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.

Just like its Christmas Party cousin, Mickey’s Halloween Party requires a separate ticket for entry, which always makes me gristle a bit being a passholder. But I learned long ago to keep an open mind when it comes to any bash hosted by the Mickster, because they’re usually worth every penny.


My first experience at Mickey’s Halloween Party was no exception.

Oddly enough, both the Halloween and Christmas parties begin two full months before the actual holiday they’re celebrating, leading me to often wonder how anyone can get excited to Trick or Treat on Labor Day or eat Christmas cookies on November 7th. In our case, the first weekend of October felt more like mid-July, but that would change just a few hours after we scanned our MagicBands...


Although Mickey's Halloween Party technically doesn't begin until 7pm, guests with tickets can enter starting at 4pm. Since the overwhelming majority wait until the official start time - Disney doesn't exactly advertise the 4pm thing - those that do enter early are given a truly spectacular treat in the form of ridiculously short wait times.

You see, since the park "closes" at 7pm and the party "begins" at the same time, there's a brief lag where the rides are in something of a flux. All the normal park-goers have made their way toward the exit, while those attending the party haven't quite hit Tomorrowland en masse. Word to the wise... Get to Mickey's Halloween (or Christmas) Party early, because this sure beats a few pieces of candy...

Ahh but the candy... arguably the best part of Mickey's Halloween Party. I turned the page to my 30s long ago, but that didn't stop me from grabbing a bag with the best of them. There were roughly a dozen Trick or Treat stops around the Magic Kingdom and we hit them all. In the end, we came away with 4 bags that were overflowing with sweets. And not cheap knock-off brands either...I'm talking the good stuff.
Even Mr. Smee and Wendy went Trick or Treating.

Of course, the main attraction during the Halloween Party is the special edition of Wishes and the Boo To You parade. Our problem was we arrived at the Main Street hub a little later than usual and the place was already packed. It looked like we would have to watch from a rather lame location, but just then the Disney Gods threw us a bone.

A rain storm...


The crowd on Main Street scattered like they'd seen a ghost from the Haunted Mansion, and just like that we had the best seat in the house. Sure we got drenched, but it was totally worth it.

To put it mildly, Hallo-wishes was phenomenal. In fact, it just might be my favorite edition of Disney's fireworks extravaganzas, with the 180-degree finale playing a close second to the one at Epcot during New Year's Eve.


Finally, it's true what they say... Everyone loves a parade, and the Boo To You is especially good. All the usual cast of characters make an appearance, plus a few that seem out of place - read: girls dancing in Daisy Dukes - but overall it's worth the investment of time. Besides, who am I to complain about girls with fake southern accents dancing in short shorts. But fair warning: the song which accompanies the parade will be permanently implanted on your brain.

For a guy that's not big on anything Halloween, Mickey's version of the holiday is one heck of a good time. The ability to ride our favorite attractions with no wait, plus the candy, fireworks and parade made for a great evening - rainstorm and all. Will we be back next year? Probably...right about the time I get the Boo To You song out of my head.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Hotel Junkie Goes Aloft

If there's one thing I've learned to do over the years it's lower my expectations when it comes to airport hotels. As a former hotel guy myself, I can fully empathize with the challenges these turn-and-burn factories face on a daily basis. All I'm pretty much expecting at an airport hotel is a bed, a door that locks, and an outlet to plug in my phone. Anything else is merely a bonus.

After two recent stays at the Aloft Hotel near the Jacksonville airport, those expectations may be changing entirely.

The Aloft brand is billed as "A Vision of W Hotels" but really it's nothing more than Starwood's version of a Hyatt Place or Hotel Indigo - trendy yet moderately priced hotels designed with the savvy business traveler in mind. It's that whole "W Hotels" part, however, that both excited and gave me pause when booking the Aloft.

You see, I'm a big fan of W Hotels. Any hotel that calls their lobby the "Living Room" is OK in my book, even though their desire to be uber-hip is just a little over the top. And therein lies my one and only complaint with W Hotels... I'm just not cool enough to stay there.
Even the alarm clocks are retro-cool.

So I couldn't help but wonder if the same would hold true at the pseudo-connected Aloft brand. We boarded the elevator with another couple after checking-in, and it was there that I got my answer.

"I wonder if there's an Aloft in Prague. We totally should have stayed there."

You've been to Prague? Congratulations! 

Sure that's what I wanted to say, but thankfully I looked at my reflection in the elevator door first - my Pinehurst shirt and Sawgrass hat making me the poster child of pretentious golf course braggart. So I settled for a good solid eye roll instead.

What does all of this have to do with our stay at the Aloft? Not much, other than to say the W vibe is definitely present...
See what I mean?

Before our encounter with Mr. & Mrs. Prague, my overall first impressions of the Aloft were pretty good. I was a big fan of the reserved parking for hybrid vehicles right up front, especially since we were on an airport parking package and were going to leave our car at the hotel all week.

From there, check-in was a breeze and the agent gave us a rundown of all of the amenities - something I always appreciate even if I have no time to use them as was the case here. There's simply nothing worse in my book than the "Here's your keys, elevators to the right, now go away so I can go back to playing solitaire" treatment.
A nice selection at the self service re:fuel station.

The lobby was a little sterile and looked almost as if an Ikea had thrown up all over the place, but that was pretty much to be expected. The WXYZ Bar looked like it might be a popular spot for the after work crowd, if this particular Aloft wasn't found in basically the middle of nowhere.

Our room was easily the nicest one we've ever experienced at an airport hotel. That might sound like the golfer saying he won a match against his hacker buddies with a 97, but if we had this room pretty much anywhere it would definitely do. The bath featured the same toiletries as W hotels, and I can say with 100% certainty that the shower beat the LaQuinta next door. Sadly, the W bed wasn't present, but to have hoped for that might have been reaching.

Aside from a comfortable and inexpensive place to crash for a few hours, I typically need one additional thing from airport hotels: security. We usually book some sort of parking package that allows us to leave our car on-site as opposed to the airport (typically offsetting the cost of the room). This stay was by far the longest I had ever left our car at an airport hotel - 10 days - though I was assured by the desk agent that since we were staying both the night before and after our trip, that the length wasn't an issue. Thankfully, when we returned from Alaska the good old Honda was right where we left her.

Overall, I'd say our first experience with the Aloft brand was a success, and they can call me a new fan. Sure all of the trendy lingo and furnishings are a little over the top, but that certainly doesn't offset the value that these hotels bring to the table. A W-esque experience for a fraction of the price? You can always count me in for that.

Enjoy Your Stay

Adventures with Uncle Deej - Old Sport Turns Two

Over the last two years, I've learned that there are some pretty cool perks to being an uncle. You get to watch Disney cartoons and play with toy train sets whenever you want, not to mention swapping a bottle of wine and 6 episodes of you're latest Netflix-binge for babysitting on the occasional Friday night. But easily the best perk of being an uncle comes at birthday time, because it means a good excuse to spoil them beyond measure and usually a trip to celebrate the occasion.

As if MJ and I have ever needed a good excuse for either of those things...

Last weekend our nephew turned two years old, so naturally my entire family celebrated with a trip to The Happiest Place on Earth. Although Old Sport had been to Disney once before, his first trip included a stomach bug that left him pretty wonky the next day at the Magic Kingdom. I suggested keeping him in a Seinfeld "Bubble Boy" tent for the weeks leading up to this trip, but sadly I didn't get far with that motion. Instead, we all kept our fingers crossed that we'd have better luck this time around. 

I think Uncle Walt must have put in a good word for us, because to say Old Sport was in top form would be the understatement of the year.

The adventure started with a quick breakfast gathering at the home of my parents, where I supplied plenty of Starbucks and what could only be described as a "donut buffet." My brother had previously informed me that Old Sport preferred donut holes to the real thing, so clearly my only option was to get him three different kinds.

Sufficiently high on sugar and caffeine, we all set off for the Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort. Since the complex opened in 2008-ish, I've been one of Bonnet Creek's biggest fans. The Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, and Wyndham Grand (not to be confused with the Wyndham) all rank as some of my favorite hotels for Disney trips thanks to their location and better value for the price as compared to the Mouse's resorts. Soon after we arrived it was pretty clear that the Wyndham would fit into that mix as well.
"I'm practicing my slide Uncle Deej."

Our 3-bedroom villa was ready for check-in when we arrived at roughly 10am - a relief to us all. Room availability isn't usually an issue when MJ and I visit a resort, but after seeing that Old Sport basically travels with everything he owns, I came to understand why there was a concern with us arriving early.

The only thing perhaps more surprising than its availability was the room itself. The villa was bigger than my house with 3-bedrooms, 2 baths, and a full kitchen, not to mention views of the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club and Disney Hollywood Studios. At $249 for the night, this was a steal.
"I can't wait to play golf here Aunt Meggy!"

One knock against the Wyndham is they forced my brother to listen to a timeshare spiel in order to get our parking passes - a scary proposition given the guy has to muster every ounce of will to decline the inevitable air filter pitch when getting his oil changed. It wasn't the full on timeshare pitch like the kind that offer the free weekend in Tahoe. This was more along the lines of "Wouldn't you like to save thousands of dollars on future vacations? No? But we're practically paying you to take vacations. Are you sure? Are you really really sure? Ok if you want to just keep wasting your money, I guess we can't stop you. Here's your parking passes." You know, that sort of thing.
"Seriously Uncle Deej, it's a bargain."

That was all soon forgotten, however, when we arrived at the resort's pirate ship themed pool. This is the kind of place I'd typically avoid like the plague, but I'd have come wearing a Minnie Mouse bathing suit if Old Sport asked me to. The kid loves to swim but I think he had even more fun than usual because the pool was zero entry, meaning he didn't have to clutch the wall or one of us for dear life. The result was an epic splash fight which I lost to a 2 year old.

Although I'm still learning the logistics of traveling with a kid, there was one part of our adventure that needed no explanation: Nap Time. I never grew out of my need for a mid-afternoon cat nap, so I was happy to take a break so Old Sport could take his. Once he was back up, it was time for stop #2 on our adventure...

The Magic Kingdom.

The original plan for our trip was to simply spend the day by the pool and then hit the Boardwalk area for dinner. My brother "called an audible" right as we were ready to depart, suggesting that we hit the Magic Kingdom instead. He should have known he wouldn't have to ask us twice...

After convincing the guard at The Contemporary that we were all there to rent water sprites, we headed inside for a quick stop at Contemporary Grounds, and then on to the Monorail - or as Old Sport calls it, the "Hoo Hoo."
"Aunt Meggy, why does that sidewalk go nowhere?"

Despite the ridiculously long bag check line, we were soon inside the park and strolling down Main Street. Just in time for the bedlam that ensues for the 3 o'clock parade...

This is traditionally one of the slower weekends of the year, but you wouldn't have guessed it by the wait times. So we set off to a ride that rarely has much of a line - one that I hadn't been on in at least a decade... The Jungle Cruise.
"Hey look, Simba!"

After enduring the incredibly lame jokes from our boat captain, we started to head to Fantasyland, only our progress was thwarted by one of our spur of the moment Florida rain showers. We sought cover in what turned out to be the entrance to the Enchanted Tiki Room just as the show was starting.

First the Jungle Cruise, then the Tiki Room. What was next... Aladdin's Magic Carpets?

You got it...

Finally, we headed over to Fantasyland in search of Old Sport's favorite character of the day: Winnie the Pooh. Thankfully, his Disney geek uncle knew just where to find him...

In spite of the heat, crowds, rain, talking birds, and two breaks for Pooh and Tigger, hearing Old Sport exclaim "Hi Pooh!" when he saw the Silly Old Bear pretty much made my life.

As we sat down for dinner at the Contemporary, it was clear the long day had taken its toll on us. We were all exhausted...well, all of us except for Old Sport. Just when it looked like he was starting to tire out, his Aunt gave him a new reason to run around like a wild man...

The next morning, it was back to the Contemporary for breakfast at Chef Mickey's. Before our spur of the moment decision to visit the Magic Kingdom, Chef Mickey's was to be the main event of our weekend. It still turned out that way..
"So if Mickey is here, who's watching the clubhouse?"

Watching Old Sport interact with most of the gang from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, all while stuffing my face with french toast, was a real treat. Naturally, getting to meet the restaurant's Chef was a big deal for yours truly, but I think my nephew was kind of sweet on Minnie. 
"One, Two, Five, Ten... ready or not here I come!"

Of course, no birthday celebration would be complete without cake, which the Mickster was also happy to provide. Clearly, Old Sport learned to eat cupcakes from his father, who has been known to eat icing straight from the jar with a spoon. 
"This isn't going on your blog, right?"

For a guy that spends far too many weekends at Disney than he should, I have to say that this one will certainly go down as one of the best. It's sort of amazing to see how much Old Sport has grown up in just the span of one year, and it would seem that our plans to full indoctrinate him into the Disney fold are right on track. With any luck, maybe next year he'll be able to pronounce "monorail."

Enjoy Your Stay

People Watching at Disney - 5 Favorite Spots

People watching is something of a hobby of mine. To clarify, I'm not talking about scanning the beach with binoculars - no, this is far more civilized and less skeevy. In fact, one could argue that my all time favorite hobby - sitting in a hotel lobby with a libation or ice coffee and watching the world go by - is actually nothing more than people watching, and I suppose that would be true. And if there's one thing I've learned about this little hobby over the years, it's that people watching at Disney is unlike anywhere else in the world.

If you're in to sensory overload, give people watching at Disney a try. Every culture, every creed, every walk of life, every brand of fanny pack - you'll see it all in the span of roughly 6 minutes. And like many things at Disney, a range of emotions are involved here too. One minute you'll be misty eyed when a little kid hugs Mickey, the next you'll feel sheer terror when another one goes by screaming bloody murder.

So where does one find the best people watching at Disney? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Boardwalk Pizza

Technically, the walk-up pizza window at Disney's Boardwalk Resort is a part of Cat Cora's Kouzinna restaurant, but we've always referred to it as Boardwalk Pizza. This joint and I go way back from late nights at Jellyrolls to dinners on the run after a long day at Food & Wine. Heck, I even had Boardwalk Pizza on my wedding night.

So what makes this place so great? Well, it's not the pie, though it doesn't take much to pass muster here given how many Totino's I consume in a year. Instead, what I like about Boardwalk Pizza is sitting at the little red tables nearby, where the atmosphere is nostalgic and the people watching is as good as the cheesecake brownies at the bakery next door.
Credit
Tip: Get the pepperoni - skip the sangria.


Fountain in France

Aside from the ever present bottle neck of traffic in Mexico, the area in front of the France pavilion is arguably the busiest spot in Epcot's World Showcase. But if you're lucky enough to snag a spot on the leading edge of the water fountain, then you've grabbed probably the best place to people watch in Epcot. Being two steps away from the Grey Goose Slushie stand definitely helps this ranking.

Although the constant stream of people makes for great people watching, I've had to learn to turn a deaf ear when sitting here. Otherwise, statements like "Wow, the Eiffel Tower is so big" really start to kill the atmosphere.
Well, the flowers aren't usually there...
Credit
Tip: Chocolate eclairs pair really well with people watching.


Grand Floridian Lobby

The closest thing the House of Mouse has to a "Grand Dame" hotel also happens to be one of the best places for people watching at Disney. The lobby of the Grand Floridian hotel is usually a relatively boring affair, but if you visit at night or during the holidays, well, you're in for a real treat. My suggestion: do both.

We like to enjoy a few songs from the jazz band while watching families marvel at the enormous gingerbread house and pose for Christmas car photos under the incredible tree. Naturally, this all goes pretty great with a couple glasses of bubbly from Mizner's Lounge or the bar at Citrico's.
Call this a slow night.
Tip: Wander back to Narcoossee's for Wishes and a night cap.


The PeopleMover

Yeah, I know it's a ride, but one can do some pretty solid people watching on the PeopleMover. Specifically, you can look down on the hoards of tourists in Tomorrowland and be thankful that, for at least the next few minutes, you're not one of them. Catch the PeopleMover on a slow day and it just might become your favorite ride at Disney - as it is mine - because the cast members will let you go round and round without getting off.

Of course, these days are few and far between. On our last few visits to the Magic Kingdom I've witnessed something that is simply unheard of with the PeopleMover... a line.
Sadly, this version is no more...
Credit
Tip: Skip the people watching, take a nap instead.


Terrace at Club 33

Just like the final bite of a great meal, I've saved the best for last. MJ and I have been fortunate to visit Club 33 on two occasions, and the people watching here is just as memorable as pressing that iconic little doorbell. The trick is you gotta know how to find it.

The dining room at Club 33 is surrounded by a terrace that overlooks New Orleans Square. What would appear to be windows around the room's perimeter are actually doors that give access to the terrace and its one of a kind view. Most of the doors are blocked by tables, but if you happen to land one or you simply have no qualms with invading someone's personal space to squeeze by, then you'll have access to the most exclusive people watching spot at Disney.

Tip: Order champagne - drink it here.

I know people watching is an unorthodox hobby to openly claim, but given the number of "people watching games" found on Google I'm clearly far from alone. So if you enjoy people watching, check out one of these spots, or just find a bench and enjoy the show.

Enjoy Your Stay

A Summer Weekend in Hot-lanta

As a certified travel junkie, the list of destinations I plan to visit is nearly as long as the one Santa totes around in mid-December. Despite my best efforts to scratch as many places off that list as possible, there's one thing that I can pretty much count on year-in and year-out... July 4th will be spent in Atlanta.

Why Atlanta?


Well, as you may recall from previous posts, MJ is one of those crazy runner people, and July 4th happens to be when Atlanta hosts the annual Peachtree Road Race. The run is the largest 10k in the world with over sixty thousand participants - no, I am not one of them - and it also ranks as perhaps her favorite race of the year. Which makes no sense to me considering its 182 degrees in Atlanta in July, and the course involves the ominously named "Cardiac Hill."
One of this years runners. Man I felt bad watching him with donut in hand.


Still, the Peachtree guarantees me at least one weekend a year in one of my favorite cities, and I've managed to pick up a few solid tips for getting the most of your visit to Hotlanta.

Getting Around

We have one rule when it comes to Atlanta: no driving. I might make an exception for an out of the way restaurant or two, but typically once the car is parked at our hotel it doesn't leave again until it's time to head home. Traffic in Atlanta is like a root canal while waiting in line at Starbucks - simply the worst kind of torture. Avoid it at all costs.

Seriously, you want nothing to do with this.

The MARTA rail system is convenient for visiting any of the big attractions downtown, like the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke, CNN, and Centennial Olympic Park. If you want to hit up Stone Mountain or Six Flags, you're pretty much out of luck here, but we are usually able to get by just fine between MARTA and our own two feet.
Walking has its benefits. Like getting caught in Olympic Park during a rainstorm.

The Atlanta public transit has its limits, however, and relying on taxis will eventually break the bank. Thankfully, there's a pretty good solution to this problem...

Where to Stay

When planning a trip to Atlanta, you're pretty likely to end up booking a hotel in one of three areas: Downtown, Midtown, or Buckhead. These are the three most vibrant parts of town, with easiest access to great hotels, restaurants, and things to do. It just so happens, all three also happen to be home to a W Hotel.
Most comfy pool loungers ever.

Why stay at a W Hotel? Well, they're awesome for starters. The bigger reason, however comes down to convenience, specifically in the form of their courtesy car service. W Hotels typically have nice shiny SUVs with a driver that will take you anywhere within a 3 mile radius free of charge - of course, you should always tip the driver. The service worked great for us in Buckhead and saved us making the trek to Fado Irish Pub to watch a World Cup match in the killer Atlanta heat.
The awesome bar at W Downtown

Of course, the biggest benefit to this is it gives guests access to many of Atlanta's world class restaurants, without the risk of road rage or expense of a taxi. Which leads me to the most important part of this exercise..

What to Eat

In a part of the country where white gravy and fried everything is king, some of the leading chefs of the day are putting down roots in The ATL and doing some remarkable stuff. If the title of Food Capital of the South hasn't already been granted, it's coming any day now.
Go ahead, spoil your dinner. (At Lenox Mall)

Over the years, a number of restaurants in Atlanta have made my list of all time favorites. TWO Urban Licks, South City Kitchen, Spice Market, and, of course, The Varsity, are always sure to please. Each visit, I try to scratch at least one or two places from my list, but it seems that names of hot new restaurants get added faster than I can mark them off.  This year we paid a visit to a new kid on the block, and one mainstay that's arguably the most highly acclaimed restaurant in town.
If you haven't been....GO!

Cook Hall at the W Buckhead was a pleasant surprise. The hotel's former restaurant was uninspiring at best, but this new gastropub with a southern flair had yours truly throughly impressed. Of course, crab mac & cheese is usually bound to do that.
Crab deviled eggs? Don't mind if I do.

Meanwhile, in Midtown we finally paid a visit to Empire State South. This place truly put Atlanta on the food map, and it's easy to see why. The atmosphere and food were both spectacular, but it was the precision and care of the bartender that made this one a hit. I watched in awe as this artist took every bit of 5 minutes or more to craft my old fashioned - it was easily the finest I've ever had. So good in fact, I had to watch him make another.
The opening spread at Empire State South.

Although Atlanta might not be the first place many would pick for a summer weekend getaway, there are plenty of reasons to put it on the list. From the city's numerous attractions to its ever growing array of amazing restaurants, Atlanta has a little something for everyone. Sure, it's hot as all get out, but that's just a good reason for a Frosted Orange at The Varsity.

Enjoy Your Stay