Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best Christmas Music Out There

If all the Christmas music you listen to is from your local radio station, then you have been missing out on some of the best Christmas music that is out there! Honestly, you can only hear "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" so many times before your head explodes.

Here's a guide to some of my favorite Christmas albums:

Mannheim Steamroller Christmas

This was the first - and arguably the best - Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, and there's not much on it that I don't like. The first track, "Deck the Halls" can be heard everywhere, but "Good King Wenceslas" is a joyful track that gets toes tapping, and this version of "Silent Night" is the best one not sung inside a church. Did you know that this album is now 30 years old?

Pentatonix That's Christmas to Me and PTXmas

That's Christmas to Me is brand-new this year, and I love listening to it. My students love it, too - especially songs like "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and their gospel version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." They have a couple of non-Christmas songs including the Decemberists' "White Winter Hymnal" and a mashup of "Don't Worry Be Happy" with "Winter Wonderland."

I like this one over their first Christmas album, PTXmas, but that first one has a few stellar tracks including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Little Drummer Boy," the latter of which I could listen to on a loop!

Amy Grant Home for Christmas

This is a childhood favorite of mine, and it starts strong and finishes strong. This is where you'll hear the original version of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" and undoubtedly the best. It truly isn't Christmas until I hear "Emmanuel, God with Us" and the incredible "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Doug Hammer Noel

There is a lot of Christmas piano albums out there, but I love this one based on one song: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It's such a different take on the carol and it fits so well. I also enjoy listening to "Do You Hear What I Hear" (even though I'm not a big fan of the song itself) and "When Christmas Comes to Town."

Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God

This album chronicles the coming of Jesus as a baby. It's a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks that starts back in the Old Testament and and connects it with the new. Some of my favorite vocal tracks are "It Came to Pass" and "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks," and I love the instrumental tracks for "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "The Holly and the Ivy."

Canadian Brass A Canadian Brass Christmas

Another childhood favorite with some amazing brass players from up north. This has the only version of "Ding Dong! Merrily on High" I ever want to listen to, and has a few other Christmas carols that you won't hear on the radio, like "Sussex Carol," "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," and "Here We Come A-Wassailing." They throw in some comedy, too, in the songs "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman." Well, you know what happens when Frosty gets hot.

The Muppets Christmas Carol soundtrack

This movie was released in 1992 and the music has stuck with me after all these years. I absolutely love this movie, and I absolutely love the songs. From "Scrooge" to "One More Sleep 'till Christmas" and "It Feels Like Christmas" there aren't many recycled Christmas carols here. It's all original, and it's all very fresh.

Michael W. Smith Christmas

This album is now 25 years old, but I only discovered it a few years back. From start to finish, this album is my favorite Christmas album. It has a few familiar carols like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Gloria" ("Angels We Have Heard on High"), but has other fantastic original pieces like "All is Well" and "Lux Venit." The arrangements are so full thanks to the full choirs and orchestra behind him.

Have any recommendations for Christmas albums? Please comment below!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Fine Day to Ski

Last Saturday I decided to take a trip into the mountains and go skiing in Breckenridge - a ski location that I am familiar with thanks to my trips there last season. My goal for this one-day adventure was to see if I remembered anything from my lessons eight months ago, and also find out if I could go on my own.

My cousins weren't planning on coming to Breckenridge till the following weekend, and I had a free morning with good weather. I had spent the week researching good places to park, the best slopes to try, and how long it would take to get there. Thanks to my advanced planning, my day went off without a hitch!

Breckenridge's parking lots are $12 on the weekends, but they have a free satellite lot outside of town and free shuttle service to the free gondola that will take you up to the base of Peak 8. There's a lot of "free" in that sentence, so I had to take advantage of that.

I woke up at 5 a.m. and was on the road by 5:45. There hadn't been much precipitation in Colorado for a few weeks, so the roads were dry and traffic was minimal. I always find it creepy to drive through the mountains at night, but the sky lightened quickly as I took I-70 west.

I was concerned that maybe the free lot was small and would fill up early, but I didn't need to worry. The lot was huge, and I was the fourth car there. I had planned on getting to town about 7:30. The shuttles and gondola started at 8, and the ski lifts opened at 9. Because I got there early, I had plenty of time to get bundled up, make sure I had everything I needed (skis, poles, sunscreen, chocolate, phone, keys, etc.) before a few other cars showed up. The first bus that pulled up had me in it!

The group of us were dropped off right at the gondola entrance, and while there was a really long line to purchase lift tickets, I already had that taken care of. Thanks to my summertime visit with my parents, I knew exactly where the gondola would drop me off.

I took the gondola up with a nice couple from Lakewood, but had also formerly been in the Midwest. They planned on catching the Dew Tour, a contest for snowboard and freeski athletes, which I planned to do, as well. I had done my research on that, too, and knew the first competition started at 9.

The base of Peak 8 has a lodge and several ski lifts. I got to the area around 8:50, and there were a few people milling around. Only Rip's Ride was allowing people to get on, since that was the one that would take people to the competitions. I decided that I would watch the women's snowboard superpipe final before I did the slopes.

Rip's Ride lets spectators off near the end of the superpipe, but then we had to climb up to get to the lower portion. I left my skis and took my poles, and I'm glad I had those to help me get up! Those ski boots are really heavy.

The area was not crowded at all, so I placed myself right behind the athlete's guest section and had an unobstructed view, since there weren't any people in that guest section! It was pretty interesting watching the Dew Tour cameras that were livestreaming the competition and the NBC cameras that were recording it to show later.

I didn't have to wait long to see my first familiar face. Hannah Teter won the gold medal in the 2006 Olympics and went down first. Unfortunately, neither run that she did resulted in much, but it was awesome to see her up close.

Chloe Kim isn't someone that has won an Olympic medal...yet. She's only 14 years old! But she was stellar and deserved her second place finish. It was clear that NBC knows she's the next "big thing" because of how much time she had to spend in front of the camera and how many interviews she gave after the competition!

My excitement was for someone that I've known from the Olympics since 2002 - Kelly Clark. She won the gold medal back in Salt Lake City and is still dominating. She won the competition and did it convincingly, laying down a 1080 and not wiping out.

When NBC reaired the competition in the afternoon, my parents watched and caught me on television behind Chloe Kim. It was neat having them see me all the way back in Michigan!

The men's competition was about 1 1/2 hours after the women's competition, and I saw them warm up, but I decided to hit the slopes instead of waiting. While the women's group had athletes that I have been familiar with for 12 years, the men's group was full of athletes that I'd only known for the past year. I didn't have the excitement to see those guys than I did the girls.

I retrieved my skis and put my skills to the test on a pretty small hill called Dyersville. And whadya know? I still felt good! What a relief. Since I was on my own, there was always that fear that I'd fall over and not be able to get up. But when I did fall (twice total - I'll admit it) I was able to get myself up!

I did another run down Dyersville, and then decided to try to get over to Peak 9, with which I am more familiar with. So I took the brand-new 6-person Colorado SuperChair, which I saw being constructed over the summer. It is fast! I was impressed with the speed and how fast it got me up Peak 8.

There are lots of signs on the slopes, and directions pointing skiers all over the place, including Peak 9. I followed those directions down Springmeier, Four O'Clock, Crosscut, and Sawmill, but I made a mistake when I saw directions for Snowflake. I remembered Snowflake and it sounded familiar, so I decided to turn in there. My mistake. It took me down to the Snowflake chair and all the way back up to the top of Peak 8! If I'd stayed on Sawmill I would have made it to Peak 9. Oh well. I went down Springmeier again and stopped at the lodge for some water - I needed to stay hydrated!

The base of Peak 8 was super crowded since it was lunchtime, and I knew I wanted to get out of there since the lift queues were going to be very crowded from now on. But I'd had so much fun that I decided to fit in one more run. I decided to do Springmeier one more time. At times Springmeier is a green (easy) hill, but other times it's a blue (medium). I didn't feel horrible going down those blue areas, which made me pretty happy.

After one final run, I called it a day. It was incredibly easy to get back to the gondola, hop on a shuttle, and get back to my car. Like I wrote earlier, my advanced planning helped me have the most successful ski trip I could have had!

Even better, I now have confidence going skiing without my family along. While they do their black runs, I can feel good doing something that feels more comfortable to me. Although I might not have the best posture going down a hill, I enjoy every minute of it!

Friday, December 12, 2014

How to Leave the Stress Behind

I didn't have a good day today.

It wasn't like anything serious took place.

It was just very stressful. Lots going on. It seemed like not much went the way I planned it. Some things I might not have handled as well as I could have.

So how do I get rid of the stress? Some ways work for some and some ways work for others. Here are mine:

Work out

It might seem like that would be the last think I want to do after a stressful day. But working out - whether it's taking a walk or doing a light routine - is a great remedy. I did a light workout today and felt much better.

Computer time

This may mean paying bills, downloading podcasts, syncing my iPod, or catching up on television. On stressful days I love it when there's big entertainment news, like Star Wars names being revealed, because that means there's lots of reactions and lots of ways to get my mind off of stress.

Cat cuddles

It's no surprise that cats help with stress. It is really amazing how pets can sense when their owner is stressed out or in a sad mood. They follow them everywhere and never let them leave their sight. So a good cuddle is never too far away.

Piano performance

To put all the emotions of the day on a piece that requires forte and piano can soothe a seething soul. Although I'm an organist first, I find that tickling the ivories can be more of a de-stresser than organ. Organ usually frustrates me way more than piano!

Write something

You are actually witnessing the product of my de-stressing right now! This article - and other like it - are making me think of the clever ways I could type out a sentence (like that "soothe a seething soul" sentence in the last paragraph) instead of the cruddy thing that happened. Someday I gotta get back to that novel. Then I'd be stress-free!

Get away

It doesn't really matter where I go - I just gotta get out of work! It's hard thing for me to do sometimes since I almost spend more time at work (which is also my church) than at home. But a trip to the library, or Target, or out of the city entirely makes me focus on the drive and not on the stress.


This is probably the most important one that I do. It is amazing how I can put a prayer out to God, and He can effortlessly make things seem better than before. I've done that many times, and marvel as He does His work. I wish I remembered to do it more often.

So what do you do? Any helpful tips that you have for anyone? Feel free to share below! And remember - nothing is as stressful as you make it out to be.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Peter Pan Live: A Review

There were so many times tonight when I was watching Peter Pan Live on NBC that I was suddenly transported back to my living room in Michigan watching a VHS copy of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. And when I was reminded of those times, I reluctantly decided that the old version was better.

Yes, the NBC version had some improvements. The scenery was amazing - especially the complete nursery set. Having Nana actually be a real dog was great - he did an amazing job! (Too bad they couldn't've had a trained crocodile, too.)

The dancing was amazing pretty much the whole way through. The kid who played Michael was having a ball hanging out with those Lost Boys - even though he had to wear footie pajamas. My cast MVPs are all the pirates, Lost Boys, and Indians, for sure.

But there were a few clunkers.

The choice to use a computer animated Tinkerbell was a bad idea. The animation looked like old '90s CGI rather than an innovative prop. Is it so hard to use a light?

Allison Williams tried her best, but there were points where I thought, "Man, Mary Martin really brought out the youthfulness and playfulness in this part!" Williams seemed a bit too proper to play a boy, and that can be said about her singing, too. In "I Gotta Crow," Martin always had such glee - especially when singing "Nat-ur-al-leeee!" Williams tried, but just didn't hit the mark. Oddly enough, I think her voice was too low! She did improve a bit during the show.

Christopher Walken seemed to try a British accent at the beginning, and didn't even try singing. Even his last word in the tango was so soft the mic couldn't pick it up. But was he milking it for all it's worth? Yes.

Sometimes the soundtrack (it wasn't live instrumentation) was too loud to hear what the actors were saying - that happened in "I'm Flying" and "Tender Shepherd" - one of the best parts of "Tender Shepherd" is the round between Wendy, John, Michael, and Mrs. Darling. Due to sound issues, you couldn't hear the round!

But let's put the comparisons aside. Was this a good musical to introduce to your kids? Absolutely! The scenery was colorful, and there was always something going on. Everything was incredibly attractive to kiddos watching - even if the show went to 11pm.

If the point was to introduce children to the fun of musical theater and remind us older folk about the fun we had with this show in our youth, it did its job. After all, my sister texted me halfway in, saying, "There needs to be an old school Campbell's soup commercial right about now," since our VHS had commercials like that! Ah, nostalgia. A good thing for this time of year. Well done, Peter Pan Live.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Christmas Music Zone

It's now December, which means it's safe to listen to Christmas music everywhere you go and not get the stink eye. I know that many of you have your favorites, but there's always room for more fantastic Christmas music in your repertoire - especially if you don't want to hear "Blue Christmas" for the tenth time today.

"Deck the Halls" Mannheim Steamroller

When I start listening to Christmas music, this selection from Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas album is usually one of the first things I queue up.

The reason I love it: It reminds me of decorating the Christmas tree when I was a kid, as well as my siblings and I having pantomime concerts featuring this music.

"Glory to God" Glad

This is not a familiar Christmas carol. Instead, it's derived from the angels' words in Luke 2.

The reason I love it: This is one that I as a musician love to dissect, and break down each part that is sung. I loved it so much, I actually wrote out the parts in college and had a group sing it!

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" Doug Hammer

A new addition to my Christmas favorites, I bought the sheet music to this one. It might take me a while to conquer.

The reason I love it: Of all the festive carols, this one usually ranks near the end of my rankings. However, this take on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is simple and soft - a treatment that this piece usually doesn't have.

"Gloria" Michael W. Smith

Even though this piece was released 25 years ago, I didn't hear it until college. Even though I'm only showing the final piece here, the whole album should be listened to from start to finish to really get the most out of it.

The reason I love it: While the carol is timeless, the arrangement of this piece has a lot of '80s vibes to it. I especially love the - what would you call it? - synth harpsichord at the beginning!

"Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" Canadian Brass

If you have lived all your years in the dark about the amazement of the Canadian Brass, then I really need to educate you. A fan of any sort of brass instrument should pick this one up.

The reason I love it: The piece builds up, with the beautiful chords and full sound hitting ears brilliantly.

"First Snow" Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Some people are obsessed with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra...and I am not one of them. They have a few good songs, but there's only one song that I love to bits, and that's this one.

The reason I love it: TSO thinks that they need to add aggressive vocals to a lot of their songs, which they don't need to do. This one is purely instrumental - with a rock/orchestral kick - that really keeps it fresh.

Oh, and I chose to use a house decorated and tuned with the song because that's so much fun!

"Carol of the Bells" David Foster

This might be one that you heard on the radio but never knew who did it. Well, David Foster is a popular Canadian music producer and arranger and has worked with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Kenny Loggins, and Chicago. And it seems like any time I hear a song he arranged, I go, "That's fantastic!"

The reason I love it: I tire easily of all the different "Carol of the Bells" iterations that are out there, but this one adds a B melody along with a fantastic ending that starts at 2:08.

I hope maybe you've found some new music to add to your Christmas playlist! Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Best Years of My Life

The best years of my life? That's a hard question. Here are the options:

My pre-school years were the best years of my life.

Sure, I was born four weeks early and had to spend a week in the hospital getting into fighting shape, but I was born to a great family! I had an older brother that loved having me around, and we lived in a great area. My parents moved us to another great area in Michigan just a few months later, which was even better! Now I was closer to my extended family, who all loved me and wanted to hold me.

And what could make it better? A little sister! A little baby sister that my brother and I fawned over. Someone that we spoke up for and did everything for, even when we probably should have been letting her do it herself. I got to spend all day every day with my mother, and my father was home for short periods throughout every day so I got to see him too! I got to go to work with Dad sometimes, and I'd spin in his spinny chair and crawl under the church pews.

Yup, before I went to school, I was having the best years of my life.


My elementary school years were the best years of my life.

Before school started, I was stuck at home ALL. THE. TIME. Now that I was in school, I got to go with my big brother and have a backpack and take a lunch in a really cool cartoon lunchbox! I learned how to read and devoured book after book after book. My family added a baby brother - the cutest baby on the face of the earth, mind you - but I didn't have to hear him cry all the time because I was at school!

I got to play sports, and I loved volleyball and basketball! We were really good, too - we almost won the volleyball championship once! I started learning how to play piano, and "Freight Train" was the best piano song of all time. I learned how to ride a bike and I learned the route from home to the library so I could go whenever I wanted and get a backpack full of books!

I got to sing solos in school plays, got really good grades, played tons of "Oregon Trail" on the computer, and had really good friends - including my little sister! My mom showed what a good musician was all about, so I joined the Junior Bell Choir and Senior Choir as soon as I could!

The local sports teams started winning championships when I was in elementary school: Michigan won the 1997 National Championship in football, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998. I started watching ESPN and SportsCenter became my favorite show. My Dad took me to sports games and taught me everything he knew. Though I loved sports, I still watched a lot of Arthur and Magic School Bus in the mornings, followed by Rugrats, Doug, Animaniacs, and Tiny Toons in the afternoons.

Plus, Star Wars came back, and my Dad took me to see it in the theaters...at 4:00 a.m! On a school night!

Yup, my elementary school years were the best years of my life.


My high school years were the best years of my life.

Ever since I can remember, my parents talked all about Michigan Lutheran Seminary. We went to football games and concerts, and I loved making the trip up the highway to that big campus.

So as soon as I graduated from elementary school, I was ready to hitchhike up to Saginaw! And those years did not disappoint.

As soon as I got there, I became the manager of the girls' basketball team. I stuck with that job my whole high school career - freshman team, JV team, and Varsity team for two years. I never regretted that decision, because I made my closest high school friends and had some incredible experiences. Our team went to the state quarterfinals both years of Varsity, and we won the conference! The team had more superfans than the men's team, and they followed us all over the state, packing the gyms with more visitors than home fans!

I got to be in both spring sports - softball for two years (once year as a STUDENT COACH - something that I'd never seen before!), and then track for two years, where I improved in my skills so quickly that I got to go to some of the weekend meets and get medals!

Oh, and did I mention I also was the watergirl for the football team - one year of JV and one year of Varsity - before becoming their statistician with my best friend and roommate? I got a letter in football!

Not only did I do a ton of sports, I also got to be in two musicals and the first MLS Children's Theater production EVER! In one of the musicals I got a solo! I really liked being behind-the-scenes, too.

And let's not forget the choirs. I was in Concert Choir and we went on tour all the way down to Florida, and then we went east to Pennsylvania. I saw so many amazing sights on those tours! We sang some beautiful songs, and I was asked to be a STUDENT CONDUCTOR for two pieces when our director couldn't be with us on our senior tour. That was when I realized what I wanted to do when I grew up!

My grades were pretty good, too. I really enjoyed my professors and learned a lot of stuff. During the last two years I was there parts of the school were remodeled and I got to use the new additions my senior year. They were so awesome!

My first year my big brother took me under his wing and we hung out all the time! We even had regular Wednesday walks to the local comic book shop and we would talk about everything! Then my last two years my sister was there, and it was so great watching her play volleyball and be in the plays and musicals!

I got to play organ all four years - you usually have to wait till sophomore year to start organ! I got to play in morning chapel a ton of times, and accompanied a few choirs. And when I graduated, I got to play the final hymn in the graduation service.

Yup, I loved high school. Those were the best years of my life.


My college years were the best years of my life.

High school was just the beginning. College was amazing. I had a car on campus and could drive anywhere, from Mankato to Minneapolis and all the way to Wisconsin if I wanted to see my Grama! I loved driving all night to get back home, and see Chicago in the dead of night.

The campus was so much bigger than MLS! Their fitness center was HUGE! I was there all the time, and loved every minute of it. I kind of had to, because the cafeteria was also awesome, and a lot of times they would have peppermint bon-bon ice cream (AKA mint chip) and I would always get a cone. In my fifth year they had late-night caf hours, and you could get chicken strips whenever you wanted!

I learned so much in those five years. My education classes gave me a good start in what to expect as a teacher, but it was my hours in real classrooms that let me see what teaching was like. I loved my student teaching experience.

But I had a double major, and all the music knowledge I gained there was incredible. I didn't think I could learn any more about music, and then I did! I got my first conducting baton, and got to direct the College Choir for my Advanced Conducting class! I got to spend a whole semester doing the music at a church and school, and I had two hours every DAY when I could practice organ!

I still stayed involved in drama - I acted in a musical, a Shakespearean outdoor production, and a Children's Theater weekend before becoming the producer of a Reader's Theater event. I met so many amazing and talented people in those years.

I also met my lifelong friends in those years. We hung out all the time! I was roommates with one of them for two years, and the only reason we didn't stay roommates after that was because we both became RAs. The five of us went on trips, camped, went to the orchestra, and cheered each other on in whatever we were doing! I'm still friends with all of them today.

I got to be in the College Choir for four out my five years. I got to accompany the choir twice and go on four tours, covering the western US, the midwest, and Mexico! The host families we stayed with were incredible, and we would be served so much amazing food. The pieces we sang brought my choral experience to a whole other level.

I really became outgoing in college, and was confident in so many things. Those were the best years of my life.


My twenties are the best years of my life.

I thought I was good at stuff in college. And then I got better at them after I left. Take organ playing. I was only starting to scratch the surface of my abilities in college. Now I am playing large pieces with confidence. I can put together difficult pieces in a shorter amount of time. I am being asked to play for large weddings on large organs.

My conducting skills have also improved. I've conducted Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" as well as a 50-person choir for a Reformation service and a couple of Advent concerts. I have organized countless church services and choir pieces. I would have freaked out with that much responsibility in college!

I have my own place, and I have two cats that love me to bits. I can take vacations to wherever I want, and I have! I've visited Walt Disney World five times in five years and made a part-time career blogging about it. I've spent time in China and the Czech Republic. I've been able to fly around the country and support my family as they take on new endeavors.

I have made new friends and kept the old ones close to me, as well. I've learned how to be a better friend, and can't believe people were friends with me when I had no social skills and probably said some pretty stupid things to them.

I've learned how to be a better teacher, too. I've learned to appreciate my coworkers and ask them for advice. I've learned how to communicate better with teachers and students, and I know that I still have a lot to learn about teaching.

All the stuff I learned from birth on up till college made me who I am today. So without a doubt, these years are the best years of my life. I'm going to try to enjoy them as much as I can. And when I'm feeling down, I'm going to come back and read this article and realize all the blessings God has given me in life, and thank Him as much as I can for all that he's done, and all he will do for me in the future!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Procrastinator's Movie Review: Non-Stop


Release Date: February 28, 2014

Who was in that one again? Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery

I can't remember the plot. A US Air Marshal (Neeson) goes on a trans-Atlantic flight to London and someone texts him, saying he'll kill one person every 20 minutes if 150 million dollars isn't put into an account. Unfortunately for the Marshal, all signs point to him being responsible for these problems.

The review: It takes a lot for me to watch a movie at home, start to finish, without picking up my tablet or computer and browsing. I don't lose any plot points because I kind of already know what's going on.

Not in this movie. I stayed focused on it from start to finish, and I still was second-guessing who the hijacker was. Was it Neeson's character? The stewardess? The other Marshal? The cop? The redhead? This is definitely not a predictable movie. Great action, not too much gore, and very much a thrill. I love thrillers.

MVP: I'll give it to the screenwriter, who makes the audience change their minds over and over again about the responsible party.

Blurb Musing Rating (out of five): Four and-a-half transatlantic flights. If you haven't seen it, you should! (Unless you don't like flying in the first place.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Listen, Perform, Conduct - A Game!

If you have ever participated in a teenage sleepover - or at least surfed on the Internet for random, stupid things - you have probably come across the game that I am going to tweak a bit today. The game has been known for its many forms (some of which I can't type here), but the basic premise is that you're offered three people, and you have to decide which one you'll marry, which one you'd date, and which one you'd kill.

This can be a very difficult game for some people, especially because one of the choices has a very negative result. If you have three people that you like, how can you choose the one you'd kill?

Let's be rational here for a second: you'll never kill this person - and it's highly unlikely that you'd marry or date the other two (especially if they're celebrities). But why don't we take this game and play it to my strengths?

Namely, a music game?

I came up with this when I was flying back from Minneapolis and a great weekend with my family. My downloaded episode of Doctor Who wouldn't play, and so I put on my iPod and listened to some music for the brief flight home to Denver. One of my favorite songs came up, and I imagined myself at the podium, conducting the whole thing from start to finish.

Another piece came up, and I realized I couldn't imagine myself conducting it. I would never have the talent to perform it, either. The only way I could really enjoy the piece was if I was listening to it.

And thus, my new game - "Listen, Perform, Conduct" - was born.

I'll take three pieces each time and categorize them. Are your opinions different? Be sure to tell me below. Give me more music suggestions on my Facebook page, facebook.com/blurbmusings, too.

"Bolero" by Maurice Ravel

I have actually heard this piece performed live by the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, and I have never had my breath taken away by a piece like I did for this. The slow, deliberate pace set by the snare drum and the soft, passionate notes played by the instruments draws you in, and then before you know it, the whole feel has changed to this rolling, thundering piece while still playing the same themes over and over again! I would watch this piece performed over and over and over again. It's way too much fun to sit back and feel the crescendo and acceleration pound over you!

"Us" by Regina Spektor

The year after I left MLC, I watched video a group perform "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay at the Winter Carnival Talent Show - and they had all the instruments, including the drum, piano, and strings. I thought it was so awesome that they were able to replicate the piece so well, even with the difficult arrangement.

After that, I started picking certain songs on my playlists and arranging them for the MLC stage, and this was one of the easiest. On one side, the piano. In the middle, the string group. And on the right, the singer. I don't really mind which part I would perform, but I will say that I do enjoy singing this song in the car, especially because it's in my range.

Too bad my college days are over.

"Medley: I Saw Three Ships/Joy to the World" by Michael W. Smith

This is the one that I was listening to on the plane. As a matter of fact, I listened to it twice. I could almost feel the conductor's baton in my hand. I know I'm not a symphonic conductor, but you wouldn't need to ask me twice to conduct this piece. 

There is so much to this piece. The crescendo is huge! Then the Celtic woodwinds come in softly! Then the piano rolls on! Then the piece blows open! 

Is it sad I want to do this at a WELS Worship Conference sometime, with the Lutheran Ceili Orchestra and an orchestra of Lutheran musicians? It would be so much fun.

(PS. I know it's Christmas. I just listened to a couple things. Still not full-time.)

Any suggestions for pieces I should categorize in my new game? Comment below and let me know - I'm sure it will be a struggle to find a place for each piece!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All the World's A Stage for This Family

This weekend marks the end of an era in my family. We are all gathering in Minnesota to watch the youngest member of our family in the final musical performance of his school career.

Musicals have always been a huge part of my family's life. We were raised to love musical theater and saw many touring productions that came through Detroit. While our mother can be credited for passing down her singing and acting talent that she used when she was growing up, our father gave us our passion for musicals. He never acted in his life, but he has known and loved musicals since he was a kid, and that love has not waned.

Viewing Musical Theater

The earliest musical I can remember loving was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Other musicals that I was aware of, like Oklahoma! and The Music Man and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were from thirty or forty years earlier, and Joseph seemed like a new-fangled kind of musical (even though it actually was born in the 1970s). My parents bought the CD that had Donny Osmond as Joseph, and the four of us learned it all. We would stage performances in our living room, blast the CD, and sing along with songs like "Jacob and Sons," "Go Go Go Joseph," and "Song of the King."

To our complete surprise, our parents surprised the three oldest children - myself and my sister and older brother - with tickets to see Osmond as Joseph at the Masonic Temple Theater. It was my first professional musical, and it was colorful and beautiful and awesome. We got to dress up in our fancy church clothes, we got to be in Detroit after dark, and we got to stay up late!

Other highlights of my musical theater upbringing include traveling to Toronto to see their long-running production of The Phantom of the Opera, going into hostile territory to see Beauty and the Beast (and by "hostile territory," I meant "MSU campus"), and seeing my favorite musical of all time - Les Miserables - from the second row, watching the spit spew from the actors' mouths.

Our love didn't just stop at live musical theater. Lately we've made sure to see many of the movie adaptations, too. One of my favorite movies of all time is Mary Poppins. My sister saw Hairspray in the theater an uncountable amount of times (6? 7? More?). My dad saw Les Miserables just as many times. We already have plans to see Into the Woods once we're all together at Christmas.

Speaking of Into the Woods...

Being in Musical Theater

We did a lot of little musicals in grade school - most of which featured a big blue songbook named Psalty. It gave us plenty of experience in acting and singing - and for me, experience in losing out on roles. I remember one year when I was stuck with a chorus role while my brother and sister had main speaking parts. I was pretty bummed.

However, the following year we did The Pied Piper, which was probably the most ambitious grade school musical we ever did. It was during my brother's 8th grade year, and he was the one who donned the tights of the Pied Piper. We had a fancy backdrop, props, costumes, and spotlights! Better yet, I got a speaking role and a solo. My first solo! "A rat! A rat! I saw a horrid rat!"

My brother continued the acting in high school, where he was in the chorus of 42nd Street his freshman year, followed by the role of the butler Franz in The Sound of Music his junior year. I also enjoyed high school musicals (no, not that one - well, yes, that one, but not right now), being in the Whoverville chorus (and the NYC Star-To-Be) in Annie my sophomore year, followed by the chorus in Annie Get Your Gun my senior year. When I was a senior, my sister was a sophomore, and she was tapped to play Dolly Tate a week before the premiere because the original Dolly got in a car accident and was out of commission for a few weeks. She did an amazing job.

In the fall of 2003, I was a freshman in college and my older brother was a senior. He was the director of the fall musical, Into the Woods, which I'd never heard of but quickly grew to love. I auditioned, and was chosen from the directorial staff (there were five people in that committee!) to play three minor roles: Cindrella's mother, the Giantess, and Little Red Riding Hood's Granny. While the production had its challenges, I had an absolute ball. The entire production was student-run, and it was really cool to see my brother in a role of authority. I learned a lot about productions from those months.

As our college was putting on the production, my alma mater was doing the same musical a week after us, and my sister was chosen to be Cinderella! Their production was far different from ours, since they had a lot more adults chipping in with costumes and sets and props. But the overall ideas of the musical was still the same. My sister also did theater in college, performing in Bye Bye Birdie before trying her own hand at directing the winter play her senior year and acting in Children's Theater.

But the musical bug had been successfully passed to our little brother. He acted productions like Guys and Dolls in high school and She Loves Me in college. When they decided to do Singin' in the Rain his sophomore year, he was set on being Cosmo Brown...and he was!

Ten years after my older brother directed Into the Woods, the college decided to do it again...and my little brother was the director this time around. While I wasn't able to be there in person, I heard they did a great job.

Finally, we come to this year. The college is doing The Music Man, and my brother is one of the scene-stealers as he is in the barbershop quartet. My parents and siblings will all be there to look back at our past musical productions with fondness and close this era in our acting careers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Not So Scary, So Much Candy!

One of the things on my "must-do" list at Disney included finally doing a hard-ticket event in the Magic Kingdom. I'd heard that the Halloween Party was a lot more fun than the Christmas Party, so on my fall trip I was able to purchase a ticket.

The premise is this: everyone who attends is encouraged to wear costumes (but not TOO accurate for some costumes like Snow White or Belle) and can trick-or-treat in various areas around the park. Many attractions are still open, but there are special shows, dance parties, and fireworks that are the highlights of the evening.

I planned on arriving in the Magic Kingdom as the Ninth Doctor from Doctor Who, but I didn't want to be in the outfit all day, so I stored it in my car. People with party tickets can arrive at the park at 4pm (though the party doesn't officially start till 7), and I wanted to make the most out of my time, since this would be my only time in the Magic Kingdom all vacation.

I was in Epcot, and I took the monorail back to the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC - where you have to park when you go to the Magic Kingdom). I walked to my car - I had gotten there so early I was in the second row - and got my costume. I went to a restroom in the TTC and changed, then went back to my car and dropped off the stuff I wouldn't need for the party. Then I grabbed a monorail to the Magic Kingdom. I was surprised at how efficient I was, and I was in the park by 4:30.

I spent most of the time before 7 in Fantasyland, which is completely different from what you might remember. The original area had buildings coming out from behind the castle, with the carrousel and Dumbo in the center. Now Dumbo is completely in a different part of the park, and there's a castle wall that separates the old area from the forest in Fantasyland. In the forest are several new attractions and locations.

I had seen construction walls in 2012, so I was elated to see the finished product. I held off riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train since the wait was really long, but I did ride the Journey of the Little Mermaid dark ride (fantastic!) and watched the very cute Enchanted Tales with Belle show. Whoever put that show together has an education background, since there's lots of movement and use of props and all the kids are involved somehow.

The Be Our Guest restaurant is the hot ticket right now, and people get reservations months in advance. But on a whim I decided to hop over to the kiosk and see if I could score a day-of reservation. And to my shock and surprise, they did have an opening! I could fit in at 7:40 - did I want it? YES.

Before my reservation I did one of my favorite rides: the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover. I ended up being in Tomorrowland for the start of the party, and there was a DJ spinning tunes in the courtyard with the cast of Monsters, Inc. I checked out a trick-or-treat location, and they make sure to give you handfuls of candy at a time. And it's good candy, too!

I made sure to take lots of pictures of great costumes. There were some clever ones, like the Peter Pan and Show White families.

My dinner at Be Our Guest wasn't party-related, but still amazing. I dined in the ballroom where Belle and the Beast dance, and it looks exactly like it, enchanted windows and cherub ceiling and everything! They also have a West Wing area which is amazing, too. I ate ratatouille because of the movie - yes, it was very tasty! 

You get a chance to take your picture with the Beast (who the servers call "the Master"), and when he came out from a break there was a big announcement and everyone applauded when he appeared. It was really cool.

After my stellar meal, I roamed the Magic Kingdom. I caught a show in front of the castle called the Villains Mix and Mingle, which features Dr. Facilier and a bunch of other Disney villains. I got stuck in Pirates of the Caribbean for 15 minutes (which always happens to me - this is not the first time!). I went in even more trick-or-treat lines.

The Happy HalloWishes fireworks show was some of the best fireworks I've seen. At the end they have fireworks exploding not just behind the castle, but also around the hub and Main Street USA. That made a good impression on me.

And then there was the parade! It's called the Boo to You Halloween Parade, and I watched it from Frontierland (where it started). I loved the first sets of "scenes:" the very first one was with Mickey and friends, and the second was pirates-themed, with Peter Pan and Jack Sparrow featured on separate floats.

My favorite section by far was the Haunted Mansion. First, the caretaker walks by with his dog. Then gravediggers dance down the way. They have shovels, and when they scrape the shovels against the pavement sparks fly! After a small float with the famous gravestones, the ghostly ballroom dancers go past. The last part of the scene is a float with the Hitchhiking Ghosts. They were my favorite part of the whole parade because they acted like Audio Animatronics, with stiff movements making them even creepier than normal.

As a matter of fact, I was so impressed by the first half (and not at all impressed by the second half, which featured cowboys and a barnyard) that I raced through Adventureland and caught the beginning of the show again on Main Street USA! It was so worth it. And instead of pictures, I want to show you the entire parade!

Following the fireworks and parade I had an hour left, so I knew I needed to get in line for the Mine Train. I waited for about 30 minutes, and the attraction is fantastic! I wish I could have ridden it one more time.

But my night ended in Liberty Square, where they were piping in music from the Haunted Mansion. Not the loud jovial stuff at the end, but the quiet, creepy stuff at the beginning. So it was midnight, I was in a nearly empty Liberty Square, and the Haunted Mansion music was playing all around me. It was creepy cool. I thought it was a great way to end my night.

As if on cue, my feet started screaming at midnight to get out of my boots, so I followed the crowds out of the Magic Kingdom, immediately got on a ferryboat, and got to my car and back to the hotel in no time at all. I found the night to be extra magical, and I'm glad that I gave Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party a shot!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Adventure with Indy

Fourteen years ago, my family crammed into a 3,000 seat arena-style theater, in the upper half of the bowl. It was the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, where actors would perform three scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, including all the stunts.

Then a casting assistant director came out before the first scene, announcing that he was looking for extras to perform in the street market scene. My older brother, who had purchased a large hat to keep away the Florida heat, took it off and started waving it around like a mad person. Lo and behold, the cast member picked him as one of twelve extras!

He was ecstatic over this, and so were we. It was wonderful seeing him perform in front of so many people, because each participant gets to act out something and look pretty ridiculous up there. For example, he had to act evil, and his first instinct was to act like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers (that was popular back then, kids).

In the actual market scene it was hard to spot him out, but when he came back to sit with us he was doing figurative backflips. After watching his cute little brother get picked for fun stuff with Disney characters, it was his chance to step up and be awesome.

In my trips to Walt Disney World since 2000, I have often tried to get picked for various Disney performances or presentations, but never had the chance. But this time, it was different.

I was tooling around Hollywood Studios on Friday afternoon, hitting all the secondary attractions since all the headliners had long waits and no more Fastpass+. I wasn't going to have any time to do the Indy show the following day, so I decided to catch the last show of the day. I got in line, but suddenly realized that the show was actually 1/2 an hour later than I planned. I could have waited in that line for that extra 1/2 hour, or I could catch a band that was performing in front of the Sorcerer Mickey hat. So I ducked out of line and caught the tail end of Mulch, Sweat, and Shears before heading back to the queue.

By the time I got there, the queue was heading into the theater, and I followed with the group to the far right side of the theater. Since I was by myself, I could squeeze into any empty spaces very efficiently, and when the cast members told everyone to scoot in towards the center of the theater, I managed to move down to the third row of seats near the center of the theater.

About 10 minutes before the show started, out came the casting assistant - a woman this time. She made the normal spiel about extras, and I thought, I got a chance this time. I just felt it. She went over to the left side of the theater looking for loud people (and found four). I thought that was going to be it, forgetting that the casting director usually gets a lot more. Sure enough, she came over to my side next looking for happy people.

Around my family and friends I am the least interesting person - they have much more charisma and energy than I do. But none of them were around, were they? So I went all out, putting on my biggest smile and "Whooooooooop!"-ing as loud as I could with my arms waving like crazy.

And I was the second person the director picked, identified as "The young lady in the grey tank top."

Whaaaaaaaaat? Me?! Whaaaaaaaat?! Those were the thoughts racing in my head as I got up. I left my stuff and raced up onto the stage with three other peppy people, and we kept our happy-act going by whooping and high-fiving each other and jumping up and down. The casting assistant put the mic up to our faces and asked us for our names, and then she asked us to do something quirky. For me, she asked me to do a Minnie Mouse laugh. If I had more time, I would have done something much different than what I did, which was a screechy, high-pitched "Heeheeheeheehee!" But that is what came out of my disbelieving mouth, and it wasn't met with eye rolls or groans, which made me feel better.

She sent us up to the top of the seating area off to the right, where (unbeknownst to me) there was a portable closet with outfits for us to wear. But before I went up, I raced to my seat and grabbed my stuff. I couldn't remember if I'd be able to get to it during the show, and with no one else to watch it, I had to keep them myself.

I signed the waiver form (which I remember my brother talking about when he did it) and was given a tan-and-white striped cloak to put over my clothes, as well as a wrap for my head. I'll admit that I felt like I was in the Christmas pageant at my church again, since the outfits were very similar. But I was at Disney World instead! (Whaaaaat?!)

A third group of extras were shuttled up to the costuming area, and the rest of us were shown to the back row of seats for the first scene, AKA "The big rolling boulder scene." Everything was just as I remembered it - it would have to be, since all the stunts need to be perfectly choreographed. When the scene was done, the casting assistant (who was also in costume) ushered us all down, and I asked the people next to me in the row to keep an eye on my bag, which they graciously did. (Thank goodness!)

I went down with the rest of the garbed group and met the director, who told us to do some actions like "Act scared!" "Act shocked!" and "Act joyful!" I remembered the instructions when I was in productions at school, which was to make every action bigger than you feel you need." So I used my hands and arms and made my face extra big.

Then the actors playing Indy and Marion came out and we got to shake their hands! (Sweet!) Then the director told us to just follow what the casting assistant was doing and saying, and if we saw any other extras zoning out to gently guide them along. I did NOT want to be that person, so I made sure to keep my focus.

It was fun hearing the actors get ready behind us, especially when one yelled out, "Last one guys!" meaning it was the last performance of the day. I knew the feeling after doing four MLC Children's Theater shows in one day. Of course, my only choreographed movements involved doing the "We're All in This Together" dance from High School Musical, not jumping from buildings or avoiding explosions.

I was put in a group that was shopping in a clothing area, which we were supposed to do for five seconds before the sword street performers started performing and we needed to watch them. When they started their show, we were supposed to cheer and ooh and aah, and I made sure to be extra expressive while watching.

It was fascinating to watch the scene unfold right in front of me - especially when the actor playing Indy broke out the whip and made it snap! right in front of us! He really knew how to use it, and it was so close!

Indy and Marion throw some punches and then race up the buildings, and the casting assistant moved us all back onto the mat, so we could cheer them on. I was going nuts up there, yelling at them to "Give them a left! Do it again! Give them a sucker punch!" Everyone else was pretty tame around me, but I didn't care. They said to give it a lot of emotion, and I was!

Then the actors jumped down (we were supposed to yell at them to "Jump! Jump! Jump!" which I did with gusto) and came back to the mat. Just as the casting assistant was telling us to back off the mat, I realized the actor playing the crazy-knife guy was right behind us!

He came out and did his crazy shtick (and then Indy shot him), and the final stunt was done with a truck racing away from the scene and then exploding! We were supposed to react to the explosion by collapsing onto the ground, which I did with glee, while a few others didn't quite get the memo to collapse until the effect was done - but that was okay since everyone was watching the explosion anyway.

With that, our scene was done. We weren't finished off the field, because Marion needed to pick the fake extra from the group and beat him up. It was easy to tell who it was (he was the distracted one), but it was fun watching the lady next to me freak out a little bit. I asked her, "Have you ever seen this show before?" And she said "No!" Not long after that she said, "He's not a real extra, is he?" so she figured it out fast.

I had done some really fun acting, got to take some bows and wave my arms at the crowd as I left, and returned to the costuming area. They gave us some water (that was hot, hard work!) and let us watch the third scene with the airplane.

It was wonderful being able to participate, even though the only pictures I got were selfies in my costume. I was hoping that maybe some cast member photographers would take pictures and give us a card with our experience (like they do pretty much everywhere else), but no luck. Oh, well. I got to have an amazing time and now you all got to hear about it!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Adventures of the Birthday Button

I am going to make this perfectly clear at the start: I was celebrating my birthday in Walt Disney World.

Did I plan to? No.

Was it my birthday? No.

But will I ever be in Walt Disney World the first weekend in May, when my birthday falls? No.

There are a variety of reasons why this will never happen. Firstly, this weekend is usually when Confirmations take place. This weekend has also been the weekend of grade school track meets since I started teaching. And it is too close to the end of school to take an extended vacation.

So as a result, I celebrated my birthday in October.

This came about when I was picking up my ticket at the Transportation and Ticket Center Will Call. I had purchased my tickets at a discount online, and had no trouble giving them my ticket voucher and getting my card.

When I was about to wrap up, the lady at Will Call asked, "Are you celebrating anything on this trip?"

I shrugged. "I'm on a break!" Which I was. I was on fall break from teaching. That was enough for me.

It wasn't enough for her. "Are you celebrating your birthday?" she queried.

I paused for a moment.

This was a solo trip. I was going to be experiencing things on my own that seemingly should be celebrated with two or more people. I would be getting those looks of "Oh, where is your boyfriend/friend/family?" as I got my food at a counter or table service restaurant. I would be the ride vehicle with just one person inside. And I wouldn't be able to split this trip's costs with anyone else, either.

So I decided to give myself a perk. A way to keep me from fading in the background of cast members who would rather cater to families with small children than to that single person in the back.

I said "Sure!"

She put my name on the birthday button, added a Mickey silhouette (with the ears too small, like I routinely make the mistake of doing), and handed it to me.

I fastened the button on my shirt as I waited for Epcot to open. And almost immediately, the button did its magic.

Cast members giving the tourists directions would pause to say "Happy Birthday!" Cast members walking around picking up garbage would pause to say "Happy Birthday!" Cast members taking my meal order would make sure to say "Happy Birthday!" A couple of them even used my name, which I loved.

I think sometimes these greetings get ignored by other birthday button wearers, but I made sure to turn to each one, give them a big smile, and say "Thank you!" I didn't do it with a smirk on my face, or chuckling in my heart. I was genuinely glad that they had gone out of their way to congratulate me. They were making me feel special, and it worked!

But the magic didn't stop there.

My first day was in Epcot, and I was tooling around World Showcase snacking. I went to the left first - something I never do since I love the Canada and Great Britain pavilions on the right - and I passed Mexico. The band Mariachi Cobre was playing, and I'd never heard them before, so I stopped to listen (one of few since World Showcase had just opened). When they finished their song, one of them motioned for me to come under the shade of their stage. They mentioned I was celebrating my birthday, and they played Mexico's birthday song for me, which was so cool to hear in the harmony of a mariachi band! They finished by playing "Happy Birthday."

My night was spent at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. I had somehow snagged an incredibly hard-to-get reservation for the Be Our Guest restaurant, where you eat in Beast's castle, since I was going to be around for the party. (I suspected they stopped taking reservations after 8pm, and I got one for 7:40, 40 minutes after regular park members were supposed to be gone.)

I was escorted by my hostess (who had said "Happy Birthday!") to my table, which was a small 2-seater in the grand ballroom (where Belle and the Beast had danced under the cherub-filled ceiling and marvelous chandelier - both of which were present in the room I was in). My waiter was very nice and got my order in very quickly (ratatouille, if you were wondering). The two tables on either side of me were quickly seated with an older group of 4 and 2 men, so I didn't feel awkward and on my own.

The meal was delicious, albeit a little above what I'd anticipated spending on dinner that night. So when the waiter asked if I wanted to see the dessert trolley, I declined. "The ratatouille was my splurge for the night," I said. He nodded and cleared away my dishes.

But he left my fork.

A little while later he reappeared with a tiny plate and a card. The tiny plate held some of the infamous "grey stuff" from the song "Be Our Guest" (do I really have to sing it to you? no? good) with sprinkles on top and a lit candle. The card had been signed by Belle and the Beast. (My friend pointed out later that both names had the same kind of "B," which definitely meant that Belle had signed for the both of them. I thought this was genius.)

The waiter told me that I couldn't leave without trying some of the grey stuff, and that the Master had insisted. He was going to stop there, but then the two tables on either side of me decided to sing "Happy Birthday" to me! It was short and sweet, but very cool. And the grey stuff was, indeed, delicious. (Chocolate mousse, if you were curious.)

The next day in Hollywood Studios I had just come out of "MuppetVision 3D" - one of my favorite shows at any park. Nearby was the snack cart, and I realized I needed to eat my Mickey Bar - a traditional food I've always eaten on my Disney trips. I went up, ordered, gave him my ten dollars, and he gave it right back to me, saying "Happy Birthday!"

Mickey Bars and grey stuff are not all that expensive, but it still meant something that cast members were being extra kind to me. That Mickey Bar was the best I've ever had.

As I was purchasing my traditional vacation pin for the trip (Mickey ghost!), a really nice guy said, "Have you gotten a birthday phone call?" And I said no. He pulled out an old phone, picked it up and dialed, and then handed it over to me. It was Goofy, wishing me a happy birthday! It wasn't anything grand, but it was really cute.

One final kind touch was the next day in Epcot. I was at the Food and Wine Festival in World Showcase and had just ordered a teriyaki bun at the Japan kiosk. The lady took my order and also presented me with a tiny, beautifully-folded origami paper crane. It probably hadn't taken much for her to fold it, and I could see quite a few decorating her cash register, but it was still neat all the same.

Five little acts of appreciation for the girl on her own, and it helped make this one of my best vacations ever.

Will I ever get a birthday button again? No. This was a unique solo trip, and I won't celebrate my birthday at Disney ever again.

However...if I come with family or friends whose birthday falls in that month, you bet I will make sure that they get a birthday button, and then watch as they are blindsided with kindness of castmembers!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Magical Trip: An Overview

My trip to Orlando is over and done, but I'm still riding high on the fumes of awesomeness. I can barely get out of my mouth how great the vacation was when people ask. I'm going to take a couple of posts to explain everything, but if you want to know the trip on a whole, this is the post you're looking for!

Day 1 - Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure


New Area I was Anticipating: Everything, but mostly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I had gotten in to Orlando pretty late the night before thanks to airline and luggage delays, but I finally made it to my hotel at 2am and crashed. Universal opened at 8am the next day, so I was up by 6 and out the door by 7 to make sure I got there on time.

At 8am I wandered my way through the rest of Universal and made it to the back of the park - pretty much where everyone else was going. You can't see Diagon Alley from the other areas of the park - instead, you can see various buildings from London (including King's Cross Station). You need to go through a brick archway to finally see Diagon Alley lay before you, and WOW. That is an amazing view!

I knew I'd have more time later to enjoy the sights, so I headed straight for the main attraction of the area: Escape from Gringott's. They have lockers (which you can use for FREE for a certain amount of time) so I stuffed my stuff inside and made it to the single rider line. It didn't take much at all, and I was in a Gringott's cart ready to pick up my galleons.

I'll leave the story of the ride for you to find out on your own, but I'll just say that it was my favorite ride of the day. Great effects and a great story! I actually came out of the attraction and got right back into line! I would have done it again if the line hadn't started getting longer.

I wandered around Diagon Alley (sampling butterbeer for the first time!) and eventually took the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Village, which is actually located in Islands of Adventure. This section has been open for a few years, but it is still awesome. I wandered down the path and made it to Hogwarts Castle. The ride there - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - is good, but made me a little motion sick.

I ate lunch at the Three Broomsticks, which was pretty great, and then kept on wandering. My little brother suggested I go ride the Hulk roller coaster, so I did that twice and just kept doing the loop. I passed Dr. Seuss Land, Marvel Superhero Island, the Lost Continent, and Jurrassic Park Land before getting back to Hogsmeade and taking the train back to Diagon Alley. There are effects and video projections on the train that really make it feel like you're traveling in England in the world of Harry Potter!

I tooled around Universal Studios next and rode the Mummy, Transformers, Shrek 4D, and finally saw Terminator 2: 3D after hearing about it for so many years (it was just as good as advertised). The new roller coaster, Rip Ride RockIt was working (though it had to shut down twice while I was in line to clean up vomit), and I rode that one and really enjoyed it!

Eventually I went to Diagon Alley one more time and rode the train to Hogsmeade and got some great shots of Hogwarts at dusk. The park closed at 7, so I was out of there around 6:30 and ate at one of the restaurants found in CityWalk, a late night area that you walk past to get from your car to the parks. The restaurant I chose was Vivo, and it was really good!

This was my only early night of the trip - I got back to the room around 8:00.

Day 2 - Epcot and the Magic Kingdom

New Area I was Anticipating: New Fantasyland and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party!

I read on TouringPlans.com that if you're visiting two parks, park your car at the park you'll be at for the end of the day. So I drove to the Magic Kingdom, parked at the Transportation and Ticket Center, and took a monorail from there to Epcot to open the park.

Future World is the only thing open in Epcot for the first two hours, so I did Soarin', The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Test Track, Mission: Space Orange (queasy!), and Living with the Land before venturing over to the Food and Wine center (which used to be The Wonders of Life pavilion...RIP). There I found a Ghiradelli booth with drinking chocolate (MELTED CHOCOLATE FROM GHIRADELLI) that was cheap  and amazing. My first food from F&W was incredible.

I didn't do too much in World Showcase on this day, only venturing around one-third of the park before heading back to see Spaceship Earth. While I was there, I ate food from a Fresh Fare cart (pepper hash - yum!) and China (steamed bun - double yum!). You pay a couple of dollars and you get a small amount of food, but put it all together and you have a delicious meal in many courses!

My phone battery was low, and I'd heard there was a charging station in the American Adventure, so I walked all the way to the back of the park and found the Chase Lounge - an area in the pavilion only for Chase Visa cardholders. I was one, so I was able to charge my phone in there, take a load off my feet, and enjoy some free pop!

It was time to head back to the Magic Kingdom for the Halloween Party, so I hopped on a monorail, changed into my costume (Fantastic!) and entered the Magic Kingdom. The decorations down Main Street were amazing to finally see in person, and I wish I'd spent more time on Main Street during the party.

My destination before the party started (I was there by 4:30, the party started at 7) was to see New Fantasyland, since the last time I was there it was all construction walls. It was beautiful - lots of greenery and atmosphere to put you in the right mood. I rode the new Little Mermaid attraction and visited Belle in the library of Beast's castle, and even got a hard-to-get reservation at the Be Our Guest restaurant!

Eventually the hordes of people left and we partiers were the only ones remaining. The music turned spooky, and the party started! There are tons of trick-or-treating stations, and they give out handfuls of the good kinds of candy. My bag was full in no time!

Of course, I couldn't stock up on candy because I was eating in the Beast's castle! They led me into the ballroom, which looks exactly like the one in the movie, and I had ratatouille and the grey stuff. (It was delicious!) I ended the meal by touring around the creepy West Wing and got my picture with the Master himself!

The rest of the night was spent trick-or-treating, viewing a villans show, watching some incredible fireworks, and seeing the wonderful Boo To You Parade, featuring a section devoted entirely to the Haunted Mansion! I loved seeing that section so much, I ended up racing to another section of the park to see it all over again!

The night was fantastic, and I'm so glad I was able to go.

Day 3 - Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios

New Area I was Anticipating: Most of this day was just doing the awesome stuff I'd done before!

My time in Animal Kingdom was short because, as much as I try to embrace the idea of the park, I still can't enjoy it. I did Expedition Everest twice, walked around the Asia and Africa areas, saw an amazing show called Finding Nemo: The Musical, and ate lunch. Then I was hot and done with the Animal Kingdom!

I took a bus back to the Studios and enjoyed my time there immensely. The Studios is my favorite park because there's always something new to view. The Citizens of Hollywood are improv actors that appear every hour or so to make wisecracks and be genuinely funny. I saw the Public Works guys rib each other, and it was hysterical!

I did also fit in a few rides. I did Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride, The Magic of Disney Animation (which I'd never done before!), MuppetVision 3D, and the Animation Academy (I drew Minnie!). I saw three shows - the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (and I got to be an extra in the second scene - more on that later!), the Frozen Singalong, and Fantasmic! - my favorite nighttime show ever.

I loved just wandering around the Studios, too, and catching all of the inside jokes that are all around. I made sure to go right back the next day!

Day 4 - Hollywood Studios and Epcot

New Area I was Anticipating: Epcot's Food and Wine Festival

I started in the Studios so I could catch all of the major attractions I didn't see the day before, like the Tower of Terror, Rock'n'Roller Coaster, and Toy Story Midway Mania. All three were stellar and I'm glad I got to do them all again!

I also visited Star Tours again, and then headed over to Wandering Oaken's Trading Post (yoo-hoo!), where you could visit the shop and then play in some snow! (Yes, snow!)

I took a friendship boat between Hollywood Studios and Epcot, since they are connected by waterway, and entered Epcot through the International Gateway. This was the day I would enjoy F&W, and I did!

First was France, where I went to the newly refurbished Boulangerie de Patisserie and got a carmel/chocolate torte that was INCREDIBLE. Then I stopped at the Brazil booth and got some cheesebread. In Japan I got a stuffed beef teriyaki bun (probably my favorite food of the F&W festival!), and then I stopped in the Chase Lounge again to drink some pop and put up my feet.

I was able to watch the Voices of Liberty twice (they did different songs both times), and they are incredible to listen to. I also watched the American Adventure movie/show, which is always a great experience for me.

I continued my food journey by eating a gelato cookie standwich in Italy, a pork lettuce wrap at the South Korea booth, a potato pancake with smoked salmon at the Scotland booth, a chicken gyro at the Greece booth, and wrapped it all up by going to the Refreshment Station and getting "adult Dole Whip": pineapple Dole Whip with creme de cacao liqueur! (AMAZING!)

My tummy was satisfied and my time was almost up, so I quickly saw the video in Canada and toured around the shops in Great Britain before finally heading out of Epcot. I rarely have spent much time in Epcot, but I am learning to appreciate and savor the experience of World Showcase!

My car was at the Studios, so I took another friendship boat back to that theme park, hopped in my car, and headed back to the airport for my trip home.

Needless to say, the trip was fantastic. There is soooo much more I want to talk about, but I'll save those for different blog posts. Stay tuned!