Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kidlet Turns Ten

For the Kidlet's tenth birthday we wanted to do something special. He hasn't traveled much so we toyed with the idea of taking him out of town or even out of state. Usually at this time of year I have a business trip to Florida and so we kind of thought that it would be fun to extend our stay and make a mini vacation out of it. We would all fly in a few days early, hit the Orlando theme parks, and then the boys would fly home while I went to my conference. But it was decided (at a very late date) that I didn't need to travel to Florida after all and by the time I looked at flights and hotels for the three of us... well, things got pricey and it just seemed like a bit too much to swing so early in the year.

But I still wanted to do something special, so I thought "hey, Kidlet has never been to Universal Studios" so we cooked up an idea to take him to the one here, in Hollywood. His parents agreed to let him skip school on a Friday so that we could sneak him away for a fun-fueled weekend at the park. Perfect!

Friday morning, he was dropped off at our house instead of school, which was a surprise. He thought he was going to class but instead ended up with us. Of course, he's smart enough to know that something fun was about to happen but he didn't have any idea of WHAT. And we didn't tell him. Instead, we hauled him in the car and drove north. We told him to prepare to be in the car for a long time (he hates long car trips for some reason) but we were lucky that the Traffic Gods smiled upon us and we made it to Hollywood in about 40 minutes - unheard of! His first blip of excitement was seeing the Hollywood sign out the window of the car. He didn't know that it was a real thing (but was aware of it from TV and movies) and honestly we could have said "that's it!" and turned around and gone home and he would have been pleased. For some reason the sign reminded him about Tom Hanks and he started telling us all about Tom's acting career. Not sure where THAT came from but it was funny...

But we headed to our hotel for the night -- he'd only stayed in one hotel before so this was thrilling for him. We stayed at the Universal Hilton which is pretty fancy and he was impressed. Again, we could have said "here's your present!" and he would have been satisfied. But instead we checked in (all my business travel came in handy! My Hilton Honors membership got us a beautiful room that was ready for us at 10am instead of the usual 3pm) and headed up to the 19th floor. The hotel has lovely views of the valley and we could see the hotel pool by looking straight down the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was like standing on the ledge of a building! So cool!!



 At the bottom of the pic are my feet, pressed up against the glass.


Kidlet was so excited that he immediately claimed the bed next to the window as his. He was chuffed at all the pillows and the big fluffy blankets. He really didn't want to get up, he just wanted to roll around in the down comforter forever. But we said "let's go downstairs" and immediately found the courtesy shuttle to the theme park. He caught on pretty quick and his ear-to-ear grin said it all.

The famous Universal globe and our hotel. Plus my right eye.

We started telling him the history of the Studio and the fact that they filmed actual movies right there, within view. So we headed to the tram tour first. Of course, since he's ten, he can only make goofy faces when a camera is pointed at him. I promise, he is having a good time. While waiting for the tram, we came across a picture of Tom Hanks in line. Hey! There's Tom again! The tram tour is pretty impressive and you get to see some cool stuff, plus there's the King Kong 3D experience that was awesome and JAWS jumped right up at Kidlet in the tram car. Perfect! For some reason, the highlight for him was Norman Bates coming out of the Bates Motel and chasing the tram with a knife. Kids!





Then we headed to the Lower Area where we passed the Apollo spacecraft and who else but TOM HANKS again? The boys posed for a picture with the astronauts.



The rest of the rides require that you leave your bags in a locker, so there's not too many pictures. I think we all liked the Transformers ride and the Mummy roller coaster, but they were a bit action-packed for the boys. I think everyone was a little dizzy after those two. Luckily, the Jurassic Park ride is just a mild boat ride (until the giant splash at the end).Kidlet's favorite was the Jurassic Park boat ride, by far. It's got everything. Action, adventure, a life-size T-Rex and you get really, really wet. All told, I think we rode it five times! That's a lotta splashing! It's hard to tell from these photos, but he is SOAKED. His hair is 95% wet and his shirt looks like someone dunked him upside down in the pool. I, however, just got lightly splashed and misted. The Kidlet is super-absorbant!




Universal is currently expanding their Springfield area (opening later this year) and so after the Simpsons ride and shopping at the Kwik-E-Mart, we stopped to take our picture with Homer and Marge. This was the highlight for me and I'd spent the days before our trip crocheting beanies and accessories especially for this! I found a men's tank top that had almost the right color of green for Marge's dress and altered it into an A-frame dress. I even spiffied up my red Converse shoes! Then I crocheted a beanie out of bobble stitches to make Marge's hair and a red beaded necklace to match. I also made a Homer beanie with his requisite three hairs and made a matching scarf out of donuts. Mmm... donuts! The back of the scarf had Homer's muzzle which could be worn to create his whole face, as modeled by the Kidlet. The employees in the Springfield area were very excited for us and we got LOTS of compliments. The biggest from Homer himself who tried to eat the donuts at their sequin sprinkles. :)





After a long day at the park, we headed back to the hotel. I sent the boys on a scouting mission while I ran up to the room to get the party started! I bought banners and balloons and streamers - even a tiny pinata! But the boys were so exhausted that they came back early, so I only got half the decorations up. Even so, Kidlet was ecstatic and couldn't stop laughing.




We were all pretty tired but the Kidlet insisted on going swimming. The hotel's pool was heated year-round and open until midnight! There were tons of other kids in the pool, too. All of the out-of-towners thought that 50 degrees at night was downright balmy so they had no qualms about night swimming in Hollywood! Kidlet swam for about an hour and then was so exhausted that it took all of his strength to have some pizza before he fell asleep for the night. Successful day!

The next morning we went back to Universal Studios and went on the rides that we didn't get to on Friday and also saw all of the shows. They each have their own charms, but I think Shrek 4D was the Kidlet's favorite. It was good for the adults, too! No problem convincing us to sit in the air conditioning for 20 minutes! It was another great day that passed really quickly -- with more Jurassic Park boat tours, obviously. Then we headed home and everyone was suddenly drained of all energy. Both of the boys kept saying "no, I'm awake!" the whole drive - even though I saw their chins drooping as we were driving. Good thing I was behind the wheel!

All in all, it was an awesome trip and I think the Kidlet had a good time.

Happy birthday, Kidlet! I can't believe you're already ten!! Tia Mia loves you! xoxo





Monday, November 19, 2012

Epic Mickey 2 Review

I have to admit that playing this game is unusual for me. I tend to be the last one to join in on any given fandom, which in gaming usually means that the games I am buying have been around for a while (usually, years) so there's a lot of information about the games online that can help guide me along or offer reviews to help me decide what to try next. Epic Mickey 2 is a brand-new title and I actually bought it yesterday, the day it was released.

Since I am going into this game "blind" I thought that I would offer my perspective. Note: I am not playing a preview copy and have not been compensated for my thoughts.

Platform: Wii

I'll admit that I'm a sucker for Disney and the original Epic Mickey was such a fun game that I actually completed the game twice. As established in the original game, Epic Mickey 2 carries over the paint vs. thinner "fighting" technique, and the outcomes of using one over the other affect the overall ending of the game.

The controls for Mickey are virtually identical to the original game, only this time you have a few added options when interacting with the second player, Oswald. Oswald generally stays near Mickey and follows him from place-to-place and will operate independently if only one player is active. However, at any time, Player Two can link up the Wii remote to take over control of Oswald. I haven't done this yet, so I can't comment (although other reviews lead me to believe that it utilizes a split-screen perspective, which is part of the reason why I'm not in a hurry to try it out). However, when left to be managed by the CPU, Oswald often lags behind when walking (which does NOT affect the ability to move forward, thankfully -- if he lags too far behind, he will reappear next to you in a poof of smoke) and is generally pretty useless in battle. The Oswald character has some really great moves (he utilizes a remote control, capable of shock) but Mickey can't command him to use them. The result is that he does and doesn't and often uses them in a counter-productive way. It would be much better if there was an option to assign Oswald to a task or even a spot in the room, even if it just meant keeping him out of the way.

The enemies in this game also seem a little uneven. Nearly from the beginning, we encounter more challenging enemies that were seen in the later levels of the original Epic Mickey and then they sort of level off to the relatively "easy" enemies. It left me with the impression that you could not easily pick up Epic Mickey 2 without having played the original game, which is a shame since every game should have an entry-level opportunity. Not having a guidebook or walkthrough or any other reference could mean that I am doing certain sequences out of order (entirely possible) but by all indications, I am following the story line that the game has devised. Which leads to the first boss battle, Pete's Dragon, which was seriously challenging. There are several factors at play (movement around a circular field, spraying the dragon's skin, avoiding falling rocks and flames, while jumping over lava pits...) and the escalation of the battle doesn't seem to follow standard video game logic. In general, video game "bosses" follow a "three strikes rule" (you overcome them three times and you win) or are designed to strengthen a particular skill set. This battle takes on ALL of your skills and has several layers - painting the dragon's skin (which is a 360 degree process and maybe 15-20 areas?), then it respawns, then taking out the creature controlling the dragon, then moving up to a higher level where - again - you take on the dragon's skin, then the controlling creature inside and then... it just keeps going! Perhaps with a second player controlling Oswald, I might have fended off the dragon quicker, but it just seemed incredibly difficult for the "level one" boss. In addition to the big boss, there is a repeating clockworks enemy that looks like Herbie the Lovebug and seems to only be disabled or defeated by Oswald. None of Mickey's tactics seem to work, so extra effort is needed to herd Oswald to where you need him, in order to disable the car and then Mickey can paint/thinner the 'driver'. I like the idea of the cooperative play and that two are needed to defeat an enemy, but without having a human being controlling Oswald, these relatively minor baddies end up taking a LOT of time and energy to defeat (in addition to the number of times Mickey will 'die' during the process).

My favorite parts of the original Epic Mickey game were the sets and the music. The sets were so well crafted and areas like the Junk Pile were so fun to explore -- Epic Mickey 2 brings more of the same and even steps up the level of "set dressing" a little. However, there's a downside. Firstly, in the "underground" areas, you travel via a left-right scrolling game (similar to the projector screens) but the level of detail is so intense that it is difficult to tell where you're supposed to be or where to go. There is no clear "entry" or "exit" and I'll admit that I got stuck in the underground for a good 20 minutes. Take a look at this photo and see if you agree. The walkway that the characters are standing on is obvious enough, but can you jump on that turtle? The scary face on the right? The white circle at the end of the walkway?

In addition to being just plain confusing, the underground passages require you to set off a system of Rube Goldberg-type of contraptions in order to open a door or clear a pathway for movement. So you may end up climbing up vertically (or being tossed or sprung up there) to find a pinball in which to roll down a hill, which will knock down something, etc. 

The music, again, is expertly executed and I honestly would purchase a soundtrack. However, in EM2, a lot of the soundtrack is lost by voice-overs. Every character that you interact with has an on-screen display (which you can turn off) as well as a spoken voice. This gets old FAST and is discouraging me from the side-quests, where you have to talk to multiple people to get clues. The voices are loud and "cartoony" (overly exaggerated bad accents) and everyone has a LOT of dialog. No one more than Gus, who is the Gremlin who accompanies you on your quest. In the original game, Gus was annoying because he'd interject here and there but didn't have an actual voice, just a grumbling noise which was bothersome. Now he speaks several sentences whenever he feels that you need to pay attention to something. His voice itself isn't bad, but about an hour in, I had to mute the TV because I couldn't listen to him anymore. As the quest continues, he seems to butt in less and less, but in the early phases? Ugh. Too much talking.

That being said, I really am enjoying the game over all. I wish that Oswald were a little more responsive or could be directed while in Single Player mode, but I'm adapting to working around it. I adore the sets and the "picture taking spots" are a fun touch. So far, my favorite is the Bog Easy level which is based on the New Orleans Square area at Disneyland. This game even has a Club 13 (a play on Club 33) which is so exclusive that not even Mickey and Oswald can enter! The different areas offer a lot of small challenges, which makes the gameplay even better -- it's not just chasing down the next bad guy, but also climbing on the sets and finding hidden treasures. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Austin

A couple of weeks ago, we finally got to visit Austin, TX! Ryan has some friends there and there's so much to see that we've been wanting to plan a trip for a long time, but it finally worked out since I had a business trip there and so I bought Ryan a ticket to tag along.

Our first night we went to dinner with some of my work mates to Moonshine, which had a relatively small menu but it all looked so good that we couldn't decide. We literally sat in the restaurant for about 45 minutes trying to decide who would order what. Ryan settled on the chicken fried steak, which was as big as his head (in this photo it's actually bent in half so it looks smaller than it was). Texas sized portions, to be sure!

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The next day while I was working, Ryan went and met up with his pal Billy who he hadn't seen in about 12 years. They spent the day exploring the city a bit; Billy had moved away for a while and just moved back so he was interested in seeing what was new and different. They took some excursions to Barton Springs and other local spots and came back that night to meet me when I was done. We asked the concierge for a recommendation for somewhere quiet for us to catch up and chit chat and she recommended Easy Tiger. It was a cool place but definitely not quiet. It's more of a college crowd, instead of the bikers that had taken over all of 6th street for the ROT Rally (biker rally).

The following day, I had to work again so Ryan met up with his buddy, Riley, who he hadn't seen in 10 years. They hung out all afternoon and I caught up with them at the Jackalope but it was starting to get busy (Friday night, plus the bikers were coming out in full force) so we went up to The Grackle, which is an out-of-the-way dive bar with perfect atmosphere. It was supposed to just be a detour, but we ended up staying all night. Totally different crowd. Yeah, it got busy, but everyone was unwinding after a long week so it was mellow instead of rowdy.

Saturday was our big day to explore the city, so we went up to South Congress and did some toodling around. There are a few thrift stores and lots of vintage stores, but I expected everything to be pretty well picked-over. Instead, we scored some great souvenirs, including these vintage 1980's Converse for Ryan ($20!).

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We also stopped by Vulcan Video, where Riley was working. It's an AMAZING video store. I know that sounds weird, but it really was awesome. They specialize in hard-to-find titles and formats (they even have their original VHS collection) and most of the "good stuff" is categorized by director or genre. We spent probably an hour in there and couldn't buy or rent anything since we aren't locals, but it was still great to see.

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One of the places that Ryan and Billy had gone was Fran's hamburgers. Back in the 90's Billy had founded an art studio and they made the sculpture of "Fran" on the roof (below).

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I had been pestering Ryan to get a haircut for weeks, and he totally ignored me. SOMEHOW the Austin heat and humidity won out, so when we passed Bird's Barbershop, he relented.

Before:

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During:

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After:

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He lost about 2 pounds of hair and lowered his temperature by about 30 degrees. He was so pleased with the cut that he told the stylist (Mark) that he will come back to Austin just for the haircut.

After that, we grabbed a grassy spot near the Congress Bridge to wait for the nightly bat exodus. Millions of bats live under the bridge and fly out at dusk to go eat bugs.

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I was wearing my Rigatony's shirt that I bought in Tempe, which I adore.

Representin' Rigatonys

Thousands of people turned out to wait for the bats.... but none came! Bats are sensitive to noise and if it's raining they'll often wait until very late at night to come out. I think the constant parade of bikers scared them off. The bikers would cross the bridge by the hundreds and loop around about every 2 minutes. We'd heard that the night before, the bats didn't come out until about 9:30pm and even though we stayed until nearly 10pm, we only saw a few come out at a time. Maybe 20-30, instead of the millions that were waiting, so we called it a night and went back to the hotel.

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Sunday was our last day, and we'd been advised to see the animatronic LBJ statue, so we headed over to the museum. Unfortunately, almost all of the presidential stuff was under construction, so only the First Lady's section was open. It was surprisingly interesting. Plus, Ryan got an art boner over seeing an ACTUAL Norman Rockwell piece of Ladybird Johnson.

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Outside the museum is a life-sized statue of LBJ who was gigantic. Ryan whispered a secret in his ear and made him smile (for reference, Ryan is about 6'1").

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Then we headed back through Austin to look at some of Billy's murals. It was swelteringly hot - 106 and humid - so when we stopped to look at the Joseph's mural, I stayed in the car. The window tint gives the pictures a "hipstamatic" look.

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Our favorite was the Greetings from Austin mural. It's on the side of the Roadhouse Relics building at 1720 South 1st Street in Austin. A lot of visitors expect it to be near the airport or in the general downtown area, but you have to go looking for it. Ryan "bent the font" for a few photos and then we went across the street to Flashback, which is a vintage clothing store that Billy and his studio made the sign for.

Bending the font photo

After that, we headed over to Blue Genie Studios, which is the studio that Billy founded with his art partner. The giant foam genie on the roof is spectacularly impressive in person.

Untitled Untitled

The statue of "The World is Yours" is hands-down my favorite. If I wasn't a law-abiding citizen, I would have shoved it in the trunk and driven home!

The World Is Yours tattooed mohawk guy

The day was sorta cooling off, but felt hotter than ever. We'd walk around a bit and think "man, it's hot" and then get into the air conditioned car and almost faint. It wasn't until you were inside that you realized how close to heat stroke you were.

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As we were driving, I saw a hand-made sign for a shaved ice company and decided to follow it. It was a little set-up in someone's driveway and we dropped in and ordered two right away. The best $2 I have ever spent! We sat in front of their house for the next 30 minutes and ate our shaved ice with grape syrup. It was sooooo good!

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We still had some time to kill before going to the airport, so we looked on Yelp for some interesting stuff in the area. One of the listings was for Casa Neverlandia, which is a private residence. The house itself is a giant art project, covered in tiles and paint and sparkly things. Pictures really don't capture the beauty.

Casa Neverlandia

The owners of the house allow for private and self-guided tours, but since we didn't plan ahead we didn't want to bother them by calling "Hi, we are outside your house! Can we come in?"

curious tree

Next time, I'd definitely like to explore more.

The trip home was uneventful. We were exhausted and a bit heat stroked and just wanted to sleep on the plane, but the gossip girls behind us were too loud. They were super annoying and we just made fun of them the whole time, so it was actually kind of fun.

I have no idea how to end this post, but I loved Austin and would love to go back when it's less hot - maybe in the fall. Ryan has been invited to a comic convention there in October, so we may be back in 2012!

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