Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sweet memory from Christmas past


As a little girl, one of the joys of Christmas was receiving a box of cookies from my father's mother, my Grandma Eleanor.  Every year she boxed up and mailed an assortment of treats, and each year, there was a new variety she tried out.  Some years we liked them, some years we didn't (ever had a black walnut?  yeah, not a fan.)  As years went on, she wisely repeated some old standouts.  The arrival of that much-anticipated box always meant a batch of my absolute favorites, which came to be known in our house as 7 Layer Cookies.  After she passed away, I found some of her original recipes, and this one was on a yellowed newspaper page from The Blair Press dated December 7, 1976.  Turns out the newspaper's name for them was Holiday Magic Cookie Bars.  Call them what you want, but these are super-easy and always a holiday hit!  

Thank you Grandma for the recipe, and those sweet memories of childhood. 

Grandma Eleanor's 7 Layer Cookies

6 tbsp butter 
1 and 1/2 c graham cracker crumbs 
1 can sweetened condensed milk 
6 oz semisweet chocolate chips 
5 and 1/2 oz butterscotch chips 
3 and 1/2 oz sweetened shredded coconut 
1 c chopped nuts

Put butter in a 13x9 pan and then into the oven while it preheats to 350 degrees. Once melted, make sure the bottom of the pan is coated. Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs evenly over the butter. Pour milk evenly over the crumbs. Top with chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, coconut and nuts. Press down gently. Bake for 25 minutes or until light brown. Allow to cool and cut into 24 bars.

Enjoy!

Monday, November 12, 2012

10 Frustration Reducing, Money Saving, Life Improving Tips and Tricks for New Parents

I remember being at the hospital the morning after Sam was born 7 years ago. As I was walking the halls my eye caught something I'd never noticed before: A brochure for a college savings program. It's amazing how your perspective changes and things that were never on your radar screen suddenly become important.

Now that we're through the preschool years and moving on to the next stage I thought it would be helpful to share some idea for new parents that worked well for me.

First, subscribe to Amazon Prime. Reducing the number of errands you have to run will be more valuable than ever plus you get some free video content. If you're not a Prime subscriber yet check out Amazon Mom - even if you're a dad. You just need to have a little one in your life. Great deal.

Here are 10 frustration reducing, money saving, life improving tips and tricks for new parents:

1. Small Screwdrivers

You're going to be opening and repairing a lot of toys over the next few years. This set has come in incredibly handy almost every week.



2. Button Batteries

The first time the batteries go dead on one of their little toys and you try to buy replacements at CVS you'll know why buying these in bulk off Amazon is one of the best deals going. Super-expensive locally and super-cheap online with fast free shipping even without Amazon Prime (since they're tiny and can fit in a standard envelope).



3. Battery Tester

Once the kids get old enough to start repairing their own toys, you might find that as soon as a toy doesn't work they think the battery needs to be replaced. So they'll set aside the old batteries and install new batteries and the toy still doesn't work. After a while you get these little piles of mixed up batteries and it's unclear whether they have remaining charge. A battery tester like the one below will test primary and rechargeable AA, AAA, and 9V batteries. Works great.

While we're on the topic of batteries, I dabbled with rechargeables but found they'd often wind up in a seldom used toy so I'd have to buy more and more rechargeables to keep up. I found buying Kirkland (Costco) AAs and AAAs the best way to go. No shortcuts here that I could find.



4. Re-manufactured Ink Cartridges

Kids love to print. Even after engaging them in a discussion about how expensive ink and paper is and remind them of the environmental impact of needless printing they'll still want to see their creations come to life.

To maximize household tranquility and minimize financial, impact buy affordable off-brand ink cartridges. For our printer, I can get 2 or 3 replacements for each color for 1.5x the price of a single cartridge - a massive savings. Check the seller ratings and go for it. Even if a few of them don't work you'll come out way ahead.



5. Buy Refurbished Apple Devices

A top of the line iPod touch (5th generation) goes for $299. They still sell the 4th generation for $199 with 16GB. Right now Apple is offering an 8GB 4th generation iPod touch for $129. This is an ideal price point for a device that will sometimes allow you to finish your meal in peace, and you won't have a heart attack if your kid drops it on the floor.

http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/specialdeals/ipod/ipod_touch/8gb

6. Books

Chances are you'll likely receive books as gifts so without much effort you'll have an ample supply of bedtime reading material. The single most requested bedtime book? Richard Scarry's Best Storybook Ever.

Related: Best bedtime routine recommendation we received from a pediatrician that worked? "If you come brush your teeth you will get 3 books. If you don't come now, you'll lose a book."



There's also this fantastic Richard Scarry Christmas book:



7. Best Affordable Toy

Automoblox. Less than $10 shipped for these super-high quality toys are the best $10 toy for a 5 year old boy I've found:



8. Best Expensive Toys

Legos without a doubt. They provide so many hours of quiet, interactive building, but man are they expensive. You can drop $100 at the Lego Store in a second. Oh well, having boys we're lucky - no interest in American Girl.

Best Lego value I've found? The Lego Creator Lighthouse Island. Not only are lighthouses super fun but the Creator series allows the set to be assembled 3 different ways. Pro tip: If you lose the instructions, read them from an iPad from a site like this.



9. Movies

I thought I had this all figured out when I started buying used DVDs of their favorites. But you know what I discovered? They never want to watch something we own. Owning a movie makes it no longer a favorite!

So what to do instead? Ditch the DVDs (they're annoying to keep track of and get scratched) and get a streaming device like a Roku, an Apple TV ($85 refurbished) or both. Rent from Amazon (some titles included with Prime) and watch it on the go on an iPad.



10. Best Holiday Tradition

The candy strip. My mom shared this tradition with us, I loved it, and it's working very well for us. On halloween night when they've returned from trick-or-treating and they're pouring over their haul ask them to count out 25 pieces of candy. Take those 25 pieces of candy and set them aside until December 1st.

Then, create or buy (I've seen these at Home Goods) something they can hang on their wall with 25 pockets in it and place a piece of candy in each pocket. Let them enjoy one piece of candy each day in December rather than gobbling it all up in the week or two after Halloween.



Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite money saving tips and strategies for raising young kids?

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: Boston iPhone Repair

Ouch, right?
 
I've never been a fan of protective cases for iOS devices. Why take a device whose design Apple has relentlessly thought about and cloak it in a bulky mediocre plastic protective case? Well, the reason is you want to reduce the chances that your expensive highly subsidized device is going to accidentally be smashed.
 
Like this iPhone 4S which had both sides shattered due to an accidental drop.
When faced with a smashed up iPhone what are our choices?
  1. Ride it out and wait until you're eligible for an upgrade. Doesn't work well when glass shards cut your finger while trying to ride it out.
  2. Go for an early upgrade. Depends on where you are in your upgrade cycle. If you're eligible for an upgrade you'll still likely want to get the damaged phone repaired because it carries significant resale potential. If you're somewhere between brand new and eligible for an upgrade you might be eligible for a reduced price upgrade (like $449 for a new iPhone 5).
  3. Go beg for mercy at the Apple Store. I hear they'll give you a new [refurbished] iPhone 4S for $199 if you trade your old one in. Not the greatest option in the world but at least you'd be getting a clean device, a new battery, and the reliable comfort of Apple standing behind the phone.
  4. Get it repaired. That's what I did and that's the subject of this blog post.
A Google search for "iphone cracked screen" predictively revealed "iphone cracked screen repair boston". I was primarily looking to get information on Apple's policy for out of warranty replacement but I was intrigued by what might be available for repair options in Boston. So I checked out Boston iPhone Repair's excellent blog post here: http://www.bostoniphonerepair.com/archives/339
In that blog post they lay out in reasonable terms whether it's worth it to have your device repaired vs. taking it back to Apple and begging for mercy. I liked how they rolled and their 5 star average Yelp rating looked solid. Their site estimated $90 for repair of a cracked front screen and $40 for the back. Compared to $199 plus tax at the Apple store this sounded like a good deal. So off to Boston iPhone Repair for a 2:00 pm arrival.
They're just east of Harvard Square right across from the Inn at Harvard on Massachusetts Ave on the second floor of this building:
Upon arrival it was just what I was hoping for: Two competent guys sitting behind the counter ready to repair my busted device right then and there. No waiting.
Ned -- on the right in the photo below -- is the founder of the business and a ringer for Mark Zuckerberg who claims to not understand Twitter. He started Boston iPhone Repair four years ago as a come-to-you business. Now they're right across the street from Harvard, so the Zuckerberg resemblance is particularly uncanny and the efficiency with which they can repair iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads is hard to beat. In the time I was there a half dozen happy customers came and went. One customer was turned away for an iPod touch repair they felt would be better served by a visit to the Apple Store.
 
They looked at my device and told me it was normally $90 to repair the front glass and $40 for the back but since they were both busted he could repair both for $120. Cash, check or PayPal. It would be done in 30 minutes. Would I like to proceed? Heck yeah!
 
I had my 7 year old with me so half the fun was watching the pros dissect the iPhone. These guys know what they're doing.
 
But it's kind of like watching your wife have a C-Section. You're a bit curious and interested in the procedure at first, but about half way through it you're just praying for a positive outcome.
30 minutes into it I started to get a little worried. The technician asked for some alcohol. "Alcohol? What for?" I started to get concerned. Like a worried father, I started hovering over the operating table.
 
8 minutes later I was presented with my pristine repaired iPhone 4S. A success!
 
However, the phone said it was "Searching" for a signal. I placed a test call to my phone and it went through. I mentioned this Searching business to the technician and he pulled the SIM card out and re-inserted it and it was as good as new. No issues since. Works perfectly.
I brought the repaired iPhone home and presented it to my wife. You would have thought it was a bouquet of flowers. This was her first iPhone and she doesn't like technology, but coming from a BlackBerry she loves her iPhone. And she was glad to have it back in good working condition.
 
I love it when a small business does exactly what they're supposed to do and I pay them a fair price for doing something I couldn't have done as well as they did.
 
So check 'em out - highly recommended:
 
Boston iPhone Repair in Harvard Square
http://bostoniphonerepair.com
@BostoniPhoneFix
 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Photos: 2013 Honda Accord Test Drive

The redesigned Honda Accord is set to hit dealerships September 19th. Bernardi Honda in Natick, MA got some in a few days early so I headed over today for a test drive.
2013 Honda Accord EX-L V6 Sedan
The 2013 is said to be a complete redesign, and it is indeed a brand new model. But to those familiar with the prior Accord -- as I am since we've been leasing a 2010 Accord EX sedan for two and a half years -- it feels like more of an incremental improvement. A very nice incremental improvement.
2013 Honda Accord Sport Sedan
The trim levels should be familiar to long-time Honda fans. An LX, an EX, an EX-L, and an EX-L V6 are available along with a new Sport model priced just south of the EX, and a loaded Touring model. The Sport lacks a moonroof but includes 18" alloy wheels, dual exhaust tips and a spoiler.
To my eye, the rear styling is a nice change from the prior model. They probably could have done more to catch my attention on the front - I think it looks almost identical to the 2010.
 
The new Accord offers some very nice standard features. It's amazing how much a single little feature -- like an AUX input for audio from your mobile phone -- can change how much I enjoy a car. All new Accords come standard with Bluetooth integration, AUX and USB inputs, rear backup cameras, dual zone climate control and more. Compared to our 2010 Accord EX which lacked external temperature display for example, the 2013 is very nicely equipped.
2013 Accord Sport Interior
The view of the dashboard from behind the steering wheel is significantly revamped, mostly for the better in my opinion.
I took a 2013 Accord Sport sedan out for a test drive. It comes with cloth seats which I thought they were a bit more comfortable than the prior model. A bit firmer in a good way. Touch points are nicely trimmed in leather and the car feels very comfortably sized with a touch of new technological splash.
 
If there's one complaint I have about our 2010 Accord, it's that the car is a bit slower than I'd like it to be. Even when you really give it some gas it doesn't have very good throttle response from say 10-45 mph when you're merging with traffic.
 
The 2013 boosts horsepower slightly while also improving mileage so I was looking forward to seeing if it was any more powerful. I'd say it felt about 10% more powerful. Which is probably enough to give us what we need but not necessarily what we want. This is an Accord after all.
 
One other unique feature in the 2013 is its Continuously Variable Transmission. I've never driven one of these before - and I think this is a first in the Accord. I was expecting the car to never feel like it's shifting but the net effect is that it felt to me like it was holding its current gear for a long time under heavy acceleration.
 
Separate from the CVT is a Sport mode which can be selected just south of "D" when selecting which gear you'd like to drive in. And separate from this is an Econ button to the left of the steering wheel that can be used, presumably, to improve mileage. I think these are welcome additions but I'm not sure I'd like to think about these things and would prefer the car to adjust automatically to provide the best mileage possible while giving me power when I need it.
 
They also had a 2013 EX-L on the lot. I thought the EX rims looked a little lackluster compared to the Sport's, and not quite as stylish as the outgoing model:
 
2013 Honda Accord EX-L
Pricing looks to be very modestly increased compared to the outgoing model. The 2013 Sport sedan I drove stickers for just $24k. I think that's a lot of car for the money.
2013 Sport Window Sticker
Full details on pricing, colorization options, and packages is set to arrive this Wednesday, September 19th.
 
I'm also considering a new 3 series or a used 5 series. Long shot considerations include the VW Passat and the Hyundai Genesis. I'd be a trading in a used 2003 325i -and- terminating a lease on our 2010 Accord 6 months early. Discounts on the new model are said to be hard to come by - but isn't that always said to be the case when you're on the buying end of a car transaction?
 
Bottom Line
 
I think the 2013 is a very nice redesign of a very reliably good midsize sedan. I'll look forward to learning a bit more about them and seeing if we can work out a deal I can't refuse.
 
Question of the Day:What do you think of the new Accord? Leave a comment below or ping me on Twitter: @RobertDwyer
 
Further Reading: How to lease a new car for a rock bottom price
 
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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Who and How Much: Wellesley Window Cleaners

Every time I get a quote for a home repair or maintenance item it seems to cost twice as much as I think it should. I recently had this experience as I requested quotes to clean the windows in our 1,800 square foot home.
 
We've got 10 double hung windows on the second floor, and 10 more on the first floor. Also on the first floor, we have 24 casement windows, 4 skylights, a sliding glass door, and a front door with glass and sidelights. The majority of the windows have screens and the casement windows have removable grids.
 
The first quote came from a local franchise of a nationwide window cleaning company: $390. I thought this was a little high so I called on Service Magic to see if we could do better.
 
Service Magic is an interesting business. You submit a request online and they try to match you with service providers in your area who reach out and arrange a time to come by for a quote.
 
I submitted a request for quotes at 4:00 pm on a Tuesday and within 10 minutes 2 companies called to set a time to stop by for a quote. By 6:00 pm two of the providers visited our house and provided a written quote. Amazingly quick - these guys know they're being price compared and there are other firms competing for the business. The quotes were in the $350-$365 range.
 
The next morning a third firm stopped by when we weren't here and left a quote for $220 along with a brochure and a business card. I was skeptical that the lowest quote would be the best, but after comparing ratings on Service Magic for each of the providers, the cheapest guys had the best overall rating. And the homeowner reviews gave me confidence it would be a solid experience. So I called Rise and Shine Window Cleaning and scheduled an appointment for the coming Monday morning between 8 and 9 am.
 
That Monday morning I got a call at 8:00 am letting me know they were on their way and shortly thereafter Leoni and Giancarlo Carvalho -- brothers and owners of the business -- showed up in their totally legit-looking signed window cleaning van.
 
Window cleaning is a bit of a tricky industry and looking back, I had to think a bit why it took me so long to have this done. I say it's tricky because on one hand it seems like tedious but simple work. All it takes is some Windex and paper towels, right? Wrong. It takes ladders, scrapers, solvents, know-how, skill and much more. Furthermore, nobody likes strangers in their house. If we're lucky, we've found housecleaners we trust. Going through that again with window cleaners is a bit of an adventure. But it's worth it because after 5 years windows and screens can get pretty dirty.
 
When the guys showed up they politely introduced themselves and described how they'd like to do things. First they'd remove all the screens from the inside, then they clean the outside of the windows, then the inside.
 
We've got a no shoe policy in our house so I asked them if they could wear shoe covers while they were inside. They said of course - they always do that. We've had contractors over for much more expensive remodeling projects who didn't show that kind of respect for our home. Nice touch.
 
So I went about my work from my home office and they set out cleaning the windows. They were quiet, and efficient and polite...I really don't think I could be any more pleased with window cleaners.
 
About half way through the project I took a break to see how they were doing. It dawned on me just how much work this is and how I could have spent 3+ weekends on this project and still not achieve the results they did in 4 hours. They quietly moved furniture away from in front of windows and replaced it exactly where it was. They scraped away built up debris on windows that would have taken a lot of elbow grease otherwise. They removed, cleaned, and replaced screens without breaking a single thing. I'm sure I could have busted $200 worth of stuff bungling the job on my own.
 
I had a conference call towards the end of their time here so I left a check for them knowing I'd be happy with the job they did. I love it when I do my job while professionals do their job better than I possibly could. These guys were fantastic. And what a difference clean windows make. Absolutely sparkling clean and clear. Well done.
 
These guys were great. Absolutely highly recommended. 5 out of 5 stars.
 
Check 'em out:
Rise and Shine Window Cleaning
 
And check out Service Magic too while you're at it.
 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Back to School Lovin' from the Oven

I'll be the first one to tell you that I'm not much of a baker. Between cooking and baking, cooking offers more recipe flexibility which suits my impatient improv in the kitchen style. Even so, sometimes there's just no replacement to something warm out of the oven. Anyone who has baked at all knows that baking requires accuracy and measuring; neither of these my forte.

Even so, I've been wanting to have something to offer two hungry, growing boys that was hearty, healthy and filling. Sometimes carrot sticks and ranch just don't cut it. And the baked snacks that are available for purchase never seem substantive enough. One afternoon, I came across a recipe on Pinterest that looked interesting and offered a way to incorporate more veggies into their diet - always another objective of mine.

Against my better judgement, I modified Marcus Samuelsson's recipe and made my own version of his Whole-Wheat Sweet Potato Coconut Muffin. Now twice adapted, mine contains healthy fat, fruit, veggies and a bit of protein from the yogurt.

I strongly recommend using silicone baking cups like these if you don't want to grease muffin tins or mess around with paper liners.

2 and 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, preferably pastry flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup ground flax seed meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup mashed or pureed sweet potato
1 cup applesauce
1/2 cup dried, unsweetened coconut
1 egg, beaten
1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, flax seed, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. In another bowl, whisk the egg, add applesauce, cooled sweet potato, coconut, egg, and greek yogurt. Fold wet mixture into dry mixture until just combined.
Fill muffin cups; sprinkle a pinch of sugar on top of each muffin and then bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until muffins are puffed and turning golden brown on top. Remove from muffin cups when cool enough to handle. Serve warm. The others will last in the refrigerator for several days.
The result? Sweet muffins my boys beg for that are easy to pack in lunches.  Let me know if you agree.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Does the new Apple Airport Express have better range than inexpensive Linksys routers?

Update (9/4/2013): A couple months ago I complained to Comcast that my Internet service was unreliable. It went down frequently and needed to be rebooted - and that didn't always solve the problem.

They came over and replaced our modem/wireless router combo with a new device (this one here) which has incredible wireless range. It easily covers our whole house with a strong signal, is more reliable than their previous modem, and provides faster connection speeds both wireless and wired.

I didn't need the Apple Airport Express after getting this new Comcast router so I sold it on Craigslist. Moral of the story: Check with your Internet service provider if they have an option for an integrated wireless router. Having multiple wireless routers/range extenders is a pain. If you're with Comcast this latest/greatest device really makes a difference.

Apple currently offers two wireless routers, the Airport Extreme and the Airport Express. The Airport Extreme retails for $179 and especially since its redesign last year has been known for its strong range. The $99 Airport Express has been around forever but was mostly known for its versatility. It can serve as a wireless router, a wireless range extender, facilitate wireless printing, and serve up wireless audio.

But Apple recently redesigned the Express in ways that make it a viable wireless router for the home. They added an ethernet port (for that one rogue device you have which you'd prefer to connect via a cable - we use it for our printer), made it a dual-band N router (it was previously single band), and alluded to improved range.

The new Airport Express looks nearly identical to the Apple TV other than its color. The Express is white and the Apple TV is black. The prior Airport Express plugged directly into the wall whereas the new one connects via a more standard cable. It's about as minimalistic and beautiful as I can imagine a wireless router being.


It's also very small. Here it is alongside a Linksys E2500 N router for size comparison:


Wireless router manufacturers seem hesitant to make concrete range claims, perhaps because everyone's situation is different. Which brings me to the purpose of this post - to compare the relative strength of the new Airport Express vs. inexpensive Linksys wireless routers.

Does the Airport Express have better range? Can it cover the whole house?

We live in an 1,800 square foot L-shaped house. The Internet comes into my home office on one end of the house and the most challenging wireless connection it needs to make is to our home entertainment system which is about 80 feet away if the signal tries to travel through the house -or- about 58 feet if it wants to sneak outside - according to the Pythagorean Theorem. ;)

When we first started streaming content from our home entertainment system through a Linksys WRT160Nv2 wireless router to a Roku XDS box it seemed to work okay for the most part even though the signal wasn't terribly strong. But intermittently we'd have issues with buffering. Then I noticed when security was enabled on the Linksys router the Roku would need to be reminded of the wireless password every day or two. This become annoying enough that I disabled the security on our router for a while.

Then we added a new Samsung "Smart" TV with "Internet capabilities". I put these features in quotes because it's not very smart (nor pleasant to use for that matter) and the Internet is only possible with the addition of a USB WiFi adapter. I was curious to see how it worked, but didn't want to spring for the Samsung USB adapter so I got a more affordable one (~$20) from Rosewill that technically works with the Samsung but seems to have the weakest range of any WiFi client of any device on our network.

So I thought to try a new Linksys router to see if it would improve the range. I got a refurbished Linksys E2500 from Cisco for around $35. Sadly, it seemed to have even worse range than the WRT160Nv2.

When we remodeled the house a few years ago we had an ethernet cable installed that ran across the house to where our iMac is. I thought to try using our old Linksys router as a wired/wireless range extender. After some futzing I successfully configured the old router as a range extender and we mercifully had strong coverage over the entire house.

However, the situation was precarious at best. Think about it - if you're watching a movie and there's some buffering (due to who knows what?) what are you going to do? Reboot the cable modem, reboot the primary router, and reboot the secondary router? The system was too complicated.

I also ran into a crazy situation where my work VPN would have trouble connecting as I'd switch connections from the repeater to the primary router and vice versa. And my issues with Roku and router security settings persisted. It was a mess.

So I sought a wireless N router with strong range that could cover the whole house. I'd heard the Airport Extreme had good range but I didn't want to pay $179 for a router. You can often buy a refurbished Extreme for $139 and though I'm a fan of Apple refurbs I hear you can't return them to the Apple Store. You have to ship them back if you want to return them.

So I thought to try the new Airport Express to see if its improved range would cover our whole house reliably.

I bought it at the Apple store. Setup through our iMac was a breeze. Apple bundles an Aiport setup utility with their operating system - I'm not sure how setup would go through a PC or iOS devices. The setup utility made it very clear how to name the router, how to set up a guest network, and how to set up wireless security on the Express. Very nice.


The initial results were promising, but it wasn't a slam dunk.What I'd like, unrealistically, is for every device in our house to have 5 bars of strength and have everything work perfectly all the time.

The most challenging device - the Samsung/Rosewill TV - still isn't able to establish a connection. But I don't care about that anymore especially since we've since added an Apple TV to the mix. Between the Apple TV and the Roku we're all set with streaming devices.

Once I got past that I've been testing the Airport Express in a variety of real world situations. Coverage for various portable devices around the house (iPad, iPod touches, iPhones, Lenovo laptop) has been outstanding. No problems anywhere. Coverage for stationary devices (iMac, Apple TV, Roku) has been very good as well.

I thought to perform some slightly more rigorous comparisons to give those who might be considering an Airport Express as their primary router some reference points.

Test #1: 50 Feet Away through 2 Walls


The first test I did was with each router about 50 feet away through a couple walls to our iMac. Both routers reported strong signal strength according to the iMac. According to Comcast's speedtest site the connection speed was faster with the Airport Express (25 mbps) than with the Linksys E2500 (20 mpbs).

I replicated this test on a Lenovo laptop in the same location. With the Airport Express the speed reported was 17 mpbs whereas with the Linksys the reported speed was 14mpbs.

To be sure my incoming Internet connection speed didn't change between these experiments I went back and tested on the iMac again and the speeds were the same as the first time I checked.

Any of these speeds are pretty good, but it's interesting to see that the Airport Express is faster in this scenario. And that the iMac reports a faster connection than a similar aged Lenovo laptop.

Advantage: Airport Express

Test #2: 60 Feet Away through a couple walls, outside, on an L


This is the most critical connection for streaming. It's the connection between my home office where the Internet connection comes in and where we keep the router and where our home entertainment system is. We stream from this location via an Apple TV and a Roku box. I tested it with my Lenovo laptop since it would be hard to move the iMac.

First I ran a speed test at this location with the Airport Express. The Lenovo reported 7 mbps, a new iPad reported 13 mbps and an iPhone 4S reported 11 mbps. The iPad and iPhone were tested with speedcheck apps. With the Linksys, the Lenovo reported 12 mbps, the iPad reported 12 mbps, and the iPhone reported 2 mbps.

Advantage: Unclear.

Test #3: Real life streaming signal strength and performance - does it work?


I don't know how to perform a speed test with the Apple TV nor the Roku. But the reported signal strength, for what it's worth, with the Apple TV was 4 out of 5 when connected to the Aiport Express and 3 out of 5 when connected to the Linksys.

The Roku box reports "fair" signal strength with the Airport Express (3 out of 5) and oscillated between "low" "fair" and "poor" (1-3 out of 5) when connected to the Linksys. The first time I tried connecting to the Linksys from the Roku box the connection failed. The next time I tried it suceeded, but when I launched the Amazon channel it failed to connect. Then I tried again a few minutes later and it was able to connect to Amazon. This is symptomatic of what I've experienced with this Linksys router when connected at this distance in conjunction with streaming in the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's pretty frustrating during family movie night.

We've been able to stream movies on the Roku (Amazon Instant Video) with the Airport Express without incident. Streaming the trailer for Brave as a test on the Apple TV with the Airport Express it starts playing within a few seconds and streams the 2 minute 30 second clip without issue. Streaming Ocean's Eleven in HD from Amazon Instant Video with the Roku started within a few seconds and played the entire movie without incident.

Advantage: Airport Express

I went back and re-tested our old Linksys WRT160Nv2. As I remembered, it seems to have slightly better range than the newer Linksys E2500. This seems strange because they're both N routers, the E2500 is newer, and the E2500 is dual band. However, I still had trouble reliably streaming with the WRT160Nv2. Although it connected without incident when I tried to browse for movies on Amazon through the Roku it failed, then later worked. Then later failed.

Conclusions and Recommendation


I've been very pleased with the new Apple Aiport Express. It reasonably covers our entire house whereas our previous Linksys routers had a hard time doing so reliably. Setup is a snap, it's small, it's sharp looking, silent, and versatile.

It has very good range and provides faster speedtest results than the our prior Linksys routers even when both have a strong connection.

I'd be interested in testing the Airport Extreme under the same conditions, but I'm not going to buy one just to return it. If someone in the neighborhood has one and would like to drop it by let me know!

I highly recommend the Airport Express. A fantastic product.

93/100 points: Outstanding

Here's a link to the new Apple Aiport Express on Amazon:


And here are some links to other products mentioned in this write-up:
Question of the Day: What's been your experience with home wireless routers? What works for you? What doesn't?

I'd love it if you subscribed to Casa Dwyer for future updates. Coming soon: Reviews of the iPad and comparisons of the Apple TV vs. Roku.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: Four Seasons Chicago with Kids


We're just back from a weekend with the kids at the Four Seasons Chicago. I've been impressed with my interactions with other Four Seasons properties so I came into it looking forward to seeing how this location would perform.

I'm pleased to report: The stay was amazing. If you'll let them, the Four Seasons can absolutely provide a wonderful family experience in the city.

Booking

We were looking to tack on a couple nights in Chicago after a week-long stay in South Haven, Michigan. I was pretty dead set on staying at the Four Seasons. I love their style of service. Other properties like Westin, Intercontinental and Hyatt were going for $300-$450/night and other top-flight hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and The Peninsula were over $500. The most affordable room at the Four Seasons was around $425. I booked a two double-bed city view room with their Kids in the City package for $464/night plus tax.

The package included:
  • Complimentary meals for children 12 and under from our In-Room Dining children's menu
  • A visit from the Ice Cream Man between 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm
  • Many special savings and discounts from local retailers and cultural attractions
  • Luxurious accommodations

Pre-Arrival

A couple of days before our arrival I received an email from the hotel's concierge asking if they could do anything for us. We were just starting to think about what we wanted to do while we were there so the message was well timed.

We wanted to check out Top Chef Master Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill so I inquired about a reservation there the first night of our stay. When we stayed at the Four Seasons New York a couple of years ago they were able to finagle a reservation at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill (full review) when it was sold out so I thought to try the concierge again.

A little later in the day I got an email back saying Frontera Grill doesn't accept reservations for the most part and the adjacent Bayless restaurant Topolobambo does accept reservations but was sold out that weekend. She provided a nice alternate list of their preferred restaurants with useful descriptions ranging from celebrity chefs to steaks to deep dish pizza places and hot dog joints. No magic on a reservation at Frontera Grill or Topolobambo but that's okay.

Pro Tip: Program the hotel's main number and the concierge's direct number into your cell phone so when you're out and about you can call back to the hotel to pre-order things so you won't have to wait when you get back.

Arrival

Arriving at any city hotel location can be stressful. I always feel like I've got to find the hotel, figure out where to park the car if it's a crowded curbside situation, have a handle on what bags we want to stay in the car, what bags we want to take up the room, keep an eye on the kids, and figure out who and how much to tip. Even if you've got it all under control and you're as cool as a cucumber - it's a bit of a circus.

Fortunately, hotels like the Four Seasons do a fantastic job making this as relaxing as possible, and our arrival at their Chicago location on a Saturday afternoon was no exception.

We pulled up in our small rented SUV and were immediately greeted with a "Welcome to The Four Seasons". The street this location is on isn't terribly busy and they keep the curb clear with adequate doormen, bellmen, and valets.

Like everyone we'd meet at the hotel, they had a truly helpful way of approaching you that made you feel at ease about accepting their assistance in order to make your stay more enjoyable. No fussiness or pretension; somehow the staff answers questions thoughtfully and without making you feel like a cheapskate if you inquire about the price.

No need to put on your top hat and fancy pants - the hotel isn't stuffy. I wore flip flops the whole weekend and never felt out of place - it was a summer weekend in Chicago.

This Four Seasons is a relatively small portion of a tall building. Once you pass through the revolving doors into a nicely appointed but small lobby you take an elevator up seven floors to the main lobby. It's interesting there are almost always more concierges on duty than folks at the front desk. It speaks volumes about their focus - on service after the sale.

I was tempted to try the $20 Bill Trick but it didn't feel like that kind of party. Relax and let the Four Seasons delight, right? The desk clerk welcomed me politely and asked if a superior city view room with two double beds (exactly what we booked, no upgrade) would be acceptable. I said it would and she gave us our keys and pointed us to the elevators. I would have appreciated a bit of a review of what our package included (it was a little complicated) but in the spirit of sitting back and letting the hotel surprise us we headed right up to our room.

Room

The room was moderately sized for a metropolitan location, finely appointed (especially in the bathroom) and nicely prepared for our arrival. The hotel occupies floors 30 through 46 in the building and we were on the top floor with a view westward towards the swanky Waldorf Astoria. Special touches included two stuffed Four Seasons Chicago cows for the kids and a bathtub sprinkled with confetti soap and kids bubble bath. Two robes for adults and two for the kids as well.


They asked for our kids names during the check-in process but I don't recall seeing anything personalized towards that affect in our room or during the stay. Don't worry - they'd be plenty spoiled by the end of our visit.

The Four Seasons seems to have the timing of their appearances in your room down to a science. It's as if there's a mastermind behind the scenes determining when you've finished your gawking around the room and it's a good time for your luggage to be delivered. Moments after the bellman left the room, room service arrived with complimentary cookies and milk. Bonus points for providing a little chocolate syrup on the side to heighten the treat.

Location

The hotel is right off Michigan Avenue on Delaware near Water Tower Place (an indoor mall) which is along the not-so-humbly named Magnificent Mile in the equally proudly named Gold Coast neighborhood. At least nine other US states also lay claim to being The Gold Coast so they're in good company. Judging from the ritzy retail and restaurant mix it seems to be the place to be in Chicago.  I thought it had a lot of similarities to Boston's Back Bay with the overall size and gridded layout like New York.

In the spirit of "a little for them and a little for us" we took the kids to the Lego Store at Water Tower Place. They went nuts. It's a rather large Lego store with a cool Chicago skyline out front, interactive assembly stations inside, and of course an excellent assortment of Lego sets. Try as I might to get them to pick the Willis Tower set for the locally relevant souvenier they went for a couple others.

There are a bunch of great restaurants in Chicago, both near the hotel and accessible via a short taxi ride. We had our sites set on Frontera Grill so we hopped in a cab. We arrived at 4:45 pm and there was already a line 20 parties deep waiting to get a table. We got a reservation at Frontera Grill for 6:00 pm which normally wouldn't have been that long of a wait but the kids were tired after a day of travel. We opted for XOCO which was an excellent compromise - read my review over on Yelp here. We then walked back to the hotel along Michigan Avenue. Very nice.

Museums, the Shedd Aquarium, and Millenium Park are a short cab ride away from the hotel. Overall I don't think the hotel could be in a better location to enjoy Chicago.

Service

On the way out to dinner we stopped in at the Concierge desk to check on tickets for the Shedd Aquarium. We met the same concierge who emailed me back about Frontera Grill and she mentioned, as did a friend on Twitter, XOCO as an alternative if the wait at Frontera Grill was too long.

She also warned us about long lines at the aquarium later in the day and offered up some VIP tickets that let us skip the line for $35 a person. She was down to 1 ticket in the drawer so we were able to parlay that into even more moderately priced tickets on-site at the aquarium which worked out in our favor price wise - $105 for a family of four with no waiting in line. Compared to somewhere between $160 and $200 at the aquarium day-of I thought it was a great deal. The Shedd is a fantastic indoor aquarium but you've got to approach it strategically to enjoy it - full review here.

When we arrived back after dinner the room had been picked up and turned down. Not the most dramatic transformation I've ever seen but turndown service is always a nice touch when you're on vacation. Especially when the room is cluttered.

When we checked in, I asked about scheduling a visit to our room from their Ice Cream Man. The clerk suggested it was more of an evening thing and he was available from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm so we opted for 7:00 pm. However when we returned to our room we had a message saying there had been a mistake and he was only available from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm so we missed him the first night. A minor gaffe but I'm glad we didn't get the kids cranked up for his visit. We'd catch the Ice Cream Man later the next day.

Pro Tip:  Never tell your children about anything fun unless it is 100% set-in-stone, can not be rescheduled, going to happen even if the world ends.  Better to surprise and delight them if it does come through.

The next morning I was feeling a bit unfamiliar with the Kids in the City packaged we opted for, so I stopped in at the front desk and asked for a refresher. This time the clerk on duty provided me a printed card that revealed some discounts and additional information which I wasn't aware of previously. Of particular interest were a family discount at the aquarium (the VIP tickets are probably a better deal considering the line factor), the availability of a Wii, and Radio Flyer wagons available on a first-come first-served basis. Bonuses I hadn't considered! Always giving guests a little more than they expected.

While we were at the aquarium I called to ask if we could get a Wii. When we returned, it was set up in our room with hand written instructions on how to turn it on and change the TV input to the appropriate input device. However, the Wii remotes weren't working. I called down to the place I requested it from - the Concierge - and they pinged the folks in engineering who came over to have a look.

I find it refreshingly great the way they don't make you feel bad if you've called the wrong department and take care of the issue as far as you're concerned without transferring you. The first engineer couldn't figure it out so another guy came up. He couldn't figure it out either so they went to get some more batteries and another Wii in case it was a hardware issue. So we've got 2 guys fixing the Wii, room service on the way, and then someone stops by with complimentary cupcakes for the kids to boot. Insanely good service! (They got the Wii working shortly thereafter and the kids had a ball playing it which meant we could relax while they played).

Food and Drinks

The "free room service for the kids" aspect of the package was a bit ambiguous but I decided not to sweat it and let them delight us by figuring out an equitable split for each meal we enjoyed from room service. After a bit of a rocky night out the first night we settled in for 4 consecutive meals in the room. In some settings this could be rather depressing but in this context it was quite decadent.

The room service menu contains selections for the grown ups for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then there's a dedicated kids section as well. They've done a great job turning kid favorites into things grown ups can get behind ordering because they're [slightly] healthier or have a local spin. Like PB & J with homemade jam and organic peanut butter - or peanut-free SoyNut Butter. Or mac 'n cheese made with Wisconsin cheddar. Full kids menu here.

When they'd deliver room service they'd set the kids up at the desk and they'd wheel in a table and place it between the two beds. It was tremendous! It was almost like being in a restaurant but when the kids got fussy they could leave their seats to build a hideout on the window seat behind the curtains.

The first morning I think I made a tactical mistake with room service though. At turndown, they presented one of those menus you order on the night before and hang on the door then they deliver when you want the next morning. The menu itself didn't have prices and further, didn't match the options on the in-room menu which made it difficult to order cost effectively.  Writing in our order got us what we wanted, but cost a pretty penny.  I pledged to wisen up the ordering of subsequent meals.

For lunch I went with a Homemade Chicago-style Hot Dog with Fries. It included the requisite celery salt, but lacked the cucumbers I like to see included. Nonethless it was spectacular. It had the juicy texture of a sausage and pepper sandwich you'd buy on Yawkey Way before a Red Sox game, but tasted like a delicious hot dog. Best dog ever. 95/100 points! Classic!!


After a little Wii and relaxation the Four Seasons Ice Cream Man showed up! A highlight of the visit for sure, and they do it right. Chocolate or vanilla ice cream and all of the toppings to make a delicious sundae right in your room. The kids went nuts. My 5 year old said to his brother, "Can you believe this is happening!?" Money quote! That's my boy.


After ice cream we went for a walk around the area with one of their complimentary Radio Flyer wagons. I was determined at this point to take advantage of every kid friendly amenity they offer!

But in the spirit of a little for them and a little for us I called to request a visit from the Martini Man for a martini made in the room as well.

I have to pause for a moment to describe something that was subtly excellent about this interaction. I called the main phone number to the hotel to ask about the Martini Man and they transferred me to room service. Without me ever telling them what room I was in or who I was they said "I see you've got dinner scheduled for 7:30 pm - would you like the martini around the same time?" Sure! I said. I didn't realize until after I got off the phone that they identified me without me telling them who I was. Do they have caller ID with my cell phone number attached to my room? If so that's a pretty sweet CRM system. Putting technology to work to make their intuitive service even better.

The same friendly guy who dishes up the ice cream becomes a bartender in the evening. After pouring one very nice Dirty Martini he seemed surprised that we only wanted one. As if it was typically the kind of thing where you get two or three. I suddenly got a sinking feeling this was going to be a $50 martini. Gulp. No check came with his visit so we'd have to wait and see when we got our folio at the end of the visit. I started to brace myself.

For dinner I went with an Individual Deep Dish Pizza with Italian Sausage and Mushrooms. I paired it with a couple Goose Island IPAs for a very satisfying taste of Chicago. 92/100 points: Outstanding (both the pizza and the beer). I loved the way in-room dining gave everyone in the family a chance to try what they wanted in one convenient location. Full grown up menu here.


The free in-room dining for the kids is a bit ambiguous. How is the built-in 18% gratuity and $4 delivery charge amortized across the meal? For example, on the morning of our departure we ordered oatmeal and eggs for the kids and a pot of coffee ($12) for us. I'm not opposed to paying $12 for a pot of coffee presented to me in my room, but is the $4 and the 18% service charge for the entire meal all tacked on as a charge for the adults? If so it becomes a $20 pot of coffee and the "free in-room dining for kids" thing starts to feel like a bit of a Groupon because the kids meals are relatively affordable. I would have appreciated a little more clarity on this split.

At this point I'm starting to feel a bit uneasy about what is and what is not going to appear on our final statement. The room service bills included everything and I just signed them - then reminded myself not to worry about it.

Miscellaneous

We swam in their indoor pool with the kids which was very nice. It's an upscale Roman-columned affair reminiscent of the pool in Meet Joe Black, accessed through a spa and locker rooms. Definitely the nicest pool our little guys have visited. We would have appreciated it more if we hadn't just finished a week of multiple swims per day in Michigan.

The hotel offers free low bandwidth Wi-Fi and a paid higher bandwidth option. The low bandwidth was fast enough to be non-frustrating so I thought this was a fair way to play it.

Departure

On the morning of our departure I went down to check on our final folio so I wouldn't be distracted by impatient kids ready to go. There was good news and bad news. The martini was indeed a $50 martini. I explained to the clerk that I was worried I'd made a mistake on that one and hoped he could knock it down to $18 or whatever they charge for a martini at the bar because I thought it was an a la carte kind of thing. He said we'd been charged for two martinis so if we only had one he could easily cut the price in half. Fair deal.

Other than that it looked like each of the room service charges were reasonable representations of just what the adults ordered with the appropriate amount of gratuity applied. Each room service charge was a single line item. When I asked for a little more detail he described what each charge was made of in terms of menu items. But even the final folio doesn't describe in full detail what portion of each room service charge comprised service charges and gratuities. Perhaps an area for improvement in the interest of assuring guests they didn't pay for things they weren't expect to.

Everything else looked like what I was expecting to pay - including a hefty but expected $51 per night valet parking charge.

We lugged our bags down thinking it wouldn't be too hard since we each had one piece of luggage and a couple shoulder bags. My fair wife painfully ran over her toe with one of the overstuffed large suitcases while we were jockeying to get into the elevator. Serves us right for refusing the bellman's kind offer to help!

I'd called ahead for our car and it was waiting for us on the curb. The doorman and the valet patiently helped us get our things packed into the car and we were on our way to the airport.

An amazingly perfect visit.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The lesson I learned, perhaps once again, is that the Four Seasons can provide a delightful backdrop for an unforgettable visit - if you let them. If you don't care to interact with the front desk, don't need help with luggage, enjoy finding your own way around a city, and are otherwise just looking for a clean room - the Four Seasons isn't for you. But if you're looking for an indulgent, relaxing family getaway I think the Four Seasons is worth every penny.

My rating:
5/5 Stars
95/100 points: A classic stay.

Further Reading

To learn more, visit the Four Seasons Chicago website and check out the Four Seasons Luxury Family Travel Blog

    Thursday, February 09, 2012

    These Disney Cruises Infuriate Me - Why Do I Keep Booking Them?


    After wandering around the Orlando airport a bit trying to figure out where to catch the Disney bus to the Disney Cruise Terminal, we finally found our way to the Disney's Magical Express Welcome Terminal. We're trying to keep tabs on the kids and everyone's excited and it's a little hectic as we present our travel documents to the Disney agent to check in for our cruise. Since I'm a little encumbered, I pass the agent our little Disney-provided travel folder which contains our passports and birth certificates. I figure she's adept at navigating through these folders and finding what she needs but after a moment of searching she says she needs the kids' birth certificates.

    I say, "they should be in the folder I passed you."

    "I didn't see them in here," she says.

    "Could you look again? I'm pretty sure they're in there," I say.

    "I looked, they're not here."

    I look in my shoulder bag, and rifle around a bit. The birth certificates aren't there. I can sense unspoken panic start to set in among our group. No birth certificates for the kids? That's the first thing they say you'll need when you book the cruise. How could he forget these? What will happen? Are they going to let us on the boat? Can we get copies rushed down here somehow? I ask the agent one more time to please look through the folder more dilligently.

    Sure enough she finds them. Then makes some excuse about why they were hard to find.

    How about an apology for instilling panic within our group to kick off our vacation?

    And So It Went For 7 Nights

    We were seamlessly transported to nearby Port Canaveral, swiftly made our way through the Disney Cruise Line Terminal and boarded the ship to our family name being announced by cheering staff. If there's one thing Disney does right, it's making every guest feel like they're special.

    But throughout the two Disney Cruises we've taken this year and last, I couldn't help but be frustrated and disappointed between periods of elation and utter satisfaction while having the time of our lives.

    When Disney is at it's best it delivers on Walt Disney's vision of creating situations where everyone in the family is enjoying themselves together. When it's at its worst I wonder why we don't vacation elsewhere.

    See also: Going all in on Walt Disney World: On-site trip report

    Father's Breakfast

    The next morning me and our two boys (7 and 4 years old) got up and went for breakfast to give my wife a chance to sleep in. We'd been talking about it for months. Our waiter at dinner the night before said the breakfast buffet opened at 6 am. Turns out, it doesn't open until 7:45 am. That's pretty late if you ask me - and I think the other parents with young kids wandering and foraging around the decks that morning would agree. It wasn't so much that breakfast wasn't served until 7:45 - it was that I expected it to be available at 6:00 am and it wasn't.

    After a couple hours exploring the ship we eventually got breakfast. When we got back to the room my wife wasn't feeling well. The kids were cranked up so I thought it would be a good opportunity to drop them in the Oceaneer's Club. It's supposed to be open every day from 9 am to midnight and the clock in our stateroom said 9:30 am. I walked them down to the club to find it wasn't open. Turns out the clock in our room was set an hour ahead.

    Not Disney's fault of course, but let me tell you something: The clocks in the staterooms are harder to solve than a Rubik's Cube. The instructions refer to a button on the clock that doesn't exist. And why should I even need instructions to set a clock? Adjusting the time on the clocks they use has eluded me over the course of the two cruises we've taken.

    The pattern of over-committing and under-delivering, along with failing to make my life easier at times when I wanted it most repeated throughout the cruise.

    The Mickey Slide

    We eventually got our act together and were determined to make the most of the day by spending some time at the kids Mickey Pool. By the time we got there, the place was a mosh pit. Every lounge chair in the area was taken and the pool was filled with youngsters and parents hovering around them.

    This wasn't surprising given it was a day at sea, but we were determined to get it right the next day. Much like visiting Disney Parks you've got to be on your game to enjoy it.

    The next morning we were promptly situated by the Mickey Pool before 9:00 am. The kids were having a blast enjoying the pool they had mostly to themselves. The Mickey Slide was set to open at 9:00 am according to the ship itinerary, but 9:00 came and went and the slide wasn't open. I couldn't figure out who to flag down to ask about the slide but eventually chatted up a cast member in a white shirt who said he had to wait for a lifeguard to open the slide because the lifeguards have the keys to the slide. Another 10 or 20 minutes went by and eventually a lifeguard showed up and the slide was opened.

    Was it a big deal the Mickey Slide opened late? Not really. Was I annoyed that we arrived early to avoid the crowds and the slide opened late? I was. And I was annoyed that it wasn't clear who was in charge of the area. Where do I take my requests on board? It wasn't always clear.

    Once the slide opened, the situation was magical. It gave all of the adults a chance to relax poolside on lounge chairs while keeping a relaxed but watchful eye on the kids as they went down the slide and raced back up for another trip. It was absolutely fantastic.

    Room Dis-Service

    I don't think I've ever been as angry with a service provider as I was with room service on the third night of our cruise.

    Our kids were crabby and didn't want to join us for dinner so the plan was to order room service for them and send them to the Oceaneer's Club while the grown-ups ate dinner. Dinner is at 5:45 so we called for room service at 4:45 and ordered some food for the kids. Room service said they'd deliver in 30-45 minutes so it should have given us time to feed the kids, drop them in the club, and make it to dinner in time.

    Not that it's a huge deal to be late for dinner, but we were running late the first couple of nights which made us feel like we had to sit down and make our selections hurriedly. We wanted to enjoy our meal a bit more but this time we were once again running late because room service didn't deliver. After an hour went by I called room service with a simple statement and question:

    "We ordered food an hour ago. You said it would take 45 minutes and it's been an hour. WHERE IS IT!?"

    After much discussion about who should stay behind and help the kids eat and join for dinner late, all of us except one took off for dinner. The food arrived 1 hour and 20 minutes after it was ordered. I'm not so much bothered by the backup right around dinner time as the mis-estimation of how long it would take to deliver the food. It's a classic case of over-committing and under-delivering.

    If room service had just told us they were slammed and that it would be over an hour I would have gone up and gotten them some food on deck myself.

    Where Do They Get These Kind People?

    Half way through the cruise our 7 year old got sick. He took a nap in the afternoon which he hasn't done since he was 2. I thought he might be tired from all the fun, but sure enough when he woke up he felt warm and was running a mild fever.

    A few hours later he threw up all over the room.

    Not that it's difficult to cover "all" of an 180 square foot cabin, but it was quite a mess. We called our cabin steward and he showed up in just a few minutes. He saw my child laying on the couch looking green - and a little scared he was going to get in trouble for making a mess. To be honest I was a little afraid he'd be quarantined and not get to enjoy the rest of the cruise. But our cabin steward said - at just the right moment:

    "Don't worry baby, you didn't do anything wrong. Everything is going to be alright."

    Another cast member from maintenance came to steam clean the carpet and was similarly kind. 20 minutes later the room was as if nothing ever happened, our boy was in good spirits, and I was so thankful for the kind people Disney hired to help make our stay more enjoyable.

    It's Probably Me

    As I grow older I'm amazed how much I look at Clark Griswold as a peer. The National Lampoon Vacation series classically summarizes the enthusiasm - and disappointment - I feel as a father trying to enjoy vacations with family.

    Finding moments of joint family enjoyment on vacations has proven elusive over the past few years for us. The vast majority of vacations have been marred by illness and weather-related airline delays and cancellations. I'll admit: At times I realize I'm pressing for things to go well.

    We settled in over the next couple days. We kept our 7 year old out of the kids club and spent time hanging out with him doing low key activities. We were together. It was nice.

    Disappointment Island

    On the last day of Disney Cruises out of Port Canaveral, the ship stops at Disney's private island Castaway Cay. After visiting last year and enjoying every moment there, we were pumped to visit again. I was up on deck watching us sail towards the island. When I felt like we were about 20 minutes away, I ran downstairs to rally the troops.

    The kids got their bathing suits on, everyone got sunscreened up and we came back on deck to watch the ship pull into port. However, the ship seemed to be wandering around the ocean and we were farther away than we were a half hour ago. We were this close - what happened?

    The Captain came on the public address system to announce that due to a technical malfunction we'd be docking at Castaway Cay a couple hours later than scheduled. The Cruise Director hurriedly patched together some entertainment around the boat, but the crowds were anxious to be on the island.

    I realize it may seem small to complain about minor inconveniences like this. And it is a small thing. It could have been a lot worse. 

    But Disney could have offered some half price drinks on board while we were waiting. Or something. The ship stayed an hour later at Castaway Cay than originally planned to help compensate for the time missed. We had a great time.

    How Disney is like Apple

    They got us to our destinations safely and I appreciate that. But there never seems to be much shame in their game. Kind of like with Apple products: If you have an issue with Disney or Apple there must be something wrong with you. This situation drives me bonkers.

    This piece by Seth Godin comes to mind where he advises that in business the "best available strategy is providing remarkable service and an honest human connection."  Disney does that - to an extent - but what's missing for me is the loop where I can share feedback and feel like it's been received thoughtfully by a human being. They asked for my opinion several times but I feel like it's taken to fill out a formulaic spreadsheet.

    Ironically, in Godin's piece he suggests businesses consider firing the whiners because they'll never be satisfied and the cost of delighting them is too high. I guess that makes me the whiner in this situation. I understand that perspective, but I don't think my expectations are out of line with the costs of a Disney vacation.

    Bon Voyage

    The final kick in the pants was when I tried to return a shirt I'd bought on Castaway Cay. Think of all the things they got right to enable this: I purchased an exclusive-to-the-island Castaway Cay t-shirt with my Key to the World Card and I could return it on the ship where they didn't even sell that same shirt. Disney magic right?

    Just one problem: The gift shop didn't open as scheduled at 5:30 pm so I had to do it after dinner, before the show, on the last night of the cruise when the gift shops are mobbed. What's so hard about opening things on schedule?

    Why Do I Keep Booking These Things?

    The next morning we enjoyed what has to be the most efficient debarkation process at sea. Our luggage was waiting for us and we were off and running as seamlessly as we arrived.

    Systematically, Disney gets so many things right. When we booked our cruise they remembered all of the important details of every member of our party so re-booking was a snap. They had our pictures saved from last time so we didn't have to re-take them for identification purposes when getting off and on the ship.

    Their ships are filled with some of the kindest people I've ever met in the service industry. It was striking how when we arrived back to Boston, some folks who work at the airport don't even acknowledge you as a human being. Yet even the maintenance staff on the Disney ships are as warm as can be.

    How do they do it? How do they delight and frustrate me so much on the same day?

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    I think human nature, if we're lucky, is to forget the bad things that happen in life and remember fondly the good things. I'm sure in a few weeks I'll be joyfully replaying scenes from our vacation to our collective delight. We'll start talking about our next vacation and who knows - maybe we'll do a Disney Cruise again soon. I booked this latest cruise with similar concerns after our first.

    I search around, consider alternatives and come to the conclusion that for us, at this stage in our lives, the Disney Cruises provide a tremendous value.

    I understand why we've chosen them for vacation the last couple years. I just wish they wouldn't drive me so bonkers.

    At the end of the cruise, Disney gives you a survey to fill out. A couple days later they send a similar survey online. But neither seemed to allow me to capture how I really felt about the cruise. It's kind of like when a friend asks "how was your cruise?" "It was great!" I say. But if I want to get real with someone who's as interested in taking great family vacations as I am it's a longer conversation.

    Update: We took another cruise with Disney, this time on their Concierge Level. Did it patch things up? Find out...

    Robert Dwyer is an avid family fun seeker and aspiring cruise critic. He can be reached at robert.paul.dwyer@gmail.com or on Twitter: @RobertDwyer

    Question of the Day: What do you think of Disney Cruises? Of Disney Vacations? Take the good with the bad and stick with them? Or is there better family fun to be found elsewhere?
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