Monday, December 25, 2023

The Very Best Gingerbread House

Gingerbread house decorating is a great opportunity to encourage kids' creativity and can engage them during a busy time of year. Most gingerbread houses taste terrible, or require painstaking baking, cutting, and assembly. Thanks to a friend a few years ago, I discovered the very best way to make a gingerbread house. 

decorated gingerbread houseThis cake recipe is absolutely delicious, and could be eaten all by itself. It's dark, dense and loaded with spices. And when baked in a Gingerbread House Bundt Pan, it’s the perfect base for decorating. This recipe makes just the right amount of batter to fill the pan and make one house at a time. 

Older kids will take part too because access to candy in volume virtually guarantees an audience. I usually bake 1 cake per kid participating but depending upon the group, I've found that two kids can usually share one house and work together. However many you make, plan the right amount of cooling time for each cake.  

With a couple of these cakes, some frosting and supplies, and you will have the start of a great new Christmas tradition. 


No-stick baking spray with flour

3/4 cup of water

9 tablespoons of butter, cut into cubes

1 heaping cup of dark brown sugar

1 heaping cup of unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap) (each jar makes enough for 1 and 1/2 cakes)

3 eggs

2 and 2/3 cups of flour

1 and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

6 teaspoons ground ginger

2 and 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon of salt

Candy for decorating is up to you but here are some of my favorites: Vanilla frosting, Andes mints, Dots, Frosty Nerds, Hershey Kisses, Twizzlers, and M&Ms.


Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the interior of the pan well with baking spray. 

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan, then stir in the butter until melted. Beat in the brown sugar and molasses until smooth, allow to cool a bit. Add in beaten eggs.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt in a large bowl. Once combined, pour the liquid mixture into the big bowl and fold together. Do not overmix; it's okay if the batter is not perfectly smooth. 

frosting-heavy gingerbread housePour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan and flip it directly onto a large plate. I recommend cutting strips of parchment paper and putting them under the cake edges so they can be pulled away after decorating is complete. Use that frosting as glue and get decorating!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Experiencing peak Hamilton? Recommendations for related content

Updated July 7, 2019 with Items 5 and 6

One of my favorite experiences of 2017 was seeing Hamilton on Broadway. I knew next to nothing about it going in, other than it roughly being about our founding fathers told in some sort of rap/hip hop format.

And that the tickets were hard to get.

In the car on the way down we ready the synopsis on Wikipedia. That was helpful and I'd recommend reading it before you go.

But as Michelle Obama has said it was the best piece of art I've seen.
Once you've seen it you'll likely be thirsting for more. Here is some content I'd recommend checking out.

Item 1: The Soundtrack

This was basically all I listened to for six months after the show. I probably could have saved money by cancelling my Spotify subscription and just buying the soundtrack.

The alliteration, consonance and density of lyrics is off the charts with instantly infectious melodies I haven't tired of yet.

If you don't have a streaming subscription you can probably find it on YouTube. Or sign up for a free trial of Spotify (link to the soundtrack). Amazon Music (link to the soundtrack) is a pretty cool alternative because the lyrics scroll by while you're listening.

There's also the Hamilton Mixtape which I'm personally not a fan of but might be worth checking out if you've really got it bad.

Item 2: Hamilton's America on PBS

This is good stuff. You can try to find it on YouTube. Or catch a rerun on DVR. Or maybe catch it OnDemand. The best way I found was to watch it on the PBS streaming service. You can get access to PBS streaming for a $5 donation to your local PBS station. Then you have to call and cancel it. Kind of a pain but worth it.

Item 3: Hamilton Drunk History on Comedy Central

Also terrific with Lin-Manuel Miranda getting sauced and telling Alexander Hamilton's story. Again, you can try finding it on YouTube but the best way I found for this one was via a Hulu trial subscription.

Item 4: The Ron Chernow Book

The genius of Hamilton is most evident in how Lin-Manuel Miranda took a long, dry, boring book and crafted such a concise and compelling story. I've been working my way through the audio book on Audible for months now. It has been a chore. I don't think I'll finish, but maybe you will.

Item 5: The Hamilcast Podcast

A terrific podcast that's hosted Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire, Andres Forero, Carvens Lissaint, and more.

Item 6: The Hamilton Exhibition

Currently in Chicago, The Hamilton Exhibition is a walk-through attraction that invites further exploration of the facts behind the musical and the liberties taken to concisely tell the Hamilton story. I thought it was worth the price of admission for enthusiasts of the musical.

Bottom line

One of Hamilton's greatest achievements is how it inspires further exploration of a subject that's otherwise likely not on our radar screens.

If you're in a position to see the show in person I can't recommend enough how worth your time and money it will be.

One more thing

I'd love to see Disney turn this into an attraction. I say that not out of irreverence but as high praise for what could be the most compelling way to inspire new generations to seek out more information about the stories surrounding our nation's founding.

Say a live show at The American Adventure at Epcot's World Showcase? Throw in a related boat ride (a "row across the Hudson at dawn"?) and it would be amazing.

It's not that crazy of an idea if you consider Lin-Manuel Miranda's involvement with Disney (Moana and the upcoming Poppins reboot).

So, What'd I miss? What other content would you recommend for someone who hasn't seen Hamilton yet and is forced to Wait for it? For those who need Hamilton Non-stop?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Going all-in on Walt Disney World: On-site Trip Report

We're just back from our first all-in 100% Disney Parks family vacation. Although we've visited Walt Disney World several times over the years, and Disneyland as well, we've almost always stayed semi off-site in one way or another.

My absolute number one upscale family friendly resort in the country, Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World (full review) served as the benchmark. We stayed there the past two years and although it was amazing, I couldn't help but wonder whether we'd enjoy a Disney Deluxe Villa even more.

I mean, when the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom are over and you exit the park what could be better than avoiding the crowds and walking right back to your room rather than battling the crowds to board the monorail, bus or boat?

Selection Process

We chose a 1 Bedroom Villa at Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort for its proximity to the Magic Kingdom, separate bedroom and living area, 803 square feet of space, in-room laundry and full kitchen. This Disney Deluxe Villa is mostly occupied by Disney Vacation Club members, but when booked directly through Disney it provides more flexible cancellation terms and daily housekeeping.

According to Touring Plans, rack rates in 2016 for a 1-BR Villa with a "standard" view go for $655-$996/nt. Ouch! Making matters worse, Bay Lake Tower Villas are almost always excluded from Disney's reliable 20-30% off promotions and free dining offers. The rate during our stay was somehow $582/nt when I booked it 6+ months out so the best I could do was leverage the Citi Prestige credit card 4th night free benefit, bringing the per-night cost down to $436/nt.

$436/nt is still very expensive, and significantly more than the Four Seasons Orlando which thanks to their own 4th night free promo for these dates was $344/nt. If I could stack Citi Prestige 4th night free with Four Seasons 4th night free (which I believe will be possible when Citi Prestige starts pricing its 4th night free based on the average room cost per night rather than the cost of the actual 4th night) that would knock the Four Seasons down to $258/nt. Plus, when booking through the Citi Prestige Concierge as a Four Seasons Preferred Partner Hotel that would mean daily free in-room breakfast (amazing), room upgrade, and a $100 spa credit, making the Four Seasons an amazing value, especially relative to Disney Deluxe accommodations.

That math, combined with the luxury of Four Seasons, is what's driven our past stays there. But this review is about going all-in on Disney. So let's get to it!

See also: What Disney benefits do and don't convey at Four Seasons Orlando


Customized Magic Bands arrive 30 days prior to depature
Nobody makes planning a vacation more fun than Disney
I don't think anyone makes planning a vacation more enjoyable than Disney. As the certified family vacation planner in our group it was an absolute pleasure planning our trip from beginning to end. Some may find the sheer number of options and the decisions you're invited to make overwhelming (where would you like to eat lunch on Thursday six months from now?) but for me, it was fun interacting with the trip and I enjoyed seeing it play out during our stay.

I booked our lodging 8 months out, which afforded the opportunity to make dining reservations 180 days prior to our arrival. This benefit, along with being able to book FastPass+ reservations 60 days out was probably the most tangible and useful benefit of staying at a Disney hotel.

Interacting with the reservation through the My Disney Experience website and app before (and during) our trip was a delight. At any moment I could see our itinerary for the trip including resort, dining, and FastPass+ reservations to craft our trip and keep track of what we'd booked. Compared to, say, a self-crafted urban/European adventure it was a relaxing walk in the park for this dad.

One minor rough edge that could use improvement is the scheduling and integration of their complimentary bus to/from the airport (their so-called Disney's Magical Express). When I booked the room, I did it through the Citi concierge. So they were my "travel agent". And that being the case they were the ones to notify Disney which flights we were on. We of course didn't have airfare booked when I booked the hotel so it was on me to update Disney with this information. However, I didn't realize this until just a week before our trip (because all indications were that our trip plans were "all set" according to the My Disney Experience website) and even when I updated this information on a separate website our plans didn't show that the bus reservation was linked to our stay. All was well when we arrived at the airport however, so it was a minor nit in an otherwise impressively integrated planning experience.


Text notification that our room was
ready ahead of schedule. Plus, upgrade!
We didn't check bags so we didn't get to experience the magic/potentially anxiety inducing experience of letting Disney transport your luggage directly from baggage claim to your room.

We first entered the Disney bubble when we scanned our Magic Bands at the Disney Magical Express staging area at the airport. Things went off without a hitch and within 10-15 minutes we were on our way to our resort.

Unfortunately, when staying at Bay Lake Tower you're the fourth and final stop on the bus route which means it takes over an hour to get to your hotel which is magical or moderately annoying depending on whether you're in a hurry. For us it was no big deal since we were arriving early and we weren't using park tickets the first day.

And to my delight we got a text message from Disney updating us on the status of our room. Check-in isn't guaranteed until 4 pm. I appreciated that they sent us a text at noon saying our room wasn't quite ready yet because it gave me confidence that they'd keep me informed of the status so I could make adjustments to our schedule if needed. Then just as we were nearing our hotel they followed up and said our room was ready! Awesome.

As we entered the lobby we were greeted with a friendly "Welcome Home" and a cast member confirmed that our room was ready and our Magic Bands would get us into the room. Pretty amazing.


1 Bedroom Villa at Bay Lake Tower
We booked a Standard View room because I'm always hesitant to pay a lot more for a view, but I was pleased to see we were on the 12th floor in room 8235 which is a Lake View room. The money shot at Bay Lake Tower is a view of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom with sounds piped in over the TV but I hear the Lake View rooms are overall more enjoyable because you're not just looking at a parking lot all day. I don't know about that but I thought the view was very nice.

What I was looking for in the room was to combine the spaciousness of Four Seasons Aviara (full review) with proximity to the Magic Kingdom. And while the room wasn't nearly as spacious as a villa at Aviara it was very comfortable. Two full bathrooms, well carved up to enable concurrent showering/preparation. In-room washer/dryer to minimize the amount of packing needed for the trip. A full kitchen (hardly used) but with built-in dining table that was great for breakfast. And a separate bedroom with easy-to-use fold out sofas for the boys. Two of them so no fighting! Tremendous.

Hotel Overall

View from room 8235 at Bay Lake Tower
I had concerns going in about Bay Lake Tower's overall resort feel. I knew that the hotel had "only" a pool and waterslide vs acres of family friendly lounging and entertainment options at the Four Seasons. But the low level of service at the pool was disappointing.

At the Four Seasons when you enter the pool area you're immediately greeted and set up with towels and chaise lounges, provided menus, water and attentive food & beverage service. At Bay Lake Tower, there's none of that. Towels are available, and the pool thankfully wasn't that crowded. But you're on your own.

There's a bar nearby where you can fetch your own drinks with limited food options. And there are towels you can grab (thankfully you don't need to present your room key for each towel you take). On the bright side there are lifeguards there so you don't have to keep quite as close of an eye on your kids as you otherwise would at an unattended pool. And a waterslide which kept the kids interested for a while.

But overall, Bay Lake Tower isn't much of a resort. Try the Polynesian or Grand Floridian if you're looking for more of a resort feel on the monorail.


If there was one thing that stood out for me on this vacation it was how much I [planned for and] enjoyed the dining experience. Growing up going to Disneyland in Anaheim, my idea of a good meal was an Astro Dog in Tomorrowland. Or maybe the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square if you were fancy. So it's taken me a while to adjust to the idea of Disney food being a good thing.

But on this vacation it really fell into place for me. This wasn't at all an amusement park/junk-food driven vacation. But rather more of an immersive themed dining experience. It takes some research and planning to experience it but my goodness - we had some tremendous meals on this trip that I thoroughly enjoyed.

See, when you've got young kids the thought of enjoying a meal with them - where they not only behave but enjoy them in an appropriate manner alongside you is something that's hard to attain. Now that our boys are 11 and 9 it's something that we've been able to experience; but only in fleeting and exceedingly rare moments.

One of those moments was last year at the California Grill. I highly recommend avoiding the temptation to go straight to the parks on the day of arrival and instead build up the anticipation by visiting a resort hotel near the Magic Kingdom for dinner. I was half-concerned that a follow-on visit here would be a disappointment but if anything this visit exceeded the amazingly high expectations I had based on last year's visit.

Here's a run-down of the restaurants we visited on this trip, rated on a 100 point scale...

California Grill: 100 points

The Peach Salad at California Grill
No salad has a right tasting this good
Our server commented that "he'd eat here twice before eating anywhere else on property" and I agree with him. Simply put, this is the best upscale family-friendly dining experience I've found anywhere in the world (let alone The [Disney] World). Upscale yet comfortable. Inviting menu with something for everyone. The view of the Magic Kingdom and the sunset/fireworks are the most unique thing about this restaurants but the food, service, ambiance, and overall experience are the reasons I'll return.
Pork Two Ways with
Grilled Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Polenta, Mushrooms, Laquered Belly, Country Applesauce
Try the Oak-fired Filet of Beef with Buttery Mashed Potato, California Delta Asparagus, Wine Merchant Sauce -or- the Grilled Tenderloin with Goat Cheese Polenta, Mushrooms, Lacquered Belly, Country Applesauce.

'Ohana: 95 points

Me enjoying a Lapu Lapu at 'Ohana
Visiting the Polynesian felt very similar to a trip to Hawaii
A visit to 'Ohana within Disney's Polynesian Village Resort felt every bit as "authentic" as our visit to Hawaii earlier this year. That's as much of a dig on typical Hawaiian hotels as it is a compliment to the Polynesian.

Everything is served family style and there are no choices to be made so the food comes quickly, abundantly, and deliciously so it's hard to find a sad face in the room.

Tip: Pair it with a visit to Trader Sam's Grog Grotto to complete the experience.

Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper's Canteen: 93 points

The award for best new restaurant goes to...
Skipper's Canteen!
A new and welcome addition to the restaurant-poor Magic Kingdom, Skipper's Canteen is hurting for business due to it's lack of legacy/nostalgia booking. And also for it's "challenging" menu.

Themed as the place where Jungle Cruise skippers eat their meals, the menu is exotic and interesting. But we were all able to find something we enjoyed. Surprisingly affordable too.

I loved the Vegetable Curry with Coconut Rice and Naan. And the Nile Nellie's Noodle Bowl with Duck my son ordered was tremendous too. Avoid the "A Lot of Steak" Salad though, unless you're sure you'll like the Coriander-Mint dressing (or ask for a dressing substitution).

Great service here as well.

Tip: Make your reservation here right after a FastPass on the Jungle Cruise to complete the experience.

Biergarten: 92 points

This was a successful attempt to remind us of our time in Germany last summer. I thought the menu would be more challenging for our group because if someone asked us "what are some of your favorite German dishes?" I would be stumped. But I was surprised I enjoyed so many of the options on the buffet.

Here you're seated with others at long tables like you'd find in a German beer garden, and we had a great time with the family we were paired up with. I wondered whether Disney intentionally tries to pair up families with kids around the same age. Our boys and theirs compared notes on Pokemon Go for the 2nd half of the meal while we chatted and had a great time enjoying the faux Oktoberfest evening vibe and German oompah music.

It's sometimes difficult to find a situation where everybody in the family is having a good time at the same time but that's the point of Disney vacations in my book, and it happened here for sure.

I took WDW Prep School's tip (incredibly helpful podcast for planning your Walt Disney World vacation) and ordered a liter of Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweisen. I though it was delicious, and you might too if you like refreshing fruit beers. Purists would surely prefer some of the other beers on the menu.

Teppan Edo: 88 points

The main attraction at Teppan Edo is the hibachi,
but the sushi is very good too
The quality here is solid, and the slight language barrier with the servers and other restaurant employees helped heighten the experience. But if you have a decent hibachi restaurant in your town you can probably get 90% of the experience for half the cost. Still, this was an enjoyable visit to a well-done pavilion in World Showcase.

50's Prime Time Cafe: 88 points

I was surprised how much we enjoyed this restaurant and it was all because of how well our server, Gary, played his role as a fun uncle with keys to Dad's liquor cabinet. I prepped the boys so they knew not to place their elbows on the table and to take their caps off, and Gary was sure to chide Mom for violating the rules and me for trying to interfere with with the kid's orders.

Hollywood Studios is a tough place to find a good meal as well, and if you're tired of The Brown Derby (or don't want to spend that much on lunch) give this place a try.

Be Our Guest: 86 points

They've put a lot of thought and attention into this restaurant, and it's one of the hardest reservations to get in Disney World. I thought the build-out was impressive, and the ordering experience on a touch-screen interesting, but the cafeteria-like setting and overall food quality brought this down a notch. The Grey Stuff is delicious however so it's worth a try if you can snag a table.

Disney Transportation

The most challenging part of the day is getting back
to your resort after fireworks, made more
challenging by early monorail closures
I was thoroughly unimpressed with Disney transportation on this visit. One of the things that pushed us towards staying at a Disney hotel, specifically one on the monorail, was that it would make getting to and from parks more pleasant.

This proved true the first couple days of our visit when we rode the monorail to the Polynesian for dinner. But we found walking to and from the Magic Kingdom to be less of a production than taking a one-hop on the monorail.

The "Magical" Express was a bit slow and a nuisance (if it weren't for UberX being outlawed for arrivals at MCO I'd just self-fund future stays via Uber).

But the biggest disappointment in Disney on this trip was the way they'd choose to shutdown the monorail from Epcot back to the Magic Kingdom-area resorts at park closing. As things were, you had to take a monorail from the Contemporary to the Ticket & Transportation Center, change monorails, then continue on to Epcot. This was fine on the way to Epcot but getting back was another story.

Epcot's World Showcase is invariably where we choose to finish the day due to cooler temperatures and abundant appealing restaurants. But each night we left Epcot we found the monorail was closed at 9p even though it was supposed to be open until 11p.

This was a major disappointment because now if we wanted to get back to our hotel using Disney transportation we'd have to wait in a LONG line for the bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center, then catch a monorail to the Contemporary while fighting crowds exiting the Magic Kingdom trying to get back to their resort hotel.

We opted for Uber instead which at $7 was a tremendous value. It was just disappointing to discover that the monorail wasn't running because had I known in advance I would have picked up at Uber at a resort near World Showcase (Beach Club or Boardwalk) rather than tromping across Future World. Plus, finding Uber/Lyft pickup points is a stressful nuisance.

From prior trips, I knew the busses were a pain. I was pleased to see they installed signs at some pick-up points predicting how long it would be until the next bus came. But look at the sign below. If you were trying to get to Hollywood Studios, what would you infer from the fact that there was no predicted time for the next bus to Hollywood Studios? I'd infer that there were no busses going there today and I might have to take the monorail to the Ticket & Transportation Center.

But no, the time board was just flaky and didn't have an anticipated time for many of the destinations for some reason. It would be better if the predicted time was "< 20 minutes" if the next arrival time was uncertain, yet the busses were running at that time. The bus arrived about 15 minutes after we got there, which was fine. But if they're going to have signs predicting arrival times you'd think they could get them working helpfully.
What time is the next bus to Hollywood Studios?
Who knows...
If there's one thing Disney could do to improve the experience for me, it would be to make Uber pick-up/drop-off easier at their parks.

Park Experience

One thing I was interested in assessing was how much more we enjoyed the parks as a result of being so close to them. The idea of "bopping back and forth" between the room and especially the Magic Kingdom was appealing to me, and on prior trips staying "offsite" at the Four Seasons getting to and from the parks spontaneously turned out to be more than an ordeal than I preferred. Because taking their bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center then taking the monorail or a ferry took a lot longer than I'd prefer.

Although it sure was nice to be able to walk to and from the Magic Kingdom in about 10 minutes from Bay Lake Tower it wasn't the game changer I hoped it would be. The first day at the parks we were able to sleep in a little later since we didn't have to account for additional transit time. Similarly, being able to walk back to the room for an afternoon swim and/or nap was great. And being able to walk home after the fireworks was sure nice (that's the absolute darkest/ugliest part of any Disney Parks visit in my book).

But I dunno. Staying close to the Magic Kingdom wasn't the game changer I hoped it would be because a) You invariably visit parks other than the Magic Kingdom and b) Those other parks aren't as nearby as the Magic Kingdom and c) The Disney busses are grueling enthusiasm crushers.

Having Extra Magic Hours was nice the one morning we used it. But at the Magic Kingdom, where rides are most plentiful, only half the park opens early so the upside is limited.

Having Magic Bands actually was pretty nice. Magic Bands serve as your room key, a means for charging things to the room, and your FastPass+ reservation holder. I felt like I was forgetting something leaving the room with only a Magic Band and my phone. But it all worked out brilliantly. And yeah - we probably did buy more stuff because we could conveniently pay for it quickly with a Magic Band (charged to our room). But a Disney Gift Card works just as well for purchases. And park "tickets" (now also the size of a credit card) combined with room keys for non-Disney hotels aren't much of a hassle either.

I thought I'd buy a souvenir t-shirt and have it sent back to the room, just because I could. But even that didn't quite work because I opted against buying the shirt I was interested in mid-day.

In the end, the overall park experience for us wasn't significantly heightened as a result of staying at a Disney hotel. But if you're the type who maximizes Extra Magic Hours and spends the whole day in the parks staying on-site may make a bigger difference.


The night before depature they delivered pick-up info for the Magical Express. I was impressed that they printed out boarding passes, complete with TSA PreCheck and jetBlue Even More Room Seats confirmed, based on the departure information we provided. Nice touch! That saved us some time at the airport, but we didn't really need it because the Magical Express departed a full 3 hours before our flight.

And surprisingly the Contemporary was the first stop for pick-up on the way back to the airport. So we were last to be dropped off and the first to be picked up which means nobody spends more time on the bus than guests at the Contemporary/Bay Lake Tower. No biggie but it's quite inefficient versus catching an Uber.

Bottom Line

When I got the bill from the hotel I was surprised at how large the sum was. Even though our airfare was separate, we purchased our park tickets ahead of time, and we paid for many of our meals with Disney Gift Cards the final tally was astounding. Perhaps the Magic Bands had performed their duty and we made more elective purchases than we usually do.

Perhaps my mental bookkeeping felt like the overall cost of the vacation was less when it was more compartmentalized and seeing "everything" as one bill from the hotel made it hit home.

But the room was undeniably expensive. Probably indefensibly/unjustifiably so.

If I had to do it again (who am I kidding, we will do it again) I'd probably be more flexible in my choice of Disney hotel and stack Citi Prestige 4th night free with a Disney hotel that's eligible for a deep discount and/or free dining.

But if that didn't materialize I'd be right back to the Four Seasons and/or I'd check out the Ritz Carlton or Waldorf Astoria using points. Variety is nice even if it's not always the absolutely "best" choice.

I did enjoy this vacation tremendously and I'm sure that once the minor negative marks are forgotten I'll be reminding the family on a weekly if not daily vacation how awesome our 2016 trip was.

I might even start poking around at another Disney Cruise since enough time has passed that I've forgotten some of my frustrations with them.

Drop me an email, ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or Instagram @RobertDwyer if you'd like connect.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Trip Report: Visiting the "real" Sea World

My boys offering Tilikum their popsicles
Sea World Orlando
January 28, 2010
For as much of a Disney Parks fan as I am, some of my absolute favorite family vacations have included visits to Sea World. There's just something about the combination of shows and pacing of a visit there that's suited our family incredibly well over the years.

Everyone has had a good time, and while there are a variety of things to enjoy at Sea World the theatric Shamu orca shows have certainly been the highlight.

I enjoyed visits to Sea World San Diego growing up. I wasn't bound and determined to become a marine biologist by any means but I was amazed by how the whales performed. Orcas are some of the best looking animals in the world and to see them put on a show up close has never disappointed.

Once I had kids of my own the show really impressed me in new ways. I don't know if it was the quality of the production or what, but when I took our boys, 4 and 2 at the time, to see the Shamu Believe show at Sea World San Diego in 2009 I was totally unprepared for how it affected me.

I'm not much of a cryer at all - perhaps once every few years or so. But by the time the show was over me and my 4 year old were sobbing on each other's shoulders. There was something about the amazing show the orcas and the trainers put on that day combined with the messaging, as Hallmark corny as it may have been, that struck a chord with me. Part generational, part connection with the whales, part inspiring kids to be the best they could be. Sea World knocked it out of the park with that Believe show.
My 4 year old and I sobbing on each other's shoulders
after watching the Shamu Believe show
January 2009, Sea World San Diego
We haven't been to Sea World since the release of Blackfish in 2013. Not necessarily because I've bought in fully to the message in the film. But I've felt like I wanted to learn more about orcas in the wild before I could be enthusiastic about visiting them again in captivity.

See, I don't consider myself a true animal lover. Or really a whale fanatic in general. There's just something about orcas that really fascinates me. And I can't trace that interest back to anything other than my visits to Sea World over the years.

So I'm torn: On one hand Sea World is responsible for my interest in orcas. On the other hand keeping orcas in captivity is particularly cruel given what their lives are like in the wild versus how they live at Sea World.

After the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, I started following the controversy surrounding orcas in captivity and specifically at Sea World more closely.

I read Death at Sea World and took note of this piece which recommends a visit to the "real" Sea World in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle over a visit to Sea World parks. Have a look at this quick video:

When the opportunity arose for a summer family vacation to the Pacific Northwest, I was sure to include ample time in our itinerary to try to see orcas.

Turns out - it's quite difficult to spot orcas in the wild.

I did as much I think as any reasonable parent could to put their family in a position to see orcas in the wild in the Pacific Northwest. Were we successful? Did we have a good time? Read on...

Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor

We left our hotel in Seattle around 10a bound for Anacortes, the nearest ferry departure point to the San Juan Islands. Our destination was Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I made reservations well in advance and arrived right on time without incident for our 1 hour ferry ride.

First off, I'd highly recommend getting a car even if you're staying in Friday Harbor because other parts of the islands are most conveniently reached via car.

I was hopeful that we might spot an orca on our ride out on the ferry. The woman pouring wine at Chateau Ste Michelle (a nice quick tasting stop not too far out of the way) said we probably would - she had in the past.

Unfortunately, we did not see any orcas on the ferry ride. Oh well. It was a long shot. It was a fun, calm, and beautiful ride through the islands to our destination.

Cost: $90 roundtrip for a family of 4 including car.

Lime Kiln State Park

Lime Kiln State Park is sometimes called "Whale Watch Park" because it's so popular with tourists who want to catch a glimpse of the orcas cruising by. A lot of things I'd read, including the piece linked to above, seem to imply that there's a very good chance you'll see orcas while visiting Lime Kiln State Park.

We were not so fortunate.
Lime Kiln State Park
8:00a July 6, 2016
No whales
I first visited for about an hour around 8a the first morning after we arrived. There were a couple other enthusiasts roaming the shore hoping for a glimpse and chatting about orcas, salmon population, and eco system effects on the orca population. But no whales appeared.

We came back with our families later that afternoon and stayed for a couple hours. There was some excitement in the air as the J Pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales had been sighted in the area a few days prior. And they'd been seen 100 miles north hours earlier in the day. There was some speculation they might cruise by at any moment so we kept up hope. But after a couple hours with no whales we left, a bit disappointed.
Lime Kiln State Park
2:00p July 6, 2016
No whales
From the looks of things, sightings at Lime Kiln have been rare in 2016. Like 5 days in the past two months rare. As compared to 2015 which had 22 days with sightings at this point, that's quite a drop in action. But even so - the whales don't pass by Lime Kiln at all most days even in a good year. So there's a very good chance that if you sat there all day from sun up to sun down that you wouldn't see an orca. That's long odds compared to seeing an orca at Sea World.
Whales last sighted 3 days ago?
I don't like our odds here...
After an unsuccessful visit to Lime Kiln I was starting to get discouraged.

Fortunately, we had our best chance for sightings yet to come with a whale watch cruise booked the next evening.

Cost: $10/day for parking. $30 for a season pass.

Whale Watch Cruise

Before our trip I did some research on whale watch companies out of Friday Harbor. There are quite a few companies to choose from, but I was surprised at how there weren't a ton of time slots to choose from. In fact, many of the smaller companies were booked up on some days a couple weeks in advance.

I ended up going with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching on a 4p cruise. They sail out of Snug Harbor on the west side of the island, about a 20 minute drive from Friday Harbor. They had the #1 ranking for activities on Trip Advisor for Friday Harbor so I went with them even though they were pricey at $129 per person. On the bright side they have just 6 passengers per boat along with a naturalist and the captain.

The morning before the cruise we checked out The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. It was fun, if a little dated, but mostly orca focused so it hit the spot. Overall, I was struck with just how primitive our knowledge of orcas is. I mean - in the '70s Sea World was legally rounding up and capturing orcas in these very waters for their shows. Now they're ending their orca breeding programs and planning to end theatric shows? Amazing how quickly things can change.

Worsening my apprehension about an expensive and disappointing whale watch cruise was the forecast for rain that evening right about the time our cruise was set to start. This combined with the fact that not all of the whale watch expeditions were successful in seeing orcas had me quite concerned I was setting up for a $500+ bust of a whale watch cruise. But we soldiered on!
We departed out of Snug Harbor
Last chance to see orcas
We arrived at the appointed departure point with plenty of time (didn't want to miss it) at the lovely Snug Harbor Resort. It was the four of us plus a nice couple from Miami on the boat.

Captain Alan briefed us on safety but the question we all wanted answered was: "What are the chances we'll see orcas?" He played it cool. To my [growing] concern he said the morning expedition did not see any orcas. But they did see a Humpback! "Big whoop," I thought to myself. If I don't see any orcas it's going to be a sad sight...

Shortly before taking off he shared good news about our chances for seeing orcas: They'd been spotted right at the entrance of Snug Harbor moments ago! We were going to see killer whales!
Me and my 9 year old
Primed to see some orcas
As soon as we got out of the harbor we could see a collection of other whale watching boats about a mile away. The captain kicked it into high gear and we joined the pack in about 10 minutes. Moments later, it happened. We saw our first orca in the wild!
Orcas! J-2 Granny (I think) and another J Pod whale
At first I felt a sense of urgency to make the most of this precious moment. I mean, earlier that day we were learning about the J Pod's matriarch "Granny" and here we were 200 yards from her? Of all the places in the ocean, we found her? Amazing.

As the evening unfolded we'd see about 15 distinct killer whales breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping, and generally putting on an amazing show for us.

The fact that the J Pod was right outside the harbor where we started our whale watch cruise was tremendously fortunate. I mean - if they were an hour away we would have spent two-thirds of our time getting to them and back to the harbor. But as it was we spent almost the entire 3 hours with the whales. It was fantastic.
L-87 Onyx with his straight 5' dorsal fin
Keep in mind that by law, boats can't intentionally motor to within 200 yards of a killer whale. The best you can hope for is a scenario where the captain kills the engine and a killer whale decides to make its way over to your boat.

More commonly, you're cruising on relatively calm waters at the same pace as them watching them glide along the surface of the water, exhaling powerfully and audibly through their blowholes, and generally putting on a surprisingly good show while they're hunting for salmon.

I intentionally posted these grainy photos taken with my iPhone so as not to oversell how close we were to the whales. If you want to see some great shots taken with a telephoto lens, head over to this Nature's Keeper's Facebook page. The photographer, Heather MacIntyre, was the guide on our cruise. She did a tremendous job explaining what we were seeing and maximizing our experience out on the water.

I shot a couple of videos.
Here's one on Twitter showing a mama and baby breaching back to back.
Here's one on Instagram showing the pod traveling together with a big breach. Wait for the splash at the end.

It was so exciting being out there on the water not knowing what they might do next. Might we get super close to one? Might they jump really high out of the water like at Sea World? The spontaneous mystery of it makes every cruise unique. You never know what you're going to see.

I sat on the front of the boat the entire time, not noticing until about two-thirds of the way through that it had been raining pretty heavily. I did not mind one bit.

Overall, it was a truly amazing experience. Worth every penny and then some. I'd gladly pay to go again in a heartbeat - if we were guaranteed to see orcas!

Cost: $129 pp (cheaper options are available on boats with more people)

Bottom Line

So was it worth it? Absolutely, for us. Getting to see orcas in their natural environment was something I've wanted to do for a long time and I'm so glad we were able to. We had a great time doing it together as a family.

But what if we hadn't seen orcas on the trip? Or if we only saw them in the very far off distance with little impact? I think my feelings would have been quite different, both in terms of whether it was "worth it" and in terms of my current feelings about orcas in captivity.

If we hadn't seen orcas on this trip, I would have left feeling like I tried very hard to "do the right thing" and see orcas in the wild instead of at Sea World and ended up disappointed. I think I would have felt a bit more like there's a reason for Sea World. They make seeing an orca a sure thing and that's an opportunity that most people don't get.

Seeing orcas in the wild was a more educational experience that sparked a different kind of curiosity than I left with after seeing them in captivity. Whereas after seeing them at Sea World I thought they were "amazing" I'm now feeling even more curious about the eco system challenges orcas face in the wild. Why are sightings of the J Pod down so much this year? They say it's because of a dangerously low supply of salmon - why is that? Do dams need to be opened? Is the area overfished? What are the implications of righting those situations? So many questions.

In the end, I still see merit in what Sea World has done with their orca shows. If it weren't for them, many of the most effective proponents for orcas might not have gotten their initial inspiration. Sea World has certainly heightened awareness of orcas and other sea animals over the years - if they're not permitted to continue providing this kind of spark, where will our next generation draw its inspiration from?

Will we go back to Sea World? Gosh, I don't know. I mean - I love seeing orcas any way I can. But after seeing them so healthy and vigorous in the wild it would be depressing to see them in captivity with their collapsed dorsal fins, decaying teeth, and general lethargy from being cooped up in small pools for years.

You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see Sea World take it to the next level with an immersive resort right on the ocean in the Pacific Northwest. Create some huge sea pens where a semi-controlled environment would enable them to serve as a rehab hospital for sick orcas and ones that have formerly been in captivity. Combine it with amazing on-shore exhibits and guaranteed opportunities to see orcas in an environment that enables them to get out and explore a bit and I'd be there. It could be amazing if done well. And it's not as far fetched as you might think.

But I don't know... It sounds kind of like Jurassic Park. And we all know how that ends.

I really hope Sea World can find a way to continue to inspire the public to have a greater appreciation for sea animals - especially orcas. But in the mean time, if you get a chance to see orcas in the wild I'd highly recommend it.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...