Friday, April 6, 2012

Legoland Florida Review

Legoland Florida is the latest theme park to emerge in central Florida. It's located in Winter Haven which is about forty-five minutes from Disney World and the other area attractions. It's a decent drive to get there if you are staying near Disney but not horrible by any means. Luckily, my family doesn't have to worry about all this driving nonsense since we live less than 2 miles from the park.

As we watched the park being built, our excitement grew as new structures could be glimpsed from the road. We took a leap of faith and purchased annual passes. Since opening in October, we've been six times with many more visits planned. The passes were well worth it as we absolutely love Legoland.

We still haven't experienced everything Legoland has to offer but I have a pretty good feel for the park and figured it was time to share my thoughts.

First off, everyone needs to know that this park is geared towards families with young children which is exactly the make up of my family. I have two girls, aged three and four, respectively, and my son who is one. I feel my girls are just on the outside of the age 'sweet spot' for Legoland (between six and ten) but they still get tons out of the park.

The fun is too plentiful to mention it all l but I wanted to cover  some highlights. Legoland features four different roller coasters. My girls can ride two of them, The Dragon and Coastersaurus and they love them both. The Dragon takes place in a medieval castle. The theming is great and the village atmosphere outside the castle really sets the scene.

The Dragon starts off simple enough with a comfy air-conditioned ride through the castle. You first witness larger-than-life Lego figures having a brawl in a tavern. The atmosphere darkens as you come upon the Dragons liar and you pass right underneath the moving, Lego dragon. The girls tend not to love this part. Once past the dragon, the sorcerer casts a spell and you are suddenly outside and climbing. The ride transforms into a gentle, but still thrilling coaster that goes through a few minor dips with tight turns. The girls can't get enough of the coaster. If you plan your time of day, you could get on the ride multiple times in a row as they pump the guests through the que rather quickly.

Coastersaurus is a hold-over from the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. It was a good decision to hold on to this wooden coaster as it has a good sense of speed and enough dips and jostles to give a good thrill. The dinosaur theme is a little slapped on but the large Lego triceratops outside the ride is one of the most impressive Lego builds in the park.

Just outside of Coastersaurus is one of the newest eatable treats in the park. It's a called a waffle spear. It's long triangle of waffle that is speared by wooden skewer. The waffle is then dipped in warm chocolate sauce and covered in rainbow sprinkles and powdered sugar. It is amazing. I want to go back right now just for one of them.

The Royal Joust is another favorite. It's a single child at a time on a lego horse. The horse gallops along on a circuitous route through a jousting field. One drawback is your child must be four to get on the ride or at least old enough to lie to the operator.

In the Land of Adventure there are two attractions that stand out for us. The first is the Lost Kingdom Adventure. If you are familiar with the Magic Kingdom, this ride is similar to the Buzz Lightyear ride where you ride through a shooting range and try to rack up the points with your light gun. The theme is Indiana Jonesish with treasure, skeletons, and mummy tombs. Hint: shoot the red lights for bonus points.

The other ride is such a simple concept but so completely effective. Beetle Bounce is a kid-friendly hydraulic lift ride. Think Tower of Terror kiddie-size. My girls giggle nonstop while we are bouncing up and down on the ride. It's a lot of fun and can be ridden many times in a row.

Being that the park was built on the site of one of Florida's first theme parks, Cypress Gardens, Legoland wanted to retain some of the aspects of that well respected park. Cypress Gardens was known for their lush gardens and elegant water ski shows. There is now a pirate-themed water ski show that we enjoy. It's not the most elaborate show but it has a few chuckles and the kids get invested in the lady hero pirate. You can never have enough heros for the girls.

We made it into the 'Cypress Gardens' themed area of the park for the first time on our last visit. This area is beautiful. It's flowers and trees are amazing and there are charming paths that wind through the foliage. It's kind of tucked away and may not seem worth the effort to enter because there are no rides but it is very much worth the time to check out. It's breathtaking.

The regular Drive School is for ages six and up so we've yet to have one of our children experience it. But, the girls do get to do the Junior Driving School. Each child gets their own Lego motorized car that they drive completely on their own around a small track. There's no rails. The little ones really press the accelerator and steer the wheel. I'm really impressed at how well such young kids do on this ride. The girls absolutely love it and feel like they are rock stars when they get their driver licenses at the end.

By far, the highlight for daddy is Miniland USA. The work and detail put into the structures is staggering. They capture so many of the key areas of major U.S. cities and most of the major Florida landmarks. It is out in the middle of the sun so the wife and kids can't really hang for long. I'm planning a trip in the future just for myself to spend a good two hours looking at all the detail.

I've got to get to some nitpicks so let me quickly run through some other attractions that we like. The 4-D show is entertaining. Three different shows air on a rotation. We've only caught one of them but it's certainly unique. Bring a sweater. When the fans start blowing it gets very cold.

The technic area is nicely done. The technic coaster is very high up but not much of a thriller. The water spin ride is whiplashtastic and you will get nice and wet.

We like to take a break in the Duplo area. It has a couple of nice play areas for the kids and the baby station is tucked away here so it's a frequent visit for us. The rides in this area are nothing to go crazy over but if you have young kids they'll enjoy them.

Also, don't miss the Big Test Live Show, it's very funny with good stuntwork.

The eating options at the park are kind of hit or miss for us. I guess this starts my nitpicking. The best option for sit down eating is the all you can eat pizza buffet. It's a very reasonable price, especially compared to other fare at the park. They have your normal burger places but they are all way over priced but I suppose in-line for theme parks these days.

Cost in general for Legoland Florida is on the high side. Parking is outrageous at $12 a car. I have the parking pass lumped in with my annual pass so I don't really feel that sting but it is an extreme cost. Admittance to the park is also quite high. They are in the price neighborhood of Disney, Universal, and Sea World and while I absolutely love Legoland, I don't see it as being in the same league as these A+ parks. I'd call the park a solid B on the same scale which should bring down the ticket to the high $50s or low $60s and not the $75 it is at the gate ($68 online).

They advertise the park as workable for ages two and up but I have to disagree. I'd make sure your child is at least three and a minimum of 38 inches or even safer, 42 inches. Young children get a lot out of the rides but the problem is the height requirements and the vehicle restrictions. If your child is under 48 inches, every single ride is one adult and one child. No more no less.

I run into constant problems with my two girls. A lot of the time, my wife will hang back with our 1-year-old and I'll try to quickly take the girls on a ride. Well, with the 1 to 1 ratio I just mentioned, I'm always left scrambling on what to do with the extra child. When the park first opened, I was able to get an employee to ride with my other child but that's not really an option now. My wife is now having to wait in line with us and I ride with one child and then swap the child out.

This child swap is an understandable problem for thrill rides and parks like Disney have rules in place for instances like this but Legoland seems to be flying by the seat of its pants. No, the real issue is that there just aren't rides here that a family can go on. Peter Pan, Dumbo, Winnie-the-Pooh, Small World and many others like it are rides that the whole family can go on together, babies and toddlers included. For being a family park, Legoland makes you make some very tough decisions on who is going to get to ride what ride because not everyone is getting on.

What exacerbates the whole riding situation is a clear lack of signage to indicate what rides your child is allowed to ride. There are signs but they are almost always buried within the que of the ride. Two bad examples of this pop to mind. The jousting ride is great fun but as I mentioned above, your child has to be over four. The entrance to the que is a set a ways up from the main walkway. Only when you walk all the way up and read the fine print on the sign do you finally understand that your excited, yet only three-year-old little girl can not get on the horse (hence the lying for future attempts).

The other example is the driving schools. The main driving school is stuck in the back corner of area. You literally have to walk past the junior school to get the main school only to find out your child is to young. Back you trek to the junior school that you just passed and could have just stopped at if there had been prominent signage in place explaining the limitations. These seem like minor things, and I  can admit  they probably are, but you run into stuff like this constantly with the rides and after the fifth or sixth time, the frustration really starts to build.

OK, I have vented. Don't let the last few paragraphs deter you. All parks have negatives and I feel a lot of the problems could be easily fixed with a little more attention to detail. The prices aren't going to come down but that's just theme park visiting these days.

I have left off many of the other stellar aspects of the park. Like I said before, after six visits, we still haven't experienced it all. A new water park is being added in May and that will be very welcome. If you are in central Florida or are planning an extended trip to the theme parks in the area, I think you'd be very remiss to skip Legoland. Do your research. The park has odd operating hours and sometimes closes during the week. Get there early as there is a ton to cover, especially considering the park usually closes between five and six pm.

I do hope you come and visit. My family really needs Legoland to be a success. Winter Haven is a decently sized city but a successful theme park will bring so much more to the area, like Target! We are oh so tired of going to Super Wal-Mart for everything. So make the drive. Maybe we'll see you there. I'll be the one covered in a chocolate waffle.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Podcastpalooza Part 2

Let's jump right in to round two. There's no categories this time around, just more awesome podcasts.

WDW Today iTunes
Matt, Mike, Len, and Mike are marathon podcasters. Not only do they put out three 20 minute episodes a week but Mike Scopa and Len Testa are actual real marathon runners. WDW Today is a podcast that covers everything you need to know about Walt Disney World. The focus is more on giving advice for vacationers vs. commenting on rumors or news. The information is tremendous and the podcast is very entertaining with Len, in particular, being very funny and quick witted.

The Unofficial Guide's Disney Dish with Jim Hill iTunes
Len Testa from the WDW Today podcast has started putting out this show with Jim Hill. Each episode, the gentlemen pick a destination at Walt Disney World (a park or group of resorts) and record themselves as they take a leisurely stroll. Jim Hill is one of the most connected people to the history and inner workings of Walt Disney World. He is a fountain of Disney knowledge. If you want to know why certain decisions were made at the World then this is your podcast. I should warn you though, some of the meaty dishes they serve up will leave you distraught at what could have been over the years. Disney has shelved some amazing ideas, almost always for the wrong reason, money.

Mike and Tom Eat Snacks iTunes
Michael Ian Black, probably best known as a commentator on VH1's myriad of pop shows like I Love the 80s, is one half of this hilarious snack-commenting duo. The other half, Tom Cavanagh, is best known as the lead actor on the TV show Ed. The set-up for the podcast is that each week, they pick a snack, rate it, and comment on it. Oh, but it is so much more than a simple food rating show. The guys are best friends and if they talk about the actual snack for longer than five minutes, it is a rare event. They are improv actors so if subject comes up, no matter how wacky, they'll just run with it until they completely exhaust it. You will be laughing nonstop as you listen and you might learn a thing or two about Fritos.

The Tobolowsky Files iTunes
Stephen Tobolowsky is an amazing story teller. You probably best know him as Ned Ryerson from the movie Groundhog Day. (Bing! Watch out for that first step, it's a doozy). Tobolowsky has been a character actor in Hollywood for a very long time but his stories of acting are just the tip of iceberg. This man has lived and his ability to tell stories is one of the most amazing gifts I've ever listened to. He puts you right there and the emotion he conveys is staggering. This is a can't miss podcast.

Those are the main ones I wanted to talk about but I do want to mention a couple of quick ones.

Fuzzy Typewriter iTunes
Paul Montgomery is one of the main writers on the iFanboy site. He runs this personal podcast where he covers whatever fancies him. He also runs a book club through the podcast.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine Podcastalley
Jeff Goldsmith ran this podcast for years. It has since ended but the backload is still on the internet to explore. Jeff hosted movie screenings and would then have a Q&A with the writers of the film afterwords. This is a great podcast for writers, movie aficionados, or anyone that wants a peek behind the curtain of Hollywood.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith iTunes
This is the podcast Jeff moved to after he left the Screenwriting Magazine. He continues with his great interviews and it's still going strong.

How Did This Get Made? iTunes
A few stand-up comedians, some of them recognizable from the VH1 shows, put out this podcast. They pick a generally agreed upon, awful movie and ask the question, How did this pile of trash get made? Who made these decisions? Who put Richard Prior in Superman 3? These are valid questions that need answering.

Weekend Confirmed iTunes
This is a great video game podcast that covers a lot of the same ground as the GiantBomb guys. Jeff Cannata (the best thing about the TotallyRadShow) is a co-host so follow this podcast just for him alone.

There you go. That's what I listen to. I told you it's almost like having a second job. A second job while I'm working my main job. But, I do love them. I hope you will too.

Part 1

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Podcasts I Love

It didn't come into focus until I decided to write this post but podcasts make up a significant portion of my entertainment menagerie. I listen or watch at least one podcast every day and in the time I dedicate to some of my favorite shows, I could easily watch a movie or read 100-150 pages of a book.

Shows have gotten me through countless hours of my day job. If I know I'm going to be stuck at the computer for the next 2 hours, out comes the ipod and it's like I'm not even working—I'm just hanging out with a few of my faceless friends yapping in my earbuds.

I want to highlight some of my favorite podcasts. The podcasts are informative, geeky, hilarious, or just plain stupid. If you are new to podcasts, I hope I can open you up to a whole new world of entertainment. If you are an old pro, maybe there are a few new gems in here for you. If you like all the same ones I like,  I will validate that your taste is as finely tuned and correct as mine.

On media (movies, comic books, video games)

The Totally Rad Show iTunes
TRS covers all the main fields of geek entertainment. It's a video show that comes out five times a week. Each episode runs about fifteen minutes. The three hosts: Jeff, Alex, and Dan highlight a movie, video game, or other rad thing each day and give their honest impressions. The production values are pretty stellar with cool graphics and interstitials. They just had their five year anniversary and I've been with them every step of the way. Jeff and Alex have improv backgrounds so the laughs come frequently while Dan is an emerging movie director and his insights into film are top notch. I respect their reviews and point-of-views. Their show is one of the highlights of my day.

Giant Bombcast iTunes
I used to follow many video game podcasts. I spent countless hours listening to different people on different shows say pretty much the same thing about the same games. It got kind of ridiculous how much of my time was spent listening about games I'd probably never play. I still listen to talk about games I'll probably never play but now it's just one group of people. It's the best group, though. Anchored by video game journalist superstar, Jeff Gerstmann, the Giant Bombcast is the one podcast I listen to above all others. Jeff, Ryan, Brad, Vinny, and Patrick make up the best video game commentators in the business. All my video game knowledge comes from them. All my energy drink and dubstep information comes from them too. Their conversations can get hilariously derailed at any time but they always come back to the games. This is the best video game podcast from the guys behind Giant Bomb, one of Time magazine's top 50 websites of 2011.

iFanboy iTunes
The guys at iFanboy put out two shows. Their video show used to come out once a week but it now doesn't come out very often. Still, there is a big backload of videos with lots of cool information about the world of comics—very much worth checking out. The pick of the week podcast is my mainstay. Each week one of the three guys behind the site picks their favorite book that came out that week. They spend about ten minutes talking about the book and then do quick hits on another ten or so books before answering questions from their listeners. I've tried many books on their recommendation and since I don't have the budget to follow every comic out there, this is a great way for me to know what's happening in books that I can't pick up.

More on media (books and music)

iTunes Weekly Rewind and Celebrity Playlist Podcast iTunes for Celebrity Playlist
Sadly, both of these podcasts are now done. However, there are literally years of backlog to go through and if you have any interest in music, I highly recommend you at least check out the iTunes Weekly Rewind. The Rewind came out for years and they used the highlights of that week in music as a springboard into bigger conversations about artists. These guys know their stuff. There is such a grand world of music out there and I learned so much about artists from the 50s all the way up to the most recent obscure indie acts.

The Celebrity Playlist is just what it sounds like. You can cherry pick which shows interest you. You may not care what Snooki has to recommend but when someone like Neil Diamond recommends music, you listen.

Update—It seems that iTunes has pulled the archive of the Weekly Rewind. I can't discover why the show was cancelled in the first place and now with the archive being gone, the mystery deepens. The show descriptions are still up and worth going through and they list the great music featured in each episode. Show List

The Bookrageous Podcast iTunes
The guys and girls on this podcast are all booksellers and bloggers. Each show starts with them talking about what they are currently reading. They read tons. Most of them are juggling 2-4 books at a time so you get a lot of content. They tend to focus on mainstream new release literature but they branch out plenty. Each show has a theme that prompts them to talk about more than just what they are reading. They are passionate about books and my personal 'to read' list has grown exponentially since I started listening.

I'm going to break this into two posts since this is the end of my media podcasts. My next post will cover podcasts about Disney, screenwriting, snacks, and more. I'll have it up soon so please come back.

Part 2

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Old cartoons make zzzzzzzz

I have such fond memories of all the cartoons I grew up watching. There, of course, were the 80s staples of He-Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Air Raiders. Air Raiders? I also watched countless hours of Disney and Looney Toons cartoons.

When DVD brought most of these shows (still waiting on Air Raiders) back into my life I was on cloud nine. I wanted to buy every season and every collection. And, in many cases, I did just that. I have the first seasons of He-Man, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. I also have a healthy library of the Disney and Warner shorts.

My DVD shelves look amazing. It's just too bad I can't really watch the cartoons because they are like my own personal Lunesta, Ambien, Nyquil, and Thanksgiving Day turkey combined into one all powerful knockout drug.

Seriously, five minutes into He-Man my eyes start giving up. I last a little longer with Transformers and G. I. Joe because, let's be honest, He-Man is terrible. Watching He-Man makes me embarrassed for my 8-year-old self.

Even shows I loved, and still love, like Transformers and G.I. Joe. I'm only good for one episode. I feel like I completed a P90X workout after. I really don't get it. In my head, I think that the old Disney and Warner cartoons don't effect me as badly but I only ever make it through two to three of them which is about the equivalent of one of the half-hour 80s shows.

I can only offer theories as to why my body wants me to impersonate Rip Van Winkle. I suppose since I'm older now the shows don't grab me like they did when I was younger. This could be true but when the "The VWiper" (misspelling intentional) freaks out the entire G. I. Joe base it still cracks me up.

I also think I know the shows too well. I've seen some of these episodes, especially the early seasons, multiple times over. Maybe by the 20th viewing of the Autobot, Jet-fire, being melted out of the ice your body just starts to shut down.

It's really disappointing. I want to re-watch these cartoons with my children one day and I honestly don't think I'll make it through. Perhaps I'll watch their expressions as Goofy falls, He-Man pontificates, and Optimus does his awesomeness. That might just get me through it. Might.

Friday, March 9, 2012

In Defense of Comic Book Men (TV)

Comic Book Men is a new reality show that airs on AMC, Sundays at 10:00 p.m. The cameras follow the employees and customers at Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash. The store is located in New Jersey, the home state of film director and sometime comic book writer, Kevin Smith, who owns the store.

The show has been generally reviled and derided in the comic book community. Comments range from — not worth your time to it's trash. I've watched the show for a month now and I very much disagree with the negativity. The main hook of the show is showing people coming into the store to try to sell their geek memorabilia. This is one of major points of emphasis for people who dislike Comic Book Men. I must say, when I started reading reviews and heard the show described as a nerdy Pawn Stars knockoff, I was very disappointed.

But, let's look at this from the point of view of a producer. What are they going to show to fill an hour of TV that will catch an audience's attention? I have frequented my share of comic book stores and by far the coolest thing about them is their unique merchandise and the general atmosphere of geek; whether it be in the form of conversations about super villains or arguments about which Star Wars prequel is the worst (it's Episode I by the way).

There really is nothing exciting about turning the cameras on every Wednesday (comic book day in the U.S.) and watching regular customers come in and buy a stack of weekly comics. The cameras may catch a quick exchange or two that is vaguely interesting but for the most part, regular customers are either going to be too intimated to talk or overly enthusiastic.

I have no problem with the format of the show. There has been some really cool and amazing stuff come through the door to be sold and the guys behind the counter have been genuine in their excitement or disdain. Perhaps there's something going on behind the scenes where the producers put it out there that if you have unique or pricey items that you are willing to part with, you could get your fifteen minutes of TV fame. I'm cool with that. All reality TV is manufactured in some way and it has put some incredible geekness on the screen.

The other part, as I mentioned above, that makes the comic book store experience pretty fun is the conversation. With an amazing storyteller and public speaker such as Kevin Smith as one of your producers, why not use him to drive the conversation? The show films Smith and his four store workers as they record a podcast about the latest happenings at the store. Not only does this allow some narration and set-up to scenes we are witnessing but it gives a venue for the nerdy conversations.

Yes, they've discussed the hottest female super-hero, what super power they would want, and which batmobile is the coolest. However, they also sprinkle in the history of comic books and discuss creators and books that people should know more about.

I believe that people that hate the show do so because it shows off, in bright shiny colors, all the things that people see as stereotypical of comic readers and of comic book stores. Yes, it is a shame that they aren't focusing more on the great graphic novels and high-end, literary quality art and stories that are being produced today. Of course, I wish they would give equal time to books and creators that have nothing to do with people wearing capes or spandex.

Reality check time here, pun intended. I have seen nothing on this show that I haven't seen fifty times on my own in a store. You want reality TV? This is the reality of a comic book store. There are introverts and socially awkward people. There are people who are not politically correct and don't care. Comic Book Men doesn't shy away from the facts. They discuss this openly. They are saddened that they can't get women into the store and they know that their market is mainly an aging market of overweight and balding men. I applaud them for giving it to us straight.

I will keep watching as long as AMC keeps it on the air. The podcast talks are just the mixture of intellect and nerd that I love. I could do without some of the manufactured for TV events like dressing up like zombies to boost sales. It's funny though, that zombie stunt actually lost the store money and in the world of the ever struggling comic book store, that is indeed a harsh reality.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Last Werewolf (Novel)

Do you like extremely well written novels? Do you like compelling characters that have a supernatural, fantastical element to them? How about well paced plots, clever dialogue, and intriguing action sequences? You like all that stuff, right? Who wouldn't?

OK, how about steamy, raunchy, and very dirty werewolf on werewolf sex? No? Well, that's fine because if you prefer your raunch to be between homosapians, there's also a good amount of that too.

Now, before you run off, let me quickly say that describing The Last Werewolf as I just did is doing a major disservice to a very fine literary novel. Glen Duncan has crafted together a very fine piece of fiction that doesn't come around very often.

Fantasy and erotica aside, this is indeed a piece of literary fiction. I used the Kindle dictionary assiduously. Assiduously: adverb; actively, intently... thanks Mr. Duncan. So, he's got the writing chops but he also knows his genre fiction. This is the untold story of the last werewolf on earth and the group of people out to kill him. Oh, and there are vampires too.

There are horror elements to the book. This mainly comes from the gory violence that the werewolf takes part in but I would not put this next to a Stephen King novel. I liken it more to Ellison's Invisible Man. You know, if the disenchanted black man from that novel was a two-hundred-year-old British werewolf that fed on humans and had the libido of a jackrabbit on Viagra.

If you have the stomach for the violence and aren't turned off by the sex, The Last Werewolf is quite an amazing read. Never has a man-eating monster been more sympathetic and human.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Over the Top

During either 1985 or 1986, real living people got together in a room and said out loud, "We really need to make a professional arm wrestling movie."

From there another person said, "I will write that script." And yet another said, "I will produce and provide many millions of dollars for it, in fact, I'll give you enough money to hire Sylvester Stallone to play the arm wrestling athlete/person man."

I want to take this opportunity to thank these visionaries for, without them, Over the Top would not exist and the world would be a sadder place.

Yes, the acting is pretty horrible. Yes, the plot involving a bratty boy and his estranged, truck driving, professional arm wrestling dad is incredibly weak. By the way, I just wrote estranged, truck driving, professional arm wrestling dad. How does this movie not have 100% on rotten tomatoes?

For everything going against it, for all the ridiculousness, the movie works for me. I was 10-years-old when the movie was released and it really fit nicely in The Karate Kid mold of movie. You know, movies that end with awesome tournaments set to music.

The arm wrestlers are like comic book characters come to life. Or, better yet, they were like a hidden brand of the WWF which ruled my life at that time. How could one forget the grizzled, cigar eating man-thing of a man wearing a FUBAR army shirt? This movie taught me what FUBAR meant. Thanks, Dad! Kids, go ask your dad too. It's hilarious.

There were so many great moments in the tournament. There was the guy who gets his arm broken. There was the strap that connected the wrists in the final battle. Finally, there was the crane kick technique of arm wrestling movies, Stallone's amazing, finger-adjusting over the top maneuver.

I just lifted my hands off the keyboard and did it right now. Wait....I just did it again. That's it, where's my official Over the Top arm wrestling table. I'm starting a league. It will have a soundtrack, right?