Bear World

One of our first stops was at Bear World in Rexburg, Idaho.  I polled my Facebook friends and heard a mixed verdict on Bear World beforehand. Some said that it was worth doing once, others said it was the highlight of their trip, and others wished they hadn’t wasted the money. I decided to chance it.

When we first arrived at Bear World, we were pretty excited to see all of the bears. You will see more bears at Bear World than at any of the other venues. Later, we came to realize that things were actually pretty boring when we arrived–mid-afternoon is bear naptime. But given our newbie bear-watching status (on our last trip to Yellowstone we didn’t see any bears), the sight of an ear here, and furry paws there was enough to make all of us wild with excitement: “Look! A bear! Look! A bear! Look! Look!”

After our first drive-through we stopped to enjoy the petting zoo and pose for photos at the bear cutouts. Then the baby bears (which are kept in a separate special area) woke up and began to play. Baby bears are seriously cute!

The best was yet to come. On Facebook, our friend Cameron had offered a key tip: Don’t pay extra to go on the curator tour. Do follow the curator truck around. Following his advice, when they announced the tour over the PA system, we ran to our car. We were lucky to get right behind the curator truck just as Cameron had suggested. It was awesome! Almost every bear in the park wakes up and comes out for the food truck. Where before we had just seen sleeping bits of fuzz, we now saw bears standing and begging for food, bears sitting and begging for food, bears clustering around the food truck, and bears right next to our car. At one point we were worried for the safety of our van! It was great.

Tips for Bear World: 1) Bear World requires that you roll your windows up. If you hope to take photos, make sure your car windows are scrupulously clean. Ours were bug-splattered and it is obvious on many of the photos we took. 2) Find out when the curator tours will take place and be ready to jump in your car and go at the appropriate time. 3) If at first you don’t see many or only sleeping bears, wait, and do the drivethrough again in another hour or so.

I do still worry a bit about the ethical issues involved with Bear World. It’s a neat experience for humans, but is it wrong to do to the bears? The issue that most concerns me is how they remove the cubs from their mothers at such a young age. Is that okay? I know that many of these cubs would be killed by other bears if they were not removed, but I still believe it is the case that the cubs are removed for our convenience and safety, not theirs. Do mother bears and their cubs have a sense of emotional loss?

 

To be continued . . .

Yellowstone–Spring 2011–Weather!

Spring and snow in Yellowstone

Not quite the spring weather we were hoping for!

We had a wonderful trip to Yellowstone. Although the weather ensured that it was very different from any previous trip to Yellowstone I had ever taken, it was fantastic in its own way. Still, I hope to write a few different posts about our trip and in this post I will focus on the notably bad weather–it was memorable.

When planning our adventure, I had read one of those “What is the best time to visit?” pages in my guidebook. The guidebook mentioned that the upside of visiting Yellowstone in the spring was that the crowds would be thinner (a mighty upside indeed). The possible downside was that the weather might be iffy, and insects might be about in force. Well, I can report that the weather we experienced was not iffy–it was definite. There was not an insect in sight, and for that we were able to thank the weather. I can’t begin to count how many snow, rain, and hail storm episodes we were a part of!

In case someone finds this post by googling Yellowstone and spring, I should hasten to explain that this year’s weather was apparently quite an anomaly. Although Yellowstone is always nippy compared to most other places in the spring because of its high elevation, the consistently cold temperatures and stormy weather we saw over almost two weeks’ time were quite unusual. I can’t be an expert on what is typical most years, but I can tell you that this year the spring weather the last week of May and first days of June was far from ideal for touring the park. In the photo above, my family and I are posing in front of one of Yellowstone’s most scenic vistas: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Can’t see it in the picture? We couldn’t see it in real life!

We knew we were in trouble as soon as we began our trip through the south entrance of the park. We saw snow–feet and feet of it–piled up on both sides of the roadway. My vision of seeing wildlife from the roadside or enjoying beautiful scenery from the comfort of the van vanished. We were driving through a long white tunnel with walls of ice.

When we arrived at the lovely Lake Yellowstone Hotel, it was difficult to contain my disappointment. Tip #1: If you bravely travel to Yellowstone before the season has begun in earnest, do not book reservations at Lake Yellowstone. Lake Yellowstone is at a high elevation and may still be frozen solid. Do not pay extra for a room with a view! Your $50-100 extra will buy you a look out the antique window (the hotel is over 100 years old and this is both a good and a bad thing) at an undifferentiated white expanse–not actually picturesque! If it storms during the night (as it did for us), you will be reminded of the antique window all night long as the wind bangs it back and forth in its ill-fitting frame.

Tip # 2: Remember that you do not need to book a room at the lovely Lake Yellowstone Hotel in order to enjoy its magnificent lobby. If you do not have the misfortune of being snowed in with all roads to the rest of the park closed (ask me how I know!), you will find that the beautiful lobby is empty. You can admire the architecture, read the historical displays, pose for pictures by the grand fireplace, and spend time talking, reading, playing UNO, or simply gazing at the glass-walled lobby without paying the extortionate prices for a room there.

Keep in mind that if you visit Lake in late May or the first days of June, there will be no tours of the hotel, no cruises of the lake, no boat rentals, nor any of the other water activities that are so heavily advertised available. (I wish a reservationist, guidebook author, or experienced friend had explained this to me. My dream of going on a scenic lake cruise with my family shattered into little jagged bits after we arrived). Most of these activities start no earlier than June 5th and some as late as June 15th.

I don’t know how it is most years, but my experience from this year allows me to testify that if you plan your visit for the spring the hikes you envisioned may not be possible either. Most of the trails were closed–access was not simply discouraged but usually forbidden. Sometimes there were feet of snow; other times there were inches of water.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Tip #3: If you plan to visit Yellowstone during the spring, do consider staying at Mammoth Hot Springs (near the north entrance to the park). There are two excellent reasons for this: 1) Mammoth is at a lower elevation than the rest of the park, so there will be less snow, better views, and possibly better weather. 2) Mammoth is one of the best wildlife viewing areas in the park and spring is a prime wildlife-viewing season. On the road between Norris and Mammoth we were lucky to spot grizzly bears a couple of times–a real thrill. Apparently, the road between Mammoth and Tower is even better for wildlife viewing, but regrettably a rockside had closed that route during our visit. Nonetheless, we drove it as far as we were allowed and we were rewarded with a closeup view of the biggest elk and bison herds we saw in the park. We also saw pronghorns. On the road from Mammoth to the North entrance in Gardiner, MT, we saw big horn sheep. A minor reason for staying at Mammoth is that the rooms are cheaper. If you are willing to share a bath (which means going down the hallway to use the very private shower or toilet–really not too bad), you can get an adequate room with two queen beds for less than $100–a bargain inside the park. We had a view of elk and bison grazing from our window.

Mammoth isn’t Upper Geyser basin–you won’t find Old Faithful or any geysers there–but it has its own unique geology. The travertine terraces will command your awe and are accessible via easy walk along a well-maintained boardwalk.

 

Travertine Terraces at Mammoth

Mist rising from Mammoth

To be continued . . . (I deserve punishment if I only end up blogging about the bad weather . . . )

Ridemax: Don’t leave home without it!

ridemaxI would not go to Disneyland without Ridemax.*  I would not even go to Disneyland without Ridemax if someone else were paying.  Not everyone will like Ridemax.  For some people, vacations and regimentation are simply opposites that cannot be reconciled.  Not me.  The planning of the vacation is more fun to me than the vacation. 

I don’t worry about lack of spontaneity, I worry about standing in line.  What’s spontaneous about standing in line?  At Disneyland, if you don’t have a plan, you will stand in line.  I haven’t discovered any ride I like so much that I would wait an hour for it.  With Ridemax, you can ensure that you only ride when the lines are short.  Ridemax tells you what to expect and then you can plan accordingly. For example, if the only time you are free to go to Disney California Adventure (DCA) is at 6:00 p.m.and you hope to ride Toy Story Mania at that time, you will have to wait in line for an hour.  Because Ridemax is able to predict the wait for the date and time of day you hope to go, you can decide whether it’s worth it to you to go on that ride at that time. 

Also, Ridemax’s predictive powers made splitting up our group much easier.  With one part of the group determined to go on Tower of Terror and Mulholland Madness and the other desiring some nice kiddie rides, this was invaluable.  I was able to predict what the wait would be on the kiddie rides that time of day and plan fun stuff for the 3 yr old  to do while the others used up all the fastpasses. 

Ridemax helped me to manage expectations.  Our family was slow moving and needed to take a long afternoon break.  Most nights we couldn’t stay in the park very late, because we wanted to be at the park very early the next morning to beat the crowds. Obviously, these constraints cut in to how many rides we could ride.  Not only did Ridemax help us maximize the number of rides we could ride during our limited time in the park, it also helped me to understand  how many rides we would realistically be riding.  I could tell my family: “here’s what fits in the time we have today”–and that helped forestall possible disappointment.  

Ridemax is written by people who  understand the fastpass system and Disney strategy inside and out.  Lots of people understand how important it is to get to the park thirty or forty minutes before it opens.  But it is common for those same early arrivers to make the mistake of immediately proceeding to the ride they  like the best: Space Mountain, for example,  and to ride it while there is no waiting.  Ridemax asks you to have a little faith and to do some counterintuitive things.  Go to Space Mountain and pick up a fastpass even though there is no waiting.  Don’t ride it!  Why?  Well, if you are also planning to go on Dumbo and Peter Pan (or some other popular yet low capacity rides for which there are no fastpasses) you should ride those first–you will then be free to use the fastpass at your leisure. 

Caveat: It’s not perfect

While I would definitely buy Ridemax again, it isn’t a perfect program.  There are several ways in which the program could be more sophisticated.  On the other hand, it costs $15 for a part year subscription, and I wouldn’t want to pay more than that, so how much sophistication can I reasonably hope for?

One thing to understand is that planning your visit to Disneyland with Ridemax will require a little time and trial and error.  (If you are a planner, this process is  interesting and fun.  If you’re not a planner–well, your effort will be rewarded when you don’t have to stand around waiting in the heat.)  You probably won’t use the first itinerary you come up with.  You will want to make several different itineraries to learn what fits and what doesn’t and to see what tweaks–adding a ride here, or subtracting one there–will make your plans work better.  This is especially true if you plan to visit Disneyland and DCA over several days, because it will make more sense to plan certain rides for different days.  There are some days that are better for visiting Toontown and some that are better for visiting California Adventure, etc.  Also, you probably wouldn’t want to try to ride Peter Pan and Finding Nemo the same day.  These things become more obvious as you play with your itineraries.     

One obvious problem is that Ridemax doesn’t currently let you schedule shows or parades at Disneyland (they just added this functionality for Disneyworld) into your day.  You can schedule two breaks, but that many not be enough when all meals, shows, parades, etc. are considered.  I found that the best way of handling breaks or trying to find time to see the shows was to simply select all the rides we wanted to go on, but omit the breaks.  If my schedule didn’t end up with natural gaps in it, that meant I had too many rides scheduled.  The truth is, the best time to see the shows is during the afternoon when it is hot and the rides are very crowded.  Ridemax automatically tends to leave gaps in your schedule during this time because it is the worst time to ride the rides anyway.

Don’t forget that you can create as  many itineraries as you need.  This is useful not just for envisioning what your day will be like if you enter at 8:00 vs. 8:15 (it’s very different!), but also if you want to parkhop.  Simply start your itinerary at the other park at the time you plan to be there and then you will know what to expect in terms of lines and fastpass return times when you arrive.  Also, if you end your first itinerary early, to eat dinner or see fireworks, you can then make another itinerary that starts after dinner ends  and continues until the time you’ve chosen to leave.  Also, if you want to go on Space Mountain three times, just add it to your list of desired rides three times.  Ridemax will calculate the most time efficient way for you to satisfy this desire. 

Ridemax is not as flexible as would be ideal.  For example, there isn’t a way to schedule time for the second parent to ride if you are doing a parent switch in which one parent rides with older children while the other parent waits with the younger (or shorter) child.  This isn’t a game ender, even if you plan to do lots of parent switches.  You have a few options: plan to use the parent switch fastpass at the beginning or end of your breaks, or have one parent use the fastpass while the other parent takes the other children to the next ride on schedule (with the parent using the fastpass skipping that ride).     

Another area in which the program seemed to lack flexibility was in scheduling the runner.  Ridemax allows you to indicate that you will be using a runner, someone who is willing to run to another location with the groups’ entry tickets in order to get fastpasses for everyone.  Having a runner saves a lot of time.  It saves even more time, however, if the runner is okay with the rest of the group going on a ride while the runner gets the fastpasses.  However, Ridemax always assumes that the group will wait at the next ride until the runner gets there.  If the runner is the Space Mountain person in the family, and everyone else is just standing there waiting and watching the line for Dumbo build, that doesn’t make sense.   However, this is another problem that is easy to overcome: just ignore the fact that Ridemax thinks you will wait for the runner and go ahead and get on the ride.  The great thing about Ridemax is that you have the rides you plan to go on all mapped out and a predicted time for each one–this makes it much easier to plan how and when you will reunite with your runner (although you will still want your cellphone!) 

Thanks to MaryAnn and Sharon whose blogs convinced me to fork over the money for the program.  It seemed like an expensive luxury for a single Disney visit at the time, but now I understand that it was  an investment in getting full enjoyment out of my parkhopper pass (I did).  If you are interested in other positive comments from the web about Ridemax, see here and here

Look here for more tips on how to get the most out of Ridemax  (very helpful).  Negative reviews of ridemax are here and here .  I  think these reviews are mistaken on several points.  For each problem they raise, there is either a good response, or at minimum, a reasonably effective workaround.  If you have questions about Ridemax or about the points made in the negative reviews, please raise them and I’ll try to answer below. 

*I am not affiliated with Ridemax in any way.  I paid full price for my use of the program, and I have not received any financial or other advantage from reviewing it here.

Disneyland Tips

Duncan and Mickey Mouse

My Disneyland tips (and cute kid pictures):

#1: PLAN & RESEARCH.  Disneyland can be a hot, crowded and futile experience or a pleasant one.  There’s a place for spontaneity in vacations, but Disneyland is not that place.  Disneyland rewards the planner.   

  • The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland is awesome.  It is worth the money to buy the current guide. 
  • Ridemax software is even more awesome than the Unofficial Guide.  I wondered if it made sense to purchase Ridemax after I’d already bought the Unofficial Guide.  Yes!  You do have to play with the program and learn its quirks, but if you are willing to do that it will transform your trip.  I would not consider going to Disneyland again without using Ridemax.  Thanks Sharon & MaryAnn for this awesome suggestion!   

It is true.  Disneyland is not for 3 year olds.  It isn’t torture for them either [well, attending It's tough to be a bug unprepared might qualify].  But if you don’t have older children, wait.  I think six is probably the minimum age that makes sense if you don’t have older children or aren’t a huge Disney fan yourself.       

Kate on King Arthur's Carousel

Kate on King Arthur's Carousel

If you can afford it, it is wonderful to stay in a suite rather than a standard hotel room.  We saved money on food and were more comfortable with a kitchen and it was wonderful to have a bedroom for the kids to nap or sleep in  while we stayed in another room.      

Leaving the park in the middle of the day for lunch and naps is the great idea that everyone says it is.  If you have children younger than 10, it is probably a must.  But budget lots of time!  Unless you are staying within short walking distance of Disneyland it will take a long time to leave and return.  (And the problem with getting a suite is that in general the hotels with nice family suites are further from the park entrance).  It doesn’t matter whether you’re riding the ART shuttles or the shuttle to the parking garage.  It will take a while.  And your children might take a while to settle in their beds for a nap.  To avoid disappointment, alot plenty of time!  1-4:30 or even 5:00 p.m. is realistic. 

Having tried both the ART shuttles and parking at the park, if the price is about the same– it was for us– I recommend taking the ART shuttle.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but you will have to wait and have a few hassles either way.  I thought that both the ART and the Disney parking were pretty impressive given how many people there were.   

The fact that long afternoon breaks are such a good idea also makes getting a multiday pass a very good idea.  We were lucky to have 5 day passes and I was really glad.  The difference in cost between a 3 day pass and a 5 day pass is not large.  The big expense comes in paying for that many more days of lodging and food.   

Last Shuttle Ride; Amelia waves goodbye to Disneyland
Last Shuttle Ride; Amelia waves goodbye to Disneyland

Unfortunately, visiting Disneyland is really expensive.  But, I think we covered the park so thoroughly with our multi-day pass we won’t need to return for 5 years.   

Do take bottled water.  My friend Amanda recommended this.  The water in Anaheim isn’t the best.  Even if you are okay with that, keep in mind that picky children may balk.  Also, you don’t want to spend your precious time at the park searching for fountains.  Buying water at the park  is crazy–each bottle costs $$.   Staying hydrated is a must though, because it will probably be hot and you will be walking a lot.  You could buy bottled water at a local grocery store, but remember California has a bottle deposit, so you might want to bring your water from home.

Look for two more posts about Disneyland coming up: one devoted to Ridemax software exclusively (I grew to love that program!) and one more focused on our Disneyland favorites and experiences (include more cute kid pics, of course).

Disneyland’s great, but there’s no place like home

Springtime in Disneyland

Pretty! But there’s no place like home. (I’m pretending I didn’t see that [final? fingers crossed] display of snow and cold).

We have popcorn popping on the apricot tree:

Popcorn popping on the apricot tree

Popcorn popping on the apricot tree

and daffodils and hyacinths:

Daffodills and Hyacinths

Could someone tell me why I didn’t plant more bulbs? I need better follow-through. I keep buying bulbs and then not planting them! That’s an expensive mistake and a sad one, when I see these and think there could have been more . . .

When extortion is a good thing

Having fun at Disneyland before the flu

Having fun at Disneyland before the flu

 

Are you familiar with the debate about price-gouging laws?  An anti-price-gouging law is one that seeks to prevent people from taking advantage of others during an emergency.  For example, in the aftermath of a disaster, should a business be able to triple, quadruple or octuple the price of water, ice, or batteries? If people need water badly enough, they will pay almost anything for it.  It makes us angry to see someone callously profiting from someone else’s distress.  It just seems deeply, deeply wrong.  That is why these laws exist.  Economists tell us, however, that these laws are not a good idea.  Profit is powerful motive.  If profit convinces a shopowner to move heaven and earth to have ice shipped in–despite all the associated difficulties and hardship in a time of emergency–because he will then reap a fat profit, then, the argument goes, many will benefit.  There will be more total ice available.  We want extortionately priced ice in our time of need, because the regular cost ice will have already been sold or will not be available at all.  Anti-price gouging laws result in fewer necessities being made available to the people for whom they are necessary. 

We had a little experience with these concepts this weekend.  Returning from Disneyland, Amelia suddenly came down with stomach flu (AGAIN–it just won’t leave our family alone) and was sick.  Our minivan was significantly um, impacted.  What do you do at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night upon arriving in a city where you don’t know anyone (St. George, UT) and you have a difficult cleaning job ahead of you?  Accessing water and/or electricity would be difficult and we didn’t have any of the appropriate cleaning supplies.  I tried to think about what we could buy at Walmart to help, but our lack of access to water and electricity was an obvious limitation.   It felt hopeless.  (I had unpleasant visions of being the driver of a stained and stinky minivan for the next ten years–never mind the 4+ hours we would have to drive to get home).  But Pdad is never without hope.  While I told him that it was a waste of time to call the local car detailing places because they simply aren’t open that time of night, he called anyway.  No luck, it seemed.  But then someone called him back and made an offer–drive out to Hurricane (improbably pronounced Her-i-ken), pay me $150 in cash, and I will fix it for you.  To put this in perspective, our local car detailing place would have done all the upholstery in the entire car for $25.  Since the entire car was packed with vacation junk, we only wanted one seat done.  But–it was Saturday night, it was late, and the guy already knew that vomit was involved.  Sold for $150! I think it may be some of the  best money we’ve ever spent.

Disneyland–Tips, anyone?

Disneyland LogoWe’re going to Disneyland.  I’ve already gotten some great tips,  but I would like to hear even more.  Please share your  wisdom born of experience.  What would you do differently?  What did you do that worked out really well?  I  am especially interested in advice from people who took both younger and older children to Disneyland.  Did you split up and have one adult go with the older child(ren) and another stay with the younger children?  Did you do lots of switching off?  How did you prepare younger children for the potentially frightening rides?  Also, what did you carry with you into Disneyland and how did you carry it?  Water, chapstick, ponchos?  In  a purse, a backpack, a waistpack?