Let the Baltics Begin

Latvia is one of the last places I ever expected to find myself.  (Okay, maybe Yemen or Afghanistan are less likely.)  Having no idea what to expect, we decided to download a self-guided walking tours and explore on our own.  Boy am I glad we did!

Come with us now as we visit the historic Old Town of Riga, Latvia.

One of the most notable buildings in Riga is the House of Blackheads.  The Brotherhood of Blackheads was a guild for unmarried merchants in the 14th century.  Apparently being unmarried made one ineligible to join the Great Guild (whose building is much less impressive).

24a House of Blackheads, Riga Latvia

House of Blackheads, Riga Latvia

31 Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

Unfortunately, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was closed.  It details Latvian occupation by the Soviets and Nazi Germany.  It was also our first look a genuine Soviet-era building where functionality was clearly much more important than design.

We left the medieval old town, and walked past Freedom Monument to Riga’s Art Nouveau district. This area of town is recognized by UNESCO as having the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere in the world!

94 Victory holding a wreath

Victory holding a wreath

As a bonus, a local Latvian butterfly decided that Stephanie’s shoulder was a good spot to take a rest for a bit.

On our way back to the ship, we passed the ruins of the old city wall as well as the famous Cat House.  The legend goes that a merchant who was denied membership in the Great Guild commissioned the building and placed two statues of angry cats with their raised tails pointed towards the Great Guild Hall. Eventually, he was accepted, and had the cats turned around.

We also checked out the Swedish Gate which runs right through the ground floor of a 17th century house.  It supposedly brings good luck to wedding couples who walk through it.  We walked through it just in case that luck is still good 13 years later.

131 The Swedish Gate

The Swedish Gate

We brought our visit to Latvia to a close by starting a new “tradition.”  Up until this point of our transatlantic cruise, we happened to purchase a local treat (or two) in every port we stopped at.  I declared to someone that it was our tradition to sample the local treats in every port. When Stephanie responded “It is!?”  I declared, “Well, it is now.”  We went easy in Latvia.  Only four items to sample…

135 Latvian Candy

Latvian Candy

 

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The Changing of the Guard (and also Copenhagen)

Sixteen Days flew by just like that, and suddenly our transatlantic cruise was docking in Copenhagen, and it was time to change our mindset and get ready to explore the Baltics.  So what was different about the two cruises?  Well to begin with, a 16-night transatlantic sailing typically attracts a different type of passenger. Often, those with more time, and more money.  Usually these are older cruisers.  I don’t want to say that they were a whiny, complaining, self-entitled bunch… so I won’t say anything.  They were also overwhelmingly American.  The Baltic sailing was much more international with a lot more Europeans, Asians, and children on board.  It made for a completely different vibe.

The transatlantic cruise was 16 days of relaxation, interspersed with ports we had (mostly) been to before.  The Baltic sailing was to be seven new countries in a row.  Each with new sites, culture and candy to explore.  Most importantly, our friends Ben and Caitlin were joining us for this sailing, and we were looking forward to seeing them.

So what’s it like to spend all this time cruising?  Well, a picture is worth a thousand words.

On the transition day, we took a local bus into Copenhagen to do some exploring while the ship transitioned off the first batch of people, and welcomed the new cruisers on.  We really wanted to get inside City Hall, but it was closed for a wedding.  Fortunately, we would be spending a few days here with Ben & Caitlin after our cruise of the Baltics.  We did see the famous Round Tower, and found a lovely park in which to stroll around.

With time running out until our ship sailed, we made the decision to go see the Little Mermaid statue.  This statue was a gift to the city of Copenhagen to commemorate the works of Hans Christian Andersen.  By the time we got there, we had about 20 minutes to snap a photo, and find the city bus back to the ship.  A panicky crisis was averted when we saw a bus labeled “Free shuttle to the cruise port.”  We were able to relax enough to get some tourist-free photos of the Little Mermaid, and enjoy a nice leisurely ride back to the ship where we made it with seven minutes to spare before “All Aboard.”  Bye Copenhagen.  See you in ten days!

336 The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Back on board, we got settled into our new cabin.  Originally, we had arranged to stay in the same cabin for the entire sailing.  But when the price for our Baltic cruise dropped dramatically, Royal Caribbean offered us a free stateroom upgrade.  Our “guaranteed ocean view” cabin ended up being an extra-large balcony cabin all the way up on deck 10 (right next to the suites).  Usually, we stay down in the depths of the ship, so it was weird being so close to the top.  We both decided that while the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows were spectacular, we prefer being lower down so we can get some exercise on the stairwells. In fact, in 26 days of cruising, we used the elevators exactly once (by accident).

1003 Our huge stateroom

Our huge stateroom

Another factor that made the Baltic cruise a little more fun was that we had at last achieved diamond status with Royal Caribbean. What did that mean for us? It means some free photos, some free internet, and various other discounts.  Best of all, it means free drinks. The free drink menu, however, is very limited.  For example, you can get tequila, but not triple sec, so t-e-c-h-n-i-c-a-l-l-y, you can’t get a margarita. Fortunately we found a bartender who was willing to make me my daily ‘rita for free, and they were damn good!

Margarita

More importantly, Ben and Caitlin were on board at last.  Let the frivolity commence!

1004 Ready for a night on the town

Ready for a night on the town

 

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Amsterdam was the last port of call on this transatlantic sailing that we had visited before.  Originally I thought we might not even do anything in Amsterdam, as we had spent several days there last time and had done everything I thought we wanted to do.  That was before Stephanie remembered that the Netherlands are famed for their tulips, however, and it turned out that we were going to be there around the right time for their big show!  We were a little late, but due to a colder-than-usual spring, the tulips were still blooming.

The place to see tulips is a botanical garden called Keukenhof featuring over 7 million blooming tulips.  But taking a bus there is the boring way to do it, and we don’t do boring things.  (Unless you count filing taxes.  That’s pretty boring.)  Instead, we took a train from Amsterdam about 15 minutes to the town of Haarlem.  From there we rented bicycles for the 40km round trip to Keukenhof.

But before we could be on our way, we had to run the gamut of silly little problems of the sort that crop up when you’re doing something new for the first time.  To begin with, the (somewhat brusque) bike rental guy couldn’t tell us how to get to Keukenhof, so it was off to a bookstore to buy a map of the area.  Back at the bike rental shop, he then told us he needed a €100 cash deposit.  Couldn’t you have told us that the first time, dude?

In no time at all we were on our way – to getting lost.  We thought we were following the verbal directions we were given by several different people, but we kept going in circles. At least Haarlem is a pretty town!  At last we found the road we needed, and we were headed south.  The Netherlands take their cyclists very seriously, and we had two lane bike paths that were somehow routed to get around the automotive traffic circles without having to stop for any cars!  We even had our own traffic lights.  The best part was how often cars yielded to us.  So different from some other places we’ve ridden.

 

The other nice thing about riding through the Dutch countryside is how pretty the scenery is.  In addition to Downton Abbey’s stunt double of a house, we passed plenty of tulip fields.  Because we were there so late in the season, most of the fields had been beheaded.  It turns out that the bulb is the valuable commodity, not the flower.  And so the flowers are chopped off the stems so the bulbs can be sold. Still, some of the tulips had escaped their fate, and were blooming prettily for us.

Stephanie's tulip dream has come true

Stephanie’s tulip dream has come true

 

At last we arrived at Keukenhof along with some 30 tour buses, eleventy billion bicycles and what seemed like half the population of Beijing.  Keukenhof, however, is so big (almost 80 acres) that it really didn’t feel all that crowded inside.  The tulip displays were beautiful with so many varieties we had never even seen before.  There was also an orchid display, a flower carpet and even a wind-powered windmill.  Take a look….

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the tulips in Holland was something that Stephanie has wanted to do for decades, and was really special for her.  Even I found myself getting all excited about them.  Not bad for a non-flower guy.

After retracing our bike and train steps, we found that we had some time to spare so, we thought we’d walk around downtown Amsterdam.  Whoa!  If we thought Keukenhof was crowded, it was nothing compared to Amsterdam itself.  After about five minutes, we decided we’d had enough and headed back to the ship.

 

If you’re planning on visiting Amsterdam, let me offer you two pieces of advice.  First, don’t go during the height of tourist season unless you like crowds of slow-moving people all following someone carrying a flag.  And second, there’s something a bit fishy about the “Coffee Shops” they have there.  As you walk past them, they smell less like fresh brewed coffee, and more like a Neil Young concert I once attended.  Just sayin…

No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

174 Finally - a Belgian waffle

Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

177 Our Belgian candy haul_cr

Our Belgian candy haul

Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

Chillin’ in Jamaica Mon

As happens more often than you might think, in February I suddenly realized we had some hotel nights that would expire quickly if we didn’t use them.  Elliott and I each have a Chase Hyatt card, and each of those credit cards awarded us two nights at a Hyatt hotel after we met a certain spend requirement.  In the past the banks were often willing to extend the expiration dates on unused certificates, but they are no longer doing this for the most part.  Several years ago we had the cards and used our free nights at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which we absolutely loved.  But this year we had no plans to go to Hawaii before the hotel nights’ expiration date, and since Chase was no longer willing to extend the expiration date, we had to find another option.

I quickly researched the best Hyatts at which to use the award nights issued by Chase.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how you can use free nights such as these, so I wanted to make sure I knew the rules before getting excited about any specific properties.  To my surprise, I found that Hyatt all-inclusive properties are included in those you can book with the Chase free night certificates, and Hyatt has all-inclusives in Jamaica and Mexico – both of which are about mid-way between our two home bases of Ecuador and Philadelphia.

I booked four nights for us at the adults-only Hyatt Zilara in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Hyatt Ziva is the next door “twin hotel” that accommodates families, and we would have access to both.  I knew we wouldn’t leave the property, but didn’t feel too guilty since we’ve been to Jamaica before (and seen a couple of the sites).  I tried not to do too much research on the property since I love surprises, but I did read that this particular one had a full schedule of activities.  Since I don’t sit still for too long at one time, I was psyched.

When we arrived we were checked in right away.  We went right up to our room and were tickled to see my name on the TV on the wall!

DSC00676

My own personal welcome!

The room was spacious and gorgeous, with a desk, love seat, table and chair and bed with white linens.

It had a mini-bar in which everything was included, so we were sure to follow the advice someone had given us to take the snacks each day!

DSC00686

I’m takin’ the snacks, yo!

The bathroom had a huge tub, separate tiled shower, terry-cloth robes and lots of toiletries, including a mini scrubby thingy!

And we had a balcony with an outdoor lounge/bed, table and chair, and views of the pools and sand and ocean beyond.  We were going to like this place!

Normally, I would have wanted to jump right into a pool or the ocean, but the weather was not what we expected.  There were such strong winds that despite the temperature, it felt too chilly to go in water, even for me.  The hot tubs were barely warmer than the pools, so it wasn’t even tempting to go in them!  We were hungry though, so we had lunch at Blue Grill by Calypzo, a beachfront grill serving fresh seafood.  We sat for a while on one of the swinging chairs on the beach and just relaxed.  We had a bean bag toss, and then went inside and pretended our bathtub was the hot tub since the actual hot tub was too cold.  That night we had some of the best mozzarella sticks at FuZion, the Asian Grill!  (Go figure…)

The next day we slept in and I had an amazing jerk chicken burrito at Jamaican Rootz by Horizon.

I walked along all of the beaches scoping out a few good spots for Elliott to do yoga.  While he did some yoga I tested out each swimming area on the various beaches.  None of them were great; I tried finding the deepest one, and as they got deeper, they had more seaweed.  Once Elliott finished yoga-fying, we did have fun bobbing in the water, ducking under the waves and throwing seaweed at one another.

That evening we went back to the gym and did a new workout.  Dinner at the Italian restaurant Di Roza that night was actually our least favorite meal.  The caprese salad and bruschetta were both very good, and the pesto gnocci was so delicious I was tempted to order more.  But they forgot to make the pizza I had ordered, and it wasn’t finished until Elliott was just about finished with his parmesan crusted tenderloin.  Once the pizza arrived, I didn’t even enjoy it – the bleu cheese (or goat, or gorgonzola) totally overpowered the other cheeses, to the point where I didn’t like the taste at all!

On Day 3 we sat by the Ziva pool.

I did the 11am Aqua Gym but I did it outside of the pool because the water felt too cold to go in!  I worked up a sweat though so when the class was more-or-less finished I did dip in the pool quickly.  At 12pm we took the Reggae class together.  Elliott found a few moves he liked and said he wants to incorporate them into his future dance moves.  After lunch at Choicez, we went back to the beach we had sat on for a long time yesterday.  After relaxing we went for a beach walk and played bean bags again.   I went swimming in the ocean again and Elliott joined me for a few minutes.

When we got back to our room, we had another welcome message – this time for Elliott:

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We had dinner at Brazil (a Brazilian steakhouse), and headed to the gym for another workout.

On our fourth day I joined the Reggae dance class by the pool which was a lot of fun and Elliott joined me part way through.  We had lunch inside our hotel at Urban Heat by Flavorz.  We finally got to sit on these cool “pretzel stick” chairs (sorry, no photo!).  I tried a new drink – Planter’s Punch – which I liked a lot.  It tasted great and was extremely visually appealing, with the drink color changing ever so slightly from top to bottom.  It looked like a red-orange sunset!  For lunch I had a beet salad and a salmon dish – both were absolutely delicious.

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Afterwards I went swimming in the Zilara pool for the first time!  I first swam in the lower pool, then went exploring the upper pool and the long narrow parts that go along the first floor junior suites with lounge chairs in the pool.  Later we went to the gym together and did another kick-butt workout – you’ve got to burn off all those included food and drink calories somehow!

We went to Choicez for dinner.  It was Moroccan Food which Elliott really likes and the live entertainment show was going on outside, so we asked to sit outside so we could listen and half-watch.  There was a great steel drum band playing on the stage.  The drummers were also dancing at times which was impressive, and at the end, they came out one at a time and did some amazing break-dancing and gymnastics-type moves.  We walked back to Zilara and found a fire pit just for us, and sat for a little while.  The fire pits at night were one of our favorite features of the resort, and sitting by them after dinner had become a nightly ritual.

On our last day we had to check out early so I set an alarm for 6:10am!  I was determined to have some pool time and enjoy our last morning before leaving.  I got us packed and headed out at 7:30 and claimed us some awesome chairs right next to the pool.  It was the nicest day since we had arrived!  We both went to the yoga class on the boardwalk leading to the gazebo.  I was impressed – there were a bunch of people, the instructor had us do some tough poses, and the class lasted an hour long.  I was happy!

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A great spot for a yoga class.

Afterwards we ate breakfast just across the way at the Blue Grill by Calypso – it was fitting as our first meal had been there too.  After breakfast we went back to the pool and we went swimming one last time.  Then we sat at the pool bar and ordered our last drinks – a Dark & Stormy for him, and a Bob Marley for me.  It was so much fun, finally sitting on those in-the-pool bar stools and enjoying drinks in the sun!  I went for one last swim under all the waterfalls as I said goodbye to the Hyatt Zilara.

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Love the waterfalls.

We packed the rest of our things and went downstairs for the free shuttle, hoping one day we can return again!

2017 Disney in Pictures

After volunteering for four days during the Disney Marathon Weekend this January, we switched hotels and then spent several days in the parks.  As always, we had a blast!

We stayed in a Disney hotel that was new for us – Disney’s Art of Animation.

As you can see, we stayed in the Little Mermaid Building.

At Animal Kingdom, we…

went on a safari…

found a lizard that could stick to walls…

listened to some interesting musicians (you can listen too if you like to the sitar and the harp)…

and found some Hidden Mickeys!

63 Hidden MIckey

See the Mickey to the left of the book?

At Epcot, we…

floated through the Disney greenhouses…

watched our favorite Chinese acrobats…

and searched for our own legacy.

 

In the Magic Kingdom, we…

spun on the teacups until Elliott could no longer see straight…

raced like Andre Andretti…

rode some horses around and around in a circle…94a Carousing on the caourse-el cr

and flew through space in our favorite Astro Orbiter.

 

And at Disney Studios we…

ate at a new old café…

and feared for our lives as we were surrounded by storm troopers!

119 The whole gang cr

We sure were exhausted by the end of that week!87 Main Street USA