Monday, June 30, 2008

NFL - Czech Style

OK - so yes, Ice Hockey is big in the Czech Republic - no big surprise there. Football (soccer) - sure - it's even worth rioting about on occasion. But what about a real American import - American Football? We're happy to report that the game is alive and well here in the Czech Republic. The Czech League of American Football's "Maxima Bowl XV" took place last Friday - between the Prague Lions and the Prague Panthers. We decided we'd root for the Lions - as they had prettier uniforms.

The attendance at the brand new Eden Stadium was nowhere near capacity crowd of 21,000 - but still the turnout wasn't shabby - around 3,000 diehard Czech fans made the trip - up considerably from the 800 or so that show up at a a typical CLAF game. For these guys, this is pretty big stuff... a new arena, fireworks, the opening kick booted by the American Ambassador, a totally obnoxious band playing during the breaks in action... and most importantly... "EIGHTY CZECH CHEERLEADERS!" The MC, wearing a football-sized pendant on a silver chain around his neck, made sure to announce the number each time the 80 cheerleaders took the field.

There were a couple token Americans on both teams (and in the crowd), but for the most part, both the players and the spectators were Czech - completely immersed in the American world of first downs, penalty flags and scrimmage lines.

The cheerleaders, of course, were Danna's favorite. Jad and Kyler were far more interested in the noisemaker horns they passed out to everyone on the way in. Erin and I just soaked up the Czech-American atmosphere. Bramborák , Klobasa, Gambrinus and... Football? Final score: Lions 14, Panthers 21. See y'all again next season, y'hear?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Happiest Place in Europe - Discoveryland

Part 4 - Discoveryland
The fourth in a series of posts on how to get to, enjoy and make the most of Disneyland Paris

Discoveryland is Jad's kind of place. With rocket ships, Space Rangers, and a retro-futuristic space cannon, this place is the stuff of boy's dreams (myself included!)

In addition to the futuristic rides, Discoveryland's Videopolis theater is the venue of one of the park's most popular shows - "The Legend of the Lion King" (come early if you want a seat).

In sheer numbers of rides available, this land's a small one - but the rides have great "repeatability", and most are well equipped with FastPass stations.

No Wait Entertainment

(2) Videopolis - no wait when there's no show in progress, of course! The theater is divided into two parts - the "good seats" for the show in the lower half, and tables with a view of the stage above. The tables are a great spot to stop for a bite to eat. There's food available - the typical limited quality / maximum price fare of the park. Looking for shade and a spot to crash while waiting for your FastPass slot? This may just be the ticket!

(3) & (5) Arcade Alpha, Arcade Beta & L'Astroport Services Interstellaires - two video game arcades with futuristic themes. The first is in the lobby of the Videopolis theatre, the second at the exit for the Star Tours ride.

(8) Les Mysteres de Nautilus - (the mysteries of the Nautilus) that's Captain Nemo's Nautilus, of course - as in 20,000 leagues under the sea. This is a great "walk through" attraction. You descend into the ground to cross "underwater" to the Nautilus submarine - parked in a lagoon in front of Space Mountain. Once on the ship, you tour through the Captain's stateroom, the grand salon, engineering, and more. Pause along the tour to peer out into the murkey depths as a giant squid attacks the ship. Great fun - but a little dark and "spooky" for the little ones until they've been through it a couple times. Oh - and it's a nice refuge from the summer heat too!

(1) Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast - for sheer interactive fun, this ride wins the award, hands down! You ride in Star Cruisers, equipped with laser pistols - spinning 360 degrees through the ride battle the evil Emporer Zurg and his minions. Your cruiser keeps score as you hit targets - so aim well! I think we went on this ride 5 or 6 times - becoming veteran Space Rangers by the time we were through. This is one of those rides where the line moves fast, and the wait is entertaining. You snake through Buzz Lightyear's base, studying diagrams of the galaxy, reading about the dastardly deeds that Emporer Zurg is up to, and even getting a personal pep talk (in French and English) from Buzz himself before clambering in your cruiser. Here's what it looks like:

(4) Star Tours - this is another attraction where the wait in line is almost as entertaining as the ride itself. The line queues through an "active" space port, where "R2 units" are making last minute repairs to spacecraft, C3P0 is commenting on the state of affairs, droids are being repaired in a busy workshop. You're finally ushered into the boarding area and onto your Starspeeder 3000, headed for the moon of Endor. Unfortunately, your robotic pilot Rex is a few lessons short of his commercial Starspeeder license, and before you know it, you've taken a wrong turn down a maintenance tunnel, landed in the middle of an astroid field, been very nearly sucked into an Imperial Star Destroyer, and finally, assist in destroying the Death Star... all before finally touching down, just a little shaken up, at your destination. I think Jad and Danna were both convinced that we actually shot up into space for a while... until the third or fourth time around when Rex still hadn't learned how to pilot his ship!

(7) Space Mountain: Mission 2 - Take your seat and strap in - this coaster is one wild ride. You're first loaded into the space cannon - then shot off into "outer space" - flying through the dark past planets and moons before jerking to a stop 2 1/2 minutes later. You'll be inverted twice during the short ride - though it's a little hard to tell in the dark. Grab your FastPass for this ride - it's one of the Park's most popular.

(9) Autopia - This is one of the few rides we didn't make it on - the line was always too long, and there was no FastPass option. If you make it through the line, you get to "drive" mini cars along a track.

(10) Orbitron - Very similar to Fantasyland's "Dumbo" ride - just swap the flying elephants for flying space ships. Go up. Go down. Get out.

Discoveryland Tips

The Once Upon a Dream Parade in neighboring Fantasyland is a great chance to avoid long lines on the park's most popular rides. Hit the lines for the rides like Space Mountain and Star Tours during the parade, and what can usually be a long wait turns in to a walk right to the attraction.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Happiest Place in Europe - Fantasyland

Part 3 - "Fancyland"
The third in a series of posts on how to get to, enjoy and make the most of Disneyland Paris

Ok - so let's cover the important things first. "Fancyland" (Danna's interpretation of the name) is all about Princesses. The Princesses all live in the pink castle, and come out during the day to greet the little princesses that come to visit (like Danna). Sure there are rides and things, but it's really all about the Princesses. Of course if you're a five year old boy, Princesses are not really your thing. Fortunately, there's also a "real live" (well, as real as they come) DRAGON - living right under the castle. Fortunately they keep him well fed on things other than Princesses.

Technically the castle is Sleeping Beauty's Castle, or even more properly, Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant. It's pink because Michael Eisner decided that a "normal" white castle just wouldn't stand out well enough against the "dull Parisian skies". The castle is hard to miss - a good thing, because it's also the main entrance to Fantasyland.

In this, and the following reviews of the other Disney Paris "lands", I'm going to break things down three ways. No Wait Entertainment lists things you can do without waiting in line - things to keep the munchkins busy while you wait for your next FastPass ticket to take effect, for example! Next up are the rides. Finally - some info on the shows held in the land. Interested in the food options? Check out the official Disneyland Paris site for more details. The numbers match the map at the top of the article.

Going to Fantasyland? Click here to read on!

No Wait Entertainment

(1) Sleeping Beauty's Castle - good for a quick walk through, though the ground level is mainly buying opportunities. Walk through the castle to the Fantasyland side and you'll find a raised dias with Lancelot's sword stuck in an anvil. Are you pure of heart? Give it a tug and find out! This is also where you'll find a mini-show - Snow White and her courtiers come out periodically to give you a low-key rundown of life in the castle.

(2) Tucked below the castle's drawbridge (to the right of the main gate) is the Dragon's lair. The dragon is one of the best animatronics at the park... and in the gloom (and mist) of the lair, almost makes you believe you're his next meal!

(4) Sleeping Beauty's story is told on the first floor of the castle - through stained glass murals, tapestries and illustrated books. Make sure your French is up to snuff though - 'cause that's all you'll see up here.

(12) Alice's Curious Labyrinth is a good place to get lost for a while. Danna - ever the intrepid explorer lost... us for several minutes. I don't think she even realized she (or we?) was lost. The winding paths through hedgerows tall enough to keep me from cheating are fraught with dead ends, secret passageways and "curious" characters from Alice in Wonderland. Make your way past the Queen of Hearts and her card soldiers to to the "Bubbly Castle" at the end of the maze for a great view of the park - oh and don't forget to snap your picture on the thrones outside the maze!


(5) Blanche-Neige et les Sept Nains (aka - Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). This was the first ride we went on, and once was plenty. Your cart rides roughly down the track, jerking and stopping suddenly to display life-size dioramas of the Snow White story. It's dark, and moves too fast to absorb what you're seeing... which is not a bad thing, because for short folks, it's a little bit scary as well. For some reason, the majority of the ride takes place in the spooky forest, with branches reaching their twiggy fingers out to snag you... while poor Snow White huddles pitifully below. Not much fun, but probably one of the shortest lines in the land. (No FASTPASS)

(6) Les Voyages de Pinocchio - one step up from Banche-Neige's jerky story ride, but not a big step. This ride tells the story of Pinocchio - though you might want to read up on the non-abridged version before you jump on. Lots of detail on parts of the story that we weren't as familiar with, and sadly, no journey inside the whale. Sigh.

(7) Le Carrousel de Lancelot - a surprisingly long line (10 minutes?) in the sun for a quick ride on the carousel. Mark your steed as it slows down, and then make a beeline for it when the gates open - it's a mad rush!

(8) The only ride in Fantasyland with a FASTPASS system is Peter Pan's Flight, and with average wait times of 45 minutes while we were there, it's a good thing. Grab your FASTPASS though, and you fly directly to your pirate ship. Sprinkle a bit of pixie-dust, and you're off on a magical ride in the nighttime sky above London. As you descend through the clouds into Never-never land, watch out for the cannonball headed your way!

(11) Dumbo the Flying Elephant may be the only time you'll have the opportunity to fly on an elephant... but you gotta be patient. It's another 30 minute wait for a quick minute of air time. This ride is probably best described as a "fun-fair" ride. Get in the elephant. Move it up or down while it "flies" around and around. Get out of the elephant. Whoopie-do!

(13) The Mad Hatter's Tea Cups are a dizzy spin and a lot of fun! Sit in the teacup and see how fast you can spin yourself. Warning - this one isn't for anyone who has a problem with spinning! Just try to walk a straight line when you're done!

(14) We didn't actually make it on Casey Jr. - le Petit Train du Cirque, but it looked kind of fun. It's a gentle ride on a little train that might keep the little ones entertained for the duration...

(15) Le Pays des Contes de Fees (Lands of Fairytales). The plus side? You embark via rotating dock into a boat, without too much of a wait. The downside? The boat takes you past poorly maintained models of various fairytales - Belle's (from Beauty and the Beast) village, the cottage from Peter and the Wolf, etc. There's obviously a reason this ride is hidden way back in the "back 40" of the park.

(16) It's a Small World After All - OK... love it or hate it, I challenge you to walk out of this ride without humming or whistling the tune at least once in the following hour! It's bright. It's cheerful. It's neon. It's cutsy, cutsy, cutsy. I think the dragon needs to pay it a visit during lunchtime! Oh - and it has a totally fromageous display from its sponsor France Telecom at the end.


(3) Disney Princess - so it's not really a show, but it is your mini princesses' chance to meet a "Weal Live Pwincess!" The line starts early - so this is one of those things you may want to use an "Extra Magic Hours" entry for. Get in line with a good book to hold your place before the crowds arrive. When the Princess arrives, have your little princess join you until its your turn. I have to admit - it did look a little strange - I was probably the only guy waiting in line to see Cinderella - with no kids.

(3) Winnie the Pooh - Same deal as the Disney Princess meet 'n greet - except for this time you're meeting a big yellow bear who likes "hunny." It's intresting to note that in French, his name is "Winnie the Bear" - who ever came up with "Pooh?"

(4) Once Upon a Time Sleeping Beauty - this show caught us (and most other guests) unaware (read no big crowds). Held on the mini-stage / rotunda just on the Fantasyland side of the big pink castle, this lip-synched musical story of Princess Aurora (AKA Sleeping Beauty) may be worth it if you happen to be in the neighborhood - but I wouldn't plan your day around it.

(10) Winnie the Pooh and Friends, too! Sorry - missed this one. While we were there, this one was performed only on the weekends. Too bad... a big yellow bear... honey... a bouncing Tiger. What not to like?

(3) The Disney Once Upon a Dream Parade isn't technically a show, and isn't really in Fantasyland... but, Fantasyland's the best place to watch it. While most of the park stakes out a spot on the sidewalk along main street, head Fantasyland's Theatre du Chateau (where you meet the Princesses) and claim a bench. Kids have reserved seats on the front row for the best view. This parade packs it all in - Disney Princes, Princesses (all of them), Heros, Villians and much more. One of my favorites were the spring-assisted acrobatics - several of the characters (Tigger was one) wore these neat spring-assisted-shoe things - kind of like weird, jointed pogo sticks you strap on your feet. They could easily bound 3-4 feet up in the air on these.

Fantasyland Tips

The Once Upon a Dream Parade is a great chance to avoid long lines on the park's most popular rides. While the rest of the guests are watching (or waiting for) the parade, make your move to the popular rides elsewhere in the park. This is an especially good time to hit the rides that don't have FASTPASS options - Pirates of the Carribean, Autopia, etc. If you plan things carefully, you can watch the parade near the beginning (see above), and then make a sweep through a mostly-deserted Fantasyland once the parade moves on down Main Street.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happiest Place in Europe - The Basics

Part 2 - The Basics
The second in a series of posts on how to get to, enjoy and make the most of Disneyland Paris

View Larger Map

Disneyland Paris (renamed from "Euro Disney" in 1995) is made up of four main themed "lands" - color coded in the map above. Fantasyland (or "Fancyland" as Danna called it) is where the Princesses live - very important if you're a four-year old girl. The pink castle also has a resident dragon living underneath it, which makes the land slightly more interesting to five year old boys. Adventurland is my kind of place - all about pirates, steamy jungle adventures and expeditions into the unknown. Frontierland brings the untamed wild west of the United States right to Europe. Finally, Discoveryland is the land of the future - filled with spaceships and interplanetary adventures. Of course, to get to any of these lands, you have to first walk through about 500 meters of the untamed commercialism of "Main Street, USA" - shops and restaurants decked out in turn of the century regalia offering you plenty of opportunities to spend money on just about any Disney-themed item you could imagine.

The neighboring Walt Disney Studios focuses on Disney movies and how they are made, including rides featuring Disney favorites such as "Cars" and "Crush" (the Australian turtle from "Finding Nemo" - far out, dude!)

Outside the gates of the two parks to the east lies the Disney Village - offering yet more stores, themed restaurants, shows and other entertainment. Finally, passing through the village, you'll find most of the Disney Hotels, clustered around an artificial lake.

We spent five days at the parks - hitting the last week of low season - from June 8th through 12th. In the five days, we were able to hit just about all the 5o-odd attractions in the parks, the main shows, and even a couple of the parades... with a 5 year old, 4 year old, and stroller in tow. Here are some general hints to help with your planning for a Disney vacation. They're things we found it useful to know, and figured might help you out if you're planning a visit. The next couple blogs will cover each of the lands in quite a bit more detail, trying to focus once again on the things that mattered for our tribe (and maybe yours?) Click here to continue reading the "Rubesh Family Tips for Disneyland Paris"

Tip #1: Book Disney
OK, OK - Disney didn't pay me to write this... really! Staying one of the seven Disney Hotels at the resort has definite advantages though. Until November this year, with Disney's the 15th Anniversary "Kids under 7 stay and play free" special, you really have to look hard to find a better deal. We paid about $280 / night, which included our cabin, breakfast each day, and most importantly, 5 days of entry passes to both parks for everyone. Buying tickets for our family of five (kids under 3 are free) at the gates each day alone would have cost us $250/day!

One other advantage of staying at a Disney (or partner) Hotel - you get to enter the park two hours early each day! Extra Magic Hours let guests of Disney enter the park early - for us it was 8:00 each morning, vs. the usual 10:00. Only a select few rides are open during these hours, but it sure helps to beat the mad opening rush each morning! Especially if your kids get you up early anyway!

Tip #2: Self-cater
Two things about food at Disneyland Paris resort. It's expensive. It's bad... (even in France - c'est dommage!) Expect to pay 20 Euros or more per person for dinner at the average hotel or park restaurant. 2 Euros for a small bottle of water. 2.50 for a small soft drink. You get the idea. We considered a couple of options before settling on Disney's Davy Crockett Ranch. You need your own transportation to get to and from the park, and it's no five-star resort. However, you get your our own little two-bedroom cabin, complete with its own kitchen and dining table. After the first dinner out at the Ranch restaurant, we were glad we had other options! If your kids have dietary restrictions, even more reason to be able to cook your own meals. There's a large Carrefour grocery store just a couple exits down the freeway, and the ranch's take-away breakfast bags (juice, milk, bagette, croissants, rolls, jams and Nutella) made a great ready-to pack picnic lunch for later in the day.

If you do book at Davy Crockett ranch, remember to bring: coffee and coffee filters (there's a coffee machine in the kitchen, but instant Nescafe coffee's all you get in your breakfast bag - or anywhere at the Disney Resort, for that matter); dishwasher detergent; a good cutting knife and charcoal briquettes if you plan to use the BBQ outside.

There are a couple other apartment and self-catering options listed under Disney's partner hotel packages - just check out their hotels page. If money's no object, try out the Disneyland Hotel - it's quite literally at the gate to the park - you pass under the hotel to enter!

Tip #3: Don't wait in line
You've probably come a long way, and spend a lot of money for a Disney vacation. Why spend most of it waiting in line for the rides? Memorize the names of three features that will help you avoid the queues: FASTPASS, BabySwitch, and Extra Magic Hours.

FASTPASS basically lets you reserve a spot at the front of the line of most of the most popular attractions for a time window in the near future. Here's how it works - you feed your park pass into a machine near the entrance of the ride. It spits out a ticket with a 30 minute time window printed on it. Return during that time window and get in the special FASTPASS line that takes you almost directly to the front of the line of most attractions (be sure to grin devilishly at the poor schmucks who have been waiting in the sun for the past 45 minutes as you pass them.) How far in advance your time window will be depends on how busy the ride is. In most cases, we saw return times about one hour in the future. One catch - you can only have one FASTPASS issued at any time for each ticket. Once the time window on your current pass has started, you can get another one for a different ride - but not until then!

BabySwitch lets parents split up - one parent waits in line and goes on the ride. The next parent enters the ride through the exit door and gets on when the first one finishes the ride. Check with the Disney "Castmember" at the attraction's entrance for the details of where to wait - some will give you a BabySwitch ticket to pass to your partner when you're done. Split up the kids as you wish. This technique worked well for the rides that didn't have FASTPASSes available - one of us would wait in line with a good book while the other relaxed with the kids. A quick SMS when the waiter was about to start would alert the relaxer to head to the end of the line for their turn. If you're devious, BabySwitch and FASTPASS can be combined interesting and yet more timesaving ways. I won't spell out the details... but two teams of FASTPASSers, switching at the exits of different rides can be quite the timesaver if you time it right!

I touched on Extra Magic Hours in the previous tip. It's a pretty simple idea - stay in a Disney Hotel, enter the park two hours early. The catch is that not all the rides are open yet. The week we were there, only key rides in Fantasyland and Discoverland were open early. If nothing else, it lets you beat the 10:00 rush of "normal" park guests to be the first in line at attractions where there is no FASTPASS available. Oh yea - you also get to park right up at the front of a VERY big parking lot!

So - what do you do while you're not waiting in line? There's a long list of Disney attractions that don't require any waiting - but are just as fun - especially for the little ones. In the following sections, I've hilighted the "No Wait Attractions" of each section up front. Spend time at one of these while you're waiting for your FASTPASS timeslot or your babyswitch partner to stand in line for you. You can always take a nap too... find a shady tree, spread a blanket and let the tired little legs take a break!

Tip #4: Use the map
When you have kids with legs the length of our junior Rubeshes (short)
, you want to make every step count! Pick up several park maps as you enter both Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios - you'll go through more than one! Plot out your route for the day - and keep your eyes peeled for the "short cuts". For example, you can bypass the crowds of Main Street by zipping down the arcades tucked away on either side of the road. Take note too, of the parade route if you plan to watch it. We staked out a spot near the beginning of the parade, just behind the Fantasyland castle, then had the run of the lands at the back of the park while the rest of the throngs watched the parade progress down main street.

Next up? FantasyLand - click here for the scoop on Princes, Princesses, and even a dragon!

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Happiest Place in Europe - Getting There

Part 1 - Getting There
The first in a series of posts on how to get to, enjoy and make the most of Disneyland Paris

"How long do you think it will take us to get to Disneyland?" I asked Jad last Saturday morning as we were packing up the car. "Hmm - maybe twenty minutes or so?" he guessed. No matter how fast the German autobahns, there's no way we were going to be able to drive the 620 miles across the heart of Europe in 20 minutes! Fortunately, our trusty Toyota 4Runner turned out to be just as adept at crossing the wide expanses of Europe as it was on the deserts of Oman.

Not far from the French border, we stopped for the night at the Hotel Bremerhof in Kaiserslautern - a neat family hotel nestled in Pfaelzer forest outside of town. With a playground, a cute puppy, a spacious room and roast boar on the dinner menu, you couldn't ask for a better overnight rest stop!

Next stop (four hours drive away) was Davy Crockett Ranch - just a 10 minute drive from Disneyland Paris, and our home for the next five days! Our little "log cabin" wasn't quite ready yet (check-in at 3:00), but our passes to Disneyland were, so we headed to the park. Parking at the park is no easy feat - with 12 million visitors a year, you have to have a LOT of parking spaces! If you're lucky enough to get a spot in the first row of parking, it's still a 1/2 mile walk from there to the gates of Disneyland under the pink Disney Hotel. A series of moving sidewalks will take you part of the way - from from there on, you use foot power to get around! If you're staying at a Disney Hotel, parking is free - both at the park and at any of the seven Disney Hotels (since we arrived late the first day, we parked at the New York Hotel, and walked through Disney Village to the park). If not, plan on paying 8 Euros a day for parking. If you're coming in by train, it actually means less walking - the Gare de Marne la Vallee Chessy RER & TGV train station is located between the parking lot and the park entrance.

620 miles, three tanks of gas (the stuff costs $9.40 a gallon in France!), an overnight in the German forest, and a long walk from the New York Hotel. Finally - we were there! The place dreams are made (or so they say!)

Did Danna get to meet her "pwincesses?" Would Jad get to ride in a real live rocket ship? Would Kyler care where we were? Read on in the next couple entries for our review of Disneyland Paris - through the eyes of the kids (and their footsore parents).

Click here to read on - about the Basics of Disneyland Paris.