Friday, January 30, 2015

Sleeping With Da Fishes

My New Jersey raised sister-in-law says that means something else where she comes from.

Last week I got to go to another FAZE (Florida Association of Zoological Educators) conference--this time in Tampa.  We did Day 1 at the Tampa Aquarium and Day 2 at Busch Gardens.

I've been to a FAZE before, (see entry for Sept. 2011, FAZED)  Loved it then, loved it now (did not, however, enjoy driving to Tampa.  I really wish my brother had invented the transporter).   And it's always hard to leave home, Bob, and the cats (Noko Marie was willing to go with me.)

But it's worth it.  The conferences are small, maybe 20 or so people, so there's a lot of interaction and exchange.  It's a chance to talk to people from other areas who are doing what you do--what are some inexpensive summer camp activities?  How do you train volunteers?  How do you promote your institution?

Then there are the really fun things, like the behind-the-scenes tours.  Seeing how the real work is done to create the experience for the guests.

But for this FAZE, the most amazing thing was going to bed.

It's customary for whoever is hosting FAZE to provide floor space for those who would rather doss down than fork out $100+ for a hotel room (education depts. are notoriously short on budget).  Sometimes it's a classroom, or a visitor center.  This one was a little different.

Had to shout there.  How cool is this?  Strange to lie in bed and watch a moray eel swim by, or wake up in the night to see a shark cruising overhead.

It was worth the trip just for that.   But the rest of it wasn't too shabby either.  The next morning we headed over to Busch Gardens for breakfast and our first discussion (on the legality of transporting alligators--gotta know these things, y'know).
We then went to one of their cafes for lunch--I'm not normally the type of person who posts pictures of their meals--but I have to show that I do try to eat well even when on the road.  They had the usual hamburger-or-chicken tenders offerings, but I was able to get this.
Southwestern veggie wrap, salad, and orange slices.  Yum.

Then off to meet some animals--my favorite thing, of course.  We watched some cheetahs being trained (yes--cats apparently can be taught to come, sit, stay, lie down, all those things.  I've tried explaining this to my cats, but I just get the blank cat stare)

And no--the cheetahs don't live in that cage.  That's just for training.  Otherwise they have a big beautiful habitat with room to run.

Even more fun--because more ludicrous--was watching the hippo being trained.  They're unbelievably huge up close (this one was 3,600 pounds) but she obligingly waddled out to sit, lie down, and open her mouth on command.

We met some other critters, and I got to pat the sloth.
I was also able to pat an aardvark on the rump, but that picture came out fuzzy (hard to pat and snap at the same time, and I was more interested in the patting.)
The conference ended around 3:00, and that's when we (my travel partner Laura and I) had to make the tough decision.  We were allowed to stay and enjoy Busch Gardens until closing if we liked.  And we did like.  Problem was--we were also returning to Tallahassee, and it was about a 6-hour drive by the time I would drop Laura off and get home.  I was a bit tired by then (remember that I just had the flu and pneumonia a couple of weeks before) and didn't fancy being still driving at midnight.  We contented ourselves with an hour or so, and then hauled it back home.
Good to go--good to be home.  But I think the cats thought I smelled funny (aardvark, anyone?)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Native Nurseries

Bloggers usually don't blog about work.  Blogging is about what you do with your life outside of work.  But sometimes (often) my work is pretty cool (especially now that Bob is going with me sometimes--so now there are pictures)

Last Saturday we spent the morning at Native Nurseries--as the name suggests, they specialize in native plants.  One a year they have a birdseed sale, and are kind enough to donate some of the profit to the Museum.  In exchange, we go there with some native animals.

I've been doing outreaches like this, and animal encounters, for about 12 years now.  And I still love it.  I love the fact that I can handle these guys, I love giving people a chance to see them up close, I love the exchange when people tell me things they've observed, and I really love sometimes being able to change people's minds about the sometimes less-popular animals (like opossums).

And notice--even in Florida we sometimes have to wear hats and jackets! 

And we even made an impulse buy while we were there.  Usually we resist those--we've all had the experience of seeing something, loving it, getting it, then back at home wondering why we liked it so much and now what are we going to do with it.  And neither Bob nor I are good at letting something out of the house once it's in, so we *really* try to avoid bringing anything home.  But this we couldn't resist--some sets of beautiful rainbow Swiss chard.  But we knew where it would go (the garden) and what we would do with it (eat it).  Besides--it was just so darned pretty!

(and my inner child is wondering what happened to me--at what point did I decide that vegetables were (a) pretty, and (b) tasty?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Harry Potter, Day 2

Day 2 of the Harry Potter vacation started with a bit less rush than day one.  We had a leisurely breakfast at Starbucks (also at the hotel) and rode the water taxi back to Universal, getting there just as the gate opened.  This day we didn't join in the jogging to Diagon Alley but rather just strolled over, enjoying the sight and feeling of a virtually empty Universal.  But eventually we slipped through the gap in the brick wall and back into the fantasy of HP world--and hopped on yet another Gringott's ride (we ended up taking that ride four times).  By the time we got out the shops and attractions were open, and we took in more of the amazing details that give the feeling of being in a real world and a fantasy one simultaneously.  I, of course, especially liked the owlery--where all the postal owls live.  I thought having the layers of owl poop was an especially nice touch.

We took in a puppet show, talked with an animatronic goblin at the bank, watched the dragon belch fire (never got tired of that).  Eventually we slipped out through the brick wall and hoped the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade (even the trip from one section of Harry Potter world to the next is a ride--the "window" shows the countryside, with Fred and George riding broomsticks, while you can see the shadows of Harry, Ron, Hermione and others through the frosted glass of the doors).  We walked through the castle--but did not take the Dragon ride again!
I don't like rushing on trips, and would rather see a few things thoroughly than try to see everything.  We had planned to do only Harry Potter World--but I had also allowed for a certain number of hours for standing in line.  We were pleasantly surprised that in the entire two days, a line was never more than 15 minutes long, so that gave us time to visit some of the rest of Universal.  Basically, you get a sensation of big--over the top.  Every attraction has major special effects--many with thousands of gallons of water, pyrotechnics, holographic projections.  For the "Disaster" ride, Bob was chosen to be one of the pseudo-actors.  Of course, it wasn't until he was on the stage that I realized that he still had the camera, so I couldn't immortalize him.  Taking advantage of the lack of lines, we just wandered from attraction to attraction.  We took the boat ride through Jurrasic park, getting spit on by dinosaurs (but in a sanitized way--I never realized how much chlorine was in the Jurassic period), drifting under waterfalls, and finally getting soaked in a final dive into the water.
(and as long as we were already wet, we went on the ride a second time)

The nice thing about Universal is that you get the impression that everything is free--you just walk in for the show or the ride.  Of course, you had that gulping moment when you first buy your ticket--but then the pain is over and you can do whatever you like.

Our original plan for day two was to spend a few hours there, go back to the hotel for a nap, and then come back because I wanted to see the dragon in the dark.  But we were having so much fun acting like a couple of kids that we just stayed there.  In all (I kept notes) we did the Gringott's ride four time, the Disaster ride twice, Jurassic Park twice, the Dragon Challenge, The Mummy, watched the Terminator show, a Horror makeup show, and went through Posidon's adventure.

Obviously we were having a blast.  But even after only two days I was noticing a disconnect--a certain discomfort.  We live a little closer to nature than most people.  We have acreage rather than just a yard, a swamp out back, peacocks roaming around, chickens, and I work at a natural history museum.  Universal is just *so* perfectly artificial, so thoroughly groomed.  I found myself grateful for the occasional weed among the landscaping, and luring pigeons with the crumbs of my lunch.  I was grateful for the perky little sparrows who joined us at our breakfast table.  I was grateful for that touch of reality.

Another phenomena we witnessed were the large number of people with cameras on "selfie sticks".  This lets you put your camera on a stick so you can videotape yourself walking around (showing yourself rather than the scenery).  I really don't get it--possibly because I dislike having my picture taken.  In fact, we took no pictures of Bob, and only one of me, and that's only because one of the shops was "Spinwitch's" and SpinWitch is my online name.

But dusk was approaching, and we took the train back to Diagonal Alley.  And I realized I was tired--I wanted to see it in the dark, but I was also ready to leave.  But there are benches, and butterbeer, and we just relaxed as the sun when down and lamps came on in the windows.  In the dark, the people with the "working wands" could turn on some magical lights. 

Finally, it was dark, and we waited for the grumble and roar of the dragon, spewing his flames into the night.

And it was time to leave.  We walked slowly, turned, and saying farewell to the magical world, slipped through the brick wall to come back home.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Harry Potter World!

After a restful night in our swank room, we were ready to finally hit Harry Potter World!  The hotel not only had a free water taxi going over to Universal Studios, but you also were allowed to enter an hour before the official opening time.  The gates opened, and we were part of an excited crowd jogging through Universal to be the first to Diagon Alley.  From a distance you could see the white tower of Gringott's Bank with the escaping dragon perched on top.

You walk past King's Cross Station, duck into a gap in the brick wall--and you're walking onto the movie set.
Everything contributed to the feeling of aged fantasy.  None of the walls were quite straight; the
colors were originally vibrant (blues and purples) but now faded and subdued.  Music from the sound tracks filled the air.  We dropped off our bags (you're not allowed to carry anything onto the rides, but lockers are provided) and walked into Gringott's bank.
Our timing for this visit was perfect--after Thanksgiving, but before Christmas breaks.  All of the attractions are designed to have the lines be part of the experience--but it's even better when there actually aren't any crowds there.  We could walk through at our own pace and explore the richness of the details.  Slowly we walked down to the basement, and then . . . got on the ride.  I knew I was in for an experience when we picked up 3D glasses.  We fell over cliffs, followed the dragon as it broke through the walls, and felt the heat as Voldemort threw a fireball straight into our faces.  It was quite the wild ride--and, when we got off, we looked at each other, giggled, and walked right back it for another go at it.
Then we just wandered around and admired everything.  We were startled by a grumbling roar, and then a blast of fire from the dragon.  You could feel the heat wave from it--which was nice, because it was a bit cool and drizzling.  We checked out the display of wands, and walked through Ollivander's wand shop.

At other wand shop (Gregorivitch's) we watched a number of people selecting their "working wands".  These turned out to be interactive wands--they came with a map of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.  At various places you could wave your wand, and watch window displays come to life, fountains shoot water, and a suit of armor pull itself out of a metal jumble on the floor.  I didn't indulge in a wand myself, but enjoyed watching the magic all around.  And enjoying all the sights--such as a drinks kiosk
And the mermaid fountain.
And speaking of drinks--it was time for our first butterbeer.  I knew you could get it cold, or frozen, but the elf at the bar took a look at our slightly damp and chilly selves and said "would you like to try it hot?"  Oh--what a mouthful of bliss.  I'm not certain what is in it (guesses on the web usually suggest a cream soda base) but it's rich and butterscotch and had a cream topping (we ended up having four each during our two days there).
And of course our favorite place was  Nocturn Alley, where the dark wizards shop.  This is where the camera and notebook came out, because we are always looking for inspiration for our haunted trail.

By now, we were ready for lunch--at the Leaky Cauldron.  Nice little pub, straight from the movie, with basic pub grub (I had a cottage pie, Bob had toad-in-the-hole).

In the afternoon, we got on the Hogwarts Express and rode over to Hogsmeade.
And it was there that we made the one mistake of the trip.  In our defense, it was sprinkling, which meant that the Dragon Challenge Ride was briefly closed.   So we saw the big looping roller coaster tracks, but didn't actually see the ride operating.  But we decided to go down into the Dragon's Lair anyway, just to look around.  And the ride started running again, so on we got.  Just as we started to roll, we realized that we were hanging from the track, not riding on it.  And in the hollow voice of the doomed, Bob said "Ann--it goes upside down."  It was too late to bail out.  It not merely went upside down--it corkscrewed.  We now know what a tether ball feels like.
In retrospect, we *had* been warned.  We were used to the usual warning signs--don't ride if you have heart problems, neck or back problems, are pregnant, etc.  Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the line that suggested removing any prosthetic limbs . . .
We survived, and staggered back to the lockers.  And at that point we decided that we had had enough fun for one day.  We headed back to the gates and the boat dock and were happy to get back to our room.  First, the longest hot shower, then a nap.  Woke up, raided the crackers and cheese, and went back to sleep.  Woke up awhile later, and had some tea and cookies--and went back to bed.
Thus ended Day 1.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Chilly Interlude

I know that compared to the weather in the rest of the country, Florida's "cold" is everyone else's "balmy."  But for us, today is cold, particularly last night.  Cold enough that we set pipes to drip--and one chose to spray instead, giving us the rare sight of naturally frozen water, forming fences and unused tomato cages into sculptures.  I especially like the ice-incased twigs.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


And now, (finally!) to revisit last month's vacation.  My birthday treat this year was to go visit Harry Potter World (part of Universal Studios in Orlando).  Being a big Harry Potter fan, I have wanted to go for quite some time, but waited until the second half of it (Diagon Alley) opened.

Bob took care of all of the details (part of my birthday gift) and I must say, kudos to him!   All I had to do was relax and enjoy.

For starters, we added a couple of hours into our schedule for the drive down (normally about a 5-hour drive).  We would be driving past Gainesville--where there is a wonderful natural history museum.  And places to get barbeque.

There are many very well-done exhibits, but I always gravitate towards the ice-age animals.

And then head out to the butterfly garden.  They've added some displays just outside of the garden of large floating felt butterflies and moths.  The nice thing about vacations is that when you're away from the land of "I'm busy and have things to do" and into the world of just hanging out and enjoying, you find yourself thinking "I could do that."  Who knows?  Maybe someday.

A pleasant stroll through the butterflies, and we were ready to hit the road again.

And this is where Bob outdid himself.  One of the things that I'm really really bad at is standing in line.  More than a 15 minute wait and I really start questioning how much I want whatever is at the front of that line. It's the reason we've never been to Universal, and it's been something like 30 years since we've been to Disneyland.  I also don't do crowds.  So he found out that if you stay at one of the hotels at Universal, you get to go on the grounds an hour before the gate officially opens.  And there is a water taxi to take you from the hotel to the gate--so no driving, and no long walks.

Of course, the sort of hotel that offers that kind of amenities isn't exactly a Hotel 8.

Yep--that's all one hotel.  The rooms are just as impressive (especially the bathroom)

The Portifino even describes itself as "swank" in its brochures--a term you just don't hear often.  I don't do "swank" much myself.  For one thing, it means you need a good pair of walking shoes and a GPS just to find your room (the check-in is at the tower in the back--our room was in the wing on the near left in the picture.   Other differences I noted  (was making a mental table of plebian vs. swank, aka Motel 8 vs. Portifino).  At a Motel 8, you park by your room, and there is usually a microwave and fridge in the room.  Also a free breakfast.   At swank, cars are kept out of sight (parking lot is past the tower) and you are not expected to eat it your room.  And a gourmet breakfast buffet is available for a pretty swanky price.   That didn't stop us--we always travel with cheese and crackers.  After a long day, I don't want to go out.
So the end of day one found us happily ensconced in swankiness with a glass of wine (and bottle of cider for Bob) and resting up for our trip into the world of Harry Potter.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Crawling into 2015: Reflections on Christmas

After three days of the 103 fever the novelty work off and I finally went to the doctor (verdict: pneumonia).  Drugs are kicking in but I'm still really really tired.   Someday I'll get those vacation pictures posted.

So . . . Christmas happened.  I'll make a statement--I like Christmas.  I'm not crazy about it--we don't decorate (would never be able to stay ahead of the cats), I don't own a single ugly Christmas sweater, and in general it's just not a big deal.  On the other hand, I'm not a Scrooge either.  I have a comfortably friendly relationship with the holiday.

There are some things that must happen.  Fruitcakes must be baked.  And Bob and I watch "The Hogfather" while having meat pies and sherry.  For how I feel about these, check out Dec. 2011's entry called (appropriately) "meat pies and fruitcake"  And I do some frantic gift-making--I believe in winding down the year in the proper order--Halloween first, then Thanksgiving, then my birthday.  And *then* I'll think about Christmas.  Only this year I was sort of busy writing a report on the collection and cleaning out my office, so I really didn't get started until the middle of the month.  Uhhhhh . . .   Actually, I didn't do too badly.  Wove two sets of dishtowels (because I personally love using handmade things as everyday items)--alas--woven, washed, hemmed and wrapped before I thought to take a picture.  Knitted an octopus scarf for a friend who is cephlapod-crazy.

Some fingerless mitts for a couple of friends (because they're fun to make and I thought they'd enjoy them) (yes those are little owls on the second pair)

And because I then had some yarn and a bit time  left over, a season-appropriate pixie hat
Which looked properly adorable on our newest family member, our grand-nephew Zeke.
We spent time with family (Amanda, Robert and the kids came home for Christmas) and with friends.  Maybe that's what I like about Christmas--everyone's lives are so busy, and it makes us take time to just realize we enjoy being together.  There is much silliness--Gill has introduced us to the English game of "pass the package" which is sort of like musical chairs.  There is a gift wrapped in a ridiculous number of layers of paper, and it is passed around as the music plays.  When the music stops, whoever is holding it peels off a layer (fortunately there is usually a chocolate piece in each layer).  The person who takes off the last layer has to keep the gift.  This year is was me, and here is my prize

You can imagine the somewhat raucous comments made about exactly where I was  going to scrub with that suspiciously smiling face . . . .

And gifts.  Admit it--getting gifts is fun.  Some are silly (chia zombie head).  Italian goodies the kids crammed into their bags.  Solid hand lotions and goat milk soaps--cast into tiny skulls just for me

Thoughtful gifts--a lovely silver hairpin/shawl pin that a friend saw me admire.   Chocolates and Christmas cake and hot cocoa.  Some that stop your heart, just for a moment
A hand painted portrait of our much loved and much missed goose Godwin.
Laughter, love, nostalgia.  Hugs, kisses, silliness. 
I like Christmas.