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7/28/2014 A farewell to Florida

It's time for one last entry to wrap up my Florida travelogue series. At least for the foreseeable future.

A Farewell to Florida
With a new job in a new state, my time in Florida has come do an end. It's been around three years since I first moved there and, while there are some things I'll miss, I am kind of happy to leave. It'll be great to live near actual mountains and hiking trails again and I can hopefully cut down on the amount of driving I've had to do on a weekly basis. Anyway, let's start off with the things I'll miss.
Friends: This is an obvious enough one. While a lot of the friends I made during my time in Florida have actually moved away as well, I still have a number of friends in the Gainesville and Jacksonville areas from my synagogue and the UF Japan Club, and they'll be missed.
Favorite Restaurants: Overall, I'll have a much better selection of restaurants in Hawaii. That said, Alachua has a few great restaurants. I'm gonna miss Conestogas (a nice local burger place), Moe's (a really good burrito chain), and New York Pizza Plus (one of my favorite pizza places anywhere).
Theme Parks: While it would have been nice if I didn't have to drive quite so far to get to them, I had a lot of fun visiting all the theme parks and water parks. I'm gonna miss the rides, the shows, and all the awesome food (especially at Epcot).
And, well, that's about it. I never did get to see the final part of New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and I never did get to drive around southern Florida like I wanted. But hey, that gives me reasons to go back. And I would like to return to Florida sometime, for a vacation at least. Probably either Orlando or further south. Actually, that pretty much sums up my thoughts on if I ever ended up living in Florida again. Honestly, it's not one of the top places on my list. But I think I'd enjoy living there a lot more if I was in Orlando (quick and easy access to all the big attractions) or in the far south (better weather and good beaches).
Still, it's been fun. Goodbye Florida, I don't know when, but I'm sure I'll be back eventually.


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7/25/2014 Diagon Alley

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up! Just click the TWC button and vote to see it. Now, for that travelogue entry...

Sunday (July 20th): Universal Studios
For anyone reading this out of the context of my regular news posts, I returned to Florida a bit early this summer to get everything ready for my impending move to Oahu, where I'll be starting a new job in the fall. Most of my time was occupied by packing and other move prep stuff, but I also found a bit of time to hang out with friends and check out the art museum in Gainesville, which had a special exhibit of Japanese wood block paintings of the Tokaido road, which I wanted to see. As a note, they have a very nice permanent Asian gallery as well. But, if I had the time, I really wanted to take a last trip or two to Orlando. I had thought about going to Disney to check out the new Snow White ride in the Magic Kingdom, since I had one last day on my pass. But, being a Florida resident pass, it had a bunch of blackout dates so it didn't work out.
The other thing I really wanted to see before leaving was the new Diagon Alley area at Universal Studios. So my friend Robert (another big Harry Potter fan) and I headed out. While the original Harry Potter section (Hogsmeade, which I've written about in the past) is in Universal Islands of Adventure, Diagon Alley is in regular Universal Studios. And that was a good move, Universal was in need of some more attractions. I gave the park a pretty thorough write-up last time I visited, so this time I'll be focusing on Diagon Alley and the other new attractions.
Once at Universal, Robert and I got park to park tickets, which let you enter both Universal and Islands of Adventure. Why? Well, you'll see in a bit... The first new thing I saw after entering the park was a Despicable Me ride. There was a new Transformers ride as well, though we decided to save both of them for later and focus on Diagon Alley in hopes of beating the crowds. At first, the Diagon Alley area is set up like an ordinary London street, though fans will spot a few familiar buildings and a couple of magical oddities before ducking behind a building and passing through a hole in the wall into Diagon Alley proper. Unlike Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley is entirely walled off from the rest of the park, blocking out views of the other areas and making it even easier to feel like you've stepped into Harry's world. Here I am on one of the main streets. While I love Hogsmeade, I have to say that, in many ways, Diagon Alley surpasses it. Fans of the books and/or movies will spot recognizable shops everywhere they look. If there's a Diagon Alley store, restaurant, or other building named in the books, you'll find it here and, in most cases, can go inside and take a look. After getting some butterbeer, Robert and I spent quite a while just wandering around, exploring the buildings, and pointing out all the familiar places and items to be found. And it's not just Diagon Alley, Nocturne Alley is there as well (dark, cool, and spooky), complete with a certain famous shop for items related to the darker side of magic. And throughout the entire area you'll find a number of costumed employees roaming about, further enhancing the atmosphere.
I wish I'd had the wand I bought in Hogsmeade a while back. Aside from how well it would fit the area, there are actually a number of spots scattered around where, by standing and waving your wand in the proper way, you can trigger all sorts of different devices and other effects. If you want to feel like a witch or wizard, this really is the place.
After walking around for a while, we grabbed an early lunch at The Leaky Cauldron. It's cool, though I think The Three Broomsticks over in Hogsmeade is the better place to eat. As a note, Diagon Alley has an expanded selection of magical drinks, adding to the staple butterbeer and pumpkin juice. Though for those of you interested in trying out different ones, I'll note that Gilly Water is just plain old bottled water.
After eating, we checked for the line for the Gringott's mine cart ride, which was sporting a massive 2 1/2 hour wait. That was a bit better than the three hours it was when we first passed, but still really long. So we decided to head to the area's other ride. The Hogwarts Express is both a ride and a convenient way of going between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. However, you need a ticket with park to park access in order to ride it. That makes for a clever way for Universal to sell more of those tickets (which naturally cost more), but it also helps keep the line down. To get on the Hogwarts Express, you first have to leave Diagon Alley and make your way through a recreation of King's Cross station. Eventually, of course, you pass through to Platform 9 3/4 and find the Hogwarts Express. It's a fairly simple train ride, but the windows have been replaced with screens, displaying the appropriate countryside (and the occasional wizard or magical beast) as your journey progresses. Meanwhile, you can see silhouettes and hear voices of the students as they walk past your cabin, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It's really cool and it actually changes depending on which direction you're going, making it worth riding at least twice.
After arriving in Hogsmeade, which was a bit less crowded, Robert and I went on the old Harry Potter rides and walked around the rest of Islands of Adventure, hitting most of our favorite attractions. After a while, we took the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley. The Gringotts line had, unfortunately, gotten even longer (an utterly ridiculous five hours) so, after a stop at Fluorene Fortescue's ice cream parlor (which has some interesting flavors such as butterbeer, clotted cream, and chocolate chili), we decided to go around the rest of the park. We hit some rides I did last time I was there, such as The Simpsons and Men in Black, played a little DDR in an arcade (they have a really nice machine there), and also tried out the Transformers 3D ride. It's part ride (you're in a car that moves along a track, tilts, shakes, and the like) and part 3D movie and pretty well done. I'm not really a Transformers fan but I enjoyed it. Well, except for the movies that played while waiting in line, which were full of cringe worthy dialogue.
By the time we finished, evening had arrived and the Gringotts line was still super long, so we stepped out of the park onto Universal Citywalk (the shopping and dining area right outside) and ate at a Cuban restaurant.
Back in Universal, we spent a bit of time taking in Diagon Alley as it got dark and stopped to watch a performance from Celestina Warbeck, the singing sorceress, which was quite entertaining. Unfortunately, we finally had to give up on Gringotts. That was disappointing, but I'm sure I'll be back someday, when I'll definitely make a point of riding it. Instead, we finished up the day with the Despicable Me ride, which is a 3D movie combined with seats that tilt and shake. Not bad, but not especially amazing either.
All in all, while it's too bad I wasn't about to go on the Gringotts ride, it was a great day. Diagon Alley is awesome and, in many ways, even better than Hogsmeade. Though, of course, using a park to park ticket and the Hogwarts Express to see them both is really the ultimate experience. It also makes Universal Studios, which used to be, in my opinion, the least interesting of the Orlando theme parks, a much more fun and exciting place to visit.

And that'll do it for today. I'll make a final post to wrap up the Florida travelogue next week.


7/23/2014 A problematic trip

Well, I made it to Hawaii but it was far from a smooth trip. They canceled my flight out of Gainesville fairly last minute, without any sort of advance notification, requiring my entire itinerary to be rebooked. Sad thing is, there was more than enough time to drive to Orlando and catch my original flight if I'd had any way to do so. So I ended up waking up early for nothing and getting stranded in the Gainesville airport for several hours without anything to eat. Then, after running from gate to gate to make my next two connections I end up in Houston only to be told that they canceled my next flight. It eventually got reinstated, but with too much of a delay to make my following connection, so the second half of my itinerary got rebooked again. After that though, things went more smoothly and I made it to Hawaii., albeit several hours later than originally planned. But, not too surprisingly with all the mess with the airlines, they lost my suitcase..again. I hope this doesn't become the norm...

Anyway, I was going to write about Diagon Alley today but, after the day I've had, I'm pretty tired both mentally and physicality and don't think I could really do it justice so it'll have to wait for Friday.

See you then!


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