GoPro Outing On Blizzard Beach’s Teamboat Springs

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The Disney Experience

The trip we’re on now will be an epic vacation to remember, of that there is no doubt.

The boys are 7 and 10 — old enough to behave themselves (this is a relative concept, of course) and mature enough to appreciate activities beyond the playground. So, when Michael’s middle elder brother and his family suggested meeting in Florida (we are 10 in all, with 6 coming from Scotland and 4 from Texas), we began to prepare to explore Disney World and beyond.

The trip has been years in the planning — long enough that it was hard to believe the time had finally arrived — and so far it’s been all that we imagined and looked forward to.

In this post, I’ll focus on week 1, which has just concluded, where we immersed ourselves in all things Disney.

First some thoughts on Disney. It’s easy to see why people go nuts about Disney World, even though I’m skeptical about merchandising and commercialism and the glorification of shopping — and that’s definitely a big part of it, as you can see when you’re exiting a ride and are channeled directly into a gift shop. But I have to admit that Disney works very hard to create an amazing customer experience. (Hence the “weird rules” you see written about now and then.)

In my job writing about digital marketing, we constantly talk about the customer experience and the importance of giving customers an immersive, consistent experience regardless of how, or on what platform, they are encountering the brand. I’ve seen no more salient example of the success of this approach than my experience this past week.

For the most part, we found the physical surroundings very pleasant and clean at all of the parks, and the folks we dealt with were very friendly and helpful. The performances and rides we found dazzling in some cases and enjoyable in others. Rarely were we disappointed. Even a “cast member” we encountered in a Target parking lot was all smiles and magic, extolling the virtues of Disney and her job.

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It’s not even that things are perfect at Disney — I saw rides out of order, bathroom stalls out of service and seats on rides blocked off because they weren’t functioning. But the way they handle things is just right. When things go wrong, the employees steer guests into equally appealing alternatives. It’s like the classic social media situation where businesses are encouraged to be open, transparent and honest about what went wrong — then make it right.

It’s no small feat keeping 53K people a day happy (that’s the average daily attendance of the Magic Kingdom), and I think the innovations with the most profound effects are likely things that park-goers don’t even consciously notice.

It’s The Little Things

I’ve read in a few places that the buildings along Main Street USA are designed so that the second and third stories are not full size — it’s an optical illusion technique called “forced perspective” — which actually makes the buildings look taller than they are. Same thing for Cinderella’s castle — it’s designed in such a way (and the buildings along Main Street add to this) to look taller and more impressive than it actually is. This may not be something that visitors notice but I’m sure it affects their perceptions of their experience.

Other details I found especially interesting (note that these are items I’ve read but haven’t verified):

  • As visitors enter the Magic Kingdom, they walk on red bricks, meant to simulate the feeling of walking on a red carpet.
  • Apparently, garbage cans are located no more than 30 paces apart throughout the park. One source says Walt looked at visitor behavior in other parks and found that people would hold only onto trash for that long before dropping it. So, the design encourages visitors to throw away their own trash, resulting in a cleaner and more pleasant experience for everyone.
  • One observer wrote that each of the buildings along Main Street have American flags hanging in front of them — not because just because of the patriotic experience, but because they are lightning rods. I noticed the prevalence of lightning rods in the water parks, as well, as every structure taller than a person boasted a lightning rod or two. Since we’ve been in Florida, it’s rained pretty much every day, making the presence of lightning rods a very thoughtful addition.
  • Another noted that the surfaces of the walking paths change as you walk through the different “lands” of the park — possibly subtle, but noted.

One academic, Karal Ann Marling, refers to it as the “architecture of reassurance,” the way everything is designed to be pleasant and non-threatening.

Accessibility Vs. Walkability

Though the parks are models of accessibility (and communication about accessibility) in some ways, they’re remarkably exclusive in others. Many of the attractions, especially in the water parks, required serious stair climbs and long periods on your feet.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this — in fact, I’m sure going to Disney World is one of the most active experiences that a lot of American families have annually (and that’s a good thing). But I found it interesting the way the parks straddled these two ideals — of accessibility and of fitness and walkability.

In a film laying out Walt Disney’s vision for Disney World (which wasn’t opened until after his death), a narrator explains the walkability ideal: “Here the pedestrian will be king, free to walk and browse without fear of motorized vehicles.”

Here are my Up records of the steps taken on each day in the parks (we didn’t go nuts and weren’t at any park from dawn until dusk):

  • Fri (Animal Kingdom) 17K
  • Sat (Magic Kingdom) 13K
  • Sun (Typhoon Lagoon) 15K
  • Mon (Magic Kingdom) 12k
  • Tues (Blizzard Beach) 11K
  • Wed (Epcot) 13K

Interestingly, though my step tracker kept me appraised of our progress, it didn’t feel like anything was very far away from anything else in any of the parks. When we set off from one attraction to another, we got there relatively quickly and mostly without getting lost.

Patronage

Another undeniable positive aspect of the Disney phenomenon is the opportunity for artists and performers to make a living doing their thing. Aside from New York City, it’s hard to imagine a greater concentration of dancers, singers, acrobats (not to mention choreographers and costume designers).

I don’t know what their wages are like or whether they’re worked to the bone, but it seemed to me a very good thing — perhaps even cultivating park-goers tastes so they’re more inclined to support the arts in their own hometowns upon their return.

Urban Living/Planning

In doing the research inspired by our trip to the parks, I learned that Disney World, and Epcot in particular (it stands for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow), was originally meant to be a place for people to actually live. When you think about the parks through that lens, they are especially interesting.

I’ve learned that Walt Disney created Disneyland to give children a safe, wholesome place to go with their families. The traveling carnivals and such of the time were a little seedy. Apparently, he also thought the inner city/suburb divide developing at this time was also eroding some of the positive aspects of American life, so he put his head to designing a “community of tomorrow.”

These ideas aren’t foreign to me, of course. Having lived in suburbs, cities and now, in a relatively small town, I’ve seen the pros and cons of each option. Ideally, I’d combine the “safety” and ease of living in the suburbs or a small town with the walkability of living in a city. But is Disney-style architecture the answer? If anything, it glosses over the complexities. I was simultaneously reassured and disturbed by it, especially the underlying truth that this pleasant and reassuring atmosphere was only available to those who could pay $100/day for admission.

Jennifer Gray, a historian of modern art and architecture, gave a talk at MOMA on the topic and was later interviewed by ZDNet’s Sonya James. In the writeup, Gray said of Main Street: “its miniaturized scale, historical details, and clearly nostalgic design reduce the undisciplined complexities of a city to the status of a toy – believable, fun, and entirely controlled and harmless.”

Which explains why it’s such a draw and can be so pleasant to immerse yourself in Disney’s World for a short time.

The Future Of Yesterday

One of the creepiest aspects of Epcot, I found, is its utopian view of “tomorrow” — especially given that we’re now actually living in the tomorrow that was envisioned when the park was built in 1982 (and laid out by Walt Disney even before he passed away in 1966).

While I agree there are problems that need to be solved, I’m troubled by the Big Brother aspect of “we know best” and the seemingly blind trust in corporations. And isolating people completely from a natural world by putting them under a dome? It just seems wrong.

Talk of the natural world seems a good segue into Week 2 of our vacation, spent by the Florida Gulf Coast. I’ll post that bit when it’s ready.

P.S. I posted one of our first GoPro videos of the Teamboat Springs ride in Blizzard Beach.

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Farewell To “The Biscuit”

Lately, our minds have cast back to the winter of 2003-2004, when a certain vehicle — eventually to be known as “The Biscuit” — came into our lives.

Michael and I were fairly newly married and we’d moved to a 2 bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where the alternate-side on-street parking restrictions were loose enough to convince Michael he’d be willing and able to move the car from one side of the street to the other twice a week. And he convinced me I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

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[click to continue…]

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Happy 9th Birthday To Our Eldest!

We remember when you were but a little thing. And look at you now!

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More Family Media Production, With An Introduction To Dragons

Clearly we have a long way to go as a family video production team, but it’s a start…

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Rory Narrates a Tale of Two Trains

It’s been way too long. Here’s our latest family media project.

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Rest In Peace, John E. Parker (Pamela’s Father)

My father passed away last night. Here’s the full, detailed obituary that we published in the Groveton newspaper:

John Elvin Parker of Groveton, Texas, passed away on Sunday, February 12, at Houston Hospice at the age of 78, after a battle with leukemia.

He was born on September 26, 1933 in Groveton, Texas, on Magee Bend, to the late Jake Jefferson Parker and Hester (Wright) Parker.

John graduated from Jeff Davis High School in Houston and served his country in the U.S. Air Force as a combat flight engineer in the Korean Conflict. After he was discharged, John attended Sam Houston State University for his undergraduate and masters’ studies in agricultural education, and did his doctorate work at Texas A&M University. He was a member of Alpha Chi national honor society for colleges and universities. He spent many years as an influential agriculture teacher in Houston Independent School District, at Jeff Davis, Ross Sterling, Lamar, and Sam Houston High Schools. He owned San Felipe Texaco in Houston for 17 years, and ran other businesses in the steel and construction industries. After selling the Texaco business, he taught Animal Science as a professor at Houston Community College. When he retired to his beloved East Texas Piney Woods, he and his brother, Donald, operated a hay baling business in Groveton.

As an agriculture teacher, John was very active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and won a national award for increasing the membership and participation of the local FFA chapter at Sam Houston High School. He also advised a Ross Sterling student who had a heifer that won scramble champion Santa Gertrudis, open show Santa Gertrudis champion and grand champion at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. He advised his son, John Parker Jr., in selecting and raising what became the reserve champion and the grand champion steers at the Spring Branch FFA chapter livestock show.

He’s survived by his two children with his late ex-wife, Aurora Rodriguez-Parker: Pamela Parker Caird and her husband Michael, of Liberty Hill, Texas; and John Parker Jr. and his wife, Sheryl, of Sugar Land, Texas. John had five grandchildren, Allison, Abigail and Lance Parker; and Callum and Rory Caird. He is also survived by many nieces, nephews and numerous good friends.

In addition to his parents, he was predeceased by his sister, Opal (Parker) McGraw, and his brothers, Jake Jefferson Parker Jr. and Donald Wayne Parker.

A funeral service will be held at the Cartwright Funeral Home at 1019 West First Street in Groveton, Texas, on Thursday, February 16, at 11 a.m. A viewing will be held on the Wednesday night before the service, between 6 and 8 p.m. A memorial celebration will take place on the following Saturday at his son’s home.

Memorial donations may be made to:
Texas FFA (Future Farmers of America) at Texas FFA Foundation
Attn. John Parker Memorial
614 East 12th Street
Austin, TX  78701
www.texasffafoundation.org
512-480-8047

or
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Texas Gulf Coast Chapter
Attn: John Parker Memorial
5005 Mitchelldale Road, Suite 115
Houston, Texas 77092
www.lls.org
(713) 680-8088

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Eight Years

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Pamela and the Boys

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Since Michael is still in NYC most of the time, I’ve had lots of solo time with the boys. This photo was taken on an outing to a nearby town for “A Day Out With Thomas” — a rail-themed family-centric festival. Part of the fun included a 25 minute train ride.

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Memories of Warren Street

On the eve of our big move, I have this need to honor, to remember, to sanctify, somehow, the home in which we spent the last two and a half years or so. As always seems to happen, I have this fear that I’ll forget, and somehow deny the significance of, all the marvellous and challenging things that happened in our duplex apartment on Warren Street, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. So, without further ado, let me reflect and record my memories.

When we moved from temperate California, winter had its frigid, wind-whipped but decidedly solid grip on our little neighborhood in Brooklyn. I remember our first breakfast out at a cafe on then-desolate 4th avenue — everyone else had taken shelter from the cold — wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. The first few nights, we had to sleep on an air mattress that lost 90% of its loft as we slept — me 4 months pregnant, and thankfully not yet in the most uncomfortable stages of pregnancy. Our possessions arrived on Christmas Eve, and we made an effort to decorate, and celebrate, our last Christmas as a family of three.

Spring came, and, under the snow, we found a gorgeous, inspiring community garden across the street, wonderful neighbors with kids near ours in age, and a vibrant neighborhood full of unique restaurants and shops — some of them even kid-friendly.

I remember:


  • Sitting out on the deck looking for fireflies with Callum, then, once back inside with the lights out, seeing a streak of light across the bedroom — one of them had gotten inside!
  • Pushing Callum uphill to his day care along the bumpy sidewalk, both gigantically pregnant and, later, with tiny Rory snuggled into a sling.
  • Many times, after Rory was born, I’d sleep in the front bedroom near his crib, while Michael slept in the back bedroom with Callum. Those nights, I’d do my nightly book reading in the dark, on my BlackBerry. When the windows were open, and sometimes when they weren’t, I’d hear the sounds of the sidewalks. To the click of high heels or the thump of more solid footsteps, I’d hear snippets of heated conversations — snatches of dramas played out as strangers passed by our street-level windows.
  • Callum grew from a barely-speaking 2.5 year old, into a potty-trained, verbal, big brother, so proud of “my baby,” as he’d call Rory.
  • Rory was born in Manhattan, came home in “The Biscuit” (our red Ford Focus wagon), and grew into a train-loving toddler with shaggy brown hair and luminous blue eyes.
  • It was on Warren Street that I began to wonder about Rory’s speech development. He had two evaluations through early intervention before we started private speech therapy out of frustration with the system.
  • Meanwhile, Callum was diagnosed with sensory integration disorder, and began receiving twice-weekly occupational therapy and help from a Special Education Itinerant Teacher. I was introduced to the bureauracratic nightmare that is the IEP process here, and thought often of my mother, who was a speech therapist and worked in special education for much of her career.
  • With us through most of the trials and tribulations was our wonderful, sweet, Mexican nanny, Luz, who helped the children learn scattered words of Spanish, and gave them so much love. I’d come home to find that she’d bought Callum a new pair of shoes, something I’d been meaning to do, but never got around to. She has been a godsend in that way, doings I didn’t even realize needed doing, and making our lives richer.
  • The pumpkins we unwittingly grew the first growing season, and the tomatoes, carrots, basil and thyme that burgeoned over our second summer.
  • We were blessed with a well-endowed playground, the Park Slope Playground, in a few blocks walking distance. It has climbing and sliding structures geared toward both younger and older children, a water feature in summer, and a wide, open yard for scootering, soccer and baseball.
  • Michael and I stayed up late one November night in 2008, and heard the shouts of excitement on the streets when it was announced that Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, had been elected.

Michael remembers:


  • The snow. (We had some amazing feet-deep snowstorms on Warren Street, and had some very memorable sledding sessions in Prospect Park.)
  • Playing ball on the stoop. (The boys would sit up on the stoop and throw the balls down. Grown ups stood on the sidewalk, throwing the balls back up and fishing the occasional one out from under a parked car. This game often involved neighbor kids, and parents, also hanging out on their stoops in the evenings.)

Callum remembers:


  • A bigger bed, that you can bounce on better. (We’ve spent the last few months in a temporary furnished apartment, a bed and breakfast, really, and the bed isn’t as springy as our own.)
  • Going to school. (Callum started Pre-K, his first real school, while we were living on Warren Street.)

Goodbye, Warren Street, we will miss you!

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