Monthly Archives: June 2007

Photos of the Day: OBX 2007

I recently returned from a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. During the trip, I spent quite a bit of time on the water with my trusty kayak. Some shots from the trip follow. These shots were all taken within a few miles of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, on the sound side.

Shortly after I took the following photo, I was attacked by a dog. In my kayak. I’m not kidding. I had to flee.

This was some murky water, and it kept getting narrower, and narrower… My kayak is nearly 15 feet long. I had to do some backwards paddling to get out of this jam.

A view of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse few visitors get to see. Starting at the Whalehead Club, you must paddle a distance away from the lighthouse through the choppy open sound, only to return through a mazelike series of passages that can become too shallow to paddle when the wind shifts water around in the sound. Although it looks like the lighthouse has been lit in this picture, it’s really the sun reflecting off the lighthouse lens. I was at the perfect angle at the perfect time to see this effect.

The sun is going…

Going…

Gone…

With the setting sun pulling all the light from the sky, I had an hour or two of night paddling in front of me. Glad I used the bug repellant.

Back on the dock, I set up the tripod and took some long exposures. It may look like the sun is still setting, but in reality, it was pitch dark and I couldn’t see without a flashlight. This photo is a 30-second exposure taken by my Nikon D200.

Another 30 second exposure. You can see Venus (I think) and a couple of stars in the sky.

That’s me, with a flashlight, lifting up the kayak as the camera captures 30 seconds of light.

Me walking along the dock making sure I didn’t forget anything.

The night I took these pictures, the sound was relatively calm, although the unsheltered, open sound became a bit wavy as the wind picked up after nightfall. That made for an exciting paddle back in the dark. (I’m not sure what I would do if I capsized in the dark.) Earlier in the day, and for the first time on the trip, the wind seemed to disappear completely, allowing me to paddle farther than I normally do (and giving me a false sense of security).

During trips on previous days, the wind was steady and strong. This makes wide open stretches of the sound quite turbulent, and paddling through these strong waves and currents is an adventure. I’ve learned to trust the stability of my kayak, although it takes constant paddling and adjustments to stay upright as big waves converge from multiple directions. It can be hard not to feel a sense of panic as you see a big wave barreling towards you. It drives you to search for the leeward side of an island or calmer inlets to explore.

Although I snapped some nice photos, the main goal of these paddling trips was to make audio nature recordings. This presented its own set of challenges, not the least of which was keeping delicate and expensive recording gear dry, without tipping over the kayak. I captured some great recordings and hope to edit them into a “Sounds of the Sound” compilation.

Photos of the Day: Disney World

Last year, I had an annual pass at Walt Disney World. As a result, I found myself at Disney on more than one occasion. Although I’ve had my fill of Disney for awhile, I was able to spend some quality time with family there and also take advantage of a number of “backstage” tours. Some photos from two separate trips are shown below.

This photo shows the Osborne Festival of Lights at Disney MGM Studios on December 2, 2006 at 7:04 p.m. Each winter, the backlots of MGM Studios are covered with millions of Christmas lights, courtesy of Sylvania Lights (Disney’s all about sponsorships, you see). Many of the displays originated at the home of the Osborne family in Arkansas, until neighbors complained about the bright lights and traffic. Disney doesn’t have a problem with bright lights or lots of traffic, so they were happy to provide the display with a home. Without a tripod, the Festival of Lights is not too easy to photograph. Thankfully, the environment often provides stationary surfaces that can be used as a makeshift tripod (in this case, a fake mailbox, as I recall).

Two of my favorite Disney rides are both found at MGM Studios: the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (’cause the “John Tesh Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster” doesn’t have the right ring) and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (sadly, the Otis Elevator Company was unwilling to sponsor that ride). At Disney, it’s all about the theming, and while these rides would stand OK on their own, they become truly special with Disney’s careful attention to detail.

The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is an indoor, upside-down, in-the-dark, linear induction-launched coaster. But there’s a backstory, and it involves Aerosmith, backstage passes, and rushing through L.A. freeways to make the concert on time.

 

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror has perhaps the best theming of any Disney attraction. Upon entering the lobby, it becomes obvious that this once-prestigious hotel has seen better days. Items scattered about indicate that the residents left in a hurry. But a concierge appears and whisks you into the hotel’s library, and then to the basement to catch a maintenance elevator to your room. Apparently, there was some kind of accident involving the hotel’s main elevator. Unfortunately, a similar fate will unfold with the maintenance elevator.

The concept of the ride is simple, although the engineering required to make it happen was impressive. (During its, um, descent — the elevator falls faster than gravity.) But the backstory and careful attention to details makes the ride really memorable. (It won’t even occur to you that you ended up in the “basement” of the hotel without ever going downstairs.) In the following photo you can see some of Disney’s attention to detail on the outside of the hotel: the (carefully engineered) burned out and flickering neon letters, or the lone light in a top room of the tower. Doors also briefly slide open, revealing screaming elevator passengers as the elevator pauses, then suddenly drops.

Another shot at MGM Studios, just as the Florida sun retires for the evening.

Many people don’t realize that Disney offers a wide selection of “backstage” tours, ranging from about an hour to a full day. In some cases you must sign up for these tours months in advance. I have gone on many of these tours, including the all-day “Backstage Magic” tour and the half-day “Keys to the Kingdom” tour. The Backstage Magic tour in particular provides a view of Disney that few guests could imagine, visiting spots at EPCOT, MGM Studios, and the Magic Kingdom. You get to see what rides look like behind the scenes, and all of the logistics behind running one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. Exits to backstage areas are hidden in plain view throughout the park, and Disney uses all kinds of optical illusion tricks to hide backstage areas — in a practice they call “sightline management.” When going from “on stage” areas (any area guests can see) to backstage areas, we had to exit through double-doors, and could not allow both doors to be open at once — since Disney does not want children to see Mickey Mouse walking around backstage with his head off.

The change from on-stage to backstage areas is dramatic. On-stage areas have meticulous landscaping; in backstage areas, they don’t even bother mowing the grass.

The tour includes stops at the maintenance shops, where carpenters, electricians, and artists design and maintain rides, Christmas decorations, and everything you can imagine from Disney properties around the world. You also get to see where costumes are designed and where employees drop off their dirty laundry each day. I have little interest in costume or clothing design, but was duly impressed by Disney’s ability to electronically pull up specific costume designs from years ago and have a robotic cutting table automatically cut all of the fabric pieces necessary to assemble the costume. We also learned that Disney copyrights all of its costume designs — and there have been thousands and thousands of them over the years.

The day is filled with an endless supply of Disney anecdotes and trivia, and ends with a tour of the Magic Kingdom’s hidden “Utilidor” underground labyrinth. (An example of the factoids you learn: the Magic Kingdom has a three-stage plan for evacuations in the event of an emergency. In the event of a tornado, all guests of the Magic Kingdom (at full capacity) can be sheltered in the underground Utilidors. Disney has only instituted an evacuation on a few occasions. Once was on 9/11, when guests were asked to leave the park through normal exits but were not told why.)

Alas, Disney does not allow cameras on many of the tours, including the Backstage Magic tour. But they do allow photos on the EPCOT “Behind the Seeds” tour. The following photo shows a fishery behind the scenes at the “Living with the Lands” ride. What you don’t see is what happened a few seconds after this photo was taken. The guide (a full-time biologist at EPCOT) tossed a handful of fish food into the tank, causing dozens of large fish to go into a feeding frenzy, splashing tons of fishy water right in my face and camera lens. If I wasn’t taken aback I would have snapped an awesome photo. Oh well.

On to the Animal Kingdom, Disney’s answer to Busch Gardens. In the following photo, you can see some kind of bird. A living, breathing bird — not the audio-animatronic kind. I would love to have a better story than that, but I’ve got nothing.

Another shot I like from Animal Kingdom.

Nothing too interesting about the following photo, except that it once again highlights Disney’s careful attention to detail. This is the interior of a fast food outlet, designed to look like an African market. On the Backstage Tour, we learned about all of the techniques Disney uses to “weather” surfaces or simulate different kinds of material. (Hint: they’re really good with plaster and concrete.) You can find all kinds of subtle detail flourishes throughout Animal Kingdom. For example, the walkways are designed to look like dried mud, and show tracks from bicycles, or footprints from various animals.

Here is a shot of Disney’s newest thrill ride, Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom. It’s a fun ride — a fast roller coaster that goes forwards and backwards, and ends with a visit from a disgruntled (and enormous) snowman. I dare say the snowman even appears somewhat abominable.

You might notice that there are no riders in this photo. In fact, the train was not moving — Expedition Everest had just broken down, and the riders had been carefully evacuated just before this photo was taken. Sometimes it takes awhile to work the kinks out of new rides. (Test Track at EPCOT Center was notoriously finicky during its early years; the computers shorted out anytime it rained.)

Expedition Everest has some of the longest lines at Disney right now, but the line queue is particularly well done. As you walk along, you see what supplies are required for a trip to Everest, and you also get to view artifacts and records from a past Everest expedition. It seems some trekkers disappeared, but some of their items were recovered by a search party, including film from their cameras. The photos tell a story, but the ending is a bit mysterious. The expedition seemed to be off to a good start, but they appear to have found large footprints in the snow. As you near the end of the line, you see pieces of recovered gear that show rips and tears that don’t seem natural. And then… it’s time to board the train for a trip up and into Everest.

Yes, Disney understands that they’re really in the storytelling business.

21 Shots from Vegas

In early June, I took a quick vacation to Las Vegas, once again staying at Skylofts at MGM Grand. On a past trip, I wrote a review of Skylofts here.

I really enjoy visiting Las Vegas — there is so much to see and do. One highlight of this trip was visiting the brand-new Picasso’s Ceramics exhibit at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts. This exhibit recently replaced the Ansel Adams exhibit that had been running at Bellagio. I was familiar with Picasso’s paintings, but had not appreciated the depth of his artistic excellence. The Gallery at Bellagio is a great place to immerse yourself in quiet solitude and escape from the hustle and bustle of one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

And, as a bonus, Cafe Gelato is right next door to the gallery — which sells what I’m determined is the best banana milkshake in the world.

I also attended four shows while in Vegas. On the first night, I saw a show by Howie Mandel (opened by comedian John Mendoza) at the MGM Grand. This was a very interactive and humorous show. I do not normally see comedy acts, but chose this since it was at my hotel and I knew I would be tired after a long day of flying. It was worthwhile.

On the second night, I saw Cirque du Soleil Love at the Mirage, Cirque’s newest show based on the music of the Beatles. This was my third time seeing this show, and I could easily see it three more times — it’s that great. There is so much going on that the show seems different each time. The audience was spellbound through the entire show.

On night three, I saw Spamalot, a broadway transplant that had just made its way to the Wynn in a newly-designed theater custom-made for the show. Spamalot stars a talented cast including John O’Hurley, who played Elaine’s boss in Seinfeld, as well as a live, 14-member orchestra. It is based on Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. I think the best performer was Nikki Crawford, who played the “Lady of the Lake” and did a perfect job satirizing the role of a diva. She had quite a singing voice. Numerous changes were made to the Las Vegas version of the show. You can read a review of the show here.

On the fourth night, I saw Cirque du Soleil O at the Bellagio, still one of my favorite Cirque du Soleil productions. This show has not changed much since its debut. Like most of Cirque’s productions in Vegas, every show (twice a night, five days a week) is sold out, with a long “standby” line.

21 photos from my trip follow.

Each time you leave your suite at Skylofts, a contingent of unseen housekeepers and butlers “reset and restock” the room, cleaning it, restocking beverages and snacks, refilling the ice bucket, or leaving evening desserts. Some of the desserts are shown below.

 

 

A shot from the bathroom, showing a flat-panel television (one of five in each one-bedroom loft) hidden behind the mirror.

A picture of the bedroom.

Skylofts is located on the top floor of the MGM Grand, nearly 30 stories high above the Nevada desert and Las Vegas strip. Each loft has great views out a wall of massive, two-story glass windows. My loft included a great view of the Las Vegas airport, allowing me to watch airplanes landing.

A shot from the lower level of the loft.

The Las Vegas Monorail departs the MGM Grand station, as it prepares to switch directions for a return back down the strip. The monorail has been somewhat controversial; it is expensive, and located behind strip hotels, requiring a long walk to get to the stations. But it’s still a convenient way to get from one end of the strip to the other, and I rode it quite frequently. For the summer, the Las Vegas Monorail lowered the price of a one day unlimited pass from $15 to $8. However, they kept the price of a 3-day pass at $40. What are they thinking? Who on earth would continue to buy the 3-day pass when you can buy three 1-day passes for $24? But then I realized that many people riding the monorail might be drunk, dulling their math skills. Maybe this wasn’t an oversight.

Another shot from the monorail station at MGM Grand.

Las Vegas will never be finished; there is constant large-scale construction going on all over the city. This photo shows CityCenter under construction in the distance. At a cost of over $14 billion, CityCenter is reportedly the largest privately financed development in the U.S. It is located between Monte Carlo and the Bellagio. It is fun to watch the construction underway at CityCenter, a new tower at the Venetian, and other construction projects throughout the city. Construction occurs around the clock, and as the steel skeleton of the buildings rise higher and higher towards the sky, the lower levels start to fill in and be finished — the model of efficiency and pipelining.

 

Elton John continues to take over Caesars Palace when Celine Dion is on vacation. I saw Elton John’s Red Piano show at Caesars Palace on a previous trip, and he still puts on a great show. Signs throughout Caesars Palace announced that Celine Dion will only remain through the end of the year, with Bette Midler scheduled to take her place as the resident diva early next year in the behemoth Colisseum theater. So, if you’re a Celine Dion fan (and I’m certainly not), you better hurry and grab one of her exorbitant $400 tickets.

Two timelapse shots from inside the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.

 

The beautiful lobby of the Bellagio.

The Bellagio Conservatory had recently been transformed to its late-spring theme, celebrating nostalgia from Route 66.