New York City: You Choose!By Rebecca
Hey Ya’ll — I’ll be traveling to the Big Apple this weekend, and you, cherished Global Escapes blog readers, get to decide where I’ll go! Please vote for your favorite. When I return, I’ll be sure to give you a full report.
Dappled ThingsBy Rebecca
I took away three things from my brief tenure as a 19 year-old Walt Disney World food service employee. The first was John Stamos’ plastic fork (it’s held up surprisingly well over the years). The second was 15 pounds of cheek fat. The third was the belief that the customer is always right.
If I served someone a personal pizza in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, and she came back much later and complained that in fact no, the crust was more Donald in profile, I’d agree and refund her money (without offering a snarky “that’s because you’ve already eaten the ears”). If a gaggle of Brazilian boys decided to fence with breadsticks, and one of them got epee-d in the eye with parmesan, I’d ask if they needed more napkins. There appeared to be no limitations to my complaisance. Once, while working the register, a baby spit up on my cash drawer. The mother — very sweetly — stated her preference not to receive the change that had been slobbered on.
|Here, take this dry dollar.|
Is the customer always right? I think about this question a lot as an industry professional — especially as one who owns not one, but two pairs of graduation mouse ears.
I’ve noticed an internet trend towards fixating on the negative. Take two travel writing contests I stumbled upon last week. One is to promote a device that enables women to pee standing up and asks for responses to the prompt “Tell us about your worst experience trying to find a toilet while traveling!” The other is an ongoing “World’s Unluckiest Traveler” insurance incentive that invites submitters to reflect on their most nightmarish vacation. I believe last month’s winner fell while canopy ziplining. It seems like we live in a culture that encourages complaint. It also seems like one might win both contests with the same entry.
We’re all a complex amalgamation of travel experience and emotional damage. And almost anyone can operate a computer (including Dan’s 90 year-old grandfather — we affectionately call him “Spam-pa”). You can imagine my frustration when clients reference Trip Adviser as solid evidence against the merits of a particular destination. While the internet has done wonders for both the travel industry and self-sufficiency, it’s also given a voice to basement nutjobs and schooner whack-a-dos (this is my own term I coined for crazy people who live on houseboats). Here’s an example:
Perhaps I’m approaching this from the perspective of a light-weight, or a non-alcoholic, but writing off the Drury because of its free three drink minimum seems a tad unreasonable. Sip Adviser, anyone?
Here’s a comment left by an irate honeymooner about an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica:
Due to the storm, we had to deal with power outages. One extensive in nature. In addition, our television went out for an extended period. Sitting in the dark, tired and hungry….Not what we had in mind for our vacation. There was flooding everywhere making it difficult to even leave your room. One entire day, our room wasn’t even serviced.
With any degree of perspective, one realizes that cleaning staff aren’t impervious to the destructive force of a hurricane, either. Sometimes, what we have in mind for our vacation doesn’t pan out. Sometimes, we have to lie in the bed that no one made.
Dan and I most recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas. We stayed at the Venetian, a lovely decadent hotel on The Strip featuring an indoor mall and canal. Gondoliers serenade you as they paddle you past Banana Republic and Bebe. “This is just like Epcot’s Italy!” I said to Dan, who in turn responded, slouched against a fresco, “You just compared one fake Italy to another fake Italy.” Ah that Dan, always bringing me back down to Earth.
|The Eiffel Tower also caused Dan considerable consternation.|
Our first night there — we had just checked in around 11PM after a long family car ride from San Diego — our key card mysteriously stopped working. Our luggage had already been deposited in the room. We went down to the front desk. We went back up to our floor to wait for maintenance. It turns out the do-hickey door lock mechanism had malfunctioned, which necessitated the complete removal of the handle by drill. You can only imagine how my travel agent fingers were itching to log onto Trip Adviser.
But here’s the thing — I waited. Because I believe in giving the hospitality industry a fair shake. I didn’t want to fly off the handle over, well, a handle. I was tired and hungry and craved nothing more than a hot soak in my luxurious marble tub while watching infomercials and eating a club sandwich, but I recognized my extreme grumpiness was a product of not having other needs met.
There are certain unforgivable grievances, lines we each have that can’t be crossed. I once found a dirty gauze under my pillow at a popular chain motel. Not even I could laugh that one off with an off-color tooth fairy joke. When I meet with clients, whether they’re planning a weekend retreat with girlfriends or a destination wedding, I always advise them to take online reviews with a grain of salt. You have to determine in advance what your line is, and on top of that, you need to seek out a reliable source. Trip Adviser is not always a clear indicator. I have a dear friend who’s been known to send back a salad three times. Three times. She also enjoys spray cheese straight from the can. Love her to pieces, but not my go-to person for restaurant recommendations.
I took a photo of our bathroom mirror at The Venetian. It was missing a gold accent, and in its place was a ring of glue. It looked like one of those suction cups you stick on a window to hang a bird feeder.
|Not pictured: TV and club sandwich.|
There are words in Japanese with no English equivalents. Wabi refers to the flaw that makes a piece of art more unique, and Sabi, the added beauty an old piece of art acquires by virtue of its age, its wear. I know that some travelers would be off-put by this decorative oversight. This is their line. But at a certain point, fixating on inevitable imperfections can be counter-productive. Over 37.5 million people visit Vegas each year — and not just for the relatively tame Mrs. Fields cookie convention. The Venetian is a hotel with 4,027 rooms. That’s a lot of wear and tear. I worry that fretting over missing mirror bling could keep me from appreciating (and recommending) what is in fact an enjoyable locale. I harken back to Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty“:
Glory be to God for dappled things-- For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings; Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.
Of course the poem doesn’t start out “Glory be to God for dirty towels,” but I like to imagine Hopkins urging us to contemplate the wabi and sabi of leisure travel.
What’s Your Price for (a Beer) Flight?By Rebecca
I spent twelve hours yesterday at Epcot. The summer after my Freshman year in college, I worked at Epcot, pulling order tickets at the now defunct Pasta Piazza across from the fountain. I wore a purple polyester pant suit and a maroon visor. By the end of the summer, I had gained so much weight that I had to request a higher uniform size from wardrobe (this was doubly embarrassing because the pants were ELASTIC). Anyway, yesterday’s visit coincided with the Food and Wine Festival, and after sampling traditional dishes from around the world — most with a base of heavy cream — I was starting to feel like I did at 19. They must call it Epcot because you need a cot to lie down.
It’s strange being at Disney World by yourself. Since my partner Dan is busy researching Hamlet and the poetic tradition at UGA, I’m touring alone. As an only child I’m comfortable being by myself for extended periods, but the parks aren’t designed for the solo traveler. Disney cast members keep assigning me to random families, assuming I’m with whoever happens to be in front of me at the time, even if it’s a couple wearing Just Married Ears. In World Showcase France, my concerned native server asked if I had someone to share my baguette with later. (In her defense, it is a really big baguette.)
This sign got me all excited because it was the only time I was rewarded for being the loneliest number:
Getting your picture taken with Disney characters is addictive. I mean, I couldn’t stop. I was initially only interested in the Goofy photo opp, but by mid-afternoon, I was gung-ho to pose with anything not wearing pants. Here I am with Duffy the Bear.
I had no idea who this was.
I soon learned that Duffy is the newest Disney character, a stuffed animal with a cute back story. Minnie gave Duffy to Mickey before a long sea voyage so that he wouldn’t feel lonely. OK, I get that. I sleep with a stuffed Penguin named Sunshine. But that’s where I start to lose the narrative. It’s metaphysically confusing to me that Duffy is inanimate and much smaller than Minnie and Mickey but springs to full-size life during the meet-and-greet. If Duffy is a plush toy who can grow six feet and animate, but the other characters are real but sold as plush toys, then who is the signifier and who is the signified? Are we all just our own teddy bears, sole comfort to the child within? This was starting to hurt my head so I had a margarita at Mexico and everything made sense again. Parents take note: while Magic Kingdom is dry (how “magic” is that?), you’re encouraged to walk around World Showcase with your drinks.
If you’re willing to wait in line at Innoventions West at the character spot, you can have your photo taken with Donald, Pluto, Goofy, Minnie, and Mickey. Actually, the line moves reasonably fast, and it’s incredibly heart-warming to watch so many kids get excited. I stood behind this little girl for 45 minutes. Epcot does indeed encourage technological savvy.
The best part of meeting Aladdin and Jasmine at Morocco (besides Jasmine complimenting me on my foot-flexing skills, apparently very important in a Princess portrait) was that Aladdin shook my hand and introduced himself as Aladdin. I felt like we were at a high school reunion and he was afraid I wouldn’t recognize him. Jasmine still looks like prom queen, though.
Here’s my hit and miss list:
1986′s Captain EO is back for a limited run at Future World, and it’s not to be skipped, even if you have young ones. Parents will be entertained by a 3-D Michael Jackson (the woman next to me kept trying to reach out and pet him) and kids will love Hooter the elephant sneezing water. Perhaps this overheard conversation sums it up best:
“Daddy, is this ride scary?”
“No, it’s a Michael Jackson video.” <pause> “Well, maybe a little scary.”
If you want a comprehensive Epcot visit, you’ll need more than a day, especially if you want to leisurely lap World Showcase and take in an unexpected performance by Night Ranger. They rocked a very moving rendition of “Sister Christian” outside of the American pavilion, and even though I have no idea what that song is about (I consider it to be the Duffy the Bear of ballads ), I emphatically picked up the chorus along with everybody else. Maybe it’s more powerful to hear a crowd chant “motoring!” when you’re in a theme park expressly devoted to technology and energy?
When you arrive at the park, go straight to Soarin’ and get a Fast Pass to bypass the long line. You’ll want to try and ride this simulated hang glider at least twice. I also really enjoyed Turtle Talk with Crush, an interactive attraction that allows kids to ask the animated Finding Nemo character questions in real-time. True to the awesome thought-process of five-year olds, you get questions like “What color toothbrush do you use?” and “Do you eat chicken?” Here’s a short video I shot.
I would skip Test Track, which is marketed as a high-speed vehicle simulator, but is really just four minutes of herky jerky followed by thirty seconds of racing, and reminded me of riding in a cab in Manhattan. I was also disappointed by Mission Space, but maybe that’s because I selected the green, less intense version as opposed to the orange spiral simulation. You’re supposed to feel like an astronaut on board a shuttle to Mars. Does NASA place white paper sick bags next to the control panel? Who knows. What I do know is that I felt claustrophobic during g-force take-off, and never experienced a sufficient enough thrill to compensate for it.
Finally, if you’re tired but don’t want to trek all the way back to the hotel, ride Spaceship Earth. Several times. The air-conditioning, combined with Dame Judy Dench’s voice and the slow climb in the star-lit dark, will have you dozing off right about the time you hit the invention of papyrus.
Now it’s off to the Magic Kingdom and dinner at The Wave. More tomorrow!
Aren’t You Superfluous, or What?By Rebecca
Inevitably, the first question I get asked at parties when I tell people I’m a travel consultant is: “Didn’t the internet put you guys out of business?” and then: “Wait — is that the same thing as a travel agent?”
1988 was the year I became an entrepreneur. I founded two companies. The first was a knock-off Purina Puppy Chow outfit. I’d won a year’s supply of dog food at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds by filling out an entry form and dropping it in a fish bowl when my parents weren’t looking. Because an adult terrier can only eat so much puppy chow in one day (five bowls with a pine cone garnish), I decided to repackage the food in brown paper lunch bags and sell it door-to-door. I made Print Shop labels with a clip art dog barking “Ciao.” I thought it sounded exotic, the way gelato sounds more exotic than ice cream. I tried to pick the most Italian looking clip art dog. The best I could find was a black and white Golden Retriever in a bandanna.
I took Ciao to the streets, biking in a Springdale sales radius of about 800 yards. When someone opened the door I’d say “Ciao!” in a cloying Punky Brewster voice and produce dog food from behind my back. Very seldom was I treated like a Chinatown handbag salesman. No one asked about protein content or synthetic additives. This was the late 80′s. Moms used Aqua Net and let their babies teeth on lawn darts, you know?
After I made about $20 on Ciao, I grew bored. Dry dog food just wasn’t galvanizing anymore. I decided to be the neighborhood travel agent. Because we didn’t have one.
As a go-getter, another favorite pastime was phoning 1-800 numbers and requesting brochures. I always made sure to call in late May to guarantee I received a lot of mail at summer camp: catalogs from JC Penny and the Graceland souvenir store, marketing kits from Jamaica. I pored over the Newport News fall line of bolero jackets when I should have been learning how to tack a Sunfish.
My travel agency business plan was really simple: I’d order a ton of brochures from various tour vendors and tourism boards, smack a label on them with my name and phone number, and then distribute them in mailboxes. Neighbors would flip through the marketing materials and forfeit self-sufficiency in favor of the expertise of an eleven year old who had only really been to Myrtle Beach and gave vacation counsel out of a tool shed. I stored extra mailers in my father’s Craftsman chest.
I only ever got one phone call — a woman who had received my Club Med brochure and wanted more information – and in a moment of panic (was Club Med a sandwich?) said I was in sixth grade and hung up.
Now, at age 33, when I’m asked at parties about the viability of travel agents in the age of internet autonomy, I explain the difference between an agent and a consultant. An agent is no better than a kid collecting brochures next to power drills. An agent merely regurgitates pat copy, pedals a product second-hand. If you’re looking for an agent, then might I interest you in this here dog food?
A travel consultant offers invaluable knowledge rooted in first-hand familiarity. I develop personal relationships with my clients that counter the uncaring anonymity of an online booking engine. I’ve actually been to the places I recommend. I’ve read the guidebooks. Travel consultants are successful in spite of this tired economy because they know how to focus on what the internet can’t possibly deliver. We’re real people with valid passports, physical store fronts.
In a recent issue of Travel Weekly, columnist Richard Turen noted that “One hotel chain, years ago, was actually using prisoners on work release to handle phone reservations.” Aside from the occasional traffic ticket (one, embarrassingly enough, issued by a cop on a horse), I don’t have a history of run-ins with the law. My list of excursions doesn’t include being bused out for road-side beautification. Wouldn’t you rather speak with someone reputable, someone you can meet in person?
You can trust a consultant. You can save time with a consultant. Maybe you’ve made an Excel spreadsheet of all the times of all the fireworks shows at Disney World, and graphed that data against the height requirements of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and placed that graph alongside a Venn Diagram of value meals, but can you stomach staying on hold with the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique, listening to the Country Bear Jamboree? And what if I told you’ve I’ve already drawn that Venn Diagram and paired it with a resort pool chart? How much is your time worth?
Poet John Keats was onto something when he wrote about the importance of a living hand: “See here it is—I hold it towards you.”