Monday, May 28, 2018

The Gracchi, Sulla and Mike

Mike Duncan is a popular podcaster turned author. His first offering is The Storm Before the Storm, The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic and it is amazing. You can hear Mike read the first chapter, "The Beasts of Italy" on his Revolutions podcast.

I read through 50 pages at a theme park, it is more engrossing than some roller coasters. And what a ride it is. I can't wait to finish it and give it a proper review.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Tantrum Preview

     This evening, I saw them testing the Tantrum at Darien Lake. When the action stopped, I remember to take out my phone and snap some pictures. Oops.

     This coaster holds 8 riders in two row of four, is about 100 feet tall and features 90 degree climb to a more than 90 degree drop. It looks amazing.

    A little research on this model revealed that it was made by Gerstlauer and has the moniker "Euro-Fighter". It reminds me of the Motocoaster because the small footprint. This one seems more solid as it has it's own foundation rather than a frame base.

     I like these small footprint coasters, as the gee forces and excitement are crammed in a small space. They are a blast from end to end. The downside of such a system is the powerful mag brakes at the end to bring the cars in safely. As quick as they are, the ending is always rough. Don't get me wrong, I've ridden the Motocoaster at least six times this year because I love it. I can't wait to ride this one.

     It is opening Memorial Day Weekend but I not exactly sure on which day.  As you can see from the images, they have tripods and such around for construction and will likely add some nice landscaping as the season goes on.

Panorama of Darien Lake Water Park

It's few days from opening but the Water Park at Darien Lake is looking good.

Darien Lake Meal Plan and Dining Tips

Two taco meal.
     It seems they updated the meal plans again. The bacon burger is off the menu and there is choice of basic hamburgers and cheeseburgers. I tried the cheeseburger the other day and it was good. Unfortunately for the counter people, the signage is now wrong, which probably annoys them to no end.

Bacon Cheeseburger and Chicken Sandwich.
     In the picture to the right, you can see a cheeseburger with bacon next to the chicken sandwich. While the BBQ sauce in the dispenser is ok, I bet it would be better with hot sauce. They have removed the bacon burger from the menu and replaced it with a choice of hamburger or cheeseburger. Both are ample and come with great fries. Don't forget to try them with ketchup and vinegar*.

     While there is always an inclination to suspect that a company is downsizing servings by removing bacon, it seemed to me that the option of a burger with bacon but no cheese was simply a silly option. My son managed to order it with cheese with no problem. Twice. The issue with that is, he did the classic "I'd like burger with bacon. Could I have a side of cheese on that?" to which the cashier said, "Yes" instead of "The bacon cheeseburger is not a valid choice". That sort of stuff causes headaches with customers, cost and service. It is better that they don't offer it at all.

     There are two other options which aren't obvious. The BBQ sauce is great, but sometimes hot sauce is better. If you ask they will give you a cup of it. That's good to know, because it isn't offered and doesn't appear on any signage. The other thing is you can also ask for blue cheese, which is always better with hot sauce than the Ranch dressing that is the standard option. I can see the blue cheese going away because on one occasion they sold it to me for $1.50 up charge and then the very next day they gave me 3 at no charge. Weird. Again, they need to update which way they want to do this and stick to it. I am sure it was a training issue that will bite one of the friendly counter people.

     In the images above, you'll notice my Tim Horton's coffee. It isn't just a Canadian thing, it is also a Buffalo thing. You can get that at Sweet Tooth or the Tim Horton's booth near the front gate. While the booth is full service, the Sweet Tooth requires you to assemble your own coffee. About 4 sugar packets in a large is equal to a single-single. If you are counting calories and carbs, that is 64 calories and 16.8 grams of carbs not counting the cream. Add another 120 cals and 2 grams of carbs for cream. It's heavy cream and yummy in moderation.

     When stopping at Sweet Tooth, they have great (but expensive) popcorn. It's $5.99 a bag and so far I like the cinnamon over the coco flavored. The complete list of flavors are:

Cinnamon, Maple, Cocoa, Sweet Chili, White Cheddar, Herbal Bliss, Sea Salt and Vinegar, Jalapeno Cheddar.

    You can ask for a sample before you buy. They also have cookies, baked goods and fudge. Typically, there is a deal on the fudge, buy a pound get an extra quarter pound free. If you are sharing a sugary snack, Sweet Tooth is fine. If you want some to take home, get it in the shop near the main gate.

     In the back of the store, they have displays of candy and giant bags of popcorn. As tempting as it was to buy a giant bag of cinnamon popcorn, I suspect it is only a display, the bags are not priced or otherwise marked for sale and has no nutritional information. Oh, well. I can dream.

     One bonus item about Sweet Tooth is the tables with park maps set under glass. This is not an obvious place to sit down and eat, but you can do it. The area is only set up for 8 people at two tables, but in the ran or heat it will do nicely. They also service iced coffee and iced tea, which seems to have replaced the hot cocoa. Once the season is in swing, this shop is often the only place out of the information office with maps available for the taking.

     Everything about this shop screams "overpriced junk food" but it is actually kind of helpful for getting out extreme weather. Be kind and buy a drink.

*Although the vinegar is meant for fries, in a pinch it will immediately remove anything sticky or greasy from skin better than the less than hot water in the bathrooms. Remember, it is a mild acid so don't get it in your clothes, eyes or hair. Wash up with plan soap and water. It's good at removing sun screen so be careful of that, too. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Allure of Theme Parks

There is something alluring about theme parks. I never miss a chance to go to one. I spend most of my summer at Darien Lake. There is something captivating about massive machines in a a natural setting, metal and electricity, the blue skies and voltaic lamps.

The Viper at Dusk

Fountain at dawn

Loops around the sun

Artificial Palms

Arc against the sky

Jade and Steel

Swing in green

Swing in red

empty abandon 

Anyone can snap a photo

Black and white wheel


This image series was taken a Darien Lake Amusement Park.

Outside the Envelope

Sometimes my family gets a chance to step out of New York and experience wonders in other places. Our most recent major endeavor was Disney World.

My wife and I had made this journey a couple of times, but the kids have only been twice. Both trips were amazing!
Alice, the Mad Hatter and my kids.

We had a little help for all of our trips. The first time it was AAA, the second was my mother-in-law, who is amazing a trip planning. She travels all the time, but Disney isn't really her favorite. We need a pro this time. 

A good planner can help get all your ducks in a row. Over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing some of the choices we made in the past and a few vacation planners, like Jaime Nowicki. You might find her helpful, too. Expert help is always wonderful, they can point you to new options and things you might not have thought of even if you are good at planning. Jaime has given me a ton of ideas for this upcoming trip. 

Two of three trips to Disney have been in August. The other was in February. Completely different experiences. This next one will be a big one around a major holiday. All of the rules change and I'll need a little help from Jaime to pull this off. 

I have another vacation in the works. This is more of a working vacation as it will be to support a novel called "Pio". It takes place in Bari, Italy. This is likely several years down the line, but the planning started a year ago. Jaime specialized in Disney, but also plans cruises and other all inclusive packages. I'm ready to pick her brain, but bookings and spousal approval are months to years away. 

If you are looking to get away, drop her a message or check out her website. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)

For Father's Day last year, my wife took us to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see Dave Matthews and Tim Reyonds. The SPAC is a wonderful place, and Dave and Tim put on a great show.

The Saratoga Performing Art Center is a sprawling park-like venue, it really is incredible. We had lawn seats for the concert, which really didn't allow us a clear view of the performers. However, Dave always puts on a great show which isn't always centered on the stage. Our seating area was supported by multiple monitors and great sound.

The place reminded me of Art Park here in Western New York. I do have to say the staff and services were much better than Art Park. The selection of food, drinks and alcohol was incredible. Much of it was supplied at pop up tents and food trucks which was a novel experience for the kids.

The amenities such as bathrooms and wheelchair friendly paths were great. While they did have port-a-potties here and there, real flush toilet facilities were ample and clean.

The structure of the seated area is unusual and I could not quite capture the full grandeur of it. It is split level with ground level seating and a balcony. Somehow this arrangement does not block the view from the lawn area. The grounds themselves are spectacular, you could spend a lot of time simply looking around.

The sound is pumped up out of the bowl in such a way that allows listeners to stand quiet a distance back from the lawn area and still hear clearly. It was very impressive.

Although my children are teenagers, one thing that stood out was a family friendly listening area. It was set far back from the lawn area and partially fenced in. The area had a low wall which was good for sitting and all of the paths were paved for easy wheelchair and stroller access. It was a fair. Despite being so far back, the music was clearly audible with little distortion and low leveled for tiny ears.

Parking was a pleasure, both coming and going. Of course, it was parking on a lawn due to the size of the event, but it was far less chaotic than most venues of this size. Leaving was so, so very easy.

The SPAC really really lit up at night, the weather was gorgeous and the lighting was perfect to highlight the blues of the sky. The picture on the left was taken in the middle of the lawn area. As you can see, despite being packed my kids were able to crash. It was so much fun taking them to this place for their first Dave Matthews experience.

I can't wait to take in another concert or event here.
Tim on Stage via the large screen monitors

Darien Lake Meal Plan (Updated)

     We picked up the Darien Lake meal plan this year. At $69.99 per person on top of the season pass, my wife objected strenuously. Normally, I would agree but we've been to the park 3 times in the 4 days they have been open and ate dinner. At park prices, we haven't made back out money yet. If we go 7 times and eat, we will break even.

     Unlike a Disney Dining plan, the menu of items is limited and does not include drinks. Your options are:

Roast Beef Sandwich w Kettle Chips
BBQ Pulled Pork
Spicy Crispy Chicken
Sahlen's Dog & Fries
Sahlen's Italian Sausage & Fries
Chicken Fingers & Fries
Personal Pan Pizza (Pepperoni or Cheese)
***Cheeseburger/Hamburger & Fries*** This option replaced the Bacon Burger mentioned below.
Chicken Caesar Wrap & Fries
Buffalo Chicken Wrap & Fries
2 Tacos (Chicken or Beef) w/ Nachos
Chicken Caesar Salad

     I've had the chicken fingers twice and the bacon burger once. Both were excellent. I am a sucker for chicken fingers, so I can see doing that a lot. The BBQ sauce is ok, but if you ask, they will give a cup of hot sauce, which is very good. I dressed up my bacon burger with the standard mustard, relish and ketchup but next time I will try it with the BBQ sauce.

     One of the best things about this meal deal plan is my wife and I can send these 3 goofballs out on their own with a little spending money and they can order whatever they want, when they want. They've had the bacon burger, tacos and chicken fingers.

     There are some downsides to the plan. It takes about 7 visits per person to break even. It is not often that a visitor from elsewhere would ever be able to use the plan effectively.

     Also, we encountered a problem ordering our season passes and meal plans online. You end up with 2 sheets of paper per person and when my son got his picture take for the pass, he thought the deal plan was a duplicate and put in his pocket. Oops. No meal plan for him.

     It was easy to correct at the service desk, but somehow they registered that one of us (me, I think) had already had a meal for that day when we hadn't. They would have sent my on my way without correcting the issue if I hadn't thought to ask. If you have this problem make sure they double check everything.

     Right now, the menu choices seem ample. But if we really go 2 times a week, every week I am sure the variety will not be enough. This can also spin to a positive. I hope the salad is really good, because I always like a good salad. My son has also confirmed that he will have hot dogs or tacos every visit, so this plan is a dream for the picky eater.

    Update 05-18-2018 - It seems they have replaced the bacon burger with a choice of cheeseburger or hamburger. I like these options better than the bacon burger, I prefer my bacon burger with cheese which was not an option.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Darien Lake Tips (Updated)

     My son and I are here at Darien Lake Theme Park on opening day.
The weather is gorgeous and we are having a great time. The weather is gorgeous and we are having a great time.

     Visiting the park is a little different than camping here, but if you think about it you can take advantage of some great amenities from each to make your stays and days better.

     For the coffee drinker, most restaurants offer coffee but you can find the best at Tim Hortons located at the main gate and the other Tim's in the Sweet Tooth Candy Shop. If you go to the main gate for coffee, the muffins there are probably the healthiest and cheapest snack in the park.

     Sweet Tooth also has a variety of favored kettle corn. We tried the cinnamon. It was a tad pricey at $5.99 but by the bottom of the bag, we wanted more.   

     For people just spending the day, sometimes the Camp Shop is you best options for many things. Their sub shop is easily the cheapest place in the park for food. Also, they sell alcohol, cigarettes and batteries at fairly reasonable prices in addition to fresh food items from local farms.

(New tip! At the end of the last year, they added a Tim Hortons to the camp shop. They also sell apple cider in season!)

    My son and I tried the ham sub and meatball sub. Both were excellent and we paid less than $10 each, even with chips and a drink. We had half subs, but a whole wouldn't have cost more than 12 bucks. He really wanted chips.

     Around the corner from the Camp Shop is the camp lounge. It has TVs, sofas, a fireplace, and rocking chairs. They also have electrical plugs and free WiFi. It is fairly spartan, but on a rainy day, it's a great place to wait it out. 

     On really rainy days, it a great place to play games. They have a giant size chess set which is fun and tables so you can bring your own games. I'm tempted to try a pick up game of D&D here, but the weather hasn't been that bad yet.  

     One other handy stop is the coin op laundry. Wonderful if you soaked your clothes and need to dry something quickly.