A Quick Joe Maddon Story

Joe Maddon’s mind doesn’t work like yours and mine.

There is high intelligence. There is wit. There is humor. There is flexibility. There is nuance. There also is a stubborn streak that served him well with the Tampa Bay Rays.

I don’t believe I’ve ever been around someone who so deftly combines those traits with an uncanny ability to recall memories, down to the slightest detail, and have them at his disposal whenever he needed to make a point or reinforce a seemingly outlandish statement.

He’s through with the Rays after nine years, which is a little hard to believe right now.

It was one of the great pleasures of my career to be able to know Maddon for a while.

I was there, in my role as a baseball writer for the Tampa Tribune, during the early years. In 2006 and 2007, when the Rays were still be-Deviled, Maddon said all the right things. Even as Tampa Bay stumbled to awful seasons, and even though it looked much the same as it had under previous managers, Maddon never wavered.

Things were getting better, he said. There was an organizational plan, he insisted. The Rays Way of playing the game would one day take hold, was already taking hold, and soon we all would witness a real transformation on the field.

He said these things so often, and with such conviction, that I sometimes wondered about his grasp on reality. To that, I’m sure he would respond: “So do I sometimes.”

It’s all coming back to me now: the crazy road trip dress-up days, the wild defensive shifts based on statistical probability, the unwillingness to publicly criticize his players individually, the occasionally myopic-seeming optimism.

Maddon was right, of course. The Rays did turn into contenders, becoming a model franchise under the guidance of vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Maddon.

Now? Friedman is gone, lured away by the Dodgers. Maddon is gone, choosing to leave when he was unable to reach an equitable agreement on a contract extension. I wonder if what they built will endure.

I guess we’ll find out. I sincerely hope that things don’t go back to the way they were before. The Tampa Bay area doesn’t deserve that. I believe owner Stu Sternberg and president of baseball operations Matt Silverman know what they’re doing. They’ve earned a lot of trust, just as Friedman and Maddon did.

Yet, it’s going to take some time to get used to the Rays without Andrew and Joe. It’ll be weird for a while.

Meanwhile, I’ll share a personal anecdote that gives you a small glimpse into Joe Maddon’s decency.

In 2006, on a visit to Fenway Park, my father-in-law was with a group of his clients on the field next to the visitors dugout during batting practice. He had leased the Legends Suite, and this was one of the perks.

After the writers were done with Maddon’s daily briefing in the dugout, I took the liberty of asking Joe if he had a second to say hello to my father-in-law. He said sure, and we walked up the steps to the roped-off area where they kept the fans on the field during pregame activities.

I introduced my father-in-law to the Tampa Bay manager, who proceeded to shake hands and pose for photos with every member of my father-in-law’s party. Joe spent 10 minutes with the group, and I scored major points with my wife’s dad.

That is only one, small, personal example of Joe’s kindness. His philanthropic efforts in the Tampa Bay area already are legendary. I hope he keeps Thanksmas going.

You’ll want to remember Maddon, Rays fans. Remember him, and appreciate him. His love of good wine, his unorthodox managing methods, the twinkle in his eye as he answered questions, his erudite approach to the game and life — we had it good with Joe Maddon.

We had it real good. Some team somewhere is about to get a Hall of Fame-caliber skipper.

 

 

Twists, Laughs and Social Reform: This Isn’t Disney’s Cinderella

Cinderella

King Topher (Andy Jones) sweeps future bride Cinderella (Paige Faure) off her feet at the Royal Ball. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella plays at the Straz Center through Sunday. Photo: Straz Center.

I know a Broadway show has made an impression if, in the afterglow, I chuckle at a remembered snippet of dialogue or break down an interesting plot twist, or if I catch myself humming a bar of music from the soundtrack.

And yes, all of that happened after I took in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The touring production, which debuted earlier this month in Providence, RI, runs at the Straz through Sunday. My wife, Beth, and I were invited through our affiliation with the Tampa Bay Bloggers group to come to the Straz and watch and review the show.

I knew already that it would not follow the Disneyfied script. I also knew that the score owed at least some of its “juice” to a couple of tunes that were intended to be part of other Rodgers and Hammerstein productions: South Pacific and the King and I.

I just wasn’t sure how I would respond to what amounts to a fractured fairy tale, albeit with a bright and well-designed set, jaunty musical numbers, wonderful dancing and snappy one-liners.

So, yes. Cinderella made an impression.

Beth and I spent an hour re-hashing and dissecting the story line and the little twists that differentiated this production from the more-familiar Disney animated version. We marveled at the incredible, on-stage costume transformations, and we observed that one of the sweetest things about Opening Night was seeing all the little girls dressed in their best Cinderella ball gowns.

While the book by Douglas Carter Beane was sort of a hodgepodge of styles and eras, there were several catchy numbers and the performances by Paige Faure (Cinderella) and Kecia Lewis (Marie, the Fairy Godmother) were superb.

Oh, but those costumes. Specifically, those magical on-stage transformations.

The show, which is based on a 1957 made-for-TV production that starred Julie Andrews, debuted on Broadway last year and was nominated for nine Tony Awards. It won one: William Ivey Long for costume design. Long also won costume design awards from Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.

I’m not going to give away why I think Long’s costume awards were so well-deserved. What I will do is advise you to keep a particularly close eye on Cinderella during her pivotal interactions with the Fairy Godmother.

Watch closely during the “Impossible” number leading up to the ball — and don’t blink.

The story is only loosely related to the “Disney” Cinderella most people know and love. You can read about the production’s background and source inspirations here and here.

There were a couple of twists that I won’t give away, because it was kind of fun to be momentarily confused about something unexpected that happens on the castle steps toward the end of the first act. Then, it was a delight to be in on the joke when that particular twist was resolved later in Act Two.

This modernized version of the old fairy tale also had a few lines that made me chuckle, including this cute exchange between Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother, who astounded her protege by transforming in an instant into a dazzling magical being from an apparently homeless and crazy person:

Cinderella: “But you’re a crazy woman! What are you doing in that beautiful gown?”

Fairy Godmother: “You’d be surprised how many beautiful gowns have crazy women in them.”

And then there’s the social activism. Wait, what?

That’s right. Instead of a subplot starring a colony of friendly mice trying to outwit a fiendish cat, this version features a starry-eyed revolutionary named Jean-Michel whose ambition is to reveal to King Topher (Andy Jones) that his realm is fraught with social injustice and that the people will rise unless something is done to redress their concerns.

Not to worry. Representative monarchy turns out to be all right with the people, and a bloody revolution is avoided. Which … whew. Thank goodness for that.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is suitable for children. The touring production runs through Sunday at the Straz Center. For information or to purchase tickets through the Straz Center, follow this link.

One more thing …

The Straz Center and Cinderella have partnered with the Belle of the Ball Project for the duration of this current run. Before each performance through Sunday, they are accepting donations of gently used or new formal gowns, shoes and accessories. The donations will be used to make sure that no girl is forced to miss a dance or other important occasion because she or her family can’t afford formal clothes.

Disclosure: Through an affiliation with the Tampa Bay Bloggers group, DadScribe received two tickets to attend and review Tuesday’s performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Straz Center. 

 

 

Memories are waiting at Universal CityWalk

Universal CityWalk

Getting the night started right at Universal CityWalk. Me and my neighbor, Ken, figured it was the perfect way to unwind after a couple of days marching around Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. And we were right.

Jimmy Buffett beckoned. Margaritaville was made for memories. My future wife and I strolled along the neon-bright thoroughfare at Universal CityWalk, taking our first steps into a lifetime together.

This was 2003. Beth and I had only been dating a short time. It was a big weekend — our first overnight trip.

We chose Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and CityWalk. You only really know a person after you’ve spent a day standing in line for roller coasters and a night eating, drinking and relaxing under the stars.

Everything felt new. At Universal Studios, we enjoyed Shrek 4D, Men in Black and Twister. At Islands of Adventure, we braved the Incredible Hulk roller coaster, Jurassic Park River Adventure, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and I even convinced Beth to attempt Doctor Doom’s Fearfall.

The things you’ll do when you’re young and falling in love.

The lines flew because we were together. At the end of the day, we bought a customized brass coin from a bazaar near Poseiden’s Fury — an Irish shamrock on one face, a Scottish thistle on the other.

We still have that coin strung on a necklace, hanging on a hook in our bedroom. It’s an everyday reminder of that wonderful day.

And then came the evening — CityWalk. We went into it with no plan, other than grabbing supper somewhere and maybe a drink or two.

Universal CityWalk at night -- neon!            Photo: Universal Orlando.

Universal CityWalk at night — neon! Photo: Universal Orlando.

We were pretty tired from the day’s theme park adventure. Yet, when we got back to the Universal Orlando complex, we felt energized and ready for more fun.

This was all back in 2003, remember. Even then, when the complex was still relatively new, there was so much to do and see and eat at CityWalk that the only problem was narrowing down the choices.

Flash forward to earlier this month, when my neighbor, Ken and I attended the Facing Fears Together blogger event at the invitation of Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando. Beth was originally invited, of course, but her work commitments prevented us from re-living that first, great road trip experience.

It was Beth’s idea to invite Ken, who is a great neighbor and a better dude. He and I thoroughly enjoyed Halloween Horror Nights, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, and two nights at the retro-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

Unfortunately, parenting commitments prevented Ken and me from joining the other event attendees on the first night for supper at the new Mexican restaurant at CityWalk, Antojitos. We decided to make up for it on our last night there by taking in all the night life CityWalk could throw at us.

In 2003, when Beth and I were there, we started at Margaritaville. It was a Saturday night, though, and tables were scarce. We decided to eat at the bar.

I ordered my favorite — conch fritters. We both ordered the cheeseburger in paradise. I washed the food down with a beer or three, and Beth sipped a daiquiri.

CityWalk

Shawn at Margaritaville might or might not have been behind the bar the night in 2003 when Beth and I hung out at CityWalk for the first time. He was there when Ken and I came into the place earlier this month, and he looked familiar, so I took this photo and decided that Shawn must have been there 11 years earlier, too. He’s a heck of a good bartender, and Margaritaville is a heck of a good joint to start the night at CityWalk.

Our bartender was like the conductor of an orchestra. Everything flowed and he never missed a beat.

Flash forward again, and Ken and I were there at the bar, starting our night at CityWalk. I ordered a double Captain and Coke. Ken had a Jack and Coke, then switched to beer.

I also ordered conch fritters.

Then, I noticed something about the bartender. He looked familiar …

It was the same guy who had helped make my first experience at CityWalk with Beth so memorable. I asked him if that was even possible, if he might have been behind the bar at Margaritaville 11 years ago. He said sure, it was possible. He’d been there long enough for that to be true.

I decided to go with it. I certainly remembered him from somewhere. His name was Shawn, and he was cool about it when I asked him if I could snap a quick photo to commemorate the moment.

I then sent Beth this photo, to see if she could guess where we were:

IMG_3948

She didn’t guess. That’s a hammerhead shark, by the way. It was hanging directly over our heads while Ken and I enjoyed the first leg of our CityWalk excursion. After my second Captain and Coke, that shark just begged to be photographed.

From there in 2003, Beth and I decided to chill at a movie. We watched X2, which was how I discovered she was a big X-Men fan.

I tried to convince Ken to head to the movies, too — he had not seen Guardians of the Galaxy, and I wanted to see it a fourth time. Fortunately, he had other ideas, and a movie wasn’t on the list.

CityWalk

The courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s CityWalk looks so much like the courtyard at the original Pat O’s in New Orleans that for just a split second, I got confused about where I was. True story.

I am not going to get into the rest of the night. Suffice to say, after a visit to Pat O’Brien’s, I appreciated the prompt and reliable service of the shuttle bus back to Cabana Bay. Ken is made of sterner stuff, so he met up with a group of our fellow Facing Fears Together attendees at the Groove — where, I later heard, they danced the night away.

We slept it off the next morning, grabbing a quick and tasty breakfast (and plenty of coffee) from the Bayliner Diner before making the quick drive down I-4. We talked of nostalgia and new memories and looked forward to being home.

It was the ideal way to end an incredible couple of days and nights at Universal Orlando — new memories now mingle with the old, and I can’t wait to go back.

Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to attend the Facing Fears Together event by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando for review purposes. All experiences described were true to the best of my knowledge, and all opinions are mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and thrills galore set Universal apart

Universal Studios

The highlight of our visit to Universal Orlando Resort was walking into a masterful recreation of Diagon Alley, the crowning achievement of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Before I get into the amazing experience we had during our Facing Fears Together visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure earlier this month, I need to put this whole Harry Potter thing into perspective.

We are a family of readers. By that, I mean we enjoy sitting (or lying) down with a good book and getting lost in the pages (or, these days, the digital representation of pages on my iPad Kindle or Nook apps).

Beth and I bonded over the Harry Potter series. How obsessed were we?

In the summer of 2005, we knew the sixth book in the Harry Potter series would be released during our visit to Charleston, S.C., with my mom and dad. So, we pre-ordered the Half-Blood Prince for pick up at a little book store on Meeting Street around the corner from our hotel.

Oh, and we ordered two copies, because we knew that neither of us would want to wait while the other plowed through the pages. This was during a long weekend in one of the coolest walking cities in America.

We spent a good portion of that trip to Charleston imagining ourselves roaming the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Even as we took the ferry out to Fort Sumter, we we itching to get back to the room and read.

That should give you a pretty good idea where things stand for us when it came time to step into Diagon Alley for the first time.

I was prepared to be mesmerized. Universal Studios did not disappoint.

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First, though, there were other thrills to experience, other rides to ride.

I think my new favorite roller coaster in Florida just might be Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a 17-story, 65-mph rocket that allows you to create a music video of your ride using music of your choice (I chose Camouflage by the Beastie Boys). It was one of the first things we did with the party of bloggers and their friends and/or family members put together by Toni and Mellisa from Two Traveling Moms.

We also had our insides pureed at Universal Studios on Transformers, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Revenge of the Mummy. Later, at Islands of Adventure, we ate an incredible lunch at Mythos, acknowledged as the top theme park restaurant in the world by Theme Park Insider from 2003-09.

Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The castle looks so real, I half expect to see Harry come flying in on a broomstick.

At Islands of Adventure, we also rode the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park River Adventure and the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride.

It was all great, the kinds of thrills and wonderful experiences that help put Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on a world-class level. The proximity of Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida and Sea World demand that of Universal Orlando, anyway.

What takes the two Universal parks into a unique realm, at least in my view, is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Hogsmeade, the Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey came to Islands of Adventure in the summer of 2010. It gave J.K. Rowling fans the chance to experience what it’s like to move through real-life versions of the locations made famous in the books and movies.

Then, this year, Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express were added.

It’s a game changer on Florida’s theme park landscape. While Disney made great strides with the New Fantasy Land facelift last year, nothing I’ve seen in any theme park anywhere compared to the experience of walking into a place that brought to life a setting I’ve only imagined or seen represented on screen.

Universal Orlando

Once through the brick wall maze coming in from “muggle” London, the view is … well, magical.

Diagon Alley in the books and movies is one of the best-conceived settings in kid literature. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, it provided Harry’s first, true immersion into the world of magic. Everywhere he turned was something new and delightfully fascinating.

Later, it served as a setting for major plot elements. That new and amazing place of the first book eventually became a place of warmth and familiarity for Harry — and for us, the readers.

The detail of Diagon Alley is spectacular. Anyone who loves the books and movies like we do will feel transported.

Universal Orlando

A spectacular light fixture, part of the interior of Gringotts at Diagon Alley.

There were many highlights, but the Escape from Gringotts ride took the prize. Frankly, even though the ride itself is fantastic (it’s like you’re inside a wild, magical 3D movie), the re-creation of the interior of Gringotts was what put it over the top for me.

Small but important details, like the painted advertisements on the brick facades throughout Diagon Alley, gave the place a “street-level” feel not even the books or movies could provide. I’ve included a few of my favorites in the accompanying slide show, and I urge you to check out the information available about the Wizarding World on the Universal Orlando’s website.

Because Beth was not able to accompany me on this Facing Fears Together couples trip, she suggested I invite our neighbor, Ken. He had been to Universal with his kids and loved it, but he had not had the chance to see any of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In fact, Ken — even though he has two kids that love to read and are Harry Potter fans — had never seen any of the movies or read even the first book.

He came into it as a Harry Potter newbie. While there, I repeatedly expressed my amazement with how real it all seemed. Ken was impressed at the time, too, but he lacked the perspective of a Harry Potter veteran.

That changed once we got back. He made a point of watching the Sorcerer’s Stone movie shortly after our return, and I got this text from him as he watched: “You weren’t kidding about Universal vs movie! Impressed!”

Exactly.

Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to the Facing Fears Together blogger event co-hosted by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando Resort to review the theme parks, Halloween Horror Nights, Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Citywalk entertainment district. All opinions those of the author.

 

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Animal Jam Review: The Boys Have a New Favorite Game

Animal Jam

The boys have played Animal Jam every day since we introduced it to them. It is already their new favorite game.

Before I get into the fun Jeff Bogle and I had introducing Animal Jam to our kids, let me just share the repercussions at our house.

First: My two sons, 8 and 6, have asked to play the game every day for a week. Second: Every time they sit down to play, they ask if I can contact Jeff to have his girls play, too.

I was first introduced to Animal Jam at Dad 2.0 Summit this past winter. National Geographic was a sponsor of the event and livened up the sponsor showcase by bringing along live animals for attendees to hold and gawk at.

I held a skunk. Also, an alligator.

Animal Jam

Animal Jam and National Geographic hung out at Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. And brought a few friends.

It made for a great photo opp, but I figured my kids were so deep into Minecraft at the time that any attempt to interest them in another online game – even one involving one of their favorite things, animals – would be futile. But I loved the concept, and I kept an eye on how Animal Jam worked with other dads in the blogging community.

That’s how I found a contest hosted by my friend Creed Anthony, who publishes the blog Tales from the Poop Deck. The Captain, as he’s known, was giving away a one-year Animal Jam membership, and I figured I’d enter for kicks.

Sure enough, I won the contest. Still, it wasn’t until Jeff suggested that he and I introduce our kids to the game together and chat about it in real time that I activated our account and set Jay and Chris loose in the virtual world of Jamaa.

On an early October Saturday afternoon, Jeff and his older daughter (the “Bear”) up in Pennsylvania logged in on their account. Jay and I did the same down here in Florida.

Here is an edited version of the real-time chat Jeff and I conducted via Facebook while our kids created Captain Speedywolf the wolf and Professor von Cloud, the koala, and immersed themselves in their exploration of the ecological environments of Jamaa.

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(We activated our memberships and the kids dived right in. They started in a common area called Jamaa Township, where Halloween festivities were in full swing – complete with spooky music, decorations and costumes that can be “purchased” using in-game currency known as gems or diamonds.)

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is jamming to the Halloween music in Jamaa Township. That wolf rocks.

Carter: This is cool

Jeff: It really is.

Carter: Jay wants to go to his den.

Carter: The Bear can visit.

Jeff: She just arrived. No doorbell to knock so she let herself in. ;)

Jeff: Let’s decorate!

(Jay used his gem stash to “buy” a table for his personal area, known in the game as a den.)

Jeff: Sweet table.

Carter: Jay wants to buy stuff.

(The Bear’s koala, Professor von Cloud, started to dance on Jay’s new table.)

Jeff: Geez, 2 minutes in and she’s table dancing. Nice. ;)

Animal Jam

Here’s Captain Speedywolf at the entrance to his den. In the foreground, you see his soccer net and a few of the 19 pets he has adopted.

Carter: Awesome. Laughter here!

Carter: This reminds me of absolutely nothing we did as kids.

Carter: Can you imagine if we’d have had this kind of thing in the 70s? Crystal Sands!

Jeff: I really cannot imagine being able to do this with friends as a kid. I would’ve seen even less of the sun and the great outdoors than I did.

(In an aquatic area called Crystal Sands, our kids find a virtual aquarium that features a series of quick, educational videos about sea life and virtual water slides that the characters can ride down. Both the Bear and Jay quickly view a couple of videos and take a ride down the slides.)

Jeff: Water slides!!

Jeff: The Bear is in the aquarium.

Jeff: Watching a video upstairs.

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is about to go down the water slide in the Crystal Sands environment.

Carter: Upstairs. Wow, that’s neat.

Jeff: Some serious electric eel knowledge being dropped in here. Super cool.

Jeff: “Electric eel give off 5x electric outlet shock.” Yikes!

Carter: Watching a coral video.

Jeff: The video integration is smooth and makes total sense, content wise.

Carter: Sharks!

Jeff: This is some serious educational stuff, quick bits of knowledge animal lovers and curious sponges are gonna love.

Carter: “Faster moving sharks need to keep moving to breathe. Nurse sharks and others have pumps and can hang out.”

Jeff: Really? I had no idea.

(Chris, our first grader, suddenly became VERY interested in what his big brother was doing on the laptop and came over to watch.)

Carter: “When can I play?!?” – Chris, 6

Jeff: Ha!

Jeff: The pool next to hot tub is a game. The Bear is playing now.

Carter: Jay, too

Jeff: Rad sting ray.

Animal Jam

Admiral Coolshark in his natural environment, the Deep Blue.

(The kids began to experiment with changing their identities. They each created a penguin to take advantage of the animal-specific activities offered during game play. They can play as a wide variety of animals, including a shark .)

Jeff: Going to Penguin Party.

Carter: Can’t do it. Water slide!?

Jeff: The Bear is making a new animal, becoming a penguin to get there.

Carter: Down the water slide …. woo hoo!

Carter: This Halloween theme is great

Jeff: It is. The music is cool.

(One of the biggest hits with our kids is the ability to “adopt” pets within the game. They found the pet shops pretty early and visit them frequently during game play. The pets are smaller versions of different animals and tag along with the main character animals. Pets also are used to play mini-games in Animal Jam.)

Jeff: The Bear wants to find the pet shop to get a pet.

Carter: Jay wants to do that too. Also stuff for his den.

Carter: Sugar glider!

Jeff: It is hard to figure out where to go in here. Have you found a map of the specific area? With details?

Carter: No. Only world map.

Zippyninja

Zippyninja, the sugar glider. He was the first pet, and still the favorite of Captain Speedywolf.

Carter: Zippyninja the sugar glider.

Carter: Zippyninja flies along behind Captain Speedywolf.

Jeff: Hey! We see you!

Carter: Jay loves that cat!

Jeff: That is a RAD pet and pet name. Let’s do the pet game.

Carter: “Look at this little guy! They’re all so cute!”

Carter: Jay wants another pet.

Jeff: He’s a future ‘Crazy Cat Lady.’

Carter: “Daddy! When can I please play that game?” – Chris

Carter: Minecraft might have to take a back seat for a while.

Jeff: Right? This is super and expansive.

Jeff: I like that there are pet specific experiences. Encourages collecting more pets and trying out more animals.

Carter: Is there a story line, or all open play?

Jeff: Little narratives, like this phantom thief mini game, but in general this seems wide open.

Carter: It’s really immersive.

Carter: “When’s it going to be my turn, Daddy?” – Chris

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Our kids kept playing right on past our 45-minute online chat. Both of the younger siblings, Chris and the Mouse in Pennsylvania, jumped in with their older siblings and had a blast.

As I mentioned, Jay and Chris have played Animal Jam every day since that first foray into the online world of Jamaa. In fact, Chris filled out an “about me” questionnaire at school this past Monday, and he listed Animal Jam as his favorite game. That’s saying a lot, because I didn’t think anything could knock Minecraft off its lofty perch in our family’s gaming life.

Animal Jam just might have done that.

Here are a few things to know:

  • Animal Jam was created by Smart Bomb Interactive, a Salt Lake City-based development studio.
  • One of the main focuses of the game is Internet security. All of the sharing and interactivity functions within the game can be deactivated by parents through a parents-only dashboard. It took a couple of minutes for us to figure out how to block “buddy” invitations, but once we did that and blocked unwelcome conversations, the boys were free to move around without fear of potentially unwanted interaction.
  • As you might expect with any National Geographic endeavor, education is paramount. The developers created Animal Jam Academy, a place where kids can go to learn more about their favorite animals and participate in hands-on activities.
  • Rewards are earned as players learn. Scattered throughout each environment are flora and fauna that can be clicked to earn flash cards. Complete the set for each land, and earn a gift of game gems.
  • The game is free to play, but to access all of the features a membership is required. Memberships are available through tiered pricing: $5.95 for one month; $29.95 for six months; $57.95 for a year. The fee includes extra gems and diamonds that can be used to “purchase” items within the game.

There is a lot more to the game, including the fact that a portion of every membership fee is donated to the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. I don’t want to give too much away, though, because much of the joy in this game comes from exploration and discovery.

Be sure to check out Jeff Bogle’s post on our fun time with Animal Jam, and let us know what you think of the game! Jeff is giving away a handful of one-month Animal Jam memberships, so make sure you head over there and enter.

You can also learn more by checking out Animal Jam on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Animal Jam in association with National Geographic. All opinions expressed are my own or those of my kids, who will no doubt ask to play Animal Jam again this afternoon when they get home from school.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort Review: a Nostalgic, Affordable Trip to the early ’70s

Cabana Bay

Each wing of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort is named for a great, old American hotel. Like this one overlooking the secondary pool, the Americana. It’s all about nostalgia here.

Our family has spent more than a few nights in the Orlando area, and our hotel experiences have ranged from spectacular to meh. One thing I had never done, though, was spend a few nights at a Universal Orlando resort.

That changed during the first week of October, when I was invited to spend a few nights at the sparkling-new Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Wait. What? A beach resort in land-locked Orlando?

Yes. And not just that.

Cabana Bay has the feel of the kind of big, sprawling resort you find along the beach in Pinellas County. It’s a place where you can easily lose yourself and shut out the cares and troubles of the world. There is a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere, but there is no shortage of amenities.

And even though the resort isn’t situated on an actual beach, the enormous main pool and the picturesque lazy river almost made us think we could hear the waves breaking at high tide. The sandy play area, with beach games, table tennis and other activities will be perfect for our kids when we go back to Cabana Bay.

Cabana Bay

Bedroom interior — straight off the set of the Brady Bunch. Good news: no bell bottoms required.

What truly stood out for me at Cabana Bay, though, was the décor. This is a resort designed to evoke nostalgia for the late 1960s and early 1970s. (No bell bottoms required.)

Walking into our room was like stepping onto the set of the Brady Bunch, and the rest of the resort featured fun, retro touches that appealed to the 11-year-old kid in me.

The large gift shop had more than enough souvenirs from all of the Universal parks and experiences like Halloween Horror Nights. I loaded up on Wizarding World of Harry Potter stuff for the kids, so I wouldn’t have to lug it around at Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure.

The enormous food court – called the Bayliner Diner — offers a great variety of breakfast options. We also enjoyed a few cocktails at the lobby bar, the Swizzle Lounge, which featured live, funky keyboard music at night. Oh, and the bartender called my Cabana Bay roommate/real-life neighbor, Ken, by name several hours after our first stop-off at the lounge.

Cabana Bay also has a bowling alley on the premises, a great way to chill indoors if it rains or it’s just time to get out of the sun for a while. Galaxy Bowl gave me another burst of nostalgia, because that was the name of our bowling alley/skating rink when I was growing up in North Carolina in the ‘70s.

Bottom line: Universal’s Portofino, Royal Pacific, Hard Rock and upcoming Sapphire Falls are all great options that allow guests to check out the parks an hour early and provide easy bus or boat transportation to and from the hotel. But if these super resorts prove a bit pricier than you like, Cabana Bay is a more-than-adequate value option at Universal Orlando.

There were so many great details at Cabana Bay, I feel like the best way to help you truly appreciate it is a slide show. Enjoy!

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Disclosure: DadScribe was invited to Cabana Bay Beach Resort by Two Traveling Moms and Universal Orlando to experience this great, new retro resort for review purposes during the Facing Fears Together blogger event. All opinions are mine. 

Zoo Boo Review: Halloween Fun at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo

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The newest attraction at Zoo Boo is the London Frightmare haunted maze. It’s a seven-skull-rated zone, which means it’s too intense for young kids. There are plenty of not-so-scary activities, though, and our family had a great time. Illustration: Lowry Park Zoo.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is a big part of our lives. We’ve been annual pass holders almost from the day Jay was born, and both boys have attended and loved the zoo’s summer education program, Zoo School.

We are animal lovers, and the zoo allows us to see them up close, to learn about them and to develop a greater appreciation for them. We also enjoy the zoo’s events, including Wild Wonderland and, of course, the “largest family Halloween event in the Tampa Bay area,” Zoo Boo.

This year, the boys lived out their Star Wars: Clone Wars fantasies by dressing as Anakin Skywalker (Chris) and Captain Rex (Jay). Grownups aren’t allowed to wear costumes at Zoo Boo, but I sort of skirted that rule by wearing my Batman t-shirt Saturday night.

We started out with the least-scary of the six haunted mazes, the one-skull-rated Little Beasties Bungalow. It had a Day of the Dead thing going on, and it was a good way to get the kids ready for the hard-core stuff.

Next was French Quarter Phantoms 3D, which was like a haunted Mardi Gras with 3D effects. This was probably our overall favorite. A couple of scary things, but the 3D glasses really made it fun for Chris.

We turned directly out of the French Quarter into ancient Egypt at the adjacent Pharaoh’s Tomb of Revenge. This was intense, probably a little scarier than the six-skull rating it was assigned by the Zoo Boo developers. Mummies and snakes and skeletons … this was pretty hard core, and Chris needed to be carried through most of it with his head buried on mommy’s shoulder. Jay, 8, was made of sterner stuff and merely held my hand for reassurance.

That was the last of the haunted houses for the kids. We figured if a six-skull maze could freak out the 6-year-old, we’d skip six-skull Wake the Dead and I’d go through the signature house, London Frightmare, by myself while the kids and Beth played games in the Spooky Fun Fair.

I think I must have been spoiled for haunted houses by my recent experience at Halloween Horror Nights. While the London Frightmare and Tangled Terror mazes had a few nice set pieces, there was none of the personal-space invasion and startling scares that make the event at Universal Studios such a spooky success.

I will say this — there is a room toward the end of the London Frightmare maze that will freak you out if you have a thing about creepy dolls. Which I do.

Overall impression: Zoo Boo was a good time, as always, and the Spooky Fun Fair was the big winner with Jay and Chris. Our kids were perfect ages for the event, as long as we recognized their scare limits and didn’t ask too much of them. That said, plenty of parents were fine with taking their kids through the scariest mazes, and I only saw a couple of instances of kids crying because they were too frightened. Mostly, it was laughter and hysterical screaming (the fun kind).

Zoo Boo takes place on select nights through Nov. 1 at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Tickets are available through the event’s website: lowryparkzoo.com/zooboo.

I hope you enjoy the slide show of our Zoo Boo experience:

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Disclosure: Our family was invited by Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo to experience Zoo Boo. We were granted admission for review purposes.